My Early Life. Yeah, I know it's been used before. And perhaps, as a title, it's a bit pretentious. Pretentious, moi? I know, I know, that one's be used before as well, and too often. I could call this My Early Sexual Encounters, but I won't, because, sorry to disappoint you, that's not really what this is all about. I could use some really pretentious pseudo-academic title like My PsychoSexual Development. But My Early Life is as good as any.
And I know his life was rather more interesting than mine. Who wants to read the early life of Ben Carter, you may ask? Good point. Well, you don't have to. But here it is all the same.
My best friend for the first eighteen years of my life was the girl next door. Yeah, I know, mundane, isn't it? But there was quite a good reason for it: I was born a month and a day after Emily, and it was handy for our mothers. I mean, if you're going to have to look after one small brat, you might as well look after two. So we spent a good deal of time together when we were little, as one mother or the other took care of us. Mind you, I don't remember the very early bits, but then no one ever does. When I was little I couldn't say 'Emily', and instead said 'Ems', and I still do.
So we played together as toddlers, and went to primary school together, and to the middle school, and then the comp. Life had been good up to then, but I didn't enjoy the comp. Not at all. Lots of reasons, really.
I was a late developer, which didn't help. When all the other boys were answering their names at registration in deep gruff newly broken voices, I was still piping away like one of the girls. I remember one of the other boys mimicking a high pitched 'Yes, miss' from me when I was thirteen. And the things that they were interested in didn't interest me at all. And the other way round too. Football left me cold, but I would happily sit in a corner with a book for half an hour. Something else too. Girls. They all started talking about girls. And they didn't interest me either. I put it down to being a late developer. Sometimes after P.E. I'd sneak a look at the other boys as they changed. Now, I knew this was dangerous. But they were all big and hairy, and, frankly, I wasn't, and I was curious about the difference. I found out how dangerous that was when one day someone turned round, and said: "Carter's gay! Look at him staring!" Up to then, 'gay' had just been one of those routine insults that people handed out. "Christ, that's gay!" they would say, when something went wrong. But now there were other undertones. I nearly got thumped that day. And I realised that being gay was dangerous. Not that I really knew what being gay was. Just that it was wrong and to be gay meant you could be thumped.
But in time my voice began to break too, and I became something less of an oddity. Other changes were happening too, which was a relief, since I had begun to think there was something wrong with me. Of course, it wasn't just boys who changed. The girls did too. Ems did. Now this is not the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent. Yes, she did offer me the apple. But I didn't bite. It happened like this.
We were both fourteen, and it was the summer holidays, and it was a bright hot day. I was over at Ems' house, and we were lying on her bed talking idly. Just as we'd done for years. Except it was all starting to lose its innocence. Because it was so hot, we weren't really wearing much. And obviously Ems' hormones were beginning to kick in - in fact, they had done, long before mine. We began a sort of exploring game. Yes, you can imagine. And she wanted me to explore her. It seemed a good game. And at that age, exploring someone was, well, interesting. Except, the snag was that it wasn't having the sort of effect on me that it should have done. Ems' blouse was well and truly unbuttoned, and I had explored what was inside. And she started exploring me, and was rather disappointed in what she found. Yes, it was quite big and hairy now, but somehow, well, it just sat there. It should have leapt to attention. Indeed, it should have been at attention quite a long time ago, and it wasn't. I think now that if it had, Ems and I would have lost our respective virginities that afternoon.
But my dick was having nothing of it. I knew that indeed it could grow alarmingly, and become all big and stiff. And this was enjoyable. But why it wasn't big and stiff now, I didn't know. Ems was very disappointed. She twiddled and tweaked it, but without much result. Then she asked if I wanted to see what she was like 'down there'. I thought about it, and gave a disturbingly honest answer. 'Not really'.
She buttoned up her blouse and I zipped up my trousers. We lay there for a bit longer, then she said: "Ben?"
"Are you gay?"
I knew this was bad and dangerous. "Course not."
"Well, you don't seem very interested in girls."
The whole business can't have done much for her ego.
"Umm, well, not really. Perhaps I've got to grow up a bit more," I said hopefully.
"Yeah." But she seemed doubtful. "I mean, do boys interest you?"
"In what way?" I was still very naïve. At fourteen too.
She sighed. "Do boys make you go hard?"
I hadn't really thought about that either. "Umm .."
"Think about doing something with a boy."
"Well, imagine that instead of me lying here feeling you, imagine it was Mark Jones ."
