26 July 2016

Aliens drink in the old New Railway Hotel

We met at the café as arranged, but she’d no sooner arrived than she wanted to go to a pub.

‘The one over there,’ she said, waving towards half of Palmerston North. I tried to think of pubs in that general direction, but because I don’t frequent pubs and seldom drive in that area of the city, I couldn’t think which one she meant. We started walking, and she led me further away from the centre of the city.

‘The old one over there,’ she said, pointing to the New Railway Hotel which was, as she’d indicated, old, not new. I asked whether she knew what it was like, but my question was more a statement — a warning, in fact — than a question. She laughed a little, but was that a note of apprehension in her voice?

We stepped inside and an old man studying the dregs of his beer looked up. He looked shocked. So too did the half dozen haggard guys leaning on one of the bench tables on the far side of the bar. Every pair of eyes in the place looked at us. Even the guys slumped over with their backs to us sat up and turned around and stared, no doubt alerted to this extraordinary sight by the stunned expressions on their mates’ faces.

Perhaps the shock arose from seeing someone new, but I suspect it had little to do with me and everything to do with the sudden appearance of an attractive woman. In the entire time we spent there, the clientele remained resolutely male, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a week passed without that bar being graced by the presence of a woman. Maybe the atmosphere would change on a Saturday night, but I couldn’t guess, because this was late on a Thursday afternoon.

The eyes followed us. I didn’t need to see them to know. Her presence must surely have encouraged the barflies to make a special effort to return on subsequent Thursday afternoons — not that encouragement to frequent the old New Railway Hotel looked necessary — hoping she might return one day, preferably alone. Hope, though, had seemed, if not in desperately short supply, at least not evident, but now just enough of it had been kindled to be dashed. Even while we were there, it began to fade, and our own conversation turned out to be more animated, and possibly louder, than the subdued murmuring from the sombre men. We were enjoying ourselves, but whether they were wasn’t certain. It’s possible, of course, that their conversation livened up after we left and they were free to speculate.

The old man disappeared while we ordered drinks. His expression suggested he couldn’t cope with the apparition that had just walked through the door, but maybe he’d just been unsettled by the disruption of the usual pattern of his Thursday afternoons, or maybe he’d finished his beer and was about to leave, although that last hypothesis seemed the least likely.

Adrian, the barman, was big and bearded and young and my friend’s request for a gin and soda stumped him. He stood there, not sure how to respond, until she rescued him by suggesting perhaps a gin and tonic would be easier if they didn’t have any soda, but even that almost defeated him until he remembered they had little bottles of premixed gin and tonic. He disappeared and returned with a tiny bottle of Gordon’s. He popped the top off and placed it on the bar, where it began rapidly beading with condensation. A glass wasn’t forthcoming, but she was happy to swig it from the bottle, and I liked her more for that.

Adrian asked what I wanted. I had a choice of four identical beers with different names, so I chose an Export Gold. He stood waiting. I wondered what I’d forgotten to say, but this time it was his turn to rescue me.

‘Handle?’ he said.

‘Yeah. Thanks,’ I said, and he drew a handle.

The bar did have EFTPOS: we hadn’t, as I’d begun to wonder, stepped through a wormhole and tumbled into the mid twentieth century. While she paid, we chatted with Adrian, who had recovered from his cognitive dissonance and told us how the even older, historic building across the road was scheduled for imminent demolition. It had been gutted by fire, and while the insurance would cover some of the losses, the building couldn’t be insured unless it was fire-proofed, and (here’s the catch) the insurance company wouldn’t pay for fire-proofing because it hadn’t been in place when the fire had ripped through — if it had, the fire wouldn’t have gutted the building. Something didn’t feel right about that, but I had better things to do than whinge about insurance companies, which in any case was too easy.

We took our drinks to the table vacated by the old guy. All the seating comprised bar stools at bench tables designed to accommodate large numbers of people standing, with the tabletops being about the right height on which to lean hairy tattooed forearms while their owners assessed how much beer remained in their handles. Suspended out of reach, a TV screened Indian Premier League cricket while another showed greyhound racing, but no one was watching.

A sign near the bar said ‘He rules the roost but I rule the rooster’. No one seemed to be ruling anything, though.

A guy in casual clothes and a daypack arrived. Despite the midwinter cold, he wore jandals, and this impressed my friend. As he ambled past she remarked on his footwear but he took it in his stride. He was an electrician, he said, so he wore work boots all day.

‘Bit of a relief to get out of them?’ I said, and he nodded. He’d just come up from Christchurch, which was even colder and damper than Palmerston North, making his choice of footwear even more impressive.

