If I’d felt livelier last night, I would’ve beaten that boy around the head with my handbag. I might’ve finally used those Kung Fu lessons for the elderly I’d gone to. Threatened to tell his mother. Not that that frightens them. It’s the oldies who are frightened. Helpless. That’s what I hate about it. It’s hard to smile these days.
I’d been to the bank, got out my cash for the week.
‘Shit,’ the boy said, going through my purse. ‘Is that all you got?’
What did he think? That I was a millionaire?
He gave me a final shove that knocked me against the railings, bashed my cheekbones and hurt my arm.
I could’ve gone down to the City Mission this morning and told them my story. Been given a handout for the week. A parcel of groceries. But have you ever had to do that? No. And I don’t intend to, either. Humiliating. Some sour-faced fifty-year-old doling me out a few groceries and acting sniffy as if my coat pongs. Which it may. I don’t have a great sense of smell these days. But anyway, that’s not the point. I have other plans for today.
I stand in front of my wardrobe and survey the rails before selecting a floral dress and beige jacket that belonged to my mother; you fit in anywhere wearing something like that, she always said. Comfortable shoes in case it’s standing room only. I’ll wear her silk scarf, the one with horses on it. The big handbag. You have to make an effort. It would be so easy to give up. Lock the doors, stay in. The woman above me has been doing that for years. No one remembers seeing her. I think she creeps out in the middle of the night to buy food from the convenience store. If you don’t eat, you die. Like Mr Oniati in East Block. He’d been lying there for three months. The men from the council puked when they went in. Better to throw yourself off the tower block. That’s if the lift is working.
Outside, the new neighbour from two doors along is hanging his smalls and towels on the balcony. They’re never going to dry there. ‘Washing line’s full up, already,’ he says. ‘It’s those bloody Somalis.’
I pretend I can’t hear him. I’ve got a bus to catch. I like to be early. That way I can take a seat in the middle of the crowd. I don’t like to stand out too much. I remember then that I’ve left the notice from the newspaper in the flat. I blame it on the boy who attacked me. Made me forgetful.
I’ve got my free bus pass. You can go miles so long as you start your return journey before 3 pm. The bus drops me off on the corner and I walk towards the main chapel in the grounds of the cemetery. But when I get there, its heavy doors are locked. The wind tears at my scarf, trying to whisk it away into the clouds. I clutch it to me as a man in overalls, pushing a cart piled with weeds and grasses, draws near.
‘Funeral?’ I ask.
‘Little chapel.’ He points down the hill to a much smaller building in the trees. It is tiny with a chimney sticking up at the back. Not somewhere you might expect for a final send-off for a man of his stature. It doesn’t seem right, somehow. It just shows you. Life is fickle. In the end, no matter how important you once were no one really cares.
The doors are wide open but I can’t see anyone inside. While I wait on the steps, a van appears. The driver gets out. He’s a slim chap in his forties. A chubby man wearing a dark suit too small for him, also gets out. He’s sweating. Another car pulls up, driven by a man with a big ginger beard. So many men.
The bearded man slams the car door. ‘Where did you get the wagon, Sebastian?’
‘Hired it this morning.’
‘Did you tell them what you wanted it for?’
Sebastian ignores him. He’s waving to a couple walking towards us. The four men go into a huddle around the back of the van. I move closer to watch.
‘Shit,’ one says. ‘The handle’s come off on my side.’
‘Sorry, forgot to warn you, Blue.’ The chubby man laughs. ‘Sebastian only glued them on this morning. We had a bit of an incident back at the house.’ A snorting noise. ‘Course, if you’d been there, you’d know.’
‘Had to go into work,’ Blue says.
‘The missus didn’t want you to strain your back on the stairs more like,’ the chubby man says.
‘Right,’ Sebastian cuts in. ‘Up.’ The men make loud grunting noises as they lift the long wooden box onto their shoulders, gripping it, without using the handles. They carry the coffin in through the open chapel doors.
I wonder if I should follow them in. I see two women walk up the path towards me, one carrying a bouquet of flowers. Lilies. Bad luck, if I recall rightly. My mother used to say that. She never liked them.
