Belty has forgiven me. I managed to scrape together a grand, which was a bit of a stretch since he was expecting three. The coup-de-grace though was a crappy old sideboard I had five-fingered from a hard rubbish collection while enduring a rain of mouth from its former owner. She thought me a special kind of lowlife who would probably find a prison cell, already occupied by a giant named ‘Mother’, just to my taste.
I drove into Belty’s Bazaar ‘It could be here!’ with the little wooden cupboard rattling around on my trailer. The sight of Steven Maurice Belt running is not a happy one. If he is running at you, it is terrifying.
‘I’ve got a grand and this thing,’ I simpered, pointing at the dusty box on the trailer while backing away towards the relative safety of my 1993 Mercedes Rustbucket.
‘Keep the money,’ he said, playfully slapping me around the ears, sending my Dork mirrored aviators spinning into a nearby pile of…something.
‘Unless I am much mistaken, dear old comrade,’ Belty is never mistaken, ‘that is an 1890s French sideboard in a gorgeous distressed grey with a natural wood top. Those two carved cupboard doors open to a washed crimson interior with contrasting, and functional, lock and key closure. The single shelf you will find inside offers perfect storage for a guest bathroom or bedroom. I would price it at $4.5k.’
Belty always wins.
Then he said: ‘I want you to drive me to a funeral.’
Well, of course.
A day in the country
Wonthaggi has seen better days. Mainly during the great coal frenzy of the early to mid-twentieth century, during which time it did its bit to help dump zillions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. Now it is a service centre for surrounding farms and even smaller towns, and a great source of 10 kilo snag packs [with a slab] for the increasing hordes of holidaymakers along the Gippsland coast.
The Wonthaggi Cemetery lies on the town’s edge, its tidy rolling lawn the final resting place for sadness, tragedy and a number of decent innings. Its also a safe place to hand over the wheel to a 14-year-old hoon-in-waiting.
That’s who was carving a new track around the boundary of the 100-odd souls trying to get a bit of kip. Belty soon put a stop to that. The backward-capped kid learned fast where the brake pedal was when Belty stepped out in front of the ute carrying a pick-axe a grave digger had overlooked when he headed back to the pub for lunch. The kid’s instructor, an equally spotty youth of a mere 18 summers, read the situation well, swapped seats, and the fully cranked ute left the cemetery in a cloud of dirt, the disappearing lads bravely accusing Belty of dubious acts involving innocent farm animals.
We had collected two fellow mourners from a simple shack on a back road. That it was surrounded by ‘stuff’ [‘good stuff’, said Belty] quickly identified the occupants as a couple of fellow travellers. Belty greeted Conway Bornhoeffer, a weedy toothless chancer, and his corpulent companion ‘Eats’ Brady, with disturbing cheek kissing, grabbing and excessive noogies all round.
I was introduced as ‘Mandible’* and roundly ignored.
A racket of respect
The three mourners were dressed in varying displays of black. Belty in his poorly-dyed coveralls, the cheap colouring already staining his sweating neck, and once-white disintegrating runners he insisted wearing on the wrong feet; Conway sported an All Blacks footy jumper, torn to reveal sleeves of black ink on his arms [which told the story of how Agamemnon had his daughter offed, and how his wife Clytemnestra returned the favour by drugging him and letting him drown in his bath], above black shorts revealing precariously thin legs housed in robust steel-caps [black]; Eats chose a black lace dress, which refused to join across his considerable back, black tights, a pair of fetching black patent leather pumps and a fascinator he had made that morning from some discarded black wrapping paper which was skewered to his afro by a bright red toothbrush.
In my court-appearance-black-suit, white shirt and tie, I was clearly out of step.
The journey to the graveside was accompanied by incomprehensible chatter to do with ‘collections’ and ‘acquisitions’ and ‘distributions’, and oiled by liver-crippling draughts from a rare 1950s Mezcal demijohn with original netting [valued at $US1,000] containing Belty’s ‘crying’ brew which he had cooked up in his still for the occasion.
My curiosity as to who had shuffled off their mortal, fell on deaf ears.
Here lies… someone
The dear departed was housed in a simple wooden box, not dissimilar to a packing crate. In fact, the faded stamp on its lid could still be made out. ‘This way up’ it said. The slightly rickety priest, his flushed complexion revealing his fondness for the bottle, was grateful for the ‘swig of tears’ that Belty offered and insisted on pouring into a large green plastic mug for the doddery cleric.
Eats took care of the funeral director with a fistful of notes who, eschewing a ‘little heart-starter’, seemed grateful to be leaving the five of us to it.
The priest galloped through his farewell rites at such a pace that Belty insisted he show a bit of respect and start again. After all, whoever was in the box deserved at least a little dignity. Another splash of go fluid, and Father Francis dawdled his way to the inevitable ashes-to-ashes incantation. The three mourners muttered a few words of farewell before each tossing a clod or two into the hole, and we were on our way.
Father Francis waved us off, happy with the refreshed mug of weeping water that was sufficient to accompany him on his five blocks stagger back to his disintegrating church.
A long lunch
We returned to the shack only to strap a large trailer onto my tow-bar and collect an elaborately painted van that announced ‘Bornhoeffer & Brady, Suppliers of Rare Antiques & Collectibles’.
Belty took the wheel of the Merc and unceremoniously dumped me at the Wonthaggi Hotel, beneath the ominous sperm whale’s jawbone that had propped up its verandah since 1923.
‘Have some lunch,’ he urged, folding a crisp twenty into my palm. ‘See you in a couple of hours.’
That ‘couple of hours’ passed very slowly, as I loitered over a vast plate of flathead and chips decorated with a modicum of salad and served with a parade of pots. My increasingly numbed think-box entertained itself by turning the smoke-stained ceiling into a dangerous array of perverse images, as the emptied glasses piled up.
When Belty woke me and lead me out to the Merc, the sun had already been down for some time. The darkness couldn’t disguise the burdened trailer, piled high with ‘some really great stuff’.
I peeked out of coma-land long enough to realise that my car was about to tow a large portion of the former possessions of a nameless dead person back to Melbourne. Gratefully, I felt consciousness starting to desert me again…
*Not my name