Delicacy has never been my particular strength, but, for all that, I don’t see how it can be said that the incident at the funeral was entirely my fault. I never knew Aunt May — at least not the living, breathing version of Aunt May — nor was she even my aunt. For that matter, I don’t think she was even really Tracy’s aunt, either, not in any genetic sense. But there’s no way I could be expected to know these kinds of things: Tracy’s family has a labyrinthine quality that would require diagrams, flowcharts and timelines to sufficiently explain. Even she occasionally becomes confused by the intricate chains of interrelation; people of my parents’ generation might say that Tracy came from a broken home, but, as she likes to point out, it’s more that she was raised by committee (although a particularly inept committee). But this only makes untangling her lineage even more difficult, because the various committee members themselves have even more convoluted genealogies: children from multiple partners, manifold iterations of foster and step siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, as well as other entanglements that are (I assume) unsavoury enough for Tracy to avoid elucidating them fully. Which is to say that the only thing I could deduce from Aunt May being labelled an ‘aunt’ was that she possessed materterine qualities. And I deferred any questions on the specificity of the relation.
Tracy simply said she had not seen Aunt May since the age of ten, but had fond memories of her. Tracy had often been left with Aunt May for days at a time (whether due to one of many frequent lapses in parental responsibility or at Aunt May’s request is unknowable), and Aunt May would lavish attention on her. They’d watch videos together, go out for ice-cream — the kinds of activities that for most of us just comprise childhood, but which were, for Tracy, exceptional (a thought I don’t like to dwell upon because it’s too sad). But at some point Tracy had simply lost touch with Aunt May. And now she was dead.
On hearing this news, Tracy didn’t cry, or betray a hint of sadness. (This is typical of her stoic calm. I, on the other hand, weep at the most insignificant of events — one of the many ways in which I reveal myself as a poor specimen of virility), but as we drove out of Melbourne to the funeral, she was unusually quiet. I knew better than to speak; often relationships are spoken of as the development of intimacy and trust, but I suspect that much of what we think of as intimacy is closer to an understanding of when to shut up. I have learned that Tracy will let me know when she wants to be comforted, but that, in the absence of such a request, the best policy is to adopt the emotional equivalent of Swiss neutrality.
So I looked out of the car window and gazed at the landscape. I have lived in Australia long enough now that Melbourne no longer feels alien (minus the accent and driving on the wrong side of the road, it’s often hard to believe that you’ve even left home), but the Australian countryside will always look exotic and strange to me. It’s the trees, gnarled and stunted, which conjure images from the poorly shot nature documentaries (which were probably really filmed in the African veldt) I watched as a child.
The funeral was in one of those tiny towns barely within the orbit of Melbourne, but just far enough away to forestall any possibility of commuting, so it remained uncontaminated by gentrification. The town was small enough, too, not to have a proper mortuary of any kind, so the funeral was held in a community centre that had been built within the shell of a nineteenth-century hotel. Aunt May, apparently, was religious after her own inexplicable manner, and had left specific instructions for a wake with an open-casket viewing. (Tracy, too, is idiosyncratically religious, although it is a point about which we have chosen not to speak, after our one – and only – argument about the existence of God. Not that it was an extended argument, for the reason that Tracy and I never have extended arguments, in the sense that whenever Tracy says something and I disagree with it, her face immediately takes on a cynical, dismissive look that, in turn, makes me defensive and angry, so that I begin attacking her — eg ‘How can you believe such silly things? You’re too smart to believe in magical things that don’t exist,’ etc. And as I say these things, her face stretches into a mask of quiet judgment, and at that point, I will say anything — just anything — to wipe the smug smile off of her face, so I become aggressive and insult her, curse at her. At which point Tracy, her face both stern with anger and yet possessed of the light grace that never leaves her, departs for another room, and refuses to speak any more, becoming dead to me for hours. Then, of course, my anger subsides and is replaced by the most loathsome guilt and pity for myself — Oh, how could I say such things, such horrible, horrible things to the beautiful Tracy, who is so good to me, who puts up with so much from me? The poor woman! etc. I remain in this state of self-loathing for hours until Tracy has decided to forgive me, and returns to wherever I am, saying nothing about what I have said, only patting my hand, which in turns becomes a hug, an embrace, a kiss, and so on. And in this way we can both go on being what we would most like to be: me, guilty and convinced that I am deserving of punishment, and her, possessed of an endless well of forgiveness).
