Max was nearly an hour late now. Simon had already sent him six texts, none of which he’d received any reply to, but this didn’t stop that spark of hope inside of Simon. Max was just late, that was all.
He idly tapped his foot on the pavement as he sat on the bench waiting. His eyes scanned the traffic passing up and down the road in front of him, scanning it for Max’s silver Volkswagen Golf Mark 4, with the dented passenger door. Usually when he would have to wait for someone, he’d get his phone out and start reading something he'd downloaded onto it. But not when he was waiting for Max. He wanted his full attention on the road in front of him, he didn’t want to miss the sight of Max’s car.
This was how they would always meet. Simon would sit there on that bench, on the main road two streets away from his home, and Max would collect him in his car. Max would never pick Simon up directly from his own home. He simply said that he didn’t want to “take the risk”. So they had agreed on Max collecting Simon from that bench. Max had suggested it and Simon had simply agreed. He always agreed with Max, but Max liked it that way.
Simon saw a silver car, turning onto the main road, far off down the road. He felt his body tense with excitement. It was Max, it was Max, it had to be Max. Then moments later the excitement was replaced with disappointment. It was a silver boxy car, but it was the wrong model, it wasn’t even a Volkswagen, and it was far too shiny and new. He still kept his eyes on the silver car as it sped past him, because the car could have been Max’s. Its interior was filled with four animated lads.
Max’s second-hand silver Volkswagen Golf Mark 4 was his pride and joy and they would always start off their dates in that car, with Max always collecting him from that same place. So many of their dates had passed inside that car. Simon had lost his virginity on the back seat of that car. His whole sex life, all three weeks of it, had taken place inside that car. Like him, Max still lived with his parents, so his car was the only place where they could find any privacy. Max had told him that he was out to his mother and step dad but neither of them were happy with the idea of him having sex. “I don’t want to rub it in their faces and make trouble like that,” Max had said. Simon had easily agreed, and had been intentionally vague about his own complicated home situation.
The bench he was sitting on was made from concrete and, even in this mild spring weather, the concrete was cold against his thighs and buttocks, and he could feel the cold through his jeans. He pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket and checked it, again, but there was still no text back from Max. No message to explain why he was late. Not even a hurried message to say his car had broken down or anything. For a moment he considered texting Max again, but as quickly as the thought came into his mind he rejected it. Wouldn’t that be far too desperate? He’d already texted Max six times. Slowly he pushed his phone back into his jacket pocket.
He’d met Max through the HIM app on his phone. He’d had to be careful with that app. He couldn’t let its icon appear on his phone’s home screen because his dad regularly demanded to check his phone, as he paid the bill for it. Simon had only signed up to the HIM app to be near other gay men, and even then he had to lie about his age. He couldn’t go into one of the gay bars in the city centre because he was underage. He was sixteen, but with his curly brown hair and pale features he knew he looked even younger, and people still often commented on it. Through many internet searches he’d found only one gay youth group, but that was on the other side of the city and advertised itself for those eighteen and over.
He’d read online about how young gay men were using dating apps to meet friends and find their own community. That wasn't what he had found, though, when he had signed up with HIM. It seemed as though most of the men on it were just wanting sex. Often men would send him pictures of their dicks, often poorly focused and at odd angles, and many of those dicks weren’t even attractive. There were short and stubby ones, ones so shaved that they looked like the owner had never passed puberty, and some so out of focus that he could barely make out if they were circumcised or not. The flood of dick pictures he found coldly unerotic. He’d seen far more attractive dicks in the porn pictures he’d found online, the ones he’d saved and hidden away on his laptop. He’d just wanted to find someone to talk to, ask how he should be gay, what he should do, and to talk about the hundreds of questions that flowed around his head.
When Max had messaged him with a simple “Hi, how are you?” Simon had felt a gasp of relief, there was no dick picture here, no sudden demand for sex. They had talked for days, just talking and sort of hanging out together via the HIM app. After nearly two weeks of messaging each other Simon had agreed to meet Max in person.
