Simon was bored and there seemed no way to relieve it. The cinema seat was at least comfortable but he was worried he might fall asleep if he closed his eyes, and that would really piss off his dad. He couldn’t take out his phone and start reading something off it because the light from the screen would shine brightly in the darkened cinema and his dad would see what he was doing. And that would really piss off his dad, too. So he was stuck until this boring film ended and he could escape. Well, go for lunch with his dad at least.
When his mum had left his dad, it had been agreed between his parents that he would spend every Saturday with his dad. His mum said that Simon had to go, even though he always complained that he was bored. She said it would keep his dad happy and stop him going to court to seek custody of him. At first Simon had thought that this was just a threat to keep him in line, but he soon realised that what his mum worried about was true. His dad was always asking him if he wanted to come and live with him, and promising that he would sort out all “the paperwork” and “deal” with his mum. Simon was always vague in his replies. He’d thought that his definite choice of wanting to live with his mum had said enough. But it seemed his dad had forgotten that. It felt as if his dad was trying to complete with his mum, and Simon coming back to live with him would show his dad had won. Living with his dad, though, was the last thing he wanted to do.
This Saturday morning his dad had excitedly told him that they were going to a “special” screening of a film he claimed was one of the best films he’d seen in years. At first Simon had felt a lift in his mood and that maybe this Saturday wouldn’t be as bad as previous ones. But his mood had soon fallen again. As his dad drove them to the cinema, he had chattered away about how his church had rented the cinema this Saturday to screen the film, boasting that mainstream cinemas were refusing to screen it, and complaining that mainstream cinemas were prejudiced against a film that did not uphold Hollywood’s Values. As his dad chattered away Simon had just wanted to sink down into the car seat, as he realised he’d be wasting yet another Saturday being preached at by his dad’s church.
So many of the Saturdays he spent with his dad had involved attending some event or other organised by his dad’s church. He was taken to Family Fun Days, Evangelical Rallies, lectures from visiting preachers, family walks, and even a matinee performance of a humourless play that was an adaption of one the Gospels from the Bible. Simon knew what his dad wanted. He wanted to convert Simon to his brand of Christianity. He’d had three years of attending his dad’s church every Sunday, of being told every Sunday that he was worthless and condemned if he didn’t believe exactly what everyone else there did. And that hadn’t converted him, so why did his dad think these Saturday events would?
Today’s attempt at conversion was this awful film called God’s Not Dead. If this was the best God could do then God should die of shame.
The film was so simplistic that it was patronising. If he’d been watching this on the television at home, then Niki and his mum would have been taking the piss out of the film’s wooden plot and flat dialogue. But neither woman was here, so Simon had to sit through this nonsense in silence.
The film’s story seemed as basic and flat as its characters. A young, Christian man had gone off to college. There his philosophy professor demanded that he sign a statement saying that God was dead, though Simon had no clue why. The young man refused and ended up having to debate with the professor in every class about God. This was where Simon found the last of his concentration wondering. All the non-Christian characters seemed weak or diseased, or quickly converted to Christianity, especially after one of them was hit by a truck. Who thought anyone would believe these were real people? They certainly didn’t behave like real people.
The film had ended with a concert by some Christian pop band Simon had never heard of, and judging by the quality of their music he didn’t want to, with all the characters ending up attending it, apart from the professor who’d been mown down by a passing truck. During the concert the hero, the young man, was congratulated from the concert’s stage.
As the concert began Simon realised, with a sense of relief, that the film was ending. He hadn’t felt any surge of Christian belief. He'd just felt very bored. As the credits rolled, he finally felt his mood lifting, it was all over now.
When the cinema’s lights came up, illustrating the red corduroy seats they’d been sat on, his dad had turned to him and said:
“Wasn’t that great? I keep finding new things in it every time I watch it.”
“It was alright,” Simon replied.
He knew it was always better not to be honest with his dad. If he’d told him what he really thought of this steaming turd of a film, it would have only led to another argument. And he knew they were always best avoided.
“Come on Simon, it was far better than that,” his dad replied, smiling hopefully back at him.
“I’m hungry. Can we have dinner?” Simon asked.
If he changed the subject maybe his dad would stop asking him questions. Or at least ask him different questions.
“I want to speak to some people first. Many of our congregation brought friends and relatives here too,” his dad said, standing up from his seat.
