I have just returned back from staying in the house my change-adverse parents have been living in since I was two. It has never been renovated which gives me a problem with scale sometimes – the trees seem too big and the constant architecture and furnishings too small. I had forgotten how quiet it is at night there in Avonhead, a suburb on the northwest edge of town, close to the airport and the prevailing wind. I had flown in at short notice to attend the funeral of my oldest friend who had died suddenly, as in with no warning, or none that I got wind of.
Our parents had been significant close friends – mine saw very few people at all, living as they still do in the middle of a block, down a long drive, isolationist-style - not so much in the 90s. But in the seventies and eighties we had shared family holidays, dinner parties, holidays at each other’s houses, secrets, experiments, concealed agonies. We had drifted apart after our early twenties – I had thought we would be friends again “later”, but she had been found dead on her kitchen floor. I still don’t know what happened and it seemed tasteless and pointless to ask how she died. Her family said the pathologist said she had had a reaction to medication, and she had had celiac ulcers. It seemed enough of an answer that she was just dead and that was it.
A catalyst for me avoiding her was when her mother fired me as her bridesmaid for not doing all the things I was supposed to do for her wedding when we were 20. I really had had no idea I had to do anything other than wear a biggish dress on the day and smile engagingly and look good in photographs. And the dress was awful, designed, I suspected, to make her look better. But I smiled at the dropped, snow-white style waist, the salmon tussar silk and her sense of being the “female lead”. I went to the wedding anyway and smoked a lot of pot with her older brother in a Victorian glasshouse on the grounds of the place they were married. Years before her brother’s was the first hard-on I felt with my hand.
But the real reason I stopped calling was that I thought other people were much cooler. Why couldn’t I have just kept loving her anyway? She had a similar sense of urgency, and her head moved very fast too; probably too fast, necessitating self-medication and, naturally, the failure of this course of action. We arc both numerologically threes and astrologically Capricorns so we are somewhat doomed, but with complicity that beat the problem. I remember another one-time best friend telling me that since I had started using morphine it was good because I didn’t talk so much. My dead friend, on the other hand, never said I talked too much.
My father and her mother had fallen out about ten years ago. Friends since university, members of the tramping club, she was engaged to his best friend who bolted on her. She met her husband-to-be on the boat chasing him to America. She and her ex-boyfriend had renewed contact and wanted to leave their families to be together now the children were grown up. Dad stopped speaking to her, disgusted. I thought him a bit damning given that I had once found him pacing the lawn in the frost once in his pyjamas, never having come in after getting the newspaper – he is always first up in our house; there is a set routine of him clanging the top of the designer 60s stainless steel teapot and then scrunching down and back up the long shingle drive to pour the tea and read the paper. He was sitting with his head in his hands on the table on the lawn, his pacing footprints visible in the frost, looking very upset saying that before he had a family he had wanted to be a mountain ranger.
My mean sister-in-law told me that in her opinion my friend must have killed herself, given her rumoured depression and previous alcoholism. I thought this unlikely as, being a romantic, she would have laid herself out, her hair fanned out in something funereal, like Ophelia, rather than being found downstairs next to a spilled cup of coffee, telephone by her hand. She had called me out of the blue on the Thursday before the Monday she died and sounded very happy if not a little speedy. We laughed and talked for a long time and agreed to hang out when I went south for Christmas. She surprised me when she said that she had been talking to her mother and they had decided that she had never really had another friend like me. We agreed that it can be hard to find people who understand what you are talking about.
Something else that shocked me was that there were no young people to speak at her funeral, not that we were really young any more, but where were her friends? Her ex-husband? Only her little dog leapt forward as her coffin was lowered into the ground. I was a pallbearer, which I found very upsetting - surely there was a better friend than me to do it? I felt so neglectful. While I carried her coffin my estranged Range Rover-driving plastic surgeon brother tickled my baby’s feet to stop him from crying. She was buried in a lawn cemetery a couple of hundred metres away from my parents’ house in the green belt that marks the edge of town. During the service I found I knew all the hymns by heart and right there I stifled a sob for who I used to be and how I miss her too.
