Michael Gouda

Part 1 Spiller

Being the runtiest guy ever and not having much brain power, I was never expected to make a great mark on the world. My mother, who preferred gin to me, often told me that I'd never get married as no girl would ever fancy me. My father, before he left the family for ever, told me that, if I didn't either do good at sports or get brainy quick, I might as well give up on the livelihood stakes. As you can see they didn't exactly inspire me with confidence or hope.

But I could see what they meant. My ears stick out like jug handles. Of course Prince Charles' do too but when you're a Prince you can get away with things like that. My hair, which on some guys just seems to naturally fall into attractive positions even (especially) when ruffled, is like lank straw without even the yellow colour. Mine is sort of mousy brown. I have a nose and a mouth and two eyes in roughly the appropriate positions but there is a certain lopsidedness about them which gives me a look of impermanence, perhaps incongruity.

I'm using long words because my English teacher at school said I should broaden my vocabulary but sometimes I think I use the wrong words and, now I've left school, there's no one to correct them.

I think I'm quite a kind person if only I could get over this shyness which makes me stutter and stammer whenever I try to speak to strangers. I don't think there's a basic weakness there as, when I'm on my own, I can speak quite normally – if normal is the word for someone who more often than not talks to himself.

I do have a job which fact would have spited my dad, had he been around to notice, but it was a dead end one, labouring mostly which means making the tea, mixing the 'muck', pushing the wheelbarrow etc. – anything that doesn't demand much brainpower. The guys are quite kind but they treat me as if I'm a sort of pet, you know, patting me on the top of the head occasionally – if only I were a foot taller, say 6' 2", they wouldn't do that. They refer to me as 'Chrissy' rather than Chris which makes me feel a bit silly and sometimes they tease me about not having a girlfriend or being such a wimp when we have a kick around with a football and not being able to speak up for myself without stammering. It's all kindly meant, I'm sure but deep down it hurts.

Like this morning.

We started a new job. Clearing up a nice middle-class house after it had been devastated by the recent summer floods. Everything downstairs was ruined. There were bookcases and I'd never seen so many books except in the school library, not that I went there much except under protest. This old guy was wandering about in a bit of a daze picking up one book after another, soaked, dripping and mostly covered with a film of, well, not to put too fine a point on it, shit.

"Not a good idea to handle them without gloves, sir," said my boss, Jas. "And make sure you wash your hands thoroughly afterwards."

The old guy didn't seem to know what was going on. "All gone," he said. "After all these years."

"Make a list of them," said Jas. "You'll be able to claim replacement value."

"Some are irreplaceable," said the guy. There was no answer to that of course.

"Here," said Jas. "Read out the titles and whatever to little Chrissy. I think he can write."

I suppose it was a joke but neither the old guy nor me found it funny – though probably for different reasons.

In that dirty downstairs room which smelled of damp and mud and worse, while Arthur and Sid carted out damaged armchairs, a desk, a table and modern things like a TV and sound system, I perched on a wooden upright chair whose seat hadn't quite been reached by the flood and with paper and biro wrote down what seemed to be this guy's family and friends, certainly he was as cut up about losing them as if they'd been real flesh and blood relatives. I could almost understand this.

Sometimes there were tears in his eyes as he announced the name of what must have been real favourites and I nearly said 'They're only books' but restrained myself, not quite sure why because that was only what they were.

"I've been collecting them all my life," he confided. "Probably since I was your age. How old are you?" he suddenly asked almost as if he'd noticed me for the first time.

"Eighteen," I said stoutly. Actually I'm only seventeen but I have problems with 's's so I avoid them when possible.

"Are you?" he said. "I'd have thought you were younger." That because I'm short I suppose.

They weren't a very exciting lot of books. Some of them had the word, 'Antiquities' in the title (I had to ask him how to spell that, and got into a bit of a state over 'spell' but he didn't seem to notice). A lot of them had 'First Edition' added to the title. I wasn't sure what that meant but as there were such a lot of them I decided that, if we wanted to finish the job, we'd better leave conversation out of it. It's not my strong point anyway, as I've already explained.

There were some surprises too, like Rudyard Kipling's 'The Jungle Book' "First Edition, 1894," he said sorrowfully, holding up a tattered copy which dripped mucky water onto the floor. I thought that was a kids' book, and anyway they'd made a film of it so I don't know why he made such a fuss. There'd probably be a paperback version in the local bookshop anyway and he could get that for a couple of quid.

As I said it was a long job and I got a bit fed up with writing, and a touch of writer's cramp, which is like wanter's cramp but not from as satisfying a cause.

Eventually we finished and Jas put me on to mopping up the floor. A shitty job but someone's got to do it. He and the others had a fag and a cuppa outside and then they brought in the dehumidifiers and set them working.

"How long will it be before it dries out?" asked the old guy.

"A month or so," said Jas, "maybe two. We'll come back and check it out from time to time."

"I could go and stay with my sister," said the old guy. "Except she doesn't like cats."

"Ah," said Jas unhelpfully. I suspected he wasn't really interested in the old guy's problems. He'd got a job to do and he'd done it. Now was time to move to the next one. "Come on, Chrissy, we've got work to do."

As he spoke there was a mewing sound and a cat's head appeared from round the bannister stairs followed by the rest of the animal. It was tabby and surveyed the scene, the still damp floor, the lack of any comfortable furniture, the burly workmen with obvious disapproval.

"Here's Princess," said the old guy. "Come on down. They won't hurt you."

