Not Understood

by Mihangel

5. Cilmin

Built to last till time itself
Falls tumbling from the wall,
Built to last till sunshine fails
And darkness moves on all,
Built to last while years roll past
Like cloudscapes in the sky,
Show me something built to last
Or something built to try.

Built to Last, 1990

There was much to think about, that week. The ice of my self-imposed solitude was breaking. Like a seal long trapped below, I could now begin to poke my head up through the cracks and look around. Consorting with Kenneth seemed to have done me no public harm. He introduced me to Megan and I liked her. I still wore my hoodie, the hood now usually down but ready to go up. Caution, rather than total withdrawal, was my new watchword. It was not much, but it was a start. And I knew who was responsible for it.

And I knew him better now. Not well, but better. In him were visible many of the standard features of the adolescent, and I had no problem with them. Unabashed earthiness, which I was coming to envy — could I even coach myself to imitate it? Frivolity, which I longed to share. A degree of discontent, which I already shared. And opportunism, which amused me — I had not missed how he flaunted his body. At the same time he revealed a quite unexpected depth, an unusual sensitivity, and an obvious honesty. My qualms had been unfounded. He was surely a rarity for his age. I had met nobody like him. And already I needed him as I had never needed anyone before.

On the other side of the coin, he too had his needs, and they were not the same as mine. What he had seen of me, I felt, he approved and understood. But would he understand what he had not yet seen? There had been some near misses. Some of his shots had been perilously close to the mark, and I had barely dodged them. Yet at last I had met a travelling companion. We had started off together, and started well. He seemed as happy to walk along with me as I was to walk with him. How far could we travel down the same road? Only time would tell.

But another stage of the journey was already in prospect. On Tuesday, Kenneth invited me to his place for next weekend.

“You’re sure it won’t cause any problems?”

“No, if you’re your usual polite self. Mum’s already quite intrigued about you.”

I wondered what he had told her. As expected, my parents readily agreed, and on Friday afternoon I drove him home to his box in Maes Gerddi. He showed me the spare room, which was poky, and his own room, which was bigger than I expected, untidy, bright with Grateful Dead posters, and very much Kenneth. From the windows he pointed out the lie of the land and told me his vision of a flooded future.

“I see what you mean,” I said. “When that happens,

Dim byd ond mawnog a’i boncyffion brau,
Dau glogwyn, a dwy chwarel wedi cau.”



“Oh, right. ‘Nothing but bog and brittle stumps, two crags, and a pair of quarries both closed down.’ Yes, that’s spot on. Who wrote it?”

“T. H. Parry-Williams. It’s from a poem about Llyn y Gadair, up near Rhyd Ddu. Your Welsh isn’t bad, Kenneth, you know.”

“Well, I’ve been learning it for five years. It gets me by. But it’s still very much a second language. It always will be … Cilmin, want to see more of what I love and hate about this place?”

He took me down Porthmadog High Street, past a succession of pubs and fish-and-chip shops and gift shops and charity shops and, near the end, the Edinburgh Woollen Mills shop. We climbed to the top of a rocky tump which looked out across the sea and down the shadowy coast to where Harlech castle pricked the yellowing sky. Below us was the terminus of the narrow-gauge railway, built to bring slate from the quarries but now a Mecca for tourists. Beyond lay the quays, where the slate had once been stacked but now there sprouted a fungal growth of jerry-built holiday homes. Alongside was the harbour, created for the schooners which had carried the slate to the ends of the earth, but now a marina a-bob with expensive pleasure boats.

“Commercialised leisure,” said Kenneth, “paying lip-service to the past. There’s no long-term future in it. Come the next depression, it’ll be gone. Now look to the left.”

There was the Cob, the mile-long embankment which dammed the estuary, dwindling neatly to the far shore like a lesson in perspective.

“One day that’ll be breached. With global warming, it’s inevitable. Now look inland.”

In the foreground were the sluices that let the river out but kept the sea from coming in. Beyond, the drab pastures of the reclaimed estuary receded flatly into the distance. Over them towered the presiding majesty of the mountains, layered in successive shades of blue-grey — Ralltwen dark and Moel Ddu darkish on the left, Cnicht and the Moelwyn mid-toned to the right, and between them, remotely pale, the flank of Snowdon.