They had arranged to meet one Friday evening, outside the old Town Hall, near to Simon’s college. Simon had arrived early and Max had been late, but only by five minutes. A tall and broad shouldered man, with a head of thick, curly brown hair and a chin covered in dark brown stubble had walked towards him. The man had been wearing a black, tailored leather jacket and dark blue jeans, and he had walked quickly and confidently. As he strode towards him, Simon quickly guessed it was Max, though he looked taller and more confident than in his pictures on the HIM app.
“You’re Simon?” Max had said, his voice deep with their local accent.
“Yes,” Simon said. “And you’re Max?”
As they’d walked back towards Max’s car, Simon had told him that he was sixteen and not eighteen, as it said on his profile on HIM (you had to be eighteen or over to register with HIM). Max had just replied:
“I’m only nineteen.”
That night Simon had lost his virginity on the back seat of Max’s car, parked in a far and deserted corner of their local B&Q car park.
That had been just over three weeks ago. Most of the times they had met they had ended up having sex in Max’s car, always parked somewhere deserted and quiet. A few times they went to the cinema together. Once they even went to a coffee shop near to the old Town Hall. But always they would end the evening having sex in Max’s car parked somewhere dark and quiet, before Max would drive him back to the bench, two streets away from his home.
Again, his eyes scanned the main road, checking all the cars passing in front of him. Occasionally a silver car would pass but it was never Max’s car. It was either too old, not the right make of car, not the right model of Volkswagen, not a Golf Mark 4 but only a Golf Mark 2. But every time he saw a silver car he felt that stab of hope and excitement, only to have it snatched away from him when he realised it wasn’t Max’s car.
He wasn’t in love with Max. He didn’t have all those rushing and desperate feelings he read about in all those gay romance eBooks he’d read on his phone. But he did want to see Max as often as possible. He would find himself counting down the days and hours until he would be seeing him next, and when he did see him there was always that rush of excitement. He was with Max again. With Max he didn’t have to hide his sexuality, didn't have to be constantly on his guard. He could let his guard down and relax, and he so enjoyed that.
Of course, he also enjoyed the sex they had. He knew his sex drive was strong. He could feel horny over the slightest and stupidest things, such as just seeing a shirtless, attractive man on the soap opera EastEnders. With Max there was finally an outlet for all that horniness, a more satisfying outlet than messy and embarrassing masturbation.
Their conversations were never deep, and they never discussed the things Simon longed to discuss. He longed to talk about being gay and all the gay news he was reading on his phone. Instead Max just wanted to talk about his job, to complain about his life as a junior sales consultant at an electrical warehouse shop. Max’s job always sounded so boring to Simon, but he didn’t really care. Max’s job might be boring but Max was his boyfriend and that was all he wanted.
His phone buzzed in his jacket pocket. With a rush of excitement, he snatched it out of his pocket, but barely a second later the excitement quickly given way to disappointment. It was just a text from his mum. She and Niki had gone out on a “mid-week treat” as Niki called them. The two had gone to the cinema together, and his mum was texting him to tell him when she would be home. He texted back a simple “Thanx”.
As he held his phone a thought jumped into his mind. He was always careful with the data limit on his phone. He didn’t sit on Facebook or Instagram all day or watch streaming videos as he wandered around, like so many of those he went to college with did. He would download what he wanted to read or listen to at home, using his home’s Wi-Fi, and then read it or listen to it later on his phone. He was always careful with his mobile data and he still had enough of it left.
Quickly he opened the Facebook app on his phone and started to go to Max’s Facebook page, though the phone’s signal was low and the app opened slowly. If something had happened to Max he’d put it on Facebook. He seemed to put everything else he did on there, except their relationship, but Simon knew why he hadn’t done that. Simon preferred Instagram, it was so much more immediate than Facebook, and Facebook was what old people like his parents used. But Max used it a lot, so now Simon did too.
He tapped his finger against the side of phone, as if that action could actually speed up the app. And then a window opened up, with a short message: “You have been blocked from viewing this page.”
