We had to twiddle them, as it turned out, for only two days before Sarah was on the phone again. Meanwhile, we wanted to revisit Carl’s grave to leave more flowers: not separate offerings this time, now that we were together, but a joint one. And David was suffering from a renewed attack of guilt about his feelings for his mother, because he had honoured his friend’s memory but not hers. We therefore took flowers to her grave in the cemetery too. He stood looking at it, downcast but dry-eyed.
“Oh dear,” he sighed. “There but for the grace of God … Is that very grudging of me? Very unforgiving?”
“No. It isn’t.”
I could give him no further answer beyond a squeeze. I understood the problem. His Mum, thinking she had lost everything, had taken what one might call the selfish way out. But she had not lost her son, and instead of holding his hand and facing the future together she had dumped him, as he put it, even deeper in the shit. David’s own attempts at suicide were a different matter. Because he had not yet rediscovered his Dad he really had lost everything. But it was all too easy for me to think such thoughts, I reflected. I had not been in their shoes.
Being in Dorchester was also a good opportunity to test Sarah’s reported conversion of the village. She was right. We walked the length of the High Street without anyone, as far as we could tell, avoiding us. Some did avoid our eyes, shamefacedly it seemed, unless we were reading too much into it. But a number nodded to us, and three actually stopped and apologised for their past behaviour, which caused David acute embarrassment. Because we were too early to coincide with the school bus, the attitude of his former friends could not be gauged.
And in one case it was we who did the avoiding. David suddenly stopped and pulled me into a shop doorway where he pretended to be looking inside. A man with a gaunt face and short grey beard passed by without a second glance.
“Has he gone?” David asked without turning his head.
“The man with the beard? Yes. Who is he?”
“Cedric Riddle. The dentist. He lived next door to us.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I just don’t like him.”
Fair enough. And only one dislike out of everyone who was in the High Street today was not a bad score. So when Sarah phoned we could thank her for the success of her campaign.
“Good. And I hear you talked Tom Gentleman round. Well done. I tried, but failed.”
“He talked himself round, really.”
“Even better. He’s a lovely man, isn’t he? Did you know he lost his wife last year? He was full of compassion before then, but he seems even fuller now.
“Anyway, two more bits of progress. First, Bullingdon’s agreed to a visit. Next Tuesday afternoon. Can you make that? Excellent. I’ll pick you up at the Dorcic gate at two, then. OK? You too, Peter. They won’t let you in, but I expect David would like someone to hold his hand on the way there and back. And David will need his passport or something as ID.
“And second, can you get yourselves into Oxford this Saturday, to meet Philip Justice? About three. I’m afraid I can’t be with you, but he’s easy to find.”
She gave directions to his house, which was handy for the city centre.
“Be kind to him. Not that you wouldn’t, but he’s in a wheelchair. He had a stroke three years ago and his speech isn’t always easy to follow. But he’s got all his marbles, and there are plenty of them. Let him take his time weighing you up, and I think he’ll talk.”
“Thank you very much. Ummm, we’ve never met a judge. What do we call him?”
“Certainly not Your Honour, let alone My Lord.” She chuckled. “I used to be his secretary, you know, years back. He calls me Sarah, but I’ve never got round to calling him anything but Mr Justice. For you, I’d suggest play safe and call him Sir. And something else you ought to know. It was eight years ago that I left his chambers to go to theological college, and until I got back in touch last week to ask his general advice about all this I didn’t even know he’d tried David’s father. So that was an unexpected bonus. It was why I put Tom on to him.”
Thinking that we ought to be better genned up, I searched online for the press reports from five years back in the Oxford Mail and — after forking out to get behind its paywall — in the Times. Where the Times was succinct, the Oxford Mail went to town on the inquest as well as the trial. But both were frustratingly guarded on the details of the evidence, and neither told us anything we did not know before.
On Saturday we took the school minibus service into Oxford and soon found Mr Justice’s house. His housekeeper — she looked too young to be his wife — opened the door and led us into the presence. He was indeed in a wheelchair, one arm useless, face lopsided, and speech slurred. Looking behind those disabilities, you could see he had once been precise and clear in manner. He was still precise and clear in mind, exactly as I imagined a judge should be, just as Tom Gentleman was exactly as I imagined a senior policeman should be. And he was eminently courteous. Shaking our hands with his good arm, he invited us to sit. Once the housekeeper had supplied us with pallid China tea and left, he turned to me.
