Extract from His Seed, Chapter 1
My parole officer came to the funeral. Aside from me, the funeral director and the electrician working on the alarm system, there were only eleven other people there. The anxious spring wind buffeted the doors and whistled, gathering leaves and dust in piles along the porch, and splinters of sunlight struck the airless foyer in strange places, casting shadows where there should have been light.
My gran planned the whole thing herself. It was in a building near the airport. There was a huge concrete fountain in the courtyard, which, on the day, was switched off due to wind. A couple of ducks paddled around in the shallow chlorinated water. The roses that lined the path had been pruned back until they were just knots of leafless thorny branches. Bright flowers trembled on fragile stems.
My parole officer, Julie, sat in the second row on the left hand side. Broad shouldered in her black suit jacket, her large body seemed to take up more space than just one person. She held the program in both hands, opening it, turning it over, examining the photographs of my grandmother and me. Her moko, which curled around her chin like unfurling leaves, enhanced the serious expression on her face.
Behind my grandmother’s coffin, a window looked out over an indoor fern garden. Jars of spring flowers I’d cut that morning stood around the bier and on the tables lining the walls. Now, in the afternoon, as Mrs Phelps, Gran’s tone deaf friend from bingo, led us stumbling through the hymns, the daffodils nodded their heavy heads and the tulips seemed to open their lips in silent surprise. In all the years she’d raised me, since I was five years old, we’d never talked about what would happen when she died. I’d never thought about it. I had just assumed she would live on forever or perhaps at least until I was ready to let her go.
Afterwards Julie was waiting for me in the lobby.
‘David’ she hurried forward and put her big padded hand on my forearm ‘how are you doing love?’
‘Pretty shit I guess. How’s work?’
‘We don’t have to talk about that now love. Not at a time like this.’
‘How are your kids?’
‘David.’ Julie lowered her voice, ‘you’ve done a wonderful job here. Quite an achievement for someone your age.’
I shrugged, trying to ignore how terrible Julie being nice to me was making me feel.
‘People didn’t come’ I said, fighting down a lump in my throat.
‘You forgot to put it in the paper love.’ Julie patted my arm ‘They probably just didn’t know.’
We stared out the huge windows past the fountain and into the parking lot.
‘I don’t think she had many friends, in the end anyway,’ I said. ‘It’s not like we ever had anyone round.’
‘Looking after you would’ve kept her busy though.’ Julie pulled me into a sideways hug. The soft folds of her body pressed into me, keeping me at an awkward distance. ‘I saw you whispered some parting words to her back there. I was thinking I might go and ask her how she felt about an old Maori lady coming to her funeral.’ She chuckled and nudged my shoulder with hers. ‘I bet she wasn’t expecting that aye?’
I laughed in spite of myself, sniffing back some barely suppressed tears. ‘She liked you in the end though’ I said, wiping my cheek with the back of my hand.
‘I know love. It’s a generational thing. I liked her too, the cheeky old battle axe.’
I remembered back to when Julie showed up at my house for the very first home visit after I got early release. I remembered walking into the kitchen to find my gran peering peevishly through the lace net curtains.
‘David’ she whispered to me, ‘there’s a lady in the driveway. Looks like she’s from some kind of gang.’
I looked out the window. It was Julie, standing in the driveway with a folder open in her hands. I knocked on the window and waved her towards the door.
‘Round the back,’ my gran hissed at me. Then she’d hurried down the hall, locked the wire screen door and refused to let Julie inside until she’d made a fuss about checking her credentials. Once satisfied, she bustled Julie inside and showed her to the table. Julie sat down on one of our dainty dining chairs, trying to adjust her position so that both butt cheeks could fit on the chair at once. She looked around the room. I imagined her mentally noting down the presence of Gran’s white plastic pill bottles lined up on the microwave, the wire stand in the kitchen overflowing with onions and garlic and home-grown potatoes, the hand operated beef grinder bolted to the kitchen bench and all Gran’s tiny porcelain figurines lined up on the window sills, the bookcase and the top of the television.
