False Griever

It is 11pm, and a phone is buzzing aggressively. They are both exhausted; Eve had been cramming and Sam had worked all day. Neither wants to answer the phone. They let it ring, hoping the caller will give up. They don’t. With a deep sigh, Eve searches through the sheets until she finds the phone, passing it to Sam.

‘It’s your mum,’ she grumbles.

Sam’s mum is notorious for calling until he picks up. It is best to just answer on the first ring. He rolls his eyes as he lifts the phone to answer.

‘Hey Mum.’ He mouths apologies to Eve, kisses her on the forehead and wanders out of the room, closing the door behind him. She knows he will get her off the phone as quickly as possible with promises—which he will not fulfill—of calling back tomorrow.

Eve rolls onto her side, stretching her legs out across his side of the bed. It is still warm. She picks up her phone and idly swipes through Instagram—just a few engagement parties, a couple of cute dogs, and a #throwbackthursday. She stops scrolling when she reaches the photos already marked with red hearts. She is a serial liker.

Twenty minutes pass, but Sam doesn’t come back to bed. Eve’s eyes burn—she should’ve got the glasses with that anti-glare coating that protects your eyes from screens. Impatient and aching for sleep, she heaves her body off the bed and goes to find Sam, dragging a blanket with her.

He is on the verandah. His shoulders are slumped, and a thin stream of smoke weaves its way into the air behind him. She had only seen him smoke once. His younger sister had been dating a family friend—an older bloke. The family had not been impressed. The cigarette butt blazes as he inhales deeply. His chest rises as it fills with smoke.

‘Pop’s gone,’ he says, exhaling the smoke through his lips.

She sits beside him on the bench and wraps the blankets around his shoulders. His skin is cool against hers where he rests his head against her shoulder. She can smell whiskey.

They pack the car in twenty minutes. She drives. Seven hours and fifteen minutes later, Google tells her that they have arrived at their destination. She pulls into the driveway of his childhood home. He sits beside her, cradling an empty bottle and the beginnings of a hangover.

The house stands alone and empty. The curtains are drawn and the front door is closed. He hold his breath, letting it out in short shallow puffs. She cuts the engine and there is silence. They sit in the car and watch the sun rise over the roof.

***

Eve stands in the hallway and takes three deep breaths.

‘You alright?’ Sam asks, poking his head out from around the door. She can only see him from the neck up, and his half-knotted tie swings like a pendulum beneath his bodiless head. She almost laughs. But she doesn’t. She nods and his head disappears.

She wanders the hallway as she waits. The walls are lined with family portraits, school photos, and sport participation medals—all the things that become especially treasured when kids move out of home. She stops in front of a family picture. Judging from the decorations, it was Christmas—and a hot one. The tree was wilting and Sam’s family was wearing singlets. She looks into each of their flushed faces, trying to know them, to decipher their personalities. Who are you … will you like me?

She moves on, watching their ages flow across the frames. She stops at a recent photo of Sam. He’s got his arm around an unfamiliar girl. Eve pulls out her phone and flicks open Facebook. Her practised fingers quickly navigate to the girl’s profile. She scrolls down and sees that the girl dated Sam for one year in high school. She puts her phone away.

She continues down the hall, picking out each face like she’s playing hide-and-seek. But she had found a way to cheat the game. If she spots the older man, she only needs to look to the next face to find Sam. She pauses at a photo of Sam at his graduation. Her eyes move across to the older man, standing shoulder to shoulder with Sam. His face is lined, but not how she expected. His wrinkles do not show the end of a life, but the shallow crevices of life still to be lived. Sixties, maybe seventies, is her guess—young for a grandpa. But that’s not unusual in a small town.

‘Is everyone coming back here to get dressed?’ she calls. She rubs her thumb across her sweaty palm, slowly working away little beads of skin.

‘Nah,’ he calls back. ‘They’re staying with Gran because they don’t want her alone in the house.’

