Simon was sitting at the kitchen table, slowly eating his way through his breakfast of two slices of toast. He had no appetite, so each mouthful felt heavy on his stomach. But his mum had made a fuss over preparing it, so he felt obliged to eat it. He bit again into the slice of toast in his hand. The bread had grown cold, and the butter on it had seeped below the toasted surface and was making the bread soggy and greasy tasting. He wanted to just dump it on his plate and abandon it, but his mum was still busying herself around the kitchen, fussing over him, instead of just leaving him to eat as she usually did. Now she was slowly putting away the dishes from the previous night’s dinner, slowly moving between the draining board and the cupboards. She seemed to be deliberately moving slowly, taking her time with each dish to be put away, as if she was watching over him.
His phone had buzzed all the previous evening. It had felt like it had buzzed with an incoming text every minute. Some of them had been from Freddie, asking how things had gone, and Simon had filled him on the details of his conversation with his mum and Niki about his dad, how great Niki had been. But most of them had been from his dad, and all of them about the same thing. The first few he'd read, and they told him he was going to hell if he continued to be gay. But he’d quickly stopped reading them, and had silenced his phone, allowing it to silently vibrate next to him on the sofa. Before he had done that, every time his phone had buzzed he’d felt his mum and Niki turn their attention to him. They didn’t need to say anything. He knew they were both thinking that the text was from his dad. His mum almost twitched every time his phone buzzed. After he’d silenced his phone he noticed that his mum and Niki slowly relax again and concentrate on the television. Simon didn’t though, as he could still feel his phone vibrate through the sofa cushion with each new text.
He’d woken that morning a little before eight-thirty to find two new texts from his dad. Both of them had been bright and upbeat, boasting about what a wonderful day they were going to have together that day. Simon had felt his stomach sink. Why couldn’t his dad just take the hint? He wanted nothing to do with his dad’s church and that ex-gay group.
When he’d got up and got dressed he found Niki in the sitting room. She was slouched on the sofa and working on her laptop.
“Did you sleep all right?” she asked, as he entered the room.
“Not bad until I saw this,” Simon replied, as he dropped down on the other sofa and then showed Niki his phone.
“Jesus Christ,” Niki exclaimed as she read his dad’s texts. “He’s out of his tiny mind.”
“But he’s still going to take me to that ex-gay thing.”
“You don’t have to go. I’ll stop him,” Niki re-assured him.
“Thanks,” Simon said.
In the next hour, his mind kept going over and over his dad’s two texts. The man was still coming here and was still expecting Simon to spend the day with him. Just the idea of it all made Simon feel sick to the pit of his stomach. Why couldn’t his dad just listen to him? Why did his dad think that his opinions were so much more important?
Simon’s phone buzzed where he’d left it on the kitchen table. He felt his body twitch with surprise. When he looked up and saw his mum had stopped what she was doing and was staring at his phone too. Slowly Simon reached over and picked it up. As he turned the home screen towards himself, he saw it was just a text from Freddie.
“It’s just a text from a friend at college,” Simon said. He saw his mum relax her posture.
He quickly opened his phone and read Freddie’s text. It was a brief reminder about meeting at Jeff’s house later that morning. Freddie ended by saying, “A day of Netflix but no Netflix and Chilling. 😉” Simon didn’t know what Freddie meant by that.
“What does your friend want?” his mum asked.
“We going around to our friend Jeff’s to watch TV. He’s on his own today so we’re going to keep him company and watch his TV.”
“Why can’t you just spend today with your dad? It’s only an afternoon.”
Simon stared back at his mum. Had she really said that? Was she really taking his dad’s side in this all?
“I’m not going to that Release Trust thing, they’re sick!” he shot back at her.
“You could ignore them and read your phone or something.”
“I looked them up online, they’re really sick and homophobic and they really screw people up. I’m not going!”
“Your dad texted me last night,” his mum said. “He’s threatening to take me to court if you don’t spend today with him. Simon, I don’t have the money to fight him in court. If you just swallow your pride for one day, it could save us all real problems.”
“I’m not going to that stupid, sick thing!” Simon snapped back, his temper breaking as he jumped up from the kitchen table and started to storm out of the room, except he had to negotiate the table to get to the door, and that slowed him down.
“You haven’t finished your breakfast!” his mum protested.
“It’s cold!” he almost shouted back as he finally stormed through the kitchen door.
He found the sitting room empty. Niki’s closed laptop lay on the sofa but there was no sign of her. He dropped down onto the other sofa, threw his head back onto the cushions and closed his eyes. Why was his mum behaving like this? Why was she bowing down to his dad? It felt like she was agreeing with him.