“Sarah informs me, Mr Truelove, that your parents are both at the Great Ormond Street Hospital. I wonder therefore if you are acquainted with an old friend of mine named Rupert Helps, who until he retired a few years ago was an oncologist there?”
“Why yes, sir. I’ve met him at the Christmas parties they throw. He still turns up. He’s the star of the show with his wonderful voice. He leads the sing-songs.”
“Do you attend regularly, then?”
“Oh yes, every year since I was so high. They’re great fun. And not only for the kids.”
For a time we discussed how to keep young kids happy before he turned to David.
“And you, Mr Kingdom, I hear you are studying English Literature. How do you rate the more modern authors against the older?”
David blinked, but rose to the challenge.
“Much the same, sir. After all, their subjects are much the same. Take Swift and Golding, say — Gulliver and Lord of the Flies — each is commenting in his own way on his own society. Language and style change, of course, but at root mankind doesn’t. Nor how mankind views mankind.”
For a few minutes they compared Shakespeare to Tolkien and Pullman. Then Mr Justice nodded. We seemed to have passed the test. David, I could tell, was wishing he could mop his brow.
“You will be aware,” said Mr Justice, looking at David, “not only that I tried your father, but that I was troubled by the outcome. I would like you to know why. The judicial system of this country has many advantages, but also some drawbacks. We call it the adversarial system, whereby two parties, counsels for the prosecution and the defence, fight it out in court. They bring forward evidence with which they try to persuade the jury. The judge simply presides, making sure that procedures are correct and that the law is followed. At the end, he or she sums up for the jury, ideally with total impartiality, the evidence presented on either side.
“Sometimes the picture which emerges is clear-cut. Sometimes it is cloudy. There is a story, possibly apocryphal but highly apposite, that once a judge cried out in frustration at conflicting witnesses, ‘Am I never to hear the truth?’ ‘No, my Lord,’ counsel replied. ‘Only the evidence.’ Evidence lies at the heart of the English judicial system. The judge is but a referee. He may cross-examine witnesses, but he may no more introduce new evidence than a football referee may kick the ball.
“Some other countries employ a different system, the inquisitorial. In France, for instance, the judge or magistrate may, and sometimes does, contribute to the enquiry and suggest courses of action. And at your father’s trial I wished I had inquisitorial powers. The prosecution had all the evidence it needed. The drug, the coin, the blood, the semen were all certainly or plausibly traced to him. But the defence was inadequate. It gave no sign of having searched for a viable counterattack. It did not question the evidence of the police officer who conducted the investigation. While it raised the possibility that evidence had been planted to point the finger of blame at your father, it did not pursue that line nearly as far, in my view, as it should have done. It failed to make the case that your father was not the only one on whom suspicion might fall.”
“Do you mean, sir,” — I was more or less thinking aloud — “that having heard all the evidence and seen all the players, you had some idea of who might have been responsible?”
“That is percipient of you, Mr Truelove.” The distorted face looked as if it was trying to beam. “Very percipient indeed. Yes. Were I a betting man, I would have put my money on one particular individual as the real perpetrator.” We goggled. “But judges are bound as much as everyone else by the laws of defamation. I have no intention of revealing that person’s identity to you.”
That was a pity.
“Another trouble is that when any suggestion of paedophilia is raised, reason is often abandoned. Perpetrators, whether real or imagined, are demonised. Even the defence, I fear, demonised your father. Yet his character, as confirmed by many witnesses, seemed most unlikely to me to be that of a paedophile and a murderer. The same held true of his demeanour. Indeed I found myself wondering whether the very evidence for a sexual assault had been planted.”
He sighed, and we swapped a puzzled glance.
“In my summing up, while it had to be fair, I underlined these points as strongly as I could. But the jury was not impressed. After only brief deliberation, it found him guilty. Confronted with that verdict I had little choice. The sentencing guidelines are clear. A full-life sentence was possible. But had I imposed a sentence of less than thirty years, the boy’s parents would almost certainly have appealed, claiming undue leniency.
“So there you are. It seemed to me right that you should know why, despite my doubts, I acted as I did. But I am sorry to be of no positive assistance, and to be unable to suggest any fruitful line of action.”
“Might there be anything to be gained, sir,” I asked, “by approaching his solicitors? If we can find out who they were.”
“I can tell you their name. They are Dodge and Dodge here in Oxford, in New Inn Hall Street. But they are not an obliging firm. And you, Mr Truelove, have no authority to ask them questions. Nor have you, young Mr Kingdom, at least until you attain your majority. I fear that any enquiries to them would produce a very dusty answer.”