As the women reach me, Sebastian wanders outside again. He stops and looks towards me, frowning slightly, as if he’s about to say something. Then he turns to the taller woman. ‘Maree,’ he says tartly. ‘I see Blue finally came to give us a hand.’
It’s Maree who frowns now.
Sebastian hands a CD to the other woman. ‘Helen, I can’t get the player in the chapel to work. Use the one in the van and turn the volume up loud.’
Three more cars draw up, one unloading two teenage boys from the back. They stand around outside and scuff at the dust with their over-sized trainers. Helen steps back from the station wagon and a sudden burst of music comes out: a fiddle. Maybe a tin whistle? The teenagers snicker. One kicks the other.
‘He was born in Belfast,’ Sebastian says. ‘Always liked the old music.’
‘That’s lovely.’ A woman who is with the teenagers glowers at them. They scowl back but traipse inside the chapel behind her. At least they behave themselves. Not like that scumbag on the stairwell, with the tattoo on his neck. I follow on. The coffin is now on a raised dais at one end of the chapel, a thick red curtain to one side. A carved walking stick is propped up against the end of the coffin.
There are seats set out but the women as a group begin to wander around looking at the old brass name plates on the walls. They comment on which first names are still in favour. No sign of any Aileen’s. I’ve never much liked my name anyway. It was just Mother being fanciful.
Sebastian clears his throat loudly. Everyone turns back towards him. ‘We might as well get started,’ he says. ‘Thanks for coming. As you know, Dad had been going downhill for a while.’
A few people nod.
‘Then on Monday, I found him dead in bed.’
A respectful silence follows. When you’ve got to go, I want to say.
‘That’s when it struck me,’ Sebastian adds. ‘It was just me. And him.’
Well, obviously, I think. If there were just the two of you. People remain silent. They look solemn.
‘I had to leave Dad there in the room over the next few days.’ This was because Sebastian had preparations to do. He tells us about the very helpful salesman at the hardware store who after he had been in twice took a strong interest in what he was planning. ‘Gave me good advice on woodwork.’
‘Pity he forgot the bit about the right kind of glue,’ the chubby man says.
Sebastian ignores this. He focuses on Blue. ‘Some people tried to talk me out of it.’ He shifts his attention to the woman called Maree. ‘As if they thought I intended to bury the old man in the garden.’
A garden burial could be nice, I think, but it’s not for me to say. The same fiddle and whistle tune has been playing over and over with an added screechy sound. Now suddenly, it stops. Sebastian dashes off purposefully, to fix it, I presume.
Maree leans forward to the other women. ‘With Sebastian, anything is possible. God knows how they got the old man into that box. Surely rigor mortis – ’
Another woman, wearing an overly colourful long skirt and ugly purple orthopaedic sandals, swoops on me. ‘Lovely scarf. It’s really beautiful.’ She reaches out to touch it but I pull back in time. Some people like to get too close.
She turns to introduce me to Maree. ‘Sebastian’s dad’s friend,’ she states firmly. ‘You’re…?’
‘Aileen,’ I say.
‘From the bowling club?’
‘I thought there’d be more here,’ is all I say.
‘People get old, their friends have gone before them.’ She glances at me. ‘No offence.’
I think about replying something like No offence taken. But instead I say, ‘No man is an island.’ It sounds about right.
The woman moves closer. She tells Maree and me she nursed her own mother to the end. ‘It wasn’t easy.’ When I hear the words ‘cancer eating away at her’ I turn my bad ear towards her. The story takes some time. Eventually she says ‘No one wanted to help. I marvel at Sebastian.’
I nod and watch the door for Sebastian to re-appear. I’m interested to hear how he built the coffin. And what can have delayed the funeral celebrant for so long? Perhaps Sebastian has gone to look for the man? Or maybe the celebrant is a woman. Sometimes they are, these days.
