You had to rent a suit.
You felt like you owed it to her family to wear something nice, but your bank balance couldn’t take much more than this tired old rental. Unfortunately, your budget doesn’t include funeral attire.
You pull at the lapels now, standing outside the church, shadowed by the Brisbane skyline. It really is a horrid suit (how many summer funerals have been sweated into this fabric?), but you like to think that Libby wouldn’t have cared.
Libby. It still hurts to hear her name, even in your own mind. You will never be able to think her name again without that other word, always trailing just behind—Libby died. Libby is dead. Libbydeath.
The church is so packed, you have to stand at the back.
Projected onto the screen up front is Libby’s picture. You frown. It’s a professional portrait, and she is pretty. She wears makeup and a serene smile.
But it’s not her.
The service starts. Another image takes the place of the first.
And you almost break, right there. She is sitting on grass, laughing insanely. There are feathers in her hair.
This is your Libby.
You were never a “couple”, “an item” or “boyfriend and girlfriend”. It never went there.
But you loved her, all the same.
You loved her when you were twelve, when she braided feathers into your hair so you would match, and you loved her when she laughed because your mother said it looked stupid.
You loved her when she taught you how to surf, and she took those crazy wipeouts just so you wouldn’t feel so self-conscious.
You loved her when she said, ‘When we turn eighteen, we gotta go camping at Suffolk Park.’
But then your parents finally split, and Mum moved you to an inner-city apartment and an inner-city private school. And sure, you kept in touch, for awhile at least. You were always talking about that trip to Suffolk.
But there was always school. Work.University.Family.Bosses.Assignments.Meetings. Byron Bay felt further and further away.
And you don’t know how it happened, but as the years passed, you just couldn’t think of how to say what you wanted anymore.
And now you wonder, what if? What if you had tried harder? Would she have been with you, in some distant and beautiful place, instead of standing in line at the convenience store when some desperate guy pulled out a gun?
All through the service, you spin circles in your mind as you form alternate realities.
Finally, men take the coffin outside, slide it into the hearse. Libby’s mum opens a basket, and a flurry of glorified pigeons take flight, beating frantically at the air.
You could never buy into this business of releasing doves.
Sure, people say that the dead are liberated from the restraints of the physical world. You think that’s nice. Libby is liberated. Libby is at peace.
But in the end, the doves always fly back to the coop. No-one sees that. They fly in circles a few times, but some invisible force always pulls them back to where they’ve always been—back to security, familiarity and stability. And then they’re tossed back into a box to be released somewhere else.
You think it’s a stupid metaphor for Libby.
The wake is worse.
There are too many people, and half of them don’t look sad enough. They are strangers to your Libby.
Why are you here?
You turn, startled, because it’s Libby’s voice that you hear. But it’s Tara that stands behind you, and now the bonds around your chest and throat tighten further still.
She would follow you and Libby around when you were kids. They were the closest of sisters, so you had to put up with sharing your best friend.
One morning, she dragged you both down to the back fence, which was draped with the largest spider web you could have imagined. Across the web hung these dragonfly wings, all that remained of the tiny creatures after the spider had sucked them dry.
‘There’re fairy wings,’ little Tara told you gleefully. ‘They put them out to dry in the night!’
You’ve been staring a fraction of a second too long.
‘Do you remember me?’ Tara asks. She looks upset by your lack of response.
Oh Dave, you idiot. You think maybe she’s upset because her sister is dead?
‘Hey, Tara.’ You’re speaking too softly, like she’s so fragile a strong word would break her. You clear your throat. ‘Of course I remember. It’s, um, been awhile.’ You manage to catch yourself before you add how are you? Bloody stupid conversation starter, that would be.
Her mouth smiles politely. ‘Yeah, what have you been up to?’
‘Well, I finished uni year before last.’ You fidget, embarrassed. ‘And I work for YouI now.’
‘The insurance company?’
‘Weren’t you studying journalism?’
You shrug, looking down. ‘I graduated in the GFC. I panicked, took the first job I could find.’
She nods, chewing her lip.
‘So what about you?’ you ask.
‘I was starting second year. I was doing design.’
‘But you’re not, now?’
‘I’m leaving the city for awhile.’ She cocks her head, watching you cautiously. ‘Do you want to come with me?’
‘Libby always wanted to go to Suffolk Park, down near Byron.’
‘You did, too.’
‘If she’s anywhere, she’s there.’
Her glare is defiant. She waits for you to say something cynical, something sympathetic, something non-committal and generation-Y.
But you know what she means, don’t you?
Libby is gone, but the dream is still alive. It’s the last piece of her that you—Tara and yourself—have left.
So you just say, ‘How long for?’
She shrugs. ‘As long as it takes. I was actually thinking, why put a limit on it?’
And you can see it: the sea. Sand, sun, sky, sunrises. Trees, real trees sprawled across the foreshore, not the fenced and carefully placed gardens they have here.
When was the last time you really chased a dream?
‘I have work,’ you say.
She looks down, but you’ve already noticed the beginnings of fresh tears in her eyes. ‘Yeah, I know. I just thought, maybe…’
Oh God, she’s going to cry. You start to panic a little—do you hug her? Pat her on the back? Say some nonsense in a soothing tone?
But she’s already turning away. ’Sorry, I gotta go… help with the food,’ she chokes out. ‘I’ll see you later.’ She leaves the room in short, stiff strides.
What the hell is wrong with you, Dave?
Some internal battle is won, and you follow her. She’s already cleared the hallway and is halfway up the stairs.
‘I’ll go,’ you call up to her, ‘for a little while, at least.’
She turns, wiping her eyes. ‘No, it’s okay. It wasn’t fair of me to ask you like that.’
