Our fourth excursion told me why David preferred the view of Didcot power station to the view of the village, and what the worst really was.
“I need to buy some stamps,” I remarked. “And you haven’t introduced me to Dorchester yet. Isn’t that the nearest post office?”
“Yes, it is. Well, all right then.” He sounded reluctant.
Dorchester proved attractive indeed — call it quaint and olde-worlde if you like such language — and it reeked of history. But David was on edge, far from his now usual self. He led me down High Street, desultorily pointing out charming houses and ancient coaching inns as we passed. We stopped at the post office where I bought my stamps. Beyond it was the gateway to the stumpy-towered Abbey, now the parish church, and a number of other interesting buildings. Captivated, I walked on down Henley Road, and he stayed beside me. But where Bridge End forked off he stopped.
“Sorry, Peter. No further. We lived down here. So did Carl. Too many bad memories.”
No way could I insist. We returned to High Street and to more bad memories, of a different kind. Although there were shoppers around, I had already noticed that the pavement we were on was emptier than the other. I now realised that people were deliberately crossing the street to avoid us. A school bus pulled up and several teenagers got off, returning from secondary school in Wallingford. One yelled “Don’t go near him!” and they all gave us an ostentatiously wide berth. David seemed on the brink of tears. We were beside the entrance to the Abbey. Surely it would be safe in there. I steered him through the churchyard into the light and spacious nave, and sat him down in a pew.
“Is it what I think, David? The son being punished for the sins of the father? The supposed sins?”
“Yes,” he said gloomily. “Ever since then. Everybody knew me then, and most people still do. But now I’m tainted. I carry a stigma. Once I heard someone say ‘Look, he’s still not grown up. It’s that bad blood in him!’ And those kids on the bus … they were my primary school friends. Then. When I came back they wouldn’t speak to me.”
Oh God! I was beginning to understand the spin-off, and what David described as the worst.
“And at Shillingford,” he went on, “they heard on the radio that I was the son of a paedophile and murderer. That was more than enough to put me beyond the pale.”
“And when you came to Dorcic,” I took up the story, “the word was spread round there as well? By people who live in the village but work at the school?”
“That’s right. The first year, my room-mate lasted a week before walking out. Second year, three days. Both for that reason. Last year, he lasted a day. But by then it was obvious I was retarded as well.”
I put an arm around him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” came an instant hiss. “This is a church!”
It was an elderly woman, who I thought had been arranging flowers.
“Oh!” she went on, recognising David. “It’s you! I might have known.”
David put his head in his hands and burst into tears. I hugged him tighter. She sniffed and went to the back of the nave, where I heard her whispering. After a minute someone sat down in the pew in front and turned to face us. A lady in a dog collar, middle-aged and kindly-looking.
“Can I be of help?” she asked. “I’m the rector.”
“You could start,” I said bitterly, “by teaching that damn woman a bit of Christian charity … I’m sorry, that was very rude of me, unjustifiably rude … But David’s father is in prison for murder, which he didn’t commit. And that woman — and half of Dorchester too — treats his son as untouchable and an outcast. We came in here hoping for sanctuary from the bigots out there. But it’s as bad inside as out. Small wonder he’s upset.”
“Oh, good heavens! That’s totally evil! I’m so sorry. That murder happened before I came here. I’ve heard of it, but I’d no idea it’d had these repercussions … Listen, David,” she said gently, and he lowered his hands to look back at her, his cheeks wet. “Visiting the iniquities of the father upon the children is an Old Testament attitude. It’s not a Christian one. And it’s very wrong.”
“I know. That’s what hurts. Much more than if it were right.”
“I’m going to follow this up.” she declared. “There’s no alternative. I’ve got to put an end to it. Root it out. Yes, thunder from the pulpit. But can you fill me in with a little more detail, please? What about going to the tea room for a cuppa? It’s just about warm enough to sit in the garden, where we can be private.”
She was clearly sincere. She could be a useful ally. We agreed. She asked us to wait a few minutes while she dealt with something.
“Why not have a wander round the Abbey?” she suggested. “And don’t miss the Jesse Window in the chancel. It’s fourteenth-century and unique.”
We had a wander. David recovered enough to tell me that the Abbey, which was cathedral-sized, had indeed once been a cathedral whose diocese stretched all the way from Thames to Humber. And we looked at the Jesse window. But while it might be unique, our hearts were not in it.
