The first thing Ben said to me when I got within range was: You nearly got me into trouble!
Why? I’d forgotten about interrupting his lecture.
I was being told to answer a question when you crashed into my mind. Are you all right?
I am now. But I wish you could have kept with me. It was important.
What I was reading about.
And at that moment I saw him getting off the coach by our hotel.
Quick. To our room.
Too late. We’re straight into a meal.
We were. And the cloud of talk rendered our private speech dangerous to use, especially in view of the subject matter. Impatiently I waited. We didn’t even dare to go to our room early, since despite Ben’s rebuttal of our intimacy some days earlier we didn’t want to raise any more eyebrows. I just waited and seethed inside, trying to play the silly pastimes in the hotel to while the time away.
At last we were alone. I explained everything to Ben. He was aghast as I did so. But when I came to the part where I’d passed out he hugged me, and kissed my lips, and said how sorry he was that he was nowhere near.
“How did you wake up?” he asked.
I explained how ill I felt, and got another hug, and how the book had fallen onto the floor. Then I paused. “Er… it’s what happened next I don’t understand.” He looked at me quizzically.
I explained about the damage to the book, and how I’d closed it to pick it up. Then I paused again, and haltingly admitted that I couldn’t find the passage about Fechan any more.
“You must have missed it. You said it was immediately after the bit about home, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I looked there, but it just went on to some mainland village. It was different completely.”
“How could it have been? Was it the same book? Or were there two bits about home?”
“No. I looked for the page in the index again. That’s how I found it in the first place. The part I read about us was exactly the same. Except that the bit that followed wasn’t about Fechan.”
“It must have been a different book, then.”
“Don’t be silly — it was on the floor, open, where it had fallen. It was the same book — must have been. I didn’t swap it for another one — I was unconscious. If anyone else had come and switched it they’d have tried to wake me up, surely.”
“Well… I suppose so. But how could it have happened, then?”
“I don’t know. I thought I was going mad, or it was something to do with fainting. But if I fainted because of what I’d read, that means that it must have been in the book to start with, doesn’t it?”
There was a pause while he followed my logic. I could see that he saw my point. At least he believed me. I had half expected him to tell me the passage hadn’t existed.
“Ben, you’ll just have to go to the library and get the book out again and look for it yourself.”
“Why don’t you go back?”
“They’ll recognise me. I broke the back of a valuable book. Do you think they’re going to lend it to me again?”
Despite his holding me and our exploring each other as we’d done every night, and bringing each other to that peak of delight and satisfaction that only true love can really provide, I didn’t sleep well. I kept seeing seven altars in our Glade, each with a small naked boy on the top of it. And for some reason neither Ben nor I had the physical power to speak, let alone shout…
His group had been give some time off the following day, and he went alone to the library. After persuading the librarian that he’d be extra careful with the book which apparently ‘some wretched vandal boy had ripped apart yesterday’, he settled himself in a corner — the same corner as I’d used, it seemed — and read. But after the passage about our own home that (nearly) described our own experiences so far, he too found only the entry I’d described, for the mainland village. He did just what I’d done, researching the obvious words and names, as well as others which hadn’t occurred to me, but found nothing. Not even a mention of human sacrifice anywhere in the parts of the country the book covered.
He even asked the librarian if she had heard any rumours, or if there were any books, about such things going on anywhere in Scotland or the islands, but got such a torrent of questions about his motives for wanting to know that he quickly had to invent a project that would need some basic knowledge. But she knew of neither rumour nor book. He gave up, and joined the rest of his group in a field where they were playing football. I wasn’t there. I was stuck in a museum, being educated.
That night he told me about his lack of success, and for the first time I detected a tint of disbelief behind his thoughts.
I did read it. I know I did.
He was startled by my sudden use of the spirit’s communication methods. We had been talking.
“I know…” I know, he continued. I just can’t help wondering if, like this, it was an outside communication.
The Spirits trying to warn us. I mean, what better place or time to do it? Somewhere you’d go to find out facts, and on a school trip away from home. Perhaps that was it.
It could have been done at home.
But not so forcibly. Nobody believes dreams, not seriously. If you read it in a book, though, that’s different.
I had no answer to that. It was an explanation, but I still didn’t see how I could have been fooled like that. But then I thought of something.
Ben, you know that nightmare you had?
When you woke me up. When it had all just started.
Wha… Oh, you mean when WE had just started. I thought you meant this trip.
