Monday lunchtime Arran, Alison, and Jennifer were as usual sharing a table in the canteen, but Mark wasn't there. He apparently had an appointment with the doctor, which Jenny was saying was nothing important.
"How's your project coming on?" Jennifer asked.
Arran smiled. "Good. We worked out Tom will be the model."
Ali looked at him with that inquisitive expression she sometimes used. "You're kidding me? I can't believe you got Tom to agree."
"Well, I did."
"And just how did you manage it?"
Ali was winding spaghetti around her fork and looking at him at the same time.
"I'm not sure I should tell you. It's... sort of personal."
Ali stopped eating and put her fork down on the plate.
"Now you've got me very interested."
"And me too," Jennifer added.
Ali stared at him. "Yes, and if you can't share with your best friends..."
He felt compelled to enlighten them, or else he would never hear the end of it. Knowing what they were like, if the two of them ganged up on him, he would have no choice.
"You promise to keep this between us? Because if Tom found out, it could ruin everything."
"Everything?" Ali raised her eyebrows.
Sometimes Arran hated being alone with the two of them. Where was Mark when he needed him? "The art project. We're talking about the project. You know he's the best at life drawing and I really need him to do this. It means the difference between getting a good grade or not." Arran brought up the picture he had of Tom's sketch, proof enough of what a good artist the guy was. He passed his phone to Ali, who studied the picture and gave it to Jennifer. "You see what I mean. He's really good. So with him doing the life drawing..."
"Yeah, okay, I think we all agree he's good," Jennifer said, passing his phone back across the table. "But why does he have to model?"
"Yeah, and who's the girl?" Ali asked.
Arran explained his art project concept; class portraits turning into self-portraits, the artist model and painter revealed against a graphic industrial background.
"I don't know who the girl is," he told them.
"Well it's not his girlfriend, that's for sure," Ali said.
"How do you know?" Jennifer asked. "It might be."
"I already told Mr. Art Project over there, Tom is gay."
"And how do you know that?"
The two girls were rapidly getting into a conversation of their own, and whilst Arran wasn't too happy with the gay labelling, he was happy he didn't have to tell them how he'd persuaded Tom to model.
"I know Tom. Not very well, since I've only met him a couple of times, but Vicky knows him." Ali continued.
"Vicky? How does Vicky know Tom?" Jennifer asked.
"Easy," Ali said, seeming rather satisfied with herself. "Tom's mum, Jean, is Vicky's aunt. Her dad is his mum's brother."
That seemed to shut things up for a moment. It was news to both Jennifer and Arran.
Jennifer looked surprised. "Wow, she never said."
"No, but why would she? They only moved here a few months ago. And if you want more low down on the Rustle family, it was Vicky's dad who put in a word to get them the council flat. You do know he works in Housing?" Ali told her.
"I think she may have said, but I didn't pay much attention. I know he works for the Council," Jennifer admitted.
"Yeah, well Vicky knows Tom, obviously; they're cousins. And she told me he's gay."
"What? Just like that," Arran found it hard to believe. "One day you were talking and Vicky just said, 'Oh, by the way, Ali, my cousin Tom's gay!' That's a bit weird."
Ali huffed and shrugged her shoulders. "Yeah, that would be weird. Actually, Vicky and I were talking about gays. Don't ask why, or what about, I don't remember. But I do remember her telling me her cousin is gay."
"She's only got one cousin then?" Arran asked.
"I don't know that.".
"Then you really don't know, do you?" he said, a little annoyed at the gossip.
Ali stood up. "I need to get going; got some prep to do."
That was an excuse, Arran thought, but he said nothing. They took their trays back to the trolley and headed off for afternoon classes. But Arran couldn't get the thought out of his head about Tom being gay. It didn't matter at all to him. At least that's what he told himself. Even so, he would like to know. Tom had never answered the question. He had posed nude, but avoided answering. All he had said was, "You don't know me at all." But he didn't react to Arran's confession that he had feelings for him.
It was at the end of the afternoon when Arran found Ali. He was determined not to let her go gossiping around college about Tom. She was walking down the main steps from the college when he caught up to her.
"Ali," he said in a serious tone. "You shouldn't make assumptions about Tom when you don't really know. And even if you did know, it's very personal stuff."
