I suppose the visit to Harry's parents did clear the air for us. He hadn't wanted it to happen as it did, but once out of the way, it meant one less thing for us to worry about. In many ways, we recovered that carefree attitude we'd had when we'd first started, made us more relaxed again. And it also brought us closer together in a different sort of way, like a baptism of fire.
But by this time, the end of term was approaching. Having our own place meant that we could stay on in London after lectures and the like had finished. I knew my parents weren't expecting me back at any particular time, and I had some more research to be getting on with down in Kew. But it was nice to spend a few days together with nothing special to do, with no commitments, having time to ourselves to do what we liked. Idle days in the flat, rising late after slow, gentle love.
Pleasant though this was, Harry eventually decided he'd better be dutiful, go and spend a few days with his parents. I had plenty of work to keep me busy, so stayed on in the flat. He rang after a day or so.
"Hi - how things at home?" I asked
"Fine. It's weird, though. It's as if it never happened - they haven't said a word about it."
"None at all."
"Perhaps they think that if I'm home for the holidays, and away from your evil influence, that it'll all be OK again."
"Well, they're going to get a shock. Another two days, and I'm coming back. Your work been going well?"
"Yeah - I've got a lot done."
Harry was going to come back to the flat so we could spend a few more days together before we both disappeared off for Christmas. I'm not sure how well his parents would take that, but that was for him and them to sort out. It was good to have a little bit more time with each other before the holidays.
So after that, each of us spent Christmas and New Year with our parents. I got on well enough with mine, but I can't say that we were that close. But we got through the fortnight well enough, before I was back on the train to London. And I was back in the flat before Harry.
Because it was time for another decision. There seemed little point in paying rent for two flats. When Harry came back, we decided to drop my flat, and go halves on paying for this one - going halves on everything, in effect. And that saved us a lot of money. I told my parents that I'd moved, but not that Harry was paying for half the rent of the new address. And Harry didn't tell his parents either. Perhaps we should have done, given the allowances we were each receiving, but we were hard up enough not to. Although the life of simple domesticity meant that we saved quite a bit of money. We didn't go out much, even if we did spend money on bottles of wine, and feeding ourselves quite well.
My research project was shaping up well. My professor was working in the same sort of area, and he saw the chance to kill two birds with the one stone. I had done the research, copied out all the relevant papers, and had put them into some sort of coherent narrative. He saw the chance to combine it with some of his own work and expand it into a paper for a journal.
For me, that would be fantastic. It would mean a paper on which my name would appear - together with someone who had quite a reputation. He would have a lot of letters after his name, and I would have none. But my name would be linked with his. I could see the way his work was going, and spent a weekend roughing out the paper. He was happy with the result, and we quickly smoothed it out into the real thing.
It was early March when he got the letter back from the journal, accepting the paper. I got a message to go and see him in his study. He was a big bright man, full of energy and stamina. I had come to realise that the higher you got in that sort of hierarchy, the more energy you needed. Or, conversely, those with the most energy got the most done. And, to reach the top, you have to be single minded as well.
He looked up as I came in, and gave me a smile.
"Well, they seem happy with the paper, Charles. They're going to go ahead and publish."
He smiled at my enthusiasm. "You need to go through all the references now, check them out, make sure they're right. You happy to do that?"
"Yes indeed." I looked at him. "This might be routine to you, but it's something of a thrill for me."
"The first time your name goes on a paper. Yes, quite a moment. And certainly when you're an undergraduate with no letters after his name." He paused. "You want to go into research full time?"
"Nothing I'd like more."
"I rather get that impression. Well, we ought to celebrate your first time into print. My wife and I are having a few people round for drinks on the weekend after next. Would you like to join us?"
"That's very kind."
"Saturday evening from about seven. I'll tell you how to find the place. Is there anyone you'd like to bring with you?"
I wasn't sure whether that was a routine pleasantry. After all, undergraduates were hardly going to be married yet, with a wife or partner to bring along. And, of course, there was another difficulty. I hesitated. "Maybe. Could I let you know?"
"Of course. No problem. Now, as I said, I want you to go through each of the references again and check them out. Pages, dates, all the rest of it."
I gave the news of the paper to Harry when I got home.
"Hey, wow. Name in print - congratulations. Where's the wine?"
He opened up a bottle and we toasted the success of the paper. "The first of many," he said.
We sipped at the wine. Then I told him of the invitation to drinks at the Fyler's. "He asked if I wanted to bring anyone along."
Harry didn't quite get it at first. "What do you mean?"
"Wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, significant other - whatever."
"Oh." The penny dropped.
"So - want to come?"
He sat staring at me. "You mean as ..."
"Boyfriend, partner, significant other - whatever."
"Oh." He sat digesting that idea. It was, I suppose, another defining moment - the first time we were together to the outside world.
I shrugged. "Up to you. Entirely."
He thought about it more. Then: "Can I let you know?"
And that night, in bed, in the dark, he said suddenly, "I'll come."
"Yeah." Then I could hear the smile in his voice. "So how will you introduce me?"
"Yeah. But what else?"
"Why not just - Harry?"
"I suppose." He lay thinking about it. "Why not?"
"And watch for the liberal reactions?"
"Something like that."
So, a few days later, I returned to Fyler's office, disk in hand.
"The paper complete. All references checked out."
"Good." He held out his hand for the disk. "Got a back up?"
"On the hard disk on my laptop, and on another floppy in a drawer at home."
"Good. So, drinks next week. You OK? Bringing anyone?"
"If I may."
"Of course." He reached for a pen and paper to make a note. "What's her name?"
His hand hovered over the paper and he looked at me, slightly taken aback. I looked back, expressionless. Then he carried on: "Right - Harry Collins. Good. Any time from seven." He passed over another slip of paper. "Directions and a map."
I told Harry of the moment later that evening. He gave a slightly rueful smile. "I suppose we'll have to get used to that sort of thing."
"Reckon so. And we won't always get the same liberal response we got from Fyler."
"I suppose so."
So, that Saturday evening, we headed up to North London. As you might have expected, the directions were both precise and accurate. We had to dawdle the last part to avoid arriving a little too early. The house was slightly set back from the road, in a prosperous looking suburb. Lights were shining from all the windows. We walked down the drive and rang the front doorbell. A woman - obviously Mrs Fyler - answered. Short, somewhat dumpy, rather frizzy hair gathered up.
