I wrote this piece just under a year ago as a submission for an anthology themed around journeys. It’s a memoir piece, about coming out to my parents aged seventeen. I’ve written about it several times, and always found the memoir format tough to nail, struggling to articulate the big, pivotal moments. But this time I took a different approach, deliberately writing about all the small moments in-between. By the kind of coincidence writers dream about, I realised that I had begun writing it exactly ten years to the day on which the story starts. The story eventually didn’t make it into the anthology, and though I usually start straight in on submitting elsewhere, I decided I’d rather just post this one here on my blog.
Every school day for seven years I have taken the same bus journey, but this particular Monday afternoon in May, there is a clock in my chest. It ticks so loudly it fills up my whole body, in my fingers, my head, my stomach, but it stops at my skin. No-one else can hear it.
The ticking started a little after one in the afternoon. “Mum rang me,” my brother G____ tells me on the phone. “She wanted to ask me if you were… y’know. Gay.”
G____, the last of my siblings I’d want to have told, but who, through a bad combination of being thirteen years old and not knowing how to delete internet history, had been the unwilling keeper of my secret for four years.
“I think you’re going to have to speak to her.”
The clock ticks down the afternoon, and it ticks the whole hour home. I try music to drown it out, but it isn’t loud enough, and I try conversation with my friends (who all know what I am going home to do, but don’t know what to say about it), but they aren’t loud enough either. And one by one, the landmarks slide past—that particular tree, that particular corner, that particular pub, and finally: that particular bus-stop in that particular town.
It is a very short walk from the bus stop to my house. A left, a left, and a right. That’s all it takes, before I am at my front door.
In the car, my dad is too cheerful, though if you ask me now I cannot remember what he talked about. Anything but… y’know. I can’t tell you whether I spoke either; perhaps I did, or perhaps I simply stared out the passenger-side window in silence. The journey to the next village isn’t long.
The drops me outside R____’s. I have only been to her house once before. It has a front door, and a side passage through to a back door, and it suddenly seems enormously important to me that I knock on the right one.
I choose the front door.
My father drives away without waiting for it to open. It occurs to me, writing this now, that he must have been going to home to talk to my mother, but at the time I assumed he would return to his office, where he would sit at his typewriter all night, while my mother stayed in the kitchen, tidying. My parents did not seem the kind to talk.
R_____ welcomes me in through the front door, even though it is the wrong door.
We hide out in her bedroom, and I tell her about how things went. My mother, loading the dishwasher, saying, “You’re too young to know.” My father, typing his catalogue, saying, “We’ll help you fix this,” which seems to me at the time like a really nice thing to say. (And later, him saying, “I never thought like you respected me; you only seemed to love your mother,” and then telling me about his youth in boarding school. Neither of these are things I have space for in my head tonight.)
I stay for two hours, though I would like to stay longer. Given the choice, I would stay there forever. In lieu of adopting me, her mother gives me a revision book on English Language; at the time I’m confused and try to politely refuse, though now I realise she was trying to remind me that at least one person was going to still act like a parent.
On the journey back my father doesn’t say much of anything, and when we get back in at 9pm, my mother has already gone to bed.
I have never been on a train before, not on my own. My father buys the ticket at the station and waits to see me onto the train. I haven’t seen my mother in two days; she wakes at 7 every morning as usual, and the customary packed lunch awaits me on the kitchen side, but she is always in the next room.
I am travelling the two-hour journey to stay with my sister. I find myself a window seat and stow away my bag. My ticket is clutched in my hand—I am, and remain to this day, irrationally paranoid about ticket inspectors. I imagine I have something of an air of a wartime evacuee about me—awed and out of his depth.
The first thing I want to do is text Duckboy, but I don’t have his number any more.
Here, perhaps, some backstory is necessary.
Turning sixteen a year ago, it is judged that I am independent enough to attend a different church to my parents, and so I find myself swapping white walls and hard seats for the guitars and spotlights of my brother’s church. I join the youth group, and here I meet Duckboy. Both of us non-believers raised in the thick of religion, we cling to each other to save from drowning. For a year, we are the best of friends in that incandescent way that only an adolescent friendship can be, us against the world.
And I fall in love. I fall in love in that way that takes in everything from desperately watching your phone for every incoming message to the profound feeling that someone can read the inside of your soul in a way that no one ever has or will again. I fall in love enough to write songs, and I fall in love enough to spend an entire week walking beaches alone rehearsing conversations with. I fall in love, and he knows it and doesn’t mind, at first. I fall in love, and in ten years of writing this paragraph I have never put the sentences together in a way that satisfies me.
Then he finds God, and everything goes wrong—wrong enough that my mother can tell, enough for her to to call up my brother and ask if I’m…
Sometimes the scary thing about coming out isn’t precisely the actual thing itself. Sometimes it’s the fear of making someone look directly at you and rewrite everything they know about you. Like seeing your friends after you’ve radically changed your appearance, only a hundred times more intense. I’d come out perhaps five or six times before my parents, but it is this time that truly trains the spotlight on me hard enough that I can feel the heat. But here I am, travelling the length of the country on my own. Here I am, unable to call the one person I want to call. Here I am, an out gay… man?
