“You need a hand with that?”
It was easier to buy four Peronis at a time, than queue twice at the crowded bar, but Jack’s hand had started shaking carrying them over to the waterfront table.
“I would have got up but… I couldn’t be bothered,” said Scot.
“That’s okay,” said Jack, flexing his bony mitt. “Old war wound. ‘Nam.”
“You were hardly the Army type at college.”
“No, but I sure was clumsy. I, uh, broke my hand again a couple of months ago, and bones take a hell of a lot longer to heal than they used to.”
“Tell me about it,” said Scot, and tapped his head.
It had been twenty years since college. Facebook had put them back in touch, and “Interstellar” at the Imax had provided the excuse to finally meet up again. Post-movie they struggled to sketch in the massive blanks. Scot had done well for himself, married with two great sons and a job that offered global travel. Jack had moved back home.
“It’s been a weird year,” said Jack. “As opposed to the nineteen before that. I’ve had a few… self-inflictions recently.”
Somehow it was easier to talk about recent events than the big ones they had missed in each others lives, but doing so reminded them both who they were. Jack had dropped a weight onto his right hand failing to “work out” in the garage. A week later, he’d cracked a rib on his left flank failing to Fosbury Flop over a beer garden table in a drunken dare.
“So your mid-life crisis health kick is really paying off then,” said Scot. “Try cycling, that’s what I do to keep my natural obesity at bay. Although there may be too many Audis on the road for your luck.”
“You haven’t heard the third fail yet. That’s the real sucker punch.”
“If it’s that good I think we may need whisky,” said Scot. “There’s a cocktail bar down the way. Let’s get a little Don Draper.”
When they finished the beers they careened down the Southbank as the London skyline began to light up in the dusk. It took several attempts to walk through the sliding glass doors of the Mondrian hotel before they realised there was a touch panel that opened them, much to the amusement of the receptionist.
Over the first round of Manhattans Jack continued with his ego bruising. “It went a little something like this…”
After drinking £50 in his local, and in the process of running up a further £55 tab, Jack had mistakenly insulted Chelsea Dave by commenting on his hoodie. Dave had glowered and threatened him repeatedly. He had been ready to leave but, because Scottish Angus and his wife Denise threw a jeering yellow hat over his head, Jack held his ground, stayed well past his bedtime and got even more legless.
When Angus called him a coward again on the way out Jack had lurched over to confront him. Angus’ steel toed shoes kicked two more ribs in before he straddled Jack and tried to strangle him. The foaming Scot was pulled off and sent packing by Dave. Ironically enough, the Chelsea fan was the only one who helped Jack. The barman was apparently stopped from intervening in the violence by the drunken landlady.
A further irony was how the gossip was respun in the following weeks, so that Jack became the bully picking fights. This compounded the suspicion his life was a bad sitcom on the wrong channel, especially when the idiotic ginger barman imitated 1970s canned laughter by hollering ‘oh no’ at Jack whenever he walked through the doors.
“Look I’m Scottish too, and that turd was no Braveheart,” said Scot.
“You’re Scottish? I never knew that. Isn’t that a bit weird, given your name?” said Jack.
“You never knew that? You can also have a Frenchman called Francois and an American called…”
“Right. Okay, look ‘tardo, I’m going to explain something to you, using small words. There are two types of Scot. There are the warriors, and then there’s the weasels. The weasels may pretend they’re warriors, but they’re not.”
“Okay, I’ll bite. What’s the difference?”
“Glad you asked. A warrior wants and enjoys a fight. But he wants a good one, he’s not going to beat up a cripple.”
“I wasn’t a…”
“You couldn’t raise your left, or swat a fly with your right, and you’re English. To a true Scot, you’re a cripple. Being legless is by the by. Anyway, a warrior will wait until the cripple can stand up straight. Then he’ll beat the tar out of him. Fair fight, y’know with real punches and stuff. Seems that Chelsea had a bit more Scotch than the Scot. But a weasel would rather kick a man when he’s down, a wheelchair wouldn’t stop him. You, mon frere, were beaten by a weasel.”
“That actually makes it worse.”
“Well, you were screwed either way. They wanted a target, and saw seven foot of drunk at the bar, Goliath that makes them David. From a distance you don’t look too much of a wimp, must be the shaved head and scars.”
