Afterwards, Sue McCauley

Work in progress

The viewing

An excerpt from the novel Afterwards by Sue McCauley.

So much to do, thought Briar, a little inanely, since other people were doing it for her. But she was in charge, they sought her opinions, ran things past her. So, so much to think about (flowers, food, houseguests, speakers, choice of cemetery, Brewer’s bodily presence …). And just when she needed her thoughts to be fully occupied by such temporal matters.

She had never been one for ritual but now she saw that it could serve a purpose.

The funeral director, a young woman called Beverley who looked no more than twenty-five, was reassuringly tactful and efficient. Funeral parlours, it seemed, could accommodate all manner of client requests or vetoes. Rachel’s determination that Brewer should be visited at the morgue had dissipated rapidly after Briar’s son Martin’s financial discoveries. Beverley advised they wait until Brewer was at the funeral home and ‘ready to be visited’. She also sorted the question of the body being brought back to the house by explaining the cost involved. Unless, of course, they wished to do the transporting themselves?  If they had, or could borrow, a station wagon …? The casket would not be light.

‘He wouldn’t expect us to bring him home,’ said Martin with certainty.

Briar looked to her daughter Rachel, who sighed and said that of course it was different on a marae, with a huge whanau.

The Holgate whanau (Briar felt self-conscious using these Maori words that were insinuating themselves into everyday conversations) was pathetically small. Neither she nor Brewer had living parents and Brewer had been an only child. Briar’s sister Viv managed to get a connecting flight to Timaru. Her other son Tim took Briar’s little Toyota to the airport to meet her. This was the Monday and Martin was already on his way to back to Christchurch to pick up his wife, Crystal. In the absence of her brothers, Rachel grumbled that they should have brought their kids; on the marae the kids drew crayon pictures on the coffin. Brewer would have liked that.

Briar remembered way back when Martin was a kid with crayons – Brewer’s anxious policing of the furnishings.

‘We should have made the effort to see them more often when he was alive,’ she said. ‘To see all of you.’ It wasn’t natural the way families had to live scattered all over the country, all over the world.  From here on I will make a real effort, she ordered herself. What else would there be to do?

Viv was surely thinner than usual. A voluminous silk scarf in bitter shades of green. Her hug was fierce and knobbly. ‘Tim told me,’ she whispered. ‘It’s just too sad.’

Briar nodded into the enveloping scarf, raised her head. ‘Your room’s first right at the top of the stairs.’

They disentangled. Tim was still standing with his aunt’s bag.

‘First room,’ Briar pointed upwards.

‘I think he’s waiting for a tip,’ said Viv. For a moment they tussled over the bag. ‘It’s not heavy and I’m strong as an ox, believe me.’

Briar followed her sister up the stairs envying the well-shaped legs, the slim rump. No shelves of flesh there for jerseys to climb up onto. No need for those tricky little velcro tabs that pretended to deal with the problem. I am thinking about velcro, she noted with amazement. My husband has killed himself and I am thinking about velcro.

Viv addressed Briar over her shoulder. ‘Thank God you’re not one of those who has the deceased on display like Sleeping Beauty.’

Callum and Edith would be driving down for the funeral on Tuesday. This meant leaving home before dawn but it couldn’t be helped, they were in the middle of lambing. When Rachel put down the phone she’d relayed the message.

‘In the middle of lambing.’ Tim’s eyes rolled. ‘You’d think Brewer would’ve thought of that. How bloody inconsiderate.’

Briar watched her off-springs’ amusement. City children who, despite those holidays at Glenmorrin, knew no better. Why were farmers considered a joke by the rest of the country? Had it always been that way and she’d failed to notice?

She took the phone and rang them back. Got Edith of course. ‘At least you must stay the night,’ she said. ‘We’ve got plenty of room and you can’t possibly turn round and –’

Edith cut through to say she had booked a motel, Callum would need a good sleep. ‘We’re none of us young any more,’ said Edith firmly.

‘At least we’re alive,’ said Briar, but only after she’d replaced the receiver.

Edith not staying was a relief. Still, Briar chose to be offended.

They had been to ‘visit Brewer’ at the Funeral Home. The terminology still rankled with Briar, but ‘viewing the body’ was hardly better. Why would you go to look at a dead body, no matter how intimately you might have known it in its living state? Briar, trying to recall if she had viewed her parents, came up with an image of her mother’s hands neatly and unnaturally crossed just beneath invisible breasts. No recollection of her father in his coffin, but hey, she already knew what he looked like. Her mother too, so what was the point?