Then the rector collected us. “I’ve had a word with Mrs Goggins,” she said quietly as we went. “A strong word. I think she sees the error of her ways. My name’s Sarah Friendly, by the way. Please call me Sarah. I know you’re David, but David what?”
She looked at me.
“And it’s obvious” — she was eying our blazers — “that you’re both at Dorcic Hall … Oh bother! Excuse me.” Her mobile was buzzing.
“Hullo Cedric … Yes, I know. But I’m afraid I can’t be with you. Please give my apologies … Well, I might be able to make it before you finish … Yes, Cedric, I know parochial church council meetings are important, but do remember there are some things that are more important still.”
She ordered tea and homemade cakes, and we sat at a table in the deserted garden. David excused himself and went to find the loo and perhaps to wash his face.
“He’s very young, isn’t he?” Sarah asked as we waited. “Is he a new boy?”
“Far from it. He’s been there three years. He’s sixteen, same as me. That business five years ago … David was the one who actually found the victim, naked and bloody. Carl was his best friend. The shock put a brake on his growth.”
“Oh, no! How awful! Why was he sent back here then, for heaven’s sake, when it holds such dreadful memories?”
“His mother killed herself. She couldn’t cope. And his guardian seems totally insensitive.”
“Oh Lord! So you’ve been … looking after him these last three years?”
“Only this last week. I am a new boy. On a scholarship from a state school in London. Put to share his room, because we’re doing the same A-levels.”
“Oh I see … What subjects?”
“English Literature and History of Art, this year.”
“And what do you make of Dorcic?”
I almost repeated David’s verdict of ‘It’s undiluted crap.’ But I amended that to “It’s dire. They don’t care. Nobody there cares a damn.”
She nodded. “That agrees with everything I’ve seen and heard. But at least you care.”
“And not only me. My Dad’s an endocrinologist and my Mum’s a psychotherapist, both at the Great Ormond Street Hospital. They’re already starting to sort out his problems. His physical ones, at least.”
“Thank goodness for that. And you’ve taken him under your personal wing. Thank goodness for that too. You’re a good man, Peter.”
My blushes were spared by the arrival of our tea, and with it of David.
As we munched gooseberry cake, Sarah asked him for an outline of what had happened that dreadful day, and for rather more detail of the slanders and ostracism that had gone on since. David answered carefully, but slowly and painfully. She was gentle, considerate and very concerned.
“I’ll do everything in my power, David, to stop this nonsense. Put something in the parish mag. Give over whole sermons to it. Talk to my church council and the WI and the Catholic priest. Talk to the parish council and the heads of the primary school and the secondary school in Wallingford. Enlist friends to get the message across in pubs and suchlike. But I suppose the most effective method of all would be to show the world that your father’s really innocent. Because that’s what you think, isn’t it?”
“I know he’s innocent.” David sounded desperate. “He just isn’t the sort of man to kill anyone. Let alone a boy. Let alone my best friend. He simply wouldn’t. But I can’t prove it.”
“But it sounds as if the evidence against him was pretty strong. Are you suggesting somebody, um, framed him?”
“It’s all I can think of. And that once the police found what they were supposed to find, they were so convinced they didn’t look any further.”
“Do you know who instructed the defence? Who his solicitors were?”
“No idea. I was only eleven, and nobody told me anything.”
“Has your father got any ideas? Has he said anything about it?”
David was slowly breaking down. His answers were coming out with more and more difficulty. I put my arm round him again.
“Only that he’s not guilty … He says so every time he writes.”
“How often is that?”
“Once a month at best … But he can’t say much anyway … They read his letters.”
“How often do you see him?”
“I haven’t seen him since he was arrested … Kids aren’t allowed to visit by themselves … And there’s no adult to take me … And anyway sex offenders aren’t allowed any visitors under eighteen … Not even their own children.”
“Oh, good heavens! That’s utterly uncivilised!” Sarah was as appalled as me. “Which prison is he in?”
“Bullingdon.” He was crying in earnest by now, and his head was back in his hands.
“Oh yes. Near Bicester. Well, that’s really very close at hand …”
But she gave me a look which said ‘What chance has a kid like this against the system?’
“David, you’re all at sea, aren’t you? And small wonder. I’m at sea too. But there’s a lot that needs looking into, and perhaps I’m in a position to look into it more closely than you. I do have a standing of a sort, and I do have a few contacts — a legal friend in Oxford, and one in Berinsfield who’s in the Thames Valley Police. I’ll be happy to ask them for advice, as friends. So will you leave this with me? I can’t promise quick results, I’m afraid — I do have half a dozen parishes to run — and I can’t even promise any results at all. But at least I can try.”
