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Short story: The undertaker’s story, by Owen Marshall

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“It was almost dark on the evening I witnessed Carl strike his wife”: a story of high gothic by New Zealand’s master of the short story, Owen Marshall

How wonderful it would be to be born old and have the joy of growing young. I’m thinking of that as I sit in my car at the domain and watch small boys playing rugby. As always with kids at that age they find it irresistible to pursue the ball instead of maintaining position, and so they cluster and swarm  despite the shouted instructions of the coaches. A mist drifts over the field and the soft Spring foliage of the silver birches droops with a heavy dew.  A fox terrier runs among the players, but they take no notice and continue pursuing the ball and one another.  From the carpark comes high pitched laughter, and indistinct within the mist seagulls sheer overhead.  I too used to play footy here when a boy and often on days like this, biking through the fog with my boots tied to the handle bars.  It’s a pleasant reminiscence, but I cannot stay long for there’s a long drive ahead and  Carl Withnaill’s body is close behind me in the Mazda SUV, covered with a tartan picnic rug of  my dear mother’s. You need fear no grotesqueness however, for he’s in a mid range Bunzl body bag: out of sight and with just the faintest scent of formaldehyde.

Carl and I weren’t friends, although we knew each other and had affiliations in common.  We weren’t enemies either. Acquaintances I suppose you could say. We both had homes in Vogel Street, just two apart, beside the course of the Felton Golf club to which we both belonged. He was on a twelve handicap, two better than myself, but then he practised  more than me: golf is a game that rewards persistence. We were in the same Rotary Club too. He was a rather successful solicitor and enjoyed making jokes about my own profession, which is that of undertaker. People seem led to levity by mention of my occupation, perhaps as a form of protection from deeper reflection. I’ve become accustomed to the comments. You don’t start off in life with an ambition to be an undertaker do you. Train driver, astronaut, pop star when you’re young, accountant, lawyer, diplomat maybe when you’re older. To have dead people as your clients doesn’t appeal. To many people death seems contagious, whereas I’ve found that working alongside it has given me a greater appreciation of the wonder and privilege of life. I can watch a butterfly, a cloud, twilight on the retreating tide, for many minutes at a time.

Anyway, as I say, Carl and I knew each other, though almost always we met in the presence of other people – Rotary, Business Association and as members of the golf club. Otherwise it was just a wave, or phatic greeting as we passed in Vogel Street. I was never invited to his house although he was a convivial man. If I’d  been  married it may have been different of course. Carl was married. Noleen was her name. A large, ginger haired  woman with considerable physical presence, but a quiet and gentle personality as I found from occasional conversation at functions. She’s the reason I have her husband’s body behind me in Mazda now.

No, there’s no story here of unbridled sexual passion and infidelity, but there’s cruelty to be found, and death of course.  At the back of my section, close to the Cleopatra magnolia, which flowers wondrously on bare branches, is a small wooden gate that gives access to the golf course, not far from the twelfth hole, which is one of the longest on the course. There’s a water hazard too, in the form of a long pond  with bluegum trees at the north end. As the trees have grown it’s become increasing difficult to par the twelfth unless your drive is spot on. A couple of times, before any golfers have been on the course, I’ve seen a scrawny kid fishing for balls with a whitebait net.  That’s showing some initiative. Early in the morning and also in the evening, I often walk to the pond, past the McIvers’ place next door, and the Withnaills’ two along. Both winter and summer offer their contrasting attractions: a summer dusk is magical,with the colours fading and the fragrance of the freshly cut grass of the fairways, and winter also with a metallic frost and that frozen  stillness. Even the rain I don’t mind, for this is a dry region. A wind is unpleasant though, no matter what the season. I don’t like walking in the wind. Leisurely reflections don’t seem to come in the wind.

I like it that there are lots of trees on the golf course. They’re there for strategic purposes, but have aesthetic value as well. Trees have individual fragrance: the resinous pines,  the lemon, petrol smell of  the peeling Eucalyptus, the smoky bluegum. Macrocarpa is most evocative for me, and when I walk among them I’m a boy again, sitting by the great, evergreen wall that surrounded  the red roofed wooden farmhouse, and hearing from the yards my father’s voice of command and the barking of the border collies in response.

It was almost dark on the evening I witnessed Carl  strike his wife. I was strolling past the low paling fence that marked the boundary of his property with the course, when he and  Noleen came to the french doors leading to their patio.  They were clearly outlined by lights behind them, while I was unable to be seen.  Without conscious decision I stopped to watch and listen: being nosy I know, but there’s something atavistically  satisfying in watching others, unbeknown to them.  A man within the bounds of his own property feels free to liberate his true personality and what I observed was ugly and unexpected.  Carl and Noleen were arguing and when she turned away he roughly pulled her back and punched her on the side of the face.  “Silly bitch,” he said.  “You’re a useless, silly bitch.” Her body gave a sort of quake, but she didn’t fall, put her hands to her face and turned away again. She made no resistance, just gave a bursting sob and stumbled back inside. What a species we are.

