Burying Mei

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Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures, Pixabay

Stepping off the train, the heat instantly punches like a surreal home-coming, searing away years of rebellious absenteeism. I make my way along the open platform into
the roofed area, through the red brick arch into the shabby Victorian interior with its cracked tessellated tile floor, past the ticket office and waiting room, through the cast-iron gate and back out into the sun again: a cruel, oven-hot, bone-dry shimmering presence and memory merges with the present.

Pausing on the step I take a furtive glance around under the cover of my sunglasses. There are a few cars in the parking area but no-one else; there’s no-one waiting. An eddy of hot air fans my skin but it’s not enough to disturb the physical weight of heat pressing down—like resentment.

The walk to Mason’s Funerals helps me adjust to the heat and shake off the black veil of disbelief and emptiness shrouding me since Mei’s death, or at least enough to deal with the day ahead. I’ve been sitting too long and besides, I want to walk down the street, check out what’s changed.

Perverse perhaps in view of the circumstances, especially in heeled sandals and a short sleeve dress with large floral sprays splashed across it. My bag is nearly as large as the skirt, red of course, and heavy. Still, Mei specified colourful dress. Since this final parade is for us both, I lift my chin, unfurl my red-flowered parasol, and saunter defiantly along the pavement: past The Railway Hotel where patrons are relaxing at the tables under its veranda, past a few dowdy looking shops, and up the hill.

Outside the bakery, I see one face I know. “Good afternoon, Mrs Sharp.”
She stares as I pass, and then, “Lillian?”
I turn my head and smile. “Sorry, can’t stop—funeral you know.”

They all know of course. The funeral is invitation only; wear colour, no flowers—the way Mei wanted it.

The hearse is parked under the shaded portico of Mason’s Funerals with two black limos lined up behind it. I keep my gaze averted; I’m not ready to face the coffin. A young woman wearing a grey skirt and white shirt embroidered with ‘MF’ approaches me.   “Hi. Are you with Miss Lim’s funeral party?” she asks in that quiet, rehearsed way that gets on everyone’s tits.

“Yes, close friend dar…” I choke on darling, realising with a pang, Mei’s reply would have been bitingly ingenuous. She looks at me strangely but smiles again and indicates for me to follow her.
“Julie is waiting in the family car.” She stops at the open back door of the first limo. “The other is for Miss Lim’s friends.” She indicates the second car. “We’re almost ready, Julie.” She smiles again then scuttles away. Julie is sitting in the back seat with a girl who looks to be about eleven or twelve. Seeing me, she stares but Julie jumps out and wraps me in a close hug.
“Oh, God! Lily. Thanks for coming.”
I shake my head, trying to swallow the emotions that flood through me so quickly, it hurts to even breathe. She was the only one of her family still talking to Mei after their Dad disowned her. Julie’s small hand rubs my back, soothing my roiling pain and anger. It should be me consoling her. “Where else would I be?” I rasp, after a moment.

I hear the funeral parlour’s glass doors swish, and open my eyes to see another attendant walk out and open the second limo’s doors. Julie pulls back and wipes her cheeks with one hand. “I think they’re coming.”
I give her other hand a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll see you later.”

She nods and I get into the second car; the driver already seated and waiting. There’s a flurry of movement; the glass doors open again, a small group of people appears. I recognise Brian Mason and two other suited men escorting Charlie Lim, Mei’s father to Julie’s limo. I briefly recognise Ray Harvey, Julie’s husband. Then I notice two others standing back near the doors; Michael O’Donnell and a colleague or assistant. Once Mr Lim and the family are settled, Brian takes the passenger seat in the hearse. As my car rolls past I glance at O’Donnell. Not invited. Well of course he’s not. Mei couldn’t stand him—well, none of us could—and following his family’s tradition and getting himself elected as mayor doesn’t carry any more weight now than it did when we were kids. I bet the bastard has come to crawl into Mr Lim’s good books. But Mei’s wishes will hold. Then I recognise the ‘assistant’. Jennifer Anderson the local MP. Bloody hell!

