Birdie Wallace said he wanted to fight me for the hand of Ann Marie O’Hare. And it wasn’t as if her hand was mine to give.
‘He knows he won’t win me over,’ she said when I showed her the scroll. ‘But this will restore his self respect – he thinks.’
She was impressed by the trouble he had taken to write on parchment.
‘Is that blood?’
She said, ‘He’s humiliated that I left him, so he wants to thump the other man. It’s straightforward really.’
I had to grant her that.
One option was to ignore the challenge, which was a little difficult since he’d also posted it on Facebook.
Later, as I walked from the lift to my seat in the newsroom, the eyes of my colleagues followed me, seeing a man bear the burden of a life or death decision.
I said, ‘I’m not going to fight him.’
‘Ignore him and he’ll go away,’ muttered a few of them more or less at once.
Then Tommy the editor called me into his office. We had been to university together, had worked off each other for years since. He was the boss because he wanted to be the boss. I was content to be the feature writer.
‘If you’re worried I’ll disgrace the paper, getting into a public brawl, forget it,’ I said.
‘That’s not it at all. Have you seen the guy’s Facebook page?’
‘Not in the last hour.’
‘Well it’s growing, which makes this a story.’
When I left the office George was waiting with his recorder.
‘Come on, George, you can’t doorstep a guy at work.’
‘What does Ann Marie say?’
‘Leave her out of this.’
‘Isn’t she worth fighting for?’
And at that moment, half playfully, half in earnest, I’m not sure, I turned on George with a fist raised and would have said something really snarly only Aileen caught me with her flash and I knew I was stewed.
‘OK. You got your story. I pity your wit if you think it’s worth it.’ And I went back to my desk and wrote up my review of the new Van Morrison album.
But I couldn’t resist checking the comments on Facebook.
So far Birdie’s challenge had 22 shares and 150 likes and 80 comments.
Some were what I might have written myself.
‘Get a grip, sicko. Let her go.’
‘Tosser. You think he could give her to you even if he wanted. Wise the fuck up.’
But there were others.
‘All right for you lot pretending you don’t know what jealousy hurts like. I’m with Birdie. It wouldn’t solve much to smack the guy that took your girl, but it would feel good.’
‘He didn’t take his girl. That’s the whole point, you sad chauvinistic twit. She left him.’‘I don’t know. I kinda like the idea my man should fight for me, not that I’d want him to get hurt.’
‘Yeah, this is how nature intended. We haven’t evolved as far as we think.’
‘Aye, instead of smouldering with hurt and rage for years there’s something to be said for sorting it out.’
I had got through about half the comments when the phone rang.
It was Ann Marie. I said, ‘Have you seen Birdie’s page on Facebook?’
‘Oh, I thought you were talking about the photos.’
‘You rang me about the photos?’
‘No. Just to tell you I’m on Joe Duffy, this afternoon.’
‘What’s that about?’
‘To ask me about what I think of Birdie wanting to fight for my hand.’
‘And you’ll do it.’
‘I love Joe Duffy.’
‘And are you going to say I should fight him.’
‘Of course not.’
I told her the paper was running a story on it too.
‘See. Everybody’s interested. Bye.’
And then I opened Birdie’s photo album and there he was in Tenerife and Corfu and Florida with Ann Marie in bikinis and evening gowns, hugging him, drinking cocktails. There were shots taken of her drunk in hotel rooms looking impish and eager the way I had seen her myself.
Everything I knew about her, Birdie knew. Everything Birdie knew about her, I knew. He had been brooding on that and it had become intolerable. I didn’t much like it either.
I listened to Joe Duffy on headphones at my desk. The first item was about a mother who had found that her son had been posting nude pics of himself on a gay website. Joe was duly concerned.
Then he said, ‘We all know what jealousy is, don’t we? We all think it is the most evil and unreasoning impulse and yet we all feel it. And one of the most distressing things in life is when you lose someone you love to another man or woman. Well that’s what happened to Birdie Wallace. But Birdie doesn’t want to sit around and mope, do you, Birdie? Tell the listeners what you’ve done, Birdie.’
‘Hi Joe, I love your show.’
I’d thought he would have the gruff voice of a thug.