I don't where she came up with him from, but I did. Imagined his hands inside my trousers. Imagined ... then Ems grabbed me.
"There," she said in triumph, "you're hard now!" And it was true. I was. "There. You must be gay!"
"I don't want to be gay!"
"Yeah, but you are."
I didn't want to argue. We left it there. And it was another two years before Ems did lose her virginity. As for me - well, with girls, I never did.
And the other problem was that because of what she'd said, late at night I started thinking about Mark Jones, and that had its effect on me, and then I'd start doing - well, you know what. Then it became other boys as well.
And a few months later, I said to Ems idly one day: "You, I really think I am gay."
She snorted. "We found that out ages ago."
Obviously the rejection still rankled a bit.
"Yeah, but your talking of Mark Jones like that."
She sat up and looked at me. "Yeah?"
I suppose I blushed. "Well, late at night, well, I think of him - or other boys."
"When you wank, you mean." She could be very direct at times.
I blushed again. "Yeah, well."
"Well, we can't both have him." So that's why his name had come up. "Might be interesting though."
I laughed. "A threesome?"
"If he had the stamina. He might have, come to that."
I thought about this, and decided I'd prefer to keep him to myself. But after that, it became accepted, I suppose, between the two of us. I trusted her enough not to think she'd tell anyone else.
But things started getting difficult at the comp. There were always the big ones who were happy to pick on the little ones, and despite the fact I eventually made it to just over six foot, I was still one of the little ones then. I either used to travel to school with Ems, or of she wasn't there, I got very adept at arriving one minute before the bell, and leaving one minute after it rang at the end of the afternoon. And I found hiding places for lunchtime and break times.
I think my parents got wind of this. They could have afforded to send me to a private school, but hadn't. The local state schools were pretty good on the whole. But there's no doubt my work suffered for a time. I think they must have gone to see the headmaster, for after that things seemed better, and some of my teachers seemed to be keeping an eye on me. The head of our pastoral group would take me aside from time to time, and ask me how I was getting on.
I did start making much more of an effort for my GSCE year. There was a good sixth form college near us, which both Ems and I wanted to go to. But they could afford to be very choosy, and we knew we'd have to do well to get in. We used to help each other with our homework. Oddly enough, she was the wiz at maths, and me at things like English and History. I would help her disentangle some of the knottier bits of syntax in a Shakespeare speech, whereas she would look through my maths homework and sigh.
"What's wrong with that, then?" I would say, pleased with myself for having got the right answer.
"You did it in six lines," she said.
"You can do it in two lines. Look."
And I'd understand how she'd done it, but I wouldn't have been able to get that solution myself.
"Girls aren't supposed to be good at maths," I'd grumble.
"Oh, yes, Mr Stereotype? And drama queens can't deal with Shakespeare - is that right?"
I had to grin at that. "OK. You win."
And we got mostly A stars between us in the exams. Which meant we did get into the Sixth Form College. It was closer too: we could cycle there fairly easily. And the thugs who had made life difficult for me didn't get in.
"We'll have to find a boy friend for you now," she said.
"Because for a start, you're the only person who knows. And I don't want anyone else to know, thank you very much." Most of all I didn't want my parents to know.
Perhaps I'd better tell you something about my parents. Dad worked for local government - he wasn't the Chief Executive of the county, but something quite high up. He didn't talk about it much - said work was work and home was home, and when he got home, he wanted to forget about work. Mum - she worked in the local hospital. She'd started as a nurse, but had worked up, and now was in charge of a collection of wards. She didn't talk much about work either. I was the only one - don't know why. Ems was an only child too, but that was because her mother couldn't have any more after her. I'd heard my mother and hers talking about it one afternoon. So we were a happy middle class family - nice house and all the rest of it. And I got on well with them - not like some of the stories I used to hear from other people at school. Perhaps we were a little cool emotionally as a family, but it's difficult to judge from the inside.
And as well as not letting Mum and Dad know, I didn't want to be some sort of freak at the college either - 'the one that's gay'. No, thank you. So I wasn't going to spread it around there either.
"Well," Ems went on, "there are about a hundred and fifty in our year. Half are girls, so that's around seventy five boys. If ten per cent are gay, then leaves another six and half for you."
"I don't believe the ten per cent figure, anyway," I told her. "Maybe one per cent."
"Hmm, well, that's three quarters of a boy. I reckon that's you then. All the rest are mine!"
"And that's why there's no point in me coming out. If I'm the only one, then I'm not going to find a soulmate."