We turn onto the street and I feel us pick up speed. A second car means some of the old gang were expected—besides me. Sebastian, at least. But I’m alone and the huge expanse of cream leather stretches all the way across the benches to the driver’s cabin and the doors of the limo. Feeling self-conscious, I smooth down my skirt and shift my gaze to the street scenes outside my window. It’s busier in the main street, cars pass in the opposite direction and people are out shopping. There are changes: a few extra shops, the supermarket has been painted but the post office still looks the same.

The cortege slows down as we pass The Jade Lantern, Mei’s family restaurant. It looks contemporary and chic. My stomach drops. I was expecting to see the same old, brown shop-front with green lettering in English and red Chinese characters. There are people standing outside and with a jolt, it dawns on me, they have come to pay their respects. Then I notice the flowers, big tubs full of bright colour, placed by the windows and the door. Of course, they are serving refreshments here after the burial. I look past them to the trees at the back; they have grown taller and spread their limbs. I can only see a part of a window of the house behind the restaurant. We spent lots of time there, hanging out or doing homework. I was always at her place because her parents needed help in the restaurant. There’s a small dog in the driveway. I smile, remembering Mei’s dog Yù who weaned her puppies at five weeks of age instead of the usual six or seven. Mei made a ‘mother of the year award’ poster and pinned it to the wall above Yù’s basket.

The main street curves and the Rotary Park slides into view, looking just the same as it did when we were kids. We rarely used it. Others had claimed it and the football ground, where O’Donnell and the other sportos hung out. Kids whose family owned the Chinese restaurant, played the cello or any of their friends, weren’t welcome. The car slows, turns, and we follow the dust trail which is the hearse down a side street, a local short cut. I notice other cars banking up, waiting to turn, mostly black or gunmetal grey SUVs, a Mercedes, and one or two Audis. No doubt they left their garages this morning spotless and gleaming, the occupants cocooned in the luxury of refrigerated air and soft leather. Mei would appreciate that.

We pass by the Anglican Church and rectory. A fence separates the red brick buildings and the board which had the times of service on it has gone. There are cars parked at the side. A garden of native plants edges the path to what appears to be a private residence. We reach the last houses and the town gives way to bush and shadow, slowly we bump and rock across the wooden bridge shaded by the great arching limbs of river red gums. A few moments later we emerge into fierce heat and glare again. The dirt road widens between cleared paddocks. We drive slowly up the long, low hill. The town’s cemetery hunches in between the tree lined creek and paddocks ribboned by the wheel marks of a combine-harvester, the pale oat-straw dotted with reddish, long-legged merinos picking at fallen grain and hogweed. Under the shade of an ancient yellow-box, a horse lifts its head. By the time we reach the cemetery gates, there’s a welcoming committee. The train of cars and dust has coaxed the horse out from its cool leafy retreat and it leans over the fence gazing at the vehicles with open curiosity. Mei would like this.

Her family are mostly buried down along the creek, the area originally reserved for the Chinese. But Mei’s paternal grandparents were Christian and so her mum and grandparents are buried on the outskirts of the old Christian section, overlooking a wide avenue adjoining the creek flats that grow native grass during the brief winter and spring months. This was our haunt as kids. We were on the edge in lots of ways, rebelling against the confines of small-town culture, family expectations and restrictions, school, the local cultural scene and its focus on sport: netball and footy in the winter, cricket and tennis in the summer.

Excluded from the park and the oval, we’d stock up at the supermarket or local servo if the other was shut—or if we wanted hot chips—then we’d head down to the creek and cut along through the trees to the cemetery. We’d sit on the large empty plot beside Mei’s grandparents to eat and talk. Mei liked it because her dad had bought the plot for the family. She reckoned she had every right to be there. Mei liked to bring incense for her grandma. Other times we’d explore the cemetery, chase rabbits and lie on the graves smoking and drinking, daring each other to tell the scariest ghost stories or to camp out at night. It was quiet and nobody bothered us. Occasionally we were spotted and someone would report us to the local cop but there were too many escape routes from any arbiter of authority, older siblings and parents included, which was another reason why we liked the cemetery. We hung out here more as we grew older—after Sebastian had come.

