Chapter 1 - Recollection
His name was Aaron.
A naughty kid at school, he was one of those students that you just knew the teachers never really liked. The kind of kid that always got an eye roll from the teacher and if there was ever any trouble and the teacher had to find the culprit, it was Aaron who bore the brunt of it. He was a problem child, more so he was The Problem Child. You know the one whose picture you would find if you wanted to look up the dictionary definition of what a 'problem child' really was. He was always driving the teachers crazy, keeping them on their toes and testing them to remain professional when you knew all they wanted to do was scream out a string of obscenities and start choking the poor boy. He was that kid. What he made up for with his troublesome nature, he lacked in the looks department. Not that a boy of 11 years old needed to look good at all, but for the sake of description he was an average looking boy. Average height and weight, always blending in with the other boys. He had sandy brown hair and blue eyes. A couple of freckles on his nose. The one thing that was slightly different about him was he had an underbite. A rather unattractive underbite which meant his whole face would look pained at times as his jaw was always clenched. This underbite also caused him to resemble one of those vicious little dogs - not the real scary ones that needed to be locked up, more like the ones that woof and howl and drive people nuts. Which in turn, also suited Aaron - an earsplitting little dog who was all bark and no bite.
He was late to school some days. He was dropped off to school each day by either his mum or his dad. Never them together. This caused the other mothers to gossip as they did. And of course, they discovered through pure gossip and conversations that went on far too long that his parents were divorced. His mother was a quiet mother with cheap shoes. She had other kids too, who always came along when she dropped him off on Monday mornings. The late mornings. You got the impression that Monday mornings were stressful in Aaron's household. The boys refusing to get dressed, his little sister screaming. It's only a local school though, so who cares about being late. His dad picked up him every now and then. He was a gruff man who looked a little bit too tall. Like god made a little mistake when he was designing him. Because of this, he always bent over slightly when he walked and talked and looked like he had a hunch back. While Aaron's mom would embrace him when she said goodbye, his dad didn't do the same when he picked him up. All us kids would run out of the classroom, excited the day was over and ready to see our parents and there Aaron's dad would be, sitting on a bench meant for the kids. He would just nod at Aaron in a way where he hardly moved his head and Aaron would walk that way and they would be off. Father and son but there was no protective arm on Aaron's shoulder or excited tone of "How was your day?" Just a "Hello, hope you weren't...never mind," and they would walk off, Aaron slightly holding back as if his dad was not his protector but his master. They would then hop into the car and drive off.
Chapter 2 - Reminiscing
There was this park just down the road from our school.
Lots of trees and surrounded by big houses filled with big, local families. It was a decent sized park with a big swing hanging from one of the old totara trees. There was also a playground smack bang in the middle of it. The playground was your usual run of the mill playground - swings, a seesaw, jungle gym, chin-up bars, and some strange contraption that you spun around on. There was also a wooden climbing wall attached to the playground that was built up two storey's high, so you could climb up and down the thing easily. It resembled a treehouse with no roof so there were places to sit. Obviously, this playground was designed for kids, so during the day parents would bring their kids here to play and climb the structure. It wasn't tall by any means, so parents could reach their children if they made it to the top. Of course, at night it was another story, and it was where the cool kids from the local high school would come to smoke weed and drink cheap liquor from a can. Us kids were around 14 or so, on the cusp of teenage-hood, when we too would go to the park and see the old beer cans from the night before and be slightly intrigued by them. Still not old enough to drink, we knew they were drinking something 'bad,' but didn't know much more than that. We only knew that we felt cool being in the presence of these used cans.
Many years after attending primary school with Aaron, I would frequent this park myself at night. On the cusp of adulthood and in my last year of high school, I would come here with friends and a boyfriend I had at the time and we would do exactly what I had seen all those years before - we would smoke cigarettes stolen from our fathers, drink alcohol some pervert had bought us from the shop and of course smoke weed, and lord knows where that was acquired from. It was a strange little park and an even stranger playground. It had that thing that so many kid's playgrounds have where it was so friendly and fun in the daytime with lots of sun and people around - not a place of danger in the slightest - but then suddenly at nighttime it took on a completely different, spooky appearance. The trees made strange shadows on the paths leading to and from the playground and the bushes and shrubbery that lined the park appeared overgrown and mangled, so you felt a sense of being trapped there. It was dark. So, so dark at night that you had to be careful when you climbed the treehouse to get to the top. When I was there with my high school boyfriend I felt safe-ish. And wanting to impress him I never wanted to appear startled or weird, although once the weed took hold I would stare at the shadows and blink repeatedly to make sure they were indeed only shadows. It was the kind of park you had to ‘walk into’ in a way as it was situated at the bottom of a hill. So, if you started at the light, and walked down into the darkness, you would eventually find the playground right in the middle.
Chapter 3 - Realizations
I worked at the funeral hall to make some extra money.
It was your classic part-time job for a university student. Run by a lady named Sandra, our job was simple - we were essentially the waitresses at the wake.
