Simon pushed the last of the sausage casserole into his mouth. It had been full of rich flavours: tomatoes and herbs, and the smoky taste of paprika. It wasn’t just that Niki was a good cook, she was an imaginative one. She would take a basic or familiar recipe and enhance it with some twist or change; the use of herbs or spices, or the addition of a rogue ingredient, something different or unexpected. With tonight’s sausage casserole it had been the addition of herbs, and the paprika, which had given the tomato sauce a rich barbecue flavour.
The three of them had been sat around the small, square kitchen table eating their evening meal together. Tonight Niki had cooked their meal, and the kitchen had been full of the rich smell of the casserole cooking.
“Give me your plate,” his mum said, reaching over the table and taking his empty plate from in front of him. She piled it upon her own empty plate and placed Niki’s plate on top, before standing up and placing them into the kitchen’s sink.
“Thanks Niki, that was great,” Simon said.
“We all enjoyed it and I love cooking,” Niki replied. Whenever someone complemented her on her cooking Niki always replied that she loved cooking, as if it was no special skill.
“What’s for pudding?” his mum asked, as she turned back towards the table.
“There’s still three cookies left from the weekend. I thought we’d have them,” Niki said. Most Sunday afternoons Niki would bake something, a cake, biscuits, cookies or some type of bread. Niki always said that baking was her de-stressor. She said baking was so completely different from her job that she could concentrate on it without thinking about the stress of her job. Simon certainly liked eating the results of Niki’s Sunday afternoon baking.
“Dig in,” his mum said, as she placed the Tupperware box containing the last three cookies onto the table.
Simon held back for a moment, letting his mum and Niki choose their cookies first. He might have appeared to have been being generous, but the truth was he wanted the bottom one. It was richly brown, studded thickly with chocolate chips. When he retrieved it, he bit deeply, savouring the contrasting flavours of milk chocolate and vanilla filling his mouth, and the crumbling texture of it on his tongue. God, he loved the cookies Niki made. His Grandma never cooked anything as nice as this.
“Simon, is anything the matter with you?” his mum asked him suddenly. Her words cut through his thoughts.
“No, why?” he replied, after swallowing his mouthful of cookie.
“You’ve been looking very down lately,” his mum said. “Are you having trouble at college?”
“No, everything’s okay,” he told her.
“Is there someone bullying you there?” his mum asked.
“No,” Simon told her. He didn’t want to add that barely anyone at college knew his name, let alone enough about him that they could bully him.
“Are you having problems with a girl?” Niki asked him.
“No,” Simon replied.
“Are you having problems with a boy?” Niki then quietly asked him.
He looked up at her. Niki was staring at him with a concerned expression on her face, but her face still contained her open expression.
“No,” he quickly replied. But his voice cracked as he spoke the word. Even to his ears, his answer sounded false. “Yes,” he said, his voice quiet now as he finally spoke the truth.
“What has happened?” Niki asked him.
Simon swallowed against his dry mouth and said:
“Last week, Max dumped me. He was my first one. My first boyfriend.”
“I’m sorry,” Niki said, placing her hand over his left hand which was resting on the table and gently squeezing it for a moment.
“I was supposed to meet him last Wednesday for a date and he just didn’t turn up. He doesn’t reply to any of my texts and he’s blocked me from his Facebook page. I hate it.”
“I’m sorry,” Niki said again.
“Why didn’t you tell us this?” his mum asked him.
He looked over at his mum. Her face was almost scowling with concern.
“I couldn’t,” he said. He couldn’t explain all his reasons. How could he?
“I’m your mother,” she replied. “I’m in relationship with Niki. You know I wouldn’t have been angry at you or anything like that. Why didn’t you trust me?”
“I couldn’t,” was all he could say. He didn’t know how to explain himself.
“Simon?” his mum said, the accusation now plain in her voice.
“Rosie,” Niki cut in. “His father is Matthew. That shit-for-brains would drive anyone into the closet.”
“Yes, I guess you’re right,” his mum said to Niki.
“And Matthew has gone all borderline stalker on you for leaving him for me,” Niki added.
“I know, I know,” his mum said as she nodded her agreement.
“And old habits die hard,” Niki said, turning her attention back to Simon.
“Yes,” Simon told her.
“Don’t worry,” Niki told him. “I understand. I didn’t come out until I was twenty-three. You can tell your mum and I anything. We won’t be shocked. Well, I won’t be shocked, and I can talk your mum around.”
