A woman walked into a bar and it was no joke.
Her brown hair, streaked liberally with thin flashes of grey, was fizzing excitedly from the light drizzle outside. It had clung determinedly to the top of her head as she walked and was now stealthily lifting brittle strands from her scalp. She raised her hand to smooth it flat, but dropped it again, resigned to the witchy frizz no product could tame. Instead, she stuck the hand out in front of her to look with distaste at the raised ropes of veins which ran the length from wrist to fingers, blue beneath the wrinkled tissue of her skin. Observing the empty white space where her wedding ring had sat so quietly for so many years, she wrinkled her nose and stuck her hand into her jacket pocket to hide the disappointment. Her thighs were thick and loosely skinned, and her fat-coated, burgeoning hips eased themselves over the sides of her jeans in an effort to greet them. She took two steps towards the bar and then it came, the intense, familiar fire in the middle of her breasts, igniting quickly and immediately clamouring for her face. She breathed in sharply, preparing for the panic she knew would follow and pulled loose her jumper at the neck, to wait for it to pass. And wait. Each second crawling lazily to grab onto the next, as she burned and steamed by turns. Sweat rushed down her cheeks and her glasses began to slip from her nose, she dabbed at herself with her coat sleeve pointlessly and pushed her glasses back up as more sweat raced to fill the vacated space above her top lip.
A man to her right, sitting at a table with three other men, looked up from his pint and directly into her eyes. He dug his elbow into the man alongside him and nodded his head towards her. The other man turned to look at her and a smile spread across his face. They said something to each other and broke into laughter. She didn’t need to know what it was. She knew it dismissed her because of her appearance, and she immediately felt, without any effort, that she wanted to kill them. She wanted to kill most people, most of the time. It was commonplace as a general murderous feeling that had replaced the easy happiness, she’d found so easy, for so many decades. She considered how her body had begun to close up in increasing dryness, lock down her joints, and rebel against her attempts to stay young; how that made her want to escape it and she shrugged hourly knowing she couldn’t. These feelings weren’t new and they weren’t any more welcome with time. Her body felt mutinous and so did she.
A man, rushed into the bar behind her and because she was rooted to the spot in his direct path to the beer pumps, he put his hand on either side of her arms,
“Scuse me love”. He said gruffly as he moved her to one side in his sausage-fingered grip, her feet stumbling over each other as he held her, then placed her clumsily out of his way. He walked forward to the bar, his eyes on the pumps, greedy to suckle there for an hour or two.
“Prick.” She said quietly into her chest. No one heard her.
“Prick!” She said, much more loudly.
The man turned.
“Did you say something love?”
But men didn’t hear the words of women like her. She scanned the bar, noting that there were no women in it and said out loud to the deaf men,
“You bunch of fuckers don’t know what it’s like to be women. You don’t know what it’s like to live as we do. If I had one curse, just one, it would be to make you know.” She waved her hand upwards and shook her fist towards the room finishing with a two fingered gesture intended for them all.
None of them looked, and none of them saw the flash of fire that escaped from her heel as she turned on it quickly and marched out into the mist.
The Old Red Lion rocked gently, but imperceptibly, with the voices of men who had exited their tedious workplaces; considered home as they headed for their debt-ridden cars and instead found themselves soothing their dissatisfactions with real ale and half-hearted football banter. These coasting, comfortable men shuffled feet happily in a dance with other men, all united in avoiding the women who loved them. Conversations meandered aimlessly, punctuated by the odd look at a phone to check the time and sigh at the inevitable prodding finger of a text asking them to pick up carrots and enquiring how long they might be. One or two didn’t bother replying and more than one lied.
Tom sat alone at a table under the high window brooding intently on his annoyance. He wasn’t exactly sure what it was or where it sat in him or why. It felt like a sharp stone inside his chest knocking occasionally at his ribs. It had begun first thing this morning and he had stepped carefully through his day trying to move smoothly so that this unidentifiable, relentless niggling feeling of slight pain, wasn’t aggravated. But it was, he was. There was a sticking point of irritation he couldn’t pull his finger from, and he kept picking and picking and picking at it in his mind. He bent down to his rucksack considering taking something from it, only to find he couldn’t remember what. He tutted, as though someone else had stolen the memory of his intention; an unknown antagonist had taken root in his life, determined to unsettle it. Raising his hand to his head in mild confusion he scratched at his scalp, and a shower of dandruff and loose hair tumbled onto the dark wood table at the side of his pint. He had never suffered with dandruff or hair loss in his life and he stared disbelievingly at the specks in mild disgust. Cautiously he took his hand and patted gently at the top of his head. He felt skin. Skin that had not been there yesterday. He looked to one side of him but the pair of men there didn’t appear to have noticed his shocked gasp, though both had become suddenly quiet and were staring straight ahead at the bar with fixed frowns.
These men were trying to have a conversation about rugby, but had found themselves inexplicably unable to name their favourite players.
“You know when he converted the try in that match against…you know…when they played…” Dan had begun. But he couldn’t seem to remember the player or the opposition team. His mate Frank laughed,
“You might have to be a bit more fucking specific mate!”
