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The Nollsie Shirt
Lauren Somerville (Latrobe University)



He died in grey tracksuit pants and a white novelty Shannon Noll T-shirt. Generally, he bought his around-the-house garb and gym wear from op shops. I can only assume he found the tracksuit pants rummaging about a Salvos sometime in his life — before it stopped short a few months of thirty-four years. A man of militant frugality, he did not mind wearing an item of clothing that another human being had potentially sweated, or lounged around, in. It is unlikely, but within the realm of possibility, that he wasn’t the only one to die in those grey trackies.

I’m confident that, under them, he was wearing a pair of black briefs with holes below the elastic. One of the ratty old pairs of underwear he reserved for sleeping in. It would not have been one of the tight, fresh, camo blue and white splashed jocks on sale from Bonds. I remember him showing me the collection of new underwear when it arrived via Australia Post, amused at his hideous new purchase. I was secretly annoyed at him for buying underwear that was so garish and unsexy. But his sense of humour was endlessly endearing, and the thriftiness represented by those alarmingly decorated briefs was an excellent influence on me. Besides, he was tall, with dark hair, blue eyes, and perfectly shaped almond lips that stood out amongst his well-manicured beard. You could have put the man in a hessian sack, and he still would have looked magnificent.

I absolutely detest that he died in that fucking shirt. It was a gift from a mutual friend the last Christmas he had on this earth. I never liked it. The untalented runner-up of Australian Idol two decades ago — a Z-grade celebrity whose bland idiocy is beyond playful, novelty satire — has no business to be plastered on a shirt. Especially the one my partner died in. His death outfit and the manner that he died in, expiring silently next to me in his sleep like milk past its use-by date, or a soft drink left out over night with the cap off, is unworthy of the man who I imagined spending decades of my life with.

Although he bought a category of his clothes from op shops and online sales, he looked immaculate when we went out for dinner, drinks, or a gig. Black jeans, Italian or cowboy boots, a leather belt with an ornate clasp, and black T-shirts. Always black T-shirts. There were six eulogies at his funeral: me, followed by his mum, and then four close friends. “No one wore a black T-shirt better,” was the closing line of the last eulogy. I’ve heard that some widows relieve themselves of their partner’s clothes to an op shop at breakneck speed — in the same week of the death or the next day. Not me. More than two years on, his row of black T-shirts still hang on his side of the wardrobe. I’ve cried under those shirts, tucked myself up amongst his array of sneakers that housed his massive boat feet, and sobbed. His shoes are much too big for me, but I wear his shirts — a secret between us in the world without him. Before he died, I wore lots of colour, dressing like an eccentric middle-aged aunt or Fran Fine. But I adopted his primarily black palette after this death. A widow in black. How original. I catch myself laughing like him, or pulling the same face he’d make when he was considering an issue.

He had a regal air, stoic and composed in manner, which grounded me and my big mouth. I never heard him say anything unnecessary or stupid ¬— certainly nothing as inane as the melodies that come out of Nollsie. Not in the four and a half years we were both alive for our relationship, or in the eight years before we became an item, drifting amongst the same circle of friends. He genuinely listened to people, and to me, only making comments that were insightful, intelligent or witty. His sense of humour ranged from harmless silliness to black humour darker than night. I didn’t realise how much he made me laugh until he died. To demonstrate that I am not putting him up on a faultless pedestal, as the dead often are, I’ll tell you that he did have a habit of letting out a caustic quip that was too dark for the company. I came to love those poorly judged barbs as much as his gaudy, cheap underwear. After all, he loved me — including all my quirks and imperfections.

He rarely got angry. The first time I saw him irate was our second New Year’s Eve as a couple. I was supposed to come and find him after my shift at a restaurant, but he arrived at the door not long after midnight had struck. After I finished packing up, he went into a rant that lasted the popular strip of Brunswick Street, detailing how lame our shared friends were for leaving a house party before midnight to play karaoke in their lounge room. I cannot tell you how honoured I was that this calm, kind man, who kept his emotions under lock and key, had chosen me to vent his frustrations to.

