Devon Prize 2020 - Nightcaps for Wild Boys by Bruce Harris

Nightcaps for Wild Boys 
by Bruce Harris

The Don in Don’s All-Nite Diner is me, but it doesn’t have to be me in it at half past four in the morning, staring out of the front windows like a spaceman peering out of his spaceship into the void, two grey dim squares in the dawn light. People sometimes turn their pale faces in my direction like puzzled ghosts, though more often they will hurry past, heads bowed, as if pursued by some mystery of the night.
Marie, my wife, doesn’t understand why I still do some night shifts.
    ‘You don’t need to bother now, Don’, she says. ‘We’re comfortable enough’. It’s a fair point, letting myself sink gently into the easy middle age I’ve worked for. But pragmatic, real world Marie doesn’t see the fascinations of the small hours, and some of the valued contacts and friends I’ve developed over the years. 
    No phantoms, werewolves, axe wielding murderers. Not around these parts anyway. Most of them are in one of three groups; firstly, the insomniacs who have long since had enough of lying in darkened rooms staring at walls. They suffer for all sorts of reasons – unbalanced work shifts, anxieties, nagging conditions like tinnitus or unresolved aches and pains. Occasionally, grief and mercifully rarely, despair. 
Then there are the hospital workers, the nearby hospital being one of the reasons the place exists. Usually it’s going on or knocking off shifts which brings them in. Sure, there are places to eat and drink in the hospital, but Eileen, a senior nurse about to go on a Saturday night shift to deal with the usual supply of people off their face on drinks or drugs or both, summed up the diner to me.
    ‘You wind yourself up to go into the hospital, Don, and you wind yourself down when you come out. In there is a place where rules and words are not the same, where literally anything can happen and sometimes it does.  You need normality before you go in and normality when you come out’.
    They’re in here, some of them scarcely more than kids, pop eyed with tiredness or shock, 
struggling to come to terms with the things they’ve seen or had to do. My diner is their pre-battle tent and post-battle camp fire.
    And then, of course, there are the wild boys, and it is usually boys, perhaps because girls have too much to lose to wonder about aimlessly in the small hours. The boys and their testosterone are on an endless rootless hunt for something, excitement, danger, sex, whatever. They arrive on the neck ends of stag nights or booze ups, boys up to their mid and late twenties too far gone to risk going home – a surprising number of them still live at home – or with nothing to do after they’ve missed buses and can’t afford taxis but walk home. Sometimes it’s aftermaths of fights, when they don’t want to get mixed up with officialdom, running risks of losing jobs or being banged up in a young offenders’ place.  And perhaps there’s a certain genetic devilry which comes from countless generations of being sent off to war as soon as they’re old enough to use a weapon.
    Mostly they don’t start anything on my premises, because word gets around the wild boys about where the small hours’ safe places are, who are friends or enemies or bits of both, and they’re usually not far from manhood by the time they get to distinguish the third. I won’t take nonsense from them, but I won’t shop them either; it establishes a kind of trust. 
    Of course, I take precautions; I didn’t get this far – Don’s Diner isn’t my only establishment – by being naïve.  I have alarm buttons to the police under my side of the serving counter. The door to the office and stock room behind the main cafe is solid metal and locks easily if any staff need to get behind it. The place has an anti-fire sprinkler system which can serve other purposes if it needs to; the entrance door and the windows on either side of it can be locked and shuttered in a matter of seconds. People who run catering places are always moaning about the costs of security, but they’ll find themselves moaning even more if their place is wrecked and insurance is fighting them because of inadequate precautions. 
    And the wild boys know all this stuff.  Wild they may be; mad they’re not. The wildness is qualified; it’s still related to teenage tantrums and exploring what you can get away with, and it remembers who is and isn’t impressed by tantrums. Officialdom might not be so savage in dealing with them as it once was, but the big wide world can still be and often is.  I’ve had small hours visits from boys who’ve picked the wrong bouncer to start something with, or run into boys tougher than them, or come up against vehicles, doors or other solid forms which don’t move out of the way because a wild boy wants them to. My place can be their young adult equivalent of running upstairs and locking themselves in their rooms.
    My first dawn visitor on this shift is one of the insomniacs. It’s Maggie Pierce once more, looking wasted even by her standards, her face pale and her eyes ringed with wrinkles of fatigue, but doing her best to smile as if she hasn’t seen me for twenty years.
    ‘Wide awake again, Don’, she says, edging her way across to a side table; I never have seen Maggie head in a straight line towards the counter. It’s as if she’s consigned herself so much to the periphery of the world that it even translates into where she physically places herself. 
    ‘Coffee?’ I say. It’s illogical, of course, for insomniacs to drink coffee; it’s coffee which made many of them insomniac in the first place, but most of them still drink it.
    ‘Sod it, yes’, she says. ‘If I can’t have what I need, I might as well have what I want’.
