Not Understood

by Mihangel

8. Kenneth

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow.
That path is for your steps alone.

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow.

You who choose to lead must follow,
But if you fall you fall alone.
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.

Ripple, 1970

I was woken by the pressure of Cilmin’s hard-on against my crack. As I rubbed it gently with my bum, he wriggled in his sleep and I felt it deflate. But I stayed awake, thinking. For the first time in my life I was naked in bed with a boy, an attractive boy, a gay boy, a boy I loved. We had cuddled and stroked and kissed. I had even, if ever so briefly, been wanked.

All this, until yesterday, would have driven me into a delirium of desire. In the event, weird though it was, it had left me sexually unexcited. Why? Because, I supposed, my desire was not reciprocated, because Cilmin was disgusted by what I had hoped for.

Nor was I even disappointed that my hopes had been dashed. Why? Because I was already in heaven, at last in the arms of the reassurance and the stability I craved. That higher craving, at least for the moment, overrode the lower. Even I recognised that the craving for sex, strong though it might be, really ranked lower.

That made me shift my gaze to the future and to some hard questions.

I had never experienced sex. I had never been in anyone’s arse or mouth. Nobody had been in mine. So would I miss it? No. On current showing, I would not. He was spooned behind me, in tight contact along his whole length, his breath warming my neck, his hand on my chest, his leg over mine, his pubic hair tickling my bum, his flaccid cock along my crack. We could not be closer. Yet my own cock was infected by his flaccidity. In this heaven, that was something I could live with.

I had two choices, didn’t I? One was to look elsewhere for my fulfilment. To abandon Cilmin, not as a friend, I would hope, but as an object of love. To take him back to the shop, so to speak, as a defective product to be exchanged for a functioning one. Where would that leave him? Alone again, and in despair, and surely no longer even a friend. Where would it leave me? Racked, surely, by loss and guilt.

The other option was to throw in my lot with the boy I loved, the boy I wanted to love. To live a sexless life with him. To be wholly faithful to him. To sacrifice shallower physical hopes for the sake of deeper spiritual needs. An omelette, after all, cannot be made without breaking eggs. Where would that leave him? Fulfilled, I had every reason to believe. Where would it leave me? Fulfilled too, in almost every way.

The questions were not so hard after all. They required no significant debate. I could do it. I would do it. I made up my mind there and then, lying tight beside Cilmin in his troubled sleep. At intervals he muttered and stirred and groaned, too modest, too considerate, to expect his needs to be met, and therefore expecting the worst. Should I wake him and tell him of my decision? No, let him sleep.

But I needed a pee. I carefully disentangled myself, crawled out of bed, and padded to the chilly bathroom. As I took hold of my cock to aim it, I found it was now stiff, and I peed with difficulty. Ludicrous that it should behave like this as soon as our bodies were out of contact. Nor did it not go down as night-time woodies normally do. Rather it was demanding its statutory release. All right, you so-and-so, I thought. You win. After all, it was overdue. But not in bed, or even in the bedroom — I could not risk awakening Cilmin and his disgust.

I switched on the fan heater, slumped back on the loo, and got busy. God, the ecstasy as the dam burst and the flood flowed free! I mopped up with toilet paper and stayed there to unwind. Instead, I began to feel guilty. There was an aspect that had not occurred to me.

The soggy paper in my hand accused me. I had said I loved him, and so I did. I wanted to give myself to him, all of myself. But here I was reserving something for my own selfish pleasure. Was that love, or was it self-love? Was I being unfaithful already? I looked at the mess in the paper. Rightfully it belonged to Cilmin, but emphatically he did not want it. I had produced it solely for my own gratification. He was not involved. It demeaned him. It somehow defiled his purity. Self-disgust took over.

I ought not to be doing this. But could I give it up? That was the challenge. It was engrained in me. Twice a day at least, ever since I had first discovered it when puberty hit. Lordy me! That decision so easily taken a few minutes ago was already in tatters. It had to be rethought, even discussed with Cilmin. I flushed the wretched paper away, flannelled my chest and belly to remove any contamination that might be left, washed my hands, and returned to the bedroom.

He was now sprawled right across the bed. Why disturb him? He needed his sleep. Until he woke up I would spend the time in thought. Putting on some clothes, I sat down at Cilmin’s desk. The light was still on from last night and the gas fire still burning. But my mind refused to think. It chased itself round in guilty circles and refused to stop and focus. All right then, give it a chance to settle. Do something else.

