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April 01st 2008 print

Patricia Rolfe

A Man on His Own

Anyone who has been widowed, divorced, whatever, finds often that they are being paired off, at dinner parties, nights at the theatre, at race meetings. It can hardly be called matchmaking these days, just the result of tidy minds and interfering dispositions.
It happened to James Tobin, even at funerals, which startled him. His wife Diana had died after a stroke on the ninth hole at Royal Sydney.
He’d always gone to quite a lot of funerals. They were more entertaining, he thought, than weddings or christenings. In death you saw the whole of life. At any halfway decent funeral you could observe old animosities surfacing, absences noted and deplored, old secrets disclosed with decades of tactful suppression wiped out in one whispered aside.
There was no shortage of funerals for him to choose from. Christian, Jewish, even, when the mother of one of the young men in his law firm died, Moslem, but mostly they were secular. Crem jobs, he called them. As he once more fronted up at the Eastern Suburbs or the Northern Suburbs crematorium he occasionally wistfully recalled times past and chilly days among crumbling tombstones and rank weeds at Rookwood, the sort of mournful scene that these days you saw only on BBC-TV drama series.
Still working as a senior partner in a law firm which had made a lot of money in the heyday of industrial-relations advocacy, Tobin had had a so-so career as a State politician, mostly in Opposition. He served on committees for the arts, top ones though, civil liberties, law reform, even conservation. Most of these didn’t interest him much. He guessed he wasn’t alone in this.
Today’s service was secular although someone read from Paul to the Romans. Thank God, he thought, as he looked around the chapel, uncertain for a moment whether this was the Northern Suburbs or the Eastern Suburbs—no one had broached the Gospels. That was going too far.
He could pinpoint when his keenness for funerals began. When he was ten or eleven his father had taken him to the funeral of a Prime Minister. His father had been a compositor on a conservative daily paper. He had worked through the Depression and during World War II was in what was called a reserved occupation—people needed to get the bad news.
He had been a staunch Labor supporter and trade unionist. For some years he was the father of the chapel, as it was quaintly called, involved in wage negotiations with the owner of the company, or, rather the majority shareholder who styled himself “proprietor”. This was someone his father had regarded with a degree of liking as a man but with contempt for what he stood for. His father had been too fastidious to be involved in politics, despising the deals and dishonesties which were the glue of the party and despising equally the men and women who saw the union only as a stepping stone to politics. His life was mostly within the walls of his suburban house—paid off when he was only fifty—with slow precision doing repair jobs around the house and cultivating a vegetable garden where he grew, as well as the usual, aubergines and artichokes with seeds given him by their Lebanese neighbours. His gift to his only child was the Sunday afternoons he spent with him, taking him to every museum and gallery in the city many times, walking through parks (they had no car) and through the grounds of Sydney University, visiting churches of every denomination, quite often when there was a service on, and attending every parade and public event.
At breakfast on the morning of the funeral his rather was brimming with excitement. “A rare opportunity,” he told his son. “This may be the only time in your life you’ll attend the funeral of a Prime Minister who died in office. Hurry along now, Jimmie, we want to get a good possie.”
They were so early that their footsteps echoed in the almost empty cathedral but there was a short line of people filing past the closed coffin in front of the high altar. His father led him away from this and they settled on one of the long benches against the walls, under the thirteenth Station of the Cross.
As official mourners arrived to fill the seats facing the high altar, the child noted that many didn’t genuflect; they weren’t Catholics. Otherwise, it didn’t seem much different to the high masses his father brought him to occasionally, to listen to the choir. His father had loved the sound of Latin although he’d never had the chance to learn it. But the service went on for much longer than the only funeral the boy had been to—Grandma Dillon’s the year before.
Afterward he and his father walked across into Hyde Park, sat on the grass and ate the corned beef and lettuce sandwiches his mother had made. His father drank tea from the cap of the thermos and the child had a bottle of creaming soda. They shared a lamington his mother had made while they watched the funeral procession form up in College Street and move off.
Now in the Eastern, yes, it was the Eastern Suburbs crematorium James Tobin thought of home-made lamingtons and how remote they were. He had a passing vision of his mother brushing the odd small feather off one of the eggs his father had fetched from the chook-run down the bottom of the garden, cracking it and dropping the contents into a blue-banded white bowl. He sighed, and the man alongside him, someone he didn’t know, looked across.
“What’s a State funeral?” he had asked his father.
“It’s just like any funeral but it’s for someone in public life.”
“The man in the coffin, did he know he’d get one?”
“He’d have been aware that if he died in office he would but I guess he didn’t expect to. Or want to.” His father had grinned. “I don’t think it has any bearing on what happens on the other side, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“You think he might have gone to Hell?”
“No, I don’t mean that. He was a good man, as politicians go. And we don’t know if anyone’s in Hell, do we? Or if there’s a Hell. No matter what those nuns teach you. Labor people never forgave him for ratting on the party, joining the other side. But I don’t think that’s enough to send you to Hell.”
His father rolled up the piece of greaseproof paper his sandwiches had been wrapped in and threw it towards a bin. It missed.