Winner Page Seventeen Short Story Award 2014
We were pretty pissed off when my cousin showed up at his own funeral. All that effort, those wasted tears. ‘Won’t be crying over that one again,’ sniffed Nan as we traipsed from the chapel, adjusting uncomfortable clothes and leaving my aunt and uncle to sort out the mess; my poor aunt pinballing between fury and relief that her only son hadn’t carked it after all.
‘Nah,’ said my sister Leah, when I suggested Aunt Josie must be relieved at the turn of events. ‘She’s pissed big time. If she could kill him herself she would, now she’s already grieved this far. Bloody typical of Tommo.’
I’ve always hated funerals, and this one was no different. All that assumed dignity, insipid speeches from a paid stranger, banging on about personal qualities the deceased couldn’t have possessed if they’d been giftwrapped under his Christmas tree. Unless they were meant for someone else – it was common knowledge that when Tommo split the last time he lifted everything in Auntie Josie’s purse – the large cash deposit on the first holiday she and Uncle Phil had planned in twenty-five years. To celebrate their wedding anniversary. They’d always done it hard.
And this was more of the same. Instead of their P&O adventure they’d had to take out a loan, to give a decent farewell to a son supposedly burnt to a cinder when he rolled his car on the highway to Byron. Only to have him gatecrash the expensive service and turn it into a public circus. Leah was right, it was typical of Tommo, he couldn’t have just let them know he was okay. But then we should have known that fire would never hurt him. He’d always been a fireball.
There was a great turn out at the funeral though. Tommo was always a popular character.
Not any more. He turned up just after nine that night, looking bleary and a little shamefaced. Leah and I were sprawled on the front porch, having a beer. I went in to get one for him, and when I got back he’d already taken my seat. I sat on the porch steps, with the dog.
‘Dad’s chucked me out,’ he said.
‘You blame him?’ fired Leah.
Tommo kept his eyes on Brainless, scratching the old dog’s belly with his bare toes. Brainless was in heaven, waving his back leg in the air like a moron.
‘You’re a slut, dog,’ I told him.
Tommo cracked a smile. ‘Nah he’s not. You just like a bit of affection, dontcha boy?’ He swigged again at his stubbie, emptying it. ‘Mum got all, “what will the neighbours think? Throwing out your only son on the day of his funeral” and all that. The old lady was always one for keeping up appearances.’
Leah stood up. ‘I’m going to bed. You’re a real arsehole,’ she told Tommo mildly, bending to kiss his forehead.
‘Thanks mate.’ He reached for her hand, gave it a beery kiss. ‘How bout a root for your poor hard-done-by coz?’
‘No way. I’ve got an inbuilt defence mechanism against types like you.’
‘What’s that? A brain?’
‘Yup,’ she said, letting the screen door bang behind her. Tommo grinned.
‘You’re looking pretty good for a dead man,’ I told him. He didn’t really though. He was only three years older than me, but he’d really started to wear.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘It’s all the taxidermy, pancake make-up. Fixes a million sins.’ There was the briefest of pauses. ‘Speaking of which, Stevie-Boy, you couldn’t lend me a bit of dosh could you? I’m skint and the olds are pretty hostile at this point in time.’
‘No way.’ I wasn’t as smart as Leah, but I wasn’t stupid either. And he still owed me over $200, from when I’d worked at the laundry. ‘You clean?’ I asked.
‘Yeah. I wouldn’t have come back if I wasn’t.’
Tommo sighed and rolled up his sleeves, holding his arms prominently out in the light. But he also had on cut-offs that hid his legs, so the clean arms meant jack shit. We both knew that. Tommo pulled his sleeves down again, and we watched the mosquitoes circling in the porch light. He reached over and snapped a leaf off a sagging potplant.
‘Thomas Simpson!’ A shadow appeared at the door. Brainless lowered his leg and sat to attention. ‘Get your paws off my begonias.’
Nan was clutching a teatowel; I half-expected her to flick him with it. Instead she used its edges to wipe her hands, something to hold her focus. ‘Well, you’ve caused a right kerfuffle, haven’t you?’ she started.
