Fred was a large man who had retreated into a large beard. He looked like an unemployed pirate. He was in fact as old as my parents but clearly out of work, and it appeared that he had been so for years. How he managed wasn’t known but he seemed to have enough money for endless drinking, the capacity in which I got to know him. Near my office was a pub called Alfie's and in this pub Fred was installed behind a table at the back. He never moved from this table in all the time I knew him. From here he issued insults at passersby and pronounced opinions on whatever he felt like.
“What have you come as?” he once called out to a man with a dense flattop haircut. “A hedgehog?”
On another occasion he loudly declared that no turd stank in the sewer. I took this to be a philosophical reprieve of everyone at Alfie's, and I liked it very much.
Fred was so reliably surly that he’d earned the nickname Alfie's Arsehole, of which the abbreviated AA was a happy side joke. Within the pub he was a kind of reverse guru, someone you sought out with the full understanding that he’d tell you to fuck off. It was expected of everyone at Alfie's to do this as a rite of passage, and it’s indeed how I met Fred.
“Will you live?” he interrupted when I tried to introduce myself. He made a small up-and-down movement with his fingers in my direction. “Like that?”
“I—I guess so—”
“Alright,” he agreed grimly. “Then fuck off.”
Over time I got to know Fred as well as you can know someone whom you only meet on the level playing field of alcohol. Strangely, such relationships are without much pretence and posturing, and I got to know who he was and had wanted to be pretty well. Like most gruff men he was lonely and vulnerable and angry at a world he was no longer a part of. Our last conversation, in particular, is the one I remember to this day.
It was a quiet Tuesday evening when I took a seat at Fred’s table. It had been a hard day and I was upset about something that I cannot now remember. Fred was irritated, as always, but in an expansive mood.
“I had a job once,” he said wryly as he looked at me and then scanned the pub with distaste, “a long time ago. As a copywriter of all things.”
He tugged absently at his beard and seemed for a moment to be absorbed with his memories.
“The Agency,” he said and made a face. “It was a good job, if you allow for such a thing to exist, but I hated the customers and their products.”
Fred signalled for another Scotch with the slightest movement of his eyebrows. Then he turned to me.
“All washing powders are white and make foam,” he said. “So fucking what? Bleach is bleach. Instant coffee is just roasted shit. What the fuck can you say about these things? Only once did we have an account I was even remotely keen on.”
“What was it?”
“What’s better about chocolate?”
Fred narrowed his eyes and leaned a little closer.
“What are your thoughts on mongrels?” he asked.
“I hate mongrels,” he said. “They’re no fucking good, just like Cadbury’s.”
He sat back and slowly gyrated his glass along the rim of its base. As he did, I tried my best to imagine a link between stray dogs and chocolate.
“You know,” he grumbled at my confusion, “mixed things, you know—mongrels.”
Perhaps he was just drunk, I thought.
When he was given the Cadbury’s account, the client explained that they wanted a TV campaign to relaunch their plain, mint, and almond bars after a change to their wrapper designs. Fred storyboarded an ad that showed an empty stadium after a big match, with thousands of chocolate wrappers flickering in the late afternoon sun, blown about across the green. Two cleaners entered from opposite sides of the field, each with a bag and a poker. For a moment we saw their grim faces as they attempted to out-stare one another. Then they raced to clear the field in time-lapse, the one collecting mint wrappers, the other almond. Exhausted, they sat down at center field and faced off, counting out the wrappers they’d collected, again in time-lapse, one for one—mint, almond, mint, almond. As they discovered that they had exactly the same number of wrappers there was a moment of silence before a single wrapper flitted across the grass in the distance. The cleaners tumbled over one another as they gave chase and pounced on it, together, in deadlock, only to reveal a plain wrapper.
“And guess what the pricks from Cadbury’s said?” Fred asked and signalled for another drink.
“That’s nice, they said, but we’d like to stay with the glass and a half concept.”
I frowned at the idea that a glass and a half could qualify as a concept.
“I walked out the room and quit,” Fred nodded, as though he’d read my mind. “I was done with mongrels. Done with mint and almond and a glass and a half.”
He raised his drink in salute.
Someone stopped at the table to greet Fred but Fred told him to fuck off. As we watched the man leave I mused on the scenic route Fred had taken to clarify what he’d meant by mongrels, and on the fact that no one had ever managed to make a living from drinking, the single thing he now did. Then Fred leaned closer again.
“What are your thoughts on cocktails?” he asked.
I didn’t want a cocktail and so I said that I didn’t like them.
