Tim shifted uncomfortably in the chair. Given that Marcus was an exceptional pupil - always immaculately represented in both grades and conduct, and a complete stick in the mud - it seemed completely unreasonable that he was being called into the headmaster’s office for the third time in two weeks. He was starting to think that Philip just wanted the company.
Philip was staring at him now, giving him the sympathetic look that mostly made Tim want to punch something.
“Do you know why we’re here, Tim?” Philip asked.
“Because you called me. Again.”
“But why did I call you, Tim?”
Tim shrugged with a grunt, feeling himself descend further and further into the surly attitude of a schoolboy.
“Tim, Marcus punched one of the other boys yesterday.”
“Really? Excellent.” Tim said, feeling a surge of something close to pride.
Philip frowned at him sadly.
“No... err... obviously, not excellent. What happened?”
“Well, Marcus alleges that the boy, Carl, tried to kiss him in the locker rooms. Carl denies this and says that Marcus was the one attempting to kiss him. He says Marcus got angry when he refused and punched him.”
“Right... this Carl is he a bit...”
“He has been known as something of a trouble maker in the past,” Philip replied before he could finish, somewhat to Tim’s relief. He’d actually been planning to say ‘effeminate’.
“Right... so I’m assume we’ll believe Marcus on this one?”
“Well it is a tricky one, Tim. After all Carl is the boy in the nurse's office bleeding.”
“Yes, but if he did try to kiss Marcus, that’s sexual harassment in the work place and I think Marcus ought to be forgiven for using reasonable force.”
“I can’t condone violence, Tim. This is a school,” Philip had steepled his fingers in front of his face and was leaning forward enthusiastically. “Have you ever considered that Marcus might be gay?”
Tim shook his head. “No, I haven’t considered it.”
“Well, you know he is always very well turned out. Neat. Fastidious some might say. Very concerned with his appearance. Plus he’s clever, precise-”
“I’m not sure being neat and clever makes you gay.”
“Has he tried to talk to you about his sexuality?”
Tim considered it for a second, Marcus did use a lot of long words that he didn’t recognise.
“No,” he decided uncertainly.
“Well have you tried talking to Marcus about his sexuality, Tim? It’s very important to tackle these issues head on. To show acceptance early.”
“No! He’s nine! Have you?” Tim asked him.
“I’m Marcus’ head teacher, Tim. I don’t think it would be appropriate.”
“Very convenient,” Tim said under his breath as Philip began riffling through one of his desk drawers. He emerged with a wide smile and a handful of leaflets, pressing them into Tim’s hands.
The top one said ‘So You Think You Might Be Gay!’ and flicking through them Tim could see there was much worse hidden beneath. The very bottom of the pile had a picture of a cartoon condom with a speech bubble proclaiming ‘I’m Your Friend’ beneath a banner headline declaring ‘Love Your Penis’.
Tim looked back up at Philip in horror, he was smiling at him most disconcertingly.
“I think these might help. It’s very important for you to talk to Marcus about this, Tim.”
“Right,” Tim said with a sinking heart, he could already see Marcus’ condescending look in his mind, picture himself squirming on the sofa. “Right.”
“I hope you’ll understand why I can’t let Marcus stay in school today. We need to show we’re standing up against violence and homophobia.”
Marcus looked up miserably at the sound of the approaching footsteps and found Justine approaching. He glared back down at his knees. Just what he needed, a witness to his humiliation. It was unfair enough that he was being made to sit shamefully outside the office like a criminal while Carl was being babied in the nurse's office and his father and Philip, of all the useless people, was inside discussing his fate.
Justine sat down beside him silently. Finally deciding that it might be nice to have a sympathetic ear, Marcus looked up to find her frowning in disappointment. A brief moment of panic fled through him, followed by a similarly sudden surge of anger.
“What?” He asked, sounding even to his own ears, childish and immature.
“You shouldn’t have done that to Carl.”
“He started it.”
“That doesn’t matter. He’s scared and confused and you’re cleverer than him. I think you need to decide whether you want to be a super hero or a super villain,” Justine told him.
Marcus hesitated, it was always hard to tell with Justine, but he had the sense that this might be an “Important” question. It was probably safer to hedge his bets. “Which are you going to be?”
She shook her head sadly. “I can’t tell you until I know what side you’re on.”
Before he could respond, the door opened and his father appeared, looking tired and nervous. There was something bulky tucked into his inside jacket pocket, giving him a lumpy, uneven appearance.
“Hello, Justine,” he said miserably, as if he were the one being disciplined.
“Hello, Mr. Elliot.” Standing, she gave Marcus one further look tinged with disappointment and headed back down the deserted corridor.
“Well?” Marcus demanded.
“He says he’ll have to suspend you, just for the rest of the day. Chris says you can stay with him until I’m finished with work. Sorry.”