‘Seems so.’ Tommo beckoned to Brainless again – he needed backup.
‘Rotten thing to do to your folks. Heartless.’
‘Nan, I didn’t know! Honest, not till I got to town.’
Nan kept her eyes down, hedging her bets each way. ‘Gonna take some fixing,’ she sniffed. ‘You got your work cut out.’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘Where are you staying?’
Tommo shrugged, dismissive. Things like that never bothered him.
‘You can have Lindy’s old room, but on condition you start jobhunting first thing tomorrow. No free rides.’
‘Thanks Nan, ‘preciate it, but I reckon I might doss with Andrea for a bit. Should spend some time with the boy while I’m here.’
‘You should leave that poor girl alone,’ Nan sparked up. ‘Haven’t you done enough damage there already?’ She turned back to the door. ‘The offer stands, but only if you’re prepared to pull your weight.’
The mozzies regrouped in the space she left behind. ‘Welcome home,’ I told him.
‘Yeah, thanks, great to be back. Open arms and all that.’ He reached over to my tobacco and rolled himself a smoke. The old Bic lighter I was just about to turf fired for him first go.
‘Better get going,’ he breathed through smoke. He gave Brainless a gentle push with his foot. ‘You slut dog,’ he said. At the bottom of the steps he turned back. ‘If you could help out mate, I’d be really grateful. In a bit of a tight spot, you know.’
I tossed him the old Bic. ‘Lotta people at your do today. Popular man.’
‘Yeah,’ he chuckled. ‘Sure thing.’ He flicked the lighter, but this time it only sparked. He turned away.
‘Hey Tommo,’ I called as he reached the street. ‘Who was the guy in the coffin?’
He turned back. ‘Dunno. Some loser, bought the Ford in a pub, when I was a bit strapped. Cash. Forgot the paperwork.’ He shrugged. ‘No-one important.’
Then he fused with the dark and was gone.
I didn’t go to his next funeral. By then I was living in Sydney with a guy called Eric I thought I was in love with. To the point where I’d even taken him home once. Mum and Nan, while they struggled a bit at first, loved his two-tone hair, his infectious laugh and daggy dancing.
‘You got yourself a spunk there, Stevie,’ Nan had told me, wrapping begonia cuttings in wet paper towels for Eric to try striking.
It was Leah who told me, turning up one night with a grim face and a bottle of vodka, that Tommo was definitely gone this time. Overdose. Of course. I guessed there wouldn’t be such a turn out this time.
‘How’s Andrea taking it?’
Leah lit a smoke. ‘Couldn’t give a fuck. And Todd thinks Pete’s his dad now, so …’ She shrugged, topped up our drinks. ‘We got plenty of ice?’ she asked.
I didn’t go to the service, but I took the day off work, which puzzled Eric. He hadn’t ever met Tommo – and I hadn’t seen him since the night of his first funeral. He’d never been one to outstay his welcome. Got his hands on some cash and blew town quickly.
I spent the day in bed, drinking beer and smoking, feeling like shit for no particular reason. When my stomach started growling I got up for a feed.
It was the strawberry jam that did me. Eric had bought some on a whim, and left it open on the table, with the debris from his breakfast. He was pissed about me not going to work. The smell, when it hit me, was like a punch in the face.
I ran down to the bins in my jocks, didn’t even wait to get dressed. The woman in the front flat was topping up her bird feeder, and she gave me a smiling thumbs-up, but I was in too much of a timewarp to respond, I just needed to get rid of that fucking jar.
Back in bed I started to shudder. I needed a piss, but the idea of touching myself was too repulsive. I stayed in bed, in the full force of the wave.
It was Tommo who’d found me, wandering on the back beach, where Terry O’Donaghue had dumped me afterwards. I was thirteen going on ten, awkward with long limbs it seemed I’d never grow into, and a sense that I was in some indefinite way an outsider. Terry was much older, cool as, cruising town in an old battle-scarred Monaro. All the kids at school thought he was ace. He’d always had major charisma, slouched in his old leather jacket, with long, unkempt hair. It wasn’t till I got close that I saw how mean his eyes were.