    I take her coffee over to her – Maggie’s is black and sugarless, so it doesn’t take long – and as I close in on her, an alarm bell has already started letting out a few warning rings. She always is pale; now she’s just too pale, on the borderline of a kind of death pallor.  Something has frightened her quite badly, and Maggie is a habitual dawn wanderer, she doesn’t take fright that easily. Her eyes are often downcast, with intermittent blinking as if repeatedly surprised, but now they look truly despairing, as though she’s finally seen something in the grey light which she just can’t take.
    I sit down beside her and place a hand briefly on her arm. She gives me another attempt at a
beamer which flickers and dies in a second, and then she digs down into her coat pocket and brings out a bottle of pills. Putting them down on the table as if a conclusive exhibit of something, she looks at me and my face forms my question.
    ‘I’ve spent two hours tonight with them spread out on a table before me, Don. Five minutes, I thought, is all it would take, and then I could finally know, really know, whether there’s anything better than this, or whether there’s nothing at all, and if it’s something better, it wouldn’t be difficult, and if it’s nothing at all, I wouldn’t need to worry anyway, would I?’
    I’ve known Maggie long enough to recognise her pills; they’re powerful sleeping pills, about the nearest things to knockouts you can legally get. They are available on prescription, but whether any doctor would supply someone like Maggie with the sort of numbers in this bottle, I doubt, which makes me wonder where and who she gets them from.
    Maggie used to be in the catering business herself, if you can call a pub that. She worked in the hospital for a while as a nurse, and was thinking of doing something else when she met a barman called Tony in a pub. He told her he wanted to set up a pub of his own, with some inherited money, and that’s what they did; they married, and Maggie put what money she had into their venture alongside his. At the time, she was happy to leave nursing, which she was finding hugely draining, both physically and mentally. Tony turned into a drunk, and she found herself dealing with his lock ins with his mates; their only son Malcolm lost all patience with Tony in his late teens and left to live with a mate before moving away from the area altogether. Tony drank himself into a fatal heart attack, and Maggie was left with a pub she no longer had the heart to keep going.  She made enough from the sale to buy a decent flat and provide herself with a small income, which she fills out with bar work. She also works in the Friends of the Hospital coffee shop, but that’s voluntary.
    All sounding pretty hopeless, I suppose, and even more so when she’s sat there, moist and 
doe-eyed, talking about doing away with herself.  But Maggie is still a gutsy, funny, observer 
of people, popular in the hospital and happy to spend hours talking to people about life, love and the pursuit of happiness, all of which she knows a good deal about. 
    There we both are, staring at this little bottle as if it’s about to do a tap dance, and suddenly a cracked, raucous bellow sounds from down the street, so obviously emanating from a wild boy that it could serve as a kind of signature tune.
    ‘Yes’, says Maggie, as if remembering a detail, ‘there are some boys in the street. I heard one of them shouting at me as I went by’. 
    And her eyes flicker back to the bottle as her body flinches from it, and I see that wild boys don’t really frighten Maggie; what frightens Maggie is Maggie, and especially a Maggie seriously contemplating doing away with herself. For all that she’s been through, you’d think the idea might have occurred to her before; the fact that it never has is symptomatic of her strength, not her weakness. No wonder she’s so frightened. Nothing is so terrifying as rebellion from within, when you look for support and find betrayal.
    Another animalistic screech and a scuffed kick, closer this time. I come to a decision.
    ‘Maggie, come through to the back. Here, I’ll bring your coffee’. 
    The area behind the main café is divided into two, on the left the stockroom for non-perishables, crockery, cutlery, etc., with the big freezer behind them. On the right is a smaller area, with a coffee table and a couple of easy chairs, which Marie regards as our inner sanctum, where we can take our ease when it’s not so busy and leave the staff to get on with it.  Marie would probably concede that a suicidal customer is a fair exception. 
    ‘There now, Maggie love. Sit there where it’s peaceful; leave the boys to me’.
    I pick up the pill bottle and put it in my pocket.
    ‘I’m going to hold on to these, my darling, for a bit. When we get the chance, we’ll talk’. 
    On an impulse, I go to the drinks cabinet and pour her a decent shot of brandy.
    ‘Get that down you now. Back in a minute’, I say, and almost simultaneously, the café door 
crashes open and there they are.  I shut the door behind me and walk through to the front. There are three of them; one tall youth, with dark, simian features, swaying and looking around him as if he’s landed on an alien planet; a stocky, blondish boy, clean shaven and currently with his hands stuck deep in his pockets as he swallows, trying, I suspect, not to be sick. The third lad I know – there’s always at least one I know - Joe Lytham, one of those wiry, elastic kids who looks as if a strong wind could blow him away but could graft all day and fight all night if he had a mind to, and every now and then, he does. He actually has a good apprenticeship in a tool-making place, but the urge to walk on the wild side now and then is still sometimes irresistible.
