In ambitious moods—overly ambitious, some would say—I aspired to the grandiose peace and quiet of the Necropolis. (‘Necropolis’, how smooth and satisfying on the palate!) South Head Cemetery was too near a school, with its colourful and morose implications of burgeoning life, and Waverley too gusted by sea winds, salt and seagulls to be a comfortable place of repose. In Cairo the poorest people live in the City of the Dead, where a quarter share in a good vault is hard to come by, but in the serene Necropolis all, including the activities of even the more unruly residents, is still and quiet: one might say ‘peaceful’.
Who could not but admire the Necropolis?: the subdued gravel, the stolid stone, the pine needles both sere and sodden underfoot, afternoon sun aurating the sandstone wall…
After my weekend in Egypt, where I visited places of interest such as Tutankhamen restaurant on the west bank of Luxor and the museum at Nag Hammadi containing the Gnostic codices, I experienced, from time to time, the belief that I was Cleopatra. Inevitably, as a first step towards my goal of personal peace, I acquired an asp. He soon made himself at home, slithering here, sliding there. Like many reptiles, he very much enjoyed basking in front of the heater. It turned out that he preferred not to bite me—in fact he became a very affectionate pet. We called each other Cyril.1
When we went to a park, which was most days (after all, he needed exercise), he would playfully bite any dog that took an undue interest in me, whether barking and biting, wagging and licking, scratching and whining. Dog owners who turned on me after the sudden death of their better halves were also sometimes given a nip, and always calmed down promptly. I rarely lingered in the park, hoping to avoid any further unpleasantness.
The jasmine was in flower; I began, uneasily, to enjoy myself.
I hurried down Albemarle Street to the tram. As soon as I reached home—a full fifteen-minute walk—I set up a gun aiming at my forehead, with a string attached to the trigger suspended over a candle flame. When the string burnt through, the gun would fire and I would be ‘at peace’, ‘at rest’, as the gravestones proclaimed so frequently and so credibly in their mossy, worn lettering.
But what of cremation? Or even staying alive and enjoying it, now that I was getting the hang of it? Enjoy my love’s sensuous, amorous and devoted lips; her elegantly framed tax assessments; the moon unfurling its golden path across the dark bay? I gave these questions careful consideration before the flame burnt through the string and nothing happened.
The rain was gentle and discreet; you could only see it against the dark green of the conifers. A perfect day for a walk through the trees, treading silently on the fallen pine needles, fine, cool rain against her face. She carried with her a book of short stories she’d been enjoying. Even accountants can enjoy reading. The blurb declared that it was post-modern. Was that a good thing?
The reasoning about the string and candle flame was manifestly incorrect, she could see that. How could a sagging string motivate a trigger?2 But he must have picked up the gun again, as he shot himself manually after booking his asp into a holiday kennel that guaranteed pets would return even more aggressive than when they entered. Administrative tasks were never a problem.
Rain fell steadily, yet the sun shone from a cloudless sky—typical weather for a funeral. His friends stood around the grave with heads bowed. Eye contact could be uncomfortable. All were subdued by the green light cast by the ancient pines, the thousands of names recorded on the gravestones, the stones and notes on the graves, the crumbling stone wall, the rusting iron gates, the long perspectives of deaths achieved.
Most of the mourners had not met before.
One said, ‘I always wondered why he liked such spicy food.’ Mourners on each side turned to reply, but one withdrew politely, slightly twisting the hat he was holding. ‘The burning sensation,’ said the other adjacent mourner, ‘conveyed the illusion of life.’ The mourner who had not replied tried to straighten his hat.
A disagreement developed between two other mourners over the correct distance from the grave to hurl clods at the coffin. Throws from closer range were, of course, more accurate, but a distant toss resulted in a more resonant thud on the lid, especially if greater distance were combined with larger clod size.
When these matters were settled, the clods thrown, the mourners quickly dispersed except for his beloved accountant, who sat on a wet slab, heedless of her new black party dress, and reflected upon their time together. She seemed to be speaking. Had she truly done her best for him, taxually and sexually? (She had tried.) Had he ever done anything at all for her? (He had tried.) The breeze in the pines sighed ambiguously.
His accountant left the cemetery replaying their conversation at the funeral. Her dress wasn’t very wet, considering the ambient moisture.