“This was all water once,” Kenneth said, “five miles of it, till a couple of centuries ago when they built the Cob. I was reading a book about it the other day which quoted Thomas Love Peacock — you know, the novelist. He was devastated when they drained it, and I memorised what he wrote: ‘The mountain-frame remains unchanged, unchangeable; but the liquid mirror it enclosed is gone.’ Unchangeable, yes. And when the Cob breaks, it’ll be a liquid mirror again. That’ll put man back in his place. That’s real permanence.”

He turned a very serious face to me.

“Cilmin, remember we were talking last Monday in the car, about history? I’ve been thinking about that a lot, these last few days. I can see the danger of getting anchored to the past. But don’t we need a continuity, not just from the past, but into the future? A stability, to set our rickety little lives against? Maybe we’ll make our own wee contributions, you and me, but we won’t significantly change history. Any more than man will significantly change the universe.”

“Agreed,” I said, and clutched at clichés. “Man’s a blink of the eye in geological time. An amoeba in the universe.”

“That’s right. That’s why I like these mountains. They were here before man appeared. They’ll be here after man’s gone. I find that reassuring. And now narrow the scale down to me in my little world. I’d include you in the picture, but I can’t speak for you. I’m only sixteen, but I’m very different from what I was at ten, say, or even twelve. I’ll change more as I get older. It would be sad if I didn’t. Some of the changes won’t be in my control. But some of them I’ll choose to make. I hope they won’t be casual changes, random ones, shooting off at a tangent, settling nowhere. But life’s nasty. It’s full of doubts and mistakes. What I need is a certainty to help me make the right changes. A continuity to reassure me, like these mountains. A road to follow, one that I know is going in a good direction. Sorry, that’s very muddled.”

I had not dreamed there was such philosophy in him. And while he had carefully steered clear of the word love, it was implicit. His metaphor was virtually the same as mine.

“Not muddled at all,” I said. “I do understand. And you do speak for me. I hope for that road too.”

“But you said you saw no prospect of it.”

“I don’t. But … perhaps it’s less unlikely than it was. And I don’t hope just for that road. I hope for someone to travel it with.”

“That’s right,” said Kenneth. “The right person. I hope you find him. I really do.”

He astonished me by putting his arm round me and giving a quick squeeze. It was an endearing gesture, hard evidence that he liked me and a hint, perhaps, that he still had hopes of me, despite my warning that I did not leap into bed with boys. Then it struck me that he had said ‘I hope you find him.’ Not her, but him. That puzzle occupied me until, halfway back to Midmadog, Kenneth remarked that his Mum would be home by now, and I prepared myself to meet her.

“She was divorced, you say. Does she still call herself Mrs MacAlpine?”

“Yes. And I’ll eat my hat if she tells you to call her Kirsty.” He grinned. “She’s been agonising over how to treat you. I think she thinks that at Lleuar you live off caviar and foie gras, so she’ll probably put us across as provident and frugal Scots. And Cilmin. She knows I’m gay. So she may be a bit, um, wary of you. Don’t let that worry you.”

In the event she was politely but not effusively welcoming, in a voice more Scottish than Kenneth’s. Her manner, though hardly servile, was appropriate to the manageress of a shop which sold quality goods. But her tone, as she thanked me for having Kenneth last weekend, implied that it must have been a considerable condescension on my family’s part. It was tempting to play the role she cast me in, especially when tea turned out to be kippers, boiled potatoes and sprouts, washed down with water.

“They’re from Joe Lewis in the High Street,” she announced apropos the kippers. “Not as tasty as Aberdeen ones, but very good value.” Kenneth winked at me surreptitiously. “But his haddock is wickedly dear.”

She asked where we, marooned in Clynnog, did our shopping. Maybe she expected to hear that Fortnum & Mason sent us a weekly hamper up from London, for she seemed taken aback when I told her that the village shop was good for the basics, and that otherwise it was either the Co-op in Penygroes or Safeway in Caernarfon.

“But we do occasionally come into Port,” I added. “My Mum was in the Edinburgh Woollen Mills shop a month or so back, and said what a wonderful range you had of cashmeres.”

