The Lent term saw me busier than ever. I had done so well in the previous term that, contrary to all normal practice, I was now moved up another step and quite unexpectedly found myself facing O-levels in the summer, at the tender age of fourteen. It was hard work, and should have kept me out of mischief. But in February something happened which could not have been foreseen. Doug Paxton, the house captain, had sadly left and been replaced by the insecure Bill Jessop — he who had confined Andrew last term — aided and abetted by a bunch of prefects who, with one honourable exception, were weak. One day a badly-phrased and thoroughly ambiguous notice went up on the house notice board. It meant to say that all boys who were not involved in other sports that afternoon were to go on a run. Most interpreted it that way, and ran. But a sizeable handful, including Andrew and me, read it to mean that we had the afternoon free, and we did our own thing. Of these, only Andrew had the bad luck to be seen by a prefect, and was called to account. In vain he pointed out the ambiguity of the notice: he was charged with deliberate disobedience and told in no uncertain terms that he was for it.
At Yarborough, within each house, discipline and punishment were in the hands of the house captain and prefects. Really heinous offences, of course, went to the housemaster, but that happened only once in a blue moon. Otherwise the prefects were judge, jury and executioner, and could mete out punishment to fit the crime: anything from trivial to quite severe. The system was part of the philosophy of ‘training boys to be men.’ On the whole it worked well enough. But it was open to abuse if the prefects, and especially the house captain, were weak or tyrannical. The most severe punishment available to them was beating, and to administer a beating the house captain had to get clearance from the housemaster, who would listen to the prosecution’s case and give his verdict. The accused was not present, nor was there a counsel for the defence. Beatings were rare in my house, averaging one a term, if that. And in most cases, if one finds this sort of treatment acceptable, one could say that they were deserved, in the sense that the victim really had committed a fairly major offence.
On this occasion, then, Jessop applied to Wally MacNair the housemaster for permission to beat Andrew. Wally (as everyone called him behind his back) presumably listened to the charge and gave the go-ahead. He was a very good housemaster, it has to be said, and a respected one, who interfered little in the day-to-day running of the house. But this time he found himself ensnared by the policy of trusting the prefects.
The ritual for a beating was that during prep the prefects armed themselves with canes and marched in convoy down the corridors, rattling the canes against all the study doors and radiators they passed, so that everybody knew what was afoot. When they reached the changing room the house captain bellowed the name of the criminal, who would slink up, listen to a shouted reprimand for his sins, bend over with his head among the stinking jockstraps in a locker, and receive one whack each from all of the six or eight prefects before being released to nurse his wounds. It was a humiliating business, and was meant to be.
As we sat in our study, trying with no success to do our prep, Andrew and I were well aware of what was to happen. He was not much bothered by the prospect of pain. Rather, he was seething with righteous indignation at a gross miscarriage of justice. I seethed with him. Both seemed powerless to stop the tide of events. At the last minute, I remembered Andrew’s story of the cricket ball in August and of his betrayal, and saw at once what I had to do. Either he would be spared humiliation altogether, or I would be humiliated with him. My heart quaked, but if there was any occasion when timidity and awe of authority had to be overruled, this was it.
“Andrew,” I said as the canes rattled past our door. “Andrew, I’m coming with you. I’m going to demand to see Wally, you demand to see Wally too, and we’ll see him together. Got that? Trust me.”
Any protests or questions were forestalled by a stentorian “Goodhart!” He went out to his doom. And I went with him.
In the changing room we found the posse of prefects lined up belligerently. The moment he saw me, Jessop shouted, “What the hell are you doing? I didn’t call for you!”
“No, Jessop. But if you’re going to beat Andrew you must beat me, because I missed the run too.” I am not sure how I got that out, my heart was pounding so hard.
“The difference is that he was caught and you weren’t. Nobody’s accused you of anything. Go away.”
“In that case, Jessop, may I go and see Wally?”
Jessop’s eyed bulged. But every boy had the right to see the housemaster at any time and for any reason, and not even the house captain could stop him. “Right. Go.” And without waiting for me to go he rounded on Andrew. “And as for you …”
“Please, Jessop, may I go to Wally with Leon?”
Jessop goggled. Nobody in recorded history had appealed against a beating. But he could not forbid it. So we went. On the way to the private side Andrew whispered, “Leon, you don’t have to do this.”
“No. But I stick by my friends.” Pompous, maybe, but I meant it. “Andrew, explain to Wally what happened, first. He may let you off. If not, I’ll have my say.”
Wally was surprised to see us, and together. “What is it?”
“Sir,” began Andrew stoutly, “Jessop wants to beat me for missing the run. A lot of people thought the notice meant we didn’t have to run — nine that I know of, including Leon here. But Jessop won’t believe me.”
“But I’m told that everyone else read it the right way, Andrew. And who are these others who didn’t run? Who might back you up? Apart from Leon?”
“I’d … rather not say, sir.” Always considerate of other peoples’ interests.
“Well, if you can’t call more witnesses to back you up, you don’t have a very good case, you know. Why not simply take your punishment like a man” — yes, he actually said that — “and then forget about it?”
“It doesn’t seem fair, sir, that I’m not allowed to defend myself properly.”
“There’s a lot in life that isn’t fair, Andrew. If you hoist that in, it’s a lesson well learned. No, I’m sorry, I’ve given permission for you to be beaten, and I can’t withdraw that.” Understandable, in a way. He was under an obligation to support his prefects, right or wrong. But was that really more important than condoning injustice? “And I suppose you’re here to back him up, Leon.”
“Not just that, sir. I missed the run too, and if he’s beaten, I should be beaten.”
“Jessop said nothing about you, so presumably you weren’t caught. That’s your good fortune. I admire you for standing by Andrew, Leon. Let that be enough. Don’t try to make a martyr of yourself.”
“But, sir, if a criminal turns himself in and confesses to a crime, the police have to look into it, and if they reckon he’s guilty they charge him.” I found I could face semi-rational debate with authority more easily that I thought; more easily than Jessop’s loud-mouthed bullying.
“I see your point, Leon. But on that analogy it’s the prefects who are the police, not me. I am the judge. And a judge cannot condemn someone who has not been accused of a crime. I accept that you both disobeyed the notice. Andrew was caught and will pay the penalty. You were not, and you won’t pay. That’s all.”
Dubious arguments, but final. We thanked him politely, I don’t know what for, and made our way back. “Sorry, Andrew. But worth trying.”
“Yes. Thanks though, Leon. It won’t be so hard to take now.”
He passed our study door, expecting me to peel off there. But I had not yet shot my bolt. I paused, and quietly followed him. He did not even know I was just behind him as he entered the changing room. The prefects were lounging about, cheesed off at the disruption to the ritual.
“Well?” snapped Jessop.
“Wally said you are to beat me,” said Andrew quietly.
“And me too,” I added from behind.
