I looked down at my feet and scowled at my shoes as if they somehow deserved to be told how awful they were. I pushed down on the heels, letting them sink into the soft mound of dirt. The square toe and slight heel reminded me of something an evil school matron would wear in a creepy old movie. Mostly, I hated them because they were the shoes I had worn to bury two people I loved.
Mourners, if you could call them that, had begun to wander off. They were more like acquaintances and people who couldn’t quite be classed as friends but had been friendly enough to feel like they should show up to a funeral. They headed back to their cars to drive to our house where we would all endure a few more excruciating hours of low-level, unimportant chatter and eat small finger sandwiches and other wondrous dishes.
‘You would have hated this.’ I said the words to the long, white box, now partially lowered beneath ground-level and covered with flowers and scattered dirt. ‘It wasn’t my idea, I promise. Mum insisted.’ I lowered my voice. ‘But it’s not over yet.’
At the edge of the sprawling lawn, littered with headstones all in perfectly neat rows, my mother was standing at her car with the door open. She was waving me over. ‘Ella, come on, we need to get back. Everyone will get there before us if we don’t get a move on.’ She was hollering across the cemetery as if she was casually calling over the fence to a neighbour. People who were standing at an open plot on the other side of the park were eyeing her with questioning and somewhat disgusted looks.
Despite the disruptive behaviour, I lingered a little longer. The idea that all of those people might go on with the gathering at home without me felt like a relief. Maybe I could just drive away and head to the beach. Walk along the water and watch the sun set over rippling waves. That was how saying goodbye to someone you loved should be. It should be quiet and intimate and surrounded by beauty. You should feel sand, or grass, or dirt beneath your feet, and watch the rolling, changing, unapologetic sky unfolding itself in front of your eyes while coming to terms with committing someone you love and adore back to its elements.
I bent down, softly kissing the tips of my fingers and blowing toward the coffin. ‘Goodbye Aunt Gina.’
When I stood back up there was a woman standing nearby. ‘Are you Ella?’
I had seen her during the service, but she wasn’t familiar. ‘Yes,’ I said, taking her in with my eyes. She was tall and slender in a black dress and matching coat.
She held out her hand. In it was a small business card. ‘When the dust settles, please give me a call. I was helping your Aunt Gina with some of her affairs, and she asked me to reach out to you.’
With that, she turned and walked away across the grounds and disappeared into the carpark.
I wondered what kind of person handed out their card at a funeral and used the words, ‘when the dust settles.’ Who the hell had Aunt Gina enlisted as a helper? And for what?
‘Ella!’ Mum’s voice was now pleading.
When I turned toward the carpark, I felt as if I was leaving a part of myself there with that white coffin. In truth, a tiny corner of my heart wished I was going with her, because wherever Gina went there was bound to be plenty of fun and laughter. There were things that couldn’t stay perfect and beautiful now that she was no longer here to share them. They had to stay with her, buried in the ground forever.
‘Who was that?’ Mum asked when I reached the car.
‘Not sure, someone who was helping Aunt Gina with her affairs, she said.’ I looked at the card in my hand. Meg Russell, Russell Gallery and Exhibits. I wondered what a gallery had to do with Gina. She was definitely not an artist. In fact, she couldn’t even draw a dog or cat. Everything she drew looked like a terrifying cross between a giraffe and an evil rabbit.
‘How are you holding up?’ Mum asked. She placed her hand on my back and gave it a gentle rub. It gave me a chill that made my body shiver.
I didn’t answer.
‘I’m sorry to rush you darling, but we have to be there for people when they arrive. Maybe you can come back later and spend some time here.’
I nodded and looked back at the dirt mound beside Gina’s plot. Nearby, there were some trees and a bench to sit on. In my mind I could see Gina already sitting there, watching over things and inviting those lost and wandering souls to come and take a seat beside her. She was like that. Always holding out her hand and her heart for others to take and lean on. She would also have been making hilarious and inappropriate jokes about all of the relatives and the ‘long-lost’ friends who had come out to send her off. Her good humour and wit were my favourite things about her.
‘It was a beautiful service, don’t you think?’ Mum was taking the usual tactic of trying to distract me from my sadness. It was useless because, as Gina would often tell her, the sadness is what makes us human and real. It’s what makes the good, good and gives us the sadness to compare it to.
‘She would have hated it, Mum, you know that. We should have made it more like her, the way she wanted.’ I bit my lip, willing myself not to push too hard given that the day wasn’t over yet.
Mum tilted her head and gave me one of her, I know better than you, looks. These were her specialty along with the speaking to me as if I were a first grader instead of 29 years old. ‘Sweetheart, Gina always liked to shake things up and bring a bit of crazy to every situation – even the serious ones, but it wasn’t exactly the time or the place for that kind of thing today, was it? I’m sure she would understand that.’
I shook my head. It wasn’t at all what she had wanted and regardless of what Mum thought, Gina wasn’t going to be sent off like that.