That was shameless soft soap and not wholly true, but Mrs M purred. “And I didn’t know! Please tell your mother, next time she’s in, to say who she is.”

Woollens saw us, or her, through to the end of tea. Kenneth and I washed up. Then down to our homework, both of us at Kenneth’s desk, me on his computer for my essay, the Grateful Dead quietly in the background, the door deliberately open “so she can see there’s no hanky panky” — and indeed she visited the loo next door surprisingly often. Kenneth was right. She was suspicious. Like last week, Kenneth finished his work before I did, and with a word of apology buried himself in today’s New Scientist — “it’s fascinating — they think they’ve found a new species of chimp or gorilla in the Congo.” I watched him for a minute as he read. His was a comfortable presence to be in. He was … what was the word? … yes, reassuring.

I slept well in my cubicle of a bedroom, and next morning Kenneth suggested a walk in the mountains. Had I been up Cnicht, a grand one, and quite easy? No, never. So we drove to Croesor, and walked, and climbed — I found you could hardly get up Cnicht without using your hands — and did a circuit round the head of Cwm Croesor. The clouds were reasonably high, but the wind was viciously strong and talking virtually impossible. I learned little new about Kenneth except that he had strong legs and a good stamina. Weary and buffeted, we returned for tea (Irish stew) and then fell in with Mrs M’s suggestion that we watch a video. She patriotically brandished Braveheart at us. I had seen it already and did not much want to see it again, but she had hired it for our benefit and we could hardly say no. Before long both Kenneth and I were nodding, and were driven not unwillingly to bed.

Sunday morning was less windy but threatened rain.

“You don’t want to go to church, then?” Kenneth asked solicitously.

“No thanks.”

“That’s a relief. I’ve never been to a service here. And the church is Victorian. Not a patch on Clynnog. What shall we do?”

Silly to venture too far, and we had to be back for Sunday Lunch, with capital letters, which was evidently as standard a focus for the week as Matins was to my folk. So we went up Moel y Gest, close at hand and of modest height. Inland the cloud sat low on the mountains, but seaward the visibility was better. In the anaemic distance we made out Bardsey, Ynys Enlli, the island of twenty thousand saints.

“I wouldn’t mind going there one day,” Kenneth commented. “Have you ever been?”

“No, never. You have to get a boat at Aberdaron, and even in summer it can be too rough for days on end, if not weeks. The tides and the currents are wicked. So are the seas, all too often. And remember my seasickness. There are some places I could never bring myself to go.” In more senses than one, I reminded myself gloomily. “It’s just one of those things. But tell you what. Next time you’re at Lleuar, let’s make the next-best pilgrimage, to Braich y Pwll.”

“Where’s that?”

“There,” I pointed. “The very tip of the mainland, opposite Bardsey. You get a good eyeful of it from there.”

A distant squall blotted out the view, and we turned our attention to the nearer scene. From our eyrie it was easy to see the former extent of the estuary.

“How did people cross it,” I asked, “before it was reclaimed?”

“Oh, there were routes over the sands, at low tide. If you were sensible you hired a guide. If you weren’t, you risked disappearing into the quicksands. Quite a lot of people did. If you came from the north-west, you’d cross from Ynys Hir over there.” He pointed. “But if you came from the Criccieth direction you’d start from Penamser, down below us.” He pointed again. “It was a pub as well as a farm, catering for people waiting for low tide.”

“Penamser? What an incredible name! It means ‘the end of time’.”

“Yes. But I’ve heard that it really means the end of the tide. After all, time and tide can mean the same. Like in Yuletide.”

“In English, yes. But it doesn’t work in Welsh. End of tide ought to be Penllanw. I prefer to think of the publican calling ‘time, gentlemen’ at half past ten.”

Kenneth raised his hand like a kid in school.

“A glass of wine at the end of time,
The waves beat grim and slow,
A glass of wine at the end of time,
Love me and let go.”

Quoting Robert Hunter at each other was becoming quite a game. I had not come across that one before. Singularly apt. And there was no message in that last line, was there? Pure chance, surely.