Cars park under the gnarled Peppercorns at the front of the cemetery as we inch our way down the rough laneway past the granite funerary sculptures of the old section: crosses, an urn half-covered in a shroud, headstones with carved doves, and lilies and wilting roses. Some of the oldest headstones lean drunkenly over rusting or broken, iron work and cracked, sunken slabs where for years the rabbits have burrowed, leaving their droppings everywhere—all that grandeur slowly crumbling away. It’s odd how the town’s fortunes can be mapped by its cemetery, a bit like the railway station I guess.

Near the entrance, the graves are edged with cast iron lacework and other Victorian funerary artwork, finials and fleur de li, polished granite or marble headstones, and large memorial ornaments and statuary. The old part of the cemetery reflects the gold mining days when the town was young and full of hope. As we approach the newer sections there’s only little, mass produced plaques or ugly, squat stones with pictures of the smiling dead set into them. God, I hope they don’t do that to Mei.

The grounds look smaller than I remember them but even coming back here, where I spent some of my happiest times, isn’t enough to shake my apathy or my resentment. The whole fucking thing is so surreal. Not one of us ever pictured us being buried here. And never Mei. I look around, trying to control my anger, trying not to wonder who the hell all these people are and why they are intruding on our pain. On my left, Patrick O’Donnell’s huge polished granite cross rises above the other memorials; the town’s first mayor and rich bastard. I bite my lip, wondering what Michael O’Donnell would think if he knew what Mei and Sebastian had done on his grandfather’s tombstone one summer’s night before we’d left town.

One vehicle, a white SUV, follows us down the hill, pulling up on the open ground on the other side of the grave. I watch it in between pulling out my short boots and exchanging my high strappy sandals for thin cotton socks and sturdy leather. It takes me a minute to recognise Linda in her cheap looking blue shift and sensible shoes. Her hair is short, she bears the marks of having three kids and being married to a farmer: staid, conservative, practical. She reaches the other side of the grave, holds my gaze for a moment before giving me a little smile, her eyes full of warmth and understanding. The same gentle Linda who tagged after me and Mei when things got tough for her at school or at home. A tall wiry man stands beside her, looking uncomfortable in suit pants and a white shirt. I look at him curiously. Mei, Sebastian and I left before Linda and Tom became an item. We didn’t attend their wedding. By then Linda was almost a stranger, someone who’d buckled down to the life we’d been desperate to escape from.

The mourners, twenty or so, are still working their way carefully down the rutted and stony laneway. Men in dark suits, women in navy or black dresses, designer shoes and
shades, patches of colour in their scarves and ties. They all look important—people Mei met after she’d gone off on her own. I recognise a couple of people: an African lady in colourful dress, one guy who I’m sure I’ve seen on TV. Someone behind me whispers ‘ambassadors’. Someone should have warned them to wear boots, unless this is one of Mei’s nasty little jokes. If it had been winter, and the place squelching with wet, slippery clay, I’d be certain.

Out of the air-conditioned limo, cicada song pulses in the air, assaulting my ears with a deafening thrum like blood thumping inside my brain when I’m crippled by migraine.
Maybe I’m feeling a precursor to one. I haven’t noticed before—that heat and glare, flies and dust, affect every part of you except your hearing. My heart rate picks up as everyone settles. I stare over people’s heads—detach myself as much as possible. Everyone is wearing sunglasses so no-one will notice.

The minister is waiting beside a pyramid of dry, yellow clay and rubble spread out over the hard ground. Nearby, Ted Davis stands bow legged in front of a backhoe. I haven’t seen him in years but he looks almost the same. He chased us across the creek once.

My gaze is drawn to the hearse where Brian Mason is directing the pallbearers; Ray, Mei’s brother-in-law and behind him a teenager who looks so like him, I’m guessing he’s Sam, Ray and Julie’s son. Something like gratitude washes through me, lessening the tight grip of anger knotting my stomach. Mei’s parents had been so angry with her when we’d taken off to Melbourne.