I nipped to my room for Friday’s unopened New Scientist, ripped off the wrapper, and took it back to his desk. A glance at the cover showed a picture of a faceless head and the headline ‘Return of the liquid universe.’ Something to do with the big bang and quantum chromodynamics, it seemed, distinctly beyond my little brain. But at the foot of the cover, in bold yellow letters on red, was another headline.

The Asexual Revolution
People who live without lust

I sat up with a jolt and hunted inside. And read, and read. And then I saw that Cilmin was awake, and handed it over to him to read.

We talked about identity. I fed him his breakfast. I read more of the New Scientist and learned about a new slant on the gay gene. All the time he was sitting starkers at his desk, either engrossed in his new website or visibly pining to get back to it. No blame to him, none at all — he was at last discovering himself, locating the community out there which he had not known existed. If his attention was off my immediate problem, I could in no way reproach him. But I had to pick up my interrupted musings of last night and attempt to plot a path ahead, for both of us.

As I stared unseeing at the wall. After a while I found, by focussing my eyes, that in front of me was a framed photograph I had not yet properly hoisted in. It showed a couple in silhouette, too far away to tell their gender, standing hand in hand and gazing across a distant sea. Reminiscent of us on Braich y Pwll yesterday, except that this scene was calm rather than gale-battered. Reminiscent of my needs too, of someone to hold my hand through life and share my joys and unhappinesses. Reminiscent of Cilmin’s needs as well: no doubt that was why he had put it up.

I tried to look into the future with adjusted eyes. I still loved him. I still wanted to be with him for ever, and the little Welsh corner of my brain concocted a little wry joke. Forever. Until the end of time. Hyd Penamser. As far as Penamser. That fitted. Hugging Cilmin, sleeping with Cilmin, would be no problem at Lleuar. But at Port, once we had passed Penamser, it would be taboo. Best behaviour only, there.

Even so, no great hardship, this academic year. But what of the year after, with Cilmin at university and me still at Pwllheli? Well, he could take a gap year, couldn’t he, and we’d both go to university together. Pie in the sky, maybe. Don’t cross your bridges, Kenneth … But not impossible. One does like stories to have happy endings.

All very well to daydream. But being with Cilmin for ever … On what terms? On whose terms? That was the crunch. Should I break the habit of all my adolescent years? Could I break it? My mind was overcrowded and confused, and it was difficult to be dispassionate while he was a few feet away, seductively naked and velvety. To find any answers I needed to be alone, receptive to any outside guidance that might come my way. I asked if he minded if I went out, gripped him by his bare shoulders, and kissed him on the lips.

“Cilmin. I love you. Don’t ever forget that.”

First I tried the beach, which took me past the holly trees. Their berries were now turning red, and no green ones were left. Red meant stop. Go no further. But plants could hardly dictate my life, asexual though they were. Nor was there counsel from the sea. The grey waves were gentle now and their repetitive splash unenlightening. The tide was in and the shingle uncomfortable underfoot.

I turned back and found myself at the dolmen in the middle of the field. Had the old ghosts any advice in my quandary? A fortnight ago — was it only a fortnight? — they had seemed to enjoy my lewd limerick. Wriggling through a gap in the railing, I leaned against the capstone, my nose level with its top, my fingers wandering over the cup-marks, my mind blank.

It had been built, this monument, five thousand years ago by the earliest farmers, and through its boding aura of ancient mystery the message of their spirits spoke clear — sow, and you shall reap. Well, I would never reap in the sense of generating offspring. Cast your seed wide, they said. But that to me, with my standards, was anathema. Then spill your seed by yourself, they replied. Seed that never leaves the sack is seed wasted.


I wandered inland again, past Lleuar’s gateposts, to the church. Matins was over and the last of the congregation was straggling away through the lychgate. I ambled across the empty nave, under the tower and along the vaulted passage to Capel y Bedd. Beneath my feet, within the ancient foundations marked out on the flags, lay the bones of stern old Beuno who fourteen hundred years ago had been a power in the land. Two weeks back, in his church, I had laughed out loud. That, if he had been close enough to hear, would undoubtedly have earned his rebuke. Repentantly, I opened my mind to him.