Sam leaves his room and stands beside her. He slips his hands into his pockets and stares at the photograph.

‘Sorry this has all been so rushed. He always said people shouldn’t drag this stuff out. He would’ve wanted it done quickly. No fuss.’

‘It’s fine. So, I’ll meet them when we get there, then?’

‘Yeah, most likely afterwards. It sounds like Dad isn’t coping, which means Mum’s not coping. I’ll come find you at the end.’ His voice catches. There’s silence between them, and he keeps staring at the photograph. He nods slowly to himself.

‘Alright, I’ll be ready in a sec,’ he says as he walks back to his room.

She’s already dressed. Black flats, discovered in the boot of her car. Black stockings, found bunched in the bottom of her handbag. A plain black dress, Kmart, $25. A black blazer, Target, $35. Both bought in a whirlwind trip to the local shopping centre this morning. They’re last-minute purchases she would have preferred not to have made. She kicks herself. This is a last-minute event that no one had wanted.

‘Are you ready to go?’ Sam asks. He stands in the doorway. His suit is a few years old and ill-fitting. She can see the tops of his socks and a peek of his wrist. He must have been shorter when he bought it, and he probably hadn’t needed a suit since. She wishes he didn’t need a suit now. His eyes are bloodshot, a mix of uneasy sleep and too much whiskey. She knows hers are red too.

‘I’m ready when you are,’ she replies.

***

Eve can see the back of Sam’s head. She sits a few pews back, just behind the family, but before the work colleagues. The ‘family friends’ realm. It’s further forward than she expected to be placed. She would’ve been more comfortable towards the back.

The pews start to fill around her. To her left, two couples start exchanging greetings and condolences.

‘Have you seen the family?’ one lady asks. Her skin looks thick with foundation, as if she’s tried filling in the deep lines that cross her forehead. Eve can smell the ladies’ rose water perfume mixed with the scent of horses and cattle, pungent in the static church air.

‘We haven’t had a chance. They’ve been caught up with everything. We’ve invited them over for a cuppa when they’re ready though. Have you?’

‘We saw Barry down the street yesterday. He’s doing the best he can, but of course it’s been tough. Quite a shock for the family. Sixty-four and full of health, they still expected plenty of years.’ Only the ladies talk. The men sit in silence, facing forward.

‘Yes, quite a shock. How’s Rose?’ Two-parts concern, one-part gossip.

‘Barry said she’s doing okay. She must be struggling though. She was very close with Barry’s family, especially after her own father passed away. It must feel like she’s lost two fathers in one lifetime.’

Eve remembers that Barry and Rose are Sam’s parents. She doesn’t like using their names because she hasn’t met them. She wants to write them on her hand so she doesn’t forget. She doesn’t have a pen.

‘It’s nice that Sam has come home to be with them. Family is important during times like these.’

‘And they were always so close.’ The lady’s tone is appropriate for funerals, solemn and quiet. She leans in close to her friend.

‘I heard he’s bringing his girlfriend back home. This will be the first time.’

A man behind her coughs. The ladies’ chatter stops. They turn in unison to find the noise, but their eyes find Eve instead.

‘Is that her?’ one leans in and whispers.

‘I think so. She’s doesn’t look like a city girl—a bit drab.’

‘Why couldn’t he just find a nice girl here? This one looks just like Nancy’s daughter anyway.’

They turn and look at Eve again. Other heads turn to follow. A wave of whispered gossip rolls around the room. Eve can feel the small-town eyes on her. Is this why Sam had never brought her home before?

She is jolted by the buzz of her phone. Her handbag muffles the sound, but she feels the vibration through the fabric. It travels through the wood beneath. The gentleman beside her frowns and the ladies in front give her an icy stare. She knows she can’t check it, but her fingers still itch to. It’s probably another Snapchat of someone’s lunch. She can watch it on their story later.

Sam turns and catches her eye.

‘You okay?’ he mouths.

