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You're Better Off Without Him

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For some, that August day was Judgement Day— or, well, the day that would have been Judgement Day, if everyone involved had done what they were supposed to do. But for Fred Sherwin, it was just another Saturday.

His routine that morning had been quite similar to many other Saturdays in the previous four months: wake up alone, eat breakfast alone, remember that his boss had scheduled one of those stupid unpaid weekend team-building exercises, get dressed alone, and leave his flat. From there, he intended to get to the station, catch the Tube to the office, grit his teeth through the aforementioned stupid unpaid weekend team-building exercise, go home, pour himself a drink, and watch fourth-rate soap operas until he passed out on the couch. [1]

As he walked toward a corner, Fred heard a man’s voice. “I’m going home, angel! I’m getting my stuff and I’m leaving.” He turned the corner and saw the source of the voice: a tall ginger fellow in sunglasses, leaning over a black vintage car. ‘Angel’, it seemed, was a white-haired gentleman standing on the footpath. “And when I’m off in the stars,” the redhead yelled, “I won’t even think about you!” He got into the car and drove off— although it was more like storming off on wheels.

Strangers’ personal problems are something anyone living in a big city gets desensitised to, but this breakup hit close to home for Fred. It was just like him and Bill. Fred could only assume that the fellow in the bowtie was feeling exactly the same as Fred had felt that April morning.

So, Fred stopped to offer some advice— advice that he, perhaps, wished he’d received. “I’ve been there,” he said to the white-haired man, who was still following his ex-lover’s car with his eyes. “You’re better off without him.” Then, Fred continued on his way, so as not to miss his train.

Although, objectively, it wouldn’t have made the top ten most important things that happened that day [2], Fred did not forget that breakup. In the back of his mind, he often wondered where the two men were now.

***

Two weeks later…

Aziraphale was having lunch at a quaint little café, relishing the fact that the world had not ended two weeks ago. He was due to meet with Crowley for dinner that night. An unexpectedly[3] notable perk of being believed indestructible, and thus avoided, by his ex-employers was the ability to freely associate with Crowley. To be friends freely, without needing a facade of animosity— it was, well, nice. He couldn’t possibly ask for more. He couldn’t.

As Aziraphale sipped his tea, he overheard a conversation from the table next to him.

“I’m telling you, Fred, you can’t keep on like this. Life’s got more to offer. Get out there, find someone new. Bill’s not coming back.”

“Oh, I fair well know he’s not coming back.”

“Then why do you always get like this about it? Go to a club, join one of those apps, do something, mate, we worry for you.”

“Look, I get that you’re trying to be a good friend, or whatever, but I know I’m not gonna find love again. It’s just me and my shite job until I die. You know what, Bill was fuckin’ right; I’m old, I’m ugly—”

“Fred…”

“Gerry, you’re too nice sometimes, you know that? Go home to your husband. [4] I’ll be fine,” Fred said, in a way that suggested he would absolutely not be fine. Gerry hesitated. Fred turned to anger. “Go!” Reluctantly, Gerry left.

Suddenly, Aziraphale realised where he knew Fred from. His face, his voice… he was the man who had tried to console Aziraphale after his argument with Crowley the morning of Armaggeddon’t. Fred’s advice had been irrelevant in the grand scheme of the circumstances, of course, but he had tried to help— he’d taken the time to help with the relationship problems[5] of a complete stranger. So, Aziraphale felt a moral obligation to return the favour. To help Fred. Perhaps, Aziraphale thought, as he watched Fred try to order a Scotch, at noon, at this very much non-licenced café, even to save his life.

It was hardly a miracle, really. Just arranging things so that two compatible humans would meet later that day.

***

Four months later…

Fred Sherwin was… happy. Not that long ago, really, he’d have doubted that such a thing was even possible. But that had been before he met Sean. [6] Now, their relationship was coming up to the four-month mark, and Fred genuinely couldn’t remember ever being happier than he was now. [7]

One morning, Fred was passing through Soho on an errand, when he noticed a bookshop that he was fairly certain he’d never seen open before. He was in no hurry to get home, so he opened the door, curious.

The shopkeeper smiled at him. “Oh— hello, Fred! How’s Sean?”

Fred hadn’t the foggiest of how he and the shopkeeper knew each other, but he did have a vague familiarity about him, so Fred did the polite thing and didn’t question it. “Yeah, he’s well, thanks.”

“Are you… buying anything?” the shopkeeper asked, in a strangely accusatory tone. [8]

“…No plans to,” Fred answered with a shrug. “Do I have to?”

“Oh. No. No. Not at all. No,” the shopkeeper answered with conspicuous haste. Fred nodded, and started browsing the shelves.

Fred had been browsing for a short while [9], when he heard the sound of someone opening a door at the back of the shop. He watched through a gap in the shelves as a tall redhead in sunglasses emerged from the back room and sauntered towards the counter, yawning and stretching.

