Happily Ever After

His face had slumped from the hardness assumed as a result of his several initially exhilarating but finally disturbing and unsuccessful love affairs in youth to the baggy-cheeked double-chinned attitude whose components he himself described as “residue”. He was now moving towards what Somerset Maugham would call the clinkers of middle age. His hair had a fissure in the middle, his eyes were almosy shuttered by their corticated lids, his complexion was furzed by a day-or-so’s growth and each ear set at right angles to its temple. His nose was negligible since, in looking at him, it was the last and the least appurtenance one noticed.

He had a habit when talking of parting his lips after each utterance and darting his tongue between them, blue-lizard fashion, and, when listening, of manipulating his expression to indicate that he was hearing every word when in reality his mind was a blank, his stomach crackling like far-away thunder from sheer hunger, and forefinger idly stroking its fellow.

He was incredibly poor and alone. He had long ago given up hankering for the one position in the world he desired, and he knew he had not the ability to reach or occupy – that of dentist – and resigned himself to his continual unemployment, not so much a predicament as a state he had dreamt upon himself in his maddening ambitious days. He seemed to be a socialist, but the extent or nature of his political predilections could only be surmised by one remark: that the poor begat more children than the rich because the rich could afford twin beds. He confessed himself a great believer in the Devil, who he knew, by personal experience, existed, and held that, until religions could agree about religion, and God and His good works became less cliquish, his faith would remain a conventionally unacceptable one.

He had a weakness for teeth still – his own were natural and perfect – and for ballads, unmentionsable or otherwise. When he was seen going through the motions of drinking water without any of the calm thankfulness associated with the quaffing of water when one is thisty, it was obvious that he hadn’t been able to beg or borrow ninepence for a beer. Like many beer-drinkers he had a grimacing prejudice against tea, but nevertheless accepted angelically a cupful the day the Salvation Army man offered it to him in lieu of a loan, and so contrived to impress his earnest helper by his polite attention to the sermon dispensed with the beverage that he was given two shillinbgs for a meal, which he assiduously squandered on two schooners and salted peanuts.

He was contented, untidy, and, though mendicant, not miscreant or a pest. He could sting you in the most manly and jocular fashion. Often the most thrifty hands had delved for a coin at his lick-lip overtures. He didn’t have a stock phrase in his vocabulary; each, with the gesture it accompanied- a tip of the hat, a pull at a tieless collar, an innocuous thumbing of braces, an eloquent turn of the palm at frayed trouser-seam, a special unshuttering of one honest-to-goodness eye – was a wonder of impromptu. He forced an impression on the mind that remained conspicuous for minutes afterwards, even if the person acccosted couldn’t give him a penny.

He had some marvellous luck on April the first last, for the pound note he patiently stood upon in Hyde Park, and picked up when at last he felt certain he was unobserved, proved not to be an April Fool’s Day hoax, a fraud, or an illusion after all. It was so genuine he got breezily drunk on part of it and, beaming, took the other part with him to the restaurant from which he had been ejected a week back because of his oversight in eating a meal he had no possible hope of paying for. Large-natured, happy, and steaming, he now paid for the illicit meal, ordered another, smiled an almost miraculous smile at the waitress, and, hailing the manager, assigned him the comradely name oif George while he complimented the house on its past consideration for his feelings – for, despite the fact that they had slightly discommoded him, they had been merciful enough not to enlist the authority of the Law.

He disposed of a heavy four-course meal – oyster soup, spaghetti milanaise, a mixed grill, and steamed pudding – and sipped, with the air of a wine connoisseur somewhat advanced and pleasantly fuddled at his job, strong black sugarless coffee. He was almost delirious with joy. He requested cigarettes. “Sorry, sir, we don’t stock them, but the boy will go and get some for you.”

The management found his humour infectious. He tipped the boy sixpence when the perspiring little fellow returned. He smoked, smiled, stretched luxuriously, and studied his check, and although his appearance and odour diverted incoming patrons from his table, so that he sat islanded like a broken-down celebrity in the middle of the café, he gathered the whole atmosphere to him, licked at it with appreciation, blew at it with delight, nodded in it self-sufficiently.

When he rose to go, his chair retired behind him, the table teetered, lacking the animation for any more respectful gesture, and in his imagination the whole room stood up. He trudged like a pauper king towards the responsible-looking woman behind the cash-register, passed over his check and a ten-shilling note, as if he were giving a dispatch to a grateful follower, and tipped her out of the change, almost in a courtly fashion, head down, and even ventured a wink at her embarrassment.

Rattling the coins in his pocket, the Ardath cornered in his smile accumulating a long ash, he emerged from the restaurant, carried its illusion like a sash on his squared shoulders beyond the kerb, magnanimously ignored the traffic, and was run over by a chocolate company’s van.

He died oblivious of the fact that night in Sydney Hospital, undramatically, unmelodramatically, just as the Town Hall clock struck twelve above George Street. The dozen beats assembled themselves into a diapason round their tower, then rose above St Andrew’s, curled high over Bebarfald’s corner, skipped three blocks, wheeled round the lights in Hyde Park, and swept, echoing, along Macquarie Street, whence the harbour drew them down and smothered them, and carried them in silence out between the Heads to the Pacific sea. And, pacing like a jubilant ghost on the water, hands in pockets and staggering now and then with a prosperous dignity, a tattered shadow went with them, gay, jaunty, familiar, still living the best day of its life.