I hate shopping.
I may have to say that again.
I hate shopping.
So imagine my absolute horror when my parents decided to take me and my kid brother and sister to a shop-fest. It was billed as a Christmas Fair, luckily not a Christmas Fayre, at a shopping village just off the A38. "Celebrate the 12 days of (a Devon) Christmas at The Shops at Dartington's annual Christmas Fair - music, magic and a host of activities in every shop!"
Who could resist?
Well, obviously not mum!
"Dress warm," she said. "A lot of it's walking between places."
I chose my skinny black jeans. I know jeans are useless in cold, but I like them, and I found my green tartan cold weather jacket, the big puffy one. Then it all went wrong. Contact lens failure! Had to put on my dorky glasses. Everything's out of focus without one or the other. I don't have a huge selection of clothes. We're at grandpa and grandma's for Christmas, dad's parents.
Grandpa keeps encouraging me to grow my hair longer, grandma says she hates it. I think she does it to tease him. Mum keeps telling me the page-boy like cut makes me look like a girl, and especially the highlights. They're natural! I'm mainly mouse brown, but with a bit of blond and some red squirrel running through it.
Doesn't run to my pubes, though. I'm not sure I care about that. They're browny, curly. Not that anyone needs to know that. They only get seen in the school showers, and then only when I show them off!
Well, I do.
Not that it's ever done me any good.
Showing them off, I mean.
If only I had someone to show them off to. Er, that's not right. I do. I show off to Robert Bridger. He's got a gorgeous dimple on his left cheek, a wicked smile and he's slim and sleek and dreamy...
I've been one of Rob's friends for years. I'm not his friend now. I'm the skinny kid with the weird letterbox slot glasses that I thought were sexy once - coz I can't wear my lenses in school - long dead straight and, even though I say it myself, really sexy hair, and a slightly snub nose who wants him to kiss me, and do exceptionally unimaginable things that I keep imagining every night to me, for me, with me. I'm not his friend any more. I'm his imaginary lover.
I look like his friend, of course, and I think I behave like his friend. I hope I do. Rob's really nice, and funny, and...
"Charlie, are you every going to get out of the car?" Mum's voice has no place in my daydreaming about Rob and his dimples.
"We've arrived, then?"
"We have, firstborn child of mine!"
Rob's not gay.
We talked about being gay. I am, he's not. End of.
Did I tell him what I wanted him to do?
I did not.
I'm out at school. It's ok. A few others are, too. Wish I wanted one of them.
I liked the food part. There was a heck of a queue by the posh burger tent. While we were queuing I just know I caught the eye of a seriously older bloke who was munching on a burger. I had the idea, wife standing beside him or not, he was gay as an Easter parade, something about the way he didn't look away. Wonder if that's gaydar?
Even if I liked older blokes, and I do quite go for that Aussie actor in the Doctor Blake daytime TV stuff, this chap wasn't him! I knew he'd remember me, though. I watched him look me down and up. That's like up and down, but reversed, somehow. He may not have been my type or age group, but I was dead pleased I'd chosen the skinny jeans. I know I've got skinny legs, so the effect is, well, something I'd like to look at, too.
Anyway, I saw him thinking, maybe hoping he was subtle, taking a mental video of me. I think he liked what he saw. Too much of a gentleman to stay looking, but I bet he's writing a story about me in his head!
I think I like being noticed.
I'm glad he didn't spoil it by talking to me, but I kind of wish he had, too.
We're staying for Christmas in Halwell. Dad's folks did that typical oldies' thing and retired to Devon. My view is that they screwed that up because I'd have moved all the way to the edge and had a view of the harbour. I suppose that would have cost a bomb, though, even in the bit of Kingswear that doesn't get much sun in the winter.
Last time we stayed down here we went to the edge and went crabbing on the quayside. Dad moaned a lot about having to use the Park and Ride car park. The town gets rammed in summer. Parking's much easier now the tourists have gone. Grandpa calls them ' grockles'; he's decided to be Devon, as best he can. He's about the same age as the bloke at Dartington, as far as I can judge. Last time we found a tea shop just off one of the main streets, and had the best cream tea ever. Today's to be a return match. Our treat for grandma and grandpa this time.