For a moment Simon just stared at the message. There must have been a mistake. There must be something wrong with the app. He’d only left a message on Max’s Facebook wall the day before, and then…
The thought hit him hard. This was Max’s way of dumping him, cutting off all contact with him. Max hadn’t turned up for their date. Max hadn't answered his texts. And now Max had blocked him from even seeing his Facebook page.
He turned off his phone and pushed it back into his jacket pocket. He felt so stupid. He’d put so much effort and hope into Max. And for what…?
Slowly he stood up from the bench and equally slowly began the short walk back home. At least he would have the house to himself. He wouldn’t have to find some excuse as to why he was back so early.
But that thought gave him no comfort.
Simon stared out of the window but his eyes were not taking in the view that passed by. He was on his morning bus ride to college, when normally he’d be listening to something he'd downloaded to his phone, through its rubber ear-buds, or be reading something off his phone. That morning he didn’t want to do either, his mood was too low.
His mood had been low and flat for days now, ever since Max had dumped him. He didn’t feel sad and teary, like the characters in those gay romance eBooks on his phone, he just felt flat all the time. His mood was flat and he had no interest in anything. His attention span felt minute, he could barely concentrate on anything at college, and falling asleep at night seemed a near impossibility, sleep only coming in the early hours of the morning. His low, flat mood had left him feeling so tired all the time.
The bus came to a sudden stop, a sharp braking and the hiss of escaping air. He heard the doors on the lower deck open and people hurrying onto the bus. This was Kennedy Street where a lot of his follow college students got on, it being one of the main bus stops for the Brook Estate. Simon sank down into his seat as a crowd of teenagers rushed up the stairs to seek empty seats there. He tried to ignore the other teenagers rushing past him. They were so straight and so conforming to their own groups and cliques, almost behaving like primitive tribes, dressing and acting and talking the same as the other members of their groups, and pouring out their prejudice on anyone different.
When he’d started at college Simon had held a hope that it would be better and more adult than the law-of-jungle that had ruled his school and had singled him out for bullying and persecution for daring to be “different”. On his first day at college he’d been painfully disappointed. College was no better than school. It still seemed be ruled by groups who valued conformity. At the top seemed to be the boys studying sports and leisure skills and the girls studying beauty and fashion. He did not fit into this culture, in exactly the same way he hadn’t fitted into the old culture at school.
With another hiss of escaping air and a jolt the bus started moving again. The seat next to him was thankfully empty. The volume of noise on the top deck had greatly increased, and everyone around him carried on their conversations at full volume. Simon stared out of the window, and let his mind wonder again.
Over the last two days he’d thought about nothing but his relationship with Max. Again and again his mind had turned over the events of his short-lived time with him. Max had been the one in charge in their relationship. He had made all the decisions, and decided on what they would do together, which was mostly sex. Simon had gone along with all Max’s requirements because he was certain that was what he wanted and he was so grateful just to have him in his life.
The realisation had come to him the day before, when he was sat on the bus on the way home from college. And it had left a sour taste in his mouth. Every time he’d met Max they’d had sex, and always in Max’s car. Even the first time they had met they’d had sex, it had also been Simon’s first time. They had rarely done anything else but have sex on their dates. They had been to the cinema twice together but afterwards they’d had sex in Max’s car. Their whole relationship had revolved around sex and Simon hadn't really seen that at the time. He'd been too intoxicated with the idea that he had a boyfriend.
And in the final week Max had been pressurising him to go to the next level, to have anal sex, and to let Max fuck him up the arse. Sucking Max’s cock had been enjoyable and exciting, even in the cramped confines of Max’s car, but he didn’t feel ready to go further. He’d read enough about guys being fucked. It happened a lot in the gay stories he read on his phone. But he didn’t feel ready for it yet. He had always imagined that the first time he went all the way with another guy it would be in a bed and with a guy he trusted. As much as he was infatuated with Max, he didn’t know Max well enough to trust him that much. Letting him enter him was a big deal, and Simon needed time before he rushed into that. And, anyway, he didn’t even know how they would even manage anal sex on the backseat of Max’s car.
