Madison Hamill writes with rare precision and bravery. Also she’s hilarious. This piece is extracted from her debut, Specimen, a collection of essays in which she dissects sexuality, childhood, voluntourism, and her own brain.
None of us had heard of Ranfurly Draught before we met our flatmate Darren.
“Are you sure other people buy this stuff besides you?” “Yeah, it’s legit,” he insisted. “It’s even got an ad.” The ad was set at a ‘man park’, a sanctuary of Central Otago grasslands where ‘real men’, made endangered by such phenomena as veganism and vampire-based romance, roamed freely. The head keeper of Ranfurly Man Park was a blond woman in tight-fitting khaki. She looked through her binoculars as the silhouette of a man reared up on a stallion, the same silhouette that was featured on every can of Ranfurly draught beer.
“They’re so” – she paused, turning away to address her audience – “graceful.” As soon as she turned away, the man fell headfirst onto his horse, groaning. Oh, men, we were supposed to laugh. How clumsy, how charming and relatable their attempts to imitate the Ranfurly man, that staunch silhouette, galloping, alone and in control. Any man could join this pursuit, buying Ranfurly Draught and retreating into their secret wildernesses, where we woman would never venture with our unfunny vegan feelings.
“Yeah, it does look legit,” I admitted.
Darren only drank Ranfurly Draught. Only in the large 440ml cans, and only at room temperature. He stacked the empty ones in pyramids near the glass door and we would find them in the morning, pointing towards the sky, the sun glinting off their peaks like a passage to the afterlife. But we couldn’t understand his taste. Ranfurly Draught, receiving one or two stars on most beer review sites, tasted more or less the same as the aluminium can that contained it.
Aluminium can be recycled continuously. Theoretically, one Ranfurly Draught can, thrown in the recycling bin, could become a brand new Ranfurly Draught can and reappear on a shelf in a matter of sixty days. In the biblical ways of mass production, multitudes may be fed from the one vessel. Still, I can only guess that one morning, as he gazed in sober contemplation at the pyramid of beer cans before him, Darren decided that he wanted more out of his drinking habit. In the manner of a true Ranfurly Man, he began to build a suit of armour out of his cans.
Darren was training to be a surgeon. Born and bred in Gore, he was never one for chit-chat so he knew he didn’t want to become a GP. He was thrilled by the delicate handling of small needles, by the tiniest incisions. He’d stick needles into his own arms for practice. In his room after he came home, he sat and stitched beer cans, piece by piece, tiny incisions, tiny stitches. First the helmet, then the suit. The pull tabs on the lids, he wove into chain mail.
Darren’s room was a dense nest woven from the debris of his past experiments. I’d seen it only twice. The first time, I had locked myself out of the flat and, in desperation, prised open his window. I limboed and tiptoed my way through a dense tangle of objects, scraping against them in the dark, though when I thought back on it later, I wondered how it could have been so dark at mid-morning. The second time I was in Darren’s room was late one night after we had been drinking. He allowed us all to come in and see the suit of armour glinting on a hook above his bed, the proud red cans with the Ranfurly silhouette in rows along the arms and chest. He took it off the hook and allowed us, one by one, to try on the heavy chainmail and the helmet. With the suit on, I could barely move – my breath enclosed in the metal skull, and the cold rings, like the scales of a fish, against my skin.
“Look how shiny I am!” I said.
“That’s enough,” he said, after a few seconds, and he took it back and closed the door.
In 1989, a sociologist named Hugh Campbell ventured into a rural Canterbury hotel pub in a town I strongly suspect of being my hometown and began to carry out field work. In this hotel, the local men dominated the public bar, while women and outsiders could drink in the lounge bar. One of the first things Campbell noticed in the public bar was an erect glass phallus. Perched above the bar, for Campbell it was almost too apt a symbol of masculine performance, epitomising both its transparency – “men were scrutinised intensely, and their performance was dissected, during after-work drinking,” he later wrote – and its “invisibility”, whereby the masculine ideal was never spoken about, only displayed. Each day after work, these men would gather beneath the glass phallus, going home later each night for dinner. There was an unspoken agreement among them to act as if they had no wives or domestic responsibilities, and this meant delaying their return home. “Remember old Metty,” they would say, “whose wife turned up at the pub and laid his dinner on the bar in front of him
… “Metty had turned to his wife and demanded, ‘Where’s my pudding?’”
