When he heard the car pull into the drive, Jules immediately went outside to intercept John and Mark.
‘Mark, darling, would you kindly go and give Sandy a hand with something?’
‘Sure, Jules.’ and Mark sprinted off, glad to be out of the car.
‘He’s such a good boy now! You’d hardly know that he was once Cuffs!’
John agreed happily, but Jules’ face turned serious. ‘John, something awful has happened. You’d better prepare yourself for a shock.’
‘Oh God!…Justin?…Chris?…The boat…?’ John began to seriously panic.
‘No, no, they’re all fine! Look; Tony’s inside and he needs to talk to you.’
John went inside with great apprehension. There in the kitchen, staring into the unlit fire was his best friend, but for a moment John did not recognize him. Tony was pale and thin, with great dark hollows around his reddened eyes. He was unkempt and shaking; John ran to him and put his arms round him.
‘What’s wrong, Tony?’
‘Oh God, John! Sue’s dead, and that’s only the start of it.’
‘Oh Tony! What happened? Oh, I’m so very very sorry.’
‘Mike happened, that’s what happened.’
‘The Mike you used to live with? The one who trashed your house.’
‘In a way. But he’s dead, too. Of AIDS.’
‘Oh God! I wouldn’t wish that on anyone!’
‘Wrong answer, John.’
‘Wha…? Oh Tony, not you too?’
‘Yes. Mike took my home and my life, and gave me AIDS in exchange. And then I gave it to Sue, and she gave it…’
Tony struggled to master himself.
‘…and she gave it to our unborn baby. And now only I am left. But not for long, I suppose.’ And he broke down into a storm of weeping.
The story came out slowly. Tony and Sue had been blissfully happy together and soon after their honeymoon had conceived a child. Life had seemed finally to have worked out for Tony, until, when the baby was about six months in the womb, he received a letter from Mike which had been forwarded from place to place over several months until it had finally reached him.
In the letter, Mike told Tony that he had probably only a short time to live, and wanted to make his peace. He asked forgiveness for his spiteful trashing of Tony’s home, and warned Tony that as he had AIDS, and as he had had it when the two of them lived together, that Tony was at risk of HIV also. This came as a bolt from the blue to Tony, who went immediately to get himself tested. He received the results a month ago, and they were positive.
He told Sue straightaway of course. She was appalled, naturally. She had known about Tony’s promiscuous and bisexual past, but, like Tony himself, unwisely had never dreamed that this extremity might be the case. After spending a couple of weeks worrying, she went to get herself tested, and returned yesterday to their home with the results. Positive also.
She sat down and calmly talked to Tony.
‘Tony, baby, I don’t blame you, and I love you with all my heart. But I can’t live with this, not with a baby too. I need a few hours; come and find me then.’ She kissed him gently and went out of the room.
Tony had thought she just wanted some time to adjust, and so he had gone off for a walk in the hills, taking Digger, their boisterous chocolate labrador puppy with him. But when he returned some hours later, he found Sue dead on the bed with his photograph clutched to her bosom. She had taken an overdose and killed herself and their unborn child.
Sue’s funeral at the crematorium was a sad affair; she had not been a believer, and had left instructions that there was to be no clergy present, though she understood that Tony, as a Catholic, would want to do something at some other time, and was happy with that. So Tony, John, Mark, with a shocked Justin and Chris, who had flown back from Nice for the occasion, attended Mass at Arundel Cathedral, and then went to the Chichester Crematorium for the bleak commemoration and committal. There was no service of any sort; Tony simply read a poem, then laid two roses on the coffin, a red one for Sue and a white one for their unborn child. Sue’s parents would not take part, blaming Tony for what had happened to their beloved daughter. They never spoke to him again.
Tony moved back into the Arundel house, of course, and Digger the labrador puppy joined the household too, to the delight of everyone.
Tony occupied everybody’s thoughts and activities for the next few weeks, until a welcome distraction occurred. One day over breakfast, Chris had expressed interest in Mark’s search for his brother. Mark had made enquiries in all the homeless centres he could find; he had even put an advertisement in the homeless magazine, Big Issue, but all to no avail. He was now stumped. Chris said:
‘Have you tried the internet?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, it’s the best means of exchanging information these days. Let’s go and try right now.’
They logged on, and tried entering ‘Matthew-Wilson’ into a search engine. Immediately several hundred hits came up, any one of which could have anything or nothing to do with the young man being searched for. Then they tried Matthew-Wilson and Marigold; there were many fewer links, but nothing promising. Mostly the links were about gardening.
Chris then tried searching for Homeless UK, and a couple of useful-looking sites came up among the rubbish. On each of these they tried again searching for Matthew Wilson and Marigold, but there was nothing. Justin came in then,
‘How’s it going, guys?’
‘Nothing, nada, niente, rien, fuck-all!’
‘What are you doing?’
Chris and Mark explained, and Justin looked thoughtful. ‘Aren’t you doing it the wrong way round?’
‘What do you mean, Einstein?’ Chris was tired and acerbic.
‘Well, it may not be me going to Oxford, but surely you’re hunting for the wrong person.’
‘Eh? Sorry if I’m going too fast for you, Jus, but this is Mark here, who is hunting for his brother out there.’
‘Yeah, but you or someone else would have to post an enquiry about this guy Matthew first for it to show up on this site. What you need to do is to put Mark’s name into the site’s search engine, and see if anyone has posted an enquiry saying they are looking for him.’
‘Well, we can give it a try, though I think it’s a daft idea.’ And Chris typed in ‘Mark Scott, Willow.’
‘Nice try, Jus. 4 out of 10 for effort.’
‘Hang on, Chris, before you get intellectually superior again, you fuck-wit; this guy Matthew has never heard the name Mark Scott. How could he? Not even this Crone woman knew it until a month or so ago. But there is a good chance that she told him what his brother’s name was on the birth certificate. What is it, Mark; I’ve forgotten.’
‘Okay; type in Hugo Wilson, and if necessary, Willow Moon-Blessing.’
And Chris did so. Immediately a link came up, which Chris clicked on and read out loud:
‘Hugo Wilson, known as Willow Moon-Blessing, last seen May 1996 in Hereford, please contact Matthew Wilson, once known as Marigold Sky-Blue, now known as…oh fuck…I don’t believe this, I just don’t fucking believe this…’
‘Chris, what is it, man?’
‘Oh fuck, oh fuckity fuck…this is so weird…’
‘Tell us, for God’s sake!’
‘Matthew Wilson, known as Marry, now known as …… Tom Phillips, of Merton College, Oxford!’
Justin sat down heavily. ‘I just don’t fucking believe it. There can only be one Tom Phillips of Merton College, surely.’
Mark was nearly frantic now; ‘Look who is this guy; is he my brother or what?’
Justin answered, ‘Mark, until Chris came along, Tom was my closest friend; we’re still really close in fact. Why couldn’t I see it? I can see it now, though, in your nose and your eyes…… but, oh shit, this is so weird!’
Mark was torn between laughter and tears as Chris and Justin filled him in on his long-lost brother; soon all three had tears in their eyes. Justin ran to his room and pulled out the photographs taken on their yacht cruise; Tom was not in so many of them, as he had been behind the camera for most of the shots, but there were enough for Mark to confirm that, yes, there was no doubt that Tom Phillips was his long-lost brother Marigold.
