Brian

On paper, Brian Unwin and I were unlikely friends. I was 28, an introvert and a barely regenerated left-wing intellectual, the sort of tight-arse who felt betrayed by Bob Dylan’s shift to the electric guitar. Brian was twelve years older, an extraverted pommie immigrant who had served in the British Army in Korea, was an active member of the New Lynn RSA and whose favourite singer was Matt Monroe. He was short – well, shorter than me, anyway – with a round head, thinning dark hair and black-rimmed, rectangular glasses, bright eyes that looked at you and an infectious grin. Brian’s great redeeming feature from my perspective was his exuberance, a zest for life that bordered on the anarchic. It was impossible not to like the man.

Two stories sum up Brian to my mind. The first shows his instinct for survival. Apart from his time in the army, he had, I think, always been a salesman, often working free lance on commission. Inevitably there were times when he was out of work and hard up. On one such occasion he was at a loose end in Ponsonby Road, Auckland, when he happened into a junk shop. Up on a shelf behind the counter was a stack of metal boxes, each of which contained a first aid kit. Brian asked to look one of them over and enquired about the price.

‘Two and six’ (or somesuch) the shopkeeper told him.

Brian handed over the money, picked up the kit and walked out, straight into the shop next door.

‘I’ve got this line in first aid kits,’ he said to the person behind the counter and proceeded to point out the many fine features of his recent purchase.

‘How much?’ the shopkeeper asked.

‘Ten shillings.’

‘Right, you’re on.’

The shopkeeper handed over the money. Brian went straight back to the first shop and bought the rest of the kits. He then  continued on down Ponsonby Road offering them for sale. By the time he had got to Three Lamps, he had sold the lot.

The second story concerns a decision to save some money by buying a couple of chickens and fattening them up for Christmas Dinner. The scheme panned out according to plan until the time came to slaughter and pluck the birds.  Neither Brian’ wife, Adrienne, nor his kids were inclined to volunteer for the task. After two or three whiskies, Brian felt suitably primed. He went outside and called the chooks. They came obediently enough, no doubt anticipating food. Brian grabbed them both by the head, one in each hand, and swung them round in the air like a gunslinger drawing his Colts. Next thing he knew, he was standing there with a head in each hand while the rest of the birds ran off into the dark. They turned up next morning under a hedge at the back of the section, inedible by that stage.

It’s not just the story I remember but the relish with which Brian told it. He had an enviable ability to laugh at himself, a detachment and a self-irony that usually comes with the wisdom of age. In his case, it seemed to arise from a disarming innocence. I can still recall the self-deprecating shake of his head as he came to the end of some embarrassing confession and his voice, with its Yorkshire vowels, saying ‘Oh, dear! Oh, dear!’ He taught me a lot, although I envy his self-acceptance even now.

A fine day tomorrow. Yeah, right.

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