Sow no seed, he told me. No seed at all, unless it be the word of God. Which, in the context, meant celibacy. More than celibacy — total abstinence. Well, he was an ascetic, wasn’t he? An evangelical in the mould of dour old Dewi Sant. His was a partisan message, and I could have expected nothing else. But it made the score one-all.

In search of a deciding vote, I returned to the church proper and sat in the front row of chairs, within sight of the family tombs in the transept. Through the screen I could see, beside the altar and below the great wide east window, the memorial to William Glynne with his gaggle of offspring. In the light and airy openness of this building, might the more enlightened philosophies of the last five hundred years offer a more liberal answer?

I tried to empty my mind again, but dark shadows swirled insistently around it. For maybe an hour my thoughts found nothing on which to crystallise, until I became aware that someone was sitting beside me. The vicar. I had no idea how long he had been there.

“You’ve been so far away,” he remarked when he saw that I had surfaced, “and for so long, that I wondered whether I could be of any help.”

“Well, thanks.” I was almost in tears. “But it’s a decision I’ve got to make for myself.”

“I hope that doesn’t rule out a helping hand. But if I am intruding, Kenneth, tell me to go away.”

That I could not do. I did need help. And why should he remember my name? We had barely been introduced, and a fortnight ago at that.

“Let me draw a bow at a venture,” he went on when I did not reply, “that your perplexity is about love.”

That surprised me still more. “Yes, it is.”

“It is only between you and him, isn’t it? There’s no third party involved?”

“No, no third party.”

“And you are wondering whether the sacrifice is too great.”

I nodded slowly. It was dawning on me that he knew exactly what was going on.

“I said it was about love,” I protested, “but you didn’t talk about her. You talked about him. You know who it is, then?”

The vicar smiled a little. “Yes. I know.”

“And it doesn’t, um, bother you?”

“Not in the least. And especially not in this case.”

I knew then that I had found the adviser I was after: not the licentious old farmers, not the puritanical old saint, but the voice of tolerance and reason.

“About your sacrifice, then, Kenneth. As you say, the decision has to be yours alone. Let me add only this. He’s a troubled spirit. But he’s pure gold, you know. He’s worth a big sacrifice. But not so big that you destroy yourself in the process. In love, in proper love, there are always two partners, aren’t there? Each of them has to consider the other, but not to the exclusion of themselves. Yet he needs all the help he can reasonably get. Do you know that wonderful poem by Thomas Bracken, Not Understood?”

I shook my head.

“Well, one verse goes,

“Not understood. How many breasts are aching
For lack of sympathy! Ah day to day
How many cheerless, lonely hearts are breaking!
How many noble spirits pass away —
Not understood.

“That’s him, exactly. Only three people begin to understand him, I think. His parents, and me. We’re all in on his, ah, secret. But we’re not enough. Worse still, we’re the wrong people. He needs understanding from someone his own age. He needs sympathy. And above all he needs love, romantic love. Are you the fourth, Kenneth? Do you understand him?”

“Yes, I do. Now.”

“Good. And therefore you sympathise. And if you can take the further step and love him on his own terms, you will have rescued him. But I can guess how great a sacrifice it will be, to forgo the expectations you must have had. It will demand much strength. Do you think you have it?”

“If you’d asked me yesterday I’d have said no. Now I’m trying to persuade myself to say yes. I’m OK with half of the sacrifice. It’s the other half that’s the problem.”

His brow crinkled. “I don’t quite understand.”

Oh dear. I would have to explain in full. I would have to talk about cringingly personal things, in a church of all places, to a vicar of all people, kindly though he was. But it was too important to wriggle out of. I drew a deep breath and tried to put it as delicately as I could.

“Well, I did have expectations. Um, physical expectations, of what I, er, hoped to do with him.” I was sure I was blushing furiously. “But now that I know about him, I’m ready to go without them. We couldn’t get anywhere if I wasn’t.

“And I’d never look elsewhere to make up for them. My father betrayed my mother. He married her without telling her that he was a practising gay. When I was a baby he walked out on her to live with his, er, lover. He’d already given her HIV, and in the end he died of AIDS. When I heard about all that, I learned two lessons. One was honesty. The other was fidelity. And a few months back I went to a cousin’s wedding in London. I’m afraid I’m not religious, rev … er …”

I realised I had no idea how to address him, and broke off in confusion.

