Men and Women

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

An older man gives two examples of love to his younger colleague

MEN AND WOMEN (the difference)


One of the nicest people I ever met was a guy called Fred Coombs. This was shortly after I’d graduated from Bristol University with a First in Politics and International Relations. After I got back home I had no choice but to move in with my own parents. That was until I could find a job paying decent money and find my own place to stay. I did get a job, although it wasn’t exactly the kind of work that I could see myself making a career of.

The agency told me there was plenty of security work. The hourly rate was okay, although the shifts were extremely varied. The work they offered me was local, so no expensive transport costs were involved, which meant I might even be able to put a little bit away. The only drawback was the actual aspect of the job itself. To summarise; it was fucking boring.

But old Fred more than made up for the long hours and repetitive nature of this particular profession. This sixty year old cockney, with a loud voice and a beer belly to match, often had to rein in his rather varied and uncompromising view of modern life. In his opinion the youth of today were all feckless snowflakes, who ran for cover if you raised your voice and were only interested in whinging about their mental health issues, in between planning their next trip to Zante or raving it up in some disused aircraft-hanger out in the Cotswolds.

Old people (of which at the age of twenty two I considered him a fully paid up member) also came in for some scorn, especially those astride a mobility scooter who had the temerity to nearly run him over while he did a cursory hourly tour of our local indoor shopping centre. “Disabled my arse,” he would routinely point out as we both sat in the control room viewing one of a dozen CCTV monitors. “I mean come on just look at her, there’s nothing wrong with the old girl”, and he would turn to me with a broad grin across his own chubby features. “Just a fat lazy cow who goes into that newsagents at the same time every morning and spends fifteen quid on fucking scratch cards”.

I must admit that his somewhat unusual observations on British life did cause me to raise a smile now and then. I mean, he was about as un-PC as one could possibly get from those of us who had enjoyed a rather mollycoddled University education. My strictly enforced diet, while studying, of viewing the world through a rather dark shade of rose tinted spectacles, was now competing for space with a late-middle aged man who wore the bi-focals of a lost generation. He was from a strata of working class people who I now have come to realise saw their own identity being gradually swamped and their own status rapidly deflated by a sharp three pronged pitchfork; pointless areas of technology, apparently uncontrolled immigration and the very questionable merits of someone else’s basic human rights. To sum up, Fred Coombs was a product of his age.

But in the long run he turned out to be my good friend. Intellectually we might have been poles apart, a piece of blackboard chalk against a block of solid often smelly stilton cheese, and in many ways I was young and naïve, even though I had spent a gap year travelling through much of South America. In contrast my colleague’s experiences abroad consisted pretty much of various high rise hotels on the Iberian Peninsula. If a holiday destination didn’t start with a Costa, well Fred wouldn’t have been remotely interested. But sometimes on such foundations do friendships form, and when I look back at that brief period I spent with Sterling Security Services, I realise that he was the mentor and I very much the pupil.




‘Fred can I ask you a question?’ I said almost reflectively.

My colleague shifted his weight on the leather chair and looked at the clock on the far wall of our rather small office set high up in this bustling shopping centre. From here you could see right to the end of the two levels which consisted of over a hundred individual retailers. ‘If you make me a cuppa you can ask me anything you like my old china,’ he replied.

I smiled and threw down the timesheet I was in the middle of filling in. Fred loved his tea. He enjoyed it strong with plenty of sugar.

Five minutes later I handed him his mug, the one bearing the coat of arms of West Ham United football club.

‘So what’s the question?’ he asked and took a long grateful slurp of his hot beverage,

I tilted my head and chewed the end of my biro before replying. ‘Well in your opinion Fred, what is the actual difference between a man and a woman?’

He laughed at that. Gave a great big chuckle and massaged his double chin before taking a large chunk out of his chocolate digestive biscuit. He chewed with noisy relish and brought his chair slightly closer. ‘I’ll tell you a story young man,’ and he raised a pudgy index finger and pointed it at me. ‘In fact I will tell you two stories, both of them true and may God strike me down if I’m telling porkies.’

