Men of Passmore’s II

The second of the Passmore’s blokes to make a particular impression on me was Jack. He was a small, lean man, precise and neat, with a long, lined face and dark eyes. You would have called him dapper if he had spent more money on his clothes. He had straight black hair, parted perfectly down the middle and he was always dressed in a pressed white shirt, with sleeves rolled up to the elbow and a pair of grey-green or tan trousers slung from his hips and flopping loosely over a pair of black shoes.

Every day he would get off the bus in Symonds Street and drop in to the dairy at the top of Newton Road to buy his cigarettes – ‘coffin nails’ he called them. He smoked a brand called Clarence. The packet had the same black cat as Craven A but the background colour was a restrained dark green instead of a garish red. With these tucked into the breast pocket of his shirt he then walked down to work, steady, unhurried, with a slightly splay footed gait.

Jack seemed a man at ease with himself. He lived his life on the principle of efficiency, expending as little energy as possible to achieve the result required. During the busy times, when everyone was running around frantically to unload a truck or serve the queues of customers waiting for their beer, Jack would barely raise a sweat. He upped his pace, certainly, and he did as much or more than anyone else but he always looked as if he were in cruise control.

I can still picture him, leaning casually on his handcart with a burning cigarette in one hand and a glass of beer – always Lion Red – in the other and telling some anecdote in a calm, rich, measured voice. Now and then he’d take a puff on the smoke or a sip from the glass, which he held in the tips of his fingers and not the clutch of his fist.

I don’t know much about his background except that his family had come from Scotland via Nova Scotia and had finished up on a part of the West Coast so remote that his father’s birth was never registered. He had not served in the War. He had some job with government at the time. He had been married but was no longer – divorced, I guess, although I never got a hint of that story. He had a fifteen-year-old daughter who he was bringing up on his own. I was quite keen to meet her but she turned out to be rather a large, blousy girl with none of her father’s dark, good looks or calm presence.

I am not now sure why Jack impressed me so much. Perhaps his air of confidence and calm deliberation was such a stark contrast to my own adolescent inner turmoil. There was a serenity about him that belittled all the middle-class aspirations I was subjected to. I envied him. In a way, I still do.  

Jack got sick towards the end of my time working for Passmore’s. He became irritable and short-tempered. Between one set of holidays and the next, he died. It was the coffin nails that got him, although I did hear that he refused to admit it even to the end.


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