– The Survivor –
It was the sound of running water that woke me up. I lay still on my back on the narrow bed, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness of the room. At first, I could make out the silhouette of Robbie’s head and skinny torso. He was standing at the wash-hand basin in the corner diagonally opposite me, his gaunt grey face reflected ghost-like in the mirror above the basin. The little strip light over the mirror was on, but the top of Robbie’s head was blocking out the glare from it, causing a soft glow to be added to the outline of his silhouette.
The image gradually became clearer until I could see that Robbie was bare to the waist and that he was dipping what looked like a handkerchief under the water and using it to dab at his stomach, emitting a tiny wince with each dab. The water stopped after a while, and Robbie began to fumble with both hands at something around his waist. Then he switched off the strip light, turned round and headed back towards his twin bed, which was separated from mine by only an arm length.
Although the room was darker now, there was still enough light seeping under the door from the landing outside for me to catch sight of Robbie’s full frame. I was shocked. It was as if a picture of a detainee in a Japanese prisoner of war camp had come to life. I had a glimpse of a head that looked far too big and heavy for the skeleton of a body underneath it; of matchstick-thin arms dangling from nonexistent shoulders on either side of a fully visible ribcage; and of a pair of Y-fronts hanging in folds from protruding hip bones down to the top of two spindly legs. Most shocking of all was the wide, frayed bandage that was wrapped around Robbie’s middle and secured at one side by a large safety pin.
I had met Robbie for the first time only four days before, when the Boss brought him into the public bar just after closing time on Sunday afternoon and introduced him to us.
‘This is Robbie. He comes from the same neck of the woods as me. The brewery sent him to cover for Jean while she’s off on holiday this week. He’ll be starting tonight.’
That was Robbie’s public introduction. Later on, the Boss added privately, ‘You lads should know that Robbie’s not a well man. He’s got a bit of a drink problem. But don’t be fashing him about it. It’ll no’ affect his work. And mind that anything you see him drinking is on the house.’
I thought at the time that the bit about not fashing the man was strange, because I had never known the Boss to be so protective about anyone, let alone someone in his employment who apparently was so weak that he drank all the time. Even stranger was the bit about letting him drink at the expense of the bar.
I also learned from the Boss later on that I would be sharing my room with Robbie for the duration of his stay. I couldn’t really complain about that. Even although I had recently begun a full-time job in Edinburgh and now only worked part-time in the hotel, the Boss had allowed me the free use of a room until I managed to sort out some digs of my own.
So all I knew about my new roommate was that he came from Fife, he was a relief barman and he had a drink problem. His appearance on that first day certainly seemed to support the last of those facts; small and scrawny, with grey eyes that watered a lot and grey, almost white, Brylcreemed hair that was combed back Elvis-style, he looked like a shabby, used up Teddy Boy. On his first and succeeding shifts at the bar, however, he worked quickly and ceaselessly, keeping himself to himself for the most part, exchanging the odd pleasantry with the other bar staff and even participating in the occasional conversation with a punter. According to the women in the kitchen, he ate like a sparrow, his energy seeming to be fuelled by the lager in the half-pint glass, which he kept at the side of the gantry, sipped from at every opportunity and refilled constantly. None of us was ever sure about the number of half-pints that he actually consumed during each shift. Just as the Boss had said, though, Robbie’s drinking, whatever the quantity of it, didn’t appear to affect his performance.
After closing time at night, Robbie would sit on a barstool like the rest of us, occasionally joining in the banter, but most of the time just smoking, sipping at his lager and staring into space with those watery grey eyes of his. Because I needed to get up early in the morning, I would go up to the room before him. I would be asleep when he came to bed, and he would be asleep when I got up and went out to work. So I hadn’t experienced the apparition of an undressed Robbie until now.
I watched as he came over, sat on the edge of his bed with his back to me, rolled a cigarette and lit it. Then he lay down on the top of the bedclothes, wincing softly as he did so, the palm of his left hand placed over the bandage. When he moved the hand to let his arm flop down at his side, I saw to my horror that the bandage was soiled; that whatever lay underneath it had been weeping.