Jack could see that Scot was trying to make him feel better in his own way, but he didn’t like the feeling. “You know I’m part Scottish myself. On my mother’s side. Do you think I’m a …”
“Neither. You’re just a loser. Sorry.”
Jack shrugged. “Yeah, guess you’re right.”
Scot laughed. “You’re not a loser because you got your ribs cracked, you’re a loser because you’re too big to be a victim. You have to be the big bad guy, deserving of a righteous beating, because if you’re not, then these playground bullies aren’t the heroes they pretend to be. You’re a loser because your life has shrunk so small you care what a bunch of snide gossipmongers think. Some sneering little turd calls you a coward, he can say what he wants, doesn’t make it true. Your effete contretemps happened two days after the referendum. Every Scot was bitter that weekend one way or another, and they all wanted to take it out on somebody. You rose to the bait and got a kicking.”
“So I should have ignored it. Saved a beating. Taken the jeers as usual.”
“Drinking that much with a cracked rib and a broken hand you were always going to get hurt, even if it was just falling down a hill on the way home. I just think you should stop beating yourself up. Being called a coward isn’t the same as being a coward, same as being called gay isn’t going to magically change your sexuality.”
“Actually, I think they may have called me that as well at some point.”
“Quelle surprise. You are on a man date drinking Martinis in a Southbank cocktail bar.”
They chinked the second round of classic cocktails poured by the barman, who called himself a mixologist and was discreetly eavesdropping.
“Playground bullies don’t always grow up. Hell of a lot of us have an inner brat gnawing at the bit to come out. And if these guys smirk over name-calling and tittle-tattle that really is all they are.”
“I don’t mind losing a fight,” said Jack. “I can pick myself up after that, I always have, and after a lot worse than that limp scuffle. But being lied about, I’m not built for that. I don’t know how to fight that.”
“You don’t need to fight a lie,” said Scot. “That’s the point. You could scream from the rafters what really happened, or who you really are, but you’d be yelling it at the very same people who enjoy stirring the pot. You think you can convince a liar to stop lying? That its wrong to lie? They either know already, in which case you’re informing them their spite is working, or they’ll be too embarrassed to back down, or they’re so easily led in the first place they’re too sheepish to leave the herd. Hell, some of them repeat the lie enough times they believe it themselves, that’s human nature. Once started, a lie can’t really be retracted. It just hangs in the air stinking the room out. It can be disproved, but ultimately that becomes one opinion against another, facts long gone by that stage. Living with it means ignoring it. You leave the room, and if people want to stay they can wallow in the stink without you. You do that, you stop being a loser.”
“I get upgraded to a weasel or a warrior?”
“Ah, we may have to think up a new definition for you. Actually there’s quite a choice.”
“Apparently I’m also a snob who looks down on everyone. One gurning prat compared me to Andrew Mitchell, after I was beaten up.”
“You’re tall enough to look down, but not proud enough to mean it. Pygmys can have thin skins, you stood up to any recently?”
Jack smiled. “Probably. Well, there’s an odd little postman who has it in for the landlady’s son, who’s a friend. Thinks he runs the pub because he gets the landlady drunk, whispers in ears and tugs strings.”
“Well, weasels don’t like looking up at someone. Makes them feel as small on the outside as they are on the inside. You probably made some offhand remark, or joke you’ve forgotten telling, and thin-skinned people remember, and want revenge, like your Hibernian hotshot.”
“Obviously I have a gift then.”
“Yet still useless at using it.” He raised his glass. “Weasels have memories as long as their skins are thin. You heard the phrase ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’. You know who says that? Wankers.”
“You mean weasels.”
“Whatever, but caring or complaining won’t stop that river flowing. Liars lie to justify their lying. That’s life. Look, I get it. People are social animals, it’s not nice to be disliked, but we never used to crave the respect of those we didn’t either. You haven’t changed that much you’ve forgotten your old mantra.”
Jack shook his head. “I just like the place, I like the people. May not be much but it’s been good for me the last while, like a hideout from… everything. Besides, even if it wasn’t about me, it’s not nice to see people I know hoodwinked or… lying.”
Scot nodded. “Guess now you know who only listens to the gossip, and those that repeat and spread it.”
“Anyway, your broken bones will soon magically disappear from the scuttlebutt, if they were ever included in the first place,” said Scot. “After all, you’ve already been beaten and besmirched, without any consequences. You’re open season now. Coward, then a bully, then a snob, then a… well, it’ll keep on going. The dirt dishing will just get more idiotic now they’re on a streak.”
