HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

First And Last

First and last, thirst and lust, fear and loss. Billy Boy has been standing outside the pub for ten minutes and is on his third cigarette. He remembers how he stood in the same place over forty years ago looking at this box of light in the dark city. His father with one hand on the pub door shouting ‘Come on Billy, you are my excuse.’
Every picture is of someone dying. Billy recalls a few years back when everyone was younger, before his mum was gone for good. She is standing outside the pub, her collar turned up and her arms crossed, hands up her sleeves like a muff. Her eyes closed.
‘I’ll kill your fuckin’ father one of these days.’
‘What’s he done this time ?’
‘It’s what he hasn’t done the lazy gobshite.’ She wipes her cheek with the back of her hand. ‘I’m sick of him.’
A voice from inside: ‘June baby come back inside and have another drink.’ She opens the door. ‘Over here pet.’ It was the last time before she walked out on him for good.

He must have gone through those doors at least thirty thousand times over the years. ‘Ah by Jesus Billy come on. How hard can it be ?’ He stubs out the cigarette with his foot. ‘Pull yourself to fucking gether.’ And with that he strides towards the pub and pushes himself inside. Opening the biggest door of all. The first drink. ‘This is my boy Billy.’ The proud father with his gangly son shuffling from one foot to the other, taking it all in, learning more in half an hour than he did in years at school.
‘What you having Billy Boy ?’
That’s how the name stuck. After that he was always Billy Boy. Even now when he is nearly sixty - even to those who are nothing but boys themselves. A nickname is like a badge. It shows you belong.
By the time he stepped into the pub that first time Billy Boy already knew about drink. His mum and dad were both big drinkers and they had let him have a drop of their carry outs for as long as he could remember. But crossing the threshold and being accepted into the club, this was a rite of passage from which there was no going back.

The pub just after five, the quiet time, the dead time, before it fills up with bodies and conversation. The door swings once on its squeaky hinges. You can hear the clock ticking. People turn as you enter. They are too far gone to go back now. They are waiting for the evening to take them over. The barmaid smiles and stops wiping down the top of the bar. You are home.
The standard greeting in the pub is ‘alright ?’ If you are a regular it is ‘alright Tom ?’ or ‘alright Pete ?’ If you are a stranger it is ‘alright mate ?’ Though phrased as a question it is not really a question at all. Rule one in the pub is that you never respond to the greeting with an honest answer. If Steve, for example, was to respond by saying ‘No. I’ve had a shit day. The youngest was taken to hospital and I have been laid off at work’ Steve would soon find that he was no longer welcome in the pub. There are only a small number of acceptable ways of replying to the greeting. You must always answer (preferably with a quick nod of the head) either by saying 1) Yeh. And you ? or 2) Not bad or 3) I am now. If you really have had an awful day you can say 4) Could be worse.

After he heard the news Billy Boy came straight from the hospital to the pub and drank five straight whiskies. There was no where else to go. No one to talk to. When his dad was dying his mum came round to let him know. ‘I wish you hadn’t,’ he said. ‘What am I meant to do ?’

‘The only medicine’ he muttered to the empty bar. It was three in the afternoon and the pub was filled with golden light.
Tracey said: ‘What you celebrating then ?’
Billy Boy laughed. ‘I’ll tell you later.’ But he never did. Why would you tell a barmaid something like that ?

That evening he stands like an actor at the entrance to the bar and awaits his cue. The regulars turn and say ‘Alright Billy Boy ?’ He does not answer.

______________________________________________________________________

Billy Boy is a good drinker, a fellow drinker, a companionable drunk. Before his wife left him he would come to the pub after work and be home by seven. Now he comes to the pub at five and does not leave. A good drinker is one who can be trusted to turn up every night, who drinks with gusto but never gets too drunk, who is always ready for a laugh even when he doesn’t feel like it. In a pub like this you piss in the pot with everyone else or you are out. They don’t like quiet drinkers here - the sort who mumble into their beer and look down their noses at others. Keep themselves to themselves. Nor do they like silly drinkers or mean drinkers. They don’t like anyone who upsets the balance.

They don’t mind if you are mad though. Frank is a holy drinker. He honestly believes that God wants him to drink. He tears his shirt open when he is truly gone and pours the drink over his bare chest like some ancient shaman chanting obscenities. He finds messages everywhere.

‘Will you look at this’ he hollered one night. ‘Oh praise the Lord.’ He is holding a crisp in his hand, high up like it is a winning lottery ticket. ‘Jesus is amongst us !’
‘Sit down you fuckin’ loon !’
‘God has sent Christ down to the heathens.’
Some of them go over. The crisp does look a bit like Jesus. It is sort of face shaped and the coating has clumped together to make eyes and a beard. Jiffy picks it up to look more closely. ‘There is a resemblance I’ll give you that. What flavour is he ?’ He pops the crisp into his mouth.
‘You will damned’ cries Frank. ‘You owe the Lord a drink.’
Billy Boy looks around the bar. The decorations have gone up for another year although all the regulars hate Christmas. ‘Who wants to spend time with the family,’ they say pretending they have any.

For the past ten years Billy Boy has spent Christmas alone getting drunk, watching TV and waiting for it all to be over. ‘Seeing the kids this Christmas ?’ asks the barmaid. They wouldn’t want him near. Once maybe but not now. Too much time has passed.

He digs into his pocket and finds the Christmas card from the Chinese across the road with the menu printed on the back. After Sandra left him (she did love a Chinese) he got into the habit of having take aways delivered to the pub just before closing time (no drinker eats before he drinks). He won’t be doing that tonight.

