It was hot when I arrived in the main (the only) street of Burdup in the south-west of Western Australia. ‘Bloody hot,’ said the barman. I had stopped at the pub to ask for directions and, somewhat nervously, for a lemon squash. In the cool darkness of the bar I felt the eyes of the four or five customers and their suspicious curiosity when my question about the way to the rectory gave me away as the ‘new Rev’rend’ – and as rather naïve. In a country town of perhaps a hundred houses, only the most complete stranger needs directions.
Heat seemed to pour out of the old weatherboard walls of the rectory that Friday. The fridge had been turned off, so there wasn’t even any ice or cold water. And it took an hour for the tap water to freeze even in the freezer. I determined to brave the pub later again in the afternoon, to buy a few cans of beer for the evening. I was too hot to care what the locals thought of a priest in the pub. Meanwhile a little unpacking. I trudged in and out from the car, which was broiling in the back yard. The lawn was brown and crisp with dryness.
Fortunately, the phone in the study was working. I rang the furniture company to confirm that the mattresses I had ordered were on the way. At least I would be able to sleep as comfortable as the heat allowed. And I would have organised one or two essentials for my wife and children due next week.
I realised that was only the heat, but I felt all enthusiasm dwindle for the task the Archbishop had given me. There seemed to be very little attraction in being temporary priest of Burdup parish during Advent and Christmas. There would be visits to the five out-centres as well. The day before, at our interview in Perth, the Archbishop had said: ‘Check that list with the diocesan property officer, and tell the vestry at Burdup they won’t get a new rector unless they put in a new oven and fly-screens.’
Out here in the near outback, the mind has to strain to see the connection between such earthly politics and the everlasting Gospel I was to preach to the people of Burdup.
The heat wore on. After finishing the essential unpacking, I filled a mug with water, now refreshingly cool, and retired to the coolest room of all, the bathroom. There the darkness and cement lowered the temperature a little.
The phone rang.
‘Darn,’ I thought out loud, and made my way to the study. There a few boxes of books lay disorganised near the old desk and the filing cabinet with the parish records, I didn’t know who knew I’d arrived. But my curiosity was low as I rather abstractedly lifted the receiver.
‘Ah, is that the new Rev’rend? Jest heard that you’d arrived in town. You’ll know me pretty soon. My name’s Fred Moynihan. I’m the undertaker. Most people call me Bushie.’
My heart sank a little. I expected undertakers to be same in Burdup as in Perth, and there was something depressing about beginning my ministry, even a short one, with a funeral.
‘I’m Frank Newman. Nice to meet you.’
‘Yeah. Got a job for you. Noongar lady, one of the best. Died at the reserve yesterday. She was Granny of the local natives, you understand. I wouldn’t bother ya with it, only the Baptist Rev’rend won’t do it, and the nearest Uniting minister’s two hundred miles west.’
I sipped my water. The ice-blocks were getting thin.
‘I see, Fred, D’you know if she was a regular attender anywhere?’ A funeral and a conflict with fellow clergy was not a good starting combination.
‘Don’t think she went to church, Reverend. She had some papers, and one of them I’ve got here is a Church of England christenin’ paper. Guess she’s more yours than anyone else’s.’
‘Oh. Well, is there are time worked for the funeral, or any arrangements been made at all?’
‘Sunday morning, eleven o’clock. Straight after your Communion.’
‘Sunday? That’s unusual, isn’t it?’
‘Pretty normal around here. Then we don’t get many funerals.’
‘Look, Fred, er … Bushie, I’ve written all that down. Can I get back to you later this afternoon? I can see you need an answer pretty soon. So I’ll phone you back before five.’
There was a chuckle on the line.
‘Gunna ring the other guys? Okay, you do that, but I’ll expect you to ring. Number’s 365. Ya dial 9 then 479 365. Will meet you Sunday.’
His confidence bothered me. The phone book showed the number of the Baptist manse. I would have to ring enquiries at Wagin to get the Uniting Church number.
I was following the usual procedure of checking there were no lines crossed. Too many quarrels have started between clergy of different denominations over funerals, particularly when the dear departed is presented to the minister as a non-church-going person. It wasn’t the way I had hoped to introduce myself to the other clergy of the area, but after a friendly chat with the Baptist man (and an invitation to join him for afternoon tea the next day) I began to see that this funeral was normal. Granny Wilson had been nominally Anglican. The town was well aware of her death, and for traditional reasons to do with distance, funerals were often held on Sunday after the main service in the particular church.
I thought I would still ring the Uniting minister. So I went back into the kitchen to get another glass of water and replace the slippery ice. Just as I shut the fridge door, the phone rang again.
‘Now, that is odd,’ I said to myself, and carried the plastic tumbler back to the table in the hot study. I was more aware than every of my sweaty hands and the shirt clinging to my back.
The Australian accent knifed at my brain.
‘Listen, new Rev’rend, and listen good. You do that funeral for that nigger woman and yer gunna learn what violence tastes like. Y’ever hear of using ten-gauge fencin’ wire as a whip? Works well on niggers, jest like on nigger lovers.’
The phone clicked dead. A small, rational voice in the back of my mind told me there was nothing I could do about the threat. Threats like that are almost never carried out. The purpose of making them in a cowardly way is their immediate effect on the recipient. It succeeded. I stood with the receiver uselessly pressed against my ear, almost paralysed for some minutes.