Escaped Fate, that’s what we’d done! Influenced by Sebastian of course, we’d escaped from the small country town where our lives were already mapped out for us. Mine
anyway. Mei would have escaped because she was brilliant. That meant leaving her cello behind and any chance at a stellar music career. She had rebelled against her parents’ control for years. Not good for a Chinese girl from a conservative, image conscious family who owned the only restaurant in town. Two daughters. No son to carry on the name and the business. I think her dad had reconciled to her reading law, but at the end of second year she announced she was packing that in too and he disowned her. I remember the rows over the phone. And when she finally took off traveling, gutless me stayed behind.

Now she’s about to be buried alongside her mum, and her brother who drowned two weeks after his fifth birthday.

The minister has his back to us, bending over something resting on the neighbouring grave. He turns around, face red and shining, the sweat staining his collar. He raises his voice against the chorus from the surrounding trees. I imagine Mei’s delight at the absurdity of this little scene and I bite my lip to stop the laugh bubbling in my throat, drop my eyes to the ground to the sight of the open grave and Mei’s coffin resting over it. I focus on legs and shoes, all covered with dust. I feel the knot of resentment ease. Mei’s voice comes into my head, the pithy words she would whisper to me out of the side of her mouth if she were standing beside me, instead of laid out in that box. Serve them right. Watch what the bindiis do to all that soft leather. Mud in winter, bindiis in summer. Always a bitch, was Mei.

Behind the small group of mourners, the black granite cross guarding Patrick O’Donnell’s family plot looms above the hotchpotch of memorial statuary of the other graves, a silent, brooding presence against the blue sky.

Movement and a muffled squeal cuts across the drone of the minister. A woman flaps her hands and turns in jerky circles. Then others follow, flapping and waving their arms.

The swift and silent March flies have flown in from the trees along the creek, drawn to the dark clothing and the smell of warm blood, and the ceremony falters as people flap
and slap at them. It’s followed by loud, angry buzzing, the commotion or the heat and scent rising from sweating flesh, drawing big droning wasps. It’s an airborne attack. I reach into my bag and hand the insect repellent to the person next to me. My gaze is caught by Linda on the other side of the grave, who is holding a roll-on. Rapport flows between us and I feel the years slip away as we reconnect. I try to hide the slant of my
mouth. She smiles at me. Hi, it says. This is secret knowledge—knowledge of our place. There are a few moments of spraying and the flapping hands still. The minister settles everyone down, then continues the eulogy.

I let my gaze wander around. Only Linda from the old days has turned up. I know I’m looking for one face—Sebastian’s.

He will come, if he is in the country. Whether because of the heat or the flies, biting and non-biting, the padre finishes the business quickly. Prayers and eulogy said, the pallbearers step forward and take up the ropes. The shock of what is about to happen sets my heart pounding again.

I feel sick and faint.

And it isn’t funny anymore, none of it—especially when an attendant presses the portable black CD player and Magdalena Kožená sings Zerfliesse, mein Herz from Bach’s St John Passion. The descending notes of the aria, set in B flat minor, echo a haunting lament through the air as the pallbearers lower Mei’s coffin. It’s too much for Julie and her dad. Mr Lim kind of crumples and he looks beaten, a little old man as Julie supports him as best she can. The flute and oboe perform their complicated dance but I hear the cello in the background and I know he hears it too.

I loved listening to Mei practicing the cello in her bedroom while I struggled with my homework, or when she dragged me off to Hamer Hall to hear the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra or one of the visiting chamber orchestras. Bach would always be included in the programme. The soprano or mezzo-soprano sings the Zerflisse mein Herz—dissolve my heart after Jesus dies and Kožená’s voice slices through my flesh as easily as the thick summer air, her rapturous notes convey the piercing, tortured passion of the mourner. And just like that my resentment boils, acid and bitter-rich from my stomach. I don’t understand. She’s dead and still putting it over everyone—always something more to confound and wrong-foot us. There’s a flurry of movement as people open bags, search pockets, pull out tissues or handkerchiefs. I feel tears thick on my lashes, but I won’t cry—not here.

Someone hands me a cardboard box of rose petals to sprinkle onto the coffin. I take a handful and drop them into the grave. Dein Jesus ist tot!—the exquisite, intertwining dance of voice and cello continues—dignified, haunting, magical—madrigal.

