“Oh. My. God. Tonight was fabulous,” Freddie chattered away, in the front passenger seat, in answer to Niki’s question.
With the four of them in it Niki’s car seemed very small, but Simon didn’t care. His head was buzzing with everything that had happened that night. Vale Side Junction Group had been amazing and such an eye opener, and yet it had also felt to be the most natural place to be. He’d not felt out of place there, or on the edge of something, the way he had felt so often before, especially when he’d been forced a few times to attend his dad’s church’s youth fellowship while living at his Grandma’s. The Vale Side Junction Group had seemed the right place to be. He had been so nervous when they first arrived, entering a room full of strangers, but he’d had Freddie and Jeff as a shield against his nerves, and neither of them had seemed awkward or nervous. Freddie seemed to be delighted to be confronted by so many new people.
They were driving home in Niki’s car. Freddie was sat in the front passenger seat, next to Niki, while Simon and Jeff were pushed together on the car’s narrow back seat. Jeff almost had to fold himself in half into get into the back seat next to Simon, and his knees were almost pushed up under his chin. Their two bodies filled up the space available on the backseat, and their thighs were only a few centimetres part. There was only enough space for Simon to rest his hand on the seat. But he didn’t mind. He liked being so close to Jeff, and he could feel a familiar excitement churning in his stomach. It was another enjoyment to end a really enjoyable evening.
They had arrived at the community centre, where Vale Side Junction Group was held, a little before seven o’clock, with the four of them squeezed into Niki’s car. Jeff had been sat in the front seat, having been the last to be picked up on Niki’s route there. Simon had been surprised by how plain the building looked. It was a single story building, with a shallow sloping roof. It looked like it had prefabricated elsewhere and then hurriedly assembled on the spot. It was situated on the far side of a car park, at the rear of a housing estate, and almost all on its own. Either side of it were two badly kept patches of grass, and behind it farm fields bordered by a ramshackle wire and wooden post fence. Looking at it as he climbed out of Niki’s car, Simon thought that the place looked like it had been placed there to keep it away from the houses on the estate, almost as though the community centre had done something wrong and the houses needed protecting from it.
Niki led the three of them into the centre, with Freddie bouncing excitedly alongside her, and Simon and Jeff walking behind. She led them through a narrow and shabby entrance with dark and dirty plastic lino on the floor and plastic panelled walls, into a large and brightly lit hall. It reminded Simon of the assembly hall in his old primary school. It had the same feeling of wooden floor, brick and prefabricated walls, and gently sloping skylights letting light in through the ceiling.
He'd quickly glanced around himself as they entered the room, taking in the scene before him. Slightly to one side of the room was a trestle table, though he couldn’t see what was on it. On the opposite wall were stacks of plastic chairs, standing in a row against the wall. Several of these chairs had already been taken from the stacks and arranged in the middle of the room in a haphazard circle. Moving around the room were maybe ten or twelve young people about his own age, about two-thirds of them were lads. They were mostly standing around in small groups and talking, but two thin lads, one dressed in very skinny jeans, were taking chairs off the stacks and placing them in the centre of the room.
“Will!” Niki called out as soon as they had entered the room.
In reply a man in his early forties, Simon guessed, standing the other side of the trestle table had called back:
“Niki! You made it!”
He rushed over to her and the two greeted each other with a hug. In that moment Simon was able to get a good look at the man. He was probably not much older than Niki His body, though short, seemed in neat proportion. His limbs and torso, under his clothes, were tight and muscular, speaking of regular exercise, though probably at a gym. His face had neat and friendly features and, although he couldn't be said to be classically handsome, there was something pleasingly attractive about it. He had black hair, cut in a short and neat style, with an equally neat parting on the left hand side, though it didn’t hide the fact his hairline was slowly retreating at his temples. He was dressed in a snuggly fitting white cotton shirt and equally snuggly fitting dark blue jeans.
