The bench was cold and uncomfortable against his buttocks, so he tried changing his position on it. But it was hard and unforgiving and, no matter how he sat on it, or what position he tried, it was just uncomfortable.
And Freddie was late.
Simon was sitting on one of the concrete benches that flanked the college’s entrance. It was the place where he always waited for Freddie, their agreed meeting place after college. Once they met, they would catch the bus home together. But not the first bus, because that one would be full of “Neanderthals”, as Freddie always put it. Today his last lesson had been another one on health and social care policies, with Bruce Valentine. That lesson had been one of the livelier ones, and with Bruce Valentine they were never dull. His style was never to stand at the front of the classroom and just lecture them, expecting them to make hurried notes, as other of his teachers did.
Simon looked up at the scene before him. The pavement, just beyond the college’s black metal gates, was full of lads and girls waiting for the first bus to arrive. As always they were gathered together in their different groups of three or four or five. Groups of girls all with the same hairstyles, groups of lads all wearing the jogging bottoms and mismatched brightly coloured t-shirts. But they were the groups at the centre of the crowd. Around them stood so many other groups; groups of Asian girls giggling together; groups of Asian lads talking closely together as they stared at the Asian girls, who were ignoring them; groups of tech boys showing each other things on their phones; groups of girls who were far from the prettiest girls but who seemed far happier than the pretty girls at the centre of the crowd; and plain looking lads who were laughing and joking together, not trying to dominate each other like the lads at the centre of the crowd. And then there were the couples; a lad and girl standing, obvious in a relationship and just standing silently together; or one letting the other do all the talking. And there were the couples of two lads or two girls, best friends, enjoying each other’s company and chatting away together. Were all of those same sex couples just friends? Or were some of them actually boyfriends or girlfriends?
Jeff was right. When you looked beyond the loud and so-called popular kids, there was a world of other kids out there. And they seemed to far outnumber the "popular" kids, and seemed much happier than them, too.
“Get your hands off me, you fucking queer!” rang out the unmistakeable voice of Tyler. “You fucking queer! Trying to grab my arse!”
Simon felt that old twinge of fear when he heard Tyler’s homophobia ring out. Tyler obviously thought he was the most important lad there. He was stood in the centre of a group of lads, all wearing the same jogging pants, and all with very carefully styled hair. He was staring at another lad with stylish brown hair.
“I won’t touch your shitty arse!” the other lad shouted back.
“You fucking queer! You’re always trying to grab my arse! You’re a fucking disgrace!”
Tyler then pushed the other lad hard in the chest, making him stumble back a few steps.
“Go fuck yourself!” the other lad shouted back, and then turned and just walked away.
“You fucking queer! You fucking pussy! You fucking girl!” Tyler shouted after him, but he just walked away without looking back, completely ignoring Tyler and his shouting.
Simon had felt that initial panic. Were they shouting at him? Were they coming after him? But in the next moment he saw that it was Tyler just being a dickhead, puffing out his chest and pretending he was more important than he was. He was completely uninterested in Simon, and probably didn't even notice him. He was too caught up in his macho display for the other lads around him.
Then Simon looked at the others around Tyler. No one was applauding him or even agreeing with him. Many had turned away from him, ignoring him and his ranting, and lots of them were looking away in embarrassment. No one seemed to be agreeing with him except the four lads standing around him, his own little group of cheerleaders. But Tyler seemed in the minority there, his behaviour only embarrassing others.
There would always be homophobic pricks like Tyler. But he wasn’t everyone, and things were moving on. Simon had read how homophobic the sixties and seventies had been, but things had changed so much since then. He could actually marry another man, if he ever met a man he could have a decent relationship with.
Jeff was right, you have to step back and look at everything, not just concentrate on the homophobic pricks making the most noise.
Tyler had turned his back on the lad who had walked away. He was now puffing out his chest for the benefit of his mates, and trying to show off to a group of girls who were obviously ignoring him.
Jeff had kissed him last night. When he’d gone to bed Simon could still feel the impression Jeff’s lips had left on his own. He’d felt so confused by it all. It was just a kiss goodbye, wasn’t it, because Jeff had also kissed Freddie goodbye. But Jeff had kissed Freddie on the cheek, and had kissed him on the lips. He didn’t understand it. The kiss had caught him by surprise. He’d enjoyed it, especially because it was from Jeff. But he didn’t understand it. Jeff was just his friend, and obviously didn’t see him as boyfriend material. Simon had realised that by now. But then Jeff kissed him. It didn’t make sense.
