The pang surprised me because it was many years since I had even remembered that cheeky old face and the silent laughter which convulsed it at practically everything the conventional world holds dear. To that world, Gappa was indeed a wicked old man but as I stood in my garden, the sun on the open morning paper, the familiar scene faded and I crossed a misty bridge into the past.
We had just moved to one of a whole row of raw new houses in an old and extraordinarily ugly country town. we had two small children with a third about to be born, and I was desperately lonely - yet I seemed unable to find common ground to walk with my neighbours. On one side the adjoining house was unoccupied when we moved in, and I watched eagerly for the arrival of the tenants. They came very early one morning, and as our housing settlement was a flat tree-less waste at that time, and our dividing fence incomplete, I had ample opportunity to observe their activities.
A small dark woman seemed to be cheerfully doing most of the work, a good natured blond man was obviously in the way though willing; innumerable children shouted and ran about, and in the centre of every scrimmage, encouraging the shrillest arguments, tugging at the most awkward bundles, was an astonishing little man.
His warped and twisted body hunched crookedly on spidery legs, he leaned on a stick, though he scrambled about as nimbly as any of the children. His face was as grotesque and ugly as a gnome in a nightmare - ugly and fascinating. His straight hair, still black, was cut short except at the top, where it stuck out like a little roof. His seamed swarthy face with its great hooked nose was as old as the world, yet the mischief of eternal youth shone in his sly bright eyes.
Whenever something amused him (and most things did) he shook with such wicked delight that his wise little eyes would disappear in a million wrinkles, the cavernous jaws would gape wide to reveal toothless gums and quivering tongue, like a prehistoric bird.
This was Gappa.
We though at first that Gappa might be a family way of saying Grandpa, but we discovered that Bet, the small dark woman, was his niece, and the name a sort of derivative of his initials - a name of which he was proud and by which he was known to many surprising (and often surprised) people.
In a few weeks he was Gappa to us too, and a constant source of interest and wonder to Rich and me. He had seen, and been, so much that was strange to us. He has mingled with the shadows beyond so many dark doors; doors he sometimes half opened for us, only to slam them shut in our faces after a startling glimpse.
He stood about five feet at this time, and he was painfully thin, but Bet told me that once he had been almost a foot taller, broad, and powerful. I could hardly believe it then but later I looked again at the great hands and wrists and feet, at the massive bones of head and face, and saw a sudden arresting vision of quite another man - big - bold - and piratical. Some unspecified accident had wrought the tremendous change, bent his body and left his health impaired. But this was one story we did not hear, and whenever she mentioned it, a veil would flick over Bet's nice brown eyes.
My companionship with Bet, who was almost without formal education, and who had married her Ed incredibly young; her warmth and simple wisdom in dealing with her large family, and her lovely natural humour, are part of some other story. But because she became a friend from whom I learned many basic lessons, our acquaintance with Gappa ripened.
In the beginning he treated us with exaggerated gypsy respect - he called me "lady" and Rich "the boss", but underneath we could sense his secret derision. Later, I became "missus" and Rich, "the mister". He was never more familiar than that but the mockery had gone, and we recognised and valued his friendship.
Finding us an appreciative audience, he spent hours recounting his disreputable adventures, and even then I felt uneasily that many were heavily censored. He had dredged up drowned bodies from the Yarra - in some grisly way I never understood these must have carried a bounty - he had burrowed in rubbish-dumps for rags and scrap, he had sold disinfectant of his own brewing - water with a dash of phenyle he told us happily - from door to door, he had escaped thugs over slum back fences after brawls involving broken bottles and blunt instruments, and as a gentler pastime had hawked flowers in the streets in a handcart. He cackled with joy as he told us how he had doused bunches of half-dead violets with cheap scent.
"Silly tarts never knew no better - sell 'em anythink," he would say, evilly delighted with his remeniscences.
Rich and I decided that Gappa was quite unable to associate the victims of such tricks with the ordinary women of his acquaintance. He saw himself as perpetually and legitimately at war with any respectable "lady" who lurked on the other side of any doorbell, and he was filled with unholy glee whenever he won.
Gappa never went for a walk, occasionally he went for a pickle and pork. His trouble and strife, his old cheese, and several other remarkable epithets, referred to the wife he had left somewhere behind him, probably to her heartfelt relief. His deepest desire was to own an 'orse-'n-cart.
