Authors: Deborah Forster
Tags: #Family & Relationships/General
Deborah Forster grew up in Footscray, Melbourne. She worked as a staff and freelance journalist for many years and was a âThis Life' columnist on
The Sunday Age.
Deborah is married to Alan Kohler and they have three children.
The Book of Emmett
is her first novel.
On the day of Emmett Brown's funeral, Tuesday the tenth of January, the temperature is 40.4 degrees in the quivering shade. Out the front of Gilberts Funeral Parlour in Footscray, someone suggests that there's no need for a crematorium to dispose of Emmett, just leave him hanging around in this heat and he will surely self-combust. Smiles, sly with memory, surface like fish rising up in wide rivers. People fan the slow, thick air around their hot faces with funeral programs, and by degrees the smiles fade.
Gilberts lost most of its land when the snaking concrete overpass the locals call Mount Mistake went up and now the front yard is an odd shape because it's truncated and almost tucked underneath the thing. The funeral parlour is a creaking old Edwardian joint full of corners and bow windows and little fireplaces lined with cracked tiles.
It's right across from the Western Oval, a patchy green heart glowing in the dull streets where both Brown boys played footy as kids. Rob remembers it best. He'd been a middling footballer, one who liked being in the team more than he liked winning, who loved the thought of footy more than the game.
He remembers walking past Gilberts and those mornings, full of the loose strands of the day, still stand out sharply because they were rich with anticipation. He still believes hope is the best part of everything.
And even now if he closes his eyes he can see himself and his mates, small shapes against the pale winter skies threading through long treeless streets where the houses are low and hunched, backs always to the weather, bouncing the footy and talking fast.
After a frost there might be puddles sealed with panes of glassy ice that Rob and his mates would break with their heels so as not to wet their feet and all the while the boys yapped on constantly, boasting about how much beer they'd be able to drink when they were grown, about how much their fathers drank and about whose father was the biggest pisspot. (Rob won hands down.)
Sometimes the talk was more mundane, about where to get wheels for billycarts or who really was the best footballer even though this always boiled down to Ted Whitten.
They dragged everything into the conversation but no matter where they were in the river of talk, they always hurried past Gilberts because it gave them the creeps. One of them would start running and soon enough, another would break into a sprint and then they'd shoot past the place, hearts banging around in the caves of their skinny chests, and they'd show up at footy puffing and blowing.
Now Rob is forty-five-years-old, standing under the eaves of Gilberts being watched by the sole terracotta dragon still hanging onto the roof, and his past is washing by him like sticks set down on a river. Yeah, he remembers those footy days, but mostly he remembers his father, Emmett. Every bloody inch of him.
He looks up at the dragon and into the oven of the sky and he steadies himself for the task of burying the old bastard. About time it all ended he thinks. Something has made him recall George Harrison's âAll Things Must Pass'. He secretly likes the song but doesn't mind stirring his sister Louisa for declaring George her favourite Beatle. How could anyone go past Lennon? For a smart girl she's still pretty damn wet. Yet, he concedes, today George you got it spot on. I am ready to enjoy the passing of all things.
After Emmett died his wife, Anne, was determined that there be a quick funeral. No mucking around, she said, and this despite the fact that Louisa, the eldest Brown, was in Italy. No, the thing would proceed. Funerals aren't a big deal, they are just something to be done with. What's the point of waiting, she wanted to know, especially in summer.
No one seriously argued with her, though Rob did mention that it was possible to put bodies in fridges these days, they made them big enough. But without Louisa there to laugh, the crack fell flat and was ignored. Anne was never one for jokes and in better times was stumped that anyone would want such a troubling thing as a sense of humour.
So plans were made. Louisa would hurry home with some urgency and three quotes for the disposal of the earthly remains of Emmett Brown would be sought. The three quotes were for form's sake because Gilberts was the only place really considered. In Anne's opinion, only locals could really be trusted at such a time.
Outside the funeral home while they wait for the others to arrive, the Browns keep to the narrow cut of shade cast by the overpass wall. They edge back as the sun erases the shadow and from above they look like a string of beads.