I took a careful sip of my hot coffee and considered that any retributive skills an imaginary deity might possess, especially when pitched against the veracity of Fred Coombs ability to spin a good yarn, would have produced a rather interesting concept.

‘I used to have a close pal,’ he began informing me. ‘His name was Peter, and we’d known each other since junior school. He got married about the same time as me, and then found himself divorced in his mid-forties. Hit the bottle for a while,’ and at this point he winked at me, ‘but don’t we all on occasion?’

I pushed the packet of biscuits towards my narrator and he helped himself to another before continuing.

‘Now after six months of eating microwave meals and getting his sister to do his washing, he chances to meet to some classy piece of skirt who lives out at Buckhurst Hill. A divorced lady, roughly the same age, whose own husband had done the dirty on her and hightailed it to some place in France with his secretary or whatever fancy title they give these typists today.’

‘PA,’ I interjected. ‘Personal assistant,’ I followed up, just for the interest of clarification.

Fred shook his head in apparent despair. ‘Yeah okay, PA whatever. Anyhow from all accounts this lady from Buckhurst Hill took him to the cleaners,’ and he shrugged. ‘Can’t blame her either. Horrible been shat on. It’s the lies you see, they eat away at you.’

He breathed deeply as if composing himself before going on. ‘Peter told me she lived in this beautiful three storey town house; double garage, four bedrooms all en-suite, huge conservatory. Even had a Jacuzzi in a large cabin at the end of the garden. Nice woman as well from what I gathered. Some sort of solicitor in the City. Commuted every day. And she looked after Peter very well. Lucky sod.’

Fred took a long go at his mug of tea and looked at its dwindling contents almost wistfully. He looked up slowly. ‘Now where was I?’

‘This rich lady solicitor and how she looked after your mate,’ I prompted him.

He raised a smile. ‘Ah yes. Now Peter wasn’t the best looking fellow on the patch. I mean he wouldn’t have ever been termed handsome. But he did possess one of the two characteristics all women fall for.’ At this point he paused for what I took to be a kind of dramatic effect.

This was a cue. This was part of my education about to be elucidated. ‘And what are they then?’ I enquired hungrily.

He used his stubby nicotine stained digits for emphasis. ‘One, they like money. Now I don’t mean that women sell themselves, please don’t think that, but if you have the cash to flash it won’t in my experience ever go to waste. Doesn’t matter what a fella looks like or dresses like, or even talks like, in the end you’ll pick up skirt if your wallets bulging.’ He paused before adding: ‘Oh, and women hate skinflints. In fact there’s nothing skirt dislikes worse than a fella who appears to have short arms and long pockets.’ He looked me up and down almost accusingly. ‘It’s sort of disrespectful if you get my drift,’ he warned me.

For some reason I can recall bristling at the term skirt. It seemed so derogatory, so male chauvinist, so old-school I suppose. But I was young back then, and now I’ve come to appreciate that words and phrases do have the ability to metamorphosis with each succeeding generation.

‘And what’s the other thing women like?’ I asked.

Once again he used his fingers to count off. ‘The second thing women like about men, much more than money, is the ability to make a woman laugh.’ He turned his head my way and stared at me. ‘You can’t learn that particular trick. You either possess it or you don’t. Making a woman laugh makes them feel at ease, makes them feel as if they are the only person in the room. Even if the banter in question involves a little light hearted piss-take and it’s them you’re directing it at.’

I shook my head and blew out my cheeks. ‘In your opinion of course Fred.’

He didn’t like that I could tell. He didn’t take to having his views queried by a novice. You see most of the women, or female students I had rubbed shoulders with over the last three years wouldn’t have exactly showered me with unbridled sexual advances if I had offered them some ridiculous gratuity or taken the Michael out of their latest choice of body piercing. But my social circles and Fred’s list of old pals perhaps moved in a different planetary orbit altogether.

‘In my opinion,’ he responded. Suddenly he patted his bulging tummy and announced that he was bloody starving.

‘But what happened to your friend Peter?’ I asked him, anxious to hear the end of his tale. ‘You haven’t told me yet what the difference is between a man and a woman.’

He looked up at one of the many CCTV screens for a moment and appeared to scrutinise a couple of youths who were lounging about outside WH Smith.

