Weary from four hours on the golf course, I walked through the door of the semi-rural hotel pub, on the outskirts of Christchurch, and it was like going back in time. The general decor, from the tatty rugby posters pinned to the tatty, peeling walls, to the thinning, mustard-brown carpet, was seemingly last updated in the 1970s. There were about a dozen weather-beaten, locals and the odd construction worker perched at the leaners, jugs of beer strewn across the table in front of them, generous beer guts straining to burst out of their chequered-flannel shirts, half-full glasses of amber liquid half cocked in their hands. A replay of the All Blacks latest rugby test against Australia was playing on the big screen, live horse racing on the other seven or so screens. A sedentary lone punter, his shoulders slumped, was playing a one armed bandit in the dimly lit pokies room. Names of regular bar goers adorned the whiteboard announcing the meat-pack winners from the latest weekend raffle. Two young women and an older lady were busy serving drinks behind the bar, a hive of activity. It was a busy old place for 4pm, I noted to my golf partners.
"It's always busy," one of them replied.
I had been playing golf with my visiting friend and his father and uncle. The golf course's bar and cafe had been closed, which was the reason we had driven to the nearest watering hole. I hadn't played golf in a couple of years, and my muscles ached from the high number of swings I had made, the walk and the dusty heat. I ordered a ginger ale and was given a glass of crushed ice to pour it into. My cohorts ordered beer, rum and mixers.
My friend knew I had stopped drinking and when we were alone I found myself asking him to back me up if the older men gave me "any shit at the bar". I was half joking and half serious. I can stand up for myself, but I thought it wouldn't hurt for him to be in my corner. He may have mentioned something to his dad who asked almost immediately after I sat down: "You used to drink beer didn't you? I remember you being a drinker in the past."
All I needed to say for the subject to be dropped was: "I used to drink."
Later my friend asked whether I would drink again after my sober year was up, and I said I wasn't sure but "probably not". The older guys asked whether it was for a bet (like it needed to be the result of some macho challenge, for no other reason than to prove that I could), and I said I was having a "holiday" from drinking, a "break from it".
"Good on ya!" they said almost in unison.
It was really no big deal, but I didn't want to explain things in too much detail.
While I made conversation I observed the people in the bar, what they were drinking, how much they were drinking. I looked at their bodies, how the weight hung from their torsos - their grey, clammy skin and their vacant, bleary eyes. I pondered how comfortable they seemed to be at the pub drinking on a weekday afternoon, how they were in their element. I wondered if any of them were secretly miserable alcoholics. I wondered about their lives, and how important - how much a part of their lives - drinking was to them.
You walk into any hotel bar like this on any afternoon and the regular drinkers will be there. It's a depressing scene - the sad, solitary drinking.
I'm glad I'm not a part of it (other than to be an occasional observer).