The Jigsaw Puzzle

by Pink Panther

Chapter 11

March 2008

It's my final swimming lesson. Since I began swimming unaided, things have gone pretty well. My front crawl stroke has improved, though I'm still not very quick. I've learned to swim backstroke too, which I really like, and to float on my back. That's so easy, I can't imagine why I couldn't do it before. I begin the lesson by swimming six lengths front crawl, which I complete without a break. Wendy encourages me all the way along, exhorting me to reach forward and pull hard through the water.

"Okay, you can hold it there!" she calls as I touch the wall at the deep end. "That was pretty good. Keep practising and you'll be okay. Right! Out you get!"

I swim to the side and climb up the steps.

"You know what I want you to do, don't you?" she says gently.

I nod. I don't like it, but if I'm going to hang out with the other kids, it's something I'll have to do. I stand at the edge of the pool, looking out over the water. Jumping into the shallow end is one thing. Jumping into nearly twelve feet of water is quite another. I'll go right under. Even though I know I can swim, it's the one thing I still find scary, the one fear I've yet to conquer.

"Take a deep breath," she says, "flex your knees and jump. As soon as you feel yourself stopping, push down hard with your arms and you'll come straight back up. Obviously, you have to hold your breath until you reach the surface."

It sounds simple doesn't it? It is simple; I know it is. But simple's not the same as easy. And when you've been as scared of the water as I have, this is definitely not easy. But Wendy's been superb. If she wasn't sure I could do it, I wouldn't be standing here.

I take the deepest breath I can manage, bend my knees and push off, stepping out into thin air. There's a moment of near panic as I hit the water, plunging down towards the bottom of the pool. To my surprise, I slow almost to a halt well before I get there. I've retained just enough composure to remember what I have to do. Arms out to the sides and push down hard. I come up like a cork, breaking the surface just a few feet from the end of the pool. My heart's pounding, but I've done it.

I repeat it twice more. It's still a little bit scary, but not as much as it was the first time. If the other kids in the gang are doing it, I'll be able to join in.

"Okay," Wendy says. "Go and stand back by the wall."

I do as she says.

"Right," she goes on. "Now I want you to run to the edge of the pool and jump in."

Is she serious? That's really scary; my heart's thumping again. For one thing, I'll enter the water several feet from the wall. I'll hit it much harder too. I could be all over the place.

"I thought you weren't supposed to run on the poolside," I object.

"It's okay," she responds. "There's no-one else here and I'm watching you. Now come on; you can do it."

I remember how I'd have reacted when I was six. I'm not going to do that now; it'd be too embarrassing. In any case, I've been able to do everything Wendy said I could do. So what am I worrying about? I take several deep breaths. I imagine Wendy and the lifeguard having to jump in to drag me out. That's just stupid. I can swim. I know what to do. I'll be fine.

I take several deep breaths, run in and launch myself into the unknown. I seem to be airborne for an eternity, my whole life flashing in front of me. Suddenly, I hit the water with a huge splash, instantly disappearing below the surface. I don't go down for long. A quick pump of the arms and I'm heading back up again. I break the surface and look around, trying to get my bearings. I'm about three yards from the edge of the pool. I swim confidently towards the steps, climbing out onto the poolside.

"Well done!" Wendy says, smiling warmly. "I told you you could do it!"

We repeat it three more times. Unsurprisingly, it does get easier. There are just over five minutes of the lesson remaining. Wendy calls the lifeguard over. Between them they lower the springboard from its 'parked' position so that it extends out over the pool. I know what I have to do even before she tells me.

"Walk briskly to the end of the board and push down hard."

This is it, the final challenge. I can't wimp out now. I'll be going up much higher than before, so I'll be going much faster when I hit the water. It's not a problem. I've done everything else; I'll do this too. I step up onto the board. After taking a moment to compose myself, I do exactly as she told me.

