The Drummer || Jordan Bradley

Credit: Orange County

The Drummer

by Jordan Bradley

Donnie could hear the crowd from backstage. Sitting in a comfy armchair in a dressing room marked ‘Tonight’s Star’, drinking from a glass with a single sphere of ice, it wasn’t their voices he could hear, but their feet, stomping in time to one of the oldies. Oh, how they love the oldies, he thought. The sign above the set would be telling them to do it as Richie Jackson delivered Donnie’s introduction. Taking a sip, Donnie almost laughed to himself. Sixty years on from that song’s release and people are still stamping their feet and singing along like it’s hot off the press.

“Are you ready, Mister Dolan?” 

The voice came from the door behind him.

He finished off his drink, kissing the ice ball with his top lip, and stood up. The assistant—earpiece equipped, clipboard in hand—led him through a series of dark corridors, the stomping all the while getting louder and louder. It wasn’t long before he could actually hear Richie’s muffled voice, reciting the words on the autocue in a cheery rollercoaster of intonation and emphasis. The assistant gently ushered Donnie to move faster, and he could soon hear the words through the thin back wall of the set.

“…and even after the loss of his band mates, Donnie Dolan continued to create incredible music. From ‘They All End Up in London’ to ‘She’s Holding My Heart’, it’s truly amazing to have someone of his musical genius with us on tonight’s show. And I know my mom watching at home is freaking out right now over the fact that I’m about to meet the drummer of The Mandrills!”

The crowd laughed. They always laugh.

“Right here, Mister Dolan.”

The assistant placed an almost ghostly hand to his chest to still him. She disappeared, and Donnie looked down to see a tiny red X of tape between his feet. In front of him, the set awaited like the mouth of a cave, blistering white with the light of the spotlights. Lucky I’ve got my shades on, he thought.

“So, without further ado, please welcome tonight’s headline guest: Donnie Dolan!”

He stepped forward, needing no cue nor instruction from the assistant. For a few minutes he could see nothing but white light, but there was sound. Unending, all-consuming sound. Senseless din distilled into clapping hands and cheering voices, and the white eventually broke up into recognisable shapes and colours. The crowd, forty heads and eighty colliding palms. The set beneath his feet, smooth all over with a soft, blue carpet that cushioned each step without leaving a print. The desk and its accompanying host, stretching out a hand. Donnie grinned, waved out to the crowd and the millions watching at home, and shook that hand with the vigour of a man fifty years younger.

“Welcome, welcome,” the host mumbled in his ear. Donnie realised that he couldn’t remember his name. Robert Johnson? Rickie Jason? He had had it a second ago. It’ll come back, he thought. Everything always does.

The crowd seated themselves, and Donnie flashed his signature grin which revealed the right amount of teeth to show the whites of those he still had and conceal the golden molars. “Thanks for having me, guys! Pleasure to be here.”

Once he was settled and the opening pleasantries were accounted for, the questions came.

“Do you remember what made you become a musician?”

“What was it like, all those years ago, when The Mandrills made it big?”

“Do you remember a lot of the sixties?”

“Do you ever wish you could go back to that era?”

In one sense, Donnie couldn’t believe they were the same questions he’d been answering since Lyndon B Johnson was the President of the nation he now called home. But in another, it made perfect sense. In so many ways, really, it was the simplest, most predictable fact in the universe.

“Well, my mother was a pianist…”

“It was absolutely amazing, you know…”

“Yes…and no…”

“No…and yes…”

He smiled and laughed with each answer. Not because the host—Richie, that’s it!—was funny or charming or faintly charismatic. He smiled because he didn’t have to think about what he said. It was automatic at this point. Second nature.

“It’s incredible how you’ve been making such incredible music for all these years, even after The Mandrills came to an end.”

Came to an end. He hadn’t heard it phrased like that before.

“Well, after everything happened, I sort of started seeing myself as the artist. As the creative, you know? I wasn’t just the drummer anymore, hanging around with a group of guys who had talent coming out of their ears. I could be the main attraction, and with that freedom, the music just came naturally.”

