I walked in the coach and saw him in his usual place. This time when I went to the bar I bought only one drink, not two. To buy another would have made me an accomplice to manslaughter, such was his physical state.
Gone was the relaxed but observant stance he used to hold well. Now he stood slumped as if there was an invisible boulder on his back weighing heavily upon him. It was a position years of alcohol abuse had shaped him to. The Irish corner was still there, murmuring. Though their faces were rough and drawn by the drink, the sunburn and daily toil made them feisty. It was their verbal rattles that seemed to raise them above the condition that Garbutt was sinking into. He looked a man snared by drink as a fly might be by a web, stuck and waiting for a spider that hesitated to suck him dry, relaxed in the pause and careless of the inevitable conclusion. I moved across to him and placed my drink next to his. He looked across and lifted his pint in an exaggerated greeting.
‘The man himself.’ he said loudly and took a gulp that seemed painful to him. The alteration was startling. I thought he was drunk, but he wasn’t. He was in a state that was continuous, worsening slowly by a constant intake of alcohol. So gradual from day to day that it would appear unchangeable. I decided to tell the truth.
‘You don’t look well, Garbutt.’
‘No.’ he protested. ‘You said in old age, and you said in my bed. Well, I’m on route for both as far as I’m aware. I also said as long as it’s not a disease, and that hasn’t happened yet, either.’ He slapped my shoulder. ‘I still have faith in you, boy. Stick to your side of the deal and we’ll always be friends.’
Prolonged sentences seemed to make him drink more. But one thing was certain: he was that man who is unable to see his own state because of the state he was in. When I took a drink it didn’t have the same taste like the last time I called on him. I felt it stick to my stomach like a threat.
‘You’re diseased now, Garbutt.’ I corrected him. ‘You’re infected and you can’t escape because you’re still not shouting for help. Shout, for fuck’s sake, before it’s too late.’
‘You’ve got a flair for exaggeration.’ he said, but I noticed his sudden effort to try and stand more upright than normal.
‘You told me yourself.’ I reminded him. ‘Poverty helped keep you healthy because you couldn’t spend what you didn’t have. But now you have all the money you want. I remember being concerned about it at the time, you finding that briefcase. It seemed an unlikely consequence, yet it’s happening.’
‘Well,’ he said, coughing to clear his throat, ‘It doesn’t feel like a disease. Do I look in pain?’
He didn’t, even though it was obvious he was ill. His eyes were murky, unfocused, and without sparkle. The bags under them appeared more distinct. Purple and red veins marked his face and his breath gave a stench that was almost a taste of rotting food. His hair looked unwashed and had too much gel on to disguise the fact. Every move he made was an effort to counter the dreaded and unexpected fall to the floor.
‘Don’t you think that’s the worst kind?’ I asked him, ‘To not even feel the pain? There’s nothing to deter you.’
‘So if there’s no pain, then there’s no problem.’ The knowledge seemed to cheer him as if he’d discovered something valuable. I had to admit to myself that there were more terrible ways to go to the grave. I couldn’t resist asking the question now that he looked at life from a different perspective.
‘Was this all premeditated, Garbutt? Was it meant to be?’
He dismissed me with a wave of his hand.
‘Whether it was or not, this is how it’s turned out.’ he said, ‘I never stopped myself because I didn’t want to. That doesn’t mean I wished it. I just couldn’t be bothered to prevent it. Therefore it was inevitable.’
‘Dorsett’s blind, so he can’t change your story.’ I told him, ‘He said he won’t be coming back. This means when he left you with that money, he let your life go where it wanted. And you’ve arrived here, on the way down.’
‘We’re on the way down from the day we’re born.’ he said almost angrily. Then he smiled. ‘If I died tomorrow I couldn’t complain. How old was Skelly when he died, answer me that? I’m a lot of things but I’m not greedy. Not for years that were denied to better people than me. Besides, what is it but a big, big sleep? No more worries, no more hardship, no more anything. Makes you wonder what the point of it all is.’
‘Then why have you lived on? You could have gone by your own hand anytime you wanted.’
He laughed. ‘Because I’m nosey, that’s why. Besides, I wouldn’t want to upset Skelly. He’d be angry as hell, me throwing away something that was stolen from him. I couldn’t do that. I’ll go the distance, even if it turns out it’s not much further.’
Finished, I dressed and sat on the bed and watched her look out between the curtains discreetly. The lamp was on dim and even though we were upstairs in a room rarely used in a house that was empty, we moved as silently as we could.
‘Is he still there?’ I asked, knowing the answer.
She moved away, fastening the last of her blouse buttons.
‘Yes, looking and scribbling. I often wonder what he writes in that notebook of his.’
She sat on a chair some distance away, as if confirming an episode was over.
‘Do you feel guilt?’ I asked her.
‘I suppose that’s natural.’
‘Or maybe it just makes me feel better. Penance for my sins.’
‘That’s a strange thing to say. Do you go to church?’
‘Then don’t talk like that. You’ve got to take what you can from it. You’re holding back.’
She smiled tiredly.
‘Was it that obvious?’
‘It’s not easy.’
‘I know. I felt the same awkwardness. But I also know why.’
‘That isn’t difficult.’
‘No, it’s not that. We both knew what we were doing when we came in here. It’s something simpler.’
I waited for her to ask.
‘Tell me, then.’
‘We didn’t kiss.’
I saw her nod her head in admission.
‘I tried to.’ I reminded her. ‘But you turned away from me.’
‘I feel uncomfortable kissing you.’ she said.
‘I do brush my teeth.’
‘It’s not that, you dummy. It’s... I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel right.’
‘So you’ll let me have sex with you but not kiss you.’
‘I know it sounds stupid, but love seems expressible in a kiss. The rest of it doesn’t.’
‘If kissing is a barrier to what we need to do, then you have to overcome it. Otherwise, this won’t work. It’s all or nothing.’
‘So next time,’ I told her, ‘next time I move to kiss you. You don’t turn away. Understand?’
I reached across and held her hands.
‘Now, when we leave this room, we’re back to the people we’ve always been. Friends who like each other’s company. I’ll go and fetch some glasses and we’ll go out and sit with my friend Mason, your husband. The man you married and are still in love with. But next week when we come in here, we commit entirely. Is that OK with you?’
We walked out of the room and into the garden, drinking until the early hours.