“Hmmm. We do have one hope though, sir. Detective Chief Inspector Gentleman is going to go through the police records.”
Astonishment showed on the lopsided face.
“Really? He told me could not, not without authority.”
“He’s doing it without authority, sir. And for that reason he doesn’t want it to be widely known.”
Mr Justice smiled his twisted smile. “That is very good news indeed. You clearly have remarkable powers of persuasion. And that being the case, perhaps I should have another word with him. At all events I wish him, and you, every success. And please give my regards to Dr Helps if you see him this Christmas.”
We thanked him and left. Even if we had learned nothing of substance, our morale had been boosted.
“He’s feeling bad too,” I remarked as we made our way to the rendezvous for the minibus. “That he didn’t do more himself.”
“That he couldn’t do more,” David amended. “I wouldn’t dream of blaming him. He was a prisoner of the system.”
“And who does he suspect? And how could the evidence for a sexual assault be planted? It’s pretty obvious what happened to Carl.”
Strange that for five years David and his Dad had lived so close without being able to meet. Bullingdon was only about fifteen miles from Dorchester, and the journey did not take us long. As she drove, Sarah filled David in on the procedure. The visit would last an hour. They would be searched on arrival, made to leave any bags and cameras and mobiles, and taken to the visits hall where many other visits would be taking place. A modest hug of greeting was permitted but not a long one “in case you try to pass on contraband.” Although the hall was supervised, prison officers could not normally hear what was said. But anything David wanted to give or show to his Dad had to be vetted in advance — “A photo? That should be OK, but show it to them when you’re searched.”
We had already agreed that it would be unwise to tell Dad that Gentleman was taking an interest. It would be cruel to raise his hopes only to have them dashed. We had also agreed, not thinking for a moment that she would be shocked or disapproving, that we ought in honesty to tell Sarah about our relationship. ‘I expect David would like someone to hold his hand,’ she had said. I was doing exactly that, partly because he was understandably on edge. She would not know the other reason. But David thought his Dad might very well mention it. So when we reached the car park, a little early, I broached the subject.
“Er, Sarah, there’s something you ought to know about us. We’re gay, and we’re in love.”
“Good for you, my dears. Good for both of you. I was pretty sure you were, even when we first met.”
“Well, we were gay all right, but we weren’t in love. Not then.”
“I expect you were, but you didn’t know it. Sometimes those most involved are the last to twig. I’ve noticed that with friends of mine, more than once. Now, I think we’d better be getting in. Right, I’ve got the visiting order and my ID. Got yours handy, David? We’ll be about an hour and a half, Peter, what with the rigmarole of signing in and being searched.”
A final hug for David, and I watched them go in. At least Bullingdon was of modern build, not a forbidding pile of Victorian dungeons like Wormwood Scrubs. But with its great circuit of defences it was still very blatantly a prison. A fortress, in fact, but for keeping people in, not out. With iron bars, a cage. A dismal drizzle was falling, so I sat in the car for an hour and a half, lost in thought.
When they came out, David was obviously deeply moved and more or less incapable of speech. All the way home I held him tight, and it was Sarah who told me how things had gone. She had sat back and observed, playing little part herself. And she too was touched.
“His Dad did thank me profusely for bringing them together, as if I’d moved heaven and earth. Would to God I could do more. But they spent most of the time just … let’s call it communing. They started with a hug which I’m sure went on far longer than it was supposed to, but the supervisor didn’t object. Then they sat for ages, his Dad with his hand on David’s, without saying anything, without moving, simply looking at each other. Then David gave him that photo of you.
“‘This is Peter, Dad,’ he said. ‘He’s my lifeline. He’s my life. Do you really not mind us being gay?’
“And his Dad looked at it for a long time and said very simply, ‘David dear, how can I possibly deny you your life? Or even begrudge it?’
“His Dad can’t have much of a life himself. It must be bad enough being in there for something you’ve done. To be in for something you haven’t done must be soul-destroying. Almost literally.”
How true. And I found myself thinking laterally from what Sarah had said. Father and son clearly respected each other, a relationship which I knew well. His Dad, for example, called him David, and I approved. It is tempting to use diminutive names for children. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. It had not worked with me. Time was when people at school tried to call me Pete, which I felt demeaning and belittling. To call David Davy would be the same. Whatever his body might suggest, it was five years since he had forcibly lost his childhood. And Dave smacked of the chummy, which did not fit either. David he had to be.
