The substitution of an extremely casual waiter for our customary Charles -- who was evidently on leave -- seemed rather to upset my little anonymous monologist the other night when, after the usual polite preliminaries, he seated himself at my dining table in the hotel. Charles is foreign, diplomatic and exceedingly suave - the waiter born. His locum tenens had all the independent free-and-easy, take-it-or-leave-it attitude of the true born Australian that irritates a certain type of overseas visitor, but is rather approved and admired by fellow-Australians who know how to meet it.
The busy waiter fidgeted, in obvious impatience, while my bald friend studied the menu with great deliberation from hors d'oevures to savories. Then he looked up and discovered the new waiter.
"Ah," he said, "not Charles."
"No," said the waiter, "Bill."
"Quite," murmured my fellow diner. "I wonder if the clear soup is to be recommended tonight?"
"Too right," said the waiter.
My bald friend stared as if stung by adders.
"I beg your pardon," he said, in futile reproof.
"Bonzer," said the waiter.
"Then," said the little man, testily, "I shall take a small portion of the toheroa."
"Goodo," said the waiter, agreeably, and he was gone.
I expected an outburst or, at worst, an indignant complaint to the head waiter. But my little monologist did not disappoint me with anything so petty. At least, he is a good sport.
But the silence that usually precedes his headlong volubility was greatly prolonged tonight. Clearly, the encounter had shaken his natural serenity. At last, however, he launched forth.
"On the whole," he said suddenly, "I prefer the swallows."
Accustomed as I am now to his opening gambit, this cryptic remark was a poser. Noting my confusion, he quickly apologised.
"Sorry," he said. "An inexcusable habit of mine -- speaking aloud the tag of a long line of silent meditation, I deplore the habit, but find it hard to break.
"The theme," he continued, "was put into my mind a week or more ago by the announcement by one of our younger politicians, that he had, so to speak, swallowed whole the political doctrine of Fascism minus - he was careful to add - the shirt. But even a shirtless Fascism does not appeal to me as satisfactory even from our limited human point of view.
"And then it occurred to me that, while no human system can be entirely perfect (it would be tedious if it were), should it be necessary, in an intelligent world, for any man to swallow while any cut-and-dried doctrine, whether it be Fascism, Bolshevism, or, under our own democracy, the Party System? To do so, at once involves compromise in some degree. For no two men in the wide world thing or ever thought exactly alike on any creed or system in all its details.
"Yet where lies our choice today? In Bolshevism, which is the law of the hive - altruism run mad, travelling the whole vicious circle back to the worst kind of tyranny? In Fascism, which is the law of the pack, depending for good or ill on the will and disposition of its leader? In our own democracy, with its Party system, which blinds party adherents to every last scrap of good in their opponents?
"Then my thoughts ran to the communal systems adopted since time immemorial by certain insects and animals - wolves, bees, lions, elephants, sparrows, swallows, and so on. And in the self-government of my friends the swallows I imagine I have found the most nearly perfect system of all.
"I have studied swallows from the cradle to the grave -- from nest to necropolis -- yet never in my life have I seen two swallows fighting. They seem to me a happy and almost care-free people full of playfulness, content, and joy in life. Hence, sir, my rather vague remark of a while ago.
"Our own democracy is, I venture to say, the nearest human approach to the creed of the wise swallows. But how far yet from their almost perfection.
"Only the other day in our National Parliament we had the unlovely spectacle of one honorable member threatening to pull another honorable member's nose. What a humiliating admission! Resort to force as the final arbiter for reasonable and intelligent humans! What a picture of mental ineptitude and reversion to savagery! . . . Yes?"
This to the waiter who for some time had been claiming attention.
"Some of the minced turkey," snapped the monologist impatiently.
The waiter leaned over confidentially.
"Cut it out, Dig," he advised. "The chef's slipped a bit on that dish."
A dusky red climbed up to the monologist's bald head; he threw his table napkin down violently.
"Get out!" he snarled. "I want no more dinner." The waiter fled.
My attempt at conciliation was useless.
"Outrageous!" said my bald friend. "Why, for two pins I would pull the fellow's nose! I wish you good evening."
And, blind to all man's inconsistencies, he was gone.
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2002|