The board projects me high over the water. Instinctively, I pull up both knees so that I strike the water in a sitting position. There's an even bigger splash. I descend almost to the bottom of the pool. I push my arms down as hard as I can, sending myself back to the surface. That was almost fun! I climb out of the pool. The backs of my thighs are sore from hitting the water so hard.

"Straighten your legs after you've jumped," the lifeguard advises. "You'll find it much easier."

I get back onto the board. I do as he says, hitting the water almost vertical. Almost before I know it, my feet strike the bottom. This means I can use my legs as well as my arms. I shoot up to the surface, my upper body almost entirely clearing the water before I sink gently back down. So has my fear of water finally gone? No, but I've managed to get on top of it. It's the best I could have hoped for.

"Do you go to the pool on Saturday afternoons?" I ask quietly as Dean sits down next to me.

"No," he answers. "I've never had anyone to go with. Why? Are you thinking of going?"

"Yeah," I say. "I'd like to. The girls all go. I think Smudger does too, and Matthew when he hasn't got a rugby match. But Mark and Andrew are always there. I don't want to make things awkward."

"We'll go together," he says firmly. "It won't be a problem. It's a public pool, yeah? If Mark and Andrew don't like it, it's their problem not yours."

"Thanks," I say, smiling.

"Why don't you cycle over to mine before lunch," Dean suggests. "We can have a snack and go from there."

"Are you sure that'll be alright?" I ask.

"Yeah, course!" he says brightly. "You know Mum and Dad are always pleased to see you."

"Great!" I respond. "I'll get to yours about twelve."

Dean and I lock our bikes to the rack outside the pool. We make our way inside. After paying for our tickets, we head into the changing room. Smudger's there, already changed.

"Hi guys!" he says brightly. "I've not seen you here before"

"I couldn't swim," I say quietly, "but I can now."

"Cool!" he responds enthusiastically. "Right, see you in there!"

He trots away. Dean and I quickly strip down to our swimming shorts. I can't help admiring how fit he is. After stashing our clothes in one of the lockers, we follow Smudger towards the pool. I look out over the water. Rebecca and her friends are a few yards from the shallow end, playing on the floating mats with Smudger and Matthew, Sarah, a friend of Jane's from Miss Kenyon's group, Tim Powell and his friend Ed Jarvis. Tim's the fittest kid in our year, like totally stunning. All the girls want to go out with him. I don't think we've ever actually spoken, but I know he's captain of the football team and a star student. Ed I don't know at all.

We jump in and swim across to them. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit apprehensive. Playing on the mats involves getting tipped into the water. I'm still not really happy with that. As it goes, my nervousness doesn't last long. For one thing, I cope much better than I thought I would. But more important, everyone makes me feel welcome, even the kids I don't know. They all pretty much know I'm gay. It's just not an issue.

In what seems like no time I feel totally part of it. It's been ages since I've been somewhere like this where I can forget all the pressures of school, relax and really enjoy myself. I'm having a great time, you know, just being a kid again. It looks like everyone else is too.

We've been there around ten minutes when Andrew and Mark appear. I wonder what's going to happen. The short answer is not much. At first, they don't notice me. When they do, it's like they're pretending I'm not there. Dean was right; it's their problem, not mine.

I spot Rebecca, floating along on a mat just a few feet away. I swim across and grab it, tipping her abruptly into the water.

"I'm so pleased you've come," she says, standing up. "I never thought you'd learn to swim."

"Thanks," I say, smiling at her. "I wouldn't have if Dean hadn't helped me to get fit."

"Oh," she responds, "he's changed a lot since he fell out with Lord Snooty."

"Do you like him?" I ask.

"Yeah, he's okay," she says with a wry grin, "definitely fit! Why d'you ask?"

"He fancies you."

"Then he knows what he has to do," she says, smiling sweetly.

I nod my understanding, resisting the temptation to swim straight over to him. That would be way too obvious. I'll wait my opportunity. I'll have plenty of chances later. Our games continue. It's not long before Dean and I find ourselves sharing a mat, trying to repel an attack from Tim and Ed. We're not too successful, quickly finding ourselves in the water. Tim and Ed swim away, laughing. I look around. Dean and I are a little bit away from everyone else.

