The Scholar’s Tale

Part 1: Love of soul

A lover of the ordinary sort, who loves the body rather than the soul, is not worth having. He is not constant, because what he loves is not constant. Once the bloom of the body, which is what attracted him, begins to fade, he disappears … But whoever loves a person for his nature, simply because it is good, remains constant for life, because he is united with something constant.

Pausanias, in Plato’s Symposium

This tale, my first venture into this kind of writing, is largely fiction, but is based on real places and to some extent on real people. Parts of it, indeed, are autobiographical. There is no point in denying the existence of Cambridge and Oxford and suchlike, but all other modern names have been disguised. I have tried, doubtless without complete success, to keep to vocabulary appropriate to the 1950s, when the word ‘gay,’ for example, was not yet used in its present sense.

All translations are my own, except that from the RSV. The Symposium may be found in translation in the Penguin Classics, other Greek and Roman authors in the Loeb Classical Library and elsewhere. Many of them are also online. Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, long out of print, is now happily available again.

Corporal punishment in independent schools in Britain was banned by law only in 1999.

19 November 2001

1. Exploration

I owe it a very great deal, so I may be biased. But Yarborough seemed to me a pretty good school. It had its weak points, of course — what school doesn’t? — but overall it was high quality. Its staff ranged, inevitably, from the excellent to the lousy. It kept a fair balance between the academic and the sporty. It encouraged independence and tolerance. And it offered that respectable degree of privacy which growing boys need — the dormitories had individual cubicles, and in theory everyone had his own study, though growing numbers meant that for the first year one had to share. In short, the school respected the individual. We are talking, by the way, about fairly ancient history: starting in 1956, to be precise.

I arrived at the beginning of the summer term, at the age of thirteen. I found I was sharing a study with the only other new boy in the house, the main entry being in September. More of me in a moment; his name was Andrew Goodhart, and in almost every way he was the complete opposite to me. Outgoing, full of good nature, hair blond and curly, eyes clear blue, face combining a classical beauty with a wicked smile, voice already broken, body sturdy and athletic. The proverbial Greek god, in fact — Apollo, I thought. Though not a scholarship boy, he was well above average at work, and at games he excelled.

Our first meeting must have been a bitter disappointment to him. Andrew was friendly and bubbled with questions. Easy at first. Then questions which any ordinary boy could have answered without embarrassment, but left me wallowing.

Where did I live? — Cambridge.

When was my birthday? — August, exactly a week after his.

What county did I support? (cricket, I found he meant) — None.

What did I think of Bill Haley? — Uh?

Had I heard Satchmo’s latest record? — Er, no.

Did I prefer Brigitte Bardot or Sophia Loren? — Who?

“Gosh, you’re really not on the ball, are you?” he ended. “What do you like?”

And my mumbled reply, that I liked reading and classical music, can hardly have satisfied him either. But, for the time being, he left it at that, and we moved on to deciding who should have which desk and where we should put our things.

So there I was, installed as a public school boy, and not in the least enjoying the prospect. I had long since grown a thick shell, both as a protection against the knocks which life had always brought me and as a screen from behind which I could cautiously peer at the world outside. I knew all too well that I was a swot, a drip, and a weed. I had better explain how and why, although it is a complex story which will take a bit of time.

I was the only child of a scholarly family. Both my parents were high-powered academics, Professor Gerald and Dr Mary Michaelson, and both of them had been only children of academics too, which perhaps explained a lot. They had met during the war in the military hospital at Alexandria, Father as a patient, Mother doing her patriotic duty as a nurse. They married out there, and I duly appeared. Judging by their later attitude to me, I am virtually certain I was an accident. The war over, they both found good jobs at Cambridge. They were specialists in Plato and his philosophy, and lived for all things Greek. Father, having been wounded defending Greece against the Germans in 1941, evidently felt an affinity with Leonidas, the Spartan king who died defending Greece against the Persians in 480 BC. Hence my name. Leonidas Michaelson, for heaven’s sake. No surprise that I kept it as quiet as I could, and tried to be called Leon.

Mother and Father, it has to be said, were not good parents. That is putting it mildly. They were not exactly cruel. They just knew damn all about children, and had little love and affection in their repertoire. What they did have they showered on their bloody Siamese cat (all right, I was jealous of it), leaving none whatever for me. As far as I was concerned, their cranky mentality showed up in three ways. First, I was a nuisance at home, a waster of their precious time. So they put me first in the care of nannies and then, at the earliest possible moment, pushed me off as a boarder at a bad prep school, where I was bullied. Constantly and badly, verbally and physically, and the staff did not give a damn. I cannot bring myself to write of what I endured there. One day, perhaps, but not yet. Suffice it to say here that, by the time I left, I was deep in the pit of despair. Even in vacations Father and Mother spent most of their weekdays in college — he was a fellow of Selwyn, she of Newnham — and usually dined there at high table, leaving me to fend for myself.

The second aspect was that, as scholars, they automatically expected me to follow in their footsteps. Which was no doubt another reason why they sent me away to school, because a local secondary school, though free, could not possibly offer the level of teaching they required. And follow in their footsteps I did, whether by nature or nurture or both — it hardly matters. I was top of the form in most subjects, and won a scholarship to Yarborough, which would look after most of my school fees. They heartily approved of such achievements (and anyway I had no others), and would reward them in cash. Moreover, books being the stuff of learning, I had open access to their splendid personal library, provided they were not in it themselves. They also made me free of their account at Heffers, where I could buy any book I wanted that they did not already have, though I might be called on to justify the purchase when the bill came in. And on the rare occasions they had colleagues in for dinner they would parade me to show off my erudition. They treated me, in fact, rather like a promising young racehorse. No expense was spared on training me to win races, but it left me totally unfitted to do anything else.

The third aspect was that, except where cat food, books and rewards for scholarship were concerned, they were pathological misers. They did buy my school uniform and games kit, but gave me no pocket money at all. In effect, they paid me by result. The theory, I suppose, was that the harder I worked, the greater my income and the more I could spend on myself. In practice, the budget hardly balanced. Whatever clothes I wore at home I had to buy myself, and were permanently scruffy and threadbare. If my spectacles broke, I paid if I had the money or used sellotape if I did not. Virtually never could I afford a luxury; but dedicated apprentices don’t need luxuries, do they? They refused to employ a cleaner or a gardener, or to do such menial and time-wasting work themselves. Instead, my unpaid job in the holidays was to remove months-worth of accumulated dirt from the dingy house in Grange Road, to do the washing and ironing — they sent it to a laundry in term-time — and to reduce the wilderness outside to a semblance of order. In short, my parents were professionally a highly intelligent and accomplished couple, but in most other departments of life they had a screw loose. Quite a number of screws, to be honest. Their fellow academics were doubtless accustomed to eccentrics, but to anyone else they were strange and unlikeable people. In retrospect, they were in dire need not only of a course in parenting but of psychiatric help as well.