The funeral would be held in the church on the cemetery grounds and then people would make their way to a little hall where the wake would be held. About three or four girls – all in their early 20s, myself included, would be there to serve tea and coffee to the guests and arrange the food and re-fill serviettes when they ran out. It was a strange job in a way and a real juxtaposition in the sense that for us it was only a job, so we would show up coffee in hand and get set up. Simple really, and while we were doing that the funeral director would come through with some pictures of the deceased that we were usually instructed to put up. Depending on who had died, the family would choose different things they wanted – sometimes we had to put up photo boards, other times it would be a in memoriam book and we would need to make sure we had enough pens for people to sign it. On the other hand, every now and then you would see guests come into the hall balling their eyes out and you did feel sorry for them. It brought death closer for a second or two and that was a strange feeling when you’re that young. Other times you would be pouring someone a coffee or tea and they would suddenly start talking to you about the person that had died and once again it would feel strange. Here are these people immersed in grief about a living, breathing person on this planet and there you are not knowing the slightest thing about them and counting down the minutes until you were finished. However, you would always come back to the fact that it was a job like every other job and hell, when you were knee-deep in student debt you would take anything you were offered.
Until that day anyway.
I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary at first. Just a usual Saturday morning and we had arrived a couple of hours before the funeral to set up. Same old food was being prepared – chocolate chip cookies, coconut meringues, small mince pies and so many petite sandwiches with every filling imaginable inside them. This morning, like most other mornings on the job, I was usually designated to the coffee and tea station – half because I quite liked the smell of the coffee and the other because I was a naturally chatty person and this job always involved talking, as people would tell me which hot drink they wanted and then they would hold their cup out while I filled it up and for some reason people always wanted to fill the silence. I was going about my morning filling up the hot water and getting the cups in order when a man came into the hall. Took me by surprise if I’m honest, as it’s so damn quiet in that hall when we set up, it’s unusual to have any of the guests come early. I tried not to stare at the man, but it was hard not to. He looked confused and perhaps a little agitated – maybe everyone attending a funeral looks that way I remember thinking. Of course, my station was set up closest to the door, so he came up to me first. I wasn’t used to being approached in this manner, little old waitress me, so I braced myself for what he was going to say and hoped I would be able to answer.
He looked tired. Really tired. You could tell he had been crying. His eyes made him look much older than he was, and then add the crying to it and they were these two red, swollen masses jutting out of his face. He desperately needed a tissue as he kept sniffing and wiping his nose on his jacket. He was tall and seemed panicky. He spoke quickly and didn’t quite look me in the eye.
“I, um, I wanted to check. Are you guys ready? Slight change of plan and we will come here first before burying him.”
In all honesty, I wasn’t sure what to say. I mean, I guess we were ready, who really knows. We were just part-time employees, so we hardly had a say in anything. And then I thought about the absurdity of it all, what could we really say? It’s a bloody funeral so if this man is ready for people to come to the hall, we must be too. Naturally my response was nowhere near as confident as I felt in my mind and of course I should have just said I’d tell my boss but something else came out instead.
“Oh, hello. Um, sure, I mean, I should probably tell my boss. But umm, yeah, if you guys are ready. Yeah go for it.”
Ugh. “Go for it,” I cringed the moment I heard the words escaping my mouth. Who says that to someone that has obviously been crying at a funeral and even someone who is attending a funeral in the first place? Alas, he didn’t seem to notice much and just said thanks. He turned and was about to walk away, as I was thinking I better get to my boss damn quickly and tell her I had just agreed to, when he turned back to face me and asked.
“How old are you by the way?”
“Who? Oh, me? I’m 20 years old”
“I, see, ahh you’re so young.”
He said it in such a sad tone I found myself feeling instantly depressed. I was young, and I liked my life, but it was the first time someone had said it like that. He then looked away, sad again, and I felt almost guilty that I looked the way I did. He then turned around again to leave before pulling a picture out of his pocket.
“This, THIS is my son. It’s his funeral.”
And he left the hall. I glanced around the hall as there were no photos of the person whose funeral it was. I suppose morbid curiosity got the best of me and I ventured towards the in-memoriam book. As I opened the book, I recognized the male face staring back at me although I couldn’t remember exactly who it was. A familiar face, but one that had aged. I thought back over my high school years but going to an all-girls school didn’t help that much. Then I looked back further and suddenly a wave of sadness washed over me as I realized who I was looking at.
Right then and there. His face with more freckles then when we were kids but the same underbite visible when he smiled. Born 1987, the same year as me, and died 2007. Just a kid when I had known him, and practically still a kid when he died.
I found out later that day that it was indeed our primary school friend Aaron who had died. I realized as the people crowded in the hall after the funeral that so many of them were young, and most of them wore fresh sneakers and kept popping outside for cigarettes. It was a youthful crowd, and a sad one at that. I overheard a conversation with two guys towards the end of the gathering when they spoke in hushed tones about what had happened. Turns out Aaron had killed himself in our old neighborhood. One lonely, cold autumn night a few weeks ago. Late at night. All alone. At the park with the playground and treehouse frequented by teenagers at night. Surrounded by big, scary overhung trees. At that park.