"Come on in."
I gave her the box of chocs we'd brought.
"That's very kind - thank you very much. Now you are?"
"I'm Charles Hampson. And this is Harry Collins"
"OF course. Peter was telling me. Come through."
And in the large room there was a gaggle of other people already there. Deftly she introduced us into a group and left us. We found ourselves talking to a complete mixture of people, and it was beginning to become noisy. Then Fyler himself came over, and dragged me off to meet someone - another historian. I found myself in a deep discussion about the early days of the Wilson Government.
It was, I suppose, about half an hour or more before I found myself back on the fringes of the party. I looked round for Harry, saw him busy talking away to two or three people.
Mrs Fyler materialised by my elbow. She hardly came up to my shoulder, and I had to bend over to hear to hear her.
"So Peter tells me you would like to become an academic?"
"That's right. Nothing I'd like more."
"Not much money in it, you know."
"Oh, I realise that."
"We've been lucky - Peter wrote that book some years ago, and made his fortune that way."
She was referring to Fyler's book on the Fifties, which was not only a standard book for historians, but had also become a best seller, in the odd way that academic books can suddenly touch a popular nerve.
"Are you an academic too?" I asked.
She nodded. "English literature. But without Peter's popular touch. You know he'll use you?"
"In what way?"
"To do his research. He always has half a dozen research students beavering away for him. Find anything big, and he'll be in there."
I laughed. "Yes, I can see that. But it's a good way for me to make my name too."
"Sure. But don't let him elbow you out. You're ambitious?"
"Yes," I admitted.
"Then keep your goodies up your sleeve."
Harry looked over, saw us, and the smile flashed out. And as he caught my eye, there was one of those wonderful moments of unspoken communication. I could feel my heart wrench.
Then Mrs Fyler murmured, "How long have you two been together?"
"About six months."
Then to my horror, I saw her eyes filling with tears. "Mrs Fyler?" I asked anxiously.
She wiped the back of her hand across her face. "Pretend that didn't happen. You see, Peter and I had a son."
"He was gay. I suppose we always knew, but didn't say anything. Then he went off to University, and couldn't cope with it. He killed himself."
There was a moment of silence - one I couldn't fill.
"He looked rather like Harry, you know. But that was three years ago now. But when I saw the two of you ..."
"I'm sorry," I stammered. "I didn't know."
"No reason why you should," she said a little more briskly. "But bring him over."
I caught his eye again and gave a slight jerk of my head. He cottoned on, and extricated himself from the group he was with.
"Harry," she said, as he come up.
He bowed slightly. "Mrs Fyler."
"Margaret, please. So, you two have been together for six months now?"
He looked across at me and smiled. "That's right."
"What's it like to come to a party like this together? As Charles' friend?"
That was blunt. For a moment, Harry looked disconcerted. "It's the first time we have. But easier than I might have expected."
"We chose our venue carefully," I told her.
"Hmm. Relying on academic tolerance?"
"Something like that."
"A wise choice, I expect."
"Seems to have been."
Then she started questioning him. What was he doing? Law at LSE? What was that like? And so on. We talked for some time before Peter Fyler came over.
"Margaret. I've been watching you. You've been grilling these two young men."
"That's right," she confessed.
He looked at us. "Did you survive?" Harry nodded. "You're lucky. She can be ferocious if she finds people she doesn't take to."
"I've also being warning Charles about you."
"Oh? In what way?" he took another sip of wine. We'd all had a fair amount to drink by then - I felt I needed it to cope with all this.
"To make sure you don't lean on his research too much."
He smiled. "It's a quid pro quo - he does the work, I publish, but he gets his name on the paper. That's something you need if you're going to get a job in the academic world."
"I've realised that," I told him. "It might be called riding on your coat tails."
Amused, he looked at me. "That's right. Or symbiosis."
"But don't let it become parasitical," Margaret said. "I like these two young men too much for that."
"Well, my patronage will be useful to Charles. And I can see he's interested in the things I'm interested in."
"Which is why I applied to King's," I said.
He shrugged. "Fair enough."
Then Margaret took Harry's elbow. "We'd better mingle again. I'll introduce you to some more people."
Fyler and I were left together. Then he turned to me. "She told you about Robert?"
I nodded. "Yes."
"She seems to be looking on Harry as a substitute."
Cautiously, I asked: "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
He shrugged again. "She took it hard. Don't let her take the two of you over. But if she's on your side, she has a heart of gold. Things aren't always easy, in your position."
"As when you hesitated when I told you in your study that I was bringing Harry."
"Exactly. So this is the first time you're - 'out'?"
I nodded. "As I said to Margaret, we were relying on academic tolerance."
"Fair enough. OK, time to introduce you to someone else. More patronage."
As we walked back to the Tube station, Harry said: "Wow! She's a tough cookie."
"Not quite." And I told him the story of their son. That rocked him back, and he was silent for a minute or two. Then: "We've been very lucky, you know."
"In what way?"
"Things have been very easy for us. Getting together like that - it was much easier having known each other before. And my parents taking it so well."
"Up to a point."
"Maybe - but you know it could have been a lot worse." I had to admit that. "Now this. I suppose you could call it our 'coming out'."
"But a party of academics in North London was a fairly easy option. It won't always be like this."
"Maybe so. We'll see."
We arrived home close on midnight, but it was the weekend after all, so we were in no hurry. We took a shower together, enjoying rubbing the soap over each other, rinsing it off again. I think by now I knew Harry's body better than he did. Then warm, damp, and happy, we retired to bed.
Later, I said to Harry: "You know, I don't think we'd have ever got together so easily if it hadn't been for that time at school."
"I know. As I said, I was really scared of the very idea of going to bed with another bloke. But with you it was different."
"I have a confession to make," I told him.
"Before you and I did anything, I did once have a session with Ollie."
He laughed in the darkness. "Ollie! Everyone knew about him. About how if you wanted a good wank, he was your man. No one minded about him. And I have a confession too."
"So did I - with Ollie. A couple of times after you'd gone."
"How can I be? When I did too. And at least it was after I left."
He rolled over, on top of me, and wrapped his arms round my head. I could feel his breath on my cheek, his face close to mine.
"But now you're mine," he said softly.