He’d tried to explain this to Max when Max brought the subject up, but he had never seemed to understand. He just seemed to shrug off Simon’s reservations and tell him he’d enjoy it. But the three times Max had tried to fuck him, hunched over on the backseat of Max’s car, Simon had refused. He just couldn’t do it. He just didn’t feel comfortable.
Now he saw it. Max had dumped him because he wouldn’t let Max fuck him. All he was to Max was sex, and hurried and cramped sex at that. He’d put so much emotion and investment into his relationship with Max, and that had all been be a waste of time, because it was directed at someone who didn’t care about him. That realisation had made him feel so stupid. He'd been so completely taken in, and he couldn’t get any of that back.
Although he now knew why Max had dumped him, it didn’t improve things. He was single again. But now he knew what he was missing, he didn’t have to imagine it anymore. And that was the worst part. Even though his relationship with Max had been poor, it had given him a taste of what he wanted. He wanted a boyfriend, but didn’t know what he could do about it. The HIM app had been a failure, so what was he supposed to do now. Wait around until Mr Right fell into his lap?
The bus stopped suddenly, again with the hiss of escaping air signalling the doors opening. Simon looked out of the window and saw that they were now at the Page Street stop. Just three stops and he would be at college. Another day at college.
From the back of the bus a girl’s voice shouted out:
“I’m no slapper!”
“Yes you are!” Two other girls shouted back in unison.
Simon didn’t look back at who was shouting, He just continued staring out of the window as the bus started moving.
His dad had been so angry at him when his GCSE results had arrived. They were all mediocre or less. Simon hadn’t been surprised, because at the beginning of Year Eleven he had wondered what the point of so much endless studying was. His dad had repeatedly told him that good GCSE results lead onto studying A Levels, and good A Level results were the entrance into a good university, and that studying and achieving a good degree was a ticket to the good life. At the beginning of Year Eleven he had deeply questioned his dad’s logic, though not to his face. His dad had done all that studying and got his degree from university, but what good had it done him in the long run? He was working in a dead-end job that he couldn’t admit he hated, and was back living with his own mother. Simon had slowed down and eventually stopped doing the extra studying, simply just doing what was required of him, replying on his own natural ability to get him through his GCSE exams. When his exam results arrived he hadn’t been very surprised at how poor they were. But his dad was. He became extremely angry, which was happening more and more, and blamed his mum. Simon’s mum blamed his dad, and they fell into another one of their bitter arguments when they met to discuss Simon’s GCSE results.
All this fighting didn’t change the fact that he still had two years of education left. If his GCSEs weren’t good enough to get him into sixth form college then he would have to attend the local further education college. It was Niki who suggested he do a health and social care course, saying it could lead to a whole field of different jobs. Simon had not known what he could or should study, having no idea of what career he wanted to pursue in life, even with all his dad’s pressure. And so he’d jumped at Niki’s suggestion, as it saved him having to make any decision.
The course, so far, seemed to be a real mismatch, some parts practical and other parts theoretical, teaching them about the workings of the human body. It seemed to be trying to prepare them for all different types of care work. But it was the college itself that Simon had found a let-down. He’d thought that, with it being a further education college, it would be far superior to the law-of-the-jungle life he’d experienced at school. The only difference turned out to be that they didn’t have to wear a uniform. Other than that the place still seemed to be ruled by the different cliques of popular kids, who thought being straight and either pretty (girls) or good at sports (boys) was all that was needed for superiority. And the tutors were just as patronising and annoying as the teachers at school had been. He didn’t fit in here either.
With a sharp and sudden braking the bus stopped outside his college, and the whole top deck exploded with movement and noise as people hurried to get off. Simon waited until the majority had rushed past him and down the stairs. It was only a few seconds, but it saved him from being noticed before he, too, started down the stairs.
Another day at college to be endured, until he could escape back home in the afternoon. And tomorrow held the prospect of having to spend another Saturday with his dad. Another Saturday of trying not to anger him. Simon sighed to himself as he hurried down the stairs, and exited the bus to join the throng of teenagers filling the pavement outside college.
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.