A draft of this story has been read by Hilary and by Grasshopper, and I am deeply grateful for their comments. Jack Rowan has kindly vetted the procedure in the cathedral choir. Stow Minster borrows its name from Stow near Lincoln and much of its architecture from Southwell Minster near Nottingham. Geologists will see that I have taken a liberty or two when talking about orogeny; for which I apologise, but not very hard.
Some may find the characters in this tale larger than life. They are deliberately painted so. If one has a message to put across, it can be more effective that way.
27 October 2002
He was pretty sharp, was Dad, and we were close, close in a way perhaps only a single parent and a single child can be. He understood me as well as I did myself, or better. He trusted me, and I knew it. As far back as I could remember, he had talked about things that really mattered. Not obsessively, but as they cropped up. Not preaching, but dropping hints from his store of wisdom. About one’s responsibilities as a member of society, to oneself and to others. About emotions, and love, and sex, at increasing depth as my comprehension grew. Here he never probed. He just gave advice, and let me know that his ear was there should I need it. I never responded much, not because I was embarrassed but because I had experienced nothing of what he was talking about, or nothing directly. I simply stowed away what he said in the lumber room of my mind.
Until, that was, last April, when I broached the subject myself because I was getting worried. There I was, just turned seventeen, realising at last how much I differed from my friends at my all-boys school. Most of them spent most of their holidays socialising at clubs and raucous parties, awash in pop music, in some cases bedding their girls, in one case bedding his boy. They spent much of the term reliving it all.
That was not my scene. I was quiet by nature, happy with my own company. My holidays I passed with Dad. Or by myself, listening to my music: classical music, especially baroque. Or playing it or singing it, mostly with older people. I did go to parties, occasionally quite rowdy ones, but they had a different agenda from my school friends’ parties. During term, I got on well enough with my contemporaries. We were thrown together willy-nilly and for the most part we shared no interests, but we respected each other’s qualities. The authorities saw fit to give me responsible jobs. I spent most of my spare time on music and acting, and whenever I wanted I could talk shop with other musicians and actors, staff and pupils alike. In this respect, I was content enough.
Yet I had this problem. What I told Dad at Easter was that I liked my friends, at home and at school, some of them very much. But never anything more than that. I had met plenty of girls in the holidays, but none had turned me on. Nor had any boy. I had never lusted for either. I had no preference for either. I was no prude, mind you. No way. My sense of humour was earthy. I listened to racy talk with interest, even envy. In swapping dirty jokes or playing with bawdy words I could more than hold my own, and enjoyed it. But it was all detached and theoretical. The only time that sex of any practical sort entered my mind was when I jerked off. Yet was even that sexual? I did it purely for the physical pleasure and, believe it or not, neither girls nor boys — nor men nor women — entered my fantasies. I merely played music in my head. And all that, as I listened to my mates’ explicit prattle, made me feel an asexual freak. It began to worry me silly. But I told not a soul about it, until Easter.
Dad listened quietly. When I had finished, he said, “I see why you’re worried, Joe. Compared to you they’re brash, they’re shallow, they wear their hearts on their sleeves, they expect everyone else to be like them. You’re under peer pressure, as the psychologists would say. But you’re too wise to imitate them, thank God. I’m not saying they’re wrong. Just different from you. That’s the point. Don’t think of yourself as different from them. Think of them as different from you. Much more positive. Because you’re not abnormal. You’re quiet and gentle, you care, you think, you don’t do things in a hurry. There aren’t so many of you around as there are of them, and not so obvious. But there are still plenty of you. You’re not alone. You know that.
“And don’t worry about sexual feelings coming late. It’s like physical development coming late. It’s not in your control. You can’t hurry it. Up to a point, I reckon the later one’s sexuality awakens the better. When it does come, it’ll be maturer. Same goes for love. But a word of warning. If you’re not looking for it, love can come down out of the blue and knock you extra hard for six. And your sexuality, if it’s lagging behind, may struggle to catch up with the demands of love. But one day you will find your sexuality. It may be straight, it may be gay, it doesn’t matter, so long as you get it right. And one day, I hope, you’ll find love. It may be a girl, it may be a boy, I don’t give a damn as long as it’s the right one. It may be tomorrow, more likely it’ll be years ahead. So don’t be worried. Not yet. I’m not.”
He reassured me, and the summer term was easier.
It all started, as so many of these stories do, with the new kid next door. I was drinking coffee and getting ready to face a sunny Saturday in late July. From the CD of Messiah, the bass was informing me — and a glorious omen it turned out to be — that the people that walked in darkness had seen a great light. Suddenly he was joined by another low-pitched rumble, and a glance out of the window showed that our quiet and neatly-trimmed suburban street was being invaded by a monstrous removal van. Number 34 was about to be empty no longer. So I got washed and shaved, climbed into some clothes, and went round to see if I could help. Partly out of curiosity, I admit, but mainly because our street was a friendly community which took a genuine interest in its neighbours.
A woman was coming out of the front door. A striking woman, with a flaming mass of dark-carrot-coloured hair. In her late thirties, I guessed, with a capable but worried-looking face. “Hullo,” I said. “I’m Joe Atkinson, from next door. Would an extra pair of hands be any use? I’m at a loose end today.”
“Joe Atkinson!” She inspected me closely, and seemed satisfied. “That’s very kind of you, Joe. Well, if you’re sure, it really would be a help. I’m Sue, by the way. Sue Clayton, but please call me Sue.”
She dodged two removal men trundling a washing machine on a trolley.
“There’s only Luke and me at the receiving end. Our priority’s the furniture and house stuff, and we’ve got to concentrate on that. So have the men. But there’s masses of small things for the garage — garden things, and the mower, and tools, and paint pots, and whatever — the men will show you where they are. Could you take them in and put them in some sort of order? There are plenty of hooks and shelves in there.”
“No problem, I can manage that.”
“Bless you, Joe. For this relief much thanks!”
A literary lady, it seemed, if she quoted Hamlet to strangers. And I could cap her quote.
“Well, at least it’s not bitter cold, and I hope you’re not sick at heart!”
She gave me an odd look. Appreciative of my reply, yes, but also wary of it. She could hardly be cold, not today. So perhaps she was sick at heart. But not much I could do about it, on so short an acquaintance.
My job was straightforward, and I set about it happily. I had assumed Luke to be her husband or partner. But on my third trip in from the van, as I struggled with an unwieldy armful of gardening tools, I almost bumped into a boy of maybe twelve, small and slight. He was very obviously his mother’s son, with an arresting face not unlike Sue’s, a curly thatch of hair of an even brighter red, and eyes large and grey. He struck a faint and distant chord in my memory, and I found myself staring.
“Hi?” he said, in a treble voice with a question in it.
“Hi to you. I’m Joe, from next door. You must be Luke.”
“S’right. How did you know? My flashing eyes, my floating hair?”
Good grief, an infant prodigy who knew his Kubla Khan. I laughed.
“What else? I’ll weave a circle round you thrice, and close my eyes in holy dread. But not till I’ve dumped these things.”
The grey eyes had lit up. “So you know it too! But how did you know my name?”
“Actually, your mum mentioned it.”
At that point a rake slid out of my grasp.
“Did she rake you in to help? Haha — pun was intended.” He grinned a cheery grin.
“Very clever. No. I’m a volunteer, not a conscript.”
I grinned back, hugging my burden tighter, so that a broom handle flipped in and hit me hard on the forehead.
“Oh, bugger it! Sorry, pardon my French.”
“Well, shouldn’t use, um, naughty words to strange boys.”
“Strange, am I? Hmmmm. Not sure I like the implication. Anyway, I use, um, naughty words like that all the time.” He was grinning provocatively now. “Well, in the right company.”
“So I’m the right company, then? How can you tell, so soon?”
He paused, looking at me speculatively. “Obvious at first glance that you’re OK. But I think it’s more than that.”
“What d’you mean?”
He evaded the question. “I’m going to like it here, with you … next door. Already better than our last place.”
He picked up the rake, but so clumsily that the head swung in and the prongs hit him on the shin.
“Oh, bugger it! Sorry, pardon my French.”
I laughed out loud at his cheek, which caused a spade to escape my grip and clatter to the ground.
“Dammit. I’d better take these in while there are still some left.”
He picked up the spade as well, and followed me into the garage. As I unloaded my armful he gave me another long appraising stare which ended in a smile of what looked like relief.
“Yes, I’m sure that’s right.”
“That you fit. But there’s a long way to go. You don’t even know yet that two halves make a whole.”
Though I did not understand him, he seemed to be getting at me. “Bollocks!” I retorted. What was I doing? I might use words like that to my contemporaries, but never to boys his age. I did have some sense of responsibility.
“Exactly what I mean,” he said mysteriously. “See you later, alligator,” and off he scampered.
A likeable lad, I thought as I gazed after him, but strange indeed. He had left me disconcerted three times over. I felt I had seen him before, but could not pin the memory down. Then he talked allusions, which I ought to be able to pick up but could not. And I had this nebulous and wholly unaccountable feeling that someone important had just swum into my life.
After brooding for a moment, I shrugged the puzzles aside. There was work to do. Three trips later I met Dad coming up the road laden with shopping bags, and I put him in the picture.
“Good work, Joe. Quite right. Look, it’s coffee time. I think I’m best employed in feeding the army, don’t you? I’ll dump this stuff and put the kettle on, and bring things round here. Coffee, tea or OJ. Will you take orders?”
I did. Sue was grateful. “Just what we all need. Thanks a lot, Joe.”
“Including us, Dad, three teas, three coffees and an OJ,” I reported through our kitchen window.
“Three, three, one. Righty ho. Here, take these biscuits back with you.”
A few minutes later he came round with a large tray, and I made the introductions.
“Sue and Luke Clayton. This is my dad.”
“Colin Atkinson. Welcome to Sherwood Drive.”
They shook hands, and drinks and biscuits were distributed. The removal men retired with theirs to their van, no doubt for a smoke, Sue and Dad commandeered a couple of chairs that were loitering on the front path, and Luke and I collapsed on the unkempt lawn.
Our small-talk roamed around the neighbourhood, the local shops, the previous occupants. The Claytons said little about themselves, except that they had come from south London and had made a killing on their former house.
“I can’t believe how cheap houses are up here, compared,” said Sue. “The difference has made my bank manager smile for once. Well, we’d better be getting on. Thanks a lot, Colin. Dunno about Luke, but that’s saved my life.”
“You’re welcome. But that’s only starters. I’m manning the cafeteria today. Drinks whenever you want them. Bit of lunch in a couple of hours? Easiest at our place. And an evening meal. All included in the service.” Dad never did things by halves. “No, no protests. I remember the pains of moving, all too well. The troops have to be sustained, but the last thing you can be bothered with is cooking, or remembering where the crate of crockery went.”
“But, Colin, we can’t impose that much on new neighbours.”
“You’re not imposing,” I stuck my oar in. “We’re insisting. We’ve been here longer than anyone else in the street. Oldest inhabitants have the privilege of insisting.”
Sue gave way gracefully and, one could tell, gratefully. “We’re not accustomed to such kindness,” she said. And again I caught Luke’s considering gaze on me.
From time to time Dad lent a hand too, and by one o’clock things were progressing well. We had an al fresco bread-and-cheese-and-fruit lunch in our garden, Dad and I with a can of Boddy’s apiece while the Claytons plumped for OJ. But Luke eyed my glass.
“We don’t have beer at home. May I have a sip?”
He took a gulp, not a sip, wrinkled his nose, suppressed a burp, and took another swig.
“Thanks. Interesting. Watch out. I might become addicted.”
“Have a can of your own,” suggested Dad, raising an eyebrow at Sue, who merely smiled.
“No thanks, Mr Atkinson …”
“Oy, no. Call me Colin.”
“Oh. Right. No thanks, Colin. I’d better stick to OJ. Today, anyway.”
And the polite but faintly conspiratorial smile he gave Dad pinned down my elusive memory. A few months back I had seen him giving that same smile, at lunch, to my housemaster, though beer would not have been the subject then.
“Hey, Luke, I was sure I’d seen you before, but couldn’t remember where. It’s been puzzling me all morning. I’ve got it now. It was at Elliott’s, last May. You must’ve been taking the scholarship exam. Right?”
“Oh my gawd! You’re at Yarborough? And in Elliott’s? That’s totally weird!” He was gaping in astonishment and obvious delight.
“Yup. And did you get your scholarship?”
“Course.” He said it matter-of-factly, not with arrogance.
“Well done. So you’re going in September? You’re thirteen, then?” He hardly looked it.
“S’right. How old are you?”
“So you’ll be starting your last year? At the top of the house?”
“Yup. For my sins, house captain. And captain of the school. You’d better watch out!”
“Wow! And you’re good at games too?”
“Well, I’m in the cricket eleven and the rugger fifteen.”
