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Death’s been good to me. Up until relatively recently at least.  I’ve lost grandparents – as if somehow I’ve simply misplaced them – but that happens to all of us, doesn’t it, the loss, not the misplacement.  Then, strike, first one, then another, two wonderful people, a cousin and a friend, both women, strong women, no nonsense, no bullshit, and now they’re gone.

My cousin, my extraordinary cousin, she was a poet, a good poet, eminent say some – they made a movie out of one of her books so that might qualify her as eminent.  But she’d hate that word.  ‘Oh cuz,’ she’d say, ‘don’t go down that road.’  She was the oldest of cousins, and I am the youngest, so I have only a few memories of her when we were growing up, family get-togethers at Christmas.  Some of the parents called her precocious; I was scared of her.  As an adult, however, I plucked up the courage to email her, and she replied with the best words I’d ever heard: ‘Cuz, if you’re looking for a friend for life you’ve got one in me.  I really am a very simple person.’  A friend for life.  But now she’s gone.  (She would never have wanted her end to define her, so you’ll get no details from me.)  I can’t stop thinking about her.  To some – many – she was indeed a poet.  To me, she was the guide to my family, my nut-case family, because from her position she could see so much.

My friend, my extraordinary friend.  She was an actor.  Whenever she was on stage I couldn’t see her, so completely did she dissolve into the characters she played.  Strange how now I’m thinking about this, my friend reminds me of my cousin, because both of them were small in stature, but strong, fierce, yes, they could both be fierce.  And hilariously funny, and sweet.  My friend: she married a good man, a kind man, a man with a motorbike.  One Saturday night, late, after midnight, she posted on Facebook: ‘Trying to work out whether or not to put on another load of washing.  That’s how exciting my life is!’  The next morning she and her good-man husband went off for a Sunday bike ride on the back roads into the country.  They didn’t come back alive.  So now my friend is gone, and I can’t stop thinking about her.  She was mad on pets, completely mad, so that every time one of my own animals is sick and I’m trying to decide whether or not a trip to the vet is warranted, I hear her say, ‘I can’t believe you have to think about this!  It’s your duty to spend every cent on your little guys if you need to!’

I love angels, in fact, if the truth be known, I’m obsessed.  But I don’t believe in them; I’m not sure I believe in an after-life of any kind.  Somehow, however, in some way, my cousin and my friend aren’t entirely gone. Yes, I think about them so much.  I hear them speak to me.  Wise words from my cousin, wise and blunt – ‘Compare yourself to no one, cuz, compare yourself to no one’ – and adoring words from my friend – ‘Oh Millie is the most beautiful dog, you know that, Nigel, don’t you?’ as if I’m blind to the luck around me.

And no doubt I am.

Odd to end the year with pictures of a dead animal, but perhaps it’s not so odd at all – today 2009 comes to a close and something that was getting long in the tooth calls it quits to make way for something…completely unknowable, quite frankly.  Yeah, not so cheery.  But it is truthful and that’s what matters the most, so I’m working out as I continue to age at a rate of knots.  I took the pics at the base of Mount Gillamatong, Braidwood, New South Wales, this part of the world being a favourite haunt of my father’s.  I’m not really sure what the bones once held together, but I’m guessing a sheep that had lost its way.  That happens.

During these summer holidays I’ve found myself spending evenings on the living-room floorboards, head on a cushion, a glass of wine not far away, a record on the record player – and a mobile phone in my hand somehow looking lost and deflated.  The phone isn’t in my hand because I’m about to make a call; it’s there because of the phone numbers it contains, two phone numbers in particular, contact details for people who’ve moved on to better things, if that’s what has happened.

The first number is for a work colleague.  I didn’t know him well but he was someone so very skilled at connecting people, someone adored by hundreds despite being a shaved-head, motor-bike-loving, anti-establishment punk (at least that’s how I saw him).  Why I came to have his number in my mobile is anyone’s guess, but I do have a picture of him near my desk so I see him most days and he sees me and makes sure I stay true.

The second number is for a cousin, a great, great woman, the closest I’ve had to a sister, someone I used to email or text when something brilliant had happened, someone who explained the blood that I have in my body, someone who told me that to get ahead I need to take risks, someone who encouraged me to compare myself to no one.  An Epsilon character (as per Huxley) someone said, a vital force said someone else; she was another anti-establishment punk I reckon.  I’m yet to put a photo of her near my desk because to me she is still alive and I want to keep her that way for as long as I can.

To send a text message to both of them.  ‘Hi, how r u?’  But what would happen?  Where would the message go?  Do the phones still exist?  Are they in drawers, the battery fading?  Or does the partner keep the phone fully charged by the bed as if it’s a version of the gone-away person, something that might suddenly flash and rumble into life?  An almost irritated message may come back to me: ‘You need to know that the person you loved has gone.’

Perhaps the phones no longer exist at all, dropped into a recycling box in a communications shop, but maybe the phone numbers still work although not in the way they once did back here on earth.  I could get a response from my text message.  ‘Hi, gr8 to hear from u!  I’m really well.  How r u? xox.’  But what would I do then?  I’d scull the wine, that’s what, and I’d stare at the phone and wonder if it’s me who may have shuffled off to Buffalo.

It could be that I shouldn’t have these phone numbers any more; maybe I should just press the delete button.  But I can’t have these two people erased all over again – I don’t want to lose this evidence of their living, of our connection.  Sometimes I think that despite what I know to be fact I should just write a message anyway and press SEND.  And then what?  I’d wait.  And keep waiting.  According to the Italian author Oriana Fallaci, ‘Death always announces itself by a kind of scent, impalpable perceptions, silent sounds.’

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, January 31 2009)

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The past