Simon slouched back on the sofa reading his Facebook feed on his phone. His mum and Niki were sat on the other sofa, with EastEnders playing on the television. Niki looked tired as she, too, was slouched back on the sofa. His mum was also more slouched down than sitting, though her eyes were fixed intensely on the television.
The pair of them had returned home a little after six o’clock with his mum still in a bad mood. Her face seemed to being pulled down by a whole sack full of negative emotions. He knew it was his dad causing her bad mood, and he’d wanted to apologise to her, to in some way make her happier. But he knew not to. He knew not to aggravate her when she was in such a negative mood. He remembered all too well from when they lived in his Grandma’s house, when she was frequently in a bad mood, that is was best to leave her alone, or else she’d take out her bad mood on him. And that could be worse.
Almost as soon as his mum had entered the house she’d announced:
“I’m tired. I’m going to have a shower and get changed.”
She’d taken her coat off, draped it over her arm, and slowly climbed the stairs.
Niki, in turn, had just dropped down onto the sofa with her own coat lying next to her. She stretched out and settled her head onto the random collection of pillows there. Her face had as equally a tired expression as her body language suggested.
As he casually glanced at her, he suddenly felt a moment of panic. Was everything making her tired, too? He ran his tongue over the roof of his mouth, then gently said:
“Niki, if you’re too tired we could skip going to the Vale Side Junction group on Thursday. We could go next Thursday or even the Thursday after.”
Niki quickly sat up.
“Don’t be silly. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll do you and your mates good to go there. And it’ll do me the world of good to have a gossip with Iain and Will.”
“They’re the guys that run Vale Side Junction group?”
“Yes. And they’re old mates of mine.”
Again he ran his tongue over the roof of his mouth. He had to ask her this:
“Are you okay?”
“Yes,” Niki smiled back at him. “I’m just really tired. Work is really busy. I’m stuck with a really nasty safeguarding. And your mum’s worrying about the shit your dad is up to, which of course is worrying me.”
“There’s no need to be, this isn’t your fault.”
Niki stumped back onto the sofa, her head falling back against the pillows.
“Would you like me to get something out of the freezer for dinner?” Simon asked.
“You’re a star. Yes, I would.”
Their dinner that evening had been a subdued one. The three of them had sat around the table in almost total silence as they had eaten a chicken and dumpling casserole Simon had taken out of the freezer, with baked potatoes. The casserole had been one of the many meals Niki would cook and freeze on the Saturdays his mum was at work. Niki seemed to get pleasure from cooking. She always said it relaxed her, and he certainly enjoyed eating her cooking. She said she made these extra meals for days like this, when they were too tired or too busy to cook. It had certainly been useful that evening.
As they had eaten, Simon had tried several times to start a conversation, but his first attempt had fallen flat. He’d asked them how their days had been at work. His mum had bluntly said “Tiring,” and Niki had quietly said that her day had been busy. His mum’s tone had flatly told him not to ask any more questions. That didn’t stop him wanting to start a conservation, but it did stop him asking any questions that came into his mind.
After dinner they had moved into the sitting room.
He glanced up from his phone and saw that EastEnders was still playing on the television. Two women were arguing, shouting angrily at each other that the other one didn’t know what she was talking about. This was a common scene on EastEnders and happened at least once an episode. Niki had once joked that the characters on that soap needed a course in basic communication skills.
He returned his attention back to his phone.
Suddenly it jumped into life and vibrated sharply in his hand, and its ringtone rang loudly. The screen showed that Freddie was calling him.
“Simon! I’m watching this!” his mum snapped.
“Sorry,” he replied as he quickly answered it. “Give me a moment,” he said into the phone.
“I’m going upstairs,” he told his mum and Niki as he jumped up from the sofa and ran up the stairs. Once at the top he hurried into his bedroom, closed the door behind him and dropped down onto his bed.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “We were watching TV. I’m in my bedroom now, on my own.”
“Good. That all sounded dead dramatic.”
“My mum’s a big EastEnders fan, and we don’t have Sky Plus, so she doesn’t like it interrupting or anything.”
“My mother’s the same with The Street and Emmerdale. The Street can be a bit fun when its being camp, but it has got all dead serious now. On Emmerdale, they’re all shagging in the sheep barn, and that’s only interesting when the guy is hot. Well, the talent has really dropped off lately.”
It felt good to hear Freddie’s voice. Freddie who was never afraid of talking.
“Did you get your presentation finished?”
“We finished our last re-write just before half-five, just before they kicked us out of the library to close it. We present it tomorrow. If it passes, great. If it fails, well we’ve passed enough other stuff, I think.”