He smiled as if he had been proved right in something. Dad and Sue were smiling too, in surprise, amusement, and maybe pride in offspring. They fell to swapping tales of other extraordinary coincidences that had come their way, while Luke, his bread and cheese and Branston forgotten, plied me with questions about school. Intelligent questions, too. Not superficial ones like getting-up and going-to-bed times, or how much prep one got, but the questions of someone who thought. I answered as honestly as I could, though I probably sounded a bit like the publicity bumph.
“How much does your, er, standing depend on how good you are at games?”
“Oh, only moderately — academic and artistic types get proper respect too So do ordinary blokes with no special talents. It’s all reasonably egalitarian.”
“Is there anything against younger boys talking to older ones?”
“Oh no. Though you’re inevitably thrown together with boys of your own age, specially in class and at meals.”
“So the place isn’t full of silly rules and restrictions?”
“No, we’re pretty liberal and tolerant. We try to rule with a light hand — the staff and prefects, I mean — and we encourage people to do their own thing.”
“It’s a happy place, then?
“Oh yes. I can’t say there aren’t any disruptive types — there always are a few — but on the whole people get on very well with each other.”
“So it’s a, um, civilised place?”
“Yes, that sums it up very well.”
Luke seemed relieved. “Good. Very good. I’m looking forward to it now.”
Sue chipped in with more queries, this time about clothes and suchlike practical matters. Then she declared it time to get back to work.
“What nice people,” remarked Dad as we washed up. “Much nicer than the Fittons” (their grumpy and unsociable predecessors). “And how extraordinary that Luke’s going to Elliott’s. He seems a very competent lad. And how handy, come to think of it. Perhaps we can share transport.”
I went back next door with Dad, who had volunteered to mow the grass. As I finished the garage, the last boxes were coming in from the van, and Sue put me to work with Luke distributing kitchen equipment to appropriate shelves and cupboards. His method impressed me: he was decisive, neat and efficient, and he did not talk in riddles as he had in the morning. He was quiet, as if thinking hard, and I caught him stealing occasional glances at me.
The kitchen done, we went to work on his bedroom, heaving furniture into the right place, making up his bed, and dealing with his clothes. Modest in quality and quantity, and no sports gear. I unpacked, he stowed away. Then came his computer. We set it up on the desk, plugged it in, and set things rolling. Once we had sorted out a few problems with btinternet, everything worked fine. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank goodness for that. Couldn’t live without it.”
“You use the net a lot, then?” I asked.
“Yes. Not for emails, much. Don’t know anyone, hardly. But elsewhere, yes.”
“You can go where you like, then? Your mum hasn’t put, um, a nanny guard on?”
“Lord, no. I go to … all sorts of sites.”
“Well.” I responded to his implication, not his words. “You’ll find things different at school, you know. All kinds of blocks there. It’s one area where they are restrictive — I suppose they have to be, but they’ve got dirty minds. Last term for a Shakespeare essay I asked Google about Coriolanus. No hits. I asked about textual analysis. No hits.”
“Oh, I see.” He giggled. “Anus and anal. How petty. It’s going to take me a while to get used to school and routine and other boys again.”
That sounded a bit odd. “Again?”
“Oh, I haven’t been to school for three years, and even then it was only a local primary. Rather different from Yarborough.”
“What’ve you been doing the last three years, then?”
“Oh, Mum’s been teaching me at home.” His tone discouraged further questions. “And of course I haven’t done any games. I’ve never played rugger, or cricket. It’s going to be … interesting, picking them up from scratch.”
“Well, I can fill you in on the rudiments over the holidays, if you like.”
His eyes lit up again. “Cool, I’d like that. Thanks.”
“No problem. So you’ve never lived away from home, then? Yes, it will be a major change of lifestyle. Does the prospect scare you?”
“It did, rather. Not much, now. Just hope the other new boys are OK with me. It’ll be a challenge, but I’ll cope.”
“You will. Don’t worry about that. And I’ve got to confer with Glad soon about who shares rooms with who, and I’ll make sure we find somebody suitably laid-back for you.”
“Why, Mr Bear, the housemaster. But don’t go calling him that to his face.”
“But why Glad?”
“Short for Gladly. Get it?”
“Well, he’s got a bit of a squint, didn’t you notice?”
“Oh I see! ‘Gladly the cross I’d bear’! That’s funny!”
“Well, we have a lot of fun. As I said, we’re really quite civilised.”
“Bound to be, with you in charge.”
Ho! Compliments! Touch of hero-worship? I was none too happy with that. But, possibly feeling he had gone too far, Luke dropped the subject.
“Hey, we’re getting on well. There’s only books left to unpack. And CDs. Where’ve they gone? Oh, they’re still on the landing.” He went out to collect them.
I opened a cardboard box full of books, and there on top was a collection of unexpected reading for a thirteen-year-old. Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy — OK, but impressive if he understood it, though it was supposedly a children’s book. But Forster’s Maurice? Angus Stewart’s Sandel? Plato’s Symposium? As Luke came back with his box of CDs I noticed my watch.
“Lord, it’s half past six. Afraid I’ll have to leave you to it, Luke. I must grab a shower and give Dad a hand with the tea. You come round in an hour?”
“K. Thanks, Joe. For all your help. And for being here. I like you.” For once, he sounded very young.
“And me you.” It was no more than the truth. “See you soon.”
Dad had things well under control, so I took my shower before laying the table and things. I was glad to see he had had been generous with quantities, as I suspected Luke would have the appetite of a carthorse. Promptly at 7.30 they turned up, clean and shiny but obviously weary. I steered them past the smells emanating from the kitchen and into the living room for a drink.
“Just what we’re dying for,” said Sue. “Joe, you’re an angel girt with golden wings.” Milton this time, I suspected. “And Colin’s right. I couldn’t have faced cooking.”
I offered her a sherry which she accepted, and paused in front of Luke, asking an unspoken question. Luke looked expectant, and Sue nodded.
“Lord, yes, he’s earned it. Not too much though — these glasses are whoppers. Matter of gradual education, isn’t it? Can’t have him under the table.” Luke grinned happily. “What about you? D’you have free rein?”
“Oh yes.” I poured one for him, one for myself, and one for Dad. “Dad trusts me not to go over the top. I only ever did once. At a party. Threw up, and was in hell next day. Best lesson possible. But I confess I sometimes pine for it at school. Scuse me, I’ll just take this to Dad.”
But at that moment he came in, brandishing a spatula and glorious in his Wallace and Gromit apron.
“Evening,” he said, grabbing his glass and raising it in salutation. “God, I need this.” He swigged half of it and dashed out again, complete with glass. “Five minutes, folks!”
It was a simple meal, but good. Chicken breasts in a spicy sauce, rice and salad, followed by cheese and fruit. Sue ate well, Luke (as I had foreseen) even better. I lost count of how many times the wine box went round, though Luke, after one glass, stuck to Coke.
“If you want,” I told him, “I can lend you a hand with the rest of your room, or anything else, tomorrow afternoon. But not in the morning or evening, I’m afraid. Got to go and sing.”
“Stow Minster. I’m in the choir.”
“Woweee! Bass?” — I nodded — “Do you know, till last Sunday I was a treble in Southwark Cathedral choir.”
“Well, I’m damned!” He must be good. “Look, d’you want to carry on singing? We’re desperately short of trebles. Thing is, it’s one of the least-known cathedrals in Britain, and Stow’s no more than a village. No choir school. And no girls, yet, though it might be forced on us. Fred — Dr Markham, he’s the choirmaster — would welcome you with open arms. We’re not a patch on the big cathedrals, of course, but we’re not bad, though I say so myself. And a friendly lot too. You’d be at home.”
“But I’m not sure I’d be good enough.”
“Hey, if you’re good enough for Southwark, you’re good enough for Stow.”
He looked at Sue pleadingly, and she slowly nodded.
“Great! Thanks, Mum. It’s something I thought I was going to miss out on. But it’s some way from here, isn’t it?”
“About fifteen miles.”
“How do you get there, then?”
“Oh, I drive,” I said airily, but thought I had better be honest. “I passed my test last week, by the skin of my teeth. Tell you what. Come to matins with me, listen in, and if you like the look and sound of us I’ll introduce you to Fred, and he’ll probably audition you on the spot. You could be in your cassock for evensong.”
“No chance of joining for matins?”
“Well, I doubt there’d be time beforehand. No, wait. If you’re that keen — it’s Stanford in B flat and Palestrina’s Stabat mater tomorrow morning. Can you manage those?”
“On my head.”
“Right then. I’ll give Fred a ring first thing and see if he can get in early. If he can, we’d better leave at, oh, say quarter to ten. OK?”
Luke glowed. “OK, Mum?” Sue nodded, smiling. “It’s a deal,” he said. “Wheeee, thanks!”
We spent the rest of the meal comparing musical notes, and got on together like a house on fire. Our tastes coincided. And we both played as well as sang. Mostly at school, in my case. I was not at home long enough at a time for any serious music there, but I did play the trumpet in a local amateur baroque group, the Avison Consort, just for fun. Luke had been an oboist in a youth orchestra in London and was at Grade 7. And he was enthusiastic. The Consort would welcome him.
Over coffee they were yawning, and soon Sue made their apologies.
“It’s been a long day,” she said. “Thanks, Colin, Joe. You’ve been an absolute tower of strength, and we couldn’t have asked for a happier landing. But right now, I’m dead.”
Yet she sent Luke ahead with the key and lingered for a minute.
“Joe, I’m enormously grateful for the help you’re giving Luke. But please don’t feel you have to spend time on him. Four years is a big difference, at your age.”
“Don’t worry about that, Sue. We’ve so much in common, in spite of the age gap. And I like him, very much. And I’m only too glad if I can help cushion the shock of his going to Yarborough. And his music needs encouraging.”
“Yes, he is good. Though I didn’t hear him often enough when he was at Southwark. Joe, could I ask a favour? Could I cadge a lift with you tomorrow and hear him sing again? Assuming they’ll take him?”
“Not much doubt about that. Yes, of course, no problem. See you then. Good night.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I said as we cleared the table. “That was a great evening, and a great meal.”
“And great revelations about young Luke.”
“I like him a lot, already, Dad. I reckon there’s more to him than meets the eye.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Oh, I reckon he’ll become a very useful member of society, at school. Can’t tell in what way, yet. But he’s got the intelligence and seems to have the confidence. Sue’s taught him at home for the last three years — did you know that? — yet he’s raring to get to Yarborough. Most boys who’d never been away from home would be scared stiff.”
“True. But haven’t you noticed anything unusual about his attitude to you, Joe?”
“No. Well, I thought I spotted a touch of hero-worship at one point. But he doesn’t seem to go in awe of his house captain” — I grinned — “as most new boys would. That’s his confidence, presumably.”
“That’s not quite what I meant either. You say you like him a lot, already. I reckon he likes you more than a lot, already. Look, Joe …” he paused, picking up the empty glasses with four fingers. “I’ve been watching Luke today. Yes, there may be hero-worship there, but I think it’s more than that. And I’ve been watching you too. With interest. Unless I’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick, you’ve been … almost making eyes at young Luke. I’ve never seen you do that before, to anyone. I get the impression that Sue’s noticed too, and is going tomorrow as a chaperone. So it crossed my mind to wonder if this might be what we were talking about last Easter. Yet you seem unaware of it. Search your soul, Joe.”
Caught by surprise, I sat down again at the table to think. True, I had had that strange sensation in their garage this morning, that inkling of the meeting of souls. But there had been no chance to analyse it. Were Luke and I really exchanging signals, which Dad had spotted but I was barely conscious of? Not impossible. As I have said, he was pretty sharp. Of course I remembered our conversation last April, about sexuality and love. But it had been general. Now that he had raised the question again, with a specific gender and a specific name attached, it caught me on the hop. I had not thought of Luke as an object of desire. Maybe I would have done before long, even without that prompting. But so far I had not. In my inexperience, my lack of sexuality, had I simply failed to recognise the vibes coming from him and, even more blindly, vibes that I was instinctively radiating myself?
“Dad. I wasn’t aware of anything more than a liking, either way. Till you mentioned it. But now that you have, I begin to see what you mean. I don’t know. I just don’t know. It’s too early to say. I’ll have to think about it. He may prove to be no more than a precocious brat.” But it felt suspiciously like a betrayal, saying even that. Was that another symptom?
Then the thought of precocious brats made a connection in my brain.
“Dad, wait. There was something, this morning. Luke said he liked me, and something mysterious like ‘But I think it’s more than that. You fit. But there’s a long way to go. You don’t even know yet that two halves make a whole.’ I didn’t understand him then. But this evening I saw that he’s got a copy of the Symposium. Isn’t there something similar in that?”
Dad’s eyes widened. “Precocious indeed. Yes, there most certainly is. About lovers originally being two halves of a whole, then being separated and searching for their other half again and, if they meet him or her, becoming whole once more. Yes, it does sound as if he’s got a crush on you already. Maybe more than that. Look, Joe. If it is a one-way crush which you don’t return, I suggest you play it sympathetically but firmly. Don’t encourage him. Distance yourself, if you have to.