Simon followed behind after his dad. Though the cinema had been less than half full, the aisle suddenly seemed full of people. But it was only a short walk, and they were soon back in the foyer. It was little more than the entrance to the cinema, its high ceiling dominating the front of the building, with the external wall made up of long, wide windows that almost completely filled it. It was a shame, Simon thought, that the only view through this huge glass wall was the tarmac covered car park outside. The cinema always reminded Simon of a warehouse with a fancy entrance bolted to the front of it. It sat in a retail park on the far side of the bypass. A retail park that was made up of almost identical buildings, all looking like huge metal warehouses. The only thing that differentiated the buildings were the different frontages bolted onto them. They mostly housed different big stores, expect for two that now stood empty. The cinema was the only one not being some sort of retail outlet. All the buildings were placed around the big car park there, along three sides of it, with all of them staring down onto the car park.
There were only two buses that stopped here, and neither of them ran anywhere near Simon’s home. So the few times he’d been here before he’d always been driven by his dad.
His dad seemed to take great delight greeting as many people in the foyer as he was able to. He certainly seemed to know most of them, but all the people there seemed to have come out of the same screening as him and his dad. The only people who hadn't seemed to be a small group of teenagers, queuing up to buy tickets for another film, who were looking down on the excited church people milling around and talking loudly about how wonderful their film had been.
One of the last people his dad found to talk to was Reverend Preston Kendrick, who was now the church’s new vicar, who was standing almost in front of his wife, Anna. She was a short woman, with pale blonde hair pulled back into a tight bun, and was little more than half her husband’s height. Simon always felt that she was permanently in his shadow. She certainly didn’t do any talking. Her husband did all that.
“That was such an amazing film,” his dad gushed at the Reverend Preston Kendrick.
“And all the more amazing because it’s based on a true story,” Reverend Preston Kendrick said.
Simon blinked back his surprise at hearing that. There had been no title at the beginning of the film that it was based on a true story, and films loved to tell you that, it almost seemed like a badge of pride for a lot of them. He kept quiet though.
“That’s amazing,” his dad replied.
“And so inspiring,” Reverend Preston Kendrick said. “It just shows how powerful true belief is. It can overcome all obstacles.”
“Really inspiring,” his dad echoed back to Reverend Preston Kendrick.
Reverend Preston Kendrick suddenly turned his attention onto Simon. “What did you think of the film, young man? How did the power of its story inspire you?”
“It was all right,” Simon replied.
He knew these people didn’t want to hear what he really thought of that crap film.
“Is that all? Nothing more?” Reverend Preston Kendrick said, a strong element of disbelief pushing into his voice, an almost falsely high element of disbelief. “Didn’t it inspire you to take control of your faith and act decisively. It showed that anything can be achieved with enough faith.”
“Simon hasn’t given his life to the Lord yet,” his dad hurriedly said.
“Then you must, young man,” Reverend Preston Kendrick said, clasping a strong and very heavy hand on Simon’s shoulder. The man’s hand seemed to press down heavily on his shoulder, almost making him stand lopsidedly. “Your very life depends on it. Only God can give you life, and give that life purpose and happiness. Without God your life is worthless and useless. Nothing was ever achieved by someone who hadn’t given their life to God. And when you do that God will reward you abundantly.”
“I’ll think about it,” Simon mumbled as he took a step back, freeing himself from the man’s tight grasp of his shoulder.
“You must bring this young man to one of our Wednesday night bible study and fellowship groups. And you must certainly bring him to our Sunday evening youth ministry,” the Reverend Preston Kendrick said, his attention now returned to Simon’s dad.
“I certainly will,” his dad said, beaming back at Reverend Preston Kendrick.
“Amber and I must be going now, we’ve our own family to look after,” Reverend Preston Kendrick said, turning and leading his silent wife away towards the entrance of the cinema.
As Reverend Preston Kendrick swept out of the cinema, hurriedly followed by his wife, Simon said to his dad:
“Can we go and get something to eat? I’m really hungry now.”
“In a minute,” his dad replied. But his attention was still distracted, he was staring out of the cinema’s glass wall, at something out in the car park.
Simon glanced around the cinema’s foyer. Most of the people from his dad’s church had left now, only a few stragglers remained, a few talking in couples, a few standing alone and just waiting. The cinema was returning to its previous secular use. People had begun queuing up to buy tickets to the Hollywood films now playing there. Not many people, two families and a couple of teenagers, as it was still only a Saturday lunchtime.
