'He imagined those beautiful men touching each other’s hair and holding hands.'
One of the shortlisted entries in this year's SMHAF Writing Awards, Under Pressure by Laura Barbour is a story of a boy struggling to reconcile his religious upbringing with his sexual identity.
David Bowie shagged Mick Jagger. Thomas had heard it from Kathy and Moira in Home Economics. He knew they had tarnished the sanctity of marriage, but he could not shake the beauty of it. He imagined those beautiful men touching each other’s hair and holding hands – but the sexy kind, where the fingers crept through each other’s spaces until there was no space left.
Thomas loved David Bowie. He loved the two full rows of wonky teeth that shone when he grinned hard. He loved his debonair London accent. No one he knew sounded like that. David Bowie was wild and delicate. Thomas was neither. He was reserved in school and reverent at home. In his mind, he was waiting. He was in a formative purgatory, coming from something very definite but with the absolute knowledge that there was something for him that, for now, was woven only of wobbly dreams. He couldn’t reach for it yet, but he felt shiny threads of it tickling his fingertips, just out of reach. At nights, in his single bed, he fell easily into the sureness of what was to come. Space Oddity lulled him into dirty dreams.
He was Major Tom.
The New Musical Express was a secular publication that glorified the success of those pursuing sinful lifestyles. Kathy had bought it from RS McColl’s on the way home from school, half-heartedly flicking through it without reading anything, fake-snogging the guy from Pink Floyd. She had thrust it at Thomas’ chest as she turned into her street, singing “See ya!” into the air. The interview was entitled ‘Starman’ and David Bowie had been photographed in the most literal way - in front of a giant star prop that framed his face like a jagged halo. Somehow it was deeply cool. Thomas had torn out the interview and centre spread poster and folded it meticulously, careful to avoid creasing his face. One day, Thomas would carefully trim the edges of the poster and tack it up on his bedroom wall, right next to his pillow. Until then, the memory that he must not worship idols and images danced somewhere to the side of his brain. The magazine cutting would be a secret, tucked down between the papery pages of Psalms, in the hardback volume that rested on his bedroom shelf. From One King David to another.
…and we come to you, Lord, as always, in the name of your son, our lord and saviour. Amen. Thomas’ father set his palms on the table, signalling that his family should now pick up their cutlery. Please pass the bread, Evelyn. Of late, James McIntyre had been slightly more intense than usual. It could have been attributed to generic work pressure, but Thomas questioned how much stress could be generated from an administration role in the council’s environmental department. More likely, James felt the heaviness of his boy’s approaching sixteenth birthday. At sixteen, boys became men. Thomas would be expected to commit his life to God through baptism. A pantomime of sorts, the young men would have their hair wetted by one of the Elder Brothers as melody number 172 played softy through the church speakers. They would stand, dewy-shouldered, renouncing the world with fingertips pressed together. James’ heart was full of anticipatory pride as he watched his boy carefully sip his water. His neat blonde hair was becoming ashy and on the cusp of too-long. He caught his eye and nodded in place of a wink. His boy smiled and chewed with the quiet self-assuredness that James, too, possessed. His boy was a good boy. ‘Thomas’ had been the only name of the twelve that he and Evelyn had softened at the sound of. The Brothers had raised a collective eyebrow.
Thomas tried to distance himself from the impending ceremony. Although he wanted to feel that it was a mere inconvenience, something he could feign, he didn’t possess the aloofness that allowed him to actually not care. For the past few years, Thomas had known that he was of the world. Of course he sat dutifully during Sunday discourse, letting Brother Robin’s cadenced sermon float into the periphery, eyes drifting to the tapestry of Jesus hanging to the left of the altar. The work of the wives and widows. Tapestry Christ had perfect skin, backlit by an over-the-top white sun. Thomas wondered if his lord and saviour had to deal with unwanted erections. The thought of asking his mother about weaving the entire body of Tapestry Christ forced him to mask a snort with a cough. Thomas’ own existence seemed incongruous to the fact that his mother had definitely never encountered a penis. It was almost enough to encourage his faith; there must have been some kind of divine intervention involved in his conception. When his mother took him to Burton to find a “smart waistcoat” for the ceremony, she had wrung her hands, in a whirl, at the thought of the XS he pushed for displaying his young body indecently. Evelyn was the perfect woman of God. She revelled in the unspoken rule that women must wear only skirts or dresses and felt daring if a gosh accidentally escaped her lips. James loved her exactly as a man of God should – decently, respectfully, but not without expectation. Perhaps she was genuinely content. Perhaps she was biding her time for the day the meek would inherit the earth.
