The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness.
The suburban train from Blackheath was teeming, nose to armpit, with sweaty rush-hour humanity. The Northern Line from London Bridge was as sluggish and maddening as ever. The main-line train at King’s Cross was naturally at the furthest platform and, when Justin panted on board with only seconds to spare, it was already packed. But he spotted an empty place beside the aisle.
“Anyone sitting here?” he asked the occupant of the window seat.
“No. It’s free.”
“Thanks.” As Justin heaved his bag up to the rack, the guard’s whistle blew; and as he sat down the train began to move.
He mopped his brow. “Whew! Close shave!” he muttered to the world at large, feeling that it deserved an apology.
“I’ve discovered,” observed his neighbour by the window, “that when you’ve plenty of time, trains leave late. When you haven’t, they leave early.”
It was a boy of much his own age, classically beautiful, with blond hair far longer than Hambledon would ever allow, and an enviable tan. Justin found himself staring, for longer than was polite.
But the boy seemed not to mind. “At least we don’t have that problem where I live,” he went on, smiling gently. “There aren’t any trains.”
“No trains?” Justin was as cautious as this boy was outgoing. “Where’s that?”
“Oh.” Justin felt obliged to keep the conversation going. “That explains your tan, then. But you’re obviously not Cypriot.”
“Oh no. I’m English, though I haven’t lived here much. What with Dad’s job, we get shunted any old where. Belize, where I was born. Then Botswana. Then the Gambia. Then Bangladesh. Now Cyprus, these last two years. Not surprising I’ve got a tan. But I stick out like a sore thumb at school.” He patted his flaxen hair, grinning. “Nearly all the students are Cypriot. Greek Cypriot.”
“So you speak Greek?” Justin was envious, languages not being his strong point.
“After a fashion.” The boy had raised his voice over the rumble of the train in the tunnel outside King’s Cross, and dropped it as they emerged. “But I go to the English School in Nicosia, where the teaching’s in English, and we take English GCSEs and A-levels. Where are you at school?”
“Hambledon!” The boy seemed impressed. “Yes … in Wiltshire.”
“So where do you live?”
“London. Well, Blackheath.”
“But you don’t go to Wiltshire from King’s Cross. Anyway, your term doesn’t start yet, does it?”
“Well …” Justin was still cautious.
“Sorry, I’m being nosey.”
Justin relented. “No problem. Nothing secret. I’m off to Beverley to stay with a friend.”
“Ah, Beverley! There’s that lovely Minster there. You’ve been in it?”
“Oh yes, several times. Whenever I stay there. And I’m sure I’ll be in it again before the week’s out. My friend Robert’s, well, churchy.”
“Does that mean you aren’t?”
“Not religious. But I do like churches. Their atmosphere. Their architecture. Especially cathedrals.”
“Same here!” The boy lit up with enthusiasm. “And especially English ones — the best in the world, I think, except perhaps for France. I almost collect cathedrals. When I can, that is, which isn’t very often.” He chuckled. “My Dad and I play a silly little game whenever we’re back here together. We travel around a lot, and like to see how many cathedrals we can spot as we pass. A sort of ‘I Spy,’ almost. How many do you think you can see from this train? As far as Newcastle, say.”
Justin switched into geographical mode — geography was one of his strong points — and consulted a mental map.
“Well … not St Paul’s. Not St Albans. Not Ely. But Peterborough, yes. Um … not Southwell. Not Lincoln. Not Sheffield or Wakefield. York, obviously. I doubt you’d see Ripon. Durham, of course. And Newcastle. That makes” — he looked at his fingers — “four.”
His neighbour was grinning. “Six, actually.”
“Huh? What did I miss out?”
“You can see Ely. And Lincoln. If it’s clear enough, which it should be today. And if you know exactly where to look. I’ll show you.”
“Thanks,” said Justin, liking the lad. His caution was in retreat and he began to relax, stretching his feet out as far as a miserly railway company allowed him to, and folding down the arm-rest between the two seats. But instead of stopping at the horizontal it drooped down to the cushion. He fiddled, but it was evidently broken.
“Damn thing won’t stay up,” he observed.
“Never mind. My problem’s usually the reverse.”
Justin was startled into outright laughter, a rarity with him. It was the sort of tantalising remark that the Slut might have made, but it was not made in a seductively Sluttish way. Far from it. It was an endearing flash of wry humour from a lively mind.
“So’s mine,” he agreed, liking the lad yet more, and beginning to more than like.
