Breakfast over, back from the dining hall with just enough time for a dump before the first class of the morning, Andrew Simpson walked into the boarding house through the back door, through the changing room with its racks of wire sports lockers and its pervasive smell of mud and sweat, and turned into the toilet block. Three cubicles, a trough-type urinal and one handbasin. The centre cubicle was occupied, so Simpson chose the one on the left and settled himself down on the seat in anticipation of a satisfying few minutes.
His attention was drawn to a moving shadow on the floor under the partition. He leaned down. Two heels were visible on the floor of the next cubicle, well ahead of the pan, trousers bunched around the ankles, toes pointing upwards. Someone next door was stretched out, and judging by the rhythmic oscillation of the heels they were... Simpson imagined what was going on next door. He turned his face to the wall, imagining that his x-ray vision gave him a clear view. What would he see?
What he actually saw was some writing on the wall beside him. Adding to the collection of professions of loyalty to sports teams, and crude drawings of erections, someone had written, with a thick black marker, 'Simpson is a HOMO'. Appalled, he snapped out of his reverie and rubbed at it with his thumb. He pulled his hankie out of his pocket and spat on it, and rubbed at the wall with that. Some of the years of ingrained grime came off on the white cotton but the offensive words were unchanged.
He finished his business and went to the sink. He wet his hankie and rubbed soap on it and took it back into the cubicle and rubbed at the black marks on the wall. But his efforts made no difference. Giving up, he rinsed his hankie out and wrung it as dry as he could before stuffing it back in his trouser pocket. It was time for class and he ran through the boarding house common room and grabbed his books and joined all the other boys walking toward the teaching block where he was due to sit through double Maths.
His mind wasn't on the lessons, he knew how the rumour machine worked and was sure that he would quickly be labelled queer. There were a few boys in the school who weren't good at sports, or were suspiciously good at drama, or had delicate features, and these got bullied and harassed cruelly by the bigger, more aggressive boys. Simpson had never suffered that way. He was athletic, wiry rather than stocky, good on the wing rather than in the scrum in rugby, and won the inter-house cross country run the previous term even though at seventeen he was a year younger than the entrants from the other houses. Not in the centre of the school social elite, he was nevertheless quite popular.
He sat through double Maths, and then Chemistry and English, re-running in his mind an event he'd witnessed just a few days earlier. Higgins and his cronies had tripped up one of the juniors as he carried his tray from the cafeteria serving line to his table in the middle of the room. He'd damaged his elbow, landing hard on it on the tiled floor, and he pulled himself up to a sitting position and sat hugging his elbow and rocking slightly, his eyes watering.
Higgins stood over him. “Well, get up, you poofter, and clear up this mess you've made!” The poor boy struggled to get up, retrieved his tray and scooped as much of his meal back onto it as he could before heading over to the kitchen to get a mop to clear up the rest of the mess. A couple of dozen boys watched the episode including the prefect on duty, but nobody lifted a hand to help, or remonstrated with Higgins for his bullying. The junior boy later had to go to hospital for an x-ray, which revealed a hairline crack in one of the bones of his arm. Simpson found himself developing a new sympathy for him and all the other outcasts, while at the same time he dreaded the thought of joining their number.
He skipped lunch, and used the time to go down to the woodwork workshop, looking for some kind of solvent that might remove the awful allegation. He found a tin of paint thinners and soaked his long-suffering hankie with it. The boys weren't allowed to take a can of solvent out of the building. He ran all the way back to the boarding house, cradling the wet cloth in his two hands, and rushed straight to the bogs and set to rubbing away at the writing on the wall. After ten minutes the last of the solvent had evaporated and his hankie was black, but the writing, though slightly greyer, was still clearly legible. He sat on the seat lid and held his head in his hands.
Over the next couple of days Simpson watched and listened nervously for the onset of persecution. There had been no sign of it by the weekend and he began to hope that maybe nothing would happen. Nevertheless, while changing for the cross-country run that was scheduled for Saturday sports, he took more care than usual not to be caught staring at the bodies of the other boys. You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time. Where, he pondered, did that come from?
The run was not competitive, the boys were expected to run twelve miles out along farm paths to a village five miles from the school, and then back a slightly longer route along the bank of the canal. On competition runs, a teacher was posted at the pub in the village with a list, and ticked off the boys' names as they passed. But today they were on trust to do the whole circuit.
Andy was good at running and enjoyed it in good weather, so in the bright spring sunshine he forged ahead and soon left the others well behind. He was on the return leg of the run, about half-way home when a younger boy in the school sports kit suddenly appeared running for all he was worth across his path from the meadow beyond the hedge. Arriving on the canal tow-path only just ahead of Andy, he stopped and stood bent at the waist, with his hands just above his knees propping him up while he panted. He was very muddy. Andy went to run around him but the younger boy waved and flapped his hands to stop him. So he stopped and waited while the other caught his breath. Up close he could see who it was – Shawcross, in the year below him and one of the favourite targets of the Higgins gang.
Andy realised the boy had taken a short cut across the farm fields, cutting the route in half, and this was the point at which he was rejoining the official route. That being so, he wondered why he had clearly bust a gut to get this far so soon. It would have made more sense to take it easy, and arrive back at school at about the same time as the bulk of the runners, who would not get to this point for another quarter of an hour or more.
Gradually Shawcross stopped panting and his face grew less pink. He stood upright again and said “Thank you!” and then went pink again and Andy worried that perhaps he was ill.
The boy took a deep breath and then came out with: “I had to cut across the fields, I wanted to talk to you. I hadn't a hope of catching up with you.”
“Well, we're at the same school, couldn't you have talked to me in the dining hall, or somewhere?”
“No. You don't understand.”
“What, then? We're wasting time, we're supposed to be running.”
“Sorry. Look, have you seen what's on the wall of the bogs by the changing rooms?”
Andy felt his throat constrict. This was what he'd been afraid of. He'd known it would come and now it had. But he'd expected it would come from Higgins or one of his lot, not from a small and rather frightened-looking boy, one of Higgins' victims.
He tried playing dumb. “What do you mean?”
“What it says about you?”
One more attempt at bluffing it out. “You don't want to believe everything you read on toilet walls!”
“So it's not true, then?”
“Are you serious?”
The younger boy blushed again. “I'm very serious. Is it true or isn't it?”
Andy took his time. Suddenly he felt calm. What will be, will be.
“What do you expect me to say? And what do you expect to learn from my answer? Jog along with me, I don't want to lose too much ground.”
They set off along the canal at a gentle trot, not a pace that would prevent them from talking.
“Look, I could be scrupulously honest, or I could easily lie to you. I could say yes, or no. If I said no, maybe I'd be telling the truth, but if the truth is yes, what's to stop me getting you off my back by saying no? Don't you think it's a bit naïve to expect a useful answer to a question like that?”
Shawcross looked a little sulky and didn't say anything more for a while, trotting along at Andy's heels quietly. When he spoke again it was with determination.
“I still want your answer.”
Andy experienced the odd sensation of watching himself, at a distance, as he opened his mouth and gave his answer. Time seemed to slow. His mind was ringing warning bells but he watched himself recklessly ploughing on.
“The answer's Yes.” Everything came to a halt. Andy heard himself say the words, heard himself admit to being a 'homo', and by doing so nailing the lid down on his own coffin. He saw Higgins and countless other bigger and badder Higginses for the rest of his life getting their kicks out of demeaning and denigrating him. It took him an effort to take in and process what the younger boy said next.
“Good, because I need someone I can talk to, someone who'll understand.”
© Bruin Fisher February 2009
With heartfelt thanks to my good friend N whose help in the honing of this story was invaluable.