Pauline Griffiths (University of Canberra, Australia)
She was found at home, nine days dead it turns out. A brain aneurism, heart attack or death by her own hand. Only the coroner’s report will tell.
It was the police who found her, by breaking in through an aluminium kitchen window at the back of the little house. Cupping hands to their mouths, two Saturday-shift officers found Felicity Miller in her Canberra bed, in a halo of flies.
Horse riders at the local stables had been wondering where Felicity was, but not enough to pop round to her house to check on her. Another week and they certainly would have.
It was, in fact, a staunch 85-year-old aunt who sounded the alarm when her niece did not show for their lunch date. The aunt phoned one of Felicity’s sisters in Sydney – who in turn phoned the horse people at the stables, who then phoned the local police.
‘Come straight down,’ a constable said on the phone to one of the Sydney sisters. ‘And don’t stay at Felicity’s house; book a hotel; organise a cleaner and don’t go near the house till the cleaner’s been through.’
They came. Immediately. Two sisters, shimmying down the grey-brown Hume Highway, faces pale, knees shaking. ‘Holy crap, is this happening?’ their glazed eyes said to each other. The GPS took them to a police station, then a mortuary, then a hotel.
In the mortuary it was definitely Felicity, no mistake. Small, ivory skinned, still somewhat child-like despite her fifty-nine years. On a clinical table underneath a heavy cloth she lay, white, flat, still. The sisters saw her clean, small face, her long brown hair, her nun-like stillness. For a few moments, they clutched each other like a couple of koalas in a bushfire. Then, they gathered themselves; breathed, stood tall, walked outside. This was their third death in two years – they knew what to do. First they’d lost their father, then their mother, now their older sister. First two were expected. This one, not.
Next day, at Felicity’s fresh-smelling house, master bed gone and deep cleaning completed, the sisters moved in for a few days to start proceedings. The house was already well organised and the two essential items were easily found. The Will was in the filing cabinet, the dental card in Felicity’s wallet. Only a spouse or child can identify a dead body and as Felicity had neither, dental records it would be.
The garden of Felicity’s little house was magnificent, not in a neatly manicured way but in a richly horse-manured, rose, zucchini and lemon tree kind of way. The sisters made zucchini slice, picked the last of the cherry tomatoes and arranged for the next-door neighbour to keep an eye on Felicity’s cat when they returned to Sydney.
They sampled the supply of quality local wines and top-shelf liqueurs found in cupboards, boxes in the back shed, and the fridge. ‘Shit Shylock, our sister liked the good stuff.’
Neighbours in the cul-de-sac, who barely knew Felicity’s name, suddenly whispered, watched and plotted. They whispered about the day before, when their children had been out front on scooters and saw a police car, then a windowless van, then a wheeled stretcher put inside it. OMG, could it really be true, that the quiet, single, old-fashioned horse-lady cum public servant was dead?
They watched the comings and goings at the little house like pollsters in election season. Will the house be sold? How much will it go for? This might be a bargain. What’s happening with those lovely ceramic garden pots? Seen that mountain of potting mix bags? The back shed’s full of practically brand-new equipment, pruning saws, secateurs, compost bins, you name it.
Then they plotted. Irene from over the back said to herself, ‘I’ll pop over, give my condolences, and offer to take the garden pots off their hands. I’ll borrow a trailer, take them all in one go.’
Jeremy and Sasha from across the road phoned their grown-up kids who were saving for a place to buy, and claimed they’d found the perfect one. ‘If this comes on the market, we could make a private offer, cut out the middleman,’ they said. And old Mick, who had mowed Felicity’s lawns for 16 years, began helping himself to the garden’s goodies.
And it was not just the neighbours. Felicity’s solicitor, the maker of the Will, gave the sisters his brother-in-law’s firm as a reliable realtor. The friendly horse-folk from the stables helped the sisters prepare the house for sale, scoring a washing machine, fridge, all the horse gear, numerous shiny kitchen appliances and as many David Jones hats and woollens as they could take. No one wanted the piano, the books, or the CD collection.