“Where’s Iain?” Niki asked, after they broke their brief hug.
“It’s his turn to do refreshments. I’ll get him in a moment. So which one is your boy?” Will asked, looking over at the three of them.
“This is Simon,” Niki said.
“Nice to meet you,” Will said, holding out his hand.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Simon replied, taking hold of Will’s hand.
The man’s handshake was quick but strong, and his fingers gripped tightly around Simon's hand for a moment before he let go. The skin of Will’s hand felt very dry but still very warm.
“These are Simon’s friends, Jeff and Freddie,” Niki added.
“Nice to meet you, Jeff,” Will said, shaking Jeff’s hand.
“Thank you, it’s good to be here,” Jeff said.
“Nice to meet you, Freddie,” Will said, now shaking Freddie’s hand.
“It’s great to be here. Your website is fab,” Freddie replied.
“I’ll tell Zac and Eric. They created it and maintain it.”
“Niki! You’re here!” another man’s voice called across the room.
“Iain!” Niki replied with delight.
Simon turned in the direction of the voice and saw another man, about the same age as Will, entering the room from a side door. He was much taller than Will, with a solid and almost stocky build. He wasn’t fat, but a solid body pushed out against his clothes. But as he walked quickly towards them his movements were fluid and light, certainly not lumbering. His face was handsome but not the ruggedly handsome face of a Hollywood leading man. He had solid and strong features, large blue eyes, a strong broad nose, a wide and smiling mouth, and stubble bristling across his chin. His sandy brown hair was cut in a short style that made it spike up across the top of his head, yet was brushed flat at the sides. He was casually dressed, a pale green, untucked cotton shirt and pale blue jeans, that fitted snugly over his body. Though that was probably more due to the man’s solid, muscular body than by design.
“Give me a hug!” Niki said, throwing her arms wide as Iain approached her.
They hugged briefly but warmly. Niki’s short body seemed to be almost swamped by Iain’s solid, large body. A moment later their hug ended.
“Let me introduce you boys to everyone,” Will said, leading them into the room.
Simon suddenly felt awkward again. Faced with a room full of new people he just wanted to retreat and hide away in Niki’s car. But he knew he couldn’t. Hiding away hadn’t helped him before. It certainly hadn’t helped him come out. He took a quick breath and followed the others, falling into step behind Jeff.
Will had quickly introduced them to the other members of the group, but to Simon they were just a list of names, and he could barely associate any of the names with faces. After Will’s introduction, Freddie had almost bounced off into the group, suddenly taking advantage of the introduction. He stopped to talk to a group of three lads.
“Are you okay?” Jeff asked Simon.
“I’m not that good in new situations.”
“Stick with me, no one will notice.”
He followed Jeff into the room, and Jeff soon started talking to two girls, Cat and Aimee, who seemed to be about Jeff’s age. Though physically they seemed so different, Cat being pale with blonde hair and Aimee olive skinned with thin, dark hair, they also looked so similar. Both of them had short hair styles, Cat’s hair was cut into a style that hugged the contours of her head, while Aimee wore hers in a very neat and straight bob-style, ending half way down her ears. They both wore jeans and hoodies, though the t-shirts they wore underneath were quite different, Cat’s being bright yellow with a low neckline showing the top of her cleavage, while Aimee wore a dark red t-shirt with the slogan “Keep Calm and Make Tea” in solid, bold white letters across its front.
Jeff had fallen into an easy conversation with the two women, who Simon quickly realised were a couple, and with that ease he'd drawn Simon into the conversation, too. Jeff seemed good at talking to people. He seemed to be able to start new conversations with new people with ease. Simon hadn’t noticed that before, as previously there had always been Freddie to start off a conversation. But Simon was glad of it. He could ride along in the wake of Jeff’s conversational skills and be pulled into the conservation. He didn’t have to stupidly sit on the edge of the room and just watch things.
