He unceremoniously switched the countertenors off in mid-bar, replaced the Sons of art with the Weinachtshistorie, searched for the track he wanted, and hit Play.

Once again Emma Kirkby was the angel, once again Luke Clayton was singing alongside her. This time he wasn’t interested in Stehe auf. Instead, he put heavy emphasis on sie sind gestorben.

‘Arise, Joseph, and take the young child, and his mother, and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.’

I gaped at him, trying to make sense of it. "You don’t mean … ?"

"Yes, I do mean! Colin’s sleuths have discovered that that journalist is dead. Killed in a car crash a few weeks back. He’s fucking dead! Oops, sorry, pardon my French." He giggled wildly, and giggling burst into tears.

Again I hugged him, soothingly rather than passionately. "Oh God, Joe," he gulped. "He’s dead. The relief. You can’t imagine." He sniffled himself back to relative calm.

"And, Joe, the other part of Stehe auf applies too. Joe, will you take the young child and his mother to Israel? Now? I’ll explain as we go. Mum wants to go too. She says, drive her car – the insurance is OK – and pick her up at your dad’s office. Please."

I’d have done anything for him, and steeling myself to drive an unfamiliar car was peanuts. While Luke rushed next door for more clothes and the car keys, I put on shoes and a shirt and some light slacks. As I drove cautiously into town, Luke was pensive and frowning, and I had to prod him to explain why he needed to go to Stow so urgently. "Well, last Sunday I was thinking about all … that stuff, which I knew I had to tell you about. Well, at evensong I prayed that … that he would die. Was that odd, seeing I don’t really believe?"

"No, not odd. Understandable. That’s one of the things churches are for. To help people with their problems. Any people, not just believers."

"Yes, I suppose. And was it wrong to pray for someone to die?"

"I don’t know, Luke, I don’t know. But it was understandable, again. And remember, he didn’t die as a result of your prayer. He was dead already."

"Yes. That’s true." He brightened up. "Anyway, he is dead. My prayer was answered, in a sort of way. And I want to give thanks for it, in a sort of way, at Stow. It has to be at Stow. And so does Mum. Gimme your mobile and I’ll phone her to be outside the office."

I was beyond words, but passed my mobile over, and he told her to be waiting on the pavement ready for a smart pick-up.

"Thanks, Joe, yet again," she said as she scrambled in and Luke joined her in the back. "The moment I heard, I felt in my bones that the nastinesses were over. I don’t know what the penalty is in the next life for rejoicing at the death of one’s enemies, but whatever it is I’ll happily put up with it." Her tone, just like Luke’s when he first heard the news, carried a touch of hysteria.

"But that’s remarkably quick work on somebody’s part," I commented.

"As soon as I’d given Colin the basic details, he got onto his private enquiry people, and within – what? – five hours they’d come back with this. End of story, we hope." She and Luke conferred lengthily in low voices. "When we’re at Stow, Joe," she finally said, "we’d like just to sit quietly and think. I’m afraid it’ll be very boring for you."

"Far from it. I’ll sit with you, if I may, and think too. Or better still" – a few CDs in the tray had given me an idea, and I glanced at Luke – "shall I play you some gentle organ music? To combine the peaceful and the comfortably familiar?"

"You never said you played."

"You never asked. I don’t, much. But I’ll do my best, if you’d like me to."

"Yes, please. We’d like that. Something Bach. Quiet and contemplative."

At the cathedral, I had a word with old Bob the senior verger, whom I knew well. He allowed them to sit in the choir stalls and even put up a rope barrier to prevent other visitors from disturbing their solitude. He lent me the organ loft key and I played something Bach, quiet and contemplative, as well as my limited skills allowed. I kept an eye on them in the organ mirror. At first they were sitting side by side and hand in hand, upright, looking at each other a trifle uncertainly. Then their hand-hold changed into a hug and they were crying gently. After half an hour they both looked up at me, and I tied Bach up in neat bow and went down to them.

Both evidently had a lump in the throat, and did not speak. We walked out abreast, down between the hippo’s legs and out through the north door, holding Luke’s hands from either side. We headed for the car and I opened it, but it seemed premature to climb straight in. Beside it was a bench looking across the graveyard to the flying buttresses of the chapter house. I suggested we sit there, and finding myself between them took their hands in mine. The sun was westering. Apart from the occasional hum of a distant car and the cawing of rooks in the venerable trees, the peace was profound. Luke and Sue were visibly unwinding and, though they could hardly have planned it, simultaneously leaned in and kissed me on the cheek with a whispered "Thank you, Joe."

"Well," I said. "I just hope this proves to be the release you think it is."

"I’m sure it is," said Sue. "The end of a ghastly chapter. We’re both sure. For this relief much thanks." She smiled at me, knowing that I would remember our first meeting, and understand.

I did, now. "Yes. You were sick at heart, then. You aren’t any more."

