I entered the Coach, bought a drink, and then walked the familiar route across the floor to where I expected to find Garbutt. But no one was there. I placed my pint on the ledge, assuming the worst by his absence: He’d finally drunk himself to death.
It gave me a chance to reflect and I placed myself in the same position he’d held for so long, an elbow resting on the shelf as I leaned back against the corner of the wall and the gambling machine, ready to survey the panorama of the pub with my rear covered and my scan wide. Instinctively, I glanced over to the Irish corner and saw three pairs of eyes staring back at me. Liam, I recognised, and his friend Declan, but to my surprise, I saw Garbutt beside them, not in any way out of place or mismatched. The trio had a look of expectancy as if they’d been waiting for my arrival. I walked over and took my drink with me. Garbutt offered his hand but for the first time since I’d known him, it didn’t grip with any forcefulness, and as I held it, I tried to consider his condition. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days. His head wobbled slightly, his grin lazy and automatic as if trying to recognise me through a mist of fog. His condition seemed to have worsened which meant he had not altered his course.
‘God help us, look who it is.’ said Liam, ‘The man himself.’
‘None other.’ added Declan, the third hand shaken.
We all smiled, nodded, and raised our glasses to each other.
‘How come you’re over here?’ I asked Garbutt.
Liam seemed offended.
‘And why wouldn’t he be?’
I smiled a reply.
‘No, I mean he usually stands over by the machine. I was just wondering…’ My voice trailed off, not wanting to repeat the query.
‘Ah,’ broke in Declan, ‘That’s because he looked in a terrible state when he came in, a man obviously in sorrow. We beckoned him over to us, hoping to ease whatever it was that was the cause of it. He’s better off in company than moping on his own over there in solitude. Isn’t that right, Garbutt?’
Garbutt bowed his head down in an exaggerated show of despair.
‘I lost some friends last week.’ he said.
‘What friends?’ I asked.
‘My friends at work, in that god-forsaken place.’ he said, pointing towards the window.
‘Menzies?’ I asked.
‘Yes.’ He said. He rubbed his eyes to wipe tears that, though too easily summoned, were natural enough.
‘How many?’ I asked him.
‘All of them.’ He said. ‘Derek, my best friend. Isobel my baby. The others, all gone. Marrion, Hazel, Bessie the snitch, Marcie. God knows I didn’t like her, but she kept me alive that old girl, gave me something to hate.’
‘Christ, don’t we all need someone to hate to push us on?’ nodded Liam.
‘True enough.’ agreed Declan. ‘Strange how we miss those who were often the curses of our lives.’ I turned back to Garbutt.
‘Didn’t anyone get out?’ I asked him.
His head was swinging a denial so pronounced he almost fell over with the imbalance. Liam had to shift him upright.
‘All dead.’ said Garbutt. ‘As dead as fuckin’ toast.’
‘What did the police say?’ I asked him.
‘They agreed.’ said Garbutt, ‘They said they were dead, too.’
‘A terrible way to go,’ noted Declan, ‘death by fire.’
‘Maybe it is.’ Said Liam, ‘But I think the smoke would have got to them first. That’s usually the way it goes in situations with fires. The fumes and the smoke suffocate them so that they don’t feel the flames that follow.’
‘A mercy of a kind.’ Acknowledged Declan. The two Irishmen nodded solemnly.
‘Will you have a drink with us?’ asked Liam.
‘For remembrance.’ added Declan.
They turned away from us to catch the attention of the barmaid as I lowered my head closer to Garbutt.
‘I’m sorry, Garbutt. I wanted to destroy the building so that you would never return there. I tried to get them out but they kept arguing with me. Those precious minutes they’d spent bickering cost them their lives, along with those six flights of stairs that placed them so damn high in the sky.’
I placed my arms around him and enclosed him in a clumsy embrace, translated to affection and possibly a farewell. I could smell the alcohol on his breath and feel the greasiness of his thinning hair and felt death not far from him. Almost past the line, but not quite.