Simon walked out of the college building and into the courtyard between the buildings. The sun was still warm against his skin and he now felt uncomfortable having put his jacket back on. He walked across the corner of the courtyard, heading straight towards the empty concrete bench. When he reached it, he sat himself down and started his wait. The concrete was still cold against his buttocks, even with the warm spring air that surrounded him, and Simon unsuccessfully tried to move to make himself more comfortable, as he waited for Jeff.
As he had been walking to his second lesson that morning, he’d received a text from Jeff. When his phone had beeped with the arrival of it, Simon had felt a moment of dread. Had his dad started up his barrage of texts? But when he pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket he saw it was a text from Jeff.
“Freddie’s having a meltdown. Him and Vee are due to do a presentation tomorrow and they hadn’t done enough work for it. Idiots. They’re skipping lunch to work on it (!!). Means you and me for lunch. Meet me in courtyard after your last morning lesson,” the text read.
Jeff always wrote his texts in full English, not the abbreviated text-speak Freddie and Vee always used. Simon actually liked the way Jeff wrote his texts. It was almost like Jeff was sending him little letters via text.
Simon had replied: “Will do,” adding two smiling face emojis and a thumbs-up one.
He looked out at the courtyard in front of him. Most people in the college seemed to be using the courtyard as a way to get from one building to another. Did people actually come out here in the summer?
There was a group of five lads, on the far side of the courtyard, all gathered around a tall and blond lad, who was wearing an expensive, designer top. Simon recognised the top as an expensive one. Even though he would never be able to afford one like it, didn’t mean that he didn’t recognise it, and nor did it stop him wanting to own tops like that whenever he saw them online, in magazines, or on the backs of other lads at college. He couldn't help looking down at his own faded jeans and misshapen grey woollen jumper.
The lads were all circling around the blond lad, jostling each other, almost displaying their masculinity in front of him. Obviously the lad was someone important, but Simon didn’t recognise him. But he barely recognised any of the other students at college. The lad was also wearing a pair of pale grey and form-fitting exercise bottoms. Was he one of those lads doing the Sports Management course there? Those lads seemed to act as though they were the most important students there, as if the whole college would stop functioning without their presence. All that course seemed to lead to was a basic qualification enabling them to work as a Personal Trainer, and Niki frequently complained that there were already far too many of them.
“Get your fucking hands off my fucking arse! You fucking queer!” a lad next to the blond lad shouted out, directing his angry words at a short, dark-haired lad behind him.
The shouted words grabbed Simon’s attention, and plucked at a memory in his brain. He knew he’d heard that voice before.
“Fuck off!” the dark-haired lad shouted back, as he seemed to puff up his own body, pushing his shoulders and chest out. “I’d never touch your fucking arse. No one would.”
“You fucking queer! You’re a disgrace! I should fucking have you!”
Then Simon recognised him, the aggressive lad. He was the one who had tried to pick on the four of them the previous Tuesday in the canteen, rapidly backtracking in what he said, calling it “just banter” when faced with Freddie’s angry challenge to his homophobia. The lad was called… called… Tyler. The name jumped back into his mind, as if he could still hear the girl shouting it, though there was no sign of her today.
“You all right there?” Jeff’s voice asked, making Simon almost jump in surprise.
He turned his head away from watching those lads and saw Jeff sitting down next to him on the bench. Jeff’s hair had a dark shine to it, the curls of it seemed more open and relaxed then the day before. Had he applied some hair product to it? Simon felt a momentary prickle of embarrassment creeping up the back of his neck. Should he be looking at his friend like this?
“I’ll fucking have you! You fucking arse queer!” Tyler’s blunt voice rang out across the courtyard.
“Just that,” Simon replied to Jeff, nodding his head towards the group of lads on the far side of the courtyard.
“For fuck sake, Tyler!” The blond lad at the centre of the group suddenly shouted out. “You’re a fucking twat!”
The blonde lad then strode away from the group of lads, heading straight for the canteen’s entrance. Rapidly the other lads rushed after him, as if he was going to the place where they all had to be, with the dark-haired lad flipping the middle finger insult to Tyler as he hurried away with the others. Tyler, his body obviously tight with his own frustrations, had turned his back on the other lads and slowly started walking away in the opposite direction.
“Why are there so many homophobic arseholes around us?” Simon asked, but keeping his voice low.
“There’s not that many,” Jeff replied.
“No, just the arseholes who think they are the alpha dogs. The lads and girls who think they’re the popular ones around here. And they’re only using homophobia the way they use all their other prejudices to look down on anyone they feel is beneath them.”
“You see that?” All he’d heard was the repeated homophobia that always seemed to be shouted around at college. But Jeff had been here longer than him, what had Jeff seen?
“I had a whole term here on my own watching this lot,” Jeff said.
“A whole term, that must have been lonely.”
Simon knew what that had felt like, too. He’d been here a whole term, plus nearly all of the next one, before he’d been able to make friends.
“It bloody was.”
