The Jigsaw Puzzle

by Pink Panther

Chapter 19

December 2008

With exams and all the usual pre-Christmas stuff, I was busy right through until the end of term. But I did well in all my exams, even physics, not that Mr Harrison seemed very happy about it. The start of the Christmas break has gone well too. Somehow, I've managed to push from my mind thoughts of what I'll have to do afterwards. But today is December 27, the date that Claire and I agreed.

I've prepared as well as I can. Claire and I have been through everything, trying to think of all the questions that Mum and Dad might ask. Even so, I'm as nervous as hell. For all the preparation we've done, I still have the niggling feeling that it could all go horribly wrong.

It's ten to ten. We've had breakfast. I'm up in my room, trying to get my head together. I'm having the worst case of cold feet you can imagine. I do not want to do this. I know Claire said that Mum and Dad might hear about it from someone else, but suppose they don't? I'll have caused a whole pile of upset for nothing. On the other hand, they might, and the consequences of that don't bear thinking about.

It's no good. I promised Claire that I'd do it. I can't back out now. I'm going to speak to Dad first. Before going downstairs, I knock on Claire's door.

"Yeah?" she calls.

I step into her room.

"Are you ready?" she asks.

"Ready as I'm going to be," I say, hardly able to get the words out.

"Where's Dad?"

"Downstairs, reading the paper, I think."

"Don't worry," she assures me, "you'll be fine."

I make my way down to the lounge. I feel like the condemned man going to his fate. To my relief, Dad's by himself.

"Dad," I croak. "Could we have a chat please?"

"Sure," he says. "Is here okay?"

"Could you come up to my room?" I suggest.

"Yeah, no problem" he agrees, smiling. "Give me a minute."

I head back upstairs. I sit on my chair, trying to compose myself. A minute or so later, Dad appears, taking a seat on the bed.

"Right," he says gently. "How can I help?"

This is it. The moment I've been dreading. I swallow hard.

"I want to tell you I'm gay, homosexual," I blurt. "I like boys."

"I see," he says, "Can you tell me how long you've felt like this?"

"About two years."

"So how d'you know this isn't just a phase you're going through?"

"Back at the beginning I hoped it might be, but the feeling just wouldn't go away."

"Well, there have been warning signs," he says, leaning forwards and looking right into my eyes. "And I want to assure you that your mum and I will love you and support just as we always have. But I did hope you'd grow out of it, and you've just said, rightly or wrongly, that you're not going to. So I'm disappointed. I'll put it no more strongly than that."

"Sorry," I mumble, the tears welling up.

"Now let me say that I don't have a problem with gay people," he goes on, speaking a little more gently. "Several of the designers we work with are gay. One of the guys on my regular crew is gay. But it's not what we would have wanted for you, so like I said, I'm disappointed."

"Oh, right. What d'you mean about warning signs?"

"Well, it was just little things at first," he says. "You hated the sort of games that most boys enjoy. You liked drawing those cartoons of the girls in their best clothes. That's not something many boys would do. And the summer before last, when we were in Florence, I remember us walking along the street to meet Mum. There were some teenage boys around. You couldn't take your eyes off them. I wasn't sure if you wanted to be with them or wanted to be them."

I nod my understanding.

"Then a few weeks later you invited Anthony here," he continues. "I was pretty sure he was gay from the moment I saw him. Oh, he's not girly. There's just something about him. He is gay, isn't he?"

"Yeah," I confirm.

"And have the two of you acted on that at all?" he asks.

"We messed about a bit," I admit. Okay, it's a gross understatement, but it's a much as I'm willing to say.

"Well I'm not too concerned about that," he says. "It's something that lots of boys do. But do I take it you're not doing that anymore?"

"He's got a boyfriend now," I say baldly.

"Oh, I see," he says, looking somewhat nonplussed. "But you're still friends?"

"Oh yeah," I say, smiling. "His boyfriend's not really into art."

"Well fortunately, Anthony's not our responsibility," he says brusquely. "Actually, I was just becoming concerned that you might be gay, when right out of the blue you got interested in getting fit. You even learned to swim. I wondered if I'd got it wrong, or that you'd put it behind you. But when we went on holiday to Cornwall, I saw the warning signs again."

My heart's in my mouth. I've no idea what I did or what he saw. Whatever it was, he never said anything.

"Remember the day we went to Newquay?" he says. "You spent the whole day sketching the beach scene."

