leah mc­fall

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - NEWS -

Karori was dead quiet. Per­fect, re­ally, for talk­ing to a small girl about The End.

It was an un­set­tled night. Maddy was run­ning a tem­per­a­ture but didn’t want the Pamol. Af­ter per­sis­tent coax­ing she took it at 2am, af­ter she’d or­dered her Daddy dra­mat­i­cally out of the room. Later, she came into bed with me.

What can you do when a child is bright with fever, giddy on medicine and wants to talk? Karori was dead quiet and un­der­lit, its far-be­tween street lights let­ting off a weak, fuzzy kind of or­ange. The mood, time and place were all per­fect, re­ally, for talk­ing to a small girl about The End.

“Tell me about skele­tons,” she said, abruptly. “What hap­pens when you’re dead? What hap­pens to your hair?”

“Well, if you were a mummy, you kept it,” I said, skat­ing gaily over the facts. “The An­cient Egyp­tians wrapped you up in ban­dages and put you in a painted, uh, sort of box-” “A cof­fin,” Maddy con­firmed. “Yes, but it was painted to look like you with beau­ti­ful eyes and a head­dress,” I said, ‘‘and then they felt you were on your way to a new place, and you’d need all your things. So they put all your favourite things around you, like gold and jew­els, and if you liked dogs, a statue of a dog, and the things you liked to eat, and they be­lieved you took it all with you to the next world.”

I tried to dis­tract her with more talk about jew­els, pyra­mids, and mu­se­ums, but she wouldn’t be put off. “Tell me about peo­ple who have died,” she said. “Peo­ple I know?” I asked, star­tled. I smacked my pil­low; my head was be­gin­ning to thump.

“Well, they were all very old, very tired, fell to sleep and didn’t want to wake up,” I hedged, al­though I can tell you right now this is strictly un­true. I told her about my grand­par­ents, who each died too soon. But in my retelling they were ready to go, went pain­lessly, and did nice things in the af­ter­math. Not the af­ter­life, mind you; in their wills.

“Your great grand­mother loved birds,” I said to Maddy’s shadow, “and she liked to give money to a sanc­tu­ary that helped hurt and lonely birds. So, af­ter she died, we spon­sored an in­jured owl for her.” I hadn’t re­mem­bered we did this un­til I said it.

“Some peo­ple think there’s a heaven,” Maddy an­nounced. She hadn’t learned this from us; it must have been a kid at school.

“They do,” I agreed. And some peo­ple think you come back as some­thing else and if you’ve been bad, some­thing not very nice, like a stink bug.” “Ew,” she said. “Or if you were lovely, you might come back as some­one else, but you won’t re­mem­ber who you were be­fore.” I was freestyling now, to be hon­est, be­ing no ex­pert in com­par­a­tive re­li­gion. “We don’t re­ally know though be­cause no­body has been able to tell us.”

Maddy wanted the bed­side light on; it was too bright. I kept talk­ing. “Maybe we don’t go any­where at all, but we don’t need our bod­ies any more, so it doesn’t hurt us or bother us if we get buried or some­thing.”

I ex­plained that some peo­ple are buried in West­min­ster Abbey, like kings and queens, and some peo­ple have their name un­der a rose bush, like my grand­dad. Other peo­ple were set off down a river.

There was a pause. I draped a long black sock over my eyes to block out the light.

“I want to keep talk­ing about skele­tons,” she said, but I said: “Maddy. I need to look af­ter you to­mor­row. It’s time to sleep.”

“When are you go­ing to die?” she asked next. This is al­ways the kicker, as any­one who loves a child knows.

“Well, I think I’m go­ing to beat the Queen Mother,” I said, with cer­tainty. “She was 101, and she was so old all she did was sit around and drink bub­bly wine and wear feath­ery hats. So how does that sound?”

So­porific, I guess. Maddy fell asleep, curls stick­ing to her skin. All the un­said words (can­cer, cre­ma­tion, pu­tre­fac­tion) floated above the bed, out of the win­dow and dis­solved into the black night; a night that was hold­ing its breath.

“Eee, she’s only 6,” clucked my Ge­ordie nan. “It’s too soon for this, our Leah.”

“The owl was a nice touch,” con­ceded Nana. “What else did I save up to tell you…? That’s it: you looked a ter­ri­ble mess at your grad­u­a­tion. All that hair. You should have taken off your sun­glasses for the pic­ture.”

“It’s all in the past,” in­ter­rupts Grand­dad. “What are you driv­ing th­ese days, lass? One of them Mooby Tis­sues?”

“Mit­subishi,” I say, pos­si­bly out loud. Maddy grunts in her sleep, 95 years of life ahead of her, and it feels right.

“Tell me about skele­tons,” Maddy said, abruptly. “What hap­pens when you’re dead? What hap­pens to your hair?”

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