I was therefore lonely and miserable. Maybe that is not wholly accurate, since misery almost implies a lost happiness, which was something I had never enjoyed. Likewise loneliness implies a memory of what it is like not to be lonely. But solitary I certainly was. I occupied myself, between bullyings at school and hard labour in the holidays, in reading: poetry, novels, history, and especially — chip off the old block — Greek and Latin literature. All I had to live for was books and music. Somewhere along the line, though no musician and totally ignorant of modern and popular music, I had picked up a love of classical and especially baroque music. And when my parents graduated to an electric record player and 33s, I rescued from the dustbin their old wind-up gramophone and scratchy 78s, and listened endlessly to them when I was at home. All in all, then, I was indisputably precocious, but hardly pampered.

I was painfully aware that, although academically a high flyer, in all other departments I was a disaster. Pompous and pedantic in speech. A squeaky voice. A duffer at games of every sort. A body to despair of, small for my age, gawky and weedy, arms and legs like matchsticks. If my face did not look quite like the back end of a bus, I would certainly never win any beauty competition. My nose was long, my chin narrow, my hair straight and mousy, my nondescript-coloured eyes sheltering behind a pair of large spectacles. My equipment down below, at this barely pubescent stage, seemed by comparison with others at prep school to be microscopic. I had learned to put up with these deficiencies and, when they aroused derision or indifference in others, I simply took refuge in my shell. Except in my work, I had never had any encouragement from anyone.

I could respond without embarrassment to adults — to teachers, even to my parents and their colleagues — of the subject was work or scholarly matters. But with youngsters I had nothing in common. The upshot, inevitably, was that I was painfully shy, gauche and unworldly, and never had any friends. The best I could claim were the few boys at prep school who had been tolerant enough to put up with me. Never having had any practice, I had no small-talk, no social graces, and on the rare occasions when my parents dragged me to social events, any of their colleagues’ offspring who tried to talk to me soon drifted away in boredom.

My only friend, in fact, was between my legs. I communed with it a lot, dreaming about inaccessible boys. Yes, boys. I had met few girls and could see nothing in them, but boys were a different matter. From behind my shell I worshipped them, even if they bullied me. I inwardly smouldered that I could never reach them, never emulate their looks or athletic bodies or simple joie-de-vivre. In thought, though not in deed, I was already a queer, a homo, and knew it.

But it was not thoughts of mere sex which tormented me. My theoretical background was already extensive. Knowledge of Latin and Greek, and access to my parents’ books, opened up a whole world of literary pornography and philosophical enquiry which was available to few boys of my age. So, from the philosophy, I appreciated the essential difference between sex and love — ‘common’ and ‘heavenly’ love as Plato called them. From the pornography I knew about the mechanics of sex, both homo and hetero. The ancient pornography had been updated by an entirely legitimate visit to a public convenience and what I read there. The philosophy had been confirmed by reading Mary Renault’s marvellous novel The Charioteer. Being understated (both intentionally and inevitably) it needed to be read between the lines, but it clearly distinguished between the depths of honest love and the treacherous shallows of most queer relationships.

There was no shadow of doubt where my preference lay. The brittle and unstable world of camp screamers in The Charioteer and the sordid and shifty world of one-off copulations recorded on the shithouse walls turned me on, of course, and helped fuel my nightly activities. But in truth, in that form, they disgusted me, and needless to say I had no practical experience of them. Nor had I ever received a jot of love of any sort from anyone. Or given it. But that was what my solitary and idealistic soul really yearned for: love of soul, not just love of body. Sex I regarded as an optional (if highly desirable) extra, not as an alternative.

So much, then, for the pathetic specimen that was Leon Michaelson at the time I joined Yarborough School, where I was expecting a repetition of the hell on earth that had been my prep school. Or worse.


Once I was at Yarborough, Andrew Goodhart became my prime object of desire; indeed I fell in one-sided love with him at first sight. Greek god that he was, it could hardly be otherwise. Moreover he proved quite astonishingly friendly, infinitely more so than anyone at my prep school. It goes without saying that he made many friends in the house and on the cricket pitch, while I did not. But in sharing a study we were thrown together willy nilly. Far from writing me off as irredeemably boring, as he might very well have done from our first encounter, he went to endless pains to draw me out. He was my salvation. At first he steered tactfully clear of the yawning gaps in my experience and concentrated on my few strengths. Then, almost imperceptibly, he started introducing me to new ideas and guiding me towards a degree of social acceptability. He performed the miracle of getting me to communicate — small things at first, admittedly, but you have to start somewhere. It was all done so delicately that I was unaware of it at the time. Only later, in hindsight, did I come to understand his strategy. Goodness of heart was his nature, and he could hardly have had a more appropriate surname. Within a few weeks of our first meeting it was not merely his body that I lusted for as I jacked off. I began to love him for his soul.

All this may make him sound like a goody-goody. But he was sight more than that. He was not only a strong and original character in his own right, but a bit of a natural rebel as well; and it was in this respect, in our very first week, that I inadvertently went up in his estimation. During a maths lesson — we were in the same set — it turned out that I did not have the right textbook. When Jerry Lloyd the teacher, a pompous man, asked why, I replied “I apologise, sir, the supply was inadequate and I was unable to procure a copy.” Lloyd threw me a very sharp look, but moved on.

Afterwards Andrew buttonholed me. “Blimey, Leon, you were pretty smart in taking the mickey out of Lloyd!”

“Uh?” I was bewildered. “What’s wrong with what I said?”

“Well, anyone else would’ve said ‘Sorry, sir, the shop had run out’ or something.”

What Andrew did not know was that that was my natural way of talking formally to people like masters, though I had learnt that only ordinary language meant anything to my peers. Instead, he assumed that I had a healthy disrespect for authority, just as he did. Wrong: I was the most respectful and law-abiding boy imaginable. But it taught me a lesson, and thereafter I was careful not to be pompous at all. Which merely confirmed to him that I had been taking the mickey.

