Aaron Horrell is a full-time soulless bureaucrat and a part-time creative writing student at Victoria University of Wellington. His short stories have been published in Headland, the Wanganui Chronicle, and are forthcoming in Massey University’s Alluvia. He is a staunch unionist from a dodgy small town and is most likely a narcissist.
Writing is a pain in the arse, but what are you gonna do? It’s not like you can stop.
My Granddad Randall was called a lot of things in his life, but he was never called reliable. Yet whenever he came up to Wanganui he’d always have a pocket full of Curiously Strong Peppermints and go for long walks in the afternoon, and that seemed pretty reliable to me. And if it was raining, he’d make a grumpy face and mumble something about his health, then put on his coat and head on out.
I was pedalling down Alma Road when I saw him by the bridal shop, not far from where Brian would later crash his Commodore. Granddad was holding an old Nokia at arm’s length and squinting, with a cigarette stuck to his bottom lip. He gave me a handful of peppermints and I promised not to say anything about him smoking.
When I got home, Mum smelt the mint and threatened to belt me with The Spoon for buying lollies. When I told her about him smoking she shushed me and said, “Don’t say anything to Nana, ay? We don’t wanna get Granddad in trouble.” That’s when I learnt some things don’t need to be said, even if they’re true. It was the same thing when Brian died.
The next time I saw Granddad he wore a tuxedo and shiny shoes and his hair was combed over his bald spot. It was the fourth time in his life he’d ever worn a suit. Once when he married Nana, again when they buried Kevin, a third time when Nana died, and that day in 2005, the last time I saw him. They’d given him a layer of pale foundation –too much foundation, Mum reckoned – and it made him look Spanish instead of a Māori.
Uncle Sean was looking down at him.
“He looks good. They did a good job.”
“He’s too pale though,” said Mum. “But that’s Mother – she always gets what she wants.”
“He was her husband. It’s what they wanted.”
Uncle Dave squeezed a flap of coffin lining and shrugged. “Maybe it’s what he wanted.”
Nine-year-old me looked at Granddad’s makeup. “Mum, how come Nana wanted Granddad to be buried white?”
“Not now,” she said, and checked her phone. “Well. I feel like a bloody drink.”
“Yeah, bugger it,” Dave said, “We’ll see you at the service, Sean”.
Uncle Sean looked like he wanted to say something, but instead he closed his eyes and prayed. It was hard for him, I think, losing Nana and Granddad so quick.
Nana was the first person I knew that died. She was a tall lady with knobbly fingers and jam-jar glasses. Mum told me Nana didn’t feel a thing when she died – she just fainted in the kitchen and never woke up. Granddad called an ambulance and tried CPR but his lungs were already pretty bad and their Chihuahuas wouldn’t stop yapping. The doctors said Nana had a condition and that made her muscle connections weak, that’s why she was so tall. Something broke near her heart, and that was that. She was forty-seven.
I wasn’t sad to lose Nana. I never forgave Nana for giving Mum The Spoon. No matter how hard Mum swung that spoon, it never left a mark on me. I remember the last time Mum used it, not long after Nana died. She started winding up like usual, but I could see her heart wasn’t in it. She stopped after a couple of whacks and went into the living room without saying anything. Later that night I snuck out of bed and saw her sitting in the kitchen with a bottle of wine, staring at The Spoon. Just sitting there, staring, not doing anything.
Mum got the call about Granddad six weeks after Nana died. The phone rang late on a Monday night and I heard her moan long and low in the kitchen, all deep and shaky. When she came in and told me about Granddad, my exact words were ‘oh my fucking god’. I thought she’d be mad at me for swearing, but she choke-laughed and gave me a hug. Sometimes swear words are the only words that make sense cos swear words are always honest. What else can you say when someone dies? ‘I’m sorry for your loss, you have my deepest condolences, my thoughts are with you in this trying time’? What does that even mean?
The morning after a death is the worst. I learned that after Brian died. You wake up sad and weighed-down and your sleepy brain tells you it was all a dream, that he didn’t wrap his Commodore around a pohutukawa tree on Alma Road. He didn’t die at the scene. Little red pieces of his Confederate flag bumper sticker aren’t still stuck in the bark of a tree. But then you wake up a little and you realise – nah, it wasn’t a dream. That happened. Then you have to get up and wash last night’s dishes and clean up the broken glass in the sink.
In my experience funerals for old people are always better. They don’t get upended like we do. Maybe old people are better at pretending, or maybe they learn not to care so much. Either way, old-people-death is a different buzz. Nobody says it’s better that old people are dead because they were skinheads. No one says that it’s good that he hit a tree instead of people. No one announces at the funeral that Brian was an organ donor and now someone has his corneas, causing a ripple of ‘oh-god-they-took-his-eyes-they-cut-out-his-fucking-eyes.’ Old people funerals are different.
Granddad’s funeral was the best I’ve ever seen. Uncle Sean gave a speech full of God and Jesus and talked about how Granddad was a good Dad to him, even though he didn’t have to be. The priest guy – I think he was a priest – talked about Granddad’s childhood on the East Coast and his marriage to Nana, and his years on the road works in Gore. The priest said that when Nana died, Granddad decided to die too and that was that. They were married twenty-six years. The priest talked about the people that ‘survive’ Granddad – Mum, then twenty-six; David, twenty-four; and me, Carlos, then nine. No mention of Uncle Sean though, cos he’s not blood.
