I was in the kitchen, guzzling a glass of milk, when I heard the letterbox open and close, which was odd, I thought, considering the postman had already been. I walked to the door, and there, on the mat, was a red envelope addressed to me in big black block capitals. Just my name: Christopher Smythe.
I opened the door in time to see a figure disappearing around my mother's prize rhododendron bush at the bottom of the drive.
"Hey!" I called, cheerfully. Whoever it was didn't turn back, so I closed the door and ripped open the envelope. I'm a ripper, not a slicer … far too impatient, my mother says; she, who always, always uses a letter-opening knife, with care. My father - who is also a ripper - says she's 'anal', and she invariably tells him it's a question of Jung versus Freud, whatever that means. Parents are weird.
The card had an awful camera-phone picture of me taken at school, tripping over my laces. Inside it said "I want to be your Superhero!" stuck on in cut-out letters from a magazine, alongside a hand-drawn heart with an arrow through it and a question mark at the feather end. It drove me nearly insane, because though I'm generally a klutz, I'm really good at remembering handwriting.
I went back into the kitchen and thought hard, whilst finishing my milk. The figure had been wearing an overcoat and had had a hat pulled down over its head, though I could guess the height as near my own at five feet ten. I couldn't remember anything else. It could have been a girl … or a boy. I smiled, then cursed myself for not concentrating more and left for school, trying to figure out who it could have been.
During games in the afternoon, the lads and I talked about the Valentine's party Dominic was throwing in his parents' summer house that weekend.
"So who've you invited, Dom?" Andy said, serving one bitch of a slow ball that died just inside the line. I was paying more attention to Neil's bottom than the ball, and missed it.
"You twat, Chris," Neil said, laughing, then danced a little jig. "Party, party, party, party! Oh, it's almost as if you cared more about the party than winning the game."
We all stopped and looked at each other, panting. Squash is much better played singles rather than doubles. For a start, the court is really too small for doubles, and it was certainly too small to hide my blush.
"I got a valentine card," I said, trying to pretend I didn't care and failing miserably.
"Oh! Who from? If you don't mind me asking," Dominic said. I rolled my eyes.
"Duh! … it's anonymous, you tit! Like your secret lover, Miss Sock." I made the standard 'wanker' sign with my right hand, and we all taunted him until he threatened to ban us from the party.
"Seriously though, Chris, if you know who it is or might be, I'll make sure they're invited," Dominic said. Smiling, I clapped him on the back.
"Thanks, Dom, you're a good mate, but I've no idea," I shrugged, "and no idea how to find out."
Neil and I lost, seven to nine.
The following morning I made it to assembly just as the doors were closing. Grinning sheepishly at the upper fifth former sitting on the aisle at the back, I pushed him along one seat and sat down.
"You're late ... again!" he whispered. I ignored him and kept looking straight forward at the dais. His name was Simon Ranking-Smith, and I knew a lot about him, though we'd never talked. We'd never talked because I was in the year above him, which made it unseemly, and I knew a lot about him because he'd figured in more than one erotic fantasy I'd had, tucked in under my duvet.
He wasn't good-looking in a classical way, like a model from a magazine; but he was, with his fine mouse-brown hair, slightly upturned nose, and twinkling forget-me-not blue eyes, simply cute ... and I loved his voice. I felt myself blushing and started rummaging in my bag, wishing I'd chosen somewhere else to sit.
The Headmaster got to his feet, and assembly began with notices, which were all, as customary, dull as ditchwater. I faded away into a daydream: it included Ranking-Smith and me in the cricket pavilion, and I was glad I was holding my bag on my lap.
He prodded me in the arm.
"What?" I hissed, looking at him, or rather his mouth, which was frighteningly kissable. He nodded towards the stage where the rest of the school squash team were now standing next to the Headmaster and looking directly at me.
"Go!" Ranking-Smith said, taking my bag and pushing me to my feet. I stumbled over an untied shoelace, and was bright red by the time I'd walked down the aisle and up the steps to the dais; well aware of the suppressed mirth of my classmates and the Headmaster's stern look.
"Finally ...," the Headmaster began, glancing at me again, "I can say congratulations to the entire squash team for trouncing Merewood!" He paused to let the cheering die down, "and I am proud to give them their colours!" He handed each of us a colours cap and said a few words of encouragement, though when he got to me he just rolled his eyes in an exaggerated manner, and smiled.
I walked off after my team mates to the sound of clapping, and made it back to my seat in one piece, keeping a stern eye on my shoelaces. Ranking-Smith smiled.
"Thanks," I said, grinning at him, and realised it was only the second time I'd ever spoken to him. He smiled, and I noticed that it wasn't my imagination; close up he really was cuteness personified. I retrieved my bag and put it hurriedly back on my lap.
I spent the rest of the day trying to work out who could possibly have sent the card. I was friendly with most of the people in my year, though I still spent more time around the guys, because that's just the way it was.
