The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2008 Results

Last Rites

Copyright © Ross Duffy 2008

Harry stretched out in his favourite deck chair under the vine-shaded veranda, stubby of beer in hand. He relished his Happy Hour, with its elastic time limit. Seated opposite, Louise sipped a long lime drink. They’d often gaze comfortably at each other, saying little – each wondering what the other was thinking. Today, Louise knew something was troubling her husband. She hoped he’d get it off his chest.

A smile crossed Harry’s face, momentarily smoothing away the furrows that aged him beyond his sixty-eight years - his price for farming in harsh Australian climes. Yet, overall, his body was still in good shape.

"The day’s highlight," Harry sighed, opening the second stubby. "And what a setting you’ve created," he added, waving a hand to encompass the mini garden of greenery and multi-coloured flowers. "An oasis compared with our farming days." He paused to reflect on his good fortune in winning his bride all those decades ago – against damn strong opposition! Again, he noted her grey wavy hair, unlined facial features, and delicate, still enticing, lips. Her figure had also stood up well – just a few padded spots. As always, a gentle and attractive woman. Yes, bloody lucky! But, in fairness, hadn’t he – as a top sportsman and a bit of a dasher – been a pretty good catch, too?

"Louise," he asked suddenly, "when you cark it, what… what sort of a service do you want?"

The question startled her - until she recalled the strangely disorganised affair a couple of weeks earlier for Harry’s brother, Alexander.

"Hang on!" she said, eyes sparkling. "You’re bound to depart before me - you’ve a seven-year start and I’ve treated my body with much more respect."

"Look, sweetheart, when that out-of-control truck speeds around the bend those two factors won’t rate. So, in case the grim reaper seizes you first, tell me your wishes. We’ll tackle mine later." No response. "Well, take the Death Notice, for starters. What do you want said? I reckon it’s way over the top, but if you insist on the usual dearly beloved wife of Harry, and adoring mother of Tim, Marie and Martin I’ll go along with it. But, as your devoted spouse for forty-one years, I strongly object to stating you passed away! What garbage! It sounds like you went outside and got whisked off by a wind gust. Can I simply announce to the world that my darling wife died?"

"Harry, I’ve rarely seen you so fervent – except about football. Anyhow, to put your mind at rest, I’ll settle for died…"

"Terrific," he interjected.

"… but remember some delicate souls are touchy about the whole process of the death of a close friend or relative. So, a rugged character like you has make allowances for their… sensitivities."

"You sound like your cousin, Gloria, at that Christmas party. Remember her telling those dim-witted males she’d lost three husbands? I wanted to announce she must have been pretty careless, but you were hovering near me like a prison warder. Why couldn’t the silly woman just say they died? Unless they’d had the misfortune to sample Gloria’s cooking, no-one present was going to suggest she killed the poor buggers."

"Harry, stop! That’s despicable."

"Anyhow," he continued, undaunted, "where do you want to hold your farewell show? Not a church, I hope – you haven’t been to one since our marriage."

"Well, that doesn’t disqualify me. Besides, some of my closest friends are churchgoers. I have to consider their feelings. They’d expect some… religious tone to my service."

"Pure hypocrisy! I don’t want my life companion departing under that stigma."

"Well, master organiser, what’s your suggestion?"

"For you – one who enjoys a little pomp and ceremony - I’d suggest an upmarket funeral parlour. But no gloomy religious characters. A couple of your favourite tunes playing softly in the background. A handful of speakers to outline your many good deeds for mankind. Perhaps Marie and I could get the performance rolling – our aim being to keep it light and entertaining. Some services I’ve attended were so gushy I thought I’d lobbed at the wrong show. And I wouldn’t object to your brother Henry saying a few words though I’d bar your sister: that emotional diva would drown the audience in tears."

"So, got it all sorted out, have we? Seems like an indecent haste to dispose of me." She struggled to muster another smile, though any humour in the discussion was now escaping her. "Any other brilliant ideas?"

