Instant Death Syndrome
Three days into September, having just left one of Morten’s coldest recorded winters into a spring that brought what we figured was the warmth of things looking up, my mate Rob carked it halfway between the pier and the local. He was found at the waterfront by some bloke in activewear who wasn’t exercising, which we’re told was a field day for his alibi. We didn’t find it all that funny at the time. Rob’s death was fairly painless, or at least that’s what the doctors told us. Though I’m not sure I can trust doctors in what happens after death, their expertise usually stops before that. His heart just gave up. A shutdown. Left-click on the big red button of the Windows task bar and oop, there goes Rob.
For reasons I’m not too sure of, I thought it was called Instant Death Syndrome, but that turned out to be wrong. The official name is Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome. We’d all vaguely heard of it at some point, at least in the sense that we were aware that it existed. It was never all that real though. It was a segment on A Current Affair or internet clickbait. Given how quickly he died, Instant Death Syndrome was a safe assumption to make. What I didn’t realise was that the name says nothing about how Rob died. ’Cos they don’t actually know is the thing. You expect your heart to explode, but it doesn’t even bother with that. It’s less of a how and more of a when. As in suddenly. ‘John died suddenly the other day.’ Suddenly in relation to… I dunno. I guess the amount of time he would’ve lived if it weren’t for just dying on us.
They called it SUDS. Like it was soap. I imagine some doctors out there having a conversation like:
D1: oi D2, what happened to that shiela you wheeled in down at Emergency?
D2: yeah nah mate, she’s SUDS.
This isn’t I tragically and unexpectedly lost my mate Rob. This is whoops, shucks, teehee you’re SUDS. It doesn’t bring any closure. It doesn’t give any meaning. It’s a description. Fifteen years in medical school and you’re playing spot the difference between a corpse and someone waving at you. There’s stuff like SIDS as well: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. If you happened to need an acronym to tell your hopeful grandparents-to-be that you’ll be needing therapy for the rest of your life.
All we’d ever heard about SUDS was from those shock horror news articles made for no reason other than giving existential crises to people who don’t pay to get them at university. They’d show up every few news cycles with titles like YOUNG, FIT AND ABLE-BODIED MAN/WOMAN UPS AND FUCKING DIES. CAN IT HAPPEN TO YOU? DOCTORS SAY YES. That would leave me an alcoholic for the evening. They were always running somewhere. On a 12k track that they’d completed hundreds of times before.
So everyone was pretty fucking shocked when it happened to Rob – Rob included, I like to think. I reckon that as a spirit rising from his body, or whatever you believe, he would’ve looked down at his former body and just been like hold on a second. ’Cos Rob was not all that well-off of a person. I mean, he wasn’t awful (health-wise at least). He played thirds district hockey but he was pretty much in it to start fights. He was a unit, for whatever that’s worth. One thing he did do was his walks. Every other day, for about two hours, Rob would just walk. Not hiking or anything. Just through the suburbs. I asked him why once and he told me if you’d done it before you’d know why asking that doesn’t matter. ’Cos nothing really does, ey?
Rob’s funeral took place three days later but everyone who heard showed up anyway, even those from interstate with 9 to 5 jobs who hadn’t even spoken to the old crowd in a while. It was in the grand redevelopment of one of those slightly new-agey churches that I don’t think Rob actually frequented, but his Gran did and he always liked making her happy. There was this fucking porcelain figure of Christ suspended above us – looming in a way that I didn’t feel the Son of God was ever meant to. It felt like he was mocking us. Jesus laughs as he downs tins with Rob.
Now I haven’t been to many funerals – or at least when I did I was at that age where wearing a vest over an ill-fitting button-up and canvas shoes could pass off as ‘formal’ – but this one was unlike any I’ve been to. You know how people have been moving to that whole celebratory funeral service thing, like, don’t feel bad, smile and get wasted while letting off multicoloured balloons in the botanical gardens in honour of how great this guy used to be? This was the furthest you could get from that. No one was sad either. They were a very specific kind of angry. Everyone in that room felt ripped off. It was as though at any moment a riot could break out at the supermarket if someone only knew it meant we could have him back. We’d been charged gourmet bakehouse prices for frozen Coles homebrand sausage rolls and too bloody right did we want to see the manager.
