‘Rum and pep, Barb?’ the barmaid shouted as Barbara Lamb teetered through the saloon door.
‘Yeah, sweetheart. The usual.’
The Swan was only a couple of minutes walk away from Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and Barbara had to pass the attraction each night. It did indicate another change. Years ago she’d found the place eerie, but as time went on, she’d stand and look and listen for a few moments to all that was going on around her, before making the remaining 5-minute walk to The Swan.
As was her nightly practice, Barbara stopped in front of the metre-wide mirror with its printed advert for Stones bitter. She prodded her newly-dyed copper ringlets, checked her fuchsia-pink lipstick and matching eyeshadow, and wiped a few speckles of errant mascara from beneath her eyes. Yes, she would do.
It was four steps further to the bar, and Barbara’s drink was already waiting. She grabbed the glass, clinking her fuchsia fingernails against the bar. Only two seconds later, the glass was empty. Carol behind the bar had already prepared another.
As nightly rituals go, this particular pattern must have been a good one, as she’d been honing it since the day she started work, more than 40 years earlier. Back in those days, the rum was a single and was the cheapest brand. But nowadays it was a double and was a brand of quality. That was progress. She’d also progressed from leaving the factory’s office at 4 pm and arriving at The Swan by half-past, still in her work clothes.
Nowadays she’d get off the bus and straight into the shower, then she’d make herself a usual dinner of tuna sandwiches with stewed apples with digestive biscuits for dipping. It was the same every work night. She’d also dress up nowadays. Progress indeed that the older she looked, the better she prepared for her night at The Swan.
‘Best pub in Blackpool,’ she said, with a grin, as she did each night.
‘It is that,’ Carol agreed as she did each night.
As nightly rituals go, there can’t be many that are more long-lasting and more comfortable.
‘You alright, love?’ asked Carol.
‘Not so bad. Not so bad.’
‘I like what you’ve done with your hair.’
‘Oh, thanks, Carol.’
Barbara shook her head and spun around on the barstool.
‘Barb, love, you’ve been pooped on. Seagull poo all down the back of your jacket. Here give it to me, and I’ll go and sponge it off.’
‘No need, Carol, I’ll get more of it on the way home. We know it always happens at this time of year. There’s so much rich food lying about for them to forage, and it gives them dicky tummies. No point fretting on it, is there?’
‘You have a point.’
The two old friends chatted while Carol prepared drinks – some for regulars and some for the tourists. Barbara had always noticed that Carol treated everyone the same. That was not common practice by the seaside!
As they spoke, Barbara shed her layers. At first, it was the offending coat, then her polyester neck scarf with mock Chanel-style pattern, then her turquoise cardigan. After her third rum and pep, it was time for Barbara to shed her shoes.
‘I always get hot feet, don’t you?’
‘I do, love. I do.’
Another nightly exchange.
Barbara carefully placed her new shoes on the plush-covered stool next to her.
‘Ooh, they are nice,’ said Carol. ‘Are they new?’
‘From the factory. Staff discount as usual. Smart and comfortable. They’re a bit like Hush Puppies but lots cheaper.’
‘Get us a pair, would you? Size 5. Do they make them in navy?’
Barbara nodded as Carol went to serve Arthur with his pint of lager top and two packets of plain crisps.
He little-acknowledged Barbara’s presence, as he never did.
‘Got any new plants, love?’ Carol asked Barbara.
‘A yucca and four African violets.’
‘And I got this too,’ Barbara chuckled as she removed a small brown box from her capacious handbag. She unwrapped it carefully using her fuchsia fingernails, and proudly showed Carol her latest find – a bone china cheetah of about six inches in height.
‘For the collection?’ asked Carol.
Barbara nodded and carefully packed the cheetah back into the box, which she replaced in her bag. She zipped it up thoughtfully, then unzipped it to remove a small tetra pack of cold, sweet coffee, and unscrewed its plastic cap. She downed it in one, in a recently-acquired nightly ritual which prevented her from falling asleep as she walked home.
Arthur left the pub, and other customers came and left. Some were drinkers; others like her were in the pub as a social thing. Still others came in only to get themselves out of the rain.
Apart from two toilet visits, Barbara has remained on her usual stool all evening and had purchased her typical five rum and peps. Also usual, she felt suddenly hungry.
‘Right, darling, I’m off,’ she told Carol. ‘See you tomorrow.’
Carol waved her out, and Barbara toddled off along her stretch of Blackpool’s Golden Mile. She watched the tourists still dressed in shorts and t-shirts, stumbling out of bingo halls and amusement arcades, then called in at her usual burger bar.
‘Usual, please,’ she said and was near immediately presented with a cheeseburger, cut into quarters. She ate the first as she paid for the food. She ate the second as she walked towards her home. The third she saved for eating as she made herself a nice mug of milky tea. She wiped the bird poo from her jacket, as usual, then sat on the sofa with a grunt and leaned across to open the cage that dominated her entire living room.
‘Out you come, Precious,’ she sang, and her grey parrot hopped onto her hand, then onto her lap for a ruffle of feathers and a nuzzling head stroke.
Even Precious had his routine, and he dug around in her pocket for the remaining burger quarter. He ate it excitedly, chattering as she did so.
Barbara quickly drunk her tea, then poured herself her usual nightcap – a small dry Amontillado sherry. Precious nestled in the crook of her arm, and the pair of them watched evening telly and fell asleep together, as they had every night for forty years.
It was family, of sorts. It was love, of sorts. And it was undoubtedly contentment.
The regularity of routine. The security of simple friendships.
Life was good. Life was good with rum and pep.
#meredithschumann #author #authors #fiction #shortstory #shortstories #blackpool #rum #publife