The last lesson of the day was a 'free' which Neil and I always spent in the library. We were supposed to study quietly, but since the librarian was off sick it was a bit of a free-for-all, though there weren't many people there. We got our usual table right at the back between a couple of stacks.
The solution was obvious once Neil suggested it. "You fell on your face in the lobby, Chris, and …."
"I tripped, Neil," I huffed, "I positively, definitely didn't fall flat on my face, if you don't mind ...."
He laughed. He laughed at me a lot, but then I gave him slack for being my best friend.
"Steady, Chris, old man, no offence, what I meant was you were surrounded by people." I raised an eyebrow.
"Well, 's obvious. Someone will have seen who took the photo!" He grinned and punched me on the arm.
"Brilliant! Huh?" We 'hi fived', then realized we were being watched by Felicity Parks and her twin sister, Susanne, and stopped, blushing. "Hi, girls, were you there when Chris tripped in the lobby last week?" Neil said.
I was expecting the worst and inwardly shuddered in anticipation, but their laughter was friendly as they walked over to us.
"Yes, we were," they said in unison, and I couldn't help smiling at them. They were sensible twins, not the sort to wear identical clothes, or hairstyles. They were individuals: Susanne, a tomboy who invariably wore jeans, a sweatshirt and a cap over her short hair - the unofficial girlfriend of Samuel Salmon, better known as Guppy - whilst Felicity, who was always immaculately dressed and made up, was hunting. It made a lot of us nervous. After all, as Mr Perkins, the football coach, often said: "Hunting is a man's prerogative."
"Why'd you ask?" Susanne said, pulling a chair out and sitting down, "oh, and congrats on the colours, by the way." Felicity gave Neil and me the once over before waving at us and walking off.
"Chris got a valentine card with a picture on it," Neil said. Susanne blushed.
"Not me, if that's what you're asking. Guppy would kill me."
"Why would I kill you?" Samuel Salmon walked up and plonked himself down on Susanne's lap. "Other than for using my nickname in vain." Susanne wrapped her arms around his middle, and I felt a pang of jealousy at their easy relationship. Samuel was one of those people who was comfortable in any company, and as a couple they were unique in that he was in the year below us.
"Can we see the card, Chris?" Susanne said, and I was reaching into my bag when I stopped.
"Nope," I said, withdrawing my hand, "valentines are personal."
"Well then, boy or girl?" Guppy asked. I gulped.
"Girl, I sincerely hope … I am not one of those," I said with what I hoped was conviction, as I felt myself begin to redden. Guppy's expression sharpened, his pale grey eyes turning stormy.
"One of those?" he said with a hint of anger.
"I … erm … yeah, one of those." I didn't know what else to say, and I was aware of Neil and Susanne watching us with interest. Guppy got up from Susanne's lap and picked up his bag.
"I didn't think you were a homophobe, Chris, I really didn't," he said, then gave Susanne a buss on the cheek and walked off.
"Neither did I," Susanne said, making no move to leave.
"Or me," said Neil.
"Oh give it a rest!" I said, "I'm not, it's just that …." I studied my fingernails during the ensuing silence. I was going to have to stop biting them if I ever wanted a serious relationship. Neil clapped me on the back.
"Chris, as you know, I'm not big on giving advice." I rolled my eyes at Susanne, and she smiled: Neil always started one of his advice-giving speeches that way. "But know yourself."
"Huh? What's that supposed to mean?" I looked at him, and instead of the fun idiot I was expecting, Neil looked serious and was chewing on his bottom lip.
"We're your friends is what I meant by that, Christopher, we're your friends." With that he got up, grabbed his bag and walked off, then turned back. "By the way, Dom told me the party is now officially a fancy dress affair. Seeya!"
"Bye!" we said, and Susanne gave me a small smile.
"So, Chris, wanna tell me anything?"
"Huh? What is it with you people … what would I want to tell you?" Susanne had an uncanny ability to get you to say things to her you wouldn't tell anyone ever, and I was on my guard. I grabbed the card from my bag and handed it to her, thinking she'd be sidetracked. She took it and, humming, examined the envelope before pulling the card out. She smiled at the picture and then read the inside before handing it back.
"Hmm, and you've no idea who gave it to you?"
"Nope," I said, frowning.
"And you've nothing you'd like to tell me?" I glared at her, and put the card back in my bag.
"Other than to get lost, nope, don't think so." She was about to get up when suddenly I'd had enough. I was fed up with feeling like I didn't know my own mind. Fed up with spending hours talking with virtual people I'd never meet. I wanted someone real, someone I could talk to, somebody I could touch. "Sue. Hang on, please." She settled back in her seat.
"You don't want me to get lost?"
I looked around. The library was empty, and I needed to talk to someone.
"I do and I don't … I'm …."
"Confused." She spoke almost under her breath, and I looked at her, my tomboy friend, and saw that she wanted to talk too.