His mum had been so full of anger when they lost their home, years ago now. And when they had to live with his Grandma, his mum hadn’t held back with arguing with her whenever the old woman said anything she disagreed with. But, as he thought about it, those arguments had been when they first moved into his Grandma’s house. By the time she was preparing to leave to live with Niki, she was barely saying anything to anyone in that house. She certainly wasn't arguing back with his Grandma anymore. She was just letting the old woman’s bigotry wash over her, as if all the fight had gone from her. Maybe it had. Maybe she had lost the will to fight back with an old woman who refused to change, or even consider altering her views.
But they didn’t live in his Grandma’s house anymore, hadn’t done so for two years now, and Niki’s home was nothing like his Grandma’s. Niki was a decent human being. Was his mum turning into his dad? Was his mum just giving into his dad because he had worn her down? He didn’t know, but it was deeply frustrating. His dad was behaving like a dick, and his mum was almost agreeing with him. She wasn’t standing up to him, and supporting Simon. It felt so unfair.
He slouched down onto the sofa, and simply waited. He couldn’t stop his dad arriving, but when he did arrive he could… could what? He could reason with his dad? Could he beg him to leave? He certainly wasn’t going to spend the day with the man. No matter what happened.
The sound of the front door knocker ringing through the sitting room made Simon jump back into life. He opened his eyes and sat upright. The front door knocker always sounded unnaturally loud for such a small item. It barely filled your palm when you held it, but just two raps on it could fill the whole house with its metallic sound. He sat on the edge of the sofa not sure what to do next. It was obviously his dad at the front door, but Simon didn’t know what he should do now.
His mum appeared from the kitchen with her hands pushed into her jeans’ pockets, and a worried expression across her face. A thick strand of her hair had escaped her ponytail and curved around the right-hand side of her face in an almost gentle arc. It seemed almost in total contrast to the tight and worried expression on her face.
“Don’t answer it,” she said, keeping her eyes fixed on the front door.
“I’ll answer it. It’s your father. I’ll speak to him,” she added. But she didn’t move from the kitchen doorway.
The next second came two more, sharp metallic knocks.
“DON’T ANYONE ANSWER IT!” Niki’s voice called out loudly from the top of the stairs, followed seconds later by the sound of her feet thundering downstairs. The next moment she rushed into the sitting room, all energy and movement.
“This is mine!” she called out as she rushed to the front door. Neither Simon nor his mum moved to stop her. Simon found his eyes now fixed on Niki, and the energy was almost radiating from her body.
Niki snatched open the front door to reveal Simon’s dad on the threshold. He seemed to blink in surprise at having the door opened so suddenly.
“What do you want!” Niki barked before the man could open his mouth. “Rosie told you last night that Simon wasn’t spending today with you.”
“He’s my son and he’s spending today with me,” his dad snapped back.
“Not when you’re going to drag him off to some ex-gay shit and have him emotionally abused!” Niki shouted back.
“I’m his father and I want to protect my son from all these homosexual lies. He wasn’t homosexual when he lived with me. All these homosexual lies started when he came to live in this house of sin. Well I am saving my son from the demons of homosexuality, because I love him.”
“Love your son?” she scoffed back at him. “You don’t even know your son. You never spoke to him when he lived with you, just forced him to go to a church he hated. Now you drag him around to every boring thing that your church has planned each Saturday. You have never asked him what he wants to do on a Saturday. You certainly never talked to him about this fucking ex-gay event you wanted to take him to today. He begged us to stop him having to see you today.”
“I have spoken to Simon about today,” his dad replied, though Simon could see him wavering. Was the fight leaving the man floundering now he was faced with Niki in full force?
“You fucking liar!” Niki shot back at his dad. “I’ve seen the texts you’ve been sending him. They’re disgusting and homophobic. No real father would send texts like that to his own son.”
“I’m his real father, his biological father, and I have rights over Simon and I’m exercising those rights now!”
“When you actually start paying towards the raising of your son then we might start to talk about what ‘rights’ you actually have,” Niki replied. Her arms were now folded across her chest and she was staring straight back at him. Simon knew she would intimidate him just by the hard mood she was in now. He was so glad that she was on his side.
“I pay for his phone and all his clothes,” his dad replied, an almost petulant tone in his voice, as if he was suddenly having to defend himself.
“Yes you pay for his phone, on the cheapest budget plan you could obviously find. As for his clothes. You send Rosie twenty pounds a month. That won’t even pay for a teenage boy’s underwear! I’m paying for Simon’s upkeep. Rosie and I pay for everything he needs, and we provide the emotional support he needs too. You just bully him! You’re the reason he failed his GCSEs last year. God knows he has the brains to pass them.”
“He’s my son, you pathetic dyke!” his dad shouted at Niki, as he suddenly pushed past her and barged his way into the sitting room. He stopped in the middle of the room and stared straight at Simon.
