The Hands of Time
This story was inspired by a true incident told to me about a relative. A great uncle who had been a local golf professional, now retired and suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, was regularly picked up by police whilst lost and out walking, sometimes late at night. This old chap would give the police putting lessons back at the station, whilst awaiting collection by a family member. The issues of ageing and the game of golf’s broad appeal are presented entwined within this short narrative.
Robert Hamilton is a writer, student of history, and a keen golfer. He is currently working on a collection of short stories, inspired by sport, but also dealing with what it means to be alive; to be titled She’ll Be Right Sport. He lives in hope of breaking 80. www.midasword.com.au
THE HANDS OF TIME
By Robert Hamilton
Constable Davis sitting in the front passenger seat noticed the man first. He pointed him out to his partner, Senior Constable Vickery, who was driving the police car. The man was striding down the footpath, which ran adjacent to Stirling Highway. It was not the gait of the man, which drew the attention of Constable Gary Davis, but the fact that he was wearing what clearly looked like pyjamas and that it was nearly three am. The highway and surrounding streets were deserted; Perth was a quiet city after midnight mid week. The police car drew level with the walking man, and Davis could see that he was an older Caucasian white male, winding down his window he hailed the man to stop.
The figure in the blue and white striped pyjamas turned his head and faced the policeman who was leaning his head out of the window. The old man, although bent over a bit, was well over six feet tall and broad chested. His arms hung down by his sides and he looked like a man who had made his living with his hands. His feet were bare, white, hairy, toe nails thick and yellow; there were traces of blood beneath them.
“Excuse me Sir, everything alright? Can we help you with anything? Pretty late to be out and about.”
The old fella was clearly confused. His gaze took in the flashing lights atop the blue and white patrol car, the uniformed occupants of the vehicle, and the sound of the police radio with its staccato blasts of disembodied voices. As his eyes flickered back and forth from face to face, to empty highway left and right, and back to the idling police car time seemed to slow down, stop and start, blinking like the flashing lights.
“Can you give us your name Mister? Where are you going to tonight in such a hurry?”
The pyjama clad man made move to walk away and Constable Davis clicked open his door, and rose out of his seat to prevent the old chap from doing so.
“Steady on old fella. What’s your name? Are you alright mate, can we give you a lift somewhere?”
The words hung in the air seemingly going nowhere. The man squinted his eyes in an effort to concentrate on something fleeting. All these words directed at him and too many shiny surfaces reflecting pieces of light. Where was he going? He knew he had to get somewhere quickly but for the life of him couldn’t remember where.
Gary Davis turned to his partner, Ethan Vickery, and said, “I think that we better take him back to the station, I don’t reckon this old chap knows what’s going on.”
“Yeah Okay Gary I will call it in and let them know we are heading back.”
“Okay Dad we are going to give you a ride back to somewhere nice and warm. Maybe get you a cup of tea or something to warm you up.”
Constable Davis gently steered the pyjama clad man through the now open rear door of the police car and onto the empty seat. A frightened look on the big fella’s face and a raising of his arms caused Constable Davis to increase his hold on the man. The man suddenly spoke for the first time.
“I don’t know who you chaps are but I am really alright…. aah…I really think that I can manage on my own thanks.”
“Well let’s start with your name then Grandad. Can you tell us your name?”
They were back at the station and the old chap, still in his blue and white pyjamas, was nursing a cup of tea, seated at the desk of Senior Constable Vickery. His eyes were red and the large grey skinned bags under them spoke of the late hour, especially under the harsh fluorescent station lights. Nobody looked particularly well under their examining force. Davis thought the bloke must be at least seventy five by the looks of the deeply etched lines on his neck and face. Still had a full head of grey tinged blackish hair though and those arms were well muscled despite the advanced years. His hands were something else again. Davis nudged his partner indicating the old chap’s hands and Vickery acknowledged the tremendous size of the old bloke’s hands. Big hairy mitts with enormous swollen knuckles on each prodigious digit.
The two policemen broke off their examination of their guest’s phalanges, snapping out of their momentary reverie to process this proffered data. Vickery the more senior of the two policemen was first to respond.
“Okay Eric and do you have a last name?”