No. You’d had a nightmare and then we went up to the Grove, and the day after you told me about it.
Yes… That was to do with the boys too, wasn’t it?
Don’t you remember?
It’s very difficult to remember dreams.
You told me that the boys were young and in danger. And so were we, and so was the Village.
Now you say it, I do remember. Just. But it was only a dream, wasn’t it?
Was it? And was my reading that book a dream too?
We made love to each other, and went to sleep. I could feel his arms around me as I drifted off quickly, and this time my sleep was uninterrupted.
In two more, too short days the trip was over. It amazed us how quickly the time had passed. I know now that a holiday where a love is made, or a love is consummated, or even just a holiday where a relationship is strengthened to love, defeats the human mind’s laws of time. And in some respects our love, Ben’s and mine, had been consummated during the fortnight. Beforehand our times alone had been enforced or snatched; but on the trip we had been together at our own will and in our own time, at our own behest. And as a result the bond between us, which had been initiated by the village elders, necessitated by the Island’s advancing poverty, directed — benignly — by the Spirits, had finally been sealed by just we two. And it was now so strong that we were both despairing about having to live apart again once we were home. The last night of the holiday we spent ages just looking at each other, and after the inevitable, beautiful, love making we were each surprised to see tears in the other’s eyes.
I felt sick on the homeward journey.
It was good to be leaving the immense, noisy, impersonal city; and the idea of resuming ordinary life on an island where people cared about each other was attractive. But it was the idea of being unable any more to live the love between us that was sickening me. Ben was very quiet too, vocally and mentally. All I could detect were the same unmarshalled thoughts of despair that I was suffering too.
At last the final leg of the journey was over. The boat docked, the coach to our Village had delivered us, and forty or so children and young people rushed from it as fast as heavy suitcases would allow. Parents were waiting, embraces were endured, greetings were said… for all except Ben and me. Neither his parents nor my father were there.
Where are they?
Dunno. Hope they’re OK.
That worried me. Why shouldn’t they be?
We were both very tired. Neither of had started his night’s sleep very early the previous night, and our state of mind had forbidden sleep on the journey. We weren’t thinking straight.
And then the blacksmith appeared. I stiffened.
“Hallo, boys. How are you? Did you have a good time?”
We both just looked at him and nodded, knowing that this was why there were no parents to greet us.
What’s going on?
I think we’re about to find out. It was probably just as well he couldn’t ‘hear’ us. Despite his long connection with the Spirit world we couldn’t ‘hear’ him either.
“I’ve got a bit of a surprise for you two. Come with me.” It wasn’t a request, it was an order. I looked at him with dislike. And with not a little mistrust.
“Where are our parents, please?” I asked quite shortly, knowing that the last word was very much an afterthought.
“All in good time, young Aidan…” yuchh!… “They’re waiting for you.”
What the hell…? Well, at least if only Ben could hear me, I could use 1950’s adult-forbidden words without fear of a clout round the ear.
It seemed we walked for miles. All through the village, past the village hall, the scene of my worst embarrassment, past the Church, the school… I thought he was taking us past Miss Flude’s house and into the woods to the Grove. We were still carrying our heavy cases, and mine was starting to drag on the ground I was so tired. But before we came to her cottage the smith turned off towards a quite large cottage that had once been home to a family who had come from the mainland, had lasted five years in the Village without ever really becoming part of it, and who had just left again. The place had been in bad condition since their departure; there is no vandalism on the Island apart from what the winter weather causes, but that had taken its toll.
But now the building was gleaming, alive and welcoming, it seemed. The door stood open, and as we took in the scope of the transformation with eyes wide and mouths open, people seemed to pour out of the door. My Dad. His Mum and Dad. My brothers. What was going on?
What’s happening? The voice in my head was incredulous. Why are both our families here? Have they moved in together?
For a moment my heart jumped into my throat. If only they had… That would mean that he and I would be living with each other, and the heartache that had come with me from the school trip would have been in vain. But I knew that things like that only happened in fairy tales, and so ended up as puzzled as he.
Yes, it was a lovely thought, wasn’t it? But I agree: this is life, not Hans Christian Andersen. There’s no reason for them to have agreed to share a place. Besides, it isn’t big enough for us all.
No, I ‘said’. It isn’t. It’s a wonderful idea though. Perhaps one day…?
And then we reached them. There were hugs for us now too, and not just from Ben’s parents to him, but from them to me, too. Even my reserved father hugged me, and I was amazed when he did the same for Ben.
