Christmas Present

An Unexpected Present

The Saturday Before Christmas

by Nigel Gordon

nigelgordon1948@gmail.com

Brian kissed me as we said goodbye at departures. This is the eigth year that we have parted this way—three days before Christmas. He flies back to his family in their large houses on the verdant streets of Quogue.

That's right, houses. Apparently, his parents and his two siblings own six houses, all together. From what I gather we could put my two up two down in Tipton in the garage of any one of them. Not that I would want to.

I have only seen Brian's parents' house once, and that was only when we drove past it. We met with his parents at the Club. Yes, the 'C' was capitalized. One immediately got the impression from Brian's parents that there was not another club worth being a member of. I also got the impression that they considered it a bit of an imposition on the part of Brian to bring me along to the luncheon. As a result they did everything to keep as brief as possible.That was just after we had been together for two years. I am not sure how it happened, whether or not Brian had arranged it, but we actually had to be in New York at the same time, so he took me to meet his parents, saying he wanted me to see where he had come from. As far as his parents were concerned I was some lowly employee whom he had brought along so that I was not stuck alone in New York at the weekend. We were actually due to spend the weekend on a yacht (which was moored a few miles away) and owned by a college friend of Brian's,. By the time we were halfway through lunch I was wishing it had been moored a few hundred miles away and we’d kept that weekend appointment.

That had been eight years ago. Since then none of my trips to the Albany office had coincided with Brian having to be in the States. Even though I had suggested that we try to synchronise our trips so we could spend some time in the States, it never seemed possible. As a result, I have never spent any time over there. Much as I would love to see more of the States, I feel I need to be seeing it with someone. Except for me, there is no someone other than Brian.

Not that Brian and I have an exclusive relationship. From the start Brian insisted that we should have an open and free relationship. Though I have not really made any use of it. I know Brian has.

Do not get me wrong, I do not blame Brian for his sexual activities outside our relationship. He told me from the start he could not do exclusive relationships.

"David, I came to Europe to be free of respectable living," he said to me after a long night of fucking. "I like you. I like you a lot and would love to move in with you. However, there is no way I am going to be in an exclusive relationship. I've spent the better part of thirty years being respectable for my parents. Now I'm far enough away from them to be disgraceful without them knowing." With that he kissed me and suggested another round of sex. It was the Sunday of a bank holiday weekend and we had been out at a club till the early hours of the morning and not stopped fucking since we had got home. As a result I was not certain I could manage another round. So I thought about it for a moment or two, then decided I could. Unfortunately, by then Brian had fallen asleep.

I had met Brian when Dad had appointed his uncle's firm as our international sales representatives. The firm was on a retainer plus a sizeable commission. Within three months of our meeting, we were in a relationship together. Within six, we were living together.

Brian never tried to hide from me the fact that he was having sex outside of our relationship. In fact, he almost revelled in it. He would tell me with great detail about the encounters he had with young men picked up in the clubs of London, Berlin or Amsterdam. So far as I know, he never played away when he was on home territory.

I had no doubt that handsome as he was, Brian could easily pick up young men in any gay club or pub he went into. Although there were multiple establishments which had the customer base that would appeal to him in the surrounding area, he never seemed to go to them without me. It was as if he had a personal policy of not doing anything that might end up messy on home turf.

Although I accepted Brian's position I cannot in all honesty say that I liked it. At times it really got me down, as it meant I could not have the life I wanted. Maybe Brian had sensed this as his reports of his encounters seem to have eased off over the last couple of years. What I would have really liked was to settle down in an exclusive relationship with Brian, one where we could have lived for each other, one maybe where we might even look at building a family.

Not that it would happen. Brian had made it very clear from the start that marriage or a civil partnership were out of the question. For one thing it would mean his family might find out about the life he was living. Above all it was vital to Brian that his family never learned of his sexual orientation. For another, it would cramp his style of being able to play the field. As a result, I dropped Brian off at Birmingham Airport on the Sunday before Christmas, then left to prepare for a Christmas on my own. Just at it had been for the last eight years.

It is not that I did not have any family. I did: my brother Mike. Unfortunately, the relationship with him was somewhat strained. In fact, for all intents and purposes, it just did not exist. Mike was older than me by some five years. I always had the impression that he was a little jealous of me. I suppose when he was a five-year-old, it came as something of a shock to him when a baby arrived in the family and he was no longer the centre of attention. It also came as something of a bigger shock to him when, not that long after our mother's death, Dad died.

It was not so much Dad's death that shocked him, but Dad's will. He had left me control of all his shares in Anglo American Castings, or AAC as it is now generally referred to. Not that Mike was left out of the will. He was well provided for. In some ways he was better off than me. For a start he got the family house in Bromsgrove, the villa in Spain, and all the investments and holdings that were not part of AAC. In total it was something just in excess of three and a half million.

No doubt when Dad had originally made the will, that had been about the value of AAC. However, a lot can happen in eighteen years. During that time, what had been a small specialist casting company had morphed into the world's leading player in the field of exotic alloy processing. About ninety percent of the allied air forces fly planes which use components that we make, or are made under licence from us. There was hardly a launch vehicle in the world that did not use components manufactured by us in their engines. As Brian was happy to point out, without special alloys from AAC, half of the space industry would not exist. I think he had rather underestimated the percentage involved, actually.

Dad and his friend Dean had founded the company some thirty years ago. At the time Dad, having obtained his doctorate in metallurgy, had been teaching at the local college. Dean had come over from the States to do some research in metallurgy at the Technical University of Aston. How Dad and Dean met up I have no idea, but they soon became friends and started to work together on problems concerning the casting of exotic alloys. It was not long before the two of them had set up AAC, though it was not called that initially. The company provided a casting service to companies who needed small, high-precision castings made of exotic alloys. At that time most of their custom was parts for aero engines and Formula 1 racing cars.

A couple of years after the business had started, Dean returned to the States. Once there he set up a branch of the company in New York State. This led to the change of name to AAC. Things were arranged so that Dean ran a research and development operation in the States, together with a sales operation. Dad run the actual casting and processing operation over here in the UK, together with our own European-based sales operation. After a few years they decided that running two sales operations was too much hassle, so they contracted both out. Initially it had been Brian's uncle who owned the sales agency, but then Brian had taken over.

My brother Mike had never been interested in Dad's business. He was far more into Mum's field. She was a solicitor, her mother was a leading barrister and judge. Everybody had expected Mike to go into the law, so it was something of a surprise when he decided to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford. It was even more surprising when, upon graduating, he found himself a post with the British Broadcasting Corporation and soon was an anchor on their late-night politics programme.

It may have been a surprise, but one thing that has to be admitted—he was good at it. He now had his own independent production company which had quite a reputation for investigative journalism.

Conversely no one was surprised I studied material science at university, and then started to work for Dad. For as long as I could remember I had spent as much time as I could with Dad at the factory. Working at the plant was one thing I had dreamed about growing up. When I was sixteen, Dad actually allowed me to leave school and go to work for him on the condition that I did my A levels at evening class, which I did. After two years of evening classes, I realised that I really did need a degree, so I went back to FE college full-time to get my entrance qualifications, then on to university. Dad had insisted that I continue my studies and get a masters. Although I re-joined the company when I had finished my masters, I also did a doctorate part-time.

Doctor or not, Dad wanted me to learn the business from the ground up, which I did. By the time I ended up in the office next to Dad's, there was not a single job in the company that I could not do, and that included cleaning the toilets. This knowledge came in useful when Dad died, and I had to take over: the first thing that landed on my plate was an industrial dispute with the cleaning staff.

I had expected Dean to take over as CEO. In fact I wanted him to and had spent a good hour on a transatlantic call trying to persuade him. After I had given him all the arguments as to why he should take over as CEO, he gave me his counter-argument. "David, I'm two years older than your father was, and I have no intention of spending my last few years sitting in this office. I'll give you three more years to provide some continuity, but then I'm out. Jean has bought herself a nice little stud farm in Vermont, and there is a mother-in-law's cottage on the spread which is just waiting for me."

Jean is Dean's daughter, by his first marriage. Jean's mother died not long after Jenny's birth and Dean brought the girl up single handed. There had been a couple of trophy wives along the way, but neither of them was interested in being a stepmother, wicked or not, to the girl.

Of course, Dad dying was a total shock. He was not that much past sixty and as fit as a fiddle. In actual fact he was probably fitter than either Mike or me. He regularly ran in marathons to raise money for various charities. Mostly for cancer research. Cancer is what had killed Mum after a long fight.

He had actually run a marathon the Sunday before he died. That Sunday we had all gathered at the house in Bromsgrove to have a barbeque to celebrate what was his twenty-first marathon—a marathon he had finished in under three hours. Not bad for a man of his age. Two days later he had just finished his walk around the works and returned to his office for a cup of tea and a chat with the senior management. He did this every Tuesday, telling us what he had found wrong during his walk around the works and how we had to sort things out. He had greeted Mrs Baxter, his secretary, and then gone into his office. Mrs Baxter had called catering to bring up the tea trolley, then rung round the senior management to tell them to come to the office. That done, she picked up the urgent mail and took it through to Dad, only to find him slumped in his chair, dead.

The doctors told us it was an aneurism and assured us that there was nothing anybody could have done even if we had been there when it happened. Six days later we buried Dad and the solicitor informed Mike and me about the contents of the will. That was when things went pear shaped between us. To be honest, I was as surprised about the will as anyone else. Dad had never given me any indication as to what he had done. I had fully expected Dad to split the shares between Mike and me, but he did not. To make things worse, although I had control of the shares and any use of part of the income deriving from them, I did not own them. The shares were in a trust. As a result, there was no way I could undo what Dad had set up. I could not give half the shares to Mike as they were not mine to give.

Mike had not spoken to me since, which I thought was a bit unfair. Especially as it meant I had not seen my nephew, Luke, since Dad's funeral. Mike had made it abundantly clear that I was no longer welcome at the Bromsgrove house.

Thinking about Luke reminded me that I needed to sort out his Christmas present.  I was not sure what to get him. He would be twelve now. What do you get for a twelve-year-old? I had no idea what he was into. Actually, I did not know that much about him. If it had not been for Louise, Mike's wife, I would know nothing at all. She at least made sure I got a Christmas card, with a note in it saying what had gone on during the year. She also remembered my birthday, and let me know that Luke liked whatever I had sent him. At least I knew he was getting the presents.

In a way that was not surprising. Louise had been my friend before she had ever met Mike. Her little brother had been in the same year as me at school and we had a lot of classes together. This resulted in Paul, Louise's brother, and I becoming friends and spending a lot of time together. We both join the St John's Ambulance and qualified in First Aid. We were also in the Scouts together for a time. So quite often big sister Louise would be dropping Paul off at or collecting him from the Bromsgrove house. This inevitably led to her meeting Mike and, as they say, one thing led to another. In this case, it was Louise following Mike to Oxford University. Although Louise was a year behind Mike, that did not present too much of a barrier for them and they married the year Louise graduated.

