Having to change schools in mid career is not easy, neither is it much fun. Having to accommodate yourself to new people, new routines, after three years of familiar ones is, to put it at its mildest, a nuisance. It wasn't as bad as it might have been - I was coming in as a new boy in the Sixth Form, which meant I could skip all that tedious junior boy stuff. For English public schools are still pretty hierarchical, even if the old time bullying and fagging might have gone. But as someone more senior, you got quite a bit more freedom and choice than when you are just thirteen. No compulsory team practices for one. You could choose what subjects you wanted to do, and so on. So it was not as bad as it might have been. But all, the same, a nuisance.
All the new people such as myself had to arrive at the school early on the first day of term, before the old hands got back. Since this new place was a long way from where we lived, and from my previous school, it had meant setting off early that morning. I had already been round the House - Hawke - I was going to be in and it was all very comfortable - study bedrooms to yourself, for one thing. And the facilities in the school in general were good. So it wasn't as bad as it might have been.
There were seven of us joining the Sixth Form in Hawke: as well as me, there were four girls (they had girls only in the Sixth Form in the school), someone from Hong Kong, and an American coming to the school for a year as his parents had been moved to London by the job. I was a bit wary of them all: it was always a good idea to watch people for a while before you got too friendly. And I was cautious too of what I said to them - about how I was coming here "for a change of scene" from my previous school.
My parents helped me unload stuff from the car, and between us, we managed to make the rather bleak room into something a bit more liveable. Posters, curtains, a bright duvet cover, my laptop and hi-fi. In a room that size, with a desk and bed too, there wasn't much space left. Then we all had to go down to the Common Room and mingle over a cup of tea: pupils, parents and staff. Each of us was allocated a tutor, and the fellow I had stood making small talk to my parents. I sipped an orange juice and looked round at the others.
The room was quite impressive - nicely panelled and so on, but spoiled by fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. I gathered that there was a separate common room for the Lower Sixth - there would be sixteen of us altogether in my year: the seven new ones and nine old hands. That was re-assuring in a way, to have others around who were new and would also be trying to fit in.
Then we were all wheeled off to be talked at by the Headmaster, and it was time to say goodbye to our parents. Having boarded for four years before, though, it was a fairly familiar routine.
Morris - my tutor - took me along to the Hall where the Headmaster would be. It turned out he taught contemporary British History, which is one of the reasons why I had decided to choose the school in the first place. It was a new course, and one I really wanted to do. He didn't know whether he would be teaching me though - it depended which set I would end up in, and that depended on my GCSE marks. I already knew them, though I didn't tell him that, and I knew that they were pretty good. I wanted to be in the top set. Apparently I had go along to see him once a week, to discuss my work and progress and so on.
"Though," he said, "being new, you might want to catch me at other times. If you have problems settling in or finding your way around."
I nodded. We had already had had someone from our year group assigned to us to help us get to know the place.
"I gather you're keen on our new History course?"
"That's right, sir. One of the reasons I was interested in coming here."
"History's your main interest then?"
I nodded. "I want to do it at University. King's, London."
He was surprised that I knew of it. And even more when I told him of my visits to Kew, to the Public Record Office.
"Primary sources, eh? You might well make an historian after all."
We reached the Hall where all the other new people were congregating, and made our way in.
The Headmaster stood up and said things Headmasters are supposed to say, and I felt that I was being a bit cynical as I listened to him. About what a bright future we had in front of us, and how we had to work hard if we wanted to get into the university courses we wanted. I think I could have written the script myself. By the expression on Morris's face, he obviously felt the same.
Then it was time for some supper. The others wouldn't be coming back until 9 o'clock, when there was supposed to be a roll call, or Adsum as they called it. So we all sat in the dining room - the seven new sixth formers and a gaggle of new thirteen year olds. The girls sat in a protective cluster, which left me and the Chinese guy and the American. There wasn't much conversation. The Chinese guy was doing all sciences, and his English was reasonable, but he wasn't very talkative. Then after we'd finished, the American turned to me and asked: "Do you want to explore the place before they all come back?"
I was slightly surprised but said OK. He was called Rick, and came from somewhere on the East Coast. My American geography was not really good enough to work out where his home town was. He had a moderately strong accent, but not as thick as say those from the South. I left most of the talking to him.
It was early September, and still warm and bright in the last of the sunshine. Our House, Hawke, was a little way from the main buildings, but not as far as some. We wouldn't have to walk too far to lessons every day. I saw all these games pitches with their soccer goals, and was very thankful I wouldn't have to do all of that anymore. I had too many memories of standing in fields on cold wet days in February, missing passes and being yelled at for my clumsiness. Rick had played some soccer, and was keen to get into a team. Rather him than me.
"Was it a wrench, leaving the US?"
He shrugged. "We'd moved around before. This time it's a different country instead of a different state. Besides, might be interesting."
"And you? Leaving friends at your old school."
There was only person I regretted having left behind. It was my turn to shrug. "Not really."
He didn't reply to that. We strolled around the grounds, identifying places to each other from the little map we had been given. Cars were beginning to appear now, with parents unloading trunks. A familiar scene in an unfamiliar setting. We headed back to Hawke, and I disappeared to my study until a bell rang at nine for that roll call - sorry, Adsum.