I reached up, pulled his face to mine. "Yeah." And then my hands moved lower. "But this is mine too."
But things weren't always as easy as that. One night we were in a pub near Waterloo. We were, I suppose, being a bit too close. And someone who knew me came lurching up. He was obviously very drunk.
"It's Hampson," he sneered. "The professor's bum boy. And with another bum boy, I see."
I could feel Harry tensing up. My mind flashed back to school, to Jamie Burke, to similar words and similar attitudes. Then the oaf swirled his glass, so lager spilled forward over us both. Before I could stop him, Harry lashed out. The oaf was so drunk that he was taken unawares, sent sprawling, knocking over chairs and tables as he fell. The pub suddenly fell silent. I could see the manager making his way over.
"Out!" he said to the two of us, jerking his thumb.
The oaf was still thrashing around on the floor. I seized Harry's arm.
"Come on. It's not worth it."
The eyes of the whole pub were on us as we made our way to the door, then I could hear an excited buzz erupt as we came out into the cold night air. Harry was shaking as he tried to wipe the drink off himself.
I shook my head. "It had to happen sometime."
But we were both very quiet as we took the train home, reeking of the drink that had been thrown over us. Civilised North London might be one thing - the rest of the world was something else.
But we were to get another invitation to the civilised world - an invitation to a dinner party at the Fylers. I bumped into Peter Fyler a day or so later.
"Are you OK for next week?"
"Yes, indeed. And thank you for the invitation."
"No problem. Margaret was very taken with both of you." He hesitated, and was going to say something else, changed his mind, smiled and walked on.
So duly on the dot of seven we presented ourselves, rang the doorbell. Margaret ushered us in and introduced us round: two pairs of academics, two of lawyers. That made twelve of us altogether. Drinks first, with polite conversation. Then dinner. I found myself between two of the academics; Harry was further down next to Margaret.
I suppose the rest of the company might have found it slightly strange to have two students there, but despite that, the meal went well. The man on my right was from Oxford - he was working on the same sort of things as Peter Fyler, and I'd obviously been sat there as some sort of introduction. From time to time I was quizzed on the work I was doing, the paper with Peter. Some of the books he mentioned I hadn't read yet, but he steered the conversation onto topics I was familiar with.
Afterwards, we went back for coffee. I found myself talking to Margaret.
"So, work going well?" I nodded. "I see Peter put you next to Fitzroy."
"That's right. Working in the same sort of area."
She nodded, then looked over to where Harry was sitting. "He does remind me so much of Robert." She must have seen something on my face. "Don't worry - I don't see him as something of a surrogate. But you two do seem so happy together."
"You are both very lucky. Robert - well, we knew about him, although we never talked about it directly. He went off to university at Exeter. He wasn't terribly bright, but clever enough to do a Law degree." She paused. "It happened during his first term." I said nothing. "He formed an attachment to someone - or so we gather. And one night told him. He didn't get a very good response. In fact, I think there was a brawl.
"Anyway, later that night, he got out onto the roof of his hall of residence. It was five floors up. Well, you don't survive a fall like that."
I touched her hand. "I'm sorry." I could see the moisture in her eyes again.
"Well." She looked down. "I suppose we're over the worst of it, but it hit hard at the time. And then I look at Harry and he reminds me of Robert again. But the difference being that he's got you. Is it difficult, being a couple - do you get problems?"
"Some," I said, reminded of the night in the pub.
"Inevitable, I suppose. But you're always welcome here, you know. Both of you."
"That's very kind."
"In a sense, that's the least we can do. Do your parents know?"
I shook my head. "No. We're not very close, I'm afraid."
"And Harry's parents?"
I smiled ruefully. And told her of the unexpected visit by Harry's mother, and what had followed.
"Oh dear. And do they accept it?"
"Accept it? At one level, yes. I mean, it's something they can't deny. But they obviously don't care for it. They'll entertain me, but I'd never be welcome there."
"I see. I suppose coming as a shock like that ..." I nodded. "With Robert - well, I remember being on holiday when he was fifteen, with another family. They had a son of sixteen and a daughter of fourteen. I remember him following Ian around everywhere, and ignoring Lucy completely. Well, sometimes boys do a sort of hero worship thing with elder boys, but even so. That's usually when they're younger. And things didn't change as he got older." She stopped. "Sorry about this."
"No - go on if you want to."
"That's when we first suspected that he preferred boys. And then the posters he put up in his room. Not that we ever talked about it. Perhaps we should have done. I don't know. Too late to find out now."
"I'm sorry," I said awkwardly.
"Nothing we can do now," she said, practically. "Too late to do anything," she repeated. Then: "Come and help me take the coffee round."
When we were leaving, Margaret reached for my hand. "Sorry to go on at you like that."
I gave a gentle squeeze. "It's no problem. Talking often helps."
And later, back home, I told Harry of the conversation. He was quiet for a minute or two, then: "That could so easily be me, you know."
I put my arms round him. "Don't be silly."
But he repeated. "It could easily have been me. If I hadn't met you."
He buried his head in my neck, holding me tight. And I hugged him back.
And I knew if things had been different that it might well have been like that for Harry.
Idylls don't last, do they?
Ours didn't. It stopped on the night when I waited for Harry to come home. And waited. And still waited. Around eight, I rang him on his mobile, with no luck. I tried again at nine. Again, no answer. And at ten. By this time I really was worried. So, find the number of the local police station.
"Not home, you say? What time would you expect him?"
"And you are?"
"Right. And he's a student?"
I knew what would come next. Student - well, he could be on a night out, boozing in a pub. It would be difficult to explain exactly why I knew he was overdue.
"Yes. But I got a message from him earlier in the day definitely saying six."
"OK. Give us some details, sir."
So - name, address, description.
"We'll make some enquiries, sir."
I wasn't going to hold my breath. Instead I sat up and worried some more. Why wasn't he even answering his phone? It was apparently switched off. When the phone did eventually ring, it was nearly midnight, and I snatched up the receiver.
"We'd have some reports of a Harry Collins - he's been admitted to hospital in Waterloo."
"What? I mean, what's happened?"
"Apparently he was assaulted whilst crossing Waterloo Bridge."
I swallowed. "What sort of state is he in?"
"Not sure, sir. The hospital will know. You're not related to him, are you, sir?"
"Do you have a contact number for his parents?"
