Tuesday, 13 February 2007

the threatened reflections on walking sticks

Not that I want to take a lot of your time up on this, but walking sticks are funny beasts. For reasons too simple, and yet too tedious, to go into here, I have a smashed up knee of great vintage. So for a while I was on crutches and then I graduated to a cane, and after a while I graduated to limping a bit when the weather was bad. Over the years, I moved to walking with a stick if I had to go any distance. I suppose it's been about a dozen years since I first had to buy a stick, when I was going to Africa from time to time and I needed something I could lean on when I worked my way through the undergrowth. Before that I'd occasionally used a stick at cocktail parties.

People, I discovered, don't really take in much about the people around them. I would go to cocktail parties, which are a straightforward hell of standing up talking to people who you wouldn't normally talk to, and the standing up would get tired pretty quick. So I learned to bring the stick. And I learned that people - the same people each time, as a rule - would ask me again and again what "I had done to myself?". Always that formula, as though any harm which had befallen me had been the result of some masochistic impulse. And no matter how many times I would cheerfully brush it aside with a comment about the source of the injury - or a joke, when talking to Britz, about how a lot of people had these injuries where I grew up - I would have some version of the same conversation with the same people a few weeks later at the next party.

It has become, over time, one of the things by which I judge other people. I don't always need the stick, so it's an intermittent presence in my life, depending on weather, other accidents intervening and how much I've pushed myself. And pretty much, I have divided the world into the people who remember that this is the case, and the people who don't. I don't tell myself that one group is good, and the other is bad, because life is neither so simple nor so built around my whims. But I do conclude that whether or not they're good people, the ones who remember are at least interested enough in me as a person to remember that I am an occasional gimp. They might be good, they might be bad, they might have my interests at heart or just their own, but they were sufficiently interested in me to recall from one meeting to the next something which is, after all, rather obvious. These are, for my purposes, serious people. I will treat them seriously. I will listen to what they say, for they are paying attention to me. The others - well I daresay it never occurs to them that I'm not returning their calls, let alone to wonder why it might be so.

I've been with stick more than without the last few weeks and I have to say that the people I find myself among are more serious people than I've been used to meeting. They notice, and they care. And I notice that, and conduct myself accordingly, but what is striking me these days is how very nice people are to you in Ireland when they sense that things are hard for you. I get a lot of smiles as I hobble my way around, and people hold doors open for me. It gives me some hope for when I'm old. Or are they just scared I will hit them with the stick?

There are two other reflections. I still have an ebonite stick which I bought precisely because it was black and shiny and looked nice. I will never forget the reaction it once got from a small child in a village in Ethiopia. She couldn't take her eyes off it, and it slowly sank in on me that she knew what it was for, but had never seen one so black and polished. There are very few things in Africa in which a child can see a reflection. It was one of a thousand sobering moments, but since I still have the stick, it's one which stays with me even now.

The other is funnier. Since the Africa times my preferred stick is a metal folding one, since it's easier to manage in a vehicle. The unintended corollary is that everyone, but particularly men, is fascinated to watch it unfold. They're a commonplace for old people and I think that people would be embarassed even to mention them to someone older, but someone my age with a stick is an oddity, and people feel permitted to ask. Inevitably it reminds everyone of that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the apparent torture implement which turns out to be a coat hanger. It's nice to give people a laugh. I wonder what we would say about it if that scene had never been filmed.

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