There was a hoard of people milling around - according to my list, there were sixty four people in the House altogether. I hung back, waiting for them to sort themselves out, then followed everyone into the Common Room. A prefect read out our names, and the old hands replied with a sort of grunt. When it came to us new ones, there was a much more clear "yes". And the girls' voices stood out among all those gruff teenage voices. As did the unbroken voices among the new thirteen year olds.
After the Adsum some one came up to me.
"Hi, I'm Oliver - Ollie. You're Charles?" I nodded. "I'm supposed to show you round for the next couple of days."
He was slightly shorter than me, with one of those spiky quiffs of gelled hair.
"I'll introduce you to some of the others."
He took me along to the Sixth Form Common Room, and started introducing me round. I didn't take in many of the names, though I knew I'd be seeing a lot of all these people over the next two years.
Then in the conversation that followed, the inevitable question was asked.
"Why did you want to move to this place?"
The Headmaster knew, my Housemaster knew, and I knew, but I wasn't going to tell any of them. "Change of scene," I said. "I was getting tired of the place I was at before, and it was getting tired of me."
Perhaps that last comment wasn't a good idea: I could see speculation behind some of the eyes looking at me. But then they turned to Rick, and started asking him about the States. That let me off the hook.
Then it was time to go upstairs. Ollie had the study next to mine, which was quite useful. He peeked in as I opened the door.
"Can I have a look round?" he asked.
His eyes widened slightly at my choice of posters. I knew most people would have footballers or rock groups or girls on their walls. Instead, I had chosen some posters when I was at the Public Record Office in Kew, doing some stuff in the holidays. They were posters from World War One or World War Two: "Dig for Victory", and all that sort of stuff. There was an art in being different without being too conspicuous.
"Where did you get these?" and I told him. I think that impressed him even more. "You're doing history?"
I nodded again. "Yeah."
"Wow. So am I." He looked sideways at me. "So you're some sort of whiz at history?"
"Not really," I told him, "but it's what I want to do at University."
"I haven't a clue what I'll do," he said frankly.
I shrugged. "Yeah, well."
He hesitated, then said: "You know where the bathrooms and things are?" I nodded. "And how to find where breakfast is in the morning?" I nodded again. "You've got your timetable sorted out?"
"Yeah. That calendar's quite good."
We have all been given a blue covered book, with maps of the school, and teacher's classrooms, and all that sort of thing.
"Fine. I'll leave you to it. Give a yell if you need anything."
"Sure. And thanks."
"No worries." And he disappeared.
People were still milling around in the corridor, people who obviously knew each other, exchanging gossip. I pushed past them to the bathroom, and they ignored me as I made my way along. The bathrooms were the usual school functional places, steamy and smelly, but I was - almost - inured to that by now.
I should, by now, also have been used to new beds and strange surroundings, but even so, as I gazed into the darkness, there was that familiar wish to be home again. But thankfully the day had been eventful enough to wipe me out into sleep almost instantly.
The next day was all that usual beginning of term stuff: Chapel, a Sixth Form assembly (where we were once more exhorted to work hard now having reached the dizzy heights of the Sixth Form), a tutor meeting, a music test. I found myself co-opted into the Choir as a bass. Then some lessons.
Lessons are the same everywhere. Dishing out text books. The syllabus (or specification, as we were now told to call it). An introduction to the subject. And I was going to be in the top History set. And Morris was taking it. So far so good.
At lunch we could sit where we liked. I found myself next to one of the new girls - Olivia. She was blonde, blue eyed, and I had seen her attracting quite a few glances from the boys. But being new together meant that she was more prepared to talk to me rather than to the others. That might serve as a useful camouflage for me.
Inevitably she asked why I had wanted to come here, and she got the usual brief response of "change of scene". Then I asked her the same question, and got a run down on her previous school, a small girls' boarding school, with next to no Sixth Form.
"And all girls together. That can be hell."
"Well, you've got it the other way round here."
"Yeah. The way some of them look at you!" Then she giggled. "Might be fun, though."
So it wasn't only for academic reasons that she'd switched schools. But she was pleasant enough to talk to.
But that evening I discovered that not everyone here was as pleasant. We were in the Sixth Form Common Room after prep, and someone had asked me about the teachers I had got. I had started talking, perhaps too enthusiastically, about Morris and the new History course. Then Jamie, who had been watching me, came in.
"Morris, eh? And he's your tutor?"
"You seem very keen on him."
He was about my height and build, quite good looking, but with something of a sneer to his mouth. I looked at him carefully.
"He seems good," I said, as neutrally as I could.
"Very keen on him, aren't you?" Then the sneer: "Going to be Morris's bum boy then?"
I suddenly felt that flash of red rage.
"What the fuck do you mean?"
"Gay for him, are you?"
Rick must have seen my face, the anger it displayed. "Not given the way he was talking to Olivia at lunch," he said quietly.
That defused things. The conversation swung round to the topic of the new girls. But I could see Jamie looking at me out of the corner of my eye. And it wasn't a friendly look. And I had forgotten something which I should have remembered from days past: never rise to the bait. And I had done just that.
