The breeze was still there from last night, blowing a paper across the pavement. The air was warm on his face as Arran walked out of the house. By the time he reached the bus stop, everything was still, as if someone had turned off the ventilation. Looking along the high street, half the road was blocked and a man in an orange jacket was moving some cones. That explained why his road was much busier than usual; the traffic was diverted. He'd left early, just as he had yesterday, thinking he might run into Tom. He was anxious to know his decision. But fifteen minutes later the bus stop was crowded with people and there was no sign of any bus.
Taking much longer than usual, he was late arriving at college, leaving him racing for the first period class. He saw Mark, who nodded to him as he entered the studio. They were both doing the same module: theatre, screen and performance design. Out of breath, he slid into place and listened to Maggie Jones give her introduction to the course. Arran had opted for this because he needed to complete his options and the design element seemed to fit, but he hadn't really considered working in theatre or film. Mark had, it was what he wanted to do; in contrast, Arran had no definite future plan.
Arran found Mark at the end of Maggie's class.
"What happened to you this morning?" Mark asked.
"Get together later? I've got another class now," Mark suggested, turning down the corridor.
"Yeah, but lunchtime I'm nipping home. Forgot something I wanted to show Tom, if I can find him."
"You sorted out your project with him?" Mark asked.
"Okay, later, dude."
He watched Mark and the other students leave, before heading for the library. He had a free period, but it wasn't enough time to get home and back, so he'd skip lunch. The library was at the far end of the college on the top floor. With nearly everyone in class the place had the appearance of a ghost building. It reminded Arran of when he was little, that feeling he could do anything when he was excused class for some reason or another, whilst everyone else was locked in their classrooms. He had been tempted, but apart from dawdling along the corridors and peeking in at the other classes, he had never done anything. Just like he had never skipped school. He was always torn between adventure and consequences, giving way to prudence, not daring to take the risk.
The library smelt of old wood, though not exactly, perhaps a combination of smells, certainly different from the rest of the building. Entering, it struck him how the different spaces, classrooms, studios, had their unique odour.
"Hey!" A voice half-whispered in the silence, snapping Arran from his daydreaming.
Tom was the last person he expected to bump into. Walking over, he joined him at the table.
Yeah," Tom grinned, leaving Arran unsure if it was a free period or he was skipping a lecture.
"You thought anymore about posing?" Arran looked at him sitting there with a large book open in front of him on the table.
"I'd have to keep still for the whole class," Tom replied.
"Well, yeah. But like two thirty or forty minute sessions."
"And if..." Tom had started what seemed like a list of excuses to Arran.
"What? If you get hard?"
Tom blushed and looked away. "No. I wasn't thinking like that. There's no way posing in front of twenty people that would happen."
"What then?" Arran asked.
Tom didn't reply immediately, he looked around the library. His eyes wandering over the dark wooden shelves and rows of books. "If people start talking about me."
"Talking about you? Why? What are they gonna talk about?"
"You know... What I look like."
This surprised Arran, making him think that there might be something about Tom that wasn't obvious, but worried him. "Okay, I guess I don't know you well enough, I never thought you..." He paused thinking how to say this. "I mean you have a birthmark or something? Something nobody would normally see?"
Tom was not the sort of person to expand on things. Arran felt he was always pushing to drag out information.
"You know, I feel like I'm pushing you into doing this, so let's forget it. I'll ask Ali if maybe she would do it. Or maybe Mark, he's a good friend."
It was the first time Tom had used his name. Bizarrely, it had a certain effect. As though they were now friends, not only students thrown together for a project.
"It's not that I don't want to do it. It's a good idea and you're right, it wouldn't have the same effect with someone else. The finish with the self-portrait brings it all together. You can't do that with someone else."
"Well, I'm glad you think the same. So what do we do?"
"I don't know."
Arran watched the hands on the large wall clock move towards eleven o'clock. "I've got some drawings I want to show you, but I forgot them this morning, so I was gonna go get them lunchtime. Can we pick up with this at the end of today?"