You stop at the foot of the staircase. ‘No, I want to, I really do.’
‘Take some time to think about it, Dave. Call me later.’ She takes the rest of the stairs without looking back down.
Your flat is almost bare. After two years, you still haven’t properly moved in.
You sit at the desk, pull out the folder of old uni stories from the bottom drawer. You were going to be a journalist. A freelance journalist, no shitty newsrooms. You would go places and meet people and write about things that mattered. You would matter.
How the bloody hell did you wind up working for an insurance agency?
You have one of those old telephones. No cordless technology. You pick up the receiver and you’re tethered to the desk.
‘Hello?’ Jonno always answers the phone the same way—hehhh lo-oh? Like he’ll talk to you, but he’s got something more important to do. You always feel like an irritation, talking to Jonno. But that’s bosses, you guess. They need you, you need them, and neither of you are particularly happy about it.
‘Hey, Jonno. It’s David.’ Always David, never Dave, with bosses. That’s a rule of yours.
‘Hey, what’s up?’
‘I need some time off.’
‘Ah. What for?’
‘I… I need to go away.’
He waits for more.
You need time to go away, to help your best friend’s sister find some kind of peace, and to do some grieving yourself. You need time to say goodbye to a teenage dream, what might have been.
But there’s no bloody way you’re saying that. A man doesn’t say sensitive crap like that, especially to his boss. Even if she is dead and everything is pain.
Jonno sighs, like you’re the biggest damn pain in the world. ‘How much time do you need?’
‘However long it takes.’ Oh, that’s going to go down well. But it’s the truth.
He takes a few moments to reply. ‘Look, David, you’re a good worker and a good guy. But the job needs doing, you know? If you leave now, I can’t guarantee there’s gonna be a position for you when you get back.’
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? You’re a good guy, but your real value is in your utility.
‘Actually,’ you say, ‘that’s totally fine by me.’
He just says, ‘Good luck David.’
The old telephone goes shick as you hit the end button.
‘Dave? How are you?’
‘Mum, did you hear about Libby?’ Death…
You swallow painfully. ‘Libby Carpenter. My best mate growing up?’
‘Right, sure, I remember her.’
‘Oh? That’s sad.’
No. No, ‘sad’ is for the bundle of bloody feathers on the road. ‘Sad’ is for the anonymous old man two floors up who was found by the cleaner a week after he died.
You dying today, that would be ‘sad’.
‘Sad’ is not for Libby. Libby is torment. Agony. Disappointment. Crushingchokingpainregret.
You realise she’s talking again, something about her cat, her new dining suite, her car. It’s always been this way, with you and Mum. You never talk philosophy, or politics, or the weather. You take turns talking about yourselves.
And now it’s your turn again.
‘Mum, I’m going away awhile.’
‘I’m going to Suffolk.’
She doesn’t reply, and in that silence you hear the question repeated, what for?
‘We—’ Swallow. ‘Libby and I always wanted to go there.’
And then she finally says, ‘How long?’
‘I don’t know.’ But you’re really saying, maybe I won’t come back, and you know she hears it.
‘What about your job?’
‘I quit today.’
She exhales audibly as she prepares herself for the motherly sermon.
‘Listen, David,’ she says, ‘I know you’re upset,’ (Upset? ANGUISHCRACKINGHEAVINGMISERY) ‘But you have responsibilities—’
I interrupt, ‘I know. I’m not asking permission.’
‘I’m coming with you.’
‘That’s…’ She takes a moment. ‘That’s great. Thank you, Dave.’
‘So when do we leave?’
‘I can be packed in half an hour.’
‘So, now? You don’t need any time to…’
To what, Dave? Think things through? Make up some excuses? Go crawling back to your boss?
‘I’m not going to be any more ready than I am now,’ she says. ‘Do you still have a surfboard?’
You can be a self-centred coward, Dave, but you’re not an idiot.
‘Yeah. I’ll be at yours in an hour.’
You pull up outside her house.
You’ve brought all you need. Surfboard. Wetsuit.Cleared the fridge.Paid off the landlord. As an afterthought, you threw in a notepad and a few pens. Maybe you’ll do some writing again. Maybe you’ll write about this.
She’s out the front, heaving her bags into the back of an old Holden wagon.
‘Hey,’ she says.
You smile a little. ‘Hey.’
‘We’ll take the Commodore.’ You don’t argue, just throw your bags in with hers. Her surfboard is already on the roof. You slide yours on top and tie them down.
Tara stands by the car, staring at the house. You wait.
Finally you say, ‘I can drive, if you want.’
She turns back to you. ‘Sorry. I swear, I’m, okay. She sighs, and runs a shaky hand through her hair. ‘But yeah, you probably should drive.’
You take the keys, but it’s only as you put them in the ignition that you recognise this surfboard key ring.
You look around. Feathers hang from the rear view mirror. Kookaburra, magpie, maybe one from an eagle.
‘This is her car, isn’t it?’
‘Did she still collect feathers?’
Tara nods. ‘Still wore them in her hair, too.’
This makes you happy, you think, and maybe a little relieved. You can’t imagine any Libby other than yours.
‘Do you remember that time, you were maybe seven?’ you say. ‘And you showed us those dragonfly wings in the spider web? You said they were fairy wings.’ You want to cheer her up.
‘Oh.’ She blinks, then: ‘I’d forgotten about that.’ She smiles, and her eyes lighten a little this time. ‘You know, I never actually thought back on that, to realise they were dragonfly wings.’
‘It was a nice delusion.’ You can’t help but smile, too. It feels good. You throw the car in gear.
It’s been a week since Libby died. Grief is still your master.
But you’re on your way to someplace better.