One of the workmen, Dan, barely suppressed a giggle. Calling a cat, Princess! Sad.

The cat though decided that its master's voice meant that all was safe. It came down the remaining steps, trod fastidiously on the floor and then made for me, winding round my legs in an affectionate manner.

"Ah," said the old guy, "a fellow cat lover."

I didn't want to be teased more than ever so I said. "Not really." Then added, so as not to upset the old guy's feelings, "I like all animals." Better than most humans, I could have added. I stroked the cat's head and it pushed it into my hand purring.

"Well, we'll say good-bye for now, Mr Spiller," said Jas. So that was his name.

I gave the cat a last minute stroke and followed the lads out to the van leaving Spiller holding the cat and looking lost and forlorn in the middle of his puddle of a living room.

You might ask why I bothered to relate this little episode if that was all there was to it, but in fact it was only the start of my relationship with Mr Spiller.

A couple of weeks later Jas and I were doing a job, he doing the expert bit (plastering), me mixing the muck (plaster) when, on the way home he suddenly realised he should have called in on Mr Spiller to test the walls. When we got there it didn't look as if much had happened. The room was empty, the kitchen devoid (that's a good word, ain't it?) of all appliances and cupboards. The only bit of comfort was an 'eastern' looking rug, red with a convoluted (wow!) pattern in yellow and blue. On this sat Princess. Clearly she had decided that the dehumidifiers, despite their noise, were good providers of warmth.

Mr Spiller had let us in but it was Princess who greeted me, again winding herself round my legs as cats do and purring loudly. Without the gang I felt able to pet her so I sat down, cross-legged on the rug and Princess came and curled up on my lap, while Jas pushed his damp meter (or whatever it's called) against the walls and muttered readings just under his breath. He wandered into what remained of the kitchen next door.

"Well," said Mr Spiller, "you may not be too fond of cats but she has obviously taken to you."

It's nice when a strange animals thinks you're a friend, so I smiled. "I really prefer dogs," I said. "But Princess is nice," and I didn't even stutter over the 's' sounds.

"I have a dog too, but the problem there is taking her out. My leg, you know." He tapped his right leg on the thigh. "It makes walking difficult – and Shannon loves her walks, well, needs them too."

Up until then I hadn't even noticed Mr Spiller limping or anything wrong with his leg but a moment later there was this confusion at the front door which we had left open and a boisterous collie rushed in followed by a young man with bright red cheeks and tousled hair. He was older than I was, probably mid twenties. Like the dog he looked as if he'd been racing over the fields and having a rare old time.

Both pulled up short when they saw there were strangers present. Princess who had looked alarmed at their entry, settled down when she saw who it was, and her calmness seemed to settle them down, the dog wagged its tail at me and the boy smiled, a smile which extended to his eyes. He was tall and had short dark hair and his smile revealed white teeth. In comparison I felt runtier than ever.

"Hi," he said, "I'm Dominic."

Well, if that wasn't a poofy name, perhaps not as bad as Chrissy, but well on the way, I don't know what was. "Chris," I said, or attempted to say but the final 's' wouldn't come out. I would have been embarrassed except that at that moment Jas came back in and Shannon obviously took a dislike to him. She barked furiously and growling went towards him.

"Call your dog off," said Jas, clearly alarmed and I grabbed hold of the dog's collar.

"She won't hurt you," I said, the action giving me confidence. "Look she's a complete wimp." Shannon, perhaps realising that her bluff had been called, wagged her tail, turned round and licked my face.

"You don't know what she's been eating in the field," said Dominic. From the smell, I think I did.

'Sheep,' I would have said but I wasn't sure how I'd cope with the consonant at the start.

Peace settled. Mr Spiller thanked Dominic for taking the dog out. "I don't know what I'm going to do the next two weeks when you're on holiday," he said.

"I'm sorry, Kenneth," said Dominic, "but it's been arranged for ever so long. The parents would be ever so disappointed if I didn't go."

"I know," said Spiller. "I'll sort something out. You have a marvellous time. I remember when I went round the Greek islands. Make sure you visit the places I told you about."

"I'd need a year there to do all that," said Dominic, "but I'll do what I can."

He patted the dog, stroked the cat's head, waved at the rest of us and departed with another broad smile.

Shannon whimpered. "She doesn't like when people she likes leave," said Spiller.

Jas cleared his throat. Clearly he'd decided that he'd not been the centre of attraction for too long. "Not quite dry enough," he said, "but better than I thought it would be. Perhaps another week and we'll see." He made for the door, then said, "Chrissy!" and went out.

I followed him but then had a thought. I'm not usually one for making sudden, impetuous decisions. I turned. "I could take her out," I said. Luckily there were no 's's or I'd have had problems. "Morning and evening."

"Are you sure?"

I nodded and followed Jas to the van. Shannon whimpered.

"Bloody dogs," said Jas. "They should have them under control."

Mr Spiller lived in the next village to mine. All the same it was about three miles away but luckily I had an old banger of a bike, one of those almost antique 'sit up and beg' types which I'd found in a skip some years ago. It made awful squeaking sounds when the pedals turned and rattled when it went over uneven surfaces. I was fairly ashamed to be seen on it by any of my contemporaries who used to skim by on mountain bikes or racing models but there weren't many of those around as I had to set off really early in the morning to get to Spiller's, take Shannon for a decent walk and get back home in time to be picked up by Jas's van at eight o'clock.

