“No,” Freddie said. “Jeff’s a year older than us, he’s seventeen. He met Karl last year when he was sixteen.”
“I didn’t think he was seventeen. I thought he was the same age as us,” Simon said.
“He looks good for an older man, doesn’t he?” Freddie joked. “He’d been at the college a year before we got there. A whole year and his only real friend had been Karl. And he’s a year older than Jeff, so at least Jeff doesn’t have to see him around college the rest of this year. Which is one good thing.”
They were on the bus home and Freddie had again insisted that they take a seat on the upper deck. That day they weren’t the only people sat up there. Behind them, on the back seat, was a group of school girls, all dressed in their lime green school uniforms, giggling almost hysterically together. While at the front sat an elderly couple, a man and woman dressed in equally faded old clothes, staring ahead of themselves, neither talking nor even making eye contact.
Simon and Freddie had caught a later bus home that day. Again out of design, but this time because the four of them had gone to The Steaming Pot of Coffee coffee shop for an hour after college. Simon had been impressed by the place. It was housed in an old shop, in the middle of a small parade, which included the usual mixture of general food shops, fried chicken shops, and betting shops. But The Steaming Pot of Coffee stood out from the rest because it didn’t have the plastic, prefabricated store front that the others all had. Instead its front was dark brown painted woodwork and large, open plate glass windows. Inside the walls were painted a pale cream, decorated with small original paintings in wooden frames. Along the right-hand wall was a long, wooden counter, topped off with a glass display cabinet displaying different freshly baked cakes, where a tall, pale man, with his long brown tied up on top of his head in a misshapen knot, served them their coffees. Dotted around the shop were small, square, dark wooden tables, with blue and white checked tablecloths set diagonally across the top, and four mismatching wooden chairs grouped around each of them. The place had felt so different, and yet so comfortable, to Simon.
For the next hour the four of them had sat gossiping and bitching about their day at college. And, as they chatted, they unloaded their stresses about their day. Jeff had complained about two lads who were still on his course and who still didn’t seem to be able to do basics of coding. Vee complained about one their tutors who seemed to know less about the subject then she did. Freddie had had a long list of complaints about his day, but delivered them always with humour and irony. And Simon had told them about The Five Future Nurses and their superior attitude to everyone around them.
At the end of that hour they’d parted, each heading their different ways home, and Freddie and Simon had headed off to catch their bus home together.
“I knew Jeff from my Secondary School. Well, I knew of him. He was one of the hunks in the year above me,” Freddie said. “When I started at college Jeff seemed to find Vee and I, and we quickly became friends. I think he’d been starved of queer company after him and Karl broke up.”
“Why did they break up?” Simon asked.
“I don’t really know, Jeff has always been a bit cagey about it all, and I don’t like to push too much. What I can gather is that Jeff was really keen on Karl, you know getting ready to say ‘I love you’, getting ready to say how he felt and looking for a real commitment from Karl. Karl got wind of this and dumped him.”
“That’s shit,” Simon said.
“I know. There's something really wrong with some gay men,” Freddie replied. “I blame all the fucking homophobia everywhere. We might have got gay marriage but the Neanderthals really seem to be kicking back. Why can’t they just let us have our freedoms? It’s not that our freedoms are hurting them or anything. God, I really don’t understand straights, I really don’t.”
“I guess we’ve got to. We live in their world.”
“I know but they could give us some more room and stop being such dicks every time the subject of being queer comes up,” Freddie said.
Before Simon could even think of a reply his phone beeped loudly in his jacket pocket. As he pulled it out, Freddie asked:
“Is that your secret admirer?”
“No, just my stupid dad again,” Simon replied, staring at the screen of his phone.
“He texts you a lot. What’s his problem?”
“He wants to save me from myself,” Simon said.
He was so comfortable in Freddie’s company that he didn’t feel he needed to censure himself He didn’t have to watch what he said, or to hide away parts of himself to keep his friendship with Freddie. If he were to be honest with himself he’d never had friends like Freddie, Vee and Jeff before. Friends with whom he could be fully himself, queer and all. And he was slowly beginning to enjoy that, and to feel safe with them.
“Save you from what?”
“From being gay.”
“What!” Freddie’s face was a picture of shock.
“My dad’s an Evangelical Christian, one of the Holy-Rollers,” Simon explained.
“I know the type.”
