5 - Stories

Jim and Brenda grew increasingly excited as the night became darker and the May First celebrations reached their climax. This was, for them, the most important day of the year, a day when they felt they could pay back their debts to society through acts of selfless assistance to those less strong. Both Jim and Brenda were, after all, physically very fit and prided themselves on maintaining their good health through their work and their bike-riding routines.

 

Finally, the huge red digital clock flicked from 9.59 to 10.00pm. Instantly, the sky above Brisbane filled with the noise and dazzle of fireworks, multiplied by the reflections in the wide river curving around the city. Boats and cars added their hooters and horns to the clamour, and then, at precisely 10.10pm, to a final whooping from the massive crowds that had gathered for the event, the last firework burst across the city, scattering bursting, screaming, glittering, blazing sparks and fragments over the heads of cheering families and the rooftops of city buildings.

 

May Day celebrations were over for another year and it was time for everyone to go home, calm their distressed dogs and bury their dead relatives. Body bags were handed out to those not wealthy enough, or not sufficiently frugal, to afford their own burial kits, and the buses and trains filled with happy but tired families making their way back to the suburbs.

 

As always, Brenda and Jim took their three children home and, leaving them at the open front door, went to help their less fit neighbours bury those who had made the May Day Departure. Every year, it was a long and exhausting night for Brenda and Jim, as almost every household had at least one Departee, sometimes three or more. But the couple felt they would not be fulfilled unless they toiled until all the work was done and all the backyards tidied around the new graves. It was, after all, only once a year.

 

With a wheelbarrow filled with picks and spades, they began to work their way that May Day night from the far end of their street, the annual plan being to arrive back at their own house at the end of the night’s labour. Tonight, though, they had barely started when their youngest child, Claire, burst into the Dohertys’ house, wild eyed and distressed. Jim and Brenda were very embarrassed, to say the least. The Dohertys had not yet finished preparing Gale Doherty’s aunt for burial and digging the grave had only just begun. Brenda was clearly annoyed as she took Claire to one side to admonish her, but the child was adamant to be heard.

 

‘Come and tell Poppy!’ she shouted. “He hasn’t gone!’ Brenda hurried her daughter to the front veranda, trying to calm both the girl and herself. ‘What do you mean, he hasn’t gone?’

 

‘Poppy says he has another two years, and he won’t go!’

 

With instructions to Claire to go home and wait, Brenda ran inside to tell Jim. They made excuses, promised the Dohertys they would return to finish the job as soon as they had sorted out a little problem at home, and then ran the length of the street back to their own house.

 

‘There he is! See!’ insisted Claire, as if her parents might believe she was lying despite the obvious presence of the very much alive Poppy, sitting in his favourite armchair, a stubborn look on his aging face. He refused to look at anyone, choosing instead a spot on the opposite wall as the focus of his attention.

 

‘What happened?’ demanded Jim. ‘Dad? Why haven’t you left?’ But Poppy remained obstinately silent. ‘Please, Dad,’ Jim tried again. “You should have departed. Why are you here?’

 

Brenda joined in, trying her best to get the old man to respond, but he remained staring at the spot on the wall, as if it alone cemented his place in this world. Jim made a pot of tea, Brenda put the children to bed, and then they sat beside Poppy to reason with him and to deal with this shameful problem.

 

‘Poppy,’ Brenda said softly, ‘We gave you your Departure pill before we left. I saw you drink it down. What happened?’ A long pause followed. Jim was about to speak but Brenda laid her hand gently on his arm and indicated with her eyes that he should wait. As she looked with tenderness at the old man’s face, tears formed in his eyes. Eventually, he swallowed hard, turned to look at Brenda, and almost imperceptibly whispered, ‘I spat it out.’

 

Brenda tried hard not to let the shock show on her face but it was too much for Jim. He reddened, anger welling up in him. ‘How could you!’

 

Every school child was fully aware of the importance of May Day Departures. Now, here was his own father renouncing the whole system through this antisocial act of pure ego. History books told of the primitive times when people clung selfishly to possessions and even to life itself until they could no longer resist the natural forces, departing then in extreme and unpleasant ways. In contemporary society, though, it was a part of the education ritual to recite the mantra of ‘Love With Detachment’ and to acknowledge the gift of Departure to the elderly. Children created lavish Departure Cards in the lead up to May Day and made sure they expressed their appreciation of the achievements of their families’ May Day Majors with stories, plays and songs in their honour.

 

Each year, as May Day approached, the Majors, those that had reached sixty-six years, took up residence in the home of a younger relative and made preparations for their Departure, partying almost nightly. The children’s cards and the Departure pills in brightly coloured boxes were presented to the Majors, together with specially prepared miniature bottles of the Majors’ favourite drinks.

 

Brenda picked up the empty crystal bottle of lemon tea and placed it on the table. ‘Come outside,’ she said, and she led Jim and Poppy to the garden benches beside the family graves. Like most families, Brenda and Jim always found the backyard plot a comforting place to sit and meditate, surrounded by departed generations and feeling their calming presence. Generations of Brenda’s and Jim’s families were buried under a mango tree that never failed to produce a good crop every summer. She led Poppy to the bench closest to Jim’s mother’s grave and made him sit.

 

Jim was still seething, picturing the humiliation that would greet him the next day when word got around that his own father had missed the Departure. It was the worst act of betrayal. But he kept his thoughts in check and let his wife talk the old man into giving them some kind of explanation.

 

‘I lied,’ he mumbled to her. Turning to Jim, he wept openly, apologising for his action. ‘But I tried to tell you, Jim, and you didn’t listen to me. You remember? I tried, Jim.’

 

Jim grew uncomfortable because he did remember. He remembered his father saying something about lying to his wife and Jim had not wanted to hear it then. Preparations for May Day were well under way and he had not wanted anything to interfere with that. It was such an important time for the children and such a great community event that he had deliberately blocked anything that might jeopardise the smooth planning for the day.

 

Jim nodded. ‘What was it, Dad?’

 

Poppy took a deep breath and sniffed back tears. ‘I lied to your mother,’ he murmured, ‘About my age. She was a few years older than me and I felt immature beside her. But I loved her so much and I wanted her to think we were closer in age. So I lied. I told her I was only one year younger. And I’m not ready to Depart yet, Jim, I still have another two years – please, Jim?’

 

The desperate plea in his father’s eyes almost broke Jim’s heart. He had always been aware that the old man had not gained sufficient detachment – you could see that in the photos and memorabilia that he had surrounded himself with, more and more as he grew older – but this was completely unexpected.

 

Jim hugged his father tightly. ‘I understand, Dad,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t listen.’ They sat together on the bench for many minutes, embracing and feeling the forgiveness flood through them.

 

Later that night, Brenda and Jim returned to the Dohertys’ to finish their work, only to find that things had progressed without them and they weren’t needed there now. In fact, most of their neighbours had also completed their burials and, for the first time in many years, Brenda and Jim went home feeling unfulfilled on a May Day night.

 

But they had one more job to do before retiring for the night. They woke the children and, with loving detachment, buried Poppy next to his wife.

 

 ©Derek Bland 2006

[An extract from "Just a Bit Bland" - a collection of stories and poems]


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