If it had been one of those gay novels he read on his phone all the time, Jeff would have asked him to be his boyfriend right after they kissed. But Jeff had just said goodbye, kissed Freddie on the cheek, and walked away.
Simon had hoped he would get some sort of explanation today but he was still just as confused as the night before.
Jeff had joined them at the canteen table at lunchtime as if nothing had happened. He didn’t ignore Simon, he was his usual friendly and bright self. But neither did he behave as if they had kissed the night before. Simon didn’t understand it. He'd talked to Jeff, laughed and joked with him, and at no point did Jeff react as if anything different had happened between them. There were no secret looks, no smiles just for him, no shared glances just between the two of them. Jeff was just his ordinary self, and Simon couldn't understand it. It almost felt as if he’d imagined the kiss. Jeff certainly didn’t behave as if it had happened.
The conversation between the four of them at lunch had been all about the Vale Side Junction Group. Freddie had been bubbling about the events of the evening before. He excitedly told Vee about everything that had happened. In Freddie’s eyes, it was the best evening he’d spent in a long time. He finished by saying:
“It was really great just hanging out with a load of other gay men and there wasn’t any pressure to hook-up. It felt like being at home.”
“What, there were no women there?” asked Vee. “I’m not being dragged along to another one of our sausage parties.”
“There were women there, too,” Freddie said.
“Yes, Jeff and I met a great couple. Cat and Aimee,” Simon said.
“I’m not breaking up a couple,” said Vee with pronounced distaste.
“There were other women there, too,” Jeff added. “It’s not as if you’d be the only woman there.”
“That sounds better,” Vee said. “It’s about time I met some nice women.”
“Simon’s step-mum, Niki, is fab and you’ll love her. I do,” Freddie excitedly said.
“She really does sound it,” Vee agreed.
“She is,” Jeff added. “She’s funny and smart and… Well, really nice.”
“She’s said she’d give all of us a lift there,” Simon added, though he didn’t know how all of them would fit into Niki’s tiny car. But Niki was always practical.
“I guess I could be persuaded to come along,” Vee said, with a broad smile on her face.
“You were when I showed you the group’s website, you said there were some hot girls there,” Jeff said.
“I know but I like making Freddie beg for my attention.”
“What about having to see your gran?” asked Freddie.
“She’s not speaking to me,” Vee told him, with pride in her voice.
“How?” Freddie asked.
“I said Thatcher was the devil and when she died they drove a stake through her heart to make sure of it. Gran nearly had a stroke. She thinks Thatcher is better than the Queen, and she said she wasn’t speaking to me again. She said that a lot, and won’t bloody shut-up about it. My mum’s said that she’s not taking me back to my gran’s, so I’m free Thursdays now.”
“You managed all that after one visit?” Freddie asked.
“What can I say. It takes real skill,” Vee replied.
“And we’ve got Hades tonight,” Jeff said.
“How could I forget,” said Freddie.
As they talked again and again Simon had felt his eyes being drawn back to Jeff’s face, who was sat next to him. Jeff was just as handsome as always. His hair caught the light in places and seemed to almost shine. His open curls seemed almost carefully placed there over his head. His profile was strong and defined. And his bright eyes shone with life. As handsome as he looked, Jeff looked just the same as always. What had that kiss meant?
At the end of their lunch Jeff had turned to him and said:
“Don’t forget to come around to my home at eight tonight. I’ve sorted out your make-over.”
“I won’t,” Simon said, smiling.
“But we’re meeting you at yours at nine,” Freddie said. “Only an hour for a make-over?”
“Yes, you couldn’t get yourself ready in an hour,” Vee added.
“Oh, bitch!” said Freddie said.
“I’ve been taught well,” Vee replied.
“Anyway, Zac and Eric said they might be going to Hades tonight too,” Freddie added.
“Who are they?” Vee asked him.
“Two guys from the Vale Side Group last night. I swopped mobile numbers with them last night and I texted them this morning.”
“Oh God, you want to break up a couple,” Vee said.
“They’re just mates,” Freddie told her.
“And you’re going after both of them,” Vee replied.
“I haven’t made my mind up yet.”
“And he’ll shag his way through at least half the Vale Side Junction Group,” said Jeff.
“Too right, there’s some hot guys there,” Freddie replied.
“I’ve got to go to next week’s meeting. I love watching Freddie on the pull. It’s such a laugh,” Vee said.
“So see you at eight,” Jeff said to Simon as the four of them stood up from the table at the end of lunch.
“Yes, see you,” Simon replied.
But as he glanced at Jeff, he couldn’t see anything of the expression on Jeff’s face from the night before, when Jeff had kissed him.
