The concrete bench was hard against his buttocks but he didn’t mind too much, as sitting out here meant that he was alone so didn't feel too much of a failure. If he sat in the college canteen then he’d have to sit by himself at one of the tables, and he always felt a failure doing that, even if he sat at one of the small two person tables. If anyone saw him like that he was obviously Billy no Mates. At least sitting alone out here in the college courtyard people barely gave him a second glance. That thought made him give a little smile as he pushed the last of his sandwich into his mouth.
The weather was still mild and it gave Simon the chance to eat his lunch sitting on one of the benches instead of enduring the canteen, as he would have to in bad weather. The square courtyard was actually the space the college had been built around and, in the centre of it, rising up through the concrete paving stones, was a broad and very old looking oak tree that, to Simon’s eyes, looked far older than the college itself.
The college was formed of four solid wings that almost completely enfolded the courtyard, with only a small gap between two of them leading out into a basketball court and a five-a-side football pitch at the back of the college. The four wings were built from plain, brown bricks and formed oblong boxes, and their only decorations were the long and wide windows that marked the three floors of each wing. The building itself was so dull and unimaginative that, from the outside, it looked more like a cheap, dull office building than a college. It certainly looked nothing like the elaborate, Victorian red brick building of his old school, where the actual bricks of the walls actually formed patterns and designs, with elaborate cornices and arches added, simply for decoration. At the college, the bricks just formed functional walls, without any decoration.
He had bought the sandwich from the college canteen, with the money his mum gave him each day. The canteen always served up fried meals, which were as flavourless as they were greasy. He would always avoid them and choose a sandwich instead. The sandwiches were not much better. They would have dull fillings, like cheese or ham or egg. But at least they weren’t greasy.
Since he had started college, he always ate his lunch alone. He had no friends who had also gone to this college. His two friends from school, Harrison and Phil, had both gone onto sixth form college, both aiming for university, and had soon forgotten about him once they left school. They had been little more than school friends to him, anyway. He'd seldom seen them outside of school. The kids from his school who had also gone onto this college were not the kind of kids he’d been friends with, or even wanted to be friends with. When he’d first started, he hadn’t been bothered about not having any friends at college, as he’d never thought of himself as being someone who needed a lot of friends around him. When he hadn’t been at school he’d mostly been on his own.
Now, after eight months at college, he was bitterly lonely. He was beginning to realise just how much he missed having a few friends around him. How much he missed being in a small group where he could find some company. He didn’t want deep and intellectual conversations every lunchtime, just to have some people to talk to. The problem was he had so little in common with the others on his course. Most of them seemed to just be there because they had to be, and had very little interest in the course itself. They were just marking time until they could leave and find jobs. There was a group of five girls, who always sat together, and actually took an interest in all their lessons. Simon had nicknamed them The Five Future Nurses, because those five girls made it plain that they all wanted careers in healthcare. But he didn’t tell anyone about the nickname. Those five also made it plain they were a close clique of friends, and looked down on everyone else around them. Simon had seen cliques of girls like them before, when he was at school, and he’d always avoided them. They always seemed to see themselves as far above those around themselves and didn’t hold back on showing their disdain. Simon knew to stay away from them.
That morning there'd had been an anatomy and a physiology class, which were the ones that Simon really enjoyed. He found it fascinating how complicated the workings of the human body were, how the systems all interacted, and how many different body functions it took for him to just sit in a class and listen. Many of his classmates didn’t feel the same, and openly ignored Miss Gillespie, their tutor, reading their phones, whispering to each other, or just staring blankly out of the room’s large window. Simon had found them distracting and annoying as he tried to listen to what Miss Gillespie was teaching them.
He had barely finished eating his sandwich when a vicious commotion broke out in the courtyard. A sudden rush of movement and noise had made him look up. On the opposite side of the courtyard he saw it all. A lad he only knew as Freddie came marching out of Block B and, following him like a very disordered posse, was a crowd of lads and girls. He knew Freddie by sight, as he was a very bright and out there kid, wearing his gayness like a bright pink sash. His hair was styled with bleached white streaks, and his clothes were always tailored and stylish. Not for Freddie the usual uniform of a hoody, and baggy jeans or track suit bottoms. He would wear elaborate printed shirts, crisp jackets and neatly pressed trousers that fitted him snugly and ended in turn-ups two inches above his highly polished shoes, exposing his socks of the day. Even the features of Freddie’s face seemed neat and well organised, as if he highlighted them with a subtle application of make-up. Simon had always wanted to speak to Freddie but had never had the courage to do so. He could never think of an excuse to do so, especially as Freddie wasn’t even doing the same course as he was.