Andrew swung round in astonishment, but luckily Jessop was intent on me. “Did he now? Right, wait outside.” And he slammed the door.
I stood there and listened to Andrew being whacked. Hard, it sounded. Not a peep from him. The door burst open and he was pushed out, casting me an imploring glance as I was hauled in. They took their revenge for being monkeyed around with. It hurt. It hurt like hell. But I gritted my teeth. If Andrew could take it like a man, as Wally had told him to, so would I. I crept painfully back to our study. Andrew, too bruised to sit, was comforting his bum against the radiator and trembling with shock or outrage or both. I stood beside him, trembling too, and we looked at each other solemnly.
“Forget it, Andrew. Better shared than alone. And I reckon Jessop and his merry men will think twice before trying that sort of thing again. So may Wally, come to that.”
“But Wally will skin you for disobeying him.”
“Let him try. I think I’m on a pretty safe wicket.”
The adrenalin was still flowing and I felt I could take on the world. A far cry from a year ago. And I smiled at the boy who had brought about the change. He did not return it. Instead, his face suddenly crumpled, and he burst into tears. And hugged me. The most handsome, the kindest, the most stout-hearted boy in the world hugged me. I was caught utterly off guard. My own eyes spouted, and I hugged back. After a bit, Andrew recovered enough to explain himself.
“Leon, the bastards hurt me, but I’m not crying for that. I’m crying because you shared it with me, when you didn’t need to. You’ve no idea what that means.”
“I can guess. And I’m crying because I’m glad to be able to repay you a little for all you’ve done for me.”
Understatement. But I knew, and knew that Andrew knew, that a new depth of friendship had been reached and accepted on both sides. A new depth of love, on my part, though I could not yet say so. And of love on his part, too, I now suspected more strongly than ever before, though he was still far from ready to reveal it. Boys do not find it easy to express emotions, and an awkward pause was broken by the bell for prayers. Prayers over, and the final half-hour of prep under way, we had regained our composure, and lowered our pants to inspect the damage. Livid purple stripes criss-crossed his beautiful rounded cheeks and my skinny ones (pin-buttocks, Shakespeare calls them). We exchanged looks of sympathy. Luckily we were buttoned up again when there was a cursory knock and Jessop put his head round the door.
“Wally wants to see you,” he said, looking at me. They had evidently been talking, and the cat was out of the bag. Would Wally be furious?
He was not. He was blatantly puzzled and uncertain how to proceed, because he was in a trap and knew it. “Sit down, Leon.”
“If you don’t mind, sir, I’d rather stand. It hurts too much.”
He looked startled. “It’s as bad as that? Very well, stand.” He paused. “Leon, you have disobeyed me, and I’m not accustomed to disobedience. What have you to say?”
Adrenalin was flowing again, and strengthened friendship inspired me. “Only this, sir. In my book, despite what you said before, the same crimes call for the same punishment. Assuming we’re guilty, that is. If we’re innocent, as I know we are, then an unjust punishment is easier borne if it’s shared with a friend.” I could use that word ‘friend’ with triumphant pride. “Trouble shared is trouble halved. I didn’t like disobeying you, sir. I don’t like disobeying anyone in authority. I didn’t do it to make a martyr of myself. If anyone thinks so, that’s their lookout. I did it from loyalty. As I see it, equity and friendship outweigh blind obedience. If Andrew had misreported you to Jessop in order to escape a beating, he’d be in for the high jump. And rightly. But I misreported you in order to be beaten. I can’t see that that’s a very serious offence.”
Nor, clearly, could Wally. He sighed, looked at me for what seemed an age, and visibly threw in the towel. And smiled. “All right, Leon. Don’t let this go to your head, but you’re a remarkable boy, and your sense of justice and loyalty is laudable. I’ve been in this house for fifteen years and I’ve never yet met anyone ready to go to such lengths. Tell Andrew from me that he’s fortunate to have a friend like you. No, forget that. You’re so modest you’ll disobey me again and carefully forget to tell him. I’ll tell him myself — send him to me, please. Oh, and you’d both better go to Matron for some Arnica before bed.”
“Thank you, sir.” This time I meant it. “Goodnight, sir.”
I sent Andrew to Wally, who repeated the message. Andrew told me so. We went to Matron for Arnica before bed, and it helped. Rather against my will, Andrew broadcast news of what had happened, and opinion was divided. A minority thought me a masochistic idiot. The majority, on consideration, approved, and my standing rocketed. I overheard, for example, somebody say, “I used to think Leon was a drip, but that’s one thing he isn’t. I wish I had the guts to do something like that.”
For better or worse, the honourable exception among the current prefects — a quiet and decent boy named Alan Gregory — had been out of commission with flu. When he came back into circulation he had a private word with us. He did not like injustice either, he said. If he had been around, he could not have outvoted the others, but he would have protested to Wally. If that had not worked he would have refused to take part. He begged us not to think too badly of Wally, who had been trapped by his policy of trust. And he told us, in strictest confidence, that Wally had given Jessop a bollocking for the whole cock-up and for using excessive force on our bums. Certainly there were no more beatings that year, nor the year after under Gregory, who succeeded Jessop. Andrew and I agreed that, should we ever rise to a position of authority — which he was far more likely to do than me — we would beg Wally to outlaw corporal punishment from the house.
I was writing home on another matter, and mentioned baldly that I had been unjustly beaten. In return I received a dose of reproof on the lines that all punishments were deserved. But it turned out that Andrew, in his letter home, had spelled the story out rather more fully. By chance, his parents’ termly visit fell due the next weekend, and as usual they fed us at the Red Lion. They winkled every gory detail out of us, in eager narrative from Andrew, in reluctant monosyllables from me: I was unaccustomed to public praise. They were disturbed by the background, and I believe had a private word with Wally about it, but were touchingly grateful for my part. And tipped me again. Handel’s Coronation Anthems this time. So, while I had done what I did merely from an outraged sense of justice and loyalty, I found that the pain was far outweighed by the rewards. And I don’t mean the financial ones.
All three Goodharts were going to Sicily over Easter to look at Greek antiquities, and were insistent that I go with them. Prolonged negotiations followed in which, thank goodness, I was not directly involved. Because my parents were not going away themselves, they could not use the cat as an excuse for keeping me at home; and when the Goodharts offered to pay for my whole trip, and argued that it would be wonderfully educational, they capitulated.
We had a marvellous time. I had never been abroad before, nor flown in a plane, nor seen the site of any of the famous events of ancient history. We stayed in Syracuse, rich with Greek associations. I had read it up and studied the maps. Here the Greeks had fought off the Carthaginians. Here Plato had tried with total lack of success to convert the ruler to his ideal of the philosopher king. The Athenians had disastrously besieged the city in 414 BC, and two centuries later, after huge efforts, the Romans had captured it. One day Andrew and I sat in the sun overlooking the Great Harbour, and I pointed out where the Athenians had built their siege walls, and described the course of the fateful sea battle which was their downfall — how the army on the shore had swayed from side to side in silent anguish as they watched their fleet being destroyed, like the crowd at a football match when their side is in trouble. I pointed to the quarries where the prisoners of war were put to work. I explained Archimedes’ ingenious machines which almost scuppered the Roman assault, and we had a fine debate about the mechanics of his crane for lifting ships bodily from the water and about the physics of his burning mirrors for setting Roman ships ablaze.