Of course it was summer time so it was light by the time I set off at six, made my noisy way down the High Street, onto the side road that led to the next village. After the first few mornings Shannon would be waiting at the window and as I squeaked into view, she'd bark her welcome and Spiller would be at the open door, smiling and with a mug of coffee and a couple of biscuits ready 'to fortify me for the run' as he put it.

Then, we raced across the fields, scattering the sheep, though Shannon never chased them and they probably enjoyed the run as much as we did. Her favourite walk was down to the stream where we spent a while throwing and retrieving sticks, then back through the wood where we often managed to flush out some pheasants. These Shannon would chase though never had the slightest chance of catching them, and, when I whistled, she'd come loping back, panting her enjoyment to walk by my side back home.

In the mornings I had to dash back to make sure of being there when Jas arrived of course, but in the evenings, when the daylight was turning to dusk, Spiller would invite me in, ask me to share some food and offer to pay me for the walking. At first I refused the food but, as I got used to Spiller, I accepted, though never the money.

"I like taking Shannon out," I said. "It's not a job to be paid for."

So in the evenings we would sit there either in the ruined front room (he'd brought in a couple of easy chairs from somewhere) or outside in the lingering sunset on a wooden garden bench with Princess in one of our laps (her choice of course) and Shannon sprawled on the ground by our side. Spiller was drinking coffee. his favourite drink and he'd got me a cola. The flood didn't seem to have done the garden much harm, perhaps the silt had provided some nutrients, and the flowers were out, not that I knew their names, and there was sweet scent from a honeysuckle (which I did recognise) draped over the wall and hanging over our heads.

Spiller would talk of books, which were his passion, travel which had been until his accident which ruined his leg and life in general. I'd listen but not be able to contribute much even though he did ask me questions about myself. It was quiet and peaceful and I enjoyed those evenings. You think that Spiller might have come across like a boring old fart but his enthusiasm and the way he described things and places so that you could almost see them made him interesting.

I almost began to understand his passion for old books. "Made with love and real enjoyment for readers who considered them valuable, not like modern ones which are just out for profit, have no craftsmanship at all. Look at this one." He handed me a book which had obviously escaped the flood. Its covers were dark red, almost as if made of leather and the pages inside had a smooth, rich feel to them. The title on the back was in gold and there was a blue ribbon fastened from the spine to mark the place in the book. "What modern book provides you with one of those?" he asked. "They expect you to put a bus ticket or turn down the corner of the page nowadays. Sacrilege!" What's a bus ticket, I wondered but didn't ask.

Shannon suddenly got up and sniffed into the night air. "Lie down, Shannon," said Spiller. Obediently Shannon lay down again but her eyes were fixed on the bushes at the end of the garden. Then there was a disturbance amongst the leaves and a black and white head peered out. I could just make it out through the dusk. I heard Spiller whisper, "Badger."

Then the rest of the animal came out and wandered over the lawn. I could clearly hear it snuffling. I took hold of Shannon's collar and the badger must have seen my movement because it turned and disappeared.

"They don't usually come out when anyone's around, the breeze must be blowing from it to us otherwise it would have smelled us."

I'd only seen badgers before as sad crushed animals on the roadway. I told Spiller this. "Their eyesight isn't all that good and sometimes they wander into the road and that's it," he said.

"Will it come back?" I asked.

"Later probably."

I realised that it was already getting late and that I didn't have a light on my bike. "I must go," I said, and didn't stammer.

For a moment Spiller paused as if he was going to suggest some alternative but eventually all he said was, "Be careful."

One evening in the second week he again asked me about myself looking at me over the rim of his coffee cup. He asked me why I was prepared to come all the way over to take the dog out rather than doing those sorts of things that a guy of my age would normally do.

"Like what?" I asked.

"Oh I don't know. Go drinking with your friends, watch television, play computer games, listen to music."

"I don't get on with people well," I said. "They know I'm s.. stupid, and telly and computer games are boring."

"You're not stupid, Chris." He never called me Chrissy. "Whatever made you think you were?"

"My dad used to say I was, and I never passed any exams at school."

"What exams did you take?"

"I didn't take any. I skived off on the days I was supposed to."

"That's a great pity."

"Everyone said I wouldn't pass so I didn't bother. I wouldn't mind having taken English but it was on the same day as Maths and I was hopeless at that."

"A great pity," repeated Spiller. "You've got a good vocabulary. I've heard you use it. What about writing?"

"My handwriting's hopeless."

"I meant on a word processor. Do you ever think of writing stories? Or practical things? A journal. What do they call it nowadays, a blog?"

"Haven't got a computer."

"I have. It was upstairs so didn't get damaged in the flood. Do you want to have a go?"

"I wouldn't know what to write about."

"Yes, I often had that problem when I was writing."

I turned to face him and Shannon sat up. The sun was shining on Spiller's face and he didn't look old at all, well you know, middle-aged, sort of thirty or thereabouts. "Yes," he said. "I used to write. Not very good novels I'm afraid, but they provided a bit of bread and butter money. Still do in fact though not so much as before."

An author! I was chatting to a real author. Of course that wasn't as exciting as an explorer or something but it was miles better than the sort of celebrity they trot out on the telly and scarcely anyone has heard of. "Have you got any of your books."

Spiller grinned ruefully. "Yes. They were upstairs. Only the important books were down and got ruined."

"Can I s... s... see one?" My excitement had brought back my stammer.

"If you really want to."

