When I drove to my grandfather’s funeral I was almost stopped by the police. I had been driving the stretch of Pacific Highway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast twenty kilometres over the speed limit, partly because I was running late, and partly because I was twenty years old and a terrible driver.
As I drove I failed to see a police officer on the side of the highway crouched next to a motorbike; his face hidden behind the speed gun resting on the bike’s handle bars. I only saw him in my rearview mirror, and only as he put away the speed gun and mounted his bike. I began to shake violently, swearing as I exhaled. I imagined myself locked in a gaol cell while my grandfather was being lowered into earth in a wooden box. I imagined my grandmother crying. I merged across four lanes and took the next exit, despite the fact that it was marked for a suburb called Pimpama and my grandfather was being buried an hour’s drive away in northern New South Wales.
I pulled into a petrol station and sat in the car, still shaking and swearing. The police officer hadn’t followed me there. He probably hadn’t really been following me at all. I had my iPod plugged into my car’s speaker system and ‘Everywhere’ by Fleetwood Mac was playing. Something’s happening, happening to me, Christine McVie was saying. My friends say I’m acting peculiar. I watched as the people of Pimpama paid for their petrol, fighting the urge to phone my mother.
When I was fifteen, watching To Kill a Mockingbird in English class, I equated my grandfather with Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch. They were both fair-minded, both driven by what was right, and both a moral compass. They were both formative figures in my burgeoning sense of masculinity. But while Gregory Peck’s Finch was tall, slender, and dressed neat, my grandfather was stout, with rough hands that drove tractors, reared calves, and had fought in war. As a child he had been nicknamed ‘Chub’, and it had stuck. When Atticus Finch addressed the court, I thought of the many times I had ridden next to my grandfather on the leather padded seat of his slow, loud, orange tractor; of the many times he had slowly turned to me, away from the wheel, and said “Tell me something, Mister James.”
I left my grandfather’s wake early so I could go to work. When I asked work if I could start my shift two hours later than usual I didn’t mention it was because of my grandfather’s funeral. I didn’t want to seem like the kind of person who would rather work than grieve with family, even though I was that person. I had only been living out of home for just over a year, and my job was one of few things that made my own ‘adulthood’ feel legitimate. I had very little idea of what it meant to be an adult, but defining yourself by your work seemed to be a part of it. My grandfather’s wake had been at the Murwullimbah RSL, where most food is served next to green beans and a gravy boat. My Aunty Noela offered to buy me a pot of beer; it was one of the few times I had seen her since I had turned eighteen. “What’d you like?” she had asked. When I told her that I was driving and said that I’d like a lemonade please, her eager smile dulled.
Despite my detour to the Pimpama petrol station, I wasn’t late for my grandfather’s funeral. It was held at the gravesite, a small cemetery that leant on a hill just out of Murwullimbah. I noticed that there was a retirement village across the street. Twenty of us stood under a small marquee, while a priest I had never seen before spoke of my grandfather’s merits. I thought about the things I’d like to say about him. He had a favourite chair that I liked to sit in when he wasn’t around. He loved custard, and prunes, and oysters; we’d often visit him bearing tall jars filled with oysters from a fish shop. The priest spoke about his time in the war, which I had never been told anything about.
I helped carry the coffin from the back of the hearse to the mechanism that would lower my grandfather into the ground. The men carried, and the women watched. I walked with my brother and uncle and cousins, gripping a brass handle and feeling the weight of my grandfather shifting inside the wooden box. While we walked I didn’t feel sad, just small. I was not grown enough to be bearing this weight. I worried that I wasn’t strong enough to hold it. If being an adult meant being stoic and moralistic and strong then I wasn’t cutting it. I wasn’t one of the tall men in black who carry coffins on their shoulders in movies; I was a boy who hyperventilated to Fleetwood Mac at a petrol station when faced with the prospect of a speeding ticket.
I wasn’t Atticus Finch.