"You could strike a blow for Gay Lib."
"Yeah - but tell me why I'd want to bother."
"Gays are an oppressed minority."
Ems was in a very political stage at that time.
"Do I look oppressed?"
"No. But that's not the point."
"As far as I'm concerned, it is."
Starting at the college was good. Probably for the first time I met teachers who were not just interested in teaching the subject, but actually had an interest in it for its own sake. I certainly know that it was one of the history masters there who got me actually interested in what history was all about, and that's why I ended up doing it at University. But that's jumping the gun.
And another thing. We'd need money at University. Oh, I know my parents would pay the fees, and give me an allowance, but I'd be a lot happier if I had some sort of financial cushion, just in case. Perhaps a car. I don't know. But anyway. Ems and I went along to the local Sainsbury.
I think half their cashiers must have come from the Sixth Form College; all, like us, trying to earn some pocket money. Ems and I presented ourselves, had a five minute interview, an hour's training, and found ourselves working the tills. It could be pretty mind numbing. We had agreed to do twelve hours a week - any more, and we thought our work would suffer. Mum and Dad thought so too. We usually worked four shifts in the evenings - they kept open until ten at night. And we could work Sundays too. You got extra money for that, and it suited us anyway. And that's where I met Tony.
No, not what you're thinking. Well, not quite. Not quite by a long way.
You see, Ems and I got put onto the baskets checkout. Some people liked that, others didn't. It meant that you served lots of people in an evening, since we got the ones with only a few things, and it didn't take long to deal with each one. I got to know quite a few by sight - those who came in most evenings, and got half a dozen items at a time. Some of them - I could almost predict what was in their baskets. There was one bloke who always seemed to end up in front of me. He was old - well, not that old, but when you're sixteen anyone over twenty is old. Perhaps my dad's age? Mid 40s? But I was only guessing. He didn't say much. Put his basket down. He always re-used his carrier bags - the ones he used still Christmas logos on, so he'd been using them for the past ten months. Not bad. He often would count out the exact money and hand it over. "Thanks," he'd say, when I gave him the receipt. Well spoken. Not quite posh, but - yeah, well spoken.
Ems noticed him too, and used to giggle afterwards.
"He fancies you. That's why he always ends up in your queue."
"Jealous," I'd say to her.
"Too old for me. It's be - dunno, like having sex with your dad or something."
That Oedipal image certainly didn't appeal.
One night I'd had to walk in, which was a real bore. I suppose it was a twenty minute walk from home, instead of five minutes by bike. But that afternoon coming back from college I'd run over some broken glass - some idiot had dropped a bottle in the road and left it there. Both the tyre and inner tube were cut up, and I'd have to go to Halford's to get another. So I had to walk. I'd mentioned that to the supervisor, and she said she'd let me go ten minutes early at the end. I hadn't asked - she offered. I wasn't going to turn her down.
But when I got out at ten to ten, it was pouring down. Buckets. I could see the water lying on the tarmac, running off into the drains. I'd got a waterproof top, but I was only wearing trainers, which I knew would get soaked. And my feet with them.
"Shit, shit, shit," I muttered, standing by the doorway, preparing to get soaked. Then I heard him.
"It is a bit wet, isn't it?
I turned round and it was him - that bloke.
"Yeah. And I've a long walk."
He looked at me. "Where to?"
I was a bit wary. Well, more than a bit wary. Lifts from a strange man. And it was obvious from what he bought that he lived alone - no wife then. Join the dots ...
"Gaines Park. Just past there."
He nodded. "Huntingdon Close."
I knew that - I passed it on the way.
"No," I said, "further than that."
"Sorry. What I meant was that's where I'm going. Huntingdon Close."
"Oh, right, yeah." I hesitated. I was a big lad now - well, getting bigger. I could take care of myself, I said. "That's very kind."
"Wait there then."
He vanished into the night, then this big red car drew up by where I was standing. I made a dash for it.
"Thanks," I spluttered, as I closed the door.
"Nasty night," he said neutrally.
As we got past the park, he said: "Where shall I drop you?"
Again, I was a little unsure, but directed him into our road, and asked him to stop by a street light a few doors away.
"Thanks," I said, as I opened the door and made ready to dash.
"No problem, Ben."
I saw the car draw away as I sprinted for home. Ben? He must have seen the name badge we all had to wear. But not many people would notice. Hm.
I told Ems all about this a day or two later.
"See, what did I tell you? He's a perve."
"Ems, darling, I'm a perve. Remember?"