As we got home, rain began to fall heavily. Sunday Lunch over (lamb, scrag end of neck), Mrs M seemed put out. She had a visit to make, she said, and had evidently expected us to go out again as well. But she could hardly expel us into the downpour, and had to leave us by ourselves. We went up to Kenneth’s room, where I sat on a chair and he lolled on the bed.

“It’s not you she’s suspicious of, really,” he said. “It’s me.”

“She doesn’t like it that you’re gay, then?”

“Not one bit. Nor does her boy-friend — she’s got a boy-friend, you know, though she insists on calling him her gentleman-friend. It’s him she’s gone to visit. She’s told him I’m gay, and every time he sees me he taunts me — ‘How’s the chip off the old block, eh?’ Things like that. He can be a real pain in the arse.”

“Chip off the old block?”

“Yes … Oh God …”

He sat up on the bed and crossed his legs, leaning against the wall, facing me, anxious.

“May I tell you about it, Cilmin? About my father? It’s not a pretty story, but I’d like you to know.”

“Of course.”

“Well, I only heard the full story after he died, a couple of years ago. But as early as I can remember, I’d known that Dad didn’t live with us. I grew up knowing that he and Mum were divorced, and accepted it. It was common enough, after all, nearly as common as now. Several of my friends were in the same boat. And he came to see me every month or so, as long as we were in Edinburgh, while Mum made herself scarce. Or he’d take me out for a few hours. He never took me to his place, though.”

“Did you like him?”

“Sort of. Cupboard love, I suppose. He bought me sweets and ice cream, far more than Mum ever did. He was fun, in a way. And I was getting to look rather like him. But I never really related to him. Then five years ago we moved down here and I never saw him again. Mum never talked about him. Nor did anyone else in the family, not that we saw much of them after leaving Scotland. Then two years ago, out of the blue, she told me Dad had died. I was shocked. Not distressed, but definitely shocked. I think one’s bound to be when one loses a root, even if it’s a … flimsy root.”

He slid forward to sit on the edge of the bed, leaning forward, elbows on knees.

“Well, Mum’s always been a stickler for family weddings and funerals. We’d been to a number even after we moved — her granddad’s funeral, then her mother’s, and several weddings of my cousins’. So I automatically expected to go to Dad’s funeral. But she’d have none of it. She said it would be quite wrong in the circumstances, but wouldn’t say what the circumstances were. OK, I knew she hadn’t been on speaking terms with him. I could see why she wouldn’t go. But why shouldn’t I? I got rather cross. Why should she forbid a son to see his father off, even if he’d been a pretty remote father?

“Well, after hours of argument she gave way. She paid for my fare and arranged for me to stay with an auntie in Edinburgh. So I went alone. I was only fourteen. I don’t much like that auntie — she’s got a face like a slapped arse — and she was equally disapproving and tight-lipped about it all. Next morning she didn’t even offer to take me to the funeral. I had to find my own way.”

Kenneth gulped.

“That was the day I grew up.”

He was in obvious distress. I went over to sit beside him and put my arm round his shoulders. He gave me a small smile, and carried on.

“It was in the crematorium, not in a church, and it was non-religious. No hymns or prayers, just people getting up and saying nice things about him. How he’d supported the local football club, how he’d been the life and soul of the pub. All trivial things. Until this fantoosh chappie stood up, almost in tears, and went on about his life with Alex — that was Dad’s name. He went on about the fourteen years of love and bliss and faithfulness that Alex had given him. Fourteen years. In other words, since I was born. I was … scunnered. I stayed to see the coffin through the curtains, and then I skeltered oot.”

Kenneth’s voice was getting more and more Scottish.

“I was meant to stay another night with Auntie, but I went to the station and phoned her that I was going straight home, and phoned the shop with a message for Mum to pick me up at Bangor that evening. I didn’t have a mobile, so she couldn’t get back to me. Then I got on a train and agonised about it all the way. It was pretty obvious that Dad had betrayed her. I didn’t mind that he’d been gay. Not as such. It was the betrayal that stuck in my craw …

“That was the end of my innocence …

“Well, Mum met me off the train, fashed that I’d made her change her plans. And I was fashed that she’d kept me in the dark. I’m afraid I was quite rude. The moment we got into the car I told her I’d discovered that he’d been gay, and insisted she tell me everything. Well, she hedged at first. Then she admitted there was something that she’d been going to tell me anyway. That he had died of AIDS.”

