Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Country Funeral

Sorry. I edited this slightly and "Blogger" won't accept my formatting. I am pretty good at paragraphs generally. Maybe read it as a james Joyce stream of consciousness. My Ulysses. START HERE................................................................. We haven’t seen Terry here much over the years said the Catholic priest as he welcomed an overflowing church to Terry’s funeral service. He was a salt of the earth bloke, a plumber who solved problems and did good in the community the priest went on and, unable to resist the temptation, told the story of how no one else could figure out how to fix the drainage problem which was threatening to swallow the classroom beside the presbytery until he called Terry. You stick to being a god expert and I’ll look after the plumbing and we’ll get along fine was Terry’s direct advice to the padre. Paul and I had almost missed the service. We’d travelled from Brisbane over the border into New South Wales the night before and it was only that we thought we were early that we realized that we were in fact late. At Paul’s insistence we had booked into the Murwillumbah Youth Hostel and had been told that there was an excursion on into Greenmount for a jazz night leaving at six forty five. The key would be under the witch’s hat if we were running late. The hostel sits high on the northern bank of the Tweed River overlooking one of god’s great waterways. Paul and his son had done an open water marathon ‘river’ swim here the year before and fallen in love with the place. I understood why. Now two men dressed in shorts and wearing sandals, looking every bit the couple, pulled up outside the blue facade and followed a painted red line leading through the gate to a courtyard and then to the office. Every surface was decorated in primary colours, We were greeted by Tassie who was in a bit of a rush, having already placed the key in the secret location known by half the backpacking population on the eastern seaboard. He directed us along another blue line which led up the stairs of the old colonial house and to the dorms. We were in hippy country. Perhaps the lines were a remnant of the days when everyone was so stoned they needed a simple system to guide them home. Turns out Tassie was as old as us, having arrived as a refugee from the cold of Tasmania thirty years earlier and never left. He was still wearing his original wrap around cotton trousers by the look of their ageing faded state. It was at this check-in point that we discovered we were now on New South Wales daylight saving time and we’d lost an hour. We declined the jazz excursion and headed into town for a meal. Twenty years ago it would have been take away Chinese or burgers served at the local Greek Cafe, ironically named the Australia Cafe or the Majestic but tonight there was a choice of two Thai restaurants both of which were packed on this Wednesday evening. Eating out in a country town invariably means an early night so after a bottle of wine and a Red Curry we headed back to our bunk beds in the men’s dorm. The next morning we left two young European backpackers snoring in their borrowed sheets and headed for Mullumbimby and the unexpected funeral of the father of our close work colleague. Mullumbimby is off the highway and is the gateway to the wild hills behind a lush coastal plain. The hills are home to large numbers of alternative lifestylers who arrived her in the 60s, the Age of Aquarius. The village of Nimbin sits further west in the foothills of the ranges and is their spiritual home. It’s every bit as iconic in Australia as is Woodstock in the States. Mullum is a sleepy town with one main street and a number of cross streets which house a series of pubs, one on each corner, and one of every type of essential store – hardware, newsagency, drapery, livestock and produce, a couple of banks, second hand clothing store and a smattering of cafes. It’s hard to get lost. We followed our noses across the bridge and as we rounded the first bend we were confronted with what looked like the crowd for the grand final of the local footy derby. There were cars everywhere. The church was worse. Ten minutes before the service was to begin it was standing room only and already three of four deep around the perimeter of this not inconsequential building. Terry had pulling power. What struck me were the men. Rarely had I seen such a gathering of tattoos, beards, crew cuts, and open-necked shirts. The place was crawling with country boys. There were women there, and they were country women, but the men and their work boots dominated. If you want a big funeral die young. Terry was only fifty seven, his wife looked like a young girl and the average age of the congregation was well below fifty. There was a bit of god stuff, the priest couldn’t help himself, but the most moving tribute was a short piece written by his Frances, his widow. It was a simple piece, the type you’d hope you might hear at your own funeral. ‘I remember the first time I saw you’ she said. She’d written it, not about, but to Terry. She talked about his eyes and his cheeky grin. We were all there, looking through her eyes. Nearly forty years ago. Two teenagers in love. Still. Terry was a footy player in his youth, then a coach. He took on and mentored dozens of apprentice plumbers, many of whom now competed for business with him. They were all there. The mates, the kids now grown up, and his grandchildren. At the Mullum Football Clubhouse the crowd who followed to drink and eat to his memory had packed the place. It was a district event. Every village and small town for thirty miles was represented – Byron Bay, Ocean Shores, Bangalow, Brunswick Heads. Terry had obviously plumbed or coached much of the north coast. And every bakery had been enlisted to fill the tables with a colourful array of traditional country tucker. I haven’t seen as many custard slices, coconut delicacies, corned beef and pickle sandwiches and party pies since I was a kid at the engagement party of my Aunty Ella in 1956. I almost expected to see a platter of multi coloured hundreds and thousands (fairy bread) emerge from the kitchen. There was a slide show of Terry as a young man, a family man and then as a grandfather. His ruddy complexion glowed from the screen. I’m sure it didn’t do him justice. The mourners drank on. Therese introduced us to her mother and sister and nephew. It was the nephew who may have got closest to Terrys direct relationship with the world. We were introduced to him as Theresa’s mates from Brisbane. He looked at us quizzically, Theresa added, as if to help him make sense of us, ‘I worked with them.’ He paused and said ‘before they gave you the sack.’ The honest voice of the 12 year old country boy. We all laughed at his audacity. I never met Terry but felt his presence that day, right there, in that moment. There, also, was the voice of our colleague. Theresa, direct and to the point. I’d never quite got used to that part of her. Now I understood where it was coming from.

2 comments:

jane.healy said...

Funerals were quite the thing in the village I lived in for a while - huge social occassions - I remember when anyone died the WI would be on the blower "Dot you do the smoked salmon sandwiches - on brown - Rose can do the ones on white, and Jean we'll have one of your lovely sticky lemon cakes ... or no make that two please dear."

Jennifer said...

What a picture you paint Steve. The culture, the setting so different, but also so similar to country funerals I have attended...