As God Is My Author

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2


Garbutt woke before the alarm went off, laying in the no man’s land of six-thirty and read the quote he’d pinned to the ceiling to inspire him daily:

Now I know why my days are shit,

because life’s hitting me not me hitting it.

He got up and moved to the sink.

Not brave enough for cold water, he let it pour from the tap untouched to receive the warmer kind, splashing handfuls into his face. Later he sat at the table with his coffee, holding it under his nose like a prisoner.

When the front door was thumped to break his stupor, he obeyed the call and allowed Derek entrance. His friend walked past him into the room without a word and made for the kettle, refilling it and plugging it into the socket.

‘You’re late.’ said Garbutt.

Derek snatched the sugar bag from the cupboard. ‘So phone the police.’

After shovelling two spoonfuls into a cup, he put his nose to the milk carton, a habit that made Garbutt snap in irritation.

‘It’s fine, for God’s sake.’

‘It happened once.’ Derek reminded him, ‘That was enough.’

One stood by the kettle waiting, the other sat at the table, waiting.

‘I can’t do this anymore.’ said Garbutt to the both of them.

‘Do what?’ asked Derek.

‘Go through this again. It’s driving me mad.’

‘Everyone else has to. Stop moaning.’

After making his drink, Derek joined Garbutt at the table, tinkling his spoon noisily in circles around the cup.

‘Look Garbo, if you wanted a better job you should have paid attention at school. I hate it too.’

‘No, you don’t. You go because you know Isobel will be there.’

Derek smiled to himself.

‘I don’t know which is worse,’ said Garbutt, ‘wanting something badly or getting it.’

Derek seemed certain.

‘Wanting, no doubt about it.’

‘So I go because I need the money and you go because you’re in love.’ said Garbutt. ‘Maybe I’m the lucky one after all. At least I’m guaranteed a cheque at the end of the month. But there’s no guarantee you’ll get Isobel.’

Garbutt expected retaliation but there wasn’t any. He looked up to see his friend in quiet reflection and regretted his insensitive words.

‘Come on,’ He said. ‘let’s go. Otherwise, neither of us will get what we want.’

Walking up steps and getting higher and nearer to his place of work, Garbutt thought he’d miscounted, even though he never really counted. It was a calculation worked out in his head and legs combined, one step to ten six times all the way up until he reached the swing doors that opened on to the shop floor. But this time on the fifth floor he thought he counted nine steps. He stopped at the top and looked down behind him as if to see a different shape. Derek waited with him.

‘What is it?’ he asked.

Garbutt didn’t move, afraid to check again.

‘The steps,’ He said, as if the two words would be enough to register something to a colleague who went through the same routine as he did.

‘What about them?’ asked Derek.

‘I think I counted nine.’ said Garbutt.

There was nothing Derek could think of to say as he watched Garbutt return down the steps and once more ascend, counting aloud as if a voice was necessary for confirmation.

‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,’ he paused before taking the last one. ‘nine.’

He looked at the face opposite him, pleading acknowledgement

‘That’s not right. There should be ten.’

Derek could only shake his head, not in denial but as a reply. Garbutt rushed down to the bottom of the building and started on the first flight, stating aloud the last step on each one. Ten, ten, ten, ten, nine. He passed Derek to walk up the last ones. Ten.

Derek was next to him now, ready to open the doors to the shop floor but Garbutt grabbed his arm, breathing heavily from his efforts.

‘You go down.’ he said, almost as an order.

‘Piss off,’ said Derek, ‘it means coming up again.’

Derek went into the shop floor on his own as Garbutt repeated the routine once more, despite his exhaustion. When he’d finished, he sat at the top of the last flight of stairs and rested. He had either miscalculated the number of steps through all his time working in the warehouse, or there was a step missing. But that would have meant the structure of the building was faulty. Each step couldn’t have been more than ten inches high, but in the discipline of a building as big as John Menzie’s Library Services, the difference would be crucial. He decided when he’d bought a coffee from the vending machine that he would place the cup on the table like a spirit level to see if it showed any evidence of unevenness. It didn’t.

