It was six months now since David’s hormones had got to work. He had already passed two visible milestones, if visible only to him and to me. Then, a week after the Caravaggio find, there fell due the annual World Poohsticks Championship at Day’s Lock. We went by punt. Dorchester might no longer be a problem, but it seemed right to attend an aquatic event by boat. Spring was afoot, with the willows breaking into pale green leaf and daffodils blooming in the lock-keeper’s garden. David spotted a red kite, shipped his paddle, and focussed his binoculars.
“Number 103 again!” he cried. “Heading for Clifton Heath! And carrying what looks like a tuft of wool. For lining its nest, I’d guess. The breeding season will be starting soon.”
He was leaning far over as he followed the bird, and the punt was tilting alarmingly. I leant the other way.
“If you’re not careful,” I warned, “the bathing season will be starting soon.”
Below the lock, by the bridge, we found a cluster of refreshment stalls and portaloos and bins full of painted poohsticks and a coconut shy and a hoop-la and a welly-throwing competition. And all the world seemed to have come, some of it dressed in Pooh or Tigger outfits. There were locals, Brits from further afield, Americans, Australians, Japanese and even, we heard, Kenyans. Above all there were kids of every age from toddler upwards. We gathered that there were six or seven hundred people all told.
And there was Sarah waving to us. The events had not yet started and, heads together for privacy, she asked us how Charles was acclimatising to freedom.
“He’s getting …” David began.
His voice failed. He coughed and tried again.
“He’s getting …” It came out the best part of an octave lower.
The penny dropped. He looked at me wildly.
“Peter, get me out of here. I’m going to cry.” Half of that was alto, half a light tenor. “Sorry,” he added to Sarah. That was a croak.
She hugged him. “Don’t be sorry, David. I’m just happy for you. I know what a landmark this is. I’m a mother too. Off you go!”
His eyes were flooding, and I had to steer him out of the throng. A hundred yards or so downstream I sat him on the river bank, my arm around his heaving shoulders. At the bridge, the proceedings were now getting under way. Organisers with megaphones, “One, two, three, drop!” The thud of feet as hordes of youngsters scampered across to the opposite railing. Squeals of delight. Applause. All repeated many times.
I did not need to say a word. My arm, I hope, said it for me. We knew, even better than Sarah, what a landmark this was. Hair and spunk were undoubtedly landmarks too, but they were private ones. Voices were public. Give him a few more inches of height and he could face the world as a man. I only hoped his voice would change fast. My own had never cracked as such, but had dropped slowly, imperceptibly and unembarrassingly. Doug’s, in contrast, had taken a month of madly alternating squeaks and growls before settling. Though not unusual for a thirteen-year-old, it had drawn attention to him and made him acutely self-conscious. For a seventeen-year-old that would be infinitely worse.
“It is an ancient mariner,” said David’s tenor experimentally, “and …” it shot up to alto. After a cough and a swallow, back down. “… and he stoppeth one in three. By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, now wherefore … oh shit!”
“Don’t strain it,” I said, squeezing. “Don’t try to force it. It’s outside your control. Let it find its own way.” He squeezed back.
We sat on in companionable silence, broken only by noises from the bridge and by further occasional experiments from David.
“Why look’st thou so?” he enquired as a duck landed splashily in the water nearby. “With my cross-bow I shot the albatross.”
A leisurely convoy of painted poohsticks drifted down on the current. “Slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea.”
An inflatable chugged gently past, from which two men with fishing nets were tidily scooping up the sticks. “And ice mast-high came floating by, as green as emerald.”
He was smiling now. More, he was revelling in it. Rarely in my life had I felt such satisfaction. Rarely, I think, had he.
A couple of hours later the hubbub at the bridge began to subside. As we made our way back past the crowd, a medal was being hung round the neck of a ten-year-old lad. In a few years’ time he would be going through these same pains. I hoped his passage would be smooth. We crossed the lock-gates and the weir and retrieved our punt.
“Leave this to me,” I ordered. “You take it easy.”
As I paddled us homeward against the current David lounged contentedly back, dabbling his fingers in the water. His gaze was on the new-leafed willows on the river bank.
