“It’s called the Vale Side Junction Group because it’s based in Vale side, that’s why,” Simon told them all.
The four of them were grouped around one of the round tables in the canteen, their different lunches partly eaten in front of them. Freddie was wearing a dark grey blazer and a bright green waistcoat, which was opened to reveal a crisp white tee-shirt, and his hair was jelled into large curls. Vee was wearing a dark blue, very loose-fitting shirt over a pale grey top, and strangely the dark blue shirt complimented her purple hair. She was also wearing a little make-up today, just bright red lipstick and pale blue eye shadow which, strangely enough, only enhanced the strong features of her face. She was a very beautiful woman, Simon thought. Not merely conventionally pretty, but much more than that. Her strong features made her far more interesting and beautiful than the girls at college who prided themselves on being pretty. And Jeff was dressed in a dark blue and cream striped jumper over a white tee-shirt, the collar of which just poked from behind the loose collar of his jumper. The stripes were narrow and horizontal, hooping around Jeff’s body in concentric rings, making his body seem longer and leaner than before. Jeff was smiling at Simon with that wide and welcoming smile of his, a smile that Simon enjoying seeing.
On his bus into college, that morning, Simon had received a text from Freddie. It had been brief and to the point, telling Simon to meet him, Vee and Jeff, for lunch in the canteen. Simon had texted back his agreement. That simple text had made his whole morning feel so much brighter. He wouldn't have to try and seek out the three of them, and hope they'd let him sit with them again. Freddie had simply invited him, unprompted, and at the beginning of the morning. They wanted him as part of their circle of friends. And he was so happy about that. No longer was college such a lonely place. No matter how bad his lessons were that morning, he would have Freddie, Vee and Jeff’s company to look forward to at lunch.
That morning both his lessons had been hard going, The Five Future Nurses seemed to resent both subjects. At one point one of them, Naomi, had loudly asked what was the purpose of learning about structure of the NHS. Their lecturer, Bruce Valentine, had snapped back:
“Because how can you work for an organisation if you don’t know how it’s structured and works!”
The Five Future Nurses had all sat in pursed lipped silence in reply, oozing their resentment.
Over dinner the evening before Niki had talked about Vale Side Junction Group again, even though his mum didn’t seem happy with the subject coming up. Niki had told Simon she’d called her friend, Iain, at lunchtime, and the conversation had soon turned to the gay youth group he ran with his partner, Will. Niki was full of all the different events the group was planning, not just discussions, but trips to the cinema and to art exhibitions. They were even planning a summer barbeque and a disco on another night. As Niki chatted away Simon felt himself being drawn to the idea of going to the youth group. What Niki was describing sounded exciting, more than just the dull and worthy group he had feared it would be. And Niki again offered to drive him there and pick him up at the end if he wanted to go. But Simon worried about the fact that he wouldn't know anyone there. It had taken all his courage and nerve to go and talk to Freddie, Vee and Jeff in the canteen. He wondered if that act had eaten up all his reserves of courage. Finally, he found the words to express himself.
“That group sounds great but I don’t know if I could go because I wouldn’t know anyone there. All those strangers, I don’t know…”
“Do you want to bring a friend with you, or a couple of friends,” Niki said. “I don’t mind how many as long we can get them all into my car.”
“Isn’t it for over eighteens only?” Simon asked.
“No, anyone can go,” Niki replied.
“But I’ve seen it on websites that it’s only for eighteens.”
Niki gave him a knowing smile.
“Some websites put that on because it’s an LGBTQ group. It drives Iain crazy. But the group is open to anyone.”
“I’ll think about it,” Simon replied.
“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to go,” his mum added, an uncomfortable expression creeping across her face. Her discomfort almost made Simon to want go all the more. He was beginning to get tired of his mum always trying to hold him back.
When Simon met Freddie, Vee and Jeff for lunch he’d been planning on telling them about how awful The Five Future Nurses had been that morning. But he was only two bites into his sandwich when Freddie announced:
“We should do more things together outside of college. Not just only sit around a canteen table and bitch about how shit the Neanderthals are.”
“I like bitching about the Neanderthals,” Jeff said.
“Freddie’s right,” Vee said. “We should go out more. We’re in the prime of our lives and we should enjoy ourselves. God, my mum and her mates sit around and bitch about everyone they know, and they call that a good night out. I’m not turning into my bloody mother.”
“What should we do?” Jeff asked.
“We haven’t been back to that coffee shop on Perry Road,” Vee said. “What was its name?”