“But if you find it’s two-way, that you — let’s be blunt — love him too, it’s a different ball-game altogether. If it was someone your own age, my advice would be to play it carefully. Take your time. First make sure you’ve got your sexuality properly sussed out. Then make sure that particular love is right. If it is, then away you go, and good luck to you.
“But with Luke there’s a crucial difference — he’s so young and vulnerable. OK, he’s mentally a prodigy, and it sounds as if he’s sussed his own sexuality out already. If it is love, proper love, sex usually goes with it, as part of the package. But is he really ready for sex, even if it’s sex with love? I’m not at all comfortable with that. If he weren’t so intelligent, it would be totally unthinkable. Quite apart from the fact that it’s illegal. OK, no doubt I’m jumping the gun. But whatever happens, if it is two-way love, it demands a great deal of extra care. It’s a much bigger responsibility. Follow me?”
“Yes, Dad, I follow you. And I agree, totally.”
We hugged, not something we did every day, only when we were specially close.
I went to bed very thoughtfully. Could he be right? Was this really my turning point, my awakening? I reviewed the relevant parts of the day, and it did not take long for my mind and body, in tandem, to supply the answer. As I attended to my nightly erection, my mind was not filled with music. For the first time in my life, it was filled with an image. An image of Luke. At first, in choirboy’s cassock and surplice. Before long, nude.
After a night of disturbed and (for me) unusual dreams, I was up quite early. Dad slept in late on Sundays. I clothed my nakedness in a dressing gown and staggered downstairs to open the back door and make sure the world was still there. It was, so I made coffee, took it into the living room, and put on Andrew Parrott’s recording of Schütz’s Weinachtshistorie. Totally out of season, but what the hell — it was my favourite and long-tested remedy for calming an uneasy mind.
The Christmas story unfolded, up to the point where the angel appears to Joseph in Egypt. Stehe auf, Joseph, und nimm das Kindlein … ‘Arise, Joseph, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel …’ Emma Kirkby should have been singing it solo, but she was not. There were two flawless voices, the soprano coming from the speakers, the treble from behind me.
I dared not turn round, but lowered the volume with the remote so that Luke’s contribution stood out. It was superb — accurate, clear in sound, faultless in German diction, sensitive to the words. When it was over, I breathed deep.
“Luke, that was out of this world. And how appropriate, if Stow is Israel. Were you waiting for the cue?”
“Only for a minute or so. Hope you didn’t mind me coming in. The door was open.”
I did turn round now, checking that my dressing gown was done up.
“Not in the least. Open house, here. Nothing secret. No nameless orgies going on.”
He grinned knowingly, as if saying ‘Not yet, but there may be soon.’ Or was my imagination overcharged from last night?
I found myself looking at him with new eyes. He was different from the young Luke of yesterday. The unruly curls were brushed into some order, the scruffy tee-shirt, jeans and trainers were replaced by white shirt and subdued tie, grey flannel trousers and black shoes. He was an older Luke, with a poise verging on the professional. I approved. And, on a different plane, I felt he was radiating an almost tangible force which was trying to pull me to him.
Not the time for analysis. Keep this on a more mundane level. So I merely voiced my approval.
“That looks good! You obviously know the drill. How did you sleep in your new room?”
“Badly. Too much to think about. You?”
“Badly. Turbulent dreams.” Neither of us looked at the other.
“That all the breakfast you have?” He nodded at my mug.
“Yup. I’m not a breakfast person. “Whereas you … let me guess. You’ve had muesli, boiled eggs and three slices of toast.”
“Wrong. Four slices. Joe, have you phoned yet?”
“Not yet. What’s the time? Well, I’ll try. Fred might just be home from early service.”
He was, heard my news with delight, and agreed to be at the minster early.
“That’s OK,” I told Luke.
“Cool! Thanks. I’ll dig my halo out, then, if I can find it, and give it a polish. I can be nice and cherubic when I want. Even though I’m really a cheeky brat inside, who deserves a good spanking. Did you know?”
“It is slowly dawning on me.” I could only smile at his sass. “You buzz off now, and be here with your mum at 9.45, right? I need a shower, a shave and a shit.”
Why was I talking to him like this? I began to think that I knew.
“I can understand the shit. And the shave” — he was eyeing my barely visible stubble — “But you had a shower last night. Why do you need another? Were your dreams that turbulent?” He said it so sweetly, as if butter would not melt in his mouth.
“Cheeky brat! OUT!” I roared. “Or do you want me to put you over my knee and spank you?”
A bad mistake. I was draining the last of my coffee — second mistake — as his expression flipped from professional poise into simpering servility.
“Oh, please, yes,” he crooned in the sexiest voice I had ever heard. “Please, with my pants down!”
It was an exquisite little performance, incredibly funny, and it made me spray my mouthful over the carpet. I did not for a moment believe he was into SM. He was just a damn good actor, as well as an imp, on top of everything else.
“OUT!” I roared again, frog-marched him to the back door, pushed him through it, and for good measure booted him in the backside with my bare foot. Third mistake. He twisted round like an eel and grabbed my ankle in mid-air, so that my dressing gown fell open below the waist. He took a quick look before releasing me.
“Hmmmm,” he remarked in an interested tone, and evidently impressed. “Stehe auf, Joseph!” and with a grin he was gone.
Stehe auf, eh? Arise! Stand up! Get erect! I obeyed. I could not help it.
Three-nil to Luke (or was it four-nil?) in only a few minutes. His pace was fast, this boy, and he was a master of innuendo. I had no objection to that — it was humorous and ingenious and it seemed, so far, to be only playfully dirty. That was the point. He was playing a game with me, flirting, deliberately provoking and challenging. That one of the most junior boys in the school was teasing the most senior did not bother me a whit. I was not one to pull rank, and I was enjoying it. Right, young Luke. I’ll take up your challenge, on your terms. I’m beginning to get your measure. I can give as good as I get, so long as I can stand the pace. And there is more to you than meets the eye — I was right about that.
At a deeper level, a brand-new attraction was inexorably working on me. Already, eight hours ago, it had awakened my slumbering sexuality and a moment ago had confirmed it. Luke had been attractive enough in my mental picture of last night. Just now, looking at him with newly-opened eyes, I had found him yet more attractive in the flesh.
An analogy occurred to me: not a perfect one — analogies rarely are — but good enough to go on with. It was as if I was working through an experiment in magnetism. I had heard of the phenomenon before, but never experienced it. Last night, in bed, I had been reading up the physics textbook. It had opened my eyes, and I had understood it. But it was only the theory. Now I had just been in the lab for a practical and, for the first time since absorbing the theory, I had been confronted with an actual living magnet. The force it had exerted was unmistakable. But this magnet was not Luke as Luke. Not yet. For the moment it was only Luke as a boy. That was today’s lesson.
Or, changing the analogy slightly, think of a compass. A mark on its rim was labelled ‘boys.’ I was the needle, and it pointed to ‘boys.’ So at last I knew my orientation. In the next stage of the experiment, which was yet to come, there’d be a mark labelled ‘Luke.’ If that attracted my needle, love could — maybe would — follow.
And that, as Dad had said, would demand very special care. It was one thing to leap into the thrust and parry of risqué repartee. It was another thing entirely to respond with equal speed to emerging love. And how far could I respond? From his antics just now, one might imagine that Luke was already angling for sex. If so, easy for him. Much more problematic for a responsible citizen like me. Could I justifiably bed a boy who was barely into puberty?
Joseph was still standing up, so I dealt with him in the shower. Then I shaved and shat, and was ready with Dad’s Volvo when Sue and Luke appeared. As I drove, with Luke beside me, I filled him in on the habits and members of the choir. Mindful of Sue in the back, we were both sedately proper.
At Stow, I parked beside the minster graveyard and led them through the north door into the nave. Luke went straight to the west end and gazed eastwards with a smile of pure pleasure.
“Mud, mud, glorious mud,” he announced.
“I like the feel of this place. It says something to me. Some cathedrals like Salisbury, or Westminster Abbey, are tall, like giraffes. Slender. Graceful. This one” — he waved at the thick and dumpy Norman columns and arches, capped by a heavy groined vault — “is squat and lumbering, like a hippo. Just as endearing. It’s lovely.”
Heavens above, I thought. It takes a creative brain to coin an image like that. But as we wandered through into the Gothic choir he turned professional.
“What are the acoustics like?”
“Flat,” I replied. “Unforgiving. No reverberation. You have to be careful. Takes some getting used to.”
Then I spotted Fred in the aisle, and made the introductions. He beamed at them, and Sue (because she had handed Luke over to another authority?) excused herself. She was going to inspect the carvings in the chapter house, and would meet us after the service.
So we went to the choir room, where Fred quizzed Luke about his experience and put him through his paces, from the simple to the more difficult, including sight-reading.
“Yeeeeees,” he said approvingly. “You’ll know Stanford in B flat. But what about the Stabat mater? Palestrina’s? That’s the anthem today.” Yes, Luke had sung it, several times. “Let’s try a bit of it, then. Joe, we’ll provide the accompaniment, as best we can.”
Off we went, ludicrously pretending in bass, tenor and falsetto to be a choir, with help from the piano. But Luke sailed unwaveringly on, completely unfazed, for half a dozen verses before Fred called a halt.
“Good,” he said. “Very good indeed. There’s clarity there, and accuracy, and diction, and timing, and feeling. Do you have any special party pieces?”
Well, said Luke modestly, he did like singing the Allegri Miserere. Fred and I raised our eyebrows. It’s about the hardest thing in the treble repertoire, and not easy even for a professional soprano.
“All right, give it a go. Dig out the music, Joe.”
By now quite a few other choir members had arrived, and Fred roped them in. Miserere mei, deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam. And high above our gentle background soared Luke’s voice, hitting the C above the treble stave with awesome accuracy before cascading down to G. It was a hauntingly wonderful experience. Maybe not up to Roy Goodman’s famous recording at King’s, but not far behind.
Fred looked at Luke almost with reverence. “I’ve no words,” he said. “The job’s yours.”
“Thank you, sir. But only in the holidays, I’m afraid.”
“So Joe said. Our loss. Where shall we put you, Luke? Yes, decani, on Kevin’s right. Lord, time’s running out. Joe, would you kit him out, please?”
“That was phenomenal, Luke,” I said as I led him to the cupboard in the corner. “I’ve never heard anything like it.”
We found a cassock and surplice that fitted. The cassock made him quite bad-tempered.
“Bloody hell, not scarlet! It screams at my hair.” True, they clashed violently, but we could not do much about it. “At Southwark the cassocks are blue.” Then he fumbled at his hips. “Hey, at Southwark they had slits here. How’re you supposed to get at your hanky?”
“Keep it up your sleeve.”
“How gross. Can you fish mine out of my pocket for me?”
“No way. You’ll only say I’m groping you. Do it yourself.” Hah, foiled you there, Master Clayton.
He gave me a dirty but appreciative look, hoisted his skirts and fished out his hanky, grumbling. “Why can’t they just put slits in?”
“Good reason. What do not-so-innocent choirboys do with their hands during dull sermons if they’ve got, er, access?”
He suppressed a giggle and actually blushed, adding crimson to the scarlet and orange. Another point to Joe.
“Remember what Confucius say?” I added, just to rub it in.
“Man keep hand in pocket, feel cocky all day.”
This time he giggled freely. “That’s good! I like you fighting back, Joe. Keep it up.”
“Keep what up, young man?”
Now he giggled and blushed. But the clergy had arrived. Just as well, perhaps. Short prayer. Procession. Service. All went smoothly. We were facing each other, he on the decani side, me on the cantoris, and I could see him getting the feel of the place, working out the acoustics, adjusting his voice. To begin with I could not pick it out from the rest, but by the anthem he’d found his confidence and the treble line was much the stronger for it.
The sermon was dull, and I abandoned it to study the young face opposite. Almost triangular, short in length, broad in the brow, tapering to a narrow chin, dotted faintly with freckles, flanked by rather sticking-out ears, punctuated by a wide mischievous mouth and large intelligent grey eyes, capped by that great orange crown. An intriguing and lovable face, I thought, gateway to an intriguing and lovable mind. A mind at once properly juvenile and startlingly adult. Profound, imaginative, observant, devilish, hilarious, alternating at the flick of a switch. He noticed my gaze and deliberately put both hands on the desk in front of him. I had never had to suppress laughter in church before, but I did today. God, I had met him barely twenty four hours before, and he was already at the centre of my consciousness.
In the hippopotamus nave we met up with a visibly proud Sue. She knew better than to hug her son in public. She pulled him into the back of the car with her, and did it there. I told her about Luke’s hit with the Miserere, and broached an idea I had had during the service.
“What about putting on a concert towards the end of the holidays? Renaissance and baroque music, to show off Luke Clayton’s treble. With the Avison Consort. In one of the city centre churches, where far more people would turn up than at Stow. Probably St Peter’s — I know the vicar, and he’d jump at it. Wouldn’t be high-power stuff — just local advertising — but fun. And good for your CV. What d’you think?”