Why was life so complicated? Why wasn’t it as simple as those gay novels he read? In one of those novels, if one guy kissed another one on one page, on the next page they would be boyfriends or at least shagging. Jeff had kissed him last night and today they were back to being friends again. He didn’t understand it.
“Tyler! Tyler! Don’t be so fucking gay about it!” Another lad’s voice rang out.
Simon looked up and saw Tyler storming off down the pavement as one of his mates called out after him. Did those lads know how much homophobia they used; how hateful it was? Did they even know it scared and hurt others? He could see none of it was directed at him but he still felt that finger of fear brush over his heart. It was still homophobia. He still couldn’t pretend it was anything else, and yet he didn’t feel that cold panic. It wasn’t directly threatening him.
He didn’t feel afraid, or worry that that homophobia would be turned onto him, but he didn’t feel comfortable hearing it. It wasn’t something he could easily dismiss. God, those lads didn’t have a clue what their words meant, but didn’t they see themselves on the top of the social hill here? Freddie, Vee and Jeff had helped Simon see so much about those lads. Freddie would challenge it, shout down the ignorance behind it, while Vee and Jeff would put it into context, and explain how those lads felt they were the most powerful and popular lads at the college, and therefore everything they did was right in their own eyes. Freddie, Vee and Jeff had acted as a shield between him and that homophobia. And from behind that shield he could finally see it for what it is, not just cower away from the hateful words.
He hadn’t thought about it before, but it was a good thought. Was that where Freddie found his strength to openly challenge homophobia? Was knowledge really power? If it was, then it felt good.
Then, with an almost flush of pride, he remembered the Health and Social Policy lesson he’d left only a handful of minutes ago. Bruce Valentine had had them discussing equality policies. He was saying how important they are in opening up healthcare to all people and allowing minorities to access it safely. Nadine, one of the Five Future Nurses, had tossed back her very highlighted hair, and sighed loudly with frustration. Her whole body language oozed frustration.
Bruce had stared back and said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “Nadine, so you agree with me?”
“It’s all crap. Pandering to all these people who think they’re different. What the NHS should be concentrating on is the real people who need healthcare, the families and parents who can’t even get a GP appointment. My aunty had a baby recently and she couldn’t see her midwife when she wanted to because her midwife was off on diversity training and all that crap. We waste too much time on minorities. We should be concentrating on the real people who need healthcare,” Nadine announced, her voice strong with her own confidence.
“So you have to be straight, white and have blonde highlights to get healthcare?” Simon shot back at her, suddenly fired up by the anger he always felt hearing her repeated prejudice, and for once not staying silent. “If the NHS doesn’t welcome minorities and make sure that everyone can access it, how can it say it provides healthcare to all?”
“You gays are all pushing equality as part of your agenda to get yourselves treated special. All these Lesbians Clinics and Gay Men’s Health, like you’re something special. You should suck it up and join the services provided for everyone, like everyone else,” Nadine replied, staring straight at him, as the other the Five Future Nurses muttered their agreement with her.
“With an attitude like that you’d make a crap nurse,” Simon said, trying to keep his voice level and to keep the anger out of it.
“What do you know of it? You’re a man, you’re not naturally suited to nursing like us women,” Nadine replied, smiling triumphantly back at him.
“My mum is a nurse,” Simon said. “She has to look after anyone who is referred to her. She can’t choose her patients. She has to nurse them no matter how bigoted and prejudiced they are. And she hears a lot of prejudice from her patients. But she never says people should shut and put up just to get healthcare.”
“Yeah, well that’s different,” Nadine muttered, looking away from him.
“And anyway, there’s no dedicated LGBT health clinics in this town. Not even ones only open for one night a week,” Simon added. He knew because he’d looked it up earlier in the week, knowing this lesson was coming up. And now he was quietly glad he did.
“Simon makes an important point,” Bruce Valentine said to the whole class. “If a healthcare system does not enable everyone to access it how can it say it provides healthcare for all. Specialist clinics, like Lesbian Health clinics and Black Women’s Health Clinics, are an important part of this. And it’s shameful there are none of them in our town.”
It was much later in the lesson that he’d realised that Nadine had called him “you gays.” He’d never come out to her or anyone else on his course. He barely spoke to anyone on his course. There was only one way Nadine could have known or guessed he was gay. She had seen him with Freddie, Jeff and Vee and assumed he was gay. He guessed they were now seen as the college’s “gays”. Did it really bother him? He was gay and… Well he kept well away from most of the other students there. Jeff had said that being friends with Freddie was his way of coming out at college. Well it had worked for him too, and he hadn’t even been trying to come out.
