They’ve been together in an official capacity for just over a year when Stu takes Tom back to Sheffield to meet the Dakins for the first time.
He’s never brought any girlfriends home since he left for uni; this is unfortunate because it means that Irwin is the first person in his adult life to be introduced to his parents in the capacity of a romantic interest. Although she is forewarned, his mother’s shock is not eased when he attempts to explain to her that he isn’t gay, really. Instead, her expression morphs into one of confusion mixed with mild disgust, which he thinks is supposed to disguise pity, but isn’t any better.
However, it can’t be helped.
She likes Irwin, has seen him on telly, thinks he’s attractive in fact, he can tell - although she would never say so now.
Stu tells her to think of them as friends and to stop thinking about them together in a sexual sense if it makes things easier. She scolds him for being coarse, but she does seem more relaxed around Tom afterwards.
For a short while, anyway.
Stu had not planned on mentioning that Tom had once been his teacher, it seemed like it would be the dumbest thing to do in the situation. So obviously he is shocked when - driven by a pointless sense of guilt, topped off with paranoia that Mr and Mrs Dakin will find out anyway - Tom blurts it out before lunch on the first day of their visit over a cup of tea.
This, in spite of the almost-argument (and full on Irwin!Sulk) on their way up when Stu told him in no uncertain terms that they wouldn’t already know and wouldn’t put two and two together because he had never spoken about Tom to his parents during his school days, or since. That Stu barely spoke to them about his life at all and told him so, didn’t make Tom less sulky.
Not ready to give it up, Irwin had insisted things would be worse if they found out second hand.
“The preface of my book mentions the school!” He’d hissed across at Stu on the train, as if this was, in itself, a secret that the other passengers couldn’t be allowed to overhear.
“They won’t have read your book, Tom!” his outburst had caused a few people to look around at them and it had been back to sulking for Tom.
After this revelation, Stu’s afternoon is largely spent convincing his mum that his relationship is less creepy than it sounds.
His dad takes Tom to the pub (Stu consents to let Irwin loose in the sort of pub his dad frequents only after giving him strict instructions about not saying anything gay – Irwin’s scoffing that he has been to a ‘not-gay’ pub before, has lived in Sheffield for God’s sake does not get him out of agreeing to follow these rules before he is allowed to go).
His mum needs Stu’s help in the kitchen, apparently (something she’s never needed in the twenty-two years he can remember, incidentally), so he can’t go along himself.
Rather predictably, this turns out to be an excuse to quiz him about the details of his sexuality (pointless, as she doesn’t understand and never will – Tom doesn’t either but that’s different), as well as a means to allay her standard motherly concerns about the likelihood of him contracting HIV. A difficult subject as she won’t permit any explicit sex talk from him (not that he wants to go into it with her either!), and the words ‘condom’ and ‘tested’ practically give her conniptions.
Last, but not least, is the interrogation regarding his and Tom’s relationship - the age gap (which is slightly less than the one between his parents actually) and their previous roles as teacher and student being her chief concerns. He is scolded for his observation regarding the age gap but putting it in those terms clearly helps his mum feel more comfortable about it.
The teacher thing is less easily put to bed. It’s only after repeated assurances that nothing happened between them until they met again later in life (she doesn’t need to know it’s not strictly true) that she condescends to stop calling their relationship ‘bizarre’. Stu privately wonders how she’d react if she ever found out about Hector.
Tom apparently has a better time of it. His father, according to Irwin, is surprisingly understanding about the whole thing. He tells Tom that their son bringing a man home makes him and Mrs Dakin worry that they have failed somehow as parents. They worry, he says, that they didn’t give Stu enough attention growing up (which is true but irrelevant), that they missed the signs and failed to provide him with a male role model (both bollocks), but that at the end of the day they only want their son to be happy. Tom is a bit misty-eyed as he recounts the story later.
Stu is frankly shocked and, if he’s honest, a little bit jealous, wishing it was him his father had shared this revelation with.
Over lunch they talk about Irwin’s programme in a politely interested way and, true to form when nervous, Tom is babbling about history.
It’s this that Stu blames for what happens next.
Tom’s on his Henry VIII – Mrs Thatcher bit, and seeking to head off disaster (his parents being big fans of the iron lady) Stu says (unthinkingly):
“Henry VII wouldn’t pull off the handbag so well though, Sir.”
