A Passing Comfort

Artwork by Elvis Richardson
Artwork by Elvis Richardson

LANEY GRABBED HER father’s arm as they rushed to the street corner. They looked left then right and saw an old wave shaped bus shelter near a slanted sign pole. In an uncoordinated frantic dash, Laney’s father held his unzipped polar fleece jumper around his daughter’s head but both were soaked when they reached cover. Why her father giggled Laney didn’t know, her hair was ruined and shoes drenched like she was standing in a puddle. The rain drummed hard on the tin and suppressed the passing cars. It became so dense that the public housing apartments further on turned to a mystic grey and even the road lines became vague. When her father stopped laughing, they sat and watched the draining footpaths converge with the flowing gutters. Laney hated the feeling of wet clothing, the way it stuck to her skin and itched as it dried. The image of her drowning feet, thighs suffocating in denim and the smell of wet dog that proceeds.

Gusts kept their clothes damp and wavered the interconnected spider webs above. Laney had grown tired of complaining aloud and retracted to a sulk. The flooding road absorbed the headlights that rippled as vehicles ploughed through. Beyond was a gated area that Laney realised was a cemetery and inside was a group dressed in black.

‘Bad day for a funeral.’

Her father peered up at the umbrellas gathered around a pavilion. He nodded in agreement then looked back to the road. A constant spill of storm water slapped behind and drifted around their feet. Despite almost ten minutes of heavy rain, the clouds seemed to get darker and more melancholy above the mourners. Laney stared and became oblivious to the tin vibrating like a snare drum roll above. She hadn’t been to a funeral before and wasn’t sure whether the black outfits were meant to be comforting or sombre. They were all so static and except for the rain and cars, it was like she was observing a still picture. Even the blue-gums appeared motionless among the cloud coloured tombstones and pebbles. After minutes of traffic, the group shuffled to reveal a hearse and black coffin that was lowered into the earth. People were either saluting or tossing flowers into the burial but she couldn’t tell through the relentless downpour.

‘Will Pop have a funeral when he dies soon?’

‘Hopefully he’ll live a little longer, but yes, he will, almost everyone does.’

Tyres peeled from the asphalt and once they’d passed, Laney spoke into her lap.

‘Are you afraid of dying?’

Her father appeared so austere that for a moment Laney thought she was going to be in trouble, but then he smiled and faced his daughter.

‘I think everybody is sometimes. It’s the one thing nobody can avoid.’

Laney focused back on the black figures and her father clutched his knees and peered up the road as a semi-trailer emerged from the mist and sent waves gushing towards the gutters. Her attention moved to a jogger and her dog, then to her father looking at his shoes. She watched the rain slip on the leather and didn’t realise that he was actually observing the back of his hands. A confluence of blue veins showing under his pale goose-bumped skin. He gripped the steel bench seat and grunted to clear his throat. They could hear music playing from the cemetery although it could barely find them through the traffic. Laney thought she’d heard the song in a movie once, but her father knew Leonard Cohen’s baritone like a mellow prayer. As backup singers sang Hallelujah octaves above, Laney turned her father.

‘I’m afraid of dying dad.’

He was stuck between the song and compiling an answer. She didn’t pressure him and looked away hoping it’d make it easier.

‘Why?’

Laney looked at her wet feet, eyes wide and still with her mind in heavy thought.

‘You just rot and that’s it. I’ll never know what happens to the world.’

She looked back to the mourners as the song faded and gave way to the unrelenting rain. A bus pulled up and exhaled as the hydraulics lowered the floor and a man stepped off resting a laptop bag on his head. When he glanced over, Laney looked away while her father greeted him and frivolously complained about the weather. The man agreed in the same courteous tone her father always used when talking to strangers. She tried not to return to the funeral, but like a morbid image or horrific accident she just couldn’t look away. They just stood there, she assumed in grief, and one day they would stand around her too. People looking down as earth piled on top of a pretty box with her inside, dead. She knew her father was looking at her, expecting her to face him, but the sight of the distant trees seemed more comforting.

‘Remember when I went to church with Cousin Lukas? They said that some people go to heaven. Do you think that’s true?’

