Stan didn’t look good at all. I could see him in the garden, through a window. Hunched forward, sucking on a cigarette, mistaking it for a sign of life. He was also mumbling to himself; another lifelong habit of his. I signed the visitor’s books, spoke to the manager and stood watching him. The thought of turning around and leaving the nursing home without speaking to him was hard to shake. Stan had always been one for nostalgia. Right now, I thought, he was most likely reminiscing, remembering his days as a street runner, junior scammer and budding career criminal. He also loved to recall ventures of his life as a robber. The big hauls he’d pulled, the petrified bank tellers he’d terrorised, and the value of a side-by-side double-barrel shotgun as opposed to an over and under. If memory is selective, Stan’s had always been tellingly so. He neglected the tales of his treatment of women and family, and the occasional whisper in a detective’s ear to ensure he held onto the keys to the city.
I knocked on the glass sliding door. Stan twitched nervously, possibly thinking an old adversary had come to pay him an unwelcome visit. I opened the door and stepped into the garden. He looked particularly frail. Sunken cheeks and an uncontrollable shake in one hand. He’d obviously dropped weight. The jagged scar on his right cheek had changed colour. Blood pink, it looked like a recent war wound, rather than a 30-year-old battle scar. If Stan lifted his shirt his torso would display a life of violence, including a near death experience.
‘You came?’ he said, without looking at me. ‘Wasn’t sure you’d turn up.’
‘The message said it was urgent, Stan. I thought you must be on your way out.’
‘Really?’ He seemed genuinely puzzled. ‘All I said was to ask if you could come. There was no urgency.’
Stan had always been a man of few words, which was an asset, as I’d never enjoyed talking to him. I didn’t see any need for a cosy chat now. ‘So, what do you want? You must have asked me here for something.’
‘I’m dying,’ he said. ‘Soon.’
The word registered, but carried no impact with me. ‘I guess it is urgent then. What have you got?’
‘Doesn’t matter what it is,’ he said. ‘It’s the end. That’s why I asked you here.’
He spoke with no more interest in his death than I had. Stan wouldn’t fear death, I was certain of that. What puzzled me was I had no idea why he’d feel a need to ask that I attend the nursing home. I hadn’t seen him in many years and we didn’t exchange Christmas cards. Stan had never been one to travel lightly. Whatever the reason I was standing in the garden with him, it would come with baggage.
‘You wanna sit?’ he said.
Being physically close to Stan had always been an exercise in discomfort. ‘I’m good,’ I said.
‘The last visit by the doc here, he said maybe a month or two, probably less.’
He paused. I wondered if he was waiting for a comment from me. Or a show of sympathy, which would have been so out of character, I couldn’t imagine it.
‘The very next day some young bugger of a lawyer come by. Public Advocate Office or something. Says I need to get my affairs in order. Starting with a discussion about a funeral.’
If Stan was about to ask me to preside over his coffin, he had to be senile. He knew how I felt about him, and that nothing would change with his looming demise. ‘Funeral?’ I asked.
‘Well, not as such,’ he said. ‘There’d be no one there to cry over me, would there?. Maybe one or two to spit on the coffin, at best. No, I’m having no funeral. I said the university could have me, you know, cut me up. The lawyer fella said that’s not on. They have an oversupply.’ He coughed furiously and his battered face turned purple. ‘So, I need you to help.’
I had no intention of looking after Stan’s affairs. ‘Why me?’
‘Because there’s no one else,’ he roared, briefly introducing the fearful menace of old. ‘All you need do is be certain that the lunatics that run this place know how follow my instructions. That’s all you need to do.’
‘And what are they, your instructions?’ I said.
‘After I’m dead, I’ve nominated a funeral company and paid everything up front. They pick me up, no coffin, nothing, they burn me, give the ashes to you and you get rid of them however you want.’
I didn’t want to take on such a responsibility for Stan, dead or alive. ‘Can’t they, the funeral home get rid of you, your ashes? You don’t need me for this, Stan.’
‘I tried that.’ Stan appeared as frustrated as I was. ‘They don’t like that. It gets complicated. They won’t dispose of me without tracking down living relatives, they said. It’s messy. The fella said I could be stuck sitting on a shelf for years. I don’t want that.’ He looked at me and his eyes almost softened. ‘It’s not much. All you need do is pick the ashes up. Throw them in a bin as soon as you leave the joint, if you like. Or flush me down the toilet. I don’t care what you do.’
I sensed that maybe he did care. ‘If you’re not bothered either way, Stan, why don’t you just sit on that shelf? You might have company for a change.’
He hesitated before answering, and when he did, he spoke in a whisper. ‘Because I don’t want them thinking no one, not a soul wanted me.’
Shit, I thought. Even the homicidal Stanley Rook could be beaten down by sentimentality.
‘Will you do it?’ he asked.
While I wasn’t keen to carry out his orders, there seemed no harm in telling him I’d agree to his wishes. If I changed my mind, Stan would never know and there’d be no harm done.
‘Sure. I’ll do it. So, what would you prefer, the bin or the toilet bowl?’
‘I don’t care. Whatever is easiest for you. I reckon you’d like to piss on my remains. Do that if you like.’
‘There’d be a few others interested in that,’ I smiled. ‘Maybe I could arrange a wake and we’ll all piss on you.’
‘Whatever you want,’ he said. ‘It will be your party, not mine.’
A nursing sister appeared at the doorway. ‘You will need to come in soon, Mr Rook. The wind has picked up. We don’t want you catching a cold.’