Intent on finding a present for Luke, I pulled into one of the out-of-town shopping centres that surround the Black Country and wasted my time surveying the contents of a big toy warehouse. After half an hour of mindlessly looking at what I could only describe as rubbish, I decided that I would not inflict any of it on any twelve-year-old. So, I decided to try to find him something elsewhere and drove into Birmingham.

What possessed me to drive into city centre on the Saturday before Christmas I do not know. It must have been some sort of madness. After I had driven around for the better part of an hour trying to find a parking spot, I finally gave up, drove out of town a bit and parked up close to one of the tramway stops, then got a tram into the centre. I spent ages looking around, but nothing seemed to jump out at me as the perfect present for Luke.

Luke was the only person I was present hunting for. Brian and I had long ago agreed not to waste money on each other. Yes, we bought each other presents, but they were small and pretty predictable. I would give Brian a good single malt or a case of good wine. He would give me either an embroidered waistcoat or handmade silk tie. All a bit predictable, but then our lives together were predictable. Things were almost set in concrete. We always went to Amsterdam the first week in April. We would spend two days doing a couple of museums or galleries, then we would go to the Keukenhof to see the tulips. The following day we would go to some place in the Netherlands we had not visited before. Our final full day was always spent in Arnhem and Oosterbeck and then a visit to the war graves. Both Brian and I had family there.

In late July or early August we visited friends in Italy. They had a small guest house. It was supposed to have been their retirement plan, except the cost of renovating the place and maintaining it was so much that one of them always seemed to be off somewhere on some contract or another earning funds to pay for the work. They were both computer freelancers, and highly paid ones at that. Brian said he did not think he could live like that, with the uncertainty of where the next job was coming from. In that I had to agree with him. John and Mart seemed to thrive on it though. I sometimes think they started new projects just to have an excuse to go off for some job or other.

Late September would see both Brian and I traveling to somewhere warm, usually North Africa or one of the islands of the West African coast. Occasionally we would venture further afield. One year we went to Mexico, and last year it had been Thailand. This year we had been back in North Africa, spending a week touring Morocco. It was a tour which we had done before but still enjoyed.

Of course, Brian always flew back to the States for Thanksgiving. He would fly out on the Wednesday and return the following Monday, unless there was something he needed to do at the offices in Albany. Brian always visited his family twice a year, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

By the time I realised that I was getting nowhere finding a present for Luke, it was getting cold. It was the type of cold that is typically British, a damp cold that penetrates no matter how much you have wrapped up.

Popping into what seemed to be a trendy shop I ended up buying  a variety of clothing, after checking sizes with Louise, which the sales assistant assured me was suitable for a twelve-year-old. The moment I left the shop I decided I had probably made a mistake.

I got the tram back to where I had parked the car. The wind had picked up a bit over the afternoon and with darkness falling I really started feeling the cold during the short walk from the tram stop to my car. I was happy to get into the car and switch on the ceramic heater I have. It gives boost of heat before the car engine warms the water enough for the heater to work.

Ten minutes later, as I negotiated my way out of Birmingham, the heater was working, so I switched the ceramic heater off. I also switched on the windscreen wipers, as the light rain which had been falling earlier had now turned to sleet.

As I did not fancy cooking for one, I stopped at the Chinese takeaway, and got some food, then drove home. My house is the end one of a set of terraced houses built before the First World War. Each had a miniscule front garden but, surprisingly, this row had really long back gardens. My house stands at the corner of Jenner Road and Lloyd's Lane, the later once being one of the access roads to the factory complex that used to be behind my house. The factory is now long gone, and a 1990s housing estate now fills the space. Lloyd's Lane became one of the roads to and from the estate, which I found convenient. It meant that I had off-street parking, having a garage at the top end of the garden.

I passed by the front of my house with its apology for a front garden, pressing the door remote for the garage as I turned into Lloyd's Lane. I had learnt that if I pressed the button as I turned, the door would be fully open by the time I came to the spot where I had to turn into the garage.

As I pulled into the garage, I pressed the door remote once more to start the door closing. I had got this down to a fine art. The door came down and closed nicely behind me as I pulled into the left-hand parking bay. It was a two-car garage, though we only had one car. The other parking bay contained Brian's motor bikes, all three of them. On the shelf behind them was an assortment of helmets and other safety gear.

One useful feature that Brian had insisted we install in the garage was a set of movement(-)activated lights. They came on when they detected movement and stayed on for sixty seconds. As a result, I was not plunged into darkness when the door closed and I had turned off my headlights.

I exited the car, remembering to lock it. Brain has never let me forget the time I left it unlocked in the garage. As I pointed out, it was in a locked garage. As Brian pointed out, that was irrelevant; one does not leave a car unlocked and unoccupied. I left the garage by the door that led to the garden and then had to negotiate my way in the dark to the back door. Brian has been on at me for years to get movement-activated security lights put out back, but I have never got around to it. That is probably because I do not want to disturb the urban foxes and other wildlife we get in the garden. 

One thing Brian had got me to do was upgrade the heating system to one using an air-source heat pump. It meant we could have the heating on full-time at very little cost. I was glad of it as I stepped through the backdoor into the kitchen. The warmth of the house greeted and enveloped me.

I dropped the bags of Chinese takeaway on the table, switched on the lights and dumped my coat on the coat rack by the back door, then put the kettle on. Ten minutes later, I was sitting at the breakfast bar, tucking into a nice Chinese meal with a pot of green tea.

It would have been nice if I could have had a relaxing meal and then a long luxuriant hot bath. Unfortunately, that was not to be. I was due at the Youth Support Centre by six, so I had to get a bit of a move on. Not that I rushed dinner; I just did not dawdle over it. Before I went upstairs to change, I checked the answerphone.

There was a message from Brian. He was changing planes in Dublin and had just cleared US immigration. I kept forgetting that was the reason he flew by Dublin, the fact that you can clear US immigration and customs in Ireland before boarding your flight.

As he had had no problems, he must have remembered to use the right passport. He had three, all quite legally. Although both his parents were American, Brian had actually been born in Australia. That gave him both US and Australian nationality. He got an Irish passport on the grounds that his mother's parents had been Irish immigrants. As Brian pointed out, there were some parts of the world where it was best not to be American—or Australian for that matter. Ireland's neutrality was very useful.

Once I had listened to the message, I set about getting ready for the night. I might have got away with not having a shower and shave, but I would not get away with not changing. If I turned up at the Centre wearing top of the range designer casuals, I would definitely be in trouble. None of the kids would talk to me. That would mean that I would not be able to help any of them. So I had a quick shower, skipped the shave, and changed into some jeans, a shirt and hoodie, all from Primark. Then I pulled on a leather bomber jacket, which was clearly quality, but also clearly second, if not third, hand. I had picked it up from a charity shop a few years ago. It was nice and warm when I was riding pillion on Brian's Harley.

Dressed and ready for action, I called the cab company we used for a car to take me to the Centre. I never drive there in the Porsche. There is little secure parking near the centre and leaving a car like mine on the street in that part of town is asking for trouble.

It was Brian who had got me involved with the Centre. How he had got involved I did not know, as it was before we had met. Although it can’t have been long before as he had not gone through the volunteer training. In fact, it was him talking about the Centre that had got me interested in talking to him.

It was about quarter past seven by time I arrived at the Centre. Officially my shift did not start till eight. I would be on cover from eight till eight: twelve hours when anything could happen. Most of the time we worked six-hour shifts. To be honest with some of the stuff we had to deal with, that was enough. However, this close to Christmas a lot of the volunteers were away visiting family, so those of us who could did double shifts.

Getting in early was good practice as it gave one time to get the handover done and not keep the volunteer you were taking over from beyond the end of their cover. Not that anyone objected to having to stay longer to do the handover, but we all knew how much we wanted to get away at the end of a gruelling shift.

Kathy was paired with me that night. The Centre always had two people on duty, if possible a male and a female. Like me, Kathy had got in a bit early. Actually she walked into the Centre just as I had finished making a fresh pot of coffee. Making coffee was always the first priority when you came on duty.

"You look frozen," I stated as Kathy came through to the office.

"It bloody is freezing out there, slippery underfoot now, too. It's taken me best part of half an hour to get here. Would'na be surprised if it di'na snow during the nicht."

"You're taking a taxi home in the morning," I told her.

"I cannae afford it, David. Anyway it's only a wee walk."

I poured Kathy a mug of black coffee, to which she added a pile of sugar. The she held it in her hands, letting the warmth of the mug warm her up.

"Pity we can't have a wee dram to go with the coffee," she said.

I laughed and admitted that sometimes a wee dram in our coffee would be good. However, the Centre had a strict no-alcohol policy. This was partially because of its location in the basement of a Baptist church. More importantly it was because alcohol was often a problem for some of the clients who came in, and we did not want to add to those problems.

Whilst Kathy warmed up and we both drank our coffee, we read the situation sheets. This was a set of notes about things that could affect our clients or give rise to situations that might result in calls on our services. One thing that stuck out was a note from Children's Social Services saying that all accommodation options within the county were full. Any placements that were needed would have to be out of county. If the kid had been accommodated a hundred miles away or more, that could make life difficult when it came to trying to resolve problems between the kid and their family.

Another note that caught my attention was the increase in gay bashing around the edge of the gay village in Birmingham. This was not that unusual. What was unusual was that all the victims seemed to be late teens and black. That was different.

Mary, who had been covering the two-to-eight shift and was due to hand over to us, worked for Social Services. I decided to ask her what the accommodation problem was?

"Dawn House has been closed," she informed me. It was a block of flats on the edge of the city that was used to house older teenagers in care—those who could cope with the minimum of support. Originally it had been an office block, but sometime in the late eighties it had been converted into a long-term hostel for the homeless. Each person got a bedsit and a bathroom. There were some support staff there in case of problems and a café and laundry room that the residents could use.

Unfortunately, it did not work for the adult homeless. One problem was that they had a strict no-pets policy, for good reasons. However, that was a problem as a large proportion of the long-term homeless men and a lot of the women had dogs, also for good reasons. So, after a couple of years, Social Services had decided to repurpose the place and use it to house older teenagers who needed supervised accommodation. Overall, from what I had heard, it had been quite successful. I wondered why it had closed.

"What's happened?"

"Cladding," Mary answered. "You know the place was refurbished a few years ago."

I nodded.

"Well it appears that somebody decided to cut corners. The cladding used was not up to fire safety requirements. Worse still, when the Brigade did a full fire safety survey, they found a lot more problems. They declared the place to be unsafe for occupation. There were a hundred and sixty clients in there and we have had to re-house the lot. In two days."

"You managed it?"

"Of course we did David, though we have had to use every emergency placement that we have, and some of foster parents are not happy, having a sixteen or seventeen year old dumped on them. The sixteen-and-seventeen-year-olds are not happy with the arrangement, either. They had a high degree of independence in Dawn House.

"I don't suppose I could get you to offer a place, could I David?"

"Sorry, Mary. Much as I would love to, I can't. Brian would never agree."

