By Mickey S.
This is a fictional story. Most of the characters and events are figments of the author's imagination. However, some of the fictional characters take part in real events and some real characters take part in fictional events. In spite of that, this is a fictional story. My thanks to Tim and Drew for all of their help. The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at NJMcMick@yahoo.com.
Christmas turned out to be far better than I expected. First there was the service at Holy Trinity Church on Christmas Eve. It was a huge old church, just around the corner from the cathedral, a short, chilly walk from my grandparent's house. Since I'd been in England I'd been going to Sunday services with my parents at Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair or with the Atkins family at St. Mary Parish Church in Finchley. Both were impressive in their own way but maybe because it was Christmas and most churches go all out on Christmas, the service at Holy Trinity was very inspiring. Or maybe it was just being there with my parents and grandparents. That was probably it, as I found myself missing TR even more than Terrence.
The next day, though, as the entire family sat around the tree in Gran's parlour and opened our gifts, I thought of Terrence as well as TR. Everyone in the room was paired off except for me and Little Bill, and he was just a baby. Of course, I was too young to be married, and I certainly didn't think of Terrence that way, but he was my buddy, my mate. My daydreaming was interrupted by Aunt Marion.
"Be careful with the wrapping paper, Woody. We can use it again if you don't tear it."
I hadn't been paying attention to what I was doing, but even if I had I wouldn't have thought to save the paper.
"That's right, things are already starting to get scarce, and rationing hasn't even begun yet," Granddad added.
"But surely you won't have a problem getting food, Granddad You've got your own grocery store." I couldn't believe my grandparents were worried about food. Even if they didn't have the store, my parents would certainly help them if money was an issue.
"We didn't have a problem getting what we wanted for dinner today because we're our own grocers, Woody, but once rationing starts in a few weeks, we'll be just like everyone else. About the only thing that's going to make rationing bearable is the knowledge that everyone is subject to it equally. No individual or class will be better off than any other."
"Yes, and I've hoarded away two puddings for the future so I hope the war doesn't last long or we're going to have to settle for just the basics, if that. But for now, we've got a real Christmas dinner so we'd better enjoy it." Gran's definition of a successful holiday was one where that was more food than everyone could eat.
At three o'clock Granddad turned on the wireless for the King's Christmas address from Sandringham. I'd seen many photographs of the royal family but I'd never heard the King speak before and wondered at the way he kept hesitating at the oddest times in his speech.
"Why does he keep stopping that way?"
"Hush," Gran whispered. "He's got a stutter and he's trying not to stumble over his words."
The king addressed all of the people of the empire, most especially the Armed Forces, about the difficult times we were facing. He ended with an appeal to have faith in God.
A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.
In the meantime I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you: 'I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, "Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown." And he replied, "Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way."'
May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.
We all managed to squeeze around the table in the dining room and, after a short but fervent prayer of thanks by Granddad, dug into a feast, the centerpiece of which was a huge goose. By any measure, especially Gran's, the holiday was a success.
Upon returning to school from the Christmas holiday I was met with an unpleasant surprise - rugby. Athletics had always been my weakness in school. I'd pretty much excelled without much effort in anything academic, but between my size and general lack of talent and interest in physical endeavors, I struggled to keep up with most of the other students when it came to sports. It didn't help that as I got older I put even more pressure on myself, afraid that my ineptitude would be taken as an indication that I was homosexual.
Since coming to Bancroft's I'd assumed that the two sports I had to watch out for were soccer and cricket. I'd survived soccer season, mostly because that was my best sport, which meant I played a barely passable game. And I'd hoped that I'd be given some leeway with cricket since the other students knew Americans were totally ignorant about the sport. But I hadn't figured on rugby.
The teacher in charge of rugby was Mr. Jenkins, who was also my French teacher. He liked me because I did well in my French lessons. Having parents who were fluent in the language because of the time spent in France in the Great War gave me a leg up on learning it. Anyway, Mr. Jenkins was kind enough to give me a rule book for the sport when he realized I had no idea what it was all about. The book didn't help me, though, as I didn't have the time or inclination to learn all of the rules of the sport; I only wanted to learn enough about it so I could survive until spring. On the train ride home, Terrence explained the basics of the game. Between that and the first practice the next day, I learned the only two rules I needed to know, one official and one personal. The official rule was, never get ahead of the ball on the field. And my personal rule was, whenever the ball came to me, get rid of it immediately.