________________________________________________________________________

Last winter Billy Boy’s chest started hurting all the time. Sometimes a sharp pain and sometimes a dull ache but hurting all the time. After a few months he went into hospital to get it sorted. They gave him this treatment and that – everyday a different coloured pill. Now he only hurts about half the time.
When Billy Boy lost his hair he stayed away from the pub for a couple of weeks. When he came back they all stopped talking. Only the jukebox carried on. Then Wally said ‘that’s some haircut you got there Billy Boy. I’d ask for my fookin money back if I was you,’ and everyone laughed and it was never mentioned again.
Anything can start the pain off but there are only two ways of getting rid of it. One is to inflict on your body more pain, to punch a wall or to smash your head against the bar. Sometimes Billy Boy kicks himself hard or pinches his skin until it bleeds and that seems to help. The other way is to drink.
Message in a bottle. Drink responsibly my arse. Now Billy Boy drinks for what is to come and all the things that won’t. He drinks to stop the pain and to forget, to clear the memories that are frosting inside his head. He wants amnesia and forgiveness. He drinks because he still can and because there is nothing else to do.
Billy Boy drinks until he dribbles language. He wants to talk but the words bubble and drown in his mouth.

We all live for the next good time. Everyone searching for that moment when they can lose themselves and a sudden joy will overcome them, when they move to a different plane. When the whole pub seems to become a single entity.
A band in the corner of the bar dressed like Showaddywaddy. Playing old tunes from the sixties. Tommo in front spread out on the floor like a star. Singing his heart out. ‘He’s a fuckin’ disgrace.’
‘Yeh but he’s our disgrace.’
Billy Boy and Sandra are dancing. He nuzzles her neck and slides down into the hollows beneath her chin. She holds him steady as she tries to find her mouth with a cigarette. He is dreaming the movie inside his head and she is dreaming of love and babies. ‘Another drink ?’
They are as bad as each other. ‘Just one more to finish what we have started.’
Out of the corner of his eye he sees his mum and stepdad propping each other up like the last ones standing from a marathon dance. She is a puppet whose strings have been cut. Mascara is dripping down her nose. He has a bottle in one hand and a fag in the other. ‘The poor cow to end up with another one like that’ gossip the old women on the green banquettes. ‘He’s a bleeding derelict.’
‘Will you marry me ?’ Billy Boy asks Sandra.
‘Will I fuck.’
For better or worse. Only a madman would ever think it will get better.

_______________________________________________________________________

The jukebox is playing. Sinatra. Big Frank. The drinker’s favourite. The karaoke choice of every middle aged man in the country. Emotion for the emotionless, for those who have forgotten how to feel. One for my baby and one more for the road. In the wee small hours. Fly me to the moon. And My Way, the most popular choice for funerals.
Death comes regularly to the pub but it is hidden. Habitués die of old age or in car crashes or in accidents at work. No one dies directly from alcohol but it is nearly always a contributing factor. In most cases they simply stop coming into the pub and later someone will read about it in the local paper. No one would dream of going to the funeral – it would bring it all too close to home.
Only one person has actually died in the pub itself and that was Max who, as his name suggests, never did anything by halves. One night he simply fell off his stool and never got up. Everyone said that was the way to go.
‘And now, the end is near. So I face the final curtain….’
‘Turn that depressing shite off,’ shouts Billy Boy as he stumbles towards the loo.
Men on the edge. Billy Boy is standing at the urinal with his hand on the damp tiles. The air tastes metallic. Here men become the boys they once were.
‘This place is literally a piss-hole’ says Tom the twin. ‘All my money goes down this fuckin’ drain.’ He has never been the same since his brother moved south a few years ago. He is shaking and a sheen of desperation coats his face.
‘It’s too late to stop now,’ says Billy Boy.
‘There are too many ghosts here’ says Tom. ‘We are all like fuckin’ ghosts and we haven’t even died yet.’
The two men zip and return to the bar.

Closing time. The clock speeds up, minutes become seconds. The ritual is this: the barmaid rings the bell for last orders and you either shake your head or point to your glass or ask for a short of some kind. Then somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes later (‘You don’t want me to lose my licence do you ?’) you drink up and put on your coat and the barmaid says ‘Finished hun ?’ and you nod and she picks up your glass saying ‘Good night darling.’
And you are gone.

Tonight Billy Boy leaves before the bell. ‘Aye,’ he says ‘then I’ll be away.’
‘That’s not like you’ says Tracey. ‘You must be coming down with something.’
His hands burrow deep into the pockets of his coat. He turns the lighter over, taps it against the loose change. ‘Just a bit knackered that’s all’.
Budgie looks up from his beer. ‘A last drink Billy Boy ?’
‘Not tonight.’
Budgie nods ‘Til the morra then.’
Other voices: ‘Night Billy Boy, catch you later, so long Billy.’

Glasses raised like torches from the bar. The drunks farewell. The conversation closing in behind him.
Billy Boy hesitates at the door as if he has forgotten something. He feels the whole of his life standing behind his shoulders. This is his last chance to say goodbye. ‘Ah what the hell.’ He tugs the door open and goes out into the frost encrusted night. Over the footbridge with its 26 steps and single smashed in light, the wet slippery walls. All he can hear are the trains as they rattle and screech on the tracks below and the great heavy doors of the pub swinging shut behind him and the words ‘so long Billy Boy’ that hang in the cold still air as he falls into the darkness.