xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: The Recitation

Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Recitation

Generally, I write  about current events. Sometimes, I get creative. I wrote this short story in August, 2011. In the best tradition of Hollywood motion pictures I can say that it is based  on fact.

The noise was starting to build up. It always did in the lounge bar in the early evening of a Friday night. They were mainly university students with a sprinkling of the real people, who worked in the real world, who came in for a couple of rounds of the strong stuff about 5.30 pm before heading home.

Down at the end of the room, Billy, the piano player, was tinkling away. He couldn’t read sheet music but he had a great ear and could play every tune that had ever been written. He mainly provided background music but, as the night wore on, people wanting to sing a song, or just to show off, would ask Billy to play something. Then they would get up on the small stage next to the piano, grab the microphone and suddenly they were in show business. These days they call it Karaoke, but this was the mid 1960s and the Japanese hadn’t invented Karaoke yet. The singers mainly sang standards by Elvis, , The Beatles, The Platters, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Nat King Cole or the folk tunes and political songs of The Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary.

Sometimes, while the singers sang their hearts out, the noise continued and nobody cared or paid much attention. Sometimes, something went right, everyone listened and the crowd was hushed. It depended on a lot of things: who was singing, the type of song, the mood of the mob. Sometimes it was the weather. Tonight it was cold and wet outside so it was likely to be noisy.

Ben was seated down the other end of the lounge. Ben liked the ambience of the bar lounge. He liked the music. He liked a beer, or three. And he liked to sing. On more than one occasion Ben had asked Billy to play something or other while he crooned out “Cold, Cold Heart” or some other ballad. The first time he put in a request, Ben was rattled when Billy asked, “What key do you want it in?” When Ben said that he didn’t have a clue, Billy just said, well sing the first couple of lines and I’ll pick it up as you go along. And he did. No rehearsals. He just played his piano so effortlessly to accompany any singer.

Tonight, Ben wasn’t interested in singing. As usual, he was engaged in earnest political debate with his friends. That is what happened ever Friday night after their university lectures were over.

There was plenty of choice for discussion in the late 1960s. The Vietnam War, conscription, nuclear disarmament and the ban the bomb crusade, China’s proposed entry to the United Nations, civil rights, the White Australia policy, migration, Aboriginal citizenship, trade unions, preferential voting and the Democratic Labor Party. If they wanted to have a really fierce discussion they would start talking about their favourite football teams and what the umpires were doing to destroy them.

On this particular night, Ben was expounding on the right of Communist China to take a seat in the United Nations where China was represented by tiny Taiwan. Against stiff opposition from some of his mates, Ben made his points with great conviction and increasing volume. He raised his voice for two reasons. Firstly, to emphasise his case, and also to impress the attractive girl at the next table who had smiled at him and seemed to be impressed by his arguments. At least that is what Ben thought. He was a pushover for any pretty girl who smiled at him. While he was in full voice she removed her topcoat to reveal a particularly well-shaped red jumper. That is when Ben began to lose the thread of his argument. A well-filled red jumper beats Red China every time.

Just then there was a commotion near the piano. One of the bar staff was struggling with an old man who was trying to get up onto the stage. The old bloke was swearing and putting up a good fight. The noise caused everyone else to pause and see what was going on.

“Get off there, you drunken old bugger,” yelled the waiter.

“I wanna recite me poem,” said the old man defiantly. He looked like a ‘metho’ drinker. He was above medium height but was slightly stooped over. Maybe he had been a shearer in his younger days. His thinning grey hair was slicked down by the rain. Two bleary grey eyes peered out from his craggy face. He had that vacant look that a lot of broken men had brought back with them from the war. 

He hadn’t shaved in a while and his face was covered in white, whiskered stubble. He wore an old, unbuttoned army great coat over a lumberjack’s blue cotton check shirt and a dirty pair of stained grey trousers that finished well short of his ankles. He obviously shopped at the Salvation Army. On his feet was a pair of unlaced, battered sandshoes. He had no socks.

By this time some of those nearby were telling the waiter to let him go. “Fair go, mate. Let the old bloke say his poem.” The waiter got tired of telling them that he was an old drunk who had wandered in off the cold and wintry streets.

“OK. You can say your poem, but then you’ll have to leave. OK?” said the waiter as he turned to pick up some empty glasses.

