happily ever after

When we went to see Ric the day before we left, he was completely alert and present as he had not been on other visits. As soon as he saw me he wanted to talk about how much he was enjoying his book, and once we’d got him installed on the verandah with a cup of tea and some gingerbread men the girls had made for him, he turned out to be willing to answer questions he’d never wanted to answer before.

His mother’s name was Mildred Lyons. Richard’s grandfather Grantley Hyde Fitzhardinge was a NSW judge and himself the grandson of an earl, so there appears to have been some question about whether Mildred was Good Enough for the judge’s son, Ric’s father. The marriage went ahead, perhaps in the face of the judge’s disapproval, and turned out to be fairly unhappy. Mildred languished in Girilambone.

It’s remote today and must have been incredibly isolated then, although Ric points out with some pride that they did have a quite magnificent car. This was driven by everyone, over unsealed roads and recklessly, until its steering wheel came apart in Ric’s hands and it was abandoned to rust near the railway station. He liked the car. He did not, however, like horses or cattle or dogs, preferring books. He was not at all a country boy.

(On another memorable visit this trip, Lulworth had arranged a petting zoo. We found Ric in the garden gazing with considerable distaste at a calf, some goats and a poddy lamb. I dandled a sweet rabbit on my lap, and asked him: “Vermin?” “Oh yes,” he said, in his courtly way.)

Richard said Mildred was a wonderful mother, musical and artistic, and that she encouraged him in his interests and fully supported his desire to flee Girilambone. He went to school and university in Sydney and was halfway through an architecture degree when he had a great falling-out with his professor. This was in the late forties, after the war, and he managed to get a berth on a ship to London at two weeks’ notice. His family rallied round in and a terrific scramble supplied steam-trunks and a passport. His mother was still alive when he returned to Australia years later, but she died before Ric met Jan.

In this one conversation Ric spoke more about his childhood than in the rest of the thirteen years I’ve known him. Once he’d taken his degree in London he went on to have a lovely and interesting and productive life all over the world. Looking back on this life seems to afford him great pleasure, which is lucky, because old age and infirmity really have nothing else to recommend them that I can see.

The hardest thing to accept about Ric’s predicament is that this is about as good as it gets.

My dear old friend Garfield is back in Sydney after a decade in Russia working for Bloomberg. I asked him what it’s like to be in Australia again. “The trickiest part,” he said shrewdly, “is that Australia’s not the paradise we could imagine it was, before we came back.” Obama is saying more or less the same thing. I am still struggling with it. This is the happy ending? This is it? I made a life for myself in California, but Australia still tugs at my heart? I still need to clean out the cat tray? Ric doesn’t get any younger? We don’t get him back the way he was?

I watched as Barnaby and Jeremy helped him back into his walking frame, their hands so tender on his thin back. Ric raised good sons. He made meaning in his life.

It’s not enough. But I think it’s all we get.

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