Carol Ann Martin
“Well, that was very nice, I must say.” Ethel Hardy pulled the pins out of her best velour hat and laid it gently as a baby on the parlour table. “I think they did Dad proud.”
“Bloody think so,” grunted Arthur. “How many years has he given ‘em? Sixty, is it?”
“Well, he seems happy anyway,” Ethel smiled fondly at the old man who shuffled into the room behind them.
It was only the second time that any of them had seen Albie in his suit, the first time being at his wife’s funeral twenty years ago. What it had lacked then, but boldly sported now, was the heavy gold watch chain looped across the waistcoat. Albie was certainly aware of the added splendour and his sunken gums chomped with pride as he yet again pulled a large, shiny watch out of his fob pocket and gazed at the face. “Keeps good time,” he observed, not for the first time in the last two hours.
Young Freddy also sported a suit, borrowed for the occasion from a cousin and quite a nice tweed, but two sizes too small. The matching cap, borrowed from another cousin, was also quite smart, but a size too large. He dragged off both cap and jacket, kicked the fire back into life with his boot, grabbed his book and pulled an armchair up to the crackling coals.
“We won’t want much dinner, will we?” said Ethel. “Not after all that sponge cake.” She winked at her husband. “Anybody got the time?”
Her question fell on deaf ears, literally. Albie eased himself into his chair on the other side of the hearth. “I’m touched, I am,” he informed his family. “I never knew they thought so highly of me.” He tapped the watch, now snugly back in its pocket. “But they know as they can depend on me for a good few years yet.”
Ethel sighed and rolled her eyes. “You said he knew,” she hissed at Arthur. “You said he understood.”
“I’ve told him,” said Arthur. “I’ve taken him and showed him the new lamp posts. What more can I do?”
Albie, in a reflective mood after so much cake, praise and generosity, gazed at Freddy and mused, “Well, young feller, with your poor father gone, it’s going to be you following after me. I might even take you out with me tonight.”
Ethel looked at Arthur again; a glance heavy with significance. There was more than one reason her father had been benevolently but firmly pushed into retirement. More than one reason they’d persuaded him to move from his solitary lodgings in Sackville Street to come and live with them.
“Dad,” she informed him slowly and loudly. “Arthur’s not dead. You’re thinking of our Bert. He was Freddy’s uncle, not his father.” Then, with patience, “And I’ve told you, Freddy’s not going to be a lamplighter. Freddy’s a scholar. He’s got a scholarship and he’s going to high school.”
“Perhaps not tonight,” said Albie, “But tomorrow night.”
Arthur leaned over and tugged the book out of Freddy’s hands. “You tell him,” he said. “He listens to you.”
“Only when he wants to,” said Freddy. “Now gimme me book back.”
“Tell your grand-dad again,” said Arthur, “And I’ll think about it.”
Muttering irritably under his breath, Freddy got up and went over to the old man. He bent down and yelled in Albie’s better ear. “Grand-dad, there’s neither of us going to be lamplighters any more. That’s why you got the tea party and the watch. The council’s putting the electricity on. The street lamps are going to be electric.”
He put his hand on the old man’s shoulder. “You’re retired now, Grand-dad, and that’s just dandy, ‘cos the job’s well-nigh finished anyhow. Sam Watson’s going to do your round for the last bit.”
Albie pondered that piece of information as if it was the first time he’d heard it – which it may well have been. His better ear wasn’t always that good.
“But they’re still going to need me, aren’t they.” It was a statement, not a question. “The bloody things won’t light they bloody selves.”
Ethel’s face glowed gently with pride as her son’s education came into play. “Yes, they will, Grand-dad!” Freddy bellowed in a voice that made the china spaniels on the mantelpiece rattle. “They’ve worked out this timing thing. The lamps’ll go on at dusk every night, all by themselves.”
They all gazed at Albie for some indication that he had both heard and understood. But the old man was occupied with getting himself up out of his chair. “I’d better get cracking then,” he said. “No good going to work in my funeral suit.”
Twenty minutes later, Ethel pulled the parlour curtain aside and watched her father limping down the street in his baggy old corduroys and jacket, with his ladder and pole over his shoulder. “Poor old bugger,” she sighed.
Sixty years. Sixty springs, summers, autumns, winters. Heat, cold, wind, rain, sleet, snow. Sun setting and then rising again. Lamps lit and lamps snuffed out. Ethel’s was no poet’s soul, but there were things she could feel.
Albie moved with the rhythm of a long-familiar dance. Straight past the new lamp posts because for him they didn’t exist. Pause underneath the gas lamp, prop the ladder against its bars. Box of vestas from out of his jacket. Scrape and cup the tiny flame in his hands. Light the spirit lamp atop his pole. Climb the ladder, open the glass pane. Reach up with the hook on his pole, pull the chain to turn on the gas. Lift the spirit lamp to each mantle, sweet gas scent, spluttering jet and then a steady lamplight glow. Close the glass and slowly back down the ladder. Every dusk for sixty years.
“Poor old bugger,” said Ethel again.
She was about to drop the curtain when another figure appeared in the half-light. Same ladder, same pole, same spirit lamp.
“Evenin’ Albie,” said Sam.
“What you doing up here?” Albie asked.
“Just strollin’” said Sam and walked on.
He passed the window where Ethel was watching, smiled at her and shrugged.
