The day is a haze of practicalities. Ross and I go through mum’s clothes in the morning. I find this decision difficult, and I feel so much pressure to get it right. I lay all the clothes I have brought down on the bed and study them. I don’t know whether to dress her in an extravagant gown befitting of her momentous personality, or her fun pink travel gear. What would she want? I decide that as she is sort of off on her next adventure, that the holiday attire is best. I open her jewellery box and have to quickly stifle my tears. I pick out some items – tacky pink rings and the little gold coffee-pot necklace from Saudi Arabia. I gather her makeup. I stare at the tiny tube of honey-glow plum lipstick which was her favourite – worn down to the last morsels, and scream on the inside.
Ross and I take the clothes, make-up, photos, and the CD of songs we have picked, down to Errol at the funeral parlour. He escorts us into a large room with high windows and a long wooden table. We sit. He tells me he would like to embalm my mother. I trust him so I give my consent. Then we are taken to a room filled with coffins to select from. In amongst the beautiful, tasteful collection of polished, dignified wooden resting beds, a shiny pink one gleams like a beacon of Ellie in the corner, screaming, ‘PICK ME, PICK ME! IM PINK, IM PINK, IM PINK!!!!!!!’ It’s perfect.
‘That one’, I point.
Ross and I glide out of the parlour like ghosts. We go straight to the florist. When we walk in we are greeted by giant, pink glittery hearts, dangling joyfully from the ceiling. I must have them – all of them. I look through books of arrangements – the same ones I perused with her for Gramps’ service. I order an elaborate pink casket spray, two pink floral heart-shaped wreaths, 25 single pink roses and two bags of petals. I ask for glitter to be put in with the petals. I also sheepishly order the balloons. When we get back into the car I am not convinced there will be enough rose petals and glitter, so we go to another florist and order more.
We go dress shopping next. I know I must buy a new dress to wear, one that she would love. I try on pink ball gowns that I hate, but which I know she would have adored. They look ridiculous upon my swelling belly. Almost ready to give up, I finally find an elegant, strapless, long black satin dress, with a pink and black lace bust. By some miracle it fits. We buy it and go home. I feel so ill.
I have to make more calls. I need to let people know about the viewing on Sunday. I call Uncle Chris first, and he says that he can’t bear to go. Neither can Aunty Marj (darling Aunty Marj was married to my grandfather’s identical twin Jack, who died years before). My cousin Trudy – who is like a sister to me – is insistent upon going. My best friend Georgia also wants to see her, and so does Debbie-with-1-leg. Debbie used to live down the street from us when I was little, and had become a permanent fixture in our lives ever since (the one leg thing was due to an amputation from bone cancer, which has never broken her spirit). Denise, mum’s best friend that she’d known since she was five, is agonised over the decision and doesn’t know what to do. She decides that she will not go, but she is plagued with the fear of regret.
Suddenly there is an unforseen problem. Somewhere in this confusing practical enterprise of long arduous days it becomes apparent that mum didn’t have a will. This is going to create significant problems. There will be a process involved that I will somehow have to deal with. For now I put the thought of it aside. I will wait for my father to help me with that; he will know what to do.
It seems that everyone will be getting down here tomorrow; Georgia and Debbie-with-1-leg are driving down together, as is my cousin Lara, from my dad’s side. Trudy is arriving from over east tomorrow night, and my dad and step-mother fly in from Canada around the same time – thank god.
That night, when the plans have been made, Ross and I are alone again in the house, and I sink into a pensive, mournful solitude. I put my headphones on and play the funeral music I have selected, over and over and over again, in a vain attempt to become accustomed to it so it won’t affect me on the day. I know it is futile. But I do it anyway. I must not fall apart on the day. I must hold it together for her sake. I must give her the farewell she deserves. I know this and the task makes me feel sick; so, so very sick.