Hell. I knew the rules - relatives first. "Yes." I gave the number.
"Can I go and see him?"
The voice hesitated. "You'd better contact the hospital."
He gave me the number. I called them, but they weren't prepared to give out details over the phone. Could I go and see him? They sounded dubious. So I had to say that which I hadn't wanted to.
"Harry and I - we're partners."
"Partners. Significant others. Boyfriends."
"Oh." The voice was obviously taken aback. "Well ... I suppose in that case ..." Although she still sounded rather dubious.
"I'll come over."
But at that time of night it was easier said than done. I had to call a taxi, and stand out in the street waiting for it to come. And being so late, it cost a fortune.
I went into the Accident unit, and prepared to wade my way through the bureaucracy. Surprisingly enough, I was waved straight through. A nurse was waiting for me.
I nodded. She took me to a cubicle, and I peered in through the glass.
Harry looked a mess. He was lying, obviously out to the world, a drip in his arm. He had no top on, and I could see the bandages wound round his chest. His face was shadowed, but I could see the abrasions, the dressings. And his shoulders seemed bruised and discoloured.
I turned to the nurse. "What happened to him?"
"We don't know yet. He was found on the pavement half way across Waterloo Bridge. He wasn't really conscious when he was brought in."
"What are his injuries?"
"Cracked skull. Some ribs. Don't know about internal injuries. And heavy contusions."
I winced. She took my elbow. "Do you want to sit down?"
I closed my eyes as I sank in a chair. A mugging? Could be. What else might it have been?
The nurse was back with a cup of tea. "Thanks." I sipped at the cup.
"Can I go in? Just for a minute?"
She hesitated then nodded, opened the door to the little cubicle, and followed me in. Seeing him close up was, of course, worse. I slowly went up to the bed. I could see his chest rising and falling with his breathing. The amount of skin not covered by bandages was alarmingly small. I reached out and touched his hand: at least he was warm to the touch, but unconscious to the feel of my fingers.
"He's sedated?" I asked.
She nodded. "He'll be out for about twenty four hours."
I lingered for a few more moments, but there was not much else I could do. As I was coming out of the cubicle I was stopped by a man of about thirty. He flashed a badge at me.
"DC Ellis. You know Mr Collins?" I nodded. "Can we have a word?"
We sat down on a couple of hard plastic chairs. He looked tired - not surprising given the hour.
"What happened?" I asked.
He hesitated. "We don't know a lot as yet. Someone called from a mobile - a motorist who saw him - and the ambulance picked him up. He'd been fairly severely beaten, as you can see, but it wasn't a mugging."
I raised my eyebrows.
"His wallet was still in his pocket, and so was his mobile - although that had been smashed by a kick." I winced. "So, if it wasn't a mugging, then why? And can I ask your relationship is with him?"
"I'm his flatmate. Well ..." - I hesitated - "a bit more, actually." He was silent, encouraging me to go on. "We live together, if you see what I mean."
"You're gay partners," he said, matter of factly.
"Well ... yes."
"That could be it."
"But hardly anyone knows - and he's not obviously gay. I mean, he doesn't go round with a handbag or anything like that."
"So who else does know?"
"Maybe a few people at college - my professor ..." - then I remembered the night in the pub. "There is one thing."
I told him of the incident when we had beer thrown over us, and Harry had lashed out.
He took out a notebook. "Do you know who it was?"
I nodded. "Some one from College. John Bolden. He does History at King's - in his first year, like me. But I don't know where he lives. The College will, though."
He jotted the details down. "That's very helpful. We'll check that out in the morning. Any other reason you can think of apart from that? Anyone he's fallen out with recently, anything like that?"
I shook my head. "Nothing at all. We live a very quiet life for a pair of teenagers."
"Fair enough. OK, we'll check this guy out in the morning."
Then I heard people coming down the corridor. Harry's parents. They had obviously dressed hastily, and, ignoring me, they followed the nurse into the cubicle.
I pointed them out. "Harry's parents."
"Right. I'll have a word when they come out."
I could see them vaguely through the glass. They were in there a long time, and when they emerged, Ellis intercepted them. I could see them go a little way down the dimly light corridor, and huddle together. Then I could see Mrs Collins turn and look at me, then back to Ellis. I suddenly got vibes - something was wrong. Finally, they were obviously making thank you noises to Ellis, then they turned and headed in my direction. Mrs Collins was moving at a good pace.
Wearily, I got to my feet. I was feeling very tired. They stopped a yard or two from me, and Mrs Collin's face was screwed up in fury.
"If it wasn't for you," she spat, "Harry wouldn't be there looking like that."
I could see Mr Collins standing behind her, his face determinedly neutral.
"I beg your pardon?"
"That policeman told us - gay bashing. That's what he thought it was. And if it wasn't for you ..."
"... Harry wouldn't be gay? Is that what you were going to say?"
"Yes. I was."
I sighed. "Mrs Collins, I did not seduce your son."
"Everything was fine until he met you."
I thought back to school. Was it really those few times in my study that had made Harry as he was? I didn't really believe that. But what Mrs Collins wanted was a nice normal son, who would bring his girlfriend home and give them lots of grandchildren. Instead of the girlfriend, they'd got me. But who knows - in six month's time Harry might indeed meet some girl, and decide he preferred her. But for the moment ...
"Mrs Collins, you might have thought everything was fine. But it was Harry who invited me back to his flat. Everything that happened happened in that flat. It was his suggestion we live together."
"I don't believe you," she said, with real venom.
I shrugged again.
Mr Collins took her arm. "Come on Mary, it's late."
I thought for a moment she was going to attack me, but then she seemed somehow to crumple. She began to cry.
Awkwardly, I said, "I'm very sorry - sorry for what's happened to Harry tonight. I do care for him, you know. That's why I'm here now. I'm sorry you feel this way about me, but there's nothing I can do that will make you change your mind."
She half nodded, and turned away. Mr Collins put his arm around her to take her away, and over her head he gave me a look that I couldn't quite read. Then he murmured something to her, and, slowly, they went down the corridor.
I sank back into the seat, disheartened. Whilst I could see why she had gone off the deep end as she had, I still didn't want it to have happened.
I sat for a little longer, and the nurse came back. She sat down in the chair next to me. She was black, perhaps about forty.
