The weather is holding and I set off mid-morning for my now routine trip to Manly in the wheelchair. On returning I decided to stop for a cup of coffee at Manly institution, Hemingway’s coffee shop. It’s about half way between Manly Surf Club and my place. Just across the road from the beach. Nothing is ever easy in a wheelchair. Hemingway’s has a small step to go up from the footpath into the cafe. It’s about 3 inches high. Able-bodied people would never notice. I wheeled up to it and tried to wrestle the front wheels of the wheelchair over it. Luckily, the staff came to my assistance. They wheeled me inside and I transferred onto one of the long benches. Back to the window, sun streaming through. Ordered a skinny Latte. On the opposite wall, words written on the whitewash. They took me back many years
We went into the bar and sat on high stools and drank a whisky and soda. We rolled poker dice out of a deep leather dice-cup. Bill was out first roll. Mike lost to me and handed the bartender a hundred-franc note. The whiskies were twelve francs a piece. We had another round and Mike lost again. Each time he gave the bartender a good tip. In a room off the bar there was a good jazz band playing. It was a pleasant bar. We had another round. I went out on the first roll with four kings. Bill and Mike rolled. Mike won the first roll with four jacks. Bill won the second. On the final roll Mike had three kings and let them stay. He handed the dice-cup to Bill. Bill rattled them and rolled, and there were three kings, an ace, and a queen.
I stared. No one else seemed to notice these words. I wonder if the thousands of people who came through that cafe, wondered where they came from? I knew. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The book, which I read as a teenager, like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, inspired a young boy, raised in the bush of western NSW, to see the world. In particular, I wanted to see America. Words on a wall, in a cafe in Manly, but words I will never forget.
Under the words, on the other side of the cafe, facing me was something even more arresting. A girl sat, head down, looking intently at a laptop computer. Occasionally she would laugh. A brilliant smile, perfect teeth in a dark face. Her eyes danced. Black jumper, white shirt tight blue jeans and long brown boots. Boots fashionably scuffed. A beret jauntily tossed on one side of her head. From under it erupted a cascade of wild curls which fell to her shoulders. Topping it off was a colourful woolen scarf which seems the accoutrement du jour for all young women in winter. She was breathtakingly beautiful. I couldn’t stop looking at her and the words floating above her head. My coffee arrived. I wondered how Hemingway might have handled this scene.
Maybe he would have written it something like that. Much better obviously. I finished my coffee and wheeled out of the cafe with one last look at the quote on the wall and the girl underneath it. She was oblivious. I was left with an intense sense of aloneness and a time passing that I could never get back. Ernest Hemingway shot himself when he was about my age. He probably did it after he had been alone in a cafe for a cup of coffee. Something about the quote on the wall bothered me. Back in my apartment I pulled out my copy, dogeared and battered, of The Sun Also Rises. There it was in chapter 19. What he actually wrote was:
Whoever wrote on the wall left out the bit about why they were rolling dice. It was to pay for the whiskey. I think that’s important. Also whoever wrote on the wall can’t spell “whiskey” or “whiskeys” Didn’t have the heart to tell them the quote was wrong. Still, I’ve had three books published and I can’t write like Ernest Hemingway. I shouldn’t scoff at anyone.