The Jigsaw Puzzle

by Pink Panther

Chapter 4

April 2007

We're back at school and the name-calling's started again. It's the same as it was before; Zav calls me names and I ignore him. I think that's the best way, at least for me it is. So it's not anything really bad, but knowing that I have to face it every day, well, it's not great. The other kids just stay on the sidelines, even Dean. He's with Zav all the time, but he never says a word. He's just there. Occasionally, there's a chuckle when Zav says something the other kids think is funny, but mainly they just ignore it the same as I do.

I don't understand Zav. I hadn't thought about it before cause I never had much to do with him. Well, I have thought about it now and it doesn't make sense. He's just one puzzle after another. For one thing he's quite tall, slim without being skinny. To look at him you'd think he'd be good at games and PE. Actually he isn't. He seems to resent having to do them. He's better than me, of course, but no more than average.

Then there's the business about having a shower afterwards. You'd think that someone with as nice a bod as he's got would be quite happy to show it off. Well you can forget that! When he hasn't actually got a towel wrapped round him, he's either got his hand over his dick or he's right in the corner of the showers facing the wall so no-one can see it. What's the big problem? I mean we've all got one! So I've never actually seen what he's got down there, but I get the feeling that it's probably pretty nice, just like the rest of him.

He's only about average in art and music too. He doesn't seem to have much interest in them either. But he reserves his greatest contempt for design technology, like being in a workshop is sort of beneath him. Now that's just stupid! But in English and history, he's outstanding. Some of his essays are unbelievable. I wish I could write as well as he does. In a school like ours he'd get a lot of respect for that if he wasn't such an arsehole. So why is he so spiteful? Why does he act like he's got to prove himself all the time? He doesn't need to prove he's the best; we all know he is.

A few of the kids suck up to him. Amanda and Sophie are always fawning over him. He loves it, of course. I just don't understand why they do it. He treats them okay sometimes, but it's like he's doing them a big favour just allowing them to hang out with him, and quite often he's absolutely horrible to them, for no reason at all as far as I can tell. It doesn't seem to stop them though. Olly Stephens is always creeping round him too. Zav treats him like shit.

The only person he isn't unpleasant towards is Dean. I can't work that out either, except they were at junior school together. Dean's like Zav's . . . , I don't know, loyal lieutenant perhaps? It's hard to explain. It's totally weird, the whole lot of it.

As this is the summer term, we have a different games programme. Instead of rugby and football, we have cricket and athletics. The best thing about that is that if the weather is even a bit damp, the class gets cancelled. We can't play cricket because we'd damage the square and we can't do athletics because the run-ups would be too slippery and we'd cut up the running track. But when the weather's good, the playing field isn't the worst place we could be, so it suits me fine.

I'm useless at cricket. Cricket balls are hard and heavy. You certainly wouldn't want to get hit by one. I struggle to catch a tennis ball. There's no way I'm even going to try to catch one of those things! Zav says he likes cricket. What he actually means is that he likes swanning around in his immaculate cricket whites not actually doing a great deal. Mind you, when we're playing a game, I don't do a whole lot either.

I'm just as hopeless at athletics. I'm slow, I can't jump and I can't throw. I can hardly pick up the shot, let alone throw it. Dean's good at athletics, especially high jump and long jump. I guess it's something to do with his legs being so long. He's pretty good at hurdles too, better than anyone else in fact. Only a few of us are allowed to do the hurdles. Mr Saunders, our PE teacher, says that's because we could hurt ourselves if we tripped over them. I know that's what I'd do.

For me, the important thing is that there's none of the rough physical contact that you get in football and rugby, none of that business of getting dumped on your arse in the mud. I hate that! So games this term is not too bad, even if I am no good at it. In fact, it's not unpleasant at all.

May 2007

I knock on the door of Claire's room.

"Come in!" she calls.

I make my way in carrying my art folder.

"I've brought some drawings for you to look at," I say, opening it up. "See what you think. I've done three colour schemes, so if you like the design, you can pick the colour you like best."

She looks through them, studying the various sheets.

"They're amazing," she says. "You did them?"

"Yeah, course!" I say, smiling.