Mojitos next. Cool, sweet, refreshing with fresh mint. It seemed a good idea to only drink things that began with the letter ‘M’ to ensure sobriety.
“We’re not talking about bad people here. My local isn’t some evil den of iniquity, it’s just a place where people like to have a drink and a laugh.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be evil, but it should be a den if its decent, because it’s healthy to get unhealthy, and banter is fun. But there’s a line between laughing at someone’s expense and bullying them. Playground bullies cross it by manipulating others to join in, and drunk people are way easier to manipulate than sober ones, especially if there’s a chance they’ll be excluded from the group if they don’t play along.”
“I haven’t been bullied. I’m too big for that remember. Although… well this is going to sound weird, but it happened a couple of years ago, and is childish enough to fit your playground bully description. Have you ever seen the show ‘Community’?”
“I don’t watch reality TV.”
“Ah, it’s an American comedy. Very meta, loads of movie references. Used to be funny before it meta’d itself.”
“Meta often feels too ‘cool for school’ for my taste. Always seemed the guys who acted ‘cool’ were the ones who really weren’t.”
“Still works like that. So anyway…”
Being a film buff Jack loved a show packed with a million movie references and he recommended his latest discovery to his friends. One of those supposed friends named himself after the ‘cool’ guy in show, Jeff Winger, even memorising lines and aping the character’s affectations. He played on his new-found iceman status to belittle Jack by renaming him Pierce, after the hated old guy in the show, played by Chevy Chase, winning a new girlfriend in the process after her Mum died. The grieving girl bought into the fantasy and took to repeatedly screaming “shut up Pierce” at Jack, despite them previously being friends.
“Well, some have an inner and outer brat,” said Scot. “But that’s what you get for hanging out with teenagers. They’re not fully… formed.”
“They’re in their mid-twenties, and they didn’t like being told where to go, which I eventually did… after about five months of the weirdness.”
“Why’d it take you so long?”
“I was polite at first, but they just got too nasty so I snapped.”
“Again, why’d it take you so long?”
“I liked the girl. I thought she was my friend, and I felt sorry for her. Three years on, and a hell of a lot of lies and bizarre little games later, she tells me the reason we had a rift was because of how I acted after her Mum died. And she still smirks when she calls me Pierce, albeit on the sly.”
“How you acted? Sounds like they pulled a Dyer.”
“As in Danny Dyer. Mark Kermode, the film critic, did his job by saying Dyer’s acting lived up to his name. Dyer accused Kermode of attacking his children. The logic being that Dan’s trade was acting, so any criticism of his… uh, craft, was effectively snatching food from his kid’s mouths.”
“Ah, yeah, I knew a charity fundraiser who told me the greatest thing about the job was its untouchability. He could get away with exploiting anyone for anything, blame random strangers for the plight of a starving African child if they hesitated to hand over their savings.”
“Yeah, bully’s bull. Vile behaviour excusable in relation to a sympathetic scenario. Roget’s. Rights reserved. It’s how a Portsmouth mob justified burning down a paediatrician’s office when they got confused over the job title. But what was it about being called Pierce? Since when was your skin so thin silly names prick it? Just because some still play in the sandpit doesn’t mean you have to.”
Jack laughed and shook his head. “It’s nothing to do with the name. Or the show. Hell, half the jokes probably go over their head. But intent is everything. They wanted to belittle me and thought they were being really clever doing so. After I told them to jump they painted me as this pantomime villain so the beau could play the protective hero, accusing me of all the weird innuendo and lies they indulged in themselves.”
“So… she was a fragile kid, and bought into the manly hero fantasy, even if she was really the one protecting him from criticism. People need their fantasies, and we are living in the age of delusion. Were you jealous?”
“No, she’s like, half my age. It just got way nastier, and I felt… emasculated, yeah, in a way. It was cowardly and parasitic to use her like that, and boy, she got real loud. Name-calling, exclusion, plain lying – real old school playground bullying. I used to see her as a kid that brightened up a room when she walked into it. Funny, warm, lovable. But, when she smirks, or shrieks, now I just see a cruel, sly, silly little liar. Because that’s what she is when she calls me Pierce.”
“So it’s her that gets under your skin, not the boyfriend, not the name.”
