From the old git in the corner, with nothing useful to say – so they told him – I learned more about life and myself than all the squawking young crows around us.
It was the first time I’d played my saxophone in public. My music teacher had teamed me up with friends of his and we were to play at a Maori wedding in my home town of Martinborough; population 400. I was nervous. No, I wasn’t nervous. I was petrified. So the others in the band took me to the pub to “wash away the nerves”, as they termed it. At fourteen, I wasn’t allowed in the pub but, well, I was a local and it was Martinborough – a friendly cop and I was with older men. What harm could come of it?
I drank way too much for my first time drinking and then played up a storm. A real Charlie Parker, wowing the band and wedding guests alike … apparently. I don’t remember much of it and woke the next morning with a fuzzy head and no idea how I’d found myself in this strange bed.
I stumbled into the Kitchen, trying to focus my eyes, and was hit by the happy sounds of half a dozen people all cooking up; the smell of bacon, eggs, baked beans, toast and coffee filled my delicate nostrils and I sought somewhere to sit and ease my knotted stomach.
Then I spied him at the far end of the room. There was a bench seat round two walls, behind the kitchen table, and he’d been shoved in the corner and told to get on with his breakfast and shut up. In the storm of activity, I saw him as a still place to be. There was something else about him that drew me but I knew not what. I slid in beside him and smiled. He smiled back uncertainly.
Yes, he did have that old man smell, like wet wool and old socks. Yes, his shaving was haphazard with patches of whisker round his chin and down his neck. Yes, he did mumble and dribble his milk. But something drew me to him.
Some irk had filled his tea to the top of the cup and I could see his hands were shaking a little. I grabbed his cup and drank it down a bit. He smiled and nodded a thank you.
I asked him what he’d done in his life and his eyes quickly filled, like a spa suddenly unleashed. He stared at me for a full minute and it took me longer than that to realise it was the first time anyone had asked him about himself. The first time in a very long time.
His speech was a bit blurred on account of his ill-fitting dentures and I had to ask him to repeat himself several times. He didn’t seem to mind because, perhaps, someone was listening. Really listening. So he told me his story.
In 1899, at the age of fourteen, he’d been shanghaied from the streets of London and forced to work on a Sailing Ship. He never saw his parents again and endured dreadful discipline. However, a survivor just gets on with it and, after two years, had sailed round the world – America, Australia, South Africa, Spain, Morocco, India, Fiji … he’d been everywhere. Uncomplaining, he’d risen in the ranks but never lost his hatred for his captain and, the first chance he got, he jumped ship in San Francisco. He’d joined the Fairbanks Gold Rush in Canada and made little money but survived by trapping and making clothes for the miners, having learned to sew on the sailing ship. He then followed the Cobalt Silver Rush in Canada, mining furs, not animals, and then tired of being frozen all the time.
He found his way to New York, working on a railway gang and casual farm work and paid his passage on the first ship he saw in the harbour. It happened to be going to Australia and he didn’t care. He just wanted to keep running.
He mined for gold in Australia for six months and lost all his savings so set out for Melbourne to find a more prosperous land. He ended up in India, working in a tea plantation. He worked his way up to become the manager of the plantation for over twenty years. He happened to meet a young lass there – a lass from New Zealand – and followed her back home to marry her and spent the rest of his life building boats in Wellington.
They then retired in Martinborough, bringing up four strapping boys who fathered some of the cackling crows in the kitchen. They loved the old bugger but no one had ever heard his story … till I was prompted to listen.
He’d gone out mining for gold and silver and I was the one who found the most precious metal of all – the beautiful story of a beautiful old man who no one ever listened to.
From 35 Moments With Men, to be published soon.