But life was busy enough in those first few days without having to worry about Jamie. Most of the others were welcoming enough for it not to matter. And I got the impression that Jamie was not all that popular with the other people in the House. But it was a lesson to me to keep my head down. And my friendship with Olivia provided a useful cover.
Both Rick and Ollie were in several of my classes, which was also useful. I soon got the impression that Ollie wasn't that bright, though pleasant enough, and he started to lean on me for help with the work. That was fine by me - it was always useful to have someone who owed you something.
I had also got involved in some things outside of the classroom. We were all supposed to do some form of sport, and, as I said, I wanted nothing more to do with muddy football fields and smelly changing rooms. Rick went off enthusiastically enough for the team trials for soccer, but I found there was a sailing option. And sailing was one thing I could do.
The school used a local reservoir, and had a team set of 420 dinghies. I'd sailed those at my last school, so knew something about them. There was no way I was good enough to become a hot shot racer, but with three of the racing team having left last summer, I was in for a place. All of which gave me something else to do, and being in the team gave me a bit of cred. Except with Jamie, of course, who sneered something one night about "hello, sailor".
Then, inevitably, one evening, something happened which I had been trying desperately to avoid. Ollie was in my room late, struggling with a passage in Julius Caesar ("Not I, Cassius, I do lack some of that quick spirit which is Mark Anthony ..."). There was only my desk lamp on, with the book open in front of us. Ollie, dressed in the usual night time tee shirt and boxers, was standing close to me as we leaned over the desk. I had just had a shower, and was in a dressing gown. The room was warm, and I could feel him pressing against me. I wasn't sure if I wasn't getting slight sideways looks either.
I didn't know him well enough to work out whether he was sending out signals, and I didn't know the ethos of the school when it came to matters like that. And once bitten, twice shy. Or, to put it another way, I didn't want to get my fingers burned a second time. I could like Ollie. Once or twice he had figured in my late night fantasies. But I know well enough from bitter experience that fantasy had to be firmly separated from reality.
Then he did lean into me. I had to gulp and bite down hard on what I really wanted to do. Instead, I stepped back very slightly, removing the contact. He didn't move for a moment or two, then turned and faced me. Still I couldn't read his face.
"Perhaps it'll all make more sense to me in the morning," he said.
"Thanks for the time, anyway."
And as he moved to leave, he brushed up against me again. Or was I being oversensitive? Perhaps it was all in my imagination. Perhaps I had wanted it to happen. Perhaps it had all been a figment of my overheated mind and body. But it was a complication I could do without. I had vowed before starting at the school that I would never - at least for the next two years - become involved in that sort of thing again.
As I lay in bed staring into the darkness, I could feel that familiar war breaking out inside me. I had wanted to reach out for him. I could imagine what we might now have been doing if I had. Then I knew what the consequences might be if I had got it wrong, misread his messages, been found out. I had to tell myself yet again that it wasn't worth it.
But that didn't make sleep any easier.
Despite that, things were going swingingly elsewhere. I got my place in the sailing team, and as a helm. My crew was much younger - he'd only just joined the school like me, but in his case as a junior. But he'd raced so much at home he knew the rules a lot better than I did. He was the younger brother of someone in my year, Harry, who I hadn't got to know that well yet.
There were awkward moments at the sailing club, moments I had to be beware of. The changing facilities and showers down at the reservoir were very crowded and cramped, and we often came in off the water wet, cold, and in need of a hot shower. I found it difficult to be natural in those circumstances. If you're changing and showering so close to someone else in those surroundings, you have to try and look as nonchalant as possible. And that wasn't always easy. Resisting the temptation to peek at others was one thing, but trying to strike a balance between prudery and showing more than I wanted to was hard. But the sailing was good, and it was good to get out into the fresh air.
And the work was going well too. The papers I had looked at in the Public Record Office in the summer gave me a good foundation for the coursework we had to do, and Morris was impressed with it, so much so that he wanted me to give a presentation to the school History Society. That was a considerable compliment coming from him, and made me feel that what I had been doing was worthwhile. But I was reluctant to give the presentation: I preferred to keep my head down rather than draw too much attention to myself. It was difficult to say no, however, since that was what the society was supposed to be all about. And in the end, he persuaded me.
Giving a talk like that in front of your contemporaries is awkward. I was incredibly nervous before I began, but once having stood up and started talking, I suppose my enthusiasm carried me away. Not that it was always good to be seen as being enthusiastic: I got sneered at yet again in House that evening by Jamie. Being perceived as "keen" was not cool.
He was, I suppose, coming to obsess me a little. When everything else was going so well, he was like having a pebble in your shoe, constantly nagging and irritating you. Rick mentioned it to me one day.
"He really gets to you, doesn't he?"
"He's a dickhead of the first proportion," I told him.
"Yeah, he can be like that in class to some of the teachers, too. He's a real pain in the ass. But it gets worse if you let him rile you."
"Maybe. But there are times I want to get up and hit him one."
"I've noticed. Then you have take a deep breath and look away. You're going to have to keep on doing that, or the two of you are going to end up in a real fight."
"I know, I know. But sometimes it's hard."
"You're right. But keep working on it."
I did. Until one day a week or two later.
