It was almost exactly two years to the day that I saw Harry again. Two years since that traumatic day when we had been surprised together, when my second school career had been terminated. And we met again under the most unlikely, the most bizarre of circumstances.
I had fulfilled that ambition to read History at King's, in London, after teaching myself the rest of the History course. The Sixth Form College where I had ended up didn't offer it, but I had a copy of the syllabus, got the specimen exam papers, and entered myself. My grade had been good enough to get me into the University, and I was living in what an estate agent had optimistically called a flat, south of the river - which was really a room with a bed, desk, cooker of sorts, sink, and a loo and shower partitioned off. All for a fabulous rent. I had suggested to my parents that the money they had saved by my not going to boarding school could subsidise me in London. As an only child, and with little prospect of grandchildren, they had agreed.
At University I could be myself at last. London is a fairly anonymous city. After two years of celibacy, living at home, I reckoned I could do as I wished. Which is why I was at this party. And it yet wasn't really my scene.
I wasn't into the more brash tribal habits of gay student society, I had decided. I'd had a couple of glasses of wine, but even those hadn't released my inhibitions. I suppose I was sufficiently conventional to be - well, not shocked, but certainly put off - by some of the behaviour going on around me. Hedonism was one thing, but what I could see happening as I wandered from room to room too often just seemed gross. If this was the student gay scene, then I reckoned I didn't want to be part of it. I was on the point of calling it a night.
But then, as I was making my way down the stairs, I had a curious case of déjà vu. From the bottom of the stairs flashed what seemed to be a familiar smile. Surely not ... as before, I hesitated, stopped. That smile again. It was indeed Harry. But this time I could carry on down the stairs without having to dissimulate. And there he was, standing and looking as conventional and out of place as I felt.
It was difficult to find anything appropriate to say. We stood there, probably both uncertain as to what to do or say next. Then finally Harry asked: "Have we been introduced?"
"Silly bugger," I replied, and he laughed.
Some things hadn't changed. Others had. I could sense that he was looking at me as I was looking at him - looking at the changes that two years had brought about. The music thumped out from a nearby room. People jostled past.
I took his elbow. "Look, this party is hell. Do you want to go somewhere?"
He nodded. "Sure."
Getting out into the cool night air was a relief. I looked up and down the street.
"There's a wine bar over there," said Harry, and I fell into step with him. For a Saturday night the place was pretty empty. We got a glass of red wine each and took them over to a table in the corner. There was, thank God, no canned background music.
We each took a sip of the wine, silent with too many unasked questions. And I suppose we were still quietly appraising each other. It had surprised me enough to have seen Harry in that setting, even if he hadn't been displaying the tribal insignia of the gay student scene. Instead he was conventionally, neatly dressed in a dark corduroy jacket, dark blue shirt open at the neck, black jeans.
There were too many memories to know where to begin. The silence was beginning to become awkward. If I wasn't careful we would end up exchanging banalities before going our separate ways. I decided to break the ice with a crunch.
"So what were you doing there?"
The smile again, now embarrassed. "Someone invited me along." He must have seen the unspoken question in my face. "No, not that sort of friend. And he didn't tell me what sort of party it was going to be."
"Bit harsh, that."
He nodded. "Not my sort of scene." Then he looked across the table again. "And you?"
I shrugged. "I thought I'd check it out. But, well, that scene doesn't appeal to me either. Too loud, too flamboyant, too much of a meat market."
He laughed. "I'll say."
"Were you fighting them off?"
He nodded again. "Something like that."
Another pause. Then, looking at me: "What happened to you after you left?"
I shrugged. "Very boring really. Minette packed me off the next morning as soon as he could, and I ended up at the local Sixth Form College. Not bad, not good. Taught myself the rest of the History course, and got into King's."
He rose his eyebrows. "That sounds hard work."
"Not particularly. And how..." - I hesitated - "... how were things after I left?"
He looked down into his glass of wine. "Well ... in some ways, I got off relatively lightly." He gave a slightly twisted smile. "Minette reckoned I was corrupted by you, so he wasn't that hard on me." He looked up. "I've never said sorry for what happened."
"You don't have to - it wasn't your fault."
"No, but all the same - if I hadn't come in to your room..."
"And I could always have thrown you out again. Nobody's fault. Except Jamie Burke's."
He swirled the wine in his glass. "Ah, yes, Jamie. You weren't the only one to thump him. He started on at me, like he did with you, and one day I thumped him too. Harder. Got sent home for a week to 'consider my future' as a result."
I laughed when I heard that phrase again. "I'm sure he deserved all he got."
"Yeah. Some of the others ... well ..." he shrugged.
"A bit. Rick was quite upset by the whole thing. A bit of the puritan American there. And Olivia. But it all died down."
"So what are you doing now?"
"Law at LSE."
"It's OK, I suppose. Though London's a bit big and anonymous."
"School was nice and cosy."
I looked at him. Superficially he was much the same, although his face had matured. But he remained neat and well groomed, and hadn't gone in for the student display of fluff on his face, or, in his case, stubble. That smile was still there. But underneath, he seemed more uncertain, less at ease with himself.
"Another drink?" he asked.
"Please. Although I'd better go easy soon - I had several glasses at that party, trying to dull the senses."