He led the way upstairs, limping, one step at a time, Shannon and me trailing after. Princess gave us one look and decided to stay where she was. I hadn't been up here before. As far as I could see there were two bedrooms and a bathroom. No fuss or frills. Each room which I glimpsed through the open doors was tidy with windows that overlooked the countryside fields. I wondered whether Spiller sat up here and watched Shannon and me as we raced across through the sheep. Perhaps he wished he too could run with us. One room had more bookcases and one shelf was filled with books the backs of which I could see had, under the titles, the name Kenneth Spiller.

"Gosh," I said. "You've written a lot."

"Probably too many. After a while I found I was repeating myself."

I hesitated, then came out with, "Could I borrow one?"

"You can have one, if you think you'd like it. Let me write in it for you." He chose one of the books, took out his pen and wrote, 'To Chris from Kenneth, with thanks for looking after Shannon.'

"Will that make it more valuable?" I asked, ever the optimist.

He laughed. "Probably the opposite, but you never know."

The computer was in the other smaller room. It was obviously a bedroom as it had a small single bed but in one corner there was a table with the computer on it. "It's not much more than a word processor. No bells and whistles but it did me for writing. Have a go yourself."

I sat myself down. Of course, even though I didn't have a computer of my own, I'd used one at school. You can't get through school these days without using one. I looked at the blank screen. "What shall I write?" I asked.

"Whatever you want. Whatever comes into your mind. I'll go and make some coffee."

Even though the kitchen downstairs was a ruin, they had fitted him with a electric ring in the room next door and of course a coffee pot. Spiller was scarcely ever without his coffee.

I thought, then decided that thinking was making it even harder. I typed, 'My name is Chris. I am stupid and I stammer. I like animals and they seem to like me. My mum says I'll never get a girlfriend because I'm ugly.'

Suddenly it all poured out. I wrote about the building guys and how they treated me, not that I minded all that much because they weren't important. I wrote about Spiller and his being a real author and how I took Shannon out morning and evening. I even mentioned Dominic but that reminded me that soon he'd be coming home and presumably my walks with the dog would be unnecessary. That stopped me.

Spiller came back into the room with two steaming mugs of coffee and some biscuits. All of a sudden I realised what I'd been writing and how private it was. For the moment I forgot how to delete the whole thing. Easiest thing would be just to switch off but on this strange computer I couldn't find the off switch.

Feeling stupid, I tried to hide the screen with my hands.

"It's all right," said Spiller. "I won't read it if you don't want me to. Look you can make yourself a special folder and guard it with your own password so you can keep it private." From the doorway he told me how to do it. I chose 'Shannon' for my password which was naive as it was so obvious. But I saved my writing, pathetic as it was, and felt relieved that I hadn't actually deleted it.

"You can carry on if you want another time," said Spiller. "That's your own private file."

On the way home with the hoots of the tawny owls echoing from the trees around and a thin sliver of a moon in the sky dead ahead of me, I thought about the writing. Of course it was complete crap but, once started, I'd enjoyed doing it and it had seemed to flow from me almost without my thinking. Was I a writer? Was I as stupid as people seemed to think? Spiller didn't and he was a real writer.

At home I started reading Spiller's book. I thought I might be disappointed, that it would be dull or over literary, you know, too clever by half but it wasn't. It was just like him, enthusiastic and interesting, descriptive in parts but the things he described came alive and I didn't have to skim over them. It was a sort of crime novel though really the story was about the characters rather than the crime and the solving of it. In fact I was more interested in the characters than the actual story, though I suppose the story was what made me read on well into the night so that I almost overslept and had to race like a demon to Spiller's in the morning and poor Shannon had a rather shorter walk than usual.

The following evening after taking Shannon out, I decided to carry on with my own writing. Perhaps if I tried the same thing but structured it a bit better – that was a good word, 'structured', made more of a plan, thought about the words more... I could still write about me, about the things that I knew and people that I'd met... I tapped away, slowly at first with frequent deletions and then with more confidence...

This was my first paragraph:

'Being the runtiest guy ever and not having much brain power, I was never expected to make a great mark on the world. My mother, who preferred gin to me, often told me that I'd never get married as no girl would ever fancy me. My father, before he left the family for ever, told me that, if I didn't either do good at sports or get brainy quick, I might as well give up on the livelihood stakes. As you can see they didn't exactly inspire me with confidence or hope.'

I didn't know whether it was good or bad. I wondered whether to ask Spiller but thought I'd be too embarrassed to watch him looking at my words. In the end I said to him, as I left. "I've written a bit. Could you have a look and tell me what you think. The password's 'Shannon'."

I almost didn't come back the following morning, dreading what he might say but of course that wouldn't have been fair on Shannon but I needn't have worried. Spiller met me with a big smile. "It's good, Chris," he said. I like some of the phrases and ideas. We can talk about it this evening if you like but I wouldn't change anything."

"But what about the things that aren't written 'proper'?"

"It's you," he said. "It expresses your personality, your preoccupations, your worries. You don't want to turn it into someone else's language."

At the door as the dog strained to be away, he said. "Incidentally your ears. If you're really worried about them, grow your hair longer. It'll hide them even though I personally can't see much wrong with them anyway."

I changed the subject; I don't like talking about my ears. But in fact it sounded like good advice. I was due for a haircut anyway and was going to have the usual short back and sides. Perhaps I'd let it grow but then it would just flop around, long lanks of straw and I'd look a complete dickhead, as if I didn't anyway. There are ways of making hair look thicker and less straight but I'd always been led to think of them as poofy, and anyway my usual barber wasn't the sort to know about things like that. I'd have to go to the 'unisex salon' in the neighbouring town and I wasn't sure about that.