Standing stiffly and sharply, Marcus breathed out angrily through his nose and not bothering to respond, stalked down the corridor towards the exit.
“I said I was sorry,” his father called after him.
Tim stumbled into the office, muttering apologies, and flinging his coat over his chair, slid behind his computer. The leaflets, still in his pocket, dug into his chest uncomfortably and with a grunt he pulled them out. His hand hovered for a moment over the bin, before he set them on the table instead.
He couldn’t quite shake the feeling that leaving his son with someone whose name badge read ‘π=3.14159265358979323846264338327950...’ probably constituted poor parenting.
The others were already hard at work at their computers, decrypting something unintelligble. As Tim looked around, nervously trying to work out what they were supposed to be doing, Caitlin caught his eyes with a grin and nodded at his computer screen, where a chat box had popped up in the corner.
‘More trouble with Marcus?’
Hesitating for a second, Tim started to type so that at least he’d look like he was doing something.
‘He punched a boy at school.’
‘Doesn’t seem likely.’
‘I know. They want me to talk to him. What are we supposed to be doing anyway?’
A link zipped in to the chat window and opening it he found a horrifying string of symbols, though a quick glance spotted enough repetition that he didn’t think a translation should be too difficult.
‘About?’ The question appeared. Not looking away from the screen, Tim held up one of the leaflets and Caitlin stifled a laugh in the silence of the office. Across the room, Tim saw Portis look up sharply at the sound, though Caitlin was ignoring him, her eyes glittering and fixed on Tim. Tim couldn’t quite resist a smirk.
‘I should have known from the see-through shirt,’ she typed to him.
‘Very funny.’ He dropped the leaflet back onto the pile.
Portis was by her side in seconds, leaning over her, and Tim saw Caitlin close the chat window guiltily.
“If you need any help, Sweetie, I’d be happy to oblige,” Portis said smoothly, eyes fixed upon Tim. He saw her expression tighten, annoyance bubbling just below the surface. Tim turned his eyes back to the computer, the first semblance of meaning already beginning to appear.
“Good work again, Tim. Putting the rest of these luddites to shame as always.”
Tim jumped, he hadn’t heard The Examiner approaching. Across the work station Caitlin grimaced, her annoyance deepening to encompass him as well as Portis. The Examiner ran a finger across the leaflets still on Tim's desk, fanning them out.
“Well, of course it’s a good standard computer,” Marcus told the man, who was still gazing down at him in slightly bewildered horror. “And because it’s not one of the main brand names you do get more for your money.”
The man nodded. “That’s what the magazine said.”
“But the future of computing is all about compatibility. People don’t just want a computer that does everything anymore. They want a computer that can interact with everything - television, phones, their work computers. This will be fine for a year. But as the new software comes out, you’ll find that none of it works with your fine-but-unusual system.
Marcus led the customer over coaxingly to the next stand of displays.
“You’d be much better off going for this model. It’s a stronger competitor than the model you were looking at and as one of the brands competitively doing very well, all the new software will be keen to promote their compatibility with your machine.”
“It’s £700 pounds more,” the man told him.
“Yes, but in a year you won’t be faced with the need to upgrade your entire system. It will save you thousands.”
“I...” the man looked at the computer and then back at him, “Do you actually work here?”
Given he was still wearing his school uniform, it was a ridiculous question. Marcus greeted it with a pitying look and a slight shake of his head.
“If you’re not interested,” he told the man, starting to turn away.
“No... no, I’ll take it... this one.”
Feeling satisfied, Marcus left the man in the hands of one of the lesser salesmen and headed over to where Chris was sat, watching them.
“I should put you on commission,” Chris said, raising a hand. “High five.”
Marcus ignored the gesture.
“You’ll be getting my bill in the mail. Anyway, it’s hardly difficult. It’s simply a case of understanding the behaviour and paranoia of other human beings,” Marcus certainly wasn’t counting himself, and possibly Chris, amongst these lesser humans. All the same, he wasn’t quite able to dispel the recently-injected, Justine-shaped doubt in his own powers.
“Obviously,” Chris told him.
“I mean surely you must easily be able to sell the people that come into this shop... anything.”
“Mostly I can’t be bothered.”
Marcus frowned at him. It was not exactly that he disliked Chris, he was relatively easily manipulated, and it was nice having someone to talk to who understood all the words he used, but Marcus did find him unsettling. It was as if he was a terrible glimpse at what his future could become if he let his attention slip for even a second.
“Why do you even work here?” Marcus asked him.
Chris shrugged. “Gives me time to think.”
“About what, exactly? As far as I’ve seen the most grueling decision you make all day is what you’re going to write on your name tag.”
“It is a complicated decision. Lots of factors to consider.”