Simon smiled to himself. He'd come out, and he hadn’t even had to try. Of course, it didn’t say much for Nadine and the other Five Future Nurses, assuming he was gay and not even asking him, being so judgemental. He’d wished he’d pointed it out at the time. It would have been another example of what crap nurses they would make. He smiled to himself again.
With a hiss of airbrakes a bus pulled to a stop in front of the college. As soon its doors opened the lads and girls there piled onto it. It was as if the bus was hoovering up them up off the pavement as they all pushed onto it. Freddie was right to avoid the first bus.
But where was Freddie? His timekeeping wasn’t always the best, but he was not usually this late. He looked around but still didn’t see him anywhere. He glanced back at the bus and the last few girls were pushing their way onto it. God, it was full today. Why was Friday such a busy day at college.
“You missed me?” Freddie’s voice rang out.
Turning in the direction of the voice, Simon saw Freddie hurrying around the side of the building and heading towards him. His fake leather satchel was swung over his shoulder, and it bounced against his hip with every hurried step he took. His pale blue jacket was open showing off a white shirt with black printed dragons crawling down the front of it. His hair was swept back from his face in the same style it had been at lunchtime.
Simon had stood up from the uncomfortable bench and walked the few steps to greet Freddie.
“Sorry I’m late,” Freddie said as he came to a stop next to Simon. “Vee and I were talking about tonight. Your first visit to Hades! God, I’m so excited! Have I missed anything?” He glanced over to the empty bus stop.
“Just the first bus arriving,” Simon said.
“Good, the Neanderthals’ transport has done its job. Let’s go and wait for the next one.”
“Sure,” Simon agreed.
The two of them began to walk the short distance to the bus stop.
“Tonight, what’s going to happen there? At Hades?” Simon asked.
“Not that much. We’ll have a few very overpriced diet cokes, dance a lot, and take the piss out of whatever act is on tonight. It’s not a Roman orgy, or Sodom and Gomorrah. You’ll be fine and you might even meet a nice new boyfriend,” Freddie’s voice bubbled with excitement.
“I don’t want a boyfriend.”
“Yeah, yeah. We all say that, and no one means it,” Freddie replied as they reached the bus stop.
“Well, we’ll all have fun. And Zac and Eric will be there too.”
“How do you know?”
“Because they have both been texting me this afternoon, separately of course. Seems I was a real hit with them. It livened up our Project Management lesson and I could wind up Vee with their texts. She already thinks I’m too big of a slut. As if you could ever be too big a slut.”
“I don’t know where she got that idea?” Simon replied.
“Bitch, bitch, bitch,” Freddie laughed. “We have educated you well.”
“I’ve got to tell you about my lesson this afternoon.”
“What, did you finally learn something?”
“No. Ha, ha. No, it was Bruce Valentine’s Health and Social Policy lesson.”
“Bruce Valentine, there’s a man screaming out for a make-over.”
“He was talking about a good healthcare system making sure its services are accessible by all minorities.”
“Too fucking right,” Freddie said.
“Well Nadine, one of the Five Future Nurses didn’t like that.”
“Those are those bitches who think they are better than everyone?”
“And which one is Nadine? Is she the one with the bad blonde highlights, or the one with the bad blonde highlights, or the one with the bad blonde highlights, or the one with the bad blonde highlights?”
“No, she’s the one with the bad blonde highlights.”
“Right, I’m with you.”
“Well she starts up that that’s just ‘pandering’ to people who want to be different. The NHS should be concentrating on only providing services for straight white people, she said.”
“Bitch!” Freddie hissed.
“So I just said to her, because she’d really pissed me off, that if the NHS isn’t welcoming to all minorities then how can it say its providing a service for everyone,” Simon proudly said.
“Good for you.”
“Then she goes and calls me ‘you gays’ and how we all want our ‘agenda’ of equality forced on everyone to make us seem special.”
“The homophobic bitch!” Freddie snapped.
“Yes, and I told her she’d make a crap nurse with her judgmental attitude, which she really didn’t like. But I also told her my mum is a nurse and can’t choose which patients she looks after. She can’t choose the nice, straight and grateful ones.”
“Good, good for you.”
“But I stood up to her homophobia and I didn’t care that she tried and failed to have a go at me for being gay.”
“You go, girlfriend!” Freddie declared and raised his right hand over his head. It took Simon a moment to realise that Freddie was indicating that they do a high-five in celebration. Quickly he raised his hand too and they clapped their hands together in a loud high-five.
The next moment Freddie almost screeched, “Shit, here’s our bus!”