Chris hugged Mark, and then hugged Justin.
‘Jus, I owe you a real apology. I was frustrated and annoyed at not being able to find Marry, and I was really rude to you. You showed me that I'm the stupid one. Please forgive me.’
Justin was well used to Chris by now, and had not taken offence in the first place, so all was well. Justin embraced Mark happily and kissed his forehead.
‘I can’t believe our luck: It seems we’ve acquired another brother, and it’s someone we already love. And I’m so happy for you, Mark.’
“Thanks, big bro. Now what do we do? Do we send him an email or what?’
Chris said ‘Hell, yeah! Or we’ll give him a ring; we’ve got his mobile number.’
Justin cut in quickly, ‘Actually, guys, I think we should wait till John gets back from the shops, and think this through with him. It’s going to be a shock for Tom, even more than for us, so we need to go really carefully. This has to be done the right way.’
John was back in time for lunch, and was surprised to find that Chris, who had cooked, had also chilled a couple of bottles of Prosecco.
‘I suppose that means that you had some luck in your search, Mark. Fantastic!’
‘You have no idea how fantastic, John.’
And they told him.
Over lunch, a sudden thought occurred to Justin. ‘Mark, do you shave your balls, by any chance?’
John protested, ‘Justin! we’re eating!’
Chris shot Mark a wicked amused glance.
‘Er, yeah, as it happens.’
‘You wouldn’t happen to be the brother who taught Tom to do it, would you? It’s only just occurred to me that though Tom says his brother taught him, I met never met, nor seen any evidence of any brother, though I have often been to stay at his parents’ place.’
‘No, that weren’t me; we neither of us had any hair down there in those days. But Oaky used to do it regular, and often got us to do it for him. He’s still shaved down there; John and I saw it when we was at Avebury, cos he walked around starkers like he always used to do.’
It was agreed that Tom would be invited to spend the next weekend at ArundelJustin offered to drive up to Oxford, where he had spent the summer working, and pick him upand then he could be told the news and reunited with his brother at the same time. Justin rang Tom and made the invitation without giving anything away; fortunately there was no sporting committment that weekend, unusually, for Tom was as ever a keen footballer and swimmer, and so Tom gladly agreed. He had, he said, just split up from his girlfriend, so the good news of the invitation was all the more welcome. He needed some good news, he said.
So Justin left early on Friday morning in order to meet Tom, who had arranged with his summer employers to be free until Monday afternoon. The two friends arrived back at Arundel in the mid-afternoon, and took tea with the others, Mark excepted, as they chilled out after the journey. John then said casually to Tom,
‘Tom, if you’ve relaxed, there’s somebody here who’s very keen to meet you. He’s in the Georgian drawing room at the back of the house; go down the main corridor, and it’s the second door on the right. We’ll stay here, if that’s all right.’
If Tom thought this was strange, he was too well-mannered to say so, but went off as was suggested, closing the door behind him. The others simply sat in silence and waited.
It was nearly an hour later when Tom and Mark reappeared in the darkening kitchen, where all the others still awaited them. Their eyes were red and puffy, but they had their arms around each others’ shoulders, and their tear-streaked faces wore identical wide grins.
Seeing them together, nobody could have the slightest doubt that these were, indeed, brothers.
Tom’s story slowly emerged. On that day in Hereford, when Mark had gone missing, Tom knew there was something wrong, and had gone to search. He had only been gone a short time, when he was knocked down by a car and woke up several days later in hospital. By this time, the Clan had vanished, and Tom was taken into care, being adopted very quickly by a couple whose son, of Tom’s age, had recently died in a car crash. Everyone had agreed that he could not continue to be called Marigold, and so, very cautiously, he asked his new parents if he could take their dead son’s name. They cried, of course, and thought about it, and then agreed. It was the best thing he could have done, for when his parents had got used to the idea, which was not easy, they transferred to the new Tom all the love they felt for their dead son, and, being naturally affectionate, he repaid them in full. Being wealthy, they engaged a tutor for him, who quickly coached him and got him ready for school; since Tom was, like Mark highly intelligent, taking after the Crone, their birth mother, and he took up the place at Whitefriars school vacated by the dead Tom Phillips, and rapidly made progress. The rest, as they say, is history.
Tom and Mark took the labrador, Digger, out for a long walk that evening as John and Justin together cooked a celebration meal, to be eaten not in the great kitchen for once, but in the medieval dining hall that was the centre of the house, which was used only on very special occasions. Mark and Tom were the guests of honour, seated together at the head of the table, beaming with happiness. For once, Tony was tempted out of his shell of misery and seemed almost his old self.
Poor Tony was a big problem for the others, but especially for John. In the twenty-first century, AIDS was not the terrible sudden death sentence that it had been in the 1980s; drugs and care were making it possible for sufferers to live almost normal lives, and even to live their normal life span, given a little luck and good health awareness. But Tony rapidly went into a decline. John at first attributed it to the death of Sue and their baby, but as the months went by, though Tony came gradually to terms with their death, his health continued to deteriorate to the point that he could no longer walk as far as the front door, but simply sat in his bedroom, a little shrivelled monkey looking out of the window at the view towards Arundel. John would go week by week to pick up his prescription medicine, and drive him backwards and forwards to the hospital for his tests. He would, at Tony's request, simply drop him at the gate and pick him up at the same spot. For some mysterious reason, Tony would only go into the ward or see a doctor on his own; John surmised that he was simply embarrassed. Frantic with worry, John would spend hours on the internet, trying to find ways to reverse the clear decline which all his care and love, and all the apparent skill of medicine were doing nothing to even slow. John even consulted the Crone and forced all sorts of natural remedies on Tony, who lacked the spirit to argue and just accepted all that was happening with dull eyes.
What was particularly difficult was that John often had to cope on his own; Jules and Sandy were willing enough, but they had their own jobs to do. Chris had gone to take up his place at Oxford University, and Mark had gone to a college on the outskirts of Oxford to catch up on his education. He was sharing a small flat with Tom his brother which John had bought; when he was permitted by the College authorities, Chris was to join them there. Justin was often away on modelling shoots, and this left long periods of time when John had little to do but sit and watch Tony, his most dear friend, simply fading away before his eyes. At night, John would sleep uncomfortably in a chair by Tony's bed, ready to do whatever was necessary. He would wash and dress Tony in the morning, and help him downstairs. Sometimes he would have to feed Tony by hand and lead him around, trying to keep his enthusiasm for life going. This was the most uphill struggle at all. Tony simply would not help himself. The only thing he would do was to take care of his medication. And this was an added worry for John, too, because with his declining health, Tony's mental state also took a battering; John worried that in his confusion Tony would forget to take a dose, but any time he brought the subject up, Tony would brush him off fiercely. Being unwilling to take away from him the last little bit of independence he had, John left the subject well alone. This is something he would come to bitterly regret. But in the meantime, all this stress meant that John grew progressively more and more exhausted, therefore more and more emotional, therefore less and less able to cope with the situation. Perhaps if Justin had been around, John might have been in a better state, but that was just not possible. And anyway, his longing for Justin was all the more acute when the object of his yearning was visibly before him every day, so perhaps it was as well.