When we had argued ourselves to a standstill, Andrew mused. “Lord, it’s fascinating. I’m not much into history. As you know. I’d no idea it could be so interesting.”
“Hear hear!” said a voice from behind us. We turned in surprise to see Jack and Helen sitting there.
“Hullo! Thought you were at the cathedral. How long’ve you been here?”
“It was closed for some ceremony,” said Jack. “So we followed you. We’ve sat through the whole performance. Leon, in the course of a misspent life I’ve heard many people trying to explain ancient history on the ground. But never have I heard it done so vividly. And you’ve never even been here before.”
My face was bright red, not only from the sun, and I was on the edge of tears. They could not know how much it meant to be approved and appreciated professionally, so to speak, by intelligent and loving people, and to be almost a member of their family.
Or perhaps they could. Back in England, trying to thank them for the trip, I said, “I can’t think why you’re always so generous to me.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” replied Helen. “Because you deserve it, and because we love you.”
On returning to school for our second summer term, we graduated to separate studies, although we were almost as often to be found in the other’s as in our own. With exams imminent, I was pretty busy. So was Andrew, who had spectacularly made it into the school under-sixteen cricket team and was much occupied with practices and matches. My exams came and went: no need to bore you with details (yes, there was a question on the Athenians at Syracuse). When in June the pressure came off, I had more leisure to sit back and do some thinking, about both the past and the future. I took stock of the last four terms. Academically, my career had been meteoric. While my own abilities, I had to admit, had contributed, Yarborough deserved much of the credit. Its teaching was far superior to my prep school’s, and it fostered an independence of thought which contrasted refreshingly with my parents’ dogmatism. My personal progress, too, had been phenomenal. I would always be a relative loner; but, thanks to Andrew, the growth of my self-esteem and confidence had been remarkable.
This had been underlined by a recent incident. As a new boy, as I have said, I was occasionally at the receiving end of offensive remarks, and once — when Thorne pushed me into the gorse bush — of physical bullying. But there had been none of that since. Word of Andrew’s retaliation had got around, to general approval, for Thorne was not a popular member of society. But one evening as I was leaving the bog, I found Thorne in the changing room, where he had pinned a new boy called Hitchcock in the corner and was prodding him in the chest.
“Hitchcock, Hitchcock” — prod — “Lovely name for a sexy boy.” — prod — “Bet you hitch your cock every night” — prod — “and think of …”
“Stop that!” I bellowed, bristling, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Keep your hair on. Only teasing this twerp. Bit of fun.”
“Was it fun?” I asked Hitchcock gently. He was quivering, and shook his head dumbly.
“Right, Thorne. It wasn’t fun for him, even if it was for you. Anyway, why make fun of his name, which he can’t help? Any more than you can help yours. Want me to remind the whole house that you’re a Thorne in the flesh?” Hitchcock clearly had not heard that one, and I saw delighted surprise on his face.
Thorne was sullen. Evidently the jibe still rankled. “You’d better not.”
“I won’t. So long as you leave Hitchcock alone. Got that? Hop it.” Thorne went out morosely.
“You OK?” I asked Hitchcock. “Let me know if he tries that sort of thing again.”
He smiled. “Thanks, Michaelson,” and he went too, leaving me to ponder my new role as a protector. I had put Thorne down, and he was senior to me. Maybe he was still scared of an invisible Andrew. Or, coward as bullies are, he was even scared of me? Had I matured that much? Did I actually carry an air of authority? An intriguing thought.
As for the future, plans had already been laid for the summer holidays. The Goodharts had come over for Speech Day (one prize for Andrew and three for me, plus my customary tip — Bach cello suites this time) and arrangements were finalised. All four parents were attending the Plato Conference in Athens in August, a major and lengthy affair which would take them away from home for a fortnight. The benighted cat demanded my presence in Cambridge, but my parents must have had a glowing report from the Goodharts of the Sicilian trip, for this time they agreed without too much reluctance that Andrew should stay with me. Whether they had forgotten our conversation about homosexuality, or harboured no suspicions, the subject was not raised. For better or worse, their absence would span both our birthdays, which we would have to celebrate by ourselves.
The prospect of two weeks with just the two of us, alone, raised both my hopes and my fears. I had found that my love for Andrew, which I had once thought complete, was still growing. I still sensed, more strongly than ever though I could not put a finger on how I sensed it, that he loved me. But I still dared make no open move. This was one area where my timidity and lack of confidence had not been eliminated. Not only was I terrified of a rebuff, but I had no idea of how to set about so momentous a step. I was clearer than ever that whereas once I might have settled for plain sex, I would now be content with nothing less than real love on both sides. But how to confirm it? How to declare it? I was at a loss to know. Then, quite unexpectedly, the last few weeks of term threw up a series of chance events which offered most of the answers with little effort and little anguish on my part.
One balmy Saturday afternoon Andrew was playing for the house under-sixteen team, and I was there to watch, lying alone on the boundary, with nobody nearby, and with a book should things get boring. Our side was put in first, and Andrew, who batted halfway down the order, came to join me.
“What’s the book?” he asked, flipping through it.
“Poet. First century AD.”
“What are epigrams?”
“Poems. Any subject, but short and witty. Punch line. Bit like limericks.”
“Oh, I see, Latin on one side, translation opposite.” His brow crinkled. “Why’s this translation in — Italian, isn’t it?”
“Ah. That’s one of the rude ones they didn’t dare put in English.”
“Rude? You mean dirty?”
“Yes. Obscene. Pornographic.”
“Blimey. About girls? Or boys?”
“Both. They were pretty bisexual then.”
“Gosh. What does this one say?”
I had never talked real dirt with Andrew. It was not our way. Dirty jokes, yes — we shared good ones, of course, like the fortune-tellers. Nothing more than that. But I was at ease today, and felt inclined to take minor risks, though I had to obtain some clearance first.
“Andrew, do you want it uncensored, unedited? Some of these are pretty filthy.”
“Gimme the works. I’m not that shockable.” He was probably expecting something like a rude limerick, on the lines of ‘There was a young fellow of Buckingham.’
“On your head be it.” So I looked round — nobody in earshot — and down at the book. “Actually you’ve got a fairly tame one here.” I worked out a punchy version. “Written to a girl.
“Rumour says you’ve never been shagged, and there’s nothing chaster than your cunt. But when you go to the baths you don’t even cover up the part you should. If you’ve any modesty, put your knickers on your face.”
