2016 NZ Writers College Short Story Competition Winner



Till Death Do Us Part - by Suzanne Main

 

 

Agatha hugs her arms around her aching body. The hard pew resists her bruised flesh. She holds herself still. The discomfort feels necessary, like that of the late night driver who cracks open the car window to invite inside the freezing air in an effort to stay alert.

“The Lord is righteous in all His ways and kind in all His deeds.”

Head bowed, she can’t see the pastor. Barely knows the man. They have never been church people. The pastor’s baritone words hang damply in the cold air, drifting in and out of her consciousness like shadows.

With a start Agatha realises that the room has fallen quiet. She runs her mind back over the pastor’s last words. She has heard the words without absorbing them. The pastor asks again if anyone would care to say a few words about Peter.

There is an embarrassed shuffling behind her. Peter’s service has been put together at short notice. A handful of people are dotted like outcrops amongst the pews.
Agatha sits alone on the front pew reserved for family and the closest of friends. No one puts an arm around her or whispers comforting words in her ear. Peter has dominated Agatha’s life for thirty years. Any friends she once had have dropped away like the sides of a crumbling cliff.

In front, positioned at the corner of her vision, is the solid oak coffin Agatha has chosen. It is an extravagance she can barely afford.

Footsteps sound on the hollow floor. Someone is approaching the pulpit. Agatha draws in a breath of surprise. A whiff of stale beer and cigarette butts passes her. Damn, it’s Rocky. Real name: ‘Just call me Rocky’. He is one of Peter’s drinking mates. He was.

The pastor steps aside so Rocky can take the pulpit. It’s clear that Rocky hasn’t prepared a speech. He clears his throat and shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Agatha watches him from below her long fringe; useful hair that has hidden a multitude of sins over the years. She doesn’t want to catch Rocky’s eye.

Rocky begins. He mumbles something about the good mate Peter was. He picks up confidence. He espouses the great times they spent together in the pub. The laughs, the comradery. He doesn’t say comradery. That’s not the sort of thing Rocky would say. Agatha picks at a hardened hangnail on her thumb. She twists her forearm toward her, bringing her watch face into view. She hasn’t allowed time for Rocky. Hadn’t anticipated this at all.

Thankfully Rocky seems to be running out of ideas. After all, what did he and Peter share except pints? Not pints exactly, but the experience of drinking them together. Unexpectedly, Rocky picks up steam again. He remembers to do what people often do at funerals. He decides to share a story that isn’t quite so flattering. To make the deceased seem more real as though that will lend some weight to their relationship.

“To others he was like this tough guy, but he was kind of a pussy too.” Rocky pauses. He looks pleased with himself. Agatha frowns at the thinness of her fingers.
“One time I found a rotten pile under the house. Pete said he’d give me a hand to fix it.” Rocky’s sniff reverberates in the cavernous space. Agatha sneaks another look at her watch.

“Anyway, under the house we went. It’s a bit tight under there, but bugger me.” Rocky halts. He pulls an apologetic face. The pastor grimaces but says nothing. Rocky continues, “Shit, sorry about that folks. Anyway poor old Pete did not like being under the house. He got himself out right quick, didn’t he? The boys took the mickey out of him something wicked that night.”

Agatha remembers. Peter had been humiliated. He’d come home from the pub earlier than usual. She can still hear the angry crunch of his boots on the gravel of their front path.

Rocky turns his rheumy, bloodshot eyes toward the large coffin. He takes a big breath. “Pete, me old mate. I know how much you hated them tight spaces. I hope to Christ you’re good and dead in there.”

A chorus of gasps and embarrassed coughs ring through the church. Agatha’s hand flies to her throat, her fingers flutter against the high collar of her shirt. She forces them back onto her lap and clasps them there.

Rocky salutes the coffin. “Rest in peace, brother,” he says, before stumbling his way back to his seat.

The pastor steps forward to reclaim the pulpit. Shaking his greyed head slightly, he opens his folder and resumes.


 
***
 
The service is finally over. The pastor invites the congregated mourners to follow the hearse to the nearby graveyard for the burial. This to be followed by morning tea in the church hall.

Several men come forward to carry the coffin. Rocky insists on taking one corner. They hoist the heavy cargo up and carry it solemnly down the centre aisle to the hearse waiting outside. As Agatha rises, a pain stabs at her chest. She straightens and carefully smooths the crinkles from her long skirt. She is black from head to toe. Catching her breath, she joins the procession.

When the pallbearers reach the hearse, there is a little trouble juggling the coffin’s weight from shoulders onto the open tailgate. Rocky stumbles. The coffin tilts momentarily. A thud sounds from inside the box. Agatha’s heart stops. Then the coffin is righted, and on its final journey.

They travel in separate cars to the cemetery. Agatha has purchased (further expense) a double plot. When Agatha dies, they will dig a shallower hole above Peter and lay her to rest there.

The small group gathers around a precipitous hole. The green felt lining its edges does little to disguise the dank smell of dug earth. Meaningless words are spoken. The coffin descends on a contraption of pulleys and rope. Someone presses a spade into Agatha’s hand, holding a bucket of dirt out to her. Agatha takes a scoop of dark earth and lets it drop onto the varnished wood. One Mississippi, two. It lands with a hollow thud.

On the way back to her car, Agatha turns and looks back across the expanse of grass and granite headstones. Two cemetery workers are filling in Peter’s hole. Their shovels work in a steady rhythm, raining dirt on Peter.