My grandmother eyeballed Julie from the kitchen while she made whole-leaf tea in her most ornate teapot.
‘Well I never thought I’d see the day when one of your sort was working on the side of the law’ she said finally, placing the tea tray on the table with a flourish. ‘You’ve taken it upon yourself to supervise my grandson have you?’
I held my breath. Julie looked my gran right in the eye, her hand tightened on the tiny teacup she was holding, then, her whole face burst into a stunning smile.
I used to watch nature documentaries with my grandmother, ones about flowers, the seasons and plants all over the world. I loved it how they would film rare flowers in the jungle for days on end and then, in the final cut, play all the frames back at speed so that the flower bloomed open right before your eyes, like an open hand reaching out across time and space. Julie’s smile reminded me of those flowers. It was so open and offered so unselfconsciously that my gran was taken aback.
‘Well I guess the fellas upstairs thought maybe an old timer like you might need a bit of a hand keeping an eye on him. I’ve got plenty of experience in keeping track of cheeky wee buggers like him.’ Julie waved her hand in my direction. ‘Get him back on the straight and narrow.’
My gran very slowly placed her tea cup and saucer down on the table, her lips pursed and sharp like the mouth of a tulip.
‘Got four brothers,’ Julie said, picking up her brown folder listing all my crimes and opening it up with a bang on the table.
My gran fixed her beady eyes on Julie. Without breaking her friendly smile, Julie clicked her department-of-corrections biro open on her chin, right on the point where her dark green moko began spiralling down her face. ‘Right,’ she said, draining her teacup in one swig, ‘shall we get started on his action plan then.’
After Julie left, my gran gathered up the teapot, cups and saucers and began vigorously scrubbing them out over the sink. I went to help her, but she pushed me away. ‘You listen to that Maori lady,’ she told me as she ground the Brillo pad around the inside of the teapot, her arthritic fingers trembling. ‘She’s got your best interests at heart. I can always tell.’
Julie did have my best interests at heart, I thought as I stared out over the car park, watching the flustered ducks dip themselves in the water to settle their wind ruffled feathers.
‘I think I won her over in the end,’ Julie said, tucking her hands into her pockets and looking around the hunched up crowd in the lobby. ‘Seriously though David, do you have anybody you can call? Anyone you can rely on?’
‘Nah,’ I said, looking out across the foyer at Mrs Phelps, the only other person there I knew. She was nodding off in a chair, her frail figure seemed somehow dwarfed by it, as if any minute she could be swallowed up and disappear.
‘Any mates from school?’
‘I think hanging out with any of them violates my parole.’
Julie nodded. ‘I was afraid of that.’
‘Look, Jules, thanks for coming and everything but I…’
She interrupted me. ‘David, before I get going I’d better tell you, I thought you might need some support. Now you’re 18 you’re too old for child services and… Don’t look at me like that,’ she warned me as I scowled at her. ‘You’re not in trouble. I talked to my boss and he says it’s ok if we keep meeting up, unofficially extend our meetings a bit. You’ll have a few more chances at life-skills courses and I’ll be able to keep an eye on you, give you a good reference. What do you reckon?’
She handed me one of her dog-eared cards with the department of corrections logo on it. A date and time was smeared across the front in black ink.
‘I’ve already made you one appointment. Just pop in next week. It’s up to you after that.’
I put the card in my pocket. ‘Thanks Jules.’
‘You keep being my success story aye?’ She glanced toward the door. ‘Got to go get going, parked in one of those sixty minute zones up the road. Can’t afford another ticket.’
I nodded, suddenly finding myself wanting to grab onto her and not let go.
‘I left you some kai there on the side there by the door, remember to take it home and bring the tupperware back when you come for your visit. Okay?’
I nodded. ‘Okay.’
Julie gave me one last pat on the back, then, with a burst of fresh air blasting into the airless lobby and a small tornado of dry leaves blowing in from the porch, she was gone.
After Julie left, I got the awkward feeling that Gran’s friends, most of whom I hadn’t even met, were waiting for something. I went over and stood near Mrs Phelps, in case she would invite me into the group or at the very least tell me what I was expected to do.