Andrew laughed heartily. “Good God! You don’t do this book in class, do you?”
“Grief, no. We do Martial, but only in selections fit for our modest eyes. This book is my parents’.”
“Cor. Better than The Cruel Sea.”
That, or the few juicy bits in it, was the nearest thing to pornography that was generally available in the school, pallid though it may seem to later generations. If anyone knew of the existence of hard-core stuff, they would not have known how to get hold of it. We were pretty innocent; but access to my parents’ library made me less innocent than many.
“Give me another.”
“Let’s see … Try this one. This one’s to his wife.
“When you caught me with a boy, you slagged me off and reminded me that you had an arse too. Stop giving masculine names to your equipment. Just get it into your head that you’ve got two cunts.”
“Christ! You mean he … ”
“Seems so.” Noises off as a batsman was bowled. A nasty thought struck me. “Andrew. Keep this under your hat. Please. That I’ve got this stuff and can translate it. Otherwise everyone else’ll beat a trail to my study. I don’t want that. Only you.”
“Right. Understood. I won’t tell.”
“Umm. Well. Same sort of thing again.
“Labienus, when you shave your chest and legs and arms, when your prick is surrounded by hair trimmed short, we all know you do it for your girlfriend. But who is your shaved arse for?”
“Leon, this is wicked. Dirty old Romans.” Applause. Another batsman was out. “Lord, I must get padded up.”
He climbed to his feet, and as he brushed grass off his trousers I noticed something. And took another risk.
“You’d better do something about that hard-on before you put your box on.”
He looked startled, then amused. “You mean it’d be a jack-in-the-box! Don’t worry. It’ll go down as soon as I’ve left your stimulating company,” and off he loped to the pavilion, leaving me to ponder what was happening.
Not for long. Our batting was collapsing and Andrew, most untypically, was bowled first ball. Soon he came trotting round to me again, grinning unabashed and still matching my skittish mood.
“Bad luck,” I said. “Eye not on the ball, eh? Or eye on Elliott’s balls?” Elliott was the bowler who had just demolished him, a notoriously beautiful boy.
“Michaelson is possessed of a particularly filthy mind,” he pronounced in good imitation of the headmaster’s ponderous voice. He looked round, but nobody was watching. “Not eyes on balls, Leon. Balls on eyes.”
I was lying on my back, and he straddled me and briefly and gently lowered his bum on to my forehead, balls over my eyes, giving me a tantalisingly sexy whiff of essence of boy. As he got off, the bulge in his trousers knocked my glasses askew. “Now I’m cock-eyed,” I said.
He giggled helplessly for a while. “Oh. Leon, I love it when you talk dirty. I was wondering” — he turned more serious — “Leon, where did you pick up these dirty words? I mean, I heard them from my friends, but you say you never had any friends before.”
I hesitated, as I was obscurely ashamed of the answer. But it was a fair question. “Oh, a couple of years ago I had to go to the bog. A public one. For a crap,” I added, in case he got hold of the wrong end of the stick. “And the walls were covered in these graffiti. I spent ages reading them. They taught me a lot.” What I did not add was that I had then noticed an eye peering through a hole in the wall, and had fled in panic without even buttoning up. “Pretty sordid, really.”
“Yes, I know, I’ve seen some. Sordid, like your poems, but not so neat.”
We watched a may-bug droning past. Another opportunity. “Do you know the other name for those things?”
Andrew giggled again. “Leon, you’ve never been like this before. Must be your Roman pornography turning you on. Sing us another one.”
I leafed through the book. Right. Try this.
“Hyllus, you’ve often got only a penny to your name, and it’s more worn than your arse. But it won’t be spent on food or drink, but on someone who can boast a massive cock. Your wretched belly envies the banquets your arse enjoys: the one is always empty, the other stuffed.”
“Whew. That’s hot. Read me another.”
“You sound like a little boy at bedtime.” Umm. That might be misinterpreted. More searching. Ha. What will he make of this?
“Polycharmus, you like to crap after fucking. What do you do after you’ve been fucked?”
“Yeeow. Leon …” Burst of clapping, our side all out. “I must go. But Leon, does the, um, stuff stay in your arse, or leak out?”
“No idea. You’d better go.”
I paid little attention to the rest of the game, and hardly noticed who won. Probably them. I had plenty to think about. Andrew had seen a new side of me, and I had of him. He went back with the rest of the team, I by myself.
Next day was Sunday. The day of rest, relatively speaking. After chapel, Andrew came to my study. I was still in my frisky mood, but he was more thoughtful. “Leon, I was thinking last night about your Martial bloke.”
“I bet you were!”
He smiled, but only faintly. “Clot. We’re supposed to be pure and pious today! Even so, Martial. Did the Greeks write the same sort of thing?”
“Yes, probably more. The best source is the Anthology.”
“Have you got it?”
I had. In this respect if no other, bookworm parents were a blessing to a bookworm son. I rummaged on the shelf for Volume 4, the only one I had. Same layout, but this time Greek on one side and English on the other, or Latin for the juicy bits.
“Right. Some of them are much the same as Martial. Like this.
“Is Favorinus fucking or being fucked? Yes. He’s fucking his own mouth.”
Andrew was startled out of his thoughtfulness. “Does that mean he was sucking himself?”
“He must have had a monster. Couldn’t do that myself. Doubt if Richardson could either,” referring to a sixth-former who was enviably well endowed.
“Huh.” If Andrew couldn’t, I certainly couldn’t. “Here’s another.
“There were two on the bed being fucked, and two fucking. You think that makes four? No, three. The one in the middle was doing both.”
Andrew was startled again, but kept quiet as he worked out the mechanics of it.
At that point the bell rang for lunch. “Look, walk this afternoon?” I suggested. We had to be out of the house for an hour on Sunday afternoons. Anywhere.
“Right. I’ll bring the book with me.”
So we walked out along the quiet road that led towards Gresford, and when we reached open countryside we sat down in the sun on the grassy bank. I delved into the book again.
“You know, compared to Martial, there are more poems here about boys, rather than men. After all, the Greeks were into boys — sorry, pun not intended. Like this one.
“Girls don’t have a tight arsehole, a straightforward kiss, a naturally fragrant skin, good dirty chatter, or an unambiguous glance. They don’t learn so fast. They are frigid behind. Most important, there’s nowhere to put your wandering hand.”
“Yes,” he said, so quietly I could barely hear him, “that I can understand.”
There was a pause, so I flipped the pages once more. “Another thing, they liked their boys young. Certainly not hairy. Like this.
“You’re getting hair on your legs, Nicander. Take care it doesn’t cover your arse, or you’ll find out how rare lovers are. Remember that youth can’t be called back.”
Our socks were rumpled down and our trouser legs ruckled up, so that patches of shin were visible, his with a distinct covering of darkening down, mine smooth as a baby’s bottom. I saw him looking at both.
