Everything about this moment was uncomfortable. Women stood strangely still in uncomfortable stockings and shoes, pointed like that of a wicked witch, pinching at their toes as a reminder of their assured mortality. Men stood in suits, jackets adorned for weather that was too hot for the attire the occasion called, yet they stood ignoring the prickling heat that burned down from the harsh Australian sun.
Margaret-May Heaslip, or Maggie as she was more affectionately known, was the most uncomfortable of them all as she stood in front of the crowd, trying to read them without catching their eyes at all. She did not want to look into the reflection of tear-guarded sunglasses or the equally glassy eyes of weeping women. They were all here, after all, standing on the dying, yellowing grass, staring up at her with a level of grief and expectation.
“I tried to prepare myself for this,” Maggie said after a moment, her voice too soft to reach the back of the crowds and they yelled, in that too-boisterous way that they always had, to speak up girl, grow a voice girl. She cleared her throat, looking down at her fingers which she twisted together until she felt pain, and then over at her mother who seemed to be unable to do nothing more than stare into space, wishing to see a ghost.
“I don’t think you can ever prepare yourself for this–” Maggie continued, finally raising her eyes to the crowd of people she had run from three years ago, finding University her great escape from this little outback town. “My brother Luke was two years younger than me. But, I guess you all know that. Luke was… always doing the right thing. He did okay at school, dropped out in year ten, played footy with the boys every season and…”
Maggie rolled her shoulders as her teeth sunk into her lower lip, a stinging reminder not to let herself cry.
“Truthfully, my little brother was a pain in the arse, but he was still my brother, and there’s not a lot of things I can tell you about him that you don’t already know.” Maggie sighed. “All I know was that I was never supposed to outlive him.” She whispered and in the silence that followed she could hear the heartbreaking wail that escaped from her mother’s mouth as the woman continued to sob. She had lost her golden child and now her daughter, ever awkward, ever uncomfortable, was not going to take his place. In her mother’s mind, with the loss of Lucas, she had lost everything.
Acutely aware of the eyes that moved to her mother, and the few lingering gazes that remained on her long enough to cause her scalp to prickle, Maggie cleared her throat again. She tried to make her voice strong and clear, and she tried to shield her mother from their too-sympathetic eyes. “What I can tell you is that Luke would love you all for coming here, that Luke has always been about his community, especially the people in it – and when he was eight years old, he decided he wanted to be a firefighter.”
She smiled sadly at the memory, forcing herself to continue. “Mum bought him a pair of red suspenders and he used to traipse about the house in these ugly yellow corduroy pants, one size too big and held up by his fire fighter suspenders. He was so proud of himself, running around the house, climbing up the bookcases and sliding through the windows. He rescued so many pretend cats that summer that Mum could have officially claimed the title of Invisible Cat Lady.” Maggie chuckled, relieved when some of the crowd around them joined in too.
She shifted from foot to foot, looking down at the ugly flowers littering the casket. Flowers Luke would have scoffed at, decoration that would wither under the harsh sun in days. It wasn’t fair; then again, life wasn’t fair, was it?
“When Luke passed training to become a firefighter, I was away at University, up in Sydney.” There was rustling in the crowd, a look of disapproval, Maggie knew they thought she was bragging. “He called me though. Pleased as punch with the news, and I should have driven down here to give him a hug, to hold him tight and congratulate him. My little brother, finally a fireman. All that hard work paid off. Instead we made jokes about fireman poles and calendars, and I ended the call early.” Maggie paused, emotion overtaking her finally as a sob wrenched through her throat.
“I should have told him I loved him.”
After a long pause, where she stood in the sleek black dress and held her fist to her lips to stop her own sobs, Maggie lifted her glassy eyes back to the crowd again. “Thing is, Luke wouldn’t want you to be sad for him.” She tried to put as much authority into her voice as she could. “He knew what he was getting into going into those bush fires, entering houses to make sure someone else was safe. He knew everything about them, what with that too-morbid fascination with flickering yellow and orange flames – and he’d have never not gone in there, you know. Not made sure everyone was okay. He couldn’t stay away from the fire if he wanted.”
She was still twisting her fingers picking at the edges of her nails. “I guess what I’m saying is, don’t be sad for Lucas Heaslip. He wouldn’t want you to be sad. He wouldn’t want you to call him a hero. He’d just want you to keep on carrying on. He’d want you to go home and do what makes you happy. He was doing what he had always wanted when he went into those flames. He was a little boy in ugly pants and suspenders, water gun in hand, ready to take on the world.” Fat tears rolled down her cheeks. “And when he died, he was the real life embodiment of that little boy’s dreams.”
With a shuddering sigh, Maggie backed away from the podium, a muttered thank you on the edge of her lips as she ran from the spotlight to her family. Burying herself behind them, out of sight, and hopefully out of mind while she cried through the rest of the ceremony. Then, as they all stood a little taller in the heat of the sun and the casket was lowered too slowly into the ground, Maggie pushed her way back to the front. She stared at the cheap wooden casket, at the roses littered on top, and at the people who had pushed closer too, wavering on the edge of a goodbye for a boy from a small town who was good to too many.
“Goodbye, little brother.” She murmured, and closed her eyes, remembering the trouble he’d been in after breaking in a window to climb through it, and how she’d yelled each time he snuck up behind her and squirted the cold water from his toy against the back of her neck.
“I’m proud of you.”
Stephanie Buxton is a Darwin based writer who spends most of her free time either madly finding homes for all the characters invading her imagination or baking an array of decadent cakes and cupcakes. You can get a glimpse into her world on Instagram here.