The elderly figure smiled at the two coppers and basked for a few seconds in the joyous certainty of remembering his own first name. His gaze then took in an old black and white photograph, framed and hanging on the wall of the station. The image depicted Claremont Railway station sometime near its opening, late in the nineteenth century. He remembered being a boy when things looked like that, the horse drawn carts and the early motor cars. The sound of the steam trains and the smell of horse shit.
“Eric. Eric can you remember your surname, your family name?”
Eric looked vacantly toward the intent faces of the questioning police officers. He wondered exactly what he had done wrong and why he was being interrogated. They did seem to be nice young chaps but with so many difficult questions for him. He was feeling tired and would like to lie down. He couldn’t remember where his bedroom was and which doorway would lead to it. The panic was there again, the unreasoning expanse of nothingness rising up inside of him.
“Eric. My name is Constable Ethan Vickery and this is Constable Gary Davis. And your name is Eric …..?”
Nothing. Nothing was there but a blankness. Eric brought his hand up from the surface of the desk and looked over his hand, perhaps hoping for clues or that the answer might be written on the back of his hand. He remembered as a boy writing important things on the back of his hand, during tests and exams it had been a useful practice. As long as the master did not catch you out, then you were up for six of the best.
“You have a fair pair of hands Eric. They must have come in handy with work and stuff I imagine. Work with your hands did you Eric?”
“I was a golf pro.”
The two policemen glanced impressively at each other.
“A golf pro. And where abouts did you ply your trade Eric? What golf club did you work at?”
“Swanbourne. Cottesloe Golf Club I was the head professional there for thirty years.”
“Now we are getting somewhere I think Gary. We can probably trace Eric’s name from the golf club and get his address.”
“I bet those big hands of his were a sight to see wrapped around a golf club.”
“Were you a big hitter Eric? In your day?”
Eric looked up and held the two young policemen’s appreciative stares in his gaze.
“I was pretty handy of the tee, but as the old saying goes you drive for show but putt for dough. It all comes down to the short stick in the end. You need to roll that ball into the hole.”
“Perhaps we could get some lessons from you while you are here Eric. What do you think?”
“I would be very happy to oblige you officers with a few tips. A smooth stroke is what is required.”
Eric brought his two hands together to grip the handle of his hickory shafted putter. He felt the wound leather grip, which had been specifically tailored to the dimensions of his hands. A golfer’s hands were his real tools in this game of golf. His mentor had emphasised that it was the golfer’s grip which was the most important element in a successful swing. He remembered that overcast day, a rarity in Perth, when his father first took him along to see Mister McDermott the golf professional at the Cottesloe Club. He felt scared as he sat there waiting outside the pro shop, next to where the caddies had a shed. The sweat in the palms of his hands and the rapid beating inside his chest.
“Show me your hands boy. Let’s see how you hold this mashie niblick.”
The tall grey headed man had emerged from his rooms bearing a golf club. Grey woollen knickers and tartan stockings could not hide his lean well muscled legs.
“Come on lad up with you, out of the chair, we don’t have all day!”
Large gnarly hands picked up his own hands and turned them over to examine their constituent parts. The man’s skin felt rough and chapped but his touch was gentle. Eric relaxed a little into the strength of this man.
“Good size. Now grip this club boy. Let’s see how you hold a golf club.”
“Eric. Eric are you okay mate? Want me to freshen up that cup of tea, its looks like it’s gone cold on you?”
Eric smiled at the speaking policeman and shook his head.
“Don’t bother yourself over me. I’m fine, thank you Officer.”
The two constables conferred amongst themselves in the station room, occasionally looking up to see that their guest was alright. They were now the only occupants of the police station at this pre-dawn period, waiting for their shift to end and for the day shift to arrive in another hour.
“I reckon someone will be at the Cottesloe Golf Club in about an hour and we can give them a call and see if they can fill us in about big boy Eric here.”
“Well why don’t I grab a putter and a few balls from my car and we stroke a few putts with Eric.”
“Sounds good to me Gary.”
Mister McDermott watched young Eric chip his golf ball to the practice green. Watching carefully how the boy held the club and his stance. The ball tracked toward the hole and came to rest about two feet past. The pro motioned for Eric to join him and waited for the boy to saunter over to him, club in hand, ball in pocket.