In the evening we talked about 'literary matters'. That sounds good doesn't it? Spiller told me about the things he liked about my writing and I decided to carry it on further. I talked about how much I was enjoying his book and the characters. "They seem so real," I said.

"Oh they are," he said. "I based them on people I know."

"Even the bad people? Didn't they sue?"

"Are there any bad people? Surely everyone's a mixture."

"The two guys who are living together. You make them sound like a married couple."

"Is that bad?" he asked.

I was confused, almost embarrassed. All of a sudden I realised that they were a couple of queers and everyone said that was bad. I bent down and fondled Shannon's ears. I didn't want to answer but Spiller insisted.

"They are supposed to be in love with each other. Is that bad?"

I'd never really thought about it. I couldn't imagine being in love with anyone, much less another guy and mother had said, and I believed her, that no girl would fall for me. Of course I'd had sexual feelings. I was seventeen after all and I'd wanked myself silly when I was fifteen and sixteen, but it was only me and my hand and the relief when I came. I may have been naive but I'd never thought of doing it with someone else, never imagined someone else's hand round my cock or putting it anywhere in particular.

"Everyone says it is," I mumbled.

Spiller looked at me. "Everyone?"

"Well, you know . . ." Who did I mean? A couple of guys from school who were always together who mocked queers but were always goosing people just for fun. A teacher who had said the most sinful thing for which there was no forgiveness was lying with a man and this was an 'abomination'.

"The Bible says it's an abomination," I said.

"Ah, Leviticus. If you read on it also says 'You shall not cut the hair on the sides of your heads, neither shall you clip off the edge of your beard'. And you've been doing the first of these for a long time."

He smiled and I smiled, Princess yowled for some food and Shannon looked hopeful.

And so the fortnight passed.

On the last Friday Spiller said, "Dominic will be back tomorrow. I expect he'll be taking Shannon out for me." He could obviously see my disappointment because he added, "Perhaps you can both take the dog out."

I thought of Dominic. I'd only seen him just the once but I remembered him vividly. Tall and dark haired, a big smile that seemed to take in everyone. When I'd seen him, out of breath from running with Shannon. I'd felt so insecure beside him. I couldn't imagine that he would want me tagging along.

"I'll see," I said.

Part 2 Dominic

In fact I stayed away that first day of Dominic's return but I wanted to carry on with my writing. I'd got to the time where I first met Kenneth Spiller. My memories were clear and I wanted to get them down. The following day was Sunday so there was no work and I left it until well into the morning before I cycled over assuming that Dominic would have taken Shannon out and then gone to wherever Dominic went and did during the rest of the day.

"I may be out all day," I said to Mam and she just nodded.

"Don't know why you bother to come back at all," she said.

Perhaps one day I won't, I thought, though I didn't say it.

Spiller and Princess were in but no Shannon. "Dominic always takes Shannon for an extra long walk on Sundays."

I hadn't known this or I would have done so too.

"She missed you yesterday."

I wondered how he knew that. Today he looked younger, happier and I thought it might have been because Dominic had come back. Did I feel a twinge of jealousy? Of course not. Dominic was Spiller's friend. He called him Kenneth which I had never dared to, nor been asked to, though he had inscribed the book 'from Kenneth'. I'd finished the book by now. The two men friends with whom I'd had that bit of trouble were obviously gay but weren't major characters in the story. I guess they were there just to provide red herrings; they might have been the villains of the plot but in actual fact weren't. Spiller had treated them very sympathetically and, in a strange way, I was pleased that they ended up happily living together in some sort of connubial bliss. I wished that other people had as good relations whatever the gender of their partners.

In the downstairs room they, another group of Jas's men, had started decorating. The walls were painted and the skirting boards in. All looked fresh and clean and only the two old chairs that Spiller had brought in looked out of place. He was sitting in one of them and glancing out of the window from time to time.

"Is it all right if I carry on writing?" I asked.

"Of course. Go on up."

I booted up the computer and found my piece of writing. I typed: 'Spiller was a man of about forty possibly fifty. It was difficult to tell. When I had first met him, distracted and obviously shocked by the results of the flooding, he'd looked really old, his face grey and lined. Later on, after we'd become sort of friends and used to sit in the evening sunshine, he looked much younger, in spite of his hair, grey at the temples and the lines around his mouth which just seemed to emphasise his occasional smile.'

What now? What more was there to say? Nothing had really happened. There was no plot, no story line. Real life wasn't as exciting as fiction, not for me at any rate.

Then, there was a commotion from downstairs. I could hear Shannon's nails scrabbling over the still bare boards and a cheerful shout. Dominic was back. I wondered, if I stayed up here, I could avoid meeting him, but it was not to be.

Clearly Shannon recognised that someone was here and I heard her bounding up the stairs and next she flung herself at me, tail wagging, tongue licking me – she was a very 'licky' dog. Then, after the greeting, she went to the top of the stairs and turned back to look at me. Clearly she wanted everyone to be together.

OK, I was found out. I switched off the computer and went downstairs.

Spiller was still sitting down and Dominic was standing at the doorway. He looked as I remembered him, tall and dark-haired but now his face was tanned by the presumably Aegean sun. He was wearing a white T-shirt and shorts and his arms and legs were bronzed. I wondered how far the tan went and then wondered why I had wondered such an odd thing.

"You remember Chris," said Spiller, more of a statement than a question.

