I’m driving too fast on a bad road. It’s raining in the midlands, and on some stretches of tarry asphalt my tyres aquaplane for a few seconds, gliding the car forward with no input from me. It’s AFL Grand Final Day, 2012. Usually I’d be eating burnt sausages, drinking beer and shouting at a television, but last night my grandfather died in Beaconsfield. I live in Hobart. And even though he had five sons and nine grandchildren, I am the only relative within 500 kilometres. So I’m skidding my Mazda through troughs of water, dropping caution where normally I’d cradle it, to identify his body for the police.
Sydney is playing Hawthorn. My grandfather was a Hawks fan. The men on the radio think Hawthorn will win; they’re too skilful, too experienced, and they have a few players that possess something the commentators call the X factor – Cyril Rioli, Buddy Franklin, Luke Hodge – which is a lazy way for them to get out of describing something they don’t know how to verbalise. I don’t support either club but I’ve reverted to an old habit of barracking for Hawthorn when my team isn’t playing, out of allegiance to Pa.
My uncle called to tell me last night, a few hours after it happened. After fumbling through the news, he sucked in some air and got down to the practicalities. We are practical people. The body needed to be formally identified, which is a big thing to ask someone who isn’t family. And I had just become the only living Arnott left on the island. He gave me the number of a policeman in Launceston I was meant to call to confirm the details. So I called my girlfriend. She was very nice about it and offered to come with me, but I said no. I called my friends and told them I wouldn’t be able to make it to the barbecue. And last I called my brother, who was in a pub celebrating the end of a difficult science exam, to tell him Pa had died. He was pretty drunk, I was pretty sober, and we didn’t know what to say to each other. So we didn’t say anything. I just listened to his breathing getting heavier and heavier in my ear.
It’s hard to properly know a man who is already sixty years old when you’re born. It helps if he’s a talker, but my grandfather didn’t talk about himself much. When he did, he had a habit of omitting any information or memories that he didn’t like. He didn’t lie, exactly, but the version of his life that I was presented with was so heavily filtered it was unrecognisable from what must have been the reality.
A simple way of saying this is that I don’t know much about him and what I do know is probably wrong, or at least only half true.
When Pa spoke about my grandmother, who died two years before I was born, she was always my beautiful bride or the only girl for me. A photo of her sat in the centre of his hall table, and he’d make a point of picking it up and explaining who she was whenever I brought a new girlfriend over to meet him. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I found out they had divorced a few years before she died. You’d never have known it from the way Pa talked about her. I guess it was a coping mechanism he’d developed; he didn’t like the memory, so when he was asked about her he pretended it had never happened.
I think my sister told me about the divorce. Maybe it was my mother. It certainly wasn’t my father or any of his brothers. None of the men in the family ever brought the topic of my grandfather up. Even though Pa was often at our house, babysitting and dog-walking and ferrying us to sports practice, he and my father didn’t speak to each other very often. Even though my dad renewed his car registration, paid for his golf membership, looked after his finances and maintained the upkeep of his flat in the Beaconsfield retirement home, he never actually spoke to the man unless he absolutely had to. Words weren’t shared, and nobody wanted to tell me why.
My car drops into the foggy divot of Launceston at noon. I go straight to the hospital, which is five minutes from the highway. Everything in Launceston is close by. I think about going to my parents’ house, but there doesn’t seem to be much point. They’re in England on a tour of Beatrix Potter and Jane Austen historical landmarks. It was my mother’s idea. Dad hates Jane Austen. I don’t know how he feels about Peter Rabbit, but I can’t imagine he’s a fan.
I tell a nurse in the emergency room why I’m there. She tells me how sorry she is, and asks me to sit down while she calls the right people. I thank her and find a seat. The room is half empty; later on the rain and football festivities will see it overflowing with glass wounds and car crash injuries. I wait for about fifteen minutes until the nurse comes out and asks me to follow her. We walk down what seems like thirty or forty long corridors, my shoes squeaking on the plastic floor, fluorescent light tubes flickering above us. We get to the main reception area, which seems comically large given how empty it is. The only person there is a small, sleepy-looking receptionist who is 80 per cent obscured by her desk. The nurse tells me that a policeman will be here soon and that once he arrives the receptionist will call a doctor, who will take us to the morgue. It is the first time anyone has said the word morgue. I imagine a white room surrounded by long metallic drawers that are yanked open to reveal pale, toe-tagged corpses. The nurse leaves, and I sit down in a green chair.
Which is where I wait for two and a half hours, silently hating myself for how calm I’m being. Shouldn’t I be going through some emotional turmoil? My only reaction has been to act responsibly and decisively. The best man in a crisis – a line I’ve heard repeated all my life. My mother’s family all say that about my father, due to his ability to act rationally and without emotion whenever anything goes wrong. It’s a sad compliment, in a way, and I’m not sure I’d want it applied to me.
I can feel undirected panic churning in the bottom of my throat, where my neck meets my collarbone, and I don’t know what to do with it. Sometimes it rolls beneath the surface of my skin in hot waves, flashing my face red, kicking my breathing pattern into a staccato beat. I’ve never had to deal with anything like this before. It gets worse when I try to analyse myself, dispassionately leaning back and thinking why is this happening? I remember that I’m about to go stare at the dead body of my Pa and say to a stranger yep, that’s him, for reasons that are starting to seem more and more like pointless bureaucratic procedure. Who else could the body belong to? What are the chances of the people from the nursing home getting it wrong? Who else would die the night before Hawthorn plays in the Grand Final?