The weather's not bad. Fog first thing, which clung to the top of the hills on the way to town. Had to be today, though, fog or not. Grandma says the tea shop's closed on Mondays. We decided to park, walk out to the castle to look at the sea, and then back for lunch. Cream tea makes a good lunch. It has two of the essential food groups, sugar and fat.
It was good to walk out of the town to the Castle, even if yesterday's contact lens disaster meant I had to wear my machine gun slit framed oh-so-fashionable glasses. The place gets featured on TV, too. It's often in those Escape to the Country shows, but it had a starring role in The Onedin Line years ago, and gets featured in The Coroner a lot. It's a gorgeous place.
The walk was good. We must go into the castle one day, it looks fun. The sea was grey and looked very cold. Even in December there was a yacht coming into harbour when we got the the harbour mouth, though. Loads of people about. Walking out to the castle and back seems to be a sort of regular walk for folk who don't normally walk anywhere.
Half way back we diverted up a very narrow hill, and took the top road back into town. The walls hiding the houses are very tall, but, when you get a view you get a great view. We all wondered how they dared build the houses clinging onto the steep hillside. One at a time, I suppose.
"Tea shop's at the end of this road," grandpa told no-one in particular. "Well, just past the end, really."
It's a cute little place, red carpet, old world charm without being ' Olde Worlde '. It's not pretentious, not even posh, it's just was a tea shop should be, cozy, warm, and with a happy buzz. The owners are nuts, and in a good way. I'm sure they are not 'classically heterosexual', certainly not by the hugely camp way they both act. The place looks to be half for locals, half for grockles. I wonder what we are.
No, grockle versus local! I know I'm gay! So do the family. It mattered for a moment, but not in a bad way. It mattered, they all said, that I was happy, and safe, and loved. Mum teased me, and told me she was teasing me about grandchildren.
It was empty when we walked in. Just us. It felt special, sort of private.
I wondered if I dared flirt with the owners, but they beat me to the punch, teasing the dickens out of grandpa for starters, then the rest of us. Told him we couldn't sit in the window, that was reserved for the posh people, all with a twinkle and a sparkle. We were too many for a smaller table. Five of us plus the olds, so they put two tables together.
When I say 'they', I mean a lad about my age came out from the little kitchen and sorted it out. He looked so shy. And so pretty. I drank him in; short neat brown hair, almost like in the 1960s pictures of grandpa at school, tapered at the back, slim neck, a glow to his cheeks, and so slim I wondered how the essential plumbing passed through. Lovely hands, too. But he had absolutely zero conversation, and turned away when I smiled at him.
I struggled to catch his name when the owners spoke to him. It sounded like Zen. That made me giggle. We've just been watching Blake's Seven on Youtube. Classic English SciFi with the wobbliest sets you ever saw. Zen's one of their computers. That show could have been so good. The initial concept rivalled Star Wars... I'm getting ahead of myself.
The door tings a little shop bell every time it opens. A couple came in. He was the tubby silver haired bloke whose eyes had recorded a video of me at Dartington, I'm sure he was. Hadn't noticed his beard then, though. Neat, longer than fashionable stubble, not at long Gandalf's. And he smiled at me.
Then he smiled at 'Zen' and 'good afternooned' the owners. But he talked to Zen when he came over to polish his table. And it is his name. Wonder if it's a nickname? Can't be real, can it? I couldn't hear the conversation, though I tried. I managed to hear Zen's voice, just not the words. It was soft, obviously broken like mine. I put his age at around sixteen, too, like me.
I wonder how you talk to a shy boy like him? I mean I wonder how I start to talk to a shy boy like him? He's not hot, exactly. There's something wistful about him that needs... needs... needs me!
You can not believe or imagine the cream tea. Mum and dad treated us all to whatever we wanted. I've had one of their cream teas before. It came with two scones, a heap of jam and a heap of Devon clotted cream, on a two tier cake stand, with strawberries, kiwi fruit, orange slices, and looked worth a photograph. I Instagrammed it. Well, you would.