He laughed. "Yeah. It was a bit loud."
"And brash. And uncouth."
"That's right - and some of the people there ..."
"A mixture of screaming queens and overbuilt muscle men with shaved heads."
He laughed again. "Yeah. I don't go for that sort of thing."
I looked at him carefully as he stood up and went for the drinks. He was difficult to read - nothing camp about him, nor butch. Just a normal middle class youth, as far as the superficial eye could see. And he seemed carefully neutral about the way he presented himself to the world.
He came back with the drinks, and we talked away. He was pleasant company, but, playing safe, I think we both stuck to fairly mundane topics. We were both too unsure of each other to go further.
It was getting late, and the place was beginning to empty out.
"Time to go, I suppose," he said.
He twiddled the base of his wineglass, drew circles in some spilt liquid. A lot of displacement activity was going on. He looked up.
"What are you doing tomorrow?"
I shrugged. "Dunno. Get up late. Read the papers. Go for a walk. Do some work."
He laughed. "Right. That's all Sundays ever seem to be."
"Any other suggestions?"
He hesitated, then: "You want to come round to visit?"
"Sure. Where, when?"
"My place. About two?"
He gave me details of how to find where he lived. It wasn't too far from me. Probably walking distance. We swapped mobile numbers, and then headed out for a Tube. We were taking the same train, though he got off a stop earlier.
I flopped down in a chair when I got back, thinking about the evening. It was difficult to know what to make of it all. At school ... well, what we'd done hadn't been deeply serious or anything like that. But it was interesting that he had been at that party - although, like me, he hadn't cared for that scene. And the invitation to visit - that could mean anything or nothing. He might just have wanted company - he sounded fairly lonely. On the other hand ... well, I'd find out in the morning.
Clutching my A to Z, I set off the next day to find Harry. It took fifteen minutes or so by the route I'd outlined along the winding Battersea streets. I arrived, rang a bell, and heard his footsteps.
"Hi, come in," as he held the door open for me.
I followed him up the stairs.
"Nice place," as I stepped in. It was too - looked more expensive than my little pad, and that cost an arm and a leg. It was a bedsit, but nicely decorated, and with what looked like good furniture.
"Yeah, well. Coffee?"
I could smell real brewed coffee. He'd obviously gone to some trouble then.
He came back with two mugs. "Smells good," I told him.
"Yeah. Have a seat," indicating a sofa.
I sat down, and there was a moment or so's awkward silence. Then, gracefully, he settled himself on the floor nearby.
Slowly, rather haltingly, we began talking. Then, not looking at me, he said, "I'm sorry you had to leave the school like that."
I was surprised - he'd already said the same thing last night. "As I said, it wasn't your fault."
"That wasn't really what I was meaning."
"I mean, it wasn't as if we'd done anything anyway."
"Enough for Minette," I said dryly.
"But you know what I mean."
"I think so." He was silent for a minute or two, and then he looked up at me. "It's difficult to talk about these things."
"Inhibitions. Repressions. Middle class respectability. The English stiff upper lip. And all that."
He smiled slightly. "Suppose so."
"We never did talk much."
He looked slightly puzzled. "But I was always in your room talking to you."
"I don't mean that. When we were ... well, you know."
Again the faint smile. "Yeah - I suppose we didn't. And now it's your turn to be inhibited."
Partly because of who I was talking to. I didn't know how far I could go.
I shrugged. "Sometimes you don't need to talk. You just do. As we did then."
"Suppose. It just seemed easier then."
"Because we were all together in the sort of circumstance which made it easy to happen."
"Yes." He was silent again. "I hadn't done anything like that before. Haven't done it since."
"And living at home with my parents had much the same effect."
He looked up again and smiled. "Cramped your style?"
"Something like that."
"I really find things difficult at times. You know?"
"I think so."
"And it's even more difficult to talk about them."
"Do you want to talk about them?"
"I don't know."
"So you don't know what you want to do, and you don't know whether you want to talk about it?"
He smiled ruefully. "Sounds silly, doesn't it?"
"In some ways. Not in others. Often people don't know what they do want. And don't know how to articulate their feelings."
"Yeah, feelings. One thing we're not taught how to talk about."
"Don't talk if you don't want to."
"Is that easier?"
I shrugged. "It might be."
He moved, sat up, came to sit with his back up against the side of the sofa, his head six inches from my knee, so that I was looking down at the top of his head. He reached up a hand, and I took it. He squeezed my hand, then released it.
"It's just nice being here with some one else," he said softly. "Well, with you. You don't mind, do you?"
"Just ... sitting here."
"No, I don't."
And there we sat. As before, thirty seconds can seem an eternity.
After a while he reached out a hand again, and I took hold. He tugged at it, and I slid down on the floor next to him. There we sat, side by side, and eventually he laid his head on my shoulder. There we sat, as the short winter's day outside darkened to dusk and to darkness. I suppose, as we had done before, we both dozed as we sat there, until he suddenly jerked into consciousness and sat up.
"Ooof. I fell asleep there. Sorry."
Then he got up, putting on a lamp, closing the curtains. I looked at my watch. Seven o'clock. I stood up as well. We looked at each other across the room.
"I'd better be going," I said.