"That’s right. So much so, we’ve already decided to throw away our alias and go back to our proper name. My maiden name. This’ll surprise you, Joe. It’s Atkinson."

It moved me, in a gentle way. Another link to this extraordinary lad. "Well, great. Welcome back to the clan." I looked at them in turn, and had a flash of insight. "You’re sure now, but on the way here you were only hoping."

They smiled at each other. "That’s right, Joe," said Luke. "We sort of asked the question, back there in the choir. Not to God. We just asked … generally. And the answer came back ‘Yes, it’s over.’ To both of us. It’s strange, because neither of us really believes. Perhaps it was, well, more like consulting the Delphic oracle."

I looked at Luke and understood exactly what he meant. He too saw that I understood. For well over two millennia this had been a holy place. Pagan shrines at first – Iron Age, Roman, Saxon – and then, nearly fourteen hundred years ago, the earliest church. The nave of the present cathedral had been there for nine centuries, the nearest oak for perhaps five. In resolving hard problems, Stow, with its aura of peace and its ancient certainties, had a far greater authority than any suburban living room or garden. I suddenly realised that, when the time should come to talk to Sue about Luke and myself, I’d much rather do it here than at home.

At that point, whether by accident or design, Sue raised the subject herself. "And how have your discussions gone today?"

"Mum." Luke was contained enough on the surface, but I could tell that he was quivering inside. "We’ve talked for a long time. Explored the ground. No more, it’s all right. We haven’t even touched each other, beyond slapping on suntan lotion. And we know – know – that we love each other, in the best possible way. And we’d like to take it to the logical conclusion."

"I see. So you told Luke about my qualms, Joe, and that my mind isn’t closed?" I nodded. "Well, Luke’s happiness and well-being are what matter most. See if you can persuade me that they won’t be compromised, that they’ll actually be furthered. And see if you can dispel my qualms. My first question has to be, how can you justify offering sex to a much younger boy?"

"That’s a difficult one. I think it all depends. On the people involved. On their maturity, especially the younger one. In many cases, I agree, it would be quite wrong between a seventeen- and a thirteen-year-old. When either or both of them are too green, too wet behind the ears. But in this case I think it is justifiable. Luke isn’t green or wet behind the ears." ("Nor are you, Joe," he interrupted.) "Physical age doesn’t seem very relevant. Intellectually, Luke can run rings round me. In mental age he’s my equal, and more. Let’s call it equal, for the sake of argument. I think you’d agree on that. Sue, last night you described me as mature and trustworthy and responsible. And you used exactly the same words of Luke. So, in that sense, he isn’t younger at all. This is love between, in effect, two seventeen-year-olds.

"Another thing. I’m not leading a young boy astray, because his sexuality is already established. You know that too. And I’m not coercing a young boy, because he’s entirely willing. In fact he started it. He’s in need of love, of a different kind from your motherly love. I hope he’ll explain that himself."

"But I also warned you of his other side."

"Yes, you did. His childish side. It’s all right, we’ve chewed this over, and it won’t embarrass him. OK, we haven’t known each other long, but we’ve talked a lot and I’ve met none of that at all. OK, there’s his endless jokes, but I don’t count them – they’re fun, and if they’re childish, I’m childish too. Yes, he was a child, but he isn’t any more. There’s been no tightrope for me to walk. He hasn’t come up with any of the other tricks you mentioned. Because …" and I left it to Luke to finish.

"Because it’s too important for that, Mum. I know I used to trade on my age, as an easy way out of hard thinking. I know I used to tell you what I thought you wanted to hear, because I needed you to see me in the best light, and I didn’t want you to fret over me. They were my defences. But I’ve grown up these last few days, and don’t need them any more. They’re not honest ones. Joe’s got to see me as I really am, warts and all. You can’t have proper love without truth, knowledge, and trust. We’ve still got a long way to go in knowing each other, but we’ve started by being truthful and trusting, and we’re going to stay that way. You can’t have truth and trust if you pretend. Or lie.

"Mum, I’ve been on the defensive all these years. I’ve been sitting back and taking the knocks. So’ve you. It was forced on us. But now I need to go out and attack. Achieve something. Find fulfilment of my very own. I’ve started already. It’s Joe who’s set me going. And I need him beside me – close beside me – if I’m going to get anywhere.

"Mum, I read once about someone who was ‘longing for acceptance, for love, for peace.’ That’s me too. I need those things. Oh, I know you’ve always accepted me and loved me, as my mother. But you’re the only person who ever has, and neither of us has had much peace. And now you know I’m gay. So I think you do understand that I need a man to accept me and love me too. A man to reassure me and strengthen me. To give me peace. Joe’s doing all of those. You’ve said you’re glad he’s here to give me friendship. Maybe you’ll say that he can love me without sex. Be a close friend, if you like. But it’s too late. ‘Friendship is love, without his wings’ – remember that Byron we read? And now I know what it means. Joe’s more than a friend. He loves me already, and his love has wings."

