They think Garbutt miserable when he’s quiet and judge him lonely when he drinks by himself, but no pub in Nottingham will have his money if it doesn’t play music because that is a river on which he can sail silently for hours without any fear of isolation.
In the Irish corner of the Coach and Horses the men lean against the bar, swaying, glass-eyed, bleary and almost drunk. The accents are obvious, their nationality advertised without concern. They drink pints but also spirits in glasses of small sizes from different bottles that pour like brief piddles from tubed spouts. Garbutt watches from his usual site not far from them and wonders which small glass in a line of many will be the final straw for the camel’s back. He saw it happen once when the tallest of them, Liam, shot the spirit down his throat and it must have had some weight in it because it sent him back and downwards to the wooden floor to thump his head stunned upon it.
They come straight from their jobs and remain in their work clothes these men, wallowing in the freedom to spill drinks on overalls or yellow road jackets. They have on their feet boots, on their heads, baseball caps. Their callused hands look cooled and grateful gripping pints of black liquid topped with beige-coloured foam. People who enter prefer to be served at a distance away from them as they are foreigners in this land of all day drinking and cannot understand the purpose of it. The unshaven faces of the Irish corner watch every visitor with a brief look of curiosity, eyes squinted in effort, hoping to recognise a friend. The bar staff are their friends because they are close to them, but only at the bar’s edge, not the heart’s. They pass their hands over to the young barmaids to have their fingers received and held like infants eager for reassurance. Middle-aged men with grey hair and stubble, grinning and winking playfully, they convince themselves, but the smiles of the barmaids are wearing thin with each handshake, the attention not so welcome now as the pub grows busier. Garbutt hopes to himself he will never reach out for the hands of the barmaids, but knows he never will because his ways are set. He could fit in easily with the Irish corner by his appearance and age but chooses to be outside, his companion a wall which protects one side of him so that he can watch the other without alarm.
He finishes his pint and walks down to The Old Dog and Partridge, pacing the pavement past the weekend shoppers sombre with routine. The noise of traffic heard and ignored, their engine exhaustions, inhaled and ignored. Big bus wheels loudly swishing their black rubber along the wet tarmac and potholes, bumps and lumps, bus passengers rocking heads in a dozy dance from the conflict under them. Grey pavement slabs damp in the dark and shimmering with red and blue lights reflected from the fast food bars on other side of the road. The Clumber Street tributary which separates Upper and Lower Parliament Street flows up to the junction and disperses the shoppers from the Market Square into the Vicky Centre entrance. The double decker buses wait purring at the lights, their drivers shaded indistinguishable in their cabins, lives unknown. Young people are congregating in threes and fours under the big brother screen which beams like a spotlight over the entire intersection of the four courses and turns the rain to mist and Garbutt feels invisible and too long alive to be in any way noticeable.
Garbutt wakes before the alarm goes off and the clock looks devilish and threatens six thirty, that no man’s land of too early to rise but too late to return to sleep. He considers it better to stay awake with time to spare than rise for a second time and be late. A full bladder is the most effective early morning call and he obeys the urge and looks into the toilet basin to see his reflection in the rapidly yellowing water. He knows if he goes back to the bedroom to get dressed he will lay down and be tricked into sleep so instead goes straight to the sink. Not brave enough for cold water, he lets the twelve seconds pass to receive the warmer kind and puts the plug in to let it accumulate to a small pool, splashing cupped hands into his face. He uses soap, then a towel, then a comb but no toothpaste until after coffee. When he gets back into the bedroom he knows he can resist the calling pillow and put on his clothes. He sits at the table with his cup of coffee, smelling and tasting, holding it under his nose like a prisoner. He waits for the call of Derek which will be a longer wait than normal because of his early rise.
When the door is rapped to break his stupor, he rushes from his seat, mindful of his friend’s impatience when a response isn’t immediate.
Derek walks past him without a word and makes for the kettle by the table, refilling and plugging it into the socket. The walk to Garbutt’s flat wakes him sufficiently, a man alert and oxygen filled, even though his general appearance is one of a patient recovering from a recent illness due to lack of nutrition. He sits by the table across from Garbutt while the kettle boils and is observed. Though nearly thirty years alive, he looks a man deprived of wholesome food, an underfed vegetarian. But the look is deceptive for he eats many meats, and often. His face is gaunt and pale, his hair thin and un-styled. Worse, it is brown and his head resembles an incubated egg covered with an insufficient amount of straw. His teeth are big, white and plentiful and his ears flat to the side of his head. He looks a man any doctor would find fault with yet would leave without prescription. Garbutt has life enough in him to hate his job but Derek has an immunity to drudgery he is not aware of and gives no clues to the cause. It might be stupidity or indifference but he doesn’t look the type who would be bothered even if he was sure which it was. He hears the kettle bubble and responds.
