Volume LII Number 4
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Anyone who has been widowed, divorced, whatever, finds often that they are being paired off, at dinner parties, nights at the theatre, at race meetings. It can hardly be called matchmaking these days, just the result of tidy minds and interfering dispositions.
It happened to James Tobin, even at funerals, which startled him. His wife Diana had died after a stroke on the ninth hole at Royal Sydney.
He’d always gone to quite a lot of funerals. They were more entertaining, he thought, than weddings or christenings. In death you saw the whole of life. At any halfway decent funeral you could observe old animosities surfacing, absences noted and deplored, old secrets disclosed with decades of tactful suppression wiped out in one whispered aside.
There was no shortage of funerals for him to choose from. Christian, Jewish, even, when the mother of one of the young men in his law firm died, Moslem, but mostly they were secular. Crem jobs, he called them. As he once more fronted up at the Eastern Suburbs or the Northern Suburbs crematorium he occasionally wistfully recalled times past and chilly days among crumbling tombstones and rank weeds at Rookwood, the sort of mournful scene that these days you saw only on BBC-TV drama series.
Still working as a senior partner in a law firm which had made a lot of money in the heyday of industrial-relations advocacy, Tobin had had a so-so career as a State politician, mostly in Opposition. He served on committees for the arts, top ones though, civil liberties, law reform, even conservation. Most of these didn’t interest him much. He guessed he wasn’t alone in this.
Today’s service was secular although someone read from Paul to the Romans. Thank God, he thought, as he looked around the chapel, uncertain for a moment whether this was the Northern Suburbs or the Eastern Suburbs—no one had broached the Gospels. That was going too far.
He could pinpoint when his keenness for funerals began. When he was ten or eleven his father had taken him to the funeral of a Prime Minister. His father had been a compositor on a conservative daily paper. He had worked through the Depression and during World War II was in what was called a reserved occupation—people needed to get the bad news.
He had been a staunch Labor supporter and trade unionist. For some years he was the father of the chapel, as it was quaintly called, involved in wage negotiations with the owner of the company, or, rather the majority shareholder who styled himself “proprietor”. This was someone his father had regarded with a degree of liking as a man but with contempt for what he stood for. His father had been too fastidious to be involved in politics, despising the deals and dishonesties which were the glue of the party and despising equally the men and women who saw the union only as a stepping stone to politics. His life was mostly within the walls of his suburban house—paid off when he was only fifty—with slow precision doing repair jobs around the house and cultivating a vegetable garden where he grew, as well as the usual, aubergines and artichokes with seeds given him by their Lebanese neighbours. His gift to his only child was the Sunday afternoons he spent with him, taking him to every museum and gallery in the city many times, walking through parks (they had no car) and through the grounds of Sydney University, visiting churches of every denomination, quite often when there was a service on, and attending every parade and public event.
At breakfast on the morning of the funeral his rather was brimming with excitement. “A rare opportunity,” he told his son. “This may be the only time in your life you’ll attend the funeral of a Prime Minister who died in office. Hurry along now, Jimmie, we want to get a good possie.”
They were so early that their footsteps echoed in the almost empty cathedral but there was a short line of people filing past the closed coffin in front of the high altar. His father led him away from this and they settled on one of the long benches against the walls, under the thirteenth Station of the Cross.
As official mourners arrived to fill the seats facing the high altar, the child noted that many didn’t genuflect; they weren’t Catholics. Otherwise, it didn’t seem much different to the high masses his father brought him to occasionally, to listen to the choir. His father had loved the sound of Latin although he’d never had the chance to learn it. But the service went on for much longer than the only funeral the boy had been to—Grandma Dillon’s the year before.
Afterward he and his father walked across into Hyde Park, sat on the grass and ate the corned beef and lettuce sandwiches his mother had made. His father drank tea from the cap of the thermos and the child had a bottle of creaming soda. They shared a lamington his mother had made while they watched the funeral procession form up in College Street and move off.
