Upstanding Citizen by Suki Broad

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

It was a sobering thought. I would know; I was drunk at the time.

We were in the back garden. An unbearable chill clung to the air, but my beer-jacket was doing the job.

They say cold air does you good when you’re drunk – a bit of outside to help right the senses. That’s what they say, right? It helps the buzz settle and the world stop spinning. Then, you fall into a blissful post-drunken sleep that even the most irritating alarm clock can’t wake you from. Part of me wanted to do just that, to head back inside, vision blurring, ears ringing, head throbbing and wake up the next day hungover. Good and proper. Then, I’d spend the morning asserting my right to get sober before starting the day.

Ed and I sat where the light couldn’t reach, right up against the fence where the fattest spiders made the biggest webs. They didn’t bother me. They bothered Ed no end, but when it was dark and we were drunk, he forgot all about it. The bench had been there since we’d moved in and we’d both agreed that it was an eyesore. A rusty old thing that shed paint non-stop. Neither of us ever bothered to get rid of it though. Taking it to the dump was more effort than it was worth.

I traced the lip of my bottle with my thumb, collecting its moisture, before bringing it to my lips for a swig. Then, with my other hand, I lifted a cigarette and took a long drag, exhaling glacially, watching the smoke curl around the sad little square of grass we called a garden.

Ed turned to me suddenly. My bottle was half downed, already flat and tepid when he did. His pale eyes were bloodshot from the cold, but otherwise unburdened by the night’s liquor. With thinned lips and a clenched jaw, he looked as if he had something important to say but was struggling to unclamp his stubborn gums. I didn’t think much of it at first. When you’re drunk, you think you have all sorts of important things to say, but it’s never anything big. You just spend the rest of the week regretting you said anything at all.

Then, with a slur, he said it.

“Shouldn’t we have achieved something by now?”

All of a sudden, the cold air wasn’t enough. I sweltered under the heat of his gaze. Trying to relieve myself of the pressure, I scoffed. “What, you want a medal for sitting and drinking six pints a night? Come off it.”

He frowned. “I mean, why are we still here? You’re smart. I’m alright. We got ourselves these fancy papers now, but we’re still here, in this garden.” He threw a hand out into the night, as if he were grasping for answers there. He clenched the air, holding his fist tight. “How long does it usually take for…this to come together.”

“This?”

“You know, this. This!”

“I don’t follow.”

This. This whole ‘get a job, get a girl, get a life’ – This.” He moved his hands to express his meaning.

Ed had a habit of gesticulating wildly when words failed him; he just loved explaining with his hands.

I chuckled. “Why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

I waved my arms around. “This.”

His face curled into a snarl. “What the fuck is that? I don’t do that.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No. I’ve never done that in my life.”

“You’re doing it right now, Ed.” And he was. Most of the time, like now, they were just non-committal gestures. Other times, they were there to accentuate whatever point he was trying to make.

He let out a disgruntled sigh, attempting to keep his flailing at bay by crossing his arms over his chest.

“Do you think you do that at interviews?” Like the one he went to the other day. He came back looking sombre and barely spoke a word, so I knew it must not have gone well.

“No. Dunno.”

No. Dunno.” I bit back, snickering.

“I said no, didn’t I?” Ed grumbled. “I’m a highly articulate person in an interview.”

Highly articulate?” I laughed, the cold air fogging as I did. “You know, I think you do do that in interviews. I think you wave your arms all over the place trying to get your point across. You just don’t realise it because it’s second nature to you.”

“Yeah, so what?”

“So, I don’t think an employer would be impressed if they asked you something like, ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ and all you did was wave your hands around. Sorry, Ed. But you can go ahead and cross ‘highly articulate’ off your strengths list.”

“I am articulate.”

“Sure.”

He frowned. “You just don’t get to see that side of me because I’m always half-plastered when you’re around.”

“Yeah, yeah. I invented beer and that’s why you can’t get a job.” I remained good natured. If the conversation turned as cold as the weather, then there was really no point in staying out here anymore.

Ed deflated, the night defeating him. “Then my life really is over. No job, no girl, no life.”

“Says who?

“Society.”

“Sod that.” I huffed. “Life’ll come when it comes.”

“Well I want a life now.” To prove his resolve, he raised his bottle high. “When can I get a life, huh?”