"Pity. You'd make good foster parents for some kid," Mary stated. In that I had to agree. I would have loved to have some children around the house. Part of our training to volunteer at the Centre had been the same training that prospective foster parents were advised to undertake.

"I' push comes tae shove, me and Ann could take someone on; we've got the room," Kathy said.

"Thanks, Kathy," Mary replied.

We then got down to reviewing the day log. There was not much in it today. You have days like this, just the regulars coming in for somewhere warm to sit and have a chat and a coffee, and a minimum of new clients. Those that do come are quickly and efficiently dealt with. Like the young mother who came in with her two children this afternoon. The note in the log was short. Abused by husband, put in touch with the Women's Refuge, case worker collected her and the children.

Soon it was eight o'clock and with all the handover procedures completed, Mary and her co-worker, Stephen, departed, leaving Kathy and me to hold the fort.

I took my place in the office by the bank of monitors for the CCTV system. Kathy went to do a walk-round of the building, ending with the common room. I would do my round when she had finished her round. We both had to do a walk-round just in case there was someone in the common room who wanted to chat with someone of a specific sex. A girl might discuss a problem with Kathy that she would not talk to me about. Although the same might also apply the other way around. On my last shift I had spent most of the afternoon talking to a girl about the problems she was having with her boyfriend, and assuring her that she was not being unreasonable in saying no to sex at her age. She was fourteen. It turned out by time we got to the end of the conversation that the boyfriend was a lot older. Fortunately, she did not tell me how much older. If she had I would probably have been duty bound to report it. Unfortunately, that duty can put us in a difficult position in that we lose the trust of the party we are counselling.

That night there were not many in the common room and, so far as I could see on the monitor, those there were all regulars. There was Sally with her brother and his friend. The brother and his friend were about eleven or twelve, and Sally was fourteen. Technically the two boys should not be at the Centre because they were underage. We were set up to help teenagers and students and the constitution of the Centre says that it is to provide support and a safe environment for thirteen to twenty-five year olds.

We tended to turn a blind eye to some who made use of the common room so long as we thought it was doing some good and not being misused. Sally's mother was a single parent who lived in a flat in the high-rise block just down the road from the Centre. Like many single mothers, she was having to work two jobs to make ends meet. In the mornings, she worked the tills at the local supermarket five days a week. Then she would do the late shift at Matchinson's Pressings, working two till ten. That was on a rolling pattern of six days on and four off. Consequently nearly every other weekend, the mother was not at home in the evenings. To save money, in the winter, Sally would come over to the Centre, bringing her brother with her. Before they left the flat they would switch off the heating. The pair of them could be warm in the Centre until it was time to go home. Sometime, usually about half past nine, Sally would come to the office and ask us to keep an eye on her brother for a few minutes, whilst she slipped home to turn on the heating. She would then come back and sit in the common room with her brother till quarter past ten, then go home to a warm flat and their mother who would have just got in from work.

Sally's brother's friend was also the child of a single mother. His mother was an agency nurse. He stayed with Sally's mother when his mother was working nights which seemed to be more often than not.

All the volunteers and staff at the Centre were well aware of Sally's situation and what was going on. Technically we should not allow the boys to be in the Centre, but we all thought it was doing more good than any harm a small infringement of the rules might do. We would all swear blind that Sally had told us they were thirteen. We all understood that being able to keep the heating switched off for the four to six hours that Sally and the boys were in the Centre might well make the difference to Sally's mother having to make a choice between food or electricity. We wanted her to be able to get food.

And then there were the twins. They were in the corner of the room, reading, as usual. They came from a large family, and there was very little space in their house. So, they came to Centre to find somewhere where they could read undisturbed. They had been coming here for four years now, since they turned thirteen. This would probably be their last year. They were taking A levels this coming June, and both hoped to get into university to study medicine. Last time I spoke to them they had both received offers, but not from the same university.

Another regular was Mark. Mark was playing table tennis with some boy I did not know. Mark was fifteen and had been in       long-term foster care for the last ten years. From what Mark said he was in a good placement. Indeed, the couple who were fostering him had offered to adopt him, but unfortunately the birth parents had put obstacles in the way. Mark had been referred to the Centre by his social worker. The boy's foster parents were quite elderly; they had been sixty-five when they had taken him in as an emergency placement which had been intended to last a weekend. Ten years later he was still there and from what I heard, the pair doted on the boy. However, he found it difficult to talk to them about some things, his sexuality being one of them. As a result, his social worker referred him to one of our specialist counselling staff members. Once he found the Centre, Mark became a regular, just so he could get out of the house, not that there was anything wrong with his home environment. In fact many kids who came here would be envious of it. It was just that he did not feel right being boisterous around his foster parents, for whom he had great regard, so he came here, where, within limits, he could let off steam. Right then, he was doing that playing table tennis and often whooping and hollering when he scored a slam.

One person I could not see on the monitors was Tim. He was one of the regulars whom I had taken somewhat under my wing. Whenever he signed in, he put down his age as eighteen, though I strongly suspected he was younger than that. However, the rules said that unless we had specific knowledge to the contrary, we had to accept what the clients told us. So, I treated him as being eighteen.

When Kathy got back from doing her round, I asked if she had seen Tim. There was always a chance that he might have been in one of the unmonitored spaces, such as a counselling room. Clients were not supposed to go there without a staff member, but sometimes they just had to get away from things and have some space just for themselves.

"Sorry, no. There's no sign of your puppy," Kathy informed me.

"Puppy?"

"Yes, puppy. That lad follows you everywhere when you are in the common room. You care about the lad, don't you."

I nodded. We were not supposed to have favourites, but we all did. What was important was that you did not neglect any of the others because you were paying too much attention to one of your favourites.

Intending to change the subject, I asked Kathy how her dad was.

"Not much changed. He's determined to make it for another year, hoping Tommy will be in touch."

Tommy was Kathy's brother. I did not know the details, but some forty years ago there had been a family dispute which resulted in Tommy walking out of the family home. Nothing had been heard from him since. Ten years ago, Kathy's parents were in a bad car crash. Her mother, who was driving, was killed. Kathy's father suffered major spinal injuries and was severely disabled as a result and required round the clock help.

Kathy and her wife Ann had given up lucrative jobs in the City of London and moved back to the West Midlands to care for her father. Kathy was now a full time carer for her father. She made a bit of money on the side by writing for various magazines. Ann worked in the IT department of one of the insurance companies based in Birmingham at about a third of what she had been earning in the City.

I sometimes thought that one of the main factors behind Kathy volunteering for the Centre was so she had an excuse to get out of the house. She only ever did weekend or holiday shifts, when Ann would be around to look after her father.

Shortly after nine I did a walk-round. We would do rounds at least once every hour, so long as there were clients in the Centre. It was part of the Health and Safety procedures that had been put in place by management. When I entered the common room, Sally asked if I would keep an eye on her brother and his friend as she just had to slip home for a few minutes. I said we would and Sally pulled her coat on and set off.

I was a bit worried when I got back to the office to note that Sally had not returned. I double checked with Kathy, in case I had not seen Sally coming back, but she confirmed that no one had come in. After eight we were on a night-time footing and anyone wanting access to the Centre had to ring the bell. We would check who was there on a monitor, then let them in or otherwise. It depended on who it was and what they said when we spoke to them over the intercom.

I was just about to suggest that I slip out and have a look for Sally, just in case there was a problem, when my phone pinged. It was my private phone, not the work one, and only a few people had the number. I checked the phone and found it was a text from Brian, telling me he had arrived safely in New York. He also said he was missing me. I sent one back saying I was missing him.

The doorbell rang and I saw Kathy turn to look at the monitor, then she gasped. I looked at the monitor—Sally was there, blood flowing down her face.

"I've got this," Kathy announced, standing up and grabbing the first aid kit.

"Use the staff room," I instructed. Kathy nodded as she made her way out of the office. She understood what I was thinking. Technically, taking a client into the staff room was against the rules, but by taking her there Kathy would avoid Sally going into the common room, which would have been necessary if Kathy took her to any of the other rooms.

The moment I saw Kathy on the monitor entering the entrance hall, I pressed the door release button. The outside door swung open and Sally stumbled into the hallway. She must have been leaning on the door. From the way she was moving I suspected she was in a bit of a bad way.

I did not wait for Kathy to let me know how bad things were. I took the decision on myself to call in backup. There was a list by the rota of volunteers who could called in if a situation came up which meant that one of us would be tied up with something and could not provide normal cover. This, I suspected, was going to be one of those times.

I looked at the list of standbys. As normal Gerald and Christine were on the list. They were a retired couple who lived about a ten-minute drive from the Centre. At one time they had both volunteered on a regular basis but now felt that it would be a bit too much for them to come in and do a regular six or twelve hour shift. They were, however, quite happy to come in and provide that bit of extra cover when there was a situation on.

I tried their landline number, but it went to their answerphone, so I tried Christine's mobile number. She answered almost immediately. When I explained the situation I was advised they would be here in two minutes, which surprised me. In less than two minutes the doorbell rang and the two of them were standing outside the door. I pressed the door release, and they came in. It was then I realised they had a third person with them. Somebody I did not know, which worried me. Not that I needed to be worried. Gerald and Christine immediately came through into the common room and signed the signing in book. Then they then got the woman who was with them to sign before bringing her to the office.

"David, can I introduce Caroline Sumpton? She's taking over as the Minister upstairs due to Michael's illness."

"I was not aware that Michael was ill," I commented. Michael Green had been the minster at the church upstairs for a few years and a keen supporter of the Centre. Something that could not be said of all his parishioners.

"Yes, he had a stroke on Wednesday; he's now in the Queen Elizabeth hospital. Michael had been planning to retire next month, and we had already selected Caroline to replace him. Fortunately, she is able to step in early to cover Christmas. We were upstairs going over the arrangements when you called."

That made sense. I remembered both Gerald and Christine were pretty active in the church. I was not surprised that they had some sort of position in its organisation.

"What's going on that need you to call us in?" Christine asked.

I explained what I knew, though that was not much. Kathy was still in the staff room with Sally and had not had a chance yet to let me know anything.

"Right," announced Christine. "George, you stay here with David and cover things. I'm going to help Kathy. Caroline, I suggest you either look round the place or come with me."

Caroline seemed to catch onto the implied order and followed Christine.

"Do you think it is what I'm thinking it is?" George asked.

"I don't know, what do you think it is?"

"A slutting."

I hated to admit it, but that had been my first thought when I had seen Sally on the intercom camera. The only hope that it was not a slutting was she had not been missing that long.

I glanced at the monitors, and noticed that Sally's brother and his friend were crossing the common room, making their way towards the office. It suddenly occurred to me that they must be worried, Sally should have been back to collect them by now. I went out to meet them.

"Sally's not come back, mister," the shorter of the two boys said. A clear expression of worry on his face.

"She's back but she had a bit of a problem on the way back," I stated. "Kathy and Christine are with her, helping her clean up."

"Is she alright?" the boy asked.