"Are you still interested in going out with Rebecca?" I ask quietly.

"Yeah, I wish I could ask her," he responds. "I'm just too shy."

"No, you're not," I counter, "you just think you are. Do it, man! It'll be cool. She likes you!"

He pulls a face. He's as scared of inviting her out as I was of learning to swim.

"Just ask her," I insist. "Suggest taking her to the cinema or something. I promise she won't turn you down. I'm your mate, yeah? Trust me."

I've said my piece. I have to leave it now. The rest's up to him. We sneak over to the mat that Jane and Sarah are sharing, unceremoniously dumping them into the water. As we turn around, two lifeguards are lowering the springboard into position.

"Come on!" Dean urges.

We're quickly out of the pool, making a beeline for it. Even so, we find ourselves towards the back of the queue, all the rest of the gang having beaten us to it. It's not a problem. It gives me the opportunity to study the others as they dive or jump in. Tim, Jane and Louise all dive pretty well, with only a small splash as they enter the water. Matthew dives in too, though he clearly isn't as good. The others just jump in. It's reassuring that I'm not the only one who can't dive.

It's Dean's turn to dive. He steps onto the springboard. After taking a second or two to compose himself, he runs to the end. He slams down hard with his right foot, launching himself high over the pool. He looks magnificent, arcing gracefully through the air and disappearing into the water with barely a ripple. I knew he'd be good. I hadn't realised he'd be that good!

After we've each jumped or dived in three times, we head back to the mats and resume our games. By twenty past three, we've had enough. We climb out of the pool and head to the changing rooms. Dean's just behind me.

"She said yes!" he whispers, right into my ear.

I look over my shoulder. He's grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

"Nice one!" I say, smiling back. "Told you, didn't I?"

We slap hands and follow the others. With seven of us and only six shower heads, it's a bit of a squeeze, but Mark and Andrew disappear into changing cubicles almost immediately, the rest of us following soon after. That's something of a disappointment. I was hoping we'd use the benches. I know I've seen Tim naked before, but as I don't really know him, I've never got a really good peek. Still, I mustn't complain. Just seeing him in his swimming shorts was pretty special.

I towel myself off and pull on my clothes. I head out into the foyer. Dean and Smudger are already there. Tim and Ed join us almost immediately. I wonder where Mark and Andrew are. Smudger says they've already left. We sit around one of the tables, drinking cans of coke and eating crisps. Everyone's so friendly. It's gone way better than I thought it would.

The girls emerge a few minutes later. They look really good in their street clothes. We all chat for a while. Dean has a quiet word with Rebecca. Finally, it's time to go. We stroll outside, splitting up to go our separate ways.

"See you in the morning," Dean says, climbing aboard his bike and donning his helmet.

"Cool," I respond. "Is your dad coming?"

"Yeah, I think so," Dean says.

He rides away. I'm just pulling my helmet on when Mark and Andrew appear, heading my way. I'm immediately on my guard. This is not going to be pleasant.

"We want a word with you," Mark says.

I don't answer, waiting for what's going to come next.

"You used to be okay," he goes on. "At least we thought you were. Then you decided you were gay, started hanging out with the girls and all that shit. We tried telling you but you wouldn't listen. Then Broadhurst had a go at us for not backing you up when Zav started picking on you. So if you've come here today thinking we're going to be friends again, you can forget it. You're gay and we don't want gay friends."

"I didn't decide I was gay," I tell him. "I am gay. I didn't get a choice."

"Whatever," he sneers.

"So was it you who told the other kids not to talk to me?" I ask as they turn to leave.

"Nah," he responds. "That was Amanda's idea."

He's just confirmed what I already knew, pretty much. Amanda's a cow. She blames me for Zav getting into trouble and being moved to Mr Harrison's group, like I was supposed to put up with him picking on me the whole time. Well, Smudger was right. She can go fuck herself.

