Fren Burt is sitting across from me drinking a milk and vodka on the rocks. Too poor to afford coffee liqueur, too politically correct to order a ‘white’ Russian. There’s a wasp in my beer. Sunlight refracts through the glass onto its squirming body. Nobody saves a drowning wasp, do they? They will sting your finger. Fren doesn’t pay the wasp any attention. He’s swirling the melting ice cubes around the glass, lost in thought. He smells like a baby, creamy and faecal, and then he starts rambling with a child’s voice.
‘Conspiracy theorists entice me because, you know, even if they sound mental, how do you really know, you know?’
He takes a sip of his milk and vodka. The ice has melted and looks like egg yolk in the glass. There’s a thin line of Stalinesque-white on his upper lip. Fren talks like this because we’ve been drinking for three days straight. It’s late May, the sun is high, and it’s Wednesday. Last night we rolled around on the pavement and ate kebabs out of the dirt. Fren’s sport jumper is ripped and there’s pigeon shit on my smart black trousers, the same ones I bought to wear to my graduation ceremony almost five years ago. The waitress comes over, she’s wearing a tight blue dress, there’s sweat on her forehead and sweat under her arms, she looks at us both with open disgust. Fren orders another vodka and milk. She gives him a look. I feel like getting up and shouting that my friend can drink whatever the hell he likes without judgement, it’s the 21st century isn’t it, damn it?
But, look out, Miss Waitress! You’ve got a mole on your chin, and you don’t see us staring at it, judging you, do you? Unfortunately, both Fren and I are staring at the mole with a simultaneous intensity which frightens me, let alone the girl. Fren grins at me with his smashed-up teeth. A doped-up boy in a dentist’s chair. The waitress walks away from the table with her hand over her chin. Fren turns back to me, as if he’d never been interrupted.
‘My favourite is flat earth theory. Imagine that, we circumnavigated the world hundreds of years ago in boats made from trees – actual, like, wood – with nothing but lemons and gull in our bellies and there’s still people on this planet that think it’s flat? You know what. I’m one of them.’ Fren giggles. ‘What I don’t get about it is why anyone would make that shit up. Who benefits from the earth being flat if it’s not actually flat? Or – who benefits from telling us all that the earth is round if it’s flat? Who wins in that situation, Eric? Who wins?’
It’s only three pm and Fren is already starting to get that manic look in his eye. It’s about this time that I crumble Xanax into his vodka and milk but we’re all out of Xanax. Milk foams at the corner of his mouth. Fren drains the rest of the watery milk and vodka from the tumbler and glances at my untouched pint. The wasp has stopped struggling but neither of us know if it’s dead yet. Maybe it has accepted its fate, relaxed, afloat on the Dead Sea. To die in a pint is the best way to go.
I’m overcome with dread. Sinks right through me from my brain to my toes. Here in front of us is the allegory of our existence. Nothing grand like a leopard finally capturing something to eat after four days of starvation and hot Savannah air, or the squealing cheer of two conceiving panda bears, or even the lowly salmon realising, after going the same way upstream for four hundred years, there’s a dam in the way and they’ll have to turn around. No. Nothing as grand as all that: we’re the twitching legs of a dying wasp, afloat in a pint of Fosters.
The waitress has arrived and puts the glass of vodka and milk in front of Fren. She stares at me, but I’m slumped over the glass, staring at the wasp. The scent of stale beer rises from a stain on my left arm. I don’t even acknowledge her.
‘He’s alright,’ says Fren on my behalf, ‘he just hates Wednesdays.’