Thursday, 17 May 2012


For the International Day against Homophobia, this short story is based on the events that take place in Gareth Russell's novel, Popular. To read more, Popular can be ordered from HERE

For those of you who have read the book, this extract takes place somewhere around chapter 4, Pray for us sinners.


Kerry Davison stared languidly at her own reflection in the bathroom mirrors of the Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club in Cultra and sighed. "Imogen, what do you call those people who hate gay people?"


Kerry paused for a minute, considering her friend's answer. "No, no... that's not it."

"It is. Look at Eastenders. Chryed didn't have a very easy time of it there, did they?"

"Who's Chryed?"

"Christian and Syed," Imogen answered, incredulously. "The openly working-class gay love story?"

Kerry nodded. "Oh... Oh, yes. But there's definitely a word for it. A real word."

Meredith swept into the bathroom and took her place at the sink next to Imogen. 

"Meredith, what's the real word for people who hate gay people?" Kerry asked, earning her a filthy look from Imogen.


"That's sectarian," Kerry snapped.

"Homophobes," answered Meredith, applying a light sheen of gloss to her lips. "The correct word is homophobes."

Kerry nodded triumphantly. "Yes! That's the one. Homophobes. Why?"

"Because -phobic means fear of and homo is the first syllable of homosexual."

"No, but, I mean, why?" asked Kerry, silently congratulating herself on having curls that looked as if little angels had knitted them from liquid beams of pure sunshine. "Why?"

"Bitches be crazy," explained Imogen, in a very serious voice. "It's like when people were racist. Anti-banter times."

"We were never allowed to be homophobic," Kerry announced piously, carefully pronouncing her new favourite word, homophobic. "Never. Il Padre would have been livid if we had been so prejudiced. I do have a gay uncle in Toronto after all."

"Do you?" asked Meredith, in surprise.

Kerry placed her hand on her chest in faux mortification. "You're right, that is very politically incorrect of me. I have an uncle, who happens to be gay."

"I think homophobia's disgusting," said Imogen. "And fucking stupid. I mean, imagine what it does to you when you hear that kind of thing? Imagine what it's like to grow up and never be able to have all the kissing and flirting and boyfriend banter we have. Well, not you, Meredith. You'd miss out on your whole teenage years and, frankly, I cannot think of anything more horrific, given how sensationally delightful my own have been." She flicked her blonde hair over her shoulders and gazed into the mirror. "People are just so fucking stupid."


Years later, if you had asked Cameron Matthews what had caused the horrendous, gut-wrenching mess of his first year of knowing Blake Hartman, he would have sworn up and down on a stack of Bibles that the reason had been that Blake's father was a pastor. As far as Cameron was concerned, it was quite clear that the whole root and branch of Blake's problem had lain in the plastic evangelicalism of the Shepherd of Judea Baptist Church in Carryduff. Added to this was the fact that Meredith's loyal Catholicism kept up a steady stream of emotional propaganda insisting that this was living proof that priests should never have children. Imogen had taken the whole thing far too far by launching into a rant that blamed the entirety of Protestantism, arguing that without the Virgin Mary no-one could be happy. Ever. Blake, however, was insistent that initially it had nothing to do with his father's job. It was only once the whole issue of his sexuality moved from his unconscious into his conscious that Blake began to consider what kind of impact it would have on his family. Before that, from as far back as he could remember, there had been a lingering uncertain fear, deep in his gut; there had been a sense of personal unease, as if something did not quite "fit". 

If you had asked Blake in the years before he met Cameron if he had a problem with homosexuality, he would honestly and instinctively have answered, no. No, he did not. But had anyone ever implied or assumed that he himself was gay, Blake would have felt a rising flush of panic as he rushed to correct them. Why he felt this way was anybody's guess. On paper, there was absolutely no reason why he should feel this way. He had come from a loving family in one of the most liberal states in America and he could never, ever remember a time when his father had preached a sermon on homosexuality. Or even mentioned it, at all, come to think of it. With the benefit of hindsight and maturity, Blake would later realise that it was maybe something about his deep need to be respected by his peers; respect was fundamentally important to Blake and it was something he unconsciously assumed he could not have if he was gay. If gay was the punchline of every joke, it was clear to Blake that whilst it was something that could be tolerated, it wasn't something that could be respected. In conclusion, it was banter, far more than the Bible, which had done the real damage to Blake Hartman, long before he even reached the age of seventeen.