"So are you and dad are going to be able to make it look as good as this?" she queries, like she doesn't really believe it. "You'll only have a week."

"Yeah," I say casually. "It should look even better actually. We'll have to start as soon as you go on holiday and I guess we'll be on it, you know, pretty much full time, but we'll do it. So which colour scheme do you like best?"

"This one," she says, indicating the design with the deep burgundy theme.

"No problem!" I tell her, smiling again. I was pretty sure that was the one she'd pick.

She stands up. "For a little brother," she says, giving me a hug, "you're not bad at all!"

After five weeks of Zav taunting me every chance he gets, the half-term break comes as a welcome relief. It's a warm sunny morning when I get on the bus to head into town. Our local art gallery is hosting a touring exhibition of works by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. I can't wait to see it. He's not just one of the most important artists of the last hundred years, his influence on design has been huge. I'm on my own, of course. It goes without saying that none of my friends would be interested.

The art gallery is on the far side of a small park about a quarter of a mile from the Grammar School, on Birmingham Road, the main road that leads north from the town centre. Although not that large, the exhibition is very impressive. The paintings are amazing in themselves, but the real interest for me is that several of the exhibits are the inspiration for some of the most important design ideas of the past century, especially those of the Art Deco period.

Having spent nearly two hours absorbing every detail, I head back out into the sunshine. It's quarter past twelve and time to think about getting something to eat. As I cross the park, I head into the toilets for a piss. The place is deserted. I walk across to the urinal and open up. I've been there for a few seconds, doing what I need to do, when someone comes and stands next to me.

I might not have noticed, except that he's standing much closer than he needs to. As I finish peeing, I glance across. The guy's in his mid-twenties and not bad looking. Almost instinctively, I peek downwards. My heart starts racing. His dick's rock hard and he's playing with it! Fuck! I can't take my eyes off it! Before I know what's happening, my dick's gone hard too.

"Beautiful cock!" he whispers.

I don't move, I don't answer, I don't do anything. My brain just can't deal with it. It's like I'm paralysed or something. A moment later, he puts his hand on my bum. It breaks the spell. I hit the panic button, zipping up in a flash. Then I'm gone! The next thing I know, I'm in the town centre, almost half a mile away. My chest feels like it's about to explode. I sink down on one of the benches that line the pedestrian area. My head's swimming. I can't imagine how I've got here. Man, that was so scary!

But the experience has taught me one thing. The more I think about it, the more certain I am that I must be gay. I mean, it was frightening, but it was bloody exciting too. I can't pretend it wasn't.

I'm lying in bed, trying to get to sleep, but the memory of what happened at lunchtime just won't go away. It was such a shock. It wasn't that I'd gone in there looking for it. I didn't even know guys did that sort of thing! Well, I do now.

The thing that I can't get my head round is the way I reacted. My sensible head tells me that it was a very dangerous situation and I was right to run off. But a voice from somewhere else is cursing me for being such a wimp and blowing my first real chance to actually 'do something'. I don't know what to think. There I am, I've been wanting to do something for months, but the first chance I get, I go into a panic and disappear like someone stuffed a rocket up my arse! But the guy was way older than me. I'm just not sure if I'd have wanted to do anything with him.

And how could I have been sure I'd be safe? He seemed nice enough. He certainly didn't look like an axe murderer. Now I've got my sensible head screaming at me, asking what an axe murderer looks like. Yeah, okay, an axe murderer might look just like anyone else for all I know. He wouldn't go round with 'Axe Murderer' tattooed across his forehead, now would he? So doing stuff would have been a risk, a big one. But it might have been worth it. As it is, I might not get another chance for ages. And what will I do then? Run off again? Take the chance? I don't know. Shit! Why does growing up have to be so fucking difficult?

June 2007

We're back at school. End of year exams start in two weeks so I'm busy, busy, busy! Even so, I just can't get the incident in the park toilets out of my head. I'm more desperate to actually do something than ever. That means finding someone to do it with. I can't approach any of the boys in my class at school. I'm in enough shit there as it is. In any case, apart from Zav, there isn't anyone I fancy, and there's no way I'd ask him. I might be desperate but I'm not stupid!