Dan looked at Frank and even though they met here every other night for the pint and the chatter, their children were at school together, and their wives occasionally cooked a nice dinner and fed them all, Dan felt, in an unavoidable instant, that he could simply get his pint glass and mash it into Frank’s face until he died screaming in a pool of blood and shards. Frank ground his teeth together thinking Dan was a fucking arsehole who really ought to listen to him more and really didn’t deserve him as a friend. Both men looked seconds from tears. They lifted their pints and gulped avoiding meeting each other’s eyes.
At the bar Gav stood with the bloke from the garage whose name he suddenly couldn’t remember. Steve? They met here most nights acquaintance, rather than friendship, bonding them, and veered from cars, to football, to the wives who left them and the children they never saw, in easy chatter that was instantly forgettable. Gav prodded himself in the forehead for the man’s name and quietly worried if this was the start of dementia. The man was in front of him was discussing his maintenance payments and how they were crippling him, as he sipped at his pint with a stuffed wallet bulging at his hip. Gav tried to focus on the words, but found himself getting distracted and moved his neck from side to side.
“Is it a bit hot in here Steve?” Gav interrupted suddenly.
“Who the fuck is Steve?” David, for that was his actual name, answered with irritation, knowing that his story had been bloody important and he deserved full attention for it.
Gav blinked. He felt really hot now. He pulled at his shirt collar and began peeling off his jumper almost at the same time.
“Fuck sake! For fucks sake. Turn the fucking heating off. We don’t pay you brewery shit heads good money to boil us alive!” he shouted at the barman who was busy stacking glasses.
“What the fucking hell is wrong with you Gav? There’s no heating on and if you talk to me like that again I will knock you into the back of next week,” Kev the barman puffed out his chest and slammed his hand on the bar in front of a sweating Gav. “and you can bloody pay your tab now, I’m sick of carrying you through to pay day and having to make excuses to the boss for you.” He jabbed his finger at the till. As he moved back his bum knocked over the glasses he had been stacking and a number fell to the floor and smashed.
“Look what you made me do now? Honestly, I’ve had enough of this job. No one fucking appreciates me and now you are talking to me like shit on your shoe. I’m not having it.” He looked forlornly at the floor covered in shards but couldn’t seem to move in order to get the dustpan and brush. He just stared at it feeling uncomfortable and realising with horror that he was definitely going to cry. He ducked down below the bar quickly as tears flowed and he dabbed at them with a bar mat. He wondered how his life had come to this. He had once been selected to run the four hundred metres for South Yorkshire and won. Now he poured pints for men who called him names. Life was so unfair. His sobs racked him and his body shook. He daren’t stand up but his knees ached and ached. He cried harder.
Gav caught sight of himself in the mirror opposite as he and David avoided each other’s eyes, unsure how to react to the six-foot-three lump crying beneath the bar, and was shocked to see his own face was scarlet. He put both hands up to it and realised it was wet with sweat and he must have a fever. He was burning up.
“Oh god. Dear bloody Christ. I might need an ambulance calling. I think I’m having a heart attack or something. Feel my head. FEEL MY HEAD!” He screamed at David. “My heart is racing. I feel like it’s going to burst out of my chest. Oh my god. I’m actually going to die. Right here, take my phone. Call my wife, ex-wife. Thingy. Call her. I want to speak to my kids. Someone, bloody help me!” He put his arm on David’s arm and looked beseechingly into his face.
David pulled out his mobile phone and immediately dropped it on the floor. Swearing he tried to pick it up but quickly put a hand on his own back which had suddenly twanged him into excruciating pain. He let out a long sigh and tried to remember what the sigh reminded him of. When he realised it was his mother after she raised herself from her chair, he gulped. She was seventy-three. He felt a blinding fury rush through him and he straightened up and kicked the bar stool over.
Martin, had been standing along the bar from David waiting to be served. He had looked forward to his pint of Neck Oil all day. It had kept him going through the personal development training where he had been lectured by a man with green hair about “diversity and inclusion”. Along with the endless stuff about gender, which he nodded lazily at because it didn’t matter to him, there was also a ludicrous session about menopause in the workplace. He had scoffed loudly at various points when women spoke up about feeling a bit hot or something. He was becoming irritated at waiting so long for the pint of comfort to take it all away and he finally banged on the bar.
“Kev! Service please!” He shouted a little too loudly and he realised this a little too late.
Kev rose from the bar, with the broom in one hand, like Neptune from the deep, and slammed his sopping bar mat down in front of Martin.
“What the actual FUCK do you want?” He roared at Martin who was quite affronted and his face showed it as he tried to remain calm and in control. He was a senior manager after all. The training was exemplary.
“I want a pint of Neck Oil and don’t be so bloody rude!” He pointed at the beer pump.