“Call me Gwilym,” he said helpfully. “Cilmin does.”

“Oh, right … Gwilym, I’m afraid I don’t believe in God. But at this wedding the promises they made seemed exactly right. Something about forsaking all others.”

“Yes. ‘Forsaking all other, to keep thee only unto him.’ And they go on to promise ‘to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part’.”

“Yes, that’s it. Well, that, er, reinforced my ideas about honesty and fidelity. That’s the sort of relationship I want. I want permanence. Stability. Not … casual affairs. If I, well, teamed up with Cilmin, I would forsake all others. I’ve no problem with that.”

“Good for you, then. So what is the problem?”

“Well … what follows on from that.”

“Ah, I think I’m beginning to see. Has he asked you for anything more?”

“No. That’s the trouble. He hasn’t asked for anything at all, and I doubt he ever will. I’ve got to work it out for myself. What he hopes for. How much to offer him. How much I can give. Of my own accord.”

“You mean, how much you can give beyond forsaking all others? Now I understand. As the second part of your sacrifice, you’re contemplating forsaking your own self. In other words, you’re contemplating total abstinence. Have I got that right?”

At last we had arrived. “Yes.”

“Isn’t that considering Cilmin to the exclusion of yourself? Self-sacrifice in a good cause is one thing. Unnecessary self-sacrifice is quite another.”


“Yes, unnecessary. Look, Kenneth, let’s be blunt about this. As a normal young man you have your sexuality. You have your sexual needs. With the best will in the world, Cilmin can’t offer you a sexual relationship, and you’re prepared to forgo it, with him and with anyone else. That is a sacrifice indeed. You would be giving him what he needs — your love, your honesty, and your fidelity. But what about your needs? He does not need your total abstinence. And therefore he surely does not hope for it.“

“But Gwilym …”

“Isn’t it rather like food and drink? Which should be enjoyed?”

“But you can’t live without food and drink. You can live without sex. Of any sort.”

“True. But sexuality is given by God — or, you’d no doubt rather say, by nature. Gifts from God — gifts from nature — should be enjoyed. In the right way, of course. Enjoy your food and drink, without over-eating or over-drinking. Enjoy your sexuality, without being unfaithful to your partner. Which in your case means enjoying your sexuality by yourself.”

“But it also talks in the wedding service about your body …”

“‘With my body I thee worship’? Yes, it does.”

“But my body seems … irrelevant. Because I can’t worship him with it.”

“Oh, but you can. Not directly, true. But indirectly, and no doubt in private. And still in love. He would be absent in body, but present in spirit, present in love, knowing that you were doing it in love. I see no reason why you shouldn’t. And every reason why you should. Not only for your own sake, but for his too. That’s my advice.

“I must be off. Look, Kenneth. You may not believe in God, but that doesn’t matter, because you’re a good man. The very best. And the first man, of his age, to see what Cilmin needs, and to be able to supply it. If you fail, I doubt if anyone will succeed. So don’t risk failure by making excessive demands of yourself. You will both succeed so long as you understand each other. The last verse of that poem runs,

“O God! that men would see a little clearer,
Or judge less harshly when they cannot see;
O God! that men would draw a little nearer
To one another; they’d be nearer thee —
And understood.”

He stood up. I stood up too.

“Kenneth. If it means anything to you, you have my blessing, and you have Goronwy and Priscilla’s blessing too. They’ve told me so. Good luck.”

He shook my hand, and was gone. What an extraordinary man. I sat down again to assimilate his message. His had not been a casting vote, after all. Take one step of abstinence, he had advised, but don’t go the whole hog.

But this half-way step still did not convince me.

As things stood, we were too far apart. ‘O God!’ that poem had said, ‘that men would draw a little nearer to one another.’ Only a little nearer? That wasn’t enough, was it?

As things stood, the object of my love was out of reach. ‘If it’s out of reach,’ I had told Cilmin, ‘and it won’t come to you, why not try moving towards it?’ Only towards it? That wasn’t enough either, was it?

Didn’t I have to move much nearer, move the whole distance, for it to be within my reach? At least, then, it wouldn’t slink away from me. There was nowhere for it to slink to.

