>IN THE OLDEST WAY, PART THREE

>Which is not to say he was totally alone. The young barmaids at the pub knew him well enough, in that way of people of the town: a weary nod of the head, an imperceptible grunt. And while this particular movement was not native to the town, or indeed, the country, the people here had seemed to work it to a fine art, so much so that just walking down the main street at midday confronted you with—if you weren’t familiar with it—a seeming infectious plague of facial tics. On a rare night, he tried striking up a conversation with the least offensive-looked barmaid (for some reason, there was a common misconception among teenagers here that a thick redbrick tan and a joke-binocular mascara was considered the height of beauty), who, it turned out, had friends living in Australia. Although the conversation was pleasant enough, the barmaid kept looking over his shoulder and gaping her mouth, in a most—he thought—rude way. He soon realised that conversation, to this girl, was just a reflex action designed to pass the time until her hair-gelled tracksuit-wearing boyfriend came to pick her up.

And there were the old men huddled at the pub’s entrance, smoking in proud, Easter Island colonies, in shirts with open collars, laughing in the piercing chill wind. They would beckon him over, offer him a cigarette, which he’d take, light, and let burn down to the tips of his frozen fingers. And when he was desperate, when his thoughts got just too much to ignore, he’d go up and sit near to a tarted-up middle-aged woman at the bar and let her lean into him, squeeze his leg, dangle her much-bejewelled neck to his, and tell him hoarse, gory details of her sexual prowess. He never let her into his room, preferring instead the candid warmth of a fuck against an outside wall, or a squeezing of limbs into a tiny, slogan-stickered hatchback. And when they had finished, when they were tidying their clothes, rubbing their hands together for warmth, he would be struck by the true age of the woman, always pushing fifty, sometimes over, and wonder at her own sad story; what surly children had worn her down, what mean alcoholic bastard forced her to leave behind happiness and hide forever instead behind a mask of gaudy false brass.

In the mornings, after sleeping in late with the lingering darkness and a requisite headache, he would rise to make tea from a mournful brown-and-orange kettle that sat on a little ledge above the bathroom sink. While the water boiled, he would turn on the light above the mirror and finger his newly bearded face. He had not shaved since his long stopover in Shanghai—a superfluous but necessary visit in which he stocked up vigorously on non-prescription painkillers—and was almost fond now of the flecked black shadow taking form on his cheeks. And he would look into his eyes scattered with random twigs of blood and as the kettle screamed like a baby he would wonder how much more of this he could possibly take.

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