To my astonishment, there was no answer. In the mirror, I saw them looking at each other doubtfully.
“Thanks, Joe,” said Sue eventually. “It’s a lovely thought, but it caught us by surprise. Give us a bit of time to think about it, please.”
Very odd, but I could only say “Of course,” and move gently away from the subject.
“Luke, your Yarborough scholarship’s a music one, I take it, not academic?”
“Well, both, actually. They gave me a double one.”
“Cool, clever chap. Well, you’re bound to be in the chapel choir.”
The rest of the journey I filled, I hoped usefully, with an insider account of the chapel choir’s doings and of its members.
Luke seemed to be filing it all away. But when we were nearly home he suddenly asked, “Joe, what are you doing next week?”
“Nothing much at all. The Consort meets on Wednesday evenings — do come to that, Luke — and choir practice is Thursday evening. Otherwise there’s nothing booked. I might go out somewhere with Dad — he takes the odd day off. It’s his slack season, what with the courts being closed.”
“Courts?” queried Sue. “What does he do, then?”
“Oh, sorry, thought you knew. He’s a solicitor. Senior partner in Randall, Merriweather and Randall.”
“Oh. A local firm?”
“Originally, yes. But they’ve got a London branch too, as they do a lot of High Court work. Dad often has to go up for that.”
“Does he specialise in anything particular?”
I swung off the street towards our garage doors.
“Yes, he handles clients who’re at loggerheads with the media.”
As I put the handbrake on I saw Sue and Luke exchanging significant looks.
“Well, thanks again, Joe,” she said, “very much indeed. A bite of lunch for us now, and then down to the grindstone. Have a nice peaceful afternoon, without Luke in your hair for once.”
As clear a non-invitation as I had met. Suited me, I needed to think.
“Right. I’ll pick you up for evensong at quarter to five, Luke. OK?”
“OK. And thanks for this morning, Joe. I enjoyed that.”
But both of them seemed a trifle distracted.
Dad had lunch ready. I had not seen him so far today, and there was much to tell. First I filled him in on the events at Stow, and he was impressed.
“Dad,” I went on. “Me. Last night, in bed, I sussed out the answer to the first question.”
He translated the code without difficulty, bless him. “Quick work. Good. And … ?”
“I’m gay. It was pretty clear, once I had someone to … focus on. Luke dropped in this morning. And that confirmed it. I mean, my feelings when I saw him confirmed it. When I saw a boy. Didn’t have to be Luke.”
“I’m with you, I think. So the next question is, is Luke the right boy?”
“That’s it. That’ll take longer to answer, no doubt.”
“Yes. OK, Joe, you’re on the right track. You’ve taken the first big step, and I’m glad for you for that.” He put his hand on mine.
“Thanks, Dad. But are you glad for you?”
“Yes. You know I am. I’m equally easy either way, about your orientation. Anyway, I don’t matter here. You’re the one who does.”
“Dad, you’re a marvel.”
We didn’t get sentimental together — stiff upper lip and all that — but we understood each other.
“But if Luke is the right boy, then he matters even more. And that’ll raise issues where Sue will matter, very much.”
“I wonder how she’d react.”
“I can make a good guess. She’s a highly intelligent woman, and she seems pretty liberated, but she is protective. Of course she is. She’s his mother. And how many mothers would consent to their thirteen-year-old having a practical love affair?”
“Not many. Well, no point in putting the cart before the horse. But it reminds me.” I told him of Sue and Luke’s odd behaviour on the way home. “They seemed very interested to hear you’re a solicitor.” But no more could be said, so there we left it.
I needed to relax, preferably in the sun, and went to my room to find a book. From the window I could see, between the trees, a small patch of next door’s newly-mown lawn. On it was Sue, apparently crying, and Luke with his arm around her. I was disturbed, but could think of no reason to intrude. I went downstairs with my book to sit in the sun, where I promptly fell asleep. Dad woke me at half past four, and after a wash and brush up I presented myself next door. Luke was ready, but very quiet and serious. It was a mile or two before he spoke.
“Joe, may I ask you something?”
“Of course. Fire away.”
“Do you go to church just for the music? Or do you believe at all?”
A straight question deserving a straight answer.
“No. I don’t really believe. I’m like Pope — Alexander, not the Vatican one — ‘Some to church repair, not for the doctrine, but the music there.’ If it weren’t for that, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t go. I don’t mean at school, where you have to. But having said that, I do find the services comforting. A matter of the ritual and tradition I’m accustomed to, I suppose. I might go occasionally, for comfort. What about you?”
Luke was looking at me with interest.
“You know, it’s exactly the same with me. No, I don’t believe either. The big churches, the cathedrals, what they offer is pretty bland. On the whole. Tolerant, but not very relevant. Doesn’t demand much thought or effort. Soothing. I think that’s why I’m at home in the Church of England. An oasis. A haven of peace, which I need.” He paused, and I didn’t dare interrupt.
“You know, a month or so ago I went to St James’s Piccadilly. I’d heard about it and wanted to see what it was like. Totally untraditional. Deep concern with social issues. International things. There were Muslims and Jews there, even in the pulpit. It was challenging. Which is right. But I didn’t go back. It was too challenging. For me. At my age. With my … ” He tailed off.
Grief, what a revealing confession. I drew a bow at a venture, and picked up where he’d left off.
“Too challenging for you, at your age, with your own problems. You need to be soothed and comforted by the good old familiar Anglican liturgy. Don’t feel guilty, Luke. If it does that for you, it’s doing its job. What it’s meant to do. And you need it particularly this evening, don’t you? It’s all right, I don’t want an answer. I’m not probing.”
He looked at me gratefully. “Yes, you do understand. I knew you would.”
“You find your peace, Luke. That’s all that matters right now.”
At evensong he was the perfect choirboy. I could see him absorbing as well as contributing. During the short sermon by an ancient canon I could tell he was listening, actually listening, which was more than could be said of the other boys. Through to the blessing. ‘The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds.’ You didn’t have to believe in the frills to go along with the message.
Back in the car, he seemed more at ease.
“Happier now, aren’t you?” I asked as we started.
“Yup. It did work its magic. Even the sermon. Hot air. So predictable it was actually calming. What did you think of it?”
“Same. Load of flatulence.”
He grinned broadly, lifted his bum from the seat, and farted resoundingly. Very apposite. I laughed back at him and opened both windows to their widest.
“D’you mind me doing that? Honestly?”
“Fundamentally, no.” He cackled. “No, I don’t mind in the least. Specially if it’s well-timed, like that. Not sure about the pong, though, if the ventilation’s poor.”
“In which case I’d preach from the other end.” He belched with equal gusto, and I laughed again.
“Joe, why’s it so funny to belch and fart?”
“I think it’s because we were told when we were kids that it was naughty. If we’re still kids at heart, it’s funny because it still seems naughty. Like you and your highly risqué jokes.”
“Which make you laugh. And yours make me laugh. I’m glad you’re still a kid, Joe, as well as a grown-up. Well, almost a grown-up. I wouldn’t love you if you weren’t a kid too.”
Love? I did not rise to the bait, if bait it was. Nor did he elaborate. We both let the word hang in the air, all the way home.
But as we got out of the car and he turned towards his house, he said, “Thanks, Joe, again. You know, it’s not only because you’re a kid that I love you.”
I could not leave it like that, not this time. “Love, Luke? That’s something we must talk about properly.”
“Yes, we must. But not now. I’ll talk to you again tonight, I hope. But not about this. Tomorrow?”
“Sure. See you.”
I went in, puzzled. As usual, tea was almost ready, but Dad was unusually abstracted.
“Sue’s asked us round for drinks after tea,” he said. “She apologised for being organised enough only to water us, not to feed us.”
“What’s this all about, Dad? She’s been talking to you, hasn’t she?”
“Yes, she has. But it’s their story to tell, not mine. Patience, Joe.”
And he fell to studying his lasagne without touching it.
Before long we went next door, where we were supplied with coffee and whisky. Sue and Dad sat in easy chairs, while Luke put me on the sofa next to him.
“Joe,” said Sue, almost formally. “It’s really for your sake that we’ve asked you and Colin in. While you were over at Stow this evening, I poured out our woes to Colin. He’s already been hugely helpful and I’m sure will be even more helpful in the future. Luke’s adamant that you should be told too. In fact he’ll be doing most of the talking, because he wants to tell you himself. I’m not too happy about that, but he insists, and when Luke insists …
“I know it seems strange that we’re letting our family skeletons out of the cupboard so soon, the very day after meeting you. But you precipitated it, in all innocence, when you suggested a concert starring Luke. I think you saw our reaction. And for that reason if no other, I agree that you have the right to know. OK, Luke? Over to you.”
Luke sat up very straight, looked sideways at me, and swallowed hard.
“Joe, this is a nasty story because it’s about my father. He’s not around because he’s in prison. He’s a paedophile, Joe, and a murderer. But it’s a nice story too because it’s also about Mum, and how she’s bust her guts to protect me. It all started five years ago, when I was eight …”
He was speaking very simply, and the effort and the pain were clear. I could not leave him like that, so near to me but yet so far. I had hardly touched him before, but if ever he needed human contact it was now. I moved over and put my arm round his shoulder. Was this why he’d sat me next to him? He gave me a small smile, and carried on.
Let me cut his long story relatively short. Five years before, over a period of a few months, a dozen boys aged around thirteen were raped or sexually assaulted in their part of London. The final one was strangled. Sue already had vague fears that her husband was up to no good, and on this occasion her suspicions were so strong that she told the police. It was soon after DNA testing had become reliable, and that was enough to convict him. And on his computer, apart from a large collection of porn, was information enough to convict the members of a paedophile ring, though one man escaped prosecution through lack of adequate evidence.
Sue immediately divorced her husband, resumed her maiden name, and went ex-directory. Luke, obviously, knew that his father was a criminal, though Sue hid the details for as long as she could. But a subtle hate campaign was stirred up. A couple of months after the trial, articles about the paedophile ring and about Luke’s father in particular began to appear in the gutter press. They were relatively trivial, and certainly not actionable, but they were enough to revive an otherwise dead story. At the same time, a whispering campaign was started among Sue and Luke’s neighbours. Nobody ever found how it had originated. The message, passed around by word of mouth, was twofold: that Sue had assisted her husband in his crimes and had shopped him to save her own skin, and that both homosexuality and paedophilia were hereditary and therefore that Luke was an abhorrent and dangerous boy.
Where paedophilia is concerned, righteous indignation can reach unrighteous heights, and reason often goes out of the window. So here. The whispers were widely enough believed to make Sue and Luke’s life a misery, at home and school and work. They changed their name and moved to a different part of London. Exactly the same happened again. The stories in the press, not in themselves outside the law, were traced to a journalist writing under an pseudonym, who turned out to be the supposed member of the paedophile ring who had escaped. Sue was convinced that he was the culprit, acting out of revenge. But in the eyes of the law he had committed no crime. The whispers could not be traced back to him. There was no evidence to persuade the police, and her lawyer was unimaginative. Even the social services proved unhelpful and unsympathetic.
Luke was now ten. He understood better what the problem was, and suffered correspondingly worse from the jibes of his schoolmates and their parents. Up to this point in his story, it had been ‘Mum’ who did things, who took the decisions. She had been supporting and shielding him. But from this point on, as he told it, ‘Mum’ began to give way to ‘we’. He was supporting her too. They discussed their problems together now, they understood each other’s strengths and frailties. The decisions were joint. It was a partnership of two brave and loving people.
At this stage Sue gave up her job for a home-based one as a literary publisher’s reader. She took Luke out of school and taught him at home herself (and a damn good job she’d done, I felt). They lived a discreet and reclusive life, going out little except for Luke’s music, and for three years things remained relatively quiet.
Then, only three months ago, it had all started again, this time with graffiti daubed on the house and bricks thrown through the windows. They had upped anchor and left London for good. Leafy suburbia in the provinces was new and, they hoped, safer territory. As had long been planned, Luke was about to go to Yarborough where, they hoped, the more civilised culture would shield him from slander. They hoped. It was all they could do. Changes of name and address leave so many traces in the bureaucracy of modern life — medical records, National Insurance, bank, utility companies — that an unscrupulous enquirer can quite easily track them down. Clayton was the fifth surname they’d borne in five years, but there was no guarantee it would protect them any better than the others. And their flaming hair marked them out. They could have dyed it, but here they were defiant. They would not be forced into the last indignity of physical disguise. They just continued to hope.
But they had to keep their heads down. An anonymous redhead in the choir of a village cathedral was one thing. Luke Clayton’s name plastered on city centre posters and on bills pushed through letterboxes was another.
“We can’t risk a public concert. I’m sorry, Joe. I’d love to, but I daren’t.” And he burst into tears.
