When I was young, I couldn’t skate to save my life. If polar bears were chasing me across the ice, I’d be an easy meal. I had a love-hate relationship with my old black leather skates, hanging like gothic fruit in the basement. Hanging there waiting for a real boy to put them on. I was confused. Other people found it so easy. For me, it was a humiliating experience. I couldn’t work out if this was an activity I liked or not. Was it was one of those things my parents pushed me to do? Was it a right of passage into manhood? Was it a legal requirement for all Canadian males growing up in small towns in the seventies? Following a tip, would the RCMP burst into my parents’ home, tear the place apart and discover my skates collecting dust while I drew pictures of Godzilla and fantasized about searching the local river for Bigfoot, UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster (all of three of which had miraculously made their way to my small town, an incredible coincidence that no one chose to point out to me – aside from adults)? My prospects didn’t look good. My evidence of UFOs was limited to a mysterious oddity gouged into the bank of the Maitland River. In a moment of lucidity, built upon years of wisdom and experience, my father told me it was a hole dug for a drainage pipe. So much for adventure. My prospects on the ice didn’t fair much better, getting back to the topic. Despite the uncertainty swirling around my youth, I kept trying. I don’t know what kept pulling me up off the ice for another attempt. Spurred on by a love of hockey, foolhardy dreams of joining the NHL and a pronounced fear of polar bears – I suspect. Or maybe it was the lonesome skater.
I can’t remember the first time I laid eyes on him, but the image of him skating round and round the Goderich Memorial Arena has stayed with me. He wore old brown leather skates and a layered, retro wardrobe that suggested earthy tones with a hint of fall leaves. He always seemed to be alone. However, he was usually surrounded by children skating along beside him and following in his wake, as if to catch some of his skill and perseverance as it fell to the side like sweets at a parade. Despite the attention, his intense eyes were locked into position – straight ahead – anticipating the next turn. I don’t recall ever hearing his voice. He seemed neither happy or perturbed by all the fuss. He just was. He went round and round the rink like the Earth around the Sun. You could set your watch to him. I saw him often – every time I went to the arena. Week after week, he repeated his routine. Perhaps he was desperately skating towards some endpoint deep within his mind.
I can’t remember the last time I laid eyes on him, but I knew something was missing. I had been to the rink several times and … he wasn’t there. Had he just stopped coming? Lost interest? I recall being surprised by these thoughts and observations of mine. He seemed to love skating so much. I always felt that in a hundred years time, when the arena was a pile of dust and debris, he’d still be there – skating round and round amongst the ashes. His absence stoked my curiosity, but I suppose youthful diversions got in the way. I stopped wondering about him. My questions ceased. My interest waned – until that supper. I remember that meal really well. My family gathered around the kitchen table. That’s when I learnt the truth.
I can’t recall the man’s name, so for the sake of this account I’ll call him “Mr. Brown”. In between bites of food, my mother – quite out of the blue – said: “Do you remember Mr. Brown? He always used to skate at the arena, all by himself.”
I looked up from my meal and stopped chewing. Suddenly, I could see him skating round and round. I had not forgotten. I focused intently on the words that followed. I could not understand what she was telling me – I was too young to grasp it.
My mother said she was caring for him in the hospital. She said he tried to commit suicide. She said he drank battery acid and it burned his throat. It was the first time I had ever heard of someone trying to kill themselves. I can recall barraging my mother with questions she could not answer. How could life be so bad that you’d drink battery acid? What sort of person collects acid from batteries knowing that they are going to drink it? Wasn’t he loved? Where was his family? Why did he choose such a painful method? These questions, the images I had in my mind, were so at odds with that old man skating round and round the rink. I thought he was content with that. He was good at it. All the children seemed to agree he was good at it. He was worth following. Little satellites sharing his orbit momentarily, only to break free for snacks or the toilet. As I tried to understand this news, I vaguely recall something worrying about his focus, and his quiet acceptance of the children following him round and round that rink. Upon reflection, his demeanour seemed more like wilful disregard – maybe even displeasure. Did I ever see him smile? Did I ever see him speak to anyone? I could recall him getting cross at overly enthusiastic children who interfered with his routine. In the wake of dark news, my young mind went searching for shadows where once there was only light.
I don’t think the lonesome skater lived much longer. He certainly never came back to the arena. I never heard anyone speak of him again. Perhaps my memories of him will suffice. A sentimental creature (to this day), I missed his presence – round and round the rink.
I continued to struggle with skating. I continued to hate it. But somehow I persevered. Did I take a page from the lonesome skater’s book? Did some of his skill and perseverance rub off on me? I decided to stick with it. I joined power skating (although my confidence was at an all time low). I became a good skater – maybe even a great skater. The gothic fruit hanging in my basement was waiting for me – no one else. As I write this, the Goderich Memorial Arena is still there. However, despite its chequered history in the annals of minor league hockey, it is under threat from the combined forces of modernization and youthful indifference to anything outside of a digital display. I suppose everything must run its course. Everything has an endpoint in mind. Maybe the rink that the lonesome skater went round and round will vanish as he did. But one thing remains certain – I will not forget. In my mind he is still skating – round and round.