I have measured out my life
An old man has an unexpected and disturbing encounter with his past.
Issue 6: Sunday, 27 February 2022
Boy, two weeks whizz by quickly and so it’s time for another issue of A Flash in the Pan.
Here’s a story which won second prize in a local short story competition a few years ago. I had to cut it down pretty severely to fit their word limit. This is the original, longer version, which has never been published before, and which I prefer.
Graham Peterson struggled again with the door of his wardrobe. It was warped, and getting it open or closed took more strength than he could spare these days. Perhaps he would have to start leaving it open; but he hated doing that because then it swung wide, bumped into the end of his bed and tapped annoyingly all night.
With the wardrobe finally open, he reached in and took out his black suit. His only suit. He examined it critically. The jacket wasn’t too bad still, but the pants were starting to become threadbare. He’d have to try to find a replacement pair at the Op Shop soon. Maybe another white shirt, too, if he could find one to fit him. This one was starting to get a distinct yellowish tinge, and the underarms were badly stained. But the jacket would cover that.
Standing at the mirror over the sink, he knotted his black tie. Even doing that was getting harder as the arthritis in his hands became worse.
Sighing, he picked up the tabloid newspaper. It was folded over to show the death and funeral notices, and he had circled two of the entries. He checked his watch. Still enough time.
In the corridor outside his room, there was an oily smell of fried fish. It was only 9 am. Did someone really cook that kind of thing for breakfast? Perhaps so.
Downstairs, Mrs Creaney, the landlady, had her door wide open as usual. It was right next to the entrance, and she liked to keep an eye on the comings and goings of her tenants while she watched television. Graham nodded politely — he was always polite — but she barely acknowledged him. It would be a very different matter if he hadn’t paid his rent on time.
Leaving the boarding house behind him, Graham walked the few yards to the bus stop. He had the route carefully planned out in his mind and, as always, had allowed plenty of time to get where he needed to go.
As it was, he reached the funeral parlour in plenty of time. Too much time, really. It wasn’t good to be early, so he walked down the street and found a little park where he could sit for a while. It was a fine day, that was something, and it was pleasant to sit in the sun, warming up his old frame, until it was time to walk back.
He could see that most of the mourners were there now. One of the staff standing at the door handed him a memorial booklet. He went quietly in to the chapel and sat at the back. He fumbled in his pocket for his reading glasses, put them on and started to read carefully through the booklet, which briefly described the life of the deceased, Mark Barton. About twelve years younger than Graham. Died of a heart attack, just a few months into his retirement. What a poor reward for a life’s work!
The service began with some sad classical music. Then, after a few minutes wait, the celebrant stepped to the front, bowed slightly in respect to the flower-laden coffin and said a few anodyne words. There followed a video presentation which Mark’s daughter had put together, giving a moving tribute to her father’s life and his work as a mining engineer. Graham watched with genuine interest. Always interesting to find out about other people’s lives, though such presentations were always sugar-coated.
Then came a sobbing attempt at a eulogy from Mark’s widow. Graham thought it was a pity that the family had allowed their mother to try this. Eventually, her face red with weeping, she gave it up and sat down again.
Finally, the coffin was wheeled out to be taken to the crematorium and the mourners filed out of the chapel into the neighbouring reception room.
Graham headed directly for the counter where tea and coffee was being served. I have measured out my life with coffee spoons, he thought. T.S. Elliot had it right. But at least I don’t wear my trousers rolled.
With coffee in hand he stood surveying the refreshments. It was nearly lunchtime now, and he was pleased to see a generous array of sandwiches, party pies and lamingtons. He loaded up a plate and went to sit down.
Of course, it was nearly impossible not to become involved in conversation. Mark’s daughter was slowly circling the room and talking to the mourners.
“Hello,” she said to Graham when she reached him. “I don’t think we’ve met. How did you know Dad?”
Graham was ready. “I worked with him for a while when he was at BHP Headquarters here in Melbourne. He was a bit younger than me, but we always got on well together. So when I saw his name in the paper, I thought, well, I should come along and pay my respects. So sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” she said smiling, and moved on. Easy. It was harder when the widows talked to you, they knew too much.
He finished his plate of food, went back for another coffee and then visited the toilets. When he came out the mourners were dispersing.
He pulled out the newspaper from his jacket pocket, and checked his watch. He would have to get a move on if he wasn’t to be late to the funeral of Mrs Clarke. Best way to get there would be by tram. He set off for the stop at his best speed, limping a little.
Sitting on the tram after using his discount pensioner travel card, he read through the death notices again.
