JUN 09

Famous Reporter # 39







The Parlour

The undertaker wears shorts and a t-shirt. He scurries through the back entrance of the funeral parlour with a guilty look, as if he’s just been caught stealing naked from someone’s bedroom, not his wife’s. His clipped, serious moustache is still in place, incongruous because of the shorts, the t-shirt. He does not bother to hide his surprise at seeing us here, although the moment is too brief for him to properly don the official mask of solace and sympathy. We have caught the undertaker off guard. He must be on his way to the change room where he can slip on his grim suit and kindly demeanour. Perhaps he has forgotten someone’s ashes? There must be a back door that only undertakers know about, where their secret identity can relax for a moment, maybe smoke a cigarette, listen to the traffic, watch the sparrows peck at crumbs. A space where, for the length of time it takes to dash from the hearse to the door in the rain, they are human.

There are still fresh flowers everywhere, so someone must be on duty, perhaps his wife, or someone else’s, naked or otherwise. What do undertakers and their spouses talk about, once the domesticities are out of the way? The showroom is full of coffins. A display case of handles made from a variety of metal alloys. How would they themselves like to be buried? What model would they choose? In that brief glimpse I have to say that I like his moustache. The windows are just there. They look out onto the street. We can hear people walking by, just there, their voices and their audible footsteps slapping busily along. The blinds, as you would expect, have been drawn so that people, kids mainly, cannot gaze curiously in. It is strange enough to hear them, just there, with everything that has happened.

The undertaker moves quickly through the foyer with its comfortable settees placed at slightly off centre angles. It is less clinical than a hospital waiting room, though more formal than a kitchen, or perhaps a den with a billiard table. In fact a billiard table would not go astray in the process of coping. No, that’s not right, next there’d be computer games. The parlour is designed to make grieving comfortable. Apart from having no billiard table there are also no books or magazines like at the dentist. The pictures on the walls are of rural scenes, haystacks and so on, lavender clouds over the bay with a boat or two gently drifting.

The undertaker gives us a quick glance before moving on. It would have been awkward to accept unsolicited sympathy from a man wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. And runners. Especially as he was the man who sold us the coffin. The runners? Perhaps he jogs to work? A quick shower in the basement. Surely there must be a basement. He has hairy legs. If a hypnotist put me under the ether I could attest to the hairiness of the legs. Hairy legs and coffins, to my mind, also do not seem to go together. Yet here they are. To him it is just a job and one must admire him for that. Feeding his family. Soldiering on. It’s a job that has a public face. No histrionics here. A defined role, the protocols of which we have just transgressed by arriving early, catching him out in his smalls, as it were. It was his assistant who let us in. Perhaps she was his wife? I do not know. Perhaps she was naked? I did not notice. The flowers? I do not know what sort they are. There is a jug of water and several glasses on a small walnut table. No one has drunk from it. I wonder if it is real water. A box of tissues, or else a perfect replica of a box of tissues. Shed petals littering the carpet, still with a new carpet smell. Or is that formaldehyde? I do not mean to joke about this; these are just the thoughts that strike me eleven years later when I am able to face them. This is a room where people do not sit for very long, because the time for which they do sit is unending. Oh they sit, yes, they collapse, they fall apart, they look in stunned shock at the haystacks. They sit for as long as they need to. Long enough for the shattered damage of the world to settle around them, to make itself known. Come in, if you must, sit down, steady yourself. Long enough for the images in the back room, also incompatible with shorts and t-shirts, to lodge themselves forever in the numb minds of those who will walk out the door.


Mark O'Flynn's most recent book is his poetry collection What Can Be Proven (Interactive Press, November 2007). He lives in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.