It was around four in the afternoon, with lessons in another hour. I needed a book I'd lent Ollie. I went out into the corridor and without thinking, pushed open the door to his room. He and Jamie were in there in their football kit, and I wasn't quite sure what they were doing - except they were very close. But they sprang apart, and both looked very shifty - which notched my suspicions up by several points. It seemed unlikely enough - but could I have interrupted something?
"What do you want?" asked Jamie aggressively.
I ignored him, and in as level a tone as I could, said to Ollie: "Sorry for barging in like that. But the Hennessy book - I need it for 6th lesson. Any chance of having it back?"
"Sure," he said, scrabbling for it and passing it over.
"Thanks," I said, taking it from him.
I backed out of the room, and, as I turned to go down the corridor, I was suddenly barged by Jamie making his own way out, and deciding to make an issue out of it. I suddenly saw red, that flash of red rage again, and without thinking, a fist came up to wallop him.
Normally I am totally unco-ordinated, but by some lucky fluke, it connected with him very firmly. He banged into the side of the door, and went sprawling onto the floor, yelling his head off.
Fortunately for both of us, Rick had been passing as all this happened. He pushed me back with one hand, and with the other fended off Jamie, who was struggling up from the floor. He was capable of dealing with either of us without too much problem.
"Let me get at the bastard," he was yelling.
"No," said Rick. When he was getting dangerous his voice got softer and softer. "From what I saw, you got all you deserved. And the way you've been niggling him ever since he got here, you deserve more."
He was holding Jamie by his shirt front, almost lifting him off the floor.
"Let go of me!"
"Are you going to give it a rest?"
"Are you going to give it a rest?" Rick said again.
"What's it to you?"
"He's a friend of mine, and I don't like to see him pushed around by the likes of you."
Rick slowly relaxed his grip, but stood his ground, still facing Jamie down. Jamie's shoulders were heaving, and I could see the tears of anger, distress, frustration pouring down his cheeks. Abruptly, he turned on his heel and disappeared down the corridor, rage pouring from every step. We watched him go.
Rick turned to me. I was standing, wordless, panting fairly hard myself, watching Jamie's retreat.
"What the fuck was all that about?"
I shook my head. "God knows."
He turned to Ollie, who was standing at the door to his study, mouth open. Rick raised his eyebrows, and Ollie spread his hands in reply.
"Don't ask me! Charles comes in to get a book back from me, and Jamie goes psycho."
I picked the book up from where it was lying on the floor.
Rick looked at me again, then pushed me back into my room and closed the door behind him. "So what is it between you two?"
I shook my head in bewilderment. "I tell you, Rick, I have absolutely no idea."
Rick shook his head in turn. "The guy's got a screw loose. You need to watch him."
"Don't worry - I will."
"I'd better go shower and change if I'm going to make it to lessons. But you make sure you keep clear of him for the next few hours."
I nodded. "I'll certainly do that."
Oddly enough, the whole business added very much to my street cred. Jamie ended up sporting a very impressive black eye, and the fracas had been sufficiently public for the reason for it to get round fast. And, as I said, Jamie was not the most popular person in the House. People had seen him needling me, and reckoned he'd got what he deserved.
Even Olivia was impressed by what she called my 'cave man' act. Although she was playing the field as far as the boys were concerned, she wasn't the airhead I had first taken her for. Indeed, I had the feeling she was too perceptive at times. And she had the same taste in boys as I did.
Then, one day, it happened. I suppose it was inevitable really, even though I hadn't wanted to admit to myself that it might happen again. But your feelings for people, your emotions, can get all the more intense when you are all crowded together all day and every day. But this time it took me entirely by surprise. It was one of those moments, an epiphany. I have heard many descriptions of how it can strike - like lightning from a clear sky, and so on. The best description I know - and I don't know where it comes from - was that my bowels turned to water.
I was making my way down the stairs, and at the bottom was Harry. It was Harry's brother who was my crew in the sailing team, and although Harry was in the same year as me, I'd never really taken much notice of him before. His most obvious feature was a smile that could flash out at you, but other than that, there was nothing special about him. Or so I had thought.
But this time, as I caught sight of him, he was at the bottom of the stairs, head turned to one side, the tendons in his neck tight, his Adam's apple prominent, one hand on the rail, turning to say something to the person behind him. He had just been playing soccer, and was dressed in muddy games kit. His shoulders were straight and broad, one foot on the first step of the staircase.
I was blinded. I stopped in my tracks. Someone behind me - Ollie? - pushed past muttering. My field of vision shrank to encompass just this figure. But I knew I couldn't just stand there and gape - I knew I had to keep on going on down the stairs as if nothing was amiss. I could hardly just turn round and go back again.
Harry's head turned, and he looked up and saw me standing there, looking at him. My feet started moving once more. That smile flashed out again. I suppose I responded with some sort of grimace in return. Carefully, steadily, not wishing to trip on the stairs with my field of vision so constricted, I made my way down past him, as he turned, and still with an excess of energy, bounded up the stairs.
I turned into the newspaper room at the bottom of the stairs and stood in front of one of the tables, not registering what I was looking at. I was in a turmoil. Love, or lust, had struck me once again. The thunderbolt again. Instead of the table, and the newspaper, my mind could see only that snapshot image of Harry standing there, frozen in his pose. There was no point in trying to put it out of my mind.