"I heard most of that," she said softly. "I'm sorry."
"Mothers - they get very protective towards their children."
I tried to smile. "Don't I know it."
"I don't think she meant all that."
"No - but she meant enough of it to make it unpleasant."
She reached out and took my hand. "She was upset. You have to make allowances. And now you should be getting off home. You can't do anything more for him tonight."
"You're right. Twenty four hours, you say?"
She nodded. "You can come in tomorrow evening but I don't know if he'll be awake by then."
"OK. Thanks very much. You've been great." I hesitated. "Is there - well, any chance of long term damage?"
She shook her head. "We don't think so. They will need to run some tests when he is conscious again, but apart from that, everything should heal. He is young, and that helps."
"OK. Thanks again."
And I made my way down the dim hospital corridors, to find another taxi to take me home, to an empty, unwelcoming flat. No man is an island. I was, until I met Harry.
I didn't wake until about ten the next morning, and phoned in to college to let them know I wouldn't be coming in. Then I thought I'd better ring the LSE and tell them about Harry. After that, I went back to bed, but was soon woken by the phone. It was DC Ellis.
"We've talked to your friend John Bolden."
"And he says he had nothing to do with it. His friends will give him an alibi."
"Well, my thoughts too. But we do have the clothes he was wearing last night, including his shoes. There's a good chance of forensics."
"It'll take time, though," he warned. "Don't expect anything for a week or so. And we've no other leads at the moment. We might broadcast an appeal."
"There'll be someone calling on you about four o'clock. Victim support."
"Really?" Some scepticism must have shown through in my voice.
"Don't write it off - PC Chandler's a good man."
"The hospital haven't anything new to report yet - Harry's still sedated."
"Yeah - they told me it'd be about twenty four hours. I was going to go along this evening." And then I hesitated, but went on: "I had a bit of a to do with Harry's parents after you left. They were blaming me for what happened."
"Really? I thought they might, after I said the words 'gay bashing'. I could see her looking over in your direction. No love lost, there, I think."
"Not really," I said wearily. "I mean, in a way it's to be expected."
"Yeah. Still, not pleasant." His tone became more business like. "We'll let you know if anything else turns up. And expect PC Chandler at 4 o'clock."
I got up and went for a shower, put some coffee on. But being awake can mean you have chance to brood. I tried looking at some papers, but my mind didn't take the words in. Then the doorbell rang.
"PC Chandler," said the man on the step, holding up his badge. He was about my height, thirty, fairly well built. I nodded and invited him inside.
Upstairs, he looked around him, then took a seat and the offer of a coffee.
"Andy," he said.
"My name - Andy."
"Oh, right. Charles."
"Before you get too sceptical, let me say I've been assigned to this one for a particular reason - I'm gay myself, and usually handle cases like this one."
He was quite open and matter of fact about it.
"So you and Harry have been together how long?"
"Oh, six months."
He nodded, making notes.
"Who else knows?"
"His parents, my professor and his wife," - his eyebrows went up slightly at that - "a few of the students at Kings - but not many."
"How did they take it?"
I shrugged. "They found out indirectly, mostly. Very little comment."
"And this John Bolden?"
"By accident, I suppose."
And I went through the business in the pub. He nodded again.
"Well, he's our only suspect at the moment, unless the appeal turns up anything."
He shrugged. "You can never tell."
"Harry could tell you when he comes round."
"Oh yes. But we'd really need some sort of supporting evidence. Forensics would be the real thing - but we won't know about yet. But there was some blood on his shoes." I shivered at the thought of that. "Testing it for a match will take a little time, though."
"And you're OK?"
I shrugged. "Yes. No."
Slightly fed up, I said: "I'm fine, Harry's not. He's lying in hospital. I can do without that. So can he."
He held up a hand. "Whoa."
"Yes, I know, you're here to help, but honestly, I can cope."
"Fine. So do you want to go to the hospital? I can give you a lift."
I blinked. "Yes. That would be very kind."
"OK then. Let's go."
I put on a jacket and followed him out. Getting a lift was preferable to getting a bus and walking.
There was a different nurse on duty, but being with Chandler helped smooth the path.
"He was awake earlier, when they did some tests, but I'm not sure how conscious he is now. He's still sedated, although they've reduced the dose. I'll take you through."
Harry looked just the same - although swathed as he was with bandages it was difficult to tell. I know a lot of the bruises would get more livid before they faded. I went up to the bed - his eyes were closed, and I could see his steady breathing. I reached down and took his hand, and after a few seconds his fingers curled slightly round mine. I wasn't sure whether his eyes flickered, but there was an "mmm?" sound from him.
"It's Charles," I said.
His fingers tightened slightly, but there wasn't much other reaction. Chandler pulled up a chair for me, and, muttering a word of thanks, I was able to sit by the bed side.
It took some minutes before there was a whisper of "Charles?"
"That's right - it's Charles," I said again.
He nodded ever so slightly, then gradually his grasp slackened as he drifted off into sleep again.
I suppose we stayed there for a half hour or so before the interruption came. It was Harry's parents. I released his hand and turned to see them in the doorway. They didn't look too happy to see me there. I stood up and we looked at each other in silence.
Then: "We'd like to be alone with Harry," she said. It wasn't a request.
No point in arguing at this stage. I looked at Chandler and we went outside.
"Harry's parents?" he asked. I nodded. "And they don't care for you?"
I twisted my face into something of a smile. "Not really."
"Yeah," he nodded, "that's often the case." I wondered if he were speaking from personal experience. "I'd better go and introduce myself to them."
While he went back inside, I flopped onto a chair, head back, eyes closed. He was with them for some ten minutes or so, then re-emerged.
"They certainly don't like you," he confirmed. "Don't like me either. Want me off the case. 'Our Harry's not like that'!"
"What's the legal position?"
He shrugged. "Harry's legally adult. But they're his next of kin. We're really going to have to wait until Harry himself can make a few decisions."
Somehow I didn't like that. I could see Harry being squeezed between me and his parents. And his parents had quite a few big guns on their side.
"There's nothing more we came do here for today," I said quietly. "Harry's still out of it. I'll come back again tomorrow."
As he drove me back, he asked what my plans were. I was wondering that myself. I stared at the streets as we drove along.
"I'd better go into college tomorrow morning. I'll visit Harry again in the afternoon."