They're waiting for Peter, the second youngest Brown, to arrive but it could be a long wait because Peter's idea of time has always been elastic. Still, there'll be no funeral without him, so the wait goes on.
Though it isn't a big turnout, maybe thirty or so, some people drift towards the Browns in dribs and drabs and hands are shaken and cheeks are kissed and remarks about the baking weather are made. Then the hot, heavy arms of the day take them.
Standing by the radiating concrete wall, Anne's hot but she's not letting on. She's never been much bothered by heat. People make far too much of such things, she thinks. Heat is heat and the best thing to do about such extreme displays is to pay them no attention. This makes things more bearable. So she doesn't fan herself with the funeral program she's already collected, she simply takes her mind off the heat by reflecting on the miracle of her children.
In that trench of shade, dressed in her reliable fawn pants-suit and her new tan sandals with soles like tyre treads, she marvels that these people are actually hers. They've grown up so well, all things considered. And so tall, given that she just scrapes in at a bit over five feet. For the children she silently thanks Emmett. Without him they would not be who they are.
In the sky, the glare dulls as if someone has turned it down and twigs carried so far by the wind are tossed at their feet like offerings. Against it, some people clutch hats to their heads and women hold their summer dresses down as the gust swells skirts like sails. Some raise their voices over the bullying wind, remarking about the strength of it. The Browns seem outside of such things, they just watch and wait for Peter.
Rob Brown grew later than most of the others but now he reaches nearly six feet. His shoulders are broad and because of his outdoor work he's fit and strong and lean. He keeps his hair longish (can't be bothered with hairdressers) and it suits his broad face. He shaves when he remembers.
His dark eyebrows are wing-shaped and it's acknowledged that Rob has the best eyes of all of the Browns, they're lighter than both Emmett's and Anne's and though there seems something Nordic in them, the aquamarine colour is a gift from his English grandfather, George Alfred Griffin, the kindest man Rob ever knew.
Rob is an arborist. Today he reckons the best perk of any outdoor job is that you need decent sunglasses which give you a place to hide. And even though his hands are hard from years of handling trees, today, standing there in his suit, face shaved, dark hair slicked back, the sunnies make him look sophisticated. He wouldn't mind keeping them on all day.
He stands beside his sisters Louisa, forty-six, and Jessie, thirty-two, both of them handsome dark-haired women who seem to be clinically observing the arrival of Peter as his car rattles and lurches into the yard. Even though she appears to be concentrating, it's possible that Louisa is not because today she is porous and possibly the only active thing about her is the sweat slipping from her temples. But then the burring sound of Peter's old car awakens her.
âFor God's sake,' Rob says at the farting of the van's engine as it cools, âthat old kombi can't possibly hold out much longer and anyway, the bloody thing handles like a dog on lino.'
Out of old habit, Jessie snaps, âWe're not
as materialistic as you are Robert,' as they examine the faded orange pop-top kombi with Anne's floral curtains, noting a rainbow sticker, another one reading âI â¥ Footscray' and a surfboard leaning on the back window. Tyres are a bit down too.
Rob, a tad wounded by Jessie's go at him, grumbles, âCome off it Jess, even you drive something built in the last ten years.'
Jessie pulls her handbag in close over her shoulder. âAt least it's not a fuel-guzzling V8,' she sniffs, and considers that she might be allergic to something around here.
âAnd neither is mine,' he replies indignantly, lifting his hair with one hand and wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of the other one. He flicks a few drops onto the concrete and watching them disappear he reflects that such arguments are typical of the incendiary one. Always has to have the bloody last word, he complains to himself, and wonders whether all families have flame-throwers, even at funerals. If not, he'd be willing to hire her out.
Louisa pays no attention to their bickering, it's background noise and even kind of comforting in its way. No, she has other concerns. Actually, she thinks she might be hallucinating. When she looks at Peter's car she swears it's changed colour, wasn't it red? And he's been driving the thing forever. Can he really have got it when he was twenty-one? Scrambled eggs, she thinks with a sense of panic, my brains are scrambled eggs.