“Er …” he added, hoping he was not being blatantly come-hitherish himself. “My name’s Justin. Justin Newby.”
“Justin!” The lad sounded surprised. “And I’m Gavin Wyatt.”
They shook hands with the solemn formality unique to the English.
“Where are you heading for, then?” Justin asked.
“Durham, to stay with my grandma. I’m not religious either, but I’ll be making a bee-line for the cathedral. It’s top of my league table. Well, alongside Salisbury. They’re so utterly different, I’m never sure which I like better.”
Justin had never been to Durham, much though he would like to. His own collection of cathedrals suffered from two constraints. His family never travelled for the sake of travelling, let alone played silly little games on trains. And do-it-yourself exploration was limited by the meagre ration of time allowed for gadding off on his own, and by his meagre ration of pocket money. He had visited a few cathedrals around London, Robert had taken him to York and Lincoln, and school trips had taken him to Bath and Winchester and Salisbury. At least they had Salisbury in common.
“Have you read Golding’s The Spire?” he asked. “That’s set in Salisbury.”
“God, yes. What a book! Talk about religious obsessions. The dean building the spire to the greater glory of God. Or was it really to the greater glory of the dean?”
“Well, it’s certainly about the struggle in the dean’s mind,” Justin said carefully. This was territory painfully familiar to him, although he did not say so. “Is it about his struggle to find the truth in himself?”
Salisbury kept them happy for a while … “The best thing about it is that it’s all of a period, not a mish-mash” … “Did you notice how the crossing piers are bent under the weight of the spire?” … “And the choir stalls! Original! I sat in one and wondered how many other bums had warmed it over the last seven hundred years.”
That and suchlike saw them to beyond Huntingdon. Then Gavin started gazing out of the window at the flat Fenland landscape.
“Not far now to where we can see Ely. We have to look back diagonally, immediately after a big woodland. There’s an interesting post in that wood, by the way. It doesn’t look very exciting, but the point is that in this fen the soil’s entirely peat. Back in the 1850s, when they started draining it, somebody drove in a long iron post until it was completely buried. But when you drain peat, it shrinks, and by now it’s shrunk so much that the post stands twelve feet high.”
Justin was impressed. “You’re pretty well genned up for someone who doesn’t live here!”
“Well, that’s Dad’s doing,” said Gavin modestly. “Showing me things like that. I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I babble away and bore the pants off you because they interest me.”
Justin’s reserve had long since been banished. “My pants interest you?” he asked dryly.
Gavin blushed under his tan, but he laughed with delight.
“And they interest me too,” said Justin. “Not my pants. Things like posts in peat. And cathedrals you can hardly see. I’m a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, I suppose.”
“Another Autolycus, then. But why do we snap them up? For lust of knowing what should not be known?”
“Well …” Justin hesitated, disturbed by any mention of lust but enjoying this literary sparring with an equal partner. “Well, it is a golden road, isn’t it?”
Gavin’s eyebrows rose appreciatively. “There aren’t many who’d pick that one up! But what sort of things should not be known?”
“Oh, I reckon everything’s fair game. Like Ulysses.
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
OK, that’s pitching it a bit high. A lot too high. For me, anyway. But most things are worth knowing, sooner or later.”
“You’re fond of poetry, then?” asked Gavin.
Justin looked away. “It’s my lifeline,” he muttered self-consciously. “One of my lifelines. It sometimes makes me cry.”
Gavin was saved from finding a reply by a long expanse of silver birch rushing past.
“Ah, this is the wood.” He peered out. “Ummm, I can’t see the post. The trees must have grown. But if you want to see Ely, lean over to the window now, and look back.”
Justin half got up and leaned far over, supporting himself with one hand on the back of the seat in front, the other on Gavin’s shoulder, until his face was close to the glass. It was also close against Gavin’s face, cheek to cheek.
The wood came to an abrupt end. “There!” said Gavin, pointing. Misty on the far horizon a tiny tower stood out against the sky. But Justin was no longer very interested in distant cathedrals. There was something much more exciting, much closer. He was breathing hard.
A hedge blocked the view and he hauled himself back into his seat, trying to make things more comfortable without being too obvious. He had the impression that Gavin was doing the same.
“Wow!” he said, for something had to be said. “Thanks.”