I put my other arm round him in a proper hug. Nobody could misinterpret it as sexual. I did feel a thrill, but it was of love, not desire, and my own eyes leaked. He needed the peace, the reassurance, of the familiar. And I felt that tribute should be paid to Sue for her noble part in the story. So, just as if I were soothing an unhappy toddler, I sang, very softly, the melody line of this morning’s anthem. Stabat mater dolorosa … ‘The mother stood mournful, weeping beside the cross as her son suffered. A sword pierced her sorrowful soul as it groaned and grieved. How sad and stricken was that blessed mother for her only child.’
It did the trick. His sobs subsided, and he sat in my arms hugging me back. I looked round to see Sue, wet in the eyes, nodding at me in appreciation.
“Sorry about that,” said Luke shortly, in a small voice. “Better now. I’m going to bed. Thanks, Joe. You’ll help me get to sleep.”
Lord, was I perverted in seeing innuendo even in that?
He got up and gave Sue a long cuddle. He offered his hand to Dad, who pushed it aside and hugged him hard instead. He came to me and planted a firm kiss on my lips.
“I didn’t think it would be about love tonight,” he said, so softly that the others could not hear. “But it was, really, wasn’t it? And I love you.”
And he was gone, leaving me in the new-found knowledge that my needle did point to ‘Luke.’ Surely it did. Surely I loved him too.
We looked at each other wordlessly, Dad and Sue and I, in the silence of admiration for a stalwart and courageous young soul.
“Sue,” I said eventually, needing reassurance on one point. “His father didn’t … abuse Luke too, did he?”
“Thank God, no. His … tastes didn’t run to boys as young as Luke was then. But I visited him in prison last year with my lawyer — there was a question over the divorce settlement — and I showed him a current photo of Luke. The lust which it brought to his eyes …
“Well, Joe, you now know the worst. I’ve put it all in Colin’s hands, in case he can suggest any way out.”
“We’ll have a damned good try,” said Dad. “It’ll mean a lot of inquiries, to find some evidence to pin on this blighter. It’ll have to be compelling before the police will take any interest. But if it’s suggestive enough, we could try for an injunction to prevent him from writing about … all that, and from coming anywhere near here. There’s a hell of a lot of work to do, but I’m not unhopeful. Sue’s coming to the office with me first thing tomorrow, Joe, so we can get the story down in detail and set the ball rolling.”
“And if there’s any time left, I’ve got to trawl the shops for curtain materials for the whole house. Colin’s offered me a lift back too, so don’t expect us till about six. You’ll be by yourselves the whole day. You’ll have plenty to talk about. Joe …” she tailed off, and picked up again.
“Joe, I have to say this. Thank God you’re here for Luke. He took to you at first sight, you know that? And remember I told you last night not to feel obliged to spend time with him? I was in duty bound to say that. But in my heart I was hoping you would. He hasn’t got any friends at all, not real friends. Obviously none here. It’s the penalty of the damned lifestyle that’s been forced on us. OK, I hope Yarborough will look after that, but new friends’ll be his own age, and live any old where. He needs a male in his life, a male here, preferably a male who’s older than him, but not too old. I know it. He knows it. And he thinks he’s found one. That’s you. But there’s a problem.
“Joe, we only met yesterday, but I like what I see of you, a great deal. Until yesterday Luke was very apprehensive about going to Yarborough. Not surprisingly. But he’s suddenly full of confidence. That’s your doing. And Colin tells me you’re trustworthy, and of course I accept that. But I still know very little else about you — there hasn’t been time. Look, Joe, I’ve got to be blunt. Luke may ask you for … for more than friendship, and that makes me uneasy.”
She was struggling to put tactful wrappings round delicate matters, and I had to help out. It was not easy for me, either.
“Sue, I’m with you. Entirely. He’s almost asked me for that already.” Her eyebrows rose. “Yes, he’s said that he loves me. More than once. Last time was just now, as he went to bed. So yes, I know that he’s gay. But there’s been no chance to find out exactly what he means by love. Look, he’s got to speak for himself. But let me put my cards on the table and be absolutely honest. Two things.
“First, I’m gay too. I’ve only found that out very recently. And yes, I think I’ve fallen for Luke as well. How it’ll work out, I’ve no idea. If it really is two-way love, real love, how far can it go? I’m pretty sure Luke wants to bring sex into the equation. I admit I’m tempted, but I’m hesitant. He’s so young. We’re going to talk about this tomorrow — we both want to — so long as you’re happy that we do. It’ll be no more than talk, I can promise you that. I wouldn’t take it further until we all know — all of us — exactly where we stand, which may take time.”
“Thank you, Joe. That’s very clear and frank, and I suppose I’m relieved that you know about Luke’s orientation already. Let me be frank too. I like to think my ideas are quite modern. So yes, I can’t object to you both exploring the ground in the way you’ve said. But I do have two qualms. Or do I mean words of advice? Maybe a bit of each.
“My head tells me that gay relationships can be just as valid as straight ones. Therefore, in my head, I’ve nothing whatever against gays of the right sort, and you sound to be the right sort. But I’ve everything against gays of the wrong sort, like paedophiles. They’ve loomed so large in our life that their shadow still hangs over us. In my case, my heart contradicts my head, and it makes me see filth where maybe none exists. I can’t help seeing a paedophile behind every tree. So I’m desperately worried for Luke. More than ever since he told me he was gay. He’s heard enough at second hand of lust without a smidgen of love. He must never experience it at first hand. Can I trust you on that?”
“You can indeed. I don’t like the idea of casual or experimental sex either. It’s emphatically not my scene.”
“Good. The other qualm is his age. As you say, he is so young. If he were seventeen like you, and if everything else were right, it wouldn’t really be a qualm at all. Oh, he’s frighteningly intelligent, I know. If you’re discussing serious matters, he thinks as clearly as an adult — clearer than most adults — and it’s totally wrong to talk down to him. He gets mad if he thinks you’re treating him as a kid and not trusting him. Rightly so, because he is so responsible and mature.
“But yet, but yet. Sometimes he can be childlike. Thank goodness, I suppose one should say. But he’s insecure, and he’s perfected two sorts of self-protection. He doesn’t like hurting you, so sometimes he says what he thinks you want to hear, which can hurt much worse than if he were honest. And when it suits him, he reminds you that he is only thirteen and has no experience. Of course that’s literally true, but it’s his easy way out, and it can be utterly frustrating. So be warned.”
“You make it sound like walking a tightrope.”
“It is. But being male and nearer his age, maybe you’ll find it easier than I do. He’s a genius at word-play, for instance. I can’t give him the playfulness he needs there — it’s been beaten out of me. But he says you’re the perfect sparring partner. What with that, and your common interests, and your responsibility, you’re good for him as a friend, whatever else may happen. I don’t need convincing on that.
“What’s at issue is his happiness and well-being. All my instincts say he’s too young for a sexual relationship. My mind’s not totally closed, but I’ll take a lot of persuading. So if you do both end up in love, real love, well, let’s talk it over. Till then, let’s not cross bridges before we come to them. Joe, you’re not within my jurisdiction, if you see what I mean. But Luke most definitely is. I have the right to forbid, or to allow. Agreed?”
“Agreed. And entirely understood.”
I turned to Dad. “Dad. Sue and I have both put our cards on the table. But I’m still within your jurisdiction. What’s your line about forbidding or allowing me?”
“I’m going to do neither. You may not be of legal age, not for another — what? — seven months, but you’re plenty mature and responsible enough to make your own decisions, and I trust you to make the right ones. I’m not easy either about you going the whole hog. But since you agree to abide by Sue’s verdict, I won’t stick my oar in. If Sue were to allow it to Luke, how could I forbid it to you?”
“Thanks, Colin,” said Sue. “Joe, you’ve calmed my fears quite a bit. I see what Colin means, about you being mature and trustworthy and responsible. I see why you’ve got to where you have in school. I think I see why Luke’s captivated with you. Colin, you told me that I’d brought up a wonderful son. So have you, you know.”
“Thanks, Sue. I do know, very well. Right. Does that tie things up for now, then? Because it’s been a stressful day for all of us. Home, wonderful son!”
Sue and I exchanged a hug. So did Sue and Dad. So, back at home, did Dad and I. The whole evening had demanded hugs.
“Joe, I’m proud of you. Sleep well!”
“You too, Dad. Thanks. Night!”
Luke saw me to sleep again, and this time my dreams, if any, were quiet.
Luke saw me out of sleep too. The next thing I was aware of was a stinging slap on the bum — I must have been sleeping on my side — and flipped protestingly onto my back. That was instinctive but unwise, because I never wear PJs, and in this heat I was covered by nothing but a sheet.
My tormentor was wearing only a short pair of shorts, and his hair was wild again.
“Wake up, sluggard! It’s nine o’clock and it’s a glorious day. Mum and your dad have already gone, and he gave me permission to raise the dead. So up, you sloth, up! Oh, hmmmm, you are up, I see. Already. Or was it me who raised the dead? Hmmmm.”
I blushed, and he saw it.
“Sorry, Joe. But mountains are difficult things to miss. Specially high ones. Alps on Alps arise. Well, hmmmm, Himalayas in your case. OK, I’ll tactfully disappear if you promise to get down quick. Not that down. Downstairs down. I’ll make your coffee. You brush your teeth. Have a pee, if you can in that state. And a shit if you have to. That’s all you’re allowed. Skip the shower. And” — he felt my face — “yes, you can skip the shave. Hurry!”
Having my face stroked did nothing to reduce the height of the Himalayas, but by applying some force I peed, and crapped, and did my teeth, and splashed some water on my face, and dressed just like him. I’m in love, I thought wuzzily. I’m such a novice that I’ve no idea how to play this game. So the only tactic is to play it slowly. The mountain finally lost interest.
Downstairs, Luke was waiting with my coffee and dragged me onto the lawn, where he’d set the scene with two of our adjustable sun-beds and a bottle of sun-tan lotion.
“We’re going to have a nice lazy day, talking and … talking. Come on, Joe, drink your coffee — you’re still zomboid!”
I obeyed, and felt the caffeine kick in. “That looks better,” he said, surveying my face. “And it looks like you slept better than the night before, too.”
“Yes, I did. Looks like you did too.”
“Yup. Last night reduced the pressure. Let out stuff that had been bottled up. So I slept well.”
I looked at him dubiously. “That another of your famous double meanings, you squirt?”
“What d’you … Oh, shit!” He was surprised and amused. “Missed that one. Heehee! No, for once it wasn’t.” Then his face fell. “Joe, I can’t. Not yet. I know I’m … backward for my age. I do have, um, dry orgasms. But I can’t squirt.”
“Don’t worry, Luke. It’ll — ”
“Don’t say it! That’s too dire, even for you!”
“OK.” I smiled. “But, you know, I can’t help hoping it’ll wait for a while.”
“Why on earth? The sooner the better.”
“Yes, I understand that. But I was thinking of your voice. That’s the tragedy for boys with good voices. It’s not till quite late that they get enough control and sensitivity to do justice to the music or the words. They may be at their peak for just a few months before — crack — the voice breaks, and it’s all over.”
“Yes, I see what you mean. But I’d rather have the other. Anyway, I think it’ll be some time yet. I haven’t even got any hairs yet. Well, maybe there’s one.”
Remembering the embarrassments of this phase, though I had been younger than him, I thought it best to steer the subject away.
“The sun’s getting hot. I’m going to put some lotion on,” and I picked up the bottle. But he swung the subject back again.
“Put it on me, yes. Then I’ll do you.”
I knew exactly what would happen if we did, and was sure that he knew too. It seemed the time to lay down some ground-rules, but sugaring the pill in a palatable coating.
“Luke, listen. Do you know anything about geology?”
“What’s that got to do with it?” He leant over to look at me. “No, not much.”
“Well, I do. I did it for GCSE, and you’re in for a lecture. You were talking about mountains just now. One of the ways real mountains are formed is when the plates of the earth’s crust bump into each other and get pushed up. A process called orogenesis. The period it happens is called an orogeny — the Himalayas, for example, were formed in an older orogeny, the Alps in a younger. Areas where it happens are called orogenous zones.” I emphasised the first letter, and he giggled. “Right, you can see what’s coming. There are various ways that we get erections. One of them’s our sensitive areas. Erogenous zones. Rather similar, in a way. Activity there generates our mountains. Get the point? No touching or feeling, please.”
He almost pouted. “Why not? I’ve seen yours already. And look.”
He moved his arm, which had been in the way, to reveal an unmistakable mountain in his shorts. Which made my own shorts grow one too. As, inevitably, he saw.
“So it’s too late, Joe. It’s like that psalm at evensong yesterday. ‘The mountains skipped like rams and the little hills like young sheep.’ Putting on lotion won’t make them any bigger.”
I could not help laughing. I had lost that round, and knew it. “God, you’re a randy imp. All right. But nothing more than lotion. No stripping off. No touching round there. You’re trying to tempt me, and I refuse to be tempted. I know you’re a flirt — I’ve already discovered that — and I go along with it, usually. It’s fun. But we’ve got important things on the agenda — much too important for that. You’re normally so clear in your thinking, but right now your head’s being ruled by your willy.”
