This chapter takes place a week after the events of Chapter 14, two weeks after the events of Chapter 7 and three weeks after everything that happened in Chapter 1.
Simon bit into his egg mayonnaise sandwich and the next moment was trying to stop the mayonnaise running out of the corner of his mouth. He pushed out his tongue and tried to quickly lick it away. Failing to catch most of it, he dabbed at his mouth with a paper napkin. Whilst selecting his lunch with Jeff this sandwich had been the only one to appeal to him. But it was turning out to be very messy to eat.
The four of them were sat around one of the canteen’s tables. Freddie and Vee were almost completely wrapped up in their own conversation, and Jeff was sitting next to Simon, eating his way through a ham salad sandwich. Freddie was wearing a striped blazer over a white t-shirt. The stripes were wide, solid and vertical lines of black and white, and the simple pattern was very striking. Vee was wearing a dark blue woollen jumper, the texture of it seeming very smooth and almost shiny, over a crisp white shirt. The collar and cuffs of the shirt poked out from under the jumper, with the tails hanging down below of the bottom of it. Their clothes seemed polished, but they themselves were very animated, and almost jumpy.
It was only when he’d sat down at the table that Simon remembered today was the day Freddie and Vee were to give their presentation. Hence the choice of clothes and their animated and energised body language.
“But white writing on a blue background looks so much more classy,” Freddie said. “And if it looks classy then that’s half our battle won.”
“I’m not changing the bloody colour scheme of it now. We’re presenting the fucking thing in half an hour. I’m not fucking around with it now,” Vee replied, frustration pushing through her voice.
“But if it looks really classy then we have impressed them right off.”
“Its only a fucking PowerPoint presentation. I followed the guidelines, and I’ve made it simple, to the point and not too fussy. For fucks sake, that’s all we need,” Vee said, staring straight back at him, now with an openly frustrated expression on her face.
“We just need to make just a few changes.”
“I’m not changing the fucking thing now! My laptop is in my bag and I’m not turning it on until we get up to the classroom. It’s fine. The presentation is fine.”
“We’re all going to see Brokeback Mountain this afternoon." Jeff said, interrupting their bickering. "That could be the celebration of you two passing your presentation.”
“Or we could drown our sorrows for failing with two hours of Heath and Jake going at it like rabbits,” Freddie replied.
“We’re not going to fail. We’ve put too much fucking work into this to fail,” Vee shot back.
“See, positivity always works,” Jeff said.
“That’s great, but I still feel it would be much better with white text on blue,” Freddie shot back.
“I’m not changing it,” Vee hissed at him. “Now come on, we need to go and get ourselves set up.”
“Why are you going early?” Jeff asked.
“Because we’re the first ones to present this afternoon. That's why Miss Thing is so wound up,” Vee answered.
“No, I’m not!” Freddie shot back, “I’m just a little nervous.”
“And Tom Daley is a little bit gay,” retorted Jeff.
“The other time we did a presentation we were about halfway down the list that we got to see how shit everyone else was. This time we’re first so we don’t get that confidence kick,” Vee said. “But we know most of the people on our course are shit. We have to sit in lessons with them.”
“I just want to get this fucking thing over with,” Freddie said. Simon had never seen Freddie so lacking in confidence before. He’d thought Freddie was fearless but maybe he had weaknesses like everyone else. He wished he could take those nerves away from Freddie, give Freddie him a boast of confidence boost, the way Freddie had for him.
“Good luck, though you two don’t need it. You’ll be great at this,” Simon told them, as Freddie and Vee stood up from the table, Vee lifting her bag onto her shoulder.
“You think so?” Freddie asked.
“You can talk to anyone. How difficult could it be for you to give this presentation? You know everyone on your course.”
“He’s right,” Vee said, slipping her arm through Freddie’s.
“Thanks,” Freddie said to Simon. “You’re a mate.”
“We’ll meet you two after our last lessons, at the main entrance. We can all go the Fire Station together,” Vee said.
“Yes,” Jeff agreed with her, with Simon just nodding a reply.
The next moment Freddie and Vee were hurrying out of the canteen, still walking arm in arm.
For a moment Simon was reminded of breakfast that morning. He, his mum and Niki, had been sat around the small kitchen table, with the radio news bulletin filling the room with sound, silently eating their different breakfasts. Simon had been slowly crunching his way through two slices of toast and jam. Every few moments he’d glance over, first at his mum and then at Niki. Did they know he’d overheard them the night before? Did they know that he knew how his mum really felt? But neither woman gave him any strange or knowing looks. They both looked tired and drawn, the way they had done the morning before. There was no change from the previous morning. It could almost have been as if his mum and Niki had never had that conversation the night before. But they had, and he'd overheard them. He didn’t know what to do about what he'd heard, so he did what he always did; kept quiet about it all and kept the knowledge to himself.
Towards the end of breakfast, which was more dictated by how much time they had than how much they’d eaten, his mum announced:
“Niki and I will be late home tonight. We’re straight to your Aunt Kate’s office after work. She wants to meet us. There’s papers for me to sign and arrangements to be made. God knows what they are, but Kate does.”
“I’m going to see Brokeback Mountain straight after college, with Jeff, Freddie and Vee,” Simon told her.
“God, your new friends. I’d forgotten all about that.”
“Don’t worry, I hadn’t forgotten,” Niki said. “Give me a text when the film ends. If we’re not out of Kate’s meeting then… Then we’ll arrange something.”
“Thanks,” Simon replied.
Niki and his mum then hurriedly started getting ready for work.
“You all right there?” Jeff’s voice broke into his thoughts.
