Adieu

by jenniferlbryce

I slip into the back of the church as the organ wheezes out the first bars of a hymn. This must have been his church – the vaulted oak roof, the stained glass windows, the red carpet runner with fleur de lys. I hold a hymn book, but my hand is shaking. I clutch the pew in front.

Everyone with their backs to me – mainly dark-suited men – his business associates I suppose. They mumble the words of the hymn. The minister takes the lead – he’s a bit out of tune. I can’t sing. I try to stop my jaw from wobbling.

‘I am the resurrection and the life . . . .’ intones the minister.

The coffin is on a stand at the front of the church, festooned with golden lilies. She would have chosen them. I would have selected Australian native flowers, he so loved to go bush-walking. He used to pick me wild boronia. I try not to think of what is in the coffin.

We are told to sit down and there is a reading from Corinthians. One of his gloves is in my pocket. I finger it, imagining that I am holding his hand. I found the glove at the side of the road where the accident happened. They said he fell asleep at the wheel, driving back from a business trip.

I wondered why he didn’t get in touch with me on Thursday. When he’s unexpectedly silent, my first thought is always that she’s found out. Even so, surely he could phone? So I broke one of our rules and spoke to his secretary. I had to pretend I was from Robinsons, enquiring about an order. His secretary said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr McIntosh isn’t available.’ I said it was urgent. There was a long pause – so long that I thought we might have been disconnected, and then it came, ‘Madam, we’re not supposed to say this over the telephone. But . . . since Mr Robinson is one of our most valued customers . . . I’m sorry to have to tell you . . . could you please pass onto Mr Robinson the sad news that Mr McIntosh passed away last night as a result of a car accident.’

Impossible. Automatically, I said ‘thank you’ and hung up.

No – no. I stared out the window to a world that no longer contained Ian McIntosh.

Whenever we had to be separated I used to find consolation from looking at the sky – that sky embraced both of us, no matter how far apart we were, he was somewhere under that same sky. Now, no more.

But the secretary must be wrong. He was a good driver. He didn’t fall asleep on the road. For proof I rushed out to the paper boy on the corner of Church Street and Bridge Road. I couldn’t wait for change – raced back home, up the stairs, two at a time. And there it was on page four: Prominent businessman killed in freak accident. There must be another businessman called Ian McIntosh. My Ian must have been detained in Adelaide. But why didn’t he call me?

 

First thing next morning I was on the train to Ballarat. The newspaper report said that the accident was near the Arch of Victory on the highway. The train journey took an hour, but I was incapable of reading or taking anything in. I didn’t even notice the other passengers. In the main street of Ballarat a sign pointed to Adelaide. I set off in that direction, past shops at first, then houses, then the houses became more scattered and the grass at the side of the road less even. There had been a frost and the ground was quite slippery. It started to drizzle. After a while the arch loomed before me. He had been driving towards this arch, towards me. Maybe the arch was the last thing he saw? It is the entrance to an Avenue of Honour. Elms and other English trees are protected by timber guards. I walked under the arch and, there, on the right-hand side was a damaged tree. The guard around it was smashed. Shards of glass were scattered over churned up tyre-marked mud. I squatted and started to gather the glass and piece it together like a jig-saw. Maybe I could put together the windscreen? But that was all.

 

The eulogy will be given by Mr McIntosh’s business partner, Clarence Binfield. I clench my teeth to try to hide my quivering jaw. Mr Binfield lumbers up to the pulpit, hair slicked back with brilliantine, a blue pin-striped suit. He’d met Ian McIntosh twenty years ago when they started the business together, two young lads from the tannery. So tragic – he was too young – so much of his life still to be lived – devoted to his lovely wife – a family man with two fine boys – a good church elder – pillar of the community.

I grip the glove in my pocket and concentrate on the intricate carving of the pulpit, clusters of daisy-like flowers and animals, maybe it’s an owl carved on the lecturn. My Ian was a passionate lover – so caring and thoughtful, fun-loving and playful – glided around the dance floor – generous, I’m wearing the silver and amethyst bracelet he gave me nearly ten years ago. So many times he talked of leaving his wife and children. I insisted that he stay with them at least until the children left school. He said he didn’t love her. He felt guilty about it, but he didn’t love her.