"Look, I’m only being a sensible, caring spouse. So, that leaves just two issues: the cremation – not that this bit should concern you greatly, but do you want the burning done before or after the service? - and the wake. Personally, I’d nominate the Settlers’ Arms because the proprietor, Vince, is an old mate and won’t rip me off. Nice comfortable chairs out in his garden lounge, too. Still, knowing you I suppose you’ll insist on a private room at the funeral parlour. In that event, I’d have to turn on a healthy supply of quality reds, beers and scotch. Wouldn’t want to be thought a skinflint."

Suddenly Harry peered closely at his wife. "Hey, Luv," he ventured, "you’ve turned a funny grey colour. Perhaps you should put your feet up for a while before dinner."

Once she’d gone inside, he reminded himself what strange creatures women were. Tough as nails in gory situations and then completely go to water over an everyday event like a funeral service. All those years together, yet there were times he had no idea what made Louise tick. He, on the other hand, was always open and predictable. He chuckled briefly - well, perhaps a few occasions when he’d not revealed every card. Still, he’d never claimed to be a bloody saint.

Louise was unusually subdued during dinner. Afterwards, when she brought the coffees into the lounge, she asked, "Harry, just in case I happen to linger on until after your departure, what do you plan for your big send-off?"

He looked at her quizzically. "Well, I’d aim to keep it low key – as befits my modest nature. As you know, I’ve offered my organs for medical use – not that they’ll find much of value. Then they’ll cremate me. Haven’t decided yet where to scatter the ashes or hold the farewell service. Anyhow, in case you and I die together in a car smash, I’ll have my lawyer mate, Barney Stilwell, add a codicil to my will setting out final instructions on these issues."

"Bearing in mind that, both statistically and realistically, I’m likely to survive you – what further wishes does my master have?"

"Well, if you’re still around, perhaps a few choice words outlining my finer spousal qualities – but nothing over the top. I want to go out with my credibility intact."

Despite the solemnity of the discussion, Louise couldn’t suppress a smile.

"Perhaps Marie could highlight my sterling paternal skills. She’s a smart lass and wouldn’t guild the lily. Tim’s too wimpish – must come from your side – so we couldn't trust him not to bawl. Spike Jackson would be good for a colourful cameo or two about my early sporting prowess - something to leave a lasting impression with our grandkids. And then Barney can bring down the curtain with a few convivial comments."

He paused to drink the last of his coffee. "But, Louise, definitely no-one spouting religious stuff about my chances of a good life in the hereafter! I reckon I’ve already had a pretty fair innings – mainly due to you, my sweet. So that’s about it. Nothing to worry your pretty little head about. And, as a token of good faith, next week I’ll get the Salvos in to remove all those old clothes of mine you’ve been nagging about."

The Salvos duly arrived, and left with a loaded truck. Harry was surprised he felt no sense of loss. And he attended at the office of Barney Stilwell - long-term sporting, fishing and drinking mate - to sort out the remaining loose ends.

Irony sets no boundaries. Late on a Saturday afternoon, just a month after the spousal discussion related above, Harry was sprinting across the road from the Settlers’ Arms to the TAB agency - desperate to place a $50 bet on Farewell Delights, his special for the day, in the last at Flemington - when an out-of-control truck came careering around the bend. Harry never had a chance. (With a further twist of Irony’s knife, Farewell Delights won in a photo finish, withstood a protest from the second placegetter, and paid the incredible odds of 26/1.)

As the will directed, Harry’s service took place on a grassy, tree-covered reserve about 100 metres from where his boat Sea Siren was moored. A large crowd of relatives, drinking mates and aging sporting heroes attended. As organiser, Barney called upon Louise to speak first. How proud Harry would have been! She spoke warmly of the early years of marriage and how, as a former city girl, the country folk had welcomed her into the fold. As she neared the end of her oration tears were flowing, yet she battled on: "Harry worked long hours and was a good provider. But he was always a colourful character - often with a few tricks up his sleeve. It’s strange, you know, after all those years there were times I couldn’t tell just what was going on in his mind. Still, I suppose many wives here today have similar experiences! Anyhow, in summary, despite Harry’s faults I feel I made a pretty good choice of life partner."

