We watch the coffin being lowered into the ground, fitting snugly into the gaping hole recently dug by strangers. The pungent smell of damp earth—it had rained heavily during the night—the sound of the traffic from the freeway over the hill, the ornate monuments of the neighbouring Greek Orthodox section, will all be remembered and talked about later.
Martin Hales sits in a wheelchair watching. He is now officially a widower, but he doesn’t know it; his mind, decimated by Alzheimer’s, has long ceased recognising the woman who came to visit him. He is flanked by three attractive women and two attendant, slightly-less-attractive men. Five children ranging from five to late-teens are interspersed between them. His progeny. Martin’s watery eyes dart around as though trying to pick up clues about where the hell he is. There isn’t anyone whose heart doesn’t go out to him while also hoping to God that they don’t end like him. Every now and then, one of the three women bend down and whisper something in his ear, or attend to a part of his clothing that doesn’t need attention.
Just about everyone wears black, and that would’ve pleased Joanna. A staunch Catholic to the end, black, she would’ve said, is only fitting. Respectful. Why, more than a few of the crowd remember Henry Franklin’s funeral a few years ago. Poor Henry’s daughter, Carin—fresh off the plane from Bali—had stood there in a pair of bright pink cotton pants and a lime green tank top, weeping loudly between her siblings.
Joanna, afterwards, said it was appalling.
“She looked like some kind of clown.”
At the requiem mass, a priest enlisted by the family for the occasion, spoke quietly—his mouth pressed against the microphone so that the listeners were assaulted with little explosions of air with every p, d and b—about Joanna’s enduring faith in God. No-one could argue about that because who can see faith? She certainly seemed faithful. A younger priest assisted. Newly in charge of the parish, he was temporarily ousted for this particular dead parishioner.
“Her service to God,” the older priest said, “was exemplary.”
Tangible proof: attendance at every mass and holy day of obligation; pouring tea and coffee at parish gatherings; making lamingtons for the annual fundraiser. Her lamingtons were renown for their moist sponge (others were so dry) and super-chocolaty coating. One year, the year when she was going through chemotherapy for bladder cancer, she stood vigilant and skeletal with a rose-coloured turban wrapped round her head, at the end of a long trestle table while others dipped and coated the cakes.
“Just one full turn through the chocolate sauce,” she said to the other volunteers. “Chocolate, then coconut. Chocolate, then coconut.”
Did they taste any different that year?
Many thought they did.
Every other year when the local primary school hosted a footie match, she offered up her home to billets from country New South Wales. They arrived on Friday afternoon in coaches, carrying sleeping bags and backpacks full of footie gear, toothbrush kits, lollies, and—some incorrigible ones—cigarettes. Boys laid head to toe on her lounge room floor, swapping tales, daring each other to go into the kitchen and find some beer, telling ghost stories, shrieking with their breaking, young voices until two in the morning. Meanwhile, Joanna’s own three children grumbled and complained about the noise and inconvenience.
“And who, for twenty years, played the organ?” the priest asked, looking up from the biography that had been compiled by Joanna’s children and glancing over at the two-tiered organ where a man no-one knew sat studying his nails.
That, too, was true—ten o’clock mass on Sunday was the full deal, with the local choir, and Joanna thumping away on the electronic keyboard. Every now and again, some youth with a guitar appeared, standing by her side, strumming enthusiastically. She knew all the standards but wasn’t averse to trying something new, something secular, if it was considered to be spiritually uplifting. Who could forget her beautiful rendition of Annie’s Song played during the recession one Sunday? It seemed an affront that now, somehow, she wasn’t sitting there playing the organ at her own funeral. Instead, the congregation was lumbered with some stranger in a pin-striped waistcoat.
“Service,” the priest said, “requires humility. Joanna didn’t like to tell others of her tireless work behind the scenes. The flowers, for example.”
He pointed in the direction of the magnificent display of lilies, carnations, baby’s breath and God knows what else in a brass vase to the left of him.
Surely, she didn’t…she couldn’t have…
“Joanna arranged the flowers every Sunday—almost every Sunday—and never let it be known that come Friday morning, she collected the ones that were still fresh and took them to the hospital. When she lost her licence…”
At this, the priest paused and shook his head and let the sentence hang unfinished—the image of dead flowers thrown into a wheelie bin was vivid in everyone’s mind.
The priest rallied. “When she lost her licence—such a devastating time for her, not knowing who had notified the RTA—when she lost her licence, that didn’t stop her service to the Lord God.”
The priest stood aside, and there were some audible sighs of relief. His zeal for the Godly-Joanna was heavy-going.
It was time for the eulogies.
First was a pretty young woman who strode up to the pulpit and almost immediately crumpled.
“My mother…’ she started and gave a great sob and clasped the lower half of her face with two hands. ‘My mum…”
Everyone felt for her, but it was hard to watch.