“Yes,” he said quietly again, “it’s a pity we get hair.” He lay back with an air of finality and gazed unseeingly at the starlings wheeling in the sky. “Leon, I don’t want any more. Thanks for reading them, though. I like them, in a way. They make me horny. Good material for jacking off, you know what I mean.” His sideways glance was positively shy. “But in another way I don’t like them. They’re like the scribbles on the boghouse walls. Like you said, sordid. Casual sex. That last one — the bloke ditching his boy as soon as he gets hair on his arse. If I was that boy, I’d be getting ditched now. I’m getting hair there.”
He heaved a big sigh, and I waited. This was another Andrew that was new to me, and one that I longed to know better. The sun picked out highlights on his blond curls, and his blue eyes were half closed against the glare as he sifted his thoughts.
“Leon, that’s not what I’d like. Not short-term affairs. It’s not really love, is it? What I’m after …” he corrected himself and started again, slowly. “If I were to love, and be loved, I’d want something permanent. Stable. Deep. Not just casual sex. Here today gone tomorrow. Chuck one out, find a new one. Am I being a prig?”
“If you are, I am too.” I doubt he heard me, he was so far away.
“And to love someone properly, I reckon you’ve got to know him pretty well. I don’t see how you can fall in love, proper love, at first sight. At first sight you can only see his face, his body. What matters is what’s inside. And proper love can’t come till you know the inside. Properly. And that takes time. And how do you know — know for sure — that you’re right? And haven’t made an awful mistake?”
All this was addressed to the sky, not to me. But now he looked at me almost shamefacedly, as if realising that he had been laying bare his soul. He had made it crystal clear that he was not interested in girls. Only in boys. And though he had not referred to me at all, there was little doubt I was the one he was interested in. No way was this an appeal to a third party for advice. I was knocked back on the ropes. His thinking exactly mirrored mine, and he had worked it out entirely by himself, and better than me. I thought I had fallen in love with Andrew at first sight, over a year ago. But he was probably right. He was right. At that stage it had been merely lust. Proper love had come later. Yes, all right, a great deal sooner to me than to him, perhaps because I was more desperately in need. But right now he needed reassurance, or what little I could offer him. Even so, don’t rush it, I reminded myself. You might spoil everything. Festina lente. I drew a deep breath.
“Andrew, I reckon you’re absolutely right. Love should be permanent. It should be equal. Symmetrical on both sides. Reciprocal. It can’t be shared between more than two. Look at the Greeks.” This was my territory: I knew about them from my reading, especially of Plato. “They’re a bad example of love, on the whole. Lots of sex with women, of course, but they were reckoned inferior, not men’s equals. And quite a bit of sex with men, or rather boys. But even there it was a matter of status. Men were older and therefore superior, boys were younger and inferior. To shag was superior, to be shagged was inferior. But once a boy became a man he was superior too, so it wasn’t right for him to be shagged. It’s like that last poem. Not what seems right to you. Or me. Unequal. Impermanent.
“But there’s another side to it. There were permanent partnerships too. Not many. There’s a marvellous book by Plato. The Symposium. About a party where they all talk about love. All sorts of ideas are thrown up, most of them crap. One of them’s the standard line of the day, justifying it all, that the lover, the man, educates his boyfriend in all the virtues.” This made me think of Andrew, educating me. “But a bloke called Pausanias draws the distinction — and I reckon it’s dead right, too — between physical sex, which he calls common love, and proper love of what’s inside, which he calls heavenly love.
“And there’s another I specially like. Plato puts this in the mouth of Aristophanes, the comic poet. According to him, all humans are originally double. Made up of two individuals joined together, rather like Siamese twins — four legs, four arms, two heads and so on. Either two males, or two females, or one of each. Then they’re cut in two, separated, and have to look for their lost half, their other half. And when they find it — if they find it — they’re reunited for ever, sharing their life again as equals. Absolute equals. Homos if they were originally both male. Lesbians if they were both females. Heteros if they were one of each. All pre-ordained. Of course things can go wrong. If you think you’ve found your other half but you’ve actually got the wrong one, you break up and start searching again. It’s only an allegory, of course, an illustration. But it strikes a real chord with me.
“And how do you know you’ve found the right one? I’m not sure. But I’d guess that if you spot a likely candidate you need to get to know them, like you said. And the better you know them, the closer you get. And it’s like — look, I’m making this up, Plato doesn’t say it — it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You build it up in two halves, one for you, one for the other person as you get to know them. And if in the end the two halves fit together, if the picture’s continuous, if all the pieces interlock, then it must be right. You’ll know it’s right.”
Lord, what a speech. Probably the longest I had ever made. But it seemed to do the trick. Andrew had emerged from his brown study and was listening intently.
“I like that. I like that a lot. Makes sense to me. Have you got this book? I’d like to read it.”
“I’ll see if I can find a translation.” This was an evasion: it was there on my shelf, but I thought we had gone plenty far enough for one day.
“Thanks, Leon. You got me thinking yesterday, and trying to sort things out. So thanks for listening to my blathering. You’re a wise man.” He put his hand on my knee: we were sitting up by now. Festina lente, I screamed to myself, and he took his hand away. “And — I’ve said it before — you’re a damn good friend too. Hey, look at the time. We’d better get back.”
So we walked home in companionable silence. Damn good friends, but still not openly in love. At the house, he went to his own study.
“Sorry, I’ve got a bit of writing to do.”
Perhaps his letter home, though the post had gone. Or his diary. He was the only boy I knew who kept one.
An hour later he appeared in my study, pen in hand and still thoughtful.
“Leon, that sermon this morning.” He paused, head cocked, listening to the record I was playing. ‘What’s this?”
“Bach cello suite. Casals. From the money your Mum and Dad gave me.”
He sat down to take it in. When it was finished, “You know, Leon, you’ve taught me a hell of a lot of things. One of them is that the Comets, and Bing Crosby, and most popular music come to that, is like quick sex. Short-lived. This sort of stuff is like proper love. Deep. Somehow pure. Permanent.”
He was indeed a sensitive soul. But he came back to business.
“Leon, that sermon.” It had been a visiting preacher, a little ball of a man who had bounced around as if on the end of a spring. I had wondered if he would bounce clean out of the pulpit. “He was going on about faith, hope and love. You know, Corinthians something. I thought it was faith, hope and charity.”
“So it was, in the Authorised Version. But he was quoting from the new translation, the Revised Standard. It’s called ‘love’ there.”
“Is that the same love that we were talking about?”
“No. Dreadful word, love, it can mean so many things. The Greeks had several different words for it. Sexual, well, erotic desire is eros. Friendship, affection, like between us, or between you and your parents, is philia. In Corinthians the word’s agape, brotherly love, general love for your fellow men. Not quite the same as what’s now called charity, like giving money to the Blind Institute or the dogs’ home. Even so, I reckon what Paul says could just as well apply to the love you’re talking about. Let’s have a look.” I found my RSV. “Yes, look.”