The rest of the morning was an entanglement of routes to sanity. Maybe builders had been in without him knowing but it didn’t seem possible. Why would anyone remove a step?

He hardly said a word for the rest of the day, a heavy silence that caused even widow Julie to enquire if he was ill. He went to bed early that night and fell asleep thinking of the illustrated trickery of Escher.

The next morning all his movements were played out instinctively. He rose, washed, dressed, sat with his coffee, allowed Derek entrance, took the second cup of coffee offered, and listened to Derek speak.

‘Are you going to count those steps of yours again?’

‘They’re not my steps. You use them too.’

‘But they’re not that special to me. You’re obsessed with them.’

‘You mean like you are with Isobel?’

‘At least she’s flesh and blood.’

‘Not that you’d know.’

‘Not yet.’

‘Good luck with that.’

‘I tell you what: we’ll count them together when we go in. Will that make you happy?’ Garbutt took interest.

‘Yes, it would. But I tell you. If I count ten instead of nine, I’m going to certify myself.’

Derek raised his eyebrows. ‘But what if there’s still nine?’

‘Then I think I still will.’

Garbutt turned serious.

‘No,’ he said, ‘if there’s nine then it only means that I’d been miscounting all the time. I was thinking about it last night. If someone walks up four flights of stairs counting ten all the time, then it’s only natural that he’s going to expect the next one to have ten as well. So I think I was counting ten without really counting if you see what I mean. There were probably always nine but maybe I didn’t pay that much attention.’

Derek was elsewhere.

‘Isobel told me she has a boyfriend and his name is Andrew. Do you think she’s telling the truth?’

Garbutt was annoyed with the change of subject.

‘If she has, she wouldn’t have called him Andrew. She’d have said Andy, which makes me think she hasn’t got one and she’s trying to put you off. Bloody hell Derek, you’ve got to be more determined if you want her.’

‘To hell with it,’ he said. ‘I’m going to ask her today if she’ll go out with me at the weekend. What do you think?’

‘You’re doing it again,’ said Garbutt, ‘why should you be bothered what I think? What if I told you it was a bad idea and you shouldn’t do it- would you take my advice?’

Derek lowered the cup from his face and looked almost aggressive.

‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘fuck your opinion. I’m going to ask her.’

He finished the rest of his coffee and stood to put his coat on, suddenly cheered.

‘Come on. Let’s go and count those bastard steps.’

They walked across the roads of Derby, Ilkeston, and Alfreton, all the way up to the entrance and paused before the plaque that said JOHN MENZIES LIBRARY SERVICES. A car pulled up behind them and Marcie got out of it and walked towards the door, not bothering to say goodbye to her husband who drove off too quickly to hear one even if she’d made the effort. Derek and Garbutt stepped aside as she opened the doors, none of them acknowledging one another. When sufficient time had passed for her to reach the shop floor upstairs, they entered the building and stood together. Garbutt turned to Derek.

‘We take the same steps together at the same time. Right?’

‘Right.’

‘And we say the number aloud.’

‘Got it.’

They began.

‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.’

They stood before the second flight.

Garbutt starred out his fingers and thumbs from his palms.

‘We both counted ten, agreed?’

‘Agreed,’ said Derek.

The next three were the same. They paused before the fifth and Garbutt shut his eyes briefly before moving upwards.

‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,’ Derek walked up the last one easily, but Garbutt almost stumbled as his foot caught it.

‘-ten.’

‘So you were right,’ said Derek, ‘you thought you were counting nine all the time. But there are ten, just like the others.’

He walked fast ahead and counted aloud the last flight up to the shop floor and called down to Garbutt.

‘This one has ten as well.’ he said.

But Garbutt wasn’t looking upwards.

’I’m not bothered about the other ones. It was this one. This one was the one that had nine. You saw me climb them yesterday a hundred times.’

‘A hundred? I don’t think so. That’s another number you’ve got wrong.’

Derek disappeared into the doors to the shop floor but Garbutt repeated the climb from the first floor and stamped his feet one at a time onto the steps as he climbed, frustrated by his own stupidity.

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