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Nothing is Wasted

He was sitting in one of the booths at the Conqueror, tending a pint, something golden and silty, alone, his phone facedown on the sticky table, his gaze fixed on some invisible object in the middle distance. The door swung to behind me, shutting out an afternoon of implacably overcast sky, of unrelenting drizzle: I brushed the water from my hair and looked around, surveyed the almost-empty room, assessed my options, which appeared good. At that point, of course, I didn’t know his name, but I knew enough to know that once I knew it, everything else would follow. Such recognition is instantaneous. This is how it works.

I decided his name was Mark.

I watched him from a stool as the barman poured my shandy. When it’s time to do it, it isn’t wise to drink too much. But you need a drink, a pint, to look the part: protective colouration. A pack of peanuts, something to do with your hands. Before the cigarette ban, a smoke—cigarettes were excellent props. Nowadays a phone, apps to flick between, a newsfeed to load and refresh. I keep an eye on the news. Too much alcohol, you make mistakes.

I let my gaze linger until Mark felt it, looked away as he looked up, glanced back to catch his eye. I could see the sadness in those eyes. He had blue eyes, the eyes of a clear day, the sky of someone else’s childhood. My own eyes are grey. The sky outside was the colour of my eyes—perhaps that was a good sign. Mark did not have the look of a man expecting company.

I thanked the barman, who nodded as I paid, picking up the coins from the bar one at a time. I took my drink and crossed the floor, brushed Mark’s booth as I passed it on my way to the jukebox, felt him shift in his seat and look up at me before his gaze resettled in the middle distance.

In that dull interregnum between early evening and the dead late afternoon, the pub fell silent except for the odd creak of a chair, the sniff of the barman, a muffled cough: one of those moments of languor and inertia you think might never end. A fake stag head, antlered, stared from the wall, shocked to discover itself both dead and unreal. Through the frosted windows the afternoon light was on the turn. Some music, I thought, remembering music, might improve the mood. In an hour or so the after-work crowd would arrive. I had time to settle my nerves.

I flicked through CDs, scanned the lists of songs. My memory for certain things—someone’s body odour, the look in their eyes, the precise sensation of being drunk on the evening of the new millennium, twenty-something years ago, in another body, another life—is very sharp. For other things, minutiae, cultural detail, it is not so good. This can make smalltalk tricky, but I have strategies: I have learned to pass.

The band names meant nothing to me, the song titles less. I sipped my drink and found myself alarmed by sudden uncertainty. Hesitation is never good. My stomach rumbled. I have learned to ride such moments out. I drank again, a deeper gulp, as if I liked the taste, enjoyed it, then pressed some buttons at random. The mechanism cranked into gear. I like to operate a mechanism: I love a jukebox, more for its mode of operation than the music it emits. A guitar chord that meant less than nothing to me began to play.

I took a seat in the centre of the room, facing the door, facing Mark’s lonely booth. The barman leant on his bar and prodded at his phone. I stared for a while at the back of Mark’s head and wondered if he could feel my gaze.

Suddenly he drank, set his glass down, rubbed his eyes, then stood. He was very tall. For a moment he appeared dizzy. The barman looked up.

“Same again?”

“Thanks.”

I stared into the middle distance as he turned to look at me. In that same moment, the door swung open, bringing cold wet air and the laughter of women, a trio in colourful raincoats entering, surveying the space, assessing it, deciding it would do, before making their way to the bar. Mark was still looking at me. I refocused my eyes.

“Oooh, a jukebox, Sally!” one of the women said. She sniffed the air as if she were sniffing the music and its scent displeased her. “I’m sure we can find something better than this.”

“Do I know you?” said Mark, new pint spilling its head. I sipped my own to steady my hand.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

My stomach lurched—a sudden, terrible pang.

“I’m sure I recognise you. Did we go to school together?”