I bite the inside of my mouth till I taste blood; take a deep long breath, and push the tears back. There are still three minutes to go. Always a bitch, was Mei.

People begin to move away, climbing slowly up the dirt track in a loose group. Linda and I are left at the grave. Her husband too.

Bach’s Zerflisse is still in my head and I’m actually surprised that my voice works. “Hi, there.”
“Hello, Lily. Long time, no see.” She gives me a hug and pulls back. “You know Tom, of course.”
Tom gives me the Aussie nod as he shakes my hand. “G’day, how ya goin’!”                  Linda’s gaze flicks down and she frowns. “Are you okay? There’s blood…” Her hand lifts to her mouth.

I grab a tissue from my bag and press it to my lips. I thought it might be pink,
but when I look it’s red. Then I notice the metallic taste.
“That last bit was tough,” she says.
“No shit.” I sniff into the crumpled tissue.
There’s a moment of companionable silence before she shakes her head and laughs. “Trust Mei.”
Tears leak onto my cheek.
Drawing a breath she adds, “I thought Sebastian would be here!”
Linda had always been blunt and it warms me inside to recognise the Linda I’d known at school. The years lying between us retreat a bit more.
“Does anyone know where he is?” I ask, shrugging my shoulders as if I’m allowing him some excuse.
“Last I heard he was in Greece,” says Linda.
Sebastian always liked living on the periphery, rejecting our prompts in the occasional Christmas phone call or text to sign up to any social media.
“That was years ago.”
“Yeah, well, Africa then. I hadn’t spoken to Mei for years, just texts you know – at Christmas and stuff.”
I know. Each year seems to get busier and busier. All of us drifting from actually phoning or sending Christmas cards to texting, till that’s too much effort and we make do with social media.

Except Mei.

We phoned, met up when we could. Not that often but it doesn’t matter does it, when you carry someone in your heart when they’ve seared themselves into your DNA?

Except, I hadn’t seen her for five years.

Tom leans towards Linda, “See you at the car, love.” The nod again, a goodbye this time. I return it, making sure it’s briefer than his. We watch Tom retreating to the car. Then it’s just us standing by the grave. Her smile holds genuine sympathy and understanding. “Lily, don’t think too much about it.”

I know what’s coming next.

“Do they know…I mean, do you how much they found—”
“Leave it, Linda.”
Jesus Lily, this is Mei! She wasn’t supposed to die. Not Mei. And not come home…in bits.”
“Don’t Linda.”
“Sorry.” Her eyes search mine. “It’s just—”
“Not Mei?”
She shakes her head.
“I know,” I whisper. “She was the one who was going to do stuff. We all knew it. She sparkled and… She was supposed to knuckle down, finish her law degree and set the corporate world shivering in their collective shoes. Not take a sudden left, midway and go off to some disease-ridden African shithole with some fucker do-good aid group, sticking needles into snotty, half-starved kids.”
I see Linda watching me cautiously. I clamp down hard on my angry tirade, biting the inside of my mouth again. Tasting blood. She nudges at a clod of dirt. We watch it fall, hear the clunk as it hits Mei’s coffin and breaks apart.                                                          “No, she wasn’t supposed to get killed, Linda.”                                                                                 “What was she doing there? What the hell was all that about, Lily?”
“I don’t know.” I step back, feeling trapped and under fire—all these questions. I massage my temple to ease the sudden pain and the prickling resentment stirring inside me. “She didn’t tell me till that Christmas. Then she was gone.”
“Was it, Sebastian?”
“Of course it was bloody Sebastian.”  I glare at her in disbelief.                                                  “Sorry. I know you and Sebastian were—”
“Look, she didn’t take him from me, Linda. He took Mei. And they were never together…well, not really, but Sebastian was…well, Sebastian.”
“I never understood. Everyone thought they were together you know.”                              She sounds like the town gossips I remember and always despised. I look at her, Linda in her cheap blue dress, eyes hungry for any juicy titbit she can glean.
“They weren’t.” I keep my voice flat.
“He changed her.”
“She changed him. Mei had a way of changing everyone.”
“Yeah! Do you remember when he first arrived?” She laughs. “One minute he’s the town’s bad boy and the next he’s off to God knows where.”
Linda looks at me. I can almost see the cogs grinding speculatively. “Are you coming to the restaurant for a drink?”
She wants me to walk into that den of gossip? “God No! Maybe, in a little while. I want to stay here for a moment.”
“Sure, Lily,” she says, sympathy etched over her face. “The focus is always on the family, isn’t it? But often it’s others that need support too. You and Mei were always close.”
Her empathy falls into the space between us; heavy, meaningless.
“I’ll be fine.”
“You’ve got a decent ride back, anyway. Nothing too good for Mei now. Rumour has it the council want to commemorate her in some way. A foundation or something.”
“Why would they do that?” I ask, frowning, trying to keep my features pleasant whilst inside I feel my hackles rising.
“Well, the ultimate sacrifice, and all that. They say she was driving the truck when it was hit.”
Suddenly I’m fighting for composure. All I want to do is yell at her, tell her she’s a stupid bitch for selling out, for getting sucked into all of this, this small town bullshit. I let the silence draw out before I answer.  “Mei helped save lots of lives over the years, before this attack on the camp.”
“Michael O’Donnell, he’s pretty close with Charlie Lim. Charlie’s been more involved with the council, since Ray and Julie took over the restaurant. I always thought if anyone was to be famous it would be Mei. This afternoon is for everyone to come and pay their respects. The town will want to help send off one of its own.”
“One of their own?” I’m just about to let her have it when it suddenly hits me, why O’Donnell and Anderson were at the funeral home. And they’d be at the reception. Mei had her way with her burial, now she’s being claimed by the family she loved and the town she hated.