She would have preferred not to go but didn’t want to upset the children or have them think badly of her. Besides, illogically, the thought of his body lying in unfamiliar surroundings, alone and unattended, was almost unbearable. So she went, shepherded by sons, her daughter’s hand in hers.

He looked surprisingly boyish. Sixty-seven years old, yet still the boy showed through.

‘He looks young,’ she said.

‘Too young,’ Tim translated, touching her shoulder.

‘No. Just young.’

‘He just looks like Dad to me,’ said Rachel, and this time Briar found herself thinking That’s nice,‘Dad’ – Brewer would like that.

Martin bent over and touched his lips to the thick white hair, but to Briar the gesture seemed brief and mechanical. At once he stepped back and it seemed they were waiting for her but she didn’t, she couldn’t, move closer. She had a strong sense of Brewer being there with them, effusively contrite yet confident of forgiveness. It didn’t wash, not any more, but even so it was hard to resist.

After a time Rachel relinquished Briar’s hand and took Brewer’s. A lean-fingered white-collar hand, slightly roughened by fishing and gardening. The tip of his index finger taken the day he started school, the car smash in which his father died. Briar imagined how that hand must feel in Rachel’s: solid and cold like unfired clay.

It was Tim who began the talking, not to Brewer but to the living. ‘Remember,’ he said, ‘that trip to Takaka and Rach and I  fought all the way, and each time we did  Brewer would sit on the horn.’

‘And the horn got stuck …’

‘And the lollipops he had us all stick in our ears. And the cop pulled us over …’

And then they remembered other times, and they were laughing – even Martin – and it no longer mattered whether this was a visit or simply a viewing. For an hour or more they brought Brewer back without bewilderment or incriminations.

Then they went home to work out the way his funeral should go.

They couldn’t get hold of Brewer’s lawyer until the Monday. He would ‘pop over’ before lunch. Which he did. Briar had met him a number of times but at most they’d exchanged a coolly polite sentence or two. Briar knew his ex-wife, who regularly  bought slim volumes of poetry from the shop where Briar worked on Thursdays and Fridays. A tiny, twitchy woman who wore fringed shawls. The husband had replaced her with an equally tiny woman who was shawl-free and half his ex-wife’s age.

The lawyer confirmed that Brewer’s financial situation was as they’d feared. The resale value of assets was approximately equal to the total debt. And, though it was now a widespread practice, the house had not been purchased as a jointly owned family home. A solicitor’s responsibility was to his client and no one else (this in response to an angry question from Tim), and Brewer Holgate was never a man who readily sought – or followed – financial advice.

He made an appointment for Briar – and her family, if she so wished – to see him at the end of the week. ‘This is a very sad occasion,’ he informed them on his way out.

‘Slimy prick.’ said Rachel.

Tim said it could have been worse; if Brewer had gone on living the debts would have escalated.

They stared at him. Finally Rachel asked, ‘Why did you say that?’

‘It’s true.’

‘But it didn’t need to be said, for Chrissake. I mean why did you say it? You think that’ll cheer Mum up or something? Let’s look on the bright side – lucky he’s dead!’

‘I think I’ll go and have a lie down,’ said Briar. ‘Before the others get here.’

Luke’s shrill voice on the phone: ‘Why is Grandad dead?’

‘Why?’ Tim stalled for time. ‘Heck, mate, that’s a big question.’ Who was to say what went on in a three-year-old’s mind. In this three-year-old’s mind. Any small innocuous remark could transmute into a cause for terror.

They had been so determined, he and Caro, to protect this boy from the adult blunders and casual belittlings that had shaped their own childhoods. It had been a breeze until Luke learned to talk. Now it got more difficult every day; a stream of complex decisions to be made on the spot, no time to consider, no reliable guidelines. They were doing their best, Tim definitely was, yet there were nights when Luke would be visited by the mean gorillas and wake screaming and shaking.

‘Well?  Daddy? Why is – ’

‘Why don’t you ask your mum.’

‘She said because.’

‘Have you felt the baby today? Felt it moving?’

The old transparent change of subject; his mother’s speciality. Could he do no better than that?


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