Since all I heard from my parents was the occasional curt bickering, I rarely wrote home. But Andrew did regularly. In his first letter he had reported that he was sharing with Leon Michaelson from Cambridge. His parents replied that I must be the son of philosophical friends of theirs whom they knew well professionally, though not so well personally. Andrew relayed this, and I confirmed it. Which set us to comparing parents. He too was an only child. He lived in Oxford, where his Mum and Dad were the exact counterparts of mine, but in every other way, it sounded, as different from them as Andrew was from me. From all he said, they were warm, affectionate and tolerant, and he spoke of them with love in his voice. When I haltingly described my father and mother and my life with (or without) them, I could feel sympathy wafting from him.

It was a sweltering day when we talked about these things, and he suggested going to the buttery for a fizzy drink. I declined, not because I was not thirsty but because I was almost broke, though I did not say so.

He looked at me shrewdly. “Go on, have it on me.”

“Thanks, Andrew, but no. I’ll never be able to pay you back.”

“That’s not the point. I reckon I get more pocket money than you.” And he said how much. A fortune, by my poor yardstick. “Look, it isn’t my business, and you don’t have to tell me anything. But is that more than you get?”


“A lot more?”


“Right, then. Have a Vimto on me. And forget about repaying.”

I surrendered. Generosity was a phenomenon new to me, and I could have hugged him. So we swigged together. The gift was repeated at intervals. But not too often. He was aware that there is a limit to the charity one can comfortably accept.

We found, too, that we had similar senses of humour. Andrew was always cracking jokes and puns, which I enjoyed, though at first I did not dare reciprocate in case I was laughed at the wrong way. Unlike some boys who were pretty foul-mouthed, though, he was a modest chap who rarely used dirty words or cracked dirty jokes, at least until we got to know each other much better. But I found he was not averse to mildly risqué fun. Another day in our first week I actually dared to initiate a conversation and share a joke.

“Did you hear what Larry wrote on Griffiths’s essay?” Larry was our form master, a delightful man who was also full of fun.

“No. What?”

“Well, Griffiths wrote something like ‘When I wake up in the morning I stretch and feel rosy all over.’ And Larry wrote in the margin ‘How nice for Rosy.’”

Andrew hooted with laughter, and I giggled like a maniac too. Heady stuff. I could not remember anyone laughing with me before. Only at me. That particular inhibition began to dissolve.

Next day we were introduced to baked beans for lunch.

“Good show,” said Andrew, “I like beans.”

He tucked in heartily, while I, not being over-fond of them, ate modestly. What our neighbours did not tell us — we later heard that new boys were traditionally left to find out the hard way — was that house beans were the most vicious in the known universe, and most people gave them a wide berth. That evening, over prep in our study, Andrew was fidgety.

“Leon, I’m sorry, I’ve just got to fart.”

Practice in this respect was variable. Some boys farted in company at the drop of a hat. Most followed polite adult convention and contained themselves, and both Andrew and I, demure creatures, were of this persuasion. But asking to go to the bog during prep was heavily frowned on — ‘surely you can last an hour?’ So I understood Andrew’s dilemma.

“Don’t mind me, as long as you open the window.”

He did, and let fly, fortissimo.

I risked a pun of my own. “Brilliant! Fart of the year! Anus mirabilis!”

He chortled. “Yes, ace of farts!”

“Andrew Goodfart!”

And we giggled helplessly like the two schoolboys we were.

In our studies we were allowed wind-up gramophones but not electric ones, and I had brought mine from home. When Andrew saw it, he had his parents send over his collection of 78s, and we shared the gramophone. He was as unfamiliar with classical music as I was with popular, and we tried to educate each other. He had little success: try as I would, I simply could not see anything in his crooners and rock and only a little in his jazz. But he was a sensitive chap and — this was about the first non-academic success of my life — it cost me little effort to open his ears to the glories of Mozart symphonies and even the stark purity of Bach cantatas.

In the same vein, there came the audition for the concert choir (as opposed to the much smaller and more proficient chapel choir). If your voice was unbroken, they automatically roped you in unless you were totally tone-deaf, and though I had never sung before I was glad to be enrolled. Of broken voices, having many more to draw on, they were much more selective. But when Andrew showed a reluctance to try, I daringly prodded him to give it a go, and he agreed, and got in. Another minor triumph for Leon. So twice weekly we went to choir practice together, treble and tenor, and with great pleasure thundered out the choruses of Israel in Egypt.

Our first week, then, was not only full but bewildering, as we learnt the complex pattern of where we had to be when, doing what, with whom. At the end of it, sitting in our study drawing breath and looking back, I realised to my astonishment that I had actually enjoyed it. And much of the enjoyment, I saw, had arisen from Andrew’s presence, from his veiled encouragement, from his support. But some, yes, definitely some, had come from my own initiative. My shell was already being loosened, which allowed me to interact more with the outside world, which further reduced the need for the shell. It was a slow process, but it was visibly under way. What was more, I had not been bullied — hardly any disparaging remarks, and no nasty tricks or violence at all — and I concluded that Yarborough was a much more civilised place than my prep school. The whole atmosphere was a sight better. But I also felt subconsciously that I was under Andrew’s wing. He never gave me the corny ‘It’s OK, kid, I’ll look after you,’ or anything like it. But somehow he seemed, in the background, to be doing just that. And this in turn helped me to open up to him, if not much yet to others. As all this went through my mind, tears began to ooze. Tears of relief, tears of gratitude.

Andrew saw, and was concerned. “Leon, what’s up?”

I had to tell him. “Sorry. Nothing up. Happy. Happier than I’ve ever been before. Thanks to you. Can’t think why you take any notice of me. I know I’m a swot. A drip. A weed.”

“Leon. Look at me.” He fixed me with a stern but kindly eye. “Leon, you’re wrong, completely wrong. You’re not a swot, you’re a scholar. You’re not a drip, you’ve got far too much gumption. And if you’re a weed, you’ll grow out of it. Get that into your head.”

I gawped at him. It was not easy to get into my head. But such words from such a paragon could not be ignored, and presently my massive inferiority complex shrank several sizes.


Before long, life settled into routine. Andrew spent time with his friends, but he always found time for me as well, and not merely during prep and other occasions when he had to be in our study. The rehabilitation of Leon continued, and I found myself being accepted by his friends, and even made a few tentative overtures towards making friends of my own. And by pure chance I got to know Andrew, and his body, in a more intimate way. Nudity was standard, of course, in the changing room and showers, and nobody — or few — thought anything of it. I was still ashamed of what little I could show, but since I could do nothing about it I stoically bore my shame. The point is that close encounters with another boy’s body were definitely not on the approved agenda.