Their conversation had been about their colleges and studies. Cat and Aimee were studying at a college not far from the community centre. Aimee was studying A Levels, she wanted to go to university to train as a primary school teacher. Cat was studying Business and Finance, with Aimee adding that she should go on to study accountancy. Jeff had told them how much he wanted to go to university and study computer coding. Again he said how his course was a far better entry into one of those university degree courses than A Levels, for computer coding. When Simon was asked what he wanted to do after his course he was vague. He hadn’t even told Freddie, Vee or Jeff that he was thinking of training to be a nurse, but the idea was becoming stronger and stronger in his mind.
When Aimee asked them:
“Are you two boyfriends?”
Simon had felt embarrassment prickle up the back of his neck, but Jeff had simply answered:
“No, we’re only friends.”
Niki sharply braked her car as the traffic lights ahead of them changed to red.
“Bugger!” she exclaimed. “That light was quick.”
“I didn’t see it,” Freddie said.
“They’ve changed the timings on these lights again,” Niki said. “I’m always getting caught by them.”
“My mum could you give you a whole lecture about why they do it. She works for the bus company and has no life,” Freddie said.
“That’s a bit unfair,” Niki said.
“No, she really doesn’t have a life. All she can talk about is work.”
“Anyway, how did the discussion go?” Niki asked.
“It was amazing!” Freddie replied. “I never liked those discussions in school. The ones where the teacher would write a subject on the chalk board and we were supposed to all discuss it. God, no one was honest. Everyone was trying to look good in front of the teacher or trying to be the funniest. I hated them. But tonight was amazing because everyone was honest. We were there to share with everyone else and God it was amazing to hear everyone else’s stories. It was amazing.”
The traffic lights suddenly changed from red to amber and then to green in only a few seconds. Niki cursed under her breath again as she put the car into gear and started to drive across the junction.
Simon felt something touch his fingers. He was sat with his left hand resting on the seat between him and Jeff. Something lightly brushed along the side of his hand, lightly brushing over his skin and along the side of his little finger. It was a light and gentle sensation, barely touching his skin, and yet it was still very pleasurable. Casually he glanced down, keeping his head still and only moving his eyes, and saw Jeff’s thumb gently caressing along the side of his hand.
He glanced up at Jeff’s face and saw Jeff warmly smiling back at him. He smiled back. Jeff’s warm and broad smile was always infectious.
His hand moved and covered Simon's hand, gently resting on top, Jeff’s fingers covering his own.
The main activity of the group that night had been a discussion. The plastic chairs had been arranged in circle in the centre of the room and Will had announced the discussion and its subject: Coming Out. Then Niki had told Simon and Jeff:
“I’m going into the kitchen with Iain for a gossip. I’ll leave you boys in peace.”
“Okay,” Simon replied, at the time not realising her motives.
The next moment Freddie had approached him and Jeff and said:
“I was going to sit with Zac and Eric and Tommy over there, you don’t mind do you?”
“Dumping us for your new friends are you?” Jeff replied, smiling broadly at Freddie.
“It’s nothing like that, you two are always my mates,” Freddie said, suddenly looking slightly awkward, slightly embarrassed. Not looking directly at Jeff.
“You fancy one of them,” Jeff said, his smile becoming even broader, spreading across the bottom of his face like the Cheshire Cat’s.
“I fancy all three of them but I don’t know if any of them are even single. I haven’t had time,” Freddie replied, his voice dropping to a quiet whisper.
“God, wait until I tell Vee. You’re already on the pull. She’ll be mad that she missed tonight,” Jeff said.
“It’s not like that. They’re really interesting and I want to get to know them better.”
“And find out which ones are single,” Jeff added.
“Are you cool with this?” Freddie asked, turning his attention onto Simon.
“Yeah, I’m cool with this,” Simon replied.
“You’re a doll,” Freddie said and rushed off to the opposite side of the circle of chairs.
“That just leaves us two,” Jeff said.