‘Tough guy,’ she said, making it sound like a compliment, and he pretended not to hear. He, at least, had a chance of fitting in, but we were and always would be aliens in the bar of the old New Railway Hotel, and even if we’d struck up a conversation with the sombre barflies on the far side of the room, we’d have remained misfits, aberrations, the Other who didn’t and couldn’t belong. Even with the best of intentions and a genuine effort to fit in and to understand attitudes that might have differed wildly from our own, we couldn’t fit in because we had no shared experience — well, I had no shared experience of any significance even if I’d been able to guess what that might have been. I didn’t know her well enough to speak for her, although her previous occupations might have given her some contact with people who had that kind of experience: the kind, in other words, that resulted in long periods in bars like the Railway Hotel on afternoons when luckier people were working and earning an adequate wage.

I’d been thinking along those lines when I realised, to my shame, that I’d been speculating wildly, making enormous assumptions about the circumstances that had left those men (who might actually have been members of a local philosophy group) melancholy and muttering quietly among themselves, but I had no basis for what I imagined other than what I’d imagined. I’d assumed their conversation most probably focused on sport or cars — undoubtedly Holdens vs Fords — and possibly a little about politics; and I’d imagined opinions were in short supply compared to statements of obvious fact; and questions, … well, what were those? Questions are admissions of weakness among blokes, for whom questions are redundant because they already know the answers.

But, as I've said, I was speculating (itself an admission I don’t qualify as a real bloke, because in real-bloke conversations the indicators of speculation — ‘maybe’, and ‘perhaps’, and suchlike — don’t occur; they’ve been replaced by indicators of certainty, like ‘the fact is...’, or ‘the real reason why...’), and I might have been way off the mark. For all I knew, the quiet men might have been having a deep, civilised colloquy about the merits of a deontological approach to resolving homelessness, or about semiotics and the novels of Jane Austen.

In the end, I decided I was probably wrong about everything. The one thing I might have been right about, I decided, was that even if we’d wanted to fit into the inner circle gathered around that rectangular table, we couldn’t.

1. The barman's name has been changed.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor


robin andrea said...

Sounds like an interesting and enlightening afternoon there. Sometimes I think about all the human lives on the planet all at once-- all the stories and dreams, and really it's hard to hold such an incomprehensible vastness. This one afternoon in a bar is even out of reach.

Relatively Retiring said...

Pure Steinbeck (as large a compliment as I can ever offer).

pohanginapete said...

Robin, I'm sure a bar like that could provide endless stories. But, as you say, the world contains such a vast store, and how does one choose?

Thank you, RR. That's a huge compliment :-)

Zhoen said...

Ok, what does Handle refer to in this context? Had to look up jandals, which was easier.

Dunno, learned in the army that folks are often not what they seem, although sometimes they are even more so. Only place I ever felt that alien was at a club full of women 5-10 years younger than myself, all in a lot of make-up and black spandex. The friend who took me swore it hadn't been like that the last time she'd been there... maybe ten years before?

But I've always felt apart from most people, just getting more and more comfortable with that over the years.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, a 'handle' refers to a large glass mug of beer. It's not an official measure, but in most pubs you'd expect something between 400-500 ml of beer. From what I gather, the interpretation's very loose — hardly more specific than 'large glass'. Of course, I'd need to do more research to confirm my claims.

'A club full of women 5-10 years younger than myself, all in a lot of make-up and black spandex' — sounds like fun ;-)

Avus said...

I think you caught the atmosphere perfectly, Pete. As Relatively Retiring remarks there is a feeling of Steinbeck. Did you enquire why exactly the lady desired that kind of pub?

Lisa Emerson said...

I enjoyed this very much. Did "she" also agree that you could never fit in?

I did smile at your attempt to challenge your own thinking about these men and had an irreverent flash back to the ghost chips "ah, I'm internalising a really complicated situation in my head." :-) It is fun to speculate about other people - Bruce has decided, after careful and extended observation, that the people who live behind us must be engaged in a life of crime, but I refer to them as "the brain surgeons who live out the back" on the grounds that appearances can be deceiving!

Zhoen said...

They wouldn't have looked any more kindly on you than they did on me. Although they'd have liked your hair, and your accent, and... ok, nevermind.

pohanginapete said...

Avus, thanks! As for asking her why she wanted to go there, I didn't speculate and wouldn't presume to ask ;-)

Lisa, I think she felt there were differences in background that would have made it difficult, although I suspect she'd have been accepted to a greater degree than me. As for the brain surgery, thanks for the suggestion but I think I'll look elsewhere ;-)

Zhoen — haha! And thanks for stopping where you did ;-)

Roderick Robinson said...