Ethel smiled back. For such a young bloke, Sam Watson had a sound head on him. She watched again as Albie trudged on to the next lamp. Sam turned round and started to follow him.
The winter weeks went on. Every morning, while the lamps were still lit, Arthur tramped down Kelly’s Steps to the Peacock jam factory in Salamanca Place. Nailing together packing cases was monotonous work, but it was a lot warmer than packing fish.
Only slightly later, Freddy set off for school, his head too full of learning to notice the cold.
As soon as Ethel was out the back at the washtub or in the kitchen baking, Albie would be out the front door and off. He always moved as though he had a purpose, even if he’d forgotten it. Tradesmen making deliveries, women scouring their sandstone steps, everyone he met would receive a tip of his cap and a g’day.
Sometimes he just sat in Arthur Circle and watched the kids play with their clay marbles. Once or twice he was looking for his wife, Flora. Then he was agitated, wondering how she’d got herself lost between their house and Ethel’s.
He often got lost himself.
Ethel didn’t have to worry when her dad didn’t bring himself home because somebody else would. Everybody in the neighbourhood, even down Montpelier and the wharf, knew where Albie lived.
Most afternoons Albie was content to sit by the parlour fire. When Freddy got home they’d have Ethel’s warm scones with Arthur’s jam. As daylight faded, Ethel would draw the curtains and talk non-stop while Sam lit the lamps outside.
It should have been the winter of the Hardy’s content. But some nights, often the bitterest or foggiest of nights, Albie would pull out his watch, frown at the face and say, “Well, I’d better get cracking. Them lamps won’t light they bloody selves.”
All Ethel had to do was make sure the old man had his coat, his muffler and his cap. Sam would be out there and her dad would be all right with him. She thanked the Lord that these night-time activities took so much out of Albie that he slept late and forgot that the lamps also needed to be put out.
One morning Ethel saw Sam at the Hampden Road shops.
“We’re grateful,” she told him. “Ever so grateful. You letting Dad light the lamps on your round. We keep telling him, but it won’t sink in.”
“Not to worry, Mrs H. I still get me pay and Albie thinks he’s teaching me the job. We’re both ‘appy’. He added cautiously, as if he weren’t sure that he should. “Sometimes he calls me Bert. He thinks it’s his son he’s teaching. I didn’t know you had a brother, Mrs Hardy.”
“He’s dead,” said Ethel. “Diphtheria. He was your age.”
It might have been the searing wind, but Sam’s eyes watered.
“What’ll we do when the electric comes on?” asked Ethel, anxious to know.
“Dunno,” said Sam. “Dunno what I’ll do meself yet. But I’ve got me name down at Peacock’s so here’s ‘opin’”
The official switching on of the electric street lamps was another occasion for Ethel’s velour hat. The Governor, Sir William Ellison-MacCartney, no less, was going to make a speech out the front of Government House and all who cared to go along were welcome. Ethel was determined to take Albie. If he saw the crowds and heard the speech – but most of all, saw the lights go on – it might be enough to get through to his befuddled brain. She hoped so.
Freddy refused to wear the tight suit, but agreed to the cap. It created a rather manly image that was in keeping with the scientific aspects of the occasion. It was Arthur’s task to make sure that Albie was suitably dressed and ready to go.
At twenty past five, Arthur came out of Albie’s little room in the lean-to shaking his head. “He knows, and he’s taking it hard,” he informed them. “Says he’s not going,”
Ethel knew when to give up. “Best we just leave him be,” she said. “He’s going to fret for a while, but perhaps he’ll forget this like he forgets everything else.”
So they left the old man to his grieving and caught the tram into town. Thousands had turned up to the Grand Opening of the Electrification of the Street Lights. They stood row after row on the lawns of Government House and gazed up at the Governor, flanked by the Premier and a whole lot more swanky toffs. He made a long speech about the march of progress and the dawn of a new age of science that was going to make all their lives longer, better and brighter – starting with the new, fully automatic electric street lighting. Patiently they listened, eyes sneaking to watches, as the hour hand slowly slid round to six o’clock.
“The moment is here!” proclaimed Sir William at the top of his voice. “Let there be light!”
Albie and Sam stood together high on the hill at the top of the street, beneath the first of the new electric lights. Through the dusk, they heard the town hall clock begin to chime. Albie squinted at the large round watch-face in the palm of his hand. “Keeps good time,” he murmured.
There was no bar for his ladder to rest on, so he just had to do the best he could. His fingers were trembling so much that Sam had to strike the vesta and light the spirit lamp. Albie lifted his pole high above his head. Not being of a scientific mind like Freddy, he couldn’t be sure how this new-fangled thing was supposed to work. All he could do was poke the flame all around the glass of the street light and hope it would connect.
A second later, the light blazed out with a brilliance that neither he nor Sam had ever seen. One, two, three, four, a whole string of lights flashed along the street, down the sweeping slopes to the wharf, around Sullivan’s Cove and all the way across to the town. Every man woman and child who hadn’t gone to the Grand Opening came out onto their doorstep to look.
Pride and joy swelled in Albie’s heart as he looked out at the twinkling glory spread out before his eyes. And it was all down to him.
“I told ‘em!” he said with the satisfaction of one proven undeniably right. “Electrickery or no electrickery, them bloody lights aren’t going to light they bloody selves!’