“A Night Just Like Any Other” — a short story by Bradford Middleton

December 15th, 2020

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“A Night Just Like Any Other,” a story by Bradford Middleton, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 55th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.

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“Man Smoking,” by James Brewer

Man Smoking is a painting by James Brewer

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A Night Just Like Any Other

By Bradford Middleton

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…..Frank’s day begins as so many have in the last decade, a decade lost to a job, a way of life, as his phone wakes him with the bourbon-drenched tones of Tom Waits announcing he ‘can’t wait to get off work.’  Frank knows he will have that sentiment lingering in his mind until he returns home later, much later in fact, after another shift at the tavern of ill-repute.  Beginning his day as he has almost every other he moves to his chair with a piping hot mug of tea and proceeds to construct and then smoke a big fat joint.  It helps ease him in to his day, almost every day for as long as he’s had to live in the adult world has begun the same way.  After breakfast is devoured he builds a few more joints for hopeful contemplation at some point later, hell if the bar becomes quiet for a few short whiles he might just get away with enjoying himself on the steps desperate for no new customers as he tokes a frenzy of smoke.  Pulling on a few clothes which he hopes aren’t stained too badly he knows already, even before he leaves his room, what his shift will hold in store for him.  Finally he is ready to leave his room, this house which has kept him captive for all these years to that other place he’s lost years in, namely the bar, the tavern of ill-repute.

…..The air hits him good, soft like a blanket being wrapped around a poor soul who needs some comforting, finally casting aside the rush of drinks and smokes he’d enjoyed during the last part of his shift, naturally the night before.  Walking towards the seafront Frank can feel his humanity slowly crawling out from under the hammer of intoxication but he knows it’s only a matter of time before it crawls right back under.  The second he walks into the bar he spots his regulars, the three who pay most of the wages through their drinking, and he is immediately offered a drink by one of them.  He accepts their offer and pours himself a large bourbon, straight no chaser just as it should be, and slams it down in one.

…..“Morning boss,” he announces to Paul who is already busying himself with customers, the detritus of the job centre, both claimants and civil servants, as well as the day trippers hoping it stops raining in time for them to enjoy the pier at some point.

…..“Morning Frank,” he responds, signaling it’s cool for his colleague to step outside and have a smoke before he starts in on his day.  Frank moderates his behaviour for the first and only time when he stands on the steps which lead out the side-door of the bar and smokes a straight roll-up.  After his large double it helps to ease him back into the remembrance that it is still only morning, late morning for sure but he has learnt, after years, nearly decades of experience, that it is sometimes best to hold back on the hard stuff until later, much later than this anyhow.  He smokes his roll-up down and walks back in, immediately navigating his way behind the bar, his territory, the place where he can so often be found.  It’ll either be here, on either side of the bar, the shop at the top of the road where you can buy just about anything, or his room just a bit further along still or on the street somewhere in between the three.  Beyond the occasional disgruntled pot dealer or the gang of mad obsessives desperate for news on their old favourites at the bar, fortunately these people don’t come around much so he is mostly in demand from those three at the end of the bar.

…..Jim is a middle-aged stoner who rarely takes his leather jacket off and always drinks lager with the occasional shot of Tequila when in desperate need.  His forty-odd years have seen him move from the old punk/metal he still loves into an appreciation for the old blues and jazz, and the last time they’d got a chance to talk, yesterday obviously, there had even been talk of Beethoven and Stravinsky.

…..“That Stravinsky is punk as fuck!” he’d proclaimed, “Anyone who can write a bit of music that causes riots is a great in my book,” he concluded, and Frank could do nothing but ask him more.  Jim can invariably be spotted sitting at the end stool near the top of the stairs that lead down to the dungeon of a toilet.  He rarely talks, but when he does Frank listens.

…..Two stools up from him is Derek, a writer of formidable talent but a kitchen porter by necessity.  He sits reading a weighty tome of hardcore Russian literature whilst keeping his coat on to protect from the chilled air coming through the door right behind where he sits.  He sits brooding over Dostoevsky, a trail of filtered cigarettes to be tapped on the bar and then smoked outside in between bouts of drinking from his pints of ale.

…..Sat next to him is Veronica, twenty years his senior and drinking a tall pint of a beautiful Czech lager, she will spend most of the day desperate to get Paul engaged with the daily crossword quiz in her newspaper.  She is the true boss of this bar, the one even the managers curtail to, and has already outlasted four in the time Frank has been there.  How many she has seen come and go in the decades she’s spent within these four walls no one is sure.  At best Veronica could stab at a guess but could in no way name all of them.

…..Frank checks their drinks first.  If, and only if, they are all good to leave, will he progress up the bar.  He knows a cup of coffee will sort him for his afternoon and he turns the kettle on just as a group of shirt-and-tie office workers appear, the first of the lunchtime rush, all eager for drink, all desperate for a purely liquid lunch.  There are some who bring sandwiches or food from outside but as long as they spend their money behind the bar Paul don’t care.

