Joe Bedford

Peak Jack

The lumberjack who stumbled into our city from the woods has never been identified. Regardless, everybody here could sketch him from memory. He was, in sum – a plaid shirt in diagonal reds and yellows, leather boots supporting legs of blue denim, braces, a maroon knit cap. His beard hung in partial neglect, but full – he wore it beyond his years. His tattoos are misremembered now – anchors, koi carp, hearts-and-arrows, more likely simple strips and bands. His name, also, is misremembered and lost.

            It was on the New Road – surrounded by people already half-full with cider – that he first appeared, sat down, rolled a cigarette. The locals who approached him did so with caution. The first few were drawn to the old-worldliness in him, to the old-manliness, to the hints of youth peeking out from behind his beard, to his authenticity. We wanted a piece of him. He explained that he was looking for something he had misplaced, his axe. We were wowed. Within a few days he had lodged and settled like an unreachable splinter. We showed him off around the festival, fed him, ordered him bottles of beer from niche little breweries – whatever he asked for.

The young people huddled around him insatiably, lustfully. They prodded his plaid, tickled his tatts and beavered through his beard in search of the secret. It was just days, hours perhaps, before the first bright young man stepped out to an outdoor-hobbyists’ shop. Though others soon followed. The lumberjack mistook the new man in plaid for a colleague, a tree surgeon at least, but found only a well-adjusted urbanite who had no idea where his missing axe might be. There were dozens like him before the festival was over, and more than one koi carp tattoo smushed under cling-film. Stubble was already beginning to sprout.            

After the festival the lumberjack continued to be trophied around town, rising to new heights of popularity, making a name of himself, enjoying his fame. Several of our pubs awarded him complimentary Tuacas; others invited him personally to afterhours parties, publicity sessions, concerts, dinners. It wasn’t long before he was discussed on Radio Reverb, speculated upon in The Source, dummied in the window of Snoopers. His legend preceded him everywhere. We watched the beards of his early followers grow longer, their arms and necks more illustrated. And with time more young people joined them – more students, more graduates, people from the offices, people from the suburbs. The lumberjack abandoned the search for his axe, and instead enjoyed being lauded, pampered and paraded.

By Christmas, his followers had spread up to Churchill Square, peeked out now from gourmet burger-houses, leant on the facades of bars decked out with fresh lumber. Men in leather sold maroon knit caps and faux-wooden mobile phone cases from trollies on wheels. Amateur tattooists installed themselves in cafes – their renditions of indigenous Incan designs came discounted with a soybean latte. The Woodcutters craft ale line – boasting hints of pine and maple syrup – was conglomerated. London Road’s Man of the Forest barbers opened a branch at the train station. Pedestrians could now be identified by the length of their beards. Young people who bartered with street-drinkers for their soiled, distressed boots were met with confused compliance. In the midst of all this, the lumberjack could do nothing but enjoy his absolute symbiosis with the city that had accepted him so profoundly. In reality, it was not just that we had accepted him – we had altered ourselves to beg acceptance from him.

This was the peak, preceding the sharp fall.

            The first indication that his popularity was waning came when he saw an image of himself biting into fried chicken in a restaurant window, if he saw it. There was a similar dissonance in the other doppelgangers that stood to attention up and down the high street. His aesthetic had been combed into a mould that was, by lumberjack standards, too easy, too perfect. On a wet day in March, a mannequin appeared in the window of Scope. It wore red plaid, denim jeans, leather boots and a maroon knit cap. Someone had affixed a fake beard to its visage.

The lumberjack retreated to the New Road where he had first appeared. Festival time was approaching again so maybe he thought he might find solace. There was none. Where people had once bounded over to him, quizzed him on his rolling tobacco, his ale, his braces, now they ignored him. The number of plaid-people faded dramatically – soon it was only men in their early fifties, and people from outside of town, who wore it with excessive pride. The rest of us had new lights to follow, new and more interesting diversions. 

            The final straw came when the lumberjack, with several litres of Woodcutters inside of him, stumbled into an underage music event, tripped at the feet of a novelty arcade machine and lifted his head to see a ten-foot animatronic image of himself, raising and dropping a huge metallic axe. We watched him as he looked into the eyes of the robot, into the happy gaping mouth among the steel fronds of beard, and threw down his hat.

            ‘My axe.’ he cried. ‘My axe!’

            He ran out into the streets and begged us: ‘Where’s my axe? I want to go home, where’s my axe?’ but was chased down to the seafront and had to hide under the pier from the police. He snuck out in the morning and was muddled into a wandering stag-do of men costumed in his own shade of plaid. He dipped out from their drinking after the third pub, so it goes, and made his escape.

            His axe could never be recovered. It was said he bought a new one from Dockerills, hid it in a tote bag and walked slowly out towards the edge of town. No one noticed him leave, no one said a thing.

            At the edge of the woods, he stopped and looked at the city. There would be no record of him leaving, just as there was no record of when he’d entered, and yet his image is imprinted on us all. His clothes now have passed far out of vogue, though plaid shirts still hang in wardrobes across the city. He will come around again, of course, as these types always tend to. And we, the people of the city, will not recognise him. 

            We never do.

Flights, Issue Eight, March 2023