That must be Mrs McIntosh in the front row, her shoulders heaving. She is expected to grieve. She has nothing to hide. And the adolescent boy with his arm around her, he must be Angus. Ian tried to love his boys. He felt distant from them. He wanted to talk to them, but he felt inadequate. He wanted them to meet me, but I thought that would be a bad idea. ‘Darling, you are the centre of my life,’ he said. ‘My boys are so important – they should know you.’

‘Not yet,’ I had said.

And now, it will never happen.

 

I leant against the cold stone of the Arch of Victory, staring at the tyre tracks in the mud. The tracks of his car as it rammed into the elm. And that’s where I saw his glove, poking out from under a piece of metal. Someone was talking to me. A young man in a farmer’s truck.

‘Hey – lady – can I give you a lift somewhere? I’m going into town. Rotten day. I could drop you off somewhere. Nasty accident it was.’

I asked whether he knew where they took the car.

‘I saw them putting it on a trailer yesterday. Badly damaged. Big car. I reckon it’d be at City Motors – I’m going near there.’

‘Really?’

‘Hop up. You a relative?’

I put his glove in my pocket and climbed into the passenger seat. We drove down the main street in silence. Then he pulled up at an intersection.

‘It’s just down there,’ he pointed to the left. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Oh yes, I’m fine.’

An old grain store had been converted into a garage and engineering works, with two petrol bowsers outside. I peered through the main entrance and there, still loaded on an open trailer, were the remains of his car. The back looked almost the same as usual, but the front wheels were bent and only the frame of the windscreen remained. The steering wheel stuck out at an angle. The beautiful walnut veneer dashboard was almost intact – the dials and levers I had stared at on our journeys as we plummeted down the highway, cocooned in our own little world. Just two days ago he had been sitting on this seat – maybe whistling to himself in that jaunty way he did.

 

‘Let us pray,’ says the minister, and there is a racket while everyone kneels. It is good to be able to cover my face with my hands and retreat into my own world. It was only last weekend that we walked together along the pier at Frankston eating double-header ice-creams. The sun was low in the sky and we looked out towards the You Yangs , the clouds were tinged with pink. He threw the end of his ice-cream cone into the water and held me in his arms – a precious moment.

He had wanted me to go with him on the business trip. Five nights together. But I thought it too risky. They were setting up a branch in Adelaide, there would be people there, staff, who would know his wife. I mustn’t think about it – what if I’d gone, I might have kept him awake, or shared the driving? ‘Don’t go there,’ I say to myself as I try to contain a spasm of grief.

Now we must stand for the final hymn. Did he like this hymn? Did he know it? We never went to church together. In fact, we never talked about our beliefs – strange really, when we shared so much else. I think his wife was the church goer. She didn’t have a paid job, but she did a lot of charitable work – he said she was forever knitting and making jam. He said she was a thoroughly good woman, but they had nothing to talk about.

Saviour breathe forgiveness o’er us. Yes, in the eyes of the church we were sinners. Yet we didn’t believe what we were doing was wrong. Ian made a terrible mistake when he was young – he said he had no idea what love was when he married. He married to follow convention. That’s what young businessmen did, they had a wife and family. We were very discreet, and he was always home in the evening to see his boys, except of course, when there were business trips.

The minister stands in front of the altar to give the blessing. And now the organist plays a rather puny and fumbling version of Handel’s Water Music to end this commemoration his life. Six men, tight with emotion hoist the coffin to their shoulders and stride out. His wife, cowering in her black veiled hat is supported by the eldest son and the rest of the congregation follows, the women dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs, the grim-faced men trying to restrain their grief as they process down the aisle. The coffin, polished mahogany, the burdened wife, the eldest son – is he leering at me – or maybe he is squinting because of the sun?