He gulped again, and my grip tightened on his shoulder.

“God, that knocked me back … And she said there was a risk we might be HIV-positive, and we’d have to go for tests.”

“And have you?”

“Yes. I’m negative.”

“Thank God for that! Sorry, go on.”

“Well, in the end she gave me the whole story. Or her version of it — OK, it may be biased. But it confirmed that Dad had been a bastard. Utterly dishonest. And that Mum was completely innocent. Apparently he courted her in the usual way, they got married, they had me. Then he walked out. I was only a few weeks old. He told her quite brazenly that he was gay, and had been all along. And a practising gay, too. That fitted, Mum said — he’d often been away from home on flimsy excuses. But he’d now found a full-time partner, he said, and was moving out for good.”

I was horrified. “As if he’d just been sleeping around before?”

“That’s right … Cilmin, look, I know that quite a lot of gays do marry. Either out of desperation, or trying to conform. Or even for love. But if they’ve got a gay past, a serious and active gay past, I reckon they’re morally obliged to say so. Before they marry. Even more so if they’ve got a gay present. OK, if they’ve only had, well, experimental fumblings, then possibly not. Or if they’re only gay in theory not in practice. But it’s obvious that Dad was entirely in the wrong. He hadn’t just been dishonest. He’d been unfaithful — if you give yourself to somebody, surely you’re in honour bound to be true to her. Or him. He may have been faithful to his new partner, but he certainly hadn’t been to Mum. She was very bitter about it. And she’s even bitterer now — I’ll tell you about that in a minute. And so am I.

“Well, we had all this out in the station car park, and found we agreed. She was still het up that I’d confronted her so abruptly. I shouldn’t have done, I know. I should have been more sympathetic. But I was all het up too, because there was a complication she didn’t know about. I was gay myself.”

Kenneth heaved a big sigh, and I gave him another squeeze of encouragement.

“I’d known I was gay for six months or so. But I’d kept it very quiet because Mum was not gay-friendly. She didn’t show it very often, but occasionally she’d tut-tut at something in the paper or on the box, or make a snide remark about someone in Port, and I’d read the warning signs. But it hadn’t sunk in how homophobic she really was. She sat there in the car molligranting about Dad. Fair enough. But when she’d finished with him she started molligranting about gays. All gays. Well, I didn’t let on. Not then. I wasn’t ready to. And if I had, we’d never have got home in one piece. She was upset enough already, and her driving on the way back was pretty scary.”

He smiled wryly in reminiscence.

“Well, you can guess I did some hard thinking. I was ashamed of Dad. Disgusted. I didn’t want to end up like him. I’d learned two lessons. To be honest. And to be faithful. Before then, I admit, I’d … fantasised about casual sex, and I’d happily have told lies about it. Not any more. I didn’t have anyone to be faithful to, of course. But I knew now that I’d wait till I found the right bloke, and then stick with him. And I hadn’t been exactly dishonest about being gay, but I hadn’t been honest either. Ought I to tell Mum, even though I knew she’d be bitterly disappointed? In the end I decided I ought. That it was fairer to both of us if my cards were on the table. So a few days later I told her. And soon wished I hadn’t. God, it was tough. She burst into tears. And started blaming herself for bringing me up to be another pervert.“

The conflict between honesty and discretion. My heart bled for him.

“Things did get a bit better, for a short time. Soon after telling her, I read this story on the web. They probably haven’t come your way, but there are lots of gay sites with stories about boys in love. And this particular story interested me because it was set in Cwmystradllyn, just up north of here.” He pointed vaguely. “On top of that, it said there was some scientific evidence for a gay gene passed down from father to son, though it wasn’t yet proved. So I tried to sugar the pill, and it helped. I told Mum about this gene. That I’d quite likely inherited my gayness from Dad. That there was nothing to blame herself for because she wasn’t responsible for my X chromoso …”

Kenneth broke off, staring at the carpet in a puzzled way.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“There’s something wrong,” he said slowly, still staring. “I’m sure it said the gene was on the X chromosome. Not the Y.”