The door opened again and two middle-aged blokes in cagoules and hiking boots entered and repeated the survey-and-assessment procedure Sally and her friends had just a moment ago performed. Then they sniffed, wiped their noses, nodded to themselves, and made their way to the bar; one of them unfurled a newspaper and set to work on its crossword, stubby little pencil in his meaty hand. Two lads in standard-issue officewear followed them, catching the door before it could fall to. They looked like trainee estate agents. It must have been five o’clock: I had lost track of time. Another bad sign. Bad signs appeared to be accumulating. It occurred to me that I ought to call a rain check, then found myself wondering where I had picked up that phrase. Sometimes you find words in your mouth that you know are not your own. Sometimes you find yourself in the grip of someone else’s nostalgia, longing for places you have never been and that would fail to match the feeling were you ever daft enough to visit. When the door opened again, for the fifth time in five or so minutes, I heard the spatter of rain on the pavement outside. Two twenty-something blonde women entered, shivering, looking around. This, at least, was a good thing: it’s always safer when it’s busy.

“Johnny,” said Mark.

“No.”

Mark frowned.

“Paulie?”

“Nope.”

“Oh.”

For a moment he stood there, unsure what to say. He was drunker than I had taken him to be.

“Tell you what,” he said, nodding at my glass, which was almost empty. “If you can guess my name, I’ll buy you a drink. You’ve got three tries.” He held up three fingers, waving his hand for emphasis. He had plump, hairy hands—nice hands, soft hands; the nails of his fingers, I saw, were neatly trimmed. He sniffed and blinked. I smiled. He smiled immediately in return.

“Okay,” I said, and pursed my lips. This was proving easier than I had expected. Perhaps this was another bad sign. I studied the inkwork on my hands—symbols I had failed to decode.

I tilted my head, to give the impression of thought, of weighing options.

“Mark,” I said slowly, with a smile.

His eyes widened; more of his beer spilt from its glass.

“Fucking bingo,” said Mark. “So I do know you. Or you know me.” He hiccuped. “I knew there was something. What’re you on?”

I emptied my glass. “Shandy,” I said. “Thanks.”

“Shandy? For fuck’s sake. Have a real drink.”

“Okay,” I said, and laughed. “I’ll have a real drink.”

He turned on his heel and joined the crowd at the bar.

This was not the first time. Can I remember the first time?

I remember the last time:

Another pub, another town, another midweek late afternoon declining into evening. This one had grey eyes. My eyes were brown. He was a good few inches shorter than me, but that didn’t matter. Fatigue had kept me indoors and by the time I emerged my stomach felt ready to consume itself. The sky was overcast, yet much too bright: in that condition I am hypersensitive. Bright lights, loud noises, sudden movements, all play on my nerves. The presence of others appals me, yet that hunger drives me out.

His name was Patrick. Flannel shirt, bushy beard, neck tattoo, hand tattoos, vegan, craft IPA of an exotic and disgusting flavour: you know the type—but he looked uncomfortable, as if he had unexpectedly found himself wearing someone else’s uniform.

He seemed glad of my company.

There was a phrase I learned, from the one before Patrick, or the one before that, whose name escapes me though his memories still trouble my dreams, who had informed me that he ‘worked in meat’, a phrase that had almost made me spit my beer back in its glass: carcass utilisation.

From nose to tail—nothing is wasted.

Some men love to talk about their jobs. Afterwards, I regretted not asking about the bones.

Patrick asked if I ate meat.

I told him no—told him I loved animals.

Memory is episodic, asynchronous, moments of clarity bobbing in a river of shadow. Hunger fragments it; of course alcohol does, as well. Perhaps memory is not the word. Perhaps hunger is not the word. It is to hunger what tiredness is to chronic fatigue; what low mood is to the stupor of the deepest depression. I remember Mark staring into a kebab shop on the Western Road, at the meat twirling on sticks behind the counter. Come on, I tell him, pulling his arm; I’ve food at home—I’ll feed you.

Do you like to cook?

Yes, I say, very much.

Mark dancing, beer in hand. He is a terrible dancer.

Mark in the Wine Me Up, extracting a case of Tyskie from the fridge.

Mark saying: How did you know?

How did I know what?

That was my song you played.

Your song?