I didn't think it was possible for there to be a game rougher than American football, but rugby was. And the pace of the game was more like soccer. At least in football a play only lasted five or ten seconds and then you had a minute of standing around until the next violent episode. With rugby, the action seemed to go on forever.
By the second week, the other students had learned not to throw or kick the ball my way unless they had no other choice. If the ball was on the ground I could often move it along a bit with a kick or two and get it back to a teammate, but if it was thrown to me it was all I could do to stop myself from ducking out of the way.
At DeWitt, any student as bad at a game as I was in rugby would have been the subject of a lot of razzing and name-calling, but the other students at Bancroft's didn't get on my back about it. I guess they expected so little from the puny Yank that when I lived down to their expectations, it was taken in stride.
That's not to say the other kids overlooked unathletic players like me. There was plenty of good-natured name-calling, and there were other students who were just as bad who were treated a bit harsher as me. But it wasn't as bad as I had feared so the worst was the actual playing of the game, not my fellow students' reaction to it. The worst athlete in the class was a kid named James Mellor. He was built like me, short and skinny, but was even less coordinated. A bit of a bookworm and loner, he didn't mix much with the other kids. He was usually in the company of his best friend, possibly his only friend, Harry Stafford, a slightly pudgy boy who probably would have been even worse at sports, except his severe asthma got him excused from most athletic classes.
So, between the low expectations of me and James Mellor, who made me look good, I managed to survive most of rugby season with only the occasional 'Bloody Yank'.
Until the last week of the season, that is. On a Thursday afternoon in late-March we were in the second half of a game against the upper sixth year boys and I'd successfully avoided the ball through most of the game. Mellor and I were on the same team and were both backs. It was hard to find a good position for either of us to play, as they wanted the bigger guys for forwards, but neither of us was much for carrying the ball either. Mellor had the same strategy as me - either avoid the ball or get rid of it quickly if it came near him. Usually he just kicked at it in any direction he could, but at one point a ball that had been kicked from across the field took a bounce and literally flew right into his arms,. I don't think he would have caught it if it hadn't. He was about ten feet ahead of me and a bit to the right. Three forwards from the other team were bearing down on him as he turned toward me and I saw the panic in his eyes. He tossed the ball underhanded to me.
Without thinking, I grabbed it and started to run. Most of the members of both teams were across the field where the ball had been kicked from. One of the forwards who had been after Mellor turned and dived at me but only brushed my ankle. I managed to stay on my feet and realized I had an open field ahead. I took off, running toward the goalposts, tucking the ball under my arm, feeling the exhilaration I imagined a football player felt as he raced for a touchdown. As I neared the goal line, I looked back and saw two large forwards bearing down on me. One dove and knocked my feet out from under me. I spun through the air, my momentum carrying me forward. Just as my back hit the ground, the other forward, a big bruiser named Higgins, landed on top of me.
I felt a sharp pain in my chest, followed by a crushed feeling. I not only couldn't move, I couldn't breathe. The pain returned as Higgins rolled off me, but I still couldn't move or breathe. I was surrounded by shouting kids. Terrence pushed his way through them and knelt down beside me.
"Woody, are you all right?" He put a hand on my forehead and gently brushed my hair out of my eyes. I relaxed and finally took a deep breath. The pain in my chest, which I'd already thought was excruciating, became at least ten times worse. I let out a low but very unmasculine scream. Mr. Jenkins had knelt down next to Terrence at this point.
"Where's the pain, Cooper?"
I moved my hand to the right side of my lower chest and he gently felt my ribs, pretty easy to do since I had very little meat on my bones. As he touched me the pain increased.
"I'm no doctor, but I think you've either cracked or broken a couple of ribs. Let's see if you can stand and we'll get you to sick bay and see what Nurse has to say."