He nodded. "He might be more compos mentis by then. I think they may try interviewing him tomorrow, as well."
"But you said it would only be his unsupported word."
"Unless, as I said, we can get witnesses or forensic."
Again, after he dropped me back, I was in no mood to look at any work. Instead, I brooded. The breakdown in relations with Harry's parents could be a real problem. They'd discharge him from hospital, but then what? He'd need time to convalesce. And would he want to be here or at home? At home, he could be looked after better - and I could imagine the drip, drip of poison he might be fed, too.
I headed into King's in the morning, attended lectures, seminars. At least they took my mind off things, even if I couldn't give them my full attention. Then, walking out for the day, I saw Fyler going the other way. He stopped.
"Tried to get hold of you yesterday. You weren't in?"
"No." I tried to give him a smile. "Problems."
I hesitated, then started to tell him. Half way through, he gripped my elbow.
"Come along to my office."
He sat me down, and got me to start again. At the end, he said, "What a mess."
I nodded. "Yeah."
"And you think Bolden's the man?"
I shrugged. "Until Harry is fit to say something, we won't really know. It's just guesswork on my part. But since it wasn't a mugging ..."
"I see." He looked down at his desk. "If you need some time off, I don't think that would be a problem, given your progress."
"Not a lot of point at the moment. I think the problem might come when Harry's discharged."
"Right. What would happen then?"
I shrugged. "He may come back to the flat. He might go home to his parents."
"And?" He raised his eyebrows. "Would that be a problem?"
"I honestly don't know. Until Harry can talk, and make one or two more decisions on his own, we're in a sort of limbo."
"Of course. But if there's anything you want, Margaret and I will do what we can."
"That's very kind."
"Keep us posted, won't you."
"I will," I promised.
All of which was some help. To have someone on your side was a relief.
After the last lecture, I made my way back to the hospital once more. The nurse I had met on the first night was there. "You want to see Harry?"
"He's awake, but may be tired. He's been talking to the police."
"And how is he? The tests?"
"They seem to be OK. No neurological problems, which were always a possibility with a head injury. Any concussion has gone. He's healing, but it will take time. I imagine he's very stiff - all those muscles will have seized up."
Although Harry was lying back, eyes still closed when I went in, they flickered open as I touched his hand.
I sat down by the bedside. His eyes opened again and focussed on me.
"So how are you?" I asked foolishly.
"Apart from all this?" he replied with a faint smile.
"The amount of dope they've been feeding me, I can't feel a thing. But trying to move is hell."
"I'll tie you down."
He closed his eyes again for a minute or so. Then: "It was Bolden, you know."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
He shrugged then winced. I squeezed his hand a little.
"I've been talking to the police. Not that I could tell them that much. Met Bolden and a couple of his mates on the bridge. They stopped me, and started jeering. Then Bolden hit me in return for that time in the pub. Some one kicked my legs, and I was down. After that, well ..."
I had been gripping his hand tighter as he spoke, and had to relax my hand gently.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"One of those things."
His head moved back again, his eyes half closed. I wondered whether I was tiring him out too much.
"It's OK," he said, reading my thoughts. "I'm tired, and I ache despite the dope, but I rather have you sitting here than being by myself."
So there I sat, mainly in silence, but with the occasional word. Then I sensed visitors. Mr and Mrs Collins.
They came in and I stood up. Harry opened his eyes. "Mum! Dad!"
She rushed up and threw her arms round him - which wasn't a good idea. I could see him wince. Mr Collins was giving me sidelong looks.
"I'll leave you to it," I said, mainly to Harry.
"You'll come in tomorrow?" he asked.
He gave a sad, faded version of that smile of his. "Make sure you do."
"Yeah," and I backed out.
I walked home - it was a long way, but it helped tire me, and took up time. I let myself in, had a shower and a bite to eat, and was getting ready for bed when the phone rang. It was Margaret Fyler.
"Sorry to ring you so late, but you weren't in earlier."
"Visiting Harry," I told her.
"Ah, How is he?"
"Better. They're easing off the pain killers - he was able to talk. But a mess."
"I'm so very sorry. Peter told me about it all when he came in. How are you?"
"Traumatic for both of you. And Peter said something about his parents."
"Yeah. At the moment, I'm the scapegoat."
"If I hadn't seduced Harry, then none of this would have happened."
"And did you?"
"Did I what?"
"Not really. If anything, it might have been the other way round. But it takes two to tango."
"I suppose so." She was silent for a moment. Then: "When are you seeing him next?"
"Can I come?"
I was surprised. But: "Of course."
"Shall I meet you there?"
"OK. Hospital reception, five o'clock?"
"Right. See you tomorrow at five."
When I arrived at the hospital, she was already there, waiting, quite smartly dressed, but somehow, indefinably, with the air of an academic. I took her up to the ward.
Harry was a good deal more alert this afternoon: his eyes had recovered some of their brightness. And they brightened further at the sight of Margaret with me.
"Nice to have visitors," he said. "It's getting boring in here."
"I'll bring some books and your CD player next time," I promised.
"So, are you mending?" asked Margaret.
"So they tell me. I ache and I itch, but they tell me that's a good thing."
"The resilience of youth," said Margaret, half mockingly.
"Charles told me what happened."
"A bummer, eh?"
"One way of putting it."
"Yeah." He was silent for a moment or two. "You know, I'd heard of this sort of thing happening to people, but you never expect it to happen to you."
"The police have been helpful?"
"Yeah, as much as they can. They've had no response to their appeal, so they're pinning their hopes on the forensic."
"Nothing more on Bolden?" I asked.
"Not that I've heard. Apparently they pulled him in for questioning again, but he stuck to his story."
"Peter's making some enquiries internally - unofficially," Margaret told him.
He leaned back in bed, still not entirely at ease, his injuries still giving him discomfort.
"How long will they keep you?" asked Margaret.
"They've got to give the bones time to knit, they said. Don't know how long that'll take."
Then he launched into a full account of his injuries. He'd obviously been grilling the doctors. Margaret and I listened in horrified fascination.
"But no brain damage," he finished.
"How could they tell?" He put his tongue out at me. "Always said you had a thick skull."
"And I love you too."
And I did what I had been reluctant to do with Margaret there - reached out and took his hand.
"And afterwards? When they release you?"