So what about the older boys? The only ones I know are Scott and David. I've got no chance! There are a few Year Nine boys in the Junior Arts Club, but they sort of look down on the younger kids, so I don't know them that well. I could try, I guess, but none of them is what I'd call fit. I'm not sure if it'd be worth the trouble. So what am I going to do? A crazy idea forms in my head. Mr Ashton's gay. It's not that I totally fancy him. He's really too old for me, and I know I shouldn't approach him, but he's the only gay person I know. I'll just have to try it.

Claire says that he doesn't do anything he shouldn't, so he wouldn't approach me. But what'll happen if I approach him? If he is gay, and Claire said he definitely is, there has to be a chance. So how am I going to do it? My only real chance will be Tuesday afternoon, when we have French last period. I'll ask if I can see him after the class. Mark and Andrew will be going to badminton club so they won't ask why I'm staying behind.

We troop into Mr Ashton's classroom. I go straight up to him.

"Sir, could I see you afterwards please?" I ask. "There's something I need explaining, you know, before the exam next week."

"Yeah, no problem," he says, smiling. "See me at the end."

Okay, I've got over the first hurdle. Now I've got to wait. French classes usually fly by. This one doesn't; it seems to go on forever. Eventually, the bell sounds. Moments later we're dismissed. I wait while everyone leaves. Finally it's just me and Mr Ashton. I walk across to his desk. My heart's thumping so hard it's a wonder he can't hear it.

"Right, so what can I do for you?" he asks brightly.

"It's this, sir," I say, opening my book. "I'm finding it hard to decide when we need to use the subjunctive."

"Okay," he responds. "Pull a chair up and let's go through it."

That's the second hurdle I've crossed. I thought he might keep me standing up. That could have been very awkward. I bring a chair across and sit down next to him. Very patiently he goes through a couple of examples, making sure I understand. It's time to do it. Very gradually, I move closer. By the time he's gone through the next example, my leg is rubbing against his.

"Ian," he says quietly. "You can stop that right now."

I feel my face burning bright red. I knew I shouldn't have done it! The tears start to well up.

"There's no need to get upset," he says gently. "I assume you picked me because you know I'm gay."

"Sir," I sniff, wiping my eyes.

"Then remember I've been there," he says. "I know how hard it can be."

"So don't you like me then, sir?" I query.

"Liking you isn't the issue," he says reassuringly. "I have a professional responsibility here which I take very seriously. Having any form of sexual contact with you would be a complete breach of that responsibility. Do you understand?"

"Sir," I croak, barely able to get the word out.

"In your case, it goes even further," he continues. "It's not just you that I've taught. I've taught Claire since she started here. I haven't met your dad, but I've met your mum on numerous occasions, at parents' evenings and other school functions. We've reached the point where she greets me like an old friend. Doing anything like that would be a terrible betrayal of trust, don't you think?"

"Sir," I repeat, feeling totally ashamed as well as stupid.

"I have a selfish reason too," he says. "Right now my life's pretty much where I want it to be. I'm working in a great school doing a job I love, and I have a partner that I care deeply about. I am not going to risk throwing all that away." He pauses for a second. "The good news is that in the longer term you can have that too. It takes work and you'll need to be patient, but you can get there."

"Thanks sir," I say, nodding. I'm lost in admiration for him. I'd like to kiss him, but that wouldn't be right, would it?

"There is one thing I need to ask you," he says, looking right into my eyes. "You're not going to say that I molested you, are you?"

I'm horrified. "No sir, of course not!" I protest. "I mean, you didn't!"

"That's okay," he says, sounding relaxed and gentle again. "I didn't want to ask that. Unfortunately, quite a few teachers who've been in a situation like this have then been falsely accused of acting inappropriately. I was ninety nine per cent sure you wouldn't do that. I just needed to hear you say it."

"You aren't going to tell my mum about this, are you sir?" I ask nervously.

"No," he says gently. "I don't think that would be very helpful. I hope that you will feel able to talk to your parents at some point, but that's for the future. You've got more than enough to contend with at the moment. Am I right in thinking that Xavier Stanford has been giving you a hard time?"