“I’m really hungry now,” Simon protested, raising his voice and hoping to grab his dad’s attention. He just wanted to leave. The film had bored him, a deep boredom that had only been relieved by it finally ending. He had felt awkward, and slightly embarrassed, under Reverend Preston Kendrick’s patronising attention. And now he just wanted to leave and go somewhere that felt slightly more normal.
“In a moment, Simon,” his dad muttered in a distracted tone. He was still staring out into the car park.
“I’m really hungry,” Simon repeated himself. They never did anything he wanted to do on these Saturdays, and he was always left bored by them. He just wanted to go and eat. He was sure his dad had something as equally as boring lined up for the afternoon.
“All right, all right!” His dad snapped back. “Don’t nag, I get enough of that from your Grandma. There’s a burger restaurant on the other side of the car park here.”
“I wanted to go to Charlie’s American Diner,” Simon said. It was his favourite place to eat, and they served the best burgers he’d ever eaten, all moist and tasty. His mum said it was too expensive, so she never took him there. He’d only been able to get his dad to take him there. After that really boring film he wanted one of Charlie’s American Diner's burgers to lift his mood.
“That place is a thirty minutes drive away. We’ll go to the one here, it’s closer and those burger places are all the same,” his dad replied.
“No they’re not…” Simon muttered under his breath, as he followed his dad out of the cinema. But he was certain his dad didn’t hear him.
He followed behind his dad as he marched across the park car towards the single-story burger restaurant, which was situated just inside the entrance to the retail park. It was the only building that wasn’t made out of the grey metal that all the warehouse-like buildings were made from. This building seemed to have been made from prefabricated blue, curving plastic. It looked out of place, like it had been dropped there without any thought to its surroundings.
He followed his dad into the restaurant, and the inside looked just as prefabricated and plastic as the outside. There were two rows of four seater booths, arranged back-to-back, while at far end of the room was an open plan kitchen, where he could have a full view of his burger being prepared, if he was sitting in the right direction. The booths and their matching tables were covered in a plastic looking wood printed veneer, looking too yellow to be natural, while the seats were covered in a bright blue and equally shiny plastic looking material. Simon had been inside many places like this before, especially during Saturdays spent with his dad.
There were only two other customers in the place, a young, Asian couple, who were staring longingly into each other’s faces as they slowly eat their burgers. There was only one waiter on duty, a tall man with very dark black hair and very tight black pants, who almost rushed up to them as they entered the place.
“A table for two?” he asked them.
“Yes,” Simon’s dad replied.
The waiter showed them to one of the many empty booths, fortunately one on the other side of the restaurant from the other customers. The waiter returned with their menus and returned soon after to take their orders. Simon ordered a cheese burger. It was one of the few items on the menu that caught his attention, the rest of the burgers seemed overly complicated. As he fussed over them, quickly returning with their burgers and chips, Simon realised that he could plainly see the outline of the waiter’s groin through his tight trousers. He seemed to be wearing the briefest of underwear, and Simon could clearly see the outline of his cock shaft and head. He didn’t want to be caught staring, but neither did he want to look away, as the man’s groin was so prominent as he stood over their table. When the waiter walked away Simon quickly lost interest. The man barely had a bum to speak of.
As the waiter left their table, Simon glanced over at his dad, who had a bored and distracted expression on his face. He hadn’t noticed him staring at the waiter. He felt himself relaxing again.
They ate their burgers almost in silence. Simon had really been hungry, and the first bite of the burger had shown him that his hunger had been more than just an excuse to escape the cinema foyer. They usually ate in silence on those Saturdays he spent with his dad. His dad would begin every meal by pausing a moment to say a silent prayer of grace before starting to eat. So much of their Saturdays were spent in silence. He didn’t know what to say to his dad. He didn’t want to talk about his mum and Niki, as he’d quickly learnt that that subject was off limits with his dad. His dad wasn’t interested in his college studies, as he didn’t consider health and social care to be a suitable subject for him to be studying. He knew his dad wanted him to be studying something more masculine, like engineering, or computer programming, or business studies. But Simon didn’t want to have that argument all over again, as he was enjoying his course now. Neither did Simon want to talk about his dad’s church, though that subject always seemed to come up.
“You should take up Reverend Preston’s offer,” his dad said, suddenly breaking the silence between them. Simon had less than a quarter of his burger left.
“What offer?” Simon asked. Reverend Preston had fired several “offers” at him.
“To come to our Wednesday night bible study group.”
“I have to study on Wednesday nights,” Simon flatly said.
“You’re only doing a health course, how much studying do you have to do?”
“A lot actually,” he replied.