“Come with me Simon, you’re not staying a moment longer with these Godless women,” his dad demanded.
Simon didn’t move. Instead he shouted back at his dad:
“Fuck off! I hate you!”
His dad actually took a short step backwards, as if Simon’s words had physically struck his body.
“Matthew, please leave,” his mum quietly said.
“You’re now trespassing in my home,” Niki said, the anger plain in her voice. “You have ten seconds to get your sorry arse out of here before I call the police. I bet your holier-than-thou friends would love to hear that.”
“I’ll see you in court, bitch!” His dad shouted at his mum, pointing his finger threateningly at her. Then he turned to face the front door. He paused for a brief moment, as if he was going to say something to Niki too. But the angry expression on her face seemed to stop him. Instead he walked silently and quickly through the open door, and was gone. With a sudden burst of energy Niki slammed the door behind him, causing the door to shudder in its doorframe.
Niki turned around and addressed the whole room, the anger and energy in her body suddenly disappearing, and the tension rapidly leaving her shoulders and limbs.
“God, I’ve been wanting to say all that to that arsehole for so long. It felt good.”
“We shouldn’t have done that,” his mum said. “He’s going to take us to court. We can’t afford to fight him.”
“God, your sister Kate is a solicitor and she owes us enough favours. We can stand up to him.”
“Matthew has the backing of that awful church. They have solicitors in their congregation and they are always going on about protecting their values. And are always looking for a fight. They stopped the health authority opening a sexual health clinic within their parish, and got a private drug and alcohol clinic moved out of their parish too. And Matthew’s mother isn’t short of money, though the old bitch is as mean as hell. And she’s always hated me, too. He’s got the resources to fight us and win,” his mum protested.
“Rosie, it was only a threat. He hasn’t taken us to court or anything. He’s just made a threat, and God he’s all mouth and nothing else. You’re worrying yourself silly over something he hasn’t even done yet, and there’s a fucking good chance he won’t.”
“You don’t know him the way I do. I insulted his masculinity by leaving him for you. He’s been looking for a way to get back at me ever since. Now he’s going to use Simon to hurt me and he knows we can’t afford to fight back.”
“But Rosie, love…” Niki began to say, but she was cut short by his mum almost shouting:
“You don’t understand Niki, you don’t!”
Then, without warning, his mum ran across the room and upstairs. Simon thought she was crying, but he had barely seen her face as she had moved so quickly.
He sat motionless on the sofa. This whole drama, all the mess and fighting that had just occurred, the deep distress that his mum was so obviously in, it was all his fault. If he hadn’t opened his mouth to his dad; if he’d only deleted his dad’s texts without reading any of them; if he’d only gone with his dad today and told no one about all the ex-gay stuff; if he’d only…
“I’m sorry,” he blurted out, salty tears suddenly stinging his eyes. “I didn’t mean for this,” he added as he hurriedly tried rubbing the tears away.
“Of course you didn’t mean to,” Niki said as she sat down next to him on. “This isn’t your fault and I don’t want you thinking any of this is,” she added as she slipped her arm around his shoulder.
“Thank you,” Simon replied, leaning into her embrace as the tears dried up.
“You didn’t tell Matthew to behave as such a prize dick. God, I could kill him.”
“Why is he behaving like this?”
“Well, he goes to a really homophobic and sexist church. I used to work with a woman who went to that church. God, the shit that came out of her mouth was unbelievable. And your dad has your Grandmother on his back too, whispering all kinds of crap into his ear. I know I’ve not met your grandmother but your mum has told me all about her. I know your dad though and I knew he’s weak. He’s listening to all the wrong people and behaving like a dick.”
“I wish he wouldn’t.”
“So do I,” Niki agreed. “Are you still going around to your friend’s today?”
“Do you think I should stay here? Mum was really upset and everything.”
“No. You go to your friend’s. You relax and forget about your dad. I’ll be here with your mum and I think it’ll be good for us to have some time together. I think I’ll take her out for lunch and we can ignore your dad.”
“Thanks,” he replied.
“Go and get yourself ready and I’ll go and see to your mum,” Niki said as she slipped her arm from around his shoulders and stood up.
“Off you go,” she said.
Simon went up the stairs ahead of Niki. At the top he paused for a moment. His mum and Niki’s room was to the right of him, but the door was firmly closed. He momentarily considered knocking and seeing how his mum was. But in the next moment he rejected the idea. He'd caused her distress. Wouldn't his barging in there upset her even more? And he didn’t know what he could say to her, except to say sorry and that didn’t always cheer her up.