“Hey!” his mum protested.
“It’s true,” Niki said.
“It is,” his mum agreed with her.
His mum then turned her attention back to Simon. “Where did you meet this Max?”
“Through a gay dating app. The one called HIM,” Simon said.
“Simon, you need to be careful on those apps,” Niki said.
“I was careful when I first met Max. I met him somewhere public,” he protested.
“No, I mean because you’re sixteen,” Niki said. “There are twats on those apps who are looking for underage boys to make trouble with. Some just want to pick you up, but some are looking to expose underage activity. You have to be really careful.”
“I only went on that app to find some gay friends. I’d read that some men used those apps to make friends. I didn’t know anyone gay,” Simon said.
“You know us,” his mum said.
“I think we’ve been there,” Niki said.
“I just wanted to make some gay friends,” Simon said.
“There’s a gay youth club you could go to,” Niki said. “My friends Iain and Will run it. We had dinner with them last night and I’m sure they’d make you really welcome.”
“That’s the Vale Side one?” Simon asked.
“Yes, they’re called the Vale Side Junction, don’t ask me why,” Niki replied.
“I thought about going there, but it’s two bus rides away at least,” Simon said.
“I could drive you there,” his mum said.
“No,” Niki said. “I could drive you there. Think of the Kudos you’d get by getting a lift there from your mum’s lesbian lover.”
“That would be cool,” Simon said. It would give him a great introduction to the group.
“Just say the word, and I’ll give you a lift,” Niki said.
“I will,” Simon said. He'd have to work up his courage, but he would have to go.
“And when you want to start looking for a new boyfriend let me know. We can’t have you going on those hook-up apps. Well not until your eighteen at least,” Niki told him.
“I don’t think I’m ready for that,” he told her.
“Well, when you are, let me know. I know a lot of gay men and I could fix up with someone nice,” Niki added.
“Most of your gay friends are middle-aged, in their forties,” his mum exclaimed to Niki. “I don’t think I’m happy with you setting up my son with middle-aged men.”
“I don’t mean that,” Niki told her. “You know most of my friends are in relationships. But a lot of them have gay nephews and godsons, and even sons. Of course Simon might just meet a nice boy at Ian and Will’s youth group.”
“I don’t know,” Simon said. He found he was becoming uncomfortable as Niki almost gleefully started to give him dating tips.
“Now I assume you and this Max had sex,” Niki said.
“Niki!” his mum again protested. “Is this appropriate?”
“Very appropriate,” Niki told his mum before turning her attention back to Simon. “Did you?”
“Yes, of course,” Simon replied. God, he could feel the discomfort rising up the back of his neck. Niki could be so direct.
“Where did you have sex?” Niki asked.
“On the back seat of his car. He lived with his parents too. He always parked in out of the way places, though, and it wasn’t very comfortable. We were always safe, though.” The discomfort flushing at his face seemed to have loosened his tongue too, as the words tumbled out of him.
“Well, the next boyfriend you have, you bring him home to meet us two, and you two can have sex up in your room. I know you don’t have a double bed but your bed is bigger than a single one. You should be comfortable enough,” Niki said, smiling at him.
“Niki!” his mum almost shouted at her. “That’s way not appropriate.”
“It is so appropriate,” Niki replied. “Do you want Simon having sex on the back seat of a car somewhere? Or be nice and comfortable in his own bedroom?”
“I’d rather not answer that question now,” his mum said.
“I’m only being practical,” Niki said, more to the room in general than to either of them.
“Don’t fall in love with a Social Worker,” his mum said to him, smiling. “They can be so unromantic at times.”
“Sure,” Simon mumbled.
“We need to make a move, EastEnders starts in five minutes,” Niki said, as she picked up the empty Tupperware box from the table.
“I want to know what happens with Karen Taylor,” his mum said, excitement in her voice as she, too, stood up from the table.
“And you can tell us which actors you fancy. And be honest about it. Toby at work says he fancies Joey Branning,” Niki said, smiling at Simon.
“I will,” Simon said as he stood up too.
That had been so easy. He'd been so worried about doing it, worried about what he’d say, worried how his mum would react, worried how he would explain himself. And in reality it had been as simple as giving an honest answer to one of Niki’s questions. It felt so good. He felt so good.
He quickly followed his mum and Niki into the sitting room.