Grandma, Pharaoh and Me, by Maryanne Khan

“Wanna do something?”
“Not today.”
“Whatcher doin’ out here?”
“Running away to Egypt,” I said. “What’s it to you?”
“I’m gunna run away too some day. Where’s a good place?”
Luddy couldn’t go to Egypt like me because of the coins. There were only enough for me and he knew it, so he was trying to think of somewhere as good as Egypt, only there isn’t.
“My Dad says your Ma’s going to lose the place,” he said.
“You don’t know a damn thing Luddy Van Dorn,” I said and it was true. “Your Dad neither.”
They can’t hardly speak English let alone know other people’s business.
“Got a jar for yabbies,” Luddy said, like every Saturday.
“It’s my creek and I say who goes fishing for yabbies,” I snapped.
Luddy got a shock. He blinked hard, like Mama does, only she does it all the time. She blinks as though she’s resting her eyes and looking at what’s going on in her mind in case she missed something. With Luddy, though, it was just surprised.
“Wasn’t your yabbies last Saturday.”
He was scooping up water in his jar and tipping it out slowly, just in case. As if yabbies crawled into jars by accident. Like I said, Luddy is a pretty dumb boy.
But he was right. Last Saturday they were Grandma’s yabbies—now I didn’t know who they belonged to.
“Buzz off Luddy!” I said. If he didn’t go right then he’d see me cry.
But he kept fooling around with his jar. “Mickey Mouse Club’s today, he said kind of sly as if I’d forgotten who had the only TV for miles around. But right then I didn’t care about the stupid TV, or the Club or anything. He was still hanging round. I poked at a stuck branch in the creek.
“What do you think it feels like to be dead?” I asked.
I thought I’d just mention it seeing no one up at the house wanted to talk about it. Not that I thought Luddy would be much help, but if you don’t ask you’ll never know.
“Saw a cow once that was dead,” he said, “—drowned. You should’a seen it, round as a barrel with its legs sticking straight out, rolling round and round,” he said, making his hands go and lolling out his tongue.
I tried to whallop him but he was already at the fence.
“Get off of my property!” I yelled and lobbed a few stones so he’d know it was going to be a very long time before he could come waltzing back here with his stupid yabby jar again.
When I was tired of the creek I went back to the house.
“I thought you were going to Egypt,” Mrs. Dawson said. “Looks like you crawled there.” I was a bit dirty, but not dirty enough for a spanking. “Your mother was looking for you.”
“Where’ll Grandma be from now on?” I asked.
Mrs. Dawson went on kneading the dough, squeezing and rolling, folding it quickly to stop the edges drying out. She wasn’t a Catholic. Maybe she wouldn’t say where you go when you die because everybody except Catholics goes straight to Hell and they don’t like to think about it.
“You know perfectly well where.”
I was right, she didn’t. She balled up the pastry, slapped it flat on the table and began kneading again using her knuckles.
“Why can’t I go to the church? I went at Christmas.”
She wasn’t in the mood for answering. I hung around anyway, waiting, watching her bake scones. After a while Mama came into the kitchen to see the clock. It was almost time to get ready for the funeral. Aunt Grace had been ready since the crack of dawn; I knew because I’d seen her walking around the garden all dressed up in her black things. From a distance she looked like a dirty hole burnt out of the air.
At first Mama didn’t see me, or she really thought I had run away to Egypt, or she was too tired from arguing with Aunt Grace over selling the farm. That, or she’d just forgotten.
“Mrs. Dawson,” she started to say.
Then she saw me.
“Oh there you are Carolyn, I’ve been looking everywhere for you! You really must stop running off like that—as if I didn’t have enough on my mind without you adding to the worry.”
I was hoping and hoping she wasn’t really mad at me, because of Egypt and running away, and maybe she wouldn’t notice the mud. I pinched the back of my hand to make myself keep quiet while she finished going over the refreshments with Mrs. Dawson. Time was running out.
“It’s all so sudden,” Mama sighed, “I don’t know how a woman is expected to cope.” Mama looked like crumpled leaves blown against a fence, standing up only because there was something behind her.
“Good Lord, child, look at those knees!”
Now I was sorry I hadn’t listened to Mrs. Dawson and washed like she said. Still, there was nothing else for it but to jump right in and ask, it was my last chance:
“Please Mama, please can I come too—please?”
She looked at me as if someone else had turned up in my shoes; another daughter who didn’t know she was supposed to shut up asking to go to places that were too much of a strain.
“We’ll see,” she said kind of doubtful.
She is always saying “we’ll see” as if something will happen out of the blue and everything will change and nothing will be the same as before. It must be hard to be Mama and not be sure of a single thing.
I tried to think of what to say that would show her I was big enough and that I hadn’t meant it about Egypt.
“Please Mama.”
She was working out how tall I was.
“Carolyn we’ve been over it before, I happen to think you’re too young for funerals dear . . .”
“Please Mama.”
I tried to make my face look right, thinking of all the reasons why she ought to let me go: I grew three inches since I was seven, I would scrub my knees, I would wear the good dress I got last birthday, I would behave myself, I knew my Catechism, I loved Grandma, I did. Please. Now was the worst moment, like a rabbit sitting in the road with the headlights getting closer and closer and the rabbit wondering whether to run or sit. The car was either on my side of the road or the other. Please the other side, please.
“Mama. . . ?”
She closed her eyes for a minute thinking or resting. She was tired and had almost given up.
“Then for heaven’s sake get ready, though Lord knows you won’t understand a thing.”
The car drove slowly along the dirt road to the church. I kept my eyes fixed on stuff outside the window. I was thin enough not to take up much room; you hardly knew I was there. Aunt Grace drove. Mama sat in the back. I looked over once and there was a tear she didn’t notice creeping along her chin. Nobody spoke, not even to tell me to remember to behave myself as if I didn’t know the difference between a church and a haystack. I sat on my hands to keep them still and kept my eyes fixed on the telephone poles, the stubs of wheat, the shadows full of sheep, birds on dead trees far away, fence posts flashing by—one, two . . . ninety . . . two hundred . . .
St. Jude’s Catholic Church was on a side road but I thought they should have put it near the Post Office in the centre of town, next to the War Memorial and the Botanical Gardens so people would know where it was instead of having to ask. It was no place for a church in the middle of some old weatherboard houses and vacant lots full of broken bottles and rusty wire. There was a group standing around outside waiting for us to come before they could go in—Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. O’Malley in hats and their best dresses, Mr. and Mrs. Gillard—the whole parish, chatting away and having the time of their lives, good as the Picnic Races. They cut it out when they saw it was us and put on long faces. Mama got out of the car and walked round to go up the church steps. I opened my door just enough to squeeze out and hurried alongside her so they would see I was part of the family. You could tell Mama was trying to remember how I got there. She couldn’t send me back, so I said nothing but held my handkerchief tight in my pocket. I wanted to pull it out to show her I`d remembered.
My shoes felt tight. It was hot.
Aunt Grace rushed into the church as if there was a prize for sitting down first like in Musical Chairs. I came down the aisle with Mama, keeping my eyes low and acting respectful. Inside, the music was so soft you hardly noticed it, dark quiet music like the inside of a barn or under the peppercorns in the morning. It wasn’t all the music, only the long full bits that go underneath—the real music would go on top, like ripples on the surface with the creek flowing under. We sat up front. I didn’t want to be staring at the casket, but it was beautiful polished wood with flowers shining and candles all around. The music began. Father O’Leary came in. We stood up for him and the altar boys, and for Grandma and Mama and me.
“Let us pray . . .”

