About the Author
John Briggs lives in Hobart and has won multiple awards for journalism, including two national awards for sports writing. He retired a year ago after declaring to his editor he was too old to be a tabloid journalist but too young to die.
The author of travel book Hugo, Armstrong and Me, which revolved around the Tour de France and 19th century French literature, has a passion for things French and this is his first published novel.
He is working on two further travel books. When not writing he enjoys long bicycle rides and dreams daily of Paris.
Two days before his 59th birthday, Henry Ruddock decided his life had to change.
There was no lengthy and considered contemplation. There was no Road to Damascus moment, significant sign or inner angst about the approach of a birthday or major milestone. It was merely a remark from Jonno at the coffee shop.
For years Henry had frequented one of two places in the inner city and ordered a cup of either long black or flat white. At just after 8.20 he walked from his bus after the nine kilometre journey from Taroona, knowing he had 40 minutes before starting his day’s work. The past few weeks he had been favouring the Cosmos Café and more often than not had chosen a long black. Henry was not the kind of man to socialise or linger long over small talk in a coffee shop. He preferred the pleasure of 30 minutes with his current novel or travel book while enjoying a shot of coffee, disappearing into the fantasy world of literature he inhabited more readily than real life.
Jonno, ever busy behind the coffee machine, smiled as Henry approached and asked if he wanted his usual, the long black. It had become a little joke all their own and Henry would say: “I’m getting far too predictable – it’s time to leave town.”
On this grey April day, before Henry could get the words out, Jonno said: “You’re getting too predictable, time to change or leave town.”
A touch of paranoia flowed through Henry as he eyed the young man with a certain anger, which he quickly hid and then smiled warmly. His own words, his own joke, were being regurgitated at him in a way which made him uncomfortable and he couldn’t understand why.
He took his seat at one of the two tables he usually chose and searched in his bag for his glasses and book. As he assumed his normal routine, he found he could not concentrate on the pages of his beloved Balzac. He stared at the words but he was strangely upset about the brief exchange with Jonno and his mind was racing around, filled with feelings of insecurity.
“Am I becoming a boring old man, too much a creature of habit?” he asked himself silently and then wondered what did it matter anyway?
“If only they knew me, knew who I really was, knew the things I’ve done, the things I’ve left undone.”
By the time his coffee arrived, Henry Ruddock knew his life would soon change.
By the time he left the café and strode the two blocks to the newspaper office he had decided to embark on the great adventures he had been contemplating for so long, knowing it may destroy him and at least one other person.
But he also knew it was inevitable, unstoppable and exciting beyond his dreams.
Henry Ruddock had lived alone for more than 20 years. He liked it that way. He liked a certain routine. People knew what to expect from Henry, how he would react in any circumstance, what he believed in and the things that interested him.
Much of what they assumed was true. But things are not always as they seem.
He was a fit and quite handsome man for his age and the ravages of time had been kind. He was only a few pounds over the weight he had been when he married Jennifer when they were both 25. There was some grey in the brown curly hair and he had no problems with that. He walked purposefully and upright, got plenty of exercise and ate a healthy diet – most of the time.
The marriage lasted 12 years but produced no children. Both of them agreed they merely grew apart, or grew up.
During that time Henry established a good reputation as a reporter and features writer at newspapers around Australia and spent two years as a foreign correspondent in Paris, regarded as the job to die for. His career in journalism assisted his transformation from the traditional Australian young man with interests in football and cricket and beer to a more worldly man of different tastes. They included wine, French and Italian cinema and a passion for French 19th century literature and art. Henry once proudly proclaimed he had read, either in English or French, more than 60 of Balzac’s 100 novels, dubbed The Comedy of Life, and all 24 of Zola’s novels. He admitted to being somewhat rooted in the 19th century, indeed, loved the thought of belonging to another time, another place, another culture. Voltaire and Zola were his heroes and, in his psyche, he imagined the world that really mattered began sometime before the French Revolution and ended soon after 1900.
During lighter moments Henry would only half-joke, quite straight-faced, that he had fallen out of love with his own country and despaired at the obsessions with sport, reverence for celebrity and flag-waving which had started to dominate his homeland. He hated the way Australia had come to treat refugees, and their children, incarcerating them in detention centres. When asked how he would celebrate Australia Day he told office colleagues he intended to burn down an RSL club, defecate on the flag and barrack for Sri Lanka in the cricket. He would occasionally rant about living in a place which named streets for dead English royals or even footballers but chose not to honour its artists and writers.
After his failed marriage Henry had a few brief and unsuccessful relationships and finally settled into the single life in Hobart, working as a sub-editor and never succumbing to regular pressure from his editor to write columns or feature stories of substance. Henry said he had done all that and wanted nothing more than a quiet life in a newspaper from Monday to Friday, earning enough to pay the mortgage on a one-bedroom flat, and to live a comfortable life with travel once a year.
