Growing up gay in a small town isn't easy. Moving back is even harder.
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Growing up gay in a small, working-class town isn't easy. Returning there after three years spent in the bright lights of the city is even harder. But with no job, and no money, Danny doesn't have much choice.
An unprovoked attack confirms all of Danny's fears about life in his hometown. The irony of his rescuer being Ste, his homophobic ex-best friend, isn't lost on him. But in the five years they've been apart, Ste has changed. Life has let them both down, and suddenly they have something in common again.
Danny starts to hope. He misses the freedom of the city, he misses his friends, but perhaps Ste can give him a reason to stay, after all.
He hung around the house until he couldn’t stand it anymore: not the worried expression on his mother’s face, or the incessant questioning from his father. He knew he didn’t have a job, he knew uni had cost them a fortune, he knew he was a disappointment to them both – why the hell did they keep having to remind him?
He called Leon and practically begged him to put him up, just for one night. He caught the train from the old, familiar station that still stank of piss, still had the same graffiti after all these years, the initials he and Ste had chipped into the green paintwork still there. He climbed into the carriage of the old nodding donkey and found a seat that was neither wet nor broken. He rested his head against the window and watched the small town slide away, remembering the thrill he used to feel when he caught the train to the city, the stupid surge of happiness as he left the dull little slate-roofed rows of terraces behind and steamed into the open countryside, always rich with the smell of manure, whatever the season. It was autumn now, the fields lay brown and bare, spotted with ubiquitous black bales.
They stopped and started through a string of identical, indistinguishable stations, all tired, all flaking and fading. Occasionally someone got on; even rarer, someone got off. The scenery changed again, new lines joined and left his, a motorway snaked along beside them. A chain of houses stretched unbroken along the trackside. He sat up and craned forward, wanting to get his first glimpse of the city. Even after three years of living there this first glance always excited him, always took him back to being a boy, when he dreamed that someday he too would live in the city.
They crossed the motorway and steamed past the blocks of flats, all brand-new, some still half-built. He looked with interest at how much they had progressed since he saw them last. Lights were on in the oldest block: he saw people moving about, watching TV, eating dinner. Two men kissed on a balcony. He was home.
Leon was waiting for him on the platform, they hugged and kissed each other in greeting. It was all so different here, he was so different. They walked the short distance to Leon’s flat, gossiping about friends in common. Danny’s head span as he tried to keep track of who was dating who, and who had broken up. He didn’t miss all the drama, that was for sure.
“So what about you?” Leon prompted, digging him in the ribs. “Don’t tell me you’ve been single all this time?”
Danny shrugged. “I’m the only gay in the village.” They both laughed.
“You seriously need to move back,” Leon urged, passing him a glass of wine. “Paul and Ashley are looking for a new roommate.”
“I can’t,” Danny grimaced, “no job.”
“You’re bound to find something,” Leon consoled him. “I can put in a word at Stretch for you if you like?”
Danny politely declined. He hadn’t spent three years and the best part of ten grand getting a degree only to end up working in a bar.
“Drink up, anyway,” Leon tipped the bottom of his glass, “everyone’s out tonight, they can’t wait to see you again.”
The evening passed in a blur of bright lights and good company. Danny saw people he’d not spoken to in weeks, that eclectic crowd that only gathered to drink and dance, people drawn to each other through habit and held together by the tenuous link of being in the same bar, at the same time, week after week. He knew he’d never call any of them in times of need, but that didn’t stop his heart warming as he greeted them again. They picked up where they’d left off and they surged through the usual round of bars and clubs, laughing and joking together like they’d never been apart.
Eventually the club emptied and the lights came up: the few dancers that were left still shuffling awkwardly from left to right, their jaws locked and gurning. Danny and Leon rolled their eyes at the pill poppers and stumbled outside into the grey light of dawn. They staggered onto the bus and collapsed into a seat near the front, resting their heads together and holding hands companionably. This was what he missed most of all, he realised, this simple, sexless contact with other men. It came so free and easy in the city: at home they wouldn’t have dared to sit like this.
They sniggered as the early morning work crowd boarded the bus, freshly showed and in clean, pressed clothes. They looked down at them like they were scum as they passed, but Danny caught more than one wistful glance, too, as the commuters remembered their own young, carefree days, when they too went clubbing on a weekday and caught the first bus home.
They slept late, and spent several hours groaning around the flat after they woke. Clearly, drinking and dancing all night was something you had to build up and get used to, or maybe the memories of the hangovers faded quicker than the memories of the nights that caused them. It was with a heavy heart that he kissed his friend goodbye and boarded the train home, the churning in his stomach more than just too much beer. He looked away from the window, unable to bear seeing the city slip away again. He belonged there, not in the small town where he’d grown up. He no longer fitted in with the people he’d known at school: he’d changed too much, he’d outgrown them.
He slunk through the door, barely nodded at his parents, climbed the stairs heavily and fell onto his bed, fully dressed, and buried his face in his pillow. He felt like crying, but his eyes were dry. Forbidden even the simple catharsis of tears, he eventually fell into a fitful sleep.