Simon stared at his laptop screen. His essay on the structure of the NHS was still five hundred words over the limit and he didn’t know what to do about it. He’d cut everything he could and still it was over the word limit. He was now hating to have to write this essay. It had been interesting when he started, and he’d enjoying making the points he wanted to, but now he was feeling more and more frustrated because he couldn’t get the essay down to the required word limit.
He minimised Word and his essay, and opened up his browser. A bit of surfing might help him concentrate.
He’d taken the bus home on his own that afternoon. During his last lesson he’d received a brief text from Freddie saying that he and Vee were going to the library after college to work on their presentation, so he was sorry but Simon would have to catch the bus home on his own. He’d thought nothing of it at the time, as he was reading the text. It was later, when he was waiting for the bus and letting the alpha lads and girls push onto the first bus, that he’d felt alone. He’d been sharing the bus ride home with Freddie for a little over two weeks, and now that Freddie wasn’t there he suddenly missed him. Sharing the bus ride with Freddie had quickly become a normal routine for him, a routine that he now suddenly missed. When the second bus had arrived he’d climbed onto it on his own, sitting by himself on the upper deck, and it had been such a quiet ride home.
The homepage of his favourite gay news website was full of the news that an American drag reality show was going to have a British version, and it would be broadcast on the BBC. The website seemed to be reacting as if this was a great leap forward for gay rights. Simon had never seen the appeal of drag. He knew that Freddie would have been able to explain it to him. And Jeff would certainly have been able to tell him why drag was important to the gay community. But neither of them were there.
His dad demanding custody had been preying heavily on his mind since his mum had announced it the previous night. He’d been thinking about it a lot all day, as he couldn’t stop his mind wandering back to it. At lunchtime he’d wanted to tell Jeff all about it, but again he’d held himself back. He didn’t want to paint himself as being fucked-up and needy, and complaining about his dad’s latest stupid move would have done that. He wanted to appear a good friend to Jeff. Indeed he wanted to be more than just a good friend, but that didn’t seem to be on the horizon. And complaining and bitching about his dad wouldn’t paint him as such a good friend, especially after Jeff had pointed out the social order of college life. How had he not seen that?
What had also been preying on his mind was his conversation the previous evening with Niki.
He’d forwarded his dad’s emails and texts to his Aunt Kate about twenty minutes after Niki had asked him to do. He’d copied the texts into the body of an email, all of them with the time and date that he’d received them. About ten minutes or so after he’d sent the last email to Aunt Kate, he’d quietly gone back downstairs, where he’d found Niki the sitting room, almost circled up at one end of a sofa. The television was on but Niki wasn’t paying it any attention. And his mum wasn't in the room.
As he stepped off the bottom of the stairs he’d asked:
“She’s in the kitchen, talking to Kate on her phone.”
Simon felt a moment of dread. Maybe there was something wrong with the emails he’s sent to Aunt Kate.
“Don’t worry and come and sit down,” Niki said, patting the sofa next to her.
He crossed the sitting room and sat down next to her, slouching back into the yielding cushions.
“Kate is really excited about your emails. She says they are dynamite and are just what she needs. Her and your mum are talking strategies and stuff.”
“I wish we didn’t have to do this. My dad is being a real bastard.”
“He’s still your dad.”
“He’s just doing this all to be a bastard.”
“It’s not that simple, and he’s still your dad,” she replied.
“That’s what mum says when she says I have to do what he wants, but he’s still behaving like a bastard.”
“He’s not being a bastard. That's the worst thing about all this mess.”
“What do you mean?” Simon asked.
“Your dad thinks what he’s doing is right, because everyone else around him is telling him he’s doing the right thing. Your gran, his church, even probably the people he works with.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve had enough dealing with your dad’s church. I’ve had to deal with a couple from your dad’s church who wanted to be foster parents. They failed the vetting process, they were deeply homophobic and sexist, and they went off the deep end when they were turned down. They even tried to sue Social Services. They used the same firm of solicitors your dad is using. They lost. And last year I had to deal with a horrible safeguarding. A woman, another member of your dad’s church, was supposed to looking after her mother who has Alzheimer’s, but was really neglecting her. The woman had been told, at church, that God had healed her mother’s Alzheimer’s, and was forcing the old woman to look after herself when she wasn’t able to. It was horrible.”
“Yes, that sounds horrible,” he agreed with her. How could someone neglect their vulnerable mother so much?
“That’s the church advising your dad. To them everything is so black and white. To them your mum is an unfit mother because she chose me over your dad, therefore your dad is right to want to save you from this home. Especially after you told your dad you’re gay.”
“I wish I’d never told him,” he said.
“He was going to find out one way or another, you couldn’t keep something like that a secret forever. It’s not your fault that your dad took it all wrong and behaved like such a dick about it all.”
“But why did he have to?”