So instead he went into his own bedroom, where he pulled his favourite shirt out of his wardrobe and pulled it over his T-shirt. He considered changing his jeans, but he was wearing a fairly new pair of faded ones which were clean on that morning. He put on his pair of black trainers, and pushed his wallet into jeans’ pocket. Picking up his backpack, with his bus pass and everything else in it, he headed back downstairs. But there he found the sitting room empty. He sat back down to wait. He couldn’t leave the house without saying goodbye to Niki or his mum. It just wasn’t right, even if Niki knew where he was going.
He picked up his phone to start reading something off it, and then stopped himself for a moment. What if there were texts from his dad? What should he do with them? But when he turned the phone over he found there were no texts on it anyway. Had his dad gone silent? He didn’t worry too much about that, but started to read one of the e-books on it instead.
Ten minutes or so later Niki slowly and quietly came down the stairs. Her face was drawn, but she smiled when she saw him.
“You go off to your friend’s,” Niki said, as he stood up from the sofa. “Just text me the address you’ll be at so I can reassure your mum.”
“I will,” Simon replied as he pulled on his jacket.
“And here, buy you and your friends a takeaway,” she said, pushing a twenty pound note into his hand.
“I can’t take it,” Simon said, holding the note.
“Of course you can,” Niki said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Thank you,” he told her, meaning it.
“But go out the backdoor. I can’t see your dad’s car outside but he could still be hanging around outside, and one scene a morning is enough,” Niki said.
“Thanks,” Simon said. He then lent forward and gently kissed her on the check. It wasn’t something he did often but in that small gesture he wanted to show her grateful he was to her. How glad he was that she was on his side. “Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” she quietly said.
He left the house by the kitchen door that led into the little courtyard behind the house. From there he let himself through the door in the far wall of the courtyard and out into the alleyway running between the two rows of houses. Children often played there, and occasionally Simon had seen urban foxes searching for food there late at night. But rarely did he come out here. The first thing he noticed when he stepped there was the sharp and unpleasant smell of rotting rubbish; food waste discarded and left to decay.
He quickly locked the courtyard door behind him and then slowly looked around. He looked carefully down one length of the alleyway and then the other. There was no sign of his dad, no sign of anyone else in the alleyway. No living thing, except a tabby cat that jumped off another courtyard wall and then strolled nonchalantly away from him. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever told his dad about this alleyway. He'd told him so little about Niki’s house, because any mention of his new home always seemed to make him angry. They’d always driven past the end of the alleyway fast, and usually in silence. He'd certainly never drawn attention to it.
He walked down the alleyway, heading towards the Garfield Road entrance. The walk only took him a few moments, but he stopped at the end of the alleyway and carefully looked out into the street, his eyes scanning up and down the street. To his relief there was no sign of either of his dad’s car or of his dad himself. The tension eased out of his body as he stepped out onto the empty street. He then turned right, heading towards the bus stop he needed to get to Jeff’s home.
He could see the bus stop when his phone buzzed inside his jacket pocket. The simple sound suddenly clutched at his nerves. It was his dad. He was about to get deluged with yet more homophobic texts. That was how today was going to run, his dad’s texts pouring into his phone, and him not even being able to relax with Jeff and Freddie. He tried to ignore the text, and carried on walking towards the bus stop.
When he reached the bus stop, with no sign of the bus he needed, he could still feel his phone vibrating in his pocket. Every handful of seconds the phone would vibrate, demanding his attention, demanding that he read the unread text sitting on its system. Reluctantly he took out his phone, with the intention of just stopping the thing from physically vibrating, when he saw it was actually a text from Freddie. Quickly he opened it up and read:
“I’m at Jeff’s. He doesn’t know what to watch ☹. How did it go? Are you on your way? Hope your mad dad was a no show.”
The tension in his body disappeared as he called Freddie’s mobile.
“You still coming here?” Freddie’s bright voice sounded in his ear.
“Yes, I’m just waiting for my bus,” Simon replied. It was so relaxing to hear a different voice. Freddie’s friendly voice.
“Jeff doesn’t know what we should watch first. Fuck me, but there’s a shit load of stuff on Netflix, so I haven’t a clue either.”
“I don’t know either,” Simon replied. “I’ve never seen Netflix before.”
“Then we’ll find out together,” Freddie said. “I hope your mad dad didn’t turn up this morning and you’re still sane.”
“My dad did turn up here and it was shit,” Simon said.
“What!” The shock in Freddie’s voice rushed out of the phone. “What happened?”
“Well him and Niki had this huge fight and she won.”
Simon began to tell Freddie about the events that had already happened in the short time that had passed that morning. As he told his story he found himself relaxing, the tension of the last few hours slipping from his body. Freddie was such a good listener and certainly knew what to say to condemn his dad’s actions. It felt so good.