I’m sitting at a Fish & Chip place, waiting for my order to be ready. My husband and sons are in the car waiting for me. I won’t be long. A few minutes at most. And they’ve got stories to read and games to play.
I’m playing my own game. I’m playing “Make up the story of the other customers”.
There’s the tired looking woman in the tired-looking long dress. Her hair and make-up are perfect. In my mind, I imagine her coming home from a long day at work and realising she’s got nothing to cook for dinner. But she’s already changed into something comfortable, so she doesn’t want to go to the supermarket. Instead, she pops down the road to the local Fish-O, and figures she won’t see anyone she knows.
Then there’s the muscled, tattooed guy with orange hair and an impressively orange van dyke. He’s got a little girl with him — she can’t be more than 2 1/2 years old — and she stares up at him adoringly. “Daddy, what’s that? Daddy, can I have juice? Daddy, can you lift me up?” And he, in his tough guy jeans and wife-beater, smiles back at her and answers her every question. She’s wearing purple leggings, an embroidered white shirt that’s on backwards, and a pair of slippers. And in my mind, I imagine Mum saying goodbye to her little girl. “Mummy will be home tomorrow. Have a good night with Daddy. I love you, chicken.”
As they all leave, another group of customers arrive. Three boys. Let’s say… 13 years old. Maybe 14, but that would be a stretch. The one in the lead is tall and lanky and has a cocky grin that I want to wipe off his face the moment I see it. He’s wearing a stained singlet that’s too small, and a pair of grubby shorts that are too big — not in that “I’m so cool and gangsta” way. More in the “I don’t have clothes that fit me” way. His socks are orange. His volleys are lime green. He needs a haircut.
With him are two other boys. One is taller than him, the other shorter. One is more muscular than him, the other isn’t. These two are wearing clothes that both fit them and look like they’ve recently been washed. I see designer name brands on one boy’s jeans. They both have good shoes. And they’re walking their scooters.
They have to, because Boy 1 is on foot. And they stay beside or behind him at all times.
“Hey,” says Boy 1. “Go buy us some food.” And then he throws himself languorously into one chair, puts his feet on a second, and wait for his bidding to be done.
And it is. Of course. The other boys order and pay, and then return to Boy 1’s side.
There are no more chairs. So they stand, uncomplaining, while their friend occupies two.
Outside, another group of boys walks by. Without moving his body, Boy 1 raises his voice and shouts to them. “Hey! Fags! What are you faggots doing?”
Every adult in the place turns to look at this boy.
He either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.
“I said,” Boy 1 shouts even louder. “What are you faggots doing?”
The other boys keep walking. And that’s what prompts Boy 1 to move. He leaps from his chairs like he’s been electrocuted, and bolts for the door. His minions — sorry, friends — follow him. I strain my ears, but hear only muffled conversation. And then the second group of boys leaves, and Boy 1 brings his followers back to the Fish-O. As a parting shot he yells, “Hey, JT! You forgot your eye-liner!”
“And you’re lookin’ a bit fat!”
There is silence in the store. The boys pick up their order — or, rather, Boy 1 picks up the order and decrees that they shall eat it while sitting in the parking lot — and they’re gone. And everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
While I make up stories about Boy 1 in my head. Where does he live? Why is he dressed like that? What power does he have over his friends? Where are his parents?
And what is with the language?
Look, I have to be honest. It’s not the worst thing that could be said. I mean, I’ve been called a fag before. Which is crazy, because I thought that kind of random hate-talk died out in the 80’s.
Also, I’m a woman. (Although that seems somehow less relevant.)
But I get their confusion. I mean, I’m almost 6’2″ tall. I’ve got broad shoulders — I have friends who call me an Amazon and others who refer to me as The Viking Chick — and I wear my hair short. At the time, my husband and I were walking home, hand in hand. So I can understand how someone would see the two of us
and instead of seeing a couple in love, they’d see two men (one with incredibly well-developed child-bearing hips) who should obviously be verbally abused for their “crime” — whatever that may be.
At the time, I shrugged and wrote it off as just a few guys who’d escaped from the 80s in their trusty DeLorean, and would no doubt be going home soon.
Listening to the young men at the Fish & Chip shop today, I have to face the fact that either I was wrong, or there are an awful lot of DeLoreans cruising around out there.
I return to the present when my number is called. I collect my order and return to the car and my family is waiting, and all I can think is that I do not want my boys to ever talk like that. Ever. Even — no, especially — if they don’t know why those words are so hateful, and how their very usage creates and reinforces a culture where hatred and violence against homosexuals is normalised.
With those thoughts running through my mind, I’m almost surprised when my son speaks to me.
“Mummy, did you see those children?”
I hesitate and then say yes. But it takes me a moment to realise who he’s talking about.
It takes me a moment to equate the word “child” with Boy 1.
“Were those children playing a game?” he asks.
I mutter an affirmative and I drive away.
Because in my mind, I’m watching my boys grow up into kind, brave, noble men. Men who won’t need to follow weak leaders, because they’ll know their own mind and follow their own inner compass. Men who won’t use hate-speak, because they’ll know the value of a human soul. Men who will love and hurt and cry and cheer and fight for what is right and never, ever, ever let the world drag them down.
And I will do whatever it takes to make that story come true.