I remember alright. After spending several weeks turning the sketch into a watercolour, I could hardly have forgotten.

"Tell me," he says. "Were there any girls on the beach that day?"

"Dunno," I say absently. "I guess there must have been."

"And what about adults?" he asks.

"Yeah, I guess."

"Well, there definitely were," he says firmly. "But there weren't any girls or adults in your sketch, not one. It was like you hadn't noticed they were there."

That's exactly how it was. I was so focused on the boys; the other people might as well not have existed. I'm so embarrassed, my cheeks are burning.

"But you never said anything," I protest.

"I didn't want to jump the gun," he explains. "I was still hoping you'd grow out of it."

"I nearly told you a few months ago," I say. "Only you were going back to work the next day, and I wasn't sure how mum would take it."

"I see," he says, nodding again. "So could I ask why you've chosen to tell us now?"

"Claire and I were talking about it. She's known for ages. She said that I needed to tell you soon because all my friends know I'm gay. That means other people know too. Claire said that if I didn't, you might hear about it from someone else. I wouldn't have wanted that. Mum would have been really upset. I guess you would too."

"Well, I've told you what I think. As for your Mum, I'm not sure how she'll feel about it. It's not something we've ever talked about. But what I will say is this. With me working away all the time, the task of bringing you up has been largely on her shoulders. The fact that you and Claire have turned out as well as you have is mainly down to her. I think she's done a wonderful job. Had things been different, she could have gone much further in her career than she has. She chose not to because she knew she needed to be there for you and Claire."

Well, he hasn't exactly told me anything I didn't know. He's just spelt it out in big letters.

"I'll have to talk to her," he continues. "It's not going to be easy."

"Thanks Dad," I mumble.

"Right," he says, getting to his feet. "There's no point in putting it off."

He heads back downstairs. A few moments later, Claire appears in my room.

"Well?" she demands.

"It was okay," I say guardedly. "He wasn't as understanding as I thought he'd be. He said he was disappointed. First, he said he doesn't have a problem with gay people. Then he said it wasn't what he and Mum wanted for me. I don't get it." I pause for a moment. "What are those?" I ask, nodding towards the stuff she's carrying.

"Oh, it's a book by parents of gay kids," she says, "and a couple of information leaflets. I'm going to give them to Mum. Is Dad talking to her now?"

"Yeah," I confirm. "When they've finished, I guess they'll both want to talk to me. You will come with me, won't you?"

"Yeah, of course!" she says. "I said I would, didn't I?"

It's half an hour before Dad returns.

"Mum and I would like to talk to you," he says. "We're not happy. We both feel you're too young to be making a decision about whether you're gay or not."

"Is it alright if Claire's there too?" I ask. "We've talked about this a lot."

"Well, I don't know what your mum will say," he sighs, "but okay, if that's what you want."

The three of us troop down into the lounge. Mum's sitting in one of the armchairs. Dad takes the other one. I sit on the sofa with Claire next to me.

"What are you doing here?" Mum demands, looking daggers at Claire.

"I've known about Ian for ages," Claire says calmly. "It was my idea that he told you."

"So why didn't you talk to me?" Mum snaps, glaring at her.

"I didn't think it was my place to do that," Claire counters. "It's not like he was doing anything wrong. I don't know what the big deal is."

"Dad's told me what you said," Mum says brightly, turning her attention to me. "I'm sure it's just a phase. You shouldn't be labelling yourself at your age. Your Uncle Chris never started going out with girls till he was eighteen. Just give it time. It'll work itself out. You'll see."

This is my worst nightmare. It's exactly what I thought she'd say. I take a deep breath.

"I may look like Uncle Chris," I say nervously, "but we're two different people. And I am gay. I've known for two years and I'm not going to simply grow out of it."

"Ian, that's ridiculous," she says dismissively. "Two years ago you were only twelve. You couldn't possibly have known!"

I take a deep breath. I've never argued with Mum, mainly because what she says is usually right. This time it's not.

"Well I did," I insist. "I'd gone to see the new Harry Potter film with Rebecca and a couple of the other girls. I was sitting there when I suddenly realised that watching Harry and Ron and a couple of the other boys was turning me on. I was so scared. I knew what it might mean. I tried and tried to make the feelings go away, but they just wouldn't. I know I was only small, but my body had already started developing. My voice broke well before most of the other boys'. It was only a few months later that I got dropped from the choir."