“It does,” Simon replied.
“Let’s go and sit down.”
They sat down on two plastic chairs next to Cat and Aimee, as Will led the discussion, sitting on another one of the plastic chairs. Normally, faced with a room full of strangers, Simon would have hidden within himself and moved to the back of the room. But sitting next to Jeff, with Freddie visible on the opposite side of the circle, Simon felt safe and comfortable. It was a new and very enjoyable experience. He liked it, liked feeling like this, and didn’t want to stop feeling like this.
Will seemed to be a very good facilitator of their discussion, far better than any of Simon’s tutors at college, or any of his previous teachers. Will seemed to have a way of involving everyone in the discussion, not just those who made the most noise. He encouraged all of them to tell their coming out stories; stories which all seemed so different to Simon and yet all of them seemed to have a common thread: coming out had made each and every one of them better in some way or another.
One of the lads, Logan, told about coming out to his mother and that she had told him to tell her something she didn’t know. Zac told about coming out to his dad, who had asked him lots of questions about being gay, and at the end of it said he was glad that Zac was happy. Aimee told about coming out to her sister. Her sister had told her that she was disgusting and sick, and then told Aimee’s parents. Her parents had sided with Aimee and actually told her sister off for being a bitch.
The two coming out stories that grabbed Simon’s attention were Freddie and Jeff’s, but naturally they would.
Freddie’s story began with him complaining about his parents being surprised when he came out to them. They had said they had no idea that he was gay.
“With this beauty profile how could anyone think I’m straight,” Freddie said to giggles from the group. “I was playing with Barbies from when I was like six. I had to, my Action Men needed girlfriends. The few ones that weren’t gay and shagging each other, that is. I was very sophisticated at six. Well I had just turned sixteen when I finally came out to my parents. I’d met my first boyfriend, Ryan, the dickhead-in-chief. I thought he was great, what did I know? Well I told my parents one Sunday afternoon and my mum goes off about how she never knew I was gay and thought my best friend, Vee, was my girlfriend. My dad says he wanted Vee to be my girlfriend.”
Freddie paused for a moment.
“I did the right thing coming out to them. I was lying to them every time I called Ryan just a friend, but God my parents are living in denial. They still keep hoping I’ll ‘find’ a girlfriend, even though I’ve had another boyfriend since Ryan, Liam the bell-end. I can’t pick men.” Freddie gave them all a hapless smile and a shrug of his shoulders.
Jeff had spoken in his quiet and calm voice, the one that made Simon feel confident about everything Jeff said.
“My mother left my dad when I was seven. And since then it’s been my dad, my sister and I, until my sister went off to study five years ago. Since then it’s just been my dad and I. And my dad and I have got really close. When I was fifteen my best friend Danny got his first girlfriend and didn’t want to hang out with me. I got really upset about it. I had a huge crush on him and I hadn’t admitted it to myself, though I sort of dreamt of him being my boyfriend. I got really down because of it all. My dad noticed and one evening he asked me what was the matter. I told him that Danny didn’t want to see me because he’d got a girlfriend. My dad said not to worry because I would find another best friend and he would be a lot more faithful than Danny. He actually said faithful. I didn’t really get what he meant at the time. But a year later I met my first boyfriend, Karl, my dad was really cool about it and even let Karl sleep over in my room. And when Karl dumped me, my dad was really supportive. He was great.”
Both his friend’s coming out stories had been eye opening. He knew that Freddie didn’t have a great relationship with his parents but that he covered it up with humour. What he hadn’t realised was that Freddie’s parents were actively trying to deny that he was gay. Freddie couldn’t or wouldn’t hide his sexuality, Simon guessed probably some degree of both. Yet his parents were trying to ignore it, to blank it out. That must be so hard on Freddie. So no wonder he wouldn’t let anyone ignore his sexuality, or put him down for it.