Then a voice behind me: "You OK?"
It was Rick, I half turned, and did my best to force a smile onto my face.
"Sure. Why not?"
"You look as if something has happened to you."
It had indeed. But I wasn't going to tell him what.
"Not really." I hesitated, then: "Well, I've a lot on my mind at the moment."
"Not Jamie again?"
I almost laughed. "No, not Jamie. I think he's backed off for the moment."
"Glad to hear it." He lingered for a moment. "Sure nothing's the matter?"
"No - don't worry, I'll be OK. I'm like this sometimes."
And after a minute or two, I was able to make my way back out of the room, and off to Choir practice. I knew I would be late, but that couldn't be helped. But my mind wasn't on what we were supposed to be singing.
I'd never really taken much notice of Harry before. He was an amiable, moderately bright, quite good games playing type. But now, of course, whenever he was there, I was acutely aware of his presence, be it at mealtimes, in the Common Room, at Adsum, around the House. My mind tingled to his presence. And I suppose, even though I did my best to be as nonchalant as I could be when he was around, he couldn't but help pick up the vibes. He started exchanging the occasional word with me. I saw that smile more often.
Then, one afternoon, as I was working away, there was a knock on my study door, and he ambled in.
I looked up, surprised. He had never dropped in casually like this before.
I smiled. "Hi."
He looked around at the posters on my walls with interest, and stopped in front of one: a Churchillian pair of fingers in the V for Victory sign, with a burning London behind it. "We can take it!" was the slogan.
"Where did you get these?" he asked.
I told him, and could see he was impressed. As well as being out of the ordinary, and good decorations, these posters carried a certain cachet - even if it had been a touch of vanity which had led me to put them up in the first place. Look at me, they said - Charles has been doing his research.
And as it happened, I had a few photocopied sheets of Government papers on my desk, which I had got when I visited Kew at the half term. I was transcribing them into my laptop. There was an impressive TOP SECRET stamped on the top. He looked at them with equal fascination.
"Why have you got these?"
I shrugged. "Part of my coursework. But I enjoy reading through these old files."
He nodded, not quite understanding. But to me there was a fascination in handling these once top secret files, teasing out how people once thought, how Governments came to make decisions - or not make decisions.
"You're into history?" he asked.
"Going to do it at University?"
I nodded again. "What are you going to do?"
"I haven't a clue," he admitted.
Not only did I want to do History at University, I would be perfectly happy staying on there, spending my time on research among all these old Government files. But among these sons of stockbrokers and solicitors that would be unimaginable.
He sat down on the bed and we chatted inconsequentially for a half hour or so. He was an amiable sort of fellow. The trouble was that suddenly I would catch a glimpse of him in some pose that made him infinitely desirable, while still trying to maintain the flow of small talk.
He was amazed that I had no interest in football teams or the like, that I had only a passing acquaintanceship with which team was where in the league, and so on. At the same time, I realised that I was never going to get into great intellectual conversations with him. But that's not why I wanted to see him sitting on my bed.
From then on he would drop in from time to time to talk; we would sometimes sit together at mealtimes, and so on. He was so utterly straightforward that I could imagine that he had no clue at all as to why I was really so happy to listen to him talking on. And so I sat and watched, observed him, and stored up the images in a mental camera.
But life does have other surprises up its sleeve.
And I found one of those out a few weeks later. I was in Ollie's room, helping him yet again with Caesar ("... he doth hath the falling sickness ..."). We should have been in our own rooms at this hour, and with our lights out. I heard the creak of the door opening at the end of the corridor, and Ollie hastily reached for the switch of his desk light. The light could be seen from outside under the gap of the door if the corridor was dark. We heard footsteps go past, and as they disappeared, we relaxed again. But Ollie didn't switch the light back on. We sat on his bed together, and I could hear his breathing in the dark. Then, on impulse, I reached out and seized his tee shirt. There was a giggle from him.
And so the inevitable happened. Within a few minutes our tee shirts and shorts had been discarded, and Ollie had his hands on me, as I stretched out across his bed. And then, after I had wiped myself clean, and recovered, it was my turn to return the compliment. Which gave me almost as much pleasure as he had to me.
Afterwards, we lay on his tousled bed, getting our breath back. For Ollie, this was simple recreation, and nothing more: no passionate kisses, no cuddling and fondling. Indeed, if I had tried that I think he would have thrown me out. And I was prepared to play the game by his rules.
Then, in the darkness, he said: "That was a surprise."
I could feel the shrug. "When I tried it on with you before, you backed off. And then you seemed to be getting on so well with Olivia, I thought you wouldn't be interested."
Ah, I thought. Little did you know.
"I like the occasional surprise."
Another giggle from the darkness. "Yeah. So, do you make out with Olivia?"
"A gentleman never kisses and tells."
Another silence. Then I said, cautiously, "You know that day when Jamie and I had that fight?"
"Do I remember it? I think I do."
"Were you and Jamie ... up to something then? That's the impression I got as I walked in."
More silence, and I wondered whether I should have asked the question. "Well, yeah, sort of."
"Well, he'd just grabbed my dick. And he was squeezing it rather hard. But then you walked in, and he had to let go. Why?"
