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Authors: Iain Hollingshead

Beta Male

Iain Hollingshead is a journalist at the
Daily Telegraph
, and has also written for the
Guardian
, the
Sunday Times
and
GQ
. In 2007 he co-authored a musical,
Blair on Broadway
, which transferred to the West End the following year. He is also the editor of
Am I Alone in Thinking…?
, a bestselling collection of unpublished letters to the
Daily Telegraph
. He is 29 years old and lives in London.
Beta Male
is his second novel.

www.iainhollingshead.co.uk

BETA MALE

Iain Hollingshead

This ebook edition 2011
First published in 2010 by
Duckworth Overlook
90-93 Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6BF
Tel: 020 7490 7300
Fax: 020 7490 0080
[email protected]
www.ducknet.co.uk

© 2010 by Iain Hollingshead

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

 

Mobipocket ISBN: 978-0-7156-4118-7
ePub ISBN: 978-0-7156-4117-0
Adobe PDF ISBN: 978-0-7156-4116-3

To Phil, James, Fez, Rick and Tom

Complete masculinity and stupidity are often indistinguishable.

H. L. Mencken

Chapter One

It all started, appropriately enough, at a wedding.

Like most people between the age of twenty-eight and thirty-five, the rhythm of my calendar year is ruled by the predictability of the marrying classes. In January, people get engaged, the less imaginative among them on New Year's Eve, encouraged by the dictatorial timekeeping of a sixteenth-century Pope to make the ultimate, timely resolution: this year, they slur, I shall lose weight, drink less, give up smoking, change jobs and yes, marry that girl I took out the joint mortgage with a few years back. Others wait until they go skiing later in the month, sufficiently taken, perhaps, by the panda eyes, peeling nose and balaclava-clad beauty of their beloved to decide to spend every other skiing holiday together for the rest of their lives. The laggards leave it until the middle of February, so horrified by the prospect of trying to get through another Valentine's Day of hints and significant looks without a serious row that they too throw in the towel and pledge to make an honest woman of their scowling girlfriend.

Then Facebook statuses can be updated, walls congratulated, groups created. Former lovers finally give up ‘poking' someone else's fiancée. Back in the real world, everyone scrambles over the guest list and the all-important ‘save the date' fridge magnet. Are we first round or first refusal? Bride, groom or maybes? Suddenly, we show a frantic interest in getting the future Colvilles round for dinner.
Such a nice couple
.
They never make you feel like a gooseberry. I've always fancied his sister
. Sometimes – in a roundabout way, for we are British, after all – we even try to get the information from the horse's mouth.
Have you set a date yet? Where are you going to have it?
Or, most
shamelessly and transparently indirect of all:
Are you planning a big wedding?
Arguments over the date itself can turn violent, especially if you've chosen a bumper year. Keep the date free, we're told. That date? No, this one. Sally's got that date already. She reserved it as soon as she got engaged
last year
and her mother has ALREADY BOOKED THE MARQUEE.

There then follows a few months of peace and quiet, punctuated only by unseasonable March nuptials of surprised-looking girls with five-month bumps and highly traditional fathers.

The real fun, however, doesn't start until the stag and hen season, the John the Baptist of the wedding season itself. Some people enjoy being lectured by a little toe-rag on his gap year, brandishing a paintball gun as if it were part of his anatomy. Others get a genuine kick out of an expensive holiday they can't remember, doing things they hate, accompanied by people they wouldn't like even if they did know them. I am not one of those people.

And then, finally, it's the summer: the sound of leather on willow, the smell of freshly cut grass and the rumbustious clatter of £20,000 parties that have a forty per cent chance of ending in divorce. My favourite time of year. As you may have guessed, I am an old-fashioned romantic and there's nothing I like more than a good wedding.

*

On the ‘day it all started', right in the middle of the wedding season, I was woken by Alan, which is a fairly unpromising way for anyone to start a day. Alan is, by some margin, the youngest of three brothers – it is widely assumed that Alan's rather forceful mother desperately wanted a daughter and either tricked or bullied Alan's father into trying one last time. Alan was the result: an unfortunate name bestowed in the throes of revenge on an unfortunate boy who had the misfortune not to
be a girl. Worse still, Alan looks like an Alan. If he had been particularly good at sport, he could have been Al.
Big Al. Al man
. If he had been artistic or creative, he might have got away with branding himself
Ali
. But as it happened, Alan was no good at sport or art. He grew up to be a short, slight, malco-ordinated philistine, who was quite good with numbers. So he became an accountant instead. Alan the accountant. Poor sod. And, perhaps worst of all, he also had the misfortune to be my flatmate.

‘Wake up, you dozy tosser.'

‘Go away, fuckface.'

‘Big day today.'

I groaned and pulled the duvet a little higher. ‘Not as big as your mum.'

