Dorsett decided to get to the Coach and Horses early and wait for Garbutt’s arrival. He didn’t bother going to John Menzies as he knew Garbutt would not be there. Why would he want to return to a place that reminded him of poverty?
The Irish corner was in their usual place, strangely quiet in their relatively sober state, conversing in low tones and huddled, single foot on the rail below them, leaning on elbows. One barmaid, bored with inactivity, stood close by, texting on her phone, ready for their order. An hour passed and Dorsett, at first reluctant to drink, felt an urge to buy a second when a piece of music, recognised, came over the speakers. He returned to Garbutt’s place of rest by the ledge near the gambling machine and leaned against it contentedly.
This is Garbutt’s state of mind suitably situated, he imagined. A public house nearly empty, clean and dim, with the light of a dull day through the windows an adequate illuminator. Music loud enough to hear, a pint of beer close by, a companion as real as any living thing. And a man with nothing better to do than rebound thoughts inside his head and see what stories they made.
Memories, always memories, because of course, they’re easily accessible and not as troublesome as predictions for the future. They’ve already happened, which means there’s no mental effort required, unlike the unknown. It was like laying back on a seat while all around were structures untouched that had the potential to tell. What they told would depend on what was asked.
That’s what Garbutt must have felt like when he claimed to have answered Dorsett’s question about where the universe was heading. Garbutt must have got up from his reclined position in his head and interfered with these untouched structures, must have stimulated his thoughts to create some or any ideas that must have given him acceptable solutions. Alcohol was the means that removed him from the normal pattern of thinking and music was the score that animated his imagination.
Mr Jameson said it himself: we shouldn’t be here, any of us. The Irish corner, their servant the barmaid, the scattered duets of customers sat at their chairs by tables on this day, this year or century. This planet. Near that star that has all the credentials necessary for a deity but isn’t one because we’ve given words to its life which are only hydrogen and helium. On this day it isn’t giving much heat but makes the sky grey and cool and not bright and warm because of the earth’s position and angle in orbit around it.
All of us disciplined, or brainwashed to our daily routine and segments of morning, afternoon, and evenings, broken down further into smaller portions by clocks and watches into the ticks and tocks of seconds which Dorsett supposed were as small to universal time as atoms were to people. The further he moved away from that discipline of indifference which he believed was necessary, the more disturbed he would become. It could well come down to the choice of being mad enough to be aware, or stupid enough to be blind.
Someone entered the pub and Dorsett turned to see Garbutt walk up to the bar and order a drink. As it was being poured, Garbutt turned to look for his usual place and saw Dorsett standing there and nod a greeting towards him. Garbutt did not return it but shook his head exasperatedly. When his drink arrived he hesitated and then approached him.
‘Are you ever going to leave me alone?’
‘Hello, Garbutt. Did you get your money then?’
‘Yes.’ he frowned, ‘I got it.’
‘You don’t look happy about it. I can take it away if you like.’
Garbutt took a beer mat from a nearby table and placed it on the ledge under his pint.
‘The hell you will. I’m not going back to Menzies. I’m looking for another job.’
‘Why? You’ve more than enough to last. Unless you’ve already spent it.’
‘No, I haven’t spent it. In fact, I’ve hardly touched it and I’m quite comfortable living off the interest. I’ve moved to another place but it’s taking me a while to get used to it. I’ve been living in bedsits for so long that a house feels too big.’
‘I remember you used to run a tight budget. That’s changed now, I imagine.’
‘It has. But it’s not as easy as you think. I was used to eating one or two meals a day. I never had breakfast. But with money not a problem now, I know I can buy as many takeaways as I like. But I get lazy and buy too many. I even get them delivered to my front door. It’s all done for me. All I have to do is eat them. I have about four or five a week. No washing up necessary but my bin is full of plastic cartons and I’m putting on weight. I needed a little discipline to live within money but I never knew I’d need a hell of a lot more when I’ve got all the money I want.’
‘It’s changed you in another way.’ Dorsett noticed. ‘You look smarter.’
‘That isn’t difficult when you consider the clothes I used to have.’
‘I’ll be honest with you; I thought you’d drink yourself half-mad with your change of fortune.’
‘It was tempting. I do drink more when I go out but I still go out only twice a week. At first, I started buying shorts from the bottles instead of drinking the pints but it only made me feel worse the next morning. My body wasn’t used to it. So I went back to the beer. Just like my eating habits, my body was giving me a lesson in acclimatization. Old habits die hard.’
‘And Derek? How is he these days?’
Garbutt was about to answer the question but then stopped.
‘Why am I even telling you?’ he said. ‘You know all this.’
‘He and Isobel broke up.’
’What do you mean, ‘Oh dear’? You’re supposed to be the fucking playwright.’
‘No. When I left you those two seemed quite happy with each other. Anything that developed after that is not my responsibility. If I’m not dictating their fortune then events will occur that will seem predictable. I can roll them in a certain direction but if they want to turn elsewhere, that’s up to them. So what happened?’
Garbutt explained insipidly.
‘When I left the job at Menzies, Derek kept in touch and we went out a couple of times, I mean the three of us. Then Isobel started behaving in a weird way, flirting with me and paying me more attention. Apparently, money can be an aphrodisiac and she decided she was sexually attracted to me. Derek didn’t like it and accused me of leading her on. So we’re not exactly on speaking terms these days.’
‘That’s a pity. I know you two were close.’
‘So you didn’t respond to Isobel’s advances then?’
‘Well, of course I did, but she tricked me. Knocked on my door late one night and said she’d had an argument with Derek and asked if she could stay at my place. I didn’t think it was a good idea but I couldn’t turn her away. She’d put me in a difficult position. I offered to order a taxi for her to send her back but she said she wouldn’t go. So I let her stay in the spare room. Next thing I know I’m woken by someone in the early hours climbing into my bed naked. The rest is predictable.’