“I’m lost. What does it matter?”

“A hell of a lot.” He pulled himself together. “Look, Cilmin. Everyone’s got two sex chromosomes, one inherited from their father, one from their mother. Women have two X chromosomes, one from each. Men have one Y from their father, and one X from their mother. There are lots of genes which only exist on the X — like for colour blindness and haemophilia — and men can only inherit them from their mother. So if there is a gay gene, and if it is on the X chromosome, I got it from Mum, not Dad.”

“Well, if it’s that important, why not check? Will this story still be up?”

“Oh yes, it will be. Yes, you’re right. Better do it now. It’s got me worried.”

I dropped my arm from his shoulder, and he sat down at the computer and switched it on. At that moment, as if on cue, we heard Mrs M’s key in the lock, and she came upstairs without even taking off her wet coat. She seemed relieved to find everything decorously proper. I got to my feet — Cilmin ever polite — and she offered to put the kettle on and bring us a cup of tea. The computer was now booted up, and Kenneth carried on.

“Right, find Iomfats first. It’s one of the better sites for stories. Here we are. I’m glad Mum didn’t come in when this was up.”

This was a startling but rather nice photo of two boys, totally naked, cuddling.

“To do her justice, actually, she doesn’t try to read what I’ve got up, if it’s text. But she could hardly miss pictures like this. Right then, now Mihangel, that’s the author. Now the story. Yes, this one, Xenophilia Part 2. Somewhere very near the end, I think.”

He scrolled a long way down.

“Yes, here it is. And I was right. Look, one of the characters says ‘There are scientists who claim to have found a gay gene. On the X chromosome.’ Hmmm. I suppose it’s always possible Mihangel misquoted his source. I think there’s a note about it at the end.”

He scrolled down again.

“Yes, here we are. Five generations of gays in the story, father to son. And Mihangel reckons his own father and grandfather were gay. He says the last thing he is is a geneticist, but at least he gives his sources — New Scientist, 12 May 2001 and 7 August 1999.” He jotted the dates down. “That’s a bit of luck. Now that I subscribe to the New Scientist I can access back numbers. Where did I put my password?”

A few more clicks gave him the articles, which he skimmed through.

“Well, Mihangel’s right that the gay gene, if it exists, is on the X chromosome. And he’s also right,” Kenneth chuckled grimly, “in admitting that he’s no geneticist. Because it’s bollocks to say it goes in the male line. Two years ago, when I read this, I didn’t know anything about chromosomes. But now I do.

“So there we are. If I’ve got a gay gene, it comes from Mum.”

As if on cue again, up she came with a couple of mugs of tea and, in blissful ignorance, handed them over.

“Honesty’s all very well,” he said thoughtfully when she had gone. “But I don’t think I tell her that, do I?”

“It’s ironic. Very. But no, I don’t think you do.”

We sat in silence for a minute, sipping tea. Then Kenneth stirred and swung his chair round to face me.

“But the worst is still to come. I think it helped when I told her about the gene. But not for long. Soon afterwards, the results of our HIV tests came in. Like I said, I’m negative, and I’ve had another test since, to make sure. But Mum’s positive.”

“Oh, no!

“It’s pure chance, I suppose, that she didn’t infect me during pregnancy, or with her milk. And nobody can say if her HIV will develop into full-blown AIDS. She’s on drugs, of course, though she started them horribly late. And she’s had no symptoms yet. You usually go without symptoms for ten or twelve years. But with her it’s sixteen years now, more like seventeen. She may never get it. We can only cross fingers.”

What an inconceivable burden to bear. For both of them — Kenneth was just as much in need of support as Mrs M. Small surprise that he craved for reassurance and stability.

“Oh God,” I said. “I’m sorry … But go on. Her attitude to you — are you saying it got worse again when she heard she was positive and you weren’t?”

“And how.” Kenneth pulled a gloomy face. “I tried to encourage her as best I could. To support her. And I still do. Who wouldn’t? But she’s treated me differently ever since. It was one more black mark against Dad, that he’d given her HIV even though she was innocent. And one more black mark against me, that I’d got away scot-free even though I’m guilty.”

“For God’s sake! You’re not guilty. Of anything.”