"I think I might be …." I began shaking and took a deep breath, looking fixedly at my hands. "I think I might be gay." I waited. The ticking of the clock on the wall above the card index seemed loud enough to rattle the planet, and the faint screams of juniors ragging in the playground outside were equally ear-piercing. Still I waited: until the tension become too much and I looked up. Susanne was crying. I got up and knelt by her chair, wrapping my arms around her.
"Why on earth are you crying? It's me that should be crying, not you. You've got a wonderful boyfriend, who's gonna kick my arse if he catches me hugging you." She almost laughed, and pushed me away as she grabbed a tissue out of her bag and blew her nose.
"J.K.Rowling has a thing called a 'secret keeper' in her books." I nodded. "I'll be yours if you'll be mine."
"Done!" I smiled, grateful my problems wouldn't go further than the room. "Do you know the spell?"
"Silly!" She punched my lightly on the arm, "so here's mine: me too." I waited as she looked at me, a quizzical half-smile making her look vulnerable.
Her smile faded.
"I just told you."
"Told me? … oh … but … so …."
"Yeah, I'm gay too." We looked at each other straight-faced. I'm not sure who grinned first, but I know that when she did I did, and then we were laughing hysterically.
We were still laughing when Guppy walked back in.
"Well, well," he said, his eyebrows arched comically. "My girlfriend and the homophobe. I'll be damned."
"No, you won't, Sam," Sue said as I flew back to my chair and started to put my books away. "We're all much of a muchness here."
"Fuck!" I swore, "you promised, Sue!" I grabbed my bag, overturned my chair, and ran; oblivious to whatever it was they were shouting at me.
My parents sussed I was in a blue funk over dinner, but I managed to persuade them it was over a test we had the following day. They let it go, and there was no real reason they shouldn't, except I had a reputation for being a bad liar, and my dad was best at catching me out.
I was an hour into my prep when there was a knock at my bedroom door.
"Come in," I said, not turning around, expecting my mother or father. Neil landed on the bed so hard he scared the hell out of the cat, who bounced up in the air, still asleep, before rushing, meowling, from the room. I sighed and put down my pencil.
"You're welcome … ah … so you're unhappy," he said, straight-faced.
"Damn and blast parents, yeah, I'm unhappy. What're you going to do about it?"
"I just came around to say you're my best friend, and no matter what, I'll still be your best friend." He grabbed a pillow and got himself into his usual position, sitting across the bed with his back against the wall; then he looked at me expectantly. I shrugged. There was too much going through my head to do anything else
"Umm, thanks, I think. Me too, of course, me too." I grinned at him, hoping he might vanish. He was nervous, and he frowned - it wasn't a good sign.
"Oh, fuck …. Chris, I'm sorry. I just … well, when I left to go home … I didn't."
"No, and I'm sorry."
"So …." I knew there was a 'so', and I knew for him to be that nervous it must be a big one. "What did you do? Hack the school computer and change your results?"
"I … I stayed in the library."
I realized the posters on my bedroom wall could do with changing. It's ok for a twelve-year-old to have 'Simpsons' posters on the wall, but hardly right for a seventeen-year-old. Perhaps I'd start putting up Playboy centerfolds. Perhaps I'd start a collection of nude call-girl cards from phone boxes and stick them all over the house. I felt the heat of tears welling up, and could do nothing except hide my head in my hands and try to be silent as I wept. I was furious with myself. Why did I have to be gay? Why couldn't I be normal like everyone else? I clenched my hands, and dug my nails into my palms. It didn't help. The want wouldn't go away. It wasn't that simple.
"Please leave, Neil," I mumbled, angry that I couldn't control myself and stop my body from shaking.
He had helped me pick the 'Simpson's' posters, he had helped me stick them up - we'd had to do it three times, we were giggling so much. He had been the one to initiate experimentation when we were still eleven. We'd had so much fun, until he'd called it off when we were fourteen, saying we were too old - and now he knew - he'd spied on me, and he knew my deepest, darkest secret.
The tears were flowing all on their own as I looked up, expecting the bed to be empty, my best friend gone, forever. But he was still there, huddled in the position he used when he was hurting and wanted to be comforted. All my anger fled as I got up and went to sit beside him, taking him in my arms, wiping the tears from my eyes with my sleeve.
"I don't know why you stayed, but I'm glad you did."
He started to cry. "I'm so, sooo sorry," he sniffled, "I should never have come."
"Too late, mon ami, too late by several years!" I whispered in his ear. "The big bad benders got you now! Bwahaha." He shoved me away, laughing and crying at the same time.
"You are a fool, Chris, and I love you."
The silence was palpable as we looked at one another.
"I always have, I never stopped … I'll be your Superhero anytime you say." He sniffed. I smiled, then grinned as the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders.
"Superheroes don't cry, Neil."
"This one does," he said taking my hand, "this one does."