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"Henry Fuckbutter" by Brad Petit

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

Henry Fuckbutter was a real man, as real as any before or since. And I’m not just making this up, mind you—you can Google it yourself.

I happened to learn of him recently while doing research for my upcoming talk on edible surnames and their origins. I was in the deep, musty archives at Westminster’s municipal records division when a friend texted me: “Do you know about Henry Fuckbutter?” I thought it was a joke. I kept running my finger down the page of the ledger laid open on the desk in front of me, sliding past the Pooles and Pratts and hoping to land on a Pudding or two. These were the death records for 1751, a particularly fatal year in London, when people were often known to die gin-drunk and filthy in the streets because there was little else going on. I texted my friend back: “Ha ha.” She said she was serious, then sent a link confirming it. She added: “When will you be out of that dreary basement?”

I’d already had a feeling my talk was going to go over well at the Surrey Linguistic Society conference later in the month. They had accepted my proposal and that was quite gratifying. Now I knew right away that Henry Fuckbutter would have to make an appearance. I shut the ledger and took in a large breath, closed my eyes, and saw the faces in Surrey looking up at me from their rows of chairs and tittering upon Henry’s arrival. Tittering or more? I thought of the possibilities. What was certain was that the organisers would be ready with congratulations as I walked off the stage. I would be carrying a folio for my notes unless I had the entire talk committed to memory by then. Either option had its plusses, optically.

If it wasn’t for Henry Fuckbutter, I might have said it wasn’t too productive an afternoon in the archives. I’d managed to confirm a handful of Applebaums and of course some Melons, but I already knew about those. The only other real coup was a young woman named Anna Mincemeat, dead at age twenty-three from—poetically enough—consumption. I wrote down Henry’s name in my journal below Anna’s, his in bigger letters, and I underlined it twice. Then in the space between their names I drew a small heart, followed by an apostrophe-S. Anna loves Henry—how could she not?

I stowed the journal, fastened my bookbag, and climbed the stairs back to the main floor. The street outside the records division was filling up with workers, the buildings starting to drain them here in the government part of town. I felt the lightness of Henry’s spirit within me—this would have been a fine time to slip into a betting shop and put a little flutter on the gee-gees. The last horse that had paid out big for me was one named King’s Corsair, which had struck me as a swift and bankable name. I think I made two hundred pounds off her. But I looked at my watch and let the fantasy go. The previous time I’d kept Olivia waiting she pouted for the duration of our happy hour; I could tell.

As it was, she was already at the pub when I arrived. She had found us a small table by the window, where the sun came in through the old, rippled glass. Olivia and I liked this pub for the quaint touches like that, and the bartop worn down by so many forearms, et cetera. The airy market just down the street may have been always overrun with tourists, but this pub of ours still commanded something of a true and authentic clientele: the south-of-Thames labouring class; the ale critic; the pensioner who’d sooner die than drink elsewhere. We could coexist here, even tolerate the drip of holidaygoers who came in eagerly like they’d just stepped inside of a postcard. If anything, they gave us something to verify our own authenticity against, didn’t they? Olivia and I never talked about this but you could see it in the eyes of any regular as they sized up this person or that who walked through the door. You could see it in their eyes and face.

Olivia had a tall glass of lager in front of her on the table. Tennent’s, probably—her favourite.

“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know what you wanted.”

I nodded in agreement. I never knew, either. I made my ritual examination of the taps and returned to the table with my pint. I’d selected a real nice bitter from Wiltshire.

“So,” I said. “Tell me about this Henry chap. Is he … handsome?”

Olivia laughed and maybe blushed—people are said to blush more often than they actually do. But her cheeks were warm and soft from the day’s makeup nevertheless. She wore her blouse comfortably, naturally, admirably. She must have had an important presentation for a client earlier or she would have been dressed down a bit more.

“Hard to be handsome when you’re dead seven hundred years, isn’t it?”

“Amazing the names they had back then,” I said.

“Hard to be much of anything,” Olivia said.

A starmaking turn in Surrey, I considered, could attract the attention of larger societies like the one at Cambridge. Or the TED people, if you’ve heard of them. An internet audience can be unthinkably vast, the reach tremendous. Every member of my family could tune in; for some of them, it would be the first time they’d hear me use a vulgarity. My grandmum would lean over to her daughter, my aunt, who looks after her at their home near Sheffield: “What did he just say?” And my aunt would have to yell it back to her.

If I was a bartender I would invent a drink called the Henry Fuckbutter.

The cook dropped off a plate of chips along with a bottle of malt vinegar and some packets of mayonnaise. Olivia had taken the liberty of ordering them along with her Tennent’s. She pushed the plate into the middle of the table, whereupon I tore open the packets and squeezed them out next to the pile of hot chips.

“Do people still know who Peter Frampton is?” I said.

“The musician?”

“Right—he’s from Kent, you know.”

“I had no idea,” Olivia said.

“His keyboardist was named Bob Mayo.”

Olivia drizzled some vinegar about the plate. On one of our early visits here she’d asked if I wanted her to leave my share of the chips dry, which of course I didn’t. Potatoes and vinegar were meant to be together, I’d told her. If there was a God who had a plan, that was it, I remember saying.

I dipped two chips in the mayonnaise and entered them into my mouth unselfconsciously. “Poor Bob Mayo died of a heart attack while on tour, in Basel. I might include that in the talk but I’m not certain yet.”

While swallowing I stared at the table and weighed the value of that detail.

“There’s a new film out with Naomi Watts,” Olivia said. “I thought I might go see it. You’ve always liked her, haven’t you?”

“Have I?”

Olivia put her hand around her glass without taking a drink. She smiled strangely toward me—more at me than to me, or perhaps the other way around. Over my shoulder there were great laughs coming from deep in the pub somewhere. The sound of two people united in happiness. The pub the place where it’s possible. I thought I should run over to them and tell them all about Henry Fuckbutter, who resounded in my imagination like a shimmering orb. That was a funny mad thought, I knew, and at any rate it would have been gauche to leave Olivia stranded at the table like that.

Brad Petit was born in Washington, D.C., in the same hospital as Duke Ellington. You might recognize his writing from Impossible Task, Press Pause, the Raleigh News & Observer, or elsewhere. He now lives in South Carolina.

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