April 2008

This year's been weird. Easter was really early, so instead of having our two-week holiday then, we just had the Friday and the Monday and went back to school. Now we've got two weeks off in the middle of April, around the time that Easter usually is. I'm round at Dean's house. We spend well over an hour just chatting and listening to rock music, but we both get horny at the drop of a hat, don't we? With his parents at work, it's only a matter of time before we're lying naked on his bed, gently fondling each other.

"I hope you don't mind me asking," he says tentatively, "but when you're doing sex stuff with Anthony, does he, er . . . , stick it up your bum?"

I swallow hard. I hadn't expected him to ask me that. Of course, I could say that I do mind him asking, but I'm not keen on that. It seems a bit snotty, somehow. Or I could just lie and say he doesn't, but if that was the answer I'd have said it straight off and I haven't.

"Why d'you ask?" I enquire, playing for time.

"Just wondering," he says casually.

Damn! I should have asked him what gave him the idea, but I was so flummoxed I didn't think of it. Fuck it! I might as well just tell him.

"Yeah, he does, actually." I say, trying to sound as nonchalant as I can.

"So d'you like it then?"

"Yeah," I confirm. "We wouldn't do it otherwise. We only do stuff if we both like it."

"So you do it to him as well?"

"No," I concede. "I'm sure he'd be up for it if I wanted to. It just hasn't happened."

"Oh," he says thoughtfully. "Would you want me to do that to you?"

"Wouldn't you think it was too gay?" I counter.

"Dunno," he says vaguely. "I guess it might be. I'm not sure. I mean it's not like you doing it to me. That's definitely too gay." He pauses for a moment. "I'd like to try it if you wanted me to, yeah?"

Ooops! How did we get here? I need to unscramble my thoughts or I'll say the wrong thing.

"Not really," I say, screwing my face up.

It's not that I definitely wouldn't want him to do it. I just think it'd be better if he didn't. Actually, I sort of fancy the idea, except that he's quite a bit bigger than Anthony; it'd hurt. But that's not the main reason.

"It's like our special thing," I explain, "me and Anthony. I wouldn't feel comfortable doing it with anyone else."

To be honest, that's not the whole story. If I let Dean fuck me, Anthony might notice. That could make things very awkward. It's not worth the risk.

"So you're like boyfriends?" Dean suggests.

"Yeah," I agree. "We've never actually said it, but I guess we are, sort of."

"That's cool," he says, trying to hide his disappointment.

I feel a bit mean. I wish I didn't have to make choices like that. But that's how it is, I guess. Adults have to make choices all the time. I'd better get used to it. So have I done the right thing? I'm not sure, but I think I have. Dean enjoys having sex, but he's not gay, not really. That's the thing. Tomorrow, he's going out with Rebecca. Anthony would no more do that than fly to the moon. Dean understands that perfectly.

"So is it okay if we just do our usual?" I ask.

"Yeah, course it is," he says, grinning at me.

It's Sunday. Dean and I wander round to the back of the house and into the utility room. It's the first time we've done the five-mile run without his dad with us. It went okay. Now that I've got used to it, it's not easy exactly, but it's not that hard. We take off our trainers and stroll into the kitchen. I pour us cold drinks from the fridge. Dad appears from the lounge room.

"We're going to the garden centre," he says, smiling. "We'll be about an hour. Remember we're going to Granddad and Grandma's for lunch, so make sure you're ready for when we get back."

He disappears again. That's mum's parents he's talking about. They're very nice, but I hate going there. They treat me like a five-year old. I wonder if they treated Uncle Chris like that when he was my age. Worse still, there's nothing for me to do. I get bored senseless.

The front door clicks shut. Dad starts up the car. It drives away. Claire's at Natasha's house. Not fair! She claimed that they need to do some work for their GCSEs, but she only said it to avoid having to come with us. Dean and I finish our drinks and head up to my room. We've got the house to ourselves for almost an hour. That's long enough.

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