‘Love is a rocking of the boat, a disturbance of the peace,’ he had said.
‘And the wonder of the connection, the pleasure?’
‘Of course that’s enjoyable, that’s what rocks the boat. But regardless of the cause, is a rocking boat a good thing?’
‘It’s natural. And it’s a comfort in the chill winds of solitude and self.’
‘Ah, Nature. Glorious leaves turning yellow and drying; falling from the tree; rotting into the moist groundâ€¦’
‘So?; buds blossom on bare branches a few months later!’
‘Nevertheless, I’m done with so cyclical a business.’
She had started to reply before remembering that his statement was literally true, not just his disputable point of view. He was dead, after all—she’d forgotten. No doubt such lifestyle changes can colour one’s thinking.
The members of the gathering didn’t surprise me. What they, the gathered, thought of their present companions I could not divine. I was glad Jean was there, beautiful in her fancy black dress. I hadn’t seen it before.
It’s like the tide coming in. Water laps over the tip of a rock and withdraws to reveal the tip again, time after time, until the water does not withdraw, the rock is covered. After the gunshot, an effective catalyst, death took me in the same way: a slow approach, the rock is submerged, and there I am beneath the surface. But even in death life goes on.
The lid of the coffin appeared to be mock-maple. When I knocked against it, it provoked a hearty echo. The coffin was comfortable, lined with good quality mock-nylon, and I relished the peace of my new home once the clods had stopped thumping on
the lid. My farewellers must have opted for the longer range, possibly even the larger clod.
But then so-called reality was able to interfere. Gradually, over days, weeks, my peace was disturbed by a seeping murmur from above, a loudening noise becoming less and less vague until I could make out patterns within the murmurs—words! I could still hear them. Walking past my grave talking to each other, talking to themselves, striking up conversations with other visitors to the cemetery, getting on with each other to the point of romance (as in the story ‘The Graveyard Sisterhood’3), addressing remarks to passing animals, admiring the play of light on leaves, mourning…
‘They are merciless,’ I concluded, ‘merciless’; I mellowed: ‘Perhaps just indifferent. Like God, they are intent on self-realisation.’
I wondered whether the degree of permeability for sound resembled that for water—clay less, sand more—and whether I could be moved to a more clayish soil, and perhaps a better view. I’d have enjoyed the view over the par-three fifth at the golf course across the road. It was a good hole to watch: only an eight-iron, a deep bunker to the left, water to the right. Few hit the green; psychology in action.
I proceeded to soundproof the coffin as well as I could, which was not at all, I’m sorry to say. I had nothing to work with beyond the shroud, made of flimsy mock-cloth. I began to envy the ancient Egyptians their layers of sarcophagi, the depth of burial, the materials lying around the tombs that would have been useful for soundproofing, and to appreciate more fully their quest for the so-called quietness of the grave.
Meanwhile, the relentless conversation was far from peaceful. A lawyer lying a few graves away told me that I had grounds on which to sue the Department of Local Government for the exaggerated claims made on the multifarious tombstones for which it was responsible. We could both attest they bragged of ‘Peace’ and ‘Rest’. The grave beside me had collapsed. Through the hole I accidentally knocked in a corner of my coffin during my soundproofing attempts, I could glimpse a bright sky filtered by dirt and grass. I enjoyed snippets of children’s conversations and the absurdities of the replies by unfortunate adults, out of their depth again.
It was not all bad. As with any major relocation it takes time to settle in. Apart from a few voluble Mediterranean types, and the distant roar of incensed individuals playing the fifth, it was, to be fair, quiet; peacefulness is a state of mind.
Despite the dead lawyer’s advice, I did not sue.
1. Named after my late butcher, Athol Davis, known locally as ‘Cyril the Butcher’ (1926–2008). His turn of phrase was unusual for these times. Of a poor film he might remark that ‘it would kill a brown dog’; of a stupid acquaintance that ‘he couldn’t find the railway in Eddy Avenue’.
2. A weight attached to the string would have achieved the desired outcome. He was neither practical nor a dreamer.
3. Written by Ahkenaten de Maupassant (18th Dynasty), an Egyptian scribe. Fragments of his short prose pieces were found in the tomb of Cleopatra and in several Coptic churches in Cairo.