Now in the Eastern, yes, it was the Eastern Suburbs crematorium James Tobin thought of home-made lamingtons and how remote they were. He had a passing vision of his mother brushing the odd small feather off one of the eggs his father had fetched from the chook-run down the bottom of the garden, cracking it and dropping the contents into a blue-banded white bowl. He sighed, and the man alongside him, someone he didn’t know, looked across.
“What’s a State funeral?” he had asked his father.
“It’s just like any funeral but it’s for someone in public life.”
“The man in the coffin, did he know he’d get one?”
“He’d have been aware that if he died in office he would but I guess he didn’t expect to. Or want to.” His father had grinned. “I don’t think it has any bearing on what happens on the other side, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“You think he might have gone to Hell?”
“No, I don’t mean that. He was a good man, as politicians go. And we don’t know if anyone’s in Hell, do we? Or if there’s a Hell. No matter what those nuns teach you. Labor people never forgave him for ratting on the party, joining the other side. But I don’t think that’s enough to send you to Hell.”
His father rolled up the piece of greaseproof paper his sandwiches had been wrapped in and threw it towards a bin. It missed. “I guess he was what they call a good Catholic,” he said. “They being the clergy. He had a big family. Ten of them.”
The boy frowned. He was an only child. His sister Monica had died when he was two and he couldn’t remember her although he looked at her photograph often and got his mother to tell him what she’d been like. Would two be enough for his parents to be counted as good Catholics? They took him to Mass every Sunday and were sending him to the Christian Brothers next year. And they said grace before meals although when it was steak and kidney pie his father would rub his hands together and say, “Let’s not waste time with all that nonsense, Mon,” and pick up his knife and fork.
His father was never asked to take up the plate, even at the early Mass when there was only a handful of people there. Mr O’Malley would do the whole church rather than hand a plate to his father. That must prove something. So his father must be a bad Catholic in some way he didn’t understand.
Even now, at age sixty-two, he didn’t know what sort of Catholic his father had been. He glanced around the chapel, tuning out on the eulogy by a man he disliked about a man he had regarded as a clown. The surprising thing about his father is that surrounded by men who liked nothing better than yarning with the priest he had been as anti-clerical as a Frenchman. What had made him so different from those around him?
By the time he had thought about it much it was too late. He had given it all away and never looked back. After his father died he thought of him with tender affection but resolved never to seek answers to any riddles. He had locked his father away in a cupboard—tabernacle was the word—and thrown away the key.
He sighed. The man alongside him looked across. He turned toward the coffin and held his gaze there. When he looked across the aisle Thelma Fanshaw and a woman he didn’t know were looking at him. The congregation rose. The coffin slid and jerked then went behind the familiar curtain. It seemed so flimsy, cheap material. You’d think they’d invest in something more stylish.
“Hilton was the last of his generation,” Thelma said outside, at his elbow when he turned away from having his few words with the widow.
“Hello, Thellie.” He gave her the obligatory kiss, reflecting that these days he kissed more withered cheeks than he’d kissed girls when he was young. “What’s this about generation? There’s no such thing. People get born every year, you can’t slice them into generations.”
“I mean the men who were on the bench with him. Caroline’s still alive though. She’s here.”
Caroline had been the token female. Tobin in his mind went through the faces he had addressed in court in the 1960s and 1970s. All gone, except Caroline.
He saw that Thelma was grasping the arm of the woman who had stared. “James, you don’t know Penny Osterley, do you?” she said in a rush, pushing the woman forward. “Iris’s sister.” Iris was the widow.
Penny Osterley held out a soft little paw which held his hand firmly for several seconds.
“I seem to have done nothing except go to funerals lately,” Thelma said. “A frightful bore. Oh, dear, that’s tactless. James’s wife died last year,” she told Penny. “Dear Diana.”
“I’m so sorry,” Penny said. Her eyes which were what he thought were called china blue almost filled with tears.
“Penny’s divorced,” Thelma said, to no one in particular.