I can’t recognise myself. I like that.
Several hours later, I pull into Leicester train station, where my sister is due to pick me up. She is late, and so I have twenty minutes to wander. I stand at the station gates and watch the busy streams of traffic zipping left and right, and feel gloriously adult. I stay at my sister’s for three days, and the feeling never quite fades. We talk—though not often about the reason I am there—and she teaches me how to cook chilli, and we go to the movies.
A year later, I move to Leicester for university. I have completely forgotten it is the same city I arrived in on that afternoon in May. A few weeks into my course, I am meeting someone at the station and find myself overwhelmed by the familiarity, filled up again with the sensation of being a brand new person.
It is another short train journey from Leicester to Birmingham, though by now the novelty of the tracks is fading. I am moving from one sibling to another: my brother J____ is the oldest, and the brother I am closest to. It is a particularly bitter irony that I have delivered my news to my family in the complete reverse order I would have chosen.
I phone him from my sister’s and tell him I’ve told mum and dad I’m gay.
“Oh right,” he says. “Because you are, or because you wanted to piss ‘em off?”
Birmingham station is a difficult one to drive to, evidenced by the hour I wait on the steps as my brother gets closer-then-further-then-closer-then-further from me. When he finally picks me up, he speeds us away into the morass of motorways that ring the city. He offers me a cigarette; I decline. He asks me if I’m okay, and he is the first person to do so.
It seems that coming out has leap-frogged me over a wall I didn’t even know existed. He drives in circles and we talk about all sorts of things I have never been privy to before: the details of his messy divorce, the shenanigans of my siblings’ youth, the secretive life of my sister, the possibly scandalous details of my parents’ history that he has pieced together from hints. He tells me that he briefly questioned whether he was gay himself when he was younger. I feel impossibly old to be so frankly included in this conversation, and when I tell him this, he says, “You have to remember: this isn’t just us knowing you’re gay. It’s about even talking about sex full stop. I guess we’d all forgotten you aren’t a kid any more.”
The elation is starting to harden into something else. I might be a new person in everyone’s eyes, but pretty soon that new person is going to have to go home.
I know my parents love me; I was never scared to come out in the way that some people have to be. I wasn’t going to be kicked out of the house, or physically hurt. But as everyone knows, there are many more ways than bruises to hurt a person.
On the train journey home, the clock begins to tick in my chest again. For six days I have felt remade and unburdened, but for each mile north I travel I feel the ties of home begin to tighten around my shoulders again. I play nervously with my phone. I want to message Duckboy; it feels unnatural that such a major life event is playing out without him. I text R____ and some of my other friends, but their responses don’t have the power to slow the clock.
Conversations have happened out of my earshot. My sister tells me that my parents want me to attend counselling; I am steeling myself to make my feelings on that suggestion very clear. My brother tells me that my time off sixth form has been explained away by my father, who told the faculty I was having a breakdown. Later, I will find this funny, but not today.
The memory of the lunchbox on the side nags at me all the way home. The gay son that a mother can bring herself to feed, but not see. “Just try and remember,” my brother tells me, “it’ll be hard for her. It’s not just that she thinks it’s wrong—so does everyone she knows. She’ll be embarrassed.”
I wonder if she will cook me tea when my father drives me home. I wonder if she’ll be in the same room.
The inspector comes by, and I cannot find my ticket. When I finally present it, I feel like a foolish child.
Pulling into my local station, I am hard-pressed to remember the way I felt at the end of my last two train journeys. My whole week feels like a bizarre aberration, an extended game of let’s pretend. My hands are shaking, and the straps of my bag cut off the circulation of my arms.
My father’s car isn’t in the car park. I pull the bag off my shoulders and sit on it. I’m getting used to waiting in train stations.
The mistake is mine though: my father’s car isn’t here, but my mother’s is. She opens her door, climbs out and waves.
I cross the car park, open the boot, and heave my bag in. When I turn, she is behind me, her arms open.
For all it’s narrative neatness, don’t let that hug fool you. It wasn’t a magic fix-all, same as my escape to my siblings’ wasn’t a magic rewriting of myself. Same as leaving for university didn’t magically transform me into the social superstar I hoped; losing four stone didn’t magically transform the way I saw myself in a mirror; moving in with my boyfriend didn’t magically filled every hole that my insecurity and doubt had hollowed out. In real life, that’s not how these things work, but sometimes a hug is better than nothing.
When I visit home I often take a trip on the same route as my school bus. I’ve experienced so much there—joy, friendship, fear, shame, rejection, attraction, arousal, shyness, awkwardness, embarrassment, sadness, love, yearning, happiness, acceptance—that it feels like the very fabric of the seats is soaked in the mythology of my own past. It’s a powerful feeling to return, older and allegedly wiser, and sit amongst your own memories.
And every time, I find the echo of the clock ticking in my chest. One by one, the landmarks slide past—tick that particular tree, tock that particular corner, tick that particular pub, and finally: tock that particular bus—stop in that particular village.
It is a very short walk from the bus stop to my house. A left, a left, and a right. That’s all it takes, before—tick—I am at my front door.