Finally, one day, shortly after Justin had returned from the last shoot of the season, Tony declared that he hadn’t the energy to get out of bed. After his usual run with Justin, John sadly brought him his breakfast and went into his bathroom to bring him his drugs. He had to look around, but eventually he found, instead of the bottle or two he expected, hidden in the laundry basket, bottles and bottles of the drugs that Tony should have been taking for months.
He let out an unearthly yell of rage and grief, then staggered to the bedroom door. Tony raised his dull eyes half-heartedly.
‘What’s up with you?’
‘YOU FUCKING BASTARD!’
‘I’ve a good mind to throw you out right now, to phone the hospice and ask them to come and get you! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO US; TO ME? You’ve never taken a single pill, have you? HAVE YOU? Did you EVER keep a hospital appointment? You just went for a walk when I dropped you at the gate DIDN'T YOU?’
Tony just shrugged listlessly.
‘ANSWER ME, YOU TURD!’
‘What’s the point?’
‘What’s the point of what?’
‘Living. Of the only two people I’ve ever loved, one is dead, and the other one may as well be as far as I am concerned.’
‘Do you mean ME?’
‘If the cap fits, wear it!’
‘Oh, you BASTARD! I have never come even close in my life to hating someone, though God knows I have had cause, but I’m damn near hating you now. So you’re committing suicide to reproach me for not falling in love with you… Do you KNOW what we have all gone through, what YOU have put us through, watching you dying by inches?’
Tony turned his face to the wall, two tears of self-pity trickling down his sunken and yellowed cheeks.
Justin came in at that moment to find out what the shouting was about. When John told him, he went over to him and held John’s shaking body in his strong arms, looking daggers at the shrunken dying man in the bed. He spoke,
‘Tony, that’s despicable! After everything John has done for you!’
‘Everything? He never gave me anything! Well, not what I really needed.’
‘Sex, you mean? I wish you were strong enough right now, because I would hit you so fucking hard……’
John now had his arms tightly around Justin’s chest, his own chest against Justin’s back, his forehead rubbing on Justin’s shoulder, and suddenly Tony’s eyes, watching the pair of them interact, became animated with envious malice. He spoke;
‘It’s YOU, isn’t it? You’re the one that John’s in love with! I knew it was either you or Chris. Now I know!’
Justin spun in John’s arms and looked into his eyes, a sudden wild hope having surfaced. He took John’s face between his hands and stared at him with such ardent passion that even the unperceptive John could not be in the slightest doubt that his love was deeply returned.
‘All this fucking waste of time…’
John seized Justin and pulled him into a passionate embrace. Their lips found each other hungrily with a desperation born of long frustration and yearning. They forgot the presence of Tony, and in fact the presence of the whole world around them, simply absorbed into each other, almost flowing together into one entity. Their need at that moment transcended lustneither of the men even sprang an erectionthey simply held each other tightly when their lips separated, staring unbelievingly into each others eyes.
Justin opened his mouth to tell John of his utter love and longing, but John laid a finger on his lips. ‘Later, Justin; we’ll talk in a minute; oh my God, we’ll talk for the rest of our lives, but I’ve got something else to take care of first.’
He went to the bed, and Tony cowered away in fright.
‘No, Tony, surprisingly enough I’m not going to hurt you. A minute ago you made me angrier than I have ever been in my life before, and a moment later you have made me happier than ever before. I’m going to repay you for both things at once.’
John, determined went into the bathroom, and emerged with something in his hand.
‘Justin, hold him down.’
As Justin, with a puzzled expression, pinned Tony’s feeble arms none too gently to the bed, John revealed what he had in his fist; a handful of pills. Tony clenched his mouth shut, but ruthlessly John pinched his nose closed so that Tony was forced to open his mouth to breathe. Quick as a flash John forced his jaw open and administered several pills and a large drink of water, forcing Tony’s jaw shut again so that he would not be able to breathe until he swallowed.
The sick man swallowed, then looked into John’s eyes fearfully.
‘This is how it’s going to be, Tony, even if we have to do this several times a day. Perhaps it's useless, and we can’t beat the disease now, but by God we’re going to try, even if I have to borrow Mark’s handcuffs for the purpose of making you co-operate. I’m now going to telephone for a doctor to come and see what can be done. And I swear to you, Tony, that if you try to kill yourself either by resisting medication or by more direct means, I will have you sectioned and locked up in a mental ward. I swear it by God and our Lady. You may think you hate me now, Tony, and this may not be sex, but it is something much better. I love you, Tony, far too much to let you go through with your plan. I’m not going to sit back and watch you die all bitter and twisted up, all full of hatred and despair.
John left the room and did his best to walk downstairs to the hallway phone. It wasn’t easy because Justin, overcome with joy, would not let go of his beloved, and John was not keen to be let go of. Every few steps he pulled John to him again and they kissed passionately, tears of happiness in both their eyes. It took twenty minutes to find the telephone book, another ten to find the number and dial it, but eventually John was put through to a doctor at the AIDS hospice.
Justin, realizing the gravity of the conversation, finally desisted in his attempts to kiss John and simply knelt on the floor beside John’s chair, his head in John’s lap. And as John spoke, he ran his free hand through Justin’s blond hair as he had so longed to do, feeling its silky fineness running through his fingers; it was a miracle that he managed to hold a coherent conversation, but it was soon arranged for the doctor to pay a home visit.
When John hung up the receiver, neither man could wait any longer. They seized hold of each other in frenzied passion and sank to the wooden floor, there in the hallway, utterly absorbed in the other.
A little later, Jules tottered by with a pile of laundry. He saw the two lovers writhing on the floor and gasped in suprise. A moment later he had dropped all the laundry and was fumbling for his handkerchief.
‘Oh, thank you, God, thank you!’ he prayed fervently as he cried with happiness for the two young men. Leaving the laundry where it was, he tittupped out of the room as fast as he could mince to give Sandy the good news.
Once that had been taken care of, he sat down and made plans for the evening. Ten minutes later, Sandy was sent off to Arundel, to the expensive delicatessen and country foods shop with a long list, while Jules readied a small room that was rarely used but which he, privately thought was the most beautiful room in the house, lined with dark sixteenth-century linen-fold oak panelling, and with a beautiful moulded plaster ceiling. He brought in a small table and chairs, and laid the table with his own mother’s best linen and silverware. It brought a tear to his eyes as he remembered how he and Sandy, his beloved Frank, had used that same tableware on the evening they agreed to live together, and how his own mother and father had got engaged in the same way. Somehow the room had never had electricity installed in itno doubt successive owners were reluctant to spoil the panelling and plaster, so Jules brought several candlesticks (again, many of them his own) and a beautiful oil lamp that had belonged to his great-grandmother, and set them around the room. He laid the fire, and made sure there was plenty of coal and wood beside it to keep it burning as long as it was needed.