"And you can’t clip the wings off love," I added. "Another thing Byron said: ‘friendship may, and often does, grow into love, but love never subsides into friendship’."

There was a long silence. "I’m still not sure," said Sue at last. "Don’t get me wrong. I think you may have persuaded me, between you, that Luke’s not too young. And Joe, if it has to be anyone, it has to be you. But my other qualm was about this paedophilia business. Am I too idealistic in wanting to see love as pure and clean? But how can it be, when Luke’s overshadowed by what his father did? When I see you, Joe, as a potential abuser?"

Evidently time for my final fling, as we’d rehearsed it but somewhat updated. "Sue, you’ve both been through a hell which I’ve only heard about at second hand. We’re all agreed on one thing, that paedophilia’s a perversion, of gayness and of sexuality. But our love has nothing to do with that. We all know that’s true, with our heads. Yet our hearts are another matter. We’re all haunted, poisoned, by thoughts of paedophilia. You’re terrified because you see it everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist. Don’t think I’m blaming you – it’s the result of your experiences. But you’re the one it’s overshadowed most. Your preoccupation’s rubbed off on Luke. So he feels dirty. He fears he’s inherited it, and been contaminated. And it’s rubbed off on me. So I’m afraid of you seeing me as a paedophile, or making me see myself as one.

"Sue, this afternoon you’ve already banished your fears of persecution. There’s no longer any substance in them. You’re certain of that now. Banish your fears of paedophilia too, because there’s no substance in them either, in any of them. They belong to the past, not the future. Let’s all of us put all those fears behind us. They need to be exorcised. We need to be purified of them. Once they’re out of the way, you’ll see that the love I’m offering Luke is as pure and clean as you could wish. So’s the love he’s offering me. An offering in righteousness."

I’ve no idea what put that phrase in my head. We hadn’t rehearsed it. But Luke picked it up instantly. "The CD’s in the car, Joe. Let’s sing to it." He leant in, put Messiah in the player, and found the chorus on track 7. Standing side by side between the car and the bench, we sang along to it from memory, treble and bass, leaving the altos and tenors to fend for themselves. What with all the repetitions, about two and a half minutes.

‘And he shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.’

Luke switched off before the next track began. "Mum," he said gently, "you don’t go along with the trimmings, any more than we do. But the message is, ‘Wash the old dirt away, and let us give ourselves to each other. There’s no perversion here.’ We go along with that. Will you?"

Sue put her head in her hands and didn’t answer. Luke squatted down and held her knees.

"Mum, we asked just now if it was all over. The persecution. We got an answer to that. You ask now if it’s OK, about Joe and me. See if you get an answer. Doesn’t have to be in the choir. Here will do. Just ask."

Half a minute went by before Sue looked up with a puzzled frown. It seemed she had her answer. "Sing that again," she said. Luke stood up and set track 7, and we obeyed. Neither of us had sung with such intensity before, nor would again.

As the final ‘righteousness’ died away in harmony, Sue’s face broke slowly into a smile. She moved in front of us and took our hands. "Oh, my dears. It’s been a memorable day already. Now it’s more memorable still. You have my blessing. My full blessing." She hugged and kissed us, and we stood looking at each other in blank and silent disbelief.

"I thought you’d be straight into each other’s arms. Silly of me. Of course you’d rather be alone for that."

Messiah was still playing unchecked. Track 8 had briefly prophesied the birth of Jesus, and the strings were introducing track 9. Dazed though Luke and I were, the score was engraved on our subconscious, and it dawned on both of us that the contralto was about to give instructions of an interesting kind.

"So let’s go home. You tell the good news to Colin, and get up to it there," Sue continued helpfully.

‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain,’ sang the contralto, rather more specifically.

Our faces began to crumple. Howls of maniacal laughter would be misunderstood. We had to disguise them as paroxysms of joy – no great deceit – and disguise them fast. We proved Sue wrong. We did go into a clinch, there and then, body tight against body. Luke could follow my progress as it pressed against his belly. At the appropriate moments as dictated by the score, he sang the appropriate phrases quietly into my ear.

"Lift it up, be not afraid …"

"Arise, shine …"

"And the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee."

Sue, who’d been watching benignly if uncomprehendingly, reached in to switch off. That gave us the chance to break apart and lean on the back of the bench, still crimson, bending over to conceal our embarrassments. Mine in particular, for my trousers were thin and tight.

"Ready, then? I think I’d better drive, Joe. You don’t look up to it."

Little did she know. I was up to it, up to maximum extent. But she’d definitely better. While she went round to the driver’s side, I managed to sidle into the back without publicising my altitude. Luke followed, with less difficulty. After all, he was only a Matterhorn to my Everest, of a younger orogeny.