“Say that to my face, faggot!” One of the lads shouted at Freddie.
“You tell that fucking queer, Roddy!” a girl screeched.
Two of the lads leapt forward, suddenly blocking Freddie’s path, making him turn sharply through one-hundred-and-eighty degrees. But that only caused him to be face to face with the rest of the crowd of straight lads and girls, who almost whooped with delight, the homophobic cat-calls rising. Freddie spun round another forty-five degrees, obviously trying to run away into the main part of the courtyard, but a girl grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him back into their midst.
Simon felt his stomach turning cold. He was witnessing the thing he feared the most. But it was happening to someone else, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. If he intervened, he’d only put himself at risk of being the victim of this group’s homophobic hatred. He just sat there in fear, watching it all.
The crowd broke out into angry and very homophobic taunts, all directed at Freddie. It was like watching a pack of wild animals attacking their prey. They all lashed out at him, shouting at him, and hitting him from all sides. Punches were hitting him in the arms and shoulders and back, and homophobic abuse screamed at him in loud and frequently female voices. The attacks came at him from all sides, giving him no place to retreat to or protect himself. But Freddie didn’t passively stand there and take their abuse. He shouted back at them, blocking their punches whenever he was able to.
It couldn’t have lasted for a more than a handful of seconds, but Simon watched it all in near frozen terror. At school he had avoided the bullies by hiding away in his little group of friends. But here he felt so vulnerable. He had no friends here, he was on his own, and he certainly didn’t fit in. Before him was a display of what happened to those who didn’t fit in. He didn’t know how to help and feared that any attempt to do so would just make him the next target for the same crowd.
“What the bloody hell is going on here?” Bruce Valentine’s voice boomed out across the courtyard.
Bruce Valentine was one of the tutors at the college. He taught Simon’s classes on NHS and social care policy. He was a tall and broad shouldered man, with a head covered in thick and unruly brown hair. In his jeans and tatty tweed jackets, Simon had always thought the man looked more like a farmer than a lecturer.
The crowd leapt back from Freddie as if they had all been suddenly stung by something hot and unpleasant, quickly separating into couples and singles, and hurriedly moving away across the courtyard. In a matter of seconds four of them had walked quickly past Simon, and Freddie was left standing there alone.
“What did you say to start all of this, Freddie Brockman?” Bruce Valentine demanded, from his position stood in the entrance to the college canteen.
Freddie’s body language was defiant and strong, a stance that pushed his body forward, not cowering back from Bruce Valentine’s barked words.
“Nothing,” Freddie defiantly replied.
“Don’t lie. You’ve got a fat mouth on you and this is the kind of crap it lands you in,” Bruce Valentine snapped back.
“I didn’t say nothing. Those Neanderthals started it all,” Freddie protested.
“Big words for such a little man. Get in the canteen and stop making my life difficult.”
Freddie tossed his head back and headed towards the canteen, walking past the unmoving figure of Bruce Valentine. He walked slowly and purposefully, his steps so precise and measured that he might have been walking on some fashion show runway. Bruce Valentine just glared at him with naked annoyance. But Freddie barely gave the man a second glance as he walked past him and into the canteen.
Simon had slowly swollen the contents of his empty mouth. The courtyard was half empty now. Most of the crowd of bullies had simply vanished, and it seemed very quiet now. It was almost as if nothing had really happened.
He didn’t move. Simon felt sick with fear. What he had just witnessed was his worst fear, even though it had happened to someone else. He had always feared those homophobic bullies, the ones who might attack him over the most basic part of himself. But until now he had avoided them by making sure people didn’t notice him, and by keeping his sexuality secret. That hadn’t been the easiest of tasks, but at least at school he’d had a small group of friends to hide behind. At college he was alone.
He pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket and glanced at the time on it. Another twenty minutes until his first class of the afternoon started. He could just stay out here, reading his phone, he told himself.