“Two years after Julia had sensitively told him about ‘the new man’, the happiness index still hadn’t properly affected Alec”: a short story by Norman Bilbrough
The woman he loved had left him. She had simply, and devastatingly, fallen in love with another man. It was not her fault; fateful things happen. Julia’s heart had chosen, and his heart was wrecked. And part of him, the sometimes annoying rational part of Alec, wondered what a broken heart was.
The actual organ was cracked? Or was on the point of shattering?
They had sold the house they had shared, and she had shifted in with her new man; the man she loved. The man whose name Alec could not bear to utter.
Just ‘the new man’ would be a significant and derogatory enough label for him. And he had rented a small quiet flat that he gradually made untidy with the documents and books from his life; the life with the woman he still loved.
He was a freelance editor, just over sixty, and he started walking; exploring every street of the surrounding suburbs. If he walked and walked, and let time pass he thought he might lose his unhappiness. He had read that the friendly, honest and often generous country he lived in was the eighth happiest place to live in the world.
But two years after Julia had sensitively told him about ‘the new man’, the happiness index still hadn’t properly affected Alec. It hadn’t swamped him… which was probably what he wanted… To be smothered by it, or whatever way happiness overtook and filled people up.
Maybe it was like an extremely benevolent disease.
And maybe, since it was so tardy, so slow in coming, he should shift to one of those countries further up the World Happiness Report… Denmark, Norway, Iceland… But he hated the cold.
But the last winter had been cold, and too wet, and he had not taken a mid-winter holiday. The kind of holiday in Singapore or Malaysia that he had taken with Julia.
But now it was spring, and his lack of happiness was indeed muffled somewhat by walking. And he had a favourite route through an adjacent suburb.
First there was a coffee made by a Cambodian woman in a cheap café in a shopping centre in that suburb; a suburb that contained a short mall, a library, shops, cafes offering varied international cuisine, a supermarket, and an old building that had once been a movie theatre.
Alec liked this shopping area, and there was always somebody begging, usually a very plump dark woman whose name he had never learned – and a small over-dressed European woman whose name was Miranda. They were not at the entrance to the mall at the same time, but they invariably greeted him with similar words…
“Hello sir, any change today?”
The plump woman sat on the pavement – something that Miranda, the wearer of carefully strident and sparse clothes that showed off her cleavage, would obviously never do.
Alec always gave them coins, enough for them to buy a snack or a cheap lunch, and they told him fragments of their lives; mostly episodes of poverty.
And this particular morning Miranda was there.
“Good morning Sir!” and she extended a small tin, already containing a few coins, towards him.
He gave her five dollars.
Today she had powdered her cleavage, and her eyebrows were coloured a bright blue.
She thanked him effusively.
Alec was pleased, gratified even. He had given somebody a ration of pleasure, even happiness. He walked on and, five minutes later, turned into a street of gracious houses and tall trees – that now were in flower; white flowers that were heavily scented.
A favourite street of his, especially at this time of the year.
And there was a house that he always noticed, possibly because it was particularly immaculate. The flowers in the pots were groomed, the front door had a heavy and scrupulous presence, and the curtains at the tall windows looked … expensive.
He had often wondered who lived in this manicured mini mansion?
But now he found out. A woman was tending the pot plants just inside the gate.
“Excuse me,” Alec said. “What are these trees? I love their scent.”
“Their scent,” the woman said, straightening up, “can be over-whelming if you let it. It would fill up my house. Every little corner would contain it.”
“You don’t let it?”
“‘I wear scent myself to counter it. And I keep my windows shut.”
Alec did not quite know how to reply to this. He smiled at her. “I’ve never encountered these trees before.”
“The flowers do look beautiful,” she conceded, “but I don’t know the names of the trees. I have not wished to ever find out.”
Was she older, or younger than him? Certainly she looked near his age… Grey tight curls, energetic eyes, and lipstick that looked strangely permanent, as if it was renewed every morning even before she went to the bathroom.
And, Alec thought irrelevantly, she’d be sure to believe in the happiness index. She would be comfortable, and reassured, to be a part of it.
But how could he be sure? Exteriors rarely showed inner emotions.
And his exterior certainly did not show his loneliness.
“I walk up this street often. It is so elegant and civilised. And the trees add to it.”
She looked at him with more interest, and he thought, Yes, I am elderly, middle-class, and also civilised… Handsome? No, he was honest enough to know he did not own that quality.
And the woman with the lipstick was not good-looking. But her eyes were lively. They had energy. Alec liked the energy.
“You walk often?”
He nodded. “Do you walk?”
“Yes, but not far enough. I get impatient. I think of pot plants that need weeding. Or that my lounge needs a better vacuum.”
Alec smiled, and pointed at a common plant with small and tidy blue flowers. “I always forget the name of that flower.”
“Grape Hyacinth,” she said.
“Of course, it’s a flower out of my childhood.”
“You had a happy childhood here?”
Happy? Well yes … he had never considered that.
He nodded. “In the country.”