He’d offered me a lift at the shops, which turned into an invitation to hang out, and there I was, Dipshit Jenkins, cruising the main street of town in Terry O’Donaghue’s Monaro. I’d been thinking it was the best thing that had ever happened to me.
In his kitchen he’d offered me a joint and I puffed at it inexpertly, while Terry scoffed slice after slice of toast with strawberry jam. When he suggested we take a ride to the beach to check the waves I was stoked.
I hadn’t thought anything when he parked further away, beyond the track through the dunes to the beach, in a clutch of straggling tea-tree that concealed the car. I’d been naïve enough to think that he just wanted to have another joint, out of sight. He was chuckling away, reminiscing about breakers he’d caught on beaches further up north. And then his dick was out and the smell of strawberry jam was stifling and I was trying to get out of the car, and that’s when he punched me the first time.
I don’t know what I was doing down on the beach afterwards, just staggering around trying to let the wind blow the smell of him off me, the taste of him away. I remember how cold it was, and that in the face of the icy wind I didn’t have the courage to just wade out and drift away.
The figure that appeared on the beach, giving me a fright, was Tommo. He’d come to check the tide, as he did most every night, to see if there was any point throwing a line in. The wind carried his voice along the beach, and at first I’d felt cornered again, but he didn’t say anything, just frowned into my split lip and reddening cheek, and wiped his thumb along the bleeding scrape on my knuckles.
‘Come on,’ he’d said, and turned into the wind. On his bike I’d balanced between his arms as he dinked me back to his place. Auntie Josie and Uncle Phil were at the RSL, and Tommo chucked me an old beach towel and ran the shower till it was good and hot, throwing in a pair of his old pyjama pants and a Tshirt while I stood motionless under the hot flow.
In his bed he’d turned out the light and curled against my back, spooning me as my eyes prickled and I couldn’t disguise my sniffling.
‘It’s okay mate, it’s okay,’ he crooned. ‘It’s not you, it’s the world that’s fucked. You just gotta keep fronting up, don’t let em break you. Just stay whole Stevie boy. You’ll be okay.’
He held me till I slept, and in the morning I woke late and drained, and there was hell to pay because Tommo had kept me out all night and no doubt up to some kind of trouble, and he wore it all and didn’t say a thing.
Leah had paused after sharing out the last dregs of the vodka. ‘You know, it’s a shame,’ she mused, ‘that he died like this. Undignified. Would’ve been more appropriate if it’d been the first time, the burning car.’
‘More in character.’
‘Yeah.’ She was getting blurry. ‘I really loved him, you know? Even though he was a nutcase.’
‘Steady girl. You’re showing your age, getting sentimental.’
‘Fuck you.’ She reached for my tobacco. ‘Anyway, everyone loved him really. Even Nan. Especially Nan, actually.’ She narrowed her eyes at me. ‘Even you.’
I shrugged. But later when I turned in, I looked at Eric sleeping quietly in our bed, and at his neat arrangement of lotions and combs on the dresser, and I thought that he was funny and vain and kind, and not for me after all.
I was still in bed on the evening of the funeral, but I got up to answer Leah’s call. Not nearly so many people this time, she reported. Not after the last few years. And a lot of people held him responsible for Uncle Phil. Auntie Josie had been pretty wasted, losing her son so soon after her husband.
I’d taken the phone outside onto the balcony. Mosquitoes were swarming around the outside bulb. It had been a closed coffin, Leah went on, apparently he was so gone towards the end that there hadn’t been much left of him anyway.
A mosquito was circling my hand. I asked after Nan, said to tell her that Eric’s begonias were thriving. When I hung up I squashed the mozzie, which had bitten me while we said our goodbyes. The remaining mosquitos continued to dodge and circle in the small patch of light. I wiped the fresh blood off my knuckle, the remains of the insect crushed to nothing. In the end, it always seems, there’s never really that much left of you.