A respectable tradesman I have known for many years told me of when he was a young blade, he and some friends rented a flat above a funeral director’s office and “workshop”. If they were busy and short-handed, they would call on him for some work. He didn’t mind as it helped pay the rent. In the early days the old hands would play jokes on him, with a sort of “black humour”. But sometimes he was roped into the more mundane activities of the industry. He told me of this little “event” … of course, I have taken the usual liberties with the story-line.
It went like this:
A Quiet Little Corner of the World
The van slowed momentarily in the driveway as Andy and Sam waited for the roller-door to open. A large sign embossed in black on the right hand side of the door said “TIMOTHY & SON Funeral Directors.” Sam pulled the van up inside the cavernous building. They had just opened the back door and were reaching in to take out the chipboard coffin when a voice called to them from the office.
“Hold it … leave it in there.” Andy and Sam straightened up and turned. “Leave it there”, the man repeated, “you’re going straight out again, to the cemetery”. Lanky Sam dropped his shoulders and slouched …
“Oh … right, tell me now … you could’a got me on the mobile … I went right past ‘Centennial’ on the way back here!”
“He’s not going to Centennial,” the man handed Sam a sheath of paperwork, threw in two thick boards and some rope then reached up to close the van door. Sam stepped to one side as he read the paper.
“Leighton Well!” he exclaimed. ”That’s an hour away … out in the sticks.”
“That’s right,” the man replied.
“Yeah … well,” Sam whined limply ”… and I gotta drive the Caddie’ this arvo for Mr Bannister’s funeral”.
“Right again,” the man agreed. ”So you better get a move on,” and he gently pushed a finger into Sam’s chest. ”Ay?”
Sam raised his hands pleading.
“But he’s only a ‘lossol’ … and there’s nothing but a cemetery at Leighton Well.”
”Three out of three! So you guessed right. He’s going to be interred at Leighton Well cemetery.”
“But they usually burn them when they got no rellies.”
“Well this one has rellies now and they want him buried A.S.A.P. So get a move on or you won’t be driving anything! Both of you.”
Sam sighed …
“C’mon, Andy, back on the road.” And he climbed in and started the engine. “Couldn’t it wait till tomorrow, John?” he called to the man.
“It could, but it won’t. The people want it done as soon as possible …. the council’s teed up an’ I’ve got the local backhoe out there already, working on the grave … just get him in the ground so I can bill the rellies this afternoon an it’s all over and done with … alright?” and he turned away.
The shallow undulating mallee stretched away on both sides of the highway, the men spoke little, Sam, because he was piqued at the – to him – unnecessary burden of this unscheduled trip, and Andy because he was aware of Sam’s mood and being new to the job did not want to aggravate an old hand. But he was curious.
“What’s a ‘lossol’ and why do they usually burn them?” he inquired.
Sam turned a bored eye to Andy, sighed and spoke:
“A-Lost-Soul … lossol, get it … lost soul … a dead weight … a ward of the state … derelect, a retarded person, a nobody, no kin, no nobody … alone in the world … in this case” he jerked his head to the coffin in the back of the van, “Downs Syndrome.”
“And they burn them?”
“Costs less … much less … but I saw on the paper this one has a religion, or at least his kin have … don’t want a cremation? Next best thing: a cheap plot. And they don’t come any cheaper than Leighton Well.” Then there was silence.
“Poor bastard,” Andy muttered. Sam drove on in silence for a while, then, without turning his head spoke conciliatory to Andy:
“Some people are like that, more in the past than now you know, big family, well-heeled, well-respected in the district then along comes a misprint, so to speak … and, well, they don’t want to know about it, eh? Like I said, not so much now, but this fellah is an old one, I saw him last week … got run over on the road … I thought he was a ward of the state … rellies musta got in touch with John. Oh well.”
“But why so far out? I mean, nobody knows what a body’s like when it’s underground, if it’s a cripple or a dwarf or, or … or anything … it’s just a plot of ground with a tombstone on it.”
