26 July 2016

Aliens drink in the old New Railway Hotel

We met at the cafĂ© 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