The wake was held in a long room with high ceilings that looked as though it had not been renovated for decades; the people inside were surprisingly boisterous, and had collected near the door by a table (covered by a cloth embroidered with fantails) of tea, biscuits and cakes. Everyone seemed to be speaking to one another intently — a few were even laughing — as if this were a social function or a family reunion. Tracy whisked me through this sea of people; I gladhanded dozens of distant relations (again, the precise degree of distance was beyond my calculation), and I smiled and repeatedly extended my arm to catch the hands of others in a firm, salutary grip, as both men and women many decades older than me said things to Tracy like ‘You’re all grown up now! Why I remember when you were just a little baby’ etc. I tried to be polite and listen to these banal pleasantries, but my attention was constantly diverted by the edges of the coffin that I could see at the very periphery of my vision. Little glimpses of it appeared amongst the comings and goings of the still living, and when I tried to remember each fragment of it and put them all together in my mind, what I saw wasn’t a whole coffin: instead, all of the pieces of it that I had seen at oblique angles were mashed together in my imagination like a disjointed cubist painting. Eventually, I saw that the lid, or rather part of the lid, was tilted open for viewing, and a shudder ran through me.
Suddenly, as though a signal had been given (but perhaps there was some form of tacit communication circulating among the relations at the funeral to which I was not attuned), the mood of the entire congregation changed. Conversations became more restrained, filled with the sombre tones of whispering, and small groups discreetly removed themselves from the larger mass, wandering over toward where the coffin was, to, I presume, pay their respects. There was clearly some implicit order to this, because the crowd did not all go over at once, and only after one group had finished looking at what remained of Aunt May would another politely wander over. I knew that, soon enough, Tracy would want to go over as well, and this, of course, presented an insurmountable problem: there was no way I would be able to look at Aunt May’s corpse.
Although I couldn’t communicate this to Tracy, who, despite her outward appearance, I knew to be grieving intently, the very prospect of looking at a dead body had filled me with an unspeakable anxiety from the moment I had heard about the open casket viewing. I am possessed, moreover, of an unusual neurosis, whereby whenever I am made anxious by something, I investigate it with an almost obsessive tenacity. So, rather than discuss my fears with Tracy, I had spent the last several days reading about mortuaries, and how the dead are prepared for showing, in virtually every second of my spare time, hoping (although even then I knew it was in vain) that this might prepare me for the sight of Aunt May’s dead body (because, of course, the body is no longer her, but rather a thing that once was, or at least belonged to, her). But at this second, I knew that it was simply impossible. I couldn’t do it. So, instead, I told Tracy that I would be back in a minute and she nodded, having, I think, already intuited my weakness, as she always intuits, and ultimately endures, my countless failings.
I went back to the long table, examining the biscuits and tea and cake spread over the embroidered fantail sheet, and placed my hand along the table’s edge (watching it shake with even the slightest weight), trying all the while not to think about the strangeness of having food in the same room as a corpse, wondering if it was even legal or sanitary to do so, deciding that at the very least it was a matter of bad taste – which, of course, immediately made me think of eating corpses, of corpses set to banquet, and then I recalled the only communion wafer I had ever eaten (at the lone Easter Mass I attended with Tracy), and how that, too, is a sort of cannibalism, consuming the body of Christ — when all of my thoughts were interrupted by a small voice saying ‘Hello, young man?’
I assumed this was not a greeting directed at me since I am no longer a young man, or, at least, no longer feel like one, but the voice spoke again, saying, ‘Hello, young man?’ and I turned to see a woman standing next to me, who looked impossibly old and shrivelled. She barely came up to my shoulders.