He leant over my shoulder to read, and I felt his breath getting ragged on my cheek. He stayed there far longer than it could possibly take to read the passage, and finally said, “Yes, I see what you mean. Thanks. Can I borrow this a minute?”
“Course.” He went out, no doubt to copy it into his diary.
Love was blatantly on his mind. And, it seemed to me, the two halves of a single whole were moving on converging paths. I thought over St Paul’s words again.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Substitute ‘Andrew’ for ‘love,’ it occurred to me, and it would be equally true. It all fitted. Please God it would happen. But don’t rush. We’re not there yet.
Throughout prep that evening I mused on about sex and love. At Yarborough, boys, especially older ones, often talked about homosexual sex, how they would like to bed this boy or that. But it was a superficial, almost a fashionable, pose, readily accepted for what it was. But, unless you count wanking which was doubtless almost universal, astonishingly little physical sex actually took place in the school. There may of course have been cases we did not hear about, but the grapevine was pretty efficient. In all my five years there, out of six hundred-odd boys at any one time, I only ever heard of about half a dozen instances, in two of which the culprits had been caught and summarily expelled. One of those, later and in another house, hardly counted: a boy was found having it off with the matron. The other was in my own house, only a few months before, when Derek Jones was caught with his trousers down and his cock in a younger boy’s mouth. If there was that little sex going on, I was pretty sure that there was nothing like a real love affair afoot in the school, other than my own.
If so, my feelings for Andrew were a mighty rarity. My love for him needed, in my mind, no explanation, no justification. It was simply natural, given that he was so lovely in soul and in body. But what the hell could he see in me? I was lovely in neither department: a weedy and narrow-minded bookworm with a face like a cross between a mouse and an owl. True, poor old Derek who had got the boot had been no oil painting. His face had been a wilderness of spots and craters, like a miniaturised battlefield on the Somme. It evidently had not put off the kid who had been pleasuring him; but that, surely, was a matter simply of sex, not love. True again, I was now vastly more at home with my inner self; and Andrew had actually said that what matters is inside. True once more, I was now growing fast. Not only upwards, but filling out significantly too. But the fact remained that the outside was still essentially in its old shaming form.
The very next day my eye lit on an advert in the paper. It appeared almost daily, but I had not really taken it in before. Plugging Charles Atlas’s body-building courses, it featured some poor sod reportedly saying ‘I once was a seven-stone puny weakling,’ and was illustrated with before-and-after photos of the aforesaid sod. I had no desire to turn into a muscle-bound lout; but it put a thought into my head, which rapidly hardened into a resolution. It could do no harm to try to repackage Leon. I could do something to improve my body and, if the gods were willing, I could do something to improve my face. So, to general surprise, I started swimming as often as possible to build up some muscle tone, and even sought the advice of the PE instructor on exercises. Andrew seemed pleased but not surprised, and encouraged me all the way. It was knackering work, but that was the price that had to be paid.
Next Saturday Andrew was playing in an away match. He had left early and would be back late. I got in from lessons to find a note in my study.
We’ve come over for the weekend on the spur of the moment, foolishly forgetting that Andrew’s away today. We’ll have to leave him till tomorrow. But if you’ve nothing else on today, can we tempt you out to lunch and for the afternoon? We’ve had a word with Mr MacNair and he’s given you leave of absence. We hope to see you in the lounge at the Red Lion.
Yours ever, Helen and Jack
It had threatened to be a tedious day alone, and my heart rose. Lunch was cheerful, as it always was with the Goodharts. I wondered what had brought them over so soon after Speech Day, so soon before the end of term, but they gave no clue until we had finished coffee.
Jack then leaned over and said quietly, “Leon, we’ve a confession to make. I’m afraid we’ve brought you here on false pretences, and we’ve told you a white lie. We knew very well that Andrew was away, and came today so that we could talk to you by yourself. When you hear why, we hope you’ll forgive us. But it’s too private and personal” — he looked round the lounge — “to discuss here. And it’s pretty cold and damp outside. Would you mind coming to our room?”
Strange. With anyone but the Goodharts it might have seemed sinister, but I followed them readily. Their room was pleasant, with a double bed and two easy chairs. They tried to get me to take a chair, but I preferred to sit on the bed facing them. Jack began.
“Leon, we’re in need of your help and advice, if you will. To put it in a nutshell, we had a letter from Andrew on Tuesday.” Ah, so he had been writing home on Sunday evening. “In it he told us some of his deepest thoughts. We’ve always encouraged him to talk to us, if he feels the need, on anything that’s worrying him. He knows that we’re here to help or advise. And he’s always open and honest. The news in his letter didn’t come as a total surprise to us. It said that he was in love with a boy, or more accurately that he was fairly sure he was but wasn’t certain yet. He didn’t name the boy. He said that he thought he was loved back, but that nothing physical had taken place. And he’d got to the stage where he wanted to know what our reaction was.
“Well, we put two and two together and made what we think is four. Quite an easy sum, really. We couldn’t see that the boy was anyone but you. We know, to our eternal delight, that you’re the greatest of friends. We’ve seen how you look at Andrew, and very occasionally how he looks at you — I think he’s better than you at hiding his feelings. No, before you speak let me add one thing more. About our reaction. Love between males is unconventional, and it can be difficult, very difficult, and dangerous too, in a generally hostile world. If it involves sex, it’s also illegal. But we’re not shocked. We think that homosexuality is a natural state, not a disease or a perversion. And we’ll support him as far as we possibly can. We love Andrew. We love him deeply. And therefore we want him to be happy and fulfilled. That matters more than anything.
“But we need to know more, from both of you, about what you think love means. Not just because you’re both boys. We’d ask the same if one of you was a girl. Or if you both were, come to that. If this love of his is right, if it’s laudable, be blowed to convention and the law.” He smiled at me. “You see why we didn’t want to talk about this in the lounge. And if we’re correct and you’re the object of his love, and if everything else is in order, then we couldn’t ask for better. Not possibly. Now, Leon, what can you tell us?”
To gain time, I took off my shoes and brought up my legs to sit cross-legged on the bed. I was flabbergasted. Mainly because this had come straight out of the blue. It was no surprise to hear their view of male love. The news that Andrew did love me, or was well on the way to it, was new and very welcome, but I had long suspected it. Things were at last beginning to fall into place. And they fitted. Last Sunday he had asked and received my advice. He had now asked, and would shortly receive, his parents’ advice, which in turn would be informed by what I had to say. There was total trust all round, and I owed total honesty to everyone.
“Oh gosh, Jack, Helen … Oh, where do I start? Yes, your sum is right. At least I hope it is. He’s never told me. But I know I love Andrew. I’ve not told him either. But I’ve loved him since we first met. I owe everything to him. I was in a dreadful state when I came here, and from the very first day he was my salvation.” I raised a questioning eyebrow to see if they knew what I was talking about.