For weeks nothing much happened. One afternoon we were on another walk to Golden Balls and beyond and found ourselves on the road beside the forest on Clifton Heath. A bitter wind was blowing. David paused to watch another red kite soaring high above us.
“Perhaps they do breed here,” he said with interest. “Come the spring we must keep an eye open for nests. But not right now.” He was fidgeting. “God! This wind gets you in the bladder. I’ve got to have a pee.”
I was in similar need, and we went a short distance from the road. We did not linger to cross swords because with flies undone, even in the relative shelter of the wood, the cold was enough to shrivel one’s equipment to what seemed half its normal size. On our way back to the road David trod awkwardly on a fallen branch lying hidden under the dead grass and fell heavily. Inspection showed that he had twisted his ankle. It did not appear to be a hospital job, but he could barely walk. So I carried him home perched on my shoulders like an infant.
“Good thing for once I’m so small,” he pointed out. “If it had been the other way round …”
Despite my having to battle against the wind, we reached Dorcic well before the Thwing knocked off. She strapped his ankle up and lent him a stick, and within a few days he was back to normal. It was an episode, you will rightly say, of little importance. But it made me think. At the time it had plainly hurt him a great deal, but he had borne it stoically without a sign of tears or even snivels. Fair enough, you will say — sixteen-year-olds rarely cry for physical pain — and again you will be right. But David had often cried with emotion, and on occasion he still did. And that alone gave me a better idea of how severe his mental pain had been, and to some extent still was.
I was sitting at my desk gazing out into the twilight. The winds had long since passed, to be replaced by a ground-hugging wintry fog which carpeted the whole valley floor. All that rose above it, in the dismal distance, was the twin humps of Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, as if the cloud of grey miasma was issuing from her arse. But I barely noticed that. I was sunk deep in an introverted and dissatisfied abstraction, the sort of mood which, I imagine, descends on most of us from time to time. My dissatisfaction was not with my life with David — heaven knows there was nothing to complain about there — but with myself.
What had I ever achieved? My whole life had been spent accepting gifts which were handed to me on a plate: by Mum and Dad, in the shape of boundless parental love and creature comforts and a reasonable dose of inherited mother wit; by people like Doug, in the shape of generous friendship; and now by David, in the shape of unstinted love of the other sort. I had never had to fight for anything. I had no drive and, as far as I knew, no resilience. Not like David, who had fought against fiendish adversity and had triumphed …
“Penny for your thoughts,” he interrupted, making me jump.
“Worth more than a penny,” I replied, “because they’re about you. But,” I added darkly, “they’re about me as well. And that brings the price down, because you’re worth so much more than I am. I mean, you move forward. I’m a stick-in-the-mud. I don’t do anything …”
“Peter, stop it!”
He gave me a look that can only be described as penetrating. He clearly understood exactly what was bugging me, and how. He was wearing an aura of strength and compassion that I had never seen on him before.
“Right,” he went on matter-of-factly. “I see. You’re having an attack of divine discontent, aren’t you?”
“I’ve heard it called that. But there’s nothing in the least divine about it.”
“Isn’t there? Not even in the sense of the gods — or our inner self, if that’s any different — sending self-doubts to stop us getting too cocky? Look, Peter …”
He hauled me out my chair, pushed me flat onto the bed, and lay down beside me with his arms around my chest.
“Look, Peter,” he repeated in my ear. “You’re talking codswallop. Total balderdash. Unmitigated bollocks. I know, because I’ve been through it too, wallowing in self-pity for years. Then a couple of months ago it changed to exactly the same as yours, but the other way round — that you, after all you’d done, were worth so much more than me. You aren’t a stick-in-the-mud. You do get things done. Didn’t you take the plunge to apply for Dorcic? Haven’t you rescued me? Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to sign up to that version, any more than I sign up to yours. But one of the countless things you’ve done for me is to teach me self-esteem, and you need to learn your own lesson. It’s a matter of balance. Of striking a happy mean between the arrogant and the self-demeaning.
“So don’t let’s argue about it, Peter my love. Let’s just agree to meet half-way. To admit that we’re both good. That neither of us could live without the other. That we’re two halves of a whole. Maths mayn’t be my strongest point, but surely two halves are always equal by definition.”
Not a word of that could I dispute. My discontent was sent packing back to wherever it had come from. But only for the time being, I suspected, for I doubted I had the strength to resist when the gods sent the next wave of self-doubt to vex me. Once again David read my mind.
