Uncle Sol’s laugh echoes through the studio long after the last bell rings for the end of lessons. His warning rings out too. “Uh oh. Someone’s in big trouble.”
He says it loud enough that I’m distracted from looking through the tubes of paint littering my workbench. I crane my neck, seeing what's caught his eye, and I can't help snorting. Yeah, someone’s in deep shit all right.
Teo’s head shoots up as well from his phone. He’s found the one place left here to stand in shadow, tucked inside the supply cupboard doorway, keeping himself to himself. It’s pretty dark in there with the lights off but not dim enough for me to miss his raised eyebrows. I see him start to type, my phone vibrating in my pocket at the same time that he backs deeper into the cupboard’s shadows.
Teo: big trouble?
Teo: it wasn’t me
I almost type a reply, my thumbs poised, noticing both are streaked with a shade of paint that I’ve run out of so I head for the supply cupboard to find some more and answer him at the same time. Or at least I try to. He hasn’t gone too far inside but he blocks my way, blinking as I turn the light on.
“I didn’t do anything,” he insists, eyes flashing with what looks like anger.
Not anger aimed at me, anyhow.
The padre brought it up in a class discussion a few weeks back. Told us all about cortisol and long-term stress. Fight and flight. Freeze and fawn. He said fight makes coming out with your fists up seem a legit response but it pushes people away. He kept looking at Teo while he was speaking, who I think noticed. He must have, because his face did that thing where it kind of ripples, like the real him is right below the surface, trying to get out. I can’t help thinking the padre’s noticed how much time we spend together as well because he looked right at me next, saying how the best way to help someone learn how to calm down was by not reacting. He reminded me of Uncle Sol then, staying calm each time I used to leg it, running away from London.
Running away didn’t ever help me like fighting won’t help Teo so I ignore his clenched fists now and do what I’ve seen my uncle do a hundred times when kids get frustrated, speaking quietly instead of yelling so they have to quiet down to hear him. “He didn’t mean that you’re about to be in big trouble. He was joking.”
I push past.
Teo’s solid, no give to him when we play rugby, the last man down when we do Judo, but he shifts easily for me in here where no one can see us, trailing behind me and listening. “Uncle Sol can see Austin coming up the hill.” I scan paint tubes that aren’t quite the shade of umber I’m after, so I move on and keep searching.
Teo sounds dubious behind me. “Mr Russell’s coming here?” A beat later, he follows me deeper into a storage area four times the size of what Uncle Sol used to make do with. It’s spacious in here, no need for Teo to stand so close. He does though. I can feel him hovering right behind me as I search, and yeah, when I turn he’s right there, his arms crossed, frowning. “Why is him coming up here so funny to your uncle?”
He doesn’t back up after speaking and doesn’t say anything else either, but I know more’s coming because this is what Teo does when he’s building up to something. I’ve seen him loom over people plenty of times like this when he arrived at Glynn Harber, trying to pick fights Mr Lawson asked us all to ignore. Now the only person Teo fights is himself, which is why it takes him a while to get his words out. I know because I’ve been there so I don’t mind waiting.
Or I don’t usually mind.
This evening’s silence has an edge of something sharper like the knife Teo told me Mr Lawson confiscated when he first got here. He finally says, “They’re friends, aren’t they? Your uncle and Mr Russell, I mean. I’ve seen them talking even though they’re…” He doesn’t finish that sentence but I’m not going to do it for him, not if he can’t make himself say the words ex boyfriends because yeah, I’ll ignore him trying to fight me but I’m not gonna play along with him being a homophobic dickhead.
I grab paints and for a moment he doesn’t let me pass again so we’re chest-to-chest, close enough that I hear the wasp buzz of rap from his headphones. Close enough too that I see him swallow, and yeah, that’s the shade I’ve been trying to find right there in eyes that lock with mine before he almost whispers, “They were banging, right? Him and your uncle.”
“How about you never say bang and my uncle’s name in the same sentence ever again?” I do the one thing Mr Lawson says not to—I shove him hard but he melts back faster, letting me pass, giving way easily because that’s the other thing I’ve learned up here once lessons are over every evening—Teo only looks like a fighter on the surface. All that swagger and shade he throws is bullshit, something he does to keep from thinking, but up here he thinks plenty. Talks to me too about everything and nothing, like he does after lights out in the boarding house, filling my Insta DMs, and I like it. Liked it. Don’t want it to stop, so this turn in conversation feels… gutting.
