Simon was 16, he had just moved into sixth form; still in the choir, he was the last of his 'gang'. As 10 year olds they had joined the church choir together (it being a CofE Church Primary School) and then the choir at 'big' school as they still ironically called it (feeling they were big now).
James had left first, his voice was never one of the best and when it broke it got a whole lot worse; he left by mutual consent with Mr Granger the school music teacher, leaving the church choir just followed naturally. Alex left the church choir first when he realised he was really a Buddhist, then a Bahia, then a Muslim and finally an agnostic (and, it turned out, a pretty intolerant one). Chris left the group entirely when he discovered girls and smoking; he had drifted back into their periphery (or perhaps they had drifted into his) but was always the fifth musketeer now. Tony stayed longest, he was going to take up music as a profession, he had the treble voice of an angel, then the voice of Caruso, the skill of a concert pianist and could play music at first sight. In short he was sickening. His family moved away when he was fifteen; Mr Granger was desolate. Harry took his place in the group, but never in the choir.
So there was just Simon, who accepted the ribbing with good heart and just loved singing. When his voice broke he was lucky; he left school for the summer break a treble and returned a fully fledged tenor. His voice had now deepened to baritone. A good place to be since there weren't many of them so they were regarded as 'special'.
He was not particularly religious, but he did like the church music and it provided a welcome counterpoint to the school tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan. He'd sung the Bosun in Pinafore last term, he was proud of that and he knew he'd never go further; he wasn't good enough, it was just a hobby.
September brought momentous news, the new vicar had insisted, well, cajoled and argued and pleaded and finally won, that with the dearth of new young boys the church choir had to welcome girls to the choir. In that first week Mr Harrison (the organist and choir master) welcomed one girl, Mary. She looked lost and the young boys (all 3 of them) made no attempt to welcome her so Simon made a point of talking to her at the rehearsal break. She was 11, from Saint Winifred's Girls' Schools (the two inverted commas were most important each new girl was told, not one, but TWO). They had been invited to join the choir, two others said they would come but here she was, alone. Simon made an effort to persuade her to stay. And she did.
Rehearsals went on and the evenings grew darker until it became no longer acceptable for the young-uns to walk home alone. That next rehearsal a tall, attractive girl sat at the back of the church waiting for rehearsals to end. Mary insisted in bringing Simon over to meet her sister.
"Simon, this is my sister, ... this is my friend Simon" and rushed off to get her coat, hat, song sheet, school bag, etc etc etc. She looked at him.
"You were expecting someone younger? It isn't what you may be thinking" he smiled, hoping that smile didn't look Saville-esque. "She was the only girl on the first night she came and I just talked to her to cheer her up; she kind of adopted me after that"
"Don't you mind?"
"Not really, she's a nice kid, thinks the world of you"
The girl coloured slightly. She looked nice, even nicer when she blushed he thought in a "she's out of my league" kind of way. She was in the upper sixth (a year older) at Lady Harriets, a grammar school turned comprehensive. It kept the rather twee name, the all-girl policy and the substantial legacy from Lady Harriet (dependent upon the name and all-girl policy).
After that, each Wednesday she came to collect Mary, their mother worked and couldn't leave in time to get round, or at least didn't want to use up a favour for this when a favour might be needed for something else. Each week they chatted briefly and then parted. Friends, nothing more, nothing more expected. End of story? Not yet.
On the Thursday before end of term the school 'prom' was to be held – it used to be a school dance but now had that ridiculous word 'prom' attached. It was still the traditional once a year joint event with Lady Harriets where the boys would talk for weeks about how they were going to spike the drinks and snog some girl and feel her up and cop a good feel of her tits; and where, come the night, 90% of the boys would be at one end and 90% of the girls at the other with a few girls dancing with each other and a few boy/girl pairs talking round the edges (only talking was allowed of course).
Simon was standing with Harry, James and Alex, Chris was standing talking disconsolately to his latest 'squeeze' (he really did say that), she looked like she would smash him if he tried to squeeze her; at the other end he saw Mary's sister. She caught his eye, they nodded in a non-committal, non-obvious way. But, he thought, she's acknowledged me, hell, yes, let's do something different. The walk from one end of the hall to the other was longer than crossing to the North Pole. He could have gone round the edge but that would have been just wussy and he was determined not to be wussy in front of the girls (and the boys ... and the teachers!). A rebuff would be like Napoleon's retreat from Moscow; but he told himself, at least he would have made the effort.