“Why were you on your own?” he asked.
“I came here because Karl was coming here and I wanted to be with him.”
“Karl was your ex?” Simon asked.
“I see Freddie’s been filling you in.”
“He told me a few things about you.”
Simon felt the back of his neck beginning to prickle with embarrassment again. He’d been caught out listening to Freddie’s gossip.
“Don’t worry, Freddie means well and it saves me having to tell you everything. Anyway, he’s told me all about you.”
“No, because Freddie doesn’t pass on the really personal stuff. You tell him something you don’t want anyone else to know and it stays with him. You tell him your favour TV program and Vee and I find out the next minute. Don’t worry.”
So when Freddie said he didn’t know something about Jeff, it probably meant it was personal and Freddie wasn’t telling. Freddie had probably done the same after Simon told him about his dad and the texts and everything.
“I didn’t go to sixth form college, I came here because Karl was coming here. It was actually a good idea because my course is an Access Course and it’s bloody good, I’ve learnt so much more about coding than I would have at sixth form college. Anyway, Karl and I broke up just before Easter and I found myself here on my own. I couldn’t stand the sight of Karl and I really avoided him. It was then that I realised that the only person I’d known here was Karl. So I was sat here on my own and watched everyone else around me.”
“That must have been hard.”
“It was,” Jeff said. “I was so glad when Freddie and Vee started here. Finally I had friends to hang out with.”
“Yes, I know that.”
“Anyway, while I was stuck on my own I got to see all the different groups around me. Everyone seemed to be in their own little group or clique. This place is just like school, everyone grouped together in their own cliques, with all the manoeuvring for position. The alpha lads and girls think they’re the top of hill, the way they did at school. They’re attractive and fit and they think that’s all they need. Most of the alpha girls are doing the Beautician course and most of the alpha lads are doing the Sports Management course. Hair dressers and physical trainers are not the people who rule the adult world. But those alpha bastards and bitches are just as homophobic as they were in school, because they feel they are so much better than us. The vast majority of the other kids here are in their own cliques and can’t be bothered about anyone else. We only get grief from the same, handful of homophobic twats, because they think they’re so much better than us.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Simon said, agreeing with Jeff.
It was only the same handful of lads, with the occasional girls hanging on their arms, who dished out the homophobic abuse to the four them, or even between themselves. It was always the same lads, in their almost uniforms of tops emblazoned with designer names, and expensive jeans or bottoms carrying the same designer names running down their legs, shouting their homophobia.
“The vast majority of the other kids here couldn’t give a fuck whether we’re gay or not, as long as we leave them alone and don’t bother them.”
“I still hate the homophobia from those twats, even if it’s only a few of them.”
“Yes, but they’re not the majority now. After here all they’ll have is their bigotry and not much else.”
“I wish I’d noticed all of this when I was sat here on my own,” Simon said.
He meant his words, he wished he’d had Jeff’s insight, but all he’d seen and heard were those lads’ homophobia. All he’d noticed was the thing he’d feared the most.
“Don’t worry, we can’t all see these things.”
“I guess so.”
“Freddie, Vee and I did wonder about you though. We’d see you sitting out here, on your own. Freddie was all for going right up to you and talking to you, but Vee and I didn’t know if you wanted to be on your own or not.”
“I think I would have run a mile if Freddie walked straight up to me when I first started here.”
“So why did you walk up to us in the canteen?” Jeff asked.
“I saw all those Neanderthals picking on Freddie the other day and…” He didn’t know how to say that he had seen Freddie as his only chance of making a gay friend and that was something he’d been seriously lacking in his life, gay friends, or any real friends.
“Freddie set that lot off in the first place,” Jeff replied.
“He told one of those alpha lads to suck his cock.”
“Freddie overheard one of them being homophobic, like that was something new. Anyway, Freddie jumps in and challenges their homophobia. Well, they don’t take it well and Freddie is too good with the comebacks, which they didn’t like even more, and the next thing they’re all chasing him out here. Vee’s right, Freddie needs to pick his battles and those alpha lads and girls don’t want to learn anything.”
“But I wish I had Freddie’s balls, I mean his courage,” Simon said, feeling his own embarrassment prickling at the back of his neck.
“I know what you mean,” Jeff said, giving him a warm smile.
“I’m glad I met all of you, I was so lonely before.” The phrase had slipped out of his mouth unplanned, but he really meant it.
“I’m glad we met you. It might sound stupid but you really make us as a group, kind of balance us. Is that stupid?”
“No, I can sort of see what you mean.”
Simon felt a moment of pleasure. He wasn’t just the fourth wheel. He was wanted by them.
“Saying all of that, it’s just you and me for lunch. Freddie and Vee have bailed on us, panicking about this presentation. God, they’ve put in so much work into it already that they should get an A for effort. Anyway, we get to pick our sandwiches and gossip about Freddie and Vee. Come on,” Jeff said, standing up from the bench.
“Sure,” Simon agreed as he stood up too, picking up his backpack.