He then looked into the front hall again, and saw John and Justin lying still on the floor on their sides; no longer were they trying to devour each other, but simply holding each other close, gazing into each other’s eyes, all four of which were brimming with tears of happiness. Jules suppressed a little sob again, and went up the back stairs to their bedrooms, where he shamelessly raided their wardrobes to find the clothes he thought best suited them, and which he laid out on their beds. He heard the noise of gravel in the drive, and looked out of John’s window to see that Sandy had returned in his van. When he saw that Sandy was heading for the front door, which led into the hall where John and Justin lay, Jules squeaked with horror and tried to head him off.
He needn’t have bothered; an atomic bomb could have exploded and it wouldn’t have disturbed Justin and John who were now talking in low voices of their love. So Sandy, his arms laden, tiptoed (as quietly as that big man could tiptoe) into the kitchen, where Jules waited for him. He looked into the little queen’s brimming eyes with eyes that focussed none too well themselves, set his parcels down, and opened his arms. The two hugged and kissed gently, and gave thanks to God that they, too, had found each other.
Love was all around.
The doctor came that afternoon; after speaking with John and the others, and examining the patient, Tony was immediately removed into hospital; there was not a chance, he was told, that he could stay at home until his condition had improved considerably. And that was that. The doctor phoned for an ambulance, which arrived shortly, and, struggling and protesting feebly, Tony was carried downstairs to the door. As he went, he caught sight of John and Justin in the hallway, glowing with happiness; Tony glared malevolently at them. Despite everything, John couldn’t help feeling guilty, and he blushed; Justin was having none of it. He glared right back at Tony, still furious with him, and deliberately took John’s hand, holding it up to his mouth to kiss it.
‘You bastard!’ whispered Tony, and the ambulance men carried him out.
John turned to Justin. ‘Darling, that wasn’t kind.’
‘No, it wasn’t, was it. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s the very least he deserves. And he’s going to have to get used to it, because I propose to be part of your life for a very long time.’
‘Mmm; I like the sound of that. Forever, I hope.’
And they kissed once more as the sound of the ambulance receded into the distance.
That evening Justin and John celebrated their love together by candlelight in the little panelled parlour where Jules had prepared for them the most delicious dinner. They did all the little things that lovers do and when finally they had drained the last drop of port they made their way upstairs, hand in hand to John’s room. But at the door, Justin stopped.
‘Goodnight, my love. You have made me so happy today.’
‘Goodnight? Aren’t you coming in?’ John was hurt.
‘No; if I come in, we’re going to have sex.’
‘Well, I jolly well hope so. That was the general idea; now is really not the moment to get all coy with me; I’m randy as all hell!’
‘So am I, but I’m still not coming in, my love.’
‘Why on earth not?’
‘I don’t believe in sex before marriage.’
John's mind boggled for a minute, trying to puzzle out what Justin was on about.
‘Well marriage is not really an option, is it? We’re both men, in case you hadn’t noticed, darling.’
‘No, John, I want to marry you, my love. And when we come together it will be the most wonderful thing. But until then, I want to court you, I want to woo and win you… Don't you want to be wooed?’
‘Justin, you can be as 'wude' as you like, and you’ve won me, Justin, you won me a long time ago. And what’s the big issue, all of a sudden? You had lots of sex with Chris; I remember only too well…… Hang on: did you say you wanted to MARRY me?’
‘More than anything else in the world.’
The world stood still and held its breath.
John began quietly to cry with joy; seeing the tears, Justin began to weep too. They stood there on the landing, holding each other and cherishing the moment of the greatest happiness either of them had experienced in their lives before.
John finally spoke.
‘Justin, I can’t bear the thought that I’m not going to see you for several hours. I’d rather poke biros into my eyes. Please won’t you at least sleep next to me? We don’t have to do anything. I only want to hold you.’
‘Darling, I’d never trust myself. You know perfectly well what’d happen.’
‘I can’t bear parting from you.’
‘Parting is such sweet sorrow. Good-night, sweet prince.’
Justin kissed John gently on the cheek and left to go to his room. When the door was shut, he breathed a massive sigh and said to himself
‘I can’t believe that I have just turned down the man of my dreams.’
The following morning Jules brought breakfast for two up to John’s room. He was very taken aback to find John alone in bed, and worried whether all had not gone well. When John had woken, he told Jules briefly that all was fine, and then he suddenly remembered that Justin had said that he wanted to marry him. He choked up and began to cry all over again. Jules rushed over to the bed and took John into his arms, thinking that something was definitely wrong. But when John told him, Jules started to cry with happiness too. A little while later he went back downstairs, already planning weddings in his mind.
John got out of bed and picked up the breakfast tray, taking it along to Justin’s room. The door was open, so he went in quietly without knocking and set the tray down by the bed. Turning to look at Justin, his heart melted. Justin lay on his back, his mouth slightly open. Despite the time of year, it had been a warm night, and the bedcovers were thrown back, so Justin was only covered by his usual shorts, tented by a huge erection. His blond hair was dishevelled and there was a crease on one lightly stubbled cheek and down the side of his still tanned and muscular torso where he had been lying until a few moments before. John sat in the armchair, picking up the shirt that Justin had worn the night before from the floor. He pulled his knees up to his chin and hugged them, the shirt in his grasp, pressed to his nose, as he gazed with adoration on the boy who had made him so happy.
An hour or so later, Justin woke, and sleepily looked across his room to where John was still drinking him in.
‘Mmm; that’s I sight I could get used to! Morning, love.’
John said nothing, but crossed the room to Justin and kissed him on the top of his head, caressing his cheek. He then poured Justin a cup of coffee, but Justin, once he had tasted it, nearly spat it out.
‘Yuk! It’s cold.’
‘What? It’s only just been made. Well a minute or two ago, I suppose.’
‘Rubbish! Oh John; how long had you been sitting there?’
‘Not long; a few minutes I suppose.’
‘Couple of hours, more like. Oh God, I love you! And it’s so wonderful to be able to say it now. I can’t believe that you are here, and have said that you love me back.’
A little later, some fresh coffee having been brewed, they sat together on the bed, cross-legged and discussed, with many tears of happiness, the possibility of a wedding. Justin had done some thinking about it.
‘Look John, I know it isn’t a sacrament we’re thinking about, but that doesn’t mean that it’ll be meaningless. I want to vow to stay with you for the rest of my life, to put you before anything else, and, selfishly, I’m hoping that you want the same thing.’
‘You don’t even need to ask. But why this sudden change of heart about sex? I’d always had you marked down as a horny bastard’
‘I am, but my relationship with Chris taught me that love is so much more than sex; that sex can even spoil love if it’s handled badly. I really don’t want to run that risk with you, and a lifetime of love is worth a bit of restraint now.’
‘Wow. You learn about restraint from Chris? You’ll be saying you learnt modesty from Mark yet!
They both laughed.
As time went by, it was clear that Tony was responding to treatment, but too much damage had been done by the deadly virus to entirely halt its effects. His life could not be saved, and that was that; all that could be done was to make him as comfortable as possible by alleviating the symptoms as they occurred. But he was much more comfortable, and little by little he began to walk again and to find his way around the hospital. Once he was feeling not quite so wretched, he was in a considerably better frame of mind, though he was very nervous about what his reception was to be from John and Justin. He knew that he had behaved very badly to them both, and deeply regretted it, wanting the opportunity to put things right. He also changed his mind about his own state and decided that he wanted to live, after all. Enough time had passed since the death of Sue for a certain amount of healing to take place in his soul, and he laughed ruefully at himself and the irony that when he wanted to die, he had to live, and now he wanted to live, he had to die.