At the other end she saw him set off and inwardly went bright red, "Do you know him? He seems to be looking at you." said Judith. She went red outside too. "He's in the same choir as Mary". She could tell a judgment was passed immediately. When he reached her she made an overly enthusiastic greeting to show her friends she wasn't ashamed to know him.
"Would you like a drink?" (fruit juice punch, strictly, strictly non-alcoholic, thoroughly policed by Miss Chambers). Actually she didn't but she did want to move away from her friends. "Yes, I'll come with you"
In the punch room Terry Butcher was being told he could be banned from school dances for trying to spike the punch – that was like threatening a murderer with a comfy chair for life! Terry had two left feet and was strongly of the opinion that girls were for fucking, women were for having babies and old women were for fleecing (kind of family motto since his mother had had 7 children and his grandmother was always paying over the odds for shopping her grandchildren got for her).
They moved towards the punch, she wondering if he would disapprove of the miniature bottle of rum she had in her bag, he wondering if she would be shocked by the miniature of whisky inside his sock. The ice was cracked by her saying "I'd love to spice my drink up" and broken by "me too!"
He got two glasses of punch and then bent down to tie his laces while she engaged Miss Chambers in the briefest of conversations about University choices. When he stood up the deed was done, two glasses with half a miniature in each, the bottle neatly stowed behind the empty juice cartons.
On the way out she opened her bag. All bags had been searched, as had pockets, he knew they wouldn't go for a full body search so his ankle was safe, how had she smuggled in a bottle in her bag? Inside the bag she showed him a box of tampons. He gulped, was she saying couldn't dance because of her period? Opened the top, there, peeking out was the top of a small bottle of rum.
"The searchers were two teachers from each school, our teachers aren't going to empty out a box of Lillets with a man standing beside them are they?"
Was it the tiny amount of alcohol that reduced their inhibitions or the feeling that it should? People have been known to get happily drunk on de-alcoholised wine after all. Back on the dance floor they set about bringing their two sets of friends together. The girls wanted to dance, and really not with each other (again!), the boys wanted the kudos of dancing with a girl. They all agreed, in theory, to switch partners after each dance to make it all less stressful. In practice that wasn't necessary and their bold move brought others onto the floor. At last! A school dance that was a success! The later sharing of their second bottle further cemented their relationship to the extent that a slow dance had Miss Chambers (now relieved of duty at ruining the fun in the punch room, she had decided to spoil it on the dance floor) asking them to separate a little (perhaps his hands had crept close to her bottom; though she hadn't objected, and he could tell she would definitely inform him if she had).
The dance came to an end with a couple of the teachers congratulating their little group for starting the ball (the dancing that is) rolling. If the teachers smelt any alcohol breath they said nothing; after all it wasn't as if they had danced on the tables or performed a manic Passé Double. They had just used the alcohol as a lubricant for a pleasant evening.
Outside people drifted away to cars collecting them or walked away singly or in pairs until only the two of them were left. Her mother was meant to be coming but there was no sign so eventually she returned and asked to use the office phone.
"The car won't start! It just won't bloody well start! What will you do? Can you get a taxi?" She never suggested taxis, they were expensive, and anyway how safe would a taxi be? Any safer than walking home?
"I'll walk you home" said Simon
"You sure? It's very late. Mum someone will walk me home, it's no problem, really, take a deep breath and calm down"
Simon now used the phone to ring home, he was supposed to be in by 11; it was 10 to 11 now.
"Hello?" His Dad answered. His Dad was always making pointed jokes about girlfriends and stuff, he was embarrassing. Simon briefly explained and waited for the inevitable silly comments "don't do anything I wouldn't, hee hee" or something.
Instead "Okay, try not to be too late, it's a school day tomorrow; but you did the right thing to offer. I'm proud of you son" and hung up. Off the phone his father turned to his wife "He'll be late, he has to walk a girl home."
"But what about school?" she said, "I told him 11pm and no later, he'll be on the road to rack and ruin, you mark my words"
"You are not to say anything to him" He never, ever spoke like that to her. She could tell he meant it. "Sometimes rules have to be adjusted to the circumstances. You go to bed" he kissed her "I'll wait up to make sure he gets in alright"
People surprise you thought Simon, unaware of the discussions at home, and they set off on the walk to her home. On the way he found out much more, how they were a single parent family, her Dad had left for a secretary from the works.