Gavin might be wondering, he realised, exactly what he was grateful for, but it was too late to clarify. And as the train slowed down for the first stop both boys were silent. From the bridge over the river they noted the squat bulk of Peterborough cathedral without a single word of comment. But when the scrum of passengers leaving and boarding had subsided, Justin reopened the conversation at a safer level, even though the seats on the other side of the aisle were now empty.
“How often do you come over, then?”
“Usually only once a year. Our terms are much the same as yours, and there’s not much time at Christmas or Easter. But I’m normally over for most of the summer. Dad tries to come too for some of the time, but he doesn’t get much leave. When he’s not here, like now — he left a fortnight ago — I stay in London, or do the rounds of relatives.”
Justin instinctively pulled a face.
“What’s wrong with that?” asked Gavin. “They’re fun, most of them. Don’t you get on with yours?”
“Worse luck, no. They’re pains in the arse. I steer clear of visits to relatives. Or from relatives. And steer clear of home too, for that matter. As much as I can, which isn’t much.”
Gavin was clearly shocked, but tactful. “Isn’t it, um, a happy place, then?”
“Happy enough for the rest of them, maybe. But I’m a square peg in a round hole. I don’t fit. I’m … not accepted.”
Gavin’s raised eyebrows invited further confidences, of a kind which had never before surfaced after only an hour’s acquaintance.
“My mother’s married to a vicar,” Justin said slowly and softly, leaning over to avoid any possibility of being overheard, “who’s an old bugger. Condescending at best, sadistic at worst. And Mum’s pretty starchy too. And their kids — my half-brother and half-sister — are spoilt brats. The message I get is that I’m there as an object of Christian charity. And that’s a … well, a dampening thing to be. You see, Mum brought me into the marriage with her. I’m just an embarrassing encumbrance.”
“Embarrassing? You mean …”
“Yes, I’m a bastard. The result of some early indiscretion of hers. I must be. Newby’s her maiden name. Though looking at her, you wouldn’t think she was capable of indiscretions.”
“And she doesn’t, um, give you much support?”
“Well, fair dos, she tries to accept me. But she’s obviously ashamed of her indiscretion. And so she’s ashamed of me. And she refuses to say a word about … how I happened. So it was pretty clearly sordid. I reckon love foreswore me in my mother’s womb.”
Gavin was full of sympathy. “I can’t imagine what it must be like, not to have love in the family. Proper love. So you don’t see your father?”
“I’ve never set eyes on him. I don’t know where he lives. I don’t even know his name, except that it’s not Newby. He’s still alive, that’s all I do know, because he funds me. But she won’t tell me any more. She says that he’ll get in touch with me one day and put me in the picture. When I’m old enough. But I don’t know when that means. Or even if she knows when. I’m not even sure I’m looking forward to it. He might be ghastly. But then” — he shrugged — “he might be great. Like your Dad obviously is. Your Mum too, I’d guess.”
Gavin’s face clouded. “I haven’t got a Mum. She died soon after I was born. No brothers or sisters either — I’m the only one. Dad brought me up single-handed. Well, apart from nannies when I was a titch — he couldn’t look after me full-time, with his job. And that’s why I go to school in Nicosia, or wherever we are. Rather than in England, like most diplomats’ kids do.”
Oh, so Dad was a diplomat, was he? Justin was envious.
“It’s strange, you know.” Gavin smiled shyly. “We might have met long ago. If I had gone to school in England I’d have gone to Hambledon. Dad was there too. And I could have gone there if I’d wanted. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to leave him. We’re too close to each other. He’s all I’ve got, I’m all he’s got.” He sighed. “Yes, he is great. It sounds a bit daft, but he’s my best friend. The boys at school are OK, most of them, but all they’re interested in is girls, and football, and the latest rock. None of it my scene.”
So … Neither of them was interested in girls. But the train roared into a long tunnel and shut down conversation.
Justin picked it up as they emerged. “What is your scene, then?”
“Oh, what they call, um, intellectual things. Why’s one so … sheepish about using that word? Anyway, I’m not a sporty type. But books, yes. Classical music, yes. Architecture, when I can get it. Talking to interesting people, like … Dad …”
He hadn’t been about to say “like you,” had he?
“… or just lying in the sun and … thinking. What about you?”
Justin found himself clenching his hands tight between his knees.
“The same. Almost exactly the same. Books, music, architecture. But I haven’t got anyone interesting to talk to. Except at school, where there’s Robert. So maybe I spend more time thinking than you do.”
Gavin had twisted round to face him, his back to the window, his head tilted to one side.