He hands Garbutt his second drink of coffee across the table who, staring at the wall, is too tired to encourage conversation. Derek studies the face looking for clues.
‘Have you got a hangover?’
‘No.’ says Garbutt.
‘Your eyes are bloodshot.’
‘So my eyes are bloodshot. That doesn’t mean I have a hangover.’
‘I haven’t got a hangover.’
‘Give yourself a sticker.’
Derek peeks over the cup and through the steam dampening his brow.
‘Want to know what gives a man a hangover?’
‘Drinking on his own.’
Garbutt yawned a reply.
‘You don’t get hangovers by drinking on your own.’
‘You can because you don’t talk to anyone. Everything’s kept inside your head and it builds the pressure up without any way of getting out. You went off on your own again last night, didn’t you?’
Garbutt gave a shake of the head.
‘I left because by the time you lot drink up the karaoke down the Dog is almost finished.’
‘We’d have gone after that pint if you’d bothered to wait.’
‘I was in the Dog for last orders and I didn’t see any of you come in.’
‘Someone ordered another drink and Brian said **** it, might as well stay in the Coach now.’
‘So Brian’s in charge now?’
‘Besides, they kick you out early in the Dog.’
‘It’s Sunday night. They do that everywhere.’
‘Not in the Coach. Last orders were midnight.’
‘I know. And they give you five minutes to finish it. That’s how you get hangovers. Gagging your drinks.’
They both drank the last of their coffee in silence, remembering the night before from different perspectives, from different pubs.
Outside, walking in the noise of the traffic and their eyes watering from the wind’s gust, Garbutt felt more reckless to mention what he’d thought of earlier and raised his voice to be heard.
‘You know they take advantage of you, don’t you?’
Derek turned abruptly.
‘Those lot in the Coach. Every time you offer them a drink they take it.’
‘You mean the Irish corner?’
‘I mean everyone. You think they’re your friends but they’re not.’
‘What are you, my mother?’
‘Suit yourself. I’m only telling you what’s obvious.’
Derek was still watching him as they walked on but Garbutt quickened his pace, wanting to get to work faster so that he could go home faster.
The same scenery flooded into him like water, tasteless and warm, the same routine that long ago used to be new: across the roads called Derby, Ilkeston and Alfreton to the rising one that led to the entrance of the warehouse, the plaque by the door that he looked at every time he entered, JOHN MENZIES LIBRARY SERVICES. The sound of the doors as they opened. The steps of the stairs, ten at a time all the way to the top, six flights in all. Then another door into his workplace, the same sound as they swung open, the same sound as they closed. Blind people do the same when they move around places they are familiar with. He’d done it before on this journey, closing his eyes as he counted his steps on the stairs and all the way to his table on the right side of the main shop floor past Mr Bensing’s office. He was not adapted enough to bind the books blind though he know it would only be a matter of time. Each day that comes is a dead one. Each one endured, each one passed.
He leaned back on his chair and looked at the clock on the wall to his left half way between the top of Mr Bensing’s window and the ceiling. He took note of the seven minutes of rest that were dying before work would begin and contemplated working earlier to make it easier to finish his quota. Instead, he chose to look at the skyline of the neighbouring buildings through the windows for no other reason than it was an option.
The girls on the table had not arrived yet. Isabelle, the youngest of them, always wore tight low neck sweaters that dragged his eyes over towards her chest when she couldn’t see him looking. Derek wants to take her out but she keeps saying she has a boyfriend. Garbutt knew when he heard her say his name that it was a lie. It wasn’t only the pause before she pronounced it, it was also the name. No girl has a boyfriend called Andrew, not around here. Andy maybe, but not Andrew. Derek accepted her explanation and apologised for asking, desperate to make the impression of a gentlemen even as she stabbed him in the heart. Garbutt felt pity for him and wondered if he was still a virgin. When Derek went for a toilet break soon after Garbutt could hear Isabelle whispering to Marrion and saw them both sniggering in secret.
Isabelle naked would not be as attractive as Isabelle dressed, he was certain of it, and in the unlikely event that he ever got the chance to get inside her he would tell her to leave her dress on and lift it up. Derek said no, he would want her completely stripped with all her curves about him but it was a combination Garbutt found difficult to imagine, one body overflowing in soft flesh and the other deprived of it and full of hard bones digging into tender parts.
Marrion is mid-fifties, always in red, red lipstick, red streaks in her black hair, red eye shadow, a scarlet impressionist fastened to the style she prefers. Garbutt calls her Red Marrion in his head but Marrion outside it.