He dreaded that his dad was going to start complaining about his college course, again.
“Well, you can take one night off,” his dad said. “Our Wednesday bible study group is very important and I want you to come to it. It isn’t dull and dry. We have great discussions, and a laugh.”
“I don’t want to come to it. I need to study on Wednesdays.”
“Then come to our youth ministry on a Sunday, I’m told it’s really friendly and relaxed and informal, and the music is really good.”
“I spend Sunday evenings with mum and Niki,” Simon replied.
He hated this more than his dad belittling his studies, his dad trying to get him to attend his church. Simon had thought his dad had plainly got the message that he didn’t want to go to his church anymore when he moved out with his mum. But his dad seemed to have quickly forgotten that too.
“You get to spend your whole week with them, I only get to see you once a week. Is it wrong to want to see you more and share my church with my own son?”
Simon looked back at his dad for a moment. When he’d lived with his dad, in his Grandma’s house, his dad had very little time for him, and paid him very little attention. The only time he had seemed interested in spending with him was to drag him along to his church on a Sunday morning.
“I don’t want to go to your Sunday evening youth ministry,” Simon quietly said.
“Why not? Church isn’t uncool.”
“It’s not that,” Simon said, not wanting to have to explain the truth to his dad. “I’m really busy now.” It was the best lie he could think of.
“Why are you so busy all of a sudden? You’ve got yourself a girlfriend?”
“I haven’t got a girlfriend,” he shot back, as he felt his face begin to flush with an awkward embarrassment.
“You have! What’s her name? Why haven’t I met her? I’m your father, I have a right to meet her. I don’t want you keeping secrets like this from me.”
“I haven’t got a girlfriend.” The embarrassment almost made him shoot out the words as fast as he could.
“There’s no need to shout,” his dad snapped back at him.
“I haven’t got a girlfriend, all right,” Simon replied. But he could feel the embarrassment prickling at his face.
“Then come to our Sunday evening youth ministry. There’s a lot of really nice and really pretty girls who go to it. You’ll really enjoy it and you’ll met some really nice girls, not the sort of girls you get at that college of yours.”
“I don’t want a girlfriend,” Simon hissed back at him.
This was a new subject for his dad to start quizzing him on. But now his dad was not letting go of it, he had this subject tight in his grasp and Simon just wanted him to stop. He could feel his face heating up with embarrassment, and he hated feeling this stupid and childish, becoming embarrassed like this.
“Of course you do. All boys your age want a girlfriend. But at my church you’ll met some really decent and nice girls. They won’t treat you badly and break your heart, like all those cheap girls at your college.”
“I don’t want a girlfriend,” his hissed back at his dad. He didn’t know how else to say it.
“All boys do and there are some really nice girls at church I can introduce you to.”
“I don’t want a girlfriend because I was dumped by my first boyfriend last week and I still feel like shit,”
Simon fired the words at his dad before he could barely think about them. His dad’s pressurising had made him snap, and before he could think about it the words were pouring out of his mouth.
He wanted to snap his mouth closed and suck the words back into it. But he couldn’t. All he could do was sit there and stare back at his dad. He’d done something very stupid and now there was nothing he could do to correct it.
“You’re homosexual?” his dad said.
His dad was staring intensely at him. Simon suddenly felt he was little again, and his dad had caught him doing something wrong.
“I’m gay,” he quietly told his dad.
“This is your mother’s fault. She’s put these stupid ideas into your head. Her and that friend of hers. I should never have let you move in with her!”
Simon could see the anger flushing up into his dad’s face. It was like he was a child again and his dad was telling him off.
“It’s not her fault,” he protested, trying to justify himself.
“Of course it is! She’s put these stupid ideas into your head. You’re my son and I know you’re not homosexual.”
“Dad…” Simon tried to protest, but was cut short by his dad almost shouting back.
“Homosexuality is a sin! One of the worst sins you can commit. It is far more addictive than any drug and it will destroy your very soul. You are playing with something very dangerous here.”
“No, I’m not!” Simon shouted back. Suddenly shouting seemed the only way to stop his dad’s stream of words. “I’m just gay.”
“There’s no just gay in this. You are flirting with the most dangerous lifestyle on this earth. You have been listening to your mother’s nonsense. She believed in all that PC nonsense. PC has been the way the devil has infiltrated our world and destroyed our true family values. Homosexuality is not normal, that is one of the devil’s greatest lies. I’m calling Reverend Preston now. He’s cast the demon of homosexuality out of many men and saved them from the homosexual lifestyle. He has saved many homosexuals. Through him, God has turned many homosexuals normal.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me!” Simon shouted back as anger seized at his mind. “I’m just gay and I don’t want to be straight! You’re the one who’s screwed up, all your fucking homophobia! You’re the one needing healing! And I’m not staying here! Leave me alone!”