"Of course. I hear you've been doing my job taking Shannon out. I'm glad. I felt guilty about leaving her."

I stood at the bottom of the stairs feeling stupid and awkward, not knowing what to say.

"She's an affectionate dog, isn't she?" he said and I nodded, not trusting myself to say anything.

"Kenneth suggested you might like to make up a third sometimes."

I shrugged ungraciously, not knowing if he'd been 'persuaded' to make the offer.

"Perhaps," said Skinner, "in the evenings so you don't have to make such a rush job in the morning before work." Though he was talking to me, I noticed his eyes never left Dominic's face.

"Great idea. What do you say, Chris?' Dominic looked me full in the face and I noticed how blue his eyes were, an unusually deep blue. I couldn't hold them and I looked away "OK." I said or probably mumbled.

So that was my second meeting with Dominic. He left soon afterwards and Spiller watched him intently as he went out through the garden, turn left on the road and disappear. Shannon whimpered as she always did when someone she liked left and I had an odd thought that Spiller felt the same way.

Once he was gone, though, I cheered up. "Tell me about him," I said.

"Dominic? Kind, cheerful, reliable, friendly, honest. What more can you want?"

And tall and sexy and good-looking, I thought. And no sticking out ears.

"He lives just down the road with his parents. They own a second-hand bookshop in Feltenham and he works there. That's where I met them though of course I'd noticed him around the village before."

"Do you think he really wants me tagging along with him on a walk?"

"He wouldn't say so if he didn't."

"I thought you might have put him up to it," I said.

"Well, I told him you'd been taking Shannon out while he was away, and that you were disappointed when it might be stopped, but it was his suggestion."

I stayed the day at Spiller's and worked on my story, including some of the early part that I'd left out before, school and such. I almost launched into fiction by writing about a walk with Dominic but found myself suddenly flustered as I wasn't sure what might happen. What could happen except that we walked the dog, I got tongue-tied and it was all a dreadful mistake?

Spiller cooked some food, or rather heated up some ready prepared meals in the microwave which was also upstairs. We had fruit and yoghurt for afters.

"Thank God they're making a start downstairs tomorrow."

"Yes, I know," I said. "I'm part of the team."

Afterwards we sat in the sun outside until I started getting a bit restless, wanting to do something. "Care to do a bit of gardening?" asked Spiller. "It's getting really overgrown."

"I don't think I know much about plants. I'd probably pull up the good stuff and look after the weeds. But I'll have a go if you tell me what to do."

Under his direction, I cut back some of the shrubs. He told me their names. There was a viburnum and a choisya and a hebe but I forget the rest. Shannon rooted in the undergrowth looking for anything that made a rustling sound.

"Time for tea," he said eventually. "Or would you prefer a cold drink."

Dead on time Dominic arrived bearing some cans of drink, straight from the fridge, the outsides still frosted. Shannon jumped up joyfully.

"You look as if you've been working hard," he said to me. I felt pleasure at his notice and smiled, for the first time a genuine smile for him.

Afterwards he said, "Come on. Let's not waste this beautiful day. Shannon would like a swim in the stream. Oh, and Kenneth, Dad says he's got some books you'd probably be interested in if you care to drop in this evening."

"Start my collection again? I'll see. But I'd like to chat to your parents about Greece."

"Beware, they'll probably want to show you the photos. Me on Naxos, Dad and mum on Ios. You know the sort of thing."

Shannon, who had heard her name, was already bouncing with excitement. Feeling strangely excited myself, I walked with them into the fields.

It was indeed a beautiful day. A few cotton wool clouds broke up the intense blue of the sky. The grass in the fields was still fresh green after some overnight showers, the right time for rain to fall, as Spiller had said. Along the edges of the footpath were some blue flowers. "Meadow cranesbill," said Dominic. Why did everyone know more than me? But he didn't parade his knowledge. just treated it casually and most of the time he chattered on about his holiday, the places he'd seen and the people he'd met, guys dancing in a ring at a drinking place, the cats, lean and scrawny which were everywhere the only sad thing he'd seen, such a contrast to the pampered Princess.

Soon I didn't feel shy at all, even prompted him with some questions and told him how much I'd like to go abroad, visit strange and wonderful places.

"They don't get much better than this," he said as we reached the stream and sat down on the bank from which we threw a stick for Shannon who seemed tireless in her chasing of it, bringing it back to us and laying it at our feet again and again. Eventually she decided enough was enough and lay down in the shade of an alder tree and panted. Dominic took off his T-shirt and lay back in the sunshine. His chest was tanned and the golden brown disappeared under the waistband of his shorts. The same with the tan on his legs. There didn't seem to be any pale marks at all. Had he been sunbathing naked? I nearly asked him but suddenly got shy.

"What about you?" he asked.

I didn't really know what he meant. I'd told 'about me' on he computer. I couldn't tell him. "Oh, I'm nothing," I said.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "You're you, you have a personality, an individuality, a past, a present and a future."

Well, not much of the latter if my father's prophesy was true.

"I'm nothing to look at," I said.

He rolled over and hoisted himself on his elbow, looking at me closely. "Rubbish," he said. "You're cute."

'Cute!' No one had ever said that before. What could he see that no one else had done before? "My ears stick out."

To my surprise, he reached over and with his free hand he touched one of my ears gently, rubbing it between finger and thumb. "Only a bit," he said, "and they're beautifully formed. If you want to, you can hide them with your hair. It's long enough."

I had to look away. "It's too long and straight." What were we doing? Discussing hairstyles like a couple of girls.

