Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 3
Mr. Miles was going to die. He was quite sure of it. He lay on the double bed and watched the cracks in the ceiling and was too miserable to get up and make himself a cup of cocoa. He had lain there for two days and definitely refused to move. He wouldn't go out to collect his pension and so he wouldn't talk about paying the rent. The landlady had arrived with "It's Friday morning, you know," but for once he was not sent into a panic, hurrying to get dressed and to get out of the house in time. He merely nodded at her and separated himself completely from her insistent voice. He gently stroked his white hair and said "Eh," fully aware of the mystery he was creating, ignored her and took on an expression of solemn contemplation.
He even began to write a letter to his niece who lived in a nearby suburb. He had written:
"Dear Ada, we cannot live forever and I feel that I am soon to pass away and I would like you to sometimes remember me and to see that Young Jimmie gets my watch and that I am not cremated but buried, for which the expenses are in the bank." Lethargy overcame him and he laid down his pen. He was thinking of some beautiful finishing phrase and had just decided on "I am going into my father's hands" when the importance and the reality of the situation overcame him. He sank back into the large bed.
For a few days the landlady was inclined to scoff. She stood gossiping to the neighbours and declared he was just shamming, but they all became a little alarmed and impressed when, after the third day, he lay silently on the bed and refused even the chicken soup which Mrs. Willis brought him. Finally she sent for his niece.
Ada was at a loss when she saw him and her first feeling of pity was succeeded by irritation for she had three children and she supposed she was expected to look after him now, and after all she was only his niece. She stood at the end of the bed examining him critically, trying to think what she could do with him. Finally she decided she would send him to the home.
Two days later he was in a taxi pleading with her that he did not want to go. She was inexorable and she firmly insisted that it was all for the best. They would look after him and there would be lots of people of his own age. He was suddenly sick for his room, the gas ring, the pot of cocoa and the wallpaper with its flower frieze. Death was a frightening prospect but he had been prepared to die, and had rather enjoyed his new dignity and importance. Now he discovered he was not dying he was faced with the anonymity of this home and the prospect was a far worse one. They drove past the Botanical Gardens and he was envious of the old man in sandshoes who was walking through the gate, allowed to sit in the sun and doze with the flowers breaking into bud and the slight chill of the air. The sun seemed far away and he felt, for a second, young and hopeful. He wanted to walk out there with the warmth on his head and belong completely to himself. The stud in the top of his shirt stuck into his neck and he tried to adjust it, only to be restrained by Ada. She had become, over these last few days, his warden, and her earlier respect, the deference she had shown for his age had now changed into an uncompromising alert attention . . . as if he were a child who needed watching. But she had made up her mind that he should go to the home very positively.
When he got there he found he was being watched with interest by a group of old men who were sitting in the kitchen eating their lunch. A stout matron in a uniform ushered him past them and upstairs to his cubicle and he was told to unpack and report downstairs when he was finished. As Ada left he was trembling with fear and exhaustion. That night he obediently ate the thick white bread and vegetable soup and from under his lowered eyelids he watched the others, fumbling with their food and spilling soup down the fronts of their shirts.
Mr. Miles had expected that there would be some brotherhood amongst this group of men, all of whom were poor and unwanted, but he found there was none; that he got no hope from the hopeless. One of them, drunk page 24 and slightly sore in the head sat in the corner repeating "I am the son of a Freemason. The Police can never lay a hand on me." Another such, just as drunk and awry repeated, "I won first prize for plain handwriting. I won. . . ." The handful of dried words that most of them had and cherished constituted a life for each and was his end and all. Each one had his phrase, polished like a gem, his poetry that was the all of him. One out of five had this or that limb missing and Mr. Miles realised with despair that it would take twenty of them to make fifteen complete men and not a thousand could make one man of hope and courage.
Mr. Miles could not fit into their way of life. They had frightened him too much, he had been too shocked by his first impression and he went about his daily tasks unable to lose the horror of it all. He missed, with a sharp anguish, his room with its wardrobe, the privacy and assurance which he had been deprived of. He could not build his life around a single jewelled phrase, the past was too close and real to him and he had seen this awful blankness too clearly to be able to deceive himself into peaceful dreaming. His longings were exact and in the immediate past. He remembered the dog he used to pat, the man on the corner with whom he had chatted, the people at the shop. Everything that had lain unexpressed and dormant in Mr. Miles' life was shocked into being.
One of the old men had a friend who smuggled cheap wine and charged them a shilling a glass for it and Mr. Miles began to drink. He had never in all his life drunk like this. Except for a glass of wine at Christmas and occasionally a beer on a very hot day, Mr. Miles had been proud of the fact that "he never touched a drop." He had also been proud of his appearance and in his neat clean shirts and carefully sponged suit he had enjoyed being a picture of dignity and sobriety. But here it was all too much for him, and he began drinking to forget his room, not to notice his surroundings, to wrap himself in a warm blanket of forgetfulness and sleep easily at night. Late one evening when he was half drunk he got out of his bed and escaped down the stairs out into the dark. He walked into town across the bridge feeling triumphant and free and singing under his breath as he stumbled along. The river and the town lights winked airily back at him and he was exultant in his aloneness and his happiness. He lay down by the riverbank and slept. The night was warm and the raw wine prevented him from feeling too cold. When he awoke in the morning he was afraid and disgruntled. He was sitting there worried and helpless watching the brown dirty rivet and the long rowing boats with men in coloured singlets when a tramp wandered up to him and tried to talk to him, stuttering out from his broken teeth: "You and me's in the same boat, mate." The "mate" irritated him terribly and he turned away refusing to reply, inexplicably indignant with everything and furious with the tramp for his familiarity. When he insisted that Mr. Miles talk to him, Mr. Miles kicked him hard on the shins. Before long they were rolling about on the ground fighting. Mr. Miles rolled down the bank into the water. He floated out a bit and then sank. The hobo staggered into the water and threw him out onto the bank but he rolled in again. After a lot of struggling some of the scullers managed to get them both out and then Mr. Miles collapsed. The Police arrived in a Black Maria and pushed them both into it. People gathered round to watch the fun and finally they drove off.
Mr. Miles' adventure had made him infamous. He arrived back at the home and was greeted with great interest. It was no use trying to hide it from the others for they all knew. Mr. Miles seemed older and more resigned. He sat on a stiff-backed chair and seemed to have forgotten his previous nostalgia. He sat and dreamt and muttered, "From now onwards I'll be sociable and happy."