“Methinks I lied all winter when I swore,” he intoned in alternating voices, “my love is infinite, if spring make it more … That’s bang on the nail. Wasn’t John Donne a great man? How did you come across him, Peter?”
“Mr Booker introduced us, years ago.”
“Oh, of course. But I had to find him for myself. Never once has the Wetwank even mentioned him. Or anyone else’s love poetry, come to that. For him, it simply doesn’t exist.”
“Just like nudes don’t exist for the Prude.”
“Damn right. They’re both repressed. I bet the Wetwank doesn’t live up to his name. But we do. We’re not repressed. And I want to show off.”
“You, of course. Who else is there?”
“And show off what?”
“Everything.” His hand went to his crotch, evidently adjusting an uncomfortableness. “All at the same time. Big balls. Well, bigger. Hair. Spunk. Deep gruff voice.”
The deep gruff voice came out as a squeak. He giggled.
“What, here in the punt?” I pretended to be shocked.
“No, silly. In bed.”
In bed was also a squeak. He giggled again, and I had to hush him as we were approaching the boathouse where there might be people around.
Back in S312 he did as he promised, and with a great deal of enthusiasm. His mind was firmly on the novelty of his puberty. When the first round was over, his hands strayed comparatively over our balls and cocks. He ran his still-slender fingers through my pubic hair and traced its continuations up to my navel and back down to my arse. He stroked my face and — today not having been a shaving day — explored what passed for stubble. He made me hum while he felt the vibrations in my voice box.
“Oh God, Peter,” he burst out. “I’m lucky to have you! Otherwise I’d still be an urchin like Cupid. I wouldn’t have any hair down there. I wouldn’t have spunk. I’d still be squeaking.”
Nonetheless, the squeaking still came out as a squeak.
His eyes swivelled to Cupid. “I wouldn’t be smiling, though.”
I was thinking, as I constantly did, that I was lucky to have him. Otherwise I would still be languishing in my solitary cocoon rather than snuggling, fulfilled and skin to skin, with the most remarkable boy in a hundred million. Mum and Dad had been right — as they usually were — that Dorcic would be a challenge. So it had been, if not of the expected kind. David had been right too — as he usually was — that I was not a total stick-in-the-mud. I had indeed absorbed a bit of my own lesson. I could not go so far as to admit that I had rescued him, because he had rescued himself. But at least I could now admit that I had helped, by being in a position to throw him the lifebelt which allowed him to rescue himself. Even so, as I knew full well, I was still lucky.
And, beyond all question, David was lucky with his voice. Today was Saturday. On Sunday the tenor gained the upper hand. Meals were no problem as nobody ever spoke to us anyway. By Monday morning the alto had gone for good. The only reaction was a few raised eyebrows and smirks from the jerks in class.
“Let’s keep this under our hats too,” he said. “As a surprise. For Dad. And for George and Sophie.”
It meant he could not phone. So I did it for him.
Three days later term ground to an end, and this time both Mum and Dad came to collect us. From our east window we watched their modest and rather dirty Astra drive up to the portico. It took them time to find a parking space among the shiny Jags and monster SUVs which were collecting other sons, but when we heard their footsteps in the corridor, David nipped into the bathroom, while I went out to meet them. As they came in their eyes fell on the pictures on the wall, and nearly fell out.
“But that’s David! What …? How …?”
Neither of them, after all, was into the arty-farty stuff. Neither of them, possibly, had so much as heard of Caravaggio. I tried to keep my face straight.
“His name’s Cecco, actually.”
“But … who’s Cecco?”
“That’s me,” came a tenor voice from the bathroom, and David stepped in.
He was greeted with gasps of astonishment and delight and even bigger hugs than I had received. I did not begrudge them in the least. He deserved them.
Then we had to explain Caravaggio. Then we took the Ceccos off the wall, to surprise Charles with. Then we took Cecco’s new voice home, also to surprise Charles with.
The remainder of this story can be told at speed. The Easter holidays passed quietly but rewardingly. Charles had settled in nicely and was well on the way to recovering his equilibrium. Hitherto I had seen little of him, and always in artificial or unsettled circumstances where nobody could have been themselves. Now, in the calm of Hampstead, his real nature was emerging like a springtime leaf unfolding from the bud. He was very much like his son: intelligent, witty, versatile, lovable and caring.