Anne was the first to declare that Louisa was overtired. As soon as she clapped eyes on her last night, she summed her up with, âThat girl needs a good long sleep.' But considering she'd just stepped off a plane from Italy, Louisa didn't think this particularly insightful. And it had been a long time since she was a girl.
She'd had one day in Venice when the call came through late that first night announcing the end of Emmett, so she'd packed up and headed straight home, and after flying for nearly forty-eight hours she had been bowled over by jetlag.
At Melbourne airport there was the usual jostling of passengers to be the first in to grab bags from the carousel. With a sinking heart Louisa entered into the fray with the men and minutes later, elbows out, she lurched back dragging someone else's bag. Of course. A big bloke helped her set the thing free again, but in the end she was the last person standing at the deserted carousel. It seemed her luggage was lost.
After long laps of circling time, some kind of officer stepped forward wearing a shining badge and a shirt the washed-out buff colour of Australian officialdom. His broad hat was slightly tipped back and a fine film of sweat bubbles glazed his big face.
âEverything all right here Miss? You've been here quite a while,' he said, planting his big feet. And all of a sudden, at that plain voice, Louisa felt she was home. And the lump in her throat was now a boulder.
When it became clear that her bag really
lost, for some reason she strangely and unexpectedly let slip to the officer that her father had just died and tears spilled over and she found herself sinking into sentences that wouldn't hold and she stuttered to a halt. It took a serious harnessing of all the shreds of her composure to stop herself from leaning into him and weeping.
âI'm very sorry to hear such sad news Miss,' the officer said and briskly led Louisa from the labyrinth of the sprawling airport. She trailed him like a lost child.
Outside in the bright day, with cars trundling past as though they were on tracks, he found a canary-yellow cab and got her into the back of it, took her name and address and said he'd see to the lost luggage. Then he stood up and like a magician, tapped the top of the cab three times to send it on its way.
From the speeding car, the flatness of the landscape lassoed Louisa's tired heart. This was bleached, practical country. Nothing flashy going on here, just parched land and thirsty air and it hadn't changed much in three days.
A flock of milky cockatoos lifted from a paddock and scattered upwards like seed on the wind. Louisa watched listlessly. The last few days had taken a toll. The skin on her lips was as dry as Cornflakes and her hair badly needed a wash. A solid magenta pimple had emerged near the corner of her mouth and had begun to throb. The volcano is ready to blow, she thought dully.
Louisa felt the reality of life. Father dead and here she was ageing fast, almost visibly, but she spoke sharply to herself about getting a grip. She'd hated her father and now she was getting weepy in front of strangers. Still, she argued, at times the old man could be okay. Sinking into the comfort of memory, she remembered the red children's encyclopaedias he bought for them and how he'd seen something special in the story of the ugly duckling and said sometimes there's a little ugly ducking in each of us. And later there was the time he'd won the double and given her money so she could lay-by the black dress covered with small flowers. The dress she wore when she got married.
The taxi driver, whose name according to a curling card sticking up on the dashboard was Hussein, had noticed her sniffling in the rear-vision mirror and put his foot down as if there were an emergency. Soon enough the paddocks were gone and Melbourne could well have been any of ten Australian cities, anonymous and closed up against the heat.
In Footscray, after Louisa leaned over to pay, the driver said in stumbling English, âPlease Miss, I hope you will be well,' and looked away tactfully. Didn't seem much, but she was felled by him and couldn't speak. Kindness always made her feel guilty; she doubted she deserved it. To explain it she harboured the strange thought that Hussein and the airport official might have been angels.
Still, seeing herself through Hussein's eyes, she realised she must look a sight so she smoothed her clothes, pushed her hair back and got ready for all that was coming. She mumbled thanks and gave him a mighty tip which made her feel exposed as a fool and then watched his cab move into the distance, a small bright piece of disappearing kindness. Then under the verandah next to the overflowing rubbish bin out the front of her mother's shop, she stood like a dolt. She was just getting her bearings.