For the International Day against Homophobia, this short story is based on the events that take place in Gareth Russell's novel, Popular. To read more, Popular can be ordered from HERE.
For those of you who have read the book, this extract takes place somewhere around chapter 4, Pray for us sinners.
Kerry Davison stared languidly at her own reflection in the bathroom mirrors of the Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club in Cultra and sighed. "Imogen, what do you call those people who hate gay people?"
Kerry paused for a minute, considering her friend's answer. "No, no... that's not it."
"It is. Look at Eastenders. Chryed didn't have a very easy time of it there, did they?"
"Christian and Syed," Imogen answered, incredulously. "The openly working-class gay love story?"
Kerry nodded. "Oh... Oh, yes. But there's definitely a word for it. A real word."
Meredith swept into the bathroom and took her place at the sink next to Imogen.
"Meredith, what's the real word for people who hate gay people?" Kerry asked, earning her a filthy look from Imogen.
"That's sectarian," Kerry snapped.
"Homophobes," answered Meredith, applying a light sheen of gloss to her lips. "The correct word is homophobes."
Kerry nodded triumphantly. "Yes! That's the one. Homophobes. Why?"
"Because -phobic means fear of and homo is the first syllable of homosexual."
"No, but, I mean, why?" asked Kerry, silently congratulating herself on having curls that looked as if little angels had knitted them from liquid beams of pure sunshine. "Why?"
"Bitches be crazy," explained Imogen, in a very serious voice. "It's like when people were racist. Anti-banter times."
"We were never allowed to be homophobic," Kerry announced piously, carefully pronouncing her new favourite word, homophobic. "Never. Il Padre would have been livid if we had been so prejudiced. I do have a gay uncle in Toronto after all."
"Do you?" asked Meredith, in surprise.
Kerry placed her hand on her chest in faux mortification. "You're right, that is very politically incorrect of me. I have an uncle, who happens to be gay."
"I think homophobia's disgusting," said Imogen. "And fucking stupid. I mean, imagine what it does to you when you hear that kind of thing? Imagine what it's like to grow up and never be able to have all the kissing and flirting and boyfriend banter we have. Well, not you, Meredith. You'd miss out on your whole teenage years and, frankly, I cannot think of anything more horrific, given how sensationally delightful my own have been." She flicked her blonde hair over her shoulders and gazed into the mirror. "People are just so fucking stupid."
Years later, if you had asked Cameron Matthews what had caused the horrendous, gut-wrenching mess of his first year of knowing Blake Hartman, he would have sworn up and down on a stack of Bibles that the reason had been that Blake's father was a pastor. As far as Cameron was concerned, it was quite clear that the whole root and branch of Blake's problem had lain in the plastic evangelicalism of the Shepherd of Judea Baptist Church in Carryduff. Added to this was the fact that Meredith's loyal Catholicism kept up a steady stream of emotional propaganda insisting that this was living proof that priests should never have children. Imogen had taken the whole thing far too far by launching into a rant that blamed the entirety of Protestantism, arguing that without the Virgin Mary no-one could be happy. Ever. Blake, however, was insistent that initially it had nothing to do with his father's job. It was only once the whole issue of his sexuality moved from his unconscious into his conscious that Blake began to consider what kind of impact it would have on his family. Before that, from as far back as he could remember, there had been a lingering uncertain fear, deep in his gut; there had been a sense of personal unease, as if something did not quite "fit".
If you had asked Blake in the years before he met Cameron if he had a problem with homosexuality, he would honestly and instinctively have answered, no. No, he did not. But had anyone ever implied or assumed that he himself was gay, Blake would have felt a rising flush of panic as he rushed to correct them. Why he felt this way was anybody's guess. On paper, there was absolutely no reason why he should feel this way. He had come from a loving family in one of the most liberal states in America and he could never, ever remember a time when his father had preached a sermon on homosexuality. Or even mentioned it, at all, come to think of it. With the benefit of hindsight and maturity, Blake would later realise that it was maybe something about his deep need to be respected by his peers; respect was fundamentally important to Blake and it was something he unconsciously assumed he could not have if he was gay. If gay was the punchline of every joke, it was clear to Blake that whilst it was something that could be tolerated, it wasn't something that could be respected. In conclusion, it was banter, far more than the Bible, which had done the real damage to Blake Hartman, long before he even reached the age of seventeen.