“Yes. I can see that. It shows. And you don’t just think, do you? You brood. You’re a … melancholy type. Because your life’s not so hot at home, I’d guess. And because you don’t know where you’ve come from, and haven’t got anyone to identify with. I can understand that. If I didn’t have Dad, I’m sure I’d brood too. I’m not trying to be sexist — I’venothing against Mums, though I’ve never known one. Or against women in general — I’m sure girls need them as, um, role models. But I reckon boys need a man in their life. A good man. Someone … what’s up?”
Justin’s elbows were now on his knees and his face in his hands.
“Hang on. Give me a mo,” he said thickly.
He breathed hard, in and out, slowly, several times, before lifting his head and drying his eyes. Fifteen-year-olds are ashamed of crying in public, but mercifully there were no other witnesses. And strangely he was not ashamed of crying in front of Gavin. Strangely? No, it seemed perfectly natural, now. He looked straight back at him.
“Sorry. You said something that I’ve thought for years, but nobody’s ever said to me before. Not even Robert. Nobody’s understood. Till you.”
Gavin smiled tentatively. “Then good. Maybe I understand better than most people how important Dads are. And so I can see how much you need yours. Or at least need to know about him. If he turned out to be, well, not up to scratch, I suppose a really good friend could help to fill the gap. Who is your best friend? This Robert you’re staying with?”
“What’s he like?”
“Oh, he’s a pompous old ass. No, that’s totally unfair. He’s solemn. Solid. Comfortable. And comforting. I can tell him anything, and he’s never surprised. Never shocked. And he’s always got advice. He’s religious, as I said, though he doesn’t ram it down your throat at all. He knows about my home life and the, um, shortage of love. I think he consciously tries to fill the gap — there’s certainly something fatherly about him. But he doesn’t really understand what it’s like to be adrift, not knowing who you are. His life is too cosy. His Dad and Mum are great, but they’re cosy too. He’s a very good friend, and I’d be sunk without him. I really would. But we’re too different to be … well … soul-mates.”
“But you’d like a soul-mate?”
“God, yes. But I doubt if I’ll ever find one. I … oh hell … how do I describe it? I’m lost, and I don’t know the way. And … you know how some people are bung-full of certainties? I’m not. I can’t see that I’ve anything to offer. And who’d want a … an empty shell? ”
Gavin was about to reply, but the train was slowing down and passengers assembling in the aisle were potential eavesdroppers. Justin raised a warning hand, changed mental gear, and looked out of the window for a safer subject. As the train drew up at the platform his eye lit on the station name-board proclaiming Grantham.
“Did you know our dearly beloved prime minister was born here?”
Gavin caught on, and played the game. “No!” he cried in mock horror.
“And was brought up here. Her father ran a shop.”
“Then I don’t like Grantham. Let me out. I’m going to throw up. Actually I do need a pee. Oh, but I can’t yet. Gentlemen will please refrain,” he chanted under his breath, “from urinating while the train is standing in the station.”
He sat thinking. When the train did start, Justin let him out, with a request. “Have one for me too, please. I’m bursting.”
“But you didn’t,” he complained when Gavin came back.
“Have a pee for me.”
“No. Sorry about that. There are some things I can’t do for you, however much I want to.”
“OK. I’ll have to do it myself, then.”
“Yes. You will.”
Justin went to the loo, unzipped and let rip, thinking. Events were shaping in a wholly unexpected way, stimulating, comforting, encouraging. He was letting them carry him along. They ought to be wholly welcome. They were welcome. But at Doncaster he and Gavin would go their separate ways and never again would their paths cross. If only, if only …
There was a mirror on the wall above the pan, and for minutes he stood there, swaying with the motion of the train, staring at his sombre reflection, long after his bladder was empty … If only his soul wasn’t empty too. Too empty to offer to anyone. Too empty for Gavin to want. He stared resentfully at his empty self.
You bloody failure. You bloody wimp. Wimp? Yes, that’s the trouble, isn’t it? You’re afraid. Afraid of rejection. Because if you were rejected, those few lights of yours would be pinched out and you would descend into that total and eternal darkness. But are you going to sit on the bloody fence for ever? Isn’t it worth offering your hollow self on the off-chance that someone might see more in it than you do? If you don’t take the plunge, no one else is going to take it for you …
He staggered backwards. That was more or less what Gavin had said, wasn’t it? Was that what he meant? A tacit, a tactful, encouragement to do things for himself, things far more momentous than pissing, things that only he could do? It took two people to take the sort of step that loomed ahead. ‘There are some things I can’t do for you,’ Gavin had said, ‘however much I want to.’ Surely that meant that he saw enough in Justin to want to take that step. It wasn’t an off-chance after all. It was a not unreasonable bet. It was up to Justin to reciprocate.