"Yeah, but that's different."
"He's just a dirty old man."
"And I'm what then?"
"A dirty young man."
But it got me thinking.
A few evenings later, I was at my checkout. It was getting late, and the place was almost empty. I'd got my copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I was leafing through, when I realised someone was standing in front of me.
Ems' position was vacant too, but whoever it was had stopped in front of me. I looked up - it was that bloke. The one who'd given me the lift. I could see Lynds opposite, rolling her eyes.
I quickly scanned his stuff. Then as he was sorting through his money, he said: "How now, fellows? Whither wander you?"
I blinked. "Sorry?"
"Over park, over pale, thorough bush, thorough briar ...
Then it was his turn to apologise. "Sorry. I couldn't help it. Puck's entrance. I directed a performance of the play once."
"Oh, I see."
Now Ems really was pulling faces.
"Sort of thing you can never forget." There was an odd tone in his voice as he said this.
"Sorry. Rambling. Thanks," he said abruptly, picking up his bags and turning away.
"See?" Ems said later. "If that wasn't chatting you up, I don't know what wasn't."
"Perhaps he's just lonely. Wants someone to talk to."
"Didn't come to my checkout," she said darkly.
"Yeah, well, one look at you, and anyone would find another checkout." I ducked the blow. Then "Ems?"
"Would you - I mean, would people - guess I was gay just by looking at me?"
She considered that. "Not really," she said. "You don't have limp wrists."
"Thank God for that."
Then she giggled. "Rebecca doesn't think you're gay. In fact, she told me she fancied you."
"What?? Can't you put her off? I mean, tell her - I dunno, that we're an item?"
"Be difficult after what I said to her about me and Mark Rushden."
Mark Rushden. Oh dear. It seemed that we had the same taste in men.
"Do you have this thing for blokes called Mark?"
"Ah, well, this one's better. He's Mark Two."
I threw something at her.
I used to go out for walks at times, not because I enjoy walking - I don't - but because I felt a bit claustrophobic at home. I had my own room, and all that, but sometimes, particularly in the winter, I got a bit stir crazy. So I'd go round to Ems'. And if she wasn't in - just a walk. But that afternoon, half defiantly, I thought I'd walk down Huntingdon Close. I spotted his house by the car outside - at least, I thought it was the same car. It was big and red, anyway. I went by a couple of times, but didn't see anyone.
And the next afternoon. I wasn't quite sure why I was doing this, but I suppose - well, if he was gay ... I mean, I'd never talked to anyone who was gay. No one my age was ever going to own up to it. I'd seen one or two older blokes who were obviously gay - but that sort of mincing about, or macho moustached stuff really put me off.
And he was weeding the flower beds outside. He straightened up as I got close, glanced at me, did a double take, then said: "Ah, Ben, isn't it?"
Come on. He knew full well who it was.
"Yeah." I stopped.
"Some people say that weeds are just flowers in the wrong place," he said conversationally, looking around him.
"Could be." Was there supposed to be some sort of parable in that remark?
"Still," he went on, "gardening's not really for the young. You put something in and wait a year for the results."
"Suppose so." I was being really elegant and witty, wasn't I? Trouble was, I couldn't think of anything to say. Then: "So you've been here a long time?"
Another witty conversational gambit.
He thought about that. "Ten years."
"And you?" For a moment I was confused. It must have shown in my face. "How long have you lived round here?"
"Oh, all my life. All sixteen years of it." Now why had I told him that?
"Right. And you're out for a walk?"
"Yeah. Sometimes, indoors, I get stir crazy."
He smiled. He had a nice smile. After that time he'd given me a lift, he'd come up to my checkout, and as I gave him the receipt, he'd give me that smile. It was genuine, I think, not a come on, despite what Ems said.
"I know what you mean," he said. "That's why I come out into the garden. Not because it really needs it, but because it gets me out of the house."
I looked at it: it was neat and well laid out.
He saw me looking. "Designed for low maintenance," he said. He put down the trowel, hesitated, then said: "Fancy a cup of tea?"
He wasn't looking straight at me, but slightly down, and to one side. I couldn't quite read him. A come on? Or just being sociable. A come on - I was half fascinated, half repelled by the idea. He didn't say anything, just stood there letting me make up my mind.
"Yeah. Ok. Thanks."
"I'm Tony, by the way."
He opened the gate.
A half smile appeared this time. "Yeah, I know."
Of course. But I followed him up the drive and inside.