Again the slight smile. I wasn't going to try to analyse it. "Yeah. OK." He came closer. "You've got my mobile number?"
"Thanks for coming round. I'm sorry I wasn't better company."
"You were the best company I could have had."
That did embarrass him. He flushed slightly and looked down at the floor. "Yeah, well."
I thought I'd better make the move to go. There would be other times. I made for the door, and he followed. I opened it and turned back to him.
He said nothing, but moved forward and gave me a brief hug, then releasing me and standing back. I smiled and made my way down the stairs.
He rang me Wednesday afternoon.
"Hi. What are you up to afterwards?"
"Seminar five until six. Then I'm free."
"Sure. When where?"
He gave me directions for a bar roughly midway between us.
"Fine. I'll be there no later than six thirty."
And I walked in to see him already there. He waved, and I went to get a glass of wine from the bar. I sat down and we chatted - he seemed so much more relaxed this time. Then, when we were on to our second glass, someone came over, glass in hand, pulling out a stool from under the table, sitting down. Harry looked a little embarrassed.
Sam, leather jacketed, short cropped hair, looked across at me.
"This is Charles," said Harry. "We know each other from a couple of years back."
I nodded at him. I was getting vibes. Sam switched his attention back to Harry. "So, what have you been up to?"
The conversation limped along for the next ten minutes or so. I sat and watched as Sam directed most of his conversation to Harry. Then Sam stood up, making off for the loo.
Harry leaned forward. "Sorry about that." Then: "Sam is the guy who invited me to the party on Saturday."
A light bulb went off in my head. "Ah. That's why I've been getting death stares."
Harry giggled. "What do you mean?"
"Jealousy, jealousy. Hence the death stares."
"Shall we ditch him?"
"What do you mean?"
Harry picked up his glass, drained it, seized my arm. "Come on."
He whisked me outside. Walking down the street, I told him: "That was cruel."
"Yeah, maybe. But he's been coming on to me for the past two weeks. And he's a creep."
"Hey, look, his mother loves him."
"Yeah, and she's probably the only one. Let's try in here."
We stopped for more drinks. By the fourth glass of wine I was feeling woozy, and cried halt. Harry seemed disappointed.
"Not for me. And I wouldn't if I were you."
"Spoilsport." He almost pouted.
"Come on, Harry. Time to go home."
I dragged him out of the bar and to the Tube station.
"I don't want to go home."
"You'll be grateful to me in the morning."
"Stop being so bloody grown up."
As we sat in the carriage his head drooped with tiredness, then fell onto my shoulder. We were attracting looks. I shook him awake when his station arrived.
He seized my hand. "Come back with me."
I sighed. "I'll help you home."
We stopped outside his front door. "Come up," he said, putting his arms round my neck.
"Why not?" almost pouting again.
"Because you're drunk," I said bluntly.
I sighed. "So if I'm going to come up with you to your flat, I would prefer you sober."
He stood back a little, staring into my eyes.
"You're a bastard. But I love you still."
I gave him a shove. "Go on. Go up and go to bed."
I had a call from him in the early afternoon of the day after.
"Sorry about last night."
"Nothing to say sorry about. Did you make your morning lectures?"
I almost laughed. "Serves you right."
"Go out somewhere?"
"I promise not to drink too much."
"I'll hold you to that."
"You can hold me to anything."
"OK, Saturday then. I'll give you a ring before. OK?"
The call I got from him was on Friday evening about seven. But it wasn't quite the call I was expecting.
"Charles? Can you get over here as soon as you can?"
"Sam's turned up unannounced, and I think he has designs on my body! I'm making this call from the loo."
I laughed. "Coming to your rescue."
"Thanks. Make it quick, will you?
The thin drizzle made me hurry all the more. Twelve minutes from the call to ringing his doorbell. Harry appeared, looking relieved.
"Thanks for coming. We've got to get rid of him."
"Don't worry. I have a cunning plan."
I followed him up the stairs. Sam was sitting there, glowering at me when he came in. I was clearly unwelcome, so I put on my best bright and breezy manner.
"Hi. Sorry to burst in you like this, but I've something to tell Harry which is rather urgent. It's about Olivia - she's my sister," I added for Sam's benefit.
Harry took that in his stride, and did his best to look interested. I turned to him.
"She couldn't get hold of you, so asked me to call and tell you it was all a false alarm."
"False alarm?" said Harry.
"Yes - the pregnancy test came back negative."
The expressions on each of their faces was worth seeing. Fortunately Harry recovered in time and collapsed into a chair.
"Thank God for that. I'd been so worried."
I turned to Sam. "She really wanted Harry to know that, since they were both fairly worried - understandably."
Sam looked at me and at Harry. "Your sister?" I nodded. "Your sister and Harry?"
"Yeah - they've been together for ages. Didn't he tell you?"
"No - he didn't say anything at all like that."
He stared at Harry, who looked down. I could see he was trying hard to keep a straight face.
"I think this calls for a celebration drink, don't you, Harry?"
"Oh, sure, yes. How about you, Sam?"
Sam looked at me, looked at Harry again. "You've a sister?" he asked.
I nodded. "Olivia. She and Harry ... well. They go back a long way."
He still looked unbelieving. I looked straight back at him. "A drink then?" I asked.