"Everyone does that," came a quiet voice, followed by a shy smile. "I'm not surprised. They take such huge care when they serve the food here."
He'd stopped by my elbow just as he was coming back from tubby beardy man's table. "It's wonderful. Dad promised me another one when I was here in the summer. Not sure I can manage it, though." I gave him what I hoped was my sweetest smile. I was rather afraid it came across as a leer. I was rewarded with eye contact. He has blue eyes, gentle, light blue.
I wondered if he could see mine, hidden behind glass. They're sort of nondescript grey. You've probably worked out I feel self conscious in my glasses.
"Zen, please clear table four!" An order from the kitchen. I wondered if, later, they would have a new lad later called Orac to help Zen out! It's a Blake's Seven thing.
It looked as if I was destined to be very close to Zen but not actually to meet him. Apart from anything else trying to chat to a boy I'd not met before with my whole family watching felt... awkward.
Didn't seem to stop mum and grandpa from chatting to tubby beardy man, though. Ha! Maybe he's not a stranger now, so I can talk to him!
But I think he fancies me. I've read stories about that... Which, actually, mostly sound ok. Not sure I go for tubbiness and a beard, though. Hmm... Dr Blake (not he of the Seven, do try to keep up!) has a beard, and I think he's hot... I think, Zen apart, and setting Rob completely aside since I'm Glad to Be Gay and he's Happy to Be Hetero, I'd not mind Dr Blake's attentions at all, if he was kind. Until now it's just been Wonderful to Be a Wanker, though.
Wish I'd made the second two slogans up. Grandpa was at Birmingham University in the 1970s when the Gay Lib Annual Conference came one Easter. The folk at the conference wore G2BG buttons. Grandpa's mates made up the other two. Funny what you find out when you tell the family you're gay.
We spent ages there. There was no hurry to leave. I've never spent the entire afternoon happily chatting in a tea shop before. I thought, perhaps imagined, Zen was stealing glances at me when I was trying not to steal glances at him.
Since tea also means pee, I found my way to the loo. I've read those stories too. Well, the loo was a single occupancy area! On my way back to the table beardy man smiled and beckoned me over. Weird.
"My name's Nicky," he said. "I think we almost met at Dartington yesterday?" He was smiling gently.
Confusion set in, and I blushed. "Charlie," I said. "Did we?"
"Almost." He smiled at me. "I've enjoyed this afternoon. I think your grandfather and I may become firm friends. I hope so." He paused, and his eyes grabbed mine, and looked then toward Zen. "What's the worst than can happen if you ask him?"
"What do you mean?"
"I think you know. I'm not wrong, Charlie. Ask him."
"I can't... I'm..."
"You can, and yes, you are. Or do I suggest that he asks you?"
"It's not hard to know, you know." He thought for a while. "Just trust the word of a silly old stranger? What's the worst that can happen?"
I started to think. There was no 'worst'. "The worst is not in the asking. It's..." I was realising, "It's... in the not asking... But... How?"
We'd been talking low. "Young man?" He was calling over to the kitchen.
"How may I help you, sir?" Zen was at the table, by my side.
"Me? No, Zen. The reverse." then, to me, "Over to you, my boy."
I somehow got the 'do not back out now and do not screw this up' message in his eyes. "You doing anything after work?" That was neutral enough. Wow. His eyes hit the ground. More was needed. "I wouldn't mind being shown a bit more of the town... That is... if you wouldn't mind...? And I could do with someone my own age, not just my folks and the olds!"
"Depends when we close," he mumbled. "I just have the clearing up to do. And, yes, I'd like to do that."
I worked out the logistics with dad. If I couldn't get a bus later on I'd call him. It wasn't far to Halwell. He gave me some money for fish and chips, not just for me.
"Do you need to go home and change?" I'd come back and met Zen at the door.
"Wouldn't mind, but I live in the upper town."
"Bus or walk?"
So we did, but 'upper' means 'upper', so there was minimal talking in the mile or so to his home, at least until we got to the top of the enormous hill.
I thought that everyone would ask about his unusual name, so I didn't. "How long have you worked there?"