I didn’t forget a single thing during Mass. I watched Mama and Grace and stood up when they did, sat down when they did.
“Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world . . .”
“Grant her eternal rest . . .”
I thought of God and Grandma and the dead lambs that got left in the paddock until there was nothing left but a few bits of wool and bone the crows didn’t want and I hoped it wouldn’t feel like that for Grandma. I thought of Egypt and the Pyramids, and the soft little leather pouch of coins Grandpa had got from there during the War, and how Grandma had given them to me so I could keep them and go to Egypt when I grew up. I remembered how Pharaoh took everything he needed for after he was dead, and had it all buried right there with him.
Grandma had nothing with her, only her best dress and the mother-of-pearl brooch.
In the speech, Father O’Leary didn’t ask for donations for the Missions like he did at Christmas. I thought it wouldn’t be fair for God to want Grandma and donations all at once. Father talked about God loving Grandma and wanting her with Him and how we mustn’t mind giving her back but Mama had been crying. She’d been crying hard for two days because nobody was expecting it when Grandma was Taken, and because of the farm and the bills and Mama said it wasn’t fair that Grandma had just gone like that and left us for ever. To me it felt like Grandma had run away and no one knew where or why. But Father O’Leary was saying we had Grandma for lends, not for keeps. Now she belonged with God again.

It was all right when you said it like that, as clear as finding a secret message. Suddenly I knew: Grandma was gone, but it was like when you take some water from the creek and pour it back again later, the way it blends perfectly and doesn’t look different from the rest. You can’t tell which is the exact water that was in your jar, but you know it is there. It belongs like it used to only now it’s part of something bigger and more important.
Suddenly everything was clean and sharp, like the sky when the drought breaks after weeks and weeks and you had been thinking it would never rain again.