Mum gives me her 'Now you're being difficult' look.

"And there's another thing," I go on. "Before we went, I did drawings of Harry and Ron to show to my friends at school. One of the boys asked if I'd done one of Hermione. I said I hadn't but I was going to. But when I tried to do it, it was really hard. When I drew Harry and Ron, I knew exactly what they looked like. But with Hermione I had to keep looking back at clips from the earlier films. It took ages! What does that tell you?"

"I put a lot of this down to that boy Anthony," Mum says, changing tack. "I knew from the start there was something wrong about him. He's corrupted you; convinced you that you're gay."

"That's not fair!" I say defiantly. "I didn't meet Anthony till nearly a year later. We were packing up at Junior Arts Club. He asked me if I was gay. I was really worried at first because I'd never told anyone, but he'd spotted something. He told me it was okay because he was gay too. So we went to his house. We messed about. Neither of us had done anything like that before. He hadn't got any more idea about it than I had. And he didn't need to convince me that I was gay. I already knew."

"Dad tells me all your friends know," Mum says. "How did that happen?"

"Back when I was in Year Eight, when we were in registration I used to sit with Rebecca and her friends, talking about clothes and pop music and that. Xavier Stanford started calling me names. At first I just ignored him, but after a bit I started answering back. He didn't like that and things got a bit out of hand. Mr Broadhurst found out. He sent Xavier home and when he came back he was put in a different group and told to stay away from me."

"So is this why you fell out with Mark and Andrew?" she demands.

"I didn't fall out with them," I say calmly. "They decided they weren't going to speak to me anymore. Mark said they didn't want gay friends."

"And what did Andrew say?" Dad asks.

"Nothing," I respond. "He just went along with what Mark said, the same as he always does."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Mum continues.

"There was no need," I object. "The school dealt with the bullying. And I wasn't going to say anything about Mark and Andrew. That's between us, yeah? "

"Why didn't you just tell this boy Xavier that you weren't gay?" she persists.

"Like that would have worked!" I shoot back. "Anyway, it'd have been like saying I was ashamed of being gay and I'm not. I'm sorry I'm not the way you'd like me to be, but that's how it is."

"I'm only trying to do my best here," she says, sounding frustrated. "Won't you at least have some counselling, so you can get this sorted out?"

"That depends," I say, eyeing her suspiciously. "If it means going to see someone who'll try to persuade me I'm not gay, then no I won't."

"Okay," Dad says quietly. "Off you go, you two. Mum and I need to talk."

Claire and I stand up.

"I got these for you," Claire says, handing Mum the book and the leaflets. "You need to read them."

We make our way back upstairs. I'm feeling battered and bruised.

"You okay?" Claire asks. "I thought you did great."

"Yeah, I guess. At least Mum didn't start laying the law down. But it's Dad. I thought he'd be okay about it."

"Yeah," she concedes. "I thought he'd take it better than he has. Right! I'm going to Natasha's house. I'll see you later, yeah?"

"Yeah, cool," I say, rather wishing she wasn't.

I stretch out on my bed, trying to relax, but I'm still very wound up. I hate arguments and confrontations. I know it had to be done; I just hope I don't have to go through it again. The seconds pass interminably. I've almost lost the will to live when I hear footsteps approaching. Dad comes into my room, sitting down next to me.

"That was a conversation I'd rather not have had," he says. "Mum's very upset. Her little boy's not a little boy any more, and he's not grown into quite the sort of young man she'd thought he'd be. It's come as quite a shock. So after she'd given it me in the neck for not sharing my suspicions with her, she started beating herself up for not seeing it coming. I had to tell her that there was no way she could have been expected to."

I nod my understanding.

"So right now, there are a few things you need to help with," he goes on. "She's also beating herself up because she thinks that you being gay means that we, or she, must have done something wrong. I've tried to assure her as best I can that it simply isn't like that, but it would be good if she heard it from you. If anyone did anything wrong it was me, not spending enough time with you when you were small. I regret that now."

"I don't think either of you did anything wrong," I say emphatically. "You've been great, both of you."

"Thanks," he says, smiling. "Another thing is that in her quiet moments Mum's been dreaming about grandchildren. Obviously, she's bitterly disappointed that it seems you won't be giving us any. So now she's asking if she's being selfish."

