Alfie Bell has a lot going for him: he’s making good money, he’s got his own place, and he’s looking for love.
When he accidentally comes out as gay at his mate’s wedding, his world is turned upside-down. Shocked at his reveal, Alfie leaves the wedding in a rush, leaving the place of reception as quickly as possible. In a pub, he meets a handsome man around his age, and sleeps with him.
To his horror, Alfie learns that the guy he just slept with is his old classmate, James O’Donaghue. He used to torment James for being different, without realizing that he himself was just as different from everyone else, just like James–who now goes by his real name Fen, short for Fenimore.
Pansies is a kind of story where the two main characters were once enemies, who then become lovers.
I listened to this on Audible, as I do with most of my books nowadays, with the Kindle version in hand. I love Cornell Collins voice; he does such a good job of bringing characters on the page come to life. (If you are looking for good audiobook narrators, Collins is someone to check out. He does a fantastic job narrating the A Charm of Magpies series. It’s also one of my favorite series.)
Bully and the Bullied
Alfie and Fen do spend some time getting into rows over the fact that they used to be the bully and bullied, which is totally fair. Their first fight starts as soon as Fen tries to slip out during the night after they have sex:
“Okay, forget that. I’m sorry. Just sorry. But it was a long time ago, I’m not the same person.”
“Oh, right, yes. Because you’re gay now and you feel all sad about it.”Pansies, pg. 35, Kindle version.
This particular argument makes me realize that Fen still sees Alfie as the bully he used to be, no matter what he’s become. It doesn’t matter to Fen that Alfie is gay, but he’s saying that Alfie is using it as an excuse to feel sorry for Fen and what he put him through all those years ago.
Before Fen leaves the hotel room, he leaves with a biting remark, one that wounds Alfie and makes him brood over the words:
He paused, hand on the handle, half-turned away. “You’re wrong, Alfie Bell. You haven’t changed. Maybe you suck cock these days, but you’re still a coward and a bully, and that’s all you’ll ever be.”Pansies, pg. 36, Kindle version.
This is another example of Fen believing that Alfie will never change, that he’ll still be the bully that Fen knew him to be in their schooldays together. Just because he’s come out as gay to his family doesn’t mean that he’s a changed man.
Alfie will have to prove to Fen that he’s a changed person. Throughout the novel, Alfie and Fen spend a week together, and keep bumping into one another, partly because Alfie keeps wanting to see Fen.
Fen is harboring his own secrets about Alfie, the guy who used to bully him. In a letter to his mum, he writes about his feelings for Alfie:
I don’t know if it was because of or in spite of, but I really thought I was in love with him back then. For all those years. Because he was the only boy who touched me. He was all I had. His hand on the back of my neck, forcing my head down the toilet. Or his body shoved against mine to stop me fighting. His bruises on my skin. His fingers in my hair.
I’d lie awake in bed, terrified of tomorrow, and I’d think about him touching me. I’d dream about him and want him. And imagine how it would feel if he was gentle with me. If he gave me all his strength. If maybe he put his hand on the back of my neck because he wanted to kiss me and his arms around me because he wanted to hold me.Pansies, pg. 44, Kindle version
In this confessional letter to his mum, Fen writes about feeling a closeness with Alfie, the guy who tormented and bullied him. Even though he dreaded the next day, Fen would also fantasize about Alfie being gentler with him, being a nicer person to him. It almost comes off as fetishizing the bully and the bullied mentality, except for the fact that Alfie is indeed sorry for what he did back then.
I do like that as a reader I got to see what Fen thinks about Alfie, and how Alfie changes his mind. As an adult, Alfie has made himself into a better man, a better person, who is truly repentant about the way in which he acted towards Fen.
Alfie confesses to his one-night stand with Fen, and also reveals that he really likes him and doesn’t want to leave him alone. His girl friend Kitty reminds him that just because it’s been fifteen years, that doesn’t mean that Fen is completely over it:
“Alfie, just because it’s trivial to you, doesn’t mean it’s trivial to him. You don’t just get over things, you learn to live with them. And seeing you again probably stirred it all back up.”Pansies, pg. 52, Kindle version.
Kitty has a good point. This is what happened to Fen, in a fashion, after meeting Alfie again.
Enemies to Lovers
Fen does reveal that he’s now thinking again of his bully Alfie Bell because he happened to meet him again the other night: Alfie Bell is supposed to be my past. But he’s left me bleeding all over again (pg. 44, Kindle version). He confesses this to his mum, whom he’s unable to talk to in person. Now, though, he’s thinking of Alfie as a current problem, someone that he can’t get out of his head.
Alfie, on the other hand, really does like Fen:
“So, I met this guy, and he was sort of odd, but sort of sweet as well, and at first I thought he didn’t like me, but then he seemed to really like me, and then he didn’t like me again. And it turned out we went to the same school.”Pansies, pg. 50, Kindle version.
In the same vein, Alfie also confesses that he “didn’t want to leave him alone. I liked him” (pg. 50) to his friends about Fen.
As the week continues, the two grow closer, and develop more of a relationship, even though its in a matter of days. A poor plastering job, a walk on the beach, and lots of time spent in the bedroom only deepens their relationship.
By the end of the novel, it is clear that Alfie Bell is no longer a bully. It’s also clear that he and Fen were meant to be together.