“He’s just… another thin-skinned narcissist who may grow to learn wrong from right, but I really don’t want to see her like that… her cheerfulness and deteriorating family situation allows them both to get away with manipulative games. I see it with the postman and the landlady too, whispering lies in her ear, badmouthing her son and anyone he feels like to all and sundry. Even if it doesn’t really achieve anything, he enjoys the snidery for its own sake. It’s not nice to see someone get twisted like that, either by tragedy or influence. We all lose when that happens.”
“You know, every week in the news there’s stories of kids running off to join IS so they can martyr themeselves in the name of genocide. Friends and family tell us how lovely they are, yet these sweet l’il innocents still make a conscious decision to go kill, rape, torture and maim, taking pleasure from pain. And if they can figure out a way to justify their behaviour, like religion, or love, or grief, whammo, they’ve hit the mother lode.”
“People get easily led, manipulated. They enjoy the attention, and don’t see they’re the ones really being exploited. Some call it love.”
Scot shook his head. “Everyone has a choice. No matter the poison dripped into the most pliable ear, each of us still decides right or wrong. That’s what makes us who we are, forms the echo chamber around us. Call it karma, and karma is just revenge without the satisfaction. A thief’s home has too many locks to ever be comfy. If people really do spend their days lying, cheating, stealing and bullying, then guess what? Their world is filled with lying, cheating, stealing and bullying. Who wants to live in that world, really?”
Jack shook his head. “No-one does, but these people… were still meant to be friends… once.” He sighed. “I know my own innate ability to alienate. Even my mouth has a mouth of it’s own.”
“Well, maybe you just went too far when you chipped at their block and got your just desserts. Or you spent so long playing the drunk fool you can’t complain when you get treated like one. No matter. All ways still lead to the crossroads of deciding to stay in that world or not. You may lose a drunking hole, but these places reflect the character that runs it. If its their place now, their world, remember bullies, like liars, don’t stop when they can get away with it. You just provide them with an easy scapegoat by staying, someone they can assault to cheer themselves up, slice his face open and share the pics on social media with their darling buds.”
Jack flashed ahead a year to Scot’s off hand prophecy. Waking up with a nail embedded in his cheek on a supposed friend’s carpet, face shredded and back drunk shamed with graffiti. By the time he crawled back home photos and braying Facebook posts had already been shared, dripping with smug victory, secure the assault wouldn’t be reported, despite the incriminating evidence on the attacker’s own phones supplanting their lies. “Sounds like I may not have a choice then.”
“Well, look at the timeline. The name-calling was in your face, you bit back, and it moved to behind your back. Now, after you’ve got a kicking, it’s in your face again. What happens next?”
“Is that a rhetorical question?”
“Do you want it to be?”
“Is that a rhetorical question?”
“Bullying is repetition,” said Scot. “It can be a series of in your face screams so loud common sense is drowned out, or it can be poisonous little whispers just out of earshot dripping steadily from a tap. But, say they’re fluffy bunny cute to everyone, only you they target. Only you, the broke drunk freak, the easy mark to hit. How long before their fantasy bubble gets pricked again? Who to blame? The one they get away with hurting? The one too drunk to put up a fight so was publicly beaten to great amusement?”
Jack looked around, and tentatively raised his hand, fingering his yet unscarred cheek as he did so. “This may be a long shot, but…”
Scot continued. “They need a whipping boy, they know how to spin lies to get their hate on, because that’s who they are, that’s their world. That’s how they raise their children.”
Metropolitans. They decided the classics were better than the painfully punned inventions of the bar, and it was too late to move onto another letter of the alphabet.
Scot raised his glass. “Oh, blessed be those too blinded by self brilliance to see who they really are. Licking their fingers in the sandpit, forgetting they already took a dump in it.”
“Did we use to be this cynical at college?” Jack laughed. “Bullies don’t have to stay that way and brats can grow up. If there really was no hope people can change we’d all just stick our head in a hole waiting for the end.”
“Actually, we were probably a lot worse at college, but I worry all the time about the slurry my sons may have to wade through in life, so when I see a spark I picture the fire. My wife and I can teach them right and wrong so they don’t blindly join the mob, be empathetic enough not to bully, but we won’t know if they’re strong enough to take the sticks they’ll be beaten with after we’re gone. Because at some point everyone gets beaten. And what do you really think you’ve been doing for the last ten years if it hasn’t been sticking your head in a hole?”
