I’m gazing across my desk and out the window as a hearse glides down my street, a seemingly endless parade of cars in its wake. I wonder briefly who has died in this small town, to attract such a crowd. I mentally list the old and the sick, reach no conclusions and return to my work.
The next day I take my usual mid-afternoon ramble with the dogs, out the back gate, across the small village common and down the dirt track to the cemetery. It’s not hard to spot the new grave, still heaped with dirt and strewn with flowers, a small white wooden cross at its head. “Arnna Marie Clarke”, it reads, “aged 45 years”.
I’ve made a habit of walking through Quaama Cemetery with my dogs since moving here five years ago. At first I surveyed the grassy expanse, with three small clusters of graves at its perimeter, and thought it almost empty. But a chance encounter with the local gravedigger, Rob Sherlock, corrected that impression. Apparently most of the graves have been concealed since the bushfires of 1952 swept through, incinerating the rows of simple wooden markers used by generations of farming families. Rob explained to me his method of sinking a crowbar to distinguish between dug and undug earth, to determine whether a plot is available, while we watched my dogs gallop joyful, sweeping circles across the field of unmarked graves.
I always stop at three well-tended plots in a row on the river side of the grounds. Joe Conway and his sons Eamon and Brendan all died with eighteen months of each other in the mid eighties. Eamon and Brendan were both in their twenties and died in motorcycle accidents. Their mother Carmel lived in my old cottage before me, and then moved to Bermagui, and the three graves are now adorned with seashells from her walks there, as well as the cheerful sprays of fresh and plastic flowers arranged across the trio of stone-edged plots. Since moving into the Conway cottage I have taken the liberty of claiming these men as my family too, and often stoop to clear debris from the graves as I walk past. I told Carmel; she doesn’t mind. Around here they say that you’re not a local until you have family in the cemetery, and so this is mine.
Pato Taylor came to see out his cancer at his sister Tammy’s house, across the street from me, a couple of years ago. He was thirty-one. His grave is decorated with a tall, green wooden trellis across the head, and the new decorations that turn up sporadically on the dirt mound testify to the visitors who still stop there. When the grave was new, one thoughtful ornament caught the eye: a can of Fosters, and unpulled. I didn’t know Pato but I believe he was fond of a coldie. It was there for months, before it succumbed to the hot sun, exploded, and was tidied away.
One late afternoon, some time back, the dogs and I arrived upon a scene I’ll always remember. A ring of utes, one blaring the twang of AM radio, circled a grave on the far side of the cemetery. A group of older men leaned against the cars, tinnies in hand, while a couple of the younger blokes mixed concrete and lugged flat-faced granite stones into place. It was the Blanchfield boys, two generations, come to finish old Ett’s grave, and making an afternoon of it.
So, Arnna is dead. I liked Arnna. I spent a short stint in Bega Hospital last year, and she would often take a couple of minutes to pop upstairs from her job in the pharmacy to sit on my bed and chat. I remember thinking how vital, how energetic, she seemed beside my malaise. And now here I stand, beside her grave.
I read a short version of this piece for Country Viewpoint on Radio National in August 2008.