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U3A Writing: Harhar Hal The Heavenly

Phyllis Thorby introduces us to Haliburton Scrump, a stranger in town - a man whose ear-drum pummeling laugh earned him the nickname Harhar. But Harhar's bellowing laughter hides an astonishing secret, as Phyllis reveals in this delicious must-read-to-the-end story.

It wasn’t ‘til the wintry August day by his graveside, that the good folk living in the small rural town of Dinnington discovered the real truth of Haliburton Scrump.

He’d been a man to avoid if your mood was dark. A perennial optimist, he’d pour you dollops of unsolicited advice designed to perk you up and prevent you from plunging down to wallow in your blackest misery. If you let him, he’d take a slice of your life, inspect it, mull over it, and then turn it over back to you with multiple suggestions of improvement.

Oh yes. Certainly enjoy his company when you could laugh at his antics and chuckle at his homilies; but avoid him at all costs if you believed that life was never designed to be a joke. He was a man to laugh at, not with.

'Harhar Hal’ for that was his nickname, and not always meant kindly, was a lean stick of a bloke, with a balding pate complimented by a massive white woolly beard in which droplets of whisky (or rum, or beer, or whatever, depending on who got trapped into shouting for him} would nest, catching the light like little drops of amber, twinkling in time to his rapidly moving lips. He spoke hastily, people supposed, to get his point across before his hapless audience moved away. Then his watery blue eyes would dart about the bar in the RSA, seeking another sorry soul who he felt needed his own unique brand of jollying up.

‘Never mind’ he’d say, bushy eyebrows rising earnestly towards his non-existent hairline, and clapping a bony hand on the shoulder of an unfortunate chap who’d just suffered a bereavement and was trying unsuccessfully to indicate he’d like to be left alone, ‘It’ll all come out in the wash.’ And he’d walk away leaving the poor fellow almost in tears.

Harhar Hal’s arrival at the Dinnington RSA, fifteen years ago (before the club became smoke-free) was heralded by a cacophonous laugh.

Har! Har! Har! It burst out in the crowded room, rattling the balls on the six billiard tables, and pinging off the bulbs in the green shades above.

Har! Har! Har! It flew as if seeking escape, this disembodied clatter, curling around the heads of the startled patrons to pummel their ear-drums, before hurtling all through the bar, ringing off glasses and bottles, causing Percy Peanut, the diminutive barman, to accidentally pour Mac McWhirter a double scotch, after which it brayed up the stairs to the restaurant, burning itself out among the salads and roast potatoes set out in their cabinets to await the evening diners.

The whole place fell silent, even the patrons at the pokies paused, preparing for the next outburst.

However, the first to break the rare silence was Big Billie Brannon. ‘I didn’t think my yarn was all that funny,’ he remarked, tapping out his pipe into an over-flowing ashtray while glancing apologetically at his mates leaning in their usual places on the tall stand overlooking the billiard tables where they could watch and comment on the participants' state of play. They’d shuffled slightly side-ways, as you would, to allow room for the newcomer while Mac’d scarcely paused in reporting the latest tale doing the rounds at his Bowls club.

Slowly, tentatively, the murmur of conversation began to grow once again, glasses tinkled, snooker and billiard balls clacked, feet shuffled, the pokies resumed their mechanical chatter, and the wall of sound built up to it’s usual 6 pm level.

The newcomer turned to Mac and stuck out a bony hand. ‘Hi, I’m Haliburton, Scrump,’ He said through his beard. ‘Just arrived in town. Stayin’ at th’ Pub ‘til I get me own place. Gee, you tell a good yarn. Have you heard this one?’ And off he went on a convoluted story about a Parliamentarian and his secretary, punctuating it with wild gestures and snickering happily at his telling of it until coming to the punch-line which he signalled with a loud hoot and a ‘Wait for it, guys, wait for it…and hee - hee - hee, she said, ha - ha - ha, she said.’ Spluttering helplessly, ‘She said, “Anyone know who - this - phone - belongs - to?” ‘Har! Har! Har! Anyone’ splutter, ‘anyone know - Har, Har,’ gulp. And by this time the patrons are ducking their heads, covering their ears, or diving for the toilets. Harhar Hal had arrived.