Jack smiled. That was the crux of it. He nodded. “It’s been difficult, that’s all. Life doesn’t always turn out the way we… expect.”
“Life never turns out the way we expect. Do you remember Kenny with his life planner up on his wall? Twenty years mapped out in six month blocks.”
“Yeah, things may not have gone the way I planned, but I can’t imagine anything following that tight a plan.”
“Plans change. Hell, life is change. Think of the movie we just watched. Don’t know about you, but I’d have given my eye teeth to be an astronaut when I was a kid. Couldn’t think of anything more pointless and… lonely right now. Most of the time I’m just trying to get my family through the week intact, and that’s enough exploring the unknown for me.”
“I wanted to be an astronaut too. Every kid did. But I spent half that movie wondering how the guy next to you eating noodles heated them up. And why he thought that was okay to do in the cinema.”
“Thermos flask. Or he bought a cup of tea from the kiosk without the bag in and used the hot water. And he did it because he could. Wow, you really do go off on tangents don’t you? Maybe that’s why you don’t see what’s passing you by.”
“There must be things you still want to do though. That you haven’t managed yet.”
“Sure there are, but I still believe when the time is right, the chances will still be there, if I still want them.”
“But what if the moment passed and won’t return?”
“The opportunities are there, even in our dotage. Just not the way you imagined, take a bit more effort to spot, maybe make the… adjustments we need to make them work. Maybe we all need a kick in the pants once in a while.”
“Just the pants?”
“Like it or not, that Caledonian cousin has done you a favour, just like you did him a favour. Riding you probably meant he could climb onto his mongo wife later that night.”
“I’m a very generous man.”
“Yeah, heard that about you, but I don’t listen to gossip. Look, think of this as a watershed moment. Some people our age buy a Porsche. I’ve got my eye on a Morgan. Shallow status symbols to prove how great our lives are. You, being the lower end of the scale, make do with a kicking – physically, socially, mentally – to convince you to start living yours again. You’ve spent so long martyring yourself you’d apologise if a thief stole your wallet. You do remember that mantra? Your little deathbed precis?”
“I’m surprised you do.”
Scot laughed. “Believe it or not, time to time, I use it to check myself.”
“Yeah well, I guess it still holds true.”
“How does it go again?”
Jack sighed, and smiled. “That after a long life the strongest man will lose his strength, his muscles will fade, his eyes will blur. Those that have lived their lives covering themselves with lies and false glories will lose those too, and when stripped down to their kernel they are nothing but a small, black, rotten thing, because their life has been venal and false, and they die knowing deep down how truly ugly they are. However…”
The mixologist leaned in.
“Those that have been honest, no matter how many times they’ve been cheated or besmirched, how many times they’ve been beaten down, when stripped down to their seed they are still as strong and decent and true as when they were young. They’ll still lose their muscles, and their eyes, and their body will be just as weak as the liars and cheats, but they can die smiling knowing who they are, because they are glad of what they’re not.”
They drank on, moving back to beer when the cocktails got too much and wandered the Southbank drinking in the London night lights. Eventually, they staggered off for their respective last trains promising to meet again in the New Year.
Scot got home by midnight and slumped onto the downstairs sofa. He chose not to wake his loved ones by attempting the stairs. He smiled as he slumbered off, content that it was a warrior’s role to help those who stumbled pick themselves up, lest they be gnawed too deeply by the weasels.
Standing on Lewes station platform at two in the morning, after engineering works had extended his journey into the wee small hours, Jack started laughing.
He laughed at the irony of being attacked by his accuser and saved by his aggressor; he laughed at apologising for not defending himself; he laughed at the loudest voices saying the least and at darts thrown by the thinnest skins; he laughed at the contradictory gossip spread by those finishing a story without knowing the beginning. His ribs sang from laughing at the muck slung at his back, and rubbed in his face, and he felt cleaner for laughing.
He was a coward who didn’t flee, a fighter without a punch, a kind abuser, a witty grump, a sober drunk, a generous scrounger, an industrious slacker, a modest egotist, a thief who’d never stolen, a liar who told the truth.
He was all of those things; he was none of those things.
He was free.
THE ORIGINAL DRAFT OF THIS STORY WAS PUBLISHED JANUARY 2015 ON NOW DEFUNCT BLOG MCBEALES.WORDPRESS.COM