On the same Saturday in November as Meredith, Imogen, Cameron and Kerry had been enjoying lunch with Cameron's mother in the Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club, Blake sat idly in the pretty, seaside grounds of Belmont Grammar School, three miles away, with the Mount Olivet football team. Soccer was not exactly Blake's forte and he had been stunned to the point of devastation to realise that lacrosse wasn't really played in British schools. Worse, he would apparently have to wait until after Easter to get involved in track and tennis, which were, by far, his best sports. That left swimming and soccer for the winter semester, since he hadn't played American football back in New Canaan and was therefore extremely reluctant to go anywhere near what looked like the bone-crunching, face-bruising psychosis of rugby. Soccer would have suffice in the meantime and today was a Saturday away game, with the Mount Olivet squad currently winning 2-1. Blake had yet to play.

A groan went up from his teammates on the bench when a kid from Belmont scored an equalising goal. The kid was good and Mount Olivet's goalkeeper, Andrew Henton-Worley, looked pissed. Looking over at Mount Olivet's coach, Mr Cavan, Blake could see that the feeling was mutual.

"Who's that?" asked a Mount Olivet sub, whose name Blake was struggling to remember.

"Edward Hanna," answered another. "He's Rory Hanna's cousin. He's really good. Like, an amazing player."

The nameless sub nodded. "Yeah. Henton-Worley looks pissed."

A few of the guys laughed; others muttered angry things under their breath implying that Andrew should be pissed. Blake squinted into the Sun, the ultimate rarity in mid-November Belfast. It was unlikely that he'd be called to play now; unless someone got injured. Settling back, he began absent-mindedly tapping out a rhythm with his right foot. Snippets of conversation bounced around him. None of them very interesting; most of them about people he did not know or places he'd never been. There was a small beep from inside his sports bag. Reaching in to extract his phone, a little smile danced across his face when he saw that it was a text from Cameron.

Cameron: How's the match going? Shanter?

Blake: Hey! Yeah, it's going okay, I guess. We're tied. Haven't played yet. What's shanter?

C: "Shit banter." :)

B: Hahahahaha! Lame. How was lunch?

C: Really nice. Mummy and Kerry got caught up in an epic convo about how much they love kittens. What are your plans for the rest of the day? PS - I am not lame. I am awesome. I am anti-shanter.x

B: Kitten convo? Sounds shanterous, Cameron ;) Getting a lift back on the school bus to Malone, then probably going to walk to the Europa and get the bus back to C'duff. PS- You are still lame.

C: Do you want to come up to mine to hang? For anti-shanter purposes, obv. We should be done in like an hour?

B: Where'd my x go?

C: Same place mine went.

B: I didn't send one in the first place.

C: Exactly.x

B: :) Haha. Well played, C-Dog.x

C: Sorry to hear you haven't played yet.x

B:"Hi, my name is Cameron Matthews, and my friend Blake Hartman just accidentally forgot to respond to my very kind invitation to hangout at my house this evening. But rather than repeat the question like a big boy, I'm going to send a pointless text about something else and hope that reminds him." See you at your house at 4? Can't wait. B-Dog in da house (literally) x

C: I hate you. See you at 4 x

B: "Lame - the new fragrance from Cameron Matthews." :) x

Blake bit the bottom of his lip in a smile and tossed the phone back in his bag. The referee's whistle blew and Blake refocused on the game. Edward Hanna had just scored a second goal, bringing the score to 2-3 in Belmont's favour. Mr Cavan looked like he was about to punch a wall.

"Is Edward Hanna Rory's cousin?" asked Titus Pitt, a sixth year popular boy, famous for his epic house parties.

"Gay Rory? Yeah," answered another. A tiny, faint twinge gripped Blake's oesophagus. He widened his feet slightly on the ground and gripped his hands a little harder. He looked more masculine this way.

Titus nodded. "I like Rory. He's good banter." As far as North Down boys went, it was hard to think of a higher form of compliment.

"Yeah," said Titus's friend. "I don't agree with the whole gay thing, but I like Rory. He's a good lad. He's not annoying about the whole thing, either."

Titus agreed. "Yeah, absolutely. Blake?"

Blake looked up and the weight on his chest was back. The weight he knew by instinct, but could not name. Why had they turned to talk to him at this point in the conversation? "Yeah?"

"Mr Cavan says you're amazing at tennis?"

The weight lightened. "I played it back in the States."

"Cool. You should come to our tennis club sometime, if you want to keep it up? The facilities are sweet."

"Oh, thanks, Titus. Yeah, I'll look into it. Thank you."

"You enjoyed tennis, then?" asked Titus's friend. "Back in America?"

