Warning, science fiction readers, warning: this is not a science fiction story. This is a story I wrote for a course with Michigan University – Storytelling for Social Change. It was a five week course presented on Future Learn which is part of the MOOC provision. (It is the forerunner to a degree course which is available.) I found it fascinating, elegant, prescriptive and informative. I wrote this story to fit the parameters of the course: it did not grow organically as the stories in my book, Here and There, were created. One of the best aspects of such a course is the other students who come from such a raft of different experiences.
He could hear Alex behind him with the group standing close to the fire. Alex was sandpapering away at the flaws in the teams, the coaches and the referee. No change there, then! Fred had no desire to join them. He sighed and rested his forearms on the bar. It was a good height to ease the stiffness in his back. He’d spent four hours bent over in a tight space to refit a shower unit and a couple of hours hunched over his computer tapping out his invoices with two fingers. Fred took a large gulp of his ale.
It had been an intense game and he was just happy to savour the unexpected win. He looked at the big screen which took up most of one wall of the bar. It had been almost half-an-hour since the rugby match had ended and the talking heads’ mouths were opening and shutting like scallops grabbing for floating debris.
The men, who’d cheered, swayed and groaned in response to the flow of the game, had broken out of their tight pack and had settled into small groups chatting about the game and other matters. Locals, uninterested in the match and not bothered about wearing some red badge of allegiance, trickled into The Dog and Fox and weaved their way through the cheerful throng to the lounge to order food. A couple of strangers had also walked in, a few moments after the match had ended, and taken seats in a corner of the bar room. Fred stared for a moment at the dark, thin men in pastel polo necks, jackets and crisp jeans. They were engrossed in their conversation.
Fred shrugged. He liked being in The Fox. The bar room was large but the low ceilings, tarred oak beams and posts made it friendly. It had comfortable, quiet lighting, a scattering of round tables and black-framed photographs of nineteenth century mining machinery tended by thin, stooped men. He was probably related to some of them. He looked back at the large television screen glad it was back on mute. He shook his head as he heard Alex still sounding off about the flaws in performance. Fred looked at his nearly empty glass and wondered if he would head home but the room was warm and he was reluctant to begin the twenty minute walk home in that bitter wind. He nodded at Rhys, also leaning on the bar, who was staring at the screen with an open mouth. Fred looked back at the TV to find it had switched to a vividly coloured cola advertisement. He snorted with disgust. ‘Sweet Caroline!’ he muttered to himself. ‘Grown men and they’re still stuck at the lolly age!’
He watched as the two stubble-faced, muscled men swallowed the last of their cans of coke, their thick throats exposed as they tipped up their faces for the last drops. He watched as the actors abandoned their tins on the stone wall on top of which they were sitting, slung their arms around each other and kissed. He could see it was a deep and passionate kiss. Fred reared back in shock, ‘Bloody hell!’
‘Makes you want to heave,’ volunteered Rhys. ‘Bloody poofs!’
Fred hesitated. He wasn’t sure about why he was upset. ‘It’s not that,’ he ventured.
Alex swung around from haranguing a man he worked with occasionally with his opinion and caught the last of screen shot of the handsome men walking towards the grounds of a football ground, Cardiff was instantly recognizable, holding hands. ‘Disgusting,’ he enunciated. ‘We ought to put a stop to it.’
Fred felt he was on a slippery slope. ‘It’s not that,’ he repeated more loudly. He was struggling to bring the reason for his dismay about the screen kiss to the surface.
‘There’s too much of this pervert stuff being pushed down our throats,’ growled Alex. He hitched the belt which held up his heavy belly and spoke in a louder voice so it interrupted the conversations scattered around the large bar room. ‘I worry about our kiddies seeing all this filthy canoodling. It shouldn’t be allowed!’ Rhys gave a bit of a cheer. The publican was standing back from the bar and he had a furrowed face as he listened to Alex.
It struck Fred like a ton of bricks that it was the canoodling he didn’t like. He hated watching anything on the telly or in a film where the actors, male or female, had a session slobbering all over each other’s faces. He disliked seeing dogs being allowed to lick human faces. It was rude and uncontrolled. Kissing was a private. It was crass to involve strangers in an intimate moment. ‘Alex, it’s any lovey-dovey stuff on TV I have a problem with,’ said Fred. ‘I don’t care who is kissing who I just don’t want to watch it.’
‘What!’ Alex leaned in closer and his beery breath was warm on Fred’s face. ‘You’re not in favour of this sort of unnatural carry-on?’ Alex paused for dramatic effect. ‘We ought to do something about it. Take a stand!’ Alex was the centre of attention now. His eyes roved over the gathering of men he had known since school and had mixed with in sport and at work; he paused and looked for an intense moment at the strangers in the corner.
Fred felt a whole lot more was riding on this conversation than he really understood. He didn’t understand how his flinch at kissing had suddenly grown wings and become a big issue in the pub. He liked simple solutions and a straightforward life; he liked to get on with his job, meet his mates for some beers and spend the rest of the time at home. This situation, with Alex trying to rouse the crowd, made him very uncomfortable.
Fred thought he’d finish his beer and head home. ‘Are with us on this, Fred? Alex stared hard at him. ‘You’re not going to stand aside and let these gay types take over the place?’ Fred and the assembled men followed the turn of his head turn and saw how his eyes fixed on the strangers in the bar. Alex leaned in towards Fred again. ‘Well, are you with us on this, Fred? Are you going to stick up for our standards?’