"I'm sure she will be, once she's cleaned up a bit. Why don't you go back to your board game?"

"But Mum will be home and we'll be late," the taller boy stated.

"OK, I'll let your mother know," I promised them. They turned and slouched back to the table in the corner where they had been playing Monopoly. I went to the staff room and knocked on the door. Caroline opened it. I explained about Sally's mother being home and would be expecting the boys and Sally.

"Can you phone her?" Caroline asked.

"Do we have a number?" I asked.

Caroline went to ask Sally. When she returned, she informed me they did not have a landline, but Sally's mother did have a mobile. I got the number and then went to the office to call it.

It took me a bit of time to explain who I was and why I was calling. Once she understood, Sally's mother said she would come directly to the Centre on her way home from work. Apparently, she was on the late bus and could get off outside the Centre.

About five minutes later, the doorbell rang. I had expected it to be Sally's mother, but it was not. There were two uniformed women, both police officers. I buzzed them in, then went down to meet them and got them to sign in. After that I took them to the staff room. I was just making my way back to the office when I heard the front door being buzzed open. I went back to the hallway to find a small mousy woman looking a bit lost.

"You must be Sally's mother," I stated.

"Yes, I'm Diane Carr. Are you David?"

"I am. I need to get you signed in and then you probably should set your son's mind at rest before you see Sally."

"Is he upset?"

"I think the boys are worried they will get into trouble for not being home when you got there."

"They would have been if it had been their fault, but this wasn't."

I got her signed in and then showed her where the boys were and pointed out the door to the office. I did explain that the police had just arrived and were with Sally.

Diane went over to where the boys were playing Monopoly and sat down at the table to have a chat with them. It was short. I was fairly sure she just said they were to stay there until she was ready to take them home. I had not long been back in the office when Diane knocked on the door, asking if I could take her to Sally.

It seemed to be hours before anybody came out of the staff room, though looking at the clock it could not have been more than three quarters of an hour. Checking the monitors, I saw that Diane and the minister were standing outside the staffroom door talking. Diane nodded her head a couple of times before going back into the staffroom. Caroline, the new minister, turned and walked towards the office.

When she knocked I opened the door to let her in. It can sometimes be a bit confusing when somebody knocks on the office door as we have three of them. One opens onto the common room, the second on the opposite side of the room, opens into the hallway on which the counselling and service rooms are set. The final door opens up onto the corridor that the staffroom and kitchen are on.

Caroline stepped into the office, looking a bit pale. Gerald looked at her as she entered.

"A bit rough back there?" he asked.

"Do you know what those boys tried to do to her?" Caroline replied.

"No, but I can take a pretty good guess at what went on. I suppose it was a case of slutting."

"What's slutting?" Caroline asked.

Gerald looked at me. I decided to answer.

"It's where a group of boys decide that a girl is to be made into a slut. They will get a girl, one they know and who has usually turned down sexual advances from them, take her someplace, drug her and then engage in sexual activity with her. The sexual activity will be filmed and posted to social media, showing what a slut the girl is. After that, the girl is regarded as the property of the gang that slutted her, to be used by them or loaned out to their friends."

"That's rape!" Caroline stated.

"Yes it is, though the boys see it differently."

"How?"

"They see it as taking what is rightfully theirs. Girls are there to serve them, to work for them, to give them sex."

"But don't the police stop it?"

"They do when they can but often it is difficult or impossible to get a conviction. For a start, the girl has usually been so doped up she hardly remembers what happened. Then the boys she is filmed with are usually younger than she is. If she makes a complaint, they say that she started it and led them on. She is made out to be the sexual aggressor, which in their minds she is because she is a slut."

Caroline shook her head. "I see I am going to have to learn a lot."

"Been out of touch?" I asked.

"Yes, I’ve not had a congregation for twenty years. I’ve been teaching in academia."

We sat in the office talking for a bit. Caroline explained that she had taught theology at a university down south for the last twenty odd years. However, her husband had been made redundant, and his new job was in Birmingham, so she had looked around for a post in the Birmingham area. In taking on the position at this church it gave her the opportunity to get back to a ministry rather than academic theory.

Kathy came into the common room with the two policewomen and got them to sign out before they left. Kathy then came to the office.

"Christine is going to drive Diane, Sally and the boys home. She'll then come back and pick you up Gerald and you." The last was said to Caroline.

Caroline looked at me and explained that her car was parked at Christine and Gerald's.

About half an hour later, all had been done. Christine had taken Sally, her mother and the boys to the flats in her car and then come back and collected Gerald and Caroline, leaving Kathy and me back on duty. I made another jug of coffee.

"So, what happened?" I asked Kathy, after placing a hot mug of coffee in front of her. She looked at the mug and smiled.

"A group of lads tried to slut her," she informed me.

"From your smile, I assume unsuccessfully," I replied.

"Yes, Sally put some of the stuff I teach 'em into use." For a moment I was confused, then remembered that Kathy ran a self-defence class for women in the church hall on a Wednesday evening.

"One of the bigger lads had grabbed her as she came out of the flat, another was trying to force her to drink something, no doubt drugged. So, she kneed the one in front of her in the balls, then brought her foot down, hard, on the instep of the lad holding her. When he eased his hold on her, she broke it and elbowed him. She kicked the one she had kneed. A couple of the other lads tried to stop her running, and got in some punches, but they were smaller than Sally, she hit them back hard then ran for it, coming here."

"That shouldn't have taken that long. Why was she so late?" I asked, not sure that I wanted the answer.

"It seems that the one who grabbed her spent quite a bit of time telling her exactly what they were going to do to her, and how she was going to be his bitch to sell around."

I nodded, understanding. We had heard similar stories before. Usually, though, the girl had not fought back.

"Will she be alright?" I knew full well that there was a good chance the gang would go after her again.

"Oh yes, she'll be OK. She knew who they were and now I know. In the morning I will have a word with the Aunties."

All of a sudden I started to have a feeling of sympathy for the lads in the gang. The Aunties were the matriarchs of the local area. They met up most mornings in the library coffee shop for tea and biscuits. They were mostly of West Indian origin, though not exclusively. Mrs Singh, for example, was a member of the Aunties. It was a group to which she had been granted admission upon her retirement from the library.

They had their own means of sorting out problems and woe betide you if you were on the wrong side of them. You would probably get a call from one of their nephews, to explain just what you were doing wrong and how you could correct the situation. The latter was often a case of moving to another part of Birmingham, and occasionally a more distant move would be advised. I know of at least one family that upped sticks and went back Jamaica, although ‘back’ was a euphemism: no member of the family had ever seen the island.

It was getting on for midnight and I noticed that only Mark was left in the common room. I decided to do a round of the building and check in on Mark as I did. It was unusual for him to still be in the Centre so late. When I got to the common room, I spoke to him, commenting on the time.

"I know," he replied. "I'm waiting for Mum and Dad to pick me up. They've gone to a show in London. Their train does not get back in till gone midnight. They are going to phone me when they pull up outside."

Well, that explained that. It was unusual for Mark to stay beyond ten thirty as he normally had an eleven o'clock curfew, which he strictly abided by. I was just going into the office when Kathy buzzed someone in. I glanced back into the common room and saw Tim enter. He started to chat with Mark.

As I took my seat in the office it occurred to me that Tim seemed to know Mark quite well, which was a bit surprising given that Mark was fifteen. However, if, as I suspected, Tim was not eighteen, it would not be so much of a surprise. They could easily be in the same year at the local high school.

"Your waif's arrived," Kathy stated as I sat down.

"I noticed."

"Then you're not denying it?"

"Denying what?"

"That you, David, are taking a particular interest in that boy. You know we are not supposed to have favourites."

"I know and you know that we all do."

Kathy laughed, then said she would sort out some more coffee. We were just entering the dead zone, the time of the night when nothing is likely to be happening and where we just have to keep going. Coffee is essential.

One of the outside cameras showed an old Jaguar pulling up outside the church. Looking into the common room I saw Mark answering his phone. A moment later he was on his way out, forgetting, as usual, to sign out.

My phone pinged, I looked at it and saw that I had a message from Brian. He had arrived at to his parents' house and was now being bored to death with updates on the family. For somebody who was so insistent on being with them for the major holidays he did not seem to be getting on that well with them. Then again, he never did seem to get on well with his family, and I often wondered why he bothered to go back to the States to visit them like he did.

Kathy was on the phone, answering a call in from somebody who was in trouble. She indicated it was getting sensitive. We have this set of hand signs we use to let or co-volunteers know when privacy or help is needed. In this case it was privacy, so I left the office and made my way into the common room, now solely occupied by Tim.

"You were late tonight," I commented, taking a seat nearby.

"You 'ad the rozzers here, dan't you? Weren't comin' in till they'd gone, was I."

There was no comment I could make to that, so I directed the conversation in another way asking about his day and giving details of mine.

"So, you wasted a 'ole day trying to get a present for your nephew?"

I confirmed I had. I then told him about the clothes I had bought. Tim laughed.

"You should get him a skateboard."

This answer was simple and obvious if you thought about it. Unfortunately, at the wrong side of forty, the obvious does not jump into one's mind​ when you are out of touch with current youth culture.

"Wouldn't know where to get one from," I stated, more to myself than anyone else.

"KT Urban Sports is the best place," Tim stated.

"Don't know it."

"It's …" He stopped, looking a bit puzzled, then continued. "It's a bit difficult to explain, but I could show you. It's in Brum just off Broad Street."

I had to think about this. Interacting with clients outside of the Centre was a definite no-no. It was also something we had all done at one time or another. Sometimes it was difficult to avoid. Like when a battered wife I had worked with was re-housed to a couple of doors away from me. That was a bit different from the situation with Tim. By time she was re-housed she was no longer an active case at the Centre. Tim was. Worse still, I was one of his listed contacts at the Centre. I had to think about it.

"When?" I asked.

"How about tomorrow, you can take me into town in that fancy car of yours."

"What do you know about my car?"

"Late series Porsche 928 GTS with a personalized number plate."

I must have looked at him with some amazement, wondering how he knew. I never brought the car to the Centre because it would be too much of a target. Thinking about it, I did not think it had been within a couple of miles of the Centre as long as I have had it.

Tim gave a bit of a laugh, then continued. "I've a friend on Lloyd Lane that I crash out with sometimes. Saw you a couple of weeks ago, coming out of the double garage at the top of the road. Kept my eyes open since then, seen you a couple of times and reckon you live there."

I was a bit surprised. It is a good ten miles from where I live to the Centre. I had assumed that Tim was from somewhere close by there. His interaction with Mark tended to suggest this, so what was he doing over in Tipton? Then a possibility occurred to me. Tim was probably hustling, and the friend was probably a regular client. Which raised another issue. What was Tim doing here now? He normally came in early evening. I asked Tim about this.

"Things did not work out tonight. Thought I'd got somewhere out Sutton way, but it was a no go." There was something about the way he said this that made me think there was more to things than he was letting on.