On the same Saturday in November as Meredith, Imogen, Cameron and Kerry had been enjoying lunch with Cameron's mother in the Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club, Blake sat idly in the pretty, seaside grounds of Belmont Grammar School, three miles away, with the Mount Olivet football team. Soccer was not exactly Blake's forte and he had been stunned to the point of devastation to realise that lacrosse wasn't really played in British schools. Worse, he would apparently have to wait until after Easter to get involved in track and tennis, which were, by far, his best sports. That left swimming and soccer for the winter semester, since he hadn't played American football back in New Canaan and was therefore extremely reluctant to go anywhere near what looked like the bone-crunching, face-bruising psychosis of rugby. Soccer would have suffice in the meantime and today was a Saturday away game, with the Mount Olivet squad currently winning 2-1. Blake had yet to play.
A groan went up from his teammates on the bench when a kid from Belmont scored an equalising goal. The kid was good and Mount Olivet's goalkeeper, Andrew Henton-Worley, looked pissed. Looking over at Mount Olivet's coach, Mr Cavan, Blake could see that the feeling was mutual.
"Who's that?" asked a Mount Olivet sub, whose name Blake was struggling to remember.
"Edward Hanna," answered another. "He's Rory Hanna's cousin. He's really good. Like, an amazing player."
The nameless sub nodded. "Yeah. Henton-Worley looks pissed."
A few of the guys laughed; others muttered angry things under their breath implying that Andrew should be pissed. Blake squinted into the Sun, the ultimate rarity in mid-November Belfast. It was unlikely that he'd be called to play now; unless someone got injured. Settling back, he began absent-mindedly tapping out a rhythm with his right foot. Snippets of conversation bounced around him. None of them very interesting; most of them about people he did not know or places he'd never been. There was a small beep from inside his sports bag. Reaching in to extract his phone, a little smile danced across his face when he saw that it was a text from Cameron.
Cameron: How's the match going? Shanter?
Blake: Hey! Yeah, it's going okay, I guess. We're tied. Haven't played yet. What's shanter?
C: "Shit banter." :)
B: Hahahahaha! Lame. How was lunch?
C: Really nice. Mummy and Kerry got caught up in an epic convo about how much they love kittens. What are your plans for the rest of the day? PS - I am not lame. I am awesome. I am anti-shanter.x
B: Kitten convo? Sounds shanterous, Cameron ;) Getting a lift back on the school bus to Malone, then probably going to walk to the Europa and get the bus back to C'duff. PS- You are still lame.
C: Do you want to come up to mine to hang? For anti-shanter purposes, obv. We should be done in like an hour?
B: Where'd my x go?
C: Same place mine went.
B: I didn't send one in the first place.
B: :) Haha. Well played, C-Dog.x
C: Sorry to hear you haven't played yet.x
B:"Hi, my name is Cameron Matthews, and my friend Blake Hartman just accidentally forgot to respond to my very kind invitation to hangout at my house this evening. But rather than repeat the question like a big boy, I'm going to send a pointless text about something else and hope that reminds him." See you at your house at 4? Can't wait. B-Dog in da house (literally) x
C: I hate you. See you at 4 x
B: "Lame - the new fragrance from Cameron Matthews." :) x
Blake bit the bottom of his lip in a smile and tossed the phone back in his bag. The referee's whistle blew and Blake refocused on the game. Edward Hanna had just scored a second goal, bringing the score to 2-3 in Belmont's favour. Mr Cavan looked like he was about to punch a wall.
"Is Edward Hanna Rory's cousin?" asked Titus Pitt, a sixth year popular boy, famous for his epic house parties.
"Gay Rory? Yeah," answered another. A tiny, faint twinge gripped Blake's oesophagus. He widened his feet slightly on the ground and gripped his hands a little harder. He looked more masculine this way.
Titus nodded. "I like Rory. He's good banter." As far as North Down boys went, it was hard to think of a higher form of compliment.
"Yeah," said Titus's friend. "I don't agree with the whole gay thing, but I like Rory. He's a good lad. He's not annoying about the whole thing, either."
Titus agreed. "Yeah, absolutely. Blake?"
Blake looked up and the weight on his chest was back. The weight he knew by instinct, but could not name. Why had they turned to talk to him at this point in the conversation? "Yeah?"
"Mr Cavan says you're amazing at tennis?"
The weight lightened. "I played it back in the States."
"Cool. You should come to our tennis club sometime, if you want to keep it up? The facilities are sweet."
"Oh, thanks, Titus. Yeah, I'll look into it. Thank you."
"You enjoyed tennis, then?" asked Titus's friend. "Back in America?"
"Eh, yeah, I loved it. That's where I met my ex-girlfriend," Blake said. Titus and his friend nodded and asked a few more questions. A soothing balm, like an antacid, spread through Blake's body. They knew he wasn't gay. And Blake pushed any attempt to analyse why he'd just said what he'd said right out of his head. His phone beeped from back inside his bag and he reached to get it, smiling when he saw who the text was from.