"Do you hate men?"
"Well, they are all scumbag, two faced, two-timing bar stewards!" She looked at him and smiled. "No, I don't even hate him, we see him regularly. It was harder on Mary I think. And I have to be fair, they've been together for 8 years now and seem happy. Maybe it was the right thing. Mum gets worked up sometimes when things go wrong and there's no-one to help, but most of the time she manages fine"
They walked along arm in arm, which is hard when you feel you are floating on air. He could smell her, feel her arm and occasionally her body beside him.
They turned down a narrow alley, she dropping his arm and following whilst holding his hand, a short cut that she explained she wouldn't take without him being with her. He felt his chest swell, then collapse as she saw two blokes at the end, smoking. Can't turn round now. As they got close he recognised them, they were from his school. Please, pleeeease don't say something he thought.
"Alright Si? Cracking try last Monday"
Ah, yes the grudge match against Red Bollocks (Redvers Buller High to you, Red Bollocks to everyone, teachers included, in his school). His try helped seal an honourable draw, thank god he played rugby. You can be a weedy 10 stone but still able to run like crazy with a silly shaped ball and thus be hero. To his team mates and choir members both he was Simon, to wannabee cool guys who pretend to know everyone he was Si.
"Cheers, see you tomorrow" He doubted if either of them would bother with the last day of term.
At the outskirts of the town they came to a row of nice detached houses. She stopped at number 12. "Do you want to come in for coffee? I'm sure Mum would like to thank you for walking me home"
"Best not, I promised to be as quick as I can"
She bent forwards, still holding his hand and he took the signal and kissed her lightly on the lips. If she wanted a kiss on the cheek he reasoned she would have turned her head sideways. As he made to straighten up she took his other hand and pulled him down towards her again. A long smooch later, with just the hint of her tongue brushing his lips, he said goodbye and floated off home.
12:10 he walked in and his Dad greeted him.
"Okay, see you in the morning, don't stay up to late. Oh and son?"
"You've got some lipstick on your cheek"
That was it. His Dad went to bed the happiest man alive, his son wasn't a music loving geek after all. Well not just a music loving geek. He'd long ago accepted he might be gay (not a thing the average father discusses, definitely the kind of thing he might think), but he did hope he might find some pleasure in social company; whether girl or boy, not really bothered that much. He knew his son hung round with some others at school, but he never seemed to do anything outside that; apart from the choir of course. With a voice that could compete with a strangled cat for atonal dissonance he didn't really see the attraction.
Next day Simon made a point of getting up earlier than usual, to show he was fine. Good job, it was only then he remembered he was singing a solo in "We Three Kings" in assembly. This was a first for the school a kind of Christmas concert and assembly rolled into one.
As he started singing Melchior he realised his late night (and alcohol?) had dropped his voice even lower. He really nailed it! Hitting the lowest of low notes with a bass voice of rough power. Mr Granger was delighted or as Alex put it later "looked like he was having an orgasm".
The compliments he got from even non-friends meant a lot to Simon.
The following Sunday he repeated the performance in the Nativity service. Bill Grigg had been meant to sing it but he lost his voice. He could tell he wasn't quite so good, but still, everybody was very complimentary, most especially Carol who was there with her mother.
After the service people milled around and Simon went over and talked to Carol and her mother.
"It was so kind of you to walk Carol home, I tried and tried to get the car to start but it wouldn't. It was fine the next day"
"Probably flooded after the first couple of tries, best to leave it a while to let the spark plugs dry off. Even better take them out and warm them up"
"oooo " she cooed, putting her arm round Carol's waist "he knows about cars, definitely a keeper"
She went crimson and said something like "Muummmm!"
Simon interjected "I don't know much, just picked bits up from my Dad. Nice to meet you." He went off to get his things and Carol said she would go and find Mary. Racing round the back she came in through another door, pulled Simon out of it as he passed and kissed him behind the church. When they stopped, Mary was looking at them with a patient, 35 year old face. She'd already sussed something was going on; luckily she was cool with it.