"Well, he went on all that time when I first arrived about me being gay, and so on, then I find him ... well."
"Yeah, well, he's funny at times. I don't know whether he was serious or just fooling around that time. He hasn't been back, anyway."
"What is it about him?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, the way he goes on. It's not just me. I've noticed him with other people too."
"I've no idea. He's always been like that. But you seemed to spark him off for some reason."
I sat in the darkness and pondered it, but came up with no answers myself.
Then I felt Ollie's arm brushing against mine. He had, so to speak, recovered his breath. And I was more than willing to carry on.
Being in love had its problems.
When I was with Harry, alone or in a group, I had to treat him as just another friend. I could hardly sit opposite him and gaze into his eyes, as I would have liked to have done. Instead, I had to chat away, glancing over, seeing him, then enjoying that mental snapshot for the next thirty seconds before I could take another look at him.
And there were dangers too.
One History lesson I arrived late, and the only free desk was behind Harry. Twenty minutes in, my attention began to wander. Instead of concentrating on what Morris was talking about, I found myself staring at the way Harry's hair curled down at the nape of his neck, at his ears (yes, even those), of the occasional glimpse of his profile as he turned in his seat from time to time. Then I became aware that Morris had stopped, was looking at me with an odd expression. I flushed and looked down, then sat up straighter in my chair as Morris began again, and gave my mind back to what he was saying.
Love is a dangerous drug.
And so is hate.
It was the scariest thing when Minette and DuPrez walked into my room during prep.
Minette was my Housemaster. Although Housemasters are supposed to be big figures at schools like this, I'd had surprisingly little to do with him. I think he'd been reluctant to take me into the House in the first place, given the reason for which I was changing schools. And I'd dealt with most admin matters through Morris, my tutor, rather than through Minette. DuPrez was the Senior Prefect.
"Sorry to disturb you, Charles, but something's been brought to my attention." He nodded to DuPrez.
I stood at my desk completely taken aback, while DuPrez reached under my bed, pulled out my tuckbox, reached further behind it, and pulled out a carrier bag. He handed it to Minette, who looked inside, then held it out for my inspection. I looked inside. In it were a couple of packets of Marlborough and a nearly empty bottle of vodka. I felt myself going very very red.
"Yours?" he asked quietly.
I did my best to look him in the eye. "No, sir, they're not. I've never seen then before." Which I hadn't.
He raised his eyebrows, clearly not believing my denial. "You'd better come down to my study." He nodded to DuPrez, who slipped out of the door. Minette stood to one side to let me out, then followed me and closed the door. Then he led the way down to his study.
He put the bag down on his desk and looked at me. "Sit down," he told me. I did. He carried on staring at me. "Is this yours?" he asked again.
"No, sir, it is not. I have no idea how it came to be there." Not only was I pretty worried, but I was also perplexed too. Then I had an idea. "Was it Jamie Burke who told you about it, sir?"
His eyes flickered and he hesitated. Then he realised that he had effectively given the game away. "Yes, it was."
"Jamie Burke has done his best to make life difficult for me since I arrived, sir. That's not just me whinging. Try asking Ollie Newton or Rick Steiner. They'll tell you the same thing."
He sat back and looked at me more carefully. "So what are you saying then?"
I shrugged. "Well, sir, I know nothing of this. You have my word on that. But the person in the House who hates me most is the one who told you exactly where it would be."
"Maybe so. But I could also look at it by saying the person who dislikes you most is also the person most likely to run you in."
"Fair enough. But," and I pointed to the bag, "you didn't touch what was inside, nor did DuPrez. If you seal it up now, you can send it away and have the bottle tested for fingerprints. I'm sure my parents would be prepared to pay for that if it would clear me. Because you won't find my fingerprints on it."
That did startle him. "So whose fingerprints will we find then?" with a touch of sarcasm.
I shrugged. "Jamie Burke's?"
"You suggesting he planted it there?" Again the hint of sarcasm, of disbelief.
I shrugged once more. "I wouldn't say that. But try asking him whether he'd be prepared to give you his fingerprints - just for comparison."
That rocked him even more. I could tell he didn't care for me, but I'd posed him with quite a problem. He sat for a minute or more, thinking about it, then swept up the bag. He had a safe in the corner of his study where he kept pocket money and the like. He opened it up and stuffed the bag inside.
"Wait there," he told me tersely.
He swept out of the room. He was away a few minutes, while I sat and sweated. I could be wrong about Jamie. But even if I was, they'd never find my prints on that bottle. And although the police wouldn't be the slightest bit interested, there must be labs somewhere that could take prints from the bottle. What that would cost I had no idea, but it couldn't be that much. Could it?
Minette came back with Jamie. I got a sidelong look from him, but couldn't read it. Minette went back to the safe and fished out the carrier bag. He held it open for Jamie to look inside.
"Is this what you were telling me about?" he asked.
Jamie nodded. "That's right, sir."
Minette put it back.
"Sit down, Jamie." He looked at the other boy for a moment or two, then asked: "How did you know it was there?"
"Quite a few people on the corridor know about it, sir."
"So they would back your story up?"
Jamie hesitated, then: "Don't know, sir. They might not get into trouble themselves."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if they've been drinking some of that stuff themselves, then they're not really going to want to tell you, sir."
