18 December 2008

The man in the corner


In the corner at one of the long tables the man sits, alone, slumped on the plum-coloured plush seating, staring at the remaining inch of beer in his glass. He looks as if he's struggling with something too difficult to accept. He seems undecided whether to burst into laughter or tears. From time to time he heaves his substantial bulk into another position or wipes a large hand over his face, muttering something to himself as he does so. All the while he grins with his eyes screwed up so tight he must be incapable of seeing anything beyond arms reach. Anything beyond the glass, sitting on the table in front of him with just an inch of beer remaining.

Is he trying to squeeze back the tears, or is he simply too drunk to remember to look around. From what, or whom, might he be hiding, there in the corner behind those screwed up lids?

He grunts—something between a yawn and a groan; an utterance as if he's come to a conclusion—and Jam session at the Celticstruggles to his feet, shuffles off towards the gents. Upright, he seems almost amorphous; the way he heaves himself along, awkward and rippling, suggests a trace of sea elephant in his heritage. When he returns he eases down onto the seat, flows outward over the plum plush, and resumes his contemplation of the dregs on the table. The logo on the glass identifies it as Fuller's London Pride.

It seems increasingly probable that he's drunk himself to the brink of collapse. But what drove him to that? Was it the long, slow entrapment by alcohol, genes, and the culture of pubs; the harmless habit tightening its grip pint by pint, session by session? Or is this an exception, the result of some trauma, some pain too hard to bear alone, too hard to bear without the solace of inebriation?

I'm sorry,” she says. “I need more than you can offer. I've met someone...” She doesn't look at him.
It's this recession,” he says. “We're going backwards.” He shrugs and looks uncomfortable. “I'm sorry. We can't keep you on.”
He answers the door and the policeman asks his name and suggests they go inside. “I'm sorry to have to tell you this,” he says.
I'm sorry,” the doctor says. “When it's this far advanced there's nothing we can do.”

It's easy to believe he's been crushed by some traumatic event, but perhaps he's simply accepted his life, accepted he'll never be an All Black, never win an Olympic medal or make it big in the movies, never foot it with the high flying currency traders, never be of the slightest interest to paparazzi or reporters from Time or Woman's Weekly. Perhaps he's at ease knowing he'll never earn enough to benefit from the latest tax cuts, and although he'd like kids of his own to love and cherish (he'd be a wonderful dad), he's comfortable Jamming at The Celticknowing that'll never happen. Maybe he's just happy with his life, happy to sit in a corner on his own and enjoy a pint and then another. And then another, as the haze of contentment and goodwill thickens and settles over him. The world is fine, really—all that constant striving just makes a body anxious and highly strung.

The barman buzzes around, quick and efficient, clearing the empties. Everything about him seems the antithesis of the man in the corner. The barman is small and agile; he looks strong; he looks like someone who'd take out an opponent before the other guy had even drawn back his fist. Most of all, he seems alert; utterly present, aware of where he is.

But he doesn't look at the man in the corner.

The man in the corner might be happy or sad, euphoric or distraught. He might be three sheets under the wind or a couple of cans short of a six pack. Tonight might be a regular part of his life or an aberration. If he's drunk, is it because his genes and habits have trapped him; or is it out of character and he's trying to deal with great and sudden pain; or does he enjoy his life, including these bouts, so much he wants nothing more? Which of these is the worst to believe?

He finishes that inch of beer and stands unsteadily. He edges sideways from behind the table, drags his feet towards the door. His pants have slipped halfway down his arse but he catches them in time and hitches them up.

The barman glides around, whisks away the glass now empty of Fullers London Pride. The man in the corner no longer exists.

Monteiths Golden Lager

1. The man in the corner does not exist, although he can be found readily enough in pubs (or elsewhere) throughout the world. Often he's the woman in the corner, too.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Wineglass.
2 & 3. Tuesday night jamming at The Celtic. Over on The Ruins of the Moment I've posted another photo from the same session.
4. Here in Aotearoa a 330 ml bottle's called a stubby. This is one — for the record, it's Monteith's Golden Lager.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...

What a poignant picture, and the empty glass and the bottle sum it up so well. 'The woman in the corner' would be in exactly the same sad and lonely plight; human pain respects no boundaries.

I believe that you do not have the 'Samaritan' organisation in New Zealand. How about starting it?

Buddha said...

I've been in the corner a couple of times in my life
It seems you've been there too.
Nice meeting you here where are no corners, just windows and walls.

Zhoen said...

In the depths of our souls, we can only guess at each other.

Emma said...