Inside was quite neat, quite tidy, quite ordinary. He dropped his muddy shoes on the mat and put some slippers on. I followed him through to the kitchen. He didn't say anything, but busied himself with the kettle, teapot, cups and so on.
"So, Ben," he suddenly said, "let me guess: the Sixth Form College."
"Yeah. How did you know?"
"I think Sainbury's must get half their staff from there."
Is that why he came in so late? To look at the youngsters?
"Yeah," I said. "Cheap labour."
"I see what you mean," he said, half amused. "Child labour."
It was something that used to get Ems really worked up. I told you she was in her political phase.
"We do the same work, why shouldn't we get the same money?" she'd say.
"You don't pay tax on it."
"Only because we don't earn enough," she'd retort.
Twelve hours a week - that was sixty pounds. Do forty weeks in the year - two thousand four hundred. Two years at college - nearly five thousand. All mine was going straight into the bank. Mum and Dad gave me an allowance even though I was working, and I survived on that.
"Useful for when I get to University," I told him.
He nodded. "Yes, I can imagine."
He poured out the tea, we sat down at the table, made inconsequential conversation. Then I asked him about A Midsummer Night's Dream. His face darkened for a moment.
"Yeah," he said eventually. "It's an interesting play." His voice was very noncommittal. I'd obviously touched some nerve - but I didn't discover what until a long time later.
He didn't come on to me. Not obviously, at any rate. It was rather pleasant talking to an adult who treated you as an equal. At my age, most adults I had dealings with were all telling me what to do.
I stayed about half an hour, I suppose. When I stood up, he escorted me to the door, said, "Nice to have talked to you, Ben," and let me out.
I was still ambivalent about him. I mean, I suppose it was fairly obvious he was gay. He hadn't come on to me at all, but how many adults would make time to talk to a sixteen year old boy like that? What did he want from me? He didn't get scintillating conversation, for sure. I was too nervous for that. No, I decided, it was pour mes yeux bleux.
But I didn't feel threatened. Perhaps it was his self control. He hadn't in any way said or done anything that could be misconstrued. I didn't tell Ems about the visit, though. And I felt obscurely guilty about that. I'd never kept things from her before. And she didn't keep things from me. At least, I didn't think she did.
He came in to the supermarket one Saturday morning. I didn't usually do Saturdays, and for once I wasn't on the baskets. That's probably why it was such a surprise to see him. And his trolley had lots of odd stuff - or so it seemed to me. Ordinary milk, long life milk, tins of soup, other tinned stuff.
"Stocking up for a siege?" I asked him.
"No." He smiled again. It was a genuinely nice smile, I decided. "Off on the boat."
I wasn't quite sure I'd heard him right. "Sorry?"
"I have a boat. I'm spending a couple of days on board."
"What sort of boat?"
In my surprise, I stopped scanning and looked up at him. "A yacht?"
He nodded. "That's right."
"Um - what sort of yacht?" I'd finished scanning his stuff through.
"Sail boat. Thirty foot long."
"Where do you sail it?"
"Down on the South Coast. Round and about. Look, I'm holding things up."
"Oh, sorry, yeah." And I gave him his change.
A yacht. Well, that was different. This one I did tell Lynds. She giggled.
"He'll have you as a cabin boy. Tied down and flogged. Then buggered."
"Come on, Ben. I mean to say. Why does he pick your till all the time?"
"It's all right for you," I muttered.
"What do you mean?"
"Seventy four blokes in the year to chose from."
"Ah," she said, "Mark Rushden's going out with Melanie."
Well, he was another one I'd crossed off my list ages ago.
"Still leaves you with plenty of choice."
"But, Ben, it'd be like having sex with your dad," she protested.
"You used that line before."
"So? No, he's just a sad old man."
The thing is, though, what Ems didn't realise was that in my darker moments I could see myself like that in thirty years time.
The next weekend I went for a walk again. I went past his house. Car was there, but he wasn't in sight. I walked up and down a few times to get my nerve up, then went and rang the front door bell. I waited quite a time, and was just about to leg it, when I heard someone inside. Too late now.
Tony opened the door, and looked surprised.
He looked at me a few moments more. "To what do I owe the honour?"
Awkwardly, I said: "I was going for a walk, and just passing, so ..." My voice trailed off. I could see he saw straight through that.
"Do you want to come in?"
"Not if I'm disturbing you."
"Nothing that won't keep." He opened the door wiser, and, awkwardly again, I stepped into the hall. "Tea?"
