By Mike Welsh
They say one mustn’t speak ill of the dead. They also say if you don’t have anything good to say about somebody, don’t say anything at all. Two golden rules.
All very well, but what if there is no choice? What if something has to be said about someone about whom there is nothing approaching good to be said?
I was asked to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of Betty, an eighty-something listener to my Canberra radio program.
“Slightly creepy,” I thought, “Surely there is someone who knows her much better than I?”
I’d only known Betty for a couple of years, but the sad reality was no one else, not one single family member/friend/neighbour/creditor was prepared to speak at her funeral service. So I accepted the odd invitation from a niece to say a “few words about Betty.” I guess I felt sorry for the crusty old bastard. For some strange reason, I liked her.
Betty was unforgiving and just a plain nasty piece of work – there was no argument on that score. To get on her wrong side was a massive mistake. She had a memory (and a hide) like an elephant, and carried around trunks of baggage a dozen house cats couldn’t carry. She had a mouth that would put Billy Connolly to shame and a glare that could curdle milk. To my knowledge she didn’t have children or any living siblings. It was entirely possible that her cruel nature had driven many of those close to her away…forever.
Betty was true to form in death as in life. She was not someone who would want to be eulogised in the true sense of the word. It had to be the truth or nothing. She’ll never know just how close it came to the latter. So, it was down to me to deliver the truth, “the whole f****** truth”, as she was often wont to say. Betty’s foul tongue was the major reason she was barred from the Sydney talkback radio stations she relentlessly called from the Formica-dominated kitchen of her 1950s public housing digs in suburban Canberra. She “called in” mostly late at night and sometimes into the early morning. She did have a rule though — never call after 4 am.
With Golden rules 1 and 2 dead and buried, I had little choice but to go for broke prior at Betty’s cremation and have a red hot crack at the truth. As my old mate Voltaire would have it, “We owe the dead only truth.”
But how far should I go with the truth?
The best and most positive thing I could say about Betty was that she was a “hard case”. Hard as a goat’s knee. I knew that from the moment I met her. Should I share that meeting with the small band of “mourners” who had, for whatever reason, made the effort?
In fact, I had heard her before I met her. She had been hospitalised after a “fall” and I decided to visit. I heard the unmistakable Betty barge; a raspy voice fashioned from years of smoking, giving a nurse a frightful gobfull before I turned the corner. The nurse’s sin: forbidding Betty from smoking in the wards. She was a fearsome sight. A very lived-in face. Bruised with bits of bark off it from the “fall”. Betty had many “falls”, often when she was pissed.
I could have opened with the yarn of Betty hitting the jackpot on the pokies at her local club, which she would drive to and from, often pissed, in her trusty old gold Toyota that hadn’t been registered since Bob Hawke lived in Canberra. When word of the win got around, the line of her creditors stretched around the block. After reimbursing a few of the fortunate ones at the head of the queue, she began to flay her walking stick around, security was called and the payout was terminated. Permanently.
Betty had many topics she would ring the radio station and lecture…from the firm belief that the contraceptive pill made women savage, to the uprising of the Mau Mau in Kenya, to the Albury Railway station having the longest platform in the southern hemisphere.
And she loved the horses; she would ring and give me tips AFTER they’d won.
What Betty was best known for was telling the same jokes with the same expletive laden punchlines, which I always had to “DUMP”.
Same format every time.
Betty: I’ve got a joke for you Mike
Me: Hope it’s clean Betty
Betty (ignoring the warning): Did you hear the one about little Johnny who was asked by his teacher why he missed school the previous day?
Me: Yes you told that one last week
Betty (ignoring me again): He told the teacher he couldn’t come to school because his grandfather was burnt. His teacher said “Oh my goodness Johnny, was he burnt badly?” And little Johnny said well Miss, they kinda don’t f*** around at the Crematorium
I eventually went with my “first face to bruised face” encounter with Betty at the hospital as a eulogy and it seemed to go down well with the meagre gathering as an accurate account of the life and times of Betty.
As the conveyer belt bearing the coffin containing the body of Betty shuddered into action, ferrying her the last few metres through the curtains and into the inferno, I wished I’d gone with the cremation gag.
Betty would have loved that.