"Eh, yeah, I loved it. That's where I met my ex-girlfriend," Blake said. Titus and his friend nodded and asked a few more questions. A soothing balm, like an antacid, spread through Blake's body. They knew he wasn't gay. And Blake pushed any attempt to analyse why he'd just said what he'd said right out of his head. His phone beeped from back inside his bag and he reached to get it, smiling when he saw who the text was from.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Exam Panic

Photo: Lucy Williams as Catherine O'Rourke and Hugo Diamond as Mark Kingston from the Autumn 2011 theatre production of Popular, based on the novel by Gareth Russell.

Panicking with your exams? 

Well, you're not the only ones. Here's how the characters in Popular coped with their exams. (An extract from Popular by Gareth Russell.)

‘What’s your timetable like?’ asked Cameron, as they sat around a table in the school library.

‘Sad,’ said Kerry. ‘There are so many exams on it – one after another! And I have to come in on Saturday for English Lit in the morning and History in the afternoon!’

‘My first exam is Physics,’ sighed Cameron. ‘How unfair is that?’

‘No drinking in the library,’ said a prim voice from behind the main desk.

‘Miss, are you joking?’ argued Cameron. ‘Without my Diet Coke, I’ll die!’

‘He’s diabetic!’ roared Kerry.

‘A lie too far, Kerry,’ muttered Meredith. ‘A lie too far.’

‘How are we supposed to revise Biology?’ asked Imogen indignantly. ‘Mr. Corbett’s such a crappy teacher. We don’t have any notes! He so obviously doesn’t care about our education, at all.'

‘We’re screwed for Science in general though,’ said Cameron.

‘What if we cram?’ suggested Catherine.

‘No!’ barked Kerry. ‘You know the rules – if the ship’s sinking, we all go down with it. Secret revisers will be punishèd.’

‘Well, maybe I’ll just do some myself tonight,’ said Catherine. ‘Just to be on the safe side.’

‘No!’ said Kerry, angrily smacking her fist on the table. ‘Didn’t you hear what I just said?’


‘Don’t question her,’ commanded Imogen. ‘Rules are rules.’

‘But, I…’

‘Look, do you want a slap in the face?’ threatened Imogen, raising her hand.

‘No!’ surrendered Catherine. ‘I’ll be fine.’


‘We’ll all be fine,’ shrugged Meredith. ‘Anyway, apparently for Chemistry we don’t even have to take a written test, it’s just a practical.’

‘Oh well, in that case,’ said Imogen, ‘there’s no point even opening the textbook, is there? That would be a complete waste of my time.’

‘Will the table at the back please keep it down?’ asked the librarian.

‘Power-mad bitch,’ muttered Imogen.


Over the next few weeks, the beautiful May sunshine meant that Meredith, Imogen and Cameron spent more of their time at each others’ houses, relaxing outside with their books open on the table next to them – more for show than anything else. Meredith was currently on the sun-lounger reading the Poor Little Rich Girl column in Tatler and nodding at every other sentence. ‘Gosh, it’s so true,’ she sighed. ‘It is so true.’

Lying next to her in a crêpe de Chine dress by Chanel with star-shaped sunglasses, a plethora of rings, bangles and a Marlboro Light for accessories, Imogen was mentally debating whether to go Brazilian or Hollywood for the group’s forthcoming holiday to Mexico and Cameron was drinking a cold Diet Coke and pondering what it might be like to actually want to work on a day like this

‘What are your plans for revision, Imogen?’ asked Cameron, taking another drink of Diet Coke.

‘Saint Jude,’ she replied. ‘Well, I mean, it’s sort of staggered really. I’ll start off with Saint Giuseppe and Saint Thomas Aquinas, but I think in the end it’s all going to come down to Saint Jude.’

‘Oh, he’s very good,’ said Meredith.


‘Oh yes. I’ve used him before. He really comes through. He’s very efficient.’

‘What kind of levels of efficiency are we talking about?’ asked Imogen.

Meredith paused to think. ‘Saint Teresa.’

‘Not as good as Saint Anthony?’

‘No, but then, he’s the best, isn’t he?’

‘He’s fabulous,’ said Imogen, lighting another cigarette. ‘I think he’s absolutely tremendous. I love his work. He’s like the Ronseal saint – does exactly what it says on the tin.’

‘Well as long as you both have a plan,’ sighed Cameron lazily.


On the morning of the first exam, Catherine had got so nervous she had rushed to the toilet three times already. Sitting in one of the cubicles, she heard the voices of Anastasia, Natasha and Tangela, as they arrived to re-apply their lip-glosses at the bathroom mirrors. ‘Did you see him?’ asked Natasha.

‘I know, right?’ said Tangela.