Penny Osterley was short, petite was the polite word. A faded, pretty face. James rather liked faded pretty faces, less confronting than the fresh pretty ones which turned away from him these days. A nice pouter-pigeon chest. But what entranced him later on were her legs. She had plump calves with chicken-bone ankles which put him in mind of those white balustrades that rich Italians here adorn their verandahs with. By then they’d been to dinner a few times and, you might say in the language of his generation, were going out together.
That day outside the crematorium he had moved away from the two women as soon as he decently could. Funerals which he used to look forward to—often, he admitted to himself, for no better reason than the satisfaction of thinking, you’re gone and I’m still here—now gave him a sense of unease. What he hated to admit to himself was that his reflection nowadays was, there’s one more person who won’t be at my funeral.
The point was that he wanted a big funeral, an impressive funeral, lots of people, lots of limousines. But, on the other hand, he didn’t want to die. Although he would rather go now, or at least soonish, than be like old Sir Alistair McConnell with only a couple of great-nieces to see him off.
These reflections, he told himself, as he got into his car, led him into murky depths. To divert himself, he began thinking about Penny Osterley, pigeon-chested Penny.
One thing he was sure of, he decided, as he drove into the underground car-park and headed for the lift and the relief of a busy afternoon, everyone has some secret, something they’re mortally ashamed of or some ambition they know is unworthy, even ridiculous, but they can’t rid themselves of it. A State funeral—could anything be more preposterous? He wouldn’t even be there for it, except as the corpse in the coffin. Yet at times he admitted to himself that almost all his striving had been for that one thing.
The germ of this, he thought, must have begun to grow all those years ago at the State funeral for a Prime Minister who had died in office.
He didn’t think he’d been a disappointment to his father. His father had encouraged him to get to university, and had made sacrifices to get him there. And when he went into politics he wasn’t just a branch hack or a union stooge. He had been seen as the sort of man the party should seek out. He was initially
drafted into a safe State seat. The plan was that when the sitting Federal member retired after the next election he’d get his seat. But the sitting member didn’t retire and by the time he did things had changed. His party was in power and he was a Minister but not in Cabinet. No one would hand him a Federal seat on a platter. He made the best he could of State politics but he knew he’d never get anywhere. He was too ambitious and that had showed.
After he and Penny married he gave up funerals. She didn’t care for them. Besides, they were often away, exploring Norwegian fjords or Alaskan peaks in expensive cruise ships on which they were pretty well the youngest passengers. It was the sort of travel which Diana, never happier than when camping out in the desert, had despised.
He assured himself he had given up his absurd ambition for a State funeral when he gave up politics and the law. He didn’t even want a big funeral. He was enjoying life as he never had and would be more than happy to outlive his entire generation, have no one at his funeral except Penny, who was twelve years younger than he was.
He had never shared any of these thoughts with her. With her he was lavish with time, money and affection but stingy with himself.
Perversely it all came flooding back, more absurdly then ever, when he was on what he took to be his deathbed although no one told him this.
“Jesus Christ,” he said early one evening, soon after he’d been given his shot and the pain was receding. Penny, standing beside the bed, winced. The man mentioned meant nothing to her but she deplored what she called “off” language. James was, however, thinking about his father. Maybe that was his father’s secret—he had had an intense curiosity about who Jesus was and what he was about, might even have begun to unravel something. Maybe that was his father’s faith. James didn’t think about this again.
Some weeks passed. He said to Penny: “I want a private funeral. Don’t put anything in the Herald until it’s all over.”
“Don’t be silly, James. You’re on the mend. You’re looking much better. In the face.”
He ignored her. “You know, Penny, for years I had this insane ambition to have a State funeral. How bloody childish can you get?”
“But it’s not childish, darling. The Premier rang yesterday to see how you were getting on.” (Had the Premier rung? He thought not. Would Penny have failed to mention it? No.) “He said he was pleased you were on the mend but that when the time came, you know, he’d certainly see you got a State funeral, the contribution you’ve made.”
He looked at his wife. She really was a terrible little woman, an unremitting liar. And she’d given him the best ten years of his life.
The Quadrant Book of Poetry: 2001 - 2010
edited by Les Murray