"Yes sir," I confirm.

"And how are you dealing with that?" he asks.

"It's okay," I say. "He just calls me names."

"And what do you do?" he questions.

"Just ignore him," I answer.

"You don't answer him back?"

"No, sir. I don't think I could do that."

"So have any of the other boys joined in the name calling?"

"No sir," I tell him. "Not yet anyway."

"They might be less inclined to if you did start answering back," he suggests. "I know you don't feel comfortable with that, but ignoring the insults makes you look like an easy target."

I wince, wishing he hadn't said that. I am an easy target.

"If you don't respond, a few of the silly ones may think it's okay to join in," he warns.

"You mean like Olly?" I say.

"And Carl, maybe," he suggests, referring to Carl Smith, the class clown, known to us as Smudger. "And once they start, it won't be long before you have half the class on your case." He pauses for a moment. "How d'you feel about being gay?"

"I'm not totally sure I am," I mutter.

"I've been there and I'd be pretty sure you are," he says, sounding very convinced. "Does the possibility of being gay embarrass you?"

"Yeah, sort of," I concede. "I don't know, it's like nobody understands."

"Try not to be embarrassed," he says gently. "I know it's hard, but you need to try. As for answering back, don't try to pretend you're not gay. It won't work. It'll just make things worse. And don't rely on thinking of things on the spur of the moment; prepare yourself. Memorise things you can say. And no half measures, you need to give as good as you get, but do it with a smile on your face, yeah?"

I nod to confirm that I understand, though I'm far from sure that I'll follow his advice. Up to now, ignoring Zav's taunting has worked . . . , you know, well enough. At least it's kept the peace.

"Sir," I ask, "why d'you think Zav behaves like that. It's not just me he's horrible to."

"I really don't know," Mr Ashton says, sadly shaking his head. "He's an able young man, but he's got a very unpleasant streak in him. It's a great shame that he acts in the way he does." He pauses again. "Have you thought about why he started picking on you?"

"Not really, sir," I admit. "I guess he doesn't like gays." For the first time I pronounce the word as though it actually applies to me.

"That's possible," he concedes, "On the other hand, he could be picking on you because he's concerned that the other kids might think that he's gay. I can't be sure about that, of course, but I certainly wouldn't rule it out."

"I hadn't thought of that, sir," I concede.

To be honest, the way Zav laps up all the attention he gets from Sophie and Amanda, I don't think it's at all likely, but I'm not going to say that.

"Tell me," Mr Ashton asks brightly, "how d'you get on with your dad?"

"Oh, Dad's great," I bubble excitedly. "I know he's a bit disappointed that I'm not into sport like he is, but he never says anything, and he really encourages me with my art and design work. Just before the Easter holiday he told me that we're going to refurbish Claire's bedroom and asked if I'd like to design it for her."

"Oh, excellent!" he responds, looking somewhat surprised by my sudden burst of enthusiasm. "So you and your dad will be working together on that?"

"Yes sir," I confirm, "at the start of the summer holidays. Dad works in Europe, Germany mainly, so we only see him at weekends and holidays. That's why you've never met him. But we get on great when he's home. Later in the summer we're going to Florence. We'll be going to all the art galleries and stuff, at least Dad and I will. Mum'll probably go shopping!"

"What about Claire?" he enquires.

"Oh she's not coming," I answer. "She's staying with Natasha."

"Oh, I see!" he says smiling. "Tell me about your mum. How d'you get on with her?"

"Oh, mum's alright," I say guardedly. "It's just that she still thinks I'm a little boy. She was really funny with me when I got dropped from the choir, you know, like it was my fault."

"Oh she's not the first mum to act like that," he says, smiling warmly. "And you're not, of course, despite being the smallest in the class. I picked up on it as soon as your voice started breaking."

"Mum says I'm just like her brother, my Uncle Chris," I tell him. "I don't know. He lives in New Zealand. I met him once, but I was only six so I don't really remember."

"That makes sense," he agrees.

"Sir," I ask, "do you think I'm always going to be small?"

"Well your mum certainly is," he says gently. "How tall's your dad?"