We went into the kitchen again, and again he busied himself. He poured out the tea in silence, and we sat down. Neither of us said anything for a minute or two. Then: "Why have you come to see me, Ben?"
"Well, thought I'd drop in. Be sociable ..." My voice trailed away again. I swallowed nervously.
"No friends of your own age?"
"Yeah. Some," I said slightly indignantly.
"Then why drop in on some one so much older?"
Suddenly, emboldened, I asked him: "Why do you come to my checkout all the time?" It wasn't meant as an accusation, and I don't think he took it that way.
Instead, he looked down at his cup, and said ruefully. "Touché." There was quite a long pause. Then he looked straight at me and carried on: "I think you know why I use your checkout, don't you?" I was so nervous I could fell my Adam's apple bobbing up and down. I nodded. His voice hardened. "So what is it going to be? Blackmail? Hush money?"
The surprise must have shown on my face.
"Sorry," he said, suddenly contrite. He suddenly looked very tired. "I had to ask."
"It's OK," I told him softly.
His gaze sharpened on to me again. "So?"
"It's really difficult," I mumbled.
His face softened again. "There's something you want to tell me." It was a statement rather than a question.
"Well, it's more that it's something I want to ask. What's it like - being gay?" I blurted the last bit out.
"Why do you want to know?" he asked quietly.
"Well, I'm gay too."
I'd said it. For the first time. Ems didn't count.
He didn't say anything for a long time. Instead he stared out of the window for a long time. Then he sighed.
"How do you know you're gay?" I just looked at him. "OK. From the way you said that, I'm guessing that you've never done anything with anyone?" I nodded. I didn't want to speak. I didn't trust my voice. "Oh God," he said. "What can I tell you?" He stood up suddenly and went over the window, staring out.
Eventually he turned back and looked at me again. He gave a slight smile. "You have no idea, Ben, of what a temptation you are, sitting there." Alarm and consternation must have shown in my face. The smile became sadder. "No, it's OK, you're quite safe."
"Why, Ben? Because I don't take advantage of innocent sixteen year olds."
"How do you know I'm so innocent?" I asked, suddenly emboldened once more. He just looked at me, smiled, shook his head.
"Even in my fantasies, Ben, attractive sixteen year olds don't come knocking on my door in the middle of the afternoon demanding mad passionate sex."
"Yeah, I suppose," I muttered. He made me feel obscurely ashamed. Was I attractive?
He came and sat down at the table again. "Oh, Ben, what are we going to do with you?"
"There's no need to be patronising."
"Sorry." He fell silent. "Look, I'm not the best person to be giving you advice."
"I don't know. I'm deeply in the closet, as you might have guessed, and have no wish to come out."
He looked at me sharply, as if I were being impertinent. Well, I was, I suppose. "Because, Ben, because. Because I'm no good at making emotional commitments. Because the people I fancy don't usually fancy me. Because, ultimately, because I'm frightened to."
"You're not frightened to talk to me." I don't know what was coming over me. It was as if I was turning the tables on him.
"You're not going to believe me, Ben. But you're the first person I ever have spoken to about this."
It was my turn to gape. "But - when you were younger -"
"Things were different when I was younger. It'll never be accepted - but it's accepted more these days than it used to be. Even so - who do you talk to? Pick the wrong person and ..." Again the small smile. "Why have you picked me and not someone of your own age?"
I sighed. "Because if I guess wrong I get outed."
This wasn't going the way I'd expected it to. Mind you, I didn't know what I had expected. But not this.
"Look, Ben, you're very welcome to come and talk to me anytime." He looked at his watch. "It's just that I do have quite an urgent appointment in fifteen minutes."
"Oh." I jumped to my feet. Was I being given the brush off?
"I do mean it, Ben. Both about the appointment and the talk."
He stood up too and went into the hall. I followed him. He picked his car keys up from a small table.
"I'll pick another check out in future."
"You don't have to," I protested.
"We'll see." He opened the door to let me out. "But you are welcome any time."
I went home and up to my room. It had, in an odd way, had been a relief to say to someone, to be able to say to someone, 'I'm gay'. And now I knew Tony was gay too. Someone else. I wasn't quite such a lonely freak. Mind you, Tony wasn't exactly the best role model. Even so.
And for the first time, I wasn't telling Ems. Actually, it was something of a two way street. I suppose I finally told her about three months later, when she told me about how she'd lost her virginity to Mark Rushden. But she only told me about after they'd split up.