He’s my shadow again once I’m back in the studio, following me up a few steps to where my easel catches the last of the evening light. He takes a seat there right in front of it like he’s remembered that I keep my work in progress private, and I squeeze paint out while he watches. I smear it onto my board and mix it, but this brown still isn’t what I need. Or maybe that banging comment is what’s got my back up. Either way, my brushstrokes are abrupt instead of the slow and steady I need for this level of fine detail.
I stop before I ruin my progress and look up to see him watching. He blinks before sliding his stare to the left at Uncle Sol on the far side of the studio, who peers out of a window with Jace beside him. Then Teo’s gaze slides back to me like liquid. “Sorry,” he mutters. “Didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“Then why ask?”
“Because…” He leans forward. “Because Mr Russell and your uncle being friends isn’t…” He shrugs, hunching over in a way that should make him look smaller but reminds me of a street-art photo Jace sent to me from Warsaw. Atlas had worn a Ukrainian flag, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and Teo’s got that same hunch. Or he does until he straightens to face me, evening sunshine striping his face so gold that I add a smear of ochre to the brown on my board, and boom, there’s the shade my painting’s missing. Teo glances Sol’s way again before quietly asking, “Only he’s not like you see in porn, is he? Neither of them are.”
I drop my brush and open my mouth to tell him to shut the fuck up. To fuck right off comparing my uncle, who, now I look back, has been another version of Atlas, not some scuzzy wank-bank fodder, but Teo isn’t done yet, his voice low and urgent.
“Hey. No. Listen will you? I just mean that in porn, being gay is just banging, innit?” He doesn’t frown exactly but his face ripples like it did during that talk with the padre. “You know what I mean, right? Like strangers going at it so hard it might as well be two blokes fighting instead of…” Again he doesn’t finish, and anyone else in our year group might joke about him picking better Pornhub search terms, but I don’t.
I can’t because I’m going to kill him, and maybe he sees that.
He levers himself up to take the few steps between his stool and my easel and we face each other, only inches and a canvas between us. “Porn doesn’t show anything like them.” He nods towards Uncle Sol, who turns as if he’s heard him, and my heart stops.
It feels like it implodes in my chest because I don’t know how old I was when I realised other people’s uncles didn’t have girlfriends and boyfriends, but I remember fighting the first kid who took issue with it. Now I’m going to have to do what Mr Lawson asked me not to again, because family comes first, always.
My fists curl just as Uncle Sol smiles, which I hope to god means he didn’t hear Teo. He can’t have because he says something unrelated, aimed at someone different.
“Dom? Did you forget something?”
There are basins tucked into the far corner of the studio. I’d forgotten Dominic Dymond was under one of them, fixing a leak, too engrossed to hear my uncle.
“Dom!” Uncle Sol shouts again, his voice louder. “Were you meant to collect Maisie after her ballet practice?”
“Fuck.” Dom moves fast for a big guy, wriggling out from underneath the sinks. “Shit,” he says once he’s upright. “Bollocks.” He sees us then and winces. “Sorry boys. Didn’t know you were there.” Then he’s gone, running.
Teo follows me again, slipping past my easel this time to look out of the nearest window with me. We both see Dom’s sprint slow to a jog that ends a few feet from Austin who’s hand-in-hand with his daughter. We can’t hear much through glass that’s stronger now instead of fragile, but we don’t need to. Austin lets go of Maisie who gets scooped up, her tutu ruffling, then he taps a bare wrist, about to lecture but Dom grabs him too, and they hug with Maisie between them.
“That’s what I mean,” Teo says. It’s more a breath than a statement, as if he’s not ready to give it more volume. “Like you can be gay and, you know…”
“Be normal.” He rushes to add, “I mean that it isn’t only banging.” His voice fades. “That blokes can fall for each other for real, and live…”
Happily ever after?
He sounds gritty. “I’m just saying that you don’t see blokes like them in porn. In love. Having normal lives. Families. But here…”
“It’s the opposite?” We both watch Austin brush something from Dom’s shoulders, and yeah, he’s giving him a lecture, but I can tell he’s happy—happier still when Uncle Sol and Jace join them, that huge smile I’d almost forgotten, bright enough to stop traffic, doing something to me. “But that’s what I grew up with. Seeing Uncle Sol happy with girlfriends and boyfriends, I mean. I thought it was normal.” I shrug. I still do.