"That's what the mister needs," he would tell me wistfully over and over again. "Make 'is forchin with an 'orse-'n-cart. Go in with 'im any day meself. Pick up anythink if yer got an 'orse-'n-cart." With Gappa, this was probably literally true.
Wherever there had been a fire, or a house demolished, or one newly built, wherever there was a tip or rubbish heap, there also was Gappa - dragging Ed junior's billy cart - a quick spidery figure swarming eagerly about in search of his kind of treasure.
He built a ramshackle shed in Bet's yard to house his salvage - old iron, bits of wood, bedsteads, rusty tin, broken netting, newspapers, rags, bottles, wheels, wire, boxes, nothing was too far gone for Gappa.
He was a clean old man, and the children adored him; he was amazingly patient and kind to them all - unorthodox but basically sound in any instruction he gave them. In fact the high moral tone of some of his lectures to the young left Rich and me a little shaken, particularly if we had sat up until midnight the night before listening to lurid tales of his illicit doings. With Bet's baby, and my own when she arrived, he was gentleness itself.
That grotesque gargoyle face, hanging over the bassinets clucking and cooing, might have been expected to send them into screaming convulsions. It enchanted them instead. They obviously thought he was pretty, clutched at the great nose beaming and gurgling, and only cried of he went away. He had a special sort of murmurous monologue for their benefit which could always bring a magic calm into their windy, milky little world, and I learned not to listen to the astonishing mixture of baby-talk, rhyming slang and inadvertant swear-words, but only to be grateful for the blessed result.
He always carried a mouth organ in his breast pocket and when he folded his enormous mouth around it one could not suppress a twinge of alarm in case it had gone for ever. But he could bring forth exciting fairground music to lift low spirits, not only by the sound of the hurdy-gurdy tunes, but at the sight of Gappa as he played. The only drawback to its pied-piper power, lay in the casual way he would shake out the spit and offer the instrument to the small fry for a blow. I gave up trying to circumvent their gratified and highly flattered acceptance.
Bet's husband Ed was a pleasant man and she adored him, but as on that first day, he was always willing, but bewildered in a crisis. It was to Gappa Bet turned in moments of domestic stress. He had weird but usually effective home remedies for all childish ailments, he remembered cheap, nourishing and appetising meals to be made from unlikely ingredients when funds were low, which they often were in both our households.
He had a remarkable solution for any problem one cared to present; and in terrific financial emergencies there was always, "the tin". In this tin he kept his small hoard of cash and the situation must be desperate indeed before he would broach it.
Gappa liked a glass of stout - usually he took it at home with Ed and sometimes Rich, but on rare occasions he treated himself to a day out.
On one of these days I had been shopping in the township about a mile from home, and was returning in the late afternoon. By the side of the road, under a gum tree, sagged a queer heap. It was Gappa, his "good suit" crumpled, his natty brown velour best hat, of which he was very proud, upside down in the dust, his stick and several parcels scattered about. His eyes were as bright and sardonic as ever as they met mine, but he was obviously unable to get to his feet. I put down my bundles.
"Gappa, are you ill?"
His face wrinkled into the ghost of his wicked laughter.
"No mishush - 'm drunk - me legs 'ave give out." He made a shooing motion with one hand. "Git on 'ome now - go on - go 'ome."
I put his hat on his head and picked up parcels and stick.
"Come on Gappa," I coaxed, "if you lean on me you can make it."
"Go 'ome when I tell yer," he repeated.
"Please try to get up," I begged, "I couldn't leave you. Bet'll be worried."
He tried to rise at this.
"Don't you tell Bet. She'll nag about me 'eart. You git on 'ome where you belong. 'aven't yer got any sense? Whaddayer reckon all them old tarts 'd say if they seen us shtaggering 'ome arm in arm, eh?"
His jaws opened in the characteristic noiseless cackle as he contemplated this happy picture.
"Now go 'ome and git Sylvie - she's got an 'ead on 'er. Tell 'er to gerra taxshi and not to tell 'er Mum."
I couldn't move him. I had to do exactly as he said - go home and buttonhole Sylvia - Bet's bright-faced twelve year old, and repeat Gappa's instructions. She whisked to the phone, amused I could see at my distress, and well before her mother arrived home she had Gappa safely tucked into his own bed.
