So bad was Garbutt’s hangover on Monday morning that he did not make coffee. He sat opposite Derek with his head on the table, careless of his impression on someone he was sure would have an opinion on it.
‘Drinking on your own again.’ said the voice from outside the dark of his eyelids. Garbutt didn’t reply and lay still waiting for the two tablets recently swallowed to take effect. But a certain musky aroma that hadn’t been in the room until his friend arrived made him feel sick.
‘What the hell is that smell?’ he asked.
‘That would be my aftershave.’
Garbutt raised his head and opened his eyes slightly.
‘Derek, why are you wearing aftershave? You never put aftershave on for work.’
‘Isobel likes it,’ he said. ‘she asked me to wear it.’
‘You mean she told you.’
He put his head back onto the cool wood of the table and thought he felt a sliver of painlessness drift momentarily across the throbbing in his skull. It heartened him enough to attempt a joke.
‘Now you can learn to shave.’ he said. He heard a responsive snigger from across the table.
‘If it makes her happy, then I’m glad to do it.’ said Derek. Garbutt raised his head again, this time to look for a sign in his friend that might show an obvious alteration in his appearance, a clue to the presence of love. ‘You’re dressed differently, too.’ he noted. ‘You’ve only been with her for a week and she’s changing you already. What will you look like in a month’s time?’
Derek didn’t hesitate.
‘Happier.’ he said.
Garbutt nodded, but not actively enough to worsen the pain.
‘You’re right,’ he conceded, as he stood and took hold of his coat. ‘you do look happier.’
They left his flat and crossed over the roads of Derby, Ilkeston, and Alfreton, and the fresh air, along with the rapid motion of his legs, began to clear Garbutt’s head. Passing the plaque that on the wall near the entrance of John Menzie’s Library Services, he went up the stairs and, with the residue of alcohol still in his blood to dim his concentration, had no trouble ignoring the number of steps he took. On entering the shop floor he saw Dorsett sitting at his table reading a book. On his own table, Isobel was sitting by herself and Derek went to her, sitting close and pecking her on the cheek as a welcome. Garbutt walked over to Dorsett and saw him smile at the kiss.
‘Looks like you’ve lost a friend.’
‘He’s changed, that’s all,’ said Garbutt. ‘he used to hate his job as much as I did. Now look at him. In a funny way, it’s even cheered me up.’
They watched Derek whisper something into Isobel’s ear, a comment that caused her to laugh and slap him gently on the arm. Garbutt noticed the book in Dorsett’s hands.
‘What are you reading?’
‘It’s about molecular structure.’
Dorsett turned the book cover towards him and Garbutt recognised it.
‘That’s the book I was reading when Marcie caught me. It’s about atoms, isn’t it?’
Dorsett continued reading.
‘Yes, it is.’
‘I never had the chance to read all of it. But I remember it said something about all matter in the world being made up of 99 pieces.’
‘92’ said Dorsett.
‘Was it? Well, I thought that was crazy. I couldn’t get my head around it.’
‘You mean you don’t believe it?’ asked Dorsett, looking up at him.
‘It’s not that I don’t believe it. It’s just that it’s something hard to imagine, that’s all.’
‘Maybe it isn’t true, then.’ said Dorsett.
‘It’s in the book,’ said Garbutt, ‘why put it in a book if it isn’t true?’
‘Do you believe everything you read in books?’
‘I don’t know. I mean, that’s how we learn, isn’t it?’
Dorsett tossed the book on the table.
‘Maybe we should be more cynical.’
‘I suppose it depends on what’s written.’ said Garbutt. ‘We know the Second World War happened, we know there was someone called Joan of Arc.’
‘But do you think there was a man called Jesus?’ Dorsett asked him. ‘Was Atlantis real? Does a tree make a sound when it falls in a forest if there’s no one to hear it? Do Unicorns exist?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Because they’re not real.’
‘How do you know they’re not real?’
Garbutt’s twisted look was a question by itself. Dorsett was smiling as he spoke, trying to temper the stab of his comments. But the smile didn’t carry it, and Garbutt didn’t have the patience to fence with words so early in the morning.
‘Bloody hell, Dorsett, you don’t make conversation easy, do you?’ He walked over to his own table even though there were another five minutes before work started.
