That was the summer my father and I found ourselves painting headstones in silence, sitting on scorched marble graves of souped-up genteels in the Catholic section, furthest from the cemetery gates.
We bought the enamel paint special, even though it was only the day after Christmas and the town had all but buried itself ‘til mid-January. Red dust covered everything; we shimmered in the heat. Our fingers were swollen and restless and straining for delicacy as we wedged the bristles in between the Gothic crevices of each inscription. In Loving Memory. We wiped away smudges and clumsy edges with methylated spirits, dazing ourselves on the warm fumes. We cleaned our brushes in Nana’s favourite mug. We said nothing to each other.
I wore Breton stripes and an Akruba hat — a pretentious city-slicked hipster. Ants crawled into our shoes and stung us out of silence. They’d made a nest underneath the grave; the surrounding earth was collapsed in one or two spots and ants streamed around the dusty cavities. You couldn’t see what was down there. You didn’t want to.
Now and again my foot would slip into one of the holes. Sometimes I’d accidentally kick it in deeper, if my heel was resting on the edge and caused the soil to rupture further. I always yanked my foot away as soon as I felt the dirt crumble – half because of the ants, and half because of something else.
Words were spoken, eventually. It started with ant-stinger swears, then conversation tumbled past. We were burnt and thirsty; the ice between us turned to ash and dust among fake plastic flowers – the only kind that lasted here.
The enamel was like tar on the sun-bleached tombstones. It glistened in chiseled rivulets and half absorbed, half reflected the light that would one day erode it. This day, though – the day after Christmas, flanked by false roses – our words would withstand.