Even the crying seemed off. It was inaudible. The sprinkler was on but you couldn’t hear the clicking. They sat there, unable to see properly, arms crossed like the ref’s last call was just one more in a day of shit calls. All that was missing was someone’s dad muttering “unbelievable”. Leaving the funeral 15 minutes early because we’ve already lost, what’s the point?
Then came Harvey, arguably Rob’s best mate (in the sense that since kindy every misdemeanour on the pair’s criminal records have been identical) to give his eulogy. He took to the podium and, in spite of it being the first time I’d heard him speak publicly since his ill-fated Morton Primary Year Six Sport’s Captain acceptance speech, he held me in a way no one has managed to since.
“There will never be a story that sums up Robbo for me better than the time we went up the river a few years back. It was uh, the summer of ’12 I think, might be off. And yeah, um, it was me and Robbo, Trent… Sarah. Um. Oh yeah. Laura. Sorry about that Laura. Cheers for coming by the way, I know things got weird. Anyway, so we’d left the girls to go yabbying and just have some time, y’know, with the boys. Robbo would always pass the time by doing impressions of third place winners in Australian Idol. This time it was Carl Riseley who was in Season Five apparently, played the trumpet or something. I know right? I didn’t realise he existed either. He used to say, “If I don’t remember them, who’s gonna?” He never did it for The Voice though, which is better viewing if you ask me. It was a bit of a laugh. So anyway, the sun’s just gone down and we’re about to enter the shack when we hear this massive shriek which sounded like the girls being dragged to Wolf Creek. So we rush in to see the girls cowering in the corner away from three of the biggest rats I’d ever seen. Like, [Harvey didn’t speak here, just held out his arms at a really concerning distance and went ‘oof’]. Before any of us could figure out what to do, Robbo went to the kitchen, grabbed a tea-towel and threw it over the nearest rat. Then, through the tea-towel, he punched the rat until it died. Without saying anything, just standing there, thumping away. When he was done he opened the window, chucked the corpse out and started on the next one. All in all it must’ve taken something like three minutes. After the last rat was gone he went to the sink, washed his hands and started cooking dinner. He never mentioned it again. That was always Robbo to me. Invincible. Deathless.”
And with that I was gone. Rob and me weren’t even that close mates, but bloody hell. It made no sense. Makes no sense. I couldn’t even tell you who I was crying for anymore. I just wanted him back. Rob magically coming back to life would make more sense than him staying dead – somehow. Harvey came over and held me, stone faced while I rioted in the only way I really could.
Recovery shafted me those next few months, like a torn ACL on a fifteen-year-old who’s never considered a future without professional sport. Walks left me in tears. Sleep brought Rob with it, looming like Jesus. My doona the tea-towel and me the rat. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to anyone ’cos Rob and I weren’t really that close. It felt like my feelings weren’t really justified.
Eventually I reached a point where I was waking up to the fifth set of sheets for the wash that week, so I figured the best course of action was to visit Rob’s grave. Only I didn’t actually know where it was. Or how you would go about finding it. The internet has pretty much caused reading the obituaries to no longer be a thing (at least for the people young enough to assume that they won’t be in there anytime soon) and playing ‘Guess the Graveyard’ sounded a bit too morbid for the six o’clock news, which meant my pilgrimage would start with Kevin and Marge.
Kev and Mag had the biggest pomegranate tree in Morton. They were famous for it. The kind of famous that gets you in local papers. Kevin was a mechanic; I’m not sure what Mag did. When I called around Kev wasn’t in, so I sat watching the tree while Mag made tea. There was a strong westerly cutting through the afternoon but the branches didn’t want to be moved. Stoic.
Mag brought the tea out, smiling.
“So… uh… how are you guys dealing with… y’know, the loss?”
She looked back at me with what I think Americans call the ‘deer-in-headlights’ expression.
“Y’know… Rob and all that.”
“We haven’t lost him darl.” I sat there staring into headlights of my own, wondering if there were excuses polite enough to get me out immediately.
“He’s just over there,” she went on, pointing at the pomegranates. “His ashes, love. They’re with the tree,” she said after I couldn’t bring myself to respond. “Of course I bloody well know he’s dead.” She chuckled at this.
“Aren’t you sad?”
Mag shrugged. “Why should I be? He’s still around, in his own way.” We sat, sipping our tea. The tree waved at us.
“Why the tree?” I asked.