Clever answer. Minette looked at him again. Then: "Charles denies he's ever seen it before."
Jamie shrugged, said nothing.
Minette leaned forward. "No one's touched that bottle since it was discovered. DuPrez didn't, I didn't, Charles hasn't. Charles has offered to have it sent away to have it tested for fingerprints. He says that none of his prints will be on it." He paused. Jamie shrugged again. "Will any of yours be on it, Jamie?"
The room grew very still. No one said a word.
Then: "Even if they do find some prints on it, how would they know they're mine?"
"Well, are you prepared to give us a sample of your prints? It would prove that you hadn't touched the bottle either."
Jamie was silent again.
"I know I can't force you to give me a sample of your prints - and I'd have to ask your parents' permission, of course."
Mentioning parents was the killer. People told lies enough within school, but to bring parents into a matter like this was almost the nuclear option.
Jamie didn't say a word. Minette turned to me. "I think you'd better leave us, Charles. Stay in your room until I tell you otherwise."
As I closed the door behind me, I leaned back on it and let out a great whoosh of air.
I couldn't quite believe what had happened. To try and frame me like that - what had I ever done to him? Whatever it might have been, this was vengeance in a big way. I made my way down the silent corridors back to my room - but there was no point in trying to get on with my work now. Instead, I sprawled on my bed, with a thriller to keep me occupied. It didn't really work though - I spent most of the time staring sightlessly at the ceiling.
And eventually DuPrez came knocking on my door. I was summonsed again.
Minette was waiting for me in his study. This time he was alone. "Come in and sit down," he told me. He didn't look overjoyed to see me.
"Burke has gone home to consider his future," he told me. This was school code for saying he had been rusticated, one step short of expulsion. I kept my expression neutral. "He has admitted he planted the bag there for me to find. In other circumstances, I would have expelled him. However, there is one complication." He stopped, and I looked at him. "He does know the circumstances under which you left your previous school. Via a friend of a friend, so to speak.
"He hasn't told anyone in the school about this as yet. He's agreed not to, and a condition of his return is that he never does."
I looked at him. There were several unspoken messages there. But the main one was that a compromise had been brokered: don't tell, and you can come back. I wasn't sure what to make of that. It left something of a nasty taste in the mouth. On the other hand, you can only be blackmailed if you have something to hide.
"Right, sir. And thank you for taking action."
But I could the distaste in his face. "It's a pity it's had to come to this. But there we are."
I realised that was a dismissal, and stood up. "Sir," and I turned and left.
There would be no love lost between the two of us. I was an unwelcome addition to the House as far as he was concerned.
Minette handled things well, I'll give him that. For some one to be sent home "to consider his future", was quite an event, fit for much gossip. But Minette announced to the House at Adsum that it was for "cigarette and alcohol abuse". Nicely put. Implying that Jamie was the smoker and drinker, an all too believable scenario. Any potential problems were defused. For it wasn't a verdict Jamie could easily deny when he got back.
Near Christmas came the annual House cross country competition. Each House had to enter twenty runners. You could count me out - I certainly wasn't in the running (pun) - but Harry was very keen. So keen that he took to running the course each afternoon to get in training. Mad fool, I called him, but he just grinned. And put on his tee shirt and shorts and trainers and disappeared off into the mud and the rain.
On one such afternoon, he dropped in to my room on his way back. Chest still heaving from the run, he flung open the door, and, closing it behind him, leaned back on it, eyes closed, head back. There were red blotches on his face, and beads of perspiration round his hairline. Then he pulled off his tee shirt and wiped his face with it, still gasping. I lay on my bed, book forgotten, watching him.
He stepped forward and crashed across the bed, and I had to roll out of his way. Then he turned over onto his back, arms above his head, tee shirt still clutched in his hand, his eyes closed, his chest rising and falling as he sucked in air. I looked at the slight concavity of his stomach, the outline of his ribs, the tufts of hair under his arms. Then he turned his head to one side and his eyes opened.
"God, I'm knackered," he gasped. But there was a smile on his face.
"I'm not surprised."
He lay there looking at me with that smile, his sweaty body next to mine. Slowly he rolled over, and grasped my wrists, holding my hands down. His chest lay on mine, pinning me to the bed. He stared down into my face, still with that smile. Neither of us said anything. Eternity lay in thirty seconds.
Then he slackened his grasp, pulling himself away, sitting up, sitting on the edge of my bed. I too sat up. His hands were on his knees now, still clutching that damp shirt, and he mopped his face once more, before turning to look at me again. Another thirty seconds of eternity, before he stood up.
"I need a shower," and with that he was gone, leaving me sitting there, dazed, bewildered, ecstatic. What had that been all about?
Jamie had re-appeared after a week of "considering his future" at home. Now we ignored each other, but he was a constant presence at mealtimes, in the Common Room, around the corridors. The year group was beginning to polarise. Rick, Olivia, Harry joined in the tacit boycott of Jamie. Others such as Ollie were uncomfortable neutrals. And there were those who had started at the school with him at thirteen, who tended to resent the incomers, and who tended to side with Jamie. Life was not as pleasant as it had been at the start of term, only a few weeks previously. I began to spend more time outside the House, in the school library, or other places of refuge.
