It was three weeks ago now but I remember every detail. We had been driving for about half an hour when we finally passed Frankston, the last bastion of Melbourne’s suburban south. The family conversation in the car had lulled and was gently overtaken by sleep provoking music drifting from the only useful component a car has, the radio. Three down, one to go, no not me, I was the chosen one, chosen to guide my family safely to Rosebud as they all slept. Half an hour to go I calculated as we passed some gently reassuring road signs ‘Stay Awake, Stay Alive’ and ‘Beware Drowsy Drivers Die’.
Dad had initially seemed quite alright when he first spoke about his ‘little get together’. I just don’t know why he had to ring me several times to make sure we would not be late, let alone that we would be there. In any case it was a pleasant drive down to the Mornington Peninsula in February with all the masses gone home. Just the odd car here and there was a welcome joy compared to when I remembered in my youthful days driving down amongst the hoards of holiday makers. I can’t believe I used to think that the Peninsula would sink with the sudden influx of what seemed like half of Melbourne’s three million population crammed onto such a small area, that a boy’s imagination for you.
Golden fields of hay dry grass lay between us and the gentle blue bay as we drove further. Thin lines of primrose sands enclosed the turquoise shallow waters as the western sun gleamed on a cloudless inspiring day. A gentle breeze appeared and blew a tiny swell of white waves. I couldn’t remember a more perfect afternoon. Of course I still concentrated on driving as Arthur’s seat came and went in a flash. It would have been worth the detour if I hadn’t missed the exit. I didn’t worry; in any case dad had insisted on a six o’clock dinner. Usually it was mum doing the insisting.
On the stroke of six we arrived. Dad was quickly out the front door to greet us and had opened the car door near Vera before I could even finish my line ‘Wakey,
wakey, hands of snakey.’ Maybe that was fortunate as I’m sure Vera, Tracy and Gay would struggle with that thought.
‘Wakey, wakey’ was all I got out.
‘All had a little sleep have we?’ dad asked the girls as they rubbed their eyes.
‘Yes dad; I’m thirsty; grandpa; and I wish’ were the respective yawning responses. Everyone made their own pace across the forever creaky front porch
‘I guess there are some things a little bit of oil just can’t fix’ I thought and smiled. We moved on through the front door into the lounge which to our surprise was full with a handful of mum and dad’s friends, his brother Jock and wife Jill, his sister Roberta and my four cousins.
‘Let’s spare the introductions, where’s mum? I asked.
Dad quickly responded ‘She’s busy at the moment and said she might be a little late for dinner.’ Before I could say anything else dad was shuffling a glass of his favourite red grapetise in my hand and the hands of anyone else who wanted or didn’t want one.
‘The roast pork is almost ready’ dad happily stated and continued ‘But we better wait for my daughter and Jeremy before we start eating otherwise they will be getting the doggy scraps by the time they get here.’ Everybody laughed as it was common place for my sister and Jeremy to arrive well after seven for a six o’clock dinner. Luckily dad had taken the liberty to tell them dinner was at five and sure enough a touch after six they arrived in their usual unassuming way.
Upon Jeremy and Caroline’s entrance everyone moved to the dining table, much to Jeremy’s delight. As Jeremy sat he rubbed his hands together before shaking hands with dad. I’m sure Jeremy’s heart is somewhere deep within his stomach.
‘You’ve outdone yourself again’ he remarked to dad.
‘Oh, a roast is easy son. Just pop it in the oven and wait.’ Dad replied with a broad grin as we all tucked into roast pork, potatoes, parsnip and carrots, topped with gravox.
‘So where’s mum?’ Caroline asked.
‘I’m sure she is not too far away. You know how she gets trapped in the things she does.’ Dad swiftly replied.
‘Why haven’t you let the dogs out dad?’ my brother Geoff mumbled while we chomped away.
‘They were outside just before you arrived. Anyway I have their bones waiting for them on the bench, which I’ll give to the little blighters with the leftover scraps from dinner.’ Dad looked away from Geoff.
‘No doggy bag for you tonight Jeremy.’ I jokingly added. Amidst the half hearted laughter and the delicious meal I began to think about mum and how unusual it was for her to miss a family do like this. What was I going to say to her when she finally gets here?
‘Are you sure mum will be here soon dad?’ I asked but he didn’t reply; he simply began talking to Bill one of his old mates. Just as the last knife and fork were laid to rest dad stood up and asked
‘Who’s for blackberry pie with custard and or ice cream?’
‘Cliff you know not to ask, just give’ was Jeremy’s immediate reply followed by the usual suspects
‘Yes please, yes thanks, the lot will do fine, no custard thanks’ except for Geoff’s unexplainable answer which bemused everyone
‘No ice cream please it freezes my insides.’