“I’ve met your dad so many times now and he isn’t evil or bad, he’s just weak and easily led. And that church of his has really led him astray.”
“But why can’t he stand up to that church? Him and my grandma made me go to that church every Sunday, but I didn’t believe any of their crap.”
“And you’ve got a strong personality,” Niki replied. “Something you didn’t get off your dad.”
“He should still be able to see how crap that church is.”
“Look, your dad is someone who had lost all his standing in life when he started going to that church.”
“Your dad has set his self-worth on who he is, your mum told me all and I’ve seen it for myself. When you and your mum and dad lived together, in your own home, your dad was the man of the house, in his own eyes. He owned his own home, he had a good and important job. He was the father, the breadwinner, the head of the house, and that was his role, in his own eyes. Then he lost his job and he lost his role. Your mum had to work to support you all by going back to work, your dad was no longer the breadwinner. Then you lost your home, and he wasn’t even able to keep a home for his family. You had to move in with your grandmother. He had to move back into his childhood home with his own mother. He was no longer the man in charge. In his eyes, he wasn’t the man he was, he can’t even provide for his own family. So when he went to your grandmother’s church he was really vulnerable. What they preach there is crap but it also appealed to him. They would tell him it wasn’t his fault that he’d lost his job and everything, they’d blame society and the devil and the Godless hordes and anyone who wasn’t them.”
“I remember all that. They’d constantly go on about how the world hated them and was always trying to do them down and persecute them,” he said.
“And they see that persecution, real or not, and usually not, as a sign that they are right. If everyone doesn’t agree with them, then what they’re doing and saying is the right thing, in their eyes.”
“Which is so screwed.”
“Yes,” she agreed with him, “but it’s also a very toxic message. We are right and everyone else is wrong, and anyone who is questioning us is therefore wrong. Very toxic.”
“My dad should see that,” he said. “I could see how nasty and wrong they are.”
“But your dad isn’t a strong person. He's really quite weak. I’ve had enough runs in with him to know that. When he starting going to that church he’d lost so much, his whole role in life, and that church told him he could be someone again if he followed them. They gave him a role again, and he lets them make all his decisions for him.”
“Then he should stand up to them and tell them to…” He didn’t know what else to say without saying that word, so in the next second he said it “... to fuck off.”
“Because he is living completely in that world. He lives with your grandma who believes all that crap too. He works for a Christian retailer, a crappy job in their warehouse, that’s owned by someone who goes to the same church as him. His whole life revolves around that church. He goes to some church thing or other each night of the week.”
“And every Saturday he goes to something or other organised by that church. He always took me to something or other church organised every Saturday,” Simon added.
“He’s complete immersed in that church and all he hears are their views. It’s hard to break away when you’re so immersed in that world. And honestly I don’t think your dad is strong enough to do that. He doesn’t seem to question, for one second, all the sexism and homophobia, and all the rest of the shit that comes out of that church.”
“He worships that church’s vicar. I’ve seen his face when he’s able to just speak a few words with that vicar,” he said, not hiding the disgust from his voice.
“But also remember he’s still your dad, under all that shit.”
“I hate him and what he’s doing.”
“But he’s still your dad.”
“That’s what mum always says when she wants me to go along with him and his crap. Every time I said I didn’t want to have to spend Saturday with him, she’d say that he was my dad and I had to do what he wanted.”
“I know and that’s not why I’m saying that. God, I’d never force you to see him again. But your dad could change. He could leave that church and return to the human race. Stranger things have happened. And at his heart he’s still your dad. Don't forget that, because he could change.”
“But he’s being such a dick.”
“My father was really strict with me and my brother Ed as we were growing up. God, he won’t let us go out in the evening unless we told him where we were going, who we were going to be with, what time we’d we leaving and what time we’d be getting home, and God helps us if we were a minute late. When I was eighteen, I was going to go to university, to study English, don’t ask. My father actually forbid me from going. Like he was some Victorian mill owner or something. We had this huge row, which I won. I was eighteen and I’d got a full grant. Years later I found out he’d behaved like that because he thought he was protecting Ed and I, because he thought he was being a good father like his own father.”
“And you found that out you forgave him?” he asked her, it did sound like the ending to a soppy story.
“God no! He was a dick throughout my childhood. He didn’t teach me to look after myself, he just thought that keeping me always in his sight was the way protect me. It wasn’t. Fortunately, my mum and my gran taught me how to look after myself. I told my father that, years later, and it felt good to do so. But it did help me understand him and that helped our relationship.”
“Right,” Simon replied. He did sort of know what she meant.
“One day your dad may want to leave that church. You'll need to understand him when he does,” Niki said, gently patting his hand.