‘Hello,’ I replied.
‘I’m Agnes,’ she said, ‘So, how did you know May?’ a question, of course, which prompted a great deal of stuttering and sputtering from me, as I attempted to avoid divulging my ignorance on this matter, but after repeating Tracy’s name several times in succession, Agnes showed a glint of recognition, saying ‘Of course, yes, of course. Tracy. Yes, May spoke of her many times, saying she was just a lovely girl, although I have not met her…Tracy, I mean, of course.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Oh.’
‘So,’ Agnes asked, “have you seen her yet?’ and for a second I thought she meant Tracy again, but with a slight nod of her head in the direction of the coffin, I realised that she meant Aunt May.
What could I say to this, to Agnes’s question, considering that I knew nothing about this Agnes — not even how she was related to Aunt May (a sister, a friend, an aunt herself, a lover?) — and could not expect her to understand my own reservations about viewing the dead. So I lied.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Of course, she looked…she looked just…’ But here I had to stop because I was not sure how a corpse was meant to look, or how one was meant to describe it (Peaceful? Happy? Dead?). So I stood there, the right word hanging somewhere just beyond my articulation.
‘Beautiful, yes,’ Agnes said, putting an end to my ellipsis. ‘She looked just beautiful. I have no idea how they made her look so beautiful. Yes, I have no idea at all.’
‘Really?’ I asked. ‘You don’t know?’
‘No,’ Agnes said, ‘I don’t.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘mortuary preparation is quite an art — deceptively simple in its execution but so delicately intricate in its craft…’ And, based on my reading of the last several days, I began to discuss the disinfection and cleaning of the eyes, the skin, the orifices, and how, after the application of creams to prevent razor burn, the deceased is shaved so that make-up won’t collect on the fine hairs of the face (a process applied even to women and children), and then how the fine tissue below the gums is sutured to the top of the jaw and through the nostril, or else how the thin flesh of the lips is sealed shut with glue (unless, of course, you prefer to use a needle gun) after inserting a mastic compound to create a more pleasing shape, and how the sharp blades of the trocar pierce the belly button to vacuum out the excess fluid from the abdomen and thoracic cavity.
Perhaps at this point I also should have been paying more attention to Agnes. Maybe I would have noticed something in her expression, or a slight wavering to her body, but I was too busy discussing the arterial injection of embalming fluids, how the vascular system is used to turn the body into a sort of fleshy pump by pulling out the right common carotid artery and the right internal jugular vein from just below the collarbone through an incision in the skin, and that the vein and artery are then separated with an aneurysm hook, and the artery is raised and two pieces of string placed beneath it creating a ligature to seal the connection between the artery and a cannula tube inserted into it (a process repeated, of course, with the vein as well), and then how a hose is attached to both tubes and then to the embalming machine (and did, at that second, I dimly perceive a change in Agnes’s countenance, her skin becoming more pale?) that pumps the arterial fluid made up of preservatives, germicides, anticoagulants, dyes, and perfume at the rate of 4.5 litres of fluid for every 25 kilograms of body weight, and that the liquid now seeps into the body as the veins bulge to accommodate the pressure, while the blood drains out.
And at the moment that Agnes fainted, I was still thinking of all of the things I had yet to tell her — about how the Ancient Egyptians would sew books of prayer inside the bodies of the dead, so that the word and the flesh were made one and the same, and even as she fell onto the long table, and it turned upward, sending biscuits, tea and embroidered fantails into the air, I was thinking about how mummies were treated with salt to remove moisture from body, and as I saw the mudcake at the far end of the table launch into a perfect arc as if from a catapult, I knew, too, that the mourners would be turning around to see the cause of the commotion, but would not see the cake – that I alone could trace its trajectory forward in space and time across that room into the gaping hole made by the open coffin lid — and, because I did not need to see it to know what would happen next, I looked away, thinking about how morticians used to insert cotton under the eyelids of the dead to shut them up forever.