“Fine,” Marcus said with a sigh. Clearly he was not going to get any sensible answers to that line of questioning today. Anyway, it was no good he couldn’t think of anything except the issue with Justine. She was very distracting.
“Can I ask you something? As the only person even approaching my own intelligence.”
“Yep,” Chris replied with a preening smile.
“And in strictest confidentiality. If you even breathe a word of it to my father I will tell him everything about the book club,” Marcus told him leaning in closer.
“You wouldn’t,” Chris leaned in too, so they were eye to beady eye. “You’d be in as much trouble as me... and Philip, he might tell the court at the next hearing.”
For a second they sat, locked in a standoff worthy of the great Westerns. But Marcus knew something that Chris didn’t: He had extra guns.
“I’ll tell him what you did to the sausages last night.”
“Fine,” Chris leaned back. “Strictest confidentiality, I promise. What’s the question?”
“How do you understand what a girl is thinking?” Marcus asked, not managing to keep a hint of desperation from sneaking into his voice.
“Oh...” Chris said, slowly, understanding dawning. “Not got a clue mate, sorry.”
“It’s like they’re a foreign species.”
“But... but you must know something. You’ve had girlfriends.”
“Not since primary school. There was this girl... anyway, I upset her... there was an incident with the class hamster... I think she might have sent a memo to all the other girls in the world and it’s not gone so well since then.”
With a sense of dawning horror, Marcus saw his own future opening up before him. He had to fix things... whatever those things were... with Justine.
Portis had eventually withdrawn his attack, following Caitlin’s grudging agreement to have lunch with him (Tim not invited) and several extracted kisses. Afterwards, they had lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Tim watched Caitlin work, knowing that she knew he was watching and was choosing to ignore him. It wasn’t that things had been awkward since Portis had appeared; it was that they had been absolutely impossible. It might, of course, have been different if one of them had actually said the word 'love' in the park. Probably that would have only complicated matters further, but it would have been a place to start. As it was, they were both just ignoring it as if it hadn’t happened, their own vagueness had having given them that leeway.
Tim had to concede, he probably should have been the one to say the word… He’d been the one dashing across London to declare himself and all. He also definitely shouldn’t have called her a slut.
He was just beginning the eternal debate of whether she knew that he knew that she knew he was watching her, when the phone rang. He seized it, thankful for the distraction.
“Can I see you in my office, Tim?”
Tim looked up to find The Examiner watching him and groaned. He’d been half expecting this all morning. It was about time somebody talked to him about his time keeping. Since the hearing, he was spending more and more time talking to people about Marcus. He had a terrible feeling that Marcus was trying to convince people that his father's influence was turning him into a problem child.
“Alright,” Tim said, and Caitlin glanced up momentarily as he stood and headed through to the office, a frown on her face. It dawned on Tim that the private talks with The Examiner probably looked horribly like favouritism to the others. He gave Caitlin an apologetic smile that might have come out more like a smirk, and she turned back to the computer screen with a frown.
As Tim reached the office, The Examiner hurried him inside. He closed the door quickly and started closing each of the blindswith a thoroughly disconcerting, sneaky and surreptitious air.
“Sit, sit,” he told Tim, and Tim lowered himself into the chair carefully, just stopping himself from slipping.
“Are we being invaded again?” Tim asked as The Examiner took the seat opposite him.
“What? No, no,” The Examiner said with an even more disconcerting smile. He wasn’t even clutching a weapon, “This is a social visit, Timothy.”
Tim raised his eyebrows. He was pretty sure that the last person to call him Timothy had been an overly affectionate maiden aunt.
“It isn’t though,” he suggested.
“Yes, it is.”
“No, you just called and asked me to come and see you in your office. That’s not a social visit.”
“Well… it could be for social reasons, I could be inviting you to Tenerife.”
“I’m not interested in going to Tenerife,” Tim told him again. He was starting to think that they had some sort of torture camp set up in the area that The Examiner was eager to show him. “And any visit in a work place between a manager and a staff member during work hours, shouldn’t be for social reasons.”
“Right, right… I understand you, Tim.” It was an odd sort of stress to put on a name and Tim couldn’t shake the feeling that The Examiner had only just resisted adding a wink, but he decided to ignore it.
“Was there a reason you wanted to see me? A work reason,” Tim clarified quickly.
“It was about the leaflets on your desk, Tim-“
“Do you think you might be gay, Sir?”
“No, Tim, no doubts on that score. But I need to keep an eye on the health and well-being of my agents and if you’re having any concerns about your sexuality-”
“No!” Tim interrupted him again, a little too quickly, “They’re for Marcus, my son.”
“You think he might be gay?”
“Well… no,” Tim had to admit. This was definitely not a conversation that he wanted to have with a superior, especially one as mentally unhinged as The Examiner.
“Ahh, I see.”
“Could I perhaps go?” Tim asked desperately.