I was in Rome for my 25th birthday. I had been studying over there for three months by myself, in a little cabin at Flaminio Camping Ground. I loved it. My boyfriend at the time, Brad, was flying over for my birthday at the end of June. Ellie and John (her pseudo partner/friend at the time) were already in Europe, and were meeting Brad and me in Tuscany. My beloved friend Saran was also flying over from London. I was so excited. I had spent months on my own, ingratiating myself with the restaurant owner, chef and waiters at the camp restaurant. I had realised very quickly that I could procure free wine just from being a charming and unaccompanied female traveller.
Brad and I were in Tuscany a few days before my birthday, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Ellie, like one would a queen. She and John had started in London and driven through Switzerland and were making their way down to Italy. Now, a quick word about John – mum had known John for a long time as a friend. He worked with my dad as an engineer when they were young. Mum and Dad, and John and his wife Jill, socialised together and went on camping trips, with us kids in tow. Ellie didn’t see John for ages after my parent’s divorced when I was eight, but then he came to her illustrious 50th birthday party. John was also divorced by then. That event sparked what would be an on-again off-again relationship of sorts. John loved mum and he coveted her hand in marriage. Ellie did not feel the same way. She tolerated John as she viewed him as an accessory for social events; he functioned as an old handbag. She permitted him to take her to dinner and to shows, and to generally adore her, in exchange for her company. She did not and could not love him. Yet she saw him anyway. This resulted in a lot of fighting and a unanimous feeling of discomfort for anyone who happened to be in their presence.
Despite my protestations that travelling together would not bode well, Ellie decided to go on the trip with John because she wanted to travel and she did not find it acceptable to go alone. They were driving from Switzerland that very day – the day before my birthday. Brad and I waited and waited, and waited in Tuscany. Eventually an inquiring phone call was made to Ellie demanding to know where they were. Within the space of a few seconds, Ellie managed to excitedly and angrily explain that they has left from SWITZERLAND that morning and that JOHN had somehow managed to get himself LOST, dithering over the map and ignoring her expert navigational skills, leading them to become trapped on the precarious inner ring-road of central MILAN, where they were unable to extract themselves for several hours. They were, however, now on the right road and heading to Chianti … Ellie and John arrived at 2am on my actual birthday. Their belated appearance was celebrated with copious amounts of food and wine, and talking, which mainly came from Ellie.
The next day the four of us painstakingly made our way down to Bracciano, with Ellie barking instructions at a quietly argumentative John, while I blocked my ears in the back seat, wedged in with Ellie’s pink suitcase. Once safely at the camping ground in Bracciano, Ellie and John went into Rome to collect Saran from the airport. They were expected back within the hour. They arrived in the wee hours of the morning, as John had managed to get himself lost in the dark – again. Despite this hiccup, the animated group delightedly exchanged stories, whilst gorging and drinking until dawn. The highlight of this session was Ellie’s childish delight at being presented with a little pink pig that pooed when you squeezed it that I had gotten her in Vegas.
After about one hour’s sleep (Ellie having precisely none) Ellie was up and pacing the cabin, asking if anyone was up, and complaining that she was bored and had no one to talk to and that she wanted to go out. The team were woken up and pushed out the door. We had an utterly glorious day of shopping, relishing the sights, soaking up the sun and indulging in gelati. Notable highlights included the photo session taken outside the colosseum, where mum and I posed with Italian men dressed up as gladiators. Given the option of several characters, I quickly grabbed at a sword and helmet, as Ellie snatched a crown and threw herself onto the throne, holding her hands out majestically for the men to fawn over.
This event came second only to the procurement of two fetching umbrellas by Ellie and Saran. It must be noted that Saran, a dear, dear friend of mine from uni, was incomparably close to Ellie. He was, and continues to be, outrageously gay, fabulous, stylish, funny and extravagant. Ellie was all these things also – except gay – so naturally they hit it off from the start. On this particular occasion the pair were so besotted with their colourful umbrellas that they frolicked through the Roman Forum, posing for pictures, while I tried in vain to explain the significance of the ruins to them. They were, of course, much more interested in my ability to snap paparazzi style photos than they were in the historical importance of the site.