The pain was terrible as a dozen hands grabbed at all parts of me and lifted, bending and twisting my torso. Once on my feet I felt almost normal, though. Terrence and Mr. Jenkins tried to help me along as we walked to the building, but that hurt worse than just walking on my own, so they let go of me but stayed close on either side. I was just feeling a bit sore by the time we got inside, but once there I experienced a new level of pain as I lifted my arms straight up so they could pull my shirt off over my head. It was so bad I thought of asking them to cut the shirt off, but it was over before I could open my mouth to do anything but groan and grunt.
Nurse had me lie on a table and she lightly ran her fingers over each rib bone. Her touch didn't hurt as much as the teacher's had but I still felt a few stabs of pain. Matron had arrived by this time and was hovering in the background.
"Any broken bones, Nurse?"
"Hard to tell with ribs. We'll need an x-ray to be sure."
Matron sighed. "I suppose we'll have to take him to Whipps Cross then. I'll have the car brought around and call his parents."
I didn't have any pain, lying there not moving, and I was starting to feel a little foolish.
"I don't have to go to the hospital. I'm fine, really." I started to sit up, but pain shot through me before my back had even left the table. I gasped and fell back.
"Just lie there and I'll get the car." Matron left the room.
Five minutes later I was led out to a car that was probably older than I was. As I was gently helped into the passenger seat, I was surprised to see Matron behind the wheel
"I'm responsible for all of my pupils, so until your parents arrive, I'm in charge."
"My father's on the continent somewhere, Amsterdam, I think. And I don't know if Mother is at home."
"She was. I talked to her on the telephone. Now just sit still and we'll be at in Casualty before you know it."
Sitting still wasn't easy. No matter what position I tried, my ribs hurt. I finally settled on something in between sitting straight up and slumping. I thought I was used to cars driving on the wrong side of the road by now, but the only cars I'd been in since we'd been in England were taxis and I was always in the back seat. Sitting up front on the left side, I flinched every time we passed another car, and even that little movement caused a sharp pain to shoot through my torso. In about fifteen minutes we arrived at the hospital where Matron most definitely did take charge.
I was lying on a table in an examining room waiting for the results of the x-rays when Mother arrived. Aside from mentioning that she'd talked to her, Matron hadn't said anything to indicate Mother was coming to the hospital. I lifted my head from the table and smiled at her.
"Nothing wrong with me, Mother. Just a little bang-up. You didn't have to come all this way."
"We'll let the doctor be the judge of that, Woody. And of course I was going to come see for myself how you were."
Just then a doctor walked in carrying large black x-ray films.
"You're not too bad off, lad. Three problem ribs, more cracked than broken. Of course, it's painful either way, but cracked means you'll be back to normal activities sooner than later." At Mother's request he held the x-rays up to a light and pointed out the injured ribs. "We'll have to keep you wrapped up to immobilize your ribcage for a couple of weeks. I advise bed rest through the weekend but you should be able to return to school by Monday as long as you limit your physical activity."
Mother followed the doctor out of the room, asking him a few questions, as I lay there, staring at the ceiling, not really paying attention. My only thought was about how I going to get in touch with Terrence to let him know I was all right. Matron had faded into the background once Mother arrived but spoke up now.
"I can ask one of your classmates to bring your work to you over the weekend, if you like. Is there anyone you can suggest for whom it wouldn't be too inconvenient?"
"Terrence Atkins, ma'am. He's the only one who knows where I live. And I'm sure he'll want to know how I am as well."
"Fine, I'll talk to him as soon as I return to the school. And I'd better leave now if I want to get there before he leaves for the day. Follow the doctor's instructions now, Woodrow."
"I will, ma'am, and thank you for taking care of me."
"Nothing to thank me for, it's my job," she said rather brusquely.
She left the room as Mother came back in. The nurse and Mother together helped me up to a sitting position and the nurse then began to wrap my chest.
"Do you think you'll be able to do this for him at home, Mrs. Cooper?"
"I was a nurse in the Great War and bandaged young men hurt far worse than this, Sister. I'm sure I can take care of a few cracked ribs."
