It wasn't very late by the time they reached The Eastern Star, but there were a couple of people queuing. The lights of the place looked like something left over from last Christmas, as if the owner went out and bought a bucket load of twinkling lights and a few multi-coloured baubles, which he probably did. It was also very likely someone in the family, because the takeaway was a family affair, who painted the name on the shop front. It wasn't because he was a fairly good graphic artist that Arran thought it was naff. It was undeniably badly painted, the letters that spelled out the name were not all the same size. You could say that was part of the magic of living in a multicultural city; it lent a certain bizarre charm that visitors loved, yet they probably wouldn't choose to live there.
After they'd been served by Abdul, or perhaps it was his brother, Suleiman, he could never remember who was who, they turned to leave when something odd occurred. This burly guy, probably late twenties, hairy, tattoos on both arms, and thick gold chain, stared at them. He was next to the door, almost blocking their exit.
"I know you," the guy said.
Arran looked at him, but had no idea who he was. But it wasn't Arran he was looking at.
"You're Tracy." He moved a step towards Tom, who moved away towards the door. "Don't want to say hello then?"
Tom glanced at Arran. "Let's get out of here," he whispered.
"Yeah, you and him got summing better on?" The guy looked like he was going to stop them leaving, but he didn't.
As they escaped The Eastern Star and walked quickly back up the high street, Arran asked Tom, "What was that about?"
"I've no idea," Tom replied. "I just wanted to escape before anything happened."
Arran's dad was still not home when they got back to the house. He and Tom ate their kebab dinner, drank a beer, and talked about the project. Tom still had not decided about being the model, but he did say he hadn't completely ruled it out. He even said it was a good idea.
After Tom had left, Arran cleared up the kitchen, then went upstairs to his room. It was then he thought about the webcam and decided to see if it had captured anything from earlier, if it was on. Switching on his tablet he brought up the app. The device detected movement and stored about six minutes of video, or sent it, or both. But the send by email was unchecked, so that left only what was stored. That might not even be from lunchtime, because it only kept three events and would have recorded him and Tom. He found the saved directory and clicked the first file. It was him and Tom going downstairs. Stopping that, he went to the next file. That was when they arrived. He watched Tom looking into the camera in the study at the top of the stairs. Last chance, he clicked the final file. He watched his father, followed by a young girl, going downstairs.
It wasn't possible to see who she was or her face, but by her silhouette and what she wore, it was obviously someone younger than his dad's age, much younger. She had longish shoulder length blond hair and a little red hand bag. He played the video back from the start, but there wasn't that much to see. Arran's first thought was that his dad had picked up a prostitute. He didn't know why he thought that. It probably wasn't true. No one would bring a prostitute to their home. At least he didn't think that very likely. He took a copy and exited the app.
The next day Arran caught up with Mark during afternoon break. All four of them had eaten lunch together: Arran, Mark, Jennifer, and Ali, but he waited to get Mark alone because he didn't want to mention about his dad to everyone. Mark listened and gave his usual non-committal appraisal, saying it might not be what Arran was reading into it. Could be a work colleague, and even if it is what Arran believed, so what. Essentially, Arran concluded, there was no point discussing things with Mark because his best friend was just ever so slightly obsessed with Jennifer and she was all he had on his mind.
That evening Arran's dad was home, but Arran was not about to bring it up with him. What would he say? Besides, it looked a bit creepy that he would check out the webcam. Later in bed, he was staring at the ceiling, watching the car headlights trace extending parallel lines across the room. Before falling asleep he made up his mind about one thing: he decided to confront Tom. He needed to work out a way to do it, and getting him alone at the end of the day in the Art room seemed the best plan. He would use the excuse of needing ideas to firm up on the modelling and pump Tom for information about himself.
Over the next few days everything returned to normal. Arran did not find Tom in the Art room as he had hoped. Apparently Tom was one of the monitors, but there only Monday and Tuesday. Arran saw him around the college and they even agreed they needed to firm up on the project work, but neither did anything about it. The weekend Arran was spending with his mother, so for the time being he forgot about his dad and was actually looking forward to getting away.