But Field Day came, when the whole cadet corps spent the day playing soldiers. You could not join the corps until you were fourteen, after which there was no way of escaping it, as long as you had two legs and two arms (though ownership of a head did not seem obligatory). The under-fourteens were entertained for the day with team games under the eagle eye of the PE instructor, in a nearby meadow since the proper games fields were all occupied by would-be soldiers on exercise. During a relay race, Andrew trod awkwardly on a tussock, twisted his ankle, and sat down squarely in a fresh cow-pat, to a mixture of sympathy (for he was already popular) and hilarity. He was invalided out; and because I was the rabbit which no team wanted, the instructor told me to take Andrew back and have him patched up and sanitised. Hanging on to my shoulder, he limped fragrantly back to a completely empty house. The cow-pat had soaked through his shorts, and a bath or shower was the first essential. He opted for the bath, where a good wash is easier when one leg is out of action.

But he still needed my help, and my baser instincts made me mentally lick my lips. He took off his shirt as he sat on the bath edge and revealed his chest, muscular and smooth, and quite hairy armpits. I knelt to remove his shoes and socks, getting a close-up view of sinewy legs already sprouting an early crop of soft hair. I unbuttoned his stinking shorts, and he raised his bum off the bath to allow me to manoeuvre them carefully down past his swollen ankle. My face was now abreast of his cock: distinctly bigger than mine (which was already hard inside my shorts), and crowned with a good bush of fair curly hair. He put one hand on each side of the bath, and with his powerful arms swung himself up, over and down into the water.

“Thanks, Leon. Don’t go away, please. I’ve got to get out and dried too.”

He washed himself all over, except for his middle which was under water, and sat there, obviously wondering how to tackle that.

I was so entranced that I could not prevent myself. “Want me to do the rest?”

He gave me a slightly frightened look. “Leon, if you do, I’ll go hard. I’m bound to.” He hesitated. “Do you mind?”

“Course not. Anything to help.”

“Yes, but don’t help too much. You know what I mean. Please. Trust you?” As I have said, he was a naturally modest boy.

“Of course.” Disappointed in a way, but not showing it.

So he lifted himself again and supported himself, bum above water, on his arms and his good leg, and I took the soap and lathered him with my hands, scrubbing carefully over his cheeks. Fair game there: had to get the cow-shit off. His cock immediately stood to attention, and I lathered that too, and his balls. Not quite forbidden territory, but there only on sufferance. Three thoughts battled in my mind. Lust wanted to take advantage of this golden opportunity, caution knew full well it could ruin our friendship, idealism dismissed quick gratification without love. Lust was defeated, and I prevented my hands from lingering. Both our faces were red. I do not think I breathed during the whole operation, and I had almost come in my shorts. Andrew lowered himself, and swilled water around to rinse off the soap.

“Thanks, Leon. That was … ”

I thought he meant ‘tactful’ or ‘restrained,’ but I may have been wrong. He was now done. He swung himself back on the bath edge, and towelled himself dry, except for his bum which was out of his reach because he was sitting on it. So I got him to stand on one leg, arms on my shoulders, while I knelt and dried his crack. He was still stiff as I eased clean pants and trousers on to him, and he did the rest. I acted as his crutch to Matron’s room, where she strapped up his ankle, and down to our study, where we sat down to listen to music until the soldiers should return and routine go back to normal.

We had said very little during the whole proceedings, but thought much — at least I had — and now he turned to me and said quite simply “Thanks, Leon, I knew I could trust you. You’re a good friend.”

While things had not gone as part of me might have liked, I nevertheless felt a glow of genuine pride. I still had no idea what turned him on. I do not mean feeling up his private parts — that would give anybody a hard-on. But what did he think about when he jacked off? I assumed he did jack off, just as I assumed everyone did. He had never said anything about girls, other than film stars and singers, but that was no real guide because few boys of our age did anyway. Nor had he shown any sign of being interested in boys, let alone in me. I had no reason even to hope that he might love me as I already knew I loved him. His friendship — and that was real — would have to be enough.


He hobbled for a week, and in a fortnight was back in full working order. A little later, on Speech Day, I had a further insight into what made Andrew tick. We did not have a half-term break, and my parents never came to visit me, not even on Speech Day to witness me being awarded the form prize and the junior Greek prize. They merely sent a modest reward in cash. But Andrew’s parents did come, although he had won nothing, except my love. They invited us both out to lunch at the Red Lion where they were staying. His Mum was tall, fair and serenely beautiful: easy to see where Andrew’s looks came from. His Dad was short, dark and cheerful. Easy to see that Andrew’s good nature came from them both. They shook my hand and studied me with interest.

“Leon, how good to meet you, after all we’ve heard about you.” I looked at Andrew in enquiry and some alarm.

“Don’t worry,” he said, laughing. “None of it’s bad.”

“Indeed not,” said his Mum. “It’s all very good. Andrew’s a fan of yours, Leon.”

“A fan of mine?” I was bemused but disarmed. As I said, I found no difficulty talking with adults, especially such kindly ones as these. “It’s the other way round. I’m a fan of his, Dr Goodhart, Professor Goodhart. You’ve no idea how good he’s been to me. When I came here I was petrified. But he’s made it tolerable. No, not just tolerable. Great fun.”

“Two points there. First, yes, I think we do have some idea. We know our Andrew. Second, titles and surnames are such a mouthful. Why don’t you just call us Jack and Helen?”

Unheard of, in those days, and on such short acquaintance. I would never dream of calling my parents’ colleagues, whom I had known for years, anything but ‘Professor Cavendish-Skellingthorpe’ or whatever, or maybe ‘sir’ for short. Before I could think of a reply, they whisked us in to a damn good lunch, and allowed us a glass of wine apiece. Unheard of again. They plied me with questions. Andrew had clearly primed them on my home life, or lack of it, for they said nothing about it directly, and used the utmost delicacy when they even approached it. But they were open in their congratulations for my prizes, and open in their interest about my classical background and about our life at school. Andrew said little, but seemed to be observing with approval from the sidelines.

By the time lunch was over I was utterly captivated. Here were two human beings I would most willingly have for parents. I was aware that under their friendly probing I had revealed a lot of myself, and got the unfamiliar feeling that they had liked what they saw. When the time came for us to leave to watch the cricket match, as we had to, they invited me to stay with them in Oxford during the coming holidays. And they gave me a tip. I looked at them in blank amazement. Though I had not experienced it before, I had heard from other boys about parents tipping their sons’ friends, and knew that a bob or two was par for the course. But Jack and Helen had given me exactly the same amount as Andrew got in pocket money for the whole term. Coincidence? I doubted it.