In spite of Mother's words to the nurse, she fussed over me as if I'd been gravely injured as we rode back to Mayfair in a taxi. When we got home Mother wanted me to go right to bed, but I insisted on sitting up. The bandaging kept my posture straight, so I didn't have much pain. Besides, they had given Mother a supply of pills for pain at the hospital. While I didn't think I needed them, Mother insisted I take them according to the prescribed schedule. They made me a little fuzzy-headed, but not so bad that I couldn't sit up and read until suppertime.
About six o'clock the telephone rang. Mother answered it and called to me after a moment.
"It's Terrence, dear."
I carefully got up and went to the telephone table in the hall. Mother handed me the phone.
"Terrence, where are you?"
"At the call box by the bakery on the corner. So how are you? What did the doctor say?"
"I'm fine. Well, not fine but not so bad either. It's just a few cracked ribs. I'm all wrapped up and they say I can go back to school Monday as long as I'm careful."
"That's a relief. I was just telling your mother that I'm going to bring your books to you tomorrow after school."
"Thanks a lot. I mean that, Terrence. I appreciate what you're doing for me, and what you did for me at school this afternoon."
"I didn't do anything today."
"Just being there and showing your concern made me feel better."
"Then I'm glad I was there. Look, I can't stay on the phone. Do as your mother tells you and take care of yourself. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Okay. And thanks again."
I took another pill and went to bed early. Friday I slept in and awoke feeling very sore. I must have turned or twisted during the night and my ribs weren't happy with me. I hadn't thought I'd need any more of the pain pills but I didn't refuse when Mother included one on the tray when she brought my breakfast up to my room. I spent most of the day downstairs, either reading or listening to the radio, but early in the afternoon I was so tired I went upstairs for a nap. Mother said it was probably the pills that made me feel that way. I certainly hadn't done anything to tire myself out. I was up again for tea and not long after that, Terrence arrived and I felt better, physically and mentally, than I had all day.
"So what are the lads at school saying about me?" I asked Terrence tentatively as we sat in the parlor after supper.
"What makes you think anyone is talking about you?"
"Well, I don't mean everyone, but I created quite a scene yesterday. I'm sure there must have been one or two comments about it."
"Perhaps one or two," he grinned. "But nothing too negative."
"You mean they want me back on the rugby field?"
"You scored three points so why wouldn't they? But it doesn't look like you'll be playing any more rugby this year. And you may miss out on some cricket next term as well."
"If I'm lucky. I don't like the pain, but I'm going to use this as an excuse to avoid sports for as long as I can."
Just then, Mother came into the room, stopping just inside the door.
"I wonder if I might ask a favor of you, Terrence."
Terrence jumped to his feet.
"Anything, Mrs. Cooper. What can I do for you?"
"Please sit," Mother laughed. "It's nothing urgent. But I was wondering if tomorrow I could impose on you to help Woody with his bath."
"Mother! I can take a bath by myself." I was horrified at the idea of Terrence having to wash me like a baby.
"I know you can wash yourself, Woody. But I'm concerned you might injure your ribs getting in or out of the tub. If your father were home he'd help you, but he isn't, so I'm sure you'd be less embarrassed having Terrence help you than me."
"I don't mind at all, Mrs. Cooper. We don't want our lad getting hurt any more than he is, do we?"
"I appreciate the offer, but I assure you I won't need any help at all, Terrence," I said rather stiffly. "I've been getting in and out of a bathtub my whole life without any injuries."
"And you'll probably do just fine tomorrow. But humor your overprotective old mother and let Terrence keep a watch on you, just this first time, anyway."
The idea of Terrence watching me as I bathed horrified me and excited me at the same time. The two conflicting emotions kept me from responding and mother took my silence as agreement.
"Then it's settled. Now you lads listen to your radio programs while I attend to some correspondence." With that, she left the room.
"You really don't have to baby-sit me in the bath, Terrence."
"It's all right, Woody. I really don't mind at all. Just think of it as me keeping you company. And if it keeps you safe, all the better."
Later that night, Terrence and I lay in our beds in total darkness. I was flat on my back, the only position I could be in with no pain. I assumed he was in the same position in his bed. In the darkness, I again brought up the topic of school we'd been discussing earlier.