Alan and I have known each other since we were five (his stick-thin mother was our primary school teacher), which is long enough to get away with affectionate abuse. I suppose it's our substitute for hugging and crying and giggling and eating chocolate and arguing over boys and stealing each other's clothes and synchronising menstrual cycles and competing over who can eat the fewest Ryvitas, then hugging and crying and giggling all over again, which is what girls who share flats do. Alan's long-term girlfriend – Jess, who actually
is
huge – just thinks we've never grown up. She might have a point, but it doesn't make me dislike her any less.

We got up, breakfasted on cold pizza left over from the previous evening, and took Alan's rusty old car – partly because I don't own one, partly because Lisa's parents live in the arse end of Arseville. And on the way, Alan attempted to ‘talk'.

‘So, how are you feeling?'

‘I am feeling too hot,' I said, turning on the car's air conditioning.

‘No, how are you
feeling
?' he repeated.

‘Oh, how I am
feeling?
I'm
feeling
you should shut up and concentrate on the driving.'

Alan looked momentarily hurt, making me feel momentarily bad. Then he caught Jess's eye in the rear view mirror and ploughed on regardless. When you catch Jess's eye, you tend to do what it tells you to do.

‘I mean, Lisa… '

‘Lisa what?'

‘Lisa, you know… '

‘Yes, I know Lisa.'

Alan tried, and failed, not to look exasperated. Poor little Alan; he was always looking slightly exasperated by something: by me, by his mother, by his overweight girlfriend, by his job, by his bullying boss Amanda, by life in general. He pushed his glasses back up his nose, sat up straighter so he could peer more convincingly over the steering wheel and let out a long-suffering sigh. ‘All I'm trying to say, Sam, is that it was a relatively long time for you guys so I know how you must be feeling. I mean, I remember what it was like with Matt and Sophie when… '

Alan droned on in his good-intentioned way, but I didn't really care what he was trying to say, or just how empathetically he attempted to say it. The truth was that today my ex-girlfriend was getting married to some rich bastard she'd met at work and, on reflection, I probably shouldn't have accepted the invitation. Alan and I had had an intense debate about it the moment the thick, expensive card had landed on the doorstep six Saturdays previously, its every detail – from the calligraphed address on the envelope (‘Sam Hunt Esq.'), to its precise timing, to the embossed third-person wording of the invitation itself – cloyingly correct.

She'd only invited me to be polite, Alan had said. I couldn't possibly go. I'd only been asked in the expectation that I would say no. To avoid any awkwardness, I would be expected to make an excuse about a prior engagement, a family summer holiday perhaps, and politely decline. This was
the done thing
. Well, perhaps this was the done thing, I'd told Alan, scrawling
on a sheet of Basildon Bond and thrusting it under his nose. He'd read it out loud: ‘Sam Hunt thanks Mrs Geoffrey Parker for her kind invitation to the marriage of her daughter. Incidentally, while he's at it, he'd also like to thank Mrs Geoffrey Parker for letting him sleep with said daughter for eight of the last forty-eight months, even though Mrs Geoffrey Parker never thought Sam Hunt was good enough for said daughter. Unfortunately, due to this latter point, Sam Hunt feels it would be the done thing for him to decline the invitation due to a prior engagement he is just about to invent.'

‘You're a tosser,' Alan had said, accurately, screwing up my last sheet of writing paper, which meant I had to send an electronic reply instead to
[email protected]
, a nod to modernity which was certainly
not
the done thing. It would have had Mrs Geoffrey Parker writhing in agony (although not as much, I suppose, as if she'd had to choose
[email protected]
).

But I'd accepted, all the same – partly out of sheer perversity, partly because I was still friends with Lisa and thought I could handle it, partly because my best mates would be there and I didn't want to miss out. Anyway, as I've already said, I like weddings. The difference between a cynic and a sentimentalist is measured only by success.

‘You going to be okay?' asked Alan as we finally pulled up in front of the church after a torturous twenty minutes getting lost in country lanes and attempting to read the tiny Google map on the back of the invitation while Jess shrieked at us from the back.

‘Yes.' I smiled at him. ‘I'm going to be just fine.'

And I was just fine, at first. I managed not to snort when we entered the church and an usher I'd never met accosted me with an Order of Service on which the letters ‘L' and ‘T' had been unattractively entwined to resemble some sort of GCSE geometry question. I held my peace when Alan stamped jocularly on my foot during the bit where the vicar asked if
anyone knew of any lawful impediment why Lisa Amelia should not be joined to Timothy James. I even succeeded in keeping a straight face while Lisa's elder sister – a harlot of a girl, if ever there was one – read a Bible passage about chastity. At least we were spared Khalil Gibran. And immediately after the service, I was greatly cheered by the look on Alan's face as Jess successfully jostled for the bouquet.

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