For all his concern for his fellow man, ‘Harhar Hal’ revealed very little of himself. Was he running away from a woman? The law? He never seemed short of a dollar or two, always paying in cash. It was said that he must’ve had origins in the Deep South. A Southern Man although his skinny appearance belied that special brew’s hunky advertising model. There could sometimes be detected in his speech, however, a certain burr, a rolling of the rrr’s that would indicate more than a passing acquaintance to the country’s southern climes.

When quizzed on his origins, he’d claim it was for him to know and for the nosey to find out. His age, some reckoned on around the late seventies, was another subject he was leary of ‘same age as me tongue, quite a bit older than me teeth.’ And he’d bare his discoloured dentures that showed yellow against his white beard. Then he’d be off again in search of another victim like Merv Baker whose wife’d taken off with the new car, the credit cards and the only decent plumber in town. ‘Could be worse,’ he was heard to say consolingly, ‘She might come back.’

Since his first appearance in the Club, he’d become a sort of mascot, always ready to lend a helping hand especially at the bar if Percy Peanut needed a day off, for where-else but to a captive audience, could he dispense along with the evening’s sustenance, such cheerful truisms on any subject? Well, almost any subject. He could never be drawn on politics. ‘Never discuss them politicians,’ he’d say waggling his beard, ‘Not unless you’re prepared to be one.’

He’d found a small flat underneath Aggie Bale’s house and once a month, it was reported by Rene, at the Post Shop, he collected a packet sent from a firm of Solicitors up in Auckland. ‘Could be letters in it.’ Rene surmised.

But Aggie, who cleaned Harhar’s flat once a week, confided she’d never discovered much of a personal nature, let alone any mail, although he did keep a locked bag hidden at the back of his wardrobe, not that Aggie was being nosey, mind you; and she hadn’t found a set of keys anywhere that fitted.

Most of the locals turned out for Harhar’s funeral. Big Billie, Mac, Merv, and Percy Peanut were there with Aggie Bale and Rene from the Post Shop. They were hoping the service would be mercifully short for the day was cold and frosty with a bitter wind off the snow-laden hills.

Rene, wrapped in her warmest wool coat, recounted to Aggie, how Haliburon [she felt she owed the deceased some respect] had collapsed right in front of her Post Shop counter after she had handed him his monthly package. ‘All I could do was shut the shop and rush over to Doc Swain’s surgery. He asked me if I’d put him in the ‘Recovery Position’ whatever that is; but I told him I hadn’t touched him. Stone dead, he was, poor man. Didn’t know what to do with his package, so opened it in case he had any letters from next-of-kin or something.’

‘And was there?’ asked Aggie, eagerly.

‘Oh, Yes!’ Rene replied. ‘Amongst other things, and that’s not his real name, although I already knew that, couldn’t find the name “Scrunch” in any of the phone books, even looked it up on the Net. Anyways there was a letter from his daughter. I knew it was his daughter, ‘coz it was addressed to ‘Dad’. It asked him to get in touch with her wherever he was and that she’d always be there if he needed her. Gave a cell phone number. I took it on myself to phone her. Should be here any minute. Seems he hadn’t wanted much to do with her for years, didn’t believe in her politics, she told me. Reckoned she should have known what name he’d called himself-seems it was a mystical character from her childhood-Disappeared after his wife died, he did. Looks like that could be her now.’

A large black limousine was pulling up at the cemetery gates. A huge man in a black suit emerged from the front passenger seat and respectfully opened the rear door. A tall woman emerged to a wide-eyed gasp from Aggie.

‘Rene, you never said his daughter’s the Prime Minister!’

But, listen. Is that not a familiar sound echoing above in the sheltering trees? Or is it only the branches grating in the wind?


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