"So what is everyone at school really saying about me? That I'm a sissy who can't even fall down without getting hurt? That I run off to the hospital over a little bang-up?"
I could hear Terrence sigh. "No one is saying anything like that. Everyone is concerned about you. You always think the worst of yourself and other's reactions."
"Well, just look at me - a skinny runt, not only inept at sports but not at all interested in them. I'm a bit of a bookworm, the kind other boys like to pick on."
"Why are you so hard on yourself, Woody? Maybe you're not the big, strong athletic type, but then most lads aren't. And you're not a skinny runt, either. In case you haven't noticed, you've grown an inch or two since last summer."
"Yes, but I haven't put on any weight so I'm skinnier than ever."
"There you go again, looking on the dark side of things. Weight eventually catches up with height, that's how it goes with growing adolescents."
"Maybe I'm just too sensitive, letting my insecurities run wild at times like this."
The truth was that the real basis for my insecurity was the knowledge that I was queer, and the fear that someone would figure it out. My physical appearance only played into all of that. But of course I couldn't tell Terrence that, so my arguments seemed somewhat lame.
"You're so focused on your own insecurities that you don't realize that everyone has their own, to some extent. I know I do."
"You? What could you possibly be insecure about? You've got everything going for you."
"Contrary to your opinion, I'm not the biggest, strongest, most athletic in our class, much less in our school. Far from it. Besides, there's so much more than the physical. I'm sure you've noticed what a class-conscious society we have here on this side of the Atlantic."
"Yes, but it's the same back home. You should meet my grandparents in New York."
"From what you've told me they do seem to be snobs, but they're just amateurs compared to our upper class. When I first came to Bancroft's I was a mass of insecurities. It was as though I'd grown up on another planet from most of the boys. My voice, my mannerisms, my life experience, everything about me was different. I spent my first year trying to be invisible, hoping no one would notice me."
"But you seem to fit in so well now. What happened?"
"Uncle Geoffrey. He was not only responsible for getting me into Bancroft's but he had gone through something like what I was experiencing. You wouldn't know this, but in our army most of the officers come from the upper class. Someone from a family like mine could probably look forward to a military career as an n.c.o. But early on, one of Uncle Geoffrey's superiors recognized some ability in him and sponsored him. So he was able to move up through the ranks. But even so, he struggled to fit in. So he was able to give me some good advice."
"So what did you do?" I was normally fascinated with anything to do with Terrence, but he rarely opened up about his innermost thoughts and feelings. This was the first inkling I'd ever had that he hadn't always been the self-confident chap he appeared to be.
"I studied the other boys and gradually modified my behavior. I had to be careful, though. It wouldn't do to be obviously aping them. In fact, that would probably have made things worse. I would be seen as putting on airs. Mostly, I worked on my voice. Even to your American ears, I'm sure you're aware of the difference in accent from one class and region to another."
"I have noticed a difference between the way you talk and the way your parents do. But I attributed that to your exposure to the other boys at Bancroft rather than just those in your neighborhood."
"And that's part of it. My speech probably would have changed somewhat on its own, without any conscious effort on my part. But I also tried, not so much to sound like the others, but to not sound quite so different. My speech isn't quite as posh as the other lads, more middle class posh than upper class, but then I don't think I'd want it to be. That just wouldn't be me and it would be obvious to them that I was copying them and that wouldn't do at all. I've had to walk a fine line between trying to fit in and not appearing to be trying to fit in. So you see, we've all got our insecurities."
"I suppose I've been too preoccupied with my own feelings to realize that others might feel the same way. It never occurred to me that you might also worry about being different."
"Well, I don't obsess about it but it's always there. I don't know why I'm telling you all this. I've never admitted most of this, even to my parents. Maybe it's lying in the dark, unable to see your face. You're the one who took the pain killer and here I am blathering on as if I'm all doped up."
"You shouldn't worry about opening up to me, Terrence. You can tell me anything. Everything I learn about you only makes me respect you more."
"Then maybe I should stop now. I wouldn't want to continue until I begin to disillusion you."
"That would never happen. You could never disappoint me."