"No, thanks." He stood up. "Well, I'll leave you to celebrate." He seemed lost for words.
"I think you might have got the wrong idea about Harry," I told him.
"I'll show you down," said Harry.
His face when he came back was a picture. He collapsed into a chair in howls of laughter. "Pregnancy test! Where did you get that one?"
"My cunning plan."
"I nearly gave it all away by cracking up."
He subsided, then said: "Thanks for that. Things were becoming ... well, awkward."
He looked at me. "Do you want that drink after all?"
"As a thank you for getting rid of Sam."
"He didn't hang around."
"He was really coming on to me. And it was unpleasant."
He disappeared, and came back with a bottle of wine and two glasses. In silence he poured out the wine, passed a glass over, and raised his.
I raised mine in turn, and took a sip. It was good wine.
I sat down on the sofa, and as before, he sat on the floor, leaning back closer to me. His hand went up, and I took it. He tugged, and I slid down on the floor next to him. We sipped the wine in silence for a few minutes, then he put the glass down and again leant his head on my shoulder. I put my arm round him.
We stayed there for a long time. Then: "It's so good being here with you." I gave him a slight squeeze. He took another sip of his wine, then asked quietly: "Charles?"
"Can we get into bed?"
"If you would like to."
He nodded and rose to his feet. It was an awkward moment, but then he moved over to the light switch, and the room was almost completely darkened other than a small lamp on his desk. He moved over to the bed, taking off his shirt, kicking off his shoes. I followed suit, and saw him climb in, still with his boxers on. I slid under the covers with him. Slowly, carefully, we twined our limbs round each other exactly as we had done two years before. His head on my chest, he breathed out a sigh. I found myself stroking his hair.
In this slow, strange courtship of ours, we lay under the bedcovers, not talking, but becoming re-acquainted with each other's bodies, until the warmth and peace lulled us to sleep.
I woke a long time later, feeling his hands moving over my back, my shoulders. I caressed him in turn, moving my hands over him, until inadvertently I touched him through his boxers. He gave a strangulated sigh, as I touched and caressed him again through the thin cotton material, his body becoming taut, his breath faster, until he shuddered as release came, and the cotton became soaked in his warmth.
He collapsed on to his back, gasping for breath, until slowly his breathing steadied. Then slowly he peeled off his boxers, wiping himself clean, and throwing them into a corner of the room. I saw him naked for the first time. Then he rolled towards me, and I lifted up my body as he tugged at my boxers, then stroking me, grasping me, and bringing me to my own climax. As, in my turn, I lay back gasping, he reached for a box of tissues. He lay next to me, wiping me clean, putting a hand on my stomach, then, for the first time ever, leaned over to touch his lips to mine. I pulled him on top of me with what strength I had left.
And again we drifted off into our doze, until the sky was beginning to lighten. Then it was time for me to explore his body again, to give him pleasure. And afterwards, in the first words for hours, he whispered: "Thank you."
I stroked his hair as his head lay on the pillow. "I've wanted to do that for a very long time."
"I know; I'm sorry."
He fumbled for words. "I knew I wanted to as well, but I was too scared."
"I'm glad we have." He looked at me. "It's just - well, you know that party?"
"I saw all those people, and I didn't want to be like that. I suppose if I admit it, I'm gay, or I wouldn't be here with you now. But I don't want to find people staring at me as I walk down the street, like some sort of freak show."
"I know. But it's not easy. The two of us - if we were walking down the street - could we hold hands? Without attracting stares from people?"
"Could you take me home to meet your parents?"
He sat up. "Not because it was you. Because of me."
"Meaning if I took anyone home, they'd flip."
"Because ... because they like to think of me as a nice normal boy who's going to bring a girl home and marry her and have lots of grandchildren. And I feel like a nice normal boy, but I know that if I did bring you home, it would be hell. The embarrassment, the feeling that even if they did let you stay, that they'd be hating it."
"So what's the answer?"
"There isn't one," I told him. "Well, there is, actually."
"That we forget those outside, and wrap ourselves in this nice cosy bed."
He smiled. "I suppose."
And to make the point, I pulled the covers over our heads, and leaned forward over him, enclosing his head in my arms, and putting my lips on his.
Friday night led to the weekend - and we had nowhere else to go, nothing else that needed doing. We spent our time drifting in and out of bed, coming up for air and food as and when we needed it. By Sunday evening we slowly surfaced back to real life.
"So much for the work I was going to get done this weekend."
"Me too," admitted Harry. "I'm going to have to burn the midnight oil on my essay."
I slowly put my clothes back on. I didn't want to leave our warm cosy nest for the streets outside, but I had to. We wrapped our arms around each other, then I tore myself away and headed down the stairs. My last glimpse of Harry was his silhouette, standing at the top of the stairs with the light behind him.
I dragged my mind back to work as I walked briskly along the London streets. Love was wonderful, but a great killer of time.
And it was difficult to settle down to any kind of work. I was too relaxed, too sated, to give my texts their proper attention. I headed in on Monday morning knowing I was woefully unprepared for the week ahead.
During the day we exchanged text messages on our phones. They were trite enough, I suppose, but words can be trite.
"Miss u 2."
Love reduced to blocky text on a little dim screen. And on Tuesday morning: "When do u finish?"