“I was a city child.”
There was a gap. What to say next?
“I like your careful flowers, your careful lipstick, and your young eyes.”
Old eyes, he did not like. Such eyes foretold death … And he was not ready to go towards that territory yet.
But the gap extended itself. He would have liked to be invited into her house … To see if it lived up to his preconceptions.
“I’d better keep walking,” he said lamely.
She raised her garden trowel in farewell. “Nice to meet you.”
He raised his hand in reply, and continued along the street.
Was he attracted to her? He did not know. He was attracted still, painfully, to Julia. She still filled his sensual consciousness.
He gave a snort of exasperation.
Get rid of her Alec.
He was surprised. And his mind switched back to energetic eyes…. He was sure he would see her again soon…
When he could look at women objectively, they enchanted him. He loved their emotional wisdom …
On his way to the scented street six days later, when he was crossing the car park next to the mall, a woman got out of a battered station wagon and asked him for money for petrol to get to a town a hundred kilometres in the north. She was joined by a man, and there was a boy looking out of a side window. They had not eaten that day; they did not have enough money for food.
Alec gave them $20 then realised it wasn’t enough. He had another $20 note and a five dollar note in his wallet. He gave them the five dollars.
But this still wouldn’t be enough. He took the five dollars back, and gave them the second $20. And he felt upset that people had to ask for money, and that their children could be hungry.
He was still upset when he walked up the scented street. The woman with the emphatic lipstick was taking junk mail out of her letter box.
“Hello, it’s you again.”
“I’m Alec,” he said directly.
“Violet,” she replied.
A name from an older time, for sure…. His mother’s time. She had lived through the Depression, when there were very hungry people too.
“I’ve just given money to people in need,” he said, feeling the distress on his face.
Violet looked at him. Her eyes seemed to soften. “Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?”, she said.
“I would,” he said gratefully.
She opened the gate, and the front door, and abruptly he was in a hallway that smelled different from the trees. It was a gracious and well-mannered smell in a house of discrete wall-paper, dark bannisters and perfectly vacuumed stairs… This was an expensive villa from his childhood; the kind he had only occasionally visited.
And when he was seated at an elderly and stylish table in a spacious kitchen, eating a chocolate biscuit, Violet said: “I don’t give money to beggars.”
“I don’t believe they are telling the truth … If they are really hungry or homeless. They have cell phones and they smoke.”
Well, we can’t expect poor people to be totally without.
He didn’t expect Miranda to go without eye shadow, or short elegant skirts.
“But what if they are truly hungry; truly unable to pay their electricity bill?”
Violet shook her head. “Welfare provides for them. They are looked after.”
“Do you know Miranda who begs down at the mall?” And Alec described her.
Violet gave a judgemental sniff. “I know her … She’s been on the game. Probably still on it. And there are over-weight people begging. So they must have plenty to eat.” Then she said, “They should be looking for work.”
But do you know why poor people are fat? Because they spend their money on cheap fast food… And their small amount of cash will give them a pile of this food, for a brief time. So they will eat as much as they can…
He did not say this, but decided that he would have nothing in common with Violet in her elegant house. He was a concerned introvert who wanted to change the world. She was … well, he did not want to sum her up; he did not want to make generalisations. People were too complex for generalisations.
He would be pleasant, and detached, if they did meet again.
They did, a week later, in the mall. She had a bag of citrus fruit.
“My granddaughter loves mandarins,” Violet said. “She loves their segments.”
Alec laughed: he ate a lot of mandarin segments.
Her eyes smiled. Obviously she was pleased to see him again.
“Can I buy you a coffee?” he asked.
Her lipstick smiled this time, as well.
They drank at a small café around the corner from the mall. The coffee was tasty, but she did not want a pastry.
“They use lard instead of butter,” she said. “That’s why all the pastries and cakes are cheap.”
“Oh,” Alec felt criticised momentarily. And he did not know about the lard. “So you see a lot of your granddaughter?”
“When my daughter lets me.” Violet gave a rueful laugh. “I love my granddaughter. Her name is Josie.”
“What do you do with your days?”, Alec asked frankly… Apart from scrupulously maintaining your big elegant house, and feeding your granddaughter citrus segments.
“I don’t walk.” Then she shrugged, as if what she was about to say was of no consequence. “Sometimes I feel quite alone.”
Alec was … amazed; and then impressed by her honesty. What elderly, fashionable, well-off woman who scorned beggars, would ever admit to feeling that?
“I get lonely,” he said. “I don’t like it.”
“It’s not a nice thing.”
And surprisingly they both laughed … As if being lonely was both tragic –and ridiculous.
He drank his (cheap) coffee, and said, “Next time I’ll take you to a café where the pastries are made with butter.”
“It will be my shout,” she said.
And when they parted, and Alec decided to walk a different way back to his suburb, he felt pleased that he was seeing her again. Even elated.
Inadvertently he had, possibly, taken a step, even two steps, up the personal happiness index.
* ReadingRoom stories appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*