Darren, on the other hand, was a responsible flatmate. Once a week, he spent his afternoon making a roast dinner for the flat. Sometimes he was sent mystery meat from his family back in Gore – kunekune pig or alpaca. More often we would have mutton or chicken or beef. He slow-roasted the potatoes in their gravy till they tasted like chicken all the way through but maintained peak crispiness on the outside. It was a fine art. He served the roast the same way each week, with a small jug of beans on one side and a jug of gravy on the other. Sometimes, when our other flatmates were out late, it was only the two of us at dinner. Darren didn’t speak much unless he was drunk or there was medical knowledge that needed explaining. We ate in silence, avoiding eye contact. For a long while I couldn’t decide if it was a comfortable silence or an awkward one. But I soon realised that my anxiety was not shared and allowed myself back into the comfortable swell of my own preoccupations. Afterwards we would do the dishes.
“Thanks for dinner,” I would say – the customary post-dinner phrase of our flat – and then we would retreat into our rooms. When I tried to imagine his thoughts I always fell short. I could imagine him performing surgeries in his mind or returning mentally to his home farm, romantically skinning a rabbit maybe, or shooting ducks to get to sleep.
Before Campbell, few scholars had attempted to ‘demystify’ the rural pub, which was for the most part accepted uncritically, he argued, as “part of the functioning structure of rural society”. Rural life is often given the mythic qualities of a “nostalgic fiction of yesteryear”, Campbell wrote, contemplating the fairy tales he aimed to dismantle, “with the rural pub being the centre of this ‘rural idyll’, a retreat from the brutalities of urban living”.
As I saw it, the brutalities of urban living were manifold: the brutality of change, whereby buildings and identities could be wrenched apart and reinvented; the brutality of closeness, of being able to hear one another’s shufflings in private spaces, the drunken shouting of State Highway 1 in the early hours, with students returning to the valley in packs, the trucks shaking us in our beds with the strength of moderate earthquakes. Was Darren boxed into that nest of his own making, dreaming of yesteryears?
Below the glass phallus, the men’s voices boomed across each other and across Campbell. They raised their eyes from their pint glasses, unfolded their shoulders, unfolded their larger selves. They had known this place for many years.
I can imagine Darren in that pub, in an alternate reality in which he hadn’t left home to attend university. In my mind they have his Ranfurly on tap, and he drinks it by the pint, saying, “Remember old Metty? ‘Where’s my pudding?’ Classic.” And then he goes home and cooks his own roast dinner and eats it just the same out of the freezer for a month.
When we drank together as a flat, we played cards and board games. Mostly poker and Settlers of Catan, a game where resources like wool, lumber and ore could be exchanged for roads and houses and quaint seaside churches. We played until we were too drunk to remember the rules. Darren always knew the rules. If he was too drunk to remember the exact details, he’d launch into an explanation all the same.
“No, see here, Maddy,” he’d say in his monotone, “you can’t run an economy with sheep these days, it’s all about the ore. You’ve gotta have the ore.”
Underneath the glass phallus, facts were wielded like swords. Campbell mentioned the cottage he was staying in and a battle ensued, with each man rushing to establish his superior knowledge of the cottage’s ownership and history. Another man mentioned seeing a woman driving a truck in a vague location several miles away. The women was quickly identified by the group as an exchange student living with a friend in town, and the relevant nationality-specific jokes were made about her sexuality.
One of the keys to successfully performing masculinity in this pub, Campbell wrote, was claiming “a legitimate understanding of important local activities such as business, farming, sport, politics, and other local interests”. Just as important was the ability to “hold your piss”, which meant both to handle your alcohol and to suppress the need to pee. The ability to drink the most beer while appearing sober was a highly prized skill built through years of practice.
The first time we played cards as a flat, I stood up to go to the bathroom.
“No, Maddy,” said Darren. “Don’t break the waters.”
“Huh?” I said. It was one of the first conversations we’d had one on one.
“Once you break the waters, you won’t be able to stop. Gotta hold your piss, Maddy.” But very soon he contradicted himself and lurched off to the bathroom.
“He has the bladder of an old lady,” another flatmate explained.
Darren had many health problems. As well as bladder problems, he had cirrhosis of the liver. He showed me once, pinching the skin below his ribcage: “Do you want to feel my liver?” He had night sweats and anxiety, he said, but he didn’t explain more except to say that he had taken too many drugs.
Darren socialised mainly with his flatmates and a classmate or two, and through online games. He didn’t have a grand social life. He didn’t have a romantic partner. I ticked off a list in my head: singular interests, avoidance of eye contact, a tendency to isolate himself, a monotone voice. In a naïve attempt to put a familiar label on him, I asked if he’d considered whether he was on the autism spectrum.
“Nah,” he said, “I’m not any of that.” I began to suspect his primary pathology was being from Gore.
In his room, glinting like a deep-sea creature, the suit of armour remained. He had never articulated ambitions to display the suit anywhere. He had no particular interest in recycling or wearable arts. He was in the process of building a shield.
Specimen, by Madison Hamill (Victoria University Press, $30) is available from Unity Books.