I took another sip, then a drag, then another, and another. I’d probably need at least three more beers before I was prepared to answer that. I didn’t have an answer for him. Hell, if I did, I wouldn’t be sitting here on this bench with him. I’d be out there, getting myself one these ‘lives’ he was banging on about.

Without much thought, I turned to him with a wide grin and told him the exact words I saw on a motivational poster the other day. “Life’s an uphill battle, my man. Just gotta keep fighting. Just gotta keep going on.”

Now that I thought about it, that was a shit piece of advice. That was like saying, ‘You’re a grown up now, get over it.’ It was cold-blooded. Complete neglect. Salt in the wound. Where’s the empathy? Where’s the compassion? Who wrote that crap? Maybe I could have their job – two birds with one stone. I’d get a job and I’d get to kick to the curb whoever wrote that load of bull.

“Suppose you’re right.” Ed apparently saw poetry where I failed to. “Just have to keep fighting for it if I want it.” He grunted, sinking further into the bench, crusty paint flaking off as his backside grinded against the planks. “I just want it now.”

I hummed in response, craning my neck back to look up at the sky. No stars were out, just cloud cover, with a dim layer of light pollution. I took another drag, snuffed it on the armrest and then flicked it to the grass. We’d left the light on in the kitchen. It was a mild glow – not enough to bring out the yellow of the decaying grass, but enough to remind us that it was there. What wasn’t grass was either concrete slab or burnt out cigarette butts. On nights like this one, there were probably more butts in that sad patch of grass than there were stars in the sky.

I lay my arm across ash and splinters as my fingers twitched for another cigarette. My lighter snapped and sparks danced over the garden for just a second as I put the filter to my lips. I groaned out my appreciation. “We’re just late to the game, my man. You just wait – life’s a marathon not a sprint.” Now there’s a motivational poster in the making. “We’re just slow on the uptake. Just you wait. Just you wait.”

“Yeah, I’m waiting.” Ed said. “I’m always waiting.”

My trainers crunched against the concrete as I got up. My backside protested as I braved the light for the one thing that would ease me. “Gonna grab another beer. You want one?”

Ed didn’t answer. He was staring, an intense look on his face. He wasn’t focused on anything in front of him. In truth, Ed’s gaze was focused inward, looking deep inside himself. I imagined he was asking himself all kinds of questions and hoping that if he looked hard enough, he might find the right answer. I didn’t ask again, but I decided to get him a beer anyway.

Inside was too bright for me. We must have been sitting on that bench for a few good hours. It was well past midnight, that much I knew. I looked to the clock on the microwave. One in the afternoon, it read. I blinked. That was just wrong. Someone would have to correct that. I put it out my mind. It was too late in the night to worry about.

The fridge shuddered as I opened it, its constant humming interrupted by my wrenching. Inside were three tomatoes, a block of cheese, a mouldy jam jar and half a bottle of milk that was out of date yesterday. Worst of all, we had one beer. We only had one beer left. I looked out to see Ed was still deep in thought. Well, what Ed doesn’t know can’t hurt him, right?

I could just make out Ed’s sunken figure on the bench. The scuffed tips of his Nike trainers were just in sight, barely kissing the grassy edge. That iconic tick ran up the side and into shadow. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d seen Ed without those trainers. He had them when we’d first met, back in first year. He’d worn them to nearly every class and now here he was, in the same bloody garden, still wearing the same bloody trainers.

I decided that he could have the last beer after all. Popping the cap, the bottle hissed, and I slunk my way back into darkness.

“Here,” I held it out for him by the neck, a cool layer of condensation starting to drench my fingers.

He gave the bottle a brief glance, then gave me the same treatment. I quickly realised that he’d only just noticed I’d left him and was now pondering just how long he’d been out of it.

He shook his head, gathering himself. “Nah, I think I’m done for the night. You drink. You look thirsty still.”

He was stilted as he rose, swaying from foot to foot as he waded through the valley of dead grass and cigarette butts in a drunken haze. He latched into the door, comforted by its solidity. “I’ll keep waiting then,” I heard him mutter.

I don’t think I was meant to hear it, but I nodded to him anyway. I thought he could use the support. Hell, we all could right now.

“Tomorrow I’m gonna hit the ground running.” Ed said to me. “I can feel it, tomorrow’s gonna be the day. Just you wait, I’ll be on the payroll by Monday.” He raised a fist into the air before slamming it back down on the door frame; he’d just made a resolute promise to himself. With rose-tinted beer goggles, he made a finger gun and pointed at me, the witness to his vows. “I’ll be a contributing member of society. An upstanding citizen.”