“Yes, of course, Tim. But if you want to speak to me, my office door is always open. Except when it isn’t,” The Examiner followed him to the closed door and slapped him on his shoulder with a hearty laugh, rubbing his arm slightly.
“Right,” Tim muttered as he fled the room, quietly adding, “Not to mention frequently booby-trapped.”
He had a terrible feeling he had missed something in the conversation, as if he hadn’t quite worked out what was being discussed. He hesitated for a moment by Moritz’s desk, the boy still seemed to be struggling through that morning’s encryption.
“Has The Examiner ever invited you to Tenerife?” He asked him.
The boy gripped the desk, stiffening. “No! Never! No! What has he told you?”
“Stop laughing,” Tim hissed at Chris, “He’ll hear you.”
Chris started flicking through another leaflet. “You know I think if I was having a sexual crisis and someone gave me these, I’d probably barricade myself in the closet.”
“Ha ha, very funny,” Tim told him, his nervousness deepening, “Anyway it’s not called a crisis anymore, that implies that it’s a) short term and b) a bad thing.”
“Did you get that from one of these,” Chris asked waving the accusatory wad at him again.
“No…. It was on This Morning.”
“Pre- or post-Fearne Cotton’s arrival?”
“I don’t know, pre I think. Does it matter?”
“It might, if you care about quality,” Chris muttered beneath his breath. “Anyway I don’t know why you’re getting so wound up about this.”
“Really? He’ll use it against me at the next hearing. He’ll twist it. I just know it.”
“You’re starting to sound paranoid – I mean it’s reasonable under the circumstances but you might want to cut it down, would look bad to the judge.”
“I was actually hoping for some form of useful advice,” Tim said not quite able to control his urgent and necessary desire to pace.
“Well, just don’t talk to him about it. I mean it’s not like he’s actually… I mean he’s having girl…” Chris drifted off, a glancing panic crossing his face.
“What? Having girl what?”
“You know, actually I think he might be gay,” Chris said suddenly, his tone completely different.
“Well, he’s clever and tidy and neat and his hair is always impec-”
“Again, I feel obliged to point out to the world that being clever and tidy does not make a person gay. I mean I’m clever, I’m tidy… relatively.”
“Plus sometimes I find him looking at me,” Chris said over him.
Tim sank down onto the sofa next to him. “What do you mean looking at you?”
“You know just… gazing. Longingly. And he gives me compliments.”
“What compliments?” Tim felt an odd mix of bewildered and panicked.
“Ummmm… he said I had nice eyes. Oh, and this morning he told me I was the only person he knew who was as clever as he is. Definitely gay.”
Tim stared at him in horror for a second, not entirely certain what the right response was – denial, mocking, acceptance, questioning, wild accusations of pedophilia.
“But he’s nine…” he pleaded in the end.
“Very formative age, sexually speaking, all the hormones kicking in.”
“Oh god,” Tim moaned, silenced almost immediately by the sound of footsteps on the stairs. “Oh god! He’s coming. Hide the leaflets. Act natural.”
Chris shoved the leaflets down the back of the sofa and Tim leaning back, flinging his arms along the back of the sofa, trying to make himself look as natural as possible. Marcus appeared in the doorway, clutching an empty glass, and stopped, stared at them, expression full of suspicion alongside his general disappointment. It was, all things considered, probably not the most natural they could have looked. Sat a little too close, with Tim’s arm practically around Chris’ shoulders and with the television turned off.
As if determined to make matters worse, Tim realized that Chris’ hand had crept onto his own lap and was now clutching his knee, and the fool was actually smiling at Marcus. Tim was still not entirely certain that allowing Chris to move in had been a good idea.
“More milk?” The question came out squeakier than he would have liked, as Tim forcefully removed Chris’ hand.
Marcus rolled his eyes, before continuing into the kitchen. “I’m lactose intolerant.”
“Are you? When? Did you tell me about this?” Tim asked, Chris hand already creeping back onto his knee.
Before he had time to ask anything else, Marcus was already out of the room, glass full of water and heading back up the stairs. They both watched him leave, silently, and Chris squeezed his knee in what was probably supposed to be a reassuring gesture.
“What was that all about?” Tim asked angrily, looking down at Chris’ hand and back up at him.
“I thought it might help, bring the subject up… so to speak.”
“By making him think I’m gay?”
“It would have been an ice breaker.”
It was not exactly that Tim was unused to waking up in the night to find someone in bed beside him. He’d lived with Judith for ten years before the Philip thing, and even since she’d gone there had been one night when he’d thought Marcus had climbed in with him during a storm and had woken up to find he was snuggling Chris. Though they’d agreed that would never happen again.
Perhaps it was everything that had happened with Paula or that the job was getting to him, but it was definitely a rare enough occurrence, that slowly waking up with the sensation of someone breathing onto his shoulder, immediately set Tim on edge. He felt himself stiffen, hands frozen beside him as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Whoever it was ran a finger along his shoulder and down his arm. A rough finger.