He saw I was serious, and for a moment almost sulked. “Oh, all right. You do me, then.”
So I did him. It was a young body, emphatically not fat, but with no real muscle definition yet. The sort of body I remembered from my prep school days. As I rubbed the lotion on, he was rolling words round his tongue, almost purring them. He reminded me of a marmalade cat being stroked.
“Orogeny. Orogenesis. Orogenous. Orogenital. Hey, Joe, is there a word ‘orogenital’? If there isn’t there ought to be. It ought to mean, well, hmmmm.”
I worked it out and chuckled. “Haven’t heard it. But that doesn’t signify. Look it up when we go indoors. Right, you’re done.”
Then he anointed me. I am modestly proud of my body: not muscle-bound, but in reasonably athletic trim. I am not shaggy, but I had hair in the appropriate places. It seemed to fascinate him. He lingered on my thighs, on the trail that led from my navel to my shorts, on my armpits, on the brave little wisps that were beginning to sprout round my nipples, and on the rather soft and patchy stubble he’d forbidden me to shave. He sensed my vague disquiet.
“Sorry, Joe. I’m just … interested. I’ve never seen a grown-up close-to like this. All I’ve seen is porn pictures, but that’s not the same. You can’t touch them.”
A reasonable explanation, simple and rather forlorn, which somehow moved me.
“Don’t worry, Luke. So long as we know where we stand.” He giggled at that. “You’ve looked at porn a lot, have you?”
“Yes. D’you think that’s bad?”
“Not necessarily, so long as you don’t get carried away. Were you?”
“No, I don’t think so. It was more like … research, I suppose. Look, Joe, may I tell you about me? About this … part of me? I want you to know.”
“Course. Go ahead.”
“Well, I knew what my father had done, of course, and I understood the brutality of it. But I didn’t understand what was behind it. Why people made such a song and dance about sex. Mum tried to explain, but it didn’t really mean anything. Not till a year or so ago, when I discovered, you know, jerking off. I began to understand then. About the same time, Mum saw my father in prison, and that evening she was crying her heart out. I asked her why, and in the end she said that she’d shown him a picture of me, and he’d drooled over it. She said how glad she was I’d been too young for him to … want me, before he was caught.
“Well, that set me wondering. I knew about straight sex, more or less, but I didn’t know exactly what gays did, and why some of them wanted boys. So I searched on the web. Porn sites first. They showed me what gays did. The how. Then I read stories. They told me more about the why, though none of them really explained it. I tried straight stuff too, but it didn’t appeal to me. I mean, I didn’t identify with it. I did identify with the gay stuff. You know … Joe, you know when you jerk off you get, um, images in your mind?”
I nodded. I did know, belatedly.
“Well, I was seeing images of boys, not girls. Not boys my own age, but older. So I knew I was gay.”
“Did that worry you?”
“Yes. No. Yes. Look, if you’re gay you’re gay. It’s built into you. You can’t help it. So it’s no use worrying. I worked that out. I can’t push my gayness away — it’s always in the front of my mind. That’s why I flirt with you, Joe. So I’m half happy with it.
“But I’m half worried too. When I told Mum I was gay, she was horrified. She knew she couldn’t forbid it, or persuade me out of it. But she’s got this thing about gays, that they’re all paedophiles. Well, I’m sure she’s wrong there, but her worry rubs off on me. Nobody knows if gayness is hereditary, do they? What if I’ve inherited mine and turn into a paedophile? And because I’m gay, I’m more likely to be abused. She’d never forgive herself if that happened. I know it’s not my fault, but it all makes me feel dirty. Flirty and dirty at the same time.” He was almost in tears.
Not easy to offer reassurance. “Luke, you shouldn’t worry about gayness. Only about the misuse of gayness. It’s the same with straightness. Most people are straight. That’s built-in too — has to be, for the species to survive. But you get straight paedophiles who’re only interested in little girls, just as you get gay ones like your father who’re only interested in little boys. Both sorts misuse their sexuality. I can’t see you misusing yours that way.”
“Christ no. Never. I detest my father.” He might have been the marmalade cat again, back arched this time, fur bristling, spitting the words out. “I detest the thought of what he did. Joe, I feel as badly about those boys he abused as if he’d abused me. Anyway it’s only older boys who … turn me on. Like you.”
“There you are, then. You haven’t inherited that sort of thing from him. You’re just an ordinary gay. Well, I’m not sure you’re ordinary. Say, a decent gay.”
He laughed shortly. “Well, thanks. But being ordinary was what mattered most. That’s where the stories helped so much. They showed me I wasn’t a freak. And sometimes, not very often, they showed the difference between sex and proper love. One story in particular. It put me on to an ancient Greek book. Plato.”
“Yes, I know. The Symposium. About the two halves meeting up again and becoming a whole.”
“Then you do know it! But …”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I was slow in the uptake.”
“Well, I knew that I wanted sex. I think I must be highly-sexed. I’m always getting a hard-on. But I knew from that story that I wanted love too. But I had nobody to love. OK, there was Mum, but that’s different. I wanted a boy to love. But I hardly knew any — I didn’t go to school. I knew boys in the choir and orchestra, of course. Sort of. But not well, and none of them, er, appealed. I didn’t think of them when I jerked off. I thought of my favourite porn pictures. But Joe, the last two nights I’ve thought of you.” He was deadly serious. “Because the moment we met, I wanted to love you, and you to love me. I wanted to have sex with you. I saw that you were my other half.”
“How could you tell, Luke?”
“I’m not sure. You were friendly, you were funny, you cared, you helped, you didn’t talk down to me, even though it turned out you were almost God at school. You just … clicked. And you haven’t un-clicked. We’ve so much in common — Yarborough, music, what makes us laugh. I know I’m bright. So are you. You understand me, somehow. We’re on the same wavelength. And you’re good-looking, and you’re gay too … oh my God, Joe — you are gay, aren’t you?”
I had to smile. “Yes, Luke, I’m gay.”
“Have you ever had … ?”
“How do you know you’re gay, then?”
“Exactly the same way as you.”
“How long have you known?”
I looked at my watch. “About thirty-six hours.”
He instantly saw what that meant, and was flabbergasted. “Then it was me … But I don’t understand. Were you straight before I appeared?”
“No. I was in limbo. Look. People develop, physically and mentally, at very different rates. Physically, you’re a late developer. I was about average. Mentally — in discovering your sexuality — you’re an early developer. I was very late indeed. Luke, I’ve known plenty of people, boys and girls, but none of them’s ever appealed to me that way. I wasn’t gay, I wasn’t straight, I wasn’t anything. I’d looked at porn, a bit, out of sheer curiosity, and read a few of those stories, but they didn’t do anything for me. I couldn’t for the life of me see why people got so excited about it all. I never thought sexually about anyone, boys or girls.”
“You mean you didn’t even jerk off?”
“Oh yes. Regularly. But just for the physical pleasure.”
“Well, when you did, who did you picture?”
“Nobody. No pictures in my mind. Only music.”
“I’d play it in my head. Anything wild or stirring, ending in a climax. Bolero. Radetzky March. Praetorius’ Terpsichore. That sort of thing.”
“Blimey. And that was until … the day before yesterday, then?”
“That’s right. And the last two nights I’ve jerked off to an image of …”
“Me!” He was jubilant. “Joe, I knew we were two halves. A whole. That proves it.”
“No, Luke, it doesn’t, not by itself. It shows we’re both gay, and that we’re sexually attracted to each other. But it doesn’t prove anything about love, does it?”
“Well, I know I love you … Oh, I see what you mean. So you don’t love me?”
His expression had slumped from the jubilant to the woebegone and, diffident though I was, I had to reassure him.
“I didn’t say that. If you’d asked me yesterday if I loved you, I’d have said ‘Maybe. Even probably.’ For all the same reasons you gave for loving me. But last night made me sure.”
“What you said about your life. How you said it. How you hugged me. How you kissed me. After that, I was sure. Yes, I do love you, Luke.”
The smile was back all over his face. “Oh God, Joe, you had me worried then. So what’s stopping us …!” He was getting off his sun-bed and moving towards me.
It was so natural and obvious to progress to a hug and a kiss, if nothing else, that it went against all my instincts to refuse him. But I had to.
“No, Luke, we shouldn’t. We can’t, not yet.”
He stopped as if I had slapped him in the face. Which, in a sense, I had. “Why ever not? Don’t you want to?”
“Yes, I do, desperately. Oh God, Luke, I want to hug you, I want to kiss you. But I daren’t even touch you. Because one thing will lead to another. It’s bound to. If we do kiss, we’ll end up doing Lord knows what. And I promised not to.”
“You talked to Mum about it? When?”
“After you’d gone to bed last night. Or more accurately she talked to me.”
“What did she say?”
“Hang on. Didn’t she say anything to you before she left this morning?”
“Not much. Only something like ‘Have a good day with Joe. But don’t go too far. You’ve plenty of time.’ Oh, I see … I think. I thought she just meant relax in the garden.”
“I wish she’d put it more clearly. You see, she knows we love each other, and she’s no objection to us talking about love and sex. Exploring the ground. But nothing beyond that. She’s got two problems, Luke. Because she knows how foul paedophilia is, her heart tells her that all gay sex is foul, though her head tells her it isn’t. And then you’re so young. If you were older, she wouldn’t mind, or not so much. But it wouldn’t be legal till you were sixteen. I’m not very bothered about that. But I wouldn’t be happy about us doing anything without her blessing. Without full consent. It would make me feel, well, frankly, like a paedophile.”
“But that’s totally different. My father raped those boys. He used force. You wouldn’t. You’d do it in love. And I want it. No. Hold on.” He paused, gazing at me as he thought it out. “Well, all that’s true. But I do see what you mean. If you had sex with me you’d feel like a paedophile, because one consent was missing. Which would make me feel the victim. Specially as I’ve got this dirty feeling already.”
“That’s just it, Luke. I know you want it. You’d consent. But we need consent all round. We’ve got to play this slowly. I’m not going into it surreptitiously. Honesty almost always pays. Your mum has to know. And unless she consents, we’d lose all her trust, and maybe you’d lose her love too. We can’t risk that, can we?”
The thought appalled him. “No, no way. That would be the end of the world. My world.”
“But it’s not the end of the world for us right now. Thing is, your mum said that if we’d chewed it over between ourselves and really were in love, then come and talk to her. Very likely she’d still say no. Look, if a boy like me asked a hundred mothers if I could have sex with their thirteen-year-old son, ninety nine would say no, straight off, wouldn’t they? Of course she’s dubious. But at least her mind’s not closed. She said so. She might say yes. We’ve just got to try to persuade her.”
“Right! Then we must work out tactics.”
His optimism was back, and he seemed to relish the challenge. But he was also thoughtful about it.
“It’s OK, Joe. I do understand now. I’m sorry. My impulses were running away with me. We’ve got to play it gently for Mum. We can’t possibly let her down. She’s been my lifeline, you know. She’s taught me so much — far more than I’d ever have learnt at school. Of course I love her. And need her love. But what about your dad? Was he in on this talk?”
“Yes. But no problem there. He won’t forbid me. He’s leaving it to me, knowing that I won’t go against your mum’s verdict. He’s been marvellously supportive all the way through. We’re lucky in our parents, you know.”
“Yes, we are. Except my father, of course. Joe, you haven’t told me about your mum.”
“Not much to tell. She died when I was four. Breast cancer. Dad brought me up single-handedly.”
“Oh, Joe.” He started to hold out his hand to me, but remembered. “Did you miss her terribly?”
“I suppose so. But I don’t really remember her, or how I felt when she died.”
“Poor old Joe.”
He brooded, and evidently decided it was time for a light interlude in our heavy talk
“Hey — that’s a thought! With your voice, you’d be a good Paul Robeson. Sing me Poor old Joe.”
I felt in need of a break too, so I summoned up my best basso profondo. I knew the first line would be good for a giggle, and it got it.
“Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay.”
But, my mind not being as twisted as Luke’s, I did not see the next pitfall until I was well and truly in it.
“I hear their gentle voices calling ‘Poor old Joe.’ I’m coming, I’m coming, for my head is …”
Luke was creasing himself with laughter. “Gotcha! No sex allowed, so poor old Joe’s not coming today. Well, not until tonight.” He turned serious again. I was getting used to his sudden mood swings. “Joe, no sex, OK, not yet anyway. But that doesn’t stop us jerking off, does it? By ourselves?”
“No, course not.”
“Well, when I picture you, I’d like to picture all of you. See what I mean? I know I saw your, um, willy yesterday morning, but not properly. I won’t touch, promise. I’m not trying to seduce you.”
None the less he was enticing, insinuating, like a cat rubbing itself against one’s legs. My doubts returned, and I hesitated. He nodded understandingly and glanced round, but we were overlooked only by the windows of my empty house.
“I need a pee,” he announced. “You don’t have to watch.”
