Men of Passmore’s

Growing boys need good male role models. The models I had, in my teenage years at least, were the blokes I worked with at Passmore’s liquor store. My teachers were too remote to serve the purpose and the only other man around was Ernest Hadath, the husband of my mother’s best friend. I didn’t see Ernest very often whereas I was at Passmore’s every Saturday.

There were half a dozen permanent storemen, with a whole slew of casuals who came and went as the seasons turned. Some of them I barely remember now but others made enough impression to be with me still, fifty years later.

Bill was the oldest, pushing sixty when I first started. I remember him mostly for his bad jokes, delivered with a liquid splutter, and for the raw onion sandwiches he made himself for lunch.

Mac was married and kept tropical fish. He was a sturdy, extravert with wavy dark hair and a pommie cockiness that led to certain retaliation. We teased him constantly and he gave as good as he got, which wasn’t hard given the banality of our witticisms. I can recall, for example, all the schoolboy packers singing in chorus:

The McCartneys are coming. Hurrah! Hurrah!
The McCartneys are coming. Hurrah! Hurrah!
The McCartneys are coming. Hurrah! Hurrah!
They’re pissing all over the bathroom floor.

 Mac took this stuff in good part, dismissing it with a grin and a toss of his head.

George was blond and balding. He spent a good chunk of his time outside the store doing deliveries and fancied himself as a ladies’ man. He had a touch of vanity that made him seem a bit stand-offish or maybe it was just that he lacked the self-irony that the other blokes had and took himself far too seriously. It seemed like he couldn’t be bothered with the likes of us.

It was John, the head storeman, who made the biggest impression – on me, at any rate. He shared the name with my father, who had died seven years before, and he looked like my father, too – tallish, with very straight blond-brown hair and a lightly freckled complexion. His job gave him an authority that I could easily interpret as paternal so it was natural for me to feel a special bond with him. There were disjoints to the picture, though.

My father was a teetotaller and had spent World War II working in a classified occupation. John was an alcoholic who had seen some brutal service with the New Zealand Army at Cassino. He was a damaged man. In that, he reminded me of my maternal grandfather who had served on the Somme in World War I and suffered shell-shock. Both men gave the sense of something suppressed. In John’s case, whatever it was never actually got to the surface, at least not in my presence.

He spent a fair bit of his time in an office tucked away in the back of a store, doing paperwork, I suppose, although he also had the company of a bottle of something a lot stronger than beer. As the day wore on, his face got a sweaty look and his eyes began to glitter. Three or four strands of hair would gradually work loose and slip down over his forehead. If something annoyed him, he’d just smile – a tight little smile – and the more annoyed he got the wider and tighter the smile became. I am not sure what would have happened if he had ever lost his temper. I doubt I would have wanted to be there, though.

WWII is part of the psychic landscape of my generation. Many of us have fathers or uncles who were involved in it. I’ve written about it directly in a story called The Sphinx and it lurks in the background of several of my novels, such as Black Earth/White Bones, in which the main protagonist’s father is an alcoholic veteran, living in the psychic aftermath of the Italian Campaign. When I write such passages, I think of John.

He had left Passmore’s when I went back there for a brief stint at the end of 1972. The last time I saw him was in 1965, when I was working as a postie. He was making a delivery in the same plush Parnell street where I was delivering mail. We chatted for a little while. He seemed more relaxed than he had been as my boss. I was glad he remembered me.

Awaiting the tomatoes. And the beans

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