“Timothy,” The Examiner growled, unmistakably.
It took Tim a few seconds to adjust his thinking to this new predicament.
“Right… is this a test?” He asked, wondering if he was supposed to have already subdued the man. Possibly with lethal force.
“Is what a test?” The finger strayed down to Tim’s nipple, gently circling it.
“Part of the training?” Tim asked hopefully, carefully he reached out, not moving and switched on the deskside lamp. Almost immediately he wished he hadn’t, The Examiner was topless. At least Tim hoped he was just topless, the duvet was covering everything below his waist.
“No… just a social visit.”
“Social? Right… Are you..?” Tim asked, gesturing downwards with his eyes, still doing his best not to move.
“What? Oh... naked? No I’m wearing a thong?” The Examiner told him.
“A thong?” He hadn’t thought the man had any ways left to surprise him.
“Yes, always wear a thong - you never know when you might need to garrote somebody unexpectedly in a bathroom.”
There was a pause as Tim mentally digested this fact and immediately tried to cleanse it from his memory.
“You’ve... you’ve done that?”
“Oh come on, Tim. You know I can’t tell you that. State secrets. I couldn’t help but notice you’re a boxers man, yourself.”
Tim couldn’t suppress a shudder. “I like... space to breathe, you know.”
“No need to apologise, Tim. There are benefits to boxers, in terms of... concealment... weapons, covert surveillance, wires...” As he was speaking The Examiner ran a finger across Tim's chest. “Is this working for you? The sex talk?”
“Definitely not working,” Tim said firmly. “And I have to say, I really don’t think this is appropriate behavior, sir.”
“Really? Is it the inter-office relationship thing?” The Examiner asked.
“Because I think there are occasions when you can make exceptions and we are both adults, Timothy.”
“It’s fairly low down the list of concerns, to be honest,” Tim told him.
“Well, I’m sure they’re not insurmountable…”
“I’m not gay,” Tim told him. There was a pause.
“Because I thought I was getting signals from-”
“Well,” The Examiner said removing his finger finally and sounding only mildly perturbed. “This is a little awkward.”
“Perhaps I should go… maybe you should take tomorrow off work – have a long weekend. Then we can-”
“Do you want to turn the light back off, while I… disappear?” The Examiner asked.
“Yep,” Tim said, reaching for the lamp’s off switch and plunging them into darkness.
With a slight shuffling and a sudden bite of cold air, the presence in the bed beside him thankfully vanished and Tim breathed again.
“Oh and Tim,” The Examiner said from somewhere in the direction of the window. “Do think about Tenerife.”
It had been a very silent awkward breakfast, more so than normal, even his father was distracted and silent. He hadn’t even bothered getting dressed for work. Though the silence had suited Marcus. He was still trying to work out what to do about Justine.
“So,” his father said as they approached the school, determined to spoil what had been an almost enjoyable morning. “This boy you punched?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Marcus told him firmly.
“But… well, do you think he’s gay. The boy?”
“Presumably, as he tried to kiss me.”
“Right. You shouldn’t have hit him, you know. There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
“Even though he tried to sexually assault me?” Marcus asked him.
“I don’t think it was quite a sexual assault,” his father told him as they pulled to a halt outside the school gate.
“So I should go around kissing whomever I like without asking first and no one should do anything about it?” Marcus argued, scenting blood.
“No, of course not,” his father said, looking bewildered. “I’m just trying to say there’s nothing wrong with being gay, I mean if you were gay that would be… fine.”
Marcus silenced him with a single scathing look, and opening the door, climbed out. Philip was hurrying towards them. Across the playground, Justine had looked up and was watching him. Marcus raised a hand slowly. With a slight shake of the head, she turned away and walked into the school. This was serious, and Marcus was man enough to admit that he needed help. Advice.
“Morning, Marcus, buddy,” Philip said as he passed, sticking his head through the still open car door. Marcus watched him, critically, it was a desperate prospect but Philip was the only adult male he knew in a semi-successful relationship. He might have to do.
“Not going to work today, Tim?”
“No, long weekend.” His father’s annoyance at having to talk to Philip was clear.
“Maybe we could have a word in my office.”
Tim couldn’t prevent the slouching, resentful walk taking over as he followed Philip. He had not foreseen being Marcus’ full time parent figure, resulting in daily trips to the principal's office.
“Is this about the gay thing again, because I’ve tried to talk to him and I really don’t think…”
He trailed off, Philip had closed the door and was busy closing the office blinds. Tim had an odd feeling of déjà vu.
“Is that completely necessary?” he asked, gesturing at the now blank windows. “It’s just I’ve found that this doesn’t lead to good things.”