I had assumed that everyone had as many friends as they wanted. Especially those with shining, impish, dark brown eyes like hers. She used to put whole lemons down the garbage disposal because she liked the smell. She had been the littlest Von Trapp in the Christchurch Operatic Society production of The Sound of Music in 1977. She was adorable. She sang and played the violin beautifully and was very accomplished; the youngest leader of the national youth orchestra etc. We played chamber music together for a time as teenagers, both conservatoire kids; music for a time when there was no radio or television and people had to delinquently amuse each other. She started the university school of music at 16 but a dirty old professor fucked her and she ran away from it all after that. Mum only told me that the day of the funeral.
Laid out in her coffin she looked terrible. All the youth was drained from her and her face looked so serious and wooden. It was obvious then that her defining characteristic was the way she smiled naughtily with her whole face. There seemed to be fine cuts all along her left forearm. Mum said that they were folds from the embalming, but the other arm didn’t look like that I thought, although I was not sure as it was tucked down by her side. Her mother said it had meant a lot to her that she was a signatory at my wedding. I had not remembered and thought I made my dog my bridesmaid. I was drunk, and don’t remember her being there, or her husband either. My husband and the celebrant were drunk too – I wondered at the time if it had been legally binding.
For the last fifteen years or so her mother had been her best friend really, and I felt for her. When I asked a friend who had lost her mother – they had been very close too – how she helped ease the pain of loss, and did she think it helped to think of the person staying around as a spirit, she said that a Buddhist priest friend had had some advice: to light a candle every night and put by it a little of everything you cat during the day. This helps the spirit, who hangs around those they loved most, to find their way. I thought I would do this and set about looking for a candle. The only one I could find was a Mexican votive one with a skeleton and holy death written on it along with a long incantation in Spanish. A friend had given it to me saying that it wasn’t a dark one, but a prayer for something good, like how death isn’t a bad tarot card.
I duly lit it and put bits of food that she would have liked, and a cigarette and some money for good measure. At the same time a terrible smell started in our kitchen. I thought perhaps one of the cats from next door had left a dead bird in the garden outside the window, so I shut it firmly. The smell got worse. I searched the cupboards and behind the fridge and stove to no avail. A day elapsed, and I still tried to put food out, but as I was not wanting to go in there, least of all eat there, this was difficult. That afternoon I decided that I had to fix the problem and I smelled the problem out. I took the back off the oven and the smell was awful. I could sec that a mouse had made a burrow in the white insulating material and found the mouse dead and putrid amongst the wires behind the dials. I did not light the candle again.
I googled a string of words from the prayer and found it was to Holy Death, an Aztec she-deity recycled by Catholics, to keep husbands faithful on pain of agonizing death. Ironically, my friend’s doctor husband of ten years screwed his nurse and is with her still. They have a child together even though she told me when she called that he rang her weekly asking her to take him back and would not sign the divorce papers. Holy Death is said to have killed herself when her husband cheated on her, and now comes to the aid of all others who wait up at half-past three in the morning wondering what gives, and imagining his horny laughter with another newer person.
On the telephone last night I told a friend that I felt I had let her down badly. Maybe she had killed herself, and maybe some of the damaging things we had done when younger had led to her not trusting new people. For example, I had egged her on to drink a lot when we were teenagers and once she had passed out in the orchard beyond someone I went to school with’s tennis court. Another friend went to find her, thinking she was making out with this big lawyer’s son who had been chatting her up and feeding her Bacardi. In her camera flash she saw that she was unconscious and her skirt was pulled up and the guy’s pants were down, inches from fucking her. The photograph – the look on his face, the whites of her eyes, his hard-on – was utterly awful. She was devastated when the photo was shown around as a joke.
My phone friend said that I shouldn’t berate myself about not being there for her in recent years because sometimes others make it difficult for people’s community of loved ones to help them. He also said that in the wake of his father’s suicide that he decided to make some changes and that he now doesn’t leave things unsaid. I ended up thinking that people are way too hard on each other, and decided to do my level best to not be so hard on others and myself, and to not put up with people being too hard on me either.
When I was a curator I entertained working for a man who wanted someone to shit on a glass coffee table in exchange for free lodgings in a large Manhattan apartment and a useful income. That is how much I wanted to escape my art gallery job. My scientist father said, in passing, at the time of the funeral (perhaps trying to get me and the baby to stay) that a lot of money was to be made running samples of blood, stools and urine at Medlab and that people didn’t even need science degrees. They had retention problems so would train people to undertake the work. I semi-seriously thought about it, interested that I am considering working with shit again. Mainly what I want to avoid is contempt, both in-going and out-going.