Dead End


Our family has always been blessed, or cursed as some might have it, with a Python-esque sense of  humour. My brother actually took it to the stage and is a veteran of the Melbourne comedy scene.

When mum died on the eve of his run in the 2014 Melbourne Fringe Festival, we all knew and agreed she would want the show to go on.

Last year it was dad’s time and it looked for a while like he might die during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

We already had the line: To lose one parent during a comedy show might be regarded as poor timing, to lose two not very funny at all. As it was, dad survived the festival in April and bowed out in May.

Losing a second parent in little more than a year was incredibly painful, but I fancy dad would be laughing at the myriad absurdities that have followed his passing.

It began with the receipt of the death certificate, which came with a safety warning printed on the outside of the envelope to the effect that the person mentioned inside was dead.

That might indeed have been upsetting if the utilities didn’t keep providing contradictory evidence.

The bills arriving at dad’s place put in my mind a short story by British author Will Self called The North London Book of the Dead, published in 1991, which later gave rise to a movie of the same name.

It’s about a man grieving the loss of his mother to cancer who happens to bump into her, dead but otherwise apparently perfectly well, on a street in suburban Crouch End one Tuesday afternoon.

Later, taking tea with his mortified mum, the astonished narrator discovers that there are dead people alongside us everywhere, drawing wages, renting videos, going to the supermarket and doing all the other mundane things of daily existence but we, the living, mostly don’t realise.

This idea has always tickled me and now I have the evidence of this parallel plane in the form of dad’s gas bill.

The bill, which purported to be an actual reading rather than an estimate, puts dad’s gas at $290.47 (before pensioner discounts) for two months.

This was more than for the comparable period the previous year, when he was indeed to be found sitting in the lounge room with the gas fire on high to try to warm his dear old bones.

The conversation with the gas company was like that famous Monty Python dead parrot sketch: “I’m ringing about my late father’s gas bill.”

“Oh yes, what seems to be the problem?”

“The problem is he’s using more gas now than when he was alive.”

“Well, I can see this has not been updated as a deceased estate account. Will you be cancelling the service?”

“Umm, well maybe not if he needs it so much, I think.”

Of course it turns out to be an error, but the cynic in me thinks how easy it would be to claim that a percentage of estimated readings were actual and save the cost of sending out a meter reader.

And how about that little creep in usage year on year? Can it be explained simply by pointing out the lower temperatures in a particularly cold winter?

Just one tiny problem.

Dead men don’t need shale.

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here today …

Old people say the darnedest things.

And given that 72 is the new 30 – in terms of post-caveman lifespan – maybe we should start listening.

Take Geoff, one of my mum’s nursing home neighbours.

The tea lady backed out of his room the other day as I was walking past.

She was really quite upset.

Why didn’t someone tell me Geoff was dead?” she appealed.

He’s not, said a passing nurse.

Well, why is he lying there with a sheet over his face?”

We all creep into his room. The nurse, doubting herself now, oh-so-gently pulls back the sheet and asked the waxen, completely motionless form: “Are you OK, Geoff?”

Sure, he replies with a cackle. Just practising!

He has a point. Isn’t that what life is … a very long dress rehearsal for the final performance, the very last reception.

Good nursing homes are surprisingly cheerful places.

The nurses have that droll, slightly black humour that comes with acceptance of the absurdity of a life that sets you up for death.

Still, I can’t understand how they can cope.

Change shifts and the lovely little bird-like Austrian woman who has been there since the home opened in 2009 isn’t there.

Ask, where’s Gertie? and when someone answers “gone” you know they don’t mean out for some Vienna cake.

Robert, one of the newbies in the nursing home, has a cute plush frog taped to the frame of his walker.

What’s the story with the frog, Rob?

It’s to remind you all I could croak any time,” says he.

Ain’t that the truth.