He had few real friends and always claimed that suited him well enough. When he wanted to share a night at the theatre or needed a partner for a social engagement he had two female friends who would be happy to spend an evening with him but the relationships were platonic.
Henry sometimes worried his eccentricity had spilled over into downright anti-social and dangerous behaviour, although he was never rude or unfriendly. He once admitted to an acquaintance that he much preferred the company of a book, or his own thoughts, to other people. In fact, he sometimes quoted Sartre that “hell is other people”. This attitude developed gradually over the years. Henry found himself looking away or crossing the street rather than greeting even those people he liked and admired. When he found himself at a party or social occasion he was able to blend in well and make interesting conversation but he rarely sought out people socially.
Each weekday began with breakfast at home, a 25-minute bus trip to work, followed by his much anticipated coffee. He told work colleagues he could not manage without that coffee break before work.
At the newsroom he rarely engaged in social banter but was polite and friendly with his workmates. He would spend any spare time with a book, rather than engage in office gossip or chat about sport or TV. Most of the younger journalists regarded him with a degree of indifference and he made no attempts to change their attitude or seek them out for opinions on anything which did not concern their work. He rarely criticised their efforts or offered advice.
An observer in the newsroom would be right to assume Henry was doing just enough work to justify his existence and salary and he found the whole thing a trifle beneath him. He was moving, inexorably, towards retirement, counting his superannuation balance each week and longing for the time when he had no need to turn up for work each day and could maybe complete those unfinished novels or that travel book about Paris.
At lunchtime, Henry would eat sandwiches in the park on sunny days with an ever present book in his hands or visit a favoured restaurant on colder days. For the final 30 minutes of his allotted hour he would browse in the bookshops around the city
At 5.30 each evening he would place his glasses, books and wallet into his backpack and walk all the way home, usually arriving after 7pm. He cooked his evening meal of stir fried Asian style or alternated between three French recipes he knew well and enjoyed eating alone with jazz music, or maybe his many recordings of Edith Piaf.
Henry was a man of habits, bordering on the extreme. As he cooked dinner and kept one eye on the ABC television news he would enjoy one glass of chardonnay and then a glass of red wine with his meal. The red he had purchased from a local importer of French wine.
After dinner he would search the websites of French newspapers, maintaining his considerable skills in the French language. Just before 10pm he would run a bath and luxuriate in the water while listening to his favourite radio program, Late Night Live, presented by Phillip Adams. He regularly corresponded with Adams via email. By 11pm he was usually in bed, reading until he fell asleep.
At weekends he cleaned his flat, shopped for groceries and then took a taxi home on Saturdays and spent Sundays in galleries and bookshops or attending European movies at the art house cinema in North Hobart and read the Sunday papers in coffee shops.
It was an ordered life, often predictable, but he liked it that way. In the 15 years he had lived in Taroona he had not spoken more than a few words to any of his neighbours. If he met other occupants of the building, which included three other units, Henry would nod or smile politely but never engage in unnecessary chat. Henry enjoyed a degree of solitude in a way which many would never understand. To be in conversation with a book is far more agreeable than spending time with artless, witless people, he would say to himself, and occasionally to others when he was sure it gave no offence. I have been fortunate to become the man I choose to be, he mused. Some people never change, are caught in a suburban, or family, trap of their own making and have no regrets. Henry was adamant he missed nothing much by forsaking a life regarded as normal. He was rarely lonely. How can I be lonely in the company of Balzac, Hugo, Zola or Voltaire? he would ask.
In moments of reflection Henry sometimes wondered how he changed so profoundly from a young gregarious, outgoing man to the person he had become but he had no regrets.
Most of his work colleagues and those he knew best had no idea about his life outside work, but presumed it was much as they had observed, and they had become used to his slight eccentricities and ways.
Things are not always as they seem.
Henry took holidays at the same time each year. He liked to start his six weeks about the middle of June and the editorial manager who arranged the rosters was always able to accommodate him. Not too many others wanted time off during the Australian winter.
For nine consecutive years, Henry had started his holidays with a flight to Paris, always a direct flight, stopping only for an hour in Singapore or Bangkok.
He spent the first eight days at a three-star hotel not far from the Opera. The next day he caught a fast train south to Nice, where he boarded a local bus to the village of Cap d’Ail, perched high above the Mediterranean, just two kilometres from Monte Carlo. After week at a very nice sun-washed hotel in the village, he spent a few days in some of his favourite cities – Avignon, Lyon and Toulouse and San Sebastian, over the Spanish border in the Basque country, before returning to a final week in Paris. He usually arrived home the day before resuming work.
Even in his leisure times, Henry Ruddock seemed to be a man of routine, almost boring routine.
Things are not always as they seem.
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