Having finished his last class of the morning, anatomy and physiology, Simon was slowly walking towards the college canteen. His next class, after lunch, was “library time”, where he was supposed to study by himself. An hour and a half, by himself, sat in the college’s library, one of the few people from his course who would actually be studying. Even the Five Future Nurses wouldn’t be there. But he knew his good intentions wouldn’t last long. Boredom would soon set in, and he’d turn to his phone for something interesting to read. He was ahead of the reading list for his course, whereas most of the other people on it had not even touched any of the books on it. Most of them seemed to be doing the course just to fill in time. He’d only started the course at Niki’s suggestion, but as the weeks and months passed he found that he was really enjoying it. So he found it annoying when other people on the course openly didn’t take it seriously.
He’d found his frustrations at the behaviour and attitude of others on his course building and festering away inside of him. If he had friends here at college, like his friends Harrison and Phil from school, then he could have talked and joked about his frustrations, and eased the tensions he was feeling. But he hadn’t heard from either Harrison and Phil since they had got their good exam results and gone onto sixth form college in preparation for university, instead of ending up in community college, as he had.
As he slowly walked across the courtyard he wasn’t looking forward to lunch. It was always the same four choices. The only variety seemed to be what might accompany the daily fried chips. He just wanted some variety. Variety in his lunch choices. Variety from being one of the handful of people on his course who actually wanted to be there. And variety from always being on his own in this place.
As he approached the canteen entrance, his phone beeped again, announcing the arrival of another text. Slowly he took his phone out of his jacket’s inside pocket. He told himself it could be a text from his mum or Niki, or even more unlikely a text from either Harrison or Phil wanting to re-start their lost friendship. But in the pit of his stomach he knew who the text would be from. Looking at the screen he saw that it was another text from his dad, just as he had expected. This was the fifth text from his dad so far today, and it was barely lunchtime. This one began with a bible quote denouncing homosexuality. But his dad’s texts had all had the same theme since Saturday afternoon. Through almost the whole of Sunday his dad had sent him several texts an hour, the only let up having been when his dad was at church. They were always about the “dangers” of homosexuality. The texts had come in so frequently during the afternoon that he’d had to turn the sound off on his phone, as the beeping had started attracting Niki’s attention, and Simon didn’t want any awkward conversation. The warnings those texts contained, the predictions of how homosexuality would lead him to ruin and hell, seemed to bear no resemblance to his life. He’d only had sex with one man, and that was so mild no one could have called him debauched. He didn’t drink alcohol, and had never done any type of drugs. He knew his taste in clothes was dull but he’d had no desire to wear any type of women’s clothing. And the only illness he’d ever had was the occasional cold. Yesterday, he’d even considered blocking his dad’s texts, but his dad paid for his phone and blocking him would have got back to him. He didn’t know how much access his dad had to what he did on his phone, and he just couldn’t risk his dad stopping paying the bill. His phone was so integral to his life.
He barely glanced at the latest text before he pushed his phone back into his jacket pocket. It had started with a bible text, but was the same homophobic rant from his dad. Simon simply didn’t want to read it, didn’t want to even acknowledge them anymore.
Entering the canteen Simon was greeted by the usual lunchtime chaos. People were rushing around, shouting at each other, busily eating their lunches, and sitting in their different groups around the tables. All the noise and commotion only served to remind him that, as always, he was on his own there. Trying not to get noticed, he headed towards the serving counter at the far end of the canteen. It was made from shiny, polished chrome, though by the end of the week the chrome would be looking far less shiny with all the smudges that on it. It stretched across the end of the canteen, a covered chrome counter where he could select his food, and pay for it from the woman sat at the cash till at the far end of it. It was always a woman at the cash till, dressed in the white and blue uniform the college’s kitchen staff always wore.
As always, there was a gaggle of lads and girls crowded around the part of the serving counter where the hot food was served. Today is was fried sausages, over-cooked beans, and chips. Simon avoided this gaggle and headed straight for the cold food section. The only cold food that was ever available was sandwiches, which today consisted of cheese, ham, or egg. He picked up a ham sandwich, the only flavour that appealed to him, collected a can of drink, which was at least cold today, from the next section and headed towards the till.