“The Steaming Pot of Coffee?” Jeff said.
“That’s the one,” Vee replied.
“That place was okay,” Freddie commented.
“And we can take Simon,” Jeff said. “Have you been there?” he asked him.
“No,” Simon replied.
“Then we can go there,” Jeff said.
“God, the coffee was good,” Vee exclaimed.
“That settles it,” Jeff said.
“I was thinking of somewhere a bit more exciting, as well,” Freddie said.
“You want to go back to Hades, again,” Vee said.
“What’s Hades?” asked Simon.
“It’s a fabulous gay club in town,” Freddie said.
“It’s one of only two gay clubs in town,” Vee said.
“It’s the only gay club in town, we don’t go to Scarlets. It’s a dump,” Freddie said.
“And the bouncer won’t let us in. He said we were all too young,” Jeff added.
“I was bloody mortified, and we’d dressed up especially,” Freddie said, tossing his head in mock disdain.
“We could go back there,” Vee said. “But how about somewhere new first.”
“Where’s new around here?” Freddie asked, sounding disappointed.
Simon suddenly remembered his previous evening’s conversation with Niki, it was like a radio station suddenly starting playing in his mind.
“I’ve heard about this youth group and it sounds interesting,” he said.
“A youth group,” Freddie said, disdain dripping from his voice. “That sounds so church hall and boring.”
“It’s an LGBT one,” Simon said, trying to keep the volume of his voice in check. He wanted their table to hear him but not half of the canteen.
“That sounds so much better,” Freddie said, delight now in his voice as he leant forward, his elbows resting on the table.
“It’s called the Vale Side Junction Group because it’s based in Vale Side, that’s why,” Simon told them all. “They don’t just sit around and talk. They have discos and barbeques and trips out to places and all.”
“I bet there’s some hot guys,” Freddie said, his voice bubbling with excitement.
“And even some nice girls too,” Vee added. “Because there’s fuck all around here.”
“But Vale Side is right on the other side of town,” complained Jeff. “It would take us ages to get there. Two or three buses.”
“Niki said she’d drive me there, if I wanted to go. And anyone who wants to come with me,” Simon said. He didn’t add that taking someone else with him had been Niki’s way of helping with his nerves. “She knows the two men who run it, the youth group.”
“Who’s Niki?” Vee asked.
Simon glanced around the table. He guested he could trust them with the truth. He’d come out to Freddie and nothing bad had happened. Freddie hadn’t told everyone. Though he’d probably told Vee and Jeff, they all seemed so close.
“Niki’s my mum’s girlfriend and my mum and I live with her,” Simon said, again his voice dropping in volume so hopefully only the other three around the table would hear him.
“God, that’s so cool!” Vee exclaimed. “My mother runs a hair and beauty salon and that’s all she can talk about!”
“My parents are so straight they voted Brexit,” Freddie said, with heavy disdain in his voice. “God, if my mother was gay, well life would be so much easier. You know, she actually asked me, after I’d had come out to them, if I was a man or a woman in bed! God, I was so embarrassed.”
“Yes, I’d have been embarrassed if I had to tell your mother I was a bottom,” Jeff said, his voice laughing as he spoke.
“Can you imagine it!” Vee laughed. “Where would you start!”
“I’ll have you bitches know that I’m versatile!” Freddie replied in mock annoyance.
“And your secret is safe with us,” Vee laughed.
“Look how they treat me,” Freddie replied, directing his words at Simon. But with a broad smile on his face. “They cut me to the quick.” He clutched his chest in mock pain, “And they’re not that fucking funny.”
“But it’s funny because it’s true,” Jeff replied.
“Bitch,” Freddie replied, pretending to be annoyed again.
“Why did you have to come out to your parents?” Simon asked Freddie.
“I’d met Ryan and was spending every evening I could with him,” Freddie replied.
“Testing his flagpole,” Jeff laughed.
“I told you that in confidence,” Freddie said, the mock disdain jumping back into his voice.
“You told me that in confidence, too,” Vee added.
“Yes, well, I can have more than one confidence,” Freddie said. “Anyway, the parents were asking awkward questions, so I just had to come out to them. And they said they hadn’t had an idea I’m gay. Me with my fabulous personality. God, they are so straight.”
“What about this youth group?” Jeff asked.
“Vale Side Junction Group. It meets every Thursday evening,” Simon said.
“Sounds too much like a sausage party to me,” Vee said.
“A what?” Simon asked her.
