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A Day Off School (1991)

written by: alf hickey

It was the night before the funeral. Black tie, black socks, black shoes, dark grey school pants, well maybe the year 11 coordinator was right when he aimlessly tried to con us year 11s into buying a uniform. He had said in his high church voice, "they will come in handy for formal occasions." I thought the bloke was mad. Where the heck did he think I was, Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School ?" You know they make the students there wear their blazer on forty degree summer days. It is as if they are conditionong them to fight in the Saudi desert; flaming corrupted un-evangelical pro-English church school !

Light grey shirt. They were all folded on the crease, neatly slung over the chair in the bedroom.

I felt like an actor, as if I'd have to create a morbid impression with the clothes. The clothes would tell the audience, "Hey ! remember old nuisance ? Yeah me ! See look for yourself, he's become a mature practical boy." "You better shave," mum screeched through my bedroom door. "What do you think a funeral is, a fashion show ?" I shouted back. When would I escape from this maniac prison house box ? If I had my way I would probably have the whole world naked; only ugly American world domination would have the idea embodied in a modern Rome.

No ! God gave us clothes for a reason. But shaving!? He gave us men a beard too.Without one, you sometimes can't tell if one is man or woman; they both wear their hair long, they both wear earrings and even the same clothes a great deal of the time. Maybe if you looked under their underwear you might determine their sex, though in this perverted world, even then you might have trouble.

One of my two little sisters woke me in the morning with a sandwich which she stuffed in my face, "get out dog breath !" I almost smashed my eardrums with the sound of the blast. It did not work, she stood beside my bed calling me all manner of profund and yucky things, "Peanut cheeks, chicken car, pen nose." A system of words I had developed for her to have fun while learning how to talk; how naive could I be ? I screamed, "Mum, Dad !!!," hurting my ears with the volume of my blast. She took heed this time, even closing the door behind her.

It was going to be a great day: two free periods in the morning and a funeral in the afternoon. I would even manage to wag Goody's English double, beautiful ! After two free periods of basketball shooting I was home. My clothes were on in fifty seconds. I was excited. Wow, I thought, a real education, Alf's first funeral. Beats Goody's English class any day. Mum drove to the Fawkner cemetery. It was going to be a cremation. I was extremely curious. What happens to the metal fittings on the coffin ? Do people really cry their guts out ? Will the ghost of Aunty Doris appear to rebuke her sisters for their greedy scheming over Doris' will.

Mum and myself entered the Joyce chapel at about two o'clock. A group of relatives stood in the chapel foyer. I did not know how to act, in fact I did not know some of the people in the foyer were family members until they asked me, " Are you Angelo ?" Then after I had said "yes," they would go on about when I would stop growing and how they had seen me when I was this high and that tall, each gesturing a different length from the chapel foyer floor than the other. I wanted to escape. Why couldn't they call me Alf ? They called me by my middle name, something karma had bestowed upon me, not that I believe in karma. My parents had given me this middle name as they thought I would become artistic like Michelangelo. Their prophecy turned out pretty true: a bullcrap artist; just joking.

We entered the chapel at about two thirty. Andy, Doris' husband was helped off his chair with the help of a consolation team. He shrugged them off, fighting to prove his ability to cope by himself. He looked like a Mafia man, or how the films portray Mafia men. He was hunched over, hidden in the shadow of a black Italian hat. He walked into the chapel, the relatives staring at him, waiting for one of his many erratic bits of behaviour with which they identify him. Two sliding doors opened as if to say, "the time has come, the time you have all been waiting for. Let the show begin."

Music played in the background over funeral quality stereo speakers. Dad stooded concerned shuffling notes in the pulpit to the right of the room. A small coffin lay raised on a stage. I imagined Aunty Doris' old body motionless, empty, dead, sheltered from curious eyes like mine. A body hidden in the darkness of a box, maybe trying to direct our eyes elsewhere to a higher, more meaningful place.
The music stopped and dad started. I was standing where no one could see my emotion. I had made up my mind not to cry anyway. To me death is just another part of life which comes between your first and one hundred and first birthday. Then you have an eternity of birthdays to worry about. Dad loved Aunty Doris very much. Both Andy and Doris had been his refuge in his every need. To Dad, Aunty Doris was a model for people to follow, whose loving unselfish heart was always there to help. Dad spoke of her life as he had seen it. He remembered the beautiful things she did for both him and others everywhere she had been. Dad almost broke down as he spoke of an event he remembered from a time when he was staying with Andy and Doris in Ballarat.

There was once a young girl discarded and rejected from her family. She had sores all over her. When Aunty Doris saw this, she brought the girl into her own home, treated the child as her own, nurturing her to health, giving the child her every need.
Andy cried as he heard the story. He remembered the event well. It hit me how I could so easily forget the loving nature of Aunty Doris toward me. Dad told of how Aunty Doris had bought me a mechanical Lego set when I was just young and said, "It will help develop his skills." I had forgotten how many things Aunty Doris had given on her own free will. Even when mum and dad came back from India, a year after I was born, Aunty Doris had bought a high chair and stroller for me. I felt grief in my unthankfulness. How selfish could I be ? Even so, there could be no linkage in my mind between those beautiful acts of Aunty Doris and what was lifeless inside that small varnished box.

Dad also told of how Aunty Doris had told him once that she had accepted Jesus as her personal saviour. The atheists in the audience grunted at this, the atheists saying silently, "bloody hell get on with this !" Dad continued by telling how a person is saved through deciding to follow Jesus. He quoted a passage from 1 Corinthians in the Bible, chapter 15 verse 55, "O death where is thy sting, grave where is thy victory ? To me that verse summed up the funeral and my own existence as well.

In the bible there is a book called Ecclesiastes. King Soloman is the writer. He says, "Everything is meaningless, a chasing after the wind." He also had some colourful collateral. Soloman had a thousand wives, many religious men, a powerful army, even astrologers waiting at His beck and call. He also had the reputation of being the Einstein of the ancient world. Solomon tried everything to satisfy himself; everything. But he concludes, "Life is meaningless, a chasing after the wind." In Ecclesiastes, chapter 11, verse 8, he says, "no matter how long you remember, you will be dead much longer. There is nothing to look forward to at all." This was the conclusion to one of his great experiments of thought, thought on death. Beyond the grave your belongings can't follow and your 1000 wives are left behind to find new husbands, unless they were too old, but who says there is a limit to the marital age.

But when Jesus came he brought God's true will with him, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Solomon looked and analysed all the wonderful things under the sun. Through Jesus one looks beyond this, to a place infinite and perfect, of the one true God. A place where the key is Jesus, and for Doris the gate was death. Life is meaningless without Jesus. This is such a temporary earth, why put your hope in the things under the sun ?

Doris sought an eternal goal which I believe she achieved. She gained that victory over the grave. Why should people cry at funerals. The only reason I would cry, is if someone had gone to hell. What a disgusting waste that would be ! Dad gave the motion to Shane Tobin to press the button, Shane Tobin having eyes which would constitute an iridologist's nightmare. His eyes looked like something from "The Return of the Living Dead." The coffin was lowered into a hole in the centre of the stage. Doris' 81 year old body would be ashes in half an hour.
But Doris wasn't there. She was in the sky, no longer a slave to the mortal world, free from pain, free from sin, free from ageing and free from Goodie's English class. She's probably watching lonely Andy replacing her with booze.


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