“I hate them,” Fred declared. “Only people who can’t appreciate gin and rum and vodka and tequila by themselves will go and mongrel them together and call it a goddamned Californication. The same goes for spiced wine. And cappuccinos, and lattes and macchiatos and all that shit. Drink espresso or have a milkshake.”
A man I hadn’t seen before sidled up to the table.
“I was told to join the AA,” he wavered.
“Is that so?” Fred growled. “Said who?”
The man gestured at his friends who were watching us from the bar and smiling broadly.
“You must be a special kind of stupid to go where those idiots send you,” Fred observed. “Now fuck off.”
The man scuffed away while his friends laughed, and Fred turned to me once more.
“And musicals?” he asked in the same tone he’d used to introduce cocktails.
“Uh—” I began.
“I hate them,” he announced, “categorically. Operas too. If you need to see music you don’t understand music. If you want to sing a story then you don’t understand stories. It’s all bullshit.”
He held up a finger in stipulation.
“And so is ballet. If you have to dance, dance. What’s with swans and a stupid lake?”
“I hate newspapers,” I ventured, “and anything written by more than one person.”
“They have no heart,” Fred added and nodded ruminatively.
He stared into his drink before he continued.
“I hate all things like that,” he said, “medleys, compilations, background music, variety shows—all that shit. They make it hard to find the real stuff.”
"What about sport?”
Fred drained his glass and put it carefully onto the surface of the table, fitting it into the faint outline of a ring it had made, and then signalled for another one.
“I hate team sports,” he said at length. “I want to root for someone, someone I can imagine being, not a bunch of fucking cretins running around and hugging one another.”
“I hate bridge,” I confessed after we’d sat for a minute thinking about cretins. “I can’t even play but I hate it all the same.”
“For me it’s backgammon,” Fred said after a moment’s reflection. “People say, the element of chance doesn’t really matter—it’s all about strategy. Bullshit! If you want strategy, play chess for fuck’s sake! If you want chance, play snakes and ladders.”
I actually liked backgammon but I didn’t want to tell him.
“I also hate Californians,” he murmured and shrank a little deeper into his beard.
“Californians—?” I asked and wondered about cocktails.
“Yes,” he said and looked at me the way he had the night he asked me whether I’d live. “You know, people from California?”
“Oh—but what’s mongreled about them?”
“My brother lives in California.”
Just after Fred was born, his father went off to fight Rommel in North Africa. When he returned Fred was five. A few months later, Fred’s mother died in an accident. His father swiftly remarried and as swiftly constructed a baby half-bother on whom he doted. Fred grew up in the shadow of this half-brother, alone and resentful of the way the world timed things. His half-brother was now an engineer who prospered in California.
“It’s not that I hate him, you see?”
“It’s just that I’ve never loved him.”
“I guess I wouldn’t have either—”
“I went to visit him and his family last year,” Fred offered, “for the first time.”
While Fred signalled for another drink with a nanometer displacement of his eyebrows, I tried to imagine him being somewhere other than behind the table we sat at, but I couldn’t.
“Our father died when I was in my late twenties. That was thirty-five years ago. That’s when I last saw my brother.”
“Well,” Fred said and leaned a little closer still, “he came to LAX with his wife and their son and his kids.”
I waited a while but it seemed that Fred saw this as an appropriate end to his story.
“What did it feel like,” pushed on, “seeing him after all that time?”
“I guess I’d made my peace with him on the way over,” Fred sighed and took a generous sip of his new Scotch. “It was a long flight.”
“But what happened?”
“When I met those Californian mongrels” Fred said and spread his fingers on the table before him, “you won’t believe how superior I felt.”
The next week I returned to Alfie's after a few days away to find Fred’s table empty. There were two waiters on the floor whom I’d never seen before. Everything seemed different.
“Where’s Fred?” I asked one of them.
“The guy who always sits at that table.”
“Oh,” he said, “the owner’s had a stroke. He’s in hospital.”
“I’m new,” the guy said. “The manager told me the owner always watches things from back there.”
Dazed, I walked outside to get some air. In all the time I’d known Fred—it must be Alfred, I realised—he had never let on that he’d found a way to make a living from drinking. It had been his career, and not just a job. He had done what he wanted to do, pure and simple, with no mixing. Over the next few days, as news reached Alfie's of Fred’s worsening condition, I wondered whether I could visit him in hospital. Perhaps, I thought, I could joke as I walked in and ask him if he’d live, but I didn’t know what I’d do if he wasn’t strong enough to tell me to fuck off.
A few days later he was gone.