She added. ‘We couldn’t exactly have “Spirit in the Sky” playing like she had suggested, could we? She wanted “Another One Bites the Dust” for the burial for goodness’ sake. I just couldn’t. There were elderly family there.’
‘It’s just not what she wanted, that’s all. And it didn’t feel like her.’
Mum huffed. ‘But it was beautiful, and it meant a lot to her loved ones, so that makes it okay in my book. No one died just because it was more formal than Gina would have liked.’
Was she serious right now? ‘Mum, someone did die. Gina died!’
She shook her head and huffed again. ‘Ella, you know what I mean. Of course someone literally died, but I meant from the service.’
I closed my eyes and tried to pretend that I was somewhere more pleasant. I didn’t agree with her but going around in circles was useless. That part was done now and there was nothing anyone could do to change it. ‘I’d like to start packing up the house tomorrow,’ I said, changing the subject. ‘I don’t want anyone else going through her things.’ Gina had asked me specifically to be the one to go through everything.
‘I can take a few days off if you want, and help out,’ Mum said.
The offer was genuine, but it was the worst possible thing I could think of. The thought of hours and hours of my mother’s incessant chatter to keep me distracted from feeling anything, was numbing. And, I had given my word to Gina. I wanted to take my time with it.
‘I’d rather go alone, Mum. If you don’t mind. I want to take my time and do it properly, the way she wanted. I didn’t get that chance with Dad.’
Mum reached over and squeezed my hand. ‘I know. It was so unexpected with your dad, and everything was such a blur. We barely had a chance to think or organise anything. At least they’re together again now, hey? Dad would love having his little sister back beside him.’
I wiped at the tears that pushed through no matter how hard I tried to keep them at bay. What a consolation prize. They were both gone from our lives forever, but at least they had each other. It didn’t feel like a prize at all. It felt like a punishment.
‘I’m going to move into her place for a while so I can get things sorted there a little bit at a time. Gina said that it was all up to me and there’s a lot to go through. It’ll be nice to be around her for a while longer, even if they’re only her things.’
The reality was that I desperately needed to move out anyway. I had been looking for a new place in the weeks before my dad had died and I had been about to sign a lease, but after that, it felt impossible to leave Mum on her own, or to be on my own. When Gina had gotten sick, she told me that she was leaving her house to me. At the time I didn’t want it. The thought of her being gone and not in that house was too much to bear, but in time she talked me into it. She said it was in her will regardless of what I said.
Mum had pulled into the driveway and shut off the engine. ‘Promise me something?’ She turned to face me, making sure that whatever it was that she was about to make me agree to was done so earnestly.
‘What?’ I said. My tone was as flat as I knew the foundation of this promise would be. I hated situations like this. Trapped in a car, with dozens of family and friends approaching, being asked to agree to something that I would likely not be agreeable to. People, my mother in particular, chose moments like this to bring up such things knowing that the argument would be lessened and agreement swift, given the surroundings.
‘Promise me that you won’t let your sadness interfere with living,’ she said. ‘You’ve just started at the paper, and you’ve worked so hard to get there. I know you loved her, but she would want you to keep moving toward your dreams and make her and your dad proud.’
Even though the use of “they would have wanted - insert whatever it is the person wants you to do” - was the biggest cliché’ and the oldest trick in the book when it came to emotional manipulation, I still swallowed hard against the tightness in my throat. She knew how to get to me. My eyes stung, still trying to stem the flow of tears.
I looked out of the passenger side window at the cars arriving and the streams of people clutching their purses and plates of food. It was exactly like the last time, the only difference was, it was my father we had just put into the ground.
‘That’s not fair, Mum. Yes, I took time out after dad died, but I didn’t stop living. I just stopped doing and I took the time I needed to get through it. It just took me a while. We don’t have the same interpretation of that situation. Surely it’s not such a terrible thing to mourn your father.’
She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. ‘You were lost my darling, for a long time, and you know it. You sank further and further into that dark hole, and you let your relationship with Ajay fall apart.’
I raised my eyebrows at her, this time ready for a fight. Ajay had literally dumped me when he decided that my need to be at my aunt’s side while she was dying from Cancer was all too much for him and terribly inconvenient. It had barely been a relationship anyway. Sitting on the couch and watching someone play online gaming tournaments - or whatever they were - was not exactly a sound foundation on which to build a lasting relationship.
‘Really, Mum? You’re seriously going to go there?’ Regardless of who was approaching, I wouldn’t be backing down from this one.
‘I’m sorry. I definitely don’t want to go there,’ she said. ‘But I also don’t want to see that happen to you again, that’s all. You’ve worked too hard to get back on track and you’re finally doing something you love.’
I opened the car door and got out, willing my anger to dissipate. Mum did the same, greeting a distant cousin of dad’s who handed her a plate of something that smelled fishy before disappearing inside.
I rounded the car and stopped in front of her. ‘I’m fine, and if you allow me a little time to grieve, then I promise you, I will not fall into your so-called dark hole again. Okay?’