And, a few afternoons later. Harry repeated his performance, coming in, unannounced, standing by the door, mopping his face with his tee shirt, but this time lying next to me on the bed more quietly, again stretched out on his back. It took all my willpower not to reach out and stroke that smooth, smooth skin.
Then again he rolled over, pinning my wrists as before, but this time moving a leg in between mine. He sank his head into the duvet, and I could feel his warm breath, the pressure of his body. He lay, completely relaxed, across me. I held my breath as the seconds ticked by, He sighed gently. My body dissolved in a haze of warmth. He must have known the effect he was having on me.
His head shifted slightly, and I felt his breath on my ear. Slowly he raised his head so his face was only a few inches from mine. We stared at each other. I couldn't tell what he was thinking, even if indeed he was thinking of anything. We remained there, not moving. Then I could feel his legs grip mine, before he rolled off me, sitting again on the side of the bed, holding his tee shirt to his face. I started to move, but before I could get up, he was up and gone, the door closed, leaving only his warmth and his dampness and his aroma.
What was it with Harry? I knew I was infatuated with him - in love with my image of him, in love with my ideal of what Harry ought to be, rather than with the reality of the boy himself. Was he satisfying some obscure need of his own? Was he merely playing with me, knowing the effect he had on me, indulging in some form of obscure tease? I didn't know. And still, every day, I saw him in lessons, in House, and every day he gave me that smile of his, and no more.
The effect he was having on me showed in a more general abstraction. Even when I wasn't thinking about him, my mind would drift elsewhere, so that Olivia or Rick would have to wave a hand in front of my eyes: "Earth calling Charles?", and I would shamefacedly have to give them a smile and an apology.
Until the time one evening when I was in bed, ready to switch the light out. The door opened and Harry stepped in. No smile on his face, just an abstracted look. He was in tee short and boxers, a towelling robe loosely draped over his shoulders. We stared at each other. Slowly he walked over to the bed, stopped. He reached for the light switch. Shedding his robe, he slipped under the duvet.
If you are expecting a description of passionate couplings, you will be disappointed. We lay next to each other for several minutes, scarcely touching, listening to each other's breathing. Slowly an arm went over me, and he buried his head in the pillow next to mine. I could feel the warmth of his body. Slowly, every few minutes, we re-arranged ourselves, intertwining our bodies, our limbs around each other. This was not so much sexual as sensual; deeply, warmly sensual, erotic in a way that no sexual release could gratify. Indeed, although I was aware of the heat from his groin, and he must have been aware of mine, that was not what this was about. We didn't even take off our tee shirts. To feel him through that thin cloth was as satisfying as any nakedness might have been.
And indeed I don't think Harry was gay in the conventional sense. Instead, we were taking pleasure from each other's presence, from each other's warmth, from the feeling of skin against skin. He never made a move to kiss me, to touch me down there, to make those sexual movements of body against body. Instead, for what seemed an age, we would lie completely still, happy and content, relaxed with the feel of each other, in a half doze, a half daze, until eventually we must both have fallen into sleep. For when I came to, I could see the red lights on my clock radio showing the time as past 2 a.m. I suppose my movements must have woken him at the same time. Slowly he drew out of my arms.
"What time is it?" he asked.
It was the first words either of us had spoken in three hours together.
He moved his head down and nuzzled my neck with his face, then sat up.
"I suppose I'd better get back to my own room."
He reached for his robe. His hand came out and touched mine briefly.
Softly, in the darkness, he padded away.
I lay back, every nerve in my body still tingling from his touch. My body was aroused as it never had been before, but in such a way I did not even consider the obvious remedy, but instead slowly, happily drifted back into sleep.
When I woke the next morning, his warmth was still imprinted on my body and on my mind. It was difficult to tear myself out of bed into the routine of dressing, breakfast, Chapel, lessons. And I think I must have been more abstracted than usual. Certainly I fumbled several times during the morning's lessons, sometimes being unaware of even being asked a question. I drew a lot of attention to myself as a result.
"Charles, you're really not with things this morning," Morris said eventually.
"I'm sorry, sir, things on my mind."
"Do your best to snap out of it, will you?"
But it wasn't easy.
And that afternoon was the cross country competition for which Harry had been training. Of all the runners, he came in third, and Hawke was second overall. I hung back as people offered their congratulations to him.
As I got into bed that night, I wondered if he would visit me again. But I fell asleep alone. Not long after, though, I was awakened by the click of the door opening and closing, and felt Harry climbing under the duvet once more.
This time, it was everything that last night had been, and more. Now our tee shirts came off, and I could put my hands on the hard muscle of his back, run them down his chest, as slowly and languorously as I wished. But as I was doing so, as we explored each other, so softly and gently, suddenly light flooded in upon us from the corridor outside, as the door was flung open.
Harry drew back from me as we sat up, to see Minette and DuPrez standing in the doorway. The expression of distaste on Minette's face was indescribable. And, behind them, I could see the figure of Jamie Burke, his arms folded across his chest, the sneer triumphant on his face.
We were all frozen in a tableau of disbelief. And no one said anything. There was nothing for any of us to say. Now it only remained for events to play themselves out.
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