1 The Life of Garbutt
The weather waited like a bully for his arrival as Garbutt closed the curtains to keep out what little light the day offered. His friend Derek listened to the raindrops tapping like fingernails on the window and replied scornfully.
‘If that day was a dog I’d put a muzzle on it.’
His morning walk had woken him sufficiently, enlivened from the rain which had flattened his hair damp against his forehead. Thirty years alive, his face was gaunt and his ears, which held thick-rimmed spectacles, were almost big enough to be abnormal. Garbutt sat at the table and hid his face behind his hands, his head in pain.
‘The rain I can live with,’ he said, ‘or the wind. Even the cold. But all together? Someone’s taking the piss.’
‘When we find him we’ll kill him,’ said Derek, ‘That’ll cure your hangover.’
‘It’s not a hangover,’ said Garbutt, ‘it’s a headache.’
‘That’s a bit of luck then.’
Derek cupped his coffee in his hands and looked to the floor without focus.
‘Heard about poor Skelly last night. Forty years old. Jesus. Who makes rules like that?’
‘Not Skelly, obviously.’
‘You two were pretty close, weren’t you?’
A long moment of silence, which Garbutt fell into easily, was broken by a thought brought to life.
‘I wonder what it’s like to be dead?’ asked Derek.
Garbutt opened his hands to the bewildered face opposite.
‘The same as before you’re born.’ he said.
‘But that’s different,’ said Derek, ‘that’s just not being alive.’
‘So what’s dead, then?’
‘Well, it’s not life, sure. But not being born yet isn’t dead. I mean, you’re on your way, aren’t you?’
‘Says the people who are going to have you. Your parents.’
‘So how is that going to affect you? You can’t know because you’re not alive.’
’No, but you’re not dead, either. Or at least not dead like after life.’
Garbutt rubbed the palms of his hands hard into his eyes.
‘Let’s just agree that not being alive on either side of life is the same thing. Can we do that?’
Garbutt dropped his hands to the table and gave Derek an exasperated look that said enough. They drank the last of their coffee in peace. Then like prisoners obeying the call of a work siren no one else could hear, they put on their coats and left. Outside, eyes watering from the wind’s gust, they bent their heads low and pushed against it, hands tight in their pockets.
At his desk, Garbutt watched the women enter the warehouse floor like decorated china dolls, the scent of perfume and hair spray a welcome change to the smell of damp cardboard in the air. They took off their colourful coats and settled themselves for the eight hours of work ahead, hair patted down and skirts readjusted.
Isobel, with her childishly platted hair and puppy fat figure, was the youngest of them. Middle-aged Marrion, who sat next to her, was a scarlet impressionist fastened to the style she preferred, red lipstick, red streaks in her black hair, and red eye shadow.
Julie, table-neighbour of Marrion, always looked exhausted when she came in on Monday. This was not because of the six flights of stairs that preceded her workday, but the nine grandchildren who invaded her house at the weekend as her daughters offloaded them to escape for a night on the town. ‘Glad to see them come, sad to see them go.’ she always said. Garbutt couldn’t help but have a fondness for her when he considered that a job as monotonous as bookbinding could be a refuge for anyone from anything.
Derek and Garbutt, the men of the group, and Isobel, Marrion, and Julie, sitting next to each other along a table that kept them working so that they could wipe out the monthly bills that tried to wipe them out first.
Shallow minutes flowed into deep rivers of hours.
Halfway through the morning, Garbutt read the blurb of a book in his hands. He’d asked Derek for a handful of 188 millimeter-sized sleeves from his side of the table and as he was waiting, it 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 opened it on the first page and that was all the movement that was needed to get him into trouble. Marcie the Supervisor approached from the other table across the floor and it made her morning to know that she’d caught him again.
‘You are not paid to read the books.’ she yelled, standing over him. ’You are here to cover them. Get on with it.’
Garbutt’s face reddened as everyone on the shop floor turned to look at him. He felt as if he was standing on a cliff’s edge and almost retaliated in an outburst of curses 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.
After reprimanding him she returned to her chair and Garbutt knew that one of the women on her table must have told on him because Marcie sat with her back to him and could not have seen him reading.
Marcie and Bessie were the dominant couple of their group but the other three were no more likeable because of their submission to follow their lead. Beth, Mary, and Hazel, forty-something housewives, were born for warehouse work. Beth with her constant hair bun, Mary with her evil witch glasses, and Hazel with her worrying habit of changing into slippers whenever she started work, as if unable to separate one environment of life completely different from another.
He looked across at their faces and saw Bessie glance up at his stare and turn away too quickly. Garbutt gave her a look that said we both know the same thing, you and me bitch, and with brow low, crammed the stare with as much hostility as he could.