He never does that. You must be favoured.
I got no reply, not even a wordless one. He was looking over my father’s shoulder, suddenly tense.
The blacksmith had emerged from the house. A silence fell.
His voice filled it.
“The village has decreed that you two, being the sires of the beings who will save our Village, should bring your charges to live separate from your own families. You will therefore live here, and they will join you in due course when it is possible for them to do so. Carl will help you with the domestic arrangements. The Village will feed you and them until they are of an age when they can fend for themselves or no longer need it. By that time you will be old enough to fend for yourselves as well. This is a gift. Use it well.”
My feelings… how do I describe how I felt at that moment? Incredulous, certainly; tongue-tied, yes. But deep within me were three emotions. Firstly was the uncertainty of the future of ‘our babies’ at the hand of the Elders. Secondly was a deep regret that this cottage was so much better than the home I had known since my Father had moved his large family back from the mainland, and I wanted them all to share it. But thirdly, the emotion that spoke — no, shouted — the other two down was that our wishes, our dreams had been answered.
Ben and I would be together. Officially. Living together. Sleeping together. In love together.
And I felt a similar turmoil in his mind come to the same conclusion, and without our reasoning about it our arms found each other waists, and we walked towards the door as if in a dream. But Ben’s self-awareness was stronger than mine, and he turned me just between the door and the blacksmith. Silently we looked round at the similarly voiceless crowd.
“Thank you,” I heard his whisper. “Thank you all, more than I can say. Er… I’m not sure… ” He trailed off. What was he trying to say?
Say something… for God’s sake. I knew words had failed my quiet companion. But what could I say? That we two were in love, and thanks for giving us a house where we could make love to each other? And by the way, I don’t trust what you might do to our babies, which you haven’t seen yet anyway?
“Er…” I echoed Ben. “Er… This means a lot to both of us. Er… the start of all this was not easy, as all of you know. In fact, had I been told I’d be given a lovely house at the end of it all, I still wouldn’t have volunteered if there had been a choice. Er… ”
There was a little laughter at this, from one of the Village’s younger girls. Her father turned to her and said something. She blushed.
“Er… I’m… er… not sure we’re happy about leaving our families. I mean…well… but of course they wouldn’t be far away, and can almost live with us. And anyone else is very welcome at any time. I mean, the house is the Village’s, anyway.”
But the blacksmith chimed in. “No, Aidan, it is yours; yours and Ben’s. You may invite who you wish to it, but your new family’s needs are to come first. If you fail to attend to them they will be taken away from you, as will the cottage, and it would be as well for you then if you were gone from the Island, your families with you.”
“Well…” Ben was trying to override the smith’s attitude and words. “I think anyone who fails to look after children properly should be treated the same. When they er… arrive… we’re going to make sure they’re the best looked after children on the Island, aren’t we Aidan? After all, Aidan was Chosen for this, and I was Chosen by him.”
“Er… yeah… that’s it. We know we’ve got a lot to learn about children and their care, but we both have families to help, and… er… Dad; please will you?”
I’d not really spoken to my own Father since I returned from my first ever long absence from him. It occurred to me that I had no idea how he viewed all of this. I looked for him in the group, and to my relief I found him, near the front.
“Dad…” Despite the solemnity of the occasion, and the presence of my new life’s partner, I knew I had to go to him. At that moment even if Ben had shouted with his mind until he deafened me I would still have run over to my Father and embraced him. Even if embracing wasn’t something we usually did, as I’ve said before. But I felt his arms go round me as mine went around him.
When I’d calmed down a bit I looked up at him and found his face to be unusually soft… loving even. “Yes, Aidan, I’ll help you. God knows I’ve had enough practice.”
I thought of the times when, as a child, he’d had to do for me all the things that I supposed a mother would do for her baby or small boy. I couldn’t put the thought into words then, even for myself. I just knew that I had so much to thank him for, to thank God for, to thank the Gods for. I hugged him again.
When I looked round, Ben’s parents were in a similar situation with him. And to think that he needed the same welcome and blessing, as it were, on the next step of his life, even if he was so much older than me — well, by two years. It made me feel better about displaying my own emotions, my own need for a hug from my Father. I felt that my credibility in front of the onlookers had been restored.