I next saw Tony about a week later. When he saw it was me at the door, he invited me in again for the usual ritual of tea making. I could see Tony had developed set habits - too many years of living alone, as he told me sometime later. On the kitchen table were some odds and ends - I picked them up, looking at them curiously. He saw me.
"Cleats," he said.
"Cleats?" What the hell were they?
"Cleats hold ropes," he explained. "On the boat."
"Oh, right. What sort of boat is it?" I remembered he'd told me something about it.
He got up, went out of the room, and came back with a couple of pages cut out of a yachting magazine - an article about something called a Rhodes 30.
"30 meaning thirty foot long," he explained.
I read the article through while he sipped his tea. Then: "Fancy a weekend at sea?"
That idea came as a complete surprise. And suddenly I was paranoid again. Alone with him on a boat. Being molested. Or worse. He must have seen all of that in my face.
Stiffly, he said, "Perhaps not a good idea."
"I don't know anything about boats," I protested. But we both knew that hadn't been the real reason.
"That's no problem. I usually sail singlehanded. A crew is just a bonus."
"Do you do everything singlehanded?" I asked. Then the double entendre struck both of us at the same time.
"Yeah," he said, with a straight face. I giggled.
"Me too." I paused. Then: "Why not?" Then I thought of a snag. The logistics.
Either I had a face which was far too easy to read, or Tony was very sharp. "What is it?" he asked.
"Parents," I said. "I need a cover story if I'm going away."
"Ah," he said, suddenly cautious again. "Any cover story you like, providing it doesn't involve me in any way." I looked at him, not quite understanding. He sighed. "The last thing I need is an irate parent on my doorstep accusing me of being a pervert who's molested their son."
Yeah, I did see his point. "Whatever story I give them is going to be a coverup. Unless you really want me say I'm going with you."
"And how do you explain me to your parents?"
He thought about it, sighed. "OK. Think of some story. But make it good. A bad cover story's worse than none at all. Because it shows you have something to hide."
Keep it simple, I thought. The fewer the details, the less to trip on. So, back at home, at supper that evening, I said casually: "Remember me mentioning Darren? From College?"
Not exactly surprising, since he didn't exist.
"He's the one who had to drop out of the drama group. Problems with his work. I've been helping him with some essays. Well, they've got a yacht, apparently, and he asked me to go with them for a weekend sailing."
That did get their attention. "But you don't know anything about sailing, dear."
"Well, I don't think I've been asked along for my sailing expertise." Which was certainly true.
Dad diverted the topic, which was a relief. "Where do they keep it?"
"Down in Gosport."
"Where's that?" asked Mum.
"Portsmouth harbour," Dad told her. "What sort of a yacht is it?" he asked me.
I shrugged. "Its thirty something foot long," I told him, deliberately vague.
"That's a reasonable size."
"Won't you need lots of stuff?" asked Mum.
As if reciting a list I'd been given: "Darren said: trainers, change of clothes, something warm, something waterproof. Towel." I paused, shrugged. "That's all."
"Well, you've got all that. When did he say?"
"This weekend." It was Tuesday.
"Oh. Well, we're not doing anything, are we, Graham?"
Julie was Mum's friend from school: they still kept in touch. She was celebrating twenty years of being married. Mum had been a bridesmaid.
"Not Ben's sort of thing," said Dad.
"No, I suppose not."
"You've a contact number?"
I put on an air of innocence. "Don't have his home number. But I've got his mobile number in my phone. And you've my mobile number."
Dad grunted. "Suppose so."
And that was it. I called Tony that night. "It's on," I told him.
"Definite. Friday, quarter past four."
Mum and Dad wanted to know if I was being collected. I shook my head. "They live in Cambridge Drive. I'll cycle over."
Cambridge Drive was two streets along from Tony.
"Got some money for emergencies?"
"Twenty quid. And you've got my phone number if you want to contact me."
"Ok, then. Have a good time, dear."
It seemed too easy. As Tony said to me later, 'Welcome to the gay world. Subterfuge and deceit.' I thought that was a bit much. I mean, I had a slight conscience about deceiving Mum and Dad, but rationalised it by thinking, well, if I'd been straight, and planning a dirty weekend with a girl, I'd hardly tell them that, would I? Question was, was it a dirty weekend? I mean, if Tony did start something, would I let him? Knowing him by now, I reckoned that if I said no, he'd back off straight away. I mean, it wasn't as if he wasn't repulsive or anything, even if he was pretty ancient. But he wasn't quite what I'd have imagined as a first date, so to speak.