Those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us.
He zipped up, flushed, rinsed his hands, and returned to his seat.
“Gavin. What you said when I went to the loo. You meant more than … it seemed, didn’t you?”
Gavin nodded soberly. “Yes. I did. Look, can I be frank?”
“Er … yes.” Justin was fearful again.
“Aren’t you in a prison of your own making? Gazing wistfully out through the bars at the stars beyond? But the door’s been open all the time. You’ve only to walk out. It’s obvious that you’re afraid to, and I can understand why. But what you see in yourself isn’t necessarily what other people see, you know. Brood on that.”
Justin looked into the blue eyes and looked away again, and Gavin let him brood in peace. Life’s full of lessons, an insistent voice whispered in Justin’s head. Learn this one. Give it a go. Not too fast — no more visits to that waste of shame. But Gavin was not another Slut, and this was something far above lust and its snares. True, he yearned for Gavin’s body, but he yearned even more for Gavin’s soul. And what a soul! But don’t risk losing it, the voice said, by being impetuous. If you lose control again, you’ll not only lose Gavin, you’ll lose yourself. Take it carefully. This step might bring success beyond your wildest hopes. Or it might bring irredeemable failure.
All right. He made up his mind. So be it, either way.
What reinforcement we may gain from hope; if not, what resolution from despair.
He sat bolstering his courage, and they sped through Newark without stopping. Then Gavin became businesslike again.
“We’ll see Lincoln soon. It’s a lot nearer than Ely, and in sight for much longer. Look out at right angles this time.”
“So I can see it without getting a hard-on?” Having made up his mind, Justin could now dare to say that, and to grin as he said it.
Gavin grinned delightedly back. “Yes, if you’d rather not. But if you do lean across again, I won’t complain. Not that there’s much we can do about it on a train.”
But when Lincoln cathedral on its hill pricked the sky a dozen miles away, Justin did not lean across. He was still unwilling to run as fast as Gavin seemed ready to. Then back to his thoughts. Gavin did not interrupt them until the train pulled out of Retford, when he began to put them into words.
“You’re changing at Doncaster, are you? Not very far now, then. When are you going back to London?” His voice was hopeful.
“Tuesday. School starts on Wednesday.”
“Oh, shit. I’m going back on Monday, and flying out on Tuesday. I was going to ask if you could stay at our place for Monday night. We keep a little flat in London, in Albany, as a base for when we’re over here. I’ll be there by myself. But if it’s not on, it’s not on.”
“Well …” Justin’s heart was racing. “It could be on. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t cut short my stay with Robert by a day. If you’re sure it’s OK, I’d love to.”
Gavin’s face lit up. “Great! But would your Mum mind?”
“No reason why she should know. Every reason why she shouldn’t.”
“Oh.” Gavin seemed surprised that some people happily kept their parents in the dark. “Well, look.” He fished out an East Coast timetable. “I’ll be on the train that stops at Doncaster at, um, let’s see, 13:05. Can you catch that? I’ll try to keep a seat free, like this, and I’ll look out for you on the platform.”
So it was agreed. They swapped their hosts’ addresses and phone numbers in case they needed to get in touch.
“How old are you, Gavin?” Justin asked suddenly, apropos of nothing.
“Fifteen. And you?”
“Fifteen too. When’s your birthday?”
“Snap.” They grinned at each other.
But there was something still to be asked, and Justin did not know what he wanted the answer to be. He left it until the train was pulling into Doncaster, he was already on his feet, and his bag was down from the rack. Then he bent low so that nobody else could hear.
“Gavin. It’s pretty obvious we’re both gay. But … next Monday … are you expecting, um …?”
“Well, I’d be happy to. But we don’t have to, if we’re not both of us ready. Let’s wait and see how we feel … Till Monday, then. Give my love to Beverley. And Justin … thanks.”
“And thank you, Gavin. And thank God … that I didn’t miss this train.”
The train stopped. Sedately, almost ridiculously, not knowing quite how to deal with the situation, they shook hands a second time. Justin got off, stood with his back pressed hard against the dirty brick wall, and raised a hand in salutation as Gavin was borne away to Durham. It was several minutes before he wandered off, his soul singing, to find the connection to Beverley.
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.