His mother had moved to a small village in the countryside, a dramatic contrast to city life, and something Arran liked. They took walks together with Murdoch, her schnauzer. He didn't like the little dog that much, thought it was snappy and not very well controlled, but he said nothing because the mutt was company for his mum. The weekend was like an Indian summer; it was hot with virtually not a cloud in the sky, just the occasional wispy white streak. After their walks, he'd spend the day in the garden of the little cottage, not doing much at all, occasionally helping his mother with the gardening. It wasn't his thing, but using the lawn mower was okay, except for Murdoch running around chasing after him and yapping.
Sunday afternoon when they had finished a nice lunch at the village pub, she asked him how things were: college, home, everything. She smiled in her reassuring mumsy fashion and listened as he told her a little about the art project and about Mark and Jennifer. He hadn't wanted to get into saying too much about his best friend and Jennifer because that would inevitably lead to talking about Ali. His mother did ask about Alison, but seemed content when he told her there was nothing to tell.
"What would you think if dad was seeing someone?" He asked her, but realised maybe he shouldn't have brought it up.
They were sitting out on the terrace which overlooked the garden. The lawn was mowed, the flower beds tidied up; it looked the picture of a little cottage garden. Beyond the bank and hedge at the bottom, the fields of the neighbouring farm swept away in a bucolic picture of an English countryside. From the terrace you could see over the top of the hedge where the vista sloped gently down to the little corpse of trees and the ridge much further away in the distance.
"Is he seeing someone?" His mother asked. She seemed relaxed, so talking to her was easy.
"I don't know. He might be, but he hasn't said."
She considered this a moment before saying, "It was rather the reason that we separated. Your father has never been exactly faithful, always attracted by a nice young lady."
That made Arran think. It was no secret his dad had an affair and that was why his parents separated, although he thought it was more than simply that. Still he'd never asked; he didn't feel it was his place to interfere or even probe for information. He was happy with the way things had worked out. He could easily have lived full time with either parent, but who he lived with was decided by his going to college. He couldn't commute from his mother's village everyday, even if people who worked in the city did that, they drove to the station. Arran did not yet have his licence, which was another thing he'd thought about but wasn't really in any hurry to fix.
That weekend had given him plenty of time to consider things. Even if he hadn't discussed all his concerns with his mother, he had sorted things out for himself. At least he was on the way to doing so. Monday, at the end of the day, he made his way to the Art room to find Tom.
"How was your weekend?" He asked him.
Tom closed the store room door. "Okay, you?"
"Spent it with my mother. She lives in the country. Didn't do much."
Tom nodded and moved to sit down on the edge of the stage. There was a silence as Arran considered what to say.
"I don't really know much about you," he finally blurted out.
Tom stared at him, a strange expression on his face. "There's nothing to know," he said.
"You mean you don't want to say." Arran knew there was lots to tell, but he couldn't easily read Tom. He looked like he was about to object, but before he could say anything, Arran continued. "No, I understand. Why would you want to tell me anything about yourself? Why should I even ask?" He paused studying Tom. "Well, it's like this. Ever since that first day of term and now we've been working on this project together, there is just this thing, something about you."
"Okay, okay, stop!" Tom looked upset. "I've had this all my life. I don't need any more shit. Not now, not from you." He jumped off the stage, ready to walk out.
"No wait! It's me. Fuck! It's all about me." Arran told him.
Tom hesitated, then turned back, waiting. Arran could hear his heart beat pounding in his ears. He could just die if he had got things wrong.
"I... God, I hope I'm not making the biggest mistake of my whole fucking life. Tom..."
Tom was still there, looking, waiting.
"I like you." Was that all he wanted to say? No, of course not. The air was charged like a thunderstorm ready to discharge a bolt of lightning. "No, no, this is coming out all wrong." Arran looked like a sad puppy.
Tom's expression changed to a smile. "What are you saying?" He looked straight into Arran's eyes.
"Can I trust you?" Arran asked, then immediately thought that was a strange question to ask.
"Yeah, Arran. You can."
"I've never thought about being into boys. I don't think I am, really. Just into you." As he said those words, he couldn't believe it. He had never planned on saying anything, but he had. He realised he didn't understand himself, hadn't he come here to find out about Tom? Not reveal his own inner turmoil.
Tom smiled broadly. "I like you too, Arran."
In that instant it seemed they had made a connection. Something had changed, a switch had been clicked. For what felt like several minutes they stood facing each other.
"You don't know me, Arran."