And he had to face the fact that his future was going to be short, and probably spent in an AIDS hospice, for he was pretty sure that John and Justin would never want to see him again, and certainly would not want to have him back in Arundel. And as he grew more whole in mind, it horrified him to realise that he richly deserved it. So, as part of the process of putting his life in order, preparing for death, he wrote to them both to apologize humbly and sincerely for what he had done.
John was in the hospital the next day, and everything was fine. He hugged Tony and the two were friends again. John would not hear of Tony going anywhere else but home, and after he spoke with the doctors, it was agreed that Tony could be discharged immediately, on the condition that John undertook to hire a nurse for the sick man. The hospital were only too glad to accede to John’s request, for they were very short of beds, and there wasn’t much more they could do for Tony, other than making sure he took his medicine.
So Tony came home, and the same day John engaged a nurse from an agency to start the following day.
Justin was not so easily mollified as John, however. He would not speak directly to Tony, and would not even look at him if it could be avoided. Tony was very distressed by this, because he was genuinely very fond of Justin, and the fact that it was all his own fault could not be avoided. One day, about a week later, when John was in town doing some mysterious Christmas shopping, Tony searched around the house for Justin, finding him eventually chopping wood vigorously in the garden, working off his anger. He was barechested and dripping with sweat, despite the fact that there was frost on the ground. Tony spoke to Justin and begged him to listen and forgive, but the younger man would not yield, continuing to chop the wood more and more savagely as he spoke, his words coming in savage jerks, punctuated by the thuds of the axe and the gasps of breath.
‘Tony, if it had been me you hurt, there’d be no problem. I’ve got a tough skin. But you hurt John, the person I love more than my own life, and for that I just can’t forgive you. He’s forgiven you; but that just goes to show what a wonderful guy he is. I’m not that wonderful. Look, I’m really sorry you’ve got this bloody AIDS thing; it's a bummer, and I don’t want you to die; I’ll do anything I can to make things better for you, only providing I don’t have to do it in your presence, that I don’t have to talk to you, that I don’t have to see you, because the very sight of you makes me angry and unhappy. There it is. I’m sorry it has to be this way, but you’ve no-one to blame but yourself.’
Tony agreed sadly that this was true and trailed disconsolately into the house. Somehow Justin felt worse after the conversation and said to himself
‘Fuck it; why is it me who ends up feeling guilty!’
John was distressed again and tried to intercede, arguing with Justin that Tony was not really responsible for what he had done; his grief over the death of Sue was really what was to blame, but Justin was inflexible. Tony then sadly offered to leave and go into the hospice; he didn’t want to be the cause of bad feeling in the house. Justin and John had their first major row over that and, to Justin’s chagrin, John insisted that Tony stayed. Tony’s offer didn’t make Justin feel any more kindly towards him, though.
But life wasn’t all bad for Tony; something very positive indeed happened. The day after his arrival at Arundel, the new nurse came on duty early in the morning. He was a Northern Irish male nurse in his late twenties called Luke, and he was a man of irrepressible good humour and charm. Everyone liked him straight away; he wasn’t exactly an adonis, but his homely looks somehow added to his appeal and he was able to laugh at himself and get everyone else laughing too. He was full of the joy of life, and made everyone feel better when he was around.
Which was surprising, because his tale was a sad one. He was gay and Catholic, like everyone else in the house, and had lived for ten years with another man he had been a childhood friend with. Northern Ireland was not a good place to be gay; both he and his lover were disowned by their families and threatened by the paramilitaries who formed a sort of alternative vigilante police force for the crime of being gay and thus a disgrace to the Nationalist community. Luke sat on the edge of Tony’s bed one night after he had helped him undress and settled him down, and he told him the story of his love.
‘I never even looked at anyone else except Cahal. We were best friends since we were six, and we were lovers by sixteen. We gave up on our religion and all that, because we saw it as being so homophobicour parents could never accept our love or our relationship, and they wouldn’t speak to us for years, alleging the Church’s stance as their justification. Northern Ireland is a place of extremes and hardened attitudes, as you know very well. The shame of it is that both our sets of parents were lovely peoplewe’d been like a part of each other's family toobut they just couldn’t take their beloved boys being poofs. They and the Church made us so fucking angry that we rejected it all, and by the time we were at Queens Universitythere’s an irony for youwe were ‘out’ with a vengeance. Any parade, any demonstration; there we were in the thick of it, shouting louder than anyone, wearing fewer clothes, or more outrageous ones, anyway. And the funny thing is that neither of us were like that, really. We were both pretty conservative inside. We were just passionate in our love, and passionate in defence of our right to love. And both sides, Catholic and Protestant, hated us.
Neither of us had so much as looked at another guy, though, which for some peculiar reason worried Cahal. He thought we were getting too set in our ways, getting too old too quickly. I was happy as I was, but had no objections in principle to an open relationship, and so we decided to celebrate our twenty-first birthday with a huge orgy.
'It was the one and only time we were ever unfaithful to each other. Neither of us enjoyed the experience. As we moved around the house the next day, sore arsed and with friction burns on our cocks, picking up used condoms and reefer butts, we both said ‘never again’. We were happy with each other, and that was what we both wanted.
'Ironical really. It was just that one occasion. That was all it took.’
Tony looked with compassion at Luke, who was finding it increasingly difficult to talk, and took his hand gently. ‘Tell me.’
Luke gulped a few times, and continued.
‘Well, you’ve probably guessed it. Cahal caught it. The Disease. One fucking occasion, just one, and he got the 'fairy flu'. It’s just too fucking unfair. Why couldn’t it have been me?’
Tears rolled down Luke’s cheeks.
‘That’s why I trained as a nurse. Over the next four years I looked after him myself, and for a while it seemed as though we were able to keep it at bay. But then it got out of hand; his T-cell count dropped almost to zero, and none of the drugs we tried did anything. I tried everything. Shit, I even took him to Lourdes, I even gave God a chance. But nothing. He was fading away from me. There was all this weird behaviour; he’d go wandering off into the night stark naked, or go shoplifting. And he couldn’t get his words right. I took to sleeping with my wrist tied to his in case he took to wandering again while I was asleep. Then one morning I couldn’t wake him up. I was beside myself with worry and in my confusion of mind I called for an ambulance, so he was taken to hospital instead of to the AIDS hospice.
‘That’s when his family stepped in. I gave his father’s name as next-of-kin, and all of a sudden everyone was refusing me access to my Cahal. Close relatives only, I was told. Not fucking wanted. “He’d only want his family”, his bitch of a mother told me, “people who really love him”. I made a scene, and the bitch nurse called the police. I even applied for a job as a nurse, a porter, anything, in the hospital to try and get near him, but it was no good. I was spotted.
‘Cahal never regained consciousness, though he lingered in that hospital for another month. It was a brain tumour that carried him off. They didn’t even tell me when he died, but I knew. I knew; how could I not know?’
‘How did you find out for sure?’