He feels the word drop heavy from his lips, but already it’s too late to take it back. It’s a complete accident, has never happened before. The comment isn’t even worth it, for fuck’s sake.
Tom goes bright red and his mother honest-to-God gasps and goes white. He’s sure she thinks it’s some kind of kinky sex thing between them (it isn’t. Stu thinks it should be. He suspects Tom would never speak to him again if he suggested it - he already hates that Stu calls him Irwin half the time and refuses to respond to it).
His dad is the hero of the hour, dismissing his comment, and some of the tension in the room, while everybody else sits frozen in horror. “Thank you, Stuart, for cementing this lunch as the most embarrassing in family memory. Your auntie Marge will be pleased to hear that the time she fell asleep in the trifle has been knocked off the top spot.”
Talk is naturally limited after this and Tom won’t meet his eyes for the rest of lunch, he probably suspects him of doing it on purpose.
They spend the evening trying to get some work done and retreat to the peace of Stu’s room. This serves the double purpose of giving his parents some privacy to discuss the horror show that was lunch, or, no doubt more accurately, giving his mother privacy to talk about it and leaving his father at her mercy.
Stu has a sizeable essay for his law degree that he needs to make a dent in and Irwin takes the opportunity to work on the masters he has just started. They manage a productive twenty minutes in companionable silence before they are inundated with knocks on the door by his mother to offer cups of tea or to ask about things that have just occurred to her. After an hour of constant interruptions, they give it up as a bad job by mutual agreement and join his parents in front of the telly. Stu puts his arm around Tom’s shoulders as much out of pigheadedness as affection.
His mother sets Tom up in the spare room and as soon as he hears the snick of his parents’ bedroom door Stu joins him. This is ostensibly because he no longer sleeps well alone, but Tom is wound so tightly they lie awake talking for hours anyway. Stu doesn’t mind.
The bed in the spare room is only a single so they fall asleep with Tom lying on top of him and he wakes up in the morning with a dead arm. He doesn’t mind that either.
“You were up very late last night.” His mum glares disapprovingly over the breakfast table but Stu’s used to getting his own way and now is no exception, so he just grins. Irwin abstaining from breakfast puts the lid on her mood. That he never eats breakfast is clearly an inadequate excuse for this imagined slight.
Tom is too polite to smoke and spends the morning jittery and anxious. Stu wishes he’d managed to persuade him into a mutual wank in the shower, but it turns out his mum’s scary-act actually works on Tom, so there was no hope there. In the end, Stu drags him into the garden and thrusts a packet of fags at him because he’s getting on his nerves.
His auntie is booked for a visit in the afternoon, she recognises Tom from the telly and is suitably impressed (“I said you’d like him when I saw him, Stuart. I suppose he’s bound to be a friend of yours, what with you at Oxford and all. I shouldn’t be surprised.”). That is until he introduces Tom as his boyfriend.
She tuts and addresses her next comment to his mum. “Didn’t I tell you? He’s been down south four years and already he’s come back a poof.”
“Actually that would be me.” Tom holds out his hand for her to shake. “Pleased to meet you.”
She stares for a few long seconds before throwing her head back and cackling. The two of them get on pretty famously for the next few hours.
On the train home, at last, Stu breathes a sigh of relief. “Not too bad considering.”
Tom grunts in agreement. “Your dad told me some interesting things.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
“That he and your mum spoiled you because you’re their only baby (Stu interjects here with a snort that Tom takes to mean “obviously”), and they’re not sorry… even if you did turn out a brat.”
“He did, it’s true. He told me other things too.”
Tom is smirking, there’s no other word for it, and it’s a smug smirk at that. The expression makes Stu uneasy. “Go on.”
“He told me you’ve never brought anyone home to meet them before. Not properly. Of course, he thinks that’s because you’ve been in the closet.”
Stu kicks him half-heartedly under the table. He has to lean in to catch Irwin’s next words as he goes on in a whisper.
“He told me he thinks you love me. That you told your mum you did when you phoned to ask about us going up.” He is grinning down at the scratched and graffitied tabletop, happiness practically shining out of him. Stu looks away, he is going to have to have a word with his dad.
He looks back to where Irwin is making a futile effort to mask his delight at the mere thought of Stu loving him and clears his throat.
“So. Your parents’ next then?”