Tim had agreed to speak but he began blabbering uncontrollably and was a late scratching. Instead, he strode off with the silver urn and, in full view of the congregation, scattered Harry’s ashes in the briny around the Sea Siren – a task Barney had scheduled for after the service.

Daughter Marie was brilliant and raised much laughter, particularly when relating her father’s advice about marriage: Men are tricky creatures. So, carefully observe and crosscheck. If still in doubt, consult your mother – she has an incredible nose for trouble. "Because of his warnings," she ended, eyes twinkling, "I’m now thirty-seven and, despite no shortage of offers, still unmarried."

Spike Jackson and two other former sportsmen contributed light-hearted sporting cameos from Harry’s prime, unashamedly pushing poetic licence to its extreme. As Harry had predicted, the whole audience lightened up.

Finally Barney stepped onto the podium. "As Harry’s executor," he began, "I’m directed to read what he recently attached to his will in this sealed envelope." He tore open the envelope, removed several handwritten sheets, and read:

Dear friends,

Thank you for attending my send-off. As you know, formality was never my strong suit so, for those disappointed by the lack of religious flavour, I say, sorry. You see, when I looked around the world I saw hordes of different religious devotees all convinced they had latched on to the one and only true god. So how could I, an ordinary mortal, possibly know which of the many to choose? In any event, for me life was all about living – no time to cogitate about an unknowable hereafter. Anyhow, here’s my promise: if there’s anything worth reporting on the other side, I’ll send a telepathic message via a gifted channeller. Who knows, the message might bring me lasting fame: Harry Smythe’s Good Oil as to Selecting the Right God!

I’ve been truly blessed having Louise for my wife. A special woman. Usually caring and tolerant – certainly more than I deserved – though, to be honest, following her reasoning processes wasn’t always easy. Still, men have to allow for women being wired in a different way. I remember Bernard Shaw once posing the question: Why can’t a woman be like a man? I guess we’re still waiting on the answer.

At this time I want to get a couple of things off my chest. I suppose it seems strange, a dead man entering the confessional. But the truth is I haven’t always been quite the lilywhite most of you believed. (Reading ahead, Barney’s face suddenly reddened, sweat covered his brow and he fumbled the pages.) First, there was my affair with Imelda Sorensen while Mark was exploring in South America. She kept telling me how cruel fate had been to deliver her to that selfish, arrogant husband. So I became sorry for the poor woman. But she proved to be a cold fish – emotionally damaged, I suppose – though the experience made me appreciate my Louise all the more.

Later, when I was going through a rough period, I got entangled with Moira Tyson. As most of you men would agree, she is a Mexican-style beauty. But what you don’t know is she’s also a sexual volcano. Pathetically, I got swept up in the passion. And then she kept praising me – said I was a much better lover than Richard Tambling, her previous flame. She declared her husband Mike was a fizzer. For years she’d wanted to leave him but he was a tight-arse and she feared he’d cut off the money supply. Anyhow, the pace was too hot for me, so I ended that affair also.

Apart from a few other brief indiscretions, that’s about it. It’s amazing, just writing these words has made me feel better. So now you will know me for what I was - just an ordinary mortal with normal weaknesses. I hope you all, particularly dear Louise, will see fit to forgive me.

I now invite you to take the short walk to the Settlers’ Arms and settle down to a good Irish-style wake. My estate will foot the bill for all food and booze until seven o’clock tonight. This should delight several of you, particularly the Struthers twins who always had great difficulty in extracting a hand from the pocket.

Next morning the local newspaper reported, on page 5:

Strange Happenings at Funeral Service

At Sunnington Reserve yesterday, the service for former farmer and sporting star, Harry Smythe, ended dramatically. After the deceased’s lawyer and friend, Barney Stilwell, read a few pages of notes penned by his client a short time ago, three women fainted and several men engaged in fist fights. Police were summoned. No arrests were made.