‘It was our Parish Priest, old Father Callaghan who told me. I thought he was a real old-school type. He had given me and Cahal our first Holy Communions, and knew us and our families through and through. He knew all about us, of course, and we had never spoken to him because we assumed that he would be as homophobic as everyone else in the Church seemed to be. But he went to see my parents, who had really come around and become so supportive, and told them of Cahal’s death, and asked them how he could contact me. Then he came to see me, and was fantastic.
‘I was to be barred by his family from the funeral, of course, as the “cause” of Cahal’s deatheven though I’m HIV negative. But Father Callaghan had persuaded them to do the traditional thing of bringing his body into the church on the night before the funeral, and leaving it overnight. He said that once he had seen the family off the premises that evening, he would celebrate another funeral Mass for me and whomever else I wanted to invite. And he spoke to the funeral directors, and arranged for me to be able to see Cahal’s body and make my farewells. He was so kind and understanding; I never would have believed it.
Cahal looked so beautiful; just as he always did before this bloody plague got him; a little thinner, perhaps, but still my beloved Cahal. I kissed his cold cheek, and told him I loved him, and would always love him. For ever and ever.’
There was silence in the room, and Tony pulled the nurse into a hug, as Luke quietly wept into his shoulder. A little later, Luke sniffed and went on.
‘Well, I’ve started, so I’ll finish, as the man said. The quiet funeral Mass that Father Callaghan said was awful but it was wonderful, too. It really helped me to say good-bye, and I got a great sense of love and caring; I knew Cahal was thereI mean I could feel himand would be always with me, but all of a sudden, I sensed that God cared, too. That was weird, but so comforting. There were about forty of us guys there, and a few of our fag-hag friends, and afterwards we were invited into the priest’s house for a glass of wine. As I left, having helped the priest clear upI was the lastI spoke to him.
“Why did you do it, Father? Don’t you hate what I am and what Cahal was? Aren’t you supposed to hate us?” And he just said “Whatever gave you that idea? How could I turn my back on my two favourite altar boys. And the way I look at it is that we are all God’s children, and he loves us all equally. I haven’t grown to be seventy-five years old only to start yelling at people for what they can’t help. And don’t forget, young Luke, that poor Cahal’s parents can’t help what they are doing, either. So you must have compassion and understanding, too.”
‘At the time, that sounded like bollocks to me, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. What’s the point of hating back? That way the whole world ends up twisted and bitter. So I forgave them. They haven’t forgiven me, but that’s their problem, not mine. One day perhaps they will.
‘And I wanted to please Father Callaghan too, for being so kind. I wondered what he would like best. I thought of buying him a chalice or something, but then I thought that perhaps if I started going to Church again, that would please him better than anything. So I did, and I have never regretted it. And he was so happy that there were tears in his eyes when I went to confession. He retired later that year, and died a few months later. I couldn’t go to his funeral, because by that time I had moved to England, and was working for the nursing agency I’m still with now.
‘And that, Tony, is the story of my life; the important bits, anyway.’
‘Wow, Luke. I’m so touched that you went to all that trouble to tell me. I can’t say that it’s cheered me up, though. Why did you tell me?’
‘Because I’ve become fond of you, and I want you to know me a bit better, and because I don’t want you to make the same mistakes that I and others made. You’ve got to forgive Sue for taking her own life…’
‘But I have never blamed her. It was me and the bloody disease.’
‘I don’t believe you, Tony. You haven’t forgiven her, you haven’t forgiven yourself, you haven’t forgiven Mike who gave you the disease, you haven’t forgiven John for making you face the truth nor for loving you but not loving you the way you want, and you haven’t forgiven Justin for loving John.’
‘But I have.’
‘No, Tony, each of these things are an effort of will for you. You haven’t forgiven from the heart.’
‘I can’t turn my feelings on and off like taps.’
‘That’s not what I mean.’
‘Anyway, what’t the point? I’m going to be dead sooner rather than later, and then nothing is worthwhile.’
‘I can’t imagine anything worse than dying with bitterness still in your heart, Tony. You’ve got to give it up, sweetheart.’
John came in at that point to say good-night, and the moment of intimacy that had caused this exchange was dissipated.
But Tony got thinking: that’s one thing about being ill; there is plenty of time to think. And it was really very comforting having Luke around.
With the aid of a stick, Tony was able to potter out into the garden on sunny afternoons. He loved to wander down to the river and sit on the bench looking at the view across to Arundel. On one occasion John and Sandy were hacking back some undergrowth nearby, and when they paused for breath John came across and sat next to Tony, putting his hand on his companionably. Tony broke the silence.
‘I think it’s happening again.’
‘I’m falling again.’
‘No you’re fine; that’s just the drugs making you dizzy.’
‘No, stupid. Falling in love.’
‘With Luke, I suppose.’
‘Mm; you’re not totally stupid, then.’
‘He’s a lovely guy.’
‘You’re telling me! And you know what the best of it is…?’
‘It’s helping me get over Sue. I’m finally able to lay her to rest, I think. Isn’t it funny how the only thing that can mend a broken heart is love, the very thing that caused it.’
Well, not exactly caused it; love unfulfilled or some other tragedy causes it.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Yes, of course I do.’
There was a long silence. Tony broke it, uneasily.
‘You don’t seem very happy for me.’
‘Oh Lord, Tony, how do I put this? Yes, I’m really pleased you can finally lay Sue to rest, and I’m pleased you’ve got over me, and actually, I’m pleased you love Luke. But I’m hoping and praying that Luke isn’t more than fond of you because… because…er…’
‘Because I’m going to die soon,’ said Tony with dignity and with a finality that made any reply by John redundant. There was another long silence and this time John broke it.
‘I’m sorry, Tony, I feel like a shit for pissing on your happiness.’
‘No, John, you just spoke the truth, and you’re right. I ought not to let Luke love me if I can help it. He’s already lost one love tragically; he mustn’t go through that again.’
John gave Tony a hug and went back to work then until darkness and rain drove him indoors. He didn’t notice that Tony continued to sit on the bench until late when, drenched to the skin and shivering with cold he pottered indoors where Luke was nearly frantic with worry.
Tony began a rapid decline then, and once again was confined to his bed. Luke one afternoon a few days later came to John, his eyes dull and his shoulders slumped.
‘What’s up, Luke?’ said John, his heart sinking.
‘I can’t wake Tony. No, he’s still alive, but I’m afraid that it’s pneumonia, John. There’s no doubt. He began it that afternoon by sitting out in the rain.’
‘Surely these days that isn’t serious? Aren’t there drugs and things?’
‘Yes, we can cure it.’
‘Good! Just let me know what it costs.’
‘Are you sure you want this, John?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look, Aids is not in itself a killer, as such. What it does is to destroy the immune system so that the body has no resistance to other illnesses, and it is these that actually do the killing. My Cahal had a very rapid brain tumour; that is actually what he died of. If we treat Tony’s pneumonia now, something worse will probably carry him off, perhaps sooner, perhaps later. In the end there will be some more life, but perhaps painful and unhappy life. At the moment, he is in no pain or distress. We could just let him go peacefully now. I have to tell you this; it’s my job.’
‘What do you think, Luke? You’re the nurse.’
Luke’s face crumpled up and tears came into his eyes.