Applause. It fascinated him how people still clapped the same; like they needed to do it to survive.

“Amazing,” Richie said. He shook his head in numbskull disbelief, that smile still gleaming between his cheeks. “Because, if you don’t mind my saying, you weren’t thought of as the most influential Mandrill, were you? The newspapers at the time called you the ‘tag-along drummer’, is that right?”

“Yes, that’s right, Richie. What many people don’t know is that that was a very difficult thing for me to deal with. I felt as much a part of the group as the rest of the lads, and to be depicted as some sort of chump was…it was difficult.”

Quiet. Donnie swam in it, drank it in, milked it for all it was worth. He cleared his throat and resettled himself in his chair. Another question was coming. The question. He could feel it in the air, and prepared himself accordingly.

“And when,” Richie’s voice stooped to a sombre baritone, “you lost your bandmates, how did that change your view on things?”

Donnie licked his top lip, preparing himself to answer, but decided to first take a moment. He wanted to recall what he was being asked about. Really remember it—like he sometimes chose to in the comfort of his home studio.


It was dull at first, the smell. It lingered beneath the kerrang of strings that competed for dominance over the air. Donnie twirled a drumstick beneath his forefinger and thumb, gazing up at the ceiling when he first noticed it. The others were arguing about the phrasing of a lyric or when the bass was supposed to come in, something like that. He didn’t care about lyrics or timings, mixing or feedback. Hitting the snare when they told him to, stopping in time for the guitar solo—that’s all he had to worry about. Those things were what Donnie did, and they were what he did well. Between those beats, the others could argue until the sun came up or the phone rang to say Donnie’s flavour of the week was waiting for him downstairs.

But the smell...that was something to pay attention to.

“Can someone put out that cigarette?” 

Tommy’s shout came from the piano. Donnie looked over to see him flick his dark, lofty fringe from his eyes in that insufferable way he did. 

“It’s starting to get into my lungs, you know. I can’t sing right.”

“Yeah,” Michael said. He was fiddling with the tuners of his guitar. “If it gets any thicker, I’ll need my inhaler.”

They both laughed like jackals. Andrew joined in from the studio’s kitchenette. He came in a moment later, stirring a cup of coffee with a teaspoon. “You sort it, Don. It’s probably one of Mike’s left in the recording booth.”

“Shut up, you lemon,” Michael said, slapping Andrew’s leg.

“Don’t worry,” Donnie said, standing up. “You lot keep playing with each other. I’ll go.”

Tommy and Michael resumed their debate while Donnie walked to the door of the cushioned booth. Papers were strewn across the space beyond the glass; lyric notes and chord sequences littered the smooth carpet. His drum kit stood at the back of the room like an omen, surrounded by three empty chairs. In the middle of the booth he looked upon not a smoking cigarette resting upon the rim of an ashtray, but a burning heap of cloth. One of his own jackets, in fact, ablaze. The flames licked higher and higher, roaring in silence beyond the soundproof glass. 

In a single flash, he saw it all. 

The clothes would crisp, boosting waves of orange up and out until one of the chairs caught. The walls would soon blacken, failing miserably to keep the heat and combustive power contained. Once the furniture and mic stands were doused in energetic orange, it would take the drum kit, turning it into a violent swirl of fire. Its charred remains would be swept away into a dustpan, The Mandrills written across the kick drum banished to memory. But before that, the heat would escape the studio. And, hungry beyond control, it would devour what it could.

“Can’t see a cigarette, lads,” Donnie called, gazing not at the currently tame fire, but at the drum kit beyond it. 

He walked back into the breakout room and went for his coat. “Anyway, I’m off out for a barm.”

“Grab us one, Don.”

“Yeah, me as well, lad.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. He smirked as he walked to the door. As he pulled it closed, he heard Andrew pull his guitar back onto his slap and start strumming. Michael matched him chord for chord, and they were off.

Brilliant, Donnie thought. Come up with a good one, lads. Then he locked the door.


In the wake of that waiting studio crowd, he took a long, slow breath.