"Started on Thursday. I've finished school, and I was dead lucky to get a job, especially at this time of year; no tourists in the winter. Of course, they close for January, but a job's a job. I like it. I like them, too. They've been good to me. Tease me a bit, too. I hope I do well enough for them to take me back for the summer."
"I think they probably tease everyone!"
"The customers get a lot of it. They're fair bosses, though. They want it done just so, and that's how it gets done. They didn't even yell at me when I dropped a milk jug and broke it."
"Just said 'the first one's on us. Next ones are out of your wages.' Fair, really."
I've read those stories. Boy meets boy, both boys go home, boys fuck like bunnies, that sort of stuff. Well, we met, went to his house, he changed, I waited downstairs with his kid sister, and then we went out again, down the big hill into the town. It was chilly rather than cold.
"You haven't asked me about my name?"
"Should I have?"
"Now you put it like that..."
We were walking down the road, not got to the Old Market yet. "Zen?"
"I'm gay. I thought you ought to know."
"I had a feeling. Hoped you were. Me too. That's one of the reasons I like working for the bosses. I can ask a real gay man what's what."
"'Hoped' sounds good. I hoped you might be, too. I, er, well, erm, I like the way you look. I hope this is a date?"
"Yes, please. I've not dated before. What do we do?"
"Well, I'm steering clear of the public toilets on the front!"
"Twit! It's not that kind of town, or probably not. Anyway it costs 20p to go in! Let's go to the embankment. I like it at night."
He showed me his town; we talked; I told him about me, sixteen years old, slightly geeky, oldest of three. He told me about him, birthday in June a couple of months after mine, sixteen too, kid sister, just him and his mum. We didn't have that stupid 'how did you know you were gay?' discussion. You just know. We discovered we'd both been kissed, just not by another boy.
"Want to find out what it's like?" I think we both asked that at the same time.
And, in the shelter, there looking over the harbour we did. A lip peck, and then we leaned in to each other, and his tongue fought mine. And it seemed perfect, just perfect. Zen was so slim he wouldn't cast a shadow if he stood sideways-on to the moon, but he filled my arms, and all my senses.
We missed the chippy that night. Didn't matter.
It got cold. Nor did that.
We watched the car ferry, the one with the tug. I kissed him in front of the cannon, and we got a whistle from one of the ferrymen. "About time you got yourself a girlfriend, young Zen!"
He laughed, and called back. "That's not my girlfriend!" Then to me. "Sorry. Must be your hair. Which I love by the way, but it's wonderfully ambiguous. I like you just as you are."
I put my hand on his close cut hair and found it was like velvet, and pulled him on for a kiss, and heard, "If that's not your girlfriend, she's doing a pretty good impression, boy!" His life, his town, so I let it ride. I've been mistaken for a girl before. No point in outing him to a rough, tough ferryman!
"Thanks." He pecked my nose. "I'm not quite brave enough. We've a lot of gay blokes here. A lot. No gay 'scene', though, which is good and bad. But I want to be the one to tell my mum, not anyone else. I know she'll not mind too much, I think she probably knows. I'm sixteen, never had a girlfriend, always been a bit of a loner."
"Mine know about me, probably about you too, now. I'm not sure Nicky wasn't conspiring with my grandpa."
"Beardy bloke in the tea shop?"
"Don't remember anyone. I only had eyes for you. Surprised I didn't drop a teapot! Does it sound weird that I like your glasses?"
Neither of us fancied walking up that hill again. It's a bugger! I called Dad. We hadn't just missed the chippy, we'd not quite got frozen until all the ferries bar the passenger one were moored up for the night.
We met the next day, Monday, after he'd done his chores at home. Took the bus to Torcross and wondered about the Sherman tank there. I wondered. Zen knew, and told me the whole story. But he told me that the official death toll in the disaster was probably far lower that reality, by maybe five hundred, maybe more. Made my eyes leak, thinking that some weren't much above our age.
It was friends we were becoming. We knew we were both gay. It's like a heterosexual boy and girl can be friends without having sex all the time, well, at all. Actually I wonder if that's true. We kissed, but nothing like the that first night. We couldn't meet every evening. I had family stuff, he had shopping and stuff. We both had preparation for Christmas stuff. But we made plans for Friday night, the day before Christmas Eve.