Once he’d paid for his lunch his eyes scanned the canteen, looking for somewhere quiet to sit. The weather was overcast, and it felt too cold to sit outside to eat his lunch. As his eyes scanned over the canteen he saw Freddie Brockman sitting at a table below one of the canteen’s tall windows. It was the bleached white streaks in Freddie Brockman’s hair that had caught his attention. Freddie Brockman was wearing a tailored blazer, black with thick, vertical white strips, and a bright purple shirt. He was talking animatedly, his hands moving in rapid gestures that were obviously designed to illustrate whatever he was saying.
His audience was a lad and a girl who looked to be the same age as him. Other students at the college? Simon wondered.
The girl was lounging back in her chair with one arm draped over the back of it. She was wearing a baggy black jumper and very slim dark blue jeans, though the curves of her hips and breasts pushed out against her clothes, hinting at a much more feminine body than her clothes did. Her hair was dyed dark purple, hanging down in a smooth and straight curtain to her shoulders and framing her face, which was graced with strong and attractive features; dark eyes, a full and red lipped mouth and a neat button nose. Her attractive face should have been the feature that dominated her appearance, but it was left in the shade by her curtain of dark purple hair.
The lad sat next to her was leaning over the table, his right elbow resting on it, while the fork in his left hand was slowly shovelling chips into his mouth from the plate in front of him. He was nearly a head taller than the girl, and nearly a half head taller than Freddie Brockman. His body was long and lean, with long arms hanging off narrow shoulders, above a slim chest. He wore a pale blue cotton shirt, with the front of it open exposing a white tee-shirt with a pale green number three printed on it in a digital font. His head was covered with black hair which hung past his ears in shaggy and slightly unkempt waves. He had a very neat centre parting that seemed to divide his hair with mathematical precision, causing his fringe to sweep across his forehead in two curtains. But it was the lad’s face that caught Simon’s attention. He had bright and large eyes, a strong and almost noble nose, and a wide and full mouth. It was a very handsome face. A face that Simon wouldn’t grow tired of looking at.
Looking at the three of them sat around the table, Simon wanted to be sat there with them. If he could be sat at that table with them he’d finally have a place in college. The thought was so attractive to him, but he didn’t know how to achieve it. Could he just walk up to them and ask to be their friend? Could it really be that simple?
Then the thought struck him. It had been a week since he’d watched Freddie Brockman being attacked in the college courtyard. The memory of it still made him shiver with discomfort. But if it upset him that much, how much must it have upset Freddie Brockman? He could go over there and tell Freddie Brockman how sorry he was about what had happened to him, and maybe that could be a way in. It was worth a try, he told himself. But he needed to act quickly before his mind talked him out of such a rash move.
Still holding his lunch in his hands he began to walk across the canteen to where Freddie Brockman was sitting. With each step he took he could feel the doubt in his mind grow louder and louder. What if they wouldn't speak to him? What if they laughed at him? What if they told him to go away? But he couldn’t stop himself from taking that short walk. He kept telling himself he had to try, even as each moment of doubt shouted loud in his mind.
A few moments later he stopped at the table where Freddie Brockman and his two friends were sitting. With a mouth feeling as dry as sand, he said:
“You’re Freddie Brockman.”
“Yeah, that’s my name,” Freddie replied, looking straight up at Simon.
“See, you’re famous,” the girl said.
“I saw what happened to you last Monday,” Simon said, his mind madly snatching at the words he needed to say. “I saw those lads and girls attacking out in the courtyard. It was terrible what they did, attacking you like that, and I just wanted to say I’m sorry it happened.” He stopped there. His mind had run out of things to say and he was sure what he’d said sounded stupid.
“Don’t be worried, it was just the Neanderthals in this place shaking their wills because they’re got such little pricks. Think nothing of it,” Freddie said, smiling up at him.
“Oh, right,” Simon replied, not really knowing what else to say. Again, he hadn’t really thought this through.
