Roslyn McFarland (University of Technology Sydney, Australia)
An avenue of ancient Moreton Bay figs opens itself before us. My mother is sitting in the passenger seat beside me, and as I drive through the cemetery’s open gates, she snorts at the sign near the entrance: Where Beauty Softens Grief.
“Who’s kidding who?” she says.
We laugh, but my laughter sounds wild, slightly hysterical.
“Now take a hold of yourself, Elizabeth,” says my mother. “This isn’t the place for merriment.”
She’s right. We’re here to collect my father’s ashes, and as I marvel at Mum’s ability to control her emotions, I manage to stop laughing, but am left feeling anxious like I do when my son is about to sit an exam, or when there’s been a news report that space debris is about to fall from the sky.
I park the car under a leafy, weeping bower, not far from the crematorium. My mother announces that she will remain in the car. A weight lifts. The universe expands. The sun is out and the mildness of the air is proof of spring. In another time and place I might be happy.
I can feel my mother’s eyes on my back so I stride past the floral garden beds, mount the sandstone steps and enter the squat, rectangular building. A woman stands behind a white marble desk. Her smile is faint, but knowing.
I hand her the requisite papers and have a mind to ask her about her job – if it’s fulfilling or not, that sort of thing; but she disappears behind a soundless electronic door before I speak, leaving me alone to survey the silence of the room.
A large, glass cabinet on the opposite wall displays a range of wooden, brass, and ceramic cremation urns along with some memorial jewellery and keepsakes – all for sale, but not a price in sight. I inspect them closely, wondering about the funereal etiquette for the purchase of such objects.
There is a rustle of paper at the front desk. The woman has returned and she has me sign a document before sliding a white, gold-embossed box towards me.
“There you are,” she says. Her smile now is kinder.
I stand there for a moment, unbelieving. So this is the sum of all my father’s parts – his mass dispersed, his grandeur diminished to gravel and dust, then funnelled into an anonymous box? But he was my giver of life, my sun.
I can’t breathe.
The woman behind the desk nods then drops her eyes. My imagination has ill-prepared me for this. I’m not ready to consign him to oblivion. Involuntarily, my chest rises and I take hold of my father’s casket. It’s heavier than I’d expected, but I cradle him in my arms and weeping, return to the car.
“Give him to me now, Elizabeth.”
I’m in the driver’s seat and nursing what’s left of my father on my knees.
“Elizabeth.” My mother’s voice is stern, uncompromising.
I am her child again. I relinquish the box into her gnarled and blue, outstretched hands and stare vacantly at the steering wheel for what feels like a very long time.
“OK,” says my mother. “You can take me home now.”
I reverse the car and begin our drive back along the broad avenue of trees. My mother has closed her eyes, but she’s not snoring so I know she’s awake. I think of home – the house of my childhood, where a sudden eruption of my father’s laughter could almost rock the asbestos from the fibro walls, and where the quality of the light and air was always bright.
Wordless, we continue through the hum of the late morning traffic, except I can hear my father singing. He’s in fine crooning form, and the neighbours are gathered on our veranda for Saturday afternoon drinks. They applaud my father as if he were Sinatra himself.
“What’s the time?”
I want to say about 5pm on a sweaty summer’s day in the early seventies. But I don’t. I tell my mother the truth – the actual measured clock time of the present.
“Oh good,” she says. “Let’s go somewhere nice for lunch then. Your father would like that.”
Yes, I’m sure he would.
I smile and relax my grip on the steering wheel. I feel steadier than I have all day.
Roslyn McFarland lives in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney, (UTS). Prior to this, she wrote and edited a range of educational publications, including HSC English study guides. Her short story, “Bend in the River”, appeared in last year’s UTS Writers’ Anthology, The Life You Chose & That Chose You.