To interrupt Ben would have been as unfair as if he had interrupted me. I waited, then, while he was hugged by both parents and then looked round at me. I still had an arm round my Father’s waist, and I think that made him feel better too. I had a sudden pang of regret that I had no mother to hug me too, but I was used to those sudden moments of bereavement and it passed.
Shall we invite them in? I was suddenly so proud of being able to do so.
I could sense a laugh. He had caught the pride, as well as the thought. Yes. Why not. But just the parents? If we invite them all the smith will come too. Can’t we tell them it’s a Family moment?
Yes. I don’t want the smith in our house — I could see the sudden smile at the ‘our’ — although I suppose he’ll have to come at some time. Let’s get them in.
Simultaneously we cleared our throats and started to talk.
“Er… ladies and gentlemen…”
“Er… excuse me but…”
And we both stopped, waiting for the other one to continue. Neither did. We burst out laughing.
No, after you!
Oh, for goodness sake! “Ladies and gentlemen, as Aidan has said, thank you so much for doing this for us. We promise we’ll do our duty for you all… for us all… and hope that what we do will somehow make things better for us. But now, well, we’ve had a long journey and this wonderful surprise, and we’re very tired, and need a little time just with our families, please. But any time we’re at home you’ll be more than welcome here, of course.”
To my surprise there was a ripple of applause at that, and they drifted away with wishes of good luck called to us. I shepherded the three parents towards the door, dragged Ben in before the blacksmith could turn and demand to be included, and shut the door. It felt odd, being led into the main room of the house I knew was ours, but not knowing the way. As we entered the room a voice I thought I knew said “Ah good. Tea’s just ready.”
I looked at Ben just as he turned to me. The question mark seemed to hang in the air between us; then it dawned. Carl.
“Carl… what on earth…?”
“Hallo, Aidan, hallo Ben. Didn’t he tell you?”
“Tell us what?”
“I’ve been sent to help you.”
“Help us? Help us do what?”
“Look after the house and the… babies.”
“Yes, but we thought he meant when they came.”
“No. The smith thought you’d need someone else from the start as you’re both out all day at school.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” said my Father. “Very practical man, that blacksmith.”
But we were going to be alone here. I almost shouted it to Ben.
I know, but he doesn’t have to live with us, does he? I mean, he’s a good friend, but he lives with Mr & Mrs Wood, and helps them.
Yeah… well, OK then. He was good to me when I had to… er… when we all…
I know what you mean. I’m glad someone else was too.
Who else was?
There was a pause. Carl started to look uncomfortable. “Don’t you want me?” he asked. And there was such a note of sadness, of resignation in his voice that even I was aware of it.
“Has something happened?” asked Ben. This time it was Carl’s turn to be silent.
Something inside me made me speak, and voice a thought that wasn’t really mine. “Yes, Carl, of course we do. It just that it’s another shock. Today’s been a bit full of them.”
“Yeah,” said Ben, to my relief, though I knew he was probing my mind to find what had changed it. Carl looked a bit happier.
“It’s just that — well, the Woods are getting older, and they keep expecting me to be in at the time they go to bed, and not make a noise, and I can’t bring friends in, and I have to do so much of their housework for them. I mean, they’re kind, and treat me like a son, but I’m not a kid any longer. And I just need… well, you know.”
I didn’t, but I made the right noises. So he’d be living with us after all. Damn.
Yes, damn. No privacy. But surely we can still share a room?
Try and stop me, I thought back at him.
“Carl, did you say that there was tea in that pot?” asked my father.
Most of the talking as we ate was done by the adults. Even my brothers said little. Ben and I were tired, and our minds were whirling with the day’s happenings and with the way the future might be turning out. But at long (for us) last the parents made moves to go. “It’s only fair,” said Ben’s Mum. “We’d like to stay, but you three have a lot of sorting out to do.”
They said their farewells. At last we were alone. Apart from Carl. When we got back to the main room he was nowhere to be seen, but the tray with the tea things on it had vanished. Without a thought, we turned to each other and hugged, the first embrace we’d had since we left the mainland. Our mouths found each other, and it was only when Carl was on his way out with the teapot that we realised he’d seen us. Like that. In each other’s arms. Kissing.
“Oh god,” I whispered. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know.” Ben was worried as much as me; so much so that we were speaking, rather than just thinking.
“Is he coming back?”
We looked round, then saw there was a plate still there. Shall we take it out to him? I had got my thoughts back.
Perhaps we’d better.