Christmas Eve midnight service was next and Carol volunteered to bring Mary early to that, engineering another quick snogging session before the choir had to get ready. This did nothing to produce a calm demeanour in Simon for the service. After, his Mum and Dad walked out and talked with Carol's mother while the choir got changed. Carol just had a chance to whisper "take the dog for a walk over the common about 4"
Christmas day was the usual, chocolate, a sherry for Mum ("ooo I'm quite tiddly after that"), a big meal and then all settling down to fall asleep in front of The Wizard of Oz on TV. No-one batted an eyelid (no-one was awake?) when Simon opted to take the dog out. The dog would have been happy lying in front of the fire being fed nuts (which made her fart), but was pleased enough when Simon said 'rabbits!'.
They walked in the dark to the common and there, sitting on the bench she was with their dog. The two dogs sensed they should get on so the four of them walked happily into the deeper gloom of the trees, whereupon Simon swung her round and kissed her urgently, long and often; making half hearted attempts to 'cop a feel' at the same time. He wasn't worried that he was rebuffed, and she wasn't concerned that he might go too far. They understood each other.
On the way back they discussed presents "I got a La Sensa gift token, meet me at 8:30 on Saturday, you can help me pick"
"You want me to come into La Sensa with you?"
"No-one will be there when it opens, by the afternoon it will be manic"
Saturday found them being the first customers into the shop. He thought now maybe it would be better to be part of a crowd, convinced that every one of the five shop assistants was watching him for lecherous tendencies.
"Oh this one's nice, feel the satin isn't it soft?"
There was absolutely no way he was going to finger a bra in a shop to see how soft it was. When she held up a pair of pants with a tiny triangle of fabric (and even that was lace) at the front and what looked like ribbon at the back and said "do you think I would suit these?" he knew she was trying to embarrass him. She succeeded.
She said she'd wear what she bought to the New Year's party they'd been invited to. After careful diplomacy, both had got the agreement they could go. She because she was going with a choir boy and that couldn't spell trouble, he because his Dad was acting as a really good foil for his over-protective mother.
The party was loud, short on twiglets, and started to break up after the twin problems of a boy being sick in the fish pond and two girls having a fight in the street outside (odd thing was nobody knew who they were, maybe they weren't even at the party). Simon went upstairs to get their coats and found she'd followed him up to the empty bedroom. There she unbuttoned the top of her blouse "see, I told you I'd wear them". The bra was stunning, the satin definitely was soft as he took the opportunity to stroke it and the excellent contents. He'd have liked to see the pants too but that wasn't on offer, yet. But he had the impression things were moving on.
Yet they didn't, winter turned to spring and still they stayed at the base camp of the sexual Himalayas. Hard to say who was reticent or if anybody was. As summer got closer she spent more time working at her exams, the kissing and cuddling and stroking (and gently but firmly keeping the hands above the waist) was a welcome temporary distraction but that was all, a distraction. And oddly Simon didn't mind; perhaps that's why they fitted so well together, why they were trusted too. Okay he had got the occasional raging hard-on from catching a glimpse of her nipple peaking over a bassinet bra, or the distinct shape of them when she was obviously turned on. Once when they went swimming they even used a family changing cubicle because there were no others, but yet they looked away. It wasn't that they didn't, both of them, want sex, they just had other things on their minds as well so they weren't totally and wholly immersed in the dedication to getting their joint ends away.
Spring turned to summer, the dogs both died within a month of each other, they comforted each other; and even more they comforted Mary. "Like an old married couple" one of them said as they walked out of a children's film that they'd taken Mary to, to cheer her up. Mary had sat between them, quite knowingly, and smirked as they tried to hold hands behind her. The exams came and went, she got good passes, but not quite good enough in English – she could retake it and take History in a year to end up with 5 'A' levels and (hopefully) a place at Durham. So they could stay together for another year.
Christmas sped up and passed in the same blur of unwonted and unwanted jumpers, pyjamas and gloves. And so the New Year party approached again. Carol's Mum wanted to go to Aunty Mary's (they alternated, it was their turn to go down), but a bit of crafty shift changing at Tesco's where Carol worked on Saturdays and holidays now meant that she could honestly say "I have to work". So it was agreed that Mary and her Mum would go for a couple of days and Carol could stay at home.
Knowing he'd been invited to the party, and not knowing that Carol's Mum would be away, Simon's parents never even suggested he came with them to a remote cottage by the sea. Truth was they were really looking forward to being entirely alone for a couple of days. Reigniting their marriage they said in his hearing, Simon made retching noises.
"Come over about 6pm, you can unwrap your Christmas present before we go"