"OK, you know you can't sleep here," I informed him. The Centre had strict rules about not letting anybody sleep overnight. If we did we could be classed as a night shelter and that would give rise to all sorts of difficulties we did not need to have. "However, if you go off to the library corner and find a boring book to read, we might not notice if you drop off."

Tim smiled. I got up to return to the office. As I did, I patted him on the shoulder. Tim winced.

"Are you alright Tim?"

"Yes, just wrenched it earlier today."

Somehow, I did not believe him. However, something you learn quickly is not to push some issues. If they need help they will ask. If you try to give it to them before they ask, they in all likelihood will reject it and you will probably not see them again. You just had to go along with them until they reached the tipping point. That  point was different in every case. It was when something happened that they weren't able to handle on their own when they finally acknowledged that they needed help and were prepared to ask for it. It could be something as simple as them coming to trust one. Alternatively, it might be some major disaster that finally pushed them into seeking help. What it was, was not important. All that was important was that the Centre and its staff were there to act when asked for help. Sometimes, however, we were asked too late and there was little we could do. I just hoped this was not going to be the case with Tim.

I had only just got back to the office when the phone went. Kathy answered it, so I poured us coffees. As I put the mug of coffee down in front of her she indicated that I should take the call. I grabbed my mug of coffee before resuming my seat at the desk across from Kathy. She told the caller that she was transferring him to somebody better able to help him.

For the next hour plus I was on the phone to a man who had come home to find his fourteen-year-old son in bed with his best friend. Not that unusual as the boys often stayed over at each other's house. What was different this time was that he found them engaged in homosexual acts. When he had challenged them, they had told him they were gay.

The problem was he loved his son and did not want anything to hurt him. Above all he did not want it to be him who hurt his son. He had just told the boys that they would talk about it in the morning and then left them in the room.

We talked about what he thought about the situation. He was torn. Everything he believed in told him that being gay was a choice and it was evil. However, he loved his son and said his son was a good boy. He could not accept that his son was evil.

There was something about the man's voice which made me think I knew him. However, I made no attempt to recognise him as that would have breached the principles of anonymity that we operated on.

Having listened to what he had to say, I gave him pointers to a number of websites that discussed the genetic basis of being gay. How there was no single gene that made you gay, but a collection of genes that, working together, placed you on the scale between totally heterosexual to totally homosexual. We also discussed that this might just be a phase the boys were going through.

He asked me how that reconciled with what was in the Bible. I had to point out to him that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. I told him that he could find information about it on the web, referring him to a few sites that I knew.

I found some of the statements he made upsetting, but I avoided getting into an argument with him. Instead, I tried to give him alternative views and point him to information that undermined the position he was taking. I do not know if it did much good, but I could hope it did.

Finally, just after two in the morning, he brought our talk to an end. He thanked me for the guidance I had given.

"I think, sir, you hold views and opinion different to mine. However, you have not tried to argue your position with me, just given me the information so I can make up my own mind. For that, sir, I thank you. I have a lot to think about. But now I must sit down and finish working on my sermon for the morning service." With that he ended the call and confirmed my suspicion. He was the pastor at the evangelical church, not far down the road from the Centre. That church had been one of the leading organisations trying to get the Centre closed down when it first opened.

Kathy suggested I grab our resting chair for a couple of hours. The chair was an old, very comfortable, leather armchair, stuck in the corner of the office. Just because the rules stated that had to be two of us on duty overnight, that did not mean that two of us had to be awake. Kathy, I knew, would have gotten a few hours' sleep before coming on duty and could get some more once she got home. From our general chat about our day, she would have known that I had not had any sleep before coming on duty. I gladly grabbed the chair.

I woke a bit after six, with Kathy shaking me. "I think you need to go to Tim, he's having a nightmare."

I went into the common room. Tim was asleep in one of the large comfy chairs in the library corner. As I approached I could hear him muttering something, but could not understand what he was saying. Suddenly when I was about six feet away from him, he screamed, "Don't hit me!" His eyes opened; they were filled with fear.

"I'm not going to," I said, stepping closer to him, but slightly to one side so the low light in the room illuminated my face while I was lowering myself into the chair across from him.

Tim smiled at me. "No, you wouldn't." It was a statement of faith and made me feel I was getting somewhere with him.

"You were having a nightmare; what frightened you?" I ask.

Tim hung his head, not wanting to meet my eyes. "It's nothing, it's over now."

"Good. Would you fancy a hot chocolate?" I asked.

Tim smiled and nodded. I went to the kitchen and made three mugs of hot chocolate as I was sure Kathy would like one as well. I was right, she was happy to have a change from coffee.

I sat with Tim for a bit, chatting. We talked about skateboarding, a subject I was woefully ignorant about. We also talked about films, a subject that Tim was interested in, but one I was far more knowledgeable about. The principal thing that Tim really wanted to talk about was my car. He was remarkably well-informed about Porsche 928s, especially about the problem of getting spares.

Tim suddenly surprised me by asking why, if I could afford to own a 928, which he knew were not cheap to run, was I living in a terraced house in Tipton? I had to point out to him that it was an end terrace and it had been extensively extended and renovated. We had extended into the loft for the master bedroom and put a three-story extension across half the back which gave us a kitchen and utility room, with shower, on the ground floor and dressing and bathrooms on the two upper floors.

In response to my statement Tim pointed out that it was still essentially a terraced house in Tipton. A terraced house, no matter how modernised and extended, was still a terraced house. The fact that our coal cellar was now a state of the art in-house cinema was neither here nor there. I had to concede the point to Tim, and I told him it was close to work.

Actually, it was just over a five minutes' walk from work. That was why I originally got the house, which was not extended back then. I had not intended to live in it. After all I was then still living at home in Bromsgrove. I just thought it would be nice to have somewhere close to the works where I could crash out during the week when I was working on projects. At times like that I would often put in a sixteen-hour day. Then, Brian had come into my life. There had never been any question of him moving in with me at the Bromsgrove house, so we moved into the terraced house in Tipton, then extended it to suit both our needs.

Not that I was about to tell Tim that. So, I just said that it was near where I worked. I was spared further questioning by Tim's stomach rumbling. I glanced at the clock and saw it was nearly seven.

"Hungry?"

"A bit," Tim replied. "I did not get much yesterday."

"You should have said. We could have sorted you something." I started to feel guilty about the couple of sandwiches I had binned a bit after twelve, not fancying eating another one. "Why don't you go down to Davy's and get some breakfast."

Davy's was a greasy spoon café on the corner, a couple of hundred yards down the road from the Centre. They opened about six every morning and stayed open till late at night. I had known them to be open as late as one. I think they only closed when there were no more customers in.

Tim shook his head, but his stomach grumbled again. I pulled my wallet out of my pocket, fished out a tenner, and pushed it into Tim's hand.

"Go and get some breakfast."

"What about getting the skateboard?" Tim asked.

"I'll be finishing in an hour, and I always go into Davy's for breakfast when I've done a night cover," I explained. "I'll see you there just after eight."

Tim smiled, got up and went about signing himself out.

"I saw that," Kathy said.

"Saw what?"

"You giving Tim some money. Where's he gone?"

"Davy's; his stomach was rumbling. Reckon he hadn't eaten yesterday."

"Good."

"What's good about him not having eaten yesterday?" I asked.

"I wasn't referring to that," Kathy replied. "I was referring to the fact that he took the money off you, that he trusts you. Hopefully he is getting close to the point."

"I hope so. I feel that boy needs help."

"You're right there, David. And I think you'll find it will be more than a wee bit of help you'll be giving that boy."

I looked at Kathy wondering what she meant. At times she could come out with the strangest statements.

I took a call just after seven from a youth who had just got home to find his stuff on the stairwell landing. It turned out that he and his stepfather had had a major argument the night before, prior to his going out clubbing. He had arrived back home at seven this morning to find that his belongings had been bagged up and left out on the stairwell landing for him, and his key no longer worked.

The lad was eighteen, so there was not that much that we could do for him, though I did use some of our discretionary funds to order a hire car to take him and his stuff to his friend's, where he assured me he could put up for a few days.

While I was on the call Bill and Ben came in. That is actually their names. They are twins, now in their late sixties. Both had been volunteering with the Centre since it was set up. Actually, I believe they had been involved in the pressure group that got it set up. If one of them came in on duty, the other came along to keep him company. They regularly did Sunday morning cover. Bill would do one week and then Ben the next. Of course, that meant both of them would be here. There were some of our regular clients who would always come in on a Sunday morning just to see Bill or Ben.

They always came in early on a Sunday morning for handover. They said there was nothing else for them to do on a Sunday morning. They were too old to go clubbing so had no excuse to sleep in.

I talked them through the major issues of the night, especially the man who had phoned about his son being gay. There was a good chance he might call back sometime during the day. Bill, or was it Ben, said he thought it was quite likely but that they would deal with it. I was sure they could. Both of them seemed to be able to quote chapter and verse, not only from the Bible but from the Quran as well. They could also quote directly from the Hebrew Torah and the Greek New Testament.

When I had finished briefing Bill and Ben, Kathy told me I might as well sign out. There was no point in four of us being there. I put up a bit of an argument, but not much. I was quite keen to get down to Davy's and get some breakfast and see if Tim was still there.

He was, sitting at the back of the café, just finishing off what looked like a full English. I went in and took a seat across the table from him.

"Good?" I asked.

"Yes, I didn't realise I was so hungry."

"Still hungry?"

"A bit."

Davy was standing behind the counter. I called him over and ordered poached eggs on toast for me, together with a pot of Darjeeling tea. I also ordered six extra slices of toast, with both jam and marmalade. Davy gave me a questioning look. I usually have two extra slices and only marmalade. I glanced at Tim, and Davy nodded.

It was not long before there was a plate, piled high with toast, set down on the centre of the table. I was sure there were more than six slices. There was also a dish of butter, accompanied by dishes with jam and marmalade. I told Tim to tuck in. He did. I began to think that I might have to order even more toast.

My pot of tea arrived along with the toast. I decided to leave it to brew. A Darjeeling should brew for at least five minutes. Whilst it was brewing I looked at Tim as he ate. From all his mannerisms I was certain he was not eighteen. In fact I doubted if he was sixteen. At times he looked like a young child.

My poached eggs on toast arrived with two extra slices of toast. Davy knew something. He was right—by the time I had finished my poached eggs, the pile of toast in the centre was almost gone. Tim looked at me as he reached for half of the last slice in the pile, then realised what he had done.

"Sorry," he said.

"Nothing to be sorry for," I told him. "You were clearly in need of food; that toast was for you. You better finish it off as I have some of my own here." I indicated the two slices on my side plate. There was no toast left on either plate when we were done.

"Are we still going to get the skateboard for your nephew?"

"Yes, but I need to get to my place first." Tim looked a bit downhearted at that news. "For a start I need to get changed and I need to get the car."

"Your car's at your house?"

"Yes, I'm not fool enough to leave it parked around here. So, you can either wait around here for me; I'll be about an hour. Alternatively you can come with me; that will save me having to drive back to this part of town."