He stared at his laptop. He’d been staring at the same webpage for ages and he’d barely read a word of it. Again his mind had wandered back to his conversation with Niki, the night before. Her words had been playing on his mind ever since. She was right. She was always right because she was so intelligent and she knew people. Simon had seen that enough times. It wasn’t really his fault that his dad had gone off the deep end. He would have gone off the deep end whenever he’d found out Simon was gay, and it wasn’t something he’d have been able to keep from his dad forever. His dad was believing all the crap he was being told by that awful church of his, believing all the bigotry and prejudice that was poured out in it, without questioning any of it. He remembered how his dad’s face would light up with pride and pleasure whenever Reverend Preston Kendrick would even just say a few words to him. Not that Reverend Preston Kendrick ever said anything really important.
His dad was doing what he was being told to do by his stupid church, and no matter what Simon had done, his dad would have behaved like this. He had probably been waiting for any excuse to fight his mum for custody ever since his mum had left him. His coming out to him had been the first big chance his dad thought he had to actually challenge his mum for custody. Or the first thing people at his dad’s church had been looking for to get his dad to challenge his mum in court.
Though he now saw more clearly what was going on it still didn’t help them to stop his dad. Should he talk to Freddie, or Vee, or even Jeff about this? Could they help him? What should he do next?
He closed the lid of his laptop and pushed it a few centimetres away from him. He needed a break from it. It now felt as if his unfinished essay was taunting him, crying out that he wasn’t clever enough for his course. Was he just tired?
He picked up his phone, quickly unlocked it and, just as quickly, opened the HIM app. He barely thought about what he was doing. It was an old habit that he was reactivating. When he’d been on his own he would come home from college, hide away in his bedroom even though the house was empty, and open up the HIM app. Before he’d met Max he’d used the app to try and search for some sort of contact, some way to make friends. After he’d met Max, he’d log onto the app each afternoon to see if there were any messages from him. Since Max had dumped him, he’d barely opened the app. It wasn’t that he felt the app was toxic or anything. He just felt let down by it. Freddie raved about it and seemed to meet so many men through it. Well, some men through it. Freddie’s enthusiasm had pricked his own interest, and now he was staring down at the open app.
Searching through the men who were online was easy enough, it was the main function of the app. It was only the fifth profile that slid across his screen, but Simon stopped at that one. It was Max’s profile. Simon had been surprised to see him, as he hadn’t been expecting to see him ever again.
Max had changed his profile picture, though it was obviously still a selfie. Max was staring up in the photo with an inviting half smiling expression on his face, while behind him the background was in darkness. His thick, curly brown hair was pushed back from his face, serving as a frame to his solid featured face. His brown eyes shone wide open and straight into the camera. His eyebrows were neat and carefully shaped, though Simon didn’t remember them being like that. And his chin was smooth and carefully shaved, no shadow of stubble showing through his olive toned skin.
Simon stared at the photo for a moment. It did make Max look good, but not good enough for Simon to find him attractive again. It was only four weeks ago and yet now, looking at the photo, he felt so little. Max had caused him such heartache, But now all of that was gone. He didn’t feel much for Max now. The man might have been his first boyfriend but it hadn’t been a good or healthy relationship. Now he’d moved so far from Max, and in such a short time. He didn’t need Max anymore. He'd found something far better. He'd found friends. People who would actually help him. He wanted nothing more to do with Max.
He was about to swipe away from the profile when he saw the lines of text at the top of it. Max said he was single, looking for fun and a relationship, and aged twenty-five. God, Freddie had been right, Max couldn’t even be honest about his age. If he was really twenty-five. God, he’d wasted so much time and effort on Max!
He swiped away from the profile.
He swiped through ten or more profiles, but none of them caught his attention. Some of them had shown the faces of attractive men, one of them just showed a man’s muscled torso, but none of them had appealed to him. He wanted more than just a handsome face for a boyfriend. But did he even want a boyfriend? He liked being part of a circle of friends. He liked being involved with Freddie, Vee, and Jeff. Would having a boyfriend get in the way of that? Sex with Max hadn’t been that great. It hadn’t fuelled many of his sexual fantasies. And all they had really done together had been to have sex on the backseat of Max’s car.
He did like Jeff, but Jeff obviously didn’t feel that way about him. He'd not seen any real signs of Jeff being interested in him. But if all he were to get from Jeff him was friendship then he was going to enjoy that, Jeff was a good friend.
Simon looked down at his phone again. He'd stopped on a profile of a chubby guy called Jeremy, whose profile picture was badly out of focus giving it a blurred and smudged feel. Jeff had said that the HIM app was no place to find a boyfriend, and this afternoon’s casual walk across the edge of the app had certainly shown him Jeff was right, even if he wanted a boyfriend. And he didn’t know the answer to that.
He closed the app, turned off his phone’s screen, and placed it on the table. He reached forward for his laptop. He needed to finish that essay.
A big thank to Marty Cooke for all the hard work he has done proofreading and editing this story. Find out more about him at his profile here