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The Casket
Christine Cloughley

The casket was made of polished burr wood, with shiny brass handles and embossed satin lining. Inside it she could see

a pair of reading glasses
a book by Tolstoy
a cricket bat
a tin of home-made biscuits
a family photograph
an unfinished manuscript

and the body of her father.

It hadn't been a long illness. The doctor called it peaceful, but she'd seen him fighting. He'd wanted more time

to clear the gutters
spray the vegetable garden
finish his memoirs
sort out his affairs
say goodbye to them all.

At least he didn't suffer, the mourners said as, one by one, they filed into the room to view the body, a sigh or tear escaping when they saw the waxy skin, the unusually stern mouth, the feet wedged hard into the cream lining.

Better this than a long death, the nurse whispered in the hospital. Yet it hadn't seemed better as, hour after hour, she and her mother stood by the hospital bed, listening to his laboured breathing, her mother's knuckles turning whiter with every rattle.

Pneumonia. Quite common among the elderly, the doctor said, as though she should take comfort from the fact her father was one of many.

She'd been at her parents' for dinner when he announced he had cancer. It's terminal. He was matter of fact. His wife looked at their daughter and felt her heart ache for them all. The daughter stared at the tablecloth, tears welling in her eyes, and pushed her food away.

Her father ate his meal hungrily, then said he had agreed to treatment. It would give him a year, maybe more, so he could tidy things up, get things organised. He put down his knife and fork and looked up with composure. Don't be sad, it's been a good life.

In his private room in the oncology ward he fought the nausea and fatigue and waited for the international calls from his son. They talked about

the cricketers' lack of form
the All Blacks playing the Boks
golf handicaps
and family

and lightly touched on

how weary he was
how little he could eat
how much he'd like to go home.

Chin up, Dad, said his son. We'll get you out soon, then I'll come and visit. They'd do things together when he was feeling better. Have a good catch-up after all these years.

Letters and cards arrived, and flowers crowded the windowsill. The lilies made him sneeze. Visitors called in when they could, while doctors and nurses played revolving door.

He made sure he kept his teeth in so he wouldn't look old and tired.

The bugs that bred in the crowded wards found him an easy home and kept him to his bed. He napped between interruptions, dreaming of all he had to do. Food tasted like cardboard, and he lost weight. His wife brought his favourite home-made biscuits. He couldn't eat them.

She tried not to show that she was hurt. As a new bride she'd turned her hand to rock cakes and ginger kisses and sponge cakes, but Anzacs had been his favourite. I'm a lucky man, he'd say, biting happily into the chewy, buttery morsels.

The unopened tin sat by his bed, next to his transistor and a copy of War and Peace.

I've decided to re-read the modern classics he announced one day as he finished watching the cricket test on television. I think I'll enjoy them more now I'm older. He'd already worked his way through Dickens and Eliot and Joyce. In the evenings, sitting in the lounge of the small weatherboard house they'd built fifty years before, he'd quote passages, delighting in the language, the wit and the intellect.

But in the ward the heavy book lay unopened. Tiredness took over. He grew frustrated and watched with irritation as the sun passed through the sky. Another day wasted.

I'll come right soon, he told his worried family as the days stretched on. I'll be out before you can say Bob's your uncle. But inside he was getting edgy and it made him cantankerous.

His son heard the change in his voice and wondered whether it was time to visit. His father told him to wait. No point while I'm here, he said. Hold off till I'm better.

He started to snap at the nurses and was rude to the cleaners. His daughter was embarrassed. This wasn't the man she knew. She tried to cheer him up and took family snapshots into the ward. Look, Dad, she'd say, remember this? And he'd look at the photos, recalling happier times.

He remembered simple pleasures

gardening at twilight
eating new potatoes
picnics at the river
Saturday cricket games
reading in bed
holidays in the caravan
a child's trust
a wife's love.

Some nights he couldn't tell if he was dreaming or hallucinating and awoke thinking he heard his children crying with fear. His pillow was damp around the edges.

The daughter began staying over at her mother's. They drove back from the hospital in silence, not voicing their concerns for fear that speaking them aloud would make them real.

Instead, they talked about how he needed fresh pyjamas and a change of scene, new medication and more time. And then he'd be fine.

In the pre-dawn hours the wife lay alone in bed, one hand stretched across the mattress to feel the indent his body had formed. In the privacy of the dark she cried, scared she would never stop.

He developed a pain in his chest. A strained muscle, said the nurse, lifting him higher up the bed to make him comfortable. He was too tired and sore to say it didn't help.

It was pneumonia. He faced the wall and thought of nothing, ignoring them all. You must fight it, Dad, his daughter said. Like you taught us to fight for what was right.

There was silence, and then he turned to her. In the soft night light, with the hiss of the oxygen tank accompanying his words, he spoke.

No more, he said. I'm too tired. No medication, no food, no fluids. No argument.

The daughter got on the phone. She rang her brother, the words raw with grief and anger. Get on a plane. Now. She doubted he'd make it in time.

The mother and the daughter camped at the hospital. In the time that remained they said their farewells and listened to his breathing.


The casket glowed in the late afternoon sun. The son sat at the table in the lounge where his father lay. He finished writing then stood beside the coffin and wept. He looked down and saw

the unruly white hair
the old sports’ club tie
the line of medals
the barely recognisable man within.

He rested his goodbye letter on top of his father's cold hand, turned and walked out the French doors to the garden.

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