In Butter We Trust Chapter 1
Today I find myself staring at a block of butter in my kitchen. I have unwrapped one end of it and the yellowness shouts ‘lick me’. I slice off a piece and slide it into my mouth, sucking it through my teeth, butter bubbles roll around my tongue. I spit in the sink and catch my reflection in the partially open window. My face is white, my cheeks have paunches, my nose looks tired, I can’t even look at my eyes. I slice another piece of butter off and hold it in the palm of my hand. It sinks into my skin as I stare at it. I throw it onto the worktop and immediately cut off some more and put it straight into my mouth.
I haven’t been out of my flat for six weeks. There is me, a lot of butter and a freezer full of bread. Toast based meals have been my staple diet for as long as I can recall. There was some cheese, though that only lasted for a few hours. The cheese days were the best days. Now I have cans of sardines in tomato sauce that tastes very little like tomatoes, cans of tuna in brine that do not resemble anything that may have ever lived and there are various spreads; marmite, honey, nutella, mayo, marmalade and a few almost empty jars of what is now just essence of jam. I have a milkman who I leave a note out for and he leaves me more bread, milk and butter. I order orange juice some days. I don’t like orange juice unless it has vodka in it, so it sits in the cupboard ticking towards its chemically determined expiry date, sometime in a year that seems fantastical. Like how the year 2000 seemed like a magic number when we were kids and when it came to pass, it was just another night. Everyone tried to party extra hard and everyone looked extra sad the next day.
I have a toaster now. I used to do toast under the grill but it was a fire hazard. The only time I saw my neighbours was when I regularly set off the building smoke alarms. They smiled at me the first couple of times. After the fourth time, they stood at their doors, watching me reset the fire panel. As I walked back up the stairs I heard doors slam just before I reached each landing. Being able to strictly control the brownness of bread is a new utopia for me. The toaster is still new and I clean it after almost every use. There was a toaster in a flat I shared years ago. It rattled with crumbs if you moved it and there were indeterminate brown stains down the side that could have been, and probably were, something best left unknown. This is my toaster and no one else has to use it. The frozen bread resists the toaster slot, pushing its crusty hands against the stainless steel as I force it down into the pit of electrical fire. It relaxes as the heat runs through it, its shoulders roll forward and its legs splay gently as it accedes to the warm metal. The toaster still makes me jump when it pops the toast out. However much I prepare myself, it waits until I have lost concentration for a moment and it sneaks up behind me with a furious metal symphony. I slice off another hunk of butter, put half into my mouth and half I spread indiscriminately across the toast. The butter burrows into the bread, brown circles appear in the yellow, a toastscape slightly different to the all the ones before. I throw a spoonful of marmalade onto the middle of the toast and watch it slither outwards on a sheen of butter. I wrap up the butter, purposely getting some on my fingers so I can lick it off. I fold the toast over and feel the marmalade move under my fingers. In two bites it is no longer there. I swallow hard and feel the crusts scrape against my gullet as it moves downwards. I unwrap the butter and take another slice and put it in my mouth. I feel sick but I nearly always do.
I can hear the people downstairs. They argue about the dullest things. Washing up, money, whose turn is it to go to the shop. Some days they sicken me, on others, they are like a radio play with intermittent dialogue that is playing in another room. On these days I sit very still, so as not to miss a syllable. I take sides, I imagine their faces, I try to look into their heads and invade their thoughts, trawling for motivations and context. They smoke a lot of weed and the smell comes up through the floorboards in the dead of night. It gets inside me and I don’t feel safe. When they smoke they are silent, the herb shutting off the pointless noise that seems to flow continuously from their mouths throughout the day. They are young, they are tall, they are slim. They wear white well. Today they sicken me like never before.
I need to get out. I have nowhere to go. I don’t have an office anymore. I don’t have people anymore. I do need to get out though. Not because I am isolated but because I need to go shopping. The shop is only a short walk away and I used to go there most days. Then I discovered that the milkman delivers and it all seemed so easy. The milkman doesn’t sell ice cream or vodka. I have to go out.
The last time I went out was six weeks and two days ago. I hadn’t slept for two days previously and decided to go to the pub on the corner. I don’t go to the pub very often, I just wanted to sit down for a while and feel amongst people without being fully in their company. That’s what I think pubs are for. I sat down with my beer at a table almost in the corner. It was a lunchtime and people were ebbing to and from the bar, the door opening and revealing light from the street, painting windows on unshaven chins. A bus idled just outside the window and the glass resonated with the growl of the diesel beast. My beer wobbled in the glass and I wasn’t sure if it was the bus or my hands. Through the window, people tightened themselves against the street, fists clenching with the effort to get through another day. Men stumbled by, hands in unclean pockets, fingering tobacco crumbs from another time. An old woman put hot chips in her mouth and made a face like a chimp. A new light came, a whiter one that was entirely distinct from the sunlight. It moved in lines, as branches or fingers, wrapping itself around people on the streets, coming through the window and encircling everyone in the bar. It danced gently on shoulders, tapping at chests, caressing necks. For a while we were all engulfed in the whiteness and people seemed to be a step closer to each other than before. It slipped away and I was still sat looking out of the window and people drifted apart once more. I took my empty glass up and smiled at a man leaning on the corner of the bar. When the light had been on him, he stood straight and his eyes were fully open. Now it had gone, he grabbed at the bar for support, his whole being was trying to melt into the earth. He didn’t smile back and I stepped out onto the faded street.