Kev narrowed his eyes. The tears had been replaced by hot rage as quickly as they had appeared. He let a nasty grin spread slowly across his thin lips as he kept his gaze on Martin. Then he picked up the bar mat, and draped it flamboyantly over the beer pump. With a wave of his hand over the pump he declared triumphantly,
It was at this point that David’s kicked stool, fell heavily on Martin’s foot. Martin, a mild-mannered regional sales executive for Tesco, turned to David and punched him hard in the back of the head. He shook his hand, and as David stumbled forwards he realised how much it hurt to punch a human skull. He turned to Kev, pulled him across the bar swiftly and head-butted him, something he briefly acknowledged, he had never done to anyone in his entire life. It wasn’t the Tesco way. The other men immediately balled fists and Martin drew himself up to his full height of five foot eight.
Missing this brewing fight was John. He had been sat laughing at a table with his friends Craig and Oliver. Oliver was telling them about a woman he had been shagging who had been convinced they were an item until she found him on Tinder and then she had gone into a massive meltdown and keyed his car. Except it wasn’t his car, it was his mum’s. As John laughed uncontrollably, dabbing at his eyes, he felt a weird warm feeling in his jeans at the front. Frightened he was about to get an erection and be ridiculed by the others, he had stood up and rushed to the toilet. Now here he was, looking down and realising with some swearing, and even more dread, that he had pissed himself a little bit. It was just laughing with the boys, and now he was looking at a wet stain on his pants and through to his jeans. He pulled the damp crotch of his underpants away from his body. There curled up tiny as a nesting mouse, was his penis. It looked so pathetically sad, and he thought of this morning when he had turned to Clare his wife and realised that for the first time in many months, maybe years, that he had not got the slightest desire to touch her. It was a shock. Usually, she was fighting him off as he tried to convince her into a quickie before work. It was only a little game. Sometimes she gave in and sometimes she didn’t and he had a wank when she had gone. But here he was, having wet himself and looking at something that appeared to have forgotten what to do. He poked it angrily, but nothing. He picked it up with his thumb and forefinger and gave it a little squeeze, but it was dead to the world. He rubbed it a little but to no avail. In fact, it actually hurt. It felt rough and scratchy. He would need to go to the doctor with this immediately. The GP would obviously fix this. He couldn’t not have sex for a whole day! He wasn’t a kid. He began to fasten his jeans back up. They felt tight and he struggled to do up the zip. He sat down on the toilet lid and put his head in his hands. It was all too much. He began crying, snot dripping into his fingers.
Outside the fire of men was raging. Every man in the bar had hit a previously unknown breaking point. One man howled because his wife had said she didn’t like his tattoo. Another was banging his head against the table in front of him because he didn’t get a promotion he wanted. One was tearing at his face and screaming about his lost acting career in his early twenties because he his girlfriend got pregnant and he couldn’t move to Los Angeles. Regret, misery, irritation and rage swirled through the room and not one of the men was strong enough to bear it.
“If only women knew how we FEEL!” Kev screamed out over the bar. A pint glass came hurtling to the side of his head and he cried out in pain. “For fuck sake! Who did that?”
“If only women knew how we FEEL!” Kev screamed out over the bar. A pint glass came hurtling to the side of his head and he cried out in pain. “For fuck sake! Who did that?”
“You’re a wanker Kev. Always have been. Can’t pour a decent pint for love nor fucking money!” A man Kev didn’t recognise was standing on his chair getting ready to throw another glass. He was knocked off sideways by Charlie who got him in a headlock and then began punching him ferociously in the nose. Kev’s rage burst its dam again and he ran over to help.
Gav picked up a stool and hurled it through the window, unsure why but certain it would make him feel better. It did not. Martin raced over and rugby tackled him and they both fell into the fireplace.
Throughout the room men fought and screamed and cried and some wet themselves openly. All of them were hot. All of them felt fat, ugly and murderous.
Quiet flames licked at the carpet from the dislodged open fire Martin and Gav had tumbled from, still wrestling on the ground ineffectively but with commitment. No man took notice of the quietly ambitous fire. The logs stacked close by embraced the escaping fire gleefully and began to smoulder.
The television above the bar, which no one ever listened to but which was never off, showed a male newsreader becoming exasperated at his female co-host. She was laughing at him as he shuffled his papers and lost his place and became ever redder in the face. Suddenly he stood up and pushed back his chair,
“That it. I’ve had enough of this shit. The world can fucking burn for all I care!” and he stormed off set.
The world did not burn, because one man’s curse is not that powerful. The bar did, because one menopausal woman’s was.
In the early hours two middle-aged firemen kicked at the rubble where the Old Red Lion bar had been. The fire was out now, some men dispatched to hospital, some to the coroner. The two firemen shook their heads sadly. They had both liked a pint in here sometimes after a shift, though the barman was an inveterate arsehole.
“Bloody women.” Mused Daniel.
“What? What’s up mate?” Asked Joe.
“I just can’t please her Joe. Nothing I do is right.”
“Do you think it is, you know, the time of life?” He rolled his eyes and grinned as he brought both hands up and cupped imaginary large breasts, then mimicked them boinging down to his waist.
“No, I don’t think so. She said she is going to have the time of her life. Then she left.”
And women, we all know that she did.