At morning break Derek and Isobel went into the restroom with Julie and Marrion. As Garbutt leaned back on his chair happy to do nothing, Dorsett came out of the restroom with two cups in his hand and shouted across to him.
‘Here you are, Garbutt. I’ve bought you a coffee.’
Garbutt didn’t feel like talking but the sickness he felt earlier in his stomach had gone and he welcomed the taste of his first drink of the day. As he approached the table Dorsett pulled a chair out for him.
‘I owe you a cup after you bought me one.’ He said. They both sipped together.
‘I’m sorry about this morning,’ said Dorsett. ‘I forget how rude I sound when I’m trying to find out stuff I’m not sure of. Like that book about atoms.’
‘That’s OK.’ said Garbutt.
‘Does that kind of subject interest you, then?’
‘I suppose it does.’
‘I’ve always been interested in science,’ said Dorsett, ‘even though I didn’t like it at school. I think because the teacher made it sound boring. When you think about it, a teacher is a translator. He’s got to convert you and make you want to ask questions.’
‘He should have asked questions the same way that book did.’ recalled Garbutt. ’What do you think the world is made of? The students would say stone, water, wood, grass, air, earth, and then the teacher would say, but what are they made up of? That would have set them off on a whirlpool of curiosity.’
‘Absolutely.’ Agreed Dorsett. ‘I’d like to teach physics but I’d be put off learning about all those formulas and calculations.’
‘But that’s how those people know so much.’ said Garbutt, ‘It’s the calculations and formulas that help them get all that information.’
Dorsett sat forward on his chair.
‘But the problem with that is that people like you and I will never understand it. How many times have you picked up a science book that’s caught your attention and then seen those formulas and numbers piled high page after page and think, to hell with it, I can’t be bothered? I mean, some questions don’t need all those numbers and symbols for answers.’
‘What questions?’ asked Garbutt.
Dorsett sat back into his seat again.
‘Well, if I asked a scientist if air was nothing, he’d say no. It’s a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen gas, right?’
‘Sure it is. And if I asked him what states of matter water turned into if you heated or froze it, he’d tell you vapour and ice, wouldn’t he?’
‘Yes, I suppose so.’
‘Now. Ask him a harder question, one that even you and I could understand in spite of our ignorance. Think of one.’
Garbutt had to look away to concentrate but found it easier to submit.
‘I can’t. Not off the top of my head.’
‘I’ll give you one you’re familiar with.’ said Dorsett, ‘Why are we here?’
‘Us.’ said Dorsett, sweeping his hand across the shop floor space. ‘Why are any of us here, in this place, on earth? Where is the planet even going?’
‘That’s too many questions.’ said Garbutt.
‘Maybe it is,’ acknowledged Dorsett. ‘and I bet you can’t answer even one. You’ll have an opinion, but will it be the right answer? Imagine if you did that in a maths class? The teacher gives you a collection of numbers to subtract or add and you say, well, I don’t know the answer but I have an opinion. He’d throw you out of the class, wouldn’t he?’
‘I guess he would.’
‘Well get this: theoretical physicists work by conjecture. Highly educated conjecture perhaps, but conjecture nonetheless. You know why? Because there are too many questions about the universe, questions we’ll never know. So what’s to stop us from having a go? Once we get to a point where a question is perfectly comprehensible yet impossible to answer, then we’re back to our days in the caves. We are as clever or as dumb as the teachers themselves. Their opinions will be taken more seriously, sure, but if they don’t know for certain what that answer is, then they’re no better than any man with an imagination. And I’m beginning to believe that the bigger the questions, the dumber they get.’
Garbutt noticed Dorsett’s face was closer to his than it was a moment before. Then the restroom door opened and loud voices filled the shop floor back to normality. He saw Marcie move around the table and approach her chair which was not far from where he was sitting and he had almost lifted himself up to return to work when Dorsett gently pushed him down again.
‘Don’t worry. We’ve got a couple of minutes yet.’
Garbutt looked at the clock but Dorsett spoke before he could protest.
‘So can you think of any big questions?’
Garbutt felt uneasy. He was looking sideways at Marcie and waited for her to say something.
‘Garbutt. I asked you if you could think of any other questions.’
‘No.’ he said irritably. ‘I can’t think of anything.’
Dorsett looked disappointed. He picked up the book he’d been reading and handed it to Garbutt.