"Meet u Dan's Wine Bar."
Not that we stayed long in the bar. One drink, and we were on the Tube, heading south. By five we were tucked up once more. And that meant getting up at six in the morning, to go home, change and get the books I needed. The same on Thursday. But on Friday we were able to relax, with another weekend ahead of us.
It was Saturday morning when Harry made the suggestion. "Why don't you move in?"
I looked at him in surprise. Things seemed to be happening so fast. For once, he was ahead of me.
"Is it a good idea?"
"What do you mean?" He was bringing in coffee, dressed in a towelling robe.
"Would it work? Being together all the time? Maybe getting on each other's nerves?"
He sat at the table and looked across at me. "I've no idea. Is it worth trying?"
I sat back and looked at him. After all, one of the things about coming to London was to live as I liked. Although I hadn't expected something as overwhelming as this. And I hadn't expected Harry to come out with such a suggestion. I realised I was still thinking of him as that uncertain youth I had met only a week or two ago.
"A trial period? See how it goes?"
He looked round. "Fitting two of us in here might be a bit of a squeeze though. We'd have to share the desk for a start. Or I could use the table."
"Sleeping two in that bed - it'd be cosy."
"Who said anything about sleeping?" he asked.
"Hey, I need my sleep."
"Whenever I pull the clothes off you, we seem to end up snoozing together anyway."
We were still content with wrapping ourselves around each other for hours on end.
"Let's do it then." He put down his cup.
I blinked. "Now?"
Harry dug out an empty case, and we walked the mile or so to my flat. It seemed cold and unwelcoming now. I looked round, and started sorting out what to take. The contents of my wardrobe went into Harry's case. Then I started packing a washbag, books, laptop, CDs, until I had as much as I could carry.
"We'll come back tomorrow for some more stuff," I said.
Then, laden as we were, we made our way back. To Harry's flat. To our flat. It seemed unreal.
And when we arrived, we had to unpack, to try and fit all my gear in with Harry's. That was no mean feat. But, at the end of it all, we looked round. The place was different yet the same. I looked around at it, then at Harry.
"This is unreal."
He nodded slowly. "Unreal? I don't know."
I suppose having come from boarding schools, we were rather more used to living on top of each other. Yet it seemed unreal again that afternoon when we sat down to work on our essays at each end of the desk, our laptops open, being able to look across at each other from time to time, stretching our legs under the table so that our feet were intertwined. But we immersed ourselves in our work, catching up on the studies we had neglected, breaking off for a coffee, then getting back down to things, happy in each other's company. And at the end of several hours' work, to prepare a meal and wash it up, then to walk back in and stand by the bed, slowly unbuttoning each other's clothes. To fall into that bed, and not to have to worry about the domestic trivia of when to get up, what I would need for the morning.
And sharing a bathroom, with two toothbrushes in the mug, two razors on the windowsill increased the feeling of domesticity. I suppose that we were even quieter than we had been before: we didn't need to talk - just being with each other was enough.
And on the Monday morning we set off on the Tube together, going to our lectures and seminars, catching the train back again, knowing that I could walk in, and settle down, even if Harry was not back yet.
When the end of the week came round, there was no talk of ending our "trial". I had moved everything out of my flat. I still hesitated about letting it go - that seemed a step too far.
From the simply practical point of view, it was better. I had all my books to hand. It was a bit cramped on that desk with two of us, but we could sit down and work as we wished in the evening. And even if I had finished my work, and Harry was still struggling with his essay, I could sit on the sofa and read. We hardly ever went out. We didn't need to. It sounds corny, it sounds clichéd, but we were happy together in each other's company.
Until one Saturday afternoon. I was deep in a book, Harry working away on his laptop, when the doorbell rang. We looked at each other in surprise.
"Sam?" I said jokingly.
Harry gave me a dirty look. The bell rang again.
"I'd better go and see who it is," he said, getting up and disappearing down the stairs. I heard him open the door, then conversation. Footsteps on the stairs. Then, to my astonishment, a smart middle aged lady came in, Harry behind her, consternation written all over his face.
I hastily stood up. "Good afternoon."
She looked at me slightly enquiringly.
"Mother, this is Charles - a friend of mine. We were at school together."
"Charles?" I nodded and we shook hands. She turned to Harry. "I don't remember you mentioning Charles before."
"No? We were in Hawke together."
"I only came to the school in the Sixth form," I told her.
"Ah." She turned back to Harry. "Sorry to drop in unannounced like this, but I'd lost your mobile number. And I was up in London seeing your aunt - Margaret."
"Right - yes. Tea?"
"That would be nice."
She sat down on the sofa, I hovered, then took one of the chairs from the desk, and swung it to face the room. She gazed round, then looked slightly uncertain. I could see her taking in the two laptops on the desk.
"You're doing law too?"
"No - History at Kings."
I started talking about the course - not that she'd be the slightest bit interested, but to try to keep her attention. Harry came back with the tea, and we made small talk.
Then she said. "London is such a grimy place. Can I freshen up?"
"Of course," and Harry showed her to the bathroom.
"Do you want me to go?" I asked, as soon as he came back. Not that I had anywhere to go to - I'd have ended up going back to my cold empty flat, or just walking the streets.