Fuck, thought John. We’re too late! Luke answered harshly
‘I can’t make that decision. I’m the nurse, not the next of kin. That’s you.’
John laid a gentle hand on Luke’s shoulder.
‘Luke, I can see how fond you’ve got of Tony. Do you trust me to make this decision?’
Luke thought a minute and nodded dumbly. John said
‘Okay; give me an hour or two to do some thinking and praying. I’ll give you my decision then.’
That hour was the longest in John’s life. Never before had he held somebody’s life in his hand, particularly someone who meant as much to him as Tony did. He wandered in the garden among the bare bushes and trees, his mind running back to that first meeting on the Saucy Mrs Trusspott and his first sexual experience on the beach in the South of Italy. He remembered their time in the Chichester flat, together in the big bed, and the way they had horsed around and laughed till they cried. He remembered breaking Tony’s heart in San Gimignano, and the brave way Tony had characteristically responded by becoming the life and soul of the party. And he thought of Tony’s wrecked house and now his wrecked life; all the responsibility of a dead tart called Mike who had in the end killed himself, Tony, Sue and their unborn child. John wept with the sorrow and the heavy responsibility of it all.
A little while later Justin found him, and folded his love in his arms, where John lay against his chest sobbing. Justin cried too, for John’s pain, but acknowledged that there was no way he could participate in this decision. He simply could not be objective at the moment. But he did say,
‘John, why don’t you phone Father Smith and Pat Henry? They’re people you’ve always been able to turn to for advice. Here; take my mobile; you’ll find both numbers programmed in.’
Justin kissed John on the cheek and wandered back into the house as John dialled the numbers gratefully.
Fr Smith answered John’s anxious question confidently.
‘No John, you mustn't worry; this is euthanasia in the literal sense, but not in the sense that you fear, not in the sense Christianity forbids. Euthanasia is simply Greek for ‘happy death’ and that is what you want to give Tony. There is no way you are directly killing him; you are simply allowing nature to take its course. If death is inevitable, and it seems that it is, I think you are probably doing the right thing.’
Pat was even more helpful.
‘John, there are far worse things to die of than pneumonia. Imagine him struggling on for another few months, conscious perhaps, doubly incontinent, full of pains that cannot properly be relieved, embarrassed at the distress he is causing you and others, perhaps going blind, or any of the other things that might happen… If it’s any comfort, John, if I were you and any of my family had this, I would unquestionably choose the gentle death. If Tony has made his peace with everyone, then I should simply let him go.’
John felt relieved; in a sense these other two had made the decision for him. He thought about Pat’s comments about making peace; Justin was still unreconciled, but he knew that Tony was at peace with Justin, it was only Justin who was holding out. And he would have to deal with that in his own way and at his own pace.
With a slow step, as to an execution, John climbed the stairs to Tony’s room, where he found Luke sitting quietly by the sick man’s bedside. He nodded slowly at Luke.
‘We’ll let him go. I think it’s for the best.’
Luke’s face crumpled again, and the tears now emerged and trickled down his face.
‘I think it’s the right decision.’
‘Luke, I just can’t bear to think that I shall never hear his voice again, never see his smile, never be the victim of one of his dreadful practical jokes.’
‘Just be grateful, John. I never saw that side of him at all… and yet I love him.’
There; it was out. And the two men hugged together and cried as the sick man lay in the bed beside them, insensible.
Chris and Mark returned from Oxford for the Christmas vacation, so all the family, plus Jules and Sandy took turns sitting with Tony. Monsignor Gibbon came out from Arundel Cathedral with the last sacraments which he administered to Tony in the presence of all the family; Luke had managed to stimulate him to semi-consciousness for a few minutes, and he was aware what was happening, and able to answer some of the prayers, lapsing back into a coma as soon as the priest had gone.
Justin was the one member of the family who was remaining difficult. This brought great distress to the others, especially John. The two of them had a long discussion on Christmas Eve in which further hard words were said on both sides. Justin refused to be a hypocrite and pretend he had forgiven Tony, when he hadn’t. John was most upset, and told Justin that his attitude was upsetting him almost more than Tony’s impending death. That distressed Justin, who felt caught between two conflicting positions.
‘Look Justin,’ said John, tears in his eyes. ‘Can’t you try, even for my sake?’
And Justin was finally moved to nod. He would do anything for John. ‘All right, simply because you ask it, I’ll try, but I can’t promise anything. I know you want to take Mark to Midnight Mass at the Oratory, and I know Chris wants to go, too. Jules and Sandy are going to the Cathedral. So I’ll take the night watch with Tony tonight. At least I’ll have put something in, done something for him, and I can think while I’m alone with him.’
‘Would you? That’d be wonderful.’
And John left in the car for London with Mark and Chris, feeling a good deal happier.
With a certain amount of trepidation, Justin went into Tony’s room for the first time since John had discovered Tony’s stash of unused drugs. He needn’t have feared a scene, for Tony was unconscious, breathing heavily and jerkily. The room was in darkness, and Justin jumped when a figure moved in the corner.
‘It’s okay; it’s me, Luke.’
‘Luke!’ Justin liked Luke very much, and was pleased to have company. ‘I thought you would be going home for Christmas!’
‘Home to an empty flat? Not bloody likely. Funny, isn’t it; there’s more company by a deathbed than in my own flat.’
It was unlike Luke to be melancholy, and Justin suddenly began to realize that there was more to this relationship than nurse and patient.
‘You’ve grown fond of Tony, haven’t you?’
‘Yeah; doesn’t take a genius, does it? Why the fuck am I in this business? Everyone I nurse dies eventually; nursing the dying is my job. I really shouldn’t let myself get involvedI don’t get involvedbut this time, this time…’
Luke fell silent, his eyes full of unshed tears.
The two young men sat in their silent vigil at Tony’s darkened bedside. About about eleven o’clock there was a change in Tony’s breathing. Every breath became a sort of snore, distressing to listen to.
‘That’s the death rattle. It sounds worse than it is; Tony can’t feel it, but it means that he doesn’t have long now,’ said Luke, sombrely.
Suddenly, listening to the awful noise, Justin was filled with remorse. It was nearly too late. He went to the bedside and put his arms round the unconscious man.
‘Tony, if you can hear me, I want you to know that I’m so sorry. I really am; I’ve behaved really badly to you recently, I really do love you, and perhaps that’s why I’ve been so awful. Please forgive me.’
But there was no response from the dying man, not a flicker of an eyelid, not the slightest change in the ominous death rattle.
Luke came around the bed and put his arm round Justin’s broad shoulders.
‘Don’t worry, Justin; he never thought there was anything to forgive. If he could speak now, he’d just ask for a kiss, and it’d all be fine.’
‘Well that he can have’ said Justin, and bending down, he kissed Tony gently on the forehead.
A little later, Luke said
‘Do you think we ought to pray? I guess it’s the thing to do. What about the rosary?’
‘Good idea. I’ve got mine in my room; I’ll be back in a tick.’
‘Have you got a spare for me? I haven’t said it for years.’
‘Er, I’m sure I can find something.’
Justin hurried away and hunted through pockets for a rosary. He found his usual one quickly enough by his bedside, but couldn’t find another. In the end, he opened the box where his precious rosary lay, the one given him by Blessed Maria Maddalena. He would use that, and Luke could have his usual one.