“And you just love winding up the Neanderthals too,” the girl said to Freddie.
Simon felt the words drying in his mouth. He’d thought of this opening, he’d talked himself into doing it and now he didn’t know what else to do. He was stuck there with nothing else to say.
“I’ve seen you around this place. Don’t you always eat your lunch on your own,” Freddie asked.
“Yes,” Simon replied. He could feel the embarrassment prickling its way up the back of his neck.
“Why don’t you join us?” Freddie suggested. “Eating on your own is too sad.”
“He might like eating on his own,” the girl said to Freddie.
“I don’t really,” said Simon. “I just have to. I don’t really know anyone here.”
“Thank you,” he said, sitting down at the empty chair next to Freddie.
“This is Vee,” Freddie said, indicating the girl at the table. “And is Jeff,” he continued, indicating the lad. “And you know I’m Freddie.”
“I’m Simon,” Simon replied, smiling back at them. His nerves were still pulling at his mind and it was all he could think of to say.
“What course are you doing?” Vee asked. The tone of her voice was welcoming and genuinely interested.
“I’m doing Health and Social Care,” Simon said.
“Oh, you want to be a nurse, how caring,” said Freddie, giving Simon a broad smile.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a nurse,” Jeff replied.
“But all those hunky men, stuck in bed and all needing a bed bath. I call that heaven,” Freddie said.
“Ignore him,” Jeff said to Simon. Simon felt a prickle of embarrassment at the back of his neck again, under Jeff’s full attention. “Freddie has overdosed on online porn.”
“You can never have too much online porn,” said Freddie.
“I wanted know if I want to be a nurse. My mum’s a nurse and her job is fascinating,” said Simon.
“My mum runs her own hair and beauty salon, and God it’s so boring,” Vee said, rolling her eyes to emphasise it.
“What courses are you doing?” he asked them.
“Freddie and I are doing Business Management,” Vee said.
“I’m going to have my own business empire when I’ve finished,” Freddie announced.
“Yes, running the world’s biggest gay brothel,” laughed Jeff.
“Bitch, bitch, bitch,” Freddie replied, but there was obvious laughter in his voice.
“I want to work for other people,” Vee said. “I’ve watched my mum running her own business for years, and fuck it’s far too much hard work. She works herself stupid just to keep her company in the same place.”
“God, I’m sorry about that,” Simon said.
“Yeah, but your mum is really happy about it,” Freddie said to Vee.
“I know. My mum’s crazy, it’s the only answer,” Vee said.
“What course are you doing?” Simon asked Jeff. He wanted to know the answer but he also felt he needed to change the subject. He was afraid that he'd upset Vee with this talk about her mother.
“I’m on the Computer Coding course, not the basic IT skills one but the advanced coding and computer systems one,” Jeff replied.
“Wow, that sounds difficult,” Simon replied. He knew his words sounded stupid the moment they were out of his mouth. God, he wished he could take back what he’d said, so many times.
“It is but I really love it. I love coding, I always have. My dad bought me a first generation Raspberry Pi when I was eight and I’ve loved coding ever since,” Jeff said.
“He’s not speaking English again,” Freddie said to Vee.
“It’ll pass,” Vee replied.
“Anyway, Fashion Boy, us Tech Boys will be the ones to save your business empire. I’ll make it ten times easier to sell your underwear online,” said Jeff.
“You sell your underwear?” Simon asked Freddie. He’d read about men doing this online, especially athletes with very sweaty and used underwear. Did Freddie really do this?
“Shit no!” Freddie replied. “It’s one of my business ideas. An online store selling sexy men’s designer underpants at cut prices. It’ll be a smash.”
“And you haven’t even got a Business Plan,” Vee said.
“We’re only in the first year of our course and I’m only just sixteen, give me a chance,” Freddie replied. “I’ll be a millionaire but I need some time first.”
“Don’t worry,” Jeff said to Simon, smiling straight at him. “We bitch like this all the time, you’ll get used to it.”
“Thanks,” Simon replied, smiling back at Jeff as he bit into his sandwich. He felt welcomed by these people. And that felt good.