"Sure. I'll be in the Art room tidying up, like yesterday." Tom closed the large book and picked it up.
"Later," Tom smiled, standing and walking away to return the book to its place on the shelves.
When Arran turned the key in the lock and entered the hallway he didn't expect to find his dad home, but his jacket was hanging up on the clothes peg and his car keys were on the hall table. Poking his head into the lounge he saw it was empty. Checking out the kitchen, that too had no one. His artwork was upstairs in his bedroom and as he climbed the staircase he heard a voice. Only it wasn't his father speaking. It was a woman's voice he heard first, before he heard his dad chuckle. By the sound of things as he crouched on the staircase listening, they weren't just talking.
As silently as he could he retreated downstairs, abandoning his quest to retrieve his artwork. It would have to wait. Maybe it was not surprising to find his dad in bed with another woman. After all, his parents were separated. Still, it caught him off guard, it was something they'd never talked about. And, whilst he was very curious to discover who it was, because she sounded young, now wasn't the moment. He quietly opened the front door and ever so carefully clicked it shut, hoping no one would hear.
On the way back to school he popped into the bakers and picked up a hot chicken and mushroom pie. He ate his lunch on the bus journey back. Staring out the window, he decided he had to investigate. Try to discover who his father was seeing.
He couldn't easily bring it up in conversation over supper. No, he needed to be a little more crafty, which is how it occurred to him to check the webcam. Of course, that might not work, it was in the third bedroom, the box room at the top of the stairs. His father had mainly used it for video conferencing when he had been off work with a torn calf muscle and needed to keep in touch. Since then, the camera was relegated to a shelf above the desk, but might still be switched on. Arran had said it was a good idea to leave it on to survey the house whilst it was empty during the summer, when they had gone to Spain together. Anyway he would check it out tonight. Another intrigue.
Later that afternoon he shared another class with Mark where he told him to meet up during afternoon break. There was a pause in classes mid-afternoon, a sort of twenty minute coffee break. The canteen was shut, but staff used the staff room whilst students had their common room and two vending machines outside the canteen provided drinks and snacks.
"So, did you get your stuff lunchtime?" Mark asked as he waited for the beige plastic cup to fill with what passed for coffee.
"No, but I do have something I need to tell you."
They moved away from the vending machines and went outside to stand in the sunshine that scattered across the old playground, diffused by the leaves on the long branches of two large, old trees. The shade formed odd patterns across the tarmac reaching up the steps to the doors of the building. It was much quieter at the back, the monolithic block of the college cutting out the noise from the main road.
Mark stood looking out at the almost empty space, surveying the playground as he sipped his coffee. "What's up then?"
"It's kind of a revelation," Arran started to explain.
Mark stopped drinking and turned to face his friend. "Don't tell me you're gonna do the best friend is gay and fancies me routine," Mark said half-joking, half-serious.
Arran frowned. "Yeah, that's very funny. I'm being serious here."
"Okay, so seriously, what? It's you and Ali?"
"No, nothing to do with her."
"Are you sure? Come on spill the beans. I'm not gonna take sides."
Mark sounded like he was certain this was about Arran and Alison. That, Arran thought, is probably because he's so wrapped up in his own relationship with Jennifer.
Arran shifted his position, shuffling around. "My dad. I saw him with someone."
"When? With who?" Mark asked.
"Lunchtime, when I went home."
"Do you know her?"
"No. I didn't even see who it was. I mean, they were in the bedroom."
"Oh, I get it."
"Yeah, well, I just left. But I do want to know."
"Why?" Mark asked. "If it's serious, I'm sure your dad will tell you. And if it isn't, then it's his business. You know what they say?"
"What?" Arran was a little annoyed that Mark wasn't curious like he was. That his friend wasn't following his own desire to discover the mystery lady.
Mark grinned broadly. "Curiosity killed the cat."
