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THE FORAGER

by

Bruce Downie

Copyright © 2001
All Rights Reserved



He poked his head from under the weighty mass of blankets and squinted across the room at the window. Rubbing his bleary eyes, Mirek squinted harder, " Good ! No fucking snow!" he thought. Snow was bad, snow was a curse on his vocation, it slowed a man down, it was three times as hard to push the pram through half a foot of fresh, thick snow.

After a few minutes of contemplation, he pushed back the bedclothes and got out of bed. The room was freezing; he shuffled over to the window and had a look at the thermometer: -9 degrees centigrade, not so bad. He piled a load of wood chips in the iron grate, squirted a jet of lighter fuel over them and tossed on a match. He waited a few minutes before placing a few pieces of broken garden fence into the grate. Mirek let the warmth of the flames lick some life into his stiff bones and flu-plagued muscles.

As he warmed up, the day ahead began to form in his mind: first down to the supermarket; it was Monday and with the long weekend, the trash bins would be full; then down through the estate, there was sure to be plenty bottles left over from parties, maybe even a few refundable beer and wine bottles.

He was just finishing his coffee, when out of the corner of his eye, Mirek spotted the bastard, bold as brass, nibbling on a fragment of old toast which had fallen off the table; nibbling it was, and casting the odd glance up at him with its beady, glistening, black eyes. Not turning his head, Mirek slowly wrapped his hand around the steel poker leaning against the grate; then, with one arching movement, he brought it crashing down on the floorboards. The rat squealed and squeezed its plump body through the hole in the skirting board, leaving Mirek the tip of its ugly, black tail. "One of these days, my friend! One of these days!", muttered Mirek.

The previous day's packed snow crunched beneath his boots as the forager walked down his unpaved street. The cold air took his breath away and he could feel the mucus-coated hairs in his nostrils crackle with frost. The street had changed drastically over the past decade; once a typical village street, lined with wooden, single-storey houses of the traditional peasant type, now, characterized by towering, breezeblock carbuncles with high, wrought-iron gates. When his mother had passed on six winters before, the street had been part of the village. The potato strips, carp ponds and apple trees remained, yet the village had been consumed by the rapid urban sprawl. As the old folk passed away, their dollared offspring moved in, demolishing the nineteenth-century, wooden hovels and replacing them with breezeblock castles. As Mirek passed one of these monoliths, a garish red, five-story rectangle with a new Mercedes in the drive, he made his first find of the day; a big cardboard box filled wth all manner of bottles. Cheerfully, he loaded the box onto the pram and continued on his way.

He got out of the rutted, snowpacked lanes of his neighbourhood and into the outskirts of the town proper. Fifteen-floor, concrete housing blocks loomed ahead and a steady stream of sludge-grey traffic streamed in and out of the town along the potholed dual carriageway. As Mirek passed a bus stop, a bus pulled in and a throng of sullen, swathed passengers streamed out. A few youths cursed him as he pushed his pram over their feet and a rotund old woman put down her two buckets of cabbages to curse his inconsiderate behaviour. Mirek wasn't sure who he detested more at that moment, the yobs or the grudge-filled harridan. He was about to fling back an insult when the bus pulled away, enveloping him in a thick, black cloud of diesel.

The diesel still lingered in his nose and throat when he stopped outside the bottle store. The peeling sign above the door boasted BEER WINE VODKA. He entered and elbowed his way to the counter. The shop was packed with about twenty men all clutching or swigging from one-litre bottles of cherry wine or the strongest cheap beer. A few drunken greetings were thrown at him from different nooks of the hovel, but he paid no heed, knowing that acknowledgement would only be followed by cadging, " just a few dabs for another wine, old friend ! " Mirek placed five empty beer bottles on the sticky counter and asked for a bottle of Strong. The robust, middle-aged woman dropped the empties into a crate and took a bottle from the shelf; she paused for a second, the bottle opener poised above the bottle, and on registering Mirek`s nod, flicked off the top. He found a free space at the far end of the counter and lit a cigarette.

The bottle was cold in his palm, he raised it to his chapped lips and took a four-gulp swig;


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