Snatching up his jacket and backpack he jumped up from the booth and ran out of the restaurant. He heard his dad calling after him but he didn’t listen to him. He didn’t want to hear anything else that his dad had to say. He’d lived with his dad’s homophobia when he’d still lived with him and his Grandma, but being on the receiving end of it was far worse. He just had to get away from it.
Barely thinking about it, Simon crashed his way out of the restaurant, just pushing the door aside as he charged through it. He didn’t stop once he was outside. Instead he ran towards the retail park’s entrance. Once there, he ran across the busy main road, dodging the cars in a sudden break in the traffic. He knew he had to be on the opposite side to catch a bus heading in the general direction of home. But, once there, he realised he didn’t know where the bus stop actually was. Hurriedly he looked around himself, until he saw a bus stop further up the road. With a rush of relief he began to run up the road towards it, arriving there in just a handful of seconds. And with another rush of relief he sat down on the old wooden bench at the bus stop.
As he was sitting there his relief quickly turned to panic. There was no sign of a bus approaching, and he could see quite far down the straight stretch of road. So now he was stuck there just waiting. His attention was now divided. He kept glancing up the road, desperately searching for an approaching bus, and then he’d turn his attention back towards the retail park, expecting to see his dad charging out of it and up the road towards him. Back and forth his attention was pulled. Every time he didn’t see a bus approaching, he also didn’t see his dad chasing after him. His dad didn’t seem to have even left the restaurant, but Simon kept nervously looking out for him. When he saw a red and grey bus turn into the road, even though it was still far away, he felt his body relax with relief. But as he stared at it, he realised that it would take a few minutes to reach him. A few minutes in which his dad could still come charging up the road towards him. Again and again he kept glancing back down the road, each time expecting to see his dad striding towards him.
When the bus pulled over at his stop, Simon quickly jumped onto it, hurriedly pulling his student bus pass out of his backpack as he did so, and swiping over the electronic receiver next to the bus driver. Then he had bounded up the stairs, ignoring the handful of people sitting on the lower deck and, to his relief, he found that the top deck was empty. He dropped down into the nearest empty seat.
The bus had taken a sharp right turn after it pulled away from the bus stop, actually turning into the retail park’s entrance. Simon stared out of the window in panic. The bus was taking him back to where his dad was. It swung around in a tight arc and pulled in at a stop, on the far side of the restaurant. Simon saw his dad standing at the bus stop, looking around himself, obviously searching for him. His panic jumped up a notch, and he could feel it rising up the back of his throat. His dad was actually going to get onto the bus.
He sank down in his seat, trying to hide himself below the window, hoping that his dad couldn’t see him. The bus stayed at the stop for an uncomfortably long time. It seemed to take far too long for the passengers to get off. He could hear them from the top deck as he was straining his ears to hear every sound. His nerves were on edge. And even when he heard the doors close it still didn’t ease them. As the bus began to pull away Simon glanced out the window again. And there was his dad, still standing at the bus stop. He was still looking around himself, but fortunately he wasn't looking at the bus.
Simon slumped back into his seat. He didn’t feel relieved, he just felt that he had escaped. He didn’t feel happy or good about himself, he felt that he was running away from something stupid. He knew he’d done something deeply stupid, something he couldn’t undo, and he didn’t know what to do next. If he’d only had someone to talk to about all of this. Then he could have done it better, picked his time and words better. But he was doing this alone and he’d fucked up again. Except with his dad the fallout would be worse and far less easy to manage. He felt so angry at himself for being so stupid.
As the bus bounced its way back down the main road, Simon’s phone rang, his ringtone suddenly filling the bus’s top deck with noise. He pulled the phone out of his pocket and saw that it was his dad calling him, the phone’s front screen carrying the word "Dad". Panic jumped into his throat again. He quickly slid his finger across the screen, sending the call to voicemail. He felt a moment’s relief when he did that, avoiding the inevitable confrontation. The relief lasted only a few moments before his phone bleeped, announcing the arrival of a text. This was also from his dad and simply read:
“Where are you?”
He stared at the text on his phone and then started to cry. Silent tears of embarrassment over what a fool he had been, and what trouble he had just caused himself.