Jeff had such a solid and positive relationship with his father. Was that why he was so grounded? Jeff was certainly a grounded and confident person, but not in an arrogant way. His grounded confidence seemed to create a comfortable environment around him, an environment which drew others in. It was one of the reasons that Simon loved being around Jeff…
Yes, he loved being around Jeff, but he still felt a flush of embarrassment rise up the back of his neck. He and Jeff were only supposed to be friends. He couldn’t fall in love with his friend, that was so stupid. He’d glanced at Jeff, sitting next to him in the circle of chairs, when that thought crossed into his mind. Could Jeff see he was embarrassed? And, if so, would he guess why? But Jeff was just staring out at the other people there, with that calm expression of his on his face.
Niki accelerated the car away from another set of traffic lights the moment the light finally turned green. They weren’t actually thrown back into their seats, Niki wasn’t a testosterone petrol-head when she drove, but Simon felt the acceleration momentarily ease his body back into the seat.
“It was fabulous hearing everyone’s coming out stories,” Freddie said to Niki. “I mean, just listening to how different everyone’s was. There’s so many ways to come out.”
“Yes,” Niki said. “As many as there are people.”
“Yeah, but even if they were good or bad stories, I mean experiences, everyone was glad they’d done it. Coming out is so important. I thought it was important because it was about being honest with people, telling them who you are. But it’s more than that. It’s coming out to yourself, being honest with yourself, knowing who you are. It’s so fucking important. Sorry, I didn’t mean to say fuck,” Freddie said.
“Don’t worry. I’m a Social Worker and I’ve heard worse,” Niki replied. “But that’s why coming out is so important. We need to come out to ourselves, be honest with ourselves. It’s such a big step, but we have to take it for our own sanity and wellbeing. Even if we only ever come out to one person, then that has to be to ourselves.”
“God, yes,” Freddie answered.
Sat on the backseat, Simon slowly turned over his left hand, rotating it under Jeff’s hand, his fingers brushing over the palm of Jeff’s hand. He stopped when his hand was facing palm up and in the next moment closed his fingers around Jeff’s hand, as Jeff did the same thing. Suddenly they were very quietly holding hands. He didn’t know why he’d done that, turning his hand over. He'd barely thought about it, just acted on an impulse, but he was glad he had. It felt so warm and intimate to hold Jeff’s hand, so comfortable to be holding such a handsome man’s hand. Comfortable because Jeff was there, next to him and holding his hand. He just wanted to relax and enjoy this moment. He wanted this moment to go on and on and on and…
He'd been one of the last people to talk about his coming out story, though he edited his own story down. He left out all the details about his dad.
“I live with my mum and her girlfriend Niki,” he told the group. He heard a few people let out little gasps of surprise at that statement. “I’d met my first boyfriend. I met him on that dating app HIM. It wasn’t a great relationship. All we ever did was go to remote places and have sex on the back seat of his car.”
“And that’s never a good idea,” Will quickly added.
“And it was never comfortable,” Simon said, with heartfelt regret. To his surprise, people laughed at his comment. Maybe he could be funny? Not as funny as Freddie, but maybe he could occasionally make people laugh.
“Anyway, Max dumped me,” Simon continued after the laughter died away. “Max was my boyfriend. He just didn’t turn up for one of our dates. He didn’t return any of my texts and he blocked me on Facebook. I got the message, but I got really depressed about it. I’d hoped he’d help me find out about being gay, but he didn’t. Anyway, I was having dinner with mum and Niki, and mum asked me why I was so down and I just told her. It just came out. I told her that I’d been dumped by my first boyfriend… Well, mum and Niki were really cool about it, especially Niki. They didn’t make a big deal about it and Niki started talking to me about being gay. It was so easy. And Niki told me about this group, and she brought me and two of my mates here tonight. It would have been four of us but Vee had to go and see her grandmother tonight, but she wants to come to next week’s meeting.”
