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

14 December 2008

Lives on the Line

No. 2 Line, Pohangina Valley

I took the usual route, biking up the valley a short distance before turning off the tarmac onto the rough dirt and gravel of No. 2 Line. A few hundred metres of level ground, then the climb began. Perhaps it was the slight tailwind, or perhaps the crackers and tomato had fueled me better than I'd expected, or perhaps I'd just struck a good day, physically and mentally; whatever the reason, the result was a quick ride up the steep, winding road in a gear at least one cog higher than usual. At the top I circled a few times; the usual slow, tight circles; time to let the burn in my legs begin to subside; time to gaze out over the valley, up towards the Oroua headwaters, out northwest to where hard hill country receded into the distance under heavy grey cloud. Somewhere out there, Ruapehu slept under that dense blanket. One day he'll awaken fully and remind us of our true powerlessness View down No. 2 Line, Pohangina Valleyand insignificance. Or, maybe Taupo will wake first, and if that eruption proves anything like that of 1800 years ago — one of the largest in recorded history — let alone like the Oruanui eruption which, 26,500 years ago, spewed out 300 cubic kilometres of ignimbrite and 500 cubic kilometres of pumice and ash, ...well, no one anywhere near here will survive to reflect on his powerlessness and insignificance.

I sped back down the road, taking the corners carefully. Too much loose gravel on hard-packed dirt; too much chance of being ripped to bits in a spill. Blood and skin and pain, and maybe a broken bone or two. Maybe worse. I lost a wonderful friend in a bike crash a few years ago, and now find the fierce joy of careening down these rough roads tempered by the memory of his accident. I honour him in three ways: by remembering him, by delighting in the biking, and by staying alive. I think he'd appreciate all of those.
But where the road's straight or the corners gentle, it's hard to resist that thrill, that urge to cut loose, especially when it's been earned not by pumping fossil fuel into an engine's tank, but by the hard work of muscles and lungs,View up No. 2 Line, Pohangina Valley blood and willpower. I leaned slightly into a gradual corner, straightened as the road dipped, and readied myself to start pedalling again when the road rose once more.

And something ran out from the roadside grass and across the road in front of me. An instant of astonishment, then I recognised it.

A stoat.

I could have run it over. It seemed curiously slow, although its legs were working furiously. I saw the black-tipped tail, the cream-coloured belly.

I heard it, clearly, distinctly, a high-pitched chittering as if the small beast was swearing at me, telling me to eff off, to mind where I was going. I heard it and understood the message as I sped past and it vanished into the grass on the other side of the road.

I could have run it over. Perhaps I should have, but I'm glad I didn't. I veered slightly and shot past it. I couldn't crush something so wild, so fierce, so alive.

I biked on, buzzing with adrenaline and delight, realising I'd called out as the stoat disappeared behind me. I should have exclaimed something profound or enlightened, but all I'd uttered was an inane, although vehement, “Ah! Fantastic!”

But the words didn't matter. What mattered was the encounter, a moment when nothing mattered but that moment, when being alive was more important than anything. What mattered was that one intense, small, electric life, disappearing into the long grass and swearing at me as it ran.

Beyond the roadend, No. 2 Line

1. For anyone wondering why running over the stoat might have been a good idea, I added a few notes (with links) to a post I wrote a few years ago. That post includes several photos of a wild stoat.
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1 & 3. Looking up No. 2 Line; about three quarters of the way to the road end.
2. The view down the road from the same spot. Loggers had been working there for the last week or so.
4. Beyond the road end, No. 2 Line. A poled route leads a short distance over farmland to the edge of the Ruahine Forest Park, and to the "Ashurst boulder" (300 Kb pdf) — actually about 20 km from Ashhurst (it has two "h"s); it's a group of boulders with a few reasonable problems.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor