. Misunderstanding at Nether Fondle
Tales from a Village Somewhere in England
The best thing about being out of work was having time to daydream about better jobs. Top of Bruce Daylounger’s list was being a personal trainer in a girls’ school but so far nothing had turned up.
Then, to his amazement, his reluctant application to the Nether Fondle Weekly was successful and he was appointed junior sports reporter. The down side was that he hated exercise. Watching others heaving and sweating was only marginally worse than doing it himself but before he had a chance to speculate further, the editor, a hard-bitten ex-Fleet Street hack called Jerry Bruise crushed any aspirations.
‘This paper’s crap. Don’t get no ideas of writing nothing worth reading. You gotta be prepared to cover baby shows, dog shows, craft shows, vicars’ tea parties. Most exciting thing happens round here is when the chip fryer at the Bust and Boobies catches fire.’
‘What about the sport?’ Bruce asked.
‘Ah, well. Nether Fondle United have just been promoted but they’re a load of poofs. Still, you’d better familiarise yourself with them. They’re staying at some poncy hotel in Upper Fondle on a team building exercise. You’d better get along there.’
‘Shall I book a room?’ The thought of a hotel for the weekend raised Bruce’s spirits.
‘You mad? Take the bus up there. Get some interviews. Write about the players.’
Armed with a notebook, two biros and his camera, Bruce caught the bus from Nether to Upper Fondle. Its habit of visiting every road and lane made the two mile journey last for forty minutes but he took the opportunity to read today’s paper and get a feel of what was going on. It hardly made gripping reading. The scouts had raised enough money to sponsor a goat at the Nether Fondle Pet Sanctuary and changed its name from Billy to Baden Powell. Two cement lions had been stolen from the gateposts of Churlish Manor. Nine death announcements, one marriage and seven births confirmed his feeling that this was a village of old people and layabouts with too much time on their hands.
The bus eventually juddered to a halt on the village green. A No Parking notice and a list of bylaws warned against camping, playing loud music or behaving inappropriately.
NF United were staying at the Honolulu Arms. The name commemorated the 19th century state visit of King Liholiho of the Sandwich Islands and his wife/sister Kamahalu – an unusual pairing that was certainly regarded as ‘behaving inappropriately’ in Victorian circles, but in view of their regal status the details were discretely passed over.
When Bruce arrived, the NF squad was out on the lawn bonding. He went to investigate. There was a notable inequality in shape and size, ranging from a two metre giant to a person of small stature. He guessed that when weighed, the scales must cascade from around fifteen stone to a modest seven. At that moment they were doing squats and being shouted at by their trainer.
‘What’s happening?’ he asked a solitary boy wearing a large striped peppermint green and mauve scarf. The players were wearing the same ice-cream combination of colours.
The lad nodded towards the pitch. ‘That’s our new signing, Robespierre.’ He indicated a black haired bundle of excess energy running on the spot then stopping to rearrange his equipment inside alarmingly brief shorts.
The boy ignored him his attention back on the men now stumbling their way along the length of the lawn. They stopped intermittently for breaks, huddles and tellings off. Their trainer grew increasingly hoarse, forecasting a humiliating disaster on Saturday if they didn’t pull their socks up.
Bruce made notes. Fancy phrases clattered through his mind. With perfect precision, Robespierre got a toe to the ball and sent a blaster into the net. The lad now feeling more helpful filled him in with the names of all the team, their weaknesses and strengths and occasional details of their private lives that Bruce deemed unsuitable from the lips of one so young. He noticed that the child, Kevin, referred to the team as “we,” not “they,” including himself in their number. This he guessed, was what fans did. He recorded each word.
By lunchtime he had managed to corner several of the players and ascertain their views on their chances. Sid Vertigo, the trainer, still rasping from his earlier tirade forecast a good victory.
‘By the end of the season we’ll be in the top two or three,’ he predicted. The boy Kevin had told Bruce that the squad only just scraped into the division. He guessed that optimism was the key to success. Now exhausted by the physical and mental demands of the morning Bruce did what all real journalists do and retired to the bar.
The Reverend Righteous Cresswell hated driving when wearing a cassock. Invariably it became entangled in the car’s accelerator so he was forced to gather it up between his legs, exposing a fair amount of spindly shin.
It had been deemed that this inaugural conference of Harmony and Brotherhood should be an eye-catching affair and that wearing robes of office would raise public interest. As he pulled into the car park of the Honolulu Arms, Righteous saw a group of ministers from other churches crossing the gravel in a vivid flash of colour. He felt a moment of regret that his own denomination frowned on excessive flamboyancy.
This was a first attempt to hold an interfaith weekend devoted not to speeches and formality, but to strip bare the delegates (metaphorically speaking) and reveal their lighter commonalty. Suitable games were planned and an element of friendly competition. Teams had been carefully selected mixing the religious groupings. Righteous already knew that he was lumped in with the Rabbi, a Greek Orthodox priest and a Rasta minister from Lower Fondle. Fred Humphrys and his ukulele band had been busy rehearing songs from around the world and a bongo player was recruited to their number.
On this occasion it would be men only, although the decision had been kept quiet because a woman bishop had just been appointed. Fortunately she wouldn’t take up her post until after the weekend.