‘Do you have any biscuits dear?’ An old lady I didn’t recognise with wrinkled orange lips like the mouth of a daffodil was the first to speak to me.
‘Usually there’s a little luncheon after funerals, will there be any tea do you know?’
‘Oh yes.’ Mrs Phelps from bingo looked up at me from her chair ‘Would be lovely to have a little tea and biscuits.’ She fiddled with her hearing aid, which then started to let out a high pitched whistling tone that nobody else seemed to notice.
‘I’ve got some biscuits in my bag if you want.’ I swung my backpack off my shoulder. I had a couple of bags of animal biscuits I bought for old-times sake. I hadn’t meant to share them, they were private, something I’d bought to comfort myself because that’s what she used to buy me when she was alive. I ripped open the foil and held them out.
‘Oh dear’ said the woman in the green cardigan, ‘not even on a plate.’
Suddenly I felt too hot. I couldn’t bear to look at any of them, so instead I turned away and studied the tips of my shoes.
‘There’s a good boy,’ said Mrs Phelps, taking my hand and squeezing it. ‘I think they have plates in that room over there,’ she whispered, pointing vaguely in the direction of the room where my grandmother was lying dead. ‘Go on dear,’ she encouraged me, you don’t want to keep them waiting any longer.’
I forced myself to smile at them all. The woman in the green cardigan smiled back thinly and touched the rose in her button hole with her withered fingers.
I went into the big room where we’d had the service. I could see the outline of my grandmother’s face lying dark against the back lighting of the fern garden. Mrs Phelps had been wrong. There were no serving plates. I opened some cupboards in the back of the room, but they were just filled with cardboard boxes full of identical books in plastic sheaths. I shut the cupboards, stepped back and closed my eyes. Why wouldn’t her friends just take the biscuits out of the packet. What difference would it make? I struggled to put my thoughts in some kind of order. I could hear the spring wind tumbling over tin roof and I felt as though it was ripping through me, separating who I had been before from the orphan I had now become. It occurred to me that now that I was alone, I was entirely in control. I could walk out into the reception area and tell all those prissy old people to fuck off out the door if I wanted to. I could empty the animal biscuits out onto the floor and grind them into the carpet with my polished leather shoes. Instead I opened my eyes and looked around. On the wall, amongst the bad art and the fire drill instructions there was decorative plate commemorating the 1997 Rotary Club. I went over, took it down and poured the biscuits onto it and strode out into the lobby.
‘Biscuits. Jolly good’ the funeral director said, taking a green hippopotamus and putting the whole thing in his mouth at once. ‘Let me help you with those.’ He took the plate of biscuits off me and began offering them around. As the old people talked and ate, I gathered up the jars of flowers and assembled them on a table near the door. I had been meaning to take them with me, but now the hooting orange mouths of the daffodils seemed unbearable to look at. I waved the funeral director over.
‘People can take these home if they want,’ I said, pointing at the flowers ‘I’m leaving now.’
The funeral director nodded. ‘Drive safe,’ he said gently. ‘I’ll take care of everything. You can pick up your grandmother’s ashes any time after next week.’
I was about to leave when I stopped. A thought was tugging at me, holding me in place. I turned back. ‘Will they be heavy’ I asked.
‘The ashes?’ The funeral director shook his head. ‘We’ll put them in a nice wooden box.’ He held out his hands to show me the size. ‘They’ll weigh a little more than a normal brick. They won’t smell. You can take them home and keep them safe or scatter them somewhere special. That’s up to you.’
I nodded. The funeral director busied himself with the flowers, giving me the chance to leave. I wanted to crack some joke, make an offhand remark to show him and myself that I was coping, that everything would be ok, but nothing came to mind. I saw the boxes of food Julie had left me on the side board and picked them up. There was one box of sausage rolls and a tray of lasagne. I carried them out into the garden. The spring wind was still blowing hard, whipping dust and twigs into the air, stinging my face. I imagined opening up the box of my grandmother’s ashes and holding them out. The wind would lift them up, burnt grey flecks like tiny wings, and carry them away from me.