As dusk washed over the most romantic city in the world I took them to the Trevi Fountain. Saran and I relished the romantic atmosphere. This was sadly lost on Ellie, who, having not one ounce of romance about her, wondered why she had been brought there. She had somewhat of a reputation for coldness in the realm of romance. After several attempts to get her to appreciate the scene, she was finally placated only by the prospect of a photograph of her glorious face by the fountain as she brandished a red rose.
The next day was my birthday dinner. We went to Flaminio Camping Ground as the chef and I had become friends, and he had promised to prepare a special feast. This process of ingratiation certainly paid off as bottle upon bottle of free wine was produced for us. Ellie had never been more proud of her daughter. After we had gorged ourselves on the buffet of delights and polished off a dozen bottles of vino, the group exploded into song. And by ‘group’ I mean me, Ellie and Saran, as John and Brad had become fairly obsolete during the course of the night. The three of us broke out into tuneful croons of power ballads, equipped with convincing expressions and hand gestures. The other diners in the restaurant had never been so entertained in all their lives. Ellie, driven by the prospect of an admiring audience, made a special effort to make her own glorious voice ring melodically over the rest. She was indeed noticed and admired by all, each patron marvelling, ‘What is that soulful, melodic echo? Have you ever heard anything so glorious in all your life?’ Only when Ellie was sufficiently satisfied with their vocalisations of admiration and hearty applause were we allowed to leave.
As Ellie’s abundant energy was not yet sated, the group rolled like gluttonous, hysterical barrels, down to the famous Watermelon Place – a street ingeniously set up with endless cocktail stands, and watermelon. The place was exploding with life – raucous, cheerful Italians drinking their fill. Ellie was highly entertained, though an argument soon arose when John inquired as to whether the pair of them might place a lock on the famous ‘lock monument’ on the bridge to symbolically seal their love. Ellie recoiled in horror at the suggestion, utterly appalled at the mere idea that her affections should be limited to one man, and particularly this man, as this would obviously result in a lack of gifts and free entertainment from other prospective suitors.
After drinking our fill we began the journey home. This required a lengthy walk through the subway tunnels to get back to the car. Ellie, eager to return home to her Asti, was already walking at her usual ambitious pace when she caught wind of voices echoing from the tunnel behind her. She padded on, but as the Italian voices grew louder and more boisterous, Ellie felt an inkling of panic. She quietly asked Saran if he could hear the din and the two of them discussed the prospect of an imminent bashing should they be gained upon by the killers, both fuelling the fear of the other. In response they scurried toward the car, panic quickly mounting into outright terror as the voices grew nearer.
‘Quickly Saran!’ Ellie screeched, ‘We’re going to get bashed!’
Ellie power-walked on, with Saran clinging to one side and her handbag firmly clutched under her other arm. At this point Saran’s terror got the better of him. He cleaved his extremely tall frame tightly to Ellie and picked up the pace, squealing, ‘Ellie! Ellie, they’re gaining! They’re gaining!!!’
The two broke into a manic stumble for their lives. Ellie was at the forefront, attempting to save only herself, as Saran – as least twice the size of John – pushed him out of the way as he screamed, ‘For God’s sake John, sacrifice yourself!!!’
Leaving John, Brad and me to be sacrificed to the mob, Ellie and Saran dashed out of sight. The rest of us meandered back, quite unperturbed. We expected to find the two of them huddled together by the car when we finally arrived in the underground car-park. So we were quite surprised to find them embracing each-other in the middle of a melodic duet. They had quickly been distracted from their terror upon reaching the car-park by the sound of their glorious voices ringing in the underground chamber. The rest of us sat and enjoyed the concert, knowing full well that we would not be allowed to leave until they felt satisfied with their efforts. This took some time.