"About five foot seven, I think."

"Then I'd guess that's probably about as tall as you're going to get," he responds. He pauses, looking at me right in the eye. "The rest of this conversation is off the record," he says firmly, "strictly between you and me, d'you understand? Officially, I shouldn't be saying this, okay?"

"Yes sir," I say. "I won't say anything, I promise."

"Fine," he says, smiling again. "Now from what you've said, I take it that you haven't actually done anything yet."

"No sir," I confirm, before telling him briefly about the incident in the park toilets.

"Let me say straight away that getting out of there was definitely the right thing to do," he advises. "You could have been putting yourself in considerable danger. I know it's hard, but I'm afraid you'll have to be patient. That's nothing that the straight boys don't have to cope with. Matthew's champing at the bit already, but he's not getting anywhere because the girls aren't ready for sex just yet."

"Yeah, but at least he can be open about it," I counter.

"That's true," he agrees, "but in the short term, if you are going to do anything, it has to be with someone close to your own age. Remember that an older guy having sex with you is taking a huge risk. Unfortunately, many of the guys that are willing to take that sort of risk are not ones who'd have your best interests at heart."

"Thanks sir," I say quietly, having finally got the message. "I think I understand now. I'd never thought of it like that. So d'you think there are any other gay boys at school here?"

"Oh, undoubtedly," he says, smiling. "We've got roughly five hundred boys, so at a conservative estimate the number that will eventually turn out to be gay is probably between twenty and forty. Of those, there will be some that don't know it yet, mainly the younger ones. There will be some that sort of know, but are trying to convince themselves that they're not, and there will be some that have basically accepted it but for one reason or another are not looking to do anything about it." He lowers his voice. "The number actively looking for sex with other boys will be very small, maybe five or six, possibly not even that many. Now that doesn't include boys who mess about a bit when they're growing up. They're not gay, they just want to find out how everything works, and doing it with a close friend is a whole lot more fun than doing it on your own, yeah?"

"Sir," I acknowledge.

"Paradoxically," he continues, "because the other boys suspect you're gay, they may be reluctant to include you in anything like that."

It's not what I wanted to hear. It's good to know that there are almost certainly other boys like me here, but with the number likely to be so small, finding one will be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

"Just one more thing," he says, looking at me very intently. "Some boys grow up very smoothly. You hardly notice them doing it. But for other boys, reaching puberty is rather like being scooped up by an out-of-control rollercoaster. Way before you or anyone else expected it, you're hurtling along on a journey you scarcely even knew existed. I'm guessing that's what it's been like for you. That's certainly what I went through. It can be tough to deal with, even tougher when you're trying to get your head round being gay at the same time. I was lucky. Like you, I had a family who loved me and cared for me, so we got through it. Not without a few tears along the way, but we made it. And you will too." There's another short pause. "Right is there anything else?" he asks, giving me another smile.

"No thanks, sir," I say, getting to my feet. "Thanks for explaining everything to me."

"That's no problem," he says warmly, ushering me towards the door. "Just remember I'm here if you need to talk to me. Even simple name-calling can wear you down after a while, so if the situation with Xavier is getting to you, please come and tell me. I think you might find it easier to talk to me than Mr Broadhurst or Mrs Vickers."

"Yes, sir," I say, grinning at him. "Thanks!"

That's another thing he's got right. Mr Broadhurst's the Head of Lower School. He's very fair but definitely not someone I'd feel comfortable talking to. And as for Mrs Vickers, hell would have to freeze over before I'd talk to her!

It's quarter past four. He's spent almost twenty minutes talking to me. I head for the bus stop like I'm walking on a white fluffy cloud. I made a complete idiot of myself, but instead of getting angry, he was so patient, so understanding. He turned everything round and made me feel really positive again. I can hardly believe he opened up to me the way he did. I don't think any of the other teachers would have done that. And as for the way he explained about reaching puberty, that's exactly what the last few months have been like.

There's only one thing I can say. He was awesome. He's helped more than he can possibly know. I went in there worried because Zav was calling me gay. I came out feeling comfortable about actually being gay. That is such a relief.

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