I simply just shook my head.
As dad served the desert he became reserved for some reason, it was like he wanted to share something but hadn’t worked out exactly how to approach this, instead he simply went about his tasks almost unnoticeable like all waiters once they had satisfied the taste buds of their patrons.
‘Such a simple combination of deserts, always hitting the spot’ I satisfyingly thought.
‘OK dad, a lovely meal but is it not about time that you tried to get onto mum?’ Caroline stared at dad in a way only females can demand.
‘Alright, alright, let me just finish the dishes and I promise to, to, to try and call her’, dad uncharacteristically stammered. We all pitched in with the dishes and had just about finished when Vera whispered into my ear
‘Why hasn’t he kept a meal for mum? He always does, even if she doesn’t want it. He will heat it up for lunch tomorrow.’
‘Dad, why haven’t you kept a dinner for mum?’ I inquired.
‘Yeh, dad.’ Caroline added. Dads silence was deafening. ‘What is it dad? What is it?’ Caroline agitatedly asked.
‘Looks like the time has finally come. I’ve simply been waiting for the perfect opportunity but obviously there was never meant to be one. Everyone please follow me.’ Dad switched the outside lights on as we walked out onto the back veranda. We then followed dad towards the dimly lit vegetable garden which appeared to have a freshly dug raised mound, ‘Unusual for this time of year’ I thought.’ What was even more unusual, crossed sticks stood at one end of the mound, then as we walked further, mum’s photo came into focus. I began to feel a distinct pain in my heart.
Dad sternly began to speak ‘Now don’t any of you dare interrupt me until I’ve finished. Mums here, she passed away peacefully in her sleep five days ago.
Caroline with her mouth wide open whelped ‘Mums’ but she couldn’t spurt anything else out.
Auntie Jill fainted and collapsed to the ground with Uncle Jock almost toppling on top of her as he struggled to hold her up.
A solitary banksia nut from a nearby tree gently glided and landed on mum’s mound. I gulped for air and dad continued
‘I invited you all here today to farewell mum. She loved this place and I wasn’t going to bury her anywhere else or let some funeral company earn a living off my misfortune by burying her in a mass grave. Don’t worry, mum and I discussed all this and we signed a document as proof, which you can read inside later. Mum’s inside an environmentally friendly coffin I bought from an Eco coffin joint that I found advertised in my pensioner weekly. Next day service they provided.’ As I stared at the mound my eyes became watery, Vera held my hand tightly while Tracy and Gay ran around the mound oblivious to what was happening. She was a wonderful mum, always went out of her way for her grandchildren as I’m sure she did for her children even though childhood memories become more distant every day.
‘So why didn’t you tell us on the day? Caroline sobbed.
‘I don’t want to sound heartless, love, but you would have been upset whatever way I would have told you. I’m absolutely heartbroken too, dear, fifty years of marriage; look, let’s all head inside and have a glass of port and a cappuccino like mum would have liked. You know she had a long and happy life. No tragedy at all. Seventy years of age. I feel sorry for the people who have lost young ones, especially children that still had so much in front of them.’
‘Does anybody else know?’ Geoff asked as we reluctantly headed inside.
‘Yes, son, as a matter of fact, Dr Duval knows. I needed him to confirm the death, write out a death certificate. He hasn’t got back to me yet. Obviously he’s a very busy man. I guess I’ll have to let Centrelink know or should I keep and accumulate mums pension payment in a trust fund or something. I guess In any case little Johnnee H wouldn’t want me spending mums pension, would he, especially after all the years of taxes she paid.’ Dad somehow managed to joke. ‘Do you think I could get away with it son?’
Geoff replied ‘You would have three chances I guess, Buckley’s, none and bugger all.’ We all began to sip sipped quietly on our port as we passed mum and dad’s signed document around until Caroline kept it in front of herself.
The port brought with it a sense of reality and open mindedness. Had my dad done anything wrong? No. Had he endangered the environment or hurt anyone? No. Does my dad as an individual have the right to carry out a burial ritual not enshrined by religion or government? Yes. He assured mum was buried as dead as Jemma the black cocker had been ten years ago. They bury toxic waste somewhere don’t they and how could that compare to mum in her Eco coffin dad explained. We all decided as a group to go to bed early and place flowers on mum’s grave in the morning.
‘Let’s make a toast to mum’ Caroline came back to the conversation.
‘Here, here.’ We all touched our glasses and let that last drop of port slide gently down to soothe our aching hearts.
Three weeks ago still freshly resonates in my memory. I still can’t believe dad shot and killed himself yesterday evening in front of the authorities when they came to inform him they were going to exhume mum.
Andrew Mansell, 2004. ‘1 of 7 from the Seven Ways series.’