Arkin poured some milk into Drew’s mug, lifted the dirty kettle and splashed the hot water onto the heaped spoonful of coffee. He indicated towards the young mechanic sitting sullenly against the workshop wall. “Don’t worry about Monkey,” he said. “We call him that because he does bugger all but hang around all day.”
The other men had moved out into the stark light of the mine site. They were looking at something in the back of Jake’s truck.
Arkin threw a cigarette lighter at Monkey and it bounced off the corrugated iron wall. “Ignore him,” Arkin said. “He’s been miserable ever since his girlfriend shot through.” He bent down towards Monkey with his hands on his knees. “You was in love, wasn’t you, Monkey.”
Drew began to feel himself at the centre of something that had been staged for his benefit. He began to resent Arkin. The foreman turned to him. “Bloody love. Another victim of the Christmas Club.”
Drew found himself saying, “What’s that?” and immediately wishing he had not been drawn so easily into Arkin’s play. He felt complicit in something that he could not define.
The foreman pulled himself backwards onto a large upright oil drum. He sat there, legs hanging before him, hands gripping the drum’s rim unnecessarily. He had lost his easy manner and looked like a speaker rehearsed in his subject but unsure of the audience. Drew had no doubt now that he was the audience.
“Well, you think about it,” Arkin started. “It doesn’t matter what sort of childhood you had, you loved Christmas, right? You ask anyone – it doesn’t matter if they come from St Martins or Brexwood, they loved Christmas.” He began to take a cigarette packet out of his shirt pocket. “So, what happens at Christmas? You get presents, right? And everyone is happy – your neighbours, the people at the shops, your mum and dad, everyone. So you make the connection, right? Things can make you happy. And then you figure that if things make you happy then the bigger the thing, the more happiness, right?”
Arkin looked directly at Drew, held on to his cigarette but did not light it. “And that feeling never leaves you. Even when you’re an old bastard like me.”
Monkey didn’t look up but he said, “Well, you got the last part right anyway.”
The foreman lit his cigarette and drew deeply. “The trouble is childhood’s too strong, isn’t it. You never quite get rid of the stuff you learn as a kid. That’s why we’re all out in this fuckin’ shit heap – just trying to get enough money to buy bigger presents.”
Monkey looked up, interested despite himself, “And what’s that got to do with love?”
Arkin wiped the rim of his coffee mug with his thumb. “Love’s just the biggest present. You can’t actually buy it but that just makes you want it more.” He laughed. “You can’t buy it but you sure pay for it, don’t you, Monkey.”
He slipped off the oil drum and moved towards the grease-smeared sink. “Love’s just another thing to own,” he said.
Monkey stood up and ground his cigarette into the workshop floor. “You’re a fuckin’ marvel, Arkin.” Then he grinned at Drew. “See the kind of bullshit I have to put up with every day?”
(From a short story called “Inland”)