“It’s not about Marcus, Tim,” Philip said, taking his arm and leading him to the chair.
“Right,” Tim said, sitting down. Philip crouched beside him, still holding his arm.
“It’s about Judith,” Philip told him earnestly.
Tim groaned. “I really don’t want to talk about Judith, no offence.”
“Right. No… no, I understand,” Philip said and Tim realized with horror that his eyes were welling with tears. “It’s just… it’s just… it’s so hard.”
In seconds, the welling had turned into a flood and Philip threw himself forward, arms wrapped around Tim’s waist, head buried into his lap, sobbing. Loudly. Tim stared down at him in horror, hands raised in the air – hovering uncertainly above Philip’s shaking back. After a moment, giving in to what he could only explain as latent paternal feelings, he lowered the hand and rubbed Philip’s shoulders.
“Hey, hey. It’s alright,” he said meaninglessly. Philip raised his head to look at him, face scrunched up.
“She’s not talking to me, Tim,” Philip told him between racking sobs, “She won’t even stay in the same room as me. And when she does… she’s just so mean.”
“Yep,” Tim told him. “She does that.”
“I don’t know what to do, Tim.”
“I’m probably not the person to ask, she divorced me.”
Philip wailed again, burying his head back into Tim’s lap.
“Oh god,” Tim said, the dampness seeping through his trousers, “Look… is there anything I can do to make you feel better.”
“Really?” Philip asked.
“I guess.” He’d only said it to make the crying stop, and even before the sobbing ceased he regretted it. “If you’ll stop crying.”
Philip rocked backwards on his knees and climbing to his feet, wiped away his tears on a handkerchief. “I’m glad you’re here, Tim.”
“What exactly is it that you want me to do?” Tim asked nervously.
“Well…” Philip said, slowly, his breathing calming. “I have a competition tomorrow and Judith was going to help me practice.”
“A competition?” Tim asked, with a horrible sense of comprehension already beginning to dawn.
“A salsa competition. I thought that you probably remembered some of the moves and, as you’re not working today…”
That was how Judith and Philip had first started spending time together. One of their many ‘getting the marriage back on track’ activities had been salsa classes. Judith had liked it; Tim hadn’t. He’d lasted five classes before pulling out. Philip had been at the classes too, and, since they’d known each other because of Marcus, he’d willingly stepped into Tim’s abandoned dancing shoes. Tim had been relieved to get out of it.
“Oh god,” Tim moaned, “I really don’t remember-”
“I just need somebody to practice with, otherwise the hips get rusty,” Philip demonstrated a hip swivel, “Mostly I’d be dancing around you and I could talk you through the moves. Please.”
The tears were still threatening to reappear and with a sinking feeling Tim realised this was the only way he was going to get out of this office in the next hour. He stood up and nodded, holding out his hands.
“Fine, let’s get this over with.” The worst thing was Philip’s eager expression as he stepped forward, Tim held up a finger for a second. “But you have to promise that you will never tell anyone about this.”
Marcus lasted just over an hour, a painful hour of Justine ignoring him, before excusing himself from class and heading to Philip’s office. That should have given him long enough to finish with his father. He knocked sharply and, not waiting for a response, pushed the door open and froze.
It was a scene of horror inside the room: His father crouched on the floor, holding Philip’s hand as Philip gyrated around him.
Philip paused mid thrust.
“Marcus, buddy,” Philip said, clearly not sure whether the correct response was embarrassment or nonchalance.
His father scrambled to his feet as Marcus pursed his lips. “I... we... this wasn’t what it-”
“Don’t bother,” Marcus interrupted him. It was quite obvious that they had been practicing salsa. The reason why was more of a mystery, but not one Marcus had any interest in unraveling. “Do you have time for me now, Philip, or should I come back later?”
“No, of course, buddy, always have time for you.”
Pausing, they both turned to look at his father, who still stood in the centre of the room, looking uncertainly between the two of them.
“Perhaps you could excuse us, Tim,” Marcus suggested.
“No... no, if you’re having head teacher-student conferences, I think I have the right to be here. I am his legal guardian.”
“For now,” Marcus said ominously. “Unless you want some very interesting stories to come out in the next hearing, I’d suggest you leave.”
“No, Marcus. Tim’s right, he has every right to be here. You are still a minor.”
Marcus debated arguing the issue for a moment and then decided it wasn’t worth the effort. “Fine, you can sit in the corner. Don’t say anything.”
His father looked like he was about to argue, but instead turned and slid into the chair in the corner, sulking. Philip resumed his normal stationary position behind his desk, while Marcus took the chair opposite.
“So,” Philip said, leaning forward, his fingers steepled before him, “Marcus, how can I be of assistance today.”
“I need advice,” Marcus told him with a deep breath, mentally squashing his pride, “About a girl.”
“What?” His father exclaimed in the corner. Marcus turned to him with a snarl.