He did not have to think about it. The moment I had given him the option he stated, "I'll come with you."

I finished my tea then I went to the counter to pay Davy. Tim came up to the counter, pulling the ten I had given him out of his pocket and handing it to me so I could pay with it. I told him to keep it, he might need it. Then I paid Davy using my card.

In the taxi going to my place I asked Tim if he had a change of clothing.

"Not till tonight," he said. "My friend is away for the weekend and all my stuff is at his place. He'll be back about five. Why?"

"To be honest, Tim, you smell a bit ripe. You could do with a shower and a change of clothes."

"I was not expecting to be wearing these so long," Tim stated, confirming my thought that he was probably on the game. He had probably had an all-night session set up for last night and something had gone wrong.

The journey to my place took about twenty minutes. Not that it mattered that much: I had an agreed fixed price with the cab company for the journey as either I or Brian made it a few times a week. It was booked on my account.

Once at the house I let us in via the front door, disabled the alarm, picked up the Sunday paper, and then showed Tim through to the kitchen.

"Tim, there is a utility room through that door and beyond that is a shower room. Now, if I go and get you a dressing gown, you can go into the utility room and take your things off, put the dressing gown on and go through to get a shower. Call me when you have put the gown on and I'll come through to the utility and put your stuff through a quick wash and dry. Does that work for you?"

"Suppose."

I took that as a yes and went up to the guest room on the first floor. I knew we had some white towelling dressing gowns in there. We kept a few for when we had unexpected guests. I took one plus a couple of big bath towels down to Tim, informing him that there was soap, shampoo and shower gels in the shower room.

Tim went into the utility room. I put the kettle on to make some tea. I had just poured the hot water onto the tea in the pot, when Tim shouted to say his clothes were ready for the wash. I went through to the utility. Tim's clothes where piled up on the top of the washing machine. The towels and robe were on top of the dryer. Tim was standing there naked, by the shower room door.

I looked at him.

"You like?" he asked. I did; he had a fine body, with a bit of defined muscle. I picked up the towels and robe, then handed them to Tim.

"Very nice, but I think you need a shower and I better get these into the wash." Then I turned and started to put his clothes in the washing machine. I was pleased to note he had put his wallet, keychain and other personal stuff on the shelf above the washing machine. I heard the shower room door click closed. Only then did I turn to look at the empty room.

Once I had loaded the machine with washing powder, water softening tablet and fabric softener, I set it on a quick wash and dry cycle, then switched it on. The machine is a washer dryer, for situations like this. Generally, though I prefer to use a separate dryer when possible.

That done, I went back to the kitchen, poured myself a tea and went through to the sitting room to relax and read some of the paper. At least that was my intention.

I woke with something of a start as a fully dressed Tim placed a new mug of tea down on the table in front of me.

"I hope you don't mind but I made tea for both of us."

"No, not at all. Thank you, Tim. What time is it?"

Tim glanced at his watch. "Quarter to eleven." I must have been asleep for nearly two hours. Two hours in which Tim had the run of the house. What could he have found to take? I nearly jumped up to go and check everywhere, then realised that would be a mistake. If I wanted Tim to trust me then I had to trust him. I apologised for falling asleep on him.

"That's OK, you must have been tired; you've been up all night."

I admitted to him that usually after I have done an all-night at the Centre I would go straight to bed and sleep for a good six hours.

"We could go to bed now, I would make sure you got some sleep," Tim stated.

"No, Tim, it wouldn't be right."

"Why not? I'm legal."

"I'm sure you are," though I was not that certain he was. "However, you are a client at the Centre. Strictly you should not be here with me but that I could probably get away with that. Having any sort of sexual relationship with you would be too much. They would hang, draw and quarter me."

"That bad?"

"No, probably worse. Anyway, I have a partner, Brian. It would not be fair on him."

Brain and I may have an open relationship, but it does have boundaries. One thing that we stuck to was we never had any hanky-panky going on at home. If we were doing something with anybody else we always played away. At least Brian did. I had never really done anything outside our relationship.

"You’re no fun," Tim smirked.

"Probably not. Anyway we can't afford the time, we've got a skateboard to get, and you wanted a ride in my car."

We drank our tea, and then I went upstairs to have a quick shower to freshen up and get changed. I was wearing casual clothes, but tailored casuals, which fit perfectly. When I came back down, Tim whistled.

"For an old guy you look good in those. They must cost a bomb." I did not want to get into a discussion about my clothing bill, so grabbed a coat and guided Tim out to the garage. What I had forgotten about was Brian's bikes in the garage. Once Tim saw them he wanted to know all about them. So, I told him what I knew but said he really needed to speak to Brian about them.

"Brian's your partner?"

"Yes, Tim. He is."

"Why isn't he here?"

"He goes over to the States to visit his family at Thanksgiving and Christmas. They are the two big family festivals over there, so he goes back for them."

"And you don't go with him?"

"No, they don't really approve of me."

"They're stupid," Tim declared.

It would have been easier just to drive into Birmingham via Sandwell and Smethwick. At least I would have gone in on the right side of Birmingham for getting to Broad Street. However, I thought Tim would like a bit of fun, so I went down through Wednesbury to the M6 and got on the motorway to Birmingham. Tim laughed as I pulled out from the slip road and opened up all four and a half litres of the old girl. She shot forward and the speed quickly ramped up to well past the speed limit. Tim glanced at the speedometer.

"You're doing a ton!"

I confirmed I was, but then pointed out that I did not want a ticket so dropped the speed down to just above the limit.

"How fast will it go?" Tim asked.

"I'm not certain, never having taken it much over a hundred. The stated top speed is a hundred and forty six, though there are stories of them doing more than one fifty."

"Why don't you take her to a track and find out?"

"Tim, she's an old girl, older than you are. You have to treat cars like this with respect. Too much excitement and she is quite likely to give up on you."

One problem with taking this route into Birmingham was that we were on the wrong side of the city centre for where we wanted to be. It took us longer to make our way around the inner ring road and the one way system than it did to do the whole of the motor way journey. Eventually though we got to the maze of side streets off Broad Street and Tim guided me to a spot I could park, on a meter. From there it was a short walk to the urban sports shop.

For the next three quarters of an hour, Tim was in his element spending my money. Not that I minded—as I was buying for Luke I wanted the best, and I also wanted him to be safe. Therefore, I told Tim to get him all the pads, helmets, wrist guards, knee guards and whatever else a twelve-year-old would want. For some reason that was not explained by Tim, the board needed to be assembled for me, which would take an hour or so. Once I had paid for everything, I arranged that we would pick it all up at two, then took Tim off to the Gas Street Basin. There was a very nice canal side pub I knew, where I knew we could get a good lunch.

Over lunch I gently prised more information out of Tim. I asked him how he knew what a twelve-year-old would want?

"It's what my brother would want," Tim told me. "He's always pouring over skateboarding and rollerblading magazines, when he can get them."

"You have a brother? How old is he?"

"Peter, he turned thirteen two weeks ago." There was a hint of sadness in his voice.

"What happened?"

"I got him a present for his birthday and went round it with. Thought Dad would be at work. Peter opened the door and I handed him the present. Then Dad came from the back, grabbed the present from Peter and smashed it, saying he wasn't going to let his kid take presents from a pervert."

"What about your mother?"

"She's dead; died four years ago."

"Sorry. Cancer?" I asked. That was the usual cause of death for women in the forties, which I guessed Tim's mother would probably have been.

"No. Half a bottle of cheap vodka and too much heroin."

"So, your dad found out you were gay and threw you out?"

"Yes, one of his friends saw me and Clemmy kissing just after school broke up this summer. He told Dad. Dad said no black could be gay, only whites were gay. Said I was a pervert, then he laid into me with his belt, before throwing me out saying he did not want a pervert in the house."

"Where have you been sleeping?"

"Where I can. Mostly on friends' sofas. I can get a night here and a night there. John lets me stay with him a couple of nights a week, but I can't stay there when he is not around. He does let me keep some stuff there."

"Who's John?"

"My sister's ex-boyfriend."

"You've got a sister?"

"Yes, she's seven years older than me. Took over looking after Peter and me when Mum died. Dad threw her out last year."

"Couldn't you have gone to her?"

"No way. She's following Mum. That's why John split up with her. She was into drink and drugs, selling herself for the next fix."

"And you can't stay at John's, but you keep some of your stuff there. How did you get your stuff?"

"Peter got it out for me. We meet up by the park on Monday evenings. Dad thinks he is going to Scouts."

"And he's not?"

"Oh, he goes alright. Dad would find out if he didn't. It's just that he used to go early to help out with the cubs, but now he meets up with me instead."

"But you can't stay with John?"

"No, it's a shared house. John and a couple of his mates are buying it together. They reckon that in five years, they will be able to sell it and make enough of the sale that they will each have a deposit for a place. They don't mind me being there when John is there, but when he's away they don't want me around.

"John's parents are divorced. His father moved to Shropshire after the divorce. John's gone up to Shrewsbury to see him. He'll be back tonight, so I am fixed for a place till Christmas day."

"What happens Christmas day?"

"John is going to his mother's, so will be out all day. I'll have to find somewhere to spend the day. Even the Centre is closed."

On that he was right. The Centre closed two days in the year, Christmas Day and Good Friday. It was a requirement of the lease we had from the church.

I do not know what made me say it but it just seemed the right thing to say. "Well, you better come to my place for Christmas. We can't have both of us on our own for Christmas Day."

We went back to the urban sports shop and picked up my purchases, then got back to the car, with good timing. There were only five minutes left on the meter. Once we had loaded the stuff into the car, we set off back home. This time I went via West Bromwich, and pulled into the car park for Primark.

"What we doing here?" Tim asked.

"You need a spare cache of clothes, in case you can't get to your stuff at John's," I stated. "Come on, we've only got half an hour before they close."

Tim followed me in, and we quickly found some clothing for him. A couple of pairs of jeans, some flannel shirts, underwear, tee shirts, thermal underwear, a couple of sweaters and a quilted jacket. I also grabbed some wrapping paper. It did not take long to get the stuff, but it took ages to pay for it. The queue at the checkout was massive.

It had gone five when we got back to the house. Tim helped me get the packages in from the car; most were for him. Once we had everything inside I made drinks for both of us. Tim opted for a hot chocolate.

I offered Tim dinner, but he declined, saying that John would worry if he was late.

"What's late?" I asked.

"Well he's due home between five and six so would expect me to turn up about half-six."

"Right then. You better have these and put them on your keyring." I handed two keys to Tim.

"What are these for?"

"The large one is to the lock on the side gate to the garden, the one by the garage. The smaller key is to the summerhouse at the end of the garden. I had intended to use it as a pottery studio, but never got round to kitting it out."

"Why do I need a key to the summer house?"

"Because we are going to put some of the clothing we got you in there. There is a shower and toilet there. There is even some heat in there. I will show it to you in a bit.