Mrs Emily Clarke. Forty-three years old, died “after a long illness”, it said in the paper. Cancer then, such a pity, he thought. Funeral at St Stephen’s Church, followed by a private cremation. No flowers by request. Perfect, really.
How did he know Mrs Clarke? He realised with a start that he hadn’t worked that out yet. He was getting slack, he thought irritably, and started to consider. With that age difference, he could have been her teacher. But then, her maiden name wasn’t given, and a teacher would be expected to know that. A neighbour, then. That would do.
He didn’t want to skip the funeral. It had been a quiet week so far. Yesterday he hadn’t been able to find any suitable event to attend. He had to be careful. He tried to avoid names which didn’t sound Anglo- Saxon, as well as funerals where the age difference was too great, and of course, those which he would have needed a car to get to.
He had been doing this for several years now, ever since his meagre superannuation had run out and he had been forced to go on the government pension, which barely covered his rent and medication.
Graham felt he had built up a real expertise. There had been a couple of close calls, but pleading a bad memory was always helpful, and at his age, all too plausible.
St Stephen’s was a pretty little church just off the main road of one of the inner suburbs. To Graham’s experienced eye it looked to have been built in the late 1800s. The small car park was already almost full. He checked his watch. The tram had been slow and he was quite late, so he hurried in and sat down quietly. There were quite a few people in the pews at the front, and the minister was speaking.
Graham realised that he hadn’t been given a memorial or order-of- service booklet, perhaps because he had been late. Oh well, he might be able to pick one up after the service and scan it quickly. In the meantime, he needed to pay attention.
Emily Clarke’s sister Anne, a slim woman in her forties, gave a brief eulogy, mainly talking about her sister’s courage in the last few years of her illness. Breast cancer, Graham deduced. Awful. So sad.
Though Graham had attended hundreds of funerals by now, he was not indifferent to the grief he saw almost every day. He often felt deeply moved by the struggles of the relatives to cope with their loss. It didn’t overwhelm him, though. With two failed marriages behind him, and his parents long dead, he had had plenty of his own grief over the years. Seeing others in a sad state somehow made him feel less alone, made him part of the universal suffering of humanity. That was almost a religious feeling, he thought, though he no longer believed in God.
He stood up to sing the hymns, though. He had been a member of a choir once, and he felt he had a good voice still, though it wasn’t as strong as it had once been.
The service came to an end, and people started filing out. Would there be any refreshments? There hadn’t been any mention of a reception during the ceremony. Perhaps it was described in the booklet? He looked around, but no one had left a discarded booklet. But he could see that people seemed to be turning towards the back of the church, not towards the street, and so he followed them. Ah, there was a small church hall behind the church.
Mrs Clarke’s sister Anne was welcoming visitors as they entered the hall. He nodded to her, shook her hand, murmured his condolences. He expected her to let him pass by so that she could greet the next person, but instead she held his hand for a second longer than he expected and looked sharply at him for a moment. Then her gaze shifted, she released his hand and he went in.
There was a condolence book set up on a table just inside. Everyone was writing something in it, so he followed suit, writing his name and adding a generic expression of sympathy.
There was tea and coffee inside, biscuits and cake, and a fruit platter. Conscious of trying to achieve at least a semblance of a balanced diet, he took a few pieces of fruit along with two of the small cakes. He sat down next to a small table so he could rest his coffee and plate there.
He hadn’t been there long when Anne came and sat down next to him.
“How did you know my sister?” she said, looking closely at him. Her voice was unfriendly. Graham began to have a bad feeling.
“Ah… I used to be a neighbour of hers. Lived a few houses down the street. I saw the name in the paper, thought…”
Anne interrupted him. “Where was that?”
Graham was struggling. “Um, it was here, not far from here… I…”
“How long ago?” she asked abruptly.
He felt himself beginning to tremble. “Oh, about five years ago, I think.”
“You’re a liar,” she said grimly. “A bad liar. Emily and I grew up in Western Australia, spent most of our lives there. Emily only moved here to Melbourne last year to live with me when her cancer came back. Why are you really here?”
He felt himself blushing. Never mind, he could talk his way out of this. “Oh, how embarrassing. I must have made a mistake. Perhaps this Mrs Clarke isn’t the one I knew.” He tried to stand up to leave, but Anne gripped his arm tightly.
“Look at me,” she said fiercely. “You are still lying. Tell me why you are really here. You must tell me.”
Baffled, frightened by the intensity of this woman, he was truly embarrassed now. He had to tell the truth. “I… I came for the food,” he said, ashamed. “I don’t have much to live on now. I come to funerals for the tea and coffee and the refreshments. Oh, and to be with people, instead of being alone in my room.” He was appalled to find that tears were dripping down his cheeks. He looked down, away from Anne’s intense gaze, hating himself, hating his self-pity.