‘My problem is that I am in love with Ann Marie and she has left me for another guy. Ann Marie and I had a lovely time together. We had a holiday in the sun, went skinny dipping under a full moon, did all the things that lovers do when they are just discovering each other. You know what I’m talking about, Joe, don’t you?’
‘Well, they say most of the loving in a relationship, the physical loving, is in the early weeks and months.’
‘That’s what I’m talking about, Joe, a kind of intimacy between her body and mine – you don’t mind me saying this on radio.’
‘Just tread carefully, Birdie.’
‘I don’t know what happened, Joe. Suddenly there was another guy and she said to me, look Birdie, I really like you but I don’t have the same feelings for you that I have for him.’
‘And that’s hard, Birdie. That’s hard to accept. But that’s the way of it.’
‘I can’t accept it. I just can’t.’
‘Then maybe you need to hear it from Ann Marie one more time. Hello Ann Marie.’
‘Hello Joe, Hello Birdie.’
She sounded so cheerful, so keen.
‘Ann Marie, this story has moved on a bit since you left Birdie. Tell us about it.’
‘Well, I loved Birdie and now I love another guy and he is very good to me. Not that Birdie wasn’t good to me too. But this morning we got a scroll delivered to the house, written in red, like in blood.’
‘It is blood’, said Birdie.
And I could hear Ann Marie gulping.
‘And what did it say?’ said Joe.
‘It was a challenge to my man from Birdie, to fight for my hand.’
‘Your hand? What do you think about that?’
Anne Marie was quiet for a moment, struggling maybe. ‘Well, I am kind of touched. Wouldn’t any woman be?’
Joe said, ’And there we’ll stop for a commercial break and think this one through.’
And I took out the earplugs to try and bring myself back to the office and a sane space but it didn’t work. The office radio was tuned in to Joe Duffy too and George was making notes.
I put the plugs back in.
‘Welcome back to the Joe Duffy Hour. Ann Marie, can we clarify just what your thinking is on this? Before the break I asked you how you feel about Birdie Wallace challenging your partner to a fight for your hand and you said you found that touching. Now come clean here. Are you saying you want this fight to go ahead and that you’ll take the man who wins? Is that what you are saying?’
‘No, I don’t want them to fight. But I do want Birdie to be happy and I don’t want either of these two lovely men to get hurt just because of me.’
‘But I am hurt.’
I was so wound up listening to this that I had to go for a run. I had gear in a locker in the toilets and I didn’t care if I was missed at my desk.
I ran down May Street to the river and followed the embankment to the tow path. At first I was too tight in myself to relax into a rhythmic stride. At first it was a nuisance that I had to stop at junctions and crossings, and there was an unseasonal chill coming in on the west wind, but the sight of the river and the clear path before me, apart from a few dog walkers and bikes, meant that I’d be able to pound out a good five miles before having to turn round.
Other people’s lives now seemed simple. Ducks on the water squabbled for food and mates but seemed reconciled to that being the natural way.
At the lock keeper’s cottage I stopped and did a dozen pull ups on the low branch of a tree. Now I was breathless and my heart was pounding. My calves and biceps were pleading for a rest, knowing how sweet that would be.
When you run like this to clear your head you don’t sift through the big questions and find rational answers. Instead you just come to a point where everything is settled and you, at least, know the parameters of the problem. And what I understood was that Birdie had only ever had the intense romantic phase with Ann Marie before she had worked out that he was not the one for her.
That was the phase of massaging, of exploring bodies with fingers and tongues, when the whole charge is sexual and amazing before the relationship plateaus into routine and you stop having sex every night or even every week. That was the stage we were at ourselves. We had survived into ordinariness.
But Birdie wanted her to come back and make his skin tingle again; he was missing the sixty-niners and the experiments and the biting and the late mornings in bed writing on each others bodies or eating off them.
Well, I could relate to that. I was missing those things too.
But they were no more coming back for me with Ann Marie than they were for Birdie. Birdie was fighting for a dream that had died.
She was home when I got back, making the dinner in the kitchen. I was drenched like a wrung flannel and went in to kiss her lightly before taking a shower. ‘You’re dripping!’