 
***

For Agatha’s promised and generous donation, several of the church ladies have put together a table of baking. They serve stewed black tea from oversized teapots into chipped mugs. There is too much food for the assembled crowd who have taken on an air of forced joviality now the formal proceedings are finished.

Somebody presses a cup of tea into Agatha’s hand. Margaret, who lives two doors down from Agatha, approaches with her grown up daughter. Agatha cannot remember the girl’s name. Margaret remarks on the lovely service. As they walk away, Agatha overhears Margaret say to her daughter, “Poor woman. She’s too shell-shocked to cry. The tears will come later, no doubt. It was so sudden. So unexpected.”

A hand grips Agatha’s elbow. She tries not to flinch at the unexpected contact.

“How are you?”

Agatha turns. Doc McCarthy’s morning-after breath envelopes them. Are all men this same way? Unable to lay off the bottle? Years ago, she and Doc McCarthy had worked together at the same hospital. Agatha had been fresh out of nurse training. The Doc had been sweet on her, but before it could come to anything, Peter had arrived in the emergency department. Agatha had bandaged Peter’s severed finger. Three months later he had put a ring on hers, sealing her fate.

The Doc had been a bit miffed at the time. But Peter or no Peter, Agatha had known Doc wasn’t the man for her. It wasn’t just his excessive drinking. Back then, controls in the hospital had been much laxer. Staff regularly raided the pharmaceutical storerooms to top up their medicine cabinets at home. The Doc took the pilfering a step further, using the hospital’s pharmaceutical supply for recreational purposes.

This borrowing from the hospital’s drug supplies was rife. A few years after her marriage, Agatha herself would do it. At first, painkillers; later other things that she hid inside an old shoebox.

It was Doc that Agatha had called two nights ago. She’d reached him on his cell phone. The sound of glasses clinking, and background music made it hard for him to hear her. Eventually she’d made herself understood. He’d arrived at her doorstop a little later.

Taking in Peter’s body lying on the hard concrete of the garage floor, Doc had taken ahold of the nearby workbench and lowered one knee to the concrete floor, reaching for Peter’s wrist.

“For god’s sake, Mike, I was a nurse. He’s dead,” she’d said.

After an evening of beer with whiskey chasers, Doc was unsteady on his feet. Kneeling was further upsetting his equilibrium. He had gratefully heaved himself back to standing, the exertion causing spittle to form in the corner of his mouth. “Heart attack?” he’d asked, wiping his lips on the back of his jacket sleeve.

Agatha knew by then how to keep revulsion from her face. “Peter had been complaining of a dead arm lately. I begged him to see his doctor but he never got there.”

Doc had nodded. “I’ll put that on the death certificate then.”

As Agatha had shown Doc out, he’d asked if she wanted him to call a funeral director, some help to move the body perhaps? No, she’d replied. She’d do it herself. She wanted to keep Peter here with her until the funeral. A wake of sorts. She’d been a nurse once, and was quite accustomed to death.

Agatha had all but pushed Doc out her door that night.

Now Doc was making small talk, offers of help around the place and a shoulder to cry on. “Will you be alright alone tonight? I could come over and keep you company.” He looks into her eyes.

The combination of whiskey and jam pikelets on Doc’s breath turns Agatha’s stomach. “Thank you. That’s a kind offer,” she says, gently extracting her elbow from his grasp, “but I already have plans.”

And she does.

Tonight when the men have returned to the pub, and the rest of world have taken to their beds, Agatha will return to Peter one last time.

She will lay atop the freshly filled grave and press her cheek to the dark soil.

She will imagine she hears Peter gasping for air, begging for release. She doesn’t know exactly how long the Baclofen will take to wear off, nor how far Peter’s sounds might travel through oak and earth.

Despite this, she will send her words burrowing like worms to him.

She will ask him how he likes it.

 


 

 

Suzanne-MainHi, here’s a little bit about me, Suzanne Main.

I love reading. As a kid, most of my time was spent with my nose buried in a book, much to the disgust of my little, and only, sister who was always trying to entice me out to play with her.

Despite my love of reading, I chose a career path that led away from words – training and working as an accountant. I have a love for numbers and logic too.
It wasn’t until much later in life I decided to try creative writing. In 2011 I completed the New Zealand Writers College Basics of Creative Writing course, tutored by the wonderful Helen Brain. This was followed up by a weekend novel writing course where the idea for a junior fiction novel was born. Spurred on by the encouraging remarks of my tutors and without so much as a short story to my name, I gamely and rather naively set out to write it. Miraculously (albeit slowly) I finished How I Alienated my Grandma in late 2012.

In 2013 I entered my children’s book manuscript for the Storylines Tom Fitzgibbon award. Five months later, I was visiting my mother in law in hospital when my phone rang. It was Storylines. I had won the Tom Fitzgibbon award. I was so excited!

How I Alienated my Grandma was published by Scholastic in 2015. It was shortlisted for the 2015 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in the Children’s Choice Junior Fiction category, and in 2016 was awarded a Storylines Notable Book award. Its currently on its 4th print run and is being released internationally in 2018. A follow-on novel is due to be published by Scholastic in late 2017.

In 2016 I began a Diploma in Creative Writing with Whitireia, and it was while completing the short story paper that I wrote, 'Till Death Do Us Part’. I wanted to challenge myself to write something very different to my children’s fiction and I think I’ve achieved that! I am thrilled that this story has won the 2016 NZ Writers College Short Story Competition and I am grateful to the NZ Writers College for giving me such a good start to my writing career.
 

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