Granddad’s wake was held at the local Lawn Bowls Club where he spent most his evenings. Mum didn’t take me to the burial cos she thought I was too young. I wish she did – it would’ve prepared me for when we buried Brian. His Mum and Dad fell to bits when they lowered Brian down and we gave a final stiff-arm salute. They didn’t know the real Brian, not really. How could they? He was their little boy. They didn’t know the Brian that Brian had chosen to be, the guy who shaved heads in the kitchen at parties. Their Brian wasn’t our Brian and our Brian wasn’t theirs. So of course we raised an arm at his funeral. It’s what he would’ve wanted.
I’d never been to Gore before Granddad’s funeral. It’s not a bad spot, to be honest. I sat on the grass outside the Bowls Club and listened to the bellbirds singing as someone hammered in the distance. Nine-year-old me dreamt that a boy and his dad were building a deck so they could sit with a couple of beers and listen to the birds. That helped me forget about Mum throwing dirt on the other side of town.
Mum and Uncle Dave were the first ones back. Mum gave me a big hug and we all went out back and sat under a sun umbrella. Uncle Dave told us a story about when Granddad stopped working, when his workmates threw him a party at the Bowls Club. Dave said they gave him a packet of cigarettes as a farewell present and Nana laughed and said, ‘you silly buggers, he hasn’t smoked in years’. Granddad’s mates laughed and hung their heads, and Nana thought they were laughing with her.
Uncle Dave chuckled when he told the story, but afterwards he went all quiet. He blinked a lot and shook his head and chugged his beer. Mum put her wine glass down and rolled a cigarette and nobody said anything for a long time.
Eventually, nine-year-old me asked, “Mum, are we gonna get any money in the will?”
Mum laughed around the cigarette on her lip. “Not likely mate. He barely looked after us when he was alive, he’s not gonna start now.”
Dave looked into his beer. “Let’s not talk about that stuff, ay? Not today. And not around the young fulla.”
“Today’s the only day we can talk about that stuff. He could’ve stopped her, but he was always bloody drinking.”
“Aw, come on, he wasn’t always drinking.”
“After Kevin went, he was. Just about every night. Either drinking or off on a bloody walk.” Mum took the cigarette from her mouth but was shaking too much to light it. “Some things need to be said.”
“But not today, okay? Please?” Uncle Dave finished his beer and stood up. “You want a fresh one? I’m getting another. Carlos? Coke?”
Uncle Sean arrived two drinks later with puffy red eyes and a tense jaw. Instead of ‘hello’ he said, “I see you found the bar.” Dave pretended not to hear.
Dave stood up and wiggled an empty glass. “G’day Sean. You want a beer, mate? I’m not sure if this counts as a special occasion.”
“A Sprite is fine.”
They chatted for a while and it looked like everything might be fine, but then Uncle Sean started talking about ‘being there’. Mum sat and bit the inside of her lower lip, then eventually said, “Dad knew I didn’t want Mum anywhere near Carlos. If he wanted to see us then he needed to come visit.”
“The obligation was on us to make the effort. I’m not saying it was easy. Sometimes I did their lawns and left without talking to either of them.”
Mum said, “It was different for you – you were the golden boy. Dad should’ve been there for me and Dave.”
Dave sculled the rest of his drink and whacked the empty glass down. “Nope. We’re not having this discussion today. Not here. We’re gonna have a feed and have some beers and have a few fucking laughs.”
Mum stared at the cigarette that she still hadn’t lit. Everything was quiet, except for the bellbirds and hammering and the beer glasses clinking in the Bowl’s Club. Mum shook her head and threw her cigarette in the ashtray.
“We should’ve said something for him in Māori. A karakia or something.”
Uncle Sean spoke through a clenched jaw. “Now why the hell would we do that?”
“You know why.”
“No I don’t. Tell me.” Sean was daring Mum to say it. And this time she did.
“Because we’re Māoris. Well, you’re not, but we are – me and Dave and Carlos. And so was Dad. I’m sick of this shit about Dad being Spanish, there’s no bloody Spaniards in Ruatoria.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sa–”, said Uncle Sean, before stopping himself. “Bugger it,” he said, “Bugger the both of you. I’m getting a bloody drink.”
I said, “Mum, you told me we’re Spanish.”
“We’re Māoris, mate. Well, part Māori anyway.”
Dave shook his head. “Jesus, did you have to bring that up?”
“It needed to be said.”
“It did not need to be said.”
“Well, maybe not. But you know how he can be. Sometimes he just pisses me off.”
“Yeah, I know. He’s become a self-righteous prick since he converted.”
They looked at each other.
“Hopefully he just has one.”
After Granddad’s funeral, I decided that some things don’t need to be said. Families keep secrets and tell lies for a reason and that’s okay. Families need to stay together. It’s easy to let go of the truth, especially when the truth wants to hammer a wedge between you and your mates. That’s why I say I’m Spanish when the truth is as plain as the nose on my face. The truth means trouble, and who wants that? Not me, I lost one good mate already. Nah, it’s easier to double down and say ‘my people’ killed more natives than the rest of Europe combined. If you can’t have family, at least have some mates.
About a year after the funeral, Uncle Sean came up to Wanganui with Aunt Julie and their baby Randy. Uncle Sean had just finished a two-month Christian retreat where he was out of contact. Mum tipped out all the wine before he came.
We sat in the lounge and had dinner in front of the TV as a family. I watched little Randy army-crawl across the floor and whack Uncle Sean on the foot, but Sean didn’t seem to notice. Mum was talking about parenting and Nana and Granddad, and how she wanted to do things different. Uncle Sean looked like he was thinking of something to say, something that was loyal and true and fair. Little Randall wrapped his baby fist around a shoelace and said, “Da-da”, and that was that. Everything that needed to be said was said.