‘Here. Take it with you. Read it again. It might give you some ideas.’
Garbutt took the book from him and was surprised to see Marcie binding the books on the table. Then he looked at Bessie, Hazel, Mary, and Beth, none of whom had barely noticed him. Something wasn’t right. He should have started work by now with the others on his own table and he kept waiting for the hostile words that never came. Then Garbutt noticed Dorsett squeezing the toe of one of his trainers as he placed the heel of it on the chair.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
‘It’s those damn steps.’ said Dorsett. ‘I tripped over the last one when I came into work this morning, right on my big toe. It’s aching like mad.’
‘You tripped on the last one?’ asked Garbutt. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course I’m sure. It’s killing me.’
‘No. I mean are you sure it was the last step on the stairs, the sixth flight?’
Dorsett tried to remember.
‘I think so,’ he answered.
‘Or was it the fifth?’
‘Come to think of it, it was the fifth because I remember limping upwards after it. Why do you ask?’
‘No reason,’ said Garbutt as he stood to return to work, ‘it happened to me once, that’s all.’
The next morning Garbutt sat at the table with his coffee. He looked at the clock and noticed Derek was late to call. After ten minutes he suspected that he wasn’t coming and worked out that if his appearance could be changed by the love of a woman then so too would those routines he took for granted. He was surprised that he sensed an act of betrayal and then felt ridiculous at the thought of it.
Alone, he crossed the roads of Derby, Ilkeston, and Alfreton and walked up the cobbled road toward the plaque that said John Menzie’s Library services and entered the building. With Derek not at his ear to distract him, he paused at the staircase. Rather than fight the temptation, he decided to meet it head-on and count the steps. There would be ten on each of course, but he needed the confirmation and then he would never count them again. But he wouldn’t give the occasion the drama it had before. He would climb them briskly, as any man would who was on his way to work.
The first numbered ten, and the second, third, and fourth. The fifth had nine. The sixth, ten.
He didn’t look back or return to recount. He went straight through the doors and over to his desk and started work early. So early, that nobody else on his table had arrived yet. He picked up the nearest book and bound it. Then the next. He wanted no free thought to come to him. He would smother the last few minutes of experience to death. But he was aware that acknowledgement was required, an official closing of a problem, so he approved it, no matter how ridiculous it sounded.
The stairs of John Menzies Library Services, specifically, the penultimate flight that led up to the shop floor, fluctuated between nine and ten steps.
His fingers moved faster, the books were bound faster. He did them so fast he ripped the cover of two of them. He didn’t care; he only wanted to get them done. The whole day would be like this until he turned into a clone that would never think of counting steps again.
Then as he looked up at the clock he caught the sight of a face across the shop floor looking at him. It was Dorsett and their eyes locked to each other. It was a look of intensity, enforcement of will, and Garbutt felt compelled to pull away and look down to his moving fingers.
No one had arrived and it was almost starting time. Bensing was in his office at his desk, head down as always, pen to paper, and occupied with work.
Then at exactly one minute before the start of the workday, they walked through the doors at the same time, approaching their tables out of breath from the stair climb and filling the air around Garbutt with perfume and chatter and humanity. Derek and his overpowering aftershave sat next to him and Garbutt was pulled into normality again.
‘Sorry I didn’t call on you, Garbo. But I stayed at Isobel’s last night.’
‘That’s alright, forget it.’
Derek turned to fuss over Isobel as he removed her coat and placed it on the back of her chair.
‘Morning, Garbutt.’ She said cheerfully.
They all sat down with no explanation of why they were late, even though they weren’t officially late. Straight into the routine of binding books they went, settling into the procedure of tedious activity. Garbutt looked across at Dorsett’s table and noticed that all of them too, did likewise.
Then the small talk began, mumbles and grumbles and gossip of no importance to roll the long day slowly to its completion. Dorsett, he noticed, had his back to him by this time, head down and hands moving. But he did look back over his shoulder once as if expecting the glance he knew Garbutt would give.
At the dinner break, Garbutt was hoping to talk with Derek, but he shared his dinner breaks with Isobel now. The two of them were in a place he didn’t belong and if it was anywhere even close to love then no one else mattered.
Garbutt knew the only other option for company at lunch was Dorsett and the prospect of it made him uncomfortable. He made up his mind that he would remain at his table. If Dorsett called him over he would go as requested but to his surprise, Dorsett approached his table and sat down.