What do you do in a situation like that?  If it had been a movie I would’ve strode through the Withnaills’ landscaped section and clouted him, comforted Noleen, turned a grim face to the camera, but it wasn’t a movie and I knew I was a sort of Peeping Tom at the edge of their privacy.  So after waiting just long enough to see the blow wasn’t repeated, I walked on in the darkness of the golf course and the shadow of cruelty.

Of course I saw them both differently after that – his affable suaveness revealed as  preening arrogance and her pleasant compliance as the symptom of oppression, but marriages are private arrangements by those concerned and I said nothing of what I knew. You don’t forget something like that though and when I sat with him during meetings of the golf club management committee, or Rotary occasions, I remembered not just the words, but the tone. The blow too. When he announced that he was donating a defibrillator to the Hospice, I felt no gratitude. When he offered pro bono work to the Salvation Army I was unmoved. What I had seen from the sweet dusk of the golf course was the real Carl Withnaill.

Less than a month afterwards Noleen died from a fall on the stairs of the old  Augusta Theatre in Maple street: steep stairs, marble and uncarpeted. She and Carl had been part of a small group visiting  to make recommendation for a Historic Places listing. They left early, while others of the group had remained behind to inspect some original tasseling, and barely heard Noleen’s cry as she fell and Carl’s shouts soon afterwards. A terrible thing to happen.

Carl didn’t ask me to handle the funeral. He went to Stengler and Kayes, the largest firm of  undertakers in the city.  They did a professional job as always, but I’ve always thought their main room,  spacious though it is, has a rather dispiriting outlook onto the firm’s carpark and the workshop of  Beta Refrigeration Services.  People want a pastoral scene when they contemplate the end of life.  My own chapel  looks out on rhododendrons and lemon trees through which Monty’s Tyre Shop is barely visible. Noleen’s sister gave the best eulogy and there were affecting clips of Carl and Noleen, some when their children were small.

I know Wallace Stengler well, and like him. He doesn’t play golf, but he’s pleasant company and very professional in his work. His father founded the firm and Wallace has advanced it. We talked briefly of Noleen’s death when we met at a recital of the Burns String Trio. “No one saw it happen of course,” he told me. “Carl said she just slipped on the smooth marble and  went down with a hell of a wallop.  It must have been too, because when she was on the table there were all these terrible bruises on her head as if she’d banged over and over.  She must have bounced down several steps. It wasn’t easy to prepare her for family viewing.” Wallace had no suspicions, and I aroused none.

Barry Robbins plays at Felton. He’s what we call a bogey golfer because he’s on an eighteen handicap.  An inveterate slicer of the ball and a great swearer because of it, but then he’s too old to improve now.  He’s a senior sergeant and I deliberately got into casual conversation with him when I saw him practising alone on the putting green.  I brought the conversation round to Noleen’s death and said there was something I’d appreciate his view on. “It’s awkward actually,” I told him, “but I once saw Carl hit Noleen and wondered if I should mention it. After what happened to her I mean.”

“Where did you see that?” Barry asked and he picked up his ball and came closer.  I told him I was walking past their place on the course, in the evening as I often did.

“And he didn’t see you?”

“No.”

“Was it a punch, or just a shove?”

“A punch.”

“Just one?”

 “Just one.”

“And what did she do?”

“Just took it.”

“I wouldn’t say anything,” said Barry.  “Not after all this time. You’d be opening up trouble for yourself for sure. Stuff happens in marriage and they always seemed an okay couple.” He put the golf ball on the smooth grassed surface again and took his stance. “It’s all water under the bridge now anyway,” he said. I could tell he didn’t understand what I was getting at, but I just left it at that.

Carl didn’t come into money as a result of his wife’s death, he didn’t quickly pair up with an attractive younger woman with a marked libido, he didn’t buy a Mercedes convertible, change his dress code, or travel  to Machu Picchu. He displayed due contained sorrow for a time. His life went on as usual as far as I could tell. I was unable to accept that, despite knowing that Barry Robbins’ advice was sound. I felt an unwelcome responsibility even though Noleen had played no significant part in my life. If the agencies of justice in a society see no reason to take action, there’s still individual responsibility though, isn’t there? On the night Carl hit his wife I’d evaded that, but couldn’t any longer. One must act on what one knows for a clear conscience.

There was no particular hurry. I’ve always been an organised, systematic person. It’s an advantage when you run a business, even a necessity in fact, especially if you lack a compelling personality.  I know my own failings: that I lack charisma and that easy engagement with my fellows that draws people in. I overheard once, in the locker room at the club, Greg Hight saying to someone that I dealt with stiffs all day, and I was pretty much a stiff myself. Greg’s useless as a golfer. No consistency in his swing at all despite the flash Cleveland clubs.

