“The stronger sex is the weaker sex because of the stronger sexes’ weakness for the weaker sex!”
Mark was leaning forward nursing his beer. He turned round with a puzzled look from Pete’s statement. “What?”
Pete was about to repeat what he said when Mark gestured for him to stop. “Just be quiet please. Who told you that crap?”
“Words of wisdom from the man who rolls his car up hills, just reaching the top and then rolls down saying, ‘hur hur hur’ to save petrol?” As Mark spoke the insult he sat back with his fists clenched in front of him to simulate holding a steering wheel.
“He’s always done that. He can get a hundred miles a gallon out of any car.” Pete seemed quite proud of his father’s achievement.
“The twenty cars behind him going up and down a hill in first gear probably can’t, so much for lowering the carbon footprint. I’m amazed nobody’s killed him yet.” Mark turned to Steve who he had earlier persuaded to join them for their drink. “Every traffic jam in Stevenage is caused by his dad. It’s a good job we’re flat here. Otherwise the whole fucking town would be gridlocked.”
“He’s careful that’s all,” Pete remarked.
Hilda joined Mark in the ribbing while Mickey looked on. “His dad went round tellin’ everyone about this cheap café he found until someone told him it was a soup kitchen.” He flicked his long hair out of his eyes as if it was a twitch.
Steve found his cousin’s four friends an unusual bunch. They were a little odd looking but friendly. Pete was short and skinny with a boyish look aided by his black hair which had an almost forced side parting. There was Mickey who seemed to be a jack the lad in training. He was probably the most normal looking of them apart from his facial features being too big for his head. His eyes, nose and mouth all had a disproportionate look but not enough to be considered freakish. The remaining friend was a big lumbering bear with curly brown hair and round glasses. His name was Mitchell but they all called him Hilda because his surname was Hill. He seemed okay with the nickname though which Steve didn’t understand. It would have been like them calling him Louise as a play on Lewis which he would have hated.
Pete tried to diffuse the insults. “He didn’t know it was a soup kitchen.”
Mark was still watching Pete. He appeared to be in some sort of tag match with Hilda, both ganging up verbally on their smaller victim. “He went back though, he went back even when he knew it was a soup kitchen. The only reason he stopped going was because one of the volunteers was a neighbour and recognised him so they banned him. And what about that crate of cheap dog food he bought and you haven’t even got a dog?”
Steve struggled not to spit out the beer he was drinking.
Pete moped as he tried to think of an answer but came up with nothing. He lost the battle.
There were multitudes of conversations Steve found himself trying to keep up with. His tactic was to laugh at their jokes, not make too much conversation and try to enjoy himself even if staying in his bedroom grew more appealing as the afternoon turned into evening. He had to keep telling himself that it was only one night and he would be back to normal tomorrow. He missed his bedroom, his computer, the fact he didn’t have to make any effort. He had a long chat with his mother about interfering but she turned it round on him and like his cousin, won the debate. She also lent him fifty pounds to go out with despite him not knowing when he would be able to pay it back.
Being around strangers was never his most comfortable place but his cousin meant well. At first he felt like the odd one out at a party as the friends exchanged jokes and stories. It didn’t take him long to realise that this particular group consisted of three comedians and Hilda, who spent half his time being a fourth comedian, usually with the help of someone else and the other half a stooge for the others. Nothing was off limits, personal appearance, ex and current girlfriends, illnesses, parents. It was all fair as far as they were concerned. If there was a universal law there had to be at least one joker in a pack of friends then there were three other groups of friends who had a vacancy going. What was worse in the beginning, was when Steve laughed at their jokes out of courtesy they told even more and delivered even more insults to each other. They then started looking at Steve and waiting for him to laugh as if he was some umpire on which one of them could get the best insults.
They came round to his house promptly at eight. The introduction to Hilda was unusual as he kept looking around his house as if searching for someone which Mark later explained was a certain lady he had a thing for and was trying to catch a glimpse of her.
Their plan was to drive to Mickey’s flat. Hilda had a method of avoiding road rage by turning into side streets like a maniac and coming back out when he was ahead of the car in front of him which he felt was driving too slow. His car was a wreck, with a broken heater but they got to Mickey’s place in no time despite the weather turning positively dreadful.
They left the car and braved the heavy wind and rain to their local which was where Steve now found himself sitting at a table, talking about life in general with Mark and his three friends.
And despite his miserable disposition he was becoming increasingly relaxed. The Wheatsheaf was a nice pub, recently refurbished with light coloured wooden chairs and benches. There were sofas by some of the smaller tables and meals were served before nine, plenty of room and seating.
The four men drank fast and heavy and were gearing up for a potential lock in. They tended to just buy rounds as and when they felt like it, not taking any turns or pressuring anyone. Steve bought one round but had three bought for him.
Two women Mickey knew who were having one drink before going to a club joined them at one point. When they left Hilda said, “They looked nice tonight. I’d do either of them.” He motioned his arms back and forth in a sexual mime, as much as his seated position allowed.
“That doesn’t say much.” Pete sneered. As was becoming the custom to get applause for his insults, he turned to Steve. “We’re his third lot of friends, his previous ones all got married off. People think he’s my dad.”
Hilda parried, “The same people also think I married an Oompah Loompah and I still have to tell them you were the runt.”
“He’s had two girlfriends in his life,” Pete returned.
“What about your girlfriends? The one who had a grand’s worth of scrap metal on her face. If she’d swallowed a magnet then she’d have imploded.”
There was another bout of laughter. As they carried on in their enclosed disagreement, the landlord of the pub sat at their table. He began speaking to all of them but Pete and Hilda who were busy with their argument.