As I said this, her face shifted to the sort of seriousness I would expect from someone dealing with a dead son. She looked around as if to make sure that we weren’t being watched in her own backyard. Like there were ASIO agents hidden in the lilly pillies. Mag leaned in far enough for me to hear the wheeze of her chain-smoker lungs.
“Would you like to hear the secret of the pomegranate tree?”
What else could I do but nod.
“Everyone thinks that the tree has just been a success since the beginning and that Kev and I are master gardeners. Truth is we’re awful. We know bloody well nothing about gardening and that tree used to know that more than anyone. We planted it two years before Robby was born. During that time it suffered. It never grew, never blossomed; one summer it didn’t even bear leaves. We were growing sticks – sticks no bigger than my arms. It was in a sorry state, not dead but sure not alive either. We were so awful we couldn’t even kill the blasted thing. It stayed like that right on through Robby’s birth. Now the thing with Robby was that toilet training him was a nightmare. He’d constantly piss on the floor just to get back at me for even suggesting he’d use the toilet, which at a certain point I think he must’ve known how to use it but I had no way of proving it. Then, a month or so before his third birthday, he waddled through the house, into the backyard and stopped himself smack bang in front of the pomegranate tree. He stood up, dropped his nappy and just started pissing all over the tree. From that day, he never pissed anywhere else. I swear, he never used our toilet in his entire life. He learned to at friends’ houses, but here? It was always the tree.” She paused here. It was the only time I saw her cry. “But the funny thing was that while Robby grew, the tree did too. We didn’t notice it at first, but sure enough, every year it got bigger and bigger. We had our first fruit on his thirteenth birthday. And it never stopped.” I think I might’ve been crying now too. “So Robby isn’t with the tree. He is the tree.”
When she stopped, I saw the branches reach out for the afternoon sky. The lines on the trunk formed a smile. Pretty soon it was night time and since Mag was old and sensible she was going to bed early. I asked if I could stay a little longer to be with the tree, which she didn’t take any issue with. I stood in the quiet, long after the bathroom lights had switched off and the stars had almost broken through the light pollution.
“Rob, mate.” I asked. “You there?”
And, with whistling tunes on the grass like an uncle on a gumleaf at the New Year’s Day lunch came, “Yeah mate, you’re looking right at me.” My instinct said scream but I couldn’t bring myself to disturb the neighbours. I climbed the back fence to check whether some kid was pulling off a perfect Rob impression in order to send me insane. With no one there, I turned back to the tree. Or Rob, I guess.
“Rob, mate, 100 per cent truth if you could. Are you uh… are you a tree now?”
“Yesss, I’m a tree ghost now. Here to haunt the gardens of sleepy old Morton, ooo, arr.” Then, the disembodied voice of Rob was cracking it, the leaves rustling along in time. “Nah, just joshin’ ya. Not a tree.”
“What are you then?”
“Ah. Fair enough.”
“Yea.” It took until about here for me to comprehend the fact that I was talking to a tree. I didn’t know it at the time but during my fruitful deep ‘n’ meaningful Kev had come home and seen me but went to bed without saying a word.
“Rob, I know we weren’t the closest of pals but can I ask you a coupla questions?”
“Sure whatever you need mate. Floating chairs? Get your future told? Tell you what, I’d stay away from bowling alleys if I were you.”
“Well I –”
“Wait. One condition.”
“Yeah, sure. Uh… what is it?”
“You heard Mum. Gonna need your piss.”
To be honest, I wasn’t too thrown by this. Especially since I’d downed three cups of tea since coming here. So honouring Rob’s memory was pretty easy, if only a little dehydrating.
“Alright uh… do you mind? Being dead and all that?” I have to assume he paused here to shrug but I couldn’t actually tell.
“What am I supposed to feel?”
“I dunno? Why I asked you.”
“Not a lot I can do about it really.” I figured he could see me, so I tried to hide my disappointment.
“Alright. What’s it like then? Being dead?” He laughed again.
“Gonna make me say it again? If you’d done it before, you’d know why asking doesn’t matter.” Then he was gone. He just sort of left. The leaves blew a bit but for the first time that seemed coincidental. It took me a while to realise. I kept chatting to the pomegranates in the hope that I’d understand.
Rob was right though. There was only one way to actually understand and I don’t think I wanted to know enough to go through with it. The ghost is done with me and now I have to haunt my own cupboards. The noose is hung from the pomegranate tree and yeah nah mate, I’m SUDS.