I had left my suit and city shoes in the locker at work. I draped my wet running things over the bannister and stepped into the shower. Coming up to see me, she stopped to pick them up and drop them in the laundry basket.
‘They’ll be stinking.’
‘I’ll put a wash on tonight.’
‘Are you coming in?’
‘No.’ But she sat on the edge of the bath and watched me soaping my tummy and legs and smiled. ‘Poor Birdie wouldn’t have a chance against you, would he?’
‘I don’t know. I haven’t fought anybody since school. I could beat him at badminton.’
‘Well, you get the choice of weapons.’
‘Isn’t that how it works?’
I said, ‘What’s he like with his clothes off? Is he muscular?’
‘He doesn’t work out. But he has a bigger cock.’ And she laughed.
I said, ‘You’ll have to go and see him, tell him he has nothing to gain; he’ll only get hurt. He’s making a fool of himself. You don’t regret leaving him, do you?’
‘I regret hurting him. We got into each other too fast and then found there was nothing there.’
‘So tell him that.’
‘I should. I wronged him. I used him. Played with him, tried him out the way you test drive a car. That’s not a good thing to do to somebody.’
‘Was he complaining at the time? Would he say now that he’d have been better off if that hadn’t happened?’
I stepped out of the shower and she towelled me dry, very nicely. I thought, maybe I should fight Birdie with towels. I draped my arms around her and held her close.
‘Dinner’s ready’, she said. ‘Put your clothes on.’
I was on the front page of my own paper the next morning, with my fist raised and the ironic caption; I’m a lover not a fighter. Which I could not remember actually having said.
The paper invited readers to go to the website and vote on whether I should fight Birdie Wallace or walk away from the challenge.
‘This is nonsense’, I said to Tommy.
‘It’s a live issue.’
‘No, it’s a tactic for getting hits on the website so you can charge the advertisers more.’
‘I think you should fight him. Look at you; you’re a muscleman. You’ll eat him. What are you afraid of.’
‘Afraid? There is a lot of possible outcomes to be scared of, like he hurts me, like I hurt him. There’s no point in the risk either way. Ann Marie has made her mind up.’
Throughout that day I took calls from the Stephen Nolan Show, a local reporter who strings for some of the London tabloids, a researcher for Woman’s Hour and a student who was writing a PhD thesis on varieties of masculinity. The shop where I buy my sports gear asked if I would pose for a picture in their new range of sweat pants. And Birdie now had twenty seven thousand friends on Facebook.
I could hardly bare to trawl the comments for danger of coming across a couple like these:
‘I’m with Birdie for I’ve shagged Ann Marie myself and it’s deffo something I’d take a smack in the head for.’
Or, ‘This is the trouble these tarts create. Maybe if Birdie had slapped her hard he would have kept her in her place.’
‘Too late to be cutting up rough now when he couldn’t hold onto his bitch.’
One said: ‘If I was Ann Marie I’d wait for a real man to come along. A choice between a whinging wimp and a coward is no choice at all. Girl, you’re better than this.’
Ann Marie texted me mid morning. ‘Having lunch with Birdie; will sort this out.’
That news appeared almost immediately on Birdie’s Facebook page.
‘He’s sending the girl to plead for his ass. Peace talks over lunch. Well, hear what she has to say.’
And that sparked a round of advice to Birdie on how to play his hand.
‘Have flowers for her.’
‘Slap the bitch and tell her that’s what she gets for running out on you.’
‘Hmmm. Sounds to me like she still might have a soft spot for you, Birdie.’
She wasn’t there when I got home. I sent her a text but she didn’t reply. I called her number but it went straight to the answering service; her phone was switched off.
I went on to the treadmill in the spare room and pounded a few miles with Slayer in my ears. She’d soon be back to say she had talked him round and that he was very upset but resigned to losing her. I then had a go at the punchbag but it made me angrier so I stopped.
Then at 8 she still wasn’t back, or at 9. This would be OK if she’d just tell me what was keeping her.
I put some chops under the grill and opened a bottle of red and ate the chops and finished the bottle and it was after 11 and she still wasn’t home.
And I thought, Oh Fuck.
‘I’m going round there now to punch his face in.’