The shopkeeper smiled affectionately at this man. “Ah, hello. Did you sleep well, my dear?” [10]

“Yeah,” the redhead answered, through a yawn. “I was thinking, angel, maybe we could go out for lunch today?”

The shopkeeper smiled. “I would quite like that, yes. But— I can’t close up the shop quite yet. There’s a customer,” the shopkeeper gestured in the general direction of Fred.

“You want me to scare him off for you?”

Crowley! He’s a friend.

“Guessing that’s a no. Ah, well. Dinner, then?” Crowley put his arm around the shopkeeper.

“Perhaps.” The shopkeeper leaned up and kissed Crowley. Fred suddenly remembered why the shopkeeper was so familiar— why both of them were familiar, actually. The pet name was even right— it had to be them.[11] He emerged from the shelves.

“Worked things out, did we?” The shopkeeper looked at Fred, vaguely confused. Fred clarified. “Thought he left you. Few months ago. Remember?”

The shopkeeper turned red. “Ah. That was— well. You… you didn’t get the whole story.”

“I’m sure I didn’t,” Fred said, pleasantly. It must not have been much like him and Bill at all. “Well, I wish you both the best. Lovely place you’ve got, by the way; might come back sometime.” Fred left the store. The couple would be able to make their lunch date now.

As he walked on in the direction he had been going, Fred mused on the fact that… he liked witnessing little snippets of strangers’ stories. Those tiny things go so far to show that there’s a greater point to it all; that the world is more complicated than you’d assume; that life keeps turning in the background.

(Of course, Fred couldn’t have possibly guessed that he’d happened to bear witness to two snippets of the greatest love story in the history of the Earth.[12] But, honestly, he wouldn’t have been that surprised to find out.)

***FOOTNOTES***

1Before four months ago, the main difference was that he hadn’t been alone. Not that it had been better being with Bill— Fred reminded himself every day that he’d dodged a bullet when Bill dumped him— but it had been shitty in a less lonely way.[return to text]

2This was the case even if we only include things of which Fred was aware. The weather was quite unusual, for one thing, and his soaps that evening were interrupted by some very strange newsflashes.[return to text]

3Well, not really that unexpectedly.[return to text]

4Although Aziraphale did not recognise Gerry, and this would have been mutual had Gerry cared to look in Aziraphale’s direction, they had, as it happened, actually heard much about each other, through Gerry’s husband, Steve. Well, versions of each other. In brief ‘he’s well, thanks’-es at the start of each appointment, and in longer explanations on the rare days when Aziraphale finished recounting the last two months’ Crowley news before Steve was done with his haircut, Aziraphale had been told about Gerald, the love of Steve’s life— how long their relationship had been going for; how they had decided to raise a child together; how they were planning their wedding now that it was finally legal. And after work, when dinner conversation turned to shop talk, Gerry had been told about Mr. Fell, the strangest and best customer Wilson & Sons Barbershop had ever seen— how he was definitely immortal, what with the continuous records of his patronage stretching right back to the eighteenth century; how he constantly talked about a fellow immortal, who was either his frenemy, crush, or lover; how he’d been consistently handing his barber an amount of money several times the price of a men’s haircut and saying ‘keep the change’ for centuries.[return to text]

5Aziraphale blushed to phrase it like that in his mind, but, he reasoned, that was what Fred had perceived, even if it had not exactly been the most accurate descriptor. Technically. No matter what Aziraphale wanted.[return to text]

6It was almost contrived, the circumstances of their meeting. But Fred certainly wasn’t complaining, then or now. Afterwards, he’d had to phone Gerry as soon as physically possible to say ‘sorry, mate, you were right’; any more radio silence and Gerry might have assumed the worst.[return to text]

7It wasn’t just the relationship, though; his luck had just generally started to look up in the last few months. He’d found a therapist, for one thing. Also, the union had finally convinced his boss to stop those pointless weekend exercises. If Fred was a religious man, he might have assigned some greater pattern to all of this.[return to text]

8Accusatory, it should be clarified, in exactly the opposite direction than one would expect from a shopkeeper asking this question.[return to text]

9There were a lot of queer books here, Fred noted, to his pleasant surprise. Well, maybe not complete surprise— anyone with eyes and/or ears would be able to glean that the shopkeeper was in no way heterosexual— but some of these were antique![return to text]

10Upon a later visit to the shop (this time accompanied by Sean, for their six-month anniversary— the shop was quite a nice place to spend time, as long as you didn’t try to spend money as well), Fred snuck a look at the back room, while the shopkeeper and his partner were talking to Sean. There wasn’t a bed in the room, nor was there a couch big enough for a six-foot man to sleep on. There was, however, an empty snake enclosure on a table.[return to text]

11In retrospect, this posed more questions than it answered. Why would a stranger he’d tried to help through a breakup several months ago know Fred’s name? Let alone his boyfriend’s name? These were mysteries Fred never got around to pursuing.[return to text]

12Or, to use another entirely truthful descriptor, and one which Fred was even less likely to have guessed, the greatest love story ever divinely engineered.[return to text]