Steve learned his name was Wayne when they first went in. He had run pubs in and around Stevenage over the last ten years and was a pleasant enough sort with a very thin moustache, large stomach and a tendency to sweat and swear a lot. He was grumbling about the worst week of his life.
“Don’t speak to me about this week,” he began, knowing they would. “My wife takes the car to get some chips and somehow it’s burned out. The garage said the electrics were fucked.”
“Sure she wasn’t trying to keep the chips warm?” Mickey joked with a surprisingly serious expression on his face.
“Fuck off.” Wayne continued, “And then some fucker broke into my garage and stole my fishing gear. It was worth over a grand.” He stopped and surveyed the friends and pointed his finger to all of them as if it was a gun. “And don’t you dare say anythin’ else funny, I’m not in the mood to joke.”
“Any idea who did it? Is the net closing in?” Mickey asked.
Wayne didn’t answer, he just glared.
“The maggots,” Mark said.
Not wanting to miss out Hilda took a break from his debate with Pete and joined in. “I thought the threat of you being robbed had abated.” He emphasised the syllable ‘bait’ in the last word.
“I bet you’re reeelly pissed off,” Mark added.
“Were you shook up when you saw the stuff missing.” It was Mickey again, thinking it was Christmas and broadcasting ‘hook’ from ‘shook’.
Wayne slumped in his chair feeling a lot worse than a minute before. “I don’t know why I bother to even talk to you.”
“Neither do we,” Mickey said.
Wayne turned quiet realising whatever he said would just open himself up for more abuse.
“So what’s he told you about us then Steve?” Mickey asked as he sipped his beer as a hamster would.
“Not a lot.” Steve preferred to listen than be involved in the conversation directly. He had thought about a play on words for Wayne with the word ‘angle’ but was too late and didn’t know him well enough. “He came round this morning and asked me to come out for a drink.”
“And Angela is your twin sister?”
“Is she as spiteful at home as she is when she’s out?” Pete asked in a break with his arguing with Hilda who looked aghast at the interruption.
Steve laughed uncomfortably. “Worse sometimes and yes she is my twin sister.”
“And what’s your job?” Mickey asked.
“Nothing at the moment.”
“What’s your normal line of work?”
Steve drank a swig of beer which he chewed and swallowed. “I worked in a travel agency. That was the only thing I did after I left university.”
Mickey laughed, “University? University is a complete waste of time and money. You never learn anything useful and leave just to become unemployed. Universities are for twats. It’s the biggest con going. You go there, borrow fifty grand, leave with a piece of paper then go to work somewhere at the bottom taking orders off someone who started there as a sixteen year old school leaver.”
“Not all the time. A good degree opens doors,” Steve knew it hadn’t in his case.
Mickey smiled with his oversized mouth. “I suppose it can but firms don’t think when they create a post that they want someone with a useless degree to do it. Graduates fill call centres then get fired when the firm find a bunch of Indians to do it cheaper.”
“So what do you do?” Steve asked.
“Plastering. I make more than an accountant and I left school at sixteen.”
Mark intervened, “Not very good at it though. They call him Tex. There’s always a queue of people outside his flat to complain about his shoddy workmanship. They even started banging on my door when I lived next door to him. That’s why I had to move back home.”
After a customary laugh at Mark’s comment Steve asked, “So what’s wrong with university then?”
“They place such a big thing about getting a degree and all it is to the government is to farm the brats out for a few more years and keep the unemployment figures down.”
“A bit cynical.” Steve had been in a similar conversation before with his sister.
“Just stating the obvious,” said Mickey looking pleased with himself.
“In the longer term graduates are supposed to earn more money but you have to look at a bigger picture.”
“What? You’re poorer? You have a loan you’re never going to pay off?”
It was going the same way as his debate with Angela. “You’re looking at it from the individual, not as a whole. A lot of universities produce professionals and you don’t find graduates standing around on street corners drinking beer, stealing cars or vandalising shops.”
“Point taken but I still think university is a waste of time.”
Steve shrugged. “You’re entitled to your opinion.”
Mickey said nothing else on the subject and it was the only time that night Steve talked to the whole group although Hilda and Pete were still arguing.
It was later on, after more frivolous conversation when Mickey asked Steve out of the blue, “So are you looking for work?”
Steve nodded, “Any I can get. They cut my benefit.”
“Bastards,” Mickey grumbled, “I can probably get you some casual if you want to try your hand at plastering, or at least labouring for a plasterer?”
“Sure.” Steve believed the offer from Mickey was the drink talking.
“Great, we’re busy at the moment and I’m doing my own jobs. I’ll let you know when something comes up. We can’t pay that much but I reckon I can give sixty quid a day if you’re interested. It should keep you in beer for a while.”
“Thanks.” Steve thought nothing more of it.
As the night wore on, Steve found himself on his own while the others were talking to Wayne at the bar, Mark spoke to him. His face was reddened from the alcohol but he had the appearance of someone quite pleased with himself.
“So what do you think of the lads then?”
“They’re a good bunch, thanks for this.” To Steve’s surprise he had enjoyed the night out. He liked them and they were funny.
“It’s not the best of nights to be honest, the shit weather and bonfire night will have kept some people away but there will be better nights.” “It’s okay, I’ve enjoyed this, it’s been good. I needed it.”
“Well, we’ll probably have a couple more, get a takeaway and go back to Mickey’s and have some games on his Wii.”
“Nice to break you in gently.”
Hilda and Pete’s debate had raged on for two hours and was heated enough to be heard by half of the pub. “So next Friday, when I’ve pulled and you’re going home to your porn and hand cream and fifty pounds poorer, we’ll see who’s laughing then!”