"Yeah, very funny. I'm going in," Arran said and returned inside, leaving Mark to finish his coffee alone.
Tom was sitting on the stage when Arran arrived. "You been waiting for me?"
"No, I was sitting here contemplating the universe before heading home," Tom answered a little sarcastically.
"I'm late then, sorry." Arran tried a little smile.
"Did you bring your stuff?" Tom asked, looking him in the eyes.
"Sorry again. Really. Something came up."
Tom stood up, ready to leave. "So I guess I'm off. We'll do this another time."
"Hang on," Arran interrupted. "You could come round to my place."
"What? Now?" Tom hesitated.
"Yeah, why not? If you want?"
"Where do you live?"
Arran gave his address and after judging it was not that far, Tom agreed. Arran said he could stay to eat, so Tom called his mum to let her know. It took a little longer than usual because of the road works. There was no one home when they got there, just a note from his dad left in the kitchen.
"We've got the place to ourselves," Arran announced and left the note on the counter. "My dad won't be back till late."
"What about you're mum?"
"They're separated. I live with my dad."
"Really?" Tom was surprised.
Arran grinned. "No, I just made that up so you'd feel sorry for me. Of course, really."
Tom looked around the kitchen. "I'm... no, it's... I mean, I live with my mum."
"Come on," Arran said. "The designs I wanted to show you are in my room."
Tom followed him up the stairs and looked in at the little study, where the door was open, before going into Arran's bedroom. He looked around at the desk, the posters, the bookshelf with the silver trophy on it.
"What's this for," he asked picking up the trophy.
"Cross country. When I was in senior school."
Arran found the folder and brought it with him to sit down on the bed. His room was not that big, but he could spread open the folder between them if Tom decided to sit down.
For the moment Tom paced around the room. "Your bedroom is a real boy's room," he remarked.
Arran looked up at him. "I suppose. I never really thought about it. Just full of stuff I've accumulated and never got rid of."
Tom picked up the little stuffed black and white panda with one thread bare ear. "Like this?"
Arran laughed. "Exactly. I insisted I wanted a panda when I was six. Had to be a panda, not a teddy bear. He's called Terrance."
"Nice to meet you, Terrance." Tom said, replacing Terrance on the shelf.
Arran watched as Tom moved around the room. It was true that he moved in a sort of delicate way. His gestures could be considered kind of gay. That didn't make any sense, he thought, but he wondered. Again, he considered asking Tom if he was gay. But how?
"Yes," Tom replied, turning to stop in front of him.
Arran lacked the courage to ask the question.
Tom sat down on the bed, the folder full of Arran's designs open between them. "What is it?" He asked.
Arran studied his folder. "I don't want to pry or anything," he started.
Tom looked at him. "Or anything?"
"Oh shit! Ali, Alison, told me she thinks you're gay." There, he'd said it.
Silence followed, Arran observing Tom looking around the room again.
Tom finally replied. "Would that bother you?"
"No, why should it?"
"I don't know. But if it wouldn't bother you, why ask? Why do you want to know?"
"Never mind. It was a stupid thing to bring up." Arran felt Ill at ease now. "Okay, take a look at my designs. I thought we could use something like this as the project background and contrast with the life drawing."
For the next fifteen minutes or so Tom looked through Arran's drawings. Sometimes he would point something out, or comment on what he liked, and put a few aside.
"Yeah, they're good," he said as he put down the last design.
"Let's go downstairs. I'll see what we've got to eat," Arran said.
The two went back down to the kitchen, where Arran delved through the contents of the freezer, which didn't take long.
"Frozen lasagne or fish Provençal," he announced. "Or we could go out and get a kebab or something on the high street."
"I've got no money," Tom said..
"No problem. I invited you to eat, so I'm paying. What is it?"
"Whatever you decide."
"What's your favourite take away?"
"I don't have one."
"Okay, we'll get a kebab. It's the closest."
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