After that day, I wrote notes to the milkman and stayed inside. I looked out the windows and saw people down below me. My road is on the way to the station and people are often to be seen scurrying up the hill to catch a train to somewhere. I saw a man in a crumpled suit running perhaps as fast as he could one morning. He tripped outside my flat. The sound of his knees on the pavement slapped at my window. He tried to bounce straight up but the pain stopped him from making it past a sprinter’s starting line position. I opened my window and asked him if he was ok. He looked up, searching for the voice. He nodded and smiled. His suit knees were torn. He brushed them as if his hands were magic and they might darn the fabric before he boarded the train. I watched him hurry on along the street, hobbling and rushing, almost a skip. When he was out of sight, I closed the window and made some toast.
It’s three in the afternoon and it is the right time to go to the shop. Any earlier and I will feel ashamed to be buying booze; any later and there will be more people about than is good for me. The kids from the local school won’t make it to the shop until at least twenty past. I see them pass my window about quarter past during the week. Most are in small groups that always have a leader who sets the tone for the journey and a weakest link who is holding on by their fingertips to be in the clan. Others walk alone and have bad haircuts and faces that are empty. The group change personnel but the loners are always the same. I was a leader then.
I get to the street with having to encounter anyone. I am not scared of people, I just don’t want to be trapped with one. The stairs down to the front door are dangerous territory. Doors can open suddenly leaving you facing someone you barely know. On the pavement, the slabs still have retreating pools of water from the rain I heard earlier. I walk down the hill to the shop. I pause on the corner and look along the parade of outlets. The chip shop that never seems to close, the pizza place that never seems to be open, a pharmacy and a florists. In the middle of this retail mish-mash is the all encompassing convenience shop. There are three people who work in the shop regularly. The older man is the father and there is a son and his wife. I heard someone ask them where they are from and the older man said ‘Lebanon’ as if it was a disease. The son wears a lot of gold chains and always has sunglasses perched on his thick hair. He spends a lot of time on the phone and scowls if you try and buy anything while he is talking. His wife is friendlier. She smiles and chews. Each time she is working, I try not to look at her breasts when she gives me my change and each time she smiles at me as if to say ‘I know you are looking at my breasts’.
Today, the father is behind the counter. I walk towards the far end of the shop without acknowledging him. He never speaks to anyone beyond saying ‘over there’, ‘out of stock’, ‘smaller change please?’ or rarely, ‘goodbye’. The shop is empty and I breathe out when I reach the corner of the narrow aisles. I turn one way and dislodge some cans with my jacket. I catch them before they leave the shelf. My neck pulsates and my teeth are fully clenched. I turn back the other way and am faced with a wall of milk and associated products. I haven’t bought milk for weeks. I take coffee black with sugar and the thought of sullying it with milk makes me retch a bit. There is some bread further down the aisle. It looks stale and its doughy flesh seems to be weeping. I pick it up as it seems exotic next to the idea of more of the milkman’s medium sliced. I go the other corner of the shop and rescue a large rectangular box of vanilla ice cream from the lowest reaches of the freezer. The cans of sardines are almost twice the price of the supermarket and I take six cans. The supermarket is not here and I almost am. I get to the counter and drop my haul in front of the father. His eyes don’t leave the small television screen to his right.
‘And two bottles of the cheap vodka please.’
He turns to me and I push out a thin lipped smile. He puts the vodka in front of me and taps the till. I see the number in green in front of me and find the notes in my pocket. There is an exchange of change.
‘Why you not come in so long?’
‘You come in every day, now you not come in so long.’
I look at his impassive face. Trapped.
‘I’ve been on holiday.’
I grapple with the plastic bag, I throw my items in.
‘Holiday. Ok. Have nice day.’
He turns back to the television and I drag my bag from the counter and leave the shop.
They said I was the lucky one. Blessed is the man who can make a living from using his brain and not have to endure the toil of labour on his body. Some friends were in awe that I could make slightly more money than them by just sitting down at a desk. We envied each other. I would have exchanged my modus operandi of living with any of theirs. My body was dying at a desk, my mind was trapped in a place that cannot be described fairly to those who haven’t been there. A friend, a plasterer, complained of pain in his shoulders for many years. I wanted his pain, pain that he could take something for, pain that could be massaged, pain that might eventually end. I tried telling them about my pain, the vast foaming river that flowed between my ears perpetually. They would laugh and put arms around me, send me to the bar for another set of drinks. I would laugh too. I’m being melodramatic, my life is a good life and I should live it as a good life, it’s all in my head, it’s all in my head.
The bread from the shop is even staler than I imagined. I bang it on the worktop in protest. The vibrations makes the cover of the boiler rattle for a moment. I hit it again and again. The bread’s deep bass thud with the metallic clink of the boiler falls into a rhythm. I pick up a fork with my other hand and tap the edge of a glass to fit between the beat of the bread drum. I hit harder and harder, the worktop is moving slightly and the glass jumps away from the range of my fork. I stop. The sound keeps going in my head. I dance to it. Put your hands in the air, wave em like you just don’t care.
I manage to cut the bread and fry it in a sea of oil until it browns. I open the kitchen window and the smoke runs screaming from the room. I haven’t set off the fire alarm for a while now, I don’t want to have to go downstairs past all the ears at the doors. I don’t really want this filthy fried bread either. This is the only way it might be edible. I wish I had some eggs. Eggy bread, the crispy coating that can absolve even the toughest bread of its sins. I have no eggs. I briefly consider going back to the shop. No, there will be school kids marauding through the rows of sweets and I’ll end up putting the eggs down on another aisle and fleeing the scene. I put the bread on a plate and splash vinegar over it. The bread fizzes and takes its final breath.