"It needs something to thicken it out. A stylist could do it easy."

"I can see that going down a bomb with my Elmcombe barber."

Dominic laughed. "Come to Feltenham next time I go and we'll go to the unisex shop. We'll have you looking like a killer before you know it."

Suddenly his hand slipped down to hold my chin so that I couldn't look away. "Lots of potential," he said quietly, almost as if he was talking to himself. Then he touched my cheek with the palm of his hand and for a moment I didn't know what he was going to do. But he just jumped to his feet and whistled for Shannon. In one way I was relieved, but in another I was disappointed. Though what I had wanted him to do, I didn't know.

It was almost dark when we got back to Spiller's. Dominic came in for coffee and I didn't want to leave him so I came too. Spiller bustled round filling cups and putting biscuits on a plate.

"Well," said Dominic. "Did you get the full photographic treatment?"

"Oh yes. But I enjoyed it. Some of the places were so familiar. And I even pinched a photo of you." He held up the picture. On it Dominic stood in front of a column of some sort. He was smiling and looked so handsome. "I'll have it framed."

"No need," said Dominic, "when you've got the real thing."

There was some spark between them which I recognised but couldn't identify. The two of them sat and talked and occasionally included me. I didn't exactly feel left out because I knew they were friends and had been for some time. Perhaps one day I'd be included in that special friendship.

Eventually Dominic said he had to go and looking out of the window I realised that it was pitch dark. "I'll have to go too," I said.

"You can't cycle with no lights through this," said Spiller.

"I can walk then."

"Why not stay here? There's the bed in the computer room. Only thing is won't your mother worry."

I laughed. "I doubt whether she'd even notice."

"That's sad. Well, if you're sure, you're perfectly welcome."

He limped off with Dominic and I heard them chatting together outside. Then there was silence but it was a little while before Spiller came in. He found me a sleeping bag which was OK with me and I slept well until I awoke at my usual time of six o'clock and had to cycle home to wait for Jas and the gang.

There was a new guy, about my age, called Rick who, if anything was even shyer than me. The guys called him 'Prick' and teased him. In a way I was glad they'd stopped with me but I was sorry for Rick. "It's all in fun," I said to him when we were alone for a moment and he looked grateful.

The following Saturday was a free day. We didn't work Saturdays unless there was a special rush job and obviously there wasn't this week. I decided to go into Feltenham on my own. I'd feel even more of a fool if I had to rely on Dominic shepherding me around like an anxious parent. I could quite easily explain in the hair salon what I wanted. Unfortunately it wasn't as easy as I thought.

My stammer came back when I tried to say. "Can you do s... s... something about my hair to hide my ears. They s... s... stick out." Eventually though I got it out and the girl – yes it was a female – understood what I wanted.

"No problem."

I thought I'd be terribly embarrassed but I saw there were other blokes also having their hair done, even put in curlers, so it wasn't so bad.

"What about a bit of colour?" she asked. "Brighten up the hair?"

"OK." What had I let myself in for? "Not too bright though."

"Trust me, I'm a hair stylist."

Well, I was quite amazed. After she had finished, an hour or so later, the barber in Elmcombe takes ten minutes max, and everything brushed out or whatever, my ears had practically disappeared. And there were gold highlights amongst the 'mouse' which wasn't even mousy even more.

Of course I was even more amazed at the cost but I'd just been paid so I pretended that thirty quid was what I usually paid for having my hair done.

It made a complete difference and I kept catching myself looking at my reflection in the shop windows as I walked back to catch the bus home.

Even Mam noticed and I think she approved. "Almost presentable," she said and then said she was off out to the pub, which was OK by me.

I got out my bike and pedalled off to Spiller's. My hair felt different as the wind rushed through it. I hoped it wouldn't take the curl or waves or whatever out of it. Didn't of course. In fact when I got there and saw myself in the mirror I realised that somehow that magician of a girl had given me the sort of hair that looked good even (especially) when ruffled.

During the week there'd been improvements made. The painting downstairs was done, the kitchen had been rebuilt and Spiller was struggling with some new furniture that had been delivered. His leg was causing problems and he looked so harassed that he didn't even notice the improvements in me.

Dominic did, though. "Wow, who's a hottie?" he asked. "So you snuck off without waiting for me. Good for you. You look really good. Doesn't he, Kenneth?"

Spiller then had to take notice. "Why, yes, but I liked your ears as they were."

"He hasn't actually had anything done to his ears," said Dominic.

We sorted out his furniture and downstairs began to look almost presentable though the replacement bookcases looked desperately bare with out the books. "You'll soon fill them up. Mum and Dad'll see to that."

Shannon was obviously fed up with furniture removals and was anxious to be out, so we left Spiller in his refurbished rooms and went out.

Dominic and I walked side by side, occasionally our arms brushing companionably. We aimed for the top of Staymore Hill. Half way up Dominic said, "Race you to the top. I'll give you one hundred yards start."

"I don't need your charity," I said and set off, leaving him behind.

"I heard a shout from behind but Shannon was way ahead and I was already puffed and still nowhere near the top. Dominic overtook me and collapsed breathing heavily. Here the wind gusted, blowing aside for a moment the burden of everyday pressure and responsibility. It was like being on top of the world.

"You cheated," said Dominic, still panting, "but I won anyway."

I thought for an answer but could only come up with "I'm cuter than you now."

"Cheeky sod. You deserve getting taken down a peg or two."