A further thought. If I had a sexual Cilmin to give myself to, I wouldn’t need my right hand again. Not for myself, anyway. As it was, I was giving myself to an asexual Cilmin. Did that make any difference? Should it make any difference? No, surely not.

And I recalled a story — another of Mihangel’s — where these two boys are at boarding school. They live together and have sex in the holidays, but at school they can’t. And at school they don’t wank either, because they’ve given their bodies to each other. That appealed to my sense of fidelity. With two people committed to each other in love, anything sexual which was not two-way between them smacked of unfaithfulness.

But did that involve aiming for so much that I risked losing the lot? Don’t risk failure, the vicar had told me, by making excessive demands of myself.

What we have is
what we may lose
by valuing something
we believe to be higher.


And total abstinence! Think of it, Kenneth, think of it. In practice it would be penitential, a hair shirt to outdo all hair shirts. Was I being absurdly masochistic, impossibly idealistic?

Yet … yet I had my ideals, painfully harvested from Dad’s repulsive behaviour. As Cilmin had pointed out, ideals are hard to live up to. But why hold them if, when the crunch came, I didn’t try to live up to them?

And the crunch had come. We loved each other. True, battered by the bombshell of Cilmin’s revelation, we had hardly talked about love. But, while he may not have declared it straight out, it was utterly obvious that he loved me and hoped for my love. And I had told him, however briefly, that I loved him. In him, then, lay my fulfilment, and his in me. How to secure that fulfilment? There was surely only one way.

Roll for ever higher stakes
And break those aces twice,
It's not an easy point to make
But worth the sacrifice.

Round and round went my thoughts. But yes, surely worth the sacrifice.

I must have sat there all afternoon, for I was sitting there still when an old lady arrived to lock up the church and ever so politely shooed me out. Dusk was falling and rain was threatening. Zombie-like I wandered away down the churchyard path. In my careless daze I strayed off the gravel, tripped on the grass edge, and fell headlong onto a flat tombstone. As I broke the fall with my hands I found myself looking, inches from my nose, at the name of John Jones who was drownded, the all-too-young victim of a tragedy two hundred years old. Once again I felt pity. But I also felt a twinge of envy that he had at least been spared, presumably, the complications of a perfidious father and an asexual lover. I picked myself up, dusted my hands, rubbed my groin which I had painfully banged on the low railing around the grave, and limped back to Lleuar.

There was no sign of Cilmin. But prominent on his desk was a note in his angular writing, addressed to me. I pulled up the chair to read it.


I’ve gone for a walk with Rasmus to try to clear my addled brain.

I’ve been thinking hard. I love you, but I’ve realised that it can’t work. I’ve been too selfish and proud. I hoped for your love. But I hoped for too much and took too much for granted. It can’t work. I’m reminded of a poem by Abraham Cowley which shows very clearly how it can’t work.

Indeed I must confess,
When souls mix ’tis an happiness,
But not complete till bodies too do join,
And both our wholes into one whole combine;
But half of heaven the souls in glory taste
Till by love in heaven at last
Their bodies too are placed.
For a perfect love implies
Love in all capacities.

And Robert Hunter, come to think of it, says much the same thing.

Only in the body of another
does the certainty of freedom
digress into sheer ideal,
bled white by leeches of light.

I love your soul, Kenneth, and I love your body. But when those poems talk about bodies they really mean genitals, don’t they? And because I’m asexual I can’t love your genitals, not in the way you want. You were hoping for sex, but I can’t give it to you. I can’t move up on that diagram of yours to meet you. You were contemplating moving down to meet me, to give up the sex you had every right to expect. That would be a sacrifice which, as an asexual, I can’t begin to comprehend. But I do know that it’s utterly unfair to expect it of you.

I can’t love you in all capacities, Kenneth. Therefore our love can’t be perfect. To be perfect, it has to be physical as well as spiritual. You must have come to the same conclusion.

So forget it all. I’m sorry to have led you up the garden path. As I said, it’s all down to my selfish pride.

Get yourself some food. I don’t know when I’ll be back. But don’t worry, I’m not going to do myself in. Not yet, anyway. I’ve introduced myself on the forum and already had a warm welcome. Knowing that I’m not the only one has worked wonders.


God, oh God. Back to square one, or even further back still. I buried my face in my arms. Outside the window the rain began to lash down.