"He's alright," she said kindly. "Just don't tell Mum. She's more likely to kill 'im orf naggin'."
When big Ed's holidays came round relatives in Melbourne invited the whole family for a fortnight, but Gappa elected to stay where he was.
"Might run into me old fiddle 'n fife," he told us grinning. "I can look after meself. Better cook than she is." Eyeing Bet who agreed that he probably was.
"But what if you took sick you silly old monkey?"
The warmth of unspoken affection shone always in Bet's eyes when they rested on Gappa. Between us, we persuaded him to come to us until his family returned and to the delight of my children he moved in to our spare room the day Bet left. During his stay our children contracted whooping cough. Rich's job took him to a nearby town most of the time, leaving early and returning late, and Gappa was invaluable. He chopped kindling, told the children stories, sang and played his mouth-organ, peeled vegetables, held heads during coughing fits, and always had a nice 'ot cuppa at my elbow when the strain began to tell.
My eldest child was about five at this time, his usual expression being one of angelic contemplation as he brooded over his next piece of mischief. It became increasingly difficult to keep him in bed and amused.
About two days before Bet was due to return, I had given him several old newspapers and a nursery scissors for cutting out, and a board, plasticene, and a box of dead matches for modelling. With Gappa stoking the copper, I spent the morning in the detached laundry tackling a nightmare accumulation of washing. I was rinsing wearily at the second-last boiling when Gappa's great nose lifted towards the house.
"Smell anythink?" he asked.
"Yes, the copper," I said impatiently and continued to rinse.
"T'aint the copper," he said briefly and started for the house. Alarmed, I followed.
In the children's room, the two younger ones were asleep, but Richard junior cowered at the top of his smouldering bed, his eyes like saucers as they stared at the blazing curtains. On the floor were several crisp, blackened, sheets of burned out newsaper. Afraid of reprisals, and unable to comprehend the danger, he had not called out, but when he saw me he tried to leap from the bed. His pyjamas caught - I lost my head and shrieked.
Gappa was before me in a crab-like flash, rolling the boy in a rug, pulling down the curtains, putting them through the window onto the damp lawn, and following them with Richard's bedding. Richard was unhurt but frightened, the baby woke crying, the younger boy woke too and started to cough.
For a while I had my hands full - Gappa disappeared outside, and I could hear him dragging the debris away from the house.
I put the two boys in the undamaged bed, soothed the baby, tidied the room as well as I could - then - as I swept up the charred newspaper the full impact of what might have happened reached me. A tide of bitter anger against my son welled up in me. I was overtired from sleepless nights, my nerves were jangling from shock, and reaction after relief played its part. I began an angry tirade for his stupidity and naughtiness. My voice grew louder and shriller - I ignored the great eyes and white faces of my little boys and went on and on. Then a mild voice said from the doorway -
"Cuppa riddle-me-ree in the kitchen missus."
I followed Gappa to the kitchen and flumped down at the table, still angry and shaken. Gappa took a few noisy slurps of tea and I began to talk about a spanking for the culprit.
" 'old on missus," he said, "don't yer reckon yer puttin' the blame on the wrong one?"
"What do you mean?" I demanded.
" 'Oo give 'im the matches?"
"They were dead ones..." I began.
"No they wasn't." he said. "Dead matches never set anythink alight that I know of."
I looked mutely across the table into the wise bright eyes.
"Must 'ave been a cuppla live ones with 'em," he said without emphasis. " 'e always pretends to light the dead'ns. Seen 'im meself. So've you. 'e's 'ad a terrible fright missus. 'e's ony five."
I got up quietly and went to the bedroom to cuddle and comfort and make all well. When I came back, I was able to see how grey-white Gappa was, and how laboured his breathing. I made him go to bed and he suffered no ill-effects; when Bet came home he was quite himself again.
About a year later, we moved away from the town. I corresponded with Bet for a time and sent messages to Gappa, but finally our diverging paths were too far apart.
I came slowly back to my garden and folded the paper. I would not send flowers - Gappa would have made a rude raspberry at such a fancy. I looked up at the hills which surround our home and sent forth a small prayer.
"Goodbye, dear Gappa. May you find a Celestial Junkyard filled with more Treasure than you can ever count, and may you be right in the Middle, with an 'Orse-'N-Cart.