He shrugged. "The bruising should have gone by then. Some physio. Ten days in bed won't keep me fit."
We chatted on for a half hour or so, then as we got up to go, Harry looked at me with an appeal in his eyes.
He looked across to Margaret. "Can you give us five minutes?"
"Of course. I'll be outside."
Harry looked down for a moment or two, then looked back, eye to eye.
"My parents have been giving me some grief." I nodded. He paused. "It was difficult for them - finding me like this, I mean." Another pause. "They want me to come home with them when I'm let out."
I said nothing. He held my eyes, and still I kept quiet. Then: "It's up to you. You do what you think best."
"Yeah. But it's not as easy as that. You know why."
I nodded. "Yeah."
"If I go home, I'm letting you down." I started saying something, but he stopped me. "Not because I'd be at home - and I know they would look after me - but because they'd think they'd succeeded in separating us.
"But if I don't go home, they're going to be really upset. Not just because of you, but because they do want to take care of me. You can't blame them.
"So I don't know what to do."
"You ought to go home," I told him. "I mean, they love you too, and they do want to look after you. But you don't want to become dependant on them again. You could compromise."
"Spend a week at home. Then go back to college on a reduced workload."
He thought about that. "Yeah. Could do." He looked at me again. "If I do go home, it won't be because I don't want to be with you. OK?"
I could suddenly feel I was choking up. That lump in the throat that stops you talking.
He squeezed my hand. I squeezed back, and we held the grip. Then I leaned forward, and touched my lips to his forehead - or at least, to the part which was clear of bandages.
"Get well soon," I told him.
Then I had to go before I broke down.
I leaned back against the door when I got out, head down. Margaret tactfully hovered further down the corridor. Then I braced myself, pushed myself away from the door, and walked down towards her.
"OK?" she asked.
I nodded. "Yeah."
"Some," I said. "His parents."
We were making our way out of the hospital when she said, "A drink somewhere?"
"I looked at her in slight surprise. "OK."
We found a pub nearby. It wasn't very salubrious, but at that time of day it was almost empty. Even the seats looked dubious and grubby. She insisted on getting the drinks.
She sat twirling her glass. "Being a parent isn't easy, you know, Charles."
I nodded. "I know. Don't worry. I'm not going to push it. I just want to make sure that they don't shove me out of the way, try and take him over again."
"Is some sort of - rapprochment - possible between you?"
"I doubt it. You saw the state Harry was in. Imagine that to be your son." Then I realised what I'd just said, and wished I'd bitten my tongue.
But she just nodded. "I know. And you think they blame you?"
"I know they blame me. I would say that's illogical, but when did logic come into it?"
"That's right. I think you're just have to grin and bear it."
It was my turn to sit and twirl my glass. "You're right, I know."
"I know it's only words, but I'm sorry for what's happened to Harry. And the effect it's having on both of you."
"Thanks. I appreciate it."
She finished her drink, then started gathering her things. "I'd better be off. Peter will be expecting me."
We stood up. "Thank you for coming along today," I told her. "Harry really appreciated it too."
"That's no problem. I might pop in again in the next day or two to keep him company."
And without the sedatives, Harry became alive again. He could sit for an hour or two talking away. I had brought in books and his CDs, and a Scrabble game to give us something else to do. His laptop was next, so he could begin to catch up on some of the work he was missing. Lawyers are worked hard.
We contrived a routine that meant I saw very little of his parents, although it was inevitable that we bumped into each other from time to time. When we did meet, we were both icy polite.
And a week or so after the incident, I found Chandler there when I arrived.
"The forensic's come through," he told me as I sat down, "and Bolden's our man. Given evidence like that, he didn't have much choice - he's admitted the assault, and named his companions."
"So no trial?"
"Not really. The case will have to be laid out in front of the judge, and there'll be pleas for mitigation from the defence, but basically that's it."
"Which is a relief."
"Yeah. There's no need for Harry to give evidence - his written statement will be enough."
"I didn't fancy standing up and being cross examined," he admitted.
"Well, you won't have to now."
Harry's discharge was coming up soon, as well. His parents were going to collect him at four in the afternoon, so I cut a lecture so I could be there at two, to spend a little time with him before he went off. But our conversation became increasingly awkward. We both knew he'd be at home for a week or more, and we wouldn't be seeing each other.
Most of the bandages had now gone, and the livid bruising was beginning to subside into dull yellow and purple. He had received a cut over one eyebrow, which had been stitched. By the look of it, it would leave a small permanent scar there too. Otherwise, he would be outwardly untouched. He was lucky not to have sustained more in the way of internal injuries at the same time. But of course there were other injuries, but they would be inside his mind. No one experiences an attack like that without mental scars.
In the end, I left a little early. I couldn't stand it much more. I stood up, and once again kissed him on the forehead. That was the closest we'd come to each other for the past ten days.
"Take care," I said awkwardly.
"Yeah, you too. And I'll call you on the mobile."
And then I had to go. I walked back to the flat - once more back to my island.
The only cure was work. I had missed quite a bit over the past ten days. At least work filled my time occupied my mind. Going to bed early - and alone. Lectures, seminars, notes. All took up time, time in which I would otherwise have brooded.
Then, the second evening, the phone rang.
"How are you?"
"Recovering. Slowly. Being in bed for ten days doesn't do much for your leg muscles. I feel tired even after walking upstairs."
"And the rest of you?"
"Getting there slowly. Apart from one bit."
"Which you're keeping your hands off."
"It's been a fortnight."
"Don't I know it." A pause. "I'll need a few more days at home at least. And Mum is driving me in for physio."
"Take your time."
"Yeah. Four weeks of term left, so I have an excuse to come back. I haven't told them yet, since I don't want a row at this stage."
"Will there be a row?"
"Don't know. They just don't talk about it. But I get vibes from time to time."
"About Charles the evil seducer."
"Something like that."
"Well, don't push it if it's going to cause a bust up."
"Yeah. I mean, I like being at home, and being looked after, but I think it's going to get a bit claustrophobic after a few days. And I do want to come back to you."
"And I want you back."
"Yeah. Look, I'll call again tomorrow night. OK?"
We talked each evening for the next few days. Then one night, when Harry came on, he sounded subdued.
"I'm moving back tomorrow - about mid afternoon."
"I'll be out - there's a seminar then."