Julie is quiet and dozy, exhausted by the visits of her many grandchildren who invade her house at the weekend. Work at Menzies is a refuge from them. She speaks of them gratefully and regretfully at the same time. A dozen she has, a dozen to mind as her daughters, four single and two married, off load them at her door and escape for the weekend. Marrion advises her on how to cook easier for a dozen screaming children, aged three to twelve, but Garbutt is tempted to advise her to tell her cake-and-eat-it daughters to **** off and not come back if they continue to take advantage of her. Being childless, he says nothing. But he can’t help but have a fondness for her when he considers that a job as monotonous as this could ever be a refuge for anyone. She always looks like she’s on the verge of sleep, the lids of her eyes half way down her pupils and her rotund physique makes him think she is a good mother of people, her bloated breasts past feeders of an ungrateful generation and also the offerings to a long loved husband since departed and warmed by the soil in Beeston cemetery. The regular keeper of a grave whose replenished flowers slope from cracked pots to the body beneath. Existence in extremes for poor Julie: not enough life in this warehouse of dust and grime and too much of it at weekends when a horde of grandchildren descend to over populate her house. She looks a woman waiting for death, and one day Garbutt will take her out and spark her life to the highest peak by flying her across a hundred ******* to revitalize her. If not him, then someone, he hopes. But he suspects love has killed her. The love she had for her husband, five years gone now, breathes inside her like a tapeworm, deadening her daily, dragging her away from any chance of rebirth. With every book she binds, she has a thought of him, he can see it in her. That’s why her hands move apart from her, as if she’s watching herself detached, someone else’s soft pink fingers dancing around the problems of different millimetre sizes and tight attachments for hardbacks and softbacks. Her eyes are blank and mind astray. She’s lost in herself, out of herself.
There’s the five of them, Derek and Garbutt, the men of the group, and Isabelle, Marrion and widow Julie, sitting next to each other around a table covered in different size books that are delivered to them from the basement by lifts from the far side of the shop floor to keep them working, to keep them needing the work so that they can wipe out bills that try to wipe them out first.
So time passes.
Only an hour into the work and Garbutt looks at the clock again, unable to resist it’s shouting ticks. He lays his head down on the table to feel the cool wood on his brow and this movement causes everyone around him to give a look that urges him to say something.
‘I’m hot.’ he tells them. ‘And the table is cold.’
Red Marrion and Isabelle look at each other but say nothing. Widow Julie doesn’t even notice and Derek thinks he got it right the first time.
‘I told him he had a hangover this morning.’ He said. ‘I knew I was right.’
Garbutt didn’t have the patience to dispute the claim again.
‘You’re right.’ he said. ‘That’s why I put my head on the table. To help cool my head that has a hangover inside it.’
Derek nods to everyone like a father with a foolhardy son. This brought a chance of conversation to the surface of the silent sea about them.
‘Where’d you go to?’ asked Isabelle, lowering her head behind Marrion to be heard.
‘I went to Coach and Horses,’ said Derek, ‘but he went to Dog and Partridge on his own afterwards. That’s how he got his hangover.’
Marrion’s eyes widened.
‘You’re looking for trouble when you go into that place.’ She said. ‘I was told to leave once just because I complained about a beer not being properly filled. So much for the customer always being right.’
Garbutt’s forehead was on the edge of the table and his eyes were closed. He could smell the stale wood near his nose
‘Some people try it on,’ he told her, ‘They take a couple of sips when they wait for their change, and then ask them to fill it to the top when they get back.’
Marrion took it the wrong way.
‘Why would I want to do that?’ she asked. ‘It isn’t worth it. I wouldn’t do it.’
‘I’m not saying you would, Marrion. I’m saying that’s what other people have done.’
‘Well I didn’t.’
‘I know. But other people have.’
She looked insulted and six seconds passed without comment. Then:
‘Well I wouldn’t.’
Garbutt looked at the book in his hands. He didn’t often do that because it was too tempting, a brief respite from work that could turn into a longer one. But he’d asked Derek for a handful of 188 millimetre sized sleeves from his side of the table and as he was waiting, the book caught his attention.
The Wonder of Atoms.
It was a children’s book and there was a picture on the cover of several spheres encircled by smaller spheres. Garbutt turned the book over to read the blurb and that was all the movement that was needed to get him into trouble. Marcie the Supervisor approaches from the other table across the floor and it makes her morning to know that she’s caught him again and gives her the chance to raise her voice and embarrass him.
‘You are not here to read the books!’ She shouts. ‘You are here to cover them. Get on with it.’
Garbutt fell into thoughts of punching her in the face but knew there was too much to lose. A brief feeling of satisfaction was not a good return for the loss of a job and the money it brought. She’d never taken to him after she found out he was contracted to work through an agency. He wasn’t welcome because Marcie and the others on her table saw him as a threat to their jobs. Doing the same work for less money placed them in a vulnerable position as the company might think of hiring more agency workers to cut costs. But he needed the money to live and there was no other way to get it. Those on his own table didn’t seem to be worried about his employment status and Garbutt suspected they didn’t care enough about their jobs to be bothered by it. His kind of people.