The pressure to agree with Alex was strong but Fred was uneasy about the way he was being herded by Alex and he did not speak.
Alex pushed Fred with a thick forefinger. He was still using a big voice that carried into every corner of the room. ‘Come on, Fred, you’re not going all squeaky on me are you?’ Alex looked at his audience and stepped back from the bar, separating himself from Fred and leaving him marooned. ‘Well, Freddo’, Alex drawled, using the nickname Fred had so detested at school, ‘I thought you were a bit more of a man than that. Maybe you’re man lover yourself. Maybe you should join your friends, those pansies over there?’
Fred was jolted by the attack and then felt a surge of rage; he could feel his skin flush and his teeth grit. He saw that smug look of satisfaction settle on Alex’s face as he assumed Fred would scamper to join the real men.
‘You’re a nightmare, aren’t you, Alex?’ said Fred in a loud flat voice. ‘You’re always trying to drum up a bit of trouble. Looking for another opportunity to sic the dogs onto some poor sod? Trying to turn us into your pet poodles and send us off on your dirty errands? The desire to smack Alex’s sneering mouth into a different shape was almost overwhelming. He took a deep breath. ‘I wouldn’t go along with a bloody thing you say!’
Alex lurched back in shock. He glanced around at his audience and, apart from Rhys who was too drunk to follow what was going on, he could see the mood could swing either way among the local lads, though Matt, the publican, was staring at him with his arms folded and a thin mouth. Alex hesitated as he weighed up whether to laugh it off and back down or stick it to Fred. He desire to humiliate Fred, so he’d creep out of the pub, and arrange the energetic expulsion of the strangers, whose well-dressed presence infuriated him, could not be resisted.
‘Well, Freddo, it looks like you spent too much time under the old lady’s thumb during lockdown. ‘We understand,’ and Alex nodded at the circle of men listening closely to the exchange, ‘we know she’s a bit of bleeding heart but, seriously mate, I never took you for a pansy planter. Maybe you should pick up your handbag and prance away home!’
Fred looked at Alex and finally recognized him for the enemy. He felt a pang of sorrow and then a tremendous sense of release. ‘Alex, you’re a nasty bastard and I’ve let you goad me like a pit pony for too long. I am not going along with it. You like dishing out the insults, don’t you? Only happy when you are grinding some fella’s face in the mud over an inflated insult when you do better to mind your own business! You are an absolute and total arsehole!’
Alex laughed long so his audience could really catch on about how little he cared that Fred had just defied him. ‘Who cares what you think, you thick-witted little prick.’ He laughed at his own wit but was secretly dismayed that no-one chuckled with him.
Fred let a history of repressed words bubble out of his chest. ‘You led us down the garden path over that young man working down at the Mike’s machine works. I’ve felt bad about that. You egged us on, Alex, just like you are doing now. Talked about the way all these immigrants had taken our jobs. And you said just those same words then: “We oughta take a stand.” Fred mimicked Alex. ‘We gave that poor bloke such a sledging he packed up and went back to Bristol.’ Fred paused and then announced, ‘It was wrong.’
There was a murmur from the crowd, the same crowd who’d been there about a year ago. ‘Mike was gutted! It took him six months to find a machinist as good as the one we’d chased off,’ Matt suddenly said and moved down his side of the bar to stand closer to Fred.
Alex held up his hands, palms out, ‘Hey, the small fry get chewed up but those immigrants are driving down our wages. Get with the bigger picture, Fred. You’re not sharpest tool in the box, you can trust me on that.’ Alex shared his sneer with the crowd behind him. ‘Don’t side with the bloody liberals on this one! You let one of them get a toe hold, an immigrant or a homosexual, and suddenly the place is overrun.’ Alex pointed his chin at the two, now silent men, in the corner of the room. ‘You’ve got to show them they’re not welcome while you can.’
‘I may not dance words around like you, Alex, but I’m not getting sucked in by you again. It was unfair, then. It wasn’t right, then. You’re the one changing us. You’re the one making us afraid and angry. I feel dirty listening to you. The way you go on is vicious.’
‘Fred, Fred, you’ve got your knickers in a twist over a bit of banter. That was then. No sweat. Don’t fret about it. We were in it together. We just gave the lad a scare, no-one got hurt.’
‘It hurt me,’ and the cry came from Fred’s gut. ‘I still feel bad to think I went along with it, the filthy language and the threats. I’ve felt like shit over that piece of carry-on last year.’ He stared around at the men with hot eyes and they shifted their feet and a few nodded heads. ‘And now you want to do it again?’
Suddenly, Lewis shouldered his way forward. ‘Fred, what do you think of the opinion the referee won the match for us as much as our team. We’ll just run over the main points of the game again.’ Lewis and Fred were joined at the bar by several others. The crowd of men separated into small quiet groups. Matt put five pints on the bar and waved away the money. Fred was trembling. He felt Lewis pat his back a couple of times and it felt as if a sack of coal had been lifted off his shoulder. In the corner the strangers has recommenced their conversation. Behind Lewis Fred could see Alex’s mouth opening and shutting like a guppy’s but not a sound had issued by the time he turned his attention back to conversation.
‘A good ref is essential for a decent game,’ he declared. He would stay awhile longer in The Fox as it was only polite. ‘That French bloke didn’t let the game flow not like our Nigel Owens would have. He was the best referee in the business.’ Fred had strings attached to this statement. Owens had come out as gay in 2007.
‘He was a good man with a whistle,’ agreed Lewis drily and the group around him laughed.
Wendy Lodwick Lowdon