THE BEER ON THE BAR
A tribute to HMAS Armidale
He entered the bar on his own:
An elderly man, neatly dressed,
about sixty or so, the barmaid guessed;
clean shaven, his face chiselled from stone.
The barmaid was new. He said,
‘How do you do?’ and, in an
old-fashioned gesture of respect,
he raised his grey felt hat.
His mood seemed sombre, so the barmaid
refrained from offering her usual chit-chat.
‘What will it be?’ ‘Two beers please.’
His voice was soft with an element of authority.
The barmaid drew the ordered beers
and, before serving another customer,
stood them, chilled and frothing,
condensation glistening on the glass,
to drain on a red towel spread
along the length of the bar.
The old bloke drank slowly, sipping
alone, from one of the amber jars.
As he savoured the beer’s bitter taste
his eyes were fixed on afar.
When finished, he lingered but left
the second of his beers untouched.
Then, lifting a finger in thanks to the rim
of his hat, he abruptly turned to depart,
leaving the undrunk beer to go flat.
‘Wait!’ the barmaid called after him.
‘You’ve forgotten your other beer!’
‘It’s for a mate of mine,’ he replied.
‘He’ll be along soon, leave it there,
if you don’t mind …’
An hour later it was noon and the beer
still waited, warm and uncalled for.
The barmaid made to throw out the beer
but the publican stopped her with a shout.
‘No! Leave it there for the rest of the day.
While there it reminds us of a debt
we will never be able to repay.’
The barmaid was perplexed and
thought their behaviour bizarre,
so the publican explained the significance
of the solitary beer on the bar.
‘The old fellow’s name is Roy Cleland.
He comes here this day every year,
year in, year out, despite old age
and crippling gout; whether it’s wet
or whether it is hot, whether
it is a working day or not,
he will appear in his Sunday best,
that worn, black, double-breasted suit,
for a personal ceremonial salute
in a scene reminiscent of Beau Geste.
The barmaid’s gaze was puzzled.
The publican laboured to explain.
‘He used to drink here with his mates.’
The barmaid imagined inebriated men.
The publican tried to explain again.
‘Roy was a sailor during World War Two.
The pub was his and his shipmate’s rendezvous.
In nineteen hundred and forty-two
Their ship, the corvette H.M.A.S. Armidale
was blown to Timbucktoo …
The barmaid listened as she pulled another ale.
‘Jap aircraft found and torpedoed
The Armidale in the Timor Sea and,
as the crew abandoned the sinking ship
and clung for their lives to floating debris,
the Zeros continued to attack them,
strafing the survivors mercilessly.
Although already wounded, an eighteen
-year-old seaman – Teddy Sheean was his name –
decided to defend his mates.
By God that boy was game!
Instead of trying to save his own skin,
Sheean ignored orders and, crawling
back to his action station,
strapped himself into the harness
of the Armidale’s aft mounted
Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun.
As enemy aeroplanes repeatedly
dived out of the rising sun,
Sheean tried to keep them away
from the floundering matelots
who watched with horror and dismay
as the Armidale sank beneath the spray
while shells from Terry’s submerged gun
hosed up from beneath the waves
as he doggedly continued to fire at
the menacing Japanese planes’ bomb bays.
It was a week before those still alive,
after enduring bullets, sharks and sea,
were rescued; and those who made it back
to dry land had no doubt they owed
their lives to Teddy Sheean’s self-sacrifice.
So, on the annual anniversary of
the sinking of H.M.A.S. Armidale,
Roy leaves a beer on the bar for Teddy and,
symbolically, for all who paid the ultimate price.’
A few years later, Roy stopped coming
to commemorate his comrades
but the barmaid and the publican
ensured there was always a beer on the bar
for the men who were lost but not beaten.
(c) Jeremy Gadd 1996
published The Armidale Express 26 April 1996.
Teddy Sheean was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross of Australia
13 August 2020.