‘So you and Isobel are together now, is that it?’
’Are you serious? I was weak enough to capitulate when she sneaked under my covers and turned into an octopus, but there’s no way it could ever develop into a relationship. I saw her for a couple of weeks, secretly, but when she realised I wasn’t going to take her on holidays or buy her expensive things, she soon grew bored and left. I can’t say I was surprised. Then about a week later Derek came in here, walked up to me standing at the bar, and punched me in the face. ‘That’s for fucking my fiancé.’ he yells for the whole pub to hear. He didn’t give me time to explain. But then again, what was there to explain? Even if I had known they’d planned to get married, I don’t think it would have changed anything. Christ, I’m only human.’
‘It kind of proves my point, Garbutt. The money you found developed its own scenarios.’
Garbutt was reluctant to acknowledge the point.
‘I can get any woman I want,’ he confessed, ‘now that they’ve all heard of my inheritance. Didn’t I tell you? I didn’t find the money in a dustbin; I got it from a rich dead uncle. That’s what I told anyone who asked. As no one had reported the money stolen, no one has reason to suspect anything different. I have more friends than I’ve ever needed and I don’t know where the hell they came from.’
‘So why are you looking for another job?’
‘I’ve got to get a routine back. I’ve got to have something to escape from, to make me appreciate my time away from something worse. I used to think I was wasting my life in that place, binding books, and my brain cells decomposing with each piece of crappy plastic sheet. But I never knew time could weigh so heavily. A day at Menzies dragged by like sixty hours. Yet by the end of the week, it felt like it zoomed past in minutes.’
‘You need to occupy yourself with something to slow the days down. Everybody is good at something. You just haven’t found out what you’re good at.’
‘I’m good at eating takeaways.’
‘Garbutt, you don’t know how fortunate you are. You’ve got time to do whatever the hell you like. Use it. What did you always want to do when you were working at Menzies?’
‘I thought that all I ever wanted was to be rich. And now I am. But it’s like the future is laid out visible for miles ahead. Work at Menzies felt like having a wall or a ditch in front of me each day. There was no future to see. I’d climb over a wall, climb out of a ditch, climb over a wall, out of a ditch. Now there are no obstacles. I can see clearly for miles. But there’s nothing there.’
‘I can give you an obstacle if you like.’
Garbutt narrowed his eyes.
‘Another impossible question to solve?’
‘Not exactly. It’s more like reading a code or interpreting a pattern. When you go home, get your computer and type in the words intelligent design. It should lead you to a dozen or so factors that make life possible. If I told you what the odds were against it happening, then you’d understand my curiosity.’
‘So what are they?’
‘It’s calculated that the odds on life starting is one point in ten to the power of forty thousand.’
‘I thought you said you didn’t go in for all that equation stuff.’
’I don’t. But even I could understand this. It means that the odds against life starting by natural processes are one in- get this- forty thousand zeroes. Do you want me to write them down for you?’
‘Christ. That’s not a poker bet.’
‘That’s only the odds against biological life beginning. There are even more unlikely conditions regarding the formation of the earth, the presence of the sun, and its distance. The moon as an anchor, Jupiter as a vacuum cleaner.’
‘Don’t worry, you’ll find out. The deeper you get into this, the crazier it gets. Science is supposed to be the great explainer, yet the more I read about how we got here, the more illogical it is. Even the fact that you or I are here is a miracle. Taking into account all of the historic connections of your ancestors meeting and copulating and leading up to you is one in four hundred quadrillions’
‘How many zeros is that?’
‘Too many. Look, Garbutt: I’m trying to figure out why we beat the odds. Miracle is a word too easily thrown in to excuse it.’
‘I didn’t feel like a miracle this morning when I was praying at the toilet bowl.’
‘Don’t worry so much about the biological conditions. That’s the stuff under the microscope. Just start with the astronomical ones. The earth is the first stage.’
‘Dorsett, I was interested in all that stuff about atoms and all life being made up of 99 pieces-’
‘Whatever. But maybe, just like the last question, this has no explanation either.’
‘But you’ll have more to work on. If these conditions that set the stage for life were designed, why wouldn’t everything else be?’
‘And so what if they are? How will it help us to know that? The fact that we know won’t change anything.’
Dorsett’s expression looked painful.
’Because we’ll know, Garbutt. Isn’t knowing better than not knowing?’
‘Well, I confessed that I didn’t know where the universe was expanding and that didn’t do us much good.’
‘But we agreed that we weren’t supposed to know. And someone else, a science teacher I met, more or less arrived at the same conclusion. But this question? This one has all the clues laid out. A pattern that appears to be deliberate. It might take a biologist to explain the chemistry necessary for life to begin, but you don’t have to be a scientist to understand why it’s important for the sun to be where it is, or why we need water. Put your hand in a fire or quench a thirst and anyone can work it out.’
They looked at each other for a moment and Garbutt felt the need to cover his back.
‘And if I refuse? Are you going to twist my story where my bank goes into liquidation and I lose all my money?’
‘No. Your money’s safe. I thought this question would be tempting enough to occupy you for a time, that’s all. Aren’t you curious about what you might find when you reach that third or fourth pint and get to that Eureka moment?’
Garbutt gazed sleepily into the depth of his pint.
‘My eureka moment came when I found that money. But even though I lost motivation, I don’t want that poverty back. I’d rather learn to adapt to this life than return to it.’
Dorsett clinked his glass against Garbutt’s.
‘You got used to hardship.’ He said, ‘Now get used to prosperity.’
They both drank to that.