“All boys and no girls,” Vee said.
“Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.” He suddenly felt very awkward. He didn’t want to exclude Vee.
“It sounds fabulous to me,” Freddie said. “You hang around with us boys all the time and you don’t complain about it,” Freddie said to Vee.
“I’ve just found the group’s website, and the pictures of the groups has boys and girls in it,” Jeff said, showing Vee his phone.
“And some of those girls look hot,” Vee said. “Maybe I should give it a try, to be sociable.”
“Count me in, too,” Jeff said. “It sounds like it could fun, and good for us. Of course, we should also go to The Steaming Pot of Coffee too. We could go after college and bitch about the Neanderthals. That would do us good, too.”
“Sounds perfect,” Freddie said.
“Our own support group, as well as Simon’s youth group,” Vee said.
“It’s not my youth group, I’ve never been before, either,” Simon told them.
“Then we’ll be virgins together,” Freddie gleefully announced.
“A fucking whore like you was never a virgin!” a male voice sneered from behind them.
Simon looked up to see four other students walking past their table, three lads and a girl. The three lads were all dressed in the almost uniform of bottoms with designer names emblazoned along the legs, and brightly coloured and oversized hoodies, again with emblems emblazoned across the front of them. The girl wore a very short denim skirt and a top so tight it seemed under strain stretched across her breasts. The four of them were dressed like so many of the other students there. It had been one of the lads, the one stood at the front of the group, who had sneered at them.
“It’s fucking queers’ corner!” another of the lads called out
“Don’t go near them, Tyler, you don’t know what you could catch,” the girl called out.
“Yes, don’t come near us!” Freddie shouted, as he jumped to his feet. “You might actually turn into half-decent human beings, instead of being walking Neanderthals!”
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” the first lad shouted back at Freddie. “It was a bit of friendly banter and you fucking over react.”
“We didn’t say a word to you and you go shouting homophobic shit at us!” Freddie shouted back at them.
“It was just fucking banter. Where’s your fucking sense of humour! Fucking queers!”
“I’ve got a sense of humour, I know a joke when I see a joke. Like your hair. And I know homophobic shit when I hear it! And I heard it!” Freddie shouted back.
“I’m not fucking homophobic. It was just friendly banter, you stupid queer!”
“Tell it to the judge, because the jury ain’t listening,” Freddie snapped back. “Just listen to all the homophobic shit you’ve just said.”
“Fuck off, it’s just banter! Get your head out of your arse!” The lad shouted back, his face now creasing up with anger.
“Leave him alone, Tyler, the little queer isn’t worth it!” the girl shouted, as she grabbed hold of his arm, pulling him away from their table.
“Be fucking grateful that I’ve got a fucking sense of humour!” he shouted at Freddie as he started to walk away, being easily lead away by the girl.
“Yeah, be grateful,” the third lad added, pointing threateningly at Freddie, before walking away with the other three.
As Freddie sat back down again, Vee quietly said:
“Do you have to wind them up? You know it only makes the homophobic morons worse. It nearly got you beaten up last week. Be careful. Just tell them to fuck off.”
“But if I don’t challenge them how are they ever going to learn? And I hate it when they try to explain their homophobia away as banter, for fuck’s sake,” Freddie replied.
“’It’s only banter’, the first and last excuse of the bigot,” Jeff said.
“But sometimes you should just leave them alone.” Vee said.
“And we’re human beings too,” Freddie replied. “We don’t deserve to be spoken to like that, either. And I’m not letting them get off with it.”
Simon didn’t say anything. But he was in awe of Freddie. He would have never had the courage to stand up to the bigots like that. He’d have just hidden behind his lunch and hope they'd quickly get bored and move on, as he’d actually done until Freddie had stood up to them. He’d always behaved that way. Ignore the bigots and bullies, and hope they'd get bored and move on. And most times that had worked, though often the bullies would take their time before moving on. Freddie’s behaviour, defiant and strong, had quickly chased those bigots away. Simon knew he didn’t have the courage that Freddie had, though. But his naked courage had left him feeling surprised and awed. Freddie's backbone was something to be admired.
Simon’s phone let out a loud and demanding chirp from inside his jacket. Hurriedly he pulled it out and saw it was another text from his dad. This one was boasting about an organisation called The Release Trust, who his dad claimed would save him.
“Who’s that from?” Freddie brightly asked. “Your new boyfriend?”
“No such luck,” Simon replied as he returned his phone to his pocket. “Just my stupid dad.”