‘Well Peter didn’t really have a pot to piss in, especially after his wife buggered off. But he seemed to charm his way into this posh lady’s affections. I mean he did have the gift of the gab I’ll say that for him, and a great sense of humour, so after a few weeks he had his feet well under the Chippendale dining table. She paid for them both to fly out to New York on his birthday, bought him a nice watch as well. And of course before you knew it he’d given up his little scruffy bedsit and was firmly entrenched in that swanky residence in Buckhurst Hill.’

‘What could be better,’ I muttered.

Fred smiled. ‘Oh it gets better. You see Peter had been living with his new lady for about a month and one fine Sunday morning he’s looking for some tools.’ At this juncture Fred shrugged. ‘Never really a handyman our Peter but when needs must we all have to pretend we know the difference between a flat head and a cross head. So anyhow he goes downstairs and unlocks one of the garage doors. And lo and behold parked in there is a top of the range Merc. Thirty five grands worth of motor minding its own business and looking for all the world like it hadn’t seen the light of day for months. It was fucking spotless.’

‘A Merc as in a Mercedes Benz?’ I asked him foolishly.

Fred raised his eyes towards the suspended ceiling. ‘Of course.’

I finished my drink and put it onto the counter in front of us. ‘So was it hers? The lady I mean?’

My colleague laughed. ‘No it was her ex-husbands. He did a runner and left his pride and joy behind when he went to live in France. It came to Peter’s girlfriend as part of the overall divorce settlement.’

‘Wow!’ I exclaimed.

‘Wow indeed,’ Fred repeated. ‘Now of course my old mate hadn’t seen this motor before because his lady parked her own car in the other garage and had just never mentioned its existence. I mean why would she? But there it stood, all gleaming and smelling of top quality leather. In fact a wild beast just waiting to gain its freedom.’

‘So what happened?’

‘Peter got an early Christmas present that’s what happened.’

I must have looked incredulous. ‘No way.’

Fred nodded vigorously. ‘He ran upstairs and asked this lady about the car and she explained what I’ve just told you. But,’ and he paused slightly, ‘but that evening over supper she handed Peter a small envelope, and guess what was inside?’

It was my turn to smile. ‘The bloody keys. What a lucky sod.’

‘He certainly was. Still is from the little I see of him. Spends half his time on some golf course or other on the Algarve. But as I say he always did have the patter.’

I got up and picked up both of our mugs. ‘But that still doesn’t answer my original question Fred. What is the difference between a man and a woman?’

He managed to get his considerable bulk off the chair as well. ‘I’d better pop downstairs and move them kids on, can’t have them upsetting the single mums can we? Don’t want a fight on our hands,’ he joked. ‘Put the kettle back on and I’ll have a pot noodle. And then I will tell you my second story and if that doesn’t highlight the difference between the male and the female of the species I will have failed in embellishing your post-university education my young friend.’ And with that he picked up his peaked cap, his walkie-talkie and slowly waddled out of the control room whistling something by Meatloaf.




‘Good lad,’ Fred Coombs whispered appreciatively as I handed him his hot snack. He then proceeded to park his generous backside onto his seat before delicately picking up an irregular lump of stringy and very steaming noodles. He raised a forkful of slime towards his mouth, blew on the dripping mound and pushed it into his mouth. His gastronomic pleasures were always cheaply purchased.

I leaned back in my own chair and studied the wall clock, only another four hours until the end of my shift. Thank God.

When my colleague had finished his modest late lunch he proceeded to wipe his chin with the back of one hand, attempted to dislodge from a back molar some stubborn piece of noodle with his tongue, and then belched rather profanely. Believe you me it could have been worse.

‘So are you going to relate the next story?’ I enquired. ‘My second lesson regarding the difference between men and women.’

He laughed and scratched the dome of his bald head. ‘You know I haven’t always been this size,’ he informed me in a serious tone whilst patting his stomach. ‘In the days when I had a proper job, I used to enjoy a bit of sport. Played footie for a pub team in the Sunday league. Enjoyed the occasional round of golf,’ and he winked at me, ‘especially the nineteenth hole. But you know I think what I preferred most was just getting on my bike and heading off into the countryside. There was a time when I could put thirty or forty miles in at one go.’