"Tim, if ever you are stuck and I am not here, you can use the summer house in an emergency. There is a small kitchen in there. I'll make sure there are some emergency supplies in the cupboards after tomorrow, just in case you need them."

"You don't need to do this for me," Tim stated.

"I know but I want to."

A tear formed in Tim's eye. He leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

Once we had finished our drinks, I grabbed a torch and took Tim down to the bottom of my garden. For some reason this block of terraced houses had quite long gardens, mine being over ninety feet in length. The summer house stood at the bottom of the garden. Actually it was a small log cabin, but calling it a summer house on the planning application had made life easier. I had intended to use it as a pottery and craft workshop, but then other things had cropped up and I had never got round to finishing it. Brian and I used the cabin as somewhere to sit and admire the garden from, it being hardly visible from the house due to the extension and garage. Also, the house did not have a veranda to sit on, and the paved yard was always in shade at the time we were home. We also used the cabin to put up the odd overnight guest when the house was full. However, that had happened only once in the last five years. The bedroom, though, was fully furnished, including closet space where I told Tim to store his clothes.

"Could I live here?" Tim asked.

"Sorry Tim, it's not allowed. We can't use it for permanent occupation. The odd night here and there is no problem."

"How odd is odd?"

"Not more than two nights in succession and not more than three nights a week."

Tim put his clothes in the closet, then turned and gave me a massive hug, almost picking me up off the ground. That done I showed him where the kitchen was located, behind a set of sliding doors, and promised him that there would be some supplies in it for him tomorrow. I also showed him how the heating system operated. There was a set of oil filled radiators which were thermostatically controlled to keep the temperature in the place above five degrees. That was the frost protection system to prevent any of the pipes freezing in cold weather. However, there was also a set of fan heaters that were individually controlled for each room. Some, like the one in the bathroom, were timer controlled and switched off after thirty minutes. Others, like the one in the bedroom and the one in the main room, were thermostatically controlled once they were switched on, but you had to manually switch them off.

I noticed that Tim kept looking at his watch.

"Problems?" I asked.

"I really should get down to John's, but I think it would be impolite just to leave you. You've done so much for me today."

"Go off to John's. I will expect you about …" It occurred to me I did not know what time John would be leaving Christmas Day, so had no idea what time Tim would be coming here. "What time will you be here on Christmas Day?"

"John's got to drive down to Warwick where his mother lives now, so I think he'll be leaving about nine."

"So, I'll expect you about nine," I told Tim.

We closed down the summerhouse. Tim gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek as he thanked me for what I had done. I double checked that he had my phone number in his mobile, just in case of an emergency. Then Tim let himself out through the side gate.

I went into the house and faffed about for a bit, trying to think about what to make for supper. I had had a large lunch, so really did not want that much. I eventually decided to do myself a smoked salmon omelette. I was just about to start when the phone went. It was Brian. We spent about fifteen minutes chatting about this and that. Brian as usual was complaining about his brothers. They were rather dismissive of him having what they called a simple sales job. Both brothers were medium level executives in New York finance firms. I found it amusing to think that they probably did not realise that Brian was almost certainly earning a lot more than they did.

Brian was on a good basic salary from his company, but most of his earnings came from sales commissions. Essentially he was on a two and a half percent commission on most of the orders he got. There were a few where it was higher. Given the price our products went out for, there were not many months when Brian's commission was not in six figures. There had even been odd months when the commission was in seven figures. The biggest joke was, Brian actually paid relatively little tax due to his resident non-domicile status. Technically he did not work for AAC; he was only seconded to it to run our sales operation. He actually worked for an international sales consultancy company based in Bermuda. Brian now owned the sales consultancy company. If the truth were to be known Brian was probably a lot richer than either of his brothers. 

Once we had discussed his family, including his multiple cousins, I started to tell him about my day. I told him about giving Tim access to the summerhouse if he needed it.

"Why didn't you let him move in for the winter? You know I'll be away a lot in the next couple of months, and it would be nice for you to have company in the house."

"I know, Brian, but it would be too complicated. We are not supposed to get involved with clients."

"I know, but I think the rule is stupid. At least you've invited him for Christmas. I don't have to worry about you being on your own."

We chatted a bit more. Brian did suggest that we might want to consider taking a holiday in January. He had to go out on a sales trip to Australia towards the end of the January. As a result he thought I could meet up with him out there and have a week and a few days holiday.

I told Brian I would consider it, though I knew that it was almost certainly not on. Our financial year finished on the thirty-first of December and as CEO I really needed to be around in case the auditors had any questions.

Once the call was over, I made my smoked salmon omelette, which I enjoyed with a light salad and a glass of white wine. Then I sat down to read but quickly realised that the lack of sleep last night was catching up on me, so I went to bed just before nine.

I woke up not long after six-thirty, got up, showered, dressed and went down to set about making breakfast. Of course there was no sign of the morning paper. It was school holidays and therefore no way the paperboy would be on his round until about nine.

In the end it turned out that I was wrong about that; the paper turned up just after eight. Not that I had time to read it. The first thing I had to get done was to wrap up Luke's presents. Then I had to get the local cab hire firm to send a car over to courier them to the Bromsgrove house.

That done I girded my loins to face the supermarket. I had got nothing in for Christmas, expecting to spend it on my own in front of the television. Now I had to provide Christmas fair for my guest. It took three trips to three separate supermarkets to get what I needed. However, I managed to get everything and had it all packed away just before one which was a good job. I had volunteered to do the Christmas Eve two-to-eight shift at the Centre.

I expected Kathy to be on the shift with me, but when I got there I found out I was doing it with Mary.

"Kathy's father's taken a turn for the worse," Mary informed me. "I told her I would cover the shift."

There were a few of the regulars in the common room. Nobody had any particular problems that we needed to deal with and the telephone calls were all asking for information, which we were soon able to give.

There were of course some calls which ripped at your heart. I took one from an elderly woman. At eighty-nine she had moved to the area to live with her granddaughter. She had phoned in to see if there was anywhere she could volunteer to help with LGBTQ youth on Christmas Day. I had to admit most of the LGBTQ specific places were closed on Christmas Day, just as we were. I did, though, suggest she get in touch with Crisis, as I knew they were open on Christmas day and a lot of the young homeless they worked with would be gay.

"Oh, thank you," she replied. "You see, my husband threw our son out when it came out that he was queer. I've not seen him since that day. I like to try and do something for them on Christmas Day, just in case some of my help might help my son."

I guessed her son might be in his late fifties or even his sixties by now. One suggestion I did make was she might like to come into the Centre and talk to some of the staff about the possibility of tracing her son. She seemed happy with the idea.

I did notice that there was no sign of Sally and her brother. When I mentioned it to Mary, she informed me that it had been decided to make a donation to Sally's mother's electricity account from the discretionary fund. That reminded me that I really needed to pop out to the ATM as the discretionary fund could probably do with another anonymous donation. It got one every few weeks from me of three hundred pounds. That was the maximum I could withdraw on any one day from the cash machine.

I finished my shift at eight. The Centre was closing down now till eight in the morning on Boxing day. Although the Centre was not manned the information call lines would still be answered. The calls would be diverted to the home phones of whomever was on duty. So, there would still be some cover for the real emergencies, which, without doubt, would crop up over the Christmas period.

I got home about quarter to nine and then set about putting up the Christmas tree I had bought and decorating it. Sometime after eleven I calculated that I had done enough decorating so sorted myself a light supper. I had had a good lunch at Davy's before I started my shift and the Centre. Then I went to bed.

Christmas morning I was up early, and after a quick breakfast got to work on getting the Christmas dinner ready. The turkey went into the oven just after nine. I know that for a five kilo turkey I could have started cooking it later for a two o'clock dinner, but I wanted to slow cook it on a low temperature for three hours, before turning the oven up to full to finish the cooking. The nice thing about this approach was it worked for the pork joint too, so I could have both of my meats cooking in the oven at the same time.

By ten I had got all the prep for Christmas dinner finished. I was also starting to get worried. There was no sign of Tim. I had thought he would have arrived by then. I got more worried when it got to eleven. I was also kicking myself for not getting Tim's telephone number. The thing was Tim had not offered it and I had not pushed him for it. One has to be careful not to push things with boys like Tim. They can get very defensive if they think you are trying to control their lives. Living a feral lifestyle might be hard, but at least they are in control of it, or at least that is how it feels to them. They will resent anything that they see as putting limits on things.

By twelve o'clock I was starting to feel somewhat annoyed. I had thought I had built up some sort of respect with Tim, but he had let me down. He had not even bothered to phone me to tell me he was not coming for Christmas dinner. Part of me felt very let down and very alone.

Fortunately, Brian rang just then to wish me Merry Christmas. He had just got up.

"How are things going?" I asked.

"About as badly as ever. Lane is being a prig." Lane was Brian's older brother.

"Why, what's he done?"

"He's got a quarter of a million annual bonus this year. Won't let anybody forget that he has a six-figure bonus."

"I don't suppose you mentioned you got more than that in commission last month from the Lockheed-Martin order."

"You must be joking."

I was. There was no way Brian would let his family know how much he was making. He was quite happy to play the role of the family failure. That way they were happy to have him out of the way most of the year, so his being in Europe where they could not keep an eye on him was a bonus.

"By the way David, Aunt Betsy is inviting herself over at Easter."

Of all the members of Brian's family who I had met, his Aunt Betsy was the only one I had any respect for. She was his paternal grandmother's sister. A brilliant academic who had never married.

She was also the only member of Brian's family who had ever been over to see us. She was definitely the only member of Brian's family who had me on her mailing list. I always got a birthday card from her, and the Christmas card she sent was addressed to David and Brian. Although we had never stated anything about our relationship to her, I was fairly certain that she not only understood what it was, but that she also approved or at least did not disapprove.

The call had just finished when the security buzzer went in the kitchen, letting me know that someone had opened the garden gate. As Brian was in the States and I was in the kitchen, it must have been Tim. I went to open the back door to him, wondering why he had not come to the front door.

When I opened the back door I found out. Tim was there. With him was a younger boy, who from his looks I took to be Tim's brother. He had a lighter skin colour than Tim, more mocha than dark coffee. There was a definite bruise on the side of his face and what looked like a couple more on his neck. There was also a definite reek coming from the boy.

"Sorry David, I did not know what to do," Tim spluttered out. "Peter did not turn up yesterday for our meeting. He did not phone me this morning as he promised he would, so I went looking for him. Dad had locked him in the coal house yesterday. He's been in there all night, and he messed himself."

That accounted for the smell.

Tim continued. "I'll take him into the summerhouse and get him cleaned up, but he needs something to wear."

"No you don't," I stated. Tim's face dropped a mile. "Come on in, take him into the utility. There's heat on in there; it would take ages for the summerhouse to heat up."

Tim nodded, took hold of his brother and guided him in, turning to go into the utility. I told Tim to get his brother into the shower and then put his clothes in the washing machine on a hot wash cycle. In the meantime I needed to find something for Peter to wear.