“But I can’t … You can’t … ”

“Yes, you can, and yes, we can,” said Helen. “Go on. Pocket it. With our love.”

“Oh gosh.” I had tears in my eyes, and no words to thank them. So I hugged them, in turn. I could not remember hugging anyone in my life, or being hugged. “Do you know what I’m going to spend a bit of this on? A record. Bach chorale, Nun danket.”

They understood, and smiled. And from that point on I could meet Andrew on financially equal terms, and treat him back.

“Andrew,” I said as we walked to the ground, “your parents are splendid. I wish … ”

“That yours were as good. Yes, I know. I’m lucky. I only wish you could do something about yours.”

But I could not. All the time the Goodharts were free to have me in August, my parents were booked to attend a variety of meetings and conferences throughout the country. It was therefore my duty, I was told, to stay at home and look after the cat. This was standard practice but, because there was now an alternative attraction, I felt rebellious. I ventured to suggest that Andrew should stay at our place instead. The reply was brusque and final: his presence would interrupt my work, and his parents would need him at home. Nothing doing. Andrew was as mortified as I, but we were powerless.


So the holidays passed in boredom, as usual. Only two actual events are worth recording. First, my voice broke. I said goodbye to Mother and Father in my usual treble, and five days later, to my utter confusion, found myself welcoming them back, on my fourteenth birthday, in a brand-new if uncertain bass. I had not spoken, or even seen anyone to speak to, in the interval. Otherwise, as usual, I cleaned the house, did the laundry, worked in the garden, read, and listened to music. But I had occasional letters from Andrew, and it buoyed me up no end to know that I was not forgotten. I had something quite novel to think about. So I also spent a lot of time dreaming, reliving the past term, anticipating the future.

It was this anticipation which prompted me to take my courage in both hands and ask my parents some very tentative questions by way of testing the water. They were a pretty conservative couple, both in outlook and in politics, but Cambridge had a number of dons and some undergraduates who were known to be homosexual, and so long as they did not flaunt it too publicly they were generally tolerated, and even accepted and respected for their other qualities. I needed to know Father’s and Mother’s attitude towards homosexuality in general. So I broached the question as delicately as I could, by naming two dons who were known to be queers (though I did not mention that) and asking my parents what they thought of them as scholars.

“Fair to middling,” was Father’s answer. “But their pernicious relationship will ruin any reputation they may have. They’re a disgrace to their college. They deserve to be stripped of their fellowships.” He beetled his eyebrows at me. “You seem to be reaching sexual maturity. Should you ever contemplate practising such obscenities, let me warn you that you will never practise them in this house. We will not tolerate iniquity and scandal.”

Well. A clear-cut answer, and I now knew where I stood, even if I did not like it one bit.


September saw the start of the new term. Andrew had had a more varied time than me, swimming, cycling and larking about with his local friends. But one thing had thoroughly got his goat. A gang of them had been playing impromptu cricket in South Park when Andrew had hit the ball clean through the stained glass window of a nearby house. All his friends had scarpered, leaving Andrew alone to face the irate owner. The cost of repairs was considerable. His parents chipped in generously, but his pocket money was mortgaged for weeks. His friends refused to contribute on the grounds that it was he who had hit the ball. Their case was at least arguable. What Andrew found hard to forgive was their deserting him in a crisis. His sense of loyalty was outraged. So was mine, on his behalf, and I told him so. And since I was temporarily the better off, I could treat him at the buttery from time to time. At first he demurred, so I threw back at him the argument he had used on me, and he gave way.

We had both automatically moved up a step in school, into different forms where I specialised in arts and particularly in classics, while he was moving into the sciences. He had the right sort of probing and practical mind, and was often to be found tinkering with gadgets like a radio set he was building, or even conducting mildly chemical experiments. The next episode worth recording gave a foretaste of the research scientist that Andrew looked likely, one day, to become. A local shop got in a large batch of whoopee cushions, a novelty to us, which were eagerly snapped up and widely employed, at least between friends (and enemies) of the same sort of age. Andrew, indeed, ventured to install one on the chair of Jessop, a sadistic and unpopular prefect. Unfortunately he had forgotten that he had written his name on it as a mark of ownership. He was rewarded with the unduly hefty punishment of a week’s confinement, which meant that, except for normal school and house routine, he could not leave our study without permission, even for a pee. But as with most crazes, the novelty of whoopees soon wore off. One day, soon after Andrew’s sentence had expired, I sat on one that he had put on my study chair.

“You know, these things are getting old hat,” I said, not in the least surprised. “I mean, they make a pretty convincing noise. But when anyone sits on one now, everyone knows it’s only a whoopee. If only it made the right smell too, what’d people think then?”

“That’s a thought. That is a thought.” Andrew put his chin on his hands and gazed at nothing with a calculating look.

“Penny for them,” I said after a while.

He looked across with his devilish smile. “Leon, you’re a genius.”


“You’ve given me a brilliant idea. How to get a whoopee to make a pong. Listen. I’m going to need your help.” And he told me how.

I could not fault him on the technical side but, timid and law-abiding citizen that I still was, I was aghast at what he proposed to do with the finished product. But his enthusiasm swept me along.

The plan went smoothly ahead. He waited for a day when the infamous baked beans reappeared for lunch, and scoffed his own and the rest of the table’s. He spent the late afternoon and early evening in increasing discomfort, fighting against premature explosion. At last, during prep, he waddled off in distended agony to his statutory twice-weekly bath, carrying hidden in his towel a funnel and jar he had borrowed from the chemistry lab. At this stage I could not help: to be caught present when another boy was bathing was disciplinary suicide. He came down again, considerably more comfortable, clutching his achievement, a firmly stoppered jar full of gas. The next step, in the quiet of the study, did need my help. With the assistance of a bowl of water and a bicycle pump we transferred the contents to a whoopee cushion, and the first half of the job was done.