He unclenched his hands and placed them back on the bench resting his back against the flimsy tin. Laney noticed that some of the mourners had begun to leave.

‘My gut feeling is that it probably isn’t true.’

Her eyes dropped back to her shoes.

‘That’s my gut feeling too.’

She wiggled her toes and made bulges in the nylon. She felt the listless dread would be permanent and wished the rain had never come. Bands of light had broken through the clouds, but the idea of a sun-shower had lost its grace. More had left and in their place lay flowers. White and red. She’d expected black. Her father grunted again and shuffled on the seat. Laney pushed back against the tin and put her feet up, linking her hands in front of her shins.

‘You shouldn’t think of dying like that.’

‘Like what?’

‘Well, that you just rot.’

Laney’s hands loosened and the chill from the metal began to seep into her back.

‘But it’s not just that.’

‘What is it then?’

She wiggled her toes again and noticed blotches of hardened chewing gum near her heels.

‘Don’t worry.’ She said.

There were five left, two on either side of a woman with netting covering her face. The hearse exited, travelling no more than five kilometres per hour, and Laney watched as it pulled into the adjacent street, picked up speed and crossed the intersection.

‘Remember in the paper last year, the brother and sister that died because a wall collapsed on them? And the other day, that branch fell on a girl my age at a primary school.’

‘Yeah.’

‘They probably would have lived till they were ninety and had kids like you and mum. But they will just rot underground and be forgotten.’

Her father seemed calm, even a bit complacent staring ahead.

‘It’s sad isn’t it?’ He said.

Not only was she dissatisfied but also surprised at her father’s lack of understanding. Her mum comforted her most, but whenever things got serious, like when the neighbour’s music was too loud or if the car stopped running, her father would step in. She’d assumed that he could always intervene. The image of her underground, not being able to think or feel dominated. It was a peculiar helplessness because she didn’t feel like crying or seeking an excuse to hide.

Across the road the two remaining women used each other’s heads as support. Bodies stagnant as the wind flapped their dresses.

‘When you get older Laney, you become less selfish.’

‘What do you mean?’

Her father pursed his lips and kept his eyes on something ahead.

‘You realise that other people make life worthwhile.’

He had that austere look again, eyes steady and almost squinting. Laney hadn’t been intimidated by her father before, but when he turned and his eyes locked onto hers, her first instinct was to look away.

‘I still don’t understand… Basically you’re saying that everyone you ever love dies as well.’

He shifted over and reached around, held her arm and hugged tight.

‘Listen here you. How about we make a run to the news agency and I’ll buy you one of those expensive Magnum ice-creams?’

She didn’t smile and hung lose in her father’s affectionate grip. She was in grade six next year and wasn’t going to be sweet talked. He let go after an awkward minute and she was left to ponder alone. No matter what she concluded, it didn’t make her immortal or provide any relief. Was she supposed to be naïve her whole life? Pretending it didn’t exist or that she’d go to heaven like Cousin Lukas. Maybe she’d be lucky and become senile like her dementia ridden Pop. But that provided little closure, in-fact it only seemed comforting for the time she considered it. Laney wondered how many of the passing drivers fought with their demise. How did they function? Going to jobs knowing they’d never be able to experience life again. She thought about homeless people, the disabled kids at school and her uncle Benny who’d become a paraplegic after a motorbike accident. It scared her because not only could those things happen, but she was going to die anyway.

There was only the woman in the netting left, kneeling by the burial with flowers surrounding. She wanted to go over but what could she say to a grieving stranger? It was futile, just like everything else she’d thought of. Maybe that was it, everyone just dealt with death alone and didn’t burden others with such misery. It was then that she understood what her father had said. Laney closed her eyes and wished the mourner well then broke the silence.

‘Let’s go. But I don’t want ice-cream.’

He nodded and didn’t kiss her on the forehead or hug her. It was the first time ever she’d felt more in charge than him. As they journeyed through the rain, he didn’t provide cover and she didn’t look back, even though she wanted to.

 

 

About Tom O'Byrne 1 Article
TOM O'BYRNE writes short stories and tussles with a novel. This is his life.