Oh. I know this man. I have been this man. Sometimes by owning what we are, we are able to relocate a semblance of dignity. Sometimes we can do this for others, if only in our own hearts.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
I too have been this man for various reasons at times. I am glad you also observed it could simply be from contentedness as well. What a great piece of writing, observation, and thought, thank you.
Had such a fantastic trip down south. Pretty grotty weather wise, but managed to get up in the mountains for a few walks, and the company was very interesting. Have a great day, and would love to catch up over the holidays.

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Pete

You have exposed me. I think I have been that man in the corner a number of times. We should be thinking of how we can help him over the festive season. a time when he is very vulnerable.


mm said...

I have been in the corner, and still can be. Thankfully there are now other places.

Bob and Emma say it well.

A beautiful post, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

RR, Samaritans are in fact here, and have been so for a very long time. They seem to have a low profile now — I don't recall the last time I heard anything about them — but they're still in the phone book. Of course, that requires one to know they exist, what they're called, and what they offer.

Buddha, good to see you here. I imagine few of us haven't been there at some stage. Fortunately, I avoided the entrapment by drink, not least because I've been so lucky to have such wonderful friends and a family I know I'll always be able to take refuge in. And yes — interesting thought about this being somewhere without corners. An idea to explore.

Zhoen, so true — and the less we have to guess, the more wonderful the gift of knowing someone else so deeply.

Emma, yes. And because we've been there, that offer of dignity, even if only in our hearts, arises far more from empathy than sympathy.

Robb, thanks :^) Oh, I bet the company was great! Looking forward to hearing about it in person, soon.

Bob, that's so true about how this season can be so hard on so many. This post had special poignancy for me for precisely that reason — the "festive" season can so easily be anything but festive, and for people suffering, it must be like rubbing their noses in it.

pohanginapete said...

MM, we've just cross-posted! Thanks for the thoughts, and I trust this Christmas and New Year will give you no reason nor desire to retreat to any corners. :^)

The Artful RV Adventurer said...

just found your site through friends...
instant connection. I'll be a regular.
very well written.

Michael said...

Well observed, Pete, and nicely crafted. It's an ending I can relate to.

pohanginapete said...

ARVA — thanks, and welcome :^)

Michael, thank you.

vegetablej said...

"... I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round ... as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people... as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

Thank you, Charles and Pete, for a moment of recognition.

Happy Holidays.

Dave Pollard said...

Thanks Pete, and best of the season. The man, or woman, in the corner is, of course, all of us.

pohanginapete said...

VJ, that's such an apt quotation — the attitude he describes is one of the things I most like about Christmas. Wishing you much joy and happiness :^)

Dave, thank you, and I look forward to continuing to be encouraged and inspired by your writings.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Pete - i hope your holiday in the woods was fantastic. all the best for 2009 xx

bev said...

Always a piece of writing to set us thinking. Best wishes in the coming year, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Pixies, I had a wonderful time in there, all the better for being flown out by helicopter and being able to look down over the valley I'd spent a couple of days walking up. Thanks for the good wishes, and the same to you :^)

Bev, thank you, and I wish you abundant joy and peace. :^)

butuki said...

It was an interesting read, with my feelings stepping in and back out as I watched the man in the corner, at once feeling what he might have felt, but then anxious about getting too close to what I have been feeling recently here. I've had to take care not to fall back on drink (nearly half the people I work with are now alcoholics) and keep my mind balanced without the necessary friends I need to make it through the worst times. Luckily one friend at work has been a true friend, listening to me open up, letting me cry when I needed to, calling me up to make sure I was okay. Such friends are invaluable, aren't they?

Happy Holidays Pete.

MB said...

As always, Pete, something here to think about, chew over, and something visual to ponder as well. Thanks so much for all your share.

pohanginapete said...

Miguel, it can be tempting to find solace in booze, but I guess we've both been lucky to have the kinds of friends who provide such marvellous support through those terrible times. I'm glad things are looking up for you. Best wishes for a wonderful New Year :^)

MB, thanks — good to hear from you. I'm sure you'd have had a great time with the musicians. Maybe one day?

Beth said...

Pete, best wishes for the new year and thanks for the pleasure your fine posts and photos have given me during the past year. Your compassion for the world and its inhabitants - of all species - is a major reason why I keep coming back here, and I guess it's also evidence of kinship between us, in spite of the great distance from Canada to NZ. Thanks for reminding me of those in the corners of our worlds, and the times I've been there myself.

Maureen and Eric said...

Pete, Another beautiful post. I can relate to the man in the corner - he reminds me of my dad. Happy New Year!

pohanginapete said...

Beth, thank you for the generous comments. Knowing others share similar values, and similar aspirations for the world and its inhabitants, strikes me as among the greatest forms of encouragement and hope. Very best wishes for the coming year.