And then he looked towards the bathroom - and I remembered ... two toothbrushes, two razors, two washbags, two towels ...
She came back and sat down, saying, "That's better. London is such a mucky place." Then, looking at me: "Charles Hampson?"
I nodded - then remembered Harry had introduced me just as Charles. I looked at her, uncertain.
"Hmm. That's what it said on the name tape on the towel in the bathroom."
There was utter silence, which stretched out for a long time. Then the moment passed when we could have tried to pass it off.
"Harry," she said.
"Have you something to tell me?"
Harry was beetroot red.
"What do you mean?"
"Two towels. Two razors. Two toothbrushes." She waved her hand towards the desk. "Two laptops." She paused. "One bed."
Harry looked down at his hands.
"Harry?" she asked quietly.
"Have you something to tell me?" she asked again.
He looked across to me, then back to her. Then his eyes went down.
"Yes - I suppose."
She paused, gazing at each of us in turn. I suppose it was as much our reaction as finding the two towels which gave the game away. "Is this what I think it might be?"
She closed her eyes. Harry looked across at me, but I was struck dumb. At least we hadn't been in bed.
She opened her eyes again and looked at me. "Well, you'd better tell me something about yourself."
How do you answer that one? "Well, I'm Charles Hampson, as you know from my towel, and I was at school with Harry. We bumped into each other some weeks ago at a party ... and I suppose things went from there."
She carried on looking at me for a minute or so, then said: "Things went on from there?"
I looked across to Harry, but I think he was too distressed to be of any help.
"Yes, Mrs Collins. You don't really want the exact details, do you?"
She bit her lip. "I suppose not." Then she looked over to Harry, who was staring down at his hands. He was obviously fairly distraught.
"I'm sorry you had to find out this way, Mother."
Everyone was silent. She finished her tea and put the cup down. "Well, this probably isn't the time to ask you too many more questions. I'd better go and give you time to sort yourself out."
She stood up, and we followed. She gathered her bag and things and turned to me. "I don't know quite what to say, Charles. And obviously nor do you." She turned back to Harry, and they both went downstairs. I could hear them talking for a minute or so before the door slammed.
Harry came back looking shattered. He didn't say a word. I stood there feeling pretty useless and helpless. He sat down and put his head in his hands, then looked across to me. I spread my hands silently. He sat back, eyes closed. For lack of anything else to do, I sat down and stared sightlessly ahead.
"Do you want me to go?" I asked, eventually.
He looked at me, expressionless. "Bit late now. That won't solve anything."
If I hadn't got all my things here, I might well have gone there and then, given the state Harry was in. But it would mean packing a bag, and leaving most of my stuff here.
We didn't say much for the rest of the evening. We got something to eat. Harry tried to work on his essay. I went back to my book. About nine, Harry went for a shower, and climbed into bed. I noted he still had his boxers on.
I had my shower, and slipped into bed. He lay facing away from me, facing the wall. With both of us in even quite a large single bed, it was difficult to avoid contact. He said nothing, and slowly I drifted off to sleep.
I woke fairly early, and lay there looking at the slowly greying window. It looked as though moving in might have been a bad idea after all. This wasn't my flat, and that had been brought home forcibly to me yesterday. I lay thinking about what to do next. I thought I should get up and go for a walk, and think about it. I swung my feet out of the bed, then Harry's hand touched my shoulder. He must have been awake too.
I made an excuse. "Just going for a pee."
I needed to anyway. I slipped out of bed and went to the bathroom. I found Harry waiting to use the bathroom himself when I came out, and went back, staring out of the window. What to do now? Get dressed and make tracks? But before I'd decided, Harry was back as well. He put his hand on my shoulder again. I turned and looked at him.
"Come back to bed," he said quietly.
I followed him, and he settled down on his back, staring at the ceiling. Then:
"Yes. Yesterday was all rather a shock. That's why - well, I know I've been ignoring you. It's not you - not your fault, it's me."
He rolled over to look at me.
"You know, up to now, I'd kept my life in two separate compartments. And yesterday, that fell apart."
"I know what you mean."
"it's not just that - well, I suppose I might have told my parents when I was ready. But I wasn't ready. And for Mum to find out like that - it wasn't very pleasant." I nodded. His hand came back onto my shoulder. "So, as I said, it's not you - it's me. I'm just trying to adjust to all of this."
"Do you regret it - us, I mean?"
"No - yes." I raised my eyebrows. "I don't regret you, us, together like this. I've been so happy these last few weeks. Just us together. Coming back and finding you here. Doing things together. And," - I swear he blushed - "being in bed together.
"But yesterday, it all seemed so - sordid, I suppose. I don't know how I would have told Mum and Dad anyway - being a coward, I'd probably have written to them about it. But I didn't think I'd need to - not yet, anyway. So I hadn't thought it through, and I didn't know what to say to Mum yesterday."
"That's OK. It was awkward for both of us."
"Yeah." He looked at me again. "You were thinking of going, weren't you?"
I said nothing for the moment, and my silence was an answer in itself. Then: "Not because of us. I don't want to leave you. But can we make this work?"
He lay back again. "God knows."
"You were saying you just wanted to be an ordinary sort of person. But us living together like this - that's not ordinary. Not in the world that you and I come from."