‘Yeah. You good?’ she mouths back.

He winks at her and turns back to the front. She smiles, then stops. Don’t smile at a funeral.

Her eyes move past his head and rest on the coffin. She wonders how people buy coffins—do they come with the funeral plan? She imagines a coffin department store, aisles upon aisles of coffins on shelves. Maybe Ikea does coffins.

She is grateful for the closed casket. It would be such an intimate thing, seeing a person in death but not in life. Greeting them when they’re cold and empty.

A photo sits atop the coffin, a black-and-white still from earlier years, the time before children and grandchildren. The face is different to the one she saw in the hall, but only slightly. It is smoother, tighter. The eyes are the same, a distinctive shape that Sam inherited. They stare at her through the glass shield, cold and unblinking. She wonders what they looked like when he laughed, or watched a sad movie or woke up in the morning.

Instinctively, she lifts her hands and rubs her own eyes, wondering if they are still red. They feel itchy. She had squirted in some eye drops in the car, but that had only made them wetter.

Glancing around, she sees that the church is decorated with vases of stiff faux flowers. A price sticker still dangles from a bright green stem. It’s a missed detail in the rush of it all. She wants to remove it, to rip it off and discard the evidence. She wonders how much they cost, and what the family will do with them after. Would you keep them after the funeral, in your lounge room or kitchen? Maybe they can store them away until they need them again? She cringes. She hopes they chuck them out.

Her eyes fall on Sam’s parents in the front row. His dad is hunched over, ready to fold in on himself. He looks like he could use a drink. She watches as Sam rests his hand on his dad’s shoulder, and the man turns to face his son. His face is worn, lined by years of outdoor work. Eve has never worked outside; she’s always been shut up in an office or cubicle. Temp jobs mostly. She wonders if he will respect her less for it, if he will think that she’s lazy or undetermined, not ambitious enough for his son.

Sam’s mum sits on his other side. Her back is straight against the wood. She looks tense, like she’s almost at breaking point. Her hair is pulled back, tightly tucked into a ponytail. Judging from photos, Sam’s mum seems like the practical one—she was always the one holding the picnic basket or carrying the birthday cake. But she’d been smiling in the photos—she wasn’t smiling now.

The music fades and an elderly priest approaches the lectern, signaling the start of the funeral. Eve watches as Sam shifts in his seat and draws himself up, like he’s bracing himself. His dad seems to shrink down into the pew. His mum doesn’t move at all.

Eve closes her eyes. She just needs a small rest.

***

Eve stands in line with the family. They are gathered in a green field dotted with engraved blocks of grey stone. It had been a short drive to the cemetery. Gum trees had acted as honour guards as they followed the hearse down the churchyard driveway.

She is pressed between Sam and his mum. She can feel their warmth, the soft black fabric of their clothes. Eve shuffles towards Sam, conscious of his mum’s arm pressing against her. His mum hasn’t looked at Eve yet; her blank gaze only stares forwards. Sam’s hand finds Eve’s, and he squeezes it gently. He hasn’t cried today.

The speakers crackle as someone presses play on the iPod. Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ plays over the sounds of birds. A group of men bear the coffin from the hearse. Sam’s dad is among them. The man behind him has the same eyes, probably a cousin. One man wears an akubra. They grunt in unison as they lower the casket.

As the coffin reaches the ground and Sinatra hits his peak, Sam’s mum lifts her hands to her face and starts to cry. Long heaving sobs shake her shoulders. Sam tightens his grip on Eve’s hand and she feels his body begin to tremble.

Eve breathes. In. Out. In. Out. In. The last breath falters, catches in her throat. Her face is wet.

She is a false griever for the deceased. It is not her place to cry today. Her phone buzzes, and the vibration shakes through her handbag and down to her bones. She doesn’t move.


 

Jacinta is currently a member of Grattan Street Press and completing her Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. When not reading, she is eating pizza and trying to keep her succulents alive.

 

 

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