Maureen and Eric, thanks, and a very happy New Year to you also!

Brenda Schmidt said...

The man in the corner. What a vivid image.

And all that constant striving. That's something I've been questioning a lot of late.

A wonderful post, Pete. Happy New Year!

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

pete - just a further note now that i've had chance to read your post: this is a fantastic piece of writing and i loved the picture you created.

I've been in that corner myself (though never that drunk) for different reasons - i look at the kids on our street that have been given alcohol by parents/elder kids, watch people walking drunk at 8am and wonder how much of it is social conditioning.

Often the path that leads us to these places is so narrow that we don't notice we're in a well until we're already half way down and can no longer see the sunlight. The trick is to remember that the light will return if we want it

pohanginapete said...

Brenda, thank you, and a very happy New Year to you too.

Pixie, thanks :^) Your point's a good one — these things can be so insidious. I guess also that a corollary of your final thought is that the difficult bit is not just the remembering, but the wanting.

Anonymous said...

I'd say that, regardless, the man should strive for all of the things he wants. The children one might be tricky though, as if the doctor scenario is true, he'd just be bringing children into this world although he won't be there for them for long. But even in that situation he do his best to set things up for their future.

I also think that, whatever's got him down that day, he'll end up focusing on the brighter side of, or will come across something happier later on.

I know it's not the bartender's job to play psychiatrist, but if he was the only person in there, he could've at least asked him if he was alright. I hope that man or the people he just symbolized get a much better lot later on in life.

pohanginapete said...

Samurai, thanks. You raise some points well worth thinking hard about. I do wonder sometimes about the responsibilities of bar managers, particularly given the notice posted behind the bar; it says intoxicated people won't be served (I'm not sure, but it might even be a legal requirement). Of course, deciding who's intoxicated can be tricky. Maybe if we all cared a little more, in wider contexts, bar tenders would face fewer difficult decisions.

Marianne (aka Frida) said...

Wonderful writing Pete, thought (and discussion!) provoking as well as being poetic. I'm glad I found the links to find my way back here after more than a year of not reading too many blogs.

pohanginapete said...

Marianne, thanks. It's always nice to get people thinking and discussing; it feels like an achievement, or a contribution (not suggesting my friends don't think and explore ideas anyway, though!) I'm back in the valley after time away, and have a few ideas for posts, so "pohanginapete" (the blog) will be updated soon.

Mezamashii said...

Very nice writing!

PATERIKA HENGREAVES, Poet Laureate said...

Hi Pete

Your essay is expertly crafted on a theme that is indeed universal. In my neck of the woods, we would say "man on the curb"; The contents of your topic, "in the corner" could very well be applicable to what goes on in our "rum-shops" (pubs). Yes, there are so many reasons why persons can find themselves in a pickle. However, what seems to be the case nowadays is that the barrel to the head is eclipsing intoxication. I wonder if enough is being done to help persons who are in despair for whatever.

All the best to you and family for the New Year and Valentine.


pohanginapete said...

Mezamashii, thank you :^)

Paterika: "...there are so many reasons why persons can find themselves in a pickle." — Nice! Very true, too. Thanks for the kind thoughts, and the very best to you also.

Lisa Allender said...

"...all that constant striving just makes a body anxious and high-strung."
A truly poignant observation....
And this entire entry at your blog:
A richly textured piece of writing!I'll definitely be back for more!
Would like to become a "Follower" of your blog, if you have a link for me to click on!
btw, I found you through "Don't Feed The Pixies".
Find me Lisa Allender, at:
Open Salon

pohanginapete said...

Lisa, thanks. I'm honoured you'd like to follow the blog. However, you'll have to do it directly from your blogger dashboard, by adding the URL (http://pohanginapete.blogspot.com) in the "blogs I'm following" tab. Pohanginapete uses the old template, so I can't add the followers widget unless I switch to the new layout format, and if I did so, I'd lose the formatting. Sorry.

I've added the followers widget to The Ruins of the Moment, if you'd like to follow that [and thanks for the comment there :^)]

Di Mackey said...

And there's Paul, playing the 'fiddle'. He stayed at my place here in Belgium last year. He saw that I had added you to my blog role and written about you.

A small small world :)

pohanginapete said...

Di, it's a small world indeed. Paul's a remarkable musician; he seems to be able to create music the way most of us breathe — without effort; as a natural and integral part of being alive. We're lucky to have him and the other Celtic jammers right at hand in PN. I'm really looking forward to a respite from this intense contract work so I can head into town on Tuesday evening to enjoy the jam session.

Di Mackey said...

I hope more photographs and words follow, even if that's a wee bit selfish of me.