"I know. That's the thing."
"So we do one of two things - either we don't live together, or if we do, we have to turn round to people and say - so what?"
"Yeah. But that's the difficult part. I suppose my parents expect something from me that I can't deliver. And I want something they may not accept."
"Do you think that might happen?"
"I honestly don't know."
I was my turn to lie back and look at the ceiling. "Well, they know now. I think we'll just have to wait and see."
"Yeah - I suppose."
We were both pretty subdued that day. We compensated by getting on with our work, our essays, our reading. That way we didn't have to talk about it. But that didn't mean we weren't thinking about it.
I suppose we were more comfortable with each other when we went to bed that night. We ended up tucked up around each other as before, but that sensual edge was missing. But we clung together for mutual comfort.
Monday was easier - we had to get out and go into college. And when we'd come back, and done some shopping, and had something to eat, and a glass of wine, there wasn't much time to talk about things before we went to bed. And made love for the first time since Friday night. Those early carefree days had gone for good, I realised now. But afterwards we clung together in a way we hadn't needed to before.
We found the letter when we got back on Tuesday evening. Harry scooped it up with the rest of the mail, then saw who it was from. The handwriting meant nothing to me. But he ripped open the envelope, and scanned the letter, then turning back and reading it more slowly, more carefully. Then he passed it over to me.
'Dear Harry', it began.
'I'm sorry I didn't stay longer on Saturday, but I know I took you and Charles unawares. It wasn't easy for me and I know it can't have been easy for you.
'I've been talking to your father, and we think the best thing would be for you and Charles to come for lunch on Sunday. 11 o'clock? By then I think we'll have had to chance to think things over.
Harry was looking at me with a mixture of amazement and apprehension. I gave him back the letter.
"So," he said, eventually, "what do we do?"
As neutrally as I could, I asked: "What do you think we should do?"
He looked at the letter. "At least they haven't thrown a wobbly."
"No - it seems a very sane letter."
"Do you want to go?" he asked, looking at me very directly.
"It's your call - I'll go along with whatever you decide to do."
He looked back at the letter. "This is it, I suppose. I can't fool myself any longer, can I?"
"So - what do we do?"
"You're sure you want to go?"
I shrugged. "It's going to happen sooner or later, so ..."
"Yeah, OK." He looked at the letter once more. "OK, I'll write back, say yes."
Getting the letter didn't exactly clear the air, but it helped. Mind you, although I was willing enough to go along to meet his parents, the idea of being brought along as 'Harry's boyfriend' didn't really appeal. And there was something else. Later on, when we were sitting eating, I asked him.
"Do we tell them about school?"
Harry looked at me, not realising what I was meaning for a moment. Then: "Tricky one."
"We can skate over it, or we can be completely honest. Minette didn't tell them?"
He shook his head. "No. Reckoned it was all your fault - kept on going on about how you'd corrupted me, and so he didn't want to tell my parents. I didn't argue."
"Well, what would you have done?"
"Exactly the same."
"So what do we do?"
Harry thought about it. "Nothing unless they ask. They ask, we tell. Otherwise..."
One problem replaces itself with another. As my father would say, we'd cross that bridge when we came to it.
I think that not having been rejected by his parents had its effect on Harry. That evening, he pulled me down onto the bed even before either of us had taken any clothes off. And then he started. Button by button. Well, we alternated really, one of my buttons for one of his. Until we were down to our boxers. Which took a long time. A long long time.
Then he leaned forward, taking my wrists, pinning me to the bed again, leaning over me. It was, I suppose, a deliberate recreation of what we had done two years ago. But this time he leaned over further, his face closer and closer to mine, before kissing me gently, harder. Then he leaned back.
"I need you, Charles."
I suppose it was the nearest either of us had come to saying 'I love you'.
I tugged a hand free and brought his head down again, kissing him back again.
"And I need you."
But the invitation also meant that we had the week in front of us, knowing the ordeal that was waiting for us. Saturday was pretty subdued too. We didn't get up until nearly midday, then went out shopping, taking our time over it, treating it as some sort of displacement activity. And in the same way, we prepared a meal which needed some time and care. And we were fairly tense when it came to bedtime.
So in the morning we got ready. Choose our clothes carefully. Neat but not flamboyant. Not that either of us were anyway. Then to Waterloo and the train. A ten minute walk from the station. We stopped outside a large redbrick house, a neat garden out at the front. Down the drive to the front door. Harry rang the bell.
"Seems odd ringing the front door bell of your own home," he said. But it seemed better than barging in directly.
We stood a careful, neutral distance from each other as Harry's mother opened the door.
"Hi," said Harry, and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
"Mrs Collins," and absurdly we shook hands.
It was a pleasant enough house - the hall was well decorated, carpeted, pictures on the wall. We followed her through to the front room, and I was introduced to Harry's father. Again we shook hands. Was asked to sit down. We choose separate chairs. Sherry was produced.
"I'll just go and see how lunch is getting on," she said, disappearing.
I was now to be checked out by Harry's father.
Gently but firmly, one question after the other. Was I enjoying my course at University? What was it? What did I want to do afterwards? Where did I come from? Brothers and sisters? Throughout all this Harry sat staring out of the window.