McDermott was about six foot two inches and towered over the young boy. He led Eric to a waiting bench seat not far from the first tee, where they could watch a few of the members getting ready to tee off. Caddies were carrying the golfer’s leather bags containing their clubs for their morning round. Everything was very green, the grassy fairways and the bordering foliage and trees.
“I call this my green cathedral,” Mister McDermott suddenly announced.
“A place of prayer, pain and the occasional miracle.” He smiled at Eric as he said this. “And you could be a part of this Master Roberts, if you so desire.”
Eric was silent he wasn’t sure if he was expected to say anything at this point. He looked up at the overcast sky and watched a bird fly low over the gum tree to his right. Everything was slowing down it seemed and Eric was feeling more aware of himself than usual; it was like that final second before you hit your ball.
“Would you like that Eric? Would you be prepared to work hard and make this club proud to have you?”
Eric nodded his head solemnly, or what he hoped appeared that way, and held Mister McDermott’s piercing gaze for at least a second or two. Glancing down at his feet he noticed the scratches that the black boot polish had failed to hide.
“You have a fine pair of hands Eric; golfer’s hands. Your hands and their grip on the club are the most important part of the golf swing. Without golfer’s hands you can never become a player, and as a professional you must be able to play well boy. To teach the members, to advise and if possible inspire them.”
McDermott sat back on the bench and breathed a sigh of, who knows what, contentment, sadness, ennui? Eric definitely didn’t know but he felt at home here, more than that, he felt like he was about to begin here.
“Let me tell you a story lad. A story about a fella called Old Tom Morris. Mister Morris was one of the first golf pro’s in the entire world. He was a denizen of a place called Fyfe in Scotland. Have you heard of Scotland Eric?”
The young boy nodded his assent and watched the whiskers on McDermott’s sideburns twitch as he spoke.
“Old Tom Morris, and the reason why they called him that was because he had a son, also a golf professional, called Young Tom Morris. They both plied their trade at a golf course by the name of St Andrews and this was no ordinary gold course; this was, and still is, the home of golf. The very first golf course and it was marked out by God, with the help of a few sheep and those winds that terrorise a true links course.”
Eric could see the florid skin beneath Mister McDermott’s whiskers glowing brighter as he shared this story. He understood that it was important, somehow, the passing on of this tale about a Scottish golf pro. He looked down at his hands and wondered what made them so special, so different to other boy’s hands.
“Well, Old Tom was the son of a weaver and them weavers needed real good hands too. Strong hands that could weave all day. Tom became an apprentice at St Andrews at about your age. He learnt how to make golf clubs, as you will Eric, and he learnt every single thing about becoming a golf professional, and eventually he became the greatest golf player in the world; winning The Open Championship four times.”
The boy took all of this in and wondered whether he would ever win the Open Championship, or whether he was expected to do so.
“Old Tom Morris worked as a green-keeper, club maker, ball maker, golf teacher, course designer and tournament professional. One day Old Tom was teaching a young apprentice at his course and was having a wee bit of difficulty in instructing the young chap as to the right grip pressure when playing a stroke. He could see that the boy was choking the life out of that golf club handle. and that this was not allowing him to release the club head through the ball. The lad was pulling the shot something awful. Old Tom had pleaded with the boy, “Andrew lad, you must have a light touch on the club.” But to no avail Andrew was determined not to let that spoon even think about slipping out of his hands.
Eventually Tom decided to approach the problem from another angle entirely. Taking Andrew down to the shoreline of the Fyfe of Fief, where there was a birder plying his trade in water birds. After giving young Andrew his solemn speech about the special importance of the hands to a professional golfer and how his grip is the only thing linking him to the golf club, Old Tom, like a West End magician produced from his knickers a warbling duckling. Fluffy in matt grey feathers and somewhat distressed, he held that baby bird before him like some votive offering. He then asked Andrew to place his hands on the throat of the frantic duckling, but before he did so he had to promise Old Tom not to strangle the wee bird and also not to let the bird get away. Faced with this life and death conundrum young Andrew peered into the eyes of the desperate duckling and then into the sage old glare of Old Tom. He gingerly reached out toward the living creature, both of them afraid, and he placed his large golfer’s hands around the delicate neck of this feathered creature and sensitively adjusted his grip pressure before nodding to Old Tom, who then let go. He felt the bird struggle to be free of him and yet he held on, he could feel just how easy it would be to crush that tiny windpipe and break its neck. Andrew found his equilibrium. He found the middle pathway. And Old Tom smiled one of his rare smiles, and told him to remember this moment and this sensation whenever he was holding a club out on the course. It was a Goldilocks moment, a just right sensation. The bird shat on the boy’s golf shoes.