I went upstairs and got one of the towelling robes and a couple of bath towels for him. The robe would be far too big, but at least it was something to keep the boy warm and protect his dignity. I took them down to the utility room and gave them to Tim. He was rinsing Peter's stuff in the utility sink before putting it in the washer.

"What happened, Tim?"

"I went to the park yesterday to meet Peter, but he never turned up. Sometimes it happens, but he knows to phone me to let me know he's alright. He did not phone last night or this morning so I went over to Dad's to check on him. Dad was not in, found Peter locked in the coalhouse out back, had to break the hasp to get him out. He'd been there all night."

I wondered he had survived as it had got down to minus two overnight.

"Your father hit him?" It was not so much a question as a statement.

"Yes."

"You know he can't go back there? It's too risky for him," I stated.

Tim hung his head. He looked very dejected. After a minute he responded in a whisper. "I know."

"So that's why you're so late getting here. You had to get your bother."

"Oh no, I got him just after nine, but it took us all the time to walk here."

"You walked! Why?"

"There's no public transport on Christmas Day and I used that tenner you gave me, plus what John could lend me, to get over there."

"You should have phoned me! I would have come and collected you."

"No credit," Tim replied.

"Phone box and reversed charge," I suggested.

"What's reversed charge?" Tim asked.

Just then Peter came out of the shower room, a towel wrapped around him. There was a bruise on his chest that almost looked like a footprint. He asked where his clothes were. Tim told him they were in the washer, and handed him the towelling robe to use.

"I suspect you're hungry," I stated. I did not need to wait for a reply. The look in Peter's eyes said it all. Going into the kitchen I turned the oven down. Another couple of hours of slow cooking would not hurt. Then I made bacon sandwiches for both of them.

I knew I needed to get something sorted out officially regarding Peter; he was clearly underage. The problem was I did not know whom to contact, so I phoned Mary for advice. The boys were just finishing off their second lot of bacon sandwiches when she arrived.

She sat at the kitchen table chatting with both boys. I think it helped a bit that Tim already knew Mary from the Centre, although I was not sure he realised she was with Social Services. I was also not sure Mary made a point of informing him of that fact either.

She went over Tim finding his brother locked in the coal house carefully, making notes, but she also had a recorder on the table recording the conversation. When she had got that all sorted and recorded, she looked at Peter.

"Somebody's hit you Peter. Who was it?" she asked.

"My dad, and he kicked me when he locked me into the coalhouse."

Mary got out a camera and started to take photos of the bruises on Peter's body. When she had finished she asked Peter if his dad had hit him or kicked him anywhere else. Peter looked embarrassed. Mary handed the camera to Tim, asking him to take Peter somewhere private and photograph any other marks or bruises he might have. I told Tim to take Peter to the guest bedroom on the first floor and take the photos there.

While Tim was upstairs with Peter, Mary told me there was no way Peter could go back to his father. Then she floored me.

"He'll have to stay here with you."

"What?"

"Look David, you're qualified to be a foster parent, you have the space, and I don't have anywhere to put Peter, unless I take him out of the county. Think how that will hit Tim."

"OK, but for how long? Brian is going to be back next week."

"Oh, I think I can get something sorted out before then," Mary stated, with a cat-like smile. The sort of smile that the mice do not want to see.

When Peter came back down with Tim he handed the camera to Mary. She looked at the photos and gave a small gasp. Fortunately she did not show me what had upset her.

"Peter, I need to get a few details for my file," Mary told the boy. "How old are you and when is your birthday."

"I'm thirteen, my birthday is on the twelfth of December."

"And how old is your brother?"

"He's fifteen and his birthday's on the sixth of January."

We both looked at Tim, who suddenly seemed to want to vanish into the chair he was sitting in.

"Fifteen?" I asked.

He nodded, tears forming in his eyes. I went over and sat on the arm of the chair he was in.

"It's OK. You'll be staying here with your brother."

"I will?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"He found you," Mary stated. "So, he gets to keep you. Now I really need to get you two checked out by a doctor, but I don't think we can sort that out till Thursday."

"I don't know," I informed her. Then I rang a friend who was a consultant paediatrician. Like most consultants, he worked on Christmas Day so that the junior staff could have time off. I was right. He was on duty and when I explained the situation, he agreed to see the boys, telling me to take them to A&E where he would meet us.

I explained this to Mary and the boys.

"But what am I going to wear?" Peter asked.

For a moment I was stumped, then remembered the bags of stuff I had got for Luke, but had not yet sent him. I told Tim where they were and suggested he sort out something that would fit Peter.

Two hours later we were back at the house, sans Mary. I had temporary foster documentation for both boys. I also had a list of medical instructions. It turned out that Peter had a couple of cracked ribs, but had told nobody about the pain until the doctor examined him. The doctor had strapped him up and given me some pain killers to give to the boy. One every four hours during the day. Two if the pain was really bad, but not more than four in a day. There was also a stronger pain killer that I was to give Peter at night.

It was Tim who the doctors were mostly concerned about. It turned out that he had been beaten up and raped on Saturday, but had told nobody about it.

Once we got back, I turned up the oven for the turkey and pork to finish cooking. I put the potatoes in the oven to roast, and started to get things ready for Christmas dinner, including putting the pudding on to steam. Tim went to move Peter's clothes from the washer to the dryer. I suggested we would take Peter into town in the morning and get him some stuff at the Boxing Day sales. Tim smiled at the news.

Once I had got everything back on track for dinner, which was now going to be at five, I decided I better let Brian know about recent events. I sent him a text and asked if he was free to Skype. I got a reply back saying ten minutes.

I made sure that the boys were entertained. Tim was reading a book he had found on my bookshelf. Peter was playing on Brian's Xbox a game that looked like he was trying to wipe out every living being on earth. Fortunately, Peter had the headphones on.

I went upstairs to my home office and started Skype. Almost immediately Brian connected with me. I spent the next twenty minutes telling Brian about recent events.

"So, you've got two boys, one thirteen and one fifteen to look after?"

"Yes, Brian."

"Where are they going to sleep?"

"Well, for tonight they will have to share the guest room. Long term I thought I could move my office to the summerhouse and move the bed from the summer house into what was my office. One of them can then have that as his bedroom."

"You are thinking that they are going to be with us long term?"

I had not thought of that, it had just come out, but thinking about it felt good. "Yes, I am."

"Well, we can either move the office or get a bigger house," Brian suggested. We spent about another ten minutes discussing possibilities, then the alarm on my phone reminded me I had a Christmas dinner to finish. I said goodbye to Brian and closed down Skype.

I went back downstairs to finish cooking Christmas dinner. It was not a great culinary triumph. For a start the turkey was a bit on the dry side, not surprising given how long it had been in the oven. However, the pork had really benefitted from long slow cooking and just melted in one's mouth. The boys, though, were not bothered. They really enjoyed the meal, including the Christmas pudding, which I got Peter to do the traditional way. We set it on fire by pouring warmed brandy over it and applying a flame.

Tim and Peter insisted on helping me to clear up after dinner. We then sat around and watched some Christmas television. Both boys were yawning by nine and I suggested they have an early night as we would have to get up early in the morning to get into town for the Boxing Day sales if we were to get Peter any decent clothes.

I apologised to Tim and Peter that they had to share the same room. It did have twin beds in it, though,  so they each had their own bed. Tim assured me that it was not a problem, that they had shared a bedroom all their lives.

I looked in on the boys when I went up to bed around eleven.

They were both fast asleep. I was not sure if they could have been that comfortable as Peter had climbed into Tim's bed and was snuggled up against his brother.

I woke up just after four, the beeping of the alarm system attracting my attention. For a moment I thought one of the boys must have opened an outside door or window and set the thing off. However, before the alarm sounded the warning beep stopped. Either it was a false alarm and the system had reset or somebody had entered one of the access codes into the box.

I lay in bed for a few moments, trying to work out if I should get up and go and check the house, or if I should just go back to sleep. Just as I was about to put the later into operation, I heard footsteps on the stairs leading up into the loft. For a few seconds I froze, wondering who it could be. Then I called out.

"Whose there?"

"Sorry, Dave, did I wake you?" Brian's voice replied from the darkness. I switched on the light.

"How? You should be in New York, how did you get here? There is no way you could get a flight over on Christmas Day."

"I couldn’t stand it any longer. I told the family that there was an emergency back at home, then blew the brothers away by splashing the cash. Chartered a fast executive jet to get me over ASAP." As he was saying this he was undressing. Then he slipped into bed and put his arms around me.

"So, Dave, when are we going to have the ceremony?"

"What ceremony?"

"Our marriage—we can’t be living in sin if we have two boys to take care of. It sets a bad example."

I laughed, then kissed him.

"You're serious Brian?"

"Of course, I'm serious."

“Forsaking all others?” I asked to test just how serious.

“Of course. To be honest, Davy, there haven't been any others for the last couple of years.”

I pulled us closer together.

"You haven't met the boys yet" I pointed out.

"Dave, you've been talking about Tim for the last few weeks. I feel as if I know him, which I do a bit from the Centre. Anyway, I looked in on them when I came upstairs. They look cute snuggled up like that."

I laughed, kissed my husband to be, then went back to sleep in his arms.

We did not get to the Boxing Day sales the next day. Brian insisted on getting to know both boys, which required him taking both boys out for rides on his bike. Though Peter's was quite short. Cracked ribs and bike riding do not go well together. I was thankful that Brian kept plenty of spare helmets around. He then spent the rest of the day with them getting mucky as they did things with his bikes. I had a whole new pile of washing to do.

I did get Tim to move his stash of clothes in the summerhouse up to his room. At lunch I got all of them around the table and discussed the working arrangements. Brian was adamant that he wanted us to permanently foster the boys. I did not think that was going to be too much of a problem as we had both done the same training at the Centre, which Mary had assured me covered everything a prospective foster parent needed to have done. It also meant that both Brian and I had had full background checks done on us.

Mary phoned me first thing Thursday morning to check how the boys were. She also informed me that their father had been arrested on Christmas Eve in a queer bashing attack on a black youth in town. That explained why he had not got back to haul Peter out of the coal house. Apparently, the father had not told the police about Peter being at home. She said that because of the seriousness of the attacks the police were actually going to charge Tim's father with attempted murder, so he was not going to be getting out on bail.

Once she had passed that information onto me, she asked if it would be possible for me to keep the boys a bit longer. I told her that Brian was back, and we would like to keep the boys permanently if possible.

Mary laughed, then said she would see to it.

That evening Brian and I sat in the sitting room, after the boys had gone to bed.

"Is this all right for you?" I asked. Thinking about all I had dropped on Brian.

"Of course it is, love," he said, leaning across and taking my hand. "It's time I settled down. It's time I was honest about things and acknowledge that we're a committed couple. You taking in the boys has just brought things to a head.”

He went quiet and looked as though he was mulling something over. After a few moments, he gave my hand a squeeze and said:

“In fact it is the best thing you could have done. You've given me a real family. That is the best present ever."

 

My thanks to Pedro, Tom and Cole for helping me get this into a readable form.