Next day was Saturday, when we had lessons only in the morning. Andrew’s last class was to be French, and his chosen victim was Buggy Butterworth, the French master and the most despised member of staff. He was ineffectual and weak, ragged unmercifully and lacking the balls to do anything about it. As it turned out, this weakness was not to be tested. As the boys streamed into the classroom, a couple of his mates whom Andrew had let into the secret kept cave while Andrew installed his lethal device under the cushion on the master’s chair. So far so good. But sadly it was not Buggy who came in, but Doc Fellows, a firm disciplinarian and highly popular besides, who announced that he was standing in for Mr Butterworth, who was ill. Andrew spent the period with his heart in his mouth. But miracles do happen, and Doc never once sat down. When the class ended, Andrew had only to retrieve the whoopee and all would be well. Alas for fond hopes. While Andrew hovered on tenterhooks in the background, Doc remained beside the chair, haranguing some boy on some totally different matter, until the school porter came round to lock up the classrooms for the weekend and shooed them all out, including an empty-handed Andrew.

We were stymied, and spent the weekend in anxious debate, with no practicable ideas at all. The porter’s key cupboard was inviolable, neither of us could pick a lock, and we could not find out who used that room for the first period on Monday. We had to get in before then. But when we tried the door immediately before assembly, it was still locked: the porter evidently unlocked it during assembly, and for us to miss that would be death. Assembly over, the headmaster swept out first, as always, and we fought to emerge as fast as we could. We got to the right corridor just in time to see the headmaster’s back disappearing into the room, followed by one of the sixth forms about to receive, we later heard, its weekly dose of religious education. All hope faded, and we crept to our own classes with our tails between our legs. If Buggy was the most despised member of staff, the HM was unquestionably the most feared.

Later we heard what happened next. The HM spent a few minutes writing on the blackboard before plumping his portly frame into the chair. It is pleasant to report that the Goodfart Blaster Mark I, on its first and last test run, performed with devastating success. The noise was perfect. So too was the smell, which reached four rows back. The HM turned beetroot red. History does not record what went through his mind, but one can guess. First, he had to identify himself as the victim, not the perpetrator, and so he got up, fished the whoopee out and uttered something like “Ptchah” before dropping it in the bin and opening the window.

Then his mind began to move, detective-like, along the lines of opportunity, motive and suspects. He recalled the porter’s routine and his own progress from assembly to classroom, swept his eye around his stunned but responsible audience, and said, “I presume that none of you is responsible for this, ah, joke?” Deathly silence. And he carried on with the class.

The news, disseminated at break by gleeful sixth-formers, spread like wildfire. Andrew’s classmates who were in the know immediately leaked his name as the criminal. We both quaked.

“Don’t you worry, Leon. Nobody knows that you’re involved.”

“Come off it. If you’re caught, I’ll go down with you,” I replied staunchly. I am not sure he believed me.

In the event, he (or we) escaped scot-free. Doubtless the HM concluded that the crime was committed on the Saturday, but found the trail too cold or the possible suspects too many to pursue. Nobody ratted to him. Andrew was too popular in the lower half of the school, and not even seniors would have dreamed of spoiling a good joke. The episode became a nine days’ wonder, and Andrew’s standing was never higher. But the main beneficiary was our relationship. Companionship in crime and adversity forges a marvellous bond.


Not long after, Andrew had his shoulder muscles pulled in a rough tackle at rugger. Rather than submit to Matron’s unsubtle ministrations, he appointed me his physiotherapist. For a week, whenever we had the time, he would take off his shirt in the study, and overall I spent hours massaging, kneading, and applying liniment. More than once I strayed, not entirely by accident, as far as his nipple, and though his baggy school trousers were an effective screen, more than once I thought I saw signs of movement down there. If so, neither of us remarked on it.

Mid-way through the term, Andrews parents came over again. Same drill, same tip. This time I bought Monteverdi’s Vespers. It began to look as if they were deliberately and systematically funding me. And we had some discussion about the Christmas holidays. Andrew was determined that the fiasco of the summer should not be repeated, and this time the Goodharts interceded directly with my parents by writing to ask if they could steal me for at least part of the time. Confronted with this appeal from respected colleagues, Father and Mother grudgingly gave way. Partly, I suspect, because they would necessarily be at home over Christmas and were happy enough that I should be out of their hair. That was something much to be looked forward to by all concerned.

Our study was a content and happy place as our friendship consolidated, with only brief spasms of discord, as when I accidentally sat on his favourite record or he spilt his Tizer over my book. We talked, played music, helped each other with homework, simply larked. My horizons broadened. My shell was steadily dissolving; almost entirely with Andrew if more slowly with others. My self-esteem had never been higher: I no longer felt myself the lowly worm, the downtrodden insect. I do not mean I got cocky. I hope — I am sure — I did not. If I had, Andrew would have slapped me down. He was still my mentor, supporting, encouraging, yes, educating me too. He did not drop his other friends; I just seemed to have priority. His confidence and poise were rubbing off on me, and I never ceased to thank the fates for throwing us together and giving me a purpose in life and a love, however secret, to strive for.


Towards the end of term there was a house cross-country run. Not a race. Just leave when ready and run the prescribed route. I hated the things. No muscle, no stamina, no wind. No alternative, either. So I ran. Was overtaken by lots of people. Through a gate, sharp left along a hedge, stop, got to stop. Stood there, stitch in side, hands on knees, face scarlet, lungs heaving. Through the gate ran Thorne, not much bigger than me but wiry. Ratty. A nasty piece of work, my biggest bugbear. Not even puffing.

“Ha, Michaelson! Might have guessed it. Only a mile and you’re knackered. So weedy you can hardly stand up.”

And to prove it he pushed me on the chest. I stepped back, tripped on something, and sat down hard in a spreading gorse bush, thick with end-of-season needles, sharp and brittle. But even as he pushed, someone else appeared through the gate. Andrew. He took in the scene, grabbed Thorne by the shirt, and Thorne quailed. Understandably: I would not like to be grabbed by an angry Andrew either.

“Thorne, eh? There’s only one cure for bullies like you. A taste of your own medicine.” And he pushed him backwards into the gorse alongside me.

“Right, let’s have you out of there, Leon,” and he held out a hand and hauled me out of my prickly perch.

No need to worry about Thorne blabbing. If it was Andrew’s word against his, no contest. Andrew then surprised me. He pulled Thorne out too, but instead of letting go of his hand he shook it sedately.

“Nice to meet you, Thorne, in the flesh. Now scarper.”

Thorne scarpered painfully, muttering, while Andrew and I hooted with helpless laughter, despite my bum feeling as if it was on fire.

“Thanks, Andrew,” I managed to say. “You’re a brick.”

“Don’t mention it. I enjoyed that. Now, what about you?” He looked. “Hmm. Your shorts are like a hedgehog. Is your bum too?”

I slid a cautiously exploratory hand down inside my waistband. “Yes. Feels like it.”