"Look, Arran, I don't give a shit if he's gay or not. If he isn't, then I'd bet the girl on your phone is someone he's slept with."
"You're doing it again. Making up more gossip.".
She stopped and looked at him. "And you're defending him, Arran. Listen, if you and him want to get together, that's your choice. Nothing to do with me. We split, remember?"
She was talking quite loudly and a couple of students passing by turned to look.
"I thought you was okay with that," he said. "We said we'd stay just friends."
"You said it, I agreed with you, that's all. What else should I do?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't realise..."
"No, that's exactly it. You don't realise anything. You're in a world of your own: the Arran Taylor world. And everyone else is a character in your story."
"You're the same as your father. Like father, like son," she told him.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Ask him," she said.
"My dad's okay."
"Sure he is. What about who he's seeing?"
"Ali, what are you trying to tell me? Look I'm sorry if you're pissed at us splitting up. That you can blame me for, but my parents are separated, my dad can see whoever he likes."
"That depends," she said enigmatically, and left.
Arran opened his front door and went straight to the kitchen to grab a cold beer. Sitting in the lounge, he looked around the room. It hadn't changed from when they were a family, before his mother moved out. The bookcase with the little statue of an elephant carved in dark wood; his mother told him how she came to buy it in a market in India from a man with a straggly grey beard, wearing a turban. He had sparkling eyes for an old man, a sinewy body, and an air of inner strength. He'd asked her to tell more, transported by the image she had conjured in his mind.
He was pleased when he heard the key in the front door; his father was home. And that evening after having supper they sat side-by-side on the sofa watching a film together. It felt secure and safe, a world removed from the outside and all those other troubles.
Before going to bed, Arran decided to question Mark. Perhaps he might have some idea what Ali was talking about.
"Mark, hi," he said when he heard Mark's voice on the phone. "Everything okay at the doc?"
Mark spoke with an air of confidence which belied his real anxiety. He would need to wait for some results, perhaps he might need some more tests, but it wasn't serious according to the doctor.
Arran listened, before changing the subject to talk about his confrontation with Ali and her remarks about him and his dad.
The only thing Mark could tell him was, he thought she was feeling insecure. Arran having split up with her meant everything had changed. "She bounces around from being okay and happy to angry and hurt." He didn't think it was entirely because they had broken up, but he thought at times it seemed she was looking to blame someone. "Maybe she sees you and Tom as something she's lost.".
"But me and Tom are just working on a project together."
"Whatever. She sees it differently, I think. Maybe just don't talk about Tom with Ali?"
"Except it bugs me she keeps insisting he's gay when she doesn't know."
"I think she'd have something to say whether it was about Tom or anyone else you hooked up with."
"But I haven't hooked up with him," Arran insisted.
"Okay, but I'm telling you how I think she sees it."
"And why have a go at my dad?"
"That, mate, I've got no idea."
They said goodnight and hung up. Arran was none the wiser about whatever might be going on, real or imaginary.
The life drawing course was scheduled for Friday. Arran made a point of finding Tom at lunchtime to check that he was still okay with it. Tom was occupying his usual place under the tree in the yard. It wasn't cold out, but neither was it very warm. Clouds covered the sun and it looked like the weather was changing. Arran thought it might rain.
"Do you plan to sit outside through the winter?" Arran asked, grinning.
Tom turned and looked up, resting his half-eaten sandwich in his lap. "Oh, hi. Hadn't really thought about it."
"You're still okay for this afternoon?"
Tom nodded. "Sure, I said I'd do it. I'm not gonna wimp out."
"Do you want to come round to my place after? We can celebrate." Arran was standing, looking down at him.
Tom smiled. "Yeah, okay. But celebrate? What? Me showing off my bod to the art class?"
"Why not? You deserve a drink afterwards."
"Sit down will ya. You're making me nervous hovering."
Arran sat down and silently watched Tom finish his sandwich. His attention drifting out across the old school yard as the clouds played fast moving games with the sun, sending rapidly changing shade over the empty space.
"I didn't know you and Vicky were cousins. Found that out from Ali,"
"Yeah, that's kinda how we moved here."