It was the third or was it fourth time Tom had used his name? Each time he felt a tingling run through his body, an excitement.
"No, I don't know you, but I'd like to. How about you come over on Saturday, spend the day. Stay over if you want."
Tom was thoughtful, Arran could tell by that look he had on his face. He waited.
"What about Alison?" Tom asked.
He had forgotten her in all this, hadn't given her much thought. "I'll talk to her, okay?"
"Talk as in... What exactly? I'm not gonna be the excuse you use for splitting up, if that's what you mean."
"I won't even mention you. You said you sort of know her. So you can talk to her if you want. Give me a few days. Time to see her and have that talk. I've been putting it off. And honestly, it has nothing to do with you. You are not the reason. You have no part to play between me and Ali."
Arran sighed. "As sure as I am of anything. Ali and I were..." He paused. "Well, I think she was asking me questions. I just avoided answering them."
"I'll catch you Friday lunchtime and you can update me," Tom said. "Then we'll see."
"Sure, Friday." Arran watched him leave the room, then he sat down to take a few minutes to think before heading home.
It was Thursday before Arran got together with Ali. He asked her to take a walk lunchtime, leaving Mark and Jennifer in the canteen.
"I haven't seen much of you since last week," she said.
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
"We're breaking up. That's it, isn't it?" She said it ever so matter-of-factly, seeming neither upset nor surprised.
"Let's get a coffee or something," he suggested.
It was noisy outside with the constant traffic and the cafe just around the corner had a few tables. It would be quieter and a better venue. She didn't object and followed him in. They found a table and ordered two cappuccinos.
"You want something to eat? My treat," he said, sitting opposite her.
She smiled. "No, Arran, I'm fine."
It's weird what meaning can be conveyed by only a few words. Her answer was more than a simple acknowledgement that she didn't want to eat. She'd said his name, which reminded him of Tom doing exactly that. Only he didn't get that same feeling with her. It was nice, it was very friendly. It could have easily been said like his father might tell him, "Arran, don't do that!" But it wasn't, it was warm. "I'm fine," seemed to reflect that she was okay with what he was about to announce. She had already said, "We're splitting up."
And that is how lunchtime passed, sitting face-to-face in the corner cafe away from the noise and tumult outside. Like two friends who had never made it to becoming two lovers, who broke up a relationship which had not actually existed. Remaining friends was easy because that was all they were.
Before they left to head back to college for the afternoon, they chatted some more about the things that were happening in their lives. Ali talked about Mark and Jennifer, but not so much focused on their relationship, more about how things were changing.
"We were like the female version of the three musketeers. Don't ask me who was which one," she chuckled.
"Yeah, I know," he smiled at her. "You've always been inseparable since primary school."
"We still are, but each of us is doing her own thing."
"You mean because Jenny has Mark, but what about you and Vicky?"
"Vicky we haven't seen all summer. She's found herself an older man. She seems very happy about it."
"Which just leaves you. I feel kind of guilty."
"Don't," she said. "It's much better we do this now than later."
He sighed, but made no reply.
"And you, what about you?" She asked him.
"Well, you know what. A little while ago I told Mark I wanted to talk to him about something, and he joked, "You're not doing the gay boy falls for his best friend routine."
She laughed, throwing her head back, the sunlight highlighting her long strands.
"I wanted to talk to him about my father, but Mark is too wrapped up with Jennifer to give much thought to anything else. But as it happens, the joke might prove to have some truth in it. Not the best friend bit, Mark will always be only my best friend."
Ali reached her arm across the table, took his hand in hers and gently squeezed it. "I think I know what you're going to say, Arran."
"If you do, then you've got a better grip on life than me," he said. "I didn't know anything myself, but from the first time I talked to Tom, I felt something. It's difficult to explain. I've seen him around since he arrived here, but this was different. Something happened between us. So, yeah, like I told him, I've never thought about being into boys. I don't think I am. But there is this thing that is ever so intriguing about him."
"He's good looking as well," she smiled. "In a sort of slim fashion model way."
Arran smiled. "Exactly why he'd make a good model for our art project."
"Is he going to do it?"
"I'm working on him."
"Just make sure you don't hurt anyone on this voyage of discovery, Arran."
He nodded, she released his hand, and they walked back out into the afternoon sun, the noise and commotion announcing that they were back in the everyday world.
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