The old man looked down from the stage and mumbled his agreement. He then clasped the microphone to steady himself and slowly gazed around the room. Most people looked to see what the funny old geezer would do next while some resumed drinking, talking and eating the salted peanuts the management provided to stimulate more drinking. Most of them didn’t need much stimulation.

The old  man suddenly stood bolt upright like a soldier on parade. He was standing in a smoky bar, but, in his mind, he was back at some long forgotten school concert, ready to perform.

The Man From Snowy River, a poem by Banjo Patterson,” he declaimed into the microphone. His voice was surprisingly resonant with a crackling, gravel edge caused by too many cigarettes and too much methylated spirits.

“There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around,
That the colt from old Regret had got away.
And had joined the wild bush horses.
He was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered for the fray …”

He spoke the rousing words enthusiastically, with his eyes closed as if reading them from some internal screen. Occasionally, he would open them and make dramatic gestures to add to the magic of the poet’s words.

“And Clancy of the Overflow came down to lend a hand,
No finer horseman ever held the reins …”

By this time everyone had stopped talking and drinking. They were carried along by the majesty of the old bloke’s  performance and the syncopated splendour of the words. Ben felt the hairs on the back of his neck rising.

He was hard and tough and wiry-just the sort that won’t say die-
There was courage in his quick impatient tread;
And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye,
And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.”

Ben experienced again the thrill he felt when his Standard Four teacher had first read this mighty poem to the class. It was clear that others in the room were having the same sort of memories and feeling the same sort of thrill.

He sent the flint stones flying but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat-
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.

Apart from the old man’s voice there was no other sound in the lounge. No one drank. No one spoke. No one moved. Every one was rapt. Even the bar staff were silent, staring fixedly at the old drunken man on the stage.

And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam.
He followed like a bloodhound on their track,
Till they halted, cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.”

Eventually the performance ended. Everyone leapt to their feet and gave the old man a standing ovation. There was genuine pleasure on their faces as they cheered, whistled, yelled and stomped.

His poem finished, the man again stood bolt upright. Then, remembering that school concert of so long ago, he bowed ever so slowly from the waist. He stayed with his head bowed for about five seconds. It seemed longer. Eventually, he painfully straightened up. True to his word, he stumbled off the stage and, accompanied by the waiter, hobbled off through the main door. He was cheered and clapped all the way. Even the waiter patted him on the back.

Ben and his group resumed their seats and carried on with their discussion. Around 8-00 pm the group began to break up. Some were going home to study, some back to the Uni Library, some to pick up girlfriends, some to the Skyline Drive-In or to another pub or a dance where the night was just beginning. It was that time on a Friday night when you had to decide to do something or else the night would pass you by.

Ben was sad to see that the pretty girl in the red jumper had gone.What a shame. It could have been the start of a beautiful friendship. Maybe another Friday night. Not much point in him hanging around, he thought. Time that he was gone too. He knew there was going to be a party in a Subiaco flat so he decided to go home for a shower and a change of clothes.

Ben pulled the hood of his duffel coat up over his head as he walked down the street, passed the recently closed shops. Their neon lights made the road a  pool of coloured reflections. The lights of a passing car showed, across the road, the huddled figure of a man in the recessed doorway of dress shop. It was the old bloke from the pub.

Ben slowed his stride. The poor fellah, he thought. All alone and cold on a wintry Friday night. Maybe I should go and tell him how much I enjoyed his poetry. It will make him feel better. It’s the least I can do.

Ben was filled with self righteous pleasure at the act of random kindness he was about to bestow on one of nature’s unfortunate outcasts. He walked across the road. He could see the man sitting against the closed doors of the shop. He was taking a swig from a bottle wrapped in brown paper. Metho or cheap plonk.

This old bloke’s going to be so pleased  that I’ve taken the trouble to thank him for his poem, thought Ben as his desert boots sloshed through another puddle.

It’s probably the nicest thing anyone has done for him in a long time, Ben reflected, as he made his kind hearted, magnanimous way closer. He jumped over a puddle and stepped onto the opposite kerb to express his gratitude to the poor fellow.

“G’day, mate. I enjoyed your poem tonight. It was really great.”

The old man stared at Ben with cloudy grey eyes. He huddled even further into the doorway. Clutching his bottle protectively to his chest he growled, “Piss off.’’

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