I’m still battling these thoughts when the cop arrives. He walks through the automatic doors and scuffs his shoes against the doormat. Water streaks down his jacket, pools on his shoulders, shines on his badge. He takes off his hat as he sees me, the only other person in the room, and comes over. I stand and take my hand from my pocket. As he gets closer I can see his face – the lack of wrinkles, the blotchy skin, the small pouches of puppy fat around the jaw – and realise he can’t be any older than me. He’s probably a year or two younger. He grips my hand and thrusts a sad smile in my direction, held firmly in every part of his face, as if he’d been practising how best to greet a grieving grandson and football fan.
I try to talk, but say nothing.
The policeman is called Mike. He gives me his name as he lets go of my hand. I tell him my own, and he tells me how bloody sorry he is for me. He then chats briefly to the receptionist’s head, which bobs slowly up and down before disappearing fully behind the desk. I hear her making a phone call. We wait for the doctor to arrive, fumbling with small talk. I tell him about the rain on the midlands and he responds with what Tasmanians usually say about the highway. Shocking road. Bloody goat track, especially in the rain. You’re lucky you didn’t have an accident. I ask what the weather is going to mean for his afternoon, and he glances out the window at the deluge. Nightmare, mate. Motorcycles. Absolute nightmare. And we talk about the game, of course. Mike isn’t as sure as everyone else is about the Hawks. People write Sydney off because they’re boring, he says, but they’re boring because they’re consistent. Hawthorn will do three amazing things then stop concentrating.
I counter him with the commentators’ argument, about Hawthorn’s unquantifiable X factor (which I don’t really believe in, but it seems like an easy way to keep the conversation going), to which Mike shrugs. They’ve got to show up, he tells me. And nobody knows if they will, including them. I nod. We might as well be at the pub.
After three or four minutes a doctor comes out of a doorway I hadn’t noticed. He introduces himself – I don’t catch his name – and he leads us down one of the corridors that sprawl out from the reception hall. As we walk he explains the procedure to me. He will take me into a small room where my grandfather’s body will be obscured by a sheet. When I’m ready a nurse will draw back the fabric to reveal his face. They will ask me to confirm that it is indeed Pa’s face and communicate this clearly to the police officer. Then, if I want, I’ll be permitted to spend a few moments alone with the body.
I don’t say much. When we get to the room it’s a small, dark, rectangular space with two doors – the one we came through, and another in the far right-hand corner. A long window obscured by a thick curtain dominates the nearest wall. The doctor tells me that my grandfather’s body will be brought into the adjoining room on the other side of the window, and I’m to go through the door for the identification. He pulls the curtain back. The revealed space beyond the glass is empty and sterile. The doctor keeps talking. He and Mike will wait on this side of the window.
So when I see the door in the other room pushing inwards I don’t really have any choice but to go in there, alone. The nose of a metal gurney comes through, covered in a white sheet beneath which a lumpy shape is lying. A nurse follows the bed into the room. She smiles at me with gripped lips. I suck cold air.
Are you ready? she asks. A bloodbuzz starts to shake my centre of gravity. I nod. I swallow. She pulls back the sheet, and Pa’s face is revealed. His eyes are closed and his mouth, for some reason, is wide open. His false teeth are gone. I can see a swollen tongue, pale lips, and the pads of his gums.
I wait for my panic to explode, but it sits still. It doesn’t go away, but it doesn’t get any worse. I draw in the sight of dead Pa, locking the muscles in my jaw, straightening my back for as long as I can until my breath breaks and I look away. Which is when the nurse says, he looks so peaceful.
She probably says this to everyone, about every corpse. I know she’s trying to be kind, that she just wants to make a difficult situation bearable. But I don’t care, because I can’t turn away from the fact that it’s the most stupid, inane, pointlessly clichéd thing you can say about a dead body. He doesn’t look peaceful. Who feels peaceful when their mouth is hanging wide open? My grandfather is dead on a table and this woman who never knew him, who has removed his false teeth, who I’ve never met, says he looks peaceful? I turn in her direction. A roll of jowly fat sits beneath her chin as she leaks sympathy in my direction, giving me the same kind of smile the other nurse and Mike and the doctor all gave me, and I want to reach out and pinch the jowl until she screams.
But Mike the cop has come into the room and is standing next to me. The doctor walks in too, and asks, Robbie, is this man your grandfather? And what am I meant to say? Does his body still count as a man? Am I supposed to just say yes? What if I say no? Has that ever happened?
His mouth is so wide open.
I say yes, it is. Then he asks would you like to spend some time alone with him? I say no and push my weight back onto my heels, swivel towards the door and step into the hall. Mike falls in beside me. For a moment I think his hand is hovering over my shoulder, but when I look his arm is by his side.
I walk down the long corridors and out into the rain. My panic has receded to a numb throb in the bottom of my stomach. Whatever I’m meant to be feeling has been cauterised by a metal bed, a jowly neck, a kind cop and an open mouth.
And my steady hands and clear eyes are the hands and eyes of someone you would call a good man in a crisis.
The fog drops away as I leave Launceston. For a while it seems like the day has taken a brighter turn. But it doesn’t last. After half an hour the rain is back, getting progressively heavier the further south I drive. And when my radio reception drops back in it tells me that, despite their magical X factor, Hawthorn have lost.
Image credit: Simon Yeo