I shrug again, watching them all chatting, Austin and Dom swinging Maisie between them, Jace with his arm around my uncle’s shoulder, and then I nod instead of shrugging for a third time because what Teo just said about sex is messed up—isn’t anything like what I grew up with. “It is normal, for my uncle. For Jace. For Austin and Dom.” Fuck it. “For me too.”
I don’t look to see Teo’s reaction. I don’t need to when the glass panes show a faint reflection of his mouth opening and then closing, so I keep going. “I only realised after Austin and my uncle split up. He’d been around for the longest, you know?” I don’t know where this truth finally slips from. “Had a bit of a crush on him myself when I was younger. Thirteen, almost fourteen.” I know Teo’s stopped looking out the window. Stopped breathing too because I hear his sudden inhale over the faint music from his headphones. Feel his exhale as well, warm, and from closer than he’d first been standing.
“You fancied Mr Russell?”
“Not really but kinda? I will literally kill you if you ever tell him. It wasn’t anything real. I always liked him when I used to visit for holidays when I was younger and he’d take me everywhere I wanted. Would sit for me if I wanted to practice drawing. Do it for hours without complaining. Did stupid shit like making me walk on the inside of the pavement so he was closer to the traffic even when I was old enough to take care of myself. I didn’t know until he left and…”
“It made me so pissed off that I swore off trusting.”
Teo’s oh is almost inaudible. I see his lips shape the word—lips he’d also see on my canvas if he turned his head a fraction. I keep going so he doesn’t get the chance to, talking faster because coming out like this with no planning feels like catching a wave for the first time at Ed’s surf club—a wild rush that’ll surely end in another wipe out, but for now I stand as tall as my uncle and keep going like he’s always shown me.
“But being a bit pissed off about Austin leaving was nothing to how my uncle felt. He was so sad. Then I got to see him date other people, and he seemed happy until he met Jace. Now I can see what him being really happy looks like. Like Austin is with Dom. Right for each other. Perfect fits. So that’s how I know the real deal isn’t all porno banging. Isn’t having crushes like a little kid either. The real deal looks different.”
“What’s that look like for you?” he asks, voice pitched lower, quieter, even though there’s no one left here to listen.
“Look like? Probably like me wanting them around all the time.” I glance over at the stool I’ve mentally labelled as Teo’s for months now, his and his alone every single evening. “Like me wanting to listen to whatever they’ve got to tell me.” Because that’s what we do here in the studio as well as in our DMs. Between every class too. Teo fills every school break and weekend, not just my canvas.
“Sounds like us.” His voice deepens. “You know, being friends?” He phrases that as a question, one I’ve asked myself a hundred times before accepting what my art won’t let me hide from lately. “How… how will you know if it’s more than friendship?”
“I’ll know when I…” My mouth dries, and fuck butterflies in my stomach, there’s something massive rampaging through it, kicking at my ribs like my heart does. “I’ll know when I…”
I try to swallow but I can’t.
I want to melt away like ice turning to water, and seep through the floorboards.
I need the fire bell to ring so we have to evacuate the building.
Anything but answer the truth that’s right behind us.
Teo says, “You'll know when you what?” And yeah, he’s much closer than when we started. Close enough our shoulders brush. Our hands too, every nerve in my body relocating when he doesn’t move his away from mine.
Teo still doesn’t move it as he repeats a question that feels loaded. “You’ll know it’s more than friends for you when you what, Cam?”
For a second time, Uncle Sol turns as if he’s heard him. Austin too, who sees us watching them all through the window. He lifts his hand to tap his wrist again, likely reminding us not to be late down to the dining hall for dinner, but I hear him say something different, remembering what he said when he gave me the watch I wear now.
So you’ll always know the right time.
This feels like a right time with Teo. Shit scary too. My heart stops in my chest but I nod at Austin and pull the trigger.
“I… I’ll know it’s more for me when I can’t stop painting the person I want to be with.”
“That happens often?”
“Only once.” I clear my throat. “Now, actually. If you want to know what the real deal looks like to me it’s right behind you.”
He turns to see my canvas, but I don’t. I can’t make myself look at it or at his reaction. Closing my eyes seems a safer option, which might be stupid with his fighting reputation because I won’t see a punch coming, but I feel his hand brush mine again when he turns back.
And maybe I was wrong about what the real deal looked like to me. It’s not oil paint on canvas, or sketches in my scrapbook.
It turns out it’s Teo’s little finger curling around mine to hold it.
See you all soon in Heppel Ever After!
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