1425 words! That deserves at least a novella as comment. The Great Gatsby actually runs to 47,092 words which, on reflection, seems a bit long for a novella but it gives you an idea. I've been busy embedding a playable audio file in my blog (Something I suspect you'd run a mile from.) Much time wasted, in the end the solution was so simple I felt like cutting my throat. Instead I'll do you a comment. Later.

Roderick Robinson said...

Just back from French so you might think my wits had been sharpened. But French goes back to 1973 with a few odd breaks and by now it's like putting on an old dressing gown. I talked about embedding the audio (of me singing) and I wondered if my teacher, who until recently was a chorister, might consider accessing the file. Techno-fear, however, outweighed her musical curiosity.

You'd better believe you changed the barman's name. Adrian, forsooth. Androgynous like Francis/Frances. I knew one or two female Adrians in my youth and I deliberately used the name's nominal (nominative?) ambiguity in my current novel to fill a brief need for sexual confusion. I could have made my Adrian NZ as well but I'd already introduced Gayle, born in Invercargill and risen to great heights in the UK software trade. I think I may have fallen for Gayle but given I've also fallen for the central character, Lindsay (a Brit), an excess of Kiwis would have been difficult to handle and/or to justify.

Time-warped pubs. Yurs, they're great playgrounds, what would we do without them? Here are a couple of characters who appear in my time-warped pub, this time part of a short story:

Just after nine the battered fifty-year-old came in and ordered her light ale. An old-fashioned drink for someone who wasn't of this era. Perhaps a prostitute at the very end of her career. Taking a break, resting her feet. The black dress stretched tightly over her buttocks and the garish lipstick both pointed that way.

She never stayed more than ten minutes. After her the old man shuffled through the door in carpet slippers and a baseball cap splashed with paint. As always he carried his half of mild to the bar's most distant corner. Took out a copy of the Sun, furry with folding and re-folding, and started on the sports pages, his lips moving as he did so.

You didn't suggest any hostility from your audience but I'm going to have re-read your piece to check. Nope. You saw shock, perhaps even a mild sense of wonder but none of the contained truculence I’ve seen in British pubs. But that may say more about me than about pub regulars. I suspect I’m suspected of being what I am – a retired journalist on the look-out for news, any kind. More insidiously, interpreting what I see. You admit to “shame” about your speculations, no doubt worrying that you were playing the prejudice game. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with assessing the probabilities of such a group, so long as you keep your guesses to yourself.

Roderick Robinson said...

I apparently bust your comment bank for length. Here's the rest of the novella:

In fact when I enter a British pub for the first time these days, I’m praying I won’t find evidence that the landlord is only one step away from bankruptcy. Huge numbers of British pubs have closed for good, a major reason being the no-smoking ban. I’m a non-smoker myself with a bronchitic history and I dislike the smell of cigarettes; but the result of this legislation has left me very much in two minds.

Your friend sounds to be an ideal companion for this mini-adventure: willing to participate, disinclined to withdraw.

As to beer-glasses, the straight-sider vs. the handled jug argument continues to rage here in the UK. CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, an organisation credited with rescuing the brewers from their own follies in the fifties and sixties tended to turn beer glasses into a snob thing, favouring straight sides. Me, I’ve always favoured the straight-sider because the glass is thinner. Same with wine glasses. I’m glad you passed the test, I fear I might have failed it.

I like your view about real-bloke vs. pretentious bloke conversation even if I don’t agree with it. For my money the best discussions centre on abstractions rather than mere facts or – much worse – personalities.

I wonder if I drank Tui beer in NZ. I started off – in Geraldine as it happened – favouring DK. I think that preference stuck.

Good to hear from you. I always enjoy reading stuff about events that many would assume, at the outset, to have no potential. You’ve proved them wrong, though no doubt that’s a burden you would prefer not to bear.

pohanginapete said...

Roderick, congratulations on a serial comment exactly half as long as my post. I'll try to avoid the temptation to respond with a comment exactly half as long as yours: with a pattern like that, we'd be down to a one-word comment after 11 comments, and I'd be nervous about what that word might be :-)

I like that phrase: 'contained truculence'. Certainly none at the pub we visited, but I also haven't noticed it in my experience of very few British pubs. On this occasion I did have the advantage of an ideal companion (as you aptly put it), and maybe I'd have sensed more suspicion or even contained truculence if I'd been there on my own — and particularly if I'd been doing what I so often do on my own in cafes and pubs: scribbling away in my notebook. Any hint that you're being observed and assessed is a strong incentive for antagonism, so I'm usually careful not to appear too apparent about that — although, in my defence, I will point out that I'm usually not writing about the clientele.

Pleased to hear you enjoy reading about seemingly potential-less details.