“Thank you,” he said faintly.
“How do I get in touch with you? Mobile?”
I answered for him, giving my number. “But I switch it off in school hours. They don’t like phones going off in class. Safest in the evening.”
She gave me her number in return. David spluttered his thanks again and blew his nose. As he did so, Sarah mouthed at me, “Difficult to doubt him, isn’t it?”
We walked with her to the Abbey gate, but as we passed through the churchyard she paused as if reminded of something.
“Do I gather your friend was called Carl?”
“That’s right,” said David abstractedly. “Carl Faithfull.”
“Ah! So that is his grave.”
“What?” he cried, startled out of his absorption. “Where?”
“Oh, my dear! Didn’t you know? Over there.”
She pointed to a distant tombstone. All the others were of drab local stone or granite and obviously old, but this was of white marble and pretty new.
“I noticed it,” she explained as we left the path and wove our way towards it through the forest of memorials, “when first I came here, just because it stands out. People haven’t been buried in the churchyard for donkey’s years — they all go into the overflow cemetery now — but my predecessor must have decided this was a special case and made an exception.”
The inscription was simple and moving:
Carl Faithfull. 3 March 1995 - 4 August 2006. A life of love, cruelly cut short. Are you all right?
David was back in tears, and I was holding him again. “That’s spot on,” he managed after a while. “Exactly right. Because it’s what he always used to say — ‘are you all right?’ Even if he’d seen you only half an hour before. He was always thinking of the other person, not himself. Peter, I’m going to get some flowers. Come and help me choose.”
This time we did make it to the gate, where Sarah gave him a motherly hug and shook my hand. “Look after him, Peter. As you are doing.”
We found a shop selling flowers, chose a bunch apiece, and put them on the grave. Then we had almost to run to get back to Dorcic in time for the afternoon classes, which we struggled through. He was in a state of deep depression, so after dinner I made him rest and wrote his literature assignment for him. That night he had another nightmare, even though I was alongside him. All the next day he was low, but did sleep through the night. The day after that, fortified by excellent marks from Mr Wetwang for his (or my) assignment, he seemed to be back to his usual self.
That afternoon we went on another longish walk which took us via Clifton Hampden to the woods of Clifton Heath. Once inside them and well out of public view, David announced that he needed a pee. For a moment I wondered again if he was flirting and was seizing an opportunity to display himself. But, though he did not leave the path, he turned his back on me to do the needful. It looked as if I had misjudged him once more.
When we re-emerged from the trees onto the road he pointed to a cluster of houses ahead.
“This hamlet’s got a lovely name,” he said, grinning at me. “Golden Balls.”
“Golden Balls? Weird! Why?”
“Name of a pub, I think. Long since gone.”
“Not called after that manky TV show, then. Or after David Beckham.”
“Beckham? What’s he got to do with it?”
“His wife — what’s her name? Posh Spice, Victoria — she calls him Golden Balls. So I gather.”
“Because the hair on his balls is golden? Only guessing, never having seen them.”
We could talk about this sort of thing by now without feeling uncomfortable. Or so I thought.
“Wouldn’t you like to see them?” asked David guilelessly.
“No way!” I replied unthinkingly. “If he was younger, maybe. But he’s far too old for my taste.”
“So you are gay!”
I was taken aback, but not embarrassed. In fact I found myself rather amused. It was a fair cop, and he was pleased with himself for trapping me.
“Yes. I am.”
“I thought so,” he said. “Have you ever, um, done things?”
“Yes, though not all that far. With my friend Doug. He’s great — you’ll meet him one day. But last Easter he realised he’s really straight, and he got a girlfriend. So that was the end of that.”
David looked satisfied. “And nobody since?”
“No. I’m not a sex maniac. Until the right bloke turns up I can live without it.”
“But you do wank?”
“Lord, yes. Of course I do.”
I still did, even at Dorcic. Not in bed, naturally, not alongside David. I did it in the bathroom, with the door shut. I refrained from asking if he wanked. But he did after all know the word, and obviously knew about the practice. Most likely he had picked it up from Carl and other friends of his carefree days. He seemed to accept it was something that boys were almost expected to do. Was it one of the joys banished by his experience? Still, while he certainly didn’t wank in bed, he might do it the bathroom too. But a different question was buzzing round my brain.
“What made you think I was gay?”
“Oh, I’ve seen you looking at boys as if you’d like an eyeful of their balls as well. But even though you’ve told me so much else about you, you’ve never told me you were gay. Why not?”