Eric could see that Constable Davis now had a putter in his hands and that there were several golf balls at his feet on the police station carpet. He rose gingerly, his feet were very sore. He wondered where his Footjoys were, his smart brown brogues. No matter, he reached out for the putter and gently placed his hands on the rubber grip. His thumbs came together, the right slightly lower than the left but both pointing down the club’s shaft. It felt good to be holding a putter again. It felt right.
The two police officers watched as the enormous hands encircled the grip of the putter and emanated a degree of comfort and belonging noticeably absent from their own efforts at gripping the putter. Eric lowered the putter head to the carpet surface and began to brush it with rhythmic movements like the pendulum within a grandfather clock. The two constables were somewhat spellbound in the presence of this aged golf master.
“Putting the golf ball is all about a smooth stroke gentlemen. It is a rocking of the shoulders. A gentle motion, which involves rolling a ball across a smooth surface. Smooth back and smooth through”
Eric knelt slowly down, his aching joints complaining, and placed an empty coffee mug on its side down on the floor some ten feet from the golf balls. Stepping tenderly back to the golf balls he took his stance, the putter at address behind the first of the dimpled white spheres. Both policemen watched intently as the old golf pro took the putter head back and then through the stationary ball, initiating a roll which propelled that golf ball into the open mouth of that coffee cup ten feet away.
“Way to go Eric great stroke!” they chimed in unison. It was like they were children again being initiated into a new game. Watching Eric stroke that ball, the walls of the station seemed to fade and roles were reversing with every roll of that hypnotic white ball.
Eric repeated the process and again that small white ball found its unerring way into the concave cavity within the mug.
“You need to keep your head and body still at the moment of impact. Only the rocking motion of your shoulders direct your arms, hands and the putter toward the target.”
Eric motioned Constable Davis over to him and proffered the putter.
“Here you have a try Officer.”
Awkwardly, the young policeman took the club and began to lay his hands around the putter grip. Eric reached out and placed his enormous old hands over the constables’ grip, delicately adjusting the positioning of the police officer’s digits and gripping of the putter handle. He shyly looked up at Eric, as he would a granddad at Christmas, who had bought him a present.
“Try that, you might find it feels a lot more comfortable. Now have a few practice strokes, rocking your shoulders back and forth. Don’t force anything, just let it happen.”
Constable Gary Davis brushed the surface of the carpet, tentatively at first but more assuredly as he continued. Constable Vickery had removed the putted balls from the coffee mug and now placed them alongside his partner’s putter.
“Now give it a go Son,” Eric instructed the young policeman.
The solid clocking sound of the struck golf ball preceded its rolling journey toward the open coffee mug , time seemed to stand still, the ball turned end over end making its way over the mottled mustard carpet. Existence took a deep breath and held it, and then without further ado that white ball hit the bottom of the cup.
“Way to go Gary?”, whooped Ethan Vickery. “Old Eric here has turned you into a pro on the greens.”
Gary smiled at his partner and Eric, nodding his appreciation of the old pro’s teaching method and the seemingly instantaneous results.
Eric enjoyed the fact that he had made the policemen happier and was at last finding his way in this new universe. Looking around he was unfamiliar with the lay-out and decor of these rooms and uncertain of how he had found himself here. The golf balls and the putter were familiar objects but the setting and characters strangely alien. This bubble of reality was occurring but had no connection with anything else. There were things he knew and much more that he did not. His world was cut into strips and they were flickering like the light on the shiny buttons of the policemen’s uniforms. Eric was often afraid now and uncertain about which direction to head in. The golf course was unfamiliar to him, the lay-out of the holes mysterious. He didn’t know whether he should lay-up or go for the green.
Posted on April 28, 2015, in Culture, History, Latest Blog, Reviews, Wisdom and tagged Alzheimers disease, Australian fiction, Cottesloe Golf Club, dementia, gold professionals, golf, golf grip, golf pro, golf stories, Old Tom Morris, Perth, police, putting tips, Robert Hamilton, short story, writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.