“No!” he said sharply. “Don’t think that! Ever!”
As if to shut down my thoughts, he rolled on top of me to close my mouth with his. He began to hump me, hard, before breaking off to run to the door and lock it. Then he stripped both of us naked and lay on top of me once again. Our love-making was urgent, even frantic, cock to cock and mouth to mouth, and we both climaxed in record time.
“We’re equal, see?” he said, once we had returned to earth. “Except,” he added as we cleaned up, “in what we produce, or don’t. But one day I’ll catch up.”
We resumed our kiss. He was already stiff once more. So too, astonishingly soon, was I.
“Sixty-nine now?” he suggested.
That was something we rarely tried because our difference in height demanded a fair amount of contortion, but now we were both in need of rapid relief again, and at the same time. He started on top, and as he thrust in and out of my mouth I used my hands to stroke his buttocks. My fingers, for the first time, ventured to linger with a feather-light touch on his arsehole. He squirmed, and before long he asked to swap positions. I was afraid I had gone too far, but he immediately began to tickle the hair around my hole too, which quickly pushed me over the edge.
Was he beginning to come to terms with his taboo? He did not mention it, even after we had recovered, and it seemed intrusive to ask. I knew he would tell me when the time was ripe. I had already wondered about offering him entry to my arse. But I had decided not to, because I knew he would refuse until he was ready to reciprocate by offering me entry to his.
At any event, by the time we had washed and dressed, it was time for dinner, most of which I spent in another abstraction, pondering David’s many-sidedness and his newly-revealed authority. I had thought that by now I knew him through and through. But, like Mum and Dad, he still retained the power to astonish. He evidently saw that this time there was no dissatisfaction in my brooding, and he did not interrupt.
He wrote another letter to his Dad, and received a reply. In this aspect of his life he was quietly happier, or less unhappy.
“We’re on a different footing now, Peter, and a better one. We’re so much closer, now that we’ve met again. There’s … less guesswork about it. Less dependence on memories. And Dad’s more cheerful too. He’s been boosted by what I’ve told him about you, and about your parents, and everything you’re all doing for me. What happens to me rubs off on him.”
Early in December we paid a second visit to Bullingdon, thanks once more to Sarah. This time David was much chirpier when they emerged. He had asked, he reported, about Dad’s finances. His affairs, the answer was, were looked after by his solicitors, who as Mr Justice had told us were Dodge and Dodge in Oxford. He had not been satisfied with how they handled the events leading up to his trial, when they gave him little sympathy or support. But he was saddled with them because locating a more congenial firm, and transferring to it, was well-nigh impossible from prison. Still, they dealt with his day-to-day finances efficiently enough. They had overseen the sale of the house in Bridge End, the proceeds from which were steadily gathering interest.
David’s fees at Dorcic, and his travel, and a very reasonable allowance, were paid for by the uncle in Bermuda from a trust set up by his mother from her own money well before her death. When David hit eighteen he would come into that, and it would be ample to see him through university. But should he need more, he could always call on Dad. That was very satisfactory news.
Christmas was already looming up on the horizon. As with half term, David was spending it with us. Hitherto he had always gone to Bermuda and suffered accordingly. This time he had written to his guardian begging to be allowed to stay away.
“It’s yes!” he crowed when the reply came back. “I think he’s as relieved as me! But Christmas with you … I’ve got to put on my thinking cap about that.”
For a few days he pondered, but finally raised an unexpected subject. He started lightly enough.
“Peter,” he said, “I’ve been on the horns of a dilemma.”
“Sounds a bit uncomfortable.”
“All right, put it another way. I’ve been dithering like a fart in a colander.”
I raised a questioning eyebrow.
“You know … When it can’t make up its mind which hole to escape through.”
I laughed. He was always good at outlandish similes.
“But seriously, Peter.” He put his hands flat against my chest, the standard sign that he was in deadly earnest. “Really seriously. At last I’ve made up my great big mind. And I’ve decided that I don’t want a Christmas present. Or a birthday present.”
I looked at him in astonishment. “Eh?”
“Not from you,” he went on. “Not ever … Because you’ve already given me enough for the rest of my life.”
What had I ever given him beyond the odd cup of tea in a café?
“You’ve given me you.”
For a while I could not speak. But I hugged him close.
“All right,” I got out at last. “Provided you don’t give me anything either. For exactly the same reason.”
“There never was a better bargain driven,” he said in my ear.NEXT CHAPTER