No particular hurry, but I got things sorted in my mind. Each month the Felton committee meet at the clubhouse, and often afterwards Carl stayed on alone to catch up on work as the treasurer.  I took what I needed to my locker, but after  the meeting that followed, Carl didn’t stay on so I just waited a month. He did stay on the next month, perhaps because the AGM was coming up when his report would be due. I said goodnight with the others and walked towards my house through the darkened course, but I didn’t go home, just waited a while by the quiet pond at the twelfth  hole. In summer the sprinklers were often on when I walked on the course in the dark, but that night was cold and still and the bluegums were outlined against moonlit sky. The smell of trees is not so strong in in the cold.

When I walked back to the clubhouse there were no cars, and through the committee room window I could see Carl working, so I went briefly to my locker, then the shallow bunker of the 18th, then back to talk to Carl. He looked up, not especially surprised, for he knew I was a bit of a course prowler.  “Hi,” he said, “what’s up?”

“You’ll want to see what’s in the bunker out there,” I said. He got up in his unhurried way and we walked down the corridor, passing the bar and locker room, and out into the night.

“What’ve you got there?”, he said as we went.

“A body bag,” I said.  “It was dropped off for me here.”

“You’ve got some job,haven’t you. Jesus,” and he laughed.  He seemed pleased to find further evidence of the demeaning peculiarity of my  profession. I didn’t mind telling him of the bag, but made no mention of the iron bar I held beneath it.

In fine sand of the bunker, which was an almost luminous white/grey in the moonlight, was the stub of a putter with blue ribbon tied to the face. “Now there’s an oddity,” I told him, and when he knelt down to have look, I hit him hard just above the right ear, before giving him a massive injection of  formaldehyde. There was very little blood and just a few convulsions after the injection. I sat with him for a few minutes until it was over, then I left him there in the body bag and went back to the clubhouse to get Guy Hanley’s electric golf cart. A body bag fits on a golf cart almost as well as a golf bag, and off we went over the course towards the twelfth and my place.  I came back later of course to return the cart, clear a handful of clotted sand from the bunker and lock up the clubhouse. I remember the sharp shadows cast by the moon as I walked home and the black, scurrying orb of a hedgehog by the fourteenth tee. Most hedgehogs you see are dead I suppose and you don’t realise they can move quite fast. The golf course is a different place at night. There’s something almost cathedral like in the soaring trees, the manicured, delineated surfaces, the spacious silence.

I’m not anxious with bodies. Carl was safe in his bag in the garage. Most people panic with a body I suppose and that’s when things go wrong. They want shot of it at any price and so make mistakes. I left him there the next day, and in the evening took him to my work when my staff had all gone home. In the embalming room I gave him due respect – no indignities inflicted despite his crime.  I’d taken his life after all and that was quite enough. I felt no personal gratification, just a sense of duty and justice done. As I said before, we all have a responsibility to look out for one another, to uphold fair play, decency, social and  personal rights.

In my job I often encounter curiosity, even fear, concerning the process of embalmment.  Visions of gaping Egyptian mummies and sarcophagi perhaps, when modern science has made it quite straightforward.  The body is washed in a disinfectant solution, limbs massaged to relieve stiffening, a shave if necessary, the eyes closed with plastic caps and the lower jaw secured by wires, or sewing. The blood is removed through the veins and replaced with formaldehyde based chemicals through the arteries. Then through a lower abdomen incision the organs are punctured and drained and more formaldehyde injected. The rest is really just cosmetic, to prepare the body for viewing in the casket. In Carl’s case that was unnecessary of course. The whole process in about three hours.  I don’t mind doing embalming: there’s no need for aimless conversation and no objection to the professional decisions I make. When people question my sense of humour, I say I may not be able to make people laugh, but I can always make them smile.

I could have retained Carl’s company at home for some length of time without any problems, or indication of his presence, but he needed to be put to rest.  Do you know the Catlins in Southland?  There’s some lovely, unspoiled country – native bush untroubled for rolling miles, long beaches with a sucking surf and stiff sea winds. I’ll find a place for the body there. A quiet, respectful spot, and have time to dig a proper grave and lie him in it. There’ll be no cross or stone of course, but the beauty of the place will be a marker and one better than he deserves. I love the smell of the wet bush and the calls of he birds in it.

I’m on my way to the Catlins for the long weekend now, and just turned in here to the domain on impulse because I saw the kids playing rugby and it reminded me of being here, right here,  at the same age and for the same reason.  I can’t remember what I wanted to be in those days, but I did read lots of books about soldiers and sailors, and sticking to your guns.  And now I’m an undertaker.  I could have done a lot worse I suppose.  I’m fine with it actually.  In a way we all have to be undertakers.

* ReadingRoom short stories appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*

Short story: The undertaker's story, by Owen Marshall

Short story: The undertaker's story, by Owen Marshall

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