Finally we began driving back to Bracciano. It must be said that all members of the party – except John – were extremely drunk and exhausted. Except for Ellie of course, who was well and truly drunk, but didn’t experience physical exhaustion like a normal person. She continued singing and chatting, mainly to herself, as Brad, Saran and I passed out in the back seat.
After a while I startled awake. It immediately became clear that Ellie’s mood had abruptly changed. John was getting us lost again, in the middle of the night. This aroused extreme irritability and annoyance in Ellie. Her fury began to surface as she nastily snapped directions, finally gave up, and then snidely pointed out that she hadn’t realised they had been driving through the Moors of England as the landscape had begun misting up into a dense fog. All three backseat passengers were roused by the familiar sound of Ellie snapping vigorously, and John commenting mono-symbolically that the map said such and such.
I murmured, ‘Are we really lost again?’
Through teeth gritted in suppressed wrath Ellie replied, ‘It would appear so’. And then she began to laugh.
To this bout of nervous hysteria I said, ‘I actually can’t think of anything less amusing’.
This made her laugh even more, until she was quite hysterical. This joviality, however, came to an abrupt stop as John quietly piped up with, ‘There should be a road here – the map says …’
Ellie paused, her index finger poised on the map as she turned toward him, cocked her head like a rifle, and spat, very matter-of-factly, ‘There is a road, and we’re on it’.
After a few seconds a titter emerged from the back seat. Saran, still with his eyes closed, had begun tittering. This spurred me on. Then Brad chimed in with his tiny, childish giggles. Ellie soon cottoned on to the fact that we were laughing at her venomous tone and she too broke into hysteria, until the whole party, with the exception of John who continued driving unperturbed, were wetting ourselves laughing, roaring with mad drunken hysteria at the utter ridiculousness of our predicament.
The sick sense of foreboding is even worse today. People are arriving, and I have mixed feelings about it. I want to see them, but I don’t want to see their grief. Still, I wish they’d hurry up. I haven’t eaten for days. I can’t stomach anything. But I know the baby needs food so I have to try to feed myself. I must push on. The only way I can do it is with coffee and cigarettes. I will survive. I just need to remember to breathe.
By an unhappy coincidence it is Aunty Marj’s 90th birthday today. She’s damn good for her age. A lunch was organised months ago – a lunch that my mother was supposed to go to. I cannot go. But Ross and I make an appearance out of obligation. We drift in to her little house and she greets us with teary eyes. I hear voices that I recognise faintly as family, ringing out from the kitchen. With a shaking hand I give my aunty a CD of, ‘Songs of Praise,’ that mum had bought for her before she died. I also give her an angel of peace statue that I happened to be purchasing while my mother was dying. I apologise for not being able to stay. As I am doing so, my cousin Elissa appears in the doorway. She walks up to me slowly, biting her lip, with her big, brown eyes wide and misty with grief and empathy. She embraces me silently and then retreats back into the kitchen. I follow her in and say hello to the plethora of people gathered there, without really seeing or hearing them. The sight of them all there, trying to be festive, makes me sick. I need to leave now.
Georgia and Debbie-with-one-leg are first to arrive in the afternoon. We chat for a while and they feel my belly. Lara stumbles in late, as usual, and manages to make me laugh – faithful little cousin of delight. Trudy bursts in after dark and she won’t let go of me. She holds me for an eternity. We talk for ages. She is the closest thing I have to a sister, despite her being eleven years older. Dad and Jane get delayed in Sydney. They finally arrive in the dead of night. I haven’t seen them in ages. I greet Jane in the hallway. She hugs me with a teary smile and puts her hands on my belly. My dad comes in and gives me the most comforting hug of my entire life. I have never been more relieved to see my father. We all catch up in the darkness. I relay everything that has happened with a sort of numb objectivity. They are all supportive beacons of light. The house is filled with magic souls that seem to keep me from falling into a chasm of black despair. I can survive, for tonight at least.
But I know that tomorrow will be upon me soon. And tomorrow it is viewing day …