“What’s it about?”
“Vee and I have to present a business proposal. Thing was, we couldn’t agree on what proposal. I wanted to do my online, posh, men’s knickers store. Vee said that was tacky, and she refused to do an online sex shop. So in the end we settled on a management and financial consultancy for small firms. We’ll offer to do a small business’s financial work, their HR work, recruitment and stuff, and all the management stuff to keep a small business afloat. It’s what Vee’s mother is always bitching about having to do.”
“Well I didn’t call to boast about our presentation. Well, not much.”
Simon wondered what Freddie did want to say.
“How are you? Jeff said you seemed off at lunchtime. You know, distracted and not fully there. God knows how you can be distracted with Jeff’s lovely profile to look at, but anyway.”
“I was just tired.”
It was the lie he usually used whenever he didn’t want to explain any further. It always worked with his mum and Niki.
“Bullshit!” Freddie said sharply. “You always say that when you’re trying to hide something. Something you think will upset us or put us off you. I’m your friend. Fuck, you’re not going to put me off.”
“It’s my dad.”
“What has the stupid twat done now?”
“Yesterday he threatened my mum that he’s going to take her to court for custody of me. He’s saying living here is corrupting me.”
“Who the fuck does he think he is? Someone needs to tell him to fuck off.”
“I will. On my eighteenth birthday. Until then I have to put up with him.”
“No you don’t. He’s not being a real father. He’s being a religious nut-job and a fucking bully.”
“He is, and I wish he’d just fuck off and leave me alone. But my mum’s worried that we can’t afford a lawyer.”
“Isn’t your aunt a lawyer?”
“My Aunt Kate is a solicitor, and she’s helping for free. But if it goes to court we might need a barrister, and they aren’t cheap.”
“You could just run away from home. Fuck him, he won’t be able to find you.”
“Yes but that would worry my mum and Niki, and they’re worrying enough as it is. That’s why my mum was funny about you calling during EastEnders. She’s in a real mood with all her stress.”
“You’ve got a point. We could do a kick-starter to raise money for a lawyer. All we’d have to do is put some of your father’s texts online, tell all those gay news sites and Facebook and Twitter groups. They’d all shit a brick over the way your father is behaving, and we’d raise loads of money.”
“God, that’s a good idea.”
“I’ll call my cousin Jake, too. When his parents divorced, he said he wanted to live with his father, even though his mother wanted him living with her. She was a bitch, so I don’t blame him. Anyway, he told the judge that he didn’t want to live with her and the judge let him live with his father, my Uncle Harvey.”
“But his parents were getting divorced. My dad won’t agree to a divorce. He’s being a shit over that as well.”
“But it was the part about who would have custody of Jake. With custody they have to listen to you as well. I’ll call Jake now and get from him what exactly happened and then I’ll let you know. Niki’s a social worker and your aunt is a solicitor, they’ll be able to use what Jake says.”
“Thanks, that’s really great.”
“See, it’s better to talk about it to your friends, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Now, I’m going to call Jake now and get off him what happened, and then I’ll call you back.”
“Thank you,” he told Freddie. “You’re a mate.”
He looked down at his phone still in his hand. For a moment it displayed that Freddie had ended their call before returning to the home screen. He’d meant what he’d said. Freddie was a mate and he was so glad to have him in his life. What Freddie had said, that whatever he did or told them wouldn't end their friendship, had struck home. It wasn’t like with Harrison and Phil, where he could have easily lost their friendship if he’d done something wrong or embarrassing, or if he no longer fitted in with them, and definitely had they found out he was gay. With Freddie, Jeff, and Vee it was a real friendship. They were his friends and they liked him for who he was, not whether he fitted in with the world around them, or how “important” he was in their world. It was a new and very pleasant feeling. Growing up he’d been very much aware that he needed to fit in with the others around him, otherwise he could be banished as a freak or unwanted, and left with no friends, and lonely. His friendship with Harrison and Phil had been especially like that. He knew that now because they had dropped him quickly enough when he didn’t go onto the local sixth form college with them. They considered him an outsider because he hadn’t done what they did, and they had dropped him for it. With Freddie, Jeff, and Vee there wasn’t that feeling. They were his friends because they liked him and wanted him around, not just because he fitted in with their social order and status. They wouldn't turn away from him just because he did something different or stupid. It was a new feeling, and one that he really liked.
Quickly he texted Freddie.
“Thanks for your help.”
He got up from his bed, walked out of the bedroom, and returned to the sitting room.