‘I told you,’ sighed Anastasia. ‘He’s weird.’

‘He’s just so rude recently and I seriously don’t understand why Catherine’s still with him,’ Tangela said. ‘I mean... she can’t be that desperate.’

‘Obvo she is,’ said Natasha, as she puckered her lips. ‘Everyone’s talking about how moody and angry and weird he is and how she doesn’t even seem to notice.’

‘Because she is that desperate. Obviously.’

As the three girls walked out, still gossiping about her, Catherine had to put a hand on her chest to try and steady her breathing. What had happened? What had they done that had made the whole school change their mind about them? And why had no-one said anything to her? Maybe it was just Anastasia’s group that felt that way? After all, Anastasia had always thought he was kind of stupid... maybe that’s what they meant? With great difficulty, she put their comments to the back of her mind and tried to ignore what she had just heard – the very same policy she had employed with her relationship for the last three months.

As she returned to wait outside the Assembly Hall before the exam started, Catherine was distracted from her worrying by the sight of panic-stricken students all around her. Kerry was holding an unblemished copy of Macbeth in her right hand and was digging her nails into the arm of a terrified-looking, well-prepared Patsy Harris, hissing: ‘What do you mean she kills herself?  I thought her hands were just dirty!’ In a corner, Imogen’s lips were moving in furious, rhythmic prayer. She had just finished rattling through Saint Thomas’s prayer for a student and she had now embarked on another round of Hail Marys. The only person who seemed calm, of course, was Meredith, who hadn’t even bothered with last-minute revision cards. With twenty minutes still to go before the doors opened, Catherine sat down to have one last read of her Macbeth notes and Cameron wandered off down the corridor to use the bathroom.

When he pushed the swing door open, Cameron was confronted by the sight of Mark Kingston, with his hands placed on either side of the sink, ashen-faced. Turning to see who it was, the relief was palpable on Mark’s face. ‘Cam... Cameron, I’m so worried. I forgot I got like this at exams. I ... I need to do well.’

Cameron went over to him and put one hand on his shoulder and another on his arm, patting it reassuringly. ‘Mark, it’s OK. It’s fine. . You always freak out and you always do well.’

‘Cameron.... I have to do well. Doing well. It’s important to me. I can’t...  I can’t fuck them up.’

‘You won’t.’

‘You don’t know that!’ 

‘Listen, you’ll be fine. You’re smart and you’ll definitively have done enough revision. Mark, if someone like you isn’t going to do well in these exams, then what chance has anyone else got? I promise it’ll be fine. Just like it always is. ’

Mark nodded and took a big gulp of air to steady himself. ‘Thanks, Cameron. Thanks.’

With normalcy more-or-less restored, awkwardness settled over them as they remembered the tensions of the last five months. ‘I should probably get back to the Hall,’ Mark muttered. ‘Thanks and...’

‘Yeah. I’ll see you around,’ said Cameron. ‘Good luck.’

‘Thanks,’ said Mark, walking away. ‘Yeah, thanks and... good luck.’


By and large, the GCSEs passed without any real incident, apart from the frankly horrifying moment when Kerry realised there was coursework for Business Studies that she had never handed in;  Cameron’s total inability to recall how to say anything in his Spanish Oral that wasn’t in the present tense; and, of course,  the unforgettable terrified squeak from Imogen at the beginning of the History exam, when she had opened the first page to see the title The English Civil War before realising that their module – Weimar and Nazi Germany – was actually listed three pages later. For a split second, she had thought that she had paid such poor attention in class that she had revised for the wrong country and wrong century. Her eyes had shot Heavenward, with an accusatory glint in them, but after turning more pages, she breathed a sigh of relief and then looked up again with an apologetic smile.

And so it was on a blisteringly hot summer’s day in the middle of June that the last GCSE exam took place for that year at Mount Olivet Grammar School. Walking out into the sunshine in his school uniform, Cameron breathed a happy sigh of relief and was about to call Meredith to see what the plans for that night were, when Mark walked up behind him. The two hadn’t spoken since the day of Mark’s ritual pre-exam panic in the boys’ bathroom, almost three weeks earlier.

‘Hey. What’d you think of the exam?’

‘It was OK,’ answered Cameron. ‘Although I don’t think they could’ve asked anymore questions on Blood Brothers if they’d tried.’

‘I know!’


To order your copy of Popular and read more about GCSEs, running away from your Physics mock GCSE and life for the GCSE year at Mount Olivet Grammar School, Belfast, click HERE or visit your local book-store!

PS - If you've any hilarious/cringeworthy exam stories, feel free to share them in our comments section!
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