On the jukebox.

I nod. I like a jukebox, I tell him.

He smiles, gap-toothed, happy. Me too.

He looks around. You’ve not been here long.

The room is bare. There’s a roll of plastic sheeting in the corner, which will prove useful later, and a toolbox by the filled-in fireplace, a variety of bleach-based cleaning products in the cupboard under the sink, but the walls are empty of posters, the shelves of books, the room of furnishings beyond the one chair I brought down from Luton.

So are you going to tell me? he asks.

You’re full of questions, I say.

He nods, considers it, finds it a reasonable statement. Then he says: So tell me.

Tell you what?

Oh come on.

Come on what?

Laughter. Then he stops, suddenly, and rubs his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose.

His eyes when he opens them are focused on some invisible object in the middle distance. He mutters something in a kind of alcoholic babytalk, then drops his drink and falls back, gives way, cracks the back of his head on the radiator. My landlady will hear that, I think: that woman hears everything. Fragments of glass gleam on the carpet. Blood begins to pool before I can catch it.

A sudden memory, from Patrick: Patrick as a child, watching the demolition of some power station from his mother’s car; the shape of that tower’s slow collapse in the way Mark falls.

I knew he’d make a mess.

Carcass utilisation.

From nose to tail—nothing is wasted.

After eating, I must sleep. I sleep through the night and the next day and the night after that, waking occasionally to scavenge from the fridge. That sleep is always full of strange dreams, of memories that are not quite my own.

Mark with his mother on Eastbourne beach.

Mark at his father’s funeral in Polegate.

Mark dancing.

In Mark’s dream I see myself: in a flannel shirt, bearded, a short neat man with neck tattoos, staring from the table in front of the jukebox. I never acquired Patrick’s taste for IPAs.

When I woke, I gorged again, then slept again, waking occasionally to graze.

In Mark’s trouser pocket I found his keys and, thinking, found I knew where he had parked his car.

I keep an eye on the local news.

I take his car to dispose of the bones near Friston, Hailsham, Barcombe. Sheer recklessness. I leave the car near Beachy Head and take the bus from East Dean to Eastbourne, one train and then a rail replacement bus back to Brighton, then another train to Hove.

“Patrick? Patrick, is that you?”

My landlady’s voice never failed to make me jump. I turned, caught in the doorway of my flat, unsure what to say.

“Oh,” she said, when she saw my face. “I thought you were Patrick. Is he in?”

“No,” I replied. “I’m his friend.”

She sniffed, pursed her lips, studied me. With deep suspicion she dragged out the silence. “Tell him we need to have a word,” she said at last.

“I will,” I said, and closed the door behind me.

I threw water over my face in the bathroom. Eyes the colour of clear sky gazed back from the cabinet mirror. I stood up straight, my spine clicking once, twice, three times.

It was time to move on, but I wasn’t ready. Success breeds complacency. Some song I did not recognise was playing in the Conqueror.

The barman’s eyes widened when he saw me.

“Mark!” he said, putting his phone down. “Jesus, man.”

“What?”

“What do you mean ‘what’? People have been looking for you! Are you okay?”

“I’m good.”

I was pushing my luck, I knew, but knowing better never stopped me. Sometimes I wonder if I want to be caught.

The barman frowned, then shrugged. “The usual?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I’ll have a shandy, thanks.”

“Righto.”

On the jukebox I pressed some buttons at random. The mechanism cranked into gear. A chord that meant less than nothing began to play. Sometimes I wonder what the music means: they seem to like it so much—it seems to mean so much to them. But it doesn’t matter—nothing matters. Behind me, the door swung open, admitting cold wind and the patter of October rain.

About the Author

Seán Padraic Birnie is a writer and photographer from Brighton, England. His debut collection of short stories, I Would Haunt You if I Could, was published by Undertow Publications in 2021. His work has appeared in venues such as Black Static, Litro, BFS Horizons, Shadows & Tall Trees, and The Dark, and is upcoming in Interzone and Best British Short Stories 2022. More of his work can be seen at seanbirnie.com.