‘I’ve got throat cancer,’ he barked at her. ‘What do I care if I end up with a cold. Leave me alone, woman.’
‘I see you’re still polite with the ladies,’ I said.
He looked down at the hands he’d done so much damage with. ‘How’s your mother?’ he asked. ‘Is she still alive?’
I didn’t want to get in a conversation with Stan about my mother. ‘She’s good,’ I said.
‘Did she ever re-marry?’
‘Hey, Stan, drop it. She wouldn’t want me talking to you about her. She doesn’t even know I’m here.’
‘Will you tell her?’ he asked.
‘That I visited you? No.’
‘I mean, will you tell her after I’m gone, that I’ve died?’
I thought for just a moment that I should let him off the hook, but I couldn’t do it. ‘Of course, I’ll tell her. She might be old, Stan, but she’s entitled to some joy in her life.’
Stan actually laughed. ‘I like that. She’s entitled to a laugh. I was a bastard of a husband and a father.’
I wasn’t about to disagree with him and said nothing. He slowly got to his feet. ‘Look at you,’ he said.
‘What’s that mean?’
He placed a hand on my shoulder. I froze. ‘When you were a kid, you were soft. Too soft. I was ashamed of you. Do you know that?’
‘Oh, I know it. I still have the scars to show for your shame.’ My voice rose. ‘Would you like to see them, Stan?
He patted my shoulder several times. ‘Take it easy. I was going to say, you’ve changed. You have presence, son. In the old days, running with me, you’d have made a decent robber. You’d need training, of course. You’d put the fear into people.’
One of Stan’s brothers, Des, almost as menacing as him, had come snooping around our place one day when Stan was away doing three years. Mum said that Stan would have sent Des to check up on her, to make sure she didn’t have a man around the house. Des had lifted my chin and said, ‘You’re the spitting image of your father.’ My mother looked at Des with disgust and I dropped my head in shame.
Fear was all that Stan knew. And he was good at it. One of the best. But Stan was a one-trick pony. He possessed no other skill in life, which was why he was now sitting in a garden, in a nursing home, soon to die alone.
‘You better go,’ he said. ‘We have dinner here at five and then it’s off to our rooms. It’s worse in here than the being in the nick. I did H Division in the old days. It had nothing on this joint. Get going.’
I looked at Stan for the final time. ‘I’ll see you then.’
‘No, you won’t. Never again.’
Three weeks later, Stan was dead. I was walking near the sea when my phone rang. The nursing sister asked if I’d like to visit the Home and spend time with my father’s body before he was collected by the funeral home responsible for the cremation.
‘I’m sure that you would enjoy some contemplative time and perhaps prayer with your father,’ she offered.
‘No, I don’t need to do that. Thank you,’ I said. ‘I’m done with contemplation.’
I put the phone away and continued my walk. I stopped for a moment, closed my eyes and listened to the waves rolling in and sliding out; a feat of predictability and calmness I could enjoy for the first time in my life.
Two weeks later a parcel arrived in the mail, the size of half a house brick. It weighed more than I would have expected. I unwrapped the parcel. Inside was a sealed box, secured with gaffer tape. A label on the box read, ‘Stanley James Rook — Remains’. An accompanying letter explained that the ashes of my father were now mine, and that if I wished to dispose of them I needed to do so responsibly, adding that some municipalities do not permit the disposal of human remains within their administrative jurisdiction. I sat the box on the kitchen bench and left it there for the afternoon and into the evening while I cooked my dinner. I went to bed that night without touching the box again. In the morning, it was where I’d left it. I’d irrationally thought that it might simply vanish, relieving me of responsibility.
I had let my mother know that Stan was dead, in a phone call. She said very little and expressed neither joy or sadness. For several weeks, I moved my father around the house. On the mantel on the lounge, in a cupboard drawer, on the balcony next to a potted fern. When my mother came for lunch about a month later, Stan’s ashes were sitting on a bookshelf. She noticed the box as soon as she came into the house. She picked up and shook it.
‘He rattles,’ she said and put him back down. ‘What are you going to do? Get an urn, I suppose?’
That wasn’t my intention. ‘No, mum. I’m going to get rid of them. I just haven’t got around to doing it.’
‘Get rid of them?’ She was visibly shocked at the idea.
‘Yeah. I talked about it with him. He said he didn’t care what happened after he was dead.’
‘You spoke to him? Your father?’
I told her about the visit to the nursing home in the weeks before his death. If she was angry at all, it didn’t show. ‘You can’t do that,’ she said.
‘I can’t what?’
‘Get rid of your father’s ashes. Dispose of him.’
‘Why can’t I?
‘Because he’s your father. Blood. It would be wrong to do so.’
I picked up the box and offered it to her. ‘You can have him, if you like.’
‘It’s not for me to have him. But you need to. Like I said. Blood. You get rid of him now, there’ll be a day when you regret it.’
‘I don’t think so, mum.’
‘Think what you like. I’m your mother and I know.’
She left soon after lunch, mildly unhappy with me. I sat on the couch and looked across the room at Stan, annoyed that he’d come back into our lives, even in death. I vowed that the next morning I would get rid of him. When my mother visited next, she headed straight for the bookshelf, picked up the box and shook it. She seemed pleased to again hear the rattle of Stan’s remains. We sat, quietly eating lunch. She bit into a ham and pickle sandwich on wholemeal bread. Her favourite. I looked across the room and spotted the opened packet of kitty-litter sitting on the bottom shelf of the bookcase.
Dr Tony Birch is a well known author, academic and activist. His most recent novel, The White Girl, won the Indigenous Writers’ Prize of the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.