Thomas turned sixteen on a Wednesday. He woke earlier than usual, as if something sparked him into being. He had dreamed of disembodied pink limbs floating through the moon. He willed his erection into submission and mumbled across his bedroom carpet. The hardback had originally been his grandfather’s, then his father’s. He drew the folded poster out and left the book open, pages face-down on the shelf. A lump of Blu Tack was divided into four. Something was changing. Thomas lay on his side, elbow bent under his hot cheek, looking into the Starman above him, next to him, in his bed.
Preparing for lift off.
When the bell rang for the end of period two, Moira and Kathy galloped over, brandishing a sequin-effect ‘Birthday Boy’ badge and an A4, red gift bag. Miss Jones let the giddy threesome stay in the Art classroom over interval. Moira’s big sister had a Saturday job in Woolies: “I had to bribe the moody cow for this – she’s convinced she’s getting the sack.” Thomas’ morning heat spread through him as he pulled out the mauve sleeve of the Rebel Rebel single that would not be released until Monday. “You’re probably the only person in the country with it!” Kathy marvelled. Thomas clutched the 7 inch to his heart and nodded at them, grinning with both rows of teeth.
Unusually, James had claimed lieu time and returned his time card at 2pm. He wanted to be home for his boy’s return from school. Evelyn was baking the cake when he arrived, clutching the BHS carrier bag that contained Thomas’ special gift. His son would only be sixteen once and, with the ceremony imminent, James wanted to do everything he could to help his boy feel the part. His own father had marked James’ rite with a new pair of shoes, brown and buckled. He would feel nothing in his life like the pride he felt on the day of his baptism, the only day his father’s eyes misted. “May God’s love be with you, son,” he had whispered into James’ hair. There had never been any doubt in James’ mind that he had steered his life – and the lives of his family – towards God’s grace. He orchestrated their existence so as to minimise exposure to the ways of the world. They were pleasant but distant neighbours who kept their grass cut but ignored the Christmas cards signed only with door numbers. James had gifted his wife a hairdryer for an anniversary but would never have considered curling irons. He had gently placed Thomas’ college prospectuses in a drawer, reminding his boy that secular achievement could not compare to the satisfaction he would find in the Brotherhood. James kissed his wife on the cheek then headed for the stairs. He would leave Thomas’ gift on his bed, to allow him a moment of privacy and reflection before dinner.
The badge was a sun on his lapel as he floated along the garden path, up the stairs and into his bedroom. He greyed immediately and drew his fists to his chin. The bible was closed and back in place, on the shelf. Atop his plaid duvet cover was a brown leather briefcase, a handle and a strap attached to it. Closer inspection revealed that his initials had been embossed on the front. It was not unlike Brother Robin’s. Thomas knew it would have been expensive. Four tiny, greasy circle-shadows stained his bedroom wall. In the small wastepaper bin by his desk, a poster had been meticulously folded and folded, until only a small square of starlight remained visible, shining up and out.
On Sunday afternoon, Thomas stood shoulder to shoulder with Pete and Andrew, waiting. Melody 172 clunked serenely through the speakers. Thomas’ waistcoat pinched at the armpits. His father sat behind him in a row of Brothers, stiff with pride, the slither of concern well-hidden for the time being. The women would come later.
Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins-
Were they, too, distracted by Brother Ian’s short-sleeved shirt exposing his upper arms, Thomas wondered? Tapestry Christ watched on, his face approving and pretty in the golden rays that penetrated the high windows. He looked divine. There was heat in Thomas’ face. He touched his right cheek, steadying himself with his fingertips.
You’re a juvenile success because your face is a mess –
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptised-
As he stepped up to the platform, towards Brother Ian’s open hands and the vessel of water, his eyes met Tapestry Christ’s in this final moment of boyhood. He swore he winked at him. He was sixteen years - and four days - old and Jesus had given him an erection.
May God’s love be with you.
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I'm stepping through the door
And I'm floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today.
70 Stories is an online project curated by the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival to mark the 70th anniversary of the Mental Health Foundation. The project connects stories from our Writing Competition, stories from SMHAF participants, and more in a compelling portrait of mental health in 2019.