Shadow at Evening
Shadow at Evening
At about eleven o'clock, when he was half way through his fifth beer, the old man decided he would like to go outside and sit on the steps in the sun. He drained his glass and set it down on the bar, and the barman immediately unhooked the flexible pipe hanging from the edge of the bar, put the nozzle into the old man's glass and quickly filled it without saying anything. There was nobody else in the bar at that hour of the morning.
The old man-picked up his glass and walked out of the bar. As he went out the door the barman looked up at him, squinting briefly through the thin smoke rising from his cigarette, but he didn't say anything.
Outside on the steps it was hot and the sun was bright. The old man eased himself gently onto the bottom step; then he carefully raised his full glass and sucked the warm froth from the top of his beer. Lowering his glass he clasped it in both hands and rested his forearms on his raised knees.
He looked up and down the road; to the north he could just see the intersection with the main street of the town, where cars and people were moving in both directions in a constant stream. He could see them very clearly because of the glare from the road which made his eyes smart, and also because the road was unsealed and a white dust-haze lay all along it; and his eyes were not as good as they might have been. But he could hear the hum of the moving traffic quite clearly; from time to time it rose to a throbbing roar as one of the big trucks passed through with a load of dirty sheep towards the yards of the freezing works, of towards the port five miles away on the coast with a lead of wool bales.
In the wall of the hotel, a few feet above the old man's head, was a window with the lower half pushed up. The old man had been sitting on the steps for a little while when he heard the sound of a door being opened and closed, then he heard the soft padding of bare feet as somebody began to move about in the room above him. Soon the sounds stopped, but he page 22knew somebody was still there because he had not heard the door opening for anybody to go out. His hearing was very acute. Listening carefully he raised his glass of beer again and drank down a third of it. Then as he lowered his glass, the girl in the room above him began to sing.
From the deep beauty of the voice the old man could tell it was a Maori girl who was singing. He knew the words of the song off by heart, because at the time it was very popular and frequently heard over the wireless. (Every night the old man lay on his bed, listening in to his wireless until the last station went off the air. On nights when he felt old or lonely he would join in himself, crooning softly so that he could just hear his own voice. ) The song the Maori girl was singing was called "Love me or leave me." She was singing it in a soft voice, but the old man could hear the words clearly enough. He thought she sang it very beautifully, with a touch of sadness in her voice - just as it should be sung, the old man considered.
He took a slow sip from his glass of beer, and then in his old, soft, old man's croon he began to sing in time with the girl. He was singing very quietly, but he felt shy, so he lowered his chin to his chest and sang to himself alone. As he sang, he watched the tiny bubbles forming slowly around the edge of his beer.
"He's really drunk!"
The old man stopped singing and looked up. He hadn't heard anyone coming. Now there were two young men standing on the edge of the footpath, watching him and grinning. They were wearing dirty blue working trousers, and short, brown leather jackets with collars lined with thick and grubby fur.
"What's that? What did you say? Were you talking to me?"
The old man was annoyed because they had surprised him while he was singing.
One of the young men glanced at his friend, then turned to the old man.
"I just said I reckoned you were pretty drunk."
"No, I'm not at all. I'm very - completely sober," said the old man.
"You're really drunk, singing to yourself like that. I reckon you've had a few too many. Theis hour of the day too - you ought to be ashamed of y'self."page 23
"I'm alright" said the old man angrily, then - "Why don't you mind your own business? When I was your age I - people used to mind their own business."
"Well, you know how times have changed, old man."
"I know times have changed," said the old man.
He wished they would go away. Usually he liked to be able to talk to somebody, even if the only people he had to talk to were young who were rude to him, But today all he wanted was to sit on the steps in the sun, drinking his beer slowly and listening to the Maori girl inside who was still singing "Love me or leave me."
"You must be pretty old."
"I'm old enough to know the difference between what's good manners and what's bad manners."
"No, listen. I reckon you must be getting on for eighty?"
"I'm pretty old."
"How old though?"
"Yes, I'm pretty old, allright."
One of the young man moved across the pavement and seated himself on the steps close to the old man. He winked at his friend who was still standing. The old man did not see the wink. He was staring down into his beer again, and feeling very sad because the Maori girl had stopped singing. He didn't even know if she was still in the room, because with the young men talking all the time he would not have been able to hear if the door had been opened for her to go out. After a moment he looked up at the young men once more.
"Where do you live?"he said.
"Well, we live up in the railway huts. Just past the station."
"You don't live there all the time, do you?"
"No, we get moved around a good bit. We won't be here long.
They're just putting down new rails over by the freezing works."
"Are you two together all the time? I mean wherever you go?"
"Not a chance of it. In a couple of weeks we might be hundreds of miles apart- like we were less than a month ago."
"That's not much of a life," said the old man. He sounded sorry for the young men, having to lead that sort of a life.
"What's wrong with if? At least you don't get bored."
The old man gazed into his glass.
"When I was your age,"he said, "I lived with my parents. We lived in an old house, big and old, with a beautiful rolling lawn running down to the banks of a wide, slow river."
"You must have been rich," said the young man who was seated by the old man. "Your father I mean, he must have been page 24pretty rich."
The old man appeared not to have heard.
"By the edge of the lawn there grew a long row of poplar trees. On summer evenings the poplar trees would cast long shadows right across the lawn."
The young men didn't say anything.
"The summers were very long"said the old man, after a moment. There was another pause, then the old man said -
"I never left the the place till I got married. Thirty years nearly, I was there, and all that time I hardly spent a day out of the place."
"You must have been bored stiff," said the young man who was standing on the edge of the footpath. The other one said -
"Things must have been very different in those days, all right."
The old man looked up at him.
"I wasn't bored. There were feilds all around the big house. I stayed there with my family till I got married."
"I don't know how you could stick it. All those years, and every day I suppose exactly like every other day. I don't know how you could stick it," said the young man who was standing. The old man glanced at him.
"Yes, I suppose every day was just about exactly like every other day. But I used to enjoy every, so it didn't really matter, did it?"
The old man looked at each of the young men in turn, and when he saw that neither of them was grinning any more, he smiled at them. The young man who had been sitting on the steps beside him stood up.
"You wouldn't," he said, "be pulling our legs, would you, old man?"
But the old man no longer heard what they were saying for the Maori girl in the room above him had begun to sing "Love me or leave me" once more. He drained his beer at a gulp, and, as he listened, he watched the lacy streaks of foam sliding slowly down the sides of his glass.
One of the young men said -
"The poor old beggar's back in dreamland again, by the look of him."
They both looked at him for a moment, then they turned and quickly walked up the road towards the busy main street traffic way up by the intersection.page 25
The old man lowered his head until his jaw was resting on his chest and then, in his soft old voice, he began to sing again, quietly, to himself.