"It might be better."
"Well, sort of. Mum threw a wobbly when I said I was going back. Said I wasn't ready. But the doctor said it was OK. Then she asked whether you would be in the flat, and when I said yes, that set her off again. All this would have never happened if it wasn't for you. And so on."
"What did you say?"
"That it had nothing to do with you - the attack, that is. But she wasn't convinced."
"Are you still talking to each other?"
"Well, I hope it blows over."
"Yeah." He paused. "When will you be back tomorrow?"
"OK. I'll see you then."
During the day, I thought - shall I cut corners and come home early? Then I thought I'd better not in case his parents were still there. And if I said six, I'd better make it six. So, as the nearby church clock was sounding, my key went into the door.
Harry was standing at the top of the stairs, and as I got there, we flung our arms round each other. Then I eased my grip, just in case.
I pulled away, looked at him. Looked at the light in his eyes. "You OK?"
He nodded, and pulled me into him again. My coat was already on the floor. I had registered that the table was set, that there was an open bottle of wine on the table. But that didn't matter. Harry was too busy tugging at my shirt. And gently I eased his tee shirt off, gently running my hands over those fading marks. Leaving a trail of clothing behind us, we slowly made our way to the bed.
And it had been three weeks since we had last touched each other. That meant that in one way it was all over too quickly. We lay naked, gasping for breath, on top of the bed.
Then Harry reached up, pushing my hair back from my forehead.
"God! I needed that."
"So did I."
We rolled apart, and gently I explored his body, wincing at the wounds, those poor, poor, dumb mouths.
"It's all right," he said. "I hardly feel anything now. Twinges sometimes when I move, that's all."
Side by side we lay, legs entangled, arms wrapped around each other. I could feel his breath on my shoulder. Then he stirred, sat up, giggled.
"I didn't intend that. I had laid on a celebration supper."
"So I saw," lazily moving in my turn.
"But I think we'd better have a shower first."
And we moved through to the bathroom, to stand together under the warm water. But the proximity had its effect on us again.
"I said you just wanted me for my body," said Harry, leaning against me afterwards.
"Yeah. And you weren't so keen yourself?"
He grinned again. "I told you I'd been saving it up."
In just jeans and tee shirt, we sat down to supper, then cleared away and washed up. But I could see the dark rings under Harry's eyes.
"You've had enough," I told him. "Bed and sleep."
"In which order?"
And sleep it was. Harry dropped off to sleep almost immediately, judging by his breathing. I stared in the darkness for a while, thankful that Harry had survived the attack so well, grateful that he had been prepared to stand up to his parents, grateful he had come back to me. It must have been difficult for him to go against what his parents had wanted. And I had also feared that the attack might have turned him against our relationship; that, however irrationally, he might have blamed me for what had happened to him. But here he was now, asleep next to me, desire undimmed.
And it was in the darkness again that we slowly awoke, wrapped in each other, grateful for the feel of each other. Slowly, gently, in the warmth of the bed, we explored each other once more, and slowly, gently, for the third time, aroused each other.
Then he sat up in the dawn light, staring down at me. "I don't know how I managed for three weeks without that."
I ran my hands over his shoulders, down his arms. "I'm glad you came back."
"Did you think I wouldn't?"
"I didn't know. But I was frightened you might not."
"Yeah, well." He looked down. "I'm glad I did."
We dressed slowly, had some breakfast, made ready for the day.
Harry looked at me. "I've missed a lot of stuff, you know. Hope it won't be too much for me, starting again."
"No problem for a wonderboy like you."
A faint smile. "Yeah, right."
Books in bags, we headed out into the morning sunshine, making for the Tube station, ready for the new week.
Now for once I could sit in lectures relaxed, at ease, and with that warm glow knowing that Harry would be there when I got back. In the afternoon's seminar, I felt alive, alert, throwing out ideas. After my dull performance of the past few weeks, I knew I was recovering my edge.
And at five o'clock I could walk out, head for the Tube station in a glow of anticipation, knowing he would be there waiting for me. Put the key in the door, slam it behind me, and head on up. But when I got to the top of the stairs, I could see Harry, sitting at the table, head in hands. I was bewildered. He slowly looked up as I halted, aghast at the sight of him. His face was blotched, tear stained, despairing.
We stared at each other. I was too shocked by his appearance to say anything coherent. Then, eventually, he had to speak, to say something: "I couldn't hack it, Charles. I couldn't hack it. It was too much for me." He paused. "All those people, the work ... it was no good - I had to give up, come back."
I sat down opposite him, my books sliding onto the table, wordless. I had never seen him like this before, resilient no more, but instead, cracked and brittle.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I really did want to make it work. I thought I would be able to cope again. But I can't."
"What happened?" I asked in a whisper.
"All the people at college - they all knew about what happened to me. They were all staring at me as if I was some kind of freak show. I pretended I didn't mind that, even when they started asking all sorts of questions. Some of them really nasty ones." He stopped. After another minute or so, "I suppose I might have been able to cope with that, given time. But then I went into a lecture. I didn't understand a word he was saying. I tried to listen, but it was all gibberish. I couldn't make sense of it - it was like a foreign language. I just got up - left. Came back here. I couldn't go on with it."
He looked terrible, his face strained, a dull white apart from the dark rings under the eyes. I reached out a hand to him, to no avail. I don't think he even noticed.
He struggled for more words to try to explain, then gave up. Finally he said: "I've rung Mum. She's coming to take me home."
A dagger of ice entered my heart as I watched his head sink back into his hands. I knew that was it - the defining moment. He'd made up his mind - no amount of talking would bring him round now. There would be no more nights under the duvet together, no more days to spend together. Once he was home again, that would be the last I would see of him.
There was no way that I could be around when his mother came, triumphant, to rescue him, to take him back to the wholesome warmth of the family home. I had to get out before that happened. There was a pub not far away, where I could go get drunk slowly, all the time knowing that I would be returning to a cold, empty, unwelcoming flat. I stood up, looked at him again, his head still in his hands, then made my way out slowly down the stairs, still hoping that Harry might change his mind. Step by step, as I made my way down, I waited for the sound of his voice, waited to hear him call me back. But he didn't. I closed the front door behind me and stood in the busy street, with nowhere to go and nothing to come back to.
Comments, criticisms etc: email The Composer.