She relaxed her grip a little and put her other hand on his shoulder. When he regained his composure a little and lifted his gaze, he saw that she was looking at him more kindly. Only then did he start to think that her face was somehow familiar to him.
“That’s really true?” she asked, disbelief still in her voice. “That’s really the only reason you are here?” He nodded, still unable to speak.
“I thought you had come here to make trouble,” she said, shaking her head and was silent for a while. “I thought I recognised you, and then I read your name in the condolence book. You are Graham Peterson, aren’t you?” He nodded, still baffled.
She was silent again. “Listen to me,” she said at last. “I was born Samantha Anne Peterson. But I hated being called ‘Sam’, so I started using my middle name. My sister was Emily. Samantha and Emily Peterson, that’s what we were called as kids. And my father’s name was Graham.”
“No, no,” he said, panic rising. It was another life she was talking about. A life which had happened to someone else, someone who had vanished long ago. A life too painful to recall. “No, you must be mistaken. I don’t want…” But as he gazed into Anne’s face, he began to recognise the child that she had been when he saw her last, nearly forty years ago.
“Samantha…” he said at last. Then, with a sudden shock: “And Emily… Oh God! Emily is dead.” Dead, his own child. He had attended her funeral, all unknowing. He put his face in his hands and began to sob.
After a long while, he forced himself to stop. “She wouldn’t let me see you,” he said in a hoarse voice. “Your mother. Told the court I was violent, bashed her. That I was an abusive father. She got full custody. No visiting rights. They let that happen in those days. Took you both off to the other side of the country. Even if I’d been allowed to visit, I could never have afforded to come.”
Anne looked at him steadily. “And were you? Violent? Abusive?”
He shook his head. “I swear to God. I only ever hit your mother once, slapped her, once in all our life together. I shouldn’t have done it, I know. I was sorry straight afterwards, and I told her so. That was the only time, but she never forgave me. Do you remember ever seeing me hit her? Or hurting you? Or Emily? Do you?” Now he was being fierce in his turn.
“No,” she said quietly, “I don’t remember that. Mum was… well, she was pretty hard to live with most of the time. She really hated you, I’m not really sure why. She was a bit unbalanced about it, to be honest. I had a photo of you, me sitting on your knee… I had to hide it from her, she tore up all the others.”
“It was probably my fault. I was always working too hard at the office. We had arguments all the time, and I started to work even longer and longer hours at work, just to keep out of her way. So it got worse and worse.”
They were both silent for a very long time. Then Anne looked down at her hands. “Look,” she said, and paused again. “I suppose in a fairy tale I would throw my arms around you, tell you I’d been trying to find you all my life, and invite you to come and live me with me. But…”
He shook his head sadly. “No. Too much time has passed, and we are just strangers now. I couldn’t be anything other than a burden to you. I’m sure you don’t need that. I had better go.” This time she let him stand.
Anne looked up at him, tears now in her own eyes. “Today has been… just too much, too much. Losing Emily. And then you being here… I can’t come to terms with it all, not all on one day. You’ll have to give me time.”
“I understand,“ he said. Then, after a pause: ”I loved you both, very much,” he said, with a catch in his throat. “A long time ago.”
She nodded slowly. Then, fumbling in her handbag, she said: “Listen, I’ll give you my card. I run my own business, a travel agency. Give me a call in a few days, perhaps we can talk again.”
He took the card, limped outside and walked off. When he reached the main street a few minutes later, a tram was just coming.
On board the tram, Graham sat holding Anne’s card in the palm of his hand. He hadn’t yet looked at it, didn’t know the name of her business, or where it was located. He realised that there were so many things he didn’t know, questions he hadn’t asked. Was Anne married? Did she have children, his grandchildren? Had Emily had children? They could have been there at the funeral and he would not have known.
No, he decided at last. He had given up his right to know about Anne’s life, and he had no right to interfere now, no right to suddenly become a burden to this stranger.
The business card was damp in his sweaty hand. He held it for a moment longer, and then slid it, out of sight, between the seat cushions. When he reached his stop he stood and got off, never looking back.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved
About this Story
This came about because I read about some similar cases of people dropping in uninvited to memorials and suchlike events for the sake of the food (and probably social contact). It wasn’t too hard to stretch that scenario by thinking about such a person encountering someone from their past, an encounter which led to their chagrin or to some kind of revelation.
I thought of reprinting it this week because, sadly, I had to attend the funeral of a friend a few days ago (unlike Graham, I was invited!).
And that’s it for another issue of A Flash in the Pan. Please feel free to comment and to share this post with your friends.