the malty-sweet brew slid down and he smacked his lips, just the tonic. He let out a long, low burp and stared abstractly at the floor, only half aware of the gentle din around him. The air was thick with the scent of cheap, acrid tobacco, unclean bodies, unwashed clothes and alcohol fumes; banks of cigarette smoke hung above the drinkers' heads like bog mist. Mirek halved the contents of his 3/4 litre bottle and reflected on the clientelle; grouped in twos and threes, they bantered and slurred light-hearted curses; most were men just older than himself, late thirties, early forties; they weren't bums, indeed a few of them had a few quid, new motors, were building their own houses, family men. Yet as he took in their faces, he was struck by the same pervading degeneracy and low-life guile. He drained his bottle and quickly banished the fleeting temptation to spend his last twenty dabs on another bottle.
He felt fortified as he crossed the expanse of wasteground behind the bottle store and made for a big cluster of tower blocks. The refuse skips were, as he'd expected, overflowing, and he eagerly set about loading the empty vodka, beer and wine bottles onto his pram. By the time he'd visited the last skip, he could take no more glass, his vehicle was laden high. The forager looked at his haul with satisfaction; another three loads like that and he'd allow himself to call it a day. He decided to warm-up a little before making the two-mile trek to the glass recycler. He wheeled his clinking pram to the stairway entrance of the nearest block and went inside. The radiator and pipes were blasting out the heat and in seconds the forager's extremities began to thaw.
Mirek began to daydream as the early beer, exertion, and the heat of the pipes sent his mind drifting. He began to envisage his evening; he'd have another game of the battle strategy game he'd found on the old PC he'd salvaged the week before. It was amazing what people threw away these days, nothing wrong with the machine, just outdated and with a few loose wires. He'd soon got it in order and hooked up to the monitor he'd repaired from another salvage mission. Just a few dabs with the soldering iron and it was working perfectly.
The soldering iron set him thinking about his last proper job eight years before in the local TV factory. Jesus! Eight years he'd been unemployed, eight years collecting trash and doing odd jobs to make ends meet. He'd been there six years when it closed, back in 89 or 90 when it was privatised. He'd tried hard in the beginning to find new work, but it was dire back then, public utilities and works scything staff like so much dead grass; especially dire for barely-skilled men in their mid-thirties and over.
He had just started to think about Maria, when the yak of old women on the stairs above snapped him out of his reverie. He hurriedly stepped out into the freezing air and could have sworn the temperature had dropped six degrees. As he started to push his booty-laden pram along, a cutting blast of air buffeted against the blocks and seemed to sap all warmth from his head, " Fucking winter!" he cursed.
All the way to the glass recycler, memories of his wife kept invading his mind; he knew she'd never come back, he knew it, but despite the six years that had passed since her last letter, he just couldn't banish her memory, " Fuckin Bitch !" he swore to himself and clenched his frozen fist. Just a year or two in the States, she'd said, a year or two cleaning houses and looking after kids and they'd have enough to build a house, that was the last he'd seen of her.
Three hours later, the loose change from the glass recycler clinking in his pocket, Mirek pushed his empty pram homeward. The sun was a smudgy, blood orange, visibly sinking to the east; he stopped for a second and acknowledged its beauty. The temperature had dropped to at least -14 degrees and the wind had got up. He came to the train tracks and began to manhandle the heavy-framed pram over the steel sleepers. On the far side of the tracks, intense orange tongues of flame danced from a fire in the scrapyard. As he crossed the last track, a squatting figure by the fire hailed him. Mirek peered through the dim, late afternoon light and made out the grinning countenance of his old schoolfriend, Borsuk.
Their paths seldom crossed these days, Borusk specialised in salvaging copper and lead from dustbins, skips and scrapyards. Their fates, since leaving technical school, had been almost identical. Borsuk had been laid off from the local lightbulb factory about the same time as Mirek had lost his job, and since then they'd