Turning to face him, Simon saw Jeff's hair still had the same dark shine to it, which seemed to give it a richer quality, and also seemed to have relaxed the curls, making them more open. He shouldn’t stare at Jeff’s hair, he told himself. Jeff was just his friend, and there was no more to it than that.
“Oh, just feeling a bit… you know,” Simon responded.
He didn’t know how exactly he was feeling. All he knew that everything that had happened in the last few days had left him feeling empty and confused.
“Is it your dad?” Jeff asked.
Simon looked back at him. He knew he could trust Jeff, Jeff had proved that more than once. And he couldn’t keep it all to himself; he knew that too.
“Yes, he’s being such a twat now. He’s gone and got himself a lawyer and is threatening to sue my mum for custody of me.”
“What the fuck is he thinking?” Jeff asked. “He’s behaving like he’s in some shit soap opera.”
“He believes he’s right. Everyone at his church tells him he’s right.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I spoke to Freddie and he told me about his cousin Jake, whose parents got divorced and both of them wanted custody of him. Freddie told me that his cousin was interviewed by a social worker. She asked him about his school and his home life and friends and such. She also asked him who he wanted to live with, and he said his dad. The social worker then wrote a report on what Jake had said and gave it to the judge. Jake and both his parents had to go to court, and the judge asked Jake the same questions as the social worker and then said he could live with his dad, who he wanted to live with,” Simon explained, though as he talked he suddenly found himself not being able to fully remember what Freddie had said. He’d been so excited to hear it from Freddie that all he was really sure of was his excitement at what Freddie said.
“You told your mum this?”
“I told her and Niki. Niki said she’d spoken to a friend of hers, who works in child protection, and her friend said that what Freddie had said was right. And Niki should know, she’s a social worker. But my mum is being all negative about everything. She says my dad has got a big firm of solicitors working for him and that we can’t afford a solicitor to represent us. And she said you get screwed over in court if you haven’t got a solicitor.”
“You can’t afford a lawyer or anyone?”
“There’s my Aunt Kate, my mum’s sister. She’s a solicitor and she’s said she’ll take our case on for free because her firm hates the firm my dad has working for him. Seems my dad’s firm of solicitors are really right-wing and bastards.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
“My mum is still being all negative. Family Law isn’t Aunt Kate’s area of work. My mum’s behaving little we’re going to lose and I don’t want that.”
“It would be bad.”
“My dad doesn’t want me doing my course. He'd make me leave college. Also him and my Grandma, who he lives with, are really Christian and he keeps on about me being ‘healed’ and turned straight.”
“That is so fucking sick.”
“I know. He sends me all these texts and emails telling me I’m going to hell for being gay and I’ve got to turn straight. I hate them.”
“Are you still getting them?”
“No, he stopped sending them the other Saturday. The Saturday I refused to spend it with him and I came around to yours and watched Netflix with you and Freddie.”
“That was a great Saturday! Didn’t he want to take you to some Release Trust things? Freddie showed me their website. They’re really fucked up bastards.”
“Yes, that Saturday.”
“Well, at least his texts have stopped. That must be better.”
“It is. But I’m getting really worried that he could win and I’d have to live with him and my Grandma. I’d run away from home before I’d do that. It would kill me.”
“Then move in with me. Well, me and my dad. I know he wouldn’t mind, especially after I tell him what has been happening.”
“What?” Simon’s brain jumped in surprise. He hadn't been expecting this. He’d certainly not been trying to get Jeff to offer this. It had never occurred to him as an option. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Think about it. You could still come to college and your dad wouldn’t know where you are. You’d tell your mum and Niki that you are safe but not where you are. When are you eighteen?”
“Not next January, but the January after that.”
“That’s only eighteen months or so,” Jeff said. “Once you turn eighteen your dad can’t force you to do anything. You can tell him to fuck off and he can’t do anything about it.”
“I don’t know it would work,” Simon honestly said. He wanted to do it, to live with Jeff would be so good, but would it really work?
“It might. It would show everyone how much you don’t want to live with your dad.”
“Thanks, you’re a mate.”
“And that’s what mates do,” Jeff said, smiling that broad smile of his at Simon.
“I’m so glad you and Freddie and Vee are my mates. I couldn’t have faced all this on my own.”
“I meant what I said. You really complete us as a group. It’s great having you around, and anything I can do to help, I’ll do. Your dad is such a twat. You’re sixteen and he’s trying to treat you like you’re six.”
“Thank you,” Simon said. And he meant it.
“Look we both need to get to our afternoon lessons soon but we’ve all going to see Brokeback Mountain after college. You’ve not seen it before and that’ll take your mind off things, even for a few hours. It is a beautiful film to watch.”
“Thank you,” Simon said again, smiling back at Jeff.
“Take care,” said Jeff, his hand quickly and gently reaching over and squeezing Simon’s, which was resting on top of the table. The next moment he stood up, swung his backpack over his shoulder, and quickly walked away.
Simon sat there for another moment. He stared at Jeff’s retreating figure, he could still feel the squeeze Jeff’s hand had given his own and the impression Jeff’s fingers had left in the skin of his hand. His tall and lean body, with his equally long and lean limbs, made his walk purposeful and yet almost fluid, and his movements so smooth. His black hair shone today, seeming to catch the light and bounce it back to Simon’s eyes with a bright and clear shine.
Simon looked down at the table and the remains of his lunch. He was being silly again. He and Jeff were just friends and he shouldn’t moon after him like some stupid little teen in love for the first time. He was a good friend, but that was all there was between them. And, with Jeff’s cool attitude, it seemed that was all there ever could be between them. Feeling a prickle of embarrassment crawl up the back of his neck, he reached for his own backpack and stood up. He had his own afternoon lesson to get to.