I vaguely knew the priest in the next parish, which was technically in the Bunbury diocese. I dialled his number and told him about the conversation I’d just had. He heard me out, then commented enigmatically:
‘Can’t say I’d do the same as you. Not worth my while. I leave native burials to the Baptists or Fundo missionaries. But I admire your courage, old chap. We’ll see you round, I guess.’
The click of the phone deepened my feeling of being cut off from all that made sense.
A blowfly buzzed loudly, caught between the louvres and fly-wire. I had met the wife of the rector’s warden at Church Office in Perth, and decided to ring him. This was back to front. Normal courtesy required waiting for the lay leaders to welcome you before you consulted them.
‘Number 403,’ it said in the battered Teledex near the phone, so I dialled 9–479–403. The warden himself answered. It was an awkward conversation. His most helpful compromise was to ‘have the box at church door and not take it inside. Keep the torkin’ all for the cemetery.’
I bridled. To my ears that compromise was a sell-out. But I wasn’t sure enough of myself to tell him so.
‘I’ll think about it,’ I lied.
My next call was to the undertaker, begging for more time.
‘Sure, ring before ten tomorrow.’
To my surprise, it was after 5 o’clock. I was thirsty. (God, did I thirst!) but I decided not to buy beer. I sensed I had more important things to do. I rang my wife. The conversation was short and strained. I felt too isolated to share with her the agony and uncertainty I was going through.
At 7:30 the darkness fell, as it does in the bush, suddenly and deeply. The stars were a glorious blaze of light. Except for the occasional dog barking, and the endless crunch of crickets, there was a profound silence. After the last few hectic weeks in the city, it was deathly quiet.
I discovered a spy novel on top of one of the boxes of books and read on the back veranda until 10:30. I locked up all the outside doors. I spread a sheet over the queen-sized mattress and tried to sleep. In the heat I rolled from side to side, sweated, read some more and tried to sleep. At one stage I sat up straight in bed and said out loud, ‘I must do it. I have no choice. It is finished.’ I flicked on the bedside light. My watch said 3 o’clock. I turned out the light and slept deeply.
Most of the Saturday I spent at a humpy at the reserve, talking about Granny Wilson and planning the service. But it was like a dream.
Saturday night was ominous. The temperature actually climbed at 7 o’clock into thehigh 30s, making the evening nearly as hot as the day. Dry, impotent thunder rolled around the dark sky. I tried to look over my sermon for the 9:30 Mass. I slept better than last night.
No-one came to church at 9:30 that Sunday morning. I wasn’t sure that the parish was so run-down that this might be a regular occurrence. I waited at the altar for 20 minutes, hot in the purple vestments that ran with red dust, then made my spiritual communion. My prayers seemed empty words echoing back at me round the sanctuary.
I returned to the vestry and disrobed, noticing the heat even of my light alb, and looked again at the service register. I was making history. This was the first Sunday on which there had been fewer than four communicants.
I sighed. A purple stole over my alb would be vestments enough for the funeral.
By 10:30 they began to arrive. First, the ancient hearse, a 1930s Chevrolet, backed up to the door. Bushie Moynihan single-handedly rolled the casket onto its trolley and up to the chancel steps. Unable to find any candles on stands, I took the altar candles and placed them either side of Granny Wilson.
By 10:45, the church was overflowing with black faces. Dreamlike, I began the service, aware only of the keening. Such crying I had never heard. Subdued anguish, but almost conventional, as if the deep hope of the Christian good news was only just beginning to penetrate the hearts of Granny Wilson’s ‘children’.
I chose to ride in the hearse, with its round pedals and anachronistic strip speedometer (broken, of course) to the cemetery). The sky, normally intensely blue, was black with clouds.
As I read the words of the committal, I felt nothing. The dull thud as I threw earth onto the coffin brought forth a muffled response from the skies. Lightning flashed around in desultory fashion. I felt alone, alienated, useless. I gave the blessing and walked back to hearse.
‘Jest wait an’ watch, Rev’rend. This ain’t yer city funeral.’ At least Bushie was an expert in this business. The shire workers in thongs, black shorts and grey singlets, came with their shovels to throw back the red earth onto the casket. The crowd keened more loudly. Many joined in pushing soil into the grave.
Within 15 minutes the grave was covered with a mound of earth. Some of the women – and Granny’s son, Johnnie Wilson – threw themselves onto the mound, moaning loudly. It all seemed distant, documentary-like: ‘modern Australian Aborigines demonstrating indigenous mourning customs.’
I leaned against the front mudguard of the hearse. A figure detached itself from the gradually dispersing crowd. It was Jeanie, Mrs Wilson’s daughter, a full-breasted, middle-aged woman with straggly grey hair, wearing a vaguely coloured print cotton dress.
‘Thanks, Rev.’ She took my hand in the formal Aboriginal way. ‘Yer let us mourn like we need ter.’
She walked on proudly on her bare feet. The new Granny.
I noticed the only white face in the crowd. It was the wife of the church-warden, the lady I had met in Perth. She walked stiffly, like porcelain I thought, and seemed in danger of breaking into a smile.
‘Welcome, Father,’ she said. ‘Yer’ll do f’r us. We might yet see Christ here.’ And I couldn’t tell whether her eye was wet from a tear or from the first drop of the thunder-storm.
‘Christ is risen,’ I mumbled – well outside the Easter season.
- * * *
First published in Celebrate (Melbourne: Dove Communications), Vol.7 No.3, July 1988