“The people who bury it know. The plots cost nothing out here. One thing you learn in this business, an that’s the family’s private opinion of those they bury. Too much pomp and ceremony, too little, too cheap, too garish you get to know the sincere ones just by their silences, their moods … their respect.” Sam changed back a gear to overtake a truck.
“Take Mr Bannister … big wheel in the district, big funeral, a whole heap of them coming down from town this afternoon.”
“Hey, a joke: Bannisters coming down … banister of a stair … ha ha! Coming down, get it … huh, huh?”
Sam looked to him and winced.
”Say, what’s it like driving the Cadillac?”
“As smooth as a silk shroud slipped over polished mahogany.”
Andy pursed his lips appreciatively and turned to gaze over the sun-drenched scrub.
The settlement of Leighton Well was one of those lost towns in the mallee. As many ruins as lived in houses, a service station cum general store and that was it … no church, no hotel, nothing. A sign on the far side of town pointed to the cemetery. The van turned down this road.
A man slouched against the wheel of a backhoe waved an arm to direct the van around to the plot. “Thought you’d never get here,” the backhoe driver complained.” Got a septic tank to put in this arvo,” he unnecessarily informed them.
Sam went to the hole and gazed in. He took a tape ruler from his pocket and lowered the end to the bottom.
“To the inch … eh?” the driver smirked. Sam turned a jaundiced eye to him and said nothing. The driver smiled.
“Get the boards and rope,” he ordered Andy. Once these were in place they went for the coffin.
“Pretty plain coffin,” the backhoe driver remarked.
They placed it on the boards. Sam straightened and looked around him.
“No-one to impress out here,” he remarked.
The driver moved to the side of the hole.
“Well, let’s get it over and done with … you two take the ropes and I’ll remove the boards,” the driver remarked impatiently.
Sam and Andy straddled the hole and lowered down the coffin. Their faces showed the strain of the job as they did so. The ropes were pulled out afterwards and taken to the van. The driver of the backhoe climbed up to the cabin and started the engine … he called out:
“If you want to say any last words now’s the time!” Sam winced at him.
“C’mon, Andy, let’s go.”
Andy paused, looked into the grave and then to the backhoe then to Sam …
“Hang on Sam, maybe we should say something.” He looked down to the coffin as he spoke, a sort of anxious mood about his words. Sam turned.
“I don’t know, something. I’m new to this game … I don’t know … you must know some words,” he pleaded “It, it doesn’t seem right to just walk away.”
“There’s no words to say, is there?” Sam pinched the bridge of his nose; “He was a mongoloid, a nobody … people don’t speak to mongoloids, they speak at them … no-one loved him … he’s dead, he’s better off.”
The backhoe pushed some earth into the grave, Andy stepped back, looked to Sam in a astonished way then to the driver of the tractor.
“Hold it!” he cried. ”Wait … Sam … geeze, not like this … I mean well, God loved him, perhaps?”
Sam turned and winced.
“What-are-you f#ckin’ talkin’ about?” he approached Andy angrily, ”the poor prick’s born retarded, rejected by his kinfolk, grows up in an institution, gets run over by a … a f#ckin’dump-truck or somethin’ outside the sheltered workshop, is buried out in the sticks like a sick kangaroo and you tell me god loves him! Get in the van.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder and he strode away.
Andy lowered his head to gaze at the coffin and frowned, the backhoe driver made a questioning gesture with his face. Andy straightened his shoulders and closed his eyes. Sam sounded the horn from the van. Andy looked out over the mallee, the cemetery was on a gently sloping hillside and he could see the scrub run away to the horizon.
“Take the living humans away and this would be a pretty tranquil sort of place … a quiet place,” he thought to himself. He joined his hands clumsily, he wasn’t going to let this go without a little bit of respect.
“Dear God,” he tried to conjure up a picture of God but couldn’t … he let the God thing pass … all he was aware of was himself, the person in the newly-dug grave and the world around him, ”whoever you are, have pity on … on this person here … and … and may he rest in peace … in … in his own quiet little corner of the world.”