    ‘Don’, he says, putting his long sinewy arm around my neck and breathing booze at me. He turns to his friends.
    ‘This is my mate Don, boys. Remember that time we met up with those fucking Field brothers and their mates; remember that?’
    The blond boy resumes swallowing; he has trouble speaking, and something tells me he doesn’t know where he is or what he’s doing, apart from wishing it wasn’t here and this.
    ‘Wasn’t there, Joey. Wasn’t there, mate’.
    ‘No’, says Joe, his tone unmistakably suggesting that his friend wasn’t the type who would 
be. ‘Don coffeed me up and kept me away from getting banged up and losing my fucking 
job. Don’s a good guy’. 
    ‘Fuck’, says the tall boy, for no apparent reason, kicking a chair and quickly regretting it.
    ‘Stop that, Mozzer, stop that now. Sit the fuck down’.
    Before we get Mozzer settled, I manage to move them to one of the alcoves at the back of the café, where Mozzer can stretch out on the bench along the back wall and be invisible from the street. The recumbent Mozzer looks like a stretched out orang utang. The blond also sits with his back supported; he’s still gulping and unable to look anyone else in the eye.
    ‘Stag night’, says Joe, seeing the question in my face. ‘First, the guy it was for got fed up – he doesn’t usually drink much - and went home. Then we lost the rest of them. Mozzer’s already made a twat of himself mooning at people and Mark’s been sick twice. If I take them out again, we’ll finish up nicked and that’s going to be my job on the line again –‘
    ‘You don’t believe in a quiet life, do you, Joe?’
    ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake….yeah, O.K., Don, whatever. Fetch us coffee, please nicely, before me and these two fucking idiots go down  –‘
    ‘Coffee be fucked. Bring us a beer, you old bastard’.
    Joe is on his feet and my assessment of his combative ability is accurate enough, because Mozzer, who’s at least three inches taller, turns his face to the wall.
    ‘Shut the fuck up, Mozzer!’ Joe shouts. ‘If it wasn’t for me, you’d already be banged up, you tosser, flashing your arse and screaming at blue lights! Just shut it and do what you’re told!’
    Mozzer flounces and sulks, like the kid he still is.
    ‘O.K., Joe’, I say, as blondie starts swaying again. ‘Black coffee coming up, though if blondie here throws up on my floor, he’s going to clean it up’.
    ‘Sure, Don, sure’.
    I take a look into the back room.  Maggie is dozing, slouched sideways in the armchair, the
brandy half finished beside her. I remember the pills in my pocket. Maybe, just a few would be ideal nightcaps for wild boys.  Three dropped into a sizable coffee pot and they’ll never notice the difference; that should do the trick.  
    Twenty five past four, and the guys are sleeping peacefully in the alcove as Maggie and I emerge to take a look. 
    ‘Oh, Don, how sweet’, Maggie says. Her doze and her brandy have brought her eyes back and managed to partly resurrect the real Maggie, the survivor, the tough old girl who bashes on regardless. 
    ‘Sweet wouldn’t be my word, Maggie. And I wouldn’t get too close, if I was you’. 
    But, of course, she does; I suppose working in hospitals and pubs has made her immune. She kisses Joe softly on the cheek.
    ‘Sleeping beauty, eh’, she says. ‘It’s strange, isn’t it, Don, how frightening things can be kind of cut out, just like that?’
    ‘Do they frighten you, these boys?’
    ‘Oh, sometimes. Almost everything does now, Don, sometimes, though I rely a lot on the invisibility of old ladies. If they see you at all, they sort of look through you. But you know what they could do to you if they had a mind to. And now I know what I could do to me if I have a mind to. It’s about what might be and what is. The older you get, the harder it is to see the difference. And the more frightening the might be gets’. 
    ‘Well, just now, Maggie, the might be’s a bunch of sleeping kids’. 
    ‘Yes, Don. It is, isn’t it?’
    She comes over to me and kisses me lightly on the cheek.
    ‘Thanks for the drinks, Don; I’ll settle up with you next time around. I’d going to carry on my snooze at home. I’m feeling more like it now. Have you got the rest of those pills?’
I look at her carefully, and she knows exactly why.
    ‘No, that was a one-off. People have them, don’t they? When someone’s there for them, like you’ve been for me, it passes, and it’s passed for me. This time, the might be was you, darling. And I know now another use for the pills. Nightcaps for wild boys. It’s a good trick, is that, Don’.
    ‘You know where we are, Maggie. It won’t always be me, but you’re one of our favourite customers - we’ll always look after you’.
    I put the pills in her hand and kiss her cheek. ‘Go well, Maggie. Keep in touch’.
    Dawn is well on as I wave her away, the morning light guiding her on her way home.