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34


Garbutt’s happy ending

Garbutt’s life seemed now as preordained as the blueprint Dorset had spoken of. In the Coach at noon, no earlier, even though ‘earlier’ meant only an hour and a half of extra time. The first pint he would make last for at least half an hour so that he could adapt to the following ones easier. That way, by the time evening arrived, he’d start to become seriously drunk but be in a fuller pub with friends to look after him. They were not thieves, but they would order a taxi for him, lead him to it outside and dig in his pocket to give the driver a ten-pound note and warn him to take only two from it as a tip and would wait for the change there and then and place it in their own pocket for services rendered. Garbutt the next day would thank them for their assistance and figured it money well spent, as he had been robbed of every note inside his clothes late one night as he walked home alone in a sorry state, assailed and a lesson learned.

An escort service to a waiting taxi at least ensured no assault would happen and he’d also have some something left in his pocket the following morning, change he always gave to the homeless whenever he passed them alongside the walls of the post office. Accustomed to his arrival, they’d line like pigeons waiting to be fed, each getting at least a pound coin for their patience.

But it was not only the beer- or the money that supplied it- that made Garbutt go early to the Coach seven days a week, it was Natasha, the new barmaid.

Her working hours ended at five ’o clock, and he had fallen under a spell she’d inadvertently cast upon him. He liked to furtively peek at her face when she wasn’t looking and could not decide whether she was a young girl who looked older than her years or an older woman who looked younger than her years. He scanned her continuously over the weeks, captivated by this riddle, and would do so carefully, so that any returning glance would have him turn his head away quickly, not wanting to become that man he never wanted to be, the one who offered his hand for the barmaids to hold, an infant eager for reassurance. A simple question, he knew, would settle the problem, but he refused to get drunk enough to challenge the polite rule of never asking a woman her age.

As he stood at the Irish corner, still awaiting the arrival of his friends Liam and Declan, he looked about the place to see if there would be any witnesses to any conversation that might follow between them. It was a bright scene, the sunlight beaming the whole boarded floor a dull gloss and not a soul but he and Natasha moved within it. The wooden chairs and tables squatting patiently for visitors like a medieval hall missing only the candles and tankards. The moment begged for a disturbance and he made it like a man grabbing the last sword on a slowly sloping battle tower.

‘Would you like a drink, Natasha?’ he heard himself say. His voice sounded strange in the silence, something he wasn’t used to. She walked over to him, said thank you, took the note from him, and gave him change. But it was the barmaids’ traditional acceptance; take a certain amount and place it in a cup behind the bar to be shared equally between the staff at the end of the night. Garbutt allowed her to do it and took another note from his pocket.

‘No.’ he said. ‘I mean would you like a drink to share with me, a bit of a talk to help pass the time? You look as bored as I do.’

She looked at him not unkindly and came closer to him. ‘I’m afraid it’s a bit early for me.’ She said. ‘But thank you anyway.’

Her age now came a bit clearer to him. He could see the subtle wrinkles evident when she smiled and felt glad. No one less than forty would have them, he decided. It encouraged him enough to continue.

‘Have you no willpower?’ he asked her.

‘Having a taste of something you like and then stopping is worse than not having it at all.’ She said. He didn’t want to say it but couldn’t help himself.

‘Isn’t that the opposite of what they say about love?’ he asked. ‘Better to have had it and lost it than not have it at all?’

‘It appears you like it so much you never want to stop.’ she grinned.

He knew she meant the drink.

‘Love?’ he asked anyway.

‘I was talking about beer.’

‘Well, I can’t deny that.’

‘You need to slow down. Too much is bad for you.’

‘Listen to yourself. Do you want to talk yourself out of a job?’

She shook her head with another smile, refusing to laugh. She remained where she was, folding her arms and staring out of the window. He overcame his cowardice a second time.

‘Are you a married woman, Natasha?’

‘No.’ She didn’t face him when she answered.

‘Have you a boyfriend?’

It was a question he regretted the moment he asked it, suspecting it might make her feel like someone incapable of attraction. But she too, pushed on by their isolation, played along whimsically.

‘No.’

‘Would you like one?’

A question that offered two replies. The first, Yes, one day perhaps. Or: Are you offering? She pulled back.

‘One day, maybe.’

‘Well,’ he said, attempting a joke, ‘I could certainly give you one day.’

She smiled but stayed silent, afraid his effect on her would weaken what she felt was necessary resistance. He crooked his head lower to find her face, chasing after her and aware of something between them accumulating.

‘I’d consider myself a lucky man to have that day with you.’ he said.

‘I don’t want to spend all day in a pub drinking, thank you very much.’ She said it without criticism, but he knew it was a condition for any possible development.

‘I wouldn’t do that to you.’ He said. ‘I’d be happy to take you to any place you wanted to go. Would you like to go for a meal?’

‘I suppose I could.’

‘So where would you like to go? What do you like to eat?’

‘I like cheese on chips.’ she said.

‘Cheese on chips? Are you serious?’

‘Yes. I like cheese on chips.’

‘Let’s have some tomorrow, then,’ he said to her, ‘in Skeggy.’

‘Why Skeggy?’

‘Because chips at the seaside is the only way to eat chips.’

It was an offer that had totally innocent motives, a train ride to the coast where long hours would be spent together. Days like that, he knew by experience, built memorial structures that lasted way into the future, even if the relationship died prematurely.

The next morning they were at Nottingham Station, like two teenagers returning to softer times. They sat in the tea room drinking tea waiting for their train and he’d brought her a present of chocolates. It was an affectionate gesture, ensuring the day would have a promising start. Don’t mess this up, Garbutt repeated to himself inside his head.

Drag him out of his present life, said Natasha in hers, not like a bad tooth under forceps, but like a traumatised pet shown affection.

They boarded the train like children eager to get the best seats, sitting opposite one another so that they could both be next to the window. She opened the chocolates and offered him one: after you, he said. She took one and he joked it was the one he wanted. He took another one. No more, he said, if she wanted to keep her appetite for the chips later. Then they talked. The necessary stuff of nothing that clogged the real vein of interest, their fervent wishes. Hours of talk that displayed facial expressions, traits, and mannerisms coming to the surface to be swept under more conversation, getting all that stuff out of the way so that the real hidden feelings only certain words and provocations could reveal. Intimate admissions, magical unexplained sensations, irrational understandings whose only request was deeper, always deeper, falling, always falling.

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