He launched himself at my legs and pulled them so that I fell on to the grass. I thought at first that he was angry but I could hear his laughter so I grabbed at him, pulling him down across me. We grappled. He was strong but I was equal to him, weeks of shifting heavy weights had toughened my muscles.

He smelled of soap and healthy sweat and his body was lying across me. My arms were round his chest and I hoisted my legs so that they trapped his body. I was laughing and then so was he. Was he having fun as his body wound itself round and across mine, arms and legs grasping, parts of us pressed together for a while until we struggled free to try another position.

I was certainly having fun. I was getting excited. Wrong! I WAS excited. I had a real hardon though I tried to avoid pressing it into parts of Dominic as we twisted together. I could smell him and there were times when my face was into bits of his body, his neck, his armpit, once - whoops careful, in his groin. He smelled of clean soap and something special which was Dominic, slightly musky, sweet.

If anything we got closer, his body round mine, his groin pressed against my hip. I could not avoid pushing myself into it. There was a hardness, I swear. His leg was over me and he must surely have been able to feel my own erection.

Suddenly he clasped me even harder, pulled me, if possible, closer. He was no longer smiling or laughing. His eyes for a moment were unfocused. His body went rigid and for a moment I feared he was having a fit. Then he shuddered and gave a long drawn-out groan. For a further time we lay there, he clasping me so tightly that I could scarcely breathe, then he released me, got up and turned away.

"We must get back," he said, almost a cry.

And so we trailed back, almost in silence, Shannon looking anxiously up at one or the other as if she knew something was wrong. Was there? I didn't know. I was confused, confused about what I had felt when I was wrestling with Dominic, confused about what he had felt. And yet I couldn't say anything and he didn't either.

Again it was dark when we got back. We'd gone further than we had meant to and again I stayed in Spiller's spare room. I didn't sleep well but towards dawn I dropped off and had weird dreams about Dominic and Spiller and I all together, rolling round and round so that I didn't know what was what, who was who.

I was suddenly awakened by the sound of the front door either shutting or opening. Feeling somewhat confused I went to the window and saw Dominic, Dominic leaving and Spiller standing just outside watching him go. At the turn of the gate Dominic turned and waved, then he must have seen me at the window because he suddenly raced off down the road and out of sight.

For a moment I didn't understand and then suddenly realised. Like me, Dominic had stayed the night but he had stayed in Spiller's room. In Spiller's bed?

I dressed quickly and went downstairs. Only Shannon and Princess were there and only Shannon whimpered his good-bye as I got onto my bike and cycled noisily off into the dawn. Spiller must have heard me but he didn't appear.

That week the new lad, Rick, and I were assigned to another group and we didn't work on Spiller's cottage at all. In fact we were sent to a property in the next county and got back so late each day that it was impossible to get over to take Shannon out. I phoned Spiller to explain and he said, "Come as soon as you can. Shannon will miss you." Not Spiller, himself, nor Dominic.

When I did eventually go over there, I found everything changed – and I mean everything. The cottages was repaired. It smelled of paint and newness and downstairs was furnished, even some books in the new bookcases.

Shannon welcomed me as if I'd been gone for years. Perhaps in her world I had and even Princess wound herself round my legs. "Where's Dominic?" I asked.

"Things have changed," said Spiller. "Dominic, his parents and I have gone into partnership. We're moving to Hay on Wye." He sounded excited but I didn't understand.

"Hay on Why?" The words didn't mean anything to me.

"Yes. Don't you know it? A little town on the borders of England and Wales, on the river Wye of course. It's known as the 'book town of England'. It has a literary Festival every year which Bill Clinton described as 'the Woodstock of the Mind'."

I still didn't understand. "What are you going there for?"

"We're buying a shop. Dominic's parents are selling theirs in Feltenham, and their house here and I'll sell this cottage. It's what I've always wanted to do, deal in books, second hand books."

"And Dominic?"

"Dominic will come with me, with us of course."

"When are you going?"

"A few weeks. It will take a little time to settle up and everything."

It was all too much for me. "I'll take s... s... Shannon out, s... s... shall I?"

The dog, hearing her name, bounded about. Crossing the fields she raced ahead and then came back, tail wagging. To be like a dog who only cares for the present, doesn't worry about the future as long as there's food and company, doesn't care about the past – that must be a good life.

I didn't know about Dominic and me, perhaps there was no Dominic and me, or Dominic and Spiller, there was certainly a Dominic and Spiller though I didn't really know what it was. All I knew was that I was going to be excluded from it. And I didn't really know about me and me, though I did know that I didn't look as ghastly as I'd thought I did, or that I wasn't quite as stupid.

"You'll be all right," I said to the dog. "I expect Hay on Wye has lots of countryside around, and there's a river to swim in, and you'll have Dominic to take you for walks and Spiller to feed you."

"What I want to know is what about me? Do I really like other men or was what happened with Dominic just a reaction to another body? If I'm gay, does it really matter? At least they've shown me I'm not as useless as I thought. I can get on with my life."

Shannon gave me a quizzical look as if to say, 'What's the matter with you? Here's the stream. Find me a stick to throw and I'll jump in and bring it back for you. Life is so simple.'

So I did.


Rick's got a dog. It's a spaniel. I'm going over there this afternoon and we'll probably go out for a walk.

I wonder if he likes wrestling, Rick that is, not the dog.

Perhaps afterwards we'll go to the pub – depends on what happens.


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Date started: Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Date finished: Sunday, October 21, 2007
Word Count: 9,731
Page Number: #


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