…..“Four pints of lager,” a gruff South London voice asks turning to a crowd sat around the corner table and gesticulating that the drinks are all sorted and will be arriving soon.

…..“Twenty quid please mate,” Frank tells this unfamiliar down-from-London escapee.  A note is passed and cashed in the register and the drinker somehow carries all four pints to the corner as Frank retreats to his regulars.  The afternoon is set.

…..“Ah shit,” Jim announces to no one in particular before placing his phone back in his pocket.

…..“Frank!  Can you get me a large bourbon my friend? No ice, straight up!” he calls over and immediately he is back to work.

…..“Everything okay Jim?” Frank asks placing the drink down in front of his favourite regular knowing that sometimes someone, it can be anyone really, to listen is almost, but never, more important as being the provider of their drinks.

…..“Ah just more bad news from the job.  They’ll need me in later and I was looking forward to a nice delinquent day in my favourite delinquent boozer with my favourite delinquent barman!”

…..“Well what time you got to start?”

…..“Not until later, much much later.  On night duty which means I need to be there at about quarter to 10 ready to take over on the hour.  On the upside its generally quiet, so quiet I often think what are they paying me for, until the cleaners come in around half-5, 6 am.  By then I’m almost sober and awake so I can deal with the morning take-over as if I’ve just had a good nights’ rest.”

…..“Shit Jim, sounds like you got it made.  Could do with a cushy little number like that myself,” Frank jokes knowing Paul is easily within ear-shot.

…..“Ha ha, but then where the hell would we all come for our good tunes and good times?” Jim questions, continuing to laugh to himself.  Jim soon orders another beer and slowly, as the lunchtime rush slows to a crawl, the afternoon settles in to its relatively relaxed state.  Paul and Veronica struggle over the crosswords puzzles that seem to have multiplied since the last time Frank had checked whilst Derek reads on whilst occasionally supping at his pint of ale or rushing outside for a fresh hit of tobacco.  Jim and Frank talk music and weed and drink in between customers coming and going from the bar.  It is the usual crowd of job centre refugees, day trippers now bored of the pier and the hardier souls of the local populace who come and go.  It’s all Frank ever seems to do, come here, go home, repeat again and again until that day when he dreams of being free but that kind of dream is just that, a big fat dream that will never be lived, not until he reaches retirement age anyway.  He often laughs to himself in his darkest hour at the prospect of collapsing with a heart attack behind the bar on his last shift, so close to being a free soul at last only for it to be robbed from him at the last opportunity, so typical in his life.  If he ever does he knows to tell anyone who’ll listen come that horrendously inevitable day that the heart attack is stress-induced, the thought of having so many free hours, days, years hopefully of not being here.  Decades perhaps of reading all those great books at home, listening to all that music and drinking alone yet somehow he knows it will never, ever happen.  It will go just like so much in his life.

…..The afternoon slowly crawls into evening and the after-work crowd appear and then after drinking a few expensive lagers or wines, or in an occasional rare case an expensive malt whiskey, they leave.  Off to their suburban mortgaged homes to prepare for another day at the onslaught tomorrow whilst at the bar not much happens with Frank’s regulars.  Jim slows his drinking as the imminent hour he’s due at work comes closer but he knows there’s no way he’s going home before, he’ll just go straight through.  Around half-six, in the middle of the post-work rush, Veronica performs the almost inevitable transition in drinks; as soon as she feels the lager working a bit too well she switches to port.  It generally works out at several in the end and despite protestations that she will be leaving after ‘just one more’ it seems she never will see the end of that one drink.  Derek will no doubt come out of his Dostoevskian bunker at some point during the early post-work rush and soon he’ll move on to drinking whiskey and smoking Marlboro Reds, smouldering in a way the middle-aged, middle-class office ladies can’t resist.  Frank knows that Derek goes home with at least 2 or 3 every week but always waits until after Veronica leaves, knowing full-well his surrogate mum, heck the mother of the bar, would no doubt persuade him into something longer-term than what he’s got planned, which will see her gone by the time he wakes.   Inevitably he will  return here the next morning in order to drown any love out of his soul for his latest conquest.

…..Today the three of them drink slower than usual but the visitors make up for it, an almost decadent air pervading the bar as spirits are crunched with ice and at 3 pm cocktails are ordered.  For some the weekend starts early, for Frank and his kind it never ends and hasn’t since the dawn of this millennium when he finally graduated university with a masters degree in something he found interesting yet which has so far come nowhere near delivering the huge salary he was promised.  He only ever spends money on rent, drink, smokes, food, books, films and music and there still isn’t even enough to cover these vital ingredients let alone more adult things such as houses or cars or holidays and he knows his life will remain like this.