Linda puts her hand out, squeezes my arm for a moment and turns away. She looks faded, like time or her old man has leached all the vitality from her. Or maybe having a family and living here all her life has done it to her. So different to Mei who’d always had boundless energy. And I savour the vindictive spurt of pleasure coursing through me. I’m glad. Serve her right. I watch Linda get into the car and give a final wave as Tom drives back up the hill. Only my limo remains, the driver waiting expectantly. But I can’t move yet.

I realise I’m not going to the restaurant and I won’t see Linda again. It’s the end now. Mei was the glue that held our group together. The odd one out in her family, we were her teenage rebellion; the cemetery a place of peace and solitude during her arguments with her family. Mei fulfilled her destiny on the world stage after all. For a brief time she escaped, but she is home now, and there’s nothing left for me but memories and what I keep of her in my heart.

I sense he’s there before I turn around, a dark shadow standing in the shade of the gums amongst the Chinese headstones down by the creek. Sebastian, leaning against a tree, black pants, and light coloured shirt with the sleeves pushed up and a jacket slung over his shoulder, looking much the same as when I’d met him all those years ago. The
vicar’s son.
“You didn’t come.”
He walks to me and lifts one hand and hands me a beer, beads of cold water trickling down one side. “I’m here now.”
“Now that Mei’s gone?”
He smiles, but his face is taut, the tension lines around his eyes are deeper than I remember them. His hand slides around the back of my neck, drawing me to him. “Don’t be silly, Lily,” he sighs against my cheek. “Mei told me that if anything
happened to her I had to look after you.”
I huff in disbelief but raise the bottle to my mouth, relishing the explosion of cold liquid and bubbles sluicing down the back of my throat and the bitter aftertaste of hops in my
mouth.

Behind me, the engine and warning beep of the backhoe start up. I hear the scrape of metal against stone as the scoop picks up a load of clay and rubble to tip into Mei’s grave. She’s gone and I can’t sense her anymore. Now I want shake off the anger and the perpetual dark numbness and dislocation. I want to feel again.
Together we walk slowly back to the car. The shadows are lengthening and the cicadas clamour in the heat-charged air. As we drive out of the cemetery gates and turn into the road, my gaze is drawn past Sebastian and beyond the window to where Patrick O’Donnell’s cross stands etched against the sky.

(Burying Mei, original version published in Painted Words 2016)

© 2017 J Bayliss

 

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