The two of them prayed together until they had finished the whole fifteen decades. It was long after midnight, though the others had not yet returned from the Oratory, and Justin got up off his stiff knees and gave Luke a hug.
‘Happy Christmas, Luke.’
‘Happy Christmas, Justin. Thanks; the prayer helped; gave me something to do.’
Luke went on.
‘There’s no point in both of us staying with him, Justin. This could go on for hoursdays even. You go to bed; get some sleep.’
Justin didn’t argue, but took Blessed Maddalena’s rosary and slipped it over Tony’s head, laying the cross over his heart. He prayed quietly for a moment
‘Madre Maddalena, I think we made friends in Florence. Please ask our Lord to make peace between me and Tony. Won’t you please help him? Do what you can for him and Luke.’
He kissed Tony’s feverish forehead again, and quietly went off to bed, though not before making sure that Luke would stay to spend Christmas Day with the family.
When the door closed behind Justin, Luke pulled off his nurse’s tunic, then his shoes, socks and trousers, and got into bed with the dying man, dressed only in his boxers. He pulled his patient into a close embrace and began to sob into the pillow.
A couple of hours later John, returning from Midnight Mass, looked quietly into the room. He saw Tony and Luke with their arms around each other, fast asleep and breathing gently in unison. Tony’s head was on Luke’s breast. He smiled to himself, and went to his own bed, though not without looking in on the sleeping Justin, and kissing him gently, without waking him.
Justin woke first on Christmas morning. He had had some sort of a dream, which had made an impression on him, but he could not for the life of him recall what it was. He struggled with his memory for a little, and then gave up, whereupon he remembered that it was Christmas morning. His mind filled with a little boy’s excitement, until he remembered that Tony was dying, perhaps already dead, when he quickly became downhearted. He walked down the upstairs corridor in his shorts to Tony’s room and peeped inside the door. Tony lay on his stomach, his arm around Luke’s shoulder. Funny, thought Justin; he was on his back last night. No doubt Luke had turned him over to prevent bed sores, or to ease his breathing; at least the sound had changed to a softer sort of snoring noise. Did that mean that death was imminent? Justin left the room, closing the door behind him softly.
All the rest of the house was quiet, everyone being still asleep, and so he tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen to start the cookery, which was usually John’s job at Christmas, but Justin was awake now, and thought that he may as well make a beginning. There he found Jules already doing battle with the turkey.
‘You didn’t have to do that, Jules!’ he said, going up to him and giving him a hug and kiss. ‘Happy Christmas!’
‘I couldn’t sleep for thinking about poor Tony’ said Jules. ‘Happy Christmas, heart-face. Sandy is out getting some wood to get this great fire going. Today we could definitely do with every bit of cheer we can get.’
‘Too right! Now; give me a job to do.’
‘It’s all done for now. Go for your run, and I’m sure we can find something when you come back. And don’t go like that; you’ll need a shirt at least; it’s freezing cold out.’
‘Yes, Mum’ said Justin, smiling, and giving Jules another kiss on the cheek.
So Justin pulled on a sweat shirt and trainers, and headed out through the frosty countryside. He loved this part of the South Downs, and as he passed through frozen fields and by ponds where the ducks flapped around on the ice, he sucked in the sharp air that almost hurt, his breath emerging as a large cloud in front of his face, and he felt his spirits lift once more, as they often did when he took vigorous exercise. Whatever the sadnesses, this was still a beautiful world.
He sprinted the last half-mile, and entered the house red-skinned and breathless. He pulled off his sweatshirt and kicked off his trainers and set off along the corridor to the gym bathroom for his shower. However, hearing voices, he went into the hot kitchen, where he found John, Chris, Mark, Jules and Sandy sitting round the huge table drinking tea and eating toast which they were making at the roaring fire.
John got up and kissed him.
‘I’m not hugging you; you’re all sweaty. Even on a freezing day like this!’
John, as he looked at the nearly naked Justin, was suddenly overcome;
‘O God, you’re so, so beautiful! What did I do to deserve you?’ and hugged him anyway and kissed him passionately, Justin kissing back with enthusiasm.
Mark and Chris immediately began making retching noises.
‘Ugh! Pul-eeze! Get a room!’
Justin shook his fist behind John’s back, and everyone laughed, the sad atmosphere broken a little.
There were more hugs and wishings of Happy Christmas, and they all settled down to hear how much Mark had enjoyed Midnight Mass at the Oratory.
A little later, when Justin was thinking that finally it was time he went for a shower, they all heard slow heavy footsteps coming down the staircase; Justin suddenly remembered that Luke was still with them and had not gone home last night.
He and John suddenly looked at each other, their hearts in their mouths. Was this it? Had Tony finally gone? Not today, surely not on Christmas Day!
The door opened then, and everyone saw that there was not one, but two men standing there.
‘Hi everyone’ said Tony. ‘What’s for breakfast? I’m starving!’
In a daze, Jules got out a frying pan and began to cook a serious breakfast. Suddenly everyone was hungry and wanted some. Justin stayed in his sweaty shorts, not wanting to leave for any reason now. All the attention was on Tony who looked the very picture of health; a little thinner than before, but not somebody you would have said was ill. The ravages of his disease; the karposi’s sarcoma, the sallow skin, the sunken eyes, all had vanished. His eyes were clear, his complexion was rosy, and he was clearly enjoying the attention.
‘We had a dream’ he explained.
‘Me and Luke. Both of us had the same dream. This old nun; she came and stood over me, clucking her tongue. Then she pulled my cheek, like Italians do to little boys, and gave me a kiss on the forehead. And look; she’s given me a rosary.’
Justin’s rosary was still around his neck.
Justin suddenly said ‘That was it! I had the same dream. It was Mother Maddalena.’
Tony looked sceptical. ‘The one you said appeared to you in Florence?’
‘Yes.’ And Justin sprinted off to get a photograph from the box where he used to keep the rosary. He knew that it was Tony’s rosary now, and he felt a little sad, but he had freely given it, and he wasn’t going to ask for it back. In his bedroom, he opened the box, andhe looked in amazementthere was the rosary sitting inside. But hang on a minute, it couldn’t be that rosary, because that rosary was still hanging around Tony’s neck. He took the whole box and returned to the kitchen.
A brief look at the photograph was all that was necessary for Tony and Luke to confirm that this was indeed the nun of their dream. And the two rosaries were identical. Clearly Blessed Madre Maria Maddalena had not wanted Justin to be without her gift either.
The family went to the morning Mass in Arundel Cathedral to give thanks, and to pray that their hopes were not deceiving them. Returning home, they then spent the whole day chatting animatedly. Tony was quite convinced that he was now fully cured, and wanted to go for a run to prove it. Luke had a job talking him out of that one, but what with one thing and another, the two of them did a great deal of talking and entirely missed the Queen’s speech at three o’clock, because they were lying on the sofa in an unbreakable lip lock.
As soon as the clinic opened two days later, Tony went for an HIV test. The result soon came back. Negative. Tony was as healthy as any other young man of just under thirty who had spent the last few weeks mostly in bed.