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 wasnt 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 childs life.
I gaped at him, trying to make sense of it. "You dont mean ?"
"Yes, I do mean! Colins sleuths have discovered that that journalist is dead. Killed in a car crash a few weeks back. Hes 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. "Hes dead. The relief. You cant 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? Ill explain as we go. Mum wants to go too. She says, drive her car the insurance is OK and pick her up at your dads office. Please."
Id 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 dont really believe?"
"No, not odd. Understandable. Thats 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 dont know, Luke, I dont know. But it was understandable, again. And remember, he didnt die as a result of your prayer. He was dead already."
"Yes. Thats 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 Ill 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 dont know what the penalty is in the next life for rejoicing at the death of ones enemies, but whatever it is Ill happily put up with it." Her tone, just like Lukes when he first heard the news, carried a touch of hysteria.
"But thats remarkably quick work on somebodys part," I commented.
"As soon as Id given Colin the basic details, he got onto his private enquiry people, and within what? five hours theyd come back with this. End of story, we hope." She and Luke conferred lengthily in low voices. "When were at Stow, Joe," she finally said, "wed like just to sit quietly and think. Im afraid itll be very boring for you."
"Far from it. Ill 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 dont, much. But Ill do my best, if youd like me to."
"Yes, please. Wed 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 hippos legs and out through the north door, holding Lukes 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."
"Im sure it is," said Sue. "The end of a ghastly chapter. Were 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 arent any more."
"Thats right. So much so, weve already decided to throw away our alias and go back to our proper name. My maiden name. Thisll surprise you, Joe. Its 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. "Youre sure now, but on the way here you were only hoping."
They smiled at each other. "Thats 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, its over. To both of us. Its 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, Id 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. "Weve talked for a long time. Explored the ground. No more, its all right. We havent even touched each other, beyond slapping on suntan lotion. And we know know that we love each other, in the best possible way. And wed like to take it to the logical conclusion."
"I see. So you told Luke about my qualms, Joe, and that my mind isnt closed?" I nodded. "Well, Lukes happiness and well-being are what matter most. See if you can persuade me that they wont be compromised, that theyll 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?"
"Thats 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 isnt green or wet behind the ears." ("Nor are you, Joe," he interrupted.) "Physical age doesnt seem very relevant. Intellectually, Luke can run rings round me. In mental age hes my equal, and more. Lets call it equal, for the sake of argument. I think youd 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 isnt younger at all. This is love between, in effect, two seventeen-year-olds.
"Another thing. Im not leading a young boy astray, because his sexuality is already established. You know that too. And Im not coercing a young boy, because hes entirely willing. In fact he started it. Hes in need of love, of a different kind from your motherly love. I hope hell explain that himself."
"But I also warned you of his other side."
"Yes, you did. His childish side. Its all right, weve chewed this over, and it wont embarrass him. OK, we havent known each other long, but weve talked a lot and Ive met none of that at all. OK, theres his endless jokes, but I dont count them theyre fun, and if theyre childish, Im childish too. Yes, he was a child, but he isnt any more. Theres been no tightrope for me to walk. He hasnt come up with any of the other tricks you mentioned. Because " and I left it to Luke to finish.
"Because its 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 didnt want you to fret over me. They were my defences. But Ive grown up these last few days, and dont need them any more. Theyre not honest ones. Joes got to see me as I really am, warts and all. You cant have proper love without truth, knowledge, and trust. Weve still got a long way to go in knowing each other, but weve started by being truthful and trusting, and were going to stay that way. You cant have truth and trust if you pretend. Or lie.
"Mum, Ive been on the defensive all these years. Ive been sitting back and taking the knocks. Sove you. It was forced on us. But now I need to go out and attack. Achieve something. Find fulfilment of my very own. Ive started already. Its Joe whos set me going. And I need him beside me close beside me if Im going to get anywhere.
"Mum, I read once about someone who was longing for acceptance, for love, for peace. Thats me too. I need those things. Oh, I know youve always accepted me and loved me, as my mother. But youre the only person who ever has, and neither of us has had much peace. And now you know Im 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. Joes doing all of those. Youve said youre glad hes here to give me friendship. Maybe youll say that he can love me without sex. Be a close friend, if you like. But its too late. Friendship is love, without his wings remember that Byron we read? And now I know what it means. Joes more than a friend. He loves me already, and his love has wings."
"And you cant 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. "Im still not sure," said Sue at last. "Dont get me wrong. I think you may have persuaded me, between you, that Lukes 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 Lukes overshadowed by what his father did? When I see you, Joe, as a potential abuser?"
Evidently time for my final fling, as wed rehearsed it but somewhat updated. "Sue, youve both been through a hell which Ive only heard about at second hand. Were all agreed on one thing, that paedophilias a perversion, of gayness and of sexuality. But our love has nothing to do with that. We all know thats true, with our heads. Yet our hearts are another matter. Were all haunted, poisoned, by thoughts of paedophilia. Youre terrified because you see it everywhere, even where it doesnt exist. Dont think Im blaming you its the result of your experiences. But youre the one its overshadowed most. Your preoccupations rubbed off on Luke. So he feels dirty. He fears hes inherited it, and been contaminated. And its rubbed off on me. So Im afraid of you seeing me as a paedophile, or making me see myself as one.
"Sue, this afternoon youve already banished your fears of persecution. Theres no longer any substance in them. Youre certain of that now. Banish your fears of paedophilia too, because theres no substance in them either, in any of them. They belong to the past, not the future. Lets all of us put all those fears behind us. They need to be exorcised. We need to be purified of them. Once theyre out of the way, youll see that the love Im offering Luke is as pure and clean as you could wish. Sos the love hes offering me. An offering in righteousness."
Ive no idea what put that phrase in my head. We hadnt rehearsed it. But Luke picked it up instantly. "The CDs in the car, Joe. Lets 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 dont 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. Theres no perversion here. We go along with that. Will you?"
Sue put her head in her hands and didnt 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 its OK, about Joe and me. See if you get an answer. Doesnt 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, Sues face broke slowly into a smile. She moved in front of us and took our hands. "Oh, my dears. Its been a memorable day already. Now its 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 youd be straight into each others arms. Silly of me. Of course youd 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 lets 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, whod 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 Id better drive, Joe. You dont look up to it."
Little did she know. I was up to it, up to maximum extent. But shed definitely better. While she went round to the drivers 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.