We were going on a proper date, seeing 'Allied' at the cinema at seven-thirty, and definitely fish and chips first. We might even hold hands in the back row! Fat chance. We were three rows down, but it was a real date. And we were going to eat 'in' at the chippy. The weather forecast sucked and the rain belted down for much of the day.
That rain was a bit of a damper, literally. I wanted and he wanted to walk down the embankment after the film, and kiss again in the shelter.
I heard the soundtrack. I was too overwhelmed about being with... was Zen my Boyfriend? ...about being with a boy, another gay boy, in a cinema on a date. I wanted to study him but the light was dark. I like his face, though he still looks uncertain, sometimes. He's gentle, sweet, just plain adorable. He says I am, too.
It was still raining afterwards, but not pouring. No-one was about, and we decided to make a run for the shelter. There were others on the way, but this was our shelter. And we made it, fairly dry. Er, no, we were soaked, but didn't care.
Mid way through our third, maybe fourth kiss something, someone, caught my attention. That chap from the tea shop, the bearded one. He was in full waterproofs, looked like a red sou'wester, big red fishing waterproofs with a wide black belt, and black wellies, water pouring off him, and he was speaking. To us. "Excuse me, lads," he said, quietly, "It's probably none of my business... Even so, do you have plans for the evening?"
My Dirty-Old-Man radar went into overdrive, but I wondered why he was there. "It's Nicky? From the tea shop, and Dartington?"
"I'm Nick, yes," he said. "Don't worry, I know what's going through your mind, Zen's too."
"I do. And that's not going to happen. You're both on the 'nice list', Charlie, and I think you both deserve an early present."
"Hahahaha. I'm too old to believe in Father Christmas!"
"Well," Nick said, "I'm not too old to believe in you. And I do. And, since I'm very busy tomorrow night, and since you deserve your present now, here it is."
The world went a little swimmy for a moment, and then got much drier. I was in a place I'd never been before, a bedroom, a boy's bedroom, Zen's bedroom!? And Zen was holding my hand and leading me to his bed, which looked freshly made.
"How did we get here?" I asked him.
"We took ths bus, then walked, silly."
"I remember being at the shelter and talking to Nick..."
"We never spoke to anyone. And who's Nick?"
"Tubby bloke, was in the tea shop when we met, silver hair and beard, well more white than silver."
"Nope. We went to the shelter, kissed, saw the bus back up the embankment and decided to come here, Mum's out tonight. So's my sister. You texted your dad to say you were staying over. I'm glad you are. You're my Christmas present come early."
"So, no Nick?"
"You and your family were the only ones in that afternoon, too. No-one was there when you came in, and no-one came in after you." He smiled, and said again. "I think you're my Christmas present come early."
"That's what Nick said. He said ' I'm very busy tomorrow night, and since you deserve your present now, here it is. ' And here I am, and here we are, and now I think I'd like to get out of these wet, hmm, no, dry clothes."
"Do you mind very much if this Nick person doesn't join us?"
"I'd mind if he did. I want to learn about all of you, Zen. Someone, something's brought us together, and I don't think we're going to waste it."
We did a lot of the things I'd thought I'd like Rob to do, when I thought I loved him. Not all of them. And Zen wanted me to do things, too. We did a lot. And we did some things I'd never thought of. I surprised myself. Licking one of those is genuinely amazing, especially when it makes Zen squeal! And a mouthful of Zen doesn't taste sweet. It's a bit yuck, unlike what the stories tell you. But the sucking, and it being him and his, that made it wonderful.
I don't know if Zen and I have a future. I'm here on holiday, this is his home. What I do know is that we have a present. And, for Christmas 2016, he is my present, and I'm his.
I still wonder if he was writing a story about me. Or was he real?
Zen was written and published before I heard about Zenon.
The young man in my story is real, and named as in the story. It would be inappropriate to alter his name in the tale because of Zenon's death. It would be similarly inappropriate to suggest that the tale be a memorial of some description for Zenon.
I wonder, though, if we might pause a little and think about those gay teenagers whose emotional state means that a setback may trigger self harm.
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