“And I came out to him last weekend. I didn’t mean to but he was nagging at me about not having a girlfriend and I lost my temper and told him I’m gay. Thinking about it now, I shouldn’t have done it that way.”
“Yes. I don’t think you should have, too. Wait, don’t you live with your mum and her girlfriend?” Freddie asked.
“I do, but I have to see my dad every Saturday,” Simon explained. “It’s an agreement that my mum made with him when she left him. And she wants me to keep it because it keeps him happy. But all we do is go to one Christian thing or another. His church even meets on a Saturday, and I have to go with him to it.”
“God, that’s cruel. And on a Saturday.”
“And last Saturday he took me to this special screening of the film God’s Not Dead.”
“What’s that?” Freddie asked.
“A really shitty Christian film. It was about this Christian lad who goes to university and a professor there says there isn’t a God.”
“Fair point,” Freddie said.
“Well the Christian lad argues with the professor and wins every argument. The film ends up with all the Christian characters happy and on top, and all the non-Christian dead or dead miserable. It was really shit.”
“Sounds like you watched it.”
“I was bored, what else could I do?” Simon protested. “I couldn’t read my phone because we were in a dark cinema.”
“Yes, they get really funny with you when you turn your phone on in a cinema. Like I really want to record your film on my phone and use up all my data. I’ve got better things to do with it,” Freddie said.
“So I was in a shitty mood when my dad and I finally went for some lunch and he starts giving me the third degree about not having a girlfriend. He’s going on about how his church has a load of really nice girls and I could easily find a girlfriend there.”
“Eww, creepy,” Freddie’s face twisted up with an expression of distaste.
“That’s when I lost my head and snapped at him that I’m gay and I don’t want a girlfriend. God, I was a twat.”
“Sounds like your dad deserved that.”
“But he didn’t take it well."
“Did he give you one of these hell fire and shit lectures?”
“He started to, but I stormed out of there and caught the bus home on my own.”
“Good for you,” Freddie said. “Stand up for yourself.”
“The problem is,” Simon admitted, “he’s been sending me all these really homophobic texts and emails since then. He keeps telling me I’ll going to hell if I don’t stop being gay. They’re really horrible.”
“Can I see one of them?”
“Sure, this is the latest one,” Simon said, passing Freddie his phone with his dad’s latest text open on the screen.
Freddie took a moment to read the text before handing it back.
“That is real shit,” Freddie said.
“I know,” Simon agreed.
“I’ve heard of The Release Trust, that organisation your dad wants you to go to. They are really shit. They try to make Queers straight with all this emotional abusive shit, and they never work. All they do is really fuck up people. Only last year their founder killed himself when he realised all the shit and harm he’d done to thousands of people. It would have been karma if it wasn’t really sad,” Freddie said.
“I’d read they were really bad.”
“You really don’t want to get involved with them.”
“I don’t intend to,” Simon said.
“And your dad has been sending you these since Saturday?”
“And how many of these has he sent you?”
“Thirty plus, or so,” Simon said.
“Jesus, that is really fucked up. That must be really messing with your head.”
“It is,” Simon admitted.
“You need to block him for your own mental health.”
“I can’t really block him.”
“Because he’s your dad?”
“Because he pays for my phone. And if I block him he might stop paying for it, and I can’t live without my phone,” Simon told him. “My mum can’t afford to pay for it. She's said so enough.”
“I can’t live without my phone, either,” Freddie said.
“I don’t know what to do,” Simon admitted.
“For God’s sake, don’t go anywhere near that Release Trust and all their shit.”
“I won’t. Honest.”
“And you can always to talk to me if your dad’s twatty behaviour really gets to you".
“Thanks,” Simon smiled. He felt that Freddie meant what he said. That he wasn’t just trying to change the subject.
“Look, it’s my stop next,” Freddie hurriedly said. “Look, I really want to meet your mum and her girlfriend. Niki sounds fabulous.”
“Sure, but you’ve got to tell them you’re not my boyfriend,” Simon replied.
“Why? Are you ashamed of me?” Freddie said in his mock hurt tone.
“No. But Niki is desperate for me to get a boyfriend. She’s even trying to set me up with some of the gay men she knows, and she knows a lot of them.”
“Okay. Hey, maybe she could fix me up with my next ex-boyfriend or two,” Freddie brightly said, starting to stand as the bus slowed down.
“Maybe,” Simon laughed.
“See you tomorrow!” Freddie called out, as he bounced down the stairs.