There was a brief silence as sandwiches were taken from plastic containers. By the third bite, Garbutt spoke.
‘I thought I was the only one who was going to be at work today. Everyone was late.’
‘No they weren’t,’ said Dorsett. ‘they started just before the hour.’
‘What I mean is, they were later than their usual arrival times. There’s always a few in by at least ten to or five to. Marcie’s always scurrying around the building looking for something to do.’
Dorsett nodded agreeably.
‘By the way, did you read that book I gave you? The one about the atoms?’
‘We were talking about big questions, remember?’
‘Well, I read it again. But there weren’t any big questions in it, Dorsett. It’s a children’s book, remember.’
Dorsett gave an insincere smile.
’Garbutt, I know it’s a children’s book. But I was hoping the subject matter might inspire you to ask big questions.’
‘Then no, Dorsett, I couldn’t think of any big questions.’
Another pause before Dorsett spoke.
‘You don’t like Marcie, do you?’
Garbutt looked at him sternly.
‘No, I do not. I hate her.’
‘Why? She never leaves me alone. She doesn’t want me here because I’m an agency worker. And the worst part of it is, I don’t want to be here, either. But I don’t have a choice.’
‘You do have a choice. You can get another job.’
Garbutt, for the first time, thought he was beginning to see a pattern in Dorsett’s behaviour. Start a conversation, bring it to a point where it gets confrontational, but don’t reveal the motive. The most unpredictable of people, he considered. The kind that plays with people like cats do with mice.
‘Do you seriously think I’d come here if I could find something better? I look for other jobs all the time. This one was the least bad out of half a dozen on offer. That’s how it works. You choose the best of the bad.’
‘You think Marcie’s married, don’t you?’ he said.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You think Marcie’s married. But she’s not.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong. Her husband picks her up in his car when she goes home.’
‘No. It’s her stepbrother. She lives with him.’
Garbutt looked across at Marcie sitting by herself at her table, nibbling at a sandwich and looking out of the window at nothing in particular.
‘I didn’t know that.’ he said, half to himself.
‘Her mother abandoned her when she was a baby.’ said Dorsett. ‘She was brought up by different foster parents until a brother she never knew she had took her in. The same who picks her up each day from work.’
Garbutt felt like apologizing but became irate instead.
‘How do you know all this?’ he asked, ‘You’ve hardly been here a week and you know her life story already. And why are you telling me, anyway?’
‘I heard it from the others on the table. I’m only telling you because I know you don’t like her and I wondered why.’
‘I told you. She doesn’t want me here.’
Garbutt was beginning to lose patience but before he could say anything Dorsett moved closer to him.
’All these people, Garbutt. So many of them. Yet everything can only be seen from one perspective. One.’
Dorsett’s eyes stared onto Garbutt’s, unblinking. Then he reclined to arch his back to a stretch.
‘Isn’t that weird? You’d think with the earth being so populated, that two individuals would be able to see existence from the same frame of reference.’
Garbutt clicked into suspicion.
‘Is that one of your big questions?’ he asked.
‘It’s a big question if you want it to be.’ said Dorsett. ‘If you don’t, then it isn’t and won’t bother you.’
‘For a second there I thought you were going to lecture me for being judgemental.’
‘You mean about Marcie?’
‘Yeah. Treat people with respect and all that stuff: You don’t know what they’ve been through.’
‘What difference would it make? Are you going to see her any differently?’
‘Probably not. Though I don’t dislike her as much as said I did.’
‘You said you hated her.’
‘Well, now I don’t anymore. Happy?’
Dorsett swallowed the last bite of his lunch and stood up to leave.
‘I’ve got some more books for you if you want to read them. They’re science books but not for children.’
‘Then I don’t want them,’ said Garbutt, ‘they’ll have those equations in.’
‘You won’t have to read any equations. It’s only the basics of the subject.’
He took the books from his bag and handed them over. Garbutt looked at the first one and thought he saw a picture of the number eight on its side.
‘That’s a Mobius strip.’ said Dorsett. ‘So-called after someone who discovered it.’
Garbutt wasn’t fooled by Dorsett’s attempt to appear unfamiliar with the name. He was beginning to understand him a little bit more with each conversation.