He stopped there, not really knowing what else to say. He certainly didn’t want to talk about the emotional soap opera his life had become since he’d come out to his dad, unplanned.
“That is so cool. Your gay step mum is here tonight?” Cat asked, excitement bubbling in her voice.
“Yes,” Simon said.
“I’ve got to meet her,” Cat said.
“Easy Tiger,” Aimee said, staring pointedly at Cat, as others laughed at her comment.
At the end of the discussion Will announced:
“Next week we’ll be watching the film The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It’s a great, feelgood, queer film. And I’ve been practicing with Iain’s protector and running it off my laptop. We won’t have a repeat of the gay YouTube night.” There was giggles from the group at this. “So let’s go and have coffee and meet Niki, Simon’s gay step mum and my old friend.”
As they collected their cups of coffee, Niki suddenly became the centre of a lot of attention as she left the kitchen with Iain, Simon had found himself standing with Jeff and Cat and Aimee. He didn’t mind because he felt comfortable with Jeff, and Cat and Aimee were so friendly.
“Your mum sounds so cool. Niki is really cool,” Cat told him. Simon smiled back at her. He didn’t want to go into any of the details about his relationship with his mum. What he’d overheard her saying, only three nights ago, still stung him to think about.
“You’ve got a girl-crush, again,” Aimee announced, with heavy sarcasm.
“Simon’s mum is gay, that’s cool, and has a great taste in girlfriends. The most interesting thing about my mum is that she’s a pescatarian,” Cat replied.
“What a pescatarian?” Simon asked.
“A vegetarian with no will power,” Aimee answered.
“They stick to a vegetarian diet, except for fish and chicken,” Jeff said.
“And sausages and cooked ham and meatballs,” Aimee added.
“And beef casserole, and anything in an Italian sauce, and as of last week, McDonalds. If my mum’s anything to go by,” Cat said, rolling her eyes.
“Oh, right,” Simon said, realising that there was much more to this story.
Niki turned the car into Jeff’s street and called out:
“Which one is your house?”
“The second one on the right,” Jeff said, as he leant forward on the back seat to speak to Niki, ad letting go of Simon’s hand as he did so. Simon’s hand felt suddenly empty and he found himself sinking slightly back in his seat.
“Here you are,” Niki said as she stopped the car at the curb.
“Thanks for giving us a lift, Niki,” Jeff said. “Tonight was great. Really, really, great.”
“I’ll happily give you all a lift next week, and as often after that as you all want.”
“And we’ll have Vee next week, too,” Freddie added.
“Thank you,” Jeff said, as he opened the door next to him.
Before he got out of the car he turned to Simon and said:
“See you in college, tomorrow.”
“See you then,” Simon replied.
He then leant forward and kissed Simon on the lips. It was a quick and very dry kiss, their lips barely touching, just a momentary dry pressure from Jeff’s lip onto his own. Then it was over, and Jeff was stepping out of the car.
Stepping up to the front passenger door he tapped on the window. Freddie wound down the window.
“See you tomorrow,” Jeff said to Freddie, and leant forward through the open window, and kissed Freddie quickly on the cheek. Another quick and very dry kiss.
“Thanks again, Niki,” Jeff called out as he stood up.
He turned from the car and, with his long-legged stride, started to walk towards his home.
“Jeff never kissed me goodbye before,” Freddie said, as Niki pulled the car away from the curb and started a quick and neat U-turn in the wide street.
“Maybe tonight had a positive effect on him,” Niki replied.
“Yeah, I guess it has,” Freddie said.
Simon remained silent. He didn’t want to speak because he could still feel the impression Jeff’s lips had left on his own. He didn’t want to speak, to lick his lips or even move, in case it caused the impression to fade. Then he shook his head. He was being stupid again. They were just mates and Jeff was just being friendly. He’d kissed Freddie goodbye too, hadn’t he?
Simon quickly ran his tongue over his dry lips as Niki turned the car back onto the main road.