Nor was he any longer a prisoner in the house. The media had not tracked him down, and the gutter press, whose memory is mercifully short, had lost interest in a story several weeks old. He was rebuilding old friendships, and had made a new friend in the old buffer next door, a retired zoologist from the Natural History Museum. When everyone else was out they would talk for hours, or walk on the Heath, or even go to South Kensington and the behind-the-scenes mysteries of the Museum to which the old boy still had access. What was more, Charles was beginning to think of taking a refresher course as a vet, with the ultimate aim of finding a new practice somewhere not too far from Hampstead.
At one point he got me by myself.
“Peter, I’ve been talking with David about his mother and Carl. You see more of him than anyone. Do you think he’s really come to terms with their deaths?”
“Over Carl, yes, he’s found closure. I’m quite sure about that. Over his Mum … I think not yet. He still can’t really forgive her, and feels guilty that he can’t. Or he did when last we talked about it. But give it time. Mum — my Mum — is working with him on that.”
“Yes. Sophie’s been telling me. And she’s optimistic.”
We endured our last term at Dorcic buoyed up by the prospect of better things to come. David finally gave way to my pressure and we took up squash. To avoid any unpleasantness we showered not in the sports centre but in our own bathroom. At first our play was gentle but, though I had to make allowance for his shorter reach, grew ever more strenuous as time went on.
Several times he took me unprotestingly to Golden Balls and Clifton Heath. He had spotted a likely-looking nest high in a tree close to the edge of the wood, and finally his perseverance was rewarded.
“Aaaah!” he breathed as we sat silent and patient on the bank on the opposite side of the road. “Red kites it is!”
He handed over his binoculars and pointed. After some difficulty I found what I was aiming for: two dumpy and fluffy little chicks perched on the branch beside the nest, waiting impatiently for their mum to return with food. I was almost as chuffed as David.
“I’ll report it to the Southern England Kite Group,” he whispered happily, “and they’ll climb up and tag them.”
Half term again, again at Hampstead. David spent a long time with Mum and with Charles, both separately and together. There were more medical tests, and more good news. He had grown more than four inches in height compared to the previous September and was now into his second round of new clothes, and as he became more energetic his chubbiness was dwindling. When we returned to Dorcic he had a new confidence.
At the end of June Riddle’s trial took place. It was held in Oxford but, much to our relief, we were not required to give evidence or even to attend. He had been deemed fit to plead, and he pleaded guilty by reason of diminished responsibility. No debate was needed over the facts. What did take days was the arguments over his mental state. It was decided in the end that he suffered from dangerous personality disorder, and he was sentenced to indefinite detention in a high-security psychiatric hospital. And Charles’s compensation for wrongful imprisonment came through. As Tom had predicted, it was very considerable indeed.
With Riddle off his hands, Tom took some long-overdue leave and invited Charles to stay for a few days at his home in Berinsfield. What they talked about — whether dahlias and begonias or deeper matters — was not for us to enquire. But Charles, we learnt, spent the first day looking up some former friends, and he brazenly knocked on the door of the house in Bridge End where the new owners welcomed him and showed him that his precious flower beds had not been neglected. He came briefly to Dorcic to inspect S312. And on the Saturday evening David and I went to Tom’s for a meal. Sarah was there too.
“When you leave,” she said, “I hope you’re not going to forget us. No reflection on Tom’s hospitality, but this house is tiny and the rectory is enormous. Do come and stay, all and any of you, as often as you like.”
We promised we would. Dorchester, after all, was Charles’s and David’s belonging-place.
The Sunday proved another day of high emotions. First we visited the cemetery with flowers for David’s Mum’s grave. Unlike the earlier occasions, David was now in tears, and his father was comforting him.
“She’s done it, Peter,” David explained as we left. “Sophie, I mean. With help from Dad. And from you too, with all your support in the background. In a way, I suppose, it’s been a bit like you sorting me out. I think she started off with pity, which moved on to understanding, and finally she got me straightened out. Rather like you straightened me out in that other way. It’s her professional job, of course, but you did it just as well by instinct. She made me remember everything that was good about Mum, which allowed me to come to terms with her dumping me in the shit. So I’ve forgiven her at last. And I don’t feel that guilt any longer.”