“Lor. Hardly do much about that here. We can’t even brush the prickles off without pushing more in. Do you think you can walk like that? Try keeping your shorts away from your skin.”

I tried, and with judicious waddling it was not too painful. So I waddled home, Andrew beside me.

“You can’t sit down like that. You’ll have to go to Matron.”

“Oh Christ, no, not her.” Matron was no doubt a qualified nurse, but her bedside manner, so to speak, was unsympathetic and, worse, she was notoriously ham-fisted. “Would you have a go, Andrew?”

“Well, I reckon I owe you a favour.” His impish grin was in full play. “But where?”

I knew what he meant. If a boy were to be found in close communion with another boy’s bare bum, eyebrows would go through the ceiling. To put it mildly.

“I reckon we’d best be above board,” he decided. “Clear it with Doug Paxton” — the house captain, and a damn good one too — “so that if anyone sees us they’ll know I’m not seducing you.”

I could think of nothing better, but could hardly say so. But he was right. Massaging a naked shoulder was one thing. Nobody would comment, and nobody had. It was the waist that was the frontier. To cross that legitimately, one would need a passport and visa. So we applied for them to Paxton, explained the problem, and exhibited my hedgehog backside as evidence. He was graciously amused, refrained from asking what I had been doing in a gorse bush, and no doubt calculated that the chances of Andrew wanting to play hanky-panky with an ugly runt like me were nil.

“See your point about Matron,” he said. “OK, go ahead. Use your dorm as an operating theatre.”

I gingerly removed my shorts, pulled up my shirt, and lay down, skinny buttocks upmost, on Andrew’s bed. (God, naked on Andrew’s bed!)

“Yes, you are a hedgehog. Quite a lot of scratches too, but nothing bad.”

He got to work pulling out spikes, the longest ones first, from my thighs and cheeks.

“Right, I think your thighs are clear now, but you’ve got some pricks deep in your bum.” He was giggling as he said it, and so was I.

“Stop shaking. Surgeon can’t operate when you’re shaking.” He found his Swiss army knife which had a pair of tweezers, and tweezed for a while.

Then, “There are some broken off at the skin. I’ll have to excavate.” He got out a needle and very delicately poked, levered and squeezed.

At last, “Right, that’s all I can see. But you went down with your legs apart, and there may be more inside. Bring your knees up.”

This opened my crack, and he peered into it. “Yes. There are some in there, some quite close to your hole. And a few on the back of your balls.” Back to work.

I had long since got a raging hard-on. It could not be otherwise. But now that his fingers were working around my hole and on my balls, and his hand was resting on my cheeks, pressures began to build up nearby. Rapidly. Urgently. Unstoppably.

“Sorry, Leon, I can’t do this without feeling you up. But these bloody needles have got to come out.” He was clearly aware of my state. “Do you want me to stop?”

I did not answer directly. On fire with embarrassment, I could only mumble desperately, “Andrew, sorry, I’m going to come. Quick, towel or something.”

He grabbed his towel and spread it under my raised belly. Just in time. I came, came on Andrew’s bed, without him even touching my cock, grinding my head and shoulders into his pillow, groaning in a complex mix of emotions. Oh God! First things first. I squeezed my cock, already deflating, to empty it. Wiped it. Rolled up the towel. Dead give-away evidence of seduction, to anyone else. Only then could I look up, red in the face and tears not far off.

“Andrew, sorry, I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to. Just couldn’t control myself.”

He was concerned. “Who could? Look, Leon, don’t worry. Don’t be sorry. It’s me should be sorry — I didn’t realise you were so far gone. I’m sure I’d have come if you’d been handling me like that. That’s why I was so cautious in the bath. Remember, when you were washing cow-shit off me? All the same” — there was more than a hint of a smile and even a touch of pride — “that’s the first time I’ve made anyone come!”

Oh no it’s not, I thought. You’ve made me come often enough before. But once again I could not say it. I was mixed up. Coming was such a private thing, coming by accident was if anything worse. True, far better it should happen with Andrew than anyone else (Matron? Christ almighty!). But whatever my inward thoughts, I was still bashful, still far from ready to contemplate deliberate sex with him. Because I still had no notion where he stood.

“Well, yes, thanks. It won’t happen again, as long as you’re quick. So finish your evil work.” I was trying desperately to keep it light.

So he finished his evil work. “No, stay there. Your bum looks as if it’s got measles and been in a cat fight.”

He fished out a tube of antiseptic ointment from his bedside drawer, and with gentle fingers anointed me from thighs to lower back, high on the mountains and deep in the valley. And even though I was in heaven, I did not turn a hair. Not that I had many to turn.

“Right, that’ll do,” and he slapped me lightly on the buttocks. The whole operation had taken over an hour. “But you smell. You haven’t had a shower yet. Nor’ve I.”

So I dressed enough to get to the shower, and we showered together, everyone else having long since been and gone, and he gave me the ointment. “You need another dose of this, but you’d better put it on this time, not me.” And we ended up back in our study, where I lowered myself gingerly on to my chair.

I could not leave it there. “Whew. Andrew, thanks. Look, I was dead embarrassed by what happened. But thank God it happened with you, not somebody else.” I deliberately echoed what he had said to me after his bath. “Because you’re a good friend.”

His look showed that he appreciated it. “Well, that’s what friends are about, isn’t it? And I don’t think it quite qualifies as seduction.” He was grinning.

“Umm. No, not quite.” I needed to match his mood. “But it reminds me of a joke I heard someone telling yesterday. Have you heard it? About fortune-tellers?”

“Don’t think so. What?”

“Well. Fortune-tellers have crystal balls. So they can tell when they’re coming.”

Andrew rocked with laughter. “That’s a good one. Reminds me too of one Jim told me this morning. About the boy who said, ‘My dad says French letters don’t work.’ That’s pretty clever, when you thi — Leon, what’s the matter? What’ve I said?”

I felt as if I had been punched in the solar plexus. I had hardly given them a thought for months, but now a batch of ancient sorrows suddenly returned, out of the blue.

“Oh God, sorry. Not your fault. You couldn’t know.”

He came close and put his hand on my shoulder. “Tell me, Leon,” he said gently.

I was not in tears, or anywhere near them. It was more like being winded. I replied tonelessly, “It’s just that I’ve always reckoned my father’s French letter didn’t work.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Andrew. I was an accident. I’m sure. Not planned. Not wanted. That’s why they don’t love me.”

“Oh my God.” He was clearly appalled, and scrabbling furiously in his mind for a crumb of comfort to offer. “Leon, they may not want you, not love you, but there are other people who do.” He blushed, as if aware of what might be read into that.