The thought of the dark hole, or any hole to hide in really, was extremely appealing under the current circumstances. A hole in the wall, a worm hole to an alternate universe, just any hole to escape all of these people and their kisses and apologies. I was enjoying the thought of it until my mind went back to Aunty Gina and her bright white coffin pushed tightly into the lonely narrow space that had been carved from the ground just for her. I thought of the way that all of the other plots nearby, and my father’s in another part of the cemetery, had now grown over, the grass deciding it was time to heal up the wound that had been made to its earth, while our wounds, or at least mine, remained gaping and bleeding. The thought of the dark hole suddenly didn’t seem so appealing.
Mum was trying to look me in the eye, but I avoided it. ‘Okay. I love you, that’s all,’ she said.
She had already won, I didn’t need the eyes as well.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘Now let’s get in there and heat some of this food up before they start dropping dead from hunger’.
‘Ella, really? Don’t say that on a day like this.’
I laughed. ‘Well, you said no one died AND about me being in a dark hole on a day like this, and you know how dad’s side like to eat.’ I took the plate from her hands and turned on my heels toward the house. Mum laughed and followed behind me. I was glad she couldn’t see the tears that were again blurring my vision and streaking my cheeks.
At the door, I shook off the rising dread and blew air upward from my mouth to dry my eyes. ‘Hi Uncle Mark.’ I smiled and held the plate out to the side awkwardly so he could lean in for a hug.’ It was going to be a long and painful afternoon of interactions like this.
I managed to wade through the kisses and hugs of condolence to get to the kitchen. I put the plate on the counter with all the other offerings, some of which looked frightening and indescribable, and others that looked so good they had surely been bought and then arranged on a plate to look homemade. I wanted to take sneaky photos of a jelly plate that looked like it had jumped off the pages of a 1980s Women’s Weekly and send them to Jazz, but there were others around and it would be rude. I also knew that Jazz would be busy getting organised.
People brought the oddest foods to funerals. At dad’s, someone had put a baked fish on the table. A whole fish. I remember looking at that, in my hazy memories of that day, and imagining how much they had likely agonised over it, trying to think of the perfect thing to offer on such a sad occasion. I wondered how a full baked fish had been the conclusion they had come to. I never found out who brought it, but if I had, I would have thanked them for their exceptional effort.
People were hovering about, some standing in small groups with serious looks on their faces, and others laughing at something unknown, then catching themselves and glancing quickly about to make sure that no one saw. It was as if it was illegal to smile at a funeral, let alone laugh. Maybe it should be, but if Gina had her way, we would all be dancing and drinking and having a party in her honour instead of this sour-faced sook fest – me included.
I got some of the food trays into the oven and set the timer. Mum was already handing around a plate of meat and cheese with crackers and dip. I grinned, imagining the laughs we would be having if Gina were here. She would laugh at the most inappropriate times. It wasn’t because she didn’t care about whatever it was that was going on, it was actually a nervous habit – at least that’s what she told me. It hadn’t served her well as a doctor and she often had me in fits of laughter recounting tales about how it got her into trouble over the years.
I looked at my watch. It was half past two and Jazz was due to arrive at any minute. Like Mum, she worried about me relentlessly. Jazz had been my constant companion and best friend ever since our fateful fist fight over a Valentine’s Day cupcake at kindergarten 25 years ago. The teacher made us apologise to each other, hug it out and share the cupcake. We had pretty much been at each other’s side ever since, give or take a few hurdles and separations. In third grade we had broken up for a while thanks to a boy that we both liked, Peter Malik. When we finally came to our senses we decided on a no-boys pact and to be best friends forever. It worked well, especially when Jazz realised at around 12 that she was bisexual and mostly attracted to girls anyway.
I reduced the oven temperature to the low setting and went to the front window to wait for her. They would all hear her coming anyway – a final salute to the crazy, beautiful and fun-loving woman that was my Aunt Gina. The kind of send-off she not only wanted, but deserved, unlike the stuffy formal goodbye of the funeral service. Mum would be furious, but it was worth it.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. The text read:
Rounding the corner now.
I tucked it back into my pants and went to the front door. When she came into view, I burst out laughing. Driving a bright pink ice cream truck with the song, “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds blaring, Jazz slowed down to a crawl as she passed the front of the house.
Everyone inside made their way out onto the front porch, looking at each other with puzzled and confused glances. Most seemed unsure whether to laugh or be horrified. Mum shot a scowl my way as Jazz decreased her speed further, ensuring that everyone got a good eyeful of the gigantic image of Gina’s face on the side of the van. She stopped just past the driveway and waited.
Guests again exchanged confused looks, accompanied by shrugging shoulders, but when a loud bang rang out from the top of the truck and pink sparkly dust filled the air, inaudible chatter, laughter and gasps roared to life. High above in the sky, I finally saw the plane and the big white letters appearing against the blue-sky backdrop.
FAREWELL SUCKERS. LOVE YOU ALL, GINA XX.
I smiled, laughing and crying at the same time and blowing a kiss to the sky. Now it was done. Now we could let her rest.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and the card the woman had given me at the cemetery fell to the floor. I stared at it. What had Gina been up to?