Monday, 21 January 2013

Two Smokers on a Sunny Morning

Mick and Tim lean on their shovels under the row of elms which mark the point where the cemetery joins Roy Canning’s cabbage field. Roy liked to joke that all the human meal in the soil was doing wonders for his crop, and that the people of Inverell would be less likely to buy his cabbages if they realised it was their dead friends and relatives which were giving them the flavour. But that is the magic of death, the men would say: nobody is supposed to think about it too much.

The two men smoke and watch the magpies picking worms from the ceremonial lawns. It is late in the shift and already the first of the day’s funerals are gathering around the newly dug graves. They shimmer in the mid-morning heat like a poorly tuned television that at any moment could change stations to something more jovial.

“Funeral clothes aren’t very suited to summer,” says Mick. He drops his cigarette butt into the buzz-cut grass and lights another. The lighter is the cheapest Bic he could find at the IGA and it takes a few pumps to get a flame. Mick knows that with his smoking habits he will have a blood blister on his thumb in less than a week.

“Then why don’t you market a line of clothes especially for summer funerals and see how many you sell,” says Tim.

“It was just an observation,” says Mick. “A joke really.”

“I know,” says Tim. “I’m joking too.”

Dust blows across the cemetery, like the bodies of ghosts, to where the pale sky meets the fields. The mourners hold their jackets up to their faces. Somewhere in the distance a car hushes past.

“Look at those people,” says Mick, jabbing the hot end of his cigarette at the neat crowd of mourners. “Do you think they have any appreciation for what we do?”

“I suppose that depends on how much they want to see their friend buried.”

“Like, I know we’re just digging holes. But they’re a very specialised type of hole. If we dig it even a fraction too small then we can turn the whole grieving process into a farce. When people talk about grandpa it’ll be the thing that they remember.”

“Oh yeah. And anyone buried five feet under is gunna look like an idiot for the rest of time.”

“And the walls need to be dead straight and the bottom dead flat and its all gotta look perfect. It has to be perfect.” Mick’s voice trails off. He looks across at Tim. He’s got to be about ten years older than Mick, with a sun-beaten face like cracked clay. He’s not old enough to be Mick’s father, but he’s not young enough to be Mick’s friend. So what is he?

Aware that his eyes are lingering for too long, he loses himself in the thick mess of lawn.

“I don’t want someone like us digging my grave,” says Tim eventually. “I’m gunna dig it myself. Then when I’m lying in it, I’m gunna have a little label over my head which points out to passers by not to dig in this spot.”

Mick cracks a grin and nearly loses his cigarette. Tim is staring out over the lines of graves. There is a wry smile in the corner of his lip and his cheek crinkles around it like a cloud of arrows.

“You’re absolutely right,” says Mick.

“And I’m not gunna have a funeral, because who wants to spend a whole morning feeling bad about themselves. And worse: having the expectation that they should feel bad about themselves. What sort of friend would want to inflict that kind of pain onto the people he supposably loves?”

“I’m not even going to let anyone know that I’m dying,” says Mick. “I’m just going to leave a note at home saying that I’ve died and am buried in a non-descript place. Somewhere out of the way. I suppose a cemetery is as out of the way as you can get.”

Tim looks across at Mick and drops his cigarette butt into the grass. It smoulders briefly in the nutrient-rich mulch then goes out.

“Let me ask you something,” says Tim. “Why do you care how you die? Or what happens after? You’ll be dead anyway.”

The mourners are returning to their cars across the lawns. They talk in hushed tones and make mournful sweeping actions with their heads. A few people linger: two girls, two middle-aged men wearing sunglasses and an old man. Then they turn to leave too.

“I don’t know,” he says finally.

Tim stamps on his cigarette butt. He wraps his well worn fingers around the handle of his spade and swings the shaft into his other hand.

“I suppose we better get back to work,” he says. He begins walking across the lawns, scattering the magpies as he goes. Mick watches the old man walk away. For a moment he imagines he is on his way to dig his own grave.

When it feels like he has waited too long, he follows.

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