He sounded distinctly hurt. This was tricky. We were abreast of a garden centre and, to buy time for thought, I suggested we go to its café for a cup of tea. We took it outside and sat in solitude at a picnic table.
“It’s the only thing I haven’t told you, David. Or the only thing that matters. And I haven’t told you because I didn’t think you were ready to hear it. I mean, I’m chary of reopening old wounds by reminding you of what happened to Carl. And after that, you can hardly have a high opinion of gays. ”
“Oh, I see. Very thoughtful of you. Well, I’m trying to put it behind me. When I’m allowed to. But it would be wrong to ignore it completely. And I’ve long since learnt how evil it is to … um … to transfer blame from the guilty to the innocent.”
It was still strange to hear such words uttered by a treble voice, and especially when uttered with such passion. They led us on, since I now knew what lay behind them, to Sarah’s promise to campaign against the vicious gossip of Dorchester, which might bear fruit, and her promise to follow up the matter of Mr Kingdom’s innocence, which hinged solely on David’s point-blank refusal to believe his guilt. Short of finding new evidence, we could see no way forward. It was always the same problem. What could we do ourselves? What could two sixteen-year-olds do, of whom one looked eleven and the other was not directly involved? Still, advice from older and wiser heads could do no harm.
Only later did it strike me that David had not really revealed what he felt about innocent gays.
Hitherto, when in bed, we had not snuggled tight against each other. That, at least on my part, was intentional. But that night, for the first time, I felt his erection pressing against me. I was careful not to let him feel mine. After a while, as if realising he was getting nowhere, he gave a little sigh, pulled away, and soon fell asleep. But I lay thinking, because it had seemed deliberate.
I remembered back to when I was eleven. I had had hard-ons then too, not inspired by sex at all. They just happened, especially in bed. Was it a matter of being free enough from other distractions to explore my body? And sometimes I had wanked, although only with dry orgasms. But my latent sexuality had yet to awaken. In retrospect, I was surely already gay, but until I was thirteen I did not know it. Before that point, though Dad had told me about the mechanics, I had had no interest beyond boyish curiosity, and no experience. For me, conscious sexuality kicked in at the same time as puberty. For Doug it had been the same. But for David it seemed to have come well before. True, he had had experience, at second hand admittedly, but of a hideous kind which ought if anything to have put him off. Or had it, instead, precociously awakened his sexuality? Maybe I was making something out of nothing. Or maybe I had not misjudged him after all.
I was sorely tempted, that night, to take things further. But I did not, for four very good reasons.
First, sex is often seen these days as a harmless leisure activity involving a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of the hassle of commitment. But that was not how I saw it, not with Mum and Dad’s example behind me. It was deeply ingrained in me that sex went hand in hand with love. And I did not love David.
Next, there was no real evidence — not even this hard-on, nor the incident with the spider — that he was gay. He might be straight, he might not yet be anything.
Third, it would be taking totally unfair advantage of his vulnerability.
And last, I was no paedophile. It was not pre-pubertal boys who turned me on, but boys of my own age, more or less. Which once again caught me up short. He was my own age. Puzzling over this conundrum, I eventually dropped off.
Later I was woken by him whimpering in his sleep. An arm laid over his back quietened him. And never since then has he had a nightmare.
David had no mobile. “No point,” he said. “Nobody to phone.” But doctor-speak had worked. The school had given clearance for his visit to London, complete with the offer of transport, and now he needed to sort out the details with Dad. So I phoned on his behalf. Once everything had been organised, I added a request of my own. My sherry supplies were dwindling at twice the expected rate. Please could I beg another few bottles, to be smuggled in by David?
But infinitely more significant than sherry, that week, was my attitude to David. At first, as I said, I had pitied him. I liked him, even admired him, but did not love him. That was true, then. But over the past few days my outlook had been changing.
I still pitied him and liked him and admired him. I was still protective, and could not help recognising it. But he was growing on me. If at first my heart had fluttered at his smiles, it was now leaping almost beyond control. He was already at the centre of my world. His well-being had become far more important than all the inanities of Dorcic. To be more precise, I was starting to wonder how I could exist without him, and to dream of us living together for eternity. I realised, in short, that I was falling in love.
But what to do about it? Memories of what Doug and I had done together were overlaid by alluring thoughts of what David and I might do together. But we couldn’t. Or at least I couldn’t. My qualms remained. His soul was too wounded to risk, and his body too young. I could find no answer.NEXT CHAPTER