September. Arthur starts sixth form. Arthur hates sixth form. He hates how huge and faceless it is, hundreds of kids all loving and laughing and learning in the same brick building, all those teenage fears and friendships crammed in together, coinciding, clashing. It’s too much. Too many people, too many lessons, too much work. Overload. Arthur wishes he was cleverer. Wishes the other kids would talk to him. Wishes he could be like them, wishes he could cope with this, wishes he was normal. But it doesn’t get any easier. It just. Doesn’t. That’s when he starts hurting himself, drawing red rows up the insides of his arms, counting the cuts. That’s when he starts drowning.
He skips lunch. Can’t bear to be in the canteen, nowhere to sit, no-one to talk to, no appetite. He sits outside, where the grass meets the basketball court, where the autumn air is warm, where the sky is stretched out above him, where there’s space. His head’s cluttered, crowded, and he can’t seem to clear it. He scribbles in his notebook, sketches, words, anything that comes tumbling out. It’s chaotic and confused. Arthur doesn’t understand it. Doesn’t understand what’s trapped inside him.
“What you doin’ ‘ere?” one of the lads on the basketball court says.
Arthur looks up, but the lad isn’t talking to him. He’s talking to the boy who’s just come onto the court. The boy with unruly hair and stubble and full, pink lips. Wifebeater exposing his broad chest, his strong arms, the line of his shoulders. Arthur feels something inside him drop.
“Wanted to play basketball,” says the boy, his voice so different to the coarse London accents of the other lads, “Isn’t that what you traditionally do on a basketball court?”
“Yeh, not you, gayboy. Run back ‘ome ter mummy, you posh twat.”
“That’s funny,” says the boy, and punches him in the face.
Arthur can’t stop the grin that tears his face in two.
And it starts. This stupid thing – this – crush. Arthur has never wanted anyone before. Not like this. He’s never wanted to feel the warmth of someone’s hand, or the coolness of their breath, or the roughness of their skin, or the softness of their lips. He used to think he’d like someone, someday, because that’s what happens to all teenage boys. He used to think he’d like a girl, because that’s what happens to all teenage boys. But it doesn’t. Not to all of them. Not to Arthur.
At lunchtime, he watches the boys on the basketball court. Or, he watches one of them. He watches the boy with the rakish smile and scuffed trainers and smooth voice. The private school kid gone bad. He feels like he’s watching him from a one-way mirror. Arthur can see him, hear him, love him. But he doesn’t know Arthur is there. Arthur doesn’t think he wants him to. He’d probably hate Arthur. He’d probably be just like the others.
The boy is called Eames. Just a last name, nothing more. Bloody private school.
October. Arthur is a teenager. He is in love with someone who doesn’t know he exists. Of course he writes lovesongs. One morning, he picks up a guitar in one of the music rooms. It’s battered and breaking but he chokes out a few chords. He starts writing songs, putting the scribbled words in his notebook to music. Struggling with what he feels. He still doesn’t understand it, what’s trapped inside him. But it feels good. Like he’s making something.
He meets Ari on a Wednesday morning. He’s in a music room, practising. She’s in the doorway, watching. He stops when he sees her.
“I’m sorry,” she stammers, “I didn’t mean to – I just – I liked that song. Who’s it by?”
“Me,” says Arthur, defensive.
“Oh. It’s nice. Sad. But very pretty.”
She looks at him, like she’s trying to understand him. She isn’t going to.
“How long have you been playing?” she asks.
“Since last Monday.”
“Fuck. That’s – wow. Does Mr James teach you?”
“No. No-one did.”
“I don’t lie.”
“No, I didn’t mean, it’s just – you’re good. Really good.”
The next day, she finds him again. She’s not alone.
“We’re in a band,” she says, “The Dream Workers. This is Dom and Nash. Bass guitar and drums.”
“And?” says Arthur.
“We need a guitarist.”
November. They practice in Nash’s bedroom. It’s cramped, the walls plastered in posters, pictures cut out from magazines, Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke and Robert Smith, paper-thin faces and bodies and guitars. The window doesn’t shut properly, letting in the sound of traffic and the cool winter air. Nash is erratic, his timing sometimes off. Dom’s steady and rhythmic, frowning as he plays with practised technique. Ari’s quiet when she sings but she hits the right notes. Arthur follows Dom’s lead, learning quickly, the skin on his fingers hardening the more he plays. He likes it. He likes Ari, pretty and little, with her quick smile and chattering conversation. He likes Dom, scruffy and serious, with his floppy hair and easy patience. He isn’t so sure about Nash. Nash, with his roll-up cigarettes, his way of slinging his arm round Arthur’s shoulders, his habit of scratching the inside of his arm.