As he walked into reception Righteous watched a fair amount of hand shaking and cheek to cheek greeting. This was just the sort of thing the meeting was expected to improve on, mingling the formality of some churches with the more demonstrative behaviour of others. The Rasta minister was even now giving an elder from the Church of Scotland a high five. Watching the flailing arms and bobbing heads Righteous fondly remembered his Morris Dancing days. With a sudden warm premonition that the event was going to be a success, he went to join the throng.
After several hours in the bar, Bruce emerged to be confronted by what looked like a fancy dress party. Men of various sizes and hues were nodding and laughing and placing friendly hands on each other’s arms and shoulders. He thought that perhaps some theatre group was in town. Blearily he asked at reception where the footballers were but it seemed that they had retired for a siesta after which they would be dining in the residents’ area. As he watched, the theatre performers were also ushered into the residents-only lounge. Feeling fragile Bruce decided to call it a day and come back early the following morning.
On leaving the hotel he picked up a leaflet about the other gathering that was taking place. He read it on the bus, something about Harmony and Brotherhood. He thought they might be a folk group, especially as their arrival coincided with that of some ukulele players. He glanced at the blurb. It seemed that HAB hoped to bring tolerance and understanding to the wider world. Best of luck.
Bruce had a restless night. He had no idea what to write concerning Nether Fondle United. Was he expected to act as pundit, discussing strategies, or was he required to write a partisan column, encouraging both the team and their fans? All he had concluded was that they looked like a shambles but perhaps it was best not to say so.
For a long time he lay awake, trying to think of something neutral to lull him to sleep, but without success. Then, in that dreamy half world between waking and sleep, it hit him. He sat up and scrabbled around for the light switch, his notepad and the leaflet. These harmony and brotherhood men almost without exception wore what could only be described as frocks, and not only frocks but exotic, flamboyant flowing numbers. Could it be a transvestite reunion? Something told him that the Harmony boys were far more interesting than the footballers and with that, he fell asleep.
Next morning he arrived at the Honolulu in time for breakfast. Glancing into the residents’ area he saw that both footballers and theatricals were mingling. There was lots of laughter and bonhomie.
A Press Release was pinned on the notice board at Reception issued by HAB. Bruce took a copy to peruse over breakfast. He went to a table and ordered, carefully storing the receipts to claim his expenses. He began to read.
HAB explained that theirs was a first, brave attempt to find unity and acceptance among like-minded people and the wider world. A picture of their chairman, Hilary A Blusher featured below the title, a wispy man of uncertain years with a collection of crucifixes hung about his person. He was wearing purple and Bruce wondered if he represented a breakaway Goth faction. His initials, like those of the group, appeared at the end of each Statement of Intent – HAB.
At that moment Bruce was joined by Jerry Bruise, looking rather like his surname with dark rings beneath his eyes. He downed a coffee and sighed loudly.
‘How’s it going?’ Bruce asked, hoping to add to his sum of knowledge.
‘It’s a farce. That lot aren’t footballers, they’re a load of…’ Words failed him.
‘Not going too well then?’
‘I might as well try and train a group of fairies.’
They watched the team and the theatricals emerging from the dining room. Some placed caring hands on the shoulders of others. Heads were close together, listening intently. Dress apart, it was difficult to separate them.
That was when Bruce realised. It all fell into place. Here, was the first openly gay football team and these were not theatricals but their partners, all staying together in the hotel. HAB, not Harmony and Brotherhood but Husbands and Boyfriends – HABs instead of WAGs. It was amazing! He had a scoop! Already Fleet Street beckoned.
Bruce was ecstatic. He spent the day picking up snippets of gossip that might confirm his discovery. As the day ended he witnessed the fond farewells, the exhausted players struggling into their coach, hugging and waving to the HABs who had their own transport. He waited for the bus, his brain swimming with excitement.
Righteous Cresswell waved a last goodbye to the delegates, feeling strangely relaxed about all the hugs and kisses cascaded upon him. It had been a truly successful weekend.
He noticed a solitary man waiting at the bus stop, recognising his as someone to do with the footballers. Full of loving kindness, Righteous stopped to give him a lift.
‘Had a good weekend?’
The lad nodded. He seemed nervous so Righteous explained what a lovely time he had had. To his surprise his passenger spurted out ‘Would you mind if I write about you?’
‘About your – you know.’ His face coloured.
‘Of course not. We want as much positive publicity as we can get.’
Bruce nodded. ‘You know all the footballers?’ he asked tentatively?
‘Most of them. Some are part of my congregation.’
‘Ah, so you really are a vicar?’
Of course.’ Righteous looked surprised by the question. He continued ‘I’m marrying Pierre next Saturday.’
‘Congratulations. He’s a good-looking bloke.’
Righteous began to wonder if the lad was quite all right but he kept up a steady flow of small talk and eventually he deduced that he was a reporter.
‘This is my first assignment,’ Bruce admitted. ‘I want to get it right.’
‘Of course.’ Righteous gave him an avuncular pat on the knee. Bruce edged a little closer to the door and asked to be dropped by the war memorial. He seemed relieved to get out of the car and Righteous wondered if he might be travel- sick.
‘Well, lovely to meet you.’ Wondering if anything else was troubling the boy, he added ‘You know where to find me.’
Righteous drove off full of well being. Nice lad, lucky to have met him he thought, happy in the knowledge that the conference would get good coverage.
Bruce watched him drive away and relaxed. Now that he had permission he could write fully about the changing world and Nether Fondle United’s place as a proudly gay football team. He wished he had asked more about the romance between Robespierre and the vicar but contented himself with the thought that for now he had more than enough to fill several columns.