by Thomas McColl

It was never a pleasant experience, watching Top of the Pops with my parents: it was always either annoying or dangerous, depending on which parent happened to be in the room with me at the time.

I remember, one time, in December 1981, Mum’s constant tuts, like an annoying scratch on a record, throughout the Human League’s end of year appearance on the show. ‘It’s disgusting,’ she said about the male lead singer wearing make-up, and it wasn’t enough for her to tell me once that he looked like someone who’d date a waiter not a waitress, she had to say it to me three times, and whenever he sang, ‘Don’t you want me,’ she annoyingly kept responding with an angry, ‘No!’

But that, at least, was much easier to deal with than my dad’s reaction to Soft Cell just a few weeks before.

The lead singer’s camp strutting while dressed in a leather cap and studded leather cuffs made Dad almost spill his tea all over his lap.

‘Who is this freak?’

‘Marc Almond, Dad.’

‘How do you know his name?’

‘I read an interview.’

‘What are you doing, reading about people like that?’

I shrugged my shoulders. All I wanted to do was listen to the lyrics—all my education now consisted of listening to lyrics—and today I was learning about bedsit land, wishing it really was my only home, or at least I wished I was anywhere else but here, in this home. And just as I basically now had some idea what the word ‘bedsit’ meant, I basically had some idea what the word ‘bisexual’ meant, though not enough to be smart. It was simply a new word I’d learned from reading an interview in Flexipop and, for some reason, seeing my dad’s confused face made me feel compelled to share with him my new-found knowledge.

‘He’s bisexual,’ I said—as matter-of-factly as my dad saying, to anybody who asked, that he and his family were Roman Catholic—and Dad, who’d been shaking his head at the screen, now gave me a look—a look I hadn’t seen before—then, after a moment’s thought, put down his tea, and I noticed his hands had clenched into fists.

‘Oh OK, you’re informing me this freak’s bisexual. You’re trying to educate me, are you? Right, well go on then, you tell me what that word means.’

Dad now had a different look on his face, a more familiar one, the look he had whenever he was about to explode but needed someone first to light the fuse, preferably someone young and naïve.

‘Go on. You’re the one who said the word. Tell me what it means.’

My face reddened, and I gulped involuntarily, having straightaway got the vibe that the right answer wasn’t the right answer, so instead I chose the safest answer, the one that children always fell back on when they realised that they’d strayed into forbidden territory.

‘I don’t know,’ I said.

Dad still had that look on his face. I tensed up, expecting the worst. For a moment, I thought he was going to hit me, but instead he pointed his finger right at my face.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘I won’t tell you this again. If you don’t know what a word means don’t use it. And if you use that word in front of me again you’re getting a thump.’

I could tell, by the tone of his voice, that Dad clearly knew what the word meant, and I thought I knew as well what the word meant, but I didn’t. It was only later that evening I found out what the word ‘bisexual’ actually meant.

A dictionary definition could say whatever it liked, but here in this household—this strict Roman Catholic household—the word ‘bisexual’ meant all my copies of Flexipop being confiscated and thrown in the bin, not just the magazine but the flexi disks as well, each one cut into two with scissors.

I couldn’t hold back the tears, and Dad looked at me with almost the same disgust as he did with Marc Almond.

‘Look at you, blubbing. It’s just as well I’m getting rid of this nonsense for your own good, or else you’ll always be blubbing like a girl.’

Within a few weeks though, having smartened up (and making the amazing discovery that 7-inch singles, once they were out of the charts, were often heavily discounted by up to two-thirds—and therefore now at last being well within my measly weekly pocket money allowance), I was able to hatch a plan—Plan B (B for Bedsit land). And, sure enough, there it was, ‘Bedsitter’ (and, on the flip side, a mysterious and interesting-sounding song called ‘Facility Girls’), for 49 pence – 360 degrees of 7-inch sin in Woolworth’s bargain bin, without the picture bag, but there was another shop in the nearby indoor market that sold picture bags for 2 pence. In the end, I married the 7 inch vinyl of ‘Bedsitter’ with the picture bag of ‘Daddy’s Home’, and by the time Mum was tutting into her tea, I’d also smuggled in the Human League’s ‘Open Your Heart’, disguised as ‘Begin the Beguine.’ I didn’t know that she was a Julio Iglesias fan, and that she’d end up asking me, in front of Dad, to play her the record – but that’s another story…

Thomas McColl lives in London. His poems, stories and flash fiction have appeared in many magazines including Bare Fiction, The Ghastling, Belleville Park Pages, Iota, Envoi and Ink, Sweat and Tears. His first full collection of poetry and flash fiction, Being With Me Will Help You Learn, is available from Listen Softly London PressTell Me What It Means is the title story from a proposed short story collection, and in April 2017, the first five thousand words of the manuscript was awarded first prize in the adult category of the Manor Park Book Prize 2017, judged by three Times bestselling authors, Vaseem Khan, Barbara Nadel and Abir Mukherjee.