Saturday afternoon. Ari and Dom leave early, sharing Ari’s new ipod. She’s going to break it soon. She doesn’t take care of her things. She loses them, breaks them. She’s much better with people. Nash waits until they’re gone. Then he crowds Arthur, puts his hands on his shoulders, pushes him back onto the bed.
“What are you doing?” says Arthur.
“It’s just a bit of fun, babe, relax.”
And Nash is heavy on top of him and Arthur can’t move, can’t speak, can’t anything, and Nash puts a hand down Arthur’s trousers and he comes, there, like that, for the first time, scared and confused and panting, and Nash grins.
December. It happens again. And again and again. Arthur sees Eames on the basketball court, happy and handsome and very, very far away, and tells himself he’s stupid to want him. Because it’s stupid to want what you can’t have, what you will never have. But Nash is here, and he wants Arthur. And Arthur wants to feel wanted. So he lets Nash have him. He wants it and hates it, wants the pleasure, hates how dirty and quick and loveless it is. But he doesn’t say no.
Ari and Dom and Nash get Arthur a guitar for Christmas. It’s cheap and secondhand and it needs restringing. He cries anyway.
January. Another Saturday afternoon. Another quickie with Nash. They’ve been like this for two months now. Arthur can count the days out on his arms. Happy Anniversary, he thinks bitterly, as Nash shoves Arthur’s jeans down to his ankles. Rough and fast, like he always is. But this time is different. He pushes a blunt finger inside Arthur, no warning, no lubrication. It hurts. Arthur gasps, doesn’t want this. Nash carries on anyway, adding another finger. Arthur squeezes his eyes shut. Thinks about Eames, tries to imagine it’s him. But he can’t. Because Eames wouldn’t be like this. He would kiss Arthur, open and hot and slow. He would touch him, gentle, like he was made of glass. He would be slow and sweet, lying back as Arthur rode him. He would whisper sweet nothings, call him ‘darling’. Arthur opens his eyes. Says one word.
“What?” says Nash, stung.
“Why not? What’s wrong with you?”
Arthur can’t count the number of things that are wrong with him. It’s wrong that he shuts himself in the bathroom and lets his blood run into the sink. It’s wrong that he lets Nash do what he wants to him. It’s wrong that he wants someone else and tells himself he can never have him. It’s wrong that he feels like this is all he deserves. Because it doesn’t need to be this way.
“I’m not doing this anymore,” Arthur says.
Monday. At lunchtime, he watches the boys on the basketball court. Or, he watches one of them. He watches Eames. Thinks, you saved me, and you don’t even know it. Thinks, I’m going to talk to you someday. Thinks, you better not be a twat. Ari sits down next to him, says, “Never knew you went for sporty types.”
“I was thinking they’ve got to be better than fucked-up grebo types.”
“Nash says he’s leaving the band.”
Arthur nods, doesn’t speak. Ari leans forwards.
“Were you two – you know…?”
“What happened is Nash is a dirty bastard and I’m never seeing him again. He’s a creep. And you know what gets me? He never kissed me. Jerked me off for weeks, never kissed me once. Fucking wanker.”
Ari looks at the boys playing basketball.
“You’re right. Sporty types have got to be better than that.”
February. They start looking for a new drummer. They find one.
“I think I might have found our man,” says Dom, Tuesday morning on the bus to college.
“Yeah? Who?” says Ari.
“I don’t know if you guys know him. He’s in our year, Miss Westfield’s form. Got kicked out of half a dozen private schools. His name’s Eames.”
And Arthur’s stomach twists.
“The one – who plays basketball?” he says.
“Yeah, that’s the one. You know him?”
“No, I’ve just – seen him around.”
“I think we should have a chat with him,” says Dom, “All of us. See if we can work something out.”
“Sounds good,” says Ari.
Arthur just nods, biting the inside of his cheek.
And then there’s Ari and Dom and Arthur sitting in the canteen with Eames, scruffy, handsome, bad boy Eames, and Arthur is fiddling nervously with his hoodie because he’s going to talk to Eames and his heart is beating double time.
“We’re called The Dream Workers,” Dom says, “Ari’s vocals, I’m bass guitar.”
Eames looks across the table at Arthur.
“And what do you do, darling?” he asks.
There’s the hint of a smile at the corner of his lips as he says that word, ‘darling’, so easy, like it belongs to Arthur.
“Guitar. And it’s Arthur,” says Arthur.
And then Eames takes his hand, strokes his thumb across the backs of his fingers. Arthur takes in a short, broken breath.
“How are you doing?” Eames asks.
And Arthur’s not okay, he hasn’t been for a long time, but maybe, with Eames here, he will be.