Portrait

A tribute to Bill Orme, lawyer and long-distance walker, 1935-2016. By Erik Jensen.

Step by step

Bill Orme.
Credit: SUPPLIED

He was making tea when he died. Nan was still in bed and while the kettle boiled he would have squeezed her a glass of grapefruit juice. He did this every morning. The slate tiles would have been cold where he was standing and I doubt he was wearing a shirt. I wasn’t there but the slate tiles are always cold and first thing in the morning he rarely wears a shirt.

I miss my mother’s call, but listen to her message straight away. She talks in grief’s circles. It is difficult on the phone to tell the difference between laughter and tears. 

“It’s Mum,” she says. “Um, Grandpa died this morning. In the kitchen. We’re all here in the house, in the spare room. It was very, very peaceful. It was exactly what he wanted. It was a massive heart attack. We’re all here. We’ve had the ambulance for an hour. We’re waiting for the police and the doctor. It was exactly what he wanted. It was very, very peaceful.”

I speak to my sister in tears. Dad is coming to get her, and drive her across. I’m in another city and all day I hear my grandparents’ house at the other end of phone calls: aunts and cousins talking, indistinct, on the far end of conversations. At my desk on Tuesday, I cry four times. On Wednesday, I cry twice. 

When I close my eyes I can see the house. I can see Nan’s wisteria, kept down by possums. The snowbells at the front gate. Grandpa’s study, and its smell of maps. The bedroom where Nan sits and waits for storms to blow in across the harbour, guessing to the minute when they will hit. Where she used to sit holding us and telling us to be quiet until we saw the first bat fly over or else they wouldn’t come. “You don’t have to whisper,” Nan says to someone on the other end of the line. “He’s dead.”

 

There is a picture on top of the piano of Nan and Grandpa the day they were married. I can’t see it now, so I have to imagine. They are both young and smiling with their teeth. The picture is black and white but colour leaks from it. Nan’s veil is flying out against the sun. As a child, it was the most glamorous picture I had seen. They met at university – I always knew that. Scholarship kids from either end of the coast. Grandpa was from Grafton, Nan from Tathra.

I remember looking at Grandpa in newspaper clippings from before I was born, from when he was the privacy commissioner. He looked the same then as he did when I was a child, as he did this week. He had a beard and a smile and always wore shorts.

I knew that he was a lawyer, that he had co-ordinated the gathering of war crimes evidence for the International Commission of Jurists, that he sat on boards and consulted, that he obsessed over probate and the rights of widows.

But by the time I was born he had given up the law and started walking: 3200 kilometres from Brittany to Venice; 2300 kilometres across Britain, from Land’s End to John o’Groats; always with Nan. He mapped routes around the harbour, marking them with small reflective signs. He trained with bricks in his pack. He climbed the Matterhorn and spoke with small-town enthusiasm any of the languages he encountered on it. He asked if I would climb Mont Blanc with him, and I made excuses but secretly was embarrassed by the fact he was fitter than me. He was born on Australia Day and Nan joked he was as old as the country. In reality, he was 81.

Grandpa would only ever ask me questions. He pretended my answers made him reconsider things. His house said what he had accomplished, but he never did. He trimmed the end of toothpaste tubes to be certain he hadn’t wasted any. 

My sister was married on Saturday. He saw his family for the last time: his grandchildren, his sons and daughters. The last thing I said to him was, “Can I help you out to the car?” The last thing he said to me was, “Don’t be silly.”

 

I speak to Nan on the phone. The police have just left. Grandpa is laid out in the spare room. I don’t see the body. I am told he wore a scarf.

Nan is brisk and sensible, as she always is. “It’s alright, darling,” she says. “I am a strong woman.” 

She tells me there will be a little hole in her heart. She doesn’t cry. I do. I cry hot, dumb tears and wish I could stop. “He always said he wanted to go first,” Nan says. “I guess he pulled one over me.”

When we were children, Nan always said she had a song for everything. She hums when she is not thinking, too many songs to hold inside. She doesn’t sing now.

She goes to say something, but her voice catches. I start to cry again. “I’m just sad…” She pauses. “…that we didn’t get to celebrate our 60th wedding anniversary.”

It would have been next month. Sixty years since they smiled the smiles on top of their piano, that they have smiled ever since. 

“The last thing he did,” Nan says, “was squeeze my bum before he got out of bed.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 23, 2016 as "Step by step". Subscribe here.

Erik Jensen
is the editor of The Saturday Paper. He is the author of Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen.

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