From there we went to matins in the Abbey. Charles had firmly vetoed any idea of a welcome-back ceremony, but word had gone around and the church was full almost to overflowing. The service over, there was coffee in the tea-room where there was no shortage of people to have a word with him.
After a quick lunch in the rectory, we laid more flowers on Carl’s grave. Here the roles were reversed: it was the father who was in tears at the waste of a young life, and the son who was comforting him.
Then Tom drove Charles to Oxford for the train back to London.
Summer was in full swing. With our exams now under our belts, our time was entirely our own. We were sitting one afternoon on the river bank at the foot of the lawns, trying to make the most of the sun and the peace. Soon our nearest approximation to rural solitude would be Hampstead Heath. But today the Dorcic peace proved intermittent. First a cabin cruiser passed, its radio blaring out some trash at far too many decibels, until it was muffled in Day’s Lock. Then a rowing eight set off upstream from the boathouse, the coach bawling instructions from his bicycle on the towpath alongside. There was a loud splash and much raucous laughter. David gleefully reported, binoculars to eyes, that the coach had ridden clean into the river and the crew was doubled up with hilarity. Eventually the poor man hauled himself and his bike and the remnants of his dignity back onto dry land, and disappeared damply towards Clifton Hampden. No sooner had that noise died away than an RAF jet screamed ear-splittingly overhead.
We shrugged at each other in resignation.
“Huh!” said David. “So much for peace. Per ardua ad astra.”
I looked at him. He was lying back on the grass, jacket off, collar undone, sleeves turned untidily up, shirt tails out, tie at half mast, trousers rumpled, shoes scuffed, hair all over the place. He could so easily have been what he seemed to be: a kid of twelve and just into secondary school, rather than a year short of the end of it. Except …
“Astra?” I repeated thoughtfully. “Yes, of course. It goes well.”
“Eh? Do you mean George’s Astra? Per ardua ad astra’s got nothing to do with cars, you clot. It’s the RAF’s motto. Didn’t you know?”
“I did, actually. What I’ve just realised is that it should be your motto too. It’s exactly right.”
“How do you make that out? I don’t shatter the peace like the RAF.”
“Through adversity to the stars. You’ve been through plenty of adversity. And the stars is where your talents are going to take you. As a damn good writer.”
For months now I had felt that writing was David’s destiny in life. He had the turn of phrase and all the insight and imagination and humanity that was needed, along with a fair chunk of the experience. We intended to read English together at university, by which time his skills would have been polished by a year with Mr Booker.
“Though where my lesser talents might take me after uni,” I ruminated darkly, “remains to be seen.”
“Peter, Peter! That bloody modesty again! Your talents aren’t lesser, and you’re going to be a damn good writer too.”
Then two young red kites, still learning the niceties of flying, put in an appearance high above us, and brought the conversation to a premature end.
With nothing left to do at Dorcic, we had no compunction about shaking the last of its malign dust from off our feet and leaving two days before the official end of term. All five of us — without Tim who was otherwise occupied — were booked in for a holiday in Italy. It was Charles’s thank-you — or, as he put it, the first of many thank-yous — for the hospitality of Hampstead. One of our purposes was to meet some of the Ceccos face to face. Another, almost as important, was to clear out of the country for the duration of the Olympics, when life in London threatened to be unbearable.
On this occasion it was Dad and Charles who came to collect us and our belongings. Between us we carried all our clobber down to the hall — the porter’s services, it appeared, were not available to deserters — and handed in our keys. Standing behind the lady at Reception was none other than the headmaster himself. Because it was only the second time I had seen him in a year I barely recognised him. She had a word in his ear.
“I am disappointed to hear,” he boomed at us in arrogantly lofty tones, “that you are leaving us, not only two days but a whole year early. Has this wonderful school, then, had nothing to offer you?”
David was on top of the world. Today, after all, the very last of the remaining nastinesses was being cleared out of his system.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” was his jaunty reply. “It’s given me Truelove.”
“And as for me,” I added, “it’s led me to the Kingdom of heaven.”
The headmaster’s expression changed from the supercilious to the baffled, and behind us Charles and Dad burst into open guffaws.NEXT CHAPTER