I raised a smile for I wished to believe the truth of what he told me.

‘Fifteen years ago,’ he went on, ‘I weighed probably five stone less than I do today. All that good living eh?’ he joked and then paused for what I took to be a moment of self-reflection before getting back on track.

Fred raised his mug of special tea and took a mammoth gulp. ‘Just like my mate Peter I too got divorced in my early forties. Seems like we were the generation that wanted it all, the generation that couldn’t or wouldn’t grow up.’ He leaned closer and lowered his voice. ‘I did things that my old dad would have turned in his grave if he’d ever been able to find out.’

I raised my own mug and stared at him, willing him by the power of a very optimistic process of thought transference to get on with his story.

‘Anyhow,’ he resumed, ‘my first wife Helen left me with a couple of teenage kids to bring up, or rather finish bringing up.’ He scratched his left earlobe. ‘I didn’t know it but she’d been shagging our local window cleaner. Guy ten years younger from St. Lucia. Fucking black . . .’

I very quickly held up a restraining hand. ‘I take it you were going to refer to him by using that old fashioned word for one who bares the stigma of illegitimacy,’ I suggested.

His anger deflated and he held up one hand. ‘Okay you got me there boyo’, and he paused slightly before continuing. ‘Actually when I look back I well and truly buggered up the responsibility of being a proper parent and no mistake. One of the principal reasons being that I met another woman. Jackie her name was. We’d been to the same secondary school. Two or three years younger than me. Divorcee. Usual story. Irresponsible hubby who wouldn’t cough up any maintenance for the kids and so she ended up on the bones of her arse.’ He shrugged and lifted his mug. ‘An all too common tale in this fucking town,’ he added.

I offered him a chocolate digestive which he tried to extract from the packet but which somehow found two of the little round disks sticking together. His eyes sparkled with unabashed greed.

‘She was a mouthy little piece was our Jacqueline. Good fun though. Liked a drink as well. But all in all I think we got on pretty well.’ I watched him shrug and shake his head. ‘Okay, maybe I did take my eye off the ball so to speak on the fatherhood front, but you know as well as anybody that moody teenagers only like to lock themselves away and play with their Play Stations all day if given half the chance.’ He looked me up and down again before adding: ‘and neither Darren nor Russell were ever going to study law or get a degree in civil engineering if you follow my drift.’

I certainly did.

‘Now as I’ve already told you I used to do a fair bit of cycling. So one Sunday, when the weather was getting warmer and me and Jackie were at a bit of a loose end I suggested we go for a ride. Not far. I mean there’s a lovely little pub I like out in the sticks, seven maybe eight miles from here. It’s called the Hare and Hounds. You might have been there yourself.’

Actually I had, but just the once. My mum’s birthday before I went off to Uni. It’s a typical English country pub, with a large beer garden and a pond full of Koi carp. A two hundred year old establishment full of character and boasting a modest but fairly decent menu. An extensive range of real ales as well from what I could recall.

‘Anyhow to my surprise she agrees to pull on a bit of lycra, or in her case a pair of tight leopard skin leggings. But hey-ho, we all have our own style of dressing.’ He turned my way. ‘And that’s another thing. Don’t ever air your views in the negative when it comes to passing comment on what a woman’s wearing. Better to just keep it buttoned and go with the flow.’

I thought of my time in Bristol. Fred would have been a very quiet student indeed. 

‘So I rattled around in my shed, unchained and cleaned up a couple of bikes I hadn’t used in a while and prepared to give the old muscles a good workout. We set off just before lunchtime with the sun shining and me telling Jackie to take it easy as she hadn’t been on two wheels since she’d being at school. She did okay though, full of enthusiasm I will say that for her. Kept her quiet as well. And as we left the town behind and followed the country trail I began to imagine that I might have opened up a pleasant little pastime for us both. I can remember thinking to myself as we trundled along the river bank and then headed past the common that life was actually rather good. I was spending quality time with the woman I loved while leaving all the weekday cares far behind.’ He turned to me and raised a huge smile. ‘And a well-earned pint and a round of toasted cheese sandwiches to keep us going just after the next bend in the road.’