“Tim, Marcus did ask you to be quiet,” Philip said gently before Marcus could begin verbally ripping him apart.
“But... he should be talking to me about this, I could help him with girls.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Marcus saw that even Philip couldn’t stop a sad, pitying smile from crossing his face.
“When was the last time you had a successful relationship?” Marcus asked him.
“I was with your mother for-”
“And we know how that ended,” Marcus interrupted him. “What happened to that girl you were deeply in love with? The one you ran out of court for?”
“You know that wasn’t my fault, her dead fiancé-”
“And who did you ask for relationship advice?” Marcus demanded, choosing to ignore the fact he had made the same mistake. Knowing that he had him with that one.
“Chris,” his father admitted, looking crestfallen.
“So, I’m sure you’ll forgive me for going to the only adult male I know who is in a successful relationship.”
“Hah!” His father said excitedly, “No he’s not - they’re not even talking. Judith won’t stay in the same...”
“Tim,” Philip said, sounding hurt as his father trailed off, already looking guilty. Philip looked like he was about to cry. It was horrifying. “I’m not sure this is the appropriate forum.”
“Ten four buddy, ten four. So, Marcus... this girl, what problem are you having exactly?”
“I’ve upset her and I don’t know what to do to fix it,” Marcus told him in as matter-of-fact a tone as he could manage.
“Well, have you asked her what you could do that would make her feel better?” Philip asked gently.
“It’s always better to be as straightforward as you can with these matters. Girls like emotional honesty and it creates a healthy future pattern. Tell her you’re sorry that you’ve upset her and ask what you can do to fix things between you.”
It wasn’t exactly the most tempting of prospects, but it did make sense. Marcus nodded.
“Right,” his father said, in rapt attention as if this was a revelation to him.
“Go get her, champ,” Philip told him.
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Marcus stood and nodded his thanks.
“Wait,” his father said, suddenly sounding suspicious. “Why isn’t this working with you and Judith?”
Philip paused for a moment. “Mine and Judith’s relationship is based on non-traditional gender roles.”
“You mean she’s the man?” His father asked and Marcus decided this was probably a conversation it was better to leave them to.
Marcus had found Justine easily enough, in the library during lunch but finding Carl, after an intense, whispered conversation, had proven much more difficult. With their hour almost up, Marcus would have been happy to accept defeat but Justine had been adamant – he had to apologise and he had to offer a sympathetic ear and, if entirely necessary, a shoulder to cry on.
They finally found him, tucked in amongst the hooks of coats and lunchboxes in the cloakroom. Carl looked entirely miserable and was sporting a truly impressive black eye (if Marcus said so himself). As they approached, he looked up and flinched.
“I said I was sorry, didn’t I?” Carl asked defensively, “You don’t have to come for another bloody go.”
Justine looked at Marcus sharply and with a deep steadying breath, he stepped forward and held out his hand.
“You did, but I didn’t. I’ve come to say sorry for hitting you. It was the wrong thing to do.”
Carl looked at the offered hand as if it were quite possibly lethal, and after a second Marcus withdrew it, choosing instead to take a seat on the bench a few coats down. Justine sat the other side of Carl, smiling sympathetically and then, looking at Marcus, raised her eyebrows.
“Would you like to talk about it?” Marcus asked in a carefully monotonous tone.
“You’re not going to tell everyone?”
Carl sniffed slightly. “Fine. It’s just its hard, you know, being the only… you know in the school and not being able to tell anyone.”
Marcus tried to muster a look of sympathy. “You could try talking to the school counselor.”
“Yeah, I have,” Carl said, to Marcus’ surprise. The issue was clearly more ingrained than he thought. “But well… she’s nice, but she doesn’t understand. And I know I shouldn’t have tried to… but you were there, and, I mean, you’re scary but you’re slightly less scary than… well, you know. And well, you’d said about me and… you know… about us, well… you know.”
Marcus nodded, only vaguely managing to maintain comprehension. He always forgot how hard it was to follow conversations with people who were more or less monosyllabic.
“And well, I’d never… kissed a boy. And how do you know if you really are… if you haven’t. So I thought… And anyway, I suppose I still don’t know, because we didn’t… and it’s all rubbish anyway.”
“Right,” Marcus said. “I’m sure it will get better.”
Carl gave him a miserable, half pitying look. “It won’t, not for ages anyway. Not till I’m properly old.”
“Well… you’re moving up to senior school soon, I’m sure that will be different.”
“Maybe they’ll have a LGBT club. You could ask when you go to look around.”
Carl nodded, though he looked unconvinced, his shoulders and head still drooping miserably.
“Sorry, Carl, there just isn’t much I can do,” Marcus told him nervously. From the look in Justine’s eyes, this conversation might not be enough.
