Story ends, is, begins

This piece was awarded second place in the Feminartsy Memoir Prize 2018.

I keep seeing your old akubra on the dash. The one you never left home without. I don’t know how I managed to drive back to your flat, tears flowing with a terrible, silent Mum beside me. You went as you’d lived, quiet and without a fuss.

I don’t remember getting back to your place, or what came after. I know that family started to filter in, puffy-eyed. Silent in a way we never are. Someone brought the port, and no one thought it ironic that we toasted the passing of a recovering alcoholic with his favourite drink. You’d long since been sober, but the older grandkids all remembered you teasing us with your ‘monkey blood’.

We stood, filling your little place to the brim, holding our glasses up.

“To the best man we’ve ever known. To Edward Fuller,” knocking it back with a wince. Terrible stuff.

We sat and story started. You always had kids around you, we used to run to keep up with your long, fast strides.

“One cap full for the old people, thrown over the shoulder. That’s what they always did,” Mum told us.

When Clarissa’s cap-full went flying over her shoulder, Mum screeched, “They were outside round a fire!”

“Oh,” she reckoned, with this stupid little giggle.

Laughter beat back the pain. Mingled with it on the floor, mixing around us. We pulled out every story we had – how much the kids loved you, the time Mum thought your cigarette cherry was a firefly, the last words I heard you say. You told Aunty to “shut up”. That was so you.

We had a few more nips and laughs before everyone left. I know we all slept in our tears.

The next morning I woke up and the knowledge was there, weighing on my chest. I got up and went in search of Mum. She was sat on the little patio area, staring at your old chair. Sitting down, I slipped my arm over her thin shaking shoulders. More wet faces in the silent predawn light.

“Can you imagine what he’d say if he was here?”

“He’d tell us to wake up to ourselves.” Even the weak laughter helped some.

Her hands that seemed so fragile today, patted my knee. “Come on daught, time to get ready.”

“What for?”

“The old fellas will be here soon.”

I’d never lost someone so close before so I didn’t know why we did it. I didn’t have the energy to ask. We got up and dressed, cleaned the house, mopped up the sticky patch from Clarissa’s cap-full, laid out some tea and biscuits.

Not long after the cars pulled up, from all over town but all together, almost choreographed. Each one held the old girls. I was shocked to see some that didn’t exactly get on with Mum. It was sad to see how few of them there were now. Hugs and kisses were exchanged and tea made. Silence came again.

“He was a strong man your father,” one Aunty said. “I once watched him swim through a flood to rescue a horse. No one else coulda done it.”

Story started again. I’d never heard these ones before and it meant so much. The women there had come up with you. No tears shed then, just laughter, and respect. They stayed for the depth of a cup, before getting up slowly. More hugs and kisses, and they were gone.

We stood at the door waving goodbye.

“That’s how it used to be. Differences put aside, arguments forgotten. Always the old people come to show their respect,” she looked at me then, from brimming eyes. “I’m so glad they did. It says a lot about em and your grandfather.”

Turning, I went back into your silent home. I had enough grief that day, I couldn’t face the thought of our dying traditions too.

****

It was hectic organising everything. You had to go and leave no instructions, so your ten kids and forty-plus grandchildren battled it out over what you’d have wanted. I wished you were there to growl at all of us! Thank God for Fred the funeral director acting as mediator.

Fred’s visits were tense, not because of him but the rest of us piling around. A heap wanted to ask the Land Council for help to pay for the funeral. Mum didn’t want a bar of it. To head off a fight one of your sons said they’d deal with them.

Clarissa as eldest grandchild wanted to pick your coffin. She chose a white one with a rose on it. Fred’s face went all funny.

“Umm, it’s a very nice coffin. Traditionally it’s used by… women?”

“Oh,” Clarissa laughed.

I got an image of your face when you realised what she’d almost done. It gave us all a giggle.

Writing your eulogy was the hardest. I didn’t want to do it. Not that I didn’t want to do you proud, I just wasn’t sure if I would be able to speak on the day. All your golden girls were supposed to be up there doing it, but in the end only Brooke and I could stand that close to your coffin. Little Brookie showed so much strength that day.

Your funeral was a credit to the man you were. It was huge. Tough, rural men were crying all over the place. I’ve forgotten most of it now. It felt like I was listening through a blanket, wrapped tight and smothering me in pain.

We did another little toast for you when we lay you with Nan. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. You weren’t there anymore, it was just the shell you carried for a while. I hoped you were off catching up with Nan, your parents and the rest of the mob. Maybe sitting on a porch with Uncle George and Mrs Kneebo, having a rollie and a cuppa.

I heard stories about you that day that I’d never heard before. It only made me prouder. I coulda growled at you for not telling me these yourself! But that was you all over.

****

Six months after you passed I had to return to talk to the aunties. It was hard not to think of you on that drive home. It was supposed to be my time with you; our time to talk and tell your story. I’d waited too long.

We drove in and got settled in Lyndsey’s place. She’d taken the kids to the Gold Coast for the holidays but let us have the key. We could see your old flats from her yard, across the Bruce Highway that ran through the town.

That night I lay on the couch. The house was in darkness but the moon was full, flooding through the open windows. It was so bright most things could clearly be seen. My eyes kept drifting to the gapping black hallway that led to the back of the house. I’d hated this place even as a kid when Uncle John and Tracey used to live here. I used to think it was because I’d seen my first horror movie here, but it still felt wrong.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something there, staring at me. Waiting.

I fought it for a long time, telling myself I was being stupid and not to let my imagination run away with my sanity. Still, I couldn’t make myself go up and walk into that hallway. Getting up and going to the toilet, down the stairs and out the back with no lights on – that wasn’t scary. But I walked a wide berth around that entry way.

A few hours of this struggle and in the wee hours I sat up and looked out of those windows, across to your flat.

“Pop? You there?”

The moonlight made everything silver. The town was still, no breeze, no nothing. Just that eerie quiet that sometimes fills such a small place. Stretching across it all was that highway, glistening and somehow soft. I couldn’t quite see your place from this angle, but I knew where it was. The group of flats was tucked in the corner of a big open field the size of most of that block. I knew the old sale yards were up beyond that, but I couldn’t remember what used to be in that field. That bothered me.

“I don’t feel safe.”

I sat and stared at those flats until I felt silly doing it. Lying back I berated myself for a while, until I realised, I felt no threat now. More than that, I felt safe. Smiling, I shot the hallway the finger and nestled in to sleep.

“Night Pop. Love you.”

Image credit: Debby Hudson

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Lisa Fuller is a Murri woman from Eidsvold, Queensland, currently doing her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. She has won the 2017 David Unaipon Award for an Unpublished Indigenous Writer, the 2018 Varuna Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship and was a joint winner of the 2018 Copyright Agency Fellowships for First Nations Writers.

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