I couldn't see much of Harry in either of his parents, although since Mr Collins had gone quite grey, it made it more difficult to spot a likeness. Then his mother came back, and the pressure eased a little.
A good lunch - melon, roast beef, an apple pie. Wine with the meal. Fairly formal, and the conversation still stilted. Then Harry was deputed to help with the washing up, and Mr Collins took me back to the front room with our coffee. I knew what was coming next. A little more small talk, then:
"Mary tells me you two are living together," he said. Again, we were all doing our best to be neutral, and civilised about the whole thing.
Carefully, I said: "That's right."
He looked at me. I couldn't make out any particular reaction. Then: "Your idea or his?"
I paused, trying to be careful with my words. "For me to move in - that was Harry's idea initially."
He nodded. "When was that?"
"Four weeks ago."
"When did you meet?"
"I bumped into Harry at a party not long after term began. We went for a drink afterwards - we didn't care for the party."
"Why was that?"
"It was a gay party - and neither of us liked it there." His eyebrows went up. I had to explain. "It was - quite a flamboyant party. Brash, noisy. Not our scene."
"And we went for a drink, and then again a few nights later, and so on."
I wasn't going to go into more detail than that.
He sat looking at me, then took a sip of coffee.
"Of course," he said, "Harry's eighteen now, and living away from home. His life is his own. But, if there's someone else involved," - what a careful way to put it - "then obviously we were interested. He is our son, after all. Although Mary did get something of a surprise when she called in that time."
"Understandably," I said.
"And we felt we wanted to know more about it, so ..."
Meaning he wanted to know what sort of pervert had got his hands on his son. No, perhaps I was being unfair. I was getting the full middle class civilised treatment. It could have been a lot worse - a lot, lot worse.
Carefully, I said: "I can appreciate it must have been a shock. We weren't expecting the visit, and I suppose it was an unpleasant surprise for Mrs Collins. But then we hadn't got that far in thinking through some of the implications of ... our being together."
"With your careful choice of words, it's you who should have been the lawyer."
In his terms, that was a joke, but one that did imply some degree of acceptance. But I knew I was never really going to be welcome there - accepted, maybe, but not welcomed.
Then Harry and his mother came back.
"Do you want to show Harry your room, dear?" she asked.
This was half time. Both parties retire for consultations. We went upstairs, but there wasn't a great deal of point in my seeing his room, given that we'd spent the last four weeks living together.
When we got upstairs, Harry looked at me, then leaned forward, his arms round me, his head on my shoulder. Quite uninhibited for him, in his own home.
Then: "How did it go?" he asked.
"Yeah." He went over to the window and stared out sightlessly. "I got all those embarrassing questions from Mum. At least she didn't ask what we did in bed together. But almost everything else. About how we met, and so on."
"Yeah. Much the same with me and your father."
"Should we compare notes? Make sure our stories agree?"
I shrugged. "Not much point. Either they go with it or not. I don't think one or two white lies will make any difference one way or the other."
He took my hand and we sat on the edge of the bed together. He looked at me, a slightly mischievous look on his face.
"I used to have my nightly wank in this bed, thinking about you, and what we might have done if Minette hadn't come in."
I laughed. "I'm flattered."
"Then I met you at the party. That was a bit of a giveaway, I suppose, for both of us."
"Although - I mean, I didn't make a grab for you. I mean, doing it in your study was one thing, and my nightly fantasies another thing, but the thought of inviting you back for the night seemed too much to take. That's why I was so slow."
"I wonder what they're saying downstairs."
"It's all been very - civilised."
"Civilised, yeah. But they don't like the idea."
"Are you surprised?"
"Suppose not." He stood up, tugging me to my feet. "Come on. Back into the fray."
More talk, then tea. They had thawed somewhat, when they had found I wasn't some kind of monster, or screaming queen, or whatever, that had corrupted and despoiled their son. I could see them making some sort of re-adjustment, treating me as if I was just Harry's 'friend', and not his lover. We had both been careful about displays of affection - no touching, a careful distance apart, and so on.
By five we were ready to go. Noises of farewell, you must come again another time, and so on. I shook hands with both of them as I left. Remember the middle class niceties of manner. Then we were walking down the drive back to the station.
"So we survived," said Harry.
"Politeness was the key. Be polite to them, and they have to be polite back. Or cause a scene."
Harry smiled. "Yeah. I suppose. I wonder what they're saying to each other now."
"We'll never find out."
"What a relief it's all over."
"As bad as you were expecting?"
He hesitated. "Yes - no."
"Yeah right. Not as bad as it could be - no rows or anything. Just all those embarrassing questions."
"Yeah. I got very carefully grilled by your father."
"In what way?"
"Well, he didn't quite get as far as asking me my intentions, but he was checking out that if his son had to take up a boyfriend, whether he was acceptable or not. Could hold his knife and fork properly, and so on."
"Yeah. Imagine if it had been Sam."
"He might not have passed the knife and fork test," I agreed.
"Nor any of the others."
"And did I?" I asked teasingly.
He looked at me straightfaced. "Not many."
"And I love you too."
"But I do."
"Love you too."
The first time either of us had said that. But we'd arrived at the station.
"When we get home, I'll show you how much," I whispered.
"All you want is my body!"
"And that too."
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