He was a dark horse, full of surprises and capable of heroism. His friends, who have become my friends, told me a story about a drunk, obnoxious bloke who had been interrupting their conversation, yelling and bothering everyone at the pub. My one true love repeatedly warned this guy to pipe down — before spear tackling him to the ground and having the wannabe larrikin kicked out by a security guard.

By the logic of my emotions, his sudden, unexplained death would have somehow been bearable if it had happened while he adorned stylish nightlife clothes, defending a group of female friends. But grief is full of red herrings. I tell myself that if only he hadn’t died in that abominable shirt, in that way, the fact of his death would be easier to digest. Or, if only I had asked him more questions about why he was in bed so early when I got home from dance class that night, instead of letting him drift back to sleep. Or, if only I’d tried to wake him in the morning, not simply pulling the doona over him and going about my day, assuming he needed a sleep in. He’d still be alive, and I wouldn’t be stuck here without him, gritting my teeth through every second of the day in the T-shirts he can no longer wear, feeling like my face is going to crack every time I had what should be a minor, throw away social interaction. My brain desperately tries to find factors that can be put to a jury.

The Nollsie T-shirt, tracksuit pants, and underwear went with his body to the coroner. I’m not sure if I saw his body being taken away, through the house and down the front steps, or if this is a sequence of images I conjured. I don’t remember who was with me, but I do remember the rustling of the plastic body bag. Some friends of ours removed the mattress he died on for me, to the nature strip, so that the annual hard rubbish collection could take it away to the tip. It really was impeccable timing for my partner to render our mattress unusable by dying in his sleep. I sat on the backsteps, crying because it felt like his body was being hauled away again. I couldn’t get the crunching, crisping noises of the body bag out of my head — a giant bag of potato chips. The mattress, with two pillows and a doona, encased in covers of French script and swallows — a cutesy ensemble a relative had gifted me years ago and was due to be thrown out — sat on the curb outside our unit for what seemed an eternity. After coming home from a drive somewhere with his mother and sister, I found that the mattress remained but the doona and pillows had disappeared. I flew into a torrent of abuse at the mysterious opportunist. In my new reality, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could not put two and two together: that if there’s a mattress and sleeping paraphernalia outside a house, it means a person died on it. A special person. As if someone so desperate for bedding they take it from the side of the road would be so discerning. I’m flabbergasted by my rage now. He died in the middle of autumn. It’s a far more favourable outcome that the doona and pillows were useful to someone who needed them when Melbourne was nearly at its coldest season, rather than ending up at a garbage dump.

The funeral director asked me if I would like the clothes he died in, packaged up, unwashed in a plastic bag, back. I said no. I rectified the insult of the Nollsie shirt by choosing his best black jeans, a black fitted shirt with red roses on the breasts, one of his best belts, and his cowboy boots for him to be buried in. For his funeral, at least, he wore death well. I tucked the last of his dark chocolate in his coffin with him, a bottle of red wine with a rooster on it, and a big orange blanket. I was worried that he’d get chilly underground, which is strange, because the afternoon I tried to wake him, his body was stone cold.

He had a black T-shirt with an orange origami unicorn from the Blade Runner film that he wore to bed regularly. It’s the only one in that row of floating black T-shirts in the wardrobe that I won’t wear. It’s too precious. I’m worried that if I put it on, the essence of him that remains in it will be sapped out. I think of that unicorn shirt, and he is before me, lying back in bed, scrolling on his laptop, maybe looking up and seeing me pass the bedroom door, smiling his smile that went to the side. I’m so glad he didn’t die in that one. He only lived in it.



Lauren has read submissions for Canary Press Short Story Magazine and participated as a thinning judge for the Furphy Literary Award 2023. In 2022 she started performing regularly at Moth in Melbourne. She is working to complete a Masters thesis specialising in literature and political activism at Latrobe University. This is her second piece of published fiction to appear in SWAMP.

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