“It changed everything,” he said, secreting a single tear. He pictured it, glistening like a star beneath those spotlights as it cascaded down the wrinkly canyon of his cheek. “But in more ways than I thought possible.”

Timid applause dribbled in until the entire room was on its feet, including Richie. Donnie wiped at his face with his sleeve and smiled. It was better to be quiet in these moments. Allow them to imagine. Let them fill in the gaps.

“Well,” Richie said once the crowd had seated themselves again, “I think you’re going to perform for us tonight, is that right?”

“Yes, yes, that’s right. Well, only if these folks would like to hear it?”

Of course they did. The thunder of stomping feet enveloped him as he walked across the stage to the piano. Richie provided the intro, announcing in what year the song Donnie was about to perform had been released, how many weeks it had reigned at number one, and why it had been written. They all knew why it had been written, but just like everyone else for the last half century, they didn’t mind hearing it again.

They’ll never know how it was written, Donnie thought, so I’ll give them that much.

The noise settled into a serene quiet. The keys were cold beneath his fingertips, but he had always liked that.

“This one’s called, ‘Since I’ve Been Alone’.


He closed the door, but the wood did little to muffle the sound from the studio. It had erupted the moment he stopped playing, the final note diminishing in a sudden wave of screams and cheering, and continued to rise and rise as he shook Richie’s hand, blew kisses out to the crowd, and slipped behind the stage. Settling himself into that same dressing room chair, Donnie wasn’t sure if the din had even crested and begun its descent. It was even louder than in the sixties, he thought. That made him smile into the big mirror on the wall.

He held his grin as the faces began to manifest in the reflection. The first appeared by his ear, like a face seen through a mirky window. The second, further back, hovered by the schedules and posters pinned to the bulletin board behind him. The third looked down from the top corner of the mirror, like a bird of prey scowling from its nest.

“You like that one, boys?” Donnie said, lighting a cigarette.

“All part of the show, right? You slimy bastard,” Michael said. His glasses shimmered in the light as if they were really right by Donnie’s face.

“You could at least vary the routine,” Andrew said from the back of the room. “You’re using the same lines you relied on in the eighties.” 

“They still work, don’t they?”

“Work for what, Donnie?” 

Tommy was always the hardest to shake off. Up there, he looked to Donnie like a god come down from the clouds to pass judgement. Maybe it was his eyes—those baby blue pearls that the girls had so incessantly shrieked over.

“Never you mind what it works for. What we ought to be talking about is my next song.”

“Next song?” Tommy said.

“Yes. It’s been a year or so since the last album, and we can’t let my career simmer down now. They’re as hungry for the music now than ever, so I say we give it to them.”

“And what if we’ve had enough of writing your music for you?” Andrew said.

“Yeah,” Michael said, “what if we think you’re a snot-nosed little shit who deserves to fall into the talentless obscurity where he belongs?”

“So be it,” Donnie said, his smile still pressing the wrinkled chub of his cheeks against the frame of his jaw. “Spend the rest of eternity lingering around purgatory. Watch as I live a long, long life, ignoring your very existence. I tell you, healthcare has got a lot better since you left, boys. I could live another twenty years. And when I go, who knows who’ll be able to see you? No one else has so far, right?”

The young faces in the mirror were silent.

“I suggest we get working on a single, then turn our attention to an album. I’ve already got a name in mind for both—Came To An End. I think it could be my best yet. The reality is, lads, that this will all be over before you know it, and then you’ll be adrift in whatever world you’re in just wishing you could return to a point in time when there was someone still here to pluck the strings and hit the drum the way you hear it in your heads. Hitting the drum was always my job anyway, right?”

Not a word came from the mirror, and Donnie allowed himself to erupt into loud and manic laughter. He laughed so loud he couldn’t hear the applause dying down outside. 

Jordan Bradley is an editor from Staffordshire, United Kingdom. He graduated from Lancaster University in 2022 with a Masters in Creative Writing and has had several horror and sci-fi short stories published. He is currently working on a novel.


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