His tactic was clearly ‘I show you mine and you show me yours.’ Needless to say, I did watch. He stood about six feet away, half-turned towards me, and dropped his shorts to his ankles. He folded his arms and let fly without holding his willy, which was semi-hard. The little hill was skipping like a young sheep. Definitely not Himalayan, but he was young. To be charitable, call it Alpine by comparison, let’s say the Matterhorn. When he was done, he bent down to hoist his shorts, turning his back on me for the sole purpose, apparently, of letting me see into his crack. I felt I had to say something, but another bit of Kubla Khan was all that sprang to mind.
“The deep romantic chasm!”
Fatuous, and it played into his hands again.
“Hmmmm. What do we know about that chasm? Yes. ‘With ceaseless turmoil seething.’ Sounds like the trots. Gross. ‘As though this earth in fast thick pants were breathing.’ OK, it was wearing winter underwear. ‘A mighty fountain momently was forced.’ A sudden squirt in a deep romantic chasm? Hmmmm. No comment.”
A learned and ingenious youth, this, as well as filthy-minded and giggly, and his trademark hum was in full play today.
He looked at me expectantly. It was my turn for exposure, and I hesitated again. But I knew that a complete and authentic image of Luke would be with me that night. Fair was fair. So I did exactly the same as him, under his observant eye. As the stream died down, I felt my willy stirring and, still reluctant to display my Himalayan peak, I turned away to pull up my shorts, unintentionally showing him what he’d shown me. All my attempts at evasion with this gadfly were doomed to misfire.
“Ha! ‘A savage place, as hairy and enchanted …’ Hmmmm!” He giggled again.
He seemed to have a fixation on both body hair and willies, possibly because he was well off in neither department.
“That reminds me …” we said simultaneously. “Snap!”
“After you,” I said.
“Well, you were just like that limerick, about the old man of Australia. Know it? Who painted his bum like a dahlia. A penny a smell was all very well, but tuppence a look was a failure. Haha. What were you going to say?”
“A joke it reminded me of. Twelve trainee monks were being given their final test for spiritual purity. They were lined up in the nude, each with a little bell tied to his willy, while a beautiful girl danced naked. Well, she performed in front of the first monk, and nothing happened. Nor with the second. Nor with any of them until the last. And to his embarrassment his bell rang so loudly it fell off. So he stepped forward and bent down to pick it up. And all the eleven other bells rang.”
Luke hooted with laughter. “Hoooo, that was good. Thinking about bells ringing, isn’t it time for some lunch? I had breakfast about three hours before you, you sluggard. You could come round to our place, but we haven’t stocked up the fridge yet.”
“Oh no, eat here. We’ve plenty. Same sort of thing as Saturday do you?”
We collected the needful and took it into the garden, including a can of Boddy’s apiece. Luke’s, which I justified as part of his gradual education, caused him to utter a belch which could surely be heard at the end of the street. We ended up with melon, and somnolently flicked the pips at each other. It was very hot. Luke lay back and closed his eyes and I studied him.
This slip of a lad, bundle of mental energy, sensitive and creative thinker, impish humourist, fount of bawdy innuendo, exquisite singer, stalwart spirit, well read, well spoken, precocious yet with a youngster’s zest, deeply wronged yet deeply trusting, restrained yet impulsive, innocently yet rampantly inquisitive about sex. And knowledgeable about it — far more so than me. If and when it came to it, he’d be leading me, not me him. And I loved him. I yearned to touch him, feel him, hold him, kiss him, and plenty beyond. But I could not. Call me a wimp for not letting my red-blooded instincts rip. But I knew that if I succumbed I could wreck the whole show. Frustrated but resigned, all I could do was study him.
His eyes opened, and he grinned. “What are you staring at? My flashing eyes and floating hair again?”
“Not your eyes. They were shut.”
“My hair, then. It is floating today. Always is when I’ve just washed it.”
“Reminds me of the rabbit.”
“Who washed his thing and couldn’t do a hare with it.”
He chortled. “But what were you staring at?”
“Partly what’s underneath that hair. I was thinking what a complex character you are. You are, you know.”
“Yes. I know. Lots of sides to me, like a polyhedron. But most of them aren’t usually visible. I hide them even from Mum. OK, I had to tell her I was gay. That was too important to hide. But otherwise I show her only the comfortable bits she wants to see. I make them up sometimes, if they don’t exist. It saves her fretting.”
“She knows you do that. She said so.”
“Yes, but she doesn’t know how much. She hasn’t a clue how much.”
Sue clearly gave him a safe environment to experiment in, to learn the skills of survival.
“She thinks it’s the child in you. The immature. The learner.”
He considered. “Yes. It probably is. Or was. But all my sides are open to you, Joe, all the real ones. I don’t have to pretend with you. Not on serious things — that would be immature. I’ve learnt that much. I want you to see the whole Luke, the real Luke. Do you like the real Luke?”
“I don’t like him, I love him. That’s the other thing I was thinking. How much I want to hug you and kiss you, and all the rest. And it hurts that I can’t.”
“Same here. But Joe. About hurting. If we’re open, and we don’t pretend, we run the risk of hurting each other. Not deliberately, just by being honest. D’you want us to be honest?”
“Yes. Definitely yes. Trying to please, trying not to hurt, is one thing. But if it means pretending, being less than honest, then I don’t want any of it. Doesn’t seem to be a proper part of love.”
“No, it doesn’t. Joe, I read a sentence in a story on the net which struck a real chord. “Love comes from knowledge, truth and trust.”
I thought about it. “That’s good. That’s spot-on, as I see it. Our motto?”
“Luke, suppose, just suppose, your mum agrees to everything we want. How do you see things developing? How do we organise our lives?”
“Much like we do at the moment, I’d guess. But together, often, instead of separate. Singing, playing, fooling, talking, reading, loving. Anything else you like doing.”
“But that could only be in the holidays. At school, we’ll have to do our own thing. OK, we’ll see each other and talk. But not that much. It’s not possible. And we wouldn’t be able to have sex. That’s right out. Anyone caught doing that is out on his ear. And in my position I couldn’t contemplate it.”
Luke smiled. “I like it when you’re all serious and responsible. No, really. You wouldn’t be honest if you weren’t. But you obey the rules at school, yet you’re ready to break the law of the land. What’s the difference?”
“Oh, at school I’m police chief and judge in one, and have to keep my nose clean. Part of my job’s to enforce and uphold the law. Outside school, it’s not my job, I don’t have the same obligation to keep my nose clean. I’m just one of umpteen million citizens who exercise their judgement over how far to sidestep minor laws. If I were caught driving at 70 on a 60 mph road, I’d be upset, but only at being caught, so long as I hadn’t been endangering anyone else. If I’d been doing 120 and liable to injure other road users, it’d be a different matter. This law seems rather comparable. In our case, we’d not be harming anyone, even ourselves.”
“You should become a lawyer like your dad.”
“Well, quite likely I will. I’m hoping to read law at university. What about you? What might you end up doing?”
“Dunno. It all depends. Joe, I know I’m bright, and I want to make use of it. But this bloody business has kept me penned up. I’ve no way of shining, except at home with Mum. My voice isn’t bad, nor’s my oboe, but they’re not public things. In the orchestra or the choir you’re part of a team. I’ve had no ambitions, because I’ve had no confidence. And no opportunity.”
“Hold on, Luke. No confidence? You seem to be brimming with that.”
He smiled at me. “Now, yes, maybe. Till you turned up, no.”
“Joe, almost the moment I saw you, I was in awe of you.”
“Awe?” I was almost angry. “I don’t live on a pedestal, for God’s sake. I’m not awesome. I hope. Or awe-inspiring. Awful, maybe. Why awe?”
“Not that sort of awe, Joe. Not the sort that makes you close your eyes in holy dread. Good awe. Respect. With love. I don’t put you on a pedestal, do I? Haven’t you noticed? No, I knock you off. Hmmmm, well.
“Look, Joe. My self-esteem wasn’t very high. Apart from Mum, I was alone. I was scared of the big world out there. I was a nobody, who looked like getting nowhere. Then along you came, the big man at school. Captain of this and that. You shouldn’t have taken any notice of me. But you did. You were friendly and caring. You went out of your way to calm my fears about Yarborough. You gave me love. Cross fingers, you’ll give me … fulfilment. You’ve encouraged me, repackaged me, brought me out of my shell. Given me confidence, straight off. You didn’t even know you were doing it. But you were.
“So now I’m suddenly champing at the bit. I want to storm the world. Do something good, I don’t know what. Music, maybe — anything. That’s why I was so sad I had to turn down your idea of a concert. Because we couldn’t risk the publicity. An opportunity lost.”
“If that’s the case, Luke, you must storm the world. Other opportunities will crop up at Yarborough.”
“Yes. Yes, they will. Have you read Philip Pullman, Joe? His Dark Materials?” I nodded. “Remember Lyra says, ‘If you must and you can, there’s no excuse’?”
“I’d forgotten that. How true. How very true. So don’t let that foul business hold you back.”
“I’ll try not to, but it’s such a … a dampener. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?”
We’d been intense for long enough. I pretended to peer at his shorts. “Don’t think so, but it’s difficult to tell.”
“What …? Oh, Joe, I can’t help it if it’s … Oh, JOE! You’re a total arsehole!”
He flung the melon skins and empty beer cans at my head and collapsed into peals of laughter.
“Molehill!” he finally spluttered, his wide mouth in a wide grin. “You wait. One day …”
Sobering, we both pondered.
“D’you know,” I said at last, “I think we’ve already covered a lot of what we need to say to your mum.”
We chewed it over, added in a few more thoughts, put it in order, and reckoned we were as prepared as we could be.
“Luke, you’re turning red — not your hair, you twit.” He had that faintly translucent skin which seems to go with red hair, and it was looking overdone. “Suggest we go in. Would you like me,” I asked in my best mock-seductive voice, “to show you my CDs?”
On the way in I remembered something. “Hey, we wanted to look up a word, didn’t we? What was it again?”
“Oh yes. Orogenital.”
I found Dad’s big dictionary and he leafed through it.
“Yes! It does exist! ‘Stimulating the genitals with the mouth.’ Hmmmm!”
He’d worked out, from scratch, that it should exist, and what it ought to mean. At the age of thirteen. Good grief.
We repaired to my room, where Luke had barely been before. No seduction here either. He prowled around like an inquisitive cat, looking at my books, browsing through my CDs. He tooted inexpertly on my trumpet and strummed delicately on my clavichord. Finding that he did not know Purcell’s secular music and was curious about it, I put some on for him.
“Luke, this is a love song that fits you. ‘If music be the food of love’.”
“Oh, right. From Twelfth Night.”
“Actually no. Same first line, but these words are by a friend of Purcell’s. I ought to sing it myself, because I love you, but it’s for tenor.”
If music be the food of love,
Sing on till I am filled with joy;
For then my listening soul you move
With pleasures that can never cloy.
Your eyes, your mien, your tongue declare
That you are music everywhere.
“That’s lovely. And I liked the grace notes. Wish you could sing it. Or I could.”
“Well, let’s find some Purcell we can sing.”
I got out the score of Come, ye sons of art, the ode for the birthday of Queen Mary. We tried out the last three numbers, for solo treble, solo bass, and duo, while I accompanied on the clavichord. That was great fun, but there was nothing else in the ode for our voices, so I played the CD of it from the beginning to introduce him to the countertenors sounding the trumpet there. We had not got far when the phone rang.
It was Sue, speaking from Dad’s office, wanting Luke. I put him on and returned to the score. A few minutes later he came flying in, taut with an emotion I could not identify.
He unceremoniously switched the countertenors off in mid-bar, replaced the Sons of art with the Weinachtshistorie, searched for the track he wanted, and hit Play.
Once again Emma Kirkby was the angel, once again Luke Clayton was singing alongside her. This time he was not interested in Stehe auf. Instead, he put heavy emphasis on sie sind gestorben.
‘Arise, Joseph, and take the young child, and his mother, and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.’
I gaped at him, trying to make sense of it. “You don’t mean …?”
“Yes, I do mean! Colin’s sleuths have discovered that that journalist is dead. Killed in a car crash a few weeks back. He’s fucking dead! Oops, sorry, pardon my French.”
He giggled wildly, and giggling burst into tears. Again I hugged him, soothingly rather than passionately.
“Oh God, Joe,” he gulped. “He’s dead. The relief. You can’t imagine.”
He sniffled himself back to relative calm.
“And, Joe, the other part of Stehe auf applies too. Joe, will you take the young child and his mother to Israel? Now? I’ll explain as we go. Mum wants to go too. She says, drive her car — the insurance is OK — and pick her up at your dad’s office. Please.”
I would have done anything for him, and steeling myself to drive an unfamiliar car was peanuts. While Luke rushed next door for more clothes and the car keys, I put on shoes and a shirt and some light slacks. As I drove cautiously into town, Luke was pensive and frowning, and I had to prod him to explain why he needed to go to Stow so urgently.