The women here in the chapel are restless. Maree mentions an X-rated Film Festival movie that’s about to be screened. The colourful-skirted woman says perhaps pornography is art if there is a good narrative. They go about it for a while. No one asks my opinion. I could have told them I saw Ulysses all those years ago when it was screened separately for men and women. The queues.
Sebastian comes back. ‘Shall I open the coffin for people to say a final last word to Dad?’
‘You must do what you want,’ the woman who nursed her mother to the end says.
Sebastian leans the walking stick up against the wall. He takes the lid off the coffin. A straggly line forms.
A woman who has just arrived clutching her cell phone pushes to the front. She peeps into the coffin. ‘Gosh, he looks so dead.’
‘Because he is dead, Frances,’ Sebastian replies. Soberly, I think. I catch Maree and another woman glance at each other. The other raises her eyebrows.
‘Sorry, I’m late,’ Frances says. ‘House sale to finalise.’
‘You’ll want to say goodbye.’ Maree takes my arm and leads me to the top end. The old man wears faded floral pyjamas. He has big ears and pale yellowed skin. He has a purple dent on the side of his forehead as if he has been dropped on his head.
‘Goodbye,’ I say politely.
It isn’t long before everyone has paid their respects to the man in the coffin. Someone clears their throat. One of the women whispers something. There’s an air of people waiting to be told what to do next.
‘What do we do with the flowers?’ Sebastian asks.
‘Leave them,’ the chubby man says.
‘No, Sebastian, don’t leave them. We got them for you,’ Helen says. ‘To show we’re thinking of you.’
A line from somewhere comes to me. ‘Flowers are for the living, not the dead.’ People pause. They look at me with silent respect as if I am an expert on such matters, due to my great age, most likely.
‘Here, you have them,’ Sebastian says. ‘Dad would’ve appreciated you being here.’ He thrusts the bouquet into my arms. ‘He loved Bingo nights.’
The thick red curtain swishes in front of the coffin. Sebastian leads the others out. I follow everyone out, clutching the bouquet. People gather outside the chapel in small groups to chat. I find myself standing beside the woman who’d arrived late. We exchange smiles.
‘Nice service,’ she says. For something to say, I am sure.
‘That was the service?’ I ask her.
She looks at me as if I am the one who is making a silly comment.
She moves away from me and begins to study the screen on her phone. I’m reluctant to be the first to leave. The chief mourners should go first. To fill in time I glance back at the chapel. A man in overalls is making his way round behind the building. I find myself watching to see what will happen.
A fair amount of time passes before people begin to disperse and engines start. A couple of men stand some distance away by their cars, deep in conversation.
Something makes me glance upwards to where smoke is rising from the chimney of the chapel.
‘Look,’ I call to the latecomer who is now talking on her phone beside a car which has her photo and real estate signs plastered all over it.
She doesn’t appear to hear me. ‘Just been to Harry’s funeral,’ she says loudly into her phone, opening her car door. And then she’s gone.
I’m alone standing on the lawn, watching the smoke twist and curl. It’s the first time I’ve heard his name. I’m sure the man in the Funeral Notices was a Rodney. A former city councillor. A man of his stature would’ve had a big send-off. No one bothering to ask how you knew the deceased. There’d be a good spread after. You could tuck extra sandwiches and pieces of chicken and fruit, enough for several meals, into a napkin and place it your handbag unnoticed. You can’t eat lilies.
Then I remember the walking stick. I go back into the chapel and see it still there, propped against a wall. Maybe the two men are still chatting out by the cars? But when I go back outside with it, there’s no one there at all now.
In the silence, I raise the walking stick towards the chimney.
I’ll dump the lilies on the nearest grave. But that stick will be just the thing when I see that young lad on the stairs again. Give him something to think about, all right. The fright of his life.
‘Bye,’ I say aloud in the direction of the chimney.
My arm may still be sore from what the little bastard did to me back at the flats but I’m smiling now, thanks to Harry. The man going up in flames in his faded pyjamas.
Kate Mahony’s short stories and flash fiction have been published internationally in literary journals and anthologies and shortlisted in a number of competitions. She has an Masters of Arts in Creative Writing from Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. She lives in New Zealand.