All the time, Mama was reading the parts we had to say in the book, and Aunt Grace was pretending she didn’t have to, but when it was time to stand for the last hymn Mama was too tired to get up. She sat there a minute thinking of something else and missed all the first part of “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Myra Davis came from behind and whispered to Mama and then Mrs. Davis and Grace began to pull at Mama, holding her up and dragging her between them down the aisle and out the door. Mama could hardly walk and I thought she would rather be in the shade than outside on the porch, but Mrs. Davis and Grace had decided for her. I sat there a while in the cool and the dark with just the candles alight and the end of the song. The men in the suits were getting ready to take Grandma away so I followed everyone outside. There was a crowd around Mama, it was a wonder she could breathe with all the people hanging over her, like a bunch of old crows picking round the last waterhole. Grace was talking to the man with the big car with ‘Heavenly Rest Funeral Home’ painted in gold letters on the side.
“It’s been too much of a shock for you Maise,” Mrs. Gillard was saying to Mama. ” She was too young to go so sudden like that.”
“The ways of the Lord are a mystery to us all,” said Mrs. O’Malley.
“Ours is not to wonder why . . .” someone else said.
“It’s the way of all flesh,” Mrs. Gillard said because she had read it somewhere.
“Leaving you with all the worry,” said another woman, who was forcing Mama to stay sitting on the bench. “It’s a crying shame with the price of wool what it is.”
“Don’t look like rain neither. . .” a man said just to make it worse.
It was a wall of people between Mama and me. I squashed through. Mama was surprised to see me.
“There you are Carolyn,” she said, tired, as if she had been searching. She looked around the faces in the circle and then at where she figured I was. Sometimes she just didn’t see you for looking.
“Oh dear, who will get you home?”
“But I want to be with you!” I said.
I had my handkerchief to give her. The clean one.
“Nonsense child, your mother is in no condition to worry about you.” Aunt Grace was there with her sharp fingers. “Come along now and don’t make it any more difficult than it already is.”
Some busybody was offering to get rid of me for her.
“No thank you Amy, Myra Davies of the Ladies Auxiliary will go back with her. Mr. Willard from Heavenly Rest has kindly offered to drive them. It’s all arranged.”
I pulled away to give Mama the hanky, but Aunt Grace had a grip.
“Carolyn,” she said sounding kind and holding tighter. “You’re upset—I told her mother it would be too much strain on an eight-year-old.” Aunt Grace was using me to push her way through the crowd. “Far too young I said, and I’ll say it again. One minute she wants to run away to Egypt, and the next she’s making a nuisance of herself.”
The ladies stared at me. Their eyes looked at me as if I had been the devil himself in a cotton frock. Their faces said, “Here is the girl who up and left her mother to run away to Egypt.” Mrs. Gillard looked at me amazed; they were all amazed. I felt my shame begin to burn on the ground around my feet and rush up and over me like I was a tree on fire that would burn forever.
“That was before the church!” I screamed. “I didn’t go—I came back!” My voice came out very loud because it wasn’t fair. I wanted to get to Mama. The people acted stunned. Grace looked at me hard, the tip of her tongue between her teeth. I looked back just as hard. She wouldn’t dare smack me in front of the church, but you never know.
“It’s expecting too much of children. They don’t understand,” someone was saying.
“I s’pose you shouldn’t wonder there’ll be tantrums.”
Some lady was being nice to me, like I was two years old; “Go along home like a good girl and forget all about it.”
I hadn’t run away and left Mama. I hadn’t done anything. I was hoping Mama would tell them, but she didn’t. I couldn’t even see her for people being angry with me.
“Carolyn, I won’t say it again,” Aunt Grace said and I think I started to cry. I didn’t want to be bundled off like an old umbrella nobody wants, but there was no hope of making anybody understand. Grace and Mrs. Davis rushed me towards a thick man in a black suit. He had the engine of the car already running.
“Here she is Mr. Willis,” Aunt Grace said, holding me out at arm’s length like I was a dangerous animal you could catch something from. “Best get her home,” she said.
She sounded like the Vet when one of the ewes has to be put down because it’s half dead anyway—sort of satisfied and let’s get on with the job. She stretched her lips over her teeth at Mrs. Davis and said, “Thank you Myra dear, the child’s over- indulged in my opinion, but who am I to interfere?” and went back up the church steps to tackle the crowd.
Mrs Davis fussed and the man Mr. Willis opened the door for us and took his cigarette out of his mouth. He held it in his thumb and first finger with the burning end turned in. There was a bit of tobacco on his tongue he spat out.
“Well come along now little lassie,” he said, “let’s get you home to your . . .”
He couldn’t say “mother” like he was going to, so he had to say “to your place” instead.

***

The Australian Literatutre Review
www.auslit.net

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