I didn’t want to startle Robbie, but I wanted him to know that I was awake, so I called out to him as softly as I could.
‘Are you okay, Robbie?’ I whispered.
He seemed to be more embarrassed than startled, quickly getting under the bedclothes and pulling them up to cover his emaciated body.
‘Sorry to disturb you, son,’ he replied.
‘It’s no bother, Robbie. I just wondered –’ I paused.
‘I wondered if you were okay ... if you were hurting,’ I said at last.
‘Oh, the bandage, son? It’s for a wee injury that I got a while ago.’ The words were slurred a little.
‘The bloody thing won’t heal up, though,’ he added. ‘It gives me gyp now and again. Probably not looking after myself properly.’ He ended that last sentence with what sounded like a chuckle.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘So how did that happen, then? The injury?’
There was a long silence, as if Robbie was debating with himself whether to answer me. When he finally spoke, his voice was so low and hoarse that I had to strain to hear him.
‘I got hit with a big lump of burning coal. It fell from the roof of the mine shaft I was working in the night the Michael went on fire.’
I was wide awake now. I sat up in the bed and lit a cigarette. Everyone knew about the fire in the Michael Colliery in Fife. It had occurred a couple of years earlier. The Michael Colliery Disaster, it was called.
‘So you were –’ I began.
‘Aye, I was one of the three hundred and odd men working below ground when the fire started. It was during the night shift on the ninth of September, 1967. Who could forget that date, eh? I was one of the lucky ones, one of the survivors, but some of us didn’t survive. Nine of my mates perished down there. Only six bodies were recovered. The rest had to be sealed in ...’
The words trailed off. Then there was another long silence.
‘That’s why I drink, you know, son,’ he said suddenly. ‘So as not to lie awake all night. So as not to relive those hours. The black smoke belching everywhere, choking you and making you want to vomit. And the burning coal dropping everywhere. A group of us ran to escape from it, but I got lost and ended up in some old workings, away from everything. I was too scared to move after that, so I just shouted and banged the walls with a brick until my voice gave out and I had no strength left. I thought I was going to die, son. It was like being trapped in hell. It was another ten hours before I was rescued ...’
‘I’m really sorry if my questions have brought the memories –’
‘Naw, you’re okay, son. I’ve got enough bevvy in me to make sure that I’ll get a decent sleep. The bevvy’ll be the end of me soon enough, son.’
I had no words to respond to that last statement. In the ensuing silence, Robbie rolled another cigarette. When he struck a match to light it, the flame from the match danced, and I could see that his hands were shaking.
‘After it ... after the fire,’ he continued, ‘I couldn’t work down the pit again, so the Union got me a job pulling pints and collecting glasses in the miners’ club. I liked that at first, because I could have a wee drink while I worked, if you know what I mean, son. But I knew too many people there. There were too many faces reminding me of that ... that night. I had to get away from all that ...
‘Then one of the bosses at the brewery – another Fifer – came to the club and said I was light on my feet and good with the customers and maybe I’d be interested in working for him, going round the country as a relief barman. I jumped at the chance, son.
‘So here I am. I like the work, being in different places and seeing different faces all the time. But just as long as nobody minds if I have a wee drink of lager now and again ... to help me sleep, to help me forget ...’
‘Nobody minds in this place, Robbie,’ I said. ‘Not at all, pal.’
There was silence again. Robbie stubbed out his cigarette and settled down in the bed, his wasted body hardly making a bump in the bedclothes.
‘’Night, son,’ he murmured drowsily.
After a minute or so, I could tell from Robbie’s shallow breathing that he had fallen asleep. I lay awake for a long time, thinking about what he had gone through, the terror that he must have felt during all those hours. I found that I admired, rather than pitied, him for his decision to use drink to end his nightmare; I could see clearly that all he wanted was to fade away peacefully. I also found myself admiring those men from the Union, the brewery and here at the hotel – men from his community, men who understood – for rallying round to enable him to do so with dignity.
– o –