“There is something you could do,” Justine suggested. They both stared at her blankly for a second and then Carl turned to look at him.
“Oh,” he said slowly.
“What?” Marcus asked in annoyance, and then realization dawned. “But… I… really?”
“You did punch him,” Justine told him seriously, and he knew he was stuck. This was the price of having her friendship back. He suppressed a groan.
“Fine, but just once so that you know. And you can’t tell anybody. And it doesn’t really mean anything, understand?”
“Of course,” Carl said, sounding slightly awed. “Should we stand up?”
“Yes, I suppose,” Marcus told him.
They both stood awkwardly, face to face for a second, and then Carl ducked forward, pressing his lips nervously against Marcus mouth. It wasn’t awful. Carl’s lips were a bit chapped, but it wasn’t like he tried anything more than a chaste peck. And if Marcus ignored the fact that this was also technically his own first kiss, it was sort of alright. Interesting, like an experiment. Carl pulled away, his face beneath his curly black hair flushed pink. He bit his lip, half smiling and then stepped away.
“Thanks… like, really thanks,” he said breathlessly and then, grabbing his bag, loped long-leggedly, out of the cloak room.
Marcus turned to Justine, who bit down on her own smile, she stood up shouldering her own bag.
“Satisfied?” Marcus asked her.
“I think so,” she told him. Then stepping closer she kissed him, pressing her lips against his, softer and firmer than Carl’s. His breath caught in his throat. Justine broke away with a grin. “I think you might be a superhero after all.”
Tim found Caitlin on their bench. Well... he’d got there at least an hour before her, so he supposed she’d technically found him. But as he’d put in a lot of skulking inconspicuously beforehand, he was willing to put it down as a joint effort. Her face lit up as she saw him.
“I thought you were sick,” she said.
“No, day off,” he told her, deciding it was probably best not to go into details. “Last minute.”
She sat down beside him, starting to unwrap her sandwiches. “A day off that you’ve spent sitting outside work? I’m not sure that’s the behaviour of a healthy person.”
“Well... I missed you,” Tim told her nervously. Caitlin turned to look at him, her face scrunching slightly in a mix of surprise, confusion and bafflement - though her eyes were still gleeful and mischievous.
“Yeah, well you see, I like you. Kind of a lot actually,” Tim felt oddly vulnerable for a man sitting on a park bench carrying a gun. “I think I might be in love with you, Caitlin. And I wanted to know how you felt.”
She hesitated, mouth slightly open and face blank, the sandwich half raised. After a moment, she lowered it.
“I think I might be in love with you too.”
“Right,” Tim said a flush of warmth running through him. “So... well what do we do now? I mean should we go on a date? I know this fish restaurant-”
“It’s not that easy, Tim,” Caitlin interrupted him.
As he was about to argue, he looked up and saw Portis approaching, a frown on his face.
“Tim,” Portis growled and then turned to Caitlin. “I thought I could treat you to a nice lunch, I’ve booked us a table on the River Boat.”
“Oh,” she said softly, “Of course. Ummm... Do you want my sandwich?”
Tim looked at the wilting bread. It wasn’t much of a consolation prize, but with a grunt he took it. Portis kissed Caitlin with a deep, obvious passion, mostly for show, and then led her away hand-in-hand. As they reached the end of the path, Caitlin looked back with a sad smile.
Tim had expected to know immediately how Marcus’ confrontation with ‘the girl’ had gone from his expression, or the way he walked in, or by slamming doors, or something. But instead he got nothing. Not even a glimmer of emotion as Judith dropped him off.
“So,” he asked after the normal unpleasantries had been exchanged and she’d gone again, “How did it go?”
Marcus stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked at him for a second, dismissively. “I don’t want to talk about it. I assume you’re still single, depressed and alone.”
Tim shrugged. “I brought ice cream.”
Marcus hesitated and then with an air of resignation, headed over to join him at the breakfast bar. Tim offered him a spoon and for a moment they ate in almost sympathetic silence. It was quite possibly the closest they’d come to doing ‘a family activity’ all week.
“Girls are weird,” Marcus said suddenly, staring down at the ice cream.
“Yep,” Tim agreed.
Marcus smiled at him sadly with a slight nod. It was an actual smile. A real one. It was worrying how much it cheered up what had been a quite miserable day.
“Are you gay?” Tim asked him, a little apprehensively, not wishing to shatter this sudden, unexpected atmosphere of sympathy and understanding. “I mean it’s fine if you’re are. Or if you’re not. Either way. Philip gave me these leaflets and-”
“Stop babbling,” Marcus told him, glaring over a fully laden spoon of ice cream, though his normally fierce wrath was missing. “And no. Are you?”
“No,” Tim told him, “Though I am starting to wonder about everybody else.”
“Well,” Marcus said seriously. “At least you have some leaflets.”
And then he smiled again.