“Oh, but I am. As she sees it. Guilty of being gay. She sees me as tarred with the same brush as Dad. She sees me as dirty … infected. Not with HIV. With gayness. I’m gay, therefore I’m dishonest, I’m unfaithful, I’m irresponsible. And yet another black mark against me is that I’ve grown to look very like Dad. She sees him in me now, more than she’s ever done. I can understand her attitude. But it does make life … difficult.”

Difficult? Talk about understatement. Oh Lord, talk about injustice, talk about the sins of the father being visited upon the son. And he could understand her attitude? Talk about charity and forbearance. Yet from her he got precious little of the reassurance and stability he so badly needed. All things considered, Kenneth remained strikingly resilient, on the surface at least. He was outgoing and had plenty of friends at college. But I had been surprised that none of them seemed to be close friends. This weight on his mind would explain it. When you carry a dark secret, as I knew all too well, you are wary. You guard your mouth.

“It must be well-nigh impossible,” I agreed. “What astonishes me is that you cope with it so well.”

He snorted. “Maybe I seem to. But you don’t know what goes on inside.”

None the less, I did know, or I could guess. I too could cover up and appear strong. Usually. The difference was that Kenneth knew what he was, and I did not.

“You’re a lot older than your age,” I mused, thinking aloud. “Aren’t you?”

“Sometimes I feel like a little kid. Sometimes like an old man. You should know, Cilmin. You’re older than your age, too. A lot older. But are you ever a kid? When did you last fool around? Have horseplay with anyone?”

That was a bull’s-eye, and I winced. “I can’t remember.”

“No,” he said wistfully. “Nor can I.”

But back to the subject. An immediate question arose.

“Kenneth, your Mum keeps a beady eye on us here. I can understand that. But why does she let you come to Lleuar where we might get up to anything, for all she knows?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve wondered myself. But I think that I’m already beyond the pale, in her eyes. Beyond redemption. She almost expects me to get up to … whatever you care to call it. But she can’t bear the thought of, er, dirt in her own house. Of me resurrecting Dad under her own roof. I see her point.”

He sighed once more. “Well, I reckon that’s the end of my unburdening, isn’t it?”

“And what a burden. Thank you for telling me, Kenneth. If I can do anything to help lighten the load …”

“You’ve helped already, more than you can imagine. I’m glad somebody else knows. Just talking about it has helped.”

That was another unintended blow below the belt. “I suppose so,” I said painfully. “You haven’t told anyone else, then?”

“No, you’re the first.”

“Why me?” That was a very loaded question.

He did not look at me. “Because I trust you.”

“Well, thanks again. I’m honoured. But Kenneth, can I ask another question or two? To fill in the picture. But they’re very personal ones.”

“I don’t mind. Like I said, I trust you.”

“When did you come out to other people?”

“Oh, less than a month ago, at college. I didn’t feel it was safe to at school, because there were some pretty homophobic types there. I told Megan first. She was angling for me, and I had to be honest with her. And she told other people. I told her she could.”

“So you haven’t, um, had any practical experience yet?”

“None at all. Except with my own right hand, of course.”

“And how often do you use that?”

“Twice a day, normally.”

My heart, which had been rising, sank. A highly-sexed young man, evidently.

“You said you were aiming for fulfilment in your personal life. Slap me down if I’m being too nosy. But what are you looking for, exactly? Who exactly?”

He took his time over answering.

“Well, someone who’s gay, obviously. Someone who’s on the same wavelength. Someone I can be myself with, with no guard up, and the other way round too. Someone to trust, fully. A soul-mate, if you like — someone to love, and someone to love me back. Someone to be with, for ever.”

“And someone to have sex with? Two-way sex?”

He was surprised. “Yes, of course. After all, I’m clean. And old enough, as if it mattered.”

“So you haven’t found anyone who fits the bill?”

Again he did not look at me. “Not yet. Not in every way.”

No, I did not fit the bill in every way. I fell short in one important respect. And my guard was still partly up. He had been extraordinarily open and trusting in telling me about his problem, which was just as thorny as mine if not more so. It was up to me to reciprocate. If we were to get much further, I would have to. But I did not dare. Not yet. Could I ever?