A soft buzz of possibility rippled through the autumn air, smelling of potash and compost, tinged just slightly with decorum and restraint.
Nine days later, on one of those classic crisp blue-and-yellow Canberra mornings, Felicity’s requiem mass unfolded in a brick church in a western suburb. The hired organist was early, and while reading through the Order of Service, discovered he had once known Felicity. Sang with her in the University of Sydney Choral Society in the 80s, it turns out. Hadn’t seen her since, though.
On a better than average church organ, he pumped out, a bit too loudly, some Bach pieces, Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu, which brought on weeping, and a few of those decent Catholic hymns from the 70s, not much heard these days.
In attendance were half a dozen horse people; a smattering of fairly senior public servants; the two sisters from Sydney; a couple of nieces and nephews, a dozen middle-aged cousins from all over; three elderly aunts, and one or two parishioners.
The parish priest, Fr Matthew Le, newly ordained and from Vietnam, turned out to have a dry wit and a bit of a brain. His one faux par was that in his sermon he claimed never having met Felicity, even though she had attended his church most Sundays, usually sitting in a back row, and sometimes singing in the choir. And, as the owner of no less than three shelves of books on Catholic Church canon law, you’d think Felicity would be known to her parish priest. But, Fr Le then redeemed himself with an extravagant performance of the Commendation and Farewell, sprinkling water and sacred smells, ringing consolation bells, blessing everyone with perpetual light, and promising an eternal dwelling place.
Afterwards near a glittering Lake Burley Griffin, in a function room of a commercial Catholic club, Felicity’s small band of mourners gathered. Horse people sat in one corner, elderly aunts in another, the half dozen millennials in yet another. Cousins, and the next-door neighbour who was taking custody of the cat, filled the rest of the space. The public servants had returned to work.
For several hours the sisters moved between groups, hugging, sighing, listening, reminiscing, smiling. At 4pm, when the handful of remaining mourners were politely reminded that the room booking had ended, they moved slowly to the car park.
That night, back at Felicity’s little house, one of the sisters found a diary, a large Collins 1973 work diary, covered in faded black and white David Jones paper. It was a collection of hand copied extracts from poems, philosophical tracts, plays and prayers, spanning 35 years. And, with a glass of Nick O’Leary chardonnay in hand she read the first entry, 4 March, 1977.
‘Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.’
And flicking to the last entry, 10 August 2001, some eighteen years before this very night she read:
‘First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.
The Tempest, III,ii
‘Bloody oath,’ said the sister, ‘check this out!’ Together the sisters clumped over the book like surgeons in a theatre, pawing its pages and bellowing in surprise. ‘Geeze, look at all the Shakespeare quotes. And who the hell is Emily Dickinson?’
They foraged the yellow pages for a glint of a lover, a wrathful manifesto of life in the Public Service, an account of a wild dream even. But there was nothing. Just Felicity’s selected quotes from classic tracts. After a while, accepting that the book was not a real diary, the sisters snuggled into each other, reading some of the hand-copied lines of ancient wisdom and slurping their gorgeous wine.
Next day, after lunch, the sisters convoyed home up the Hume. One in the SUV, the other in Felicity’s little silver car. Felicity’s house was on the market and a Catholic charity worker had been through it, like a mortgage broker with a checklist, selecting the items she would take when the auction was done. Felicity’s cat and horse had been adopted out. In their cars, the exhausted sisters sank deep into their seats, listening to Bluetooth ballads, soft and sad, and hearing faint harmonies of soon-to-be-paid-off mortgages and frequent holidays to Bali.
Pauline Griffiths is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra. No stranger to post graduate work she completed a PhD from the University of Melbourne (2004) and an MA by research at the University of Canberra (1998). Alongside research projects Pauline has been a head teacher and plays and teaches violin.