“Yes. Thanks. I know. It’s just that when I compare them with your Mum and Dad … And it still hurts. Not as much as it did, but when I’m reminded of it.”

He sat staring at me, deep in thought. “Leon, you like my Mum and Dad, don’t you? And trust them?”

“Why, yes, of course, they’re wonderful.”

“Look, I feel out of my depth here. For helping you, I mean. So may I tell them about this? They’ll be much better with this than me. After all, they are parents. They’ve got the experience. Can I tell them?”

I looked at him. Yes, it made sense. I had met them only twice, but I would already be willing to trust them with my innermost secrets. To treat them as the parents I did not really have.

“Yes. Yes, please do. I’d like that. Thanks.”

So it was left.


By the end of term my love for Andrew had grown more pressing. I took great care to hide it, for I had no real evidence at all that it was returned, or that it would be. The message of The Charioteer was constantly in my mind. Its hero Laurie is a decent young man trying to work out who he is. While recovering from a war wound he meets two people. One, by coincidence, is another Andrew, an innocent Quaker youngster who is a conscientious objector. The other is Ralph, Laurie’s hero from his schooldays and now a naval officer who is embroiled with a circle of homosexuals, some repressed, some blatantly promiscuous. Laurie, although head over heels in one-sided love with the unattainable Andrew, is determined not to violate his purity. But violated that purity is, not by Laurie or Ralph but by one of Ralph’s circle, and Laurie is shattered.

I had had no more semi-sexual encounters with my Andrew, and he had displayed nothing beyond his usual friendliness and consideration. None the less, after that afternoon, I began to sense — I could not for the life of me say how — that he was not innocent in the way that Mary Renault’s Andrew had been. I sensed that his friendship was moving towards something more than friendship. I sensed, if it really was love, that it was still young, that he was feeling his way and still had quite a distance to go. If it is love, Leon, I said to myself, foster it, feed it, strengthen it. But don’t violate it. Don’t try to force the pace. Don’t rush. It’s too delicate and too precious to risk. The emperor Augustus had a motto, festina lente, make haste slowly. I commandeered it for myself. Patience became my middle name

So I went to Oxford for Christmas, for ten days of unalloyed delight at the Goodharts’ elegant house in Park Town. School apart, I had never been away from home before. To my relief and his, we met up with none of Andrew’s faithless friends. Rather, he showed me round the university which, I reluctantly admitted, was not inferior to my Cambridge. We went to the cinema — another first for me — to see Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Andersen. We attended the carol service at Christ Church. Andrew even taught me to ride a bike. I had never touched one before, but now found myself on his small cast-off machine, wobbling uncertainly beside him through the University Parks.

And we wallowed in the warmth and love and generosity of the Goodhart home. It was a constant stimulus and a constant haven. On Christmas Day, apart from eating ourselves into a torpor, I was bowled over by their presents to me: a record of the Allegri Miserere from Andrew, and a three-volume set of the Lord of the Rings from Jack and Helen. Modest enough by many standards, but charged with meaning for someone who was a stranger to generosity, other than theirs. There was nothing from my parents, who did not believe in such fripperies. And one evening Helen and I found ourselves alone together in the living room, with a blazing fire in the grate and the illuminated Christmas tree in the corner, and we sat side by side on the sofa.

“Leon, dear, Andrew’s told us about your unhappiness. About your birth. That you were unplanned and unwanted. Would you like to talk about it?”

I looked at her, and saw love and concern. “Yes please. Yes, I would. The point is …” I paused to get my thoughts in order. “The point is, if my parents had wanted me in the first place, I reckon they’d have loved me. But they never have. Not like you love Andrew. Nothing like. It feels … this sounds silly, but it feels as if I was adrift in the middle of the sea. Ready to drown. No land in sight. Nothing to hold on to. Or rather it did feel like that, often. Until I met Andrew. He’s been … yes, that’s it, he’s been a lifebelt, keeping me afloat. Giving me hope. I don’t get the feeling nearly so much now, but it still comes back occasionally. Specially in Cambridge. That nobody loves me. Nobody at all.”

“Oh, Leon. How dreadful for you. I can imagine, or I think I can. But there are two points there, aren’t there, which are slightly different. One is being an accident. Unplanned. That’s something that’s totally outside your control, and always has been. You can’t do anything about it, however much you may want to. It’s rather like the colour of your eyes. Or whether you’re right- or left-handed. Or whether you love women or men. Or whether you’re an early or a late developer. Or whether you were born in Kamchatka or Timbuktoo. You might wish it were otherwise, but it’s a fact you can’t change. So there’s no point in agonising about it. Are you with me?”

I was. Very much so. It was a comfort, hearing it put so clearly. And one thing she had said was very relevant in another way. Did she suspect, even know, that I was queer? No, she couldn’t. But it was a huge relief to know that the Goodhart attitude to queerness was the complete opposite of the Michaelson one. She put her arm round my shoulder.

“And the second point, arising from the first, is being loved, or not loved. I find the total absence of love very hard to visualise. Oh, I’m not going to go all prim and proper and say that your parents really must love you even if they don’t show it. That would amount to an absence of love, anyway. No, from all I’ve heard and seen of you, and from what I know of your parents, I fully accept that you were an accident and that they don’t love you. Which must be very hard to bear. But the point is this. Even if you weren’t loved once, you are loved, now. By at least three people. By my two menfolk, and by me.” I understood perfectly well the sense in which we were using the word ‘love.’ “So you’ve got at least three lifebelts to keep you afloat. You know all about Andrew, and Jack and I are always here if you want to talk about anything you feel you can’t talk about with your parents. Or with Andrew. You do understand, that, don’t you? And you’ll come to us when you need to?”

I breathed a deep breath. “Oh, Helen, thanks. Thanks very much indeed. Yes, I will.”

A huge comfort, that. Stand-in parents whom I loved and respected far more than the real ones. She had already succeeded in banishing my ancient sorrow and loneliness, I thought for good. And I swung round and hugged her. That night as I went to bed I found myself once again in tears: tears of release, of relief, of gratitude, of love.

I returned to Cambridge for a week of housework — snow kept the garden untouchable — in somewhat bitter recognition of the variety of human behaviour. The Goodharts had soared in my mental league table; my own parents had plummeted. The difference showed itself in umpteen ways. But it was encapsulated in the simplest of facts: whereas I had to call my parents Mother and Father, Andrew called his Mum and Dad.