"Do you miss your old friends? Must be a big change?"
"It's a change," Tom replied rather matter-of-factly, as if it didn't bother him very much. "Friends? I've never had any, so there's nothing to miss."
"You must have had some friends. Like when you were younger, growing up?" Arran asked.
"Yeah, maybe. We moved around a lot."
They left together to get the life class set up. Arran arranged the props. The scene would be Tom leaning against an iron girder facing away from the students. The idea was to capture a rear view of a naked Tom contrasted with the grey metal girder. The prop was corrugated cardboard they'd painted. Tom couldn't actually lean on it; it was rather him holding it up.
Arran watched as Tom stripped down to his tiny slip and then he handed him a dressing gown. "Here," he said. "Put this on until everyone gets set up."
Tom grinned. "I thought you were enjoying looking?"
The afternoon went well; it was the first of two sessions. After the one next week they would collect and make copies of the various sketches. The original work they would give back because it also formed part of each student's term work appraisal.
After they had packed up and finished for the day they set off back to Arran's house. Taking the bus, they climbed the stairs and sat side by side.
"I don't know too much about you?" Tom said.
It had started to rain, not heavily, but a few drops were hitting the windows, running down the glass. Arran had been idly watching the outside world pass by. He turned to look at Tom, aware their legs were touching.
"I live at home with my dad. Didn't I already say? Anyhow, it's just the two of us. My parents are separated and I stay with my mum, usually one weekend each month."
"You're like me then, kind of," Tom smiled. "One parent family, more or less, and no brothers or sisters."
"Yep, and my dad's hardly ever there. So mostly it's just me on my own."
"Maybe. I don't know. I used to hang out all the time with Mark. I don't like being alone."
"Yeah, I suppose. No, I mean you're right. I used to hang with Ali as my sort of girlfriend." Arran leant closer to Tom and spoke quietly. "But she wasn't really my girlfriend, it was more appearances."
"So what do you mean exactly, appearances?"
"I don't know. I guess she was more into a relationship than I was. I went along with it, but it was getting to the point where there was a problem."
"What problem?" Tom asked, curious to know what happened.
"Well I sort of lost Mark to Jennifer. Not lost exactly, but you know, they spend lots of time together. Ali wanted the same thing, I didn't."
"No, you know how relationships are s'posed to go. We'd known each other long enough, we like each other, next step..."
"You never slept with her?"
"It's our stop!" Arran suddenly announced, moving to push Tom out of the seat.
They raced down the stairs and off the bus. Once on the pavement, he felt the rain, but only a few drops, nothing that was going to get them more than a little damp.
Arran pulled Tom through the crowd at the bus stop and along the high street before turning to wait at the lights. They crossed the street, and a few minutes later they were in through the front door, Arran directing Tom into the living room.
"Make yourself at home. I'll get those beers."
Arran went into the kitchen and retrieved a couple of cold beers from the fridge. Once back, he handed one to Tom and sat down next to him on the sofa.
"You were saying about Ali," Tom said, picking up the earlier conversation.
"You mean you want to know about me and her?"
Tom sipped his beer. "Yeah, I do."
"In a nutshell, she was moving the relationship towards sleeping together, I wasn't up for it. Is that a pun?" He laughed nervously. "We split. I think we're still friends. I'm not absolutely sure. At the moment she's a bit pissed with me. I guess it's understandable. And working on this art project is complicating things."
"Complicating, how?" Tom asked.
"Ali told me I was a bit slow at catching on, but maybe that goes for you too," he replied, looking at Tom. "Complicated because now I'm spending my time with you and she's just a bit jealous, I think."
"Jealous of me? Of..."
"Yeah, you got it. Of us," Arran finished.
They drank their beers in silence, the clock on the wall ticking away the seconds.
Tom looked a little down hearted. "I'm sorry about that."
Arran made no reply, his thoughts had drifted to his father, wondering if he would be home for supper, which led to him thinking about what Ali had said.
"You've got a nice house." Tom's words pulled him back into the here and now.
"Thanks. I'll make us something to eat, okay? You're staying to eat, right?" he asked.
"I just need to call my mum and let her know."
"Okay, you do that. I'm in the kitchen cooking."
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