That walk to the kitchen was almost as nerve-racking as that first walk from the village hall… no; what am I saying? Nothing could have been worse than that. We got to the kitchen and found him bent over the sink. But his hands weren’t moving. He was just standing, looking down at the bowl. In my heightened mental state I could feel the unhappiness coming from him. He’d never even looked round when we opened the door.
“Carl?” Ben asked uncertainly, in a voice so flat that it hardly sounded like him.
There was a silence. Then, quietly: “I wish you’d told me.”
“Told you what?” Ben’s question, I thought, was silly. Wasn’t it obvious what he hadn’t known?
“About you two.”
“What about us two?” What’s he trying to do? Make him spell it out?
Shut up, Aidan. It’s difficult enough with one difficult conversation.
“About you being… you know… er…”
“In love, you mean? Like two parents should be?”
“What? No… I mean yes… but parents are, you know, man and woman.”
“And we’re both boys, and we’re about to be fathers to a family.”
“Look, neither Aidan nor I can help it if we like each other so much that we want to be together like that. And if you find you can’t cope with that then, I’m sorry but you’d better go back to the Woods.”
“But I can’t…” he said in a strange voice. “The smith told me that if I didn’t live here and help you I’d better leave the Island.”
“He has no right to say that!” I spoke for the first time. “That’s horrible.”
“But that’s what he said. You’ve no idea how powerful he is.”
“I damn well have,” I said hotly. “He got me to strip off in front of the whole village, remember? Oh, and he got me to swallow stuff from you and Ben and all the others.”
He was looking back at the sink again. He’ll have to go, I thought.
But a strange, half strangled voice came from him.
“I know; that’s the trouble.”
I suppose I nearly took his meaning the wrong way. The words said that he’d been so disgusted at that, that he’d been sickened by it ever since. But the trouble, the emotion in his voice… well? What did it mean?
“Ever since that day I’ve thought about you all the time.” It was said in a rush, and followed up with a lightning glance over his shoulder from where he stood at the sink. Another pause. Neither Ben nor I spoke. We knew there was more to come.
“You’re the only person who’s ever seen me… naked, and certainly the only person who’s done that to me. As soon as it was over I knew I wanted to be with you, to protect you, but then you were never around when I could be. And even if you were, Ben was nearby.” Absolute silence now. I knew that I was flattered, and was warming to him, but I also knew that Ben was the one I was going to spend the rest of my life with. What I didn’t know was what I should say to him. Ben was silent too, but I could feel the turmoil in his mind and, yes, the relief at having ‘heard’ that he was still mine for ever.
“I’m sorry, Aidan, Ben, but that’s how it is. I’ve spent the last months being so unhappy that it’s hardly surprising that the Woods thought I’d be better on my own. And then when the smith told me I was to help you two, that you were setting up house together, I didn’t know what to do. If I refused I’d be sent to the mainland and never see you, and if I agreed I’d see you all the time. But it started to look as if Ben might be… er… but it wasn’t until just now that I knew he was.”
“It seems you’re an easy boy to love, Aidan.”
I looked at Ben in surprise, then something occurred to me. “That doesn’t mean that the other five are going to come and join us too, does it?”
They both had to grin at that, though Carl’s was a bit shaky. “Does that mean I can stay?” he asked.
What about it, Ben? Do we take the chance? Or do you think he’ll rape me?
Don’t even think about it. Yes. I think we have to. I just hope he’s not too far gone on you, that’s all.
What d’you mean, too far gone?
Too much in love!
I smiled at that and hoped Carl thought I was just being friendly. I answered his question. “Yes, Carl, I think it does. But you know now that Ben and I belong to each other, and that I can’t er…”
“Yes. I know. I promise I’ll not do anything you wouldn’t want. Is it all right, Ben?”
“Yes. It is. But as you said, he and I are in love, and that’s how it’s going to stay. There’s no room for a third.”
“I know, I know. I’ll just have to make do with just living with two friends. And that’s more than many can do.”
At last we closed the distance between us. Ben shook his hand and gripped his shoulder, looking into his eyes. He started shaking my hand, then before I could do anything he took me in a hug, and I could feel a kiss on the top of my head.
“I may do that again, Aidan, out of sheer delight at being here. But I promise it will only be when Ben’s in the room too. Is it a deal?”
I was thirteen. I had two older boys to look after me, both of whom I trusted, both of whom loved me; one I loved, and love still; and the other was a good friend, and is still. I was in second heaven.
“Yes,” said Ben and I together.