“Well, last Sunday I was thinking about all … that stuff, which I knew I had to tell you about. Well, at evensong I prayed that … that he would die. Was that odd, seeing I don’t really believe?”
“No, not odd. Understandable. That’s one of the things churches are for. To help people with their problems. Any people, not just believers.”
“Yes, I suppose. And was it wrong to pray for someone to die?”
“I don’t know, Luke, I don’t know. But it was understandable, again. And remember, he didn’t die as a result of your prayer. He was dead already.”
“Yes. That’s true.” He brightened up. “Anyway, he is dead. My prayer was answered, in a sort of way. And I want to give thanks for it, in a sort of way, at Stow. It has to be at Stow. And so does Mum. Gimme your mobile and I’ll phone her to be outside the office.”
I was beyond words, but passed my mobile over, and he told her to be waiting on the pavement ready for a smart pick-up.
“Thanks, Joe, yet again,” she said as she scrambled in and Luke joined her in the back. “The moment I heard, I felt in my bones that the nastinesses were over. I don’t know what the penalty is in the next life for rejoicing at the death of one’s enemies, but whatever it is I’ll happily put up with it.”
Her tone, just like Luke’s when he first heard the news, carried a touch of hysteria.
“But that’s remarkably quick work on somebody’s part,” I commented.
“As soon as I’d given Colin the basic details, he got onto his private enquiry people, and within — what? — five hours they’d come back with this. End of story, we hope.”
She and Luke conferred lengthily in low voices.
“When we’re at Stow, Joe,” she finally said, “we’d like just to sit quietly and think. I’m afraid it’ll be very boring for you.”
“Far from it. I’ll sit with you, if I may, and think too. Or better still” — a few CDs in the tray had given me an idea, and I glanced at Luke in the mirror — “shall I play you some gentle organ music? To combine the peaceful and the comfortably familiar?”
“You never said you played.”
“You never asked. I don’t, much. But I’ll do my best, if you’d like me to.”
“Yes, please. We’d like that. Something Bach. Quiet and contemplative.”
At the minster, I had a word with old Bob the senior verger, whom I knew well. He allowed them to sit in the choir stalls and even put up a rope barrier to prevent other visitors from disturbing their solitude. He lent me the organ loft key and I played something Bach, quiet and contemplative, as well as my limited skills allowed. I kept an eye on them in the organ mirror. At first they were sitting side by side and hand in hand, upright, looking at each other a trifle uncertainly. Then their hand-hold changed into a hug and they were crying gently. After half an hour they both looked up at me, and I tied Bach up in neat bow and went down to them.
Both evidently had a lump in the throat, and did not speak. We walked out abreast, down between the hippo’s legs and out through the north door, holding Luke’s hands from either side. We headed for the car and I opened it, but it seemed premature to climb straight in. Beside it was a bench looking across the graveyard to the flying buttresses of the chapter house. I suggested we sit there, and finding myself between them took their hands in mine. The sun was westering. Apart from the occasional hum of a distant car and the cawing of rooks in the venerable trees, the peace was profound. Luke and Sue were visibly unwinding and, though they could hardly have planned it, simultaneously leaned in and kissed me on the cheek with a whispered “Thank you, Joe.”
“Well,” I said. “I just hope this proves to be the release you think it is.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Sue. “The end of a ghastly chapter. We’re both sure. For this relief much thanks.”
She smiled at me, knowing that I would remember our first meeting, and understand. I did, now.
“Yes. You were sick at heart, then. You aren’t any more.”
“That’s right. So much so, we’ve already decided to throw away our alias and go back to our proper name. My maiden name. This’ll surprise you, Joe. It’s Atkinson.”
It moved me, in a gentle way. Another link to this extraordinary lad.
“Well, great. Welcome back to the clan.”
I looked at them in turn, and had a flash of insight. “You’re sure now, but on the way here you were only hoping.”
They smiled at each other. “That’s right, Joe,” said Luke. “We sort of asked the question, back there in the choir. Not to God. We just asked … generally. And the answer came back ‘Yes, it’s over.’ To both of us. It’s strange, because neither of us really believes. Perhaps it was, well, more like consulting the Delphic oracle.”
I looked at Luke and understood exactly what he meant. He too saw that I understood. For well over two millennia this had been a holy place. Pagan shrines at first — Iron Age, Roman, Saxon — and then, nearly fourteen hundred years ago, the earliest church. The nave of the present minster had been there for nine centuries, the nearest oak for perhaps five. In resolving hard problems, Stow, with its aura of peace and its ancient certainties, had a far greater authority than any suburban living room or garden. I suddenly realised that, when the time should come to talk to Sue about Luke and myself, I would much rather do it here than at home.
At that point, whether by accident or design, Sue raised the subject herself.
“And how have your discussions gone today?”
“Mum.” Luke was contained enough on the surface, but I could tell that he was quivering inside. “We’ve talked for a long time. Explored the ground. No more, it’s all right. We haven’t even touched each other, beyond slapping on suntan lotion. And we know — know — that we love each other, in the best possible way. And we’d like to take it to the logical conclusion.”
“I see. So you told Luke about my qualms, Joe, and that my mind isn’t closed?” I nodded. “Well, Luke’s happiness and well-being are what matter most. See if you can persuade me that they won’t be compromised, that they’ll actually be furthered. And see if you can dispel my qualms. My first question has to be, how can you justify offering sex to a much younger boy?”
“That’s a difficult one. I think it all depends. On the people involved. On their maturity, especially the younger one. In many cases, I agree, it would be quite wrong between a seventeen- and a thirteen-year-old. When either or both of them are too green, too wet behind the ears. But in this case I think it is justifiable. Luke isn’t green or wet behind the ears.” (“Nor are you, Joe,” he interrupted.) “Physical age doesn’t seem very relevant. Intellectually, Luke can run rings round me. In mental age he’s my equal, and more. Let’s call it equal, for the sake of argument. I think you’d agree on that. Sue, last night you described me as mature and trustworthy and responsible. And you used exactly the same words of Luke. So, in that sense, he isn’t younger at all. This is love between, in effect, two seventeen-year-olds.
“Another thing. I’m not leading a young boy astray, because his sexuality is already established. You know that too. And I’m not coercing a young boy, because he’s entirely willing. In fact he started it. He’s in need of love, of a different kind from your motherly love. I hope he’ll explain that himself.”
“But I also warned you of his other side.”
“Yes, you did. His childish side. It’s all right, we’ve chewed this over, and it won’t embarrass him. OK, we haven’t known each other long, but we’ve talked a lot and I’ve met none of that at all. OK, there’s his endless jokes, but I don’t count them — they’re fun, and if they’re childish, I’m childish too. Yes, he was a child, but he isn’t any more. There’s been no tightrope for me to walk. He hasn’t come up with any of the other tricks you mentioned. Because …” and I left it to Luke to finish.
“Because it’s too important for that, Mum. I know I used to trade on my age, as an easy way out of hard thinking. I know I used to tell you what I thought you wanted to hear, because I needed you to see me in the best light, and I didn’t want you to fret over me. They were my defences. But I’ve grown up these last few days, and don’t need them any more. They’re not honest ones. Joe’s got to see me as I really am, warts and all. You can’t have proper love without truth, knowledge, and trust. We’ve still got a long way to go in knowing each other, but we’ve started by being truthful and trusting, and we’re going to stay that way. You can’t have truth and trust if you pretend. Or lie.
“Mum, I’ve been on the defensive all these years. I’ve been sitting back and taking the knocks. So’ve you. It was forced on us. But now I need to go out and attack. Achieve something. Find fulfilment of my very own. I’ve started already. It’s Joe who’s set me going. And I need him beside me — close beside me — if I’m going to get anywhere.
“Mum, I read once about someone who was ‘longing for acceptance, for love, for peace.’ That’s me too. I need those things. Oh, I know you’ve always accepted me and loved me, as my mother. But you’re the only person who ever has, and neither of us has had much peace. And now you know I’m gay. So I think you do understand that I need a man to accept me and love me too. A man to reassure me and strengthen me. To give me peace. Joe’s doing all of those. You’ve said you’re glad he’s here to give me friendship. Maybe you’ll say that he can love me without sex. Be a close friend, if you like. But it’s too late. ‘Friendship is love, without his wings’ — remember that Byron we read? And now I know what it means. Joe’s more than a friend. He loves me already, and his love has wings.”
“And you can’t clip the wings off love,” I added. “Another thing Byron said: ‘friendship may, and often does, grow into love, but love never subsides into friendship’.”
There was a long silence. “I’m still not sure,” said Sue at last. “Don’t get me wrong. I think you may have persuaded me, between you, that Luke’s not too young. And Joe, if it has to be anyone, it has to be you. But my other qualm was about this paedophilia business. Am I too idealistic in wanting to see love as pure and clean? But how can it be, when Luke’s overshadowed by what his father did? When I see you, Joe, as a potential abuser?”
Evidently time for my final fling, as we’d rehearsed it but somewhat updated. “Sue, you’ve both been through a hell which I’ve only heard about at second hand. We’re all agreed on one thing, that paedophilia’s a perversion, of gayness and of sexuality. But our love has nothing to do with that. We all know that’s true, with our heads. Yet our hearts are another matter. We’re all haunted, poisoned, by thoughts of paedophilia. You’re terrified because you see it everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist. Don’t think I’m blaming you — it’s the result of your experiences. But you’re the one it’s overshadowed most. Your preoccupation’s rubbed off on Luke. So he feels dirty. He fears he’s inherited it, and been contaminated. And it’s rubbed off on me. So I’m afraid of you seeing me as a paedophile, or making me see myself as one.
“Sue, this afternoon you’ve already banished your fears of persecution. There’s no longer any substance in them. You’re certain of that now. Banish your fears of paedophilia too, because there’s no substance in them either, in any of them. They belong to the past, not the future. Let’s all of us put all those fears behind us. They need to be exorcised. We need to be purified of them. Once they’re out of the way, you’ll see that the love I’m offering Luke is as pure and clean as you could wish. So’s the love he’s offering me. An offering in righteousness.”
I have no idea what put that phrase in my head. We had not rehearsed it. But Luke picked it up instantly.
“The CD’s in the car, Joe. Let’s sing to it.”
He leant in, put Messiah in the player, and found the chorus on track 7. Standing side by side between the car and the bench, we sang along to it from memory, treble and bass, leaving the altos and tenors to fend for themselves. What with all the repetitions, about two and a half minutes.
‘And he shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.’
Luke switched off before the next track began.
“Mum,” he said gently, “you don’t go along with the trimmings, any more than we do. But the message is, ‘Wash the old dirt away, and let us give ourselves to each other. There’s no perversion here.’ We go along with that. Will you?”
Sue put her head in her hands and did not answer. Luke squatted down and held her knees.
“Mum, we asked just now if it was all over. The persecution. We got an answer to that. You ask now if it’s OK, about Joe and me. See if you get an answer. Doesn’t have to be in the choir. Here will do. Just ask.”
Half a minute went by before Sue looked up with a puzzled frown. It seemed she had her answer.
“Sing that again,” she said.
Luke stood up and set track 7, and we obeyed. Neither of us had sung with such intensity before, nor would again. As the final ‘righteousness’ died away in harmony, Sue’s face broke slowly into a smile. She took our hands.
“Oh, my dears. It’s been a memorable day already. Now it’s more memorable still. You have my blessing. My full blessing.”
She hugged and kissed us, and we stood looking at each other in blank and silent disbelief.
“I thought you’d be straight into each other’s arms. Silly of me. Of course you’d rather be alone for that.”
Messiah was still playing unchecked. Track 8 had briefly prophesied the birth of Jesus, and the strings were introducing track 9. Dazed though Luke and I were, the score was engraved on our subconscious, and it dawned on both of us that the contralto was about to give instructions of an interesting kind.
“So let’s go home. You tell the good news to Colin, and get up to it there,” Sue continued helpfully.
‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain,’ sang the contralto, rather more specifically.
Our faces began to crumple. Howls of maniacal laughter would be misunderstood. We had to disguise them as paroxysms of joy — no great deceit — and disguise them fast. We proved Sue wrong. We did go into a clinch, there and then, body tight against body. Luke could follow my progress as it pressed against his belly. At the appropriate moments, in time with the contralto, he sang the appropriate phrases quietly into my ear.
“Lift it up, be not afraid …”
“Arise, shine …”
“And the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.”
Sue, who’d been watching benignly if uncomprehendingly, reached in to switch off. That gave us the chance to break apart and lean on the back of the bench, bending over to conceal our embarrassments. Mine in particular, for my trousers were thin and tight.
“Ready, then? I think I’d better drive, Joe. You don’t look up to it.”
Little did she know. I was up to it, up to maximum extent. But she’d definitely better. While she went round to the driver’s side, I managed to sidle into the back without publicising my altitude. Luke followed, with less difficulty. After all, he was only a Matterhorn to my Everest, of a younger orogeny.