…..With the after-work crowd gone or set in for the remainder of the night Frank awaits the next onslaught with a dread.  The young and beautiful will soon invade this sole sanctuary for the middle-aged delinquents of the neighbourhood and with them will come calls for small glasses of wine, cans of trendy expensive craft beers as well as the occasional cocktail.  Frank often thinks why? Why do they come here, on a street with so many other options for the young trendy drinker do they come here? Again and again he asks himself.  The first wave arrive and it’s all beautiful manicured beards and designer lumberjack shirts.

…..“Do you have any of that Gipsy Hill beer?” the first of them ask and after rolling his eyes Frank lists off a few of the beers they have available from the brewery near to where his Nan used to work almost seventy years before but which has now changed beyond all recognition.

…..“Just one more,” Veronica announces at the end of the bar loud enough for everyone to hear.  The young hipster laughs to himself as Frank hands over the can of beer.

…..“That’ll be five pounds,” he says as the man-child reaches for his phone and taps it against the card reader.  It beeps and Frank turns to place the receipt in the cash register.  Few people now call it that but Frank is resolutely old-school and will always use cash in a bar.  Purely for the fact he could never trust himself with a debit card, it could end in ruin, homeless and destitute just because of one nights’ crazy over-indulgence.  Another one comes and goes and soon he’s served the entire table; eight cans at forty pound for about four pints.  Frank moves off down the bar laughing at how they always seem to moan how their student loans are never enough.

…..Looking up at the clock for the first time in a long while he notices he is on the home straight.  The two late night workers are in place and now, with the time ticking around half-8, he knows it’s only half-an-hour before he can get on the right side of the bar.

…..“Hi Sally, hi Connor… Doing good tonight?”

…..“Yeah all good Frank,” young Connor responds.

…..“Bit hungover in all honesty,” Sally replies causing Frank to laugh.

…..“Ah sweet Sally, did you over-do it a bit last night?”

…..“Yeah just a bit.  Any chance you can make me one of your genius Bloody Mary’s?”

…..“Sure honey, must be a stinger of an ache!”

…..“Definitely, I ain’t mixing gin and red wine ever again…”

…..Frank gets to work and knocks himself up another whiskey whilst he’s at it and soon everyone is stood around happy.  The table in the corner has emptied but another influx has already replaced them.  They sit around a large table at the end of the bar, all bravado and youthful confidence, drinking who knows what.  Frank doesn’t care, his shift will soon be over and the second it is he’s poised to step right outside and spark the first of the nights’ delirium.  Having dug a joint out of his bag it nestles in his coat pocket and as soon as the big hand on the clock ticks around to the hour he is through the door and toking.  That first one after a break is always a wonderful feeling, taking him back to that place he always feels most comfortable, and letting him forget any bad thoughts that may have come into his head during his work-day.  Re-entering the bar, all the better for the smoke and now being on the right side of the bar, a smile creeps across his face.

…..“Ah Frank,” Veronica says, climbing to her feet for the first time in a long while, “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” she finishes as she pulls on her Arctic proof jacket in preparation for the 500 metres walk home.  As she shuffles off out the front door Connor moves to the back of the bar and turns the bar’s decrepit PA system up a notch to reveal Koko Taylor telling everyone about her wang-dang-doodle and how she’s going to be doing something ‘all night long…’  The young kids on the large table look barely old enough to even know what the hell she’s talking about.

…..Derek immediately relocates to a far corner where a couple of the middle-aged office ladies remain and Frank knows a new pattern has been set.  Jim offers to buy him a beer in exchange for a share of a joint before he needs to leave for work and Frank obviously agrees.  A nice pint and a large double sit in front of him and with the smoke still soothing his mind he is, at last, the happiest, most content he’s been all day.  All day when he’s been dreaming of this moment.  This moment when he can finally say he’s finally ‘off work’ and yet somehow he knows tomorrow, another midday until 9 pm shift, will be exactly like today just as how today was just like yesterday.  It could so easily become a lifetime of this.

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Bradford Middleton lives on England’s south-coast in the town of Brighton having been born in London during the long hot summer of 1971.  He graduated university late and moved here not knowing anyone and with no money; in those first months and years he began writing stories and poems as there was nothing more to do as the bars were too expensive for his slim wallet.  His short fiction has appeared in all kinds of places, in magazines such as Razur Cuts, Blink-Ink and the Brighton Argus and online at Mondays are Murder (Akashic Books), Fuck Fiction, Punk Noir, Work Lit Mag, Degenerate Literature, Horror Sleaze Trash, White Liquor, Unlikely Stories V5 and Winamop.  He occasionally tweets but not too often @BradfordMiddle5. 

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One comments on ““A Night Just Like Any Other” — a short story by Bradford Middleton”

  1. Very fine story. Took me back to my drinking days and the lovely bars that I pretty much called home.

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