"No way!" I protest. "Mums are supposed to dream of having grandchildren! Claire will get married and have kids. I'm really sorry that I won't, but that's just how it is."

"You need to tell her that," he says quietly. "You've put it far better than I could."

"Yeah, I will," I assure him.

"Then there are the health issues," he continues. "Now that you've got through the 'messing about' phase, you need to forget about having sex until you're a good deal older. You're far too young to be having sex at the moment. And even when you do, you'll need to be careful and take proper precautions."

"Yeah," I croak, scarcely able to get the word out.

How I managed to say that while keeping a straight face I'll never know. That wasn't being economical with the truth; it was a bare-faced lie. Not only have I had sex more times than I can remember, I've done it with four different boys, two of whom I'd only just met, and I've taken no precautions at all. And I'm not planning on stopping.

I don't think I'd have caught anything off Dean or Anthony, and probably not off Daniel either, but what about Jimmy? From what he told me, it sounded like he'd had sex with lots of guys. I could easily have caught something off him. It's an issue I'll have to deal with. Sure, I want to have sex, but I don't want to get sick.

"And you're not keen on having counselling?" Dad says, a statement and a question rolled into one.

"I don't understand what I need it for," I say. "I'm doing well at school and I've got some great friends who are cool with me being gay. I was being picked on at one time, but I'm not any more. And it's not as if I've got a problem with being gay. I don't see what good counselling would do."

"It would stop us worrying that you've got it wrong. I promise that any counsellor you see will be a properly trained professional who doesn't have an anti-gay agenda. So you need to think about it, okay?"

"Yeah," I sigh, still far from convinced.

"Right," he says, almost in a whisper. "When you're ready, you need to have a quiet chat with Mum, just the two of you. Be gentle with her, yeah?"

"Yeah," I repeat, feeling a lump rising in my throat.

"Right," he says. "I'm going out for an hour. I'll leave you to it."

He disappears down the stairs. I take several deep breaths, trying to compose myself. I know I have to do it, but it's not going to be easy for either of us. The front door opens and closes. Moments later the car disappears along the road. This is it. I can't put it off any longer. I head slowly downstairs and into the lounge. Mum's sitting on the sofa. I sit down next to her.

"I can't say I'm happy about this, Ian," she says, still clearly upset. "We've worked so hard bringing you up. I don't understand what went wrong."

"Nothing went wrong," I say firmly. "You and Dad have done everything you could. I know how lucky I am, having parents like you. Being gay is just part of who I am. It's nothing to do with what you've done or haven't done. I really didn't want to tell you. I knew you'd be upset, but I couldn't let you hear about it from someone else. That would have been even worse."

"I had such high hopes for you," Mum goes on, "and this wasn't part of it."

"Of course it wasn't," I respond. "You wouldn't want me to be gay. Being gay can be pretty hard. Of course that wasn't what you wanted. But lots of gay people make a success of their lives and I'm going to be one of them. You'll see."

"Oh, it's not just that," Mum says sadly. "With you and Claire growing up, I'd started dreaming about grandchildren. I suppose you think that's selfish of me."

"No way!" I say emphatically. "Mums are supposed to dream of having grandchildren. And you know what? I'd have liked to be a father too. I'd have been so proud, you know, bringing my first child to see you. I'm really sorry that it's not going to happen."

"It could if you wanted it to," Mum says, clutching at the only straw I've given her.

"The only way it could happen is if I lived a lie," I tell her, "and you wouldn't want that, would you?"

"How can you be so sure?" Mum asks, almost pleading. "Won't you at least talk to someone?"

"And what happens if he says I'm gay?" I query.

"We'd have to accept it, wouldn't we?" she says, looking sad and beaten. "At least we'd know it wasn't just you saying it."

I could tell her that Mr Ashton's said it too, but that wouldn't be fair on him.

"Are you going to read that stuff Claire gave you?" I ask. "The book's written by parents of other gay kids. You're not the first parents to have been through this, you know."

She doesn't answer. I've just shattered a large chunk of her world. I knew this would happen. It's why I never wanted to tell her. I take a deep breath. Maybe Dad was right. If I compromised just a bit . . .

"Look, if I agree to see a counsellor," I suggest, "will you read it?"

"Yes," she says reluctantly, as if she knows it's the best offer she's going to get. "If that's what you want."

"Okay," I say. "Ask Dad to arrange it."

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