“Yes, we can take that as read,” said Helen gently. “Andrew told us all about you. Much more than you imagine, I fancy. And he’s kept us updated. In addition to what we’ve seen for ourselves.”
“Well, my love for him’s been growing all the time. As you say, he doesn’t show his feelings much. But I think he’s been in love with me since last winter. Or rather, feeling his way towards love. Slowly. It doesn’t sound as if he’s gone the whole way yet.”
“You’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s Andrew all over. On things that matter, his decisions take time. If it’s a choice between a vanilla or a mint choc ice, say, he doesn’t hesitate, because it’s unimportant. But when we gave him his latest bike we looked at various models, he went back to the shop at least three times to look again, and he chewed it over for a week before making up his mind. This is infinitely more important still, and so he’s taking much longer. Don’t worry about that. But — sorry to press you on a very personal matter — what exactly do you mean when you say that you’re in love?”
“Well, as Andrew told you, there’s been nothing physical. No sex. In my book, there’s the world of difference between common love and heavenly love. You know, Pausanias.” No need to elaborate. They would know the Symposium inside out. “I don’t want common love without the heavenly. We were talking about this last Sunday, in an abstract way, not with reference to us. And he feels exactly the same as me, though he’d never even heard of the Symposium. So that’s one side of it. The other side is the proper love, the heavenly. I stand by Aristophanes’ allegory of the search for your other half. The search for permanence. Stability. Equality. I told Andrew about that too, and he liked it. Very much. He wants to read the Symposium.”
“And have you shown it to him?”
“No. Not yet. I don’t want to rush things. I was thinking of giving it him at the end of term, to read before he comes to Cambridge.”
“Very sensible. Go on.”
“Well, Andrew asked too about how you can be sure you’ve found your other half. All I could suggest was that it might be like doing a jigsaw.” And I trotted out my analogy.
“But Leon, how could you possibly know?” This was Helen again, exchanging incredulous looks with Jack.
“About the jigsaw. The analogy. Where did you come across that?”
“I didn’t. I made it up.”
“Good God! … Look, Leon, when Jack and I first met, we talked about love in much the same way as you’ve just done. No great coincidence — anyone who’s read the Symposium could do so. But we also made up the analogy of the jigsaw puzzle. Just like you’ve done, quite independently. I know it’s a cliché, but this is a classic case of great minds thinking alike.” She said it lightly, with a smile, but she was absolutely right: we did think alike. “Leon, did Andrew ever tell you that you’re a wise man?” Her look was now shrewd.
“Yes,” I said in surprise. “He did, only last Sunday. Why?”
“Good. Because you are. At least we think you are, and I’m glad he thinks so too.”
“Well, thanks,” I muttered, embarrassed. “But what I don’t understand is what Andrew sees in me. I mean, anyone could love him, he’s handsome, he’s caring, he’s bung-full of good nature. Everything I’m not.”
“Oh, Leon, you’re not only modest, you’re wrong. You are everything you said.”
“Me? Handsome? You’re joking. All right, I am trying to improve my appearance. I want to be a bit more worthy of him. But, I mean, he’s a Greek god. I know very well I’m not, and never can be.” The thought of my emulating Andrew’s looks was so incongruous I actually smiled at it.
“Don’t be so sure of that. Remember, beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. And on top of that you’ve got your inner beauty.” What on earth could one say to that? Helen consulted Jack with her eyes, and on getting a barely perceptible nod she went on, “Leon, you’ve thought deeply about all this, you’ve explained it with splendid clarity, you’re showing an impressive sense of responsibility. And we approve. Heartily. And we’ll do everything in our power to help you on your way.”
“Oh gosh, Helen, Jack. I don’t know what to say.” A lump was rising in my throat. “You’re marvellous. Just marvellous. You’ve no idea what it means to have your blessing. But there’s still one thing.” I felt no embarrassment at all at raising the matter with these wonderful people. “You approve of the love. But do you approve — will you approve — of the sex?”
Again the eye consultation. “Yes,” said Helen. “From all that we’ve been saying, that follows naturally. Provided both of you are clean, and considerate, and careful.”
“But Helen! If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be in true love!”
Helen blinked, her maternal instincts having overridden her logic. And laughed out loud. “True, O Socrates, I grant you that. Yes. But there are still quite a lot of questions that’ll need answering. May we ask, for example, have you any plans for breaking it to Andrew that you love him? Or will you wait for him to take the lead?”
“I don’t know, Helen. I just don’t know. I’ll have to play it by ear. I don’t think anything’s imminent. School’s hardly the right place — there isn’t the time or the privacy it needs. Anyway, I don’t know yet that he does love me. For sure, I mean. Nor does he. I don’t want to do anything too fast. All the way through, my motto’s been festina lente. But I’m hoping things may come to a head at Cambridge, when we’re by ourselves for a fortnight.”
“Right, and good luck to it,” said Jack. “But that raises two more questions. Holidays are one thing, but have you thought about how to handle it at school? From next term onwards? Assuming things turn out as you hope, of course?”
“Well, yes, a little, but I’ve no real answer. It’s a tricky one. At the moment I’d rather not jump the gun. Andrew and I’ll have to chew it over. And ask your advice too. Assuming things do go right.”
“Fair enough. But don’t forget it. The other question is, what line do you think we should take with Andrew tomorrow? We’ll have him for most of the day from chapel onwards.”
Another tricky one, and I thought hard. “Does he know yet that you’re here? Or rather will be tomorrow?”
“Yes. We replied briefly to his letter saying that we’d be over at the weekend.”
“Look, Helen, Jack,” I said slowly, “I think it calls for white lies again. Pretend you really did forget he’d be away today. Tell him you had me out to lunch, but not that we talked of anything important. Act as if this afternoon hadn’t happened. And talk over what he said in his letter as you ordinarily would. I know it’s not entirely truthful, and I don’t like that much. But I think forcing the pace would be worse. I’d rather allow him to move ahead at his own speed.”
“Very good point. All right, understood. We’ll do that.”
That was Helen. Then Jack chipped in: “Leon, one last thing. At least I hope it’s the last. You know what our reaction is now. Any idea how your parents might react?”
My face dropped. “I can tell you that straight off.” And I told them about the conversation of nearly a year ago, ending with those words that were engraved on my memory, ‘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.’
“Oh Leon, that is a blow. I’m sorry. That means you’ll have to limit your, um, activities to Oxford. But at least you’re welcome there. I mean it.”
“And I second it,” said Helen. There was a pause. “Right. Is there anything else we ought to discuss?”
“Helen, can I ask you something? When we were talking at Christmas, remember? You said that whether you loved women or men was a fact which couldn’t be changed. Did you know that I was homo then? Or Andrew?”