While he’d been talking I’d flicked the kettle on again, and before he continued with his cycling adventures I handed him another mug of tea.

‘You’re getting good at this,’ he said with a cheeky grin.

I offered him another biscuit and crumpled the empty packet before throwing it in the nearest waste bin.

I watched Fred close his eyes for a moment, almost as if the recollections stirred something disturbing in his mind. The way my very old gran used to when recalling her own brother who had died in the war. But it was only a fleeting gesture.

‘I had my pint and Jackie had her large vodka and diet coke. Shared a round of toasties and a piece of homemade apple pie as well. Don’t worry I remember telling her, we’d work them calories off riding home together. The only trouble is we didn’t. Ride home together I mean.’

I looked at him in disbelief. ‘Why what happened? You didn’t become ill did you? Or was there an accident?’ I asked him. Intrigue and genuine concern playing itself out in my own mind.

He laughed very loudly, although his mirth appeared to be laced with a generous measure of bitter irony.

‘No there wasn’t an accident and we both felt as right as rain. But all that was about to change. I can recall her coming back from the toilets. I can recall her removing the padlock on her bike. I can recall her sitting her pretty little backside on the saddle and delicately moving out of the car park. But then she suddenly stopped and it was all I could do to prevent myself crashing into the back of her.’

I was all ears and couldn’t wait for what was to come next. My coffee was getting cold.

‘Jackie turned to me and said something like: “this is a really nice bike Fred, must be worth a few bob”. “Yeah £800” I informed her, and followed it up with: “now let’s get a move on because I don’t like the look of those dark clouds drifting by”’.

I watched one of the CCTV monitors and saw one of those youths from earlier punching another teenager in a dark grey hoodie. Oh fuck ‘em it can wait I told myself.

‘But she’d got the bit very firmly between her teeth. “So whose bike is this?” she suddenly blurted out. I shrugged looked at the gravel between my feet, blew out my cheeks and felt the first drops of rain before answering her question. “It was Helen’s” I replied, although I distinctly remember thinking that the gradual downpour above was very shortly going to be outgunned.’

I guessed we were about to hear the outcome of this tale.

‘Well she jumped off that saddle as if she’d sat on a hornets nest. Threw that beautiful bicycle to the ground and stormed off back to the pub, all the while calling me a worthless bastard, a two-timing low-life and a habitual lying piece of shit.’

‘Wow!’ was the only thing I could think to say in the circumstances.

‘Wow indeed,’ he repeated.

It felt a little like we’d been here before. But Fred wasn’t quite finished.

‘I followed her back inside the pub. Chained the bikes up first of course. And there she was knocking back another very large vodka and diet coke and asking the barman to ring for a taxi. I pleaded with her to come back outside. Told her not to be silly. Not a good word to use under the circumstances. But it was all to no avail. Her lift home arrived and she was gone. Just like that as Tommy Cooper would say.’

I turned his way. ‘So what happened?’

He laughed again. ‘What happened was I had to walk eight fucking miles in the pouring fucking rain pushing two fucking bike’s. That’s what happened.’

I watched a monitor showing two young girls getting involved with the fight. Two pushchairs left unattended. ‘No I mean what happened with you and Jackie?’

My colleague had just noticed what was going on downstairs in the shopping centre. He got up very wearily and found his cap. ‘We’re still together. Nearly fifteen years married. After all you can’t let a little incident like that bugger up your happiness can you?’

He moved towards the door, but not before I stopped him. ‘So what is the difference between a man and a woman? You still haven’t told me yet Fred.’

He just laughed, his huge frame shaking from head to foot. ‘What a plonker,’ he muttered. ‘Work it out for yourself. After all you’re the clever one, the one with the university education. I’ve just told you two stories, a parable of sorts don’t they call it. Like the bible, or Aesop’s fables. Your choice. But don’t sit there too long trying to work it out ‘cos I might need a hand to sort those toe-rags out before this shift is over,’ and with that he pointed at the CCTV monitor in question and very quietly closed the door to the control room behind him.


Submitted: September 23, 2017

© Copyright 2021 Hilary Bray. All rights reserved.

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