Posts Tagged ‘characters’

drybonesA woodland walk in May, on a pleasantly sunny Sunday afternoon. I know the route, have walked it since I was a boy. It was quieter in those days of course. You could lose yourself in the woods, see not soul all day. Now, Sundays, the paths are sluggish with ┬ápeople, and dogs. And they make a noise – the people and the dogs. And the groups of people do not talk to one another.

As I’m setting out this time I see an old guy. He carries a shopping bag, wears a tatty, old fashioned button up Mackintosh. He’s engaging a group of walkers in conversation, but it’s as if he’s a street beggar and they want to shake him off. They close ranks, gather pace, leave him standing there. He makes a similar attempt on a couple with a dog. The dog thinks better of him than the couple but is yanked away from the guy’s petting hand. They too hurry on.

Then he sees me, engages me with an upward tug of his chin. Like the others I am also reluctant to engage, feel my heart sink, victim of the western paranoid malaise, that anyone who is not me is likely a looney or a drunkard, or an axe wielding religious maniac. But then I tell myself it’s just a little old guy and I could probably handle him if I had to.

“Ow do?” he says.

I return a cautious greeting, smile.

He slings his gaze up the path to the fast receding couple. “Queer,” he says. “Some folk don’t even want to pass the time of day these days.”

He has the broad Lancashire – an old villager then, born of a time when conversation with passing strangers was not considered weird, or threatening. No one wants to talk to him. Interesting. He’s upset about it, scathing of the modern way. I agree it is a sad trend of our times, this increasingly mutual isolation.

“So, where you going?” he asks.

“Just walking through,” I tell him, vaguely, still reluctant to engage. But he’s expectant, looking for more by way of conversation, so I offer him my planned circuit. He nods, knows the names of the meadows, the farms, the bends in the river. “I’ll walk with you,” he says, then, sensing my reserve, he adds: “If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” I tell him, though I don’t know if I mind or not, suspect I do, actually. Certainly I had intended a quiet meditative walk, and will not now get one, but the deal is done. My new found friend and I set off.

He has a good pace, this old timer, possesses a fierce energy. It animates his limbs, his expression, drives his diction to a boiling frenzy, glows red like embers in the lines of his weather tanned face. In a few minutes we have established that he is Arthur, formerly a ten pound Pom, formerly an old pit man, and merchant mariner, now nursing a bed-bound invalid wife. He gets out Sundays. I am Michael, son of the village, moved away, return now and then because I like the woods.

He goes on to vent much spleen on topics wide ranging, is clearly strongly opinionated, but unfocussed – deriding both the right and left of politics, also those in the middle. He disagrees with everyone. He is well travelled: a long time in Oz, a long time at sea, has worked all his life at hard doing jobs.

We touch upon the usual headlines: the economy, the health service, the middle eastern wars, on immigration. On the latter I am braced, expecting him to be the usual tiresome racist, as are many of his generation, but he is not. Having once been a youthful migrant himself, he finds nothing to criticise in others doing the same. He is an anomaly, endlessly contrary, angry at everything and nothing. And I like him.

In his bag he carries an ancient pair of Boots-branded binoculars, has a passing interest in ornithology. In the bag is also an ancient Kodak film camera. Oh yes, he assures me, you can still get 35mm film, though it is not as common as it was. He makes a momentary pass at deriding all things digital. I keep my camera in my pocket. He ventures a few shots as we walk.

In short, Arthur is eighty and lonely. Surrounded by the ailing and the dying in his world, he is a little clumsy and unskilled in his attempts to engage with those of us on the outside of it. As for his own eventual infirmity, I see no shadow of it yet, suspect it might even be afraid of him. He tries to winkle out my opinions, but I am all things to all people. I appreciate there is much to be gained from constructive and respectful disagreement, but I am what I am and mine is not to change the world, just observe it. He is unperturbed by such evasiveness, takes it as permission to dominate our conversation, to educate me as if he were wisest man in the world.

The circuit takes an hour. I think if I had lived in the village still, he would have followed me home for a cup of tea, but our route leads back to my car which puts a neat full stop to our encounter. He seems awkward at our imminent parting now, his conversation suddenly dried up. He looks at his feet.

“So, Arthur, I’m sure I’ll see you around the woods again. I come by most Sundays.”

This is not exactly true, but I come through often enough that an encounter is not unlikely, and I really would not mind speaking with him again.

We shake hands, he heads for home.

That was years ago. I have not seen him in the woods since that day, but I did see him once, in town. He was in the supermarket, filling that same old bag with bits of modest shopping, same scruffy old Mackintosh. He looked up at me as we passed. My eyes were raised in invitation of his instant recognition, but he did not speak. He looked askance, walked on by as if I were a stranger, or worse, some weirdo about to engage him in unwanted conversation.

Clearly our encounter had been more meaningful to me, than it had to him.


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