“You don’t miss much, do you? No, neither. We didn’t know, or even really suspect, about either of you But we did know that Andrew shows no interest in girls. And of course we’d seen your growing friendship, and we felt it was possible that it might blossom into something more. So I said what I said. If you weren’t homosexual, it would do no harm. If you were, it might help you.”
Wonderful people. “It did. It helped a lot.”
“Good. Well, Leon, dear, we have to thank you for being so frank with us. You’re so clear-headed about it. You’ve helped us beyond measure. And we’re enormously grateful.”
“But Helen, I’m just as grateful to you both. And always have been. I know it’s still some way to the finishing post, but I’m much more optimistic than I was this morning. Thanks to you.” I looked at them, a trifle shy about what I was going to say. “Do you know, ever since I met Andrew and you, I’ve thought how well you all fit your surname.” The tears which I’d been fighting off began to trickle, so I got up and hugged them. And mumbled, as I buried my face in Helen’s shoulder, “I wish you were my parents.”
“If we were, we’d have a son to be proud of.”
“But you’ve got one already!”
“Yes. We have. But we wouldn’t say no to another.” She was weeping now, too.
When we had recovered, they saw me down to the entrance, and slipped me some money. The usual amount.
“But you gave it me on Speech Day!”
“Speech Day was Speech Day. Today is today.” I looked at them almost in despair. “Go and do your usual. Goodbye, Leon. Thanks. And the best of luck.”
Words were beyond me, so I walked along the street to the music shop, blinking hard. Coming back ten minutes later, my business done, I was surprised to see them still at the door of the Red Lion. So I showed them my purchase.
“Mozart concert aria, Exsultate Jubilate,” read Jack. “Is that how you feel, Leon?”
“Yes, it is. I’m exulting, I’m rejoicing. I feel like singing it to the High Street!”
“Nice idea, if a little rash,” said Jack. “We like your taste, Leon. We were never more surprised than when Andrew told us you’d converted him to classical music and got him to join the choir. He’d never shown any interest in that sort of thing before. But that’s by the by. Leon, we’ve been having a quick talk, and something else has occurred to us. Would you mind coming up to our room again for a moment?”
We went. “This is a difficult question to ask, Leon,” he resumed, his round face unusually serious, “and probably difficult to answer. Maybe we have no right to raise it. But we’ll take the risk. What are your feelings about your parents? You say they don’t love you, and we can see no sign that they do, either. But do you love them?”
Lord. Disloyalty or dishonesty? I gazed out of the window. The sparrows were chattering on the window-box. On the other side of the High Street people, ordinary people, were walking, greeting each other, going in and out of shops on their day-to-day business. Everything was normal, friendly even. And love permeated the Goodharts’ room. My answer really needed no debate. My parents were not normal. They gave no love. I could give none in return. So I looked back at Jack.
“No. I respect them for their scholarship. I’m sorry to sound disloyal, but I can’t love them. I don’t love them.”
“Very honest. We rather thought so. In your shoes we’d probably say the same. I know it’s not the done thing to criticise a chap’s parents to his face, but may I be brutally frank? This is important.”
“The point is, Leon, as you know all too well, that your parents are strange people, difficult people, who treat you in a very strange way. Not a way that commends itself to us. We find it very hard to understand what makes them tick. Now, Helen said a few minutes ago that we’d wouldn’t mind two sons. She said it hypothetically, of course. But she meant it. I endorse it. Fully. And when you’d gone, it occurred to us that it might be possible to make it reality. Provided that you really would like to come to live with Andrew and us in Oxford. In one sense it would make little difference to you — you’d be in an academic environment, you could use our books just as you use your parents’ now. In another sense you’d be helping us all. Not just yourself. Remember we said that what we want for Andrew is happiness and fulfilment? Well, I’m quite sure that if you lived with us Andrew would be happier and more fulfilled. So. Would you like to?”
Dawning anticipation, astonishment, puzzlement, but no hesitation whatever.
“Jack. If I could, I’d come like a shot.” Far too serious to notice double meanings. “But how on earth?”
“Well. Your parents’ present attitude to you is ambivalent, to say the least. To them, it seems to me, you’re a curious cross between a prize poodle, a minion, and a nuisance. Am I right?” I nodded. It was a very good description. “And in addition, if all goes according to plan and you declare yourself to them as a homosexual, you’ll be anathema in their house. Wouldn’t they then be glad to see the back of you?” I nodded again, slowly. “They might, of course, blow their top and send you for treatment, to be ‘cured,’ in inverted commas. But from all that we know of them, they put a high value on their own good name, and we’re pretty sure they’d just wash their hands of you, to avoid the stigma of having fathered a queer. Sorry, I know I’m putting this crudely, but I have to. So what we suggest, if you approve, is that we discuss the matter with them in Athens, where we’ll have plenty of time to talk. And propose that they transfer you to our guardianship. Of course, we can’t guarantee that they’ll agree. But we’re hopeful. And of course we’d need Andrew’s agreement in advance. Though I somehow fancy that would be a mere formality. There. How does it strike you?”
I wanted to cry again, but it was too important for that, though it was hard to speak coherently. “Oh God, yes. Please. Apart from Andrew’s love, there’s nothing I’d like more. But … but there are two things. Don’t do anything, please, before Andrew and I are … I mean, if we don’t, don’t … ” The possibility was too horrible to contemplate, but in fairness to the Goodharts it had to be raised.
“Oh yes, understood. We’d make no move until you both gave us the go-ahead. What’s the other thing?”
“Well, er, money. If they do give you guardianship, I can’t see them funding me any more. They’re as mean as Scrooge. I don’t cost much at Yarborough, what with the scholarship. But I still cost something. Clothes and things. And there’s the holidays. And then university, I hope. Who’d pay for all that? I mean, you’re generous enough already. Far too generous.”
“Oh, Leon,” said Helen. “That’s a perfect example of why we love you. And, I’m sure, of why Andrew loves you. You’re always thinking of others. The answer is that we’d pay. That would be part of the bargain. No” — I was trying to butt in — “it’s all right. It’s really all right. We’re not millionaires, but we’re well enough off. We can easily carry two sons. And we want to.”
The prospect, please God, of a true lover, and with it the prospect of new parents. I could hold out no longer, and collapsed again into sobs. They hugged me until it was time for me to go back for tea.
Andrew returned too late for any talk, and next morning we had chance for no more than a brief exchange of news, heavily censored on my part, and he was hugely tickled by his parents’ arriving a day too early. The Goodharts attended chapel with Wally, and afterwards collected Andrew and bore him away. I stood inconspicuously outside and, as I watched them disappear through the school gates, tried to transmit my love to them. Helen evidently felt it. She paused, looked back, and gave me a discreet wave.
Andrew was back for tea in a state of what seemed to be serenity. He told me nothing, and I asked nothing, but I concluded that all had gone well.