The second was a middle-aged man who was obviously some relation—he had the same largish nose and springy hair in the glossy, larger-than-life portrait of Joanna placed on a stand just two metres away. Turned out he was a nephew who’d lived with Joanna and Martin for some time.
“Long story,” he said and smiled sadly at Martin, sitting there in the front pew with the wheelchair beside him. He talked about what a guiding light Joanna and Martin had been. He spoke of Joanna’s insistence on clean hands, clean behind-the-ears, elbows off the dinner table. That sort of thing.
The third was a spritely old duck, probably the same age as Joanna, who introduced herself as ‘Joey’s old chum’. She was, thankfully, compos mentos.
“Joey and I used to dress up in our mum’s clothing. Nothing strange about that. Girl’s have been doing that for centuries, I bet. Still are. My little Alice…Lordy…but Joey and I got it in our heads one day to put on our fathers’ clothing. Can you believe it? Off to the garage where her dad worked. Heavens above, if we didn’t get some looks!”
We chuckled along with everyone at such a sweet story.
She could’ve gone on, that much was clear, but the priest edged forward from his position behind the lectern and touched her shoulder.
“What?” she asked.
She wrapped it up quickly, saying how much she missed her dear friend and would, more than likely, be seeing her soon. As she stepped down, she shot the priest a dark look. She put her fingers to her lips and pressed them against the coffin. When she passed Martin, she kissed him smack on top of his bald, old head and he grinned like a sixteen-year-old who’d just got lucky. She took her place back in the pews, alone. There was no husband by her side. No adult child accompanying her.
The priest stepped once again up to the microphone. Apparently, not enough had been said about Joanna. The names of her four children, their spouses and five children between them were listed in chronological order. Further good deeds were extolled.
“She didn’t like to humblebrag,” he said at one point. “Is that right? Did I use that correctly?” He looked over at the younger priest who shrugged.
Some mourners groaned.
Sensing an invasive discontent, he hastened to wrap things up. “One last thing, something most of you would be unaware of is that Joanna was the tireless force behind the Sunday bulletins.”
Actually, it was common knowledge: her name had been on the bottom of the bulletin—Mrs. Joanna Hales, compiler and editor—since the early 70s when she took on the task.
“Even when a computer was purchased,” the priest said, “off she went and got lessons. She didn’t give up and say, ‘oh, I’m too old to learn anything new’. No—she continued to serve the Lord with all her heart. She showed up every Saturday morning at the presbytery and sat in that tiny, airless, cramped office—how I wish we had something better to offer her—and tap, tap, tap away at the keyboard…”
A windowless room at the end of the hallway on the ground floor. Joanna’s domain. In her absence, we occasionally rifled through papers looking for something interesting.
On the second floor were three bedrooms—one for the parish priest and two others for younger clerics who occasionally stayed. Or a visiting bishop. Or, on occasion, a person in trouble who needed assistance. The priest—Father Patton, newly ordained and full of vigour—abided by the values of St. Vincent de Paul to offer help without question. To freely give what was asked for. Troubled and recalcitrant teenaged boys, too, were taken in. Delivered there, sometimes, by their exasperated parents. Mostly they stayed one night, or two.
Father Patton had a flair for connecting with the youth of the parish and encouraged a casual, drop-in-whenever-you-like atmosphere, unlike the previous fuddy-duddy, Father Monaghan. The youth masses he started on Sunday evenings were well attended. Joanna, loyal to anyone anointed by God, spoke fondly of him to anyone who’d listen. She bustled around him like a spinster around a bride.
Coming into the presbytery one morning, she found herself face-to-face with an adolescent in his underwear standing at the bottom of the stairs smoking a cigarette. It was hard to say who was more startled.
“Where’s Father?” Joanna asked, clutching a binder to her chest.
The boy was the same age as one of her own sons. Thirteen.
He did an abrupt about-face, tripping up the stairs in his attempt to hide his nakedness.
“That fucking Mrs Hales just saw me,” he said, bursting into the larger of the spare rooms upstairs. His voice was tremulous with anticipation.
‘She’s going to know.’
We waited hopefully for the sound of her stomping up the stairs, demanding to know what was going on.
We listened to the office door being closed.
Once the coffin has been lowered, everyone is invited to come forward and toss a handful of dirt on top. Family members do, of course, and linger at the edge, looking down at the gleaming wood. Her old chum is there and in the bright sunlight seems frail, less sassy. Martin Hales has been spared this ordeal and sits parked under a tree enjoying the fresh air.
Some more words of comfort from the priest, then hugs, sighs and people walking reluctantly back to their cars, hanging onto each other like drunkards. One of the daughters—the one with the big house—is hosting the reception. She has sent her teenaged children ahead to put the mini quiches in the oven.
We wait, silently, just three of us now. We wait to see the earth packed down upon Joanna’s head.