Derek, beside him, watched Marcie retreat and scorned her to console his friend.
‘Ignore the mouthy cow, Garbo. She’s not happy unless she’s picking on someone.’
‘One of her cronies saw me reading.’ said Garbutt. ‘Bessie, I’ll bet.’
‘Bessie the Squealer.’ said Derek, looking across, ‘She did it to me when I first started here.’
He scraped his chair backward as he got up and walked across to Marcie’s table. He stood before them, fearless, and pointed his finger at Bessie.
’Oi Bessie! Keep your eyes on your own work. There’s that fuckin’ table,’ A thumb stabbed over his shoulder in the general direction to where Garbutt was sitting, ’and there’s your fuckin’ table,’ The forefinger of the same hand pointed to the table below him. ‘and never the twain shall fucking meet.’
Marcie turned her head slowly towards him, accustomed to the scene.
‘Thank you, Derek,’ she muttered in a bored tone, ‘you’ve made your point. Now get back to work.’
Derek turned and strutted back to his table as Isobel and Marrion nodded approval. Bessie though, flicked two fingers at his back with Beth, Mary, and Hazel sneering at him in support of their colleague.
It was the behaviour of a man not in the least intimidated and had all the signs of an employee of long-standing, sure of his security, and how far he could go with people he’d known for years.
When he sat back down he shouted at them to fuck off and they told him to fuck off in return and Marcie bickered the hostility down to silence. The floor manager Mr Bensing opened the door of his nearby office at the uproar, extended his neck to be certain he would be seen, then went back inside again.
Derek showed no flustered expression or shortness of breath. It was if he’d left his chair to pick up a book that had fallen on the floor. That’s when Garbutt knew he was different from them. Someone had to work in the same place for a long time to be able to do that without being bothered by it. The longest job he ever had lasted six years and that was twenty years ago, too far back to recall if he’d ever behaved similarly.
The drinkers of The Coach and Horses considered Garbutt miserable when he was quiet and judged him lonely when he drank by himself. Witnesses to his behaviour could not imagine themselves alone continuously, and because they could not imagine it, they dismissed him as the depressive they believed they would be if they were him. But music was Garbutt’s solace and no pub in Nottingham would have his money if it didn’t play it, because that was a river on which he could sail silently for hours without any sense of isolation.
Fixed into the niche where the wall and bar adjoined, he leaned his elbow on a damp beer mat soaked from the previous spillage and submerged himself into flowery notions ignited by the second drink of the night. Waiting for anyone who might bring up a subject of interest that didn’t include something seen on a TV he didn’t have, in newspapers he never read, or a radio he wouldn’t listen to.
In the Irish corner of the Coach and Horses, the men leaned against the bar, swaying, glass-eyed, and almost drunk, accents advertised without concern. They came straight from their jobs, wallowing in the freedom to spill drinks on grime-crusted overalls and yellow road jackets. It made Garbutt glad to see their callused hands gripping full black pints, imagining their dry and dusty innards washed clean by the cold fluid. They drank beer but also spirits in glasses of smaller sizes from bottles lined up on the wall behind the bar that poured from spouts like brief piddles. Their unshaven faces watched each visitor come through the doors with fixed looks of curiosity, hoping to recognise a friend. But most who entered preferred to be served at a distance away from them as they were foreigners in this land of all-day drinking and could not understand the purpose of it.
The bar staff were close to them, but only at the bar’s edge, not the heart’s. They received their gnarled fingers like those of infants eager for reassurance, even though their smiles faded with each posturing touch, the contact not as welcome as the pub grew busier. Garbutt could fit in easily with the Irish corner by his ancestry and age but chose not to, his companion a wall on the opposite side with a ledge attached to it.
Two pints was the amount he allowed himself before he walked the road to The Old Dog, an intermission from inactivity that helped stimulate blood circulation and fill his lungs with fresh air. He journeyed it as a man sailing between islands of sanctuary in uneasy seas, head down and mindful of a sky without boundary.
As his distance from The Old Dog declined, a boisterous voice could be heard from inside singing the Karaoke lyrics of a tune that pulled at his memory. He edged past the smokers by the entrance into the human heat and gloom of familiar refuge, claiming his place at the bar like a land grabber. As he waited to be served, he noticed his distant reflection in the mirror on the wall at the far end of the room.
The face had wrinkles enough of a man in middle age and eyes sunk under a brow that disallowed ceiling lights to penetrate, free to scan unnoticed. His hair was edged with greyness, his teeth healthy enough to be painless but rarely exposed by humour, and cheekbones like smoothed knuckles of a fist face that sat well with silence.
He looked around him and asked himself aloud in his head, is this it? But the music, the crowd, the noise, and the beer pulled him away from the answer like a child led from danger.