Whitegoods for Your Daughters
An excerpt from a new story by Victoria Manifold, published in the first Splice anthology
During the height of funeral season I began working as a receptionist at Burns, Burns & Burns, the first funeral parlour along the Pymble funeral strip.
As it does every year, funeral season had taken the many funeral homes of Pymble by surprise and they desperately scrambled to hire the extra staff needed to get them through those months unscathed. They advertised on local television, in free newspapers, in newspapers you paid for, on sheets of coloured paper taped to lampposts, the bottom edges of which were cut in such a way that they fluttered in the hot wind, making it easy to tear off the telephone numbers printed on them. That year quite a few of them had also splurged on sky writers. Puffs of white against the pain-fully blue sky commanded those below to WORK IN FUNERALS NOW. Unfortunately, as further details on how to apply were not provided, it proved to be an expensive mistake for those investing in this particular method of recruitment.
I had read the writing looming in the sky above me. I had watched the garish commercials on my local television. And I had torn off the strips of paper from the lampposts and studied them as if they were ancient hieroglyphs. The names were attractive and plentiful: Elegant Funeral Designs, Tru Pro Funerals, Executive Funeral Ambition, White Lady Funerals, John’s Funerals, Cut Price Funeral Dread, and, of course, Burns, Burns & Burns.
My position there had been created solely to meet the demands of the season, to greet the sweat-soaked mourners, almost entirely spent from the heat and grief, and to occupy them in a superficial manner whilst more important business was conducted beyond the curtain hanging behind my desk. Business more definite and purposeful than my own, requiring specialised tools and knowledge, hard to acquire chemicals and clothes with an unusual fit — trousers too tight around the thighs but baggy at the knees, calves, and ankles; a jacket almost comically big in the shoulders but resisting all attempts to be buttoned up around the middle.
The job had become an inconvenient necessity to me as I emerged dull and ragged from my first divorce, a costly enterprise that had left me needing money quickly. I had naturally assumed that further divorces were to follow; after all, I was still young enough and talented enough to dissolve perhaps five or more marriages before I tired of the process. So I had shed my winter clothes and shoes, my husband and the veneer of stability I had worked so hard to sustain. Now I sweated through loose cotton dresses and bought coffee at the 7-Eleven, counting out pocketfuls of twenty-cent coins and hoping the night manager there might ask me to marry him so I could begin it all over again.
Of course I was looking for anything that might quell the little frights that bubbled up inside me sometimes. I was looking for a way to stop myself reconstructing the minutiae of every moment of the last eighteen months, playing out scene after scene from my decaying marriage until I was exhausted. I was looking for a way to stop myself from picturing my first ex-husband’s face every time I masturbated, and a way to stop using the language we had invented together in secret — that sort of pathetically ordinary thing that couples sometimes do but that was still so painful to me.
I was always empty and full at the same time, sustaining myself on cheap foods and a peculiar strain of homesickness. My first ex-husband lived ten thousand miles from where I was born and now I did too. I couldn’t afford the airfare home and even if I could’ve I hated to return stinking of failure as badly as I did now. This homesickness had grown to be a hard ball that sat on the top of my stomach, under my ribs. I carried it with me everywhere and I luxuriated in it often: a specific kind of pain, sharply felt but edged with a woolly nostalgia. I tried to soften it by finding similarities between where I was and where I had come from. The smoke billowing from the chimneys of the ham processing factory could, in the right circumstances, be mistaken for the dense fog of the moors I ran across as a child. As long as I couldn’t hear their voices, the men crowding into the RSL on Fridays and Saturdays could be the same ones who’d deliberately squeezed too close to me in the sticky pubs of my adolescence. And although the MSG broth sitting at the bottom of the polystyrene cups of noodles I ate didn’t taste remotely like the thin stews my mother would make when I was growing up, it did have the same smell of poverty and desperation and, in that way, I could feel closer to home.
But in the end it was better to forget about home. Thinking about the distance only caused me to lose my breath and narrow my vision with a kind of vertiginous nausea. I imagined the effort needed to claw myself back to where I’d begun and those little frights exploded one after the other until I couldn’t lift my arms or legs or eyelids. So it was best to think only of the immediate future — what time to set my alarm for, what to eat for lunch, how to interact with the other people who worked at Burns, Burns & Burns and, every day, how I might meet my next ex-husband.
Read ‘Whitegoods for Your Daughters’ in full in the first Splice anthology, which is available to order now.