“That’s right, Ed. Tomorrow’s the day.” I nodded again, playing along.

We were both playing by this point, kidding ourselves into thinking that we hadn’t said the same thing, drunk the same beer and made the same promises the night before.

With each passing day, I could feel us becoming more make believe. I could feel the solidity of the cement slabs quiver and the ash start to cover my feet. I ground down against a stray cigarette butt, instilling myself in its pasty reality. I watched as the ash melted into concrete and became one big blur of grey.

Ed’s body clambered through the house, not even bothering to turn on the lights as he fled. He wandered through the darkness, stumbling on the steps as he went, and blurred out of sight.

“Hit the ground running,” I echoed to the empty space beside me.

I could make a great motivational poster out of that. I began to imagine – a cheetah, with rocket boots on his paws and lightning bolts for whiskers. He parachutes down from a helicopter and takes off as soon as his feet hit the savannah, the elephants and zebra are all gaping at him as he does so; he’s leaps and bounds ahead of them all. Over his head in the clouds it reads, Hit the ground running.

See? I could make motivational posters. Not that I’m qualified or anything, I just know I could. The tricky part is getting someone to pay you for it.

I sat on the bench alone, still holding the bottle I’d opened for Ed by its neck. With deliberate motion, I put it down by the bench leg, and lit another smoke. I dragged twice before snuffing it out on the armrest, flicking it into the garden and lighting another.

The beer remained untouched as I sat. I was itching to get up, but I knew I’d have nothing to do but sleep once I entered the house. Somehow, that thought alone terrified me the most. I imagined – going to sleep and waking up, only to go to sleep again at the end of a nothing-filled day, and shivered. Sleep wasn’t going to come easy to me. So, I sat in my square of garden, looking over my patch of grass, tapping ash from my burning tobacco letting out easy puffs of smoke into a cloud filled sky.

“Shouldn’t we have achieved something by now?”

Those words were going to haunt me the rest of the night. I was sure of it. I shivered again, this time from the cold. My beer-jacket finally wearing off. I spared a dismal look at the neglected bottle, still full, a slick droplet inching its way down the neck towards concrete. I picked it up with two fingers, not caring if some spilt as I tossed it in my hand. I drank and grimaced – it’d already lost its fizz.

Existentially, a thought occurred to me. If someone saw me right now, what would they see? Some guy, in his back garden – two walls and a fence where fat spiders lived, a tiny patch of grass that was mostly cigarette butts – sipping flat beer, already sobering up, waiting around for tomorrow.

“Waiting for tomorrow, huh?” I breathed in deep, letting the cinders throb before blowing out smoke.

Was that what I was doing out here?

I don’t think so.

Then what was I doing out here?

I thought after a while, and I considered.

There was some part of me that thought if I stayed out here and didn’t sleep, tomorrow would never come. And if tomorrow never came, I could keep it today. And if I kept it today for long enough, I wouldn’t have to face another tomorrow.

I sucked in a sharp breath, the cold air stinging against my teeth as I did so. Sinking further into the bench, I shrivelled into my own cowardice.

Well, shoot me dead and call me a rabbit. I was actually afraid of tomorrow. Was that pathetic or what? I could feel a headache coming on.

“You can’t trick the sun into taking a day off…”

Wow, that one was actually pretty good. I should probably be writing these down. Instead I tapped it out on the armrest, like my own secret language. I gave it rhythm. You can’t trick the sun into taking a day off, so…why should you?

Why should I?

Why should I take the day off? Because I was a coward, that’s why. A lazy coward – Hit the ground running – who has time for that – Tomorrow – tomorrow’s already here and I’ve done sod all so far.

I looked down at the cigarette still burning between my fingers, then chucked it across the garden. It was a good throw, with enough force that it hit the window with a firm tap before tumbling down onto the grass with the rest of them. My arm jolted from the sudden movement, the muscles in a state of shock. It was a good throw though, a damn good throw. It felt damn good.

When the night finally began to fade into tomorrow, I decided to head upstairs and sleep.

About The Author

Suki was born in England and raised in New Zealand. She was educated in Japanese and Chinese language and culture at the University of Manchester where she also began to write fiction in her spare time.

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