A burial

I was 12 and fixed to afternoon TV when she came home dirty that last time. I heard the gravel grind and the engine cut, and laughter erupting. It was Aunt Rosy’s laugh, thick with wine. I went to the door and Rosy was lying on the ground by the driver’s side. She looked at me, groaning between laughs. Don’t just stand there, dickhead, she said, give me a hand.

When Mum came around the side of the car she wasn’t just dirty like she normally would be, filthy-handed with dry mud cracking on her shoes. She was head-to-toe in thick, wet mud.

She always came home dirty. She was a gardener for the council. No one gives a shit there, she’d say. They just do the hours and go to the pub. She gave a shit. She made sure I was up in the morning before she left, and she told me about her day ahead. Then she’d come home sun-tired and glowing, cut across the arms by barbed wire, sometimes with a chook from Coles and some chips, and she’d drink white wine and fall asleep in front of Murder, She Wrote. Those last months she’d spent walking up a railway siding hand-weeding it. It was wild with orchids, she said, and the council wasn’t allowed to use poison. She showed me a little paper folder of blurry photos she’d taken and had developed at the chemist. They were bright blue against a backdrop of faded nothing. So hard to grow in captivity, she said, but just everywhere they shouldn’t be.

Your mum is a fucking star. Rosy grabbed my arm and pulled herself off the ground, breathing paint thinner on me. Then the two of them blurred into the house.

Inside, they filled the room with their voices. I fixed two gin and tonics, which was my job. Mum cracked jokes that didn’t make sense and didn’t suit her, and Rosy laughed at everything. I knew how to handle Rosy when she was like this, which was just let her talk, let her run things, say whatever, but today Mum was different. When she hit this pitch it was all over.

A hero, Rosy said. Do you know what she did?

I did not.

She got fired, Rosy said, and my head shot around and Mum shook her head to say, It’s fine, and started into a laugh that slowly turned into a cough. Rosy slapped her on the back and handed her the bottle of tonic water.

It’s fine, I’m fine, she said.

She got fired weeks ago, Rosy said.

She’s been going to work every day, I said.

She just kept going in! said Rosy.

Mum shushed, got small. They said they weren’t going to replace me, she said, wiping the last of the tears from her eyes. She threw her hands up. They were going to concrete the whole strip, she said. Kill the orchids! She shook her head. No way.

Rosy erupted again. Mum was laughing too but I knew it was sort of serious.

Rosy went on: So she’d gone in every day, no different. Then someone at the Caltex saw her in her uniform by the tracks behind the park, and her boss turned up with two cops to tell her to move on. So she threw herself in a hole.

Mum shrugged and said they’d dug it for a power pole or something.

So your mum, she just climbed in the hole and refused to move, said Rosy. Then she started pulling in dirt over herself.

I realised Mum wasn’t laughing. Rosy leaned over and put her hand on Mum’s knee.

It’s okay, sweetheart, she said. The cops didn’t know what to do so someone called me. You know I know all those boys. So, I get there and my sister is in the ground, burying herself, shouting at these blokes. These useless blokes, just standing there, going pale, going, uuuhh, Rosy said, doing her dense man voice. She laughed again.

She laughed about it for years. Mum didn’t talk about it. She had other jobs, at the nursing home and in the call centre, but she was never the same. She got paler. She drank. She shrank into everything. She took up no space, because when they noticed her next they’d fire her.

I try to remember her like that, coming home from the train tracks, full of love, of that orchid blue, but she always ends up in the hole. Her boss, those cops, telling this drunk woman that she didn’t work for the council anymore and she needed to move on, to hand in her uniform, her knowing she had nowhere to go, pulling soil over herself, saying, No. Don’t take this away. Bury me.

I think now it was probably the worst thing that happened in her life. That’s why she let Rosy turn it into a joke. But I don’t want to think of her like that, small and almost see-through like she was at the end. Yesterday when I was going through her things I found those photos she took, in a yellow paper envelope from the chemist. A rusty fence overgrown with yellow-green scrub and thistles. The middle, bursting with electric blue orchids, so bright the camera couldn’t register the shade, pushing the sky into a grey white. Then the last one, camera held aloft, her face half obscured by light leak. I imagined her there all day alone in the thick of those colours, the sun beating down, nothing all around, everywhere she shouldn’t be.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "A burial".

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