I'd take it as it went, I thought. Go with the flow and all that. So, Friday afternoon, back from college, quick change, pick up my bag, peck Mum on the cheek, on the bike, and round to Tony's. Into the big red car, down to the coast. We didn't talk much on the way. Into the marina, onto the boat. It swayed rather alarmingly when I got on. The only time I'd been to sea before was on a ferry from Dover, and that wasn't quite the same. Tony grinned when he saw my face.
"You'll get used to it."
I made myself as useful as I could. You don't have to have an enormous IQ to work out how to take a cover off a sail.
It was still quite early in the year, and not that warm. I was glad I'd brought a fleece. And Tony gave me a jacket to put on top. It was a bit alarming at times: there were all these other boats around, and we bounced around at times, or leaned over as we sailed along. The breeze was quite light, though.
Tony took us up to a place called Beaulieu.
"I've the use of a mooring up there."
It was a river, full of boats all tied to bouys. We came to an empty one, and Tony sent me up the front - the bows - with a hook, to pick up a nasty, slimy rope.
"That's what a crew's for," he told me happily.
He was a different person on the water. Different from what I'd seen before, anyway. More relaxed, doing something he enjoyed.
By the time we'd had supper, and washed up, it was late. He offered me a glass of wine with supper, and I took it slightly reluctantly.
"No, he said, "it's not spiked, and I'm not going to get you drunk and take advantage of you."
"Am I that obvious?" I asked him.
He shrugged. "Been there, done that, when I was your age. I was just as paranoid."
I wasn't really into wine in those days. I thought it tasted - well, not foul, but certainly it wasn't something I'd have drunk for pleasure. Tony seemed to enjoy his, though.
He got out a duvet and sheet, and I made up a bed on the settee in the main cabin. Tony always slept in the front cabin. It was odd, sleeping on a boat on a mooring. It was never quite still. I hadn't been seasick or anything like that, but the motion made me wonder if being drunk was like this. I hadn't ever been really drunk - not yet, anyway. I got tipsy at a wedding last summer, and had to sleep it off in the car on the way home. Mum and Dad were more amused than anything.
Eventually I drifted off to sleep, though I did keep waking from time to time. Then once I woke to hear Tony moving around. It was still dark. He came into the saloon and stood for some time by the steps looking out into the night. I could just see his silhouette against the night sky. Then he turned and made his way back. He stopped by my bunk.
"Ben?" he whispered.
I said something - I'm not quite sure what. My stomach suddenly clenched. He sat down on the bunk, and I moved slightly to make room for him. I knew what was going to happen next. I knew that if I flinched, or said anything at all, he'd leave me alone. I stiffened up - down there too - as his hand came under the covers. He started stroking me. First time since that time with Ems. All those late night phantasies. He was gentle. I eased my hips up, and slid my boxers down. I was - I was half excited, half sick. Despite the dark, my eyes were screwed tight. After a few more minutes he started. It seemed to take for ever to come. He had a handkerchief at the ready. When he'd finished, I still lay there rigid, not moving apart from the panting. His hand withdrew. I still didn't move a muscle. Eventually he stood up and went back to his cabin. I slid my boxers back up and lay staring in the dark, trying to think. I'd enjoyed the physical relief. He hadn't tried to push things. But - but somehow it felt all wrong. I didn't know why. What was wrong with a quick handjob? After all, I'd done that often enough myself. I didn't know whether I had expected more, expected less. Eventually, I drifted off back to sleep.
When I woke, the sun was streaming into the cabin. I couldn't see Tony. I jumped out of bed and dressed as quickly as I could. I had a quick pee and wash. Then I went out on deck. Tony was sitting by the tiller, smoking a cigarette, holding a cup of coffee. I'd never seen him smoke before. I suppose he saw my expression. Damn, too easy to read again.
"Filthy habit, isn't it?" he said conversationally, and threw the thing overboard. "I don't indulge often." I didn't say anything, sat down at the other end of the cockpit. It was warm in the sun - I could feel it on my skin. Other boats were motoring up and down the river.
"Sorry," he said abruptly.
I looked at him, tried to put on my most innocent expression. Something I'd have to work on. "What for?" I asked, acting surprised. He looked at me as if he really did think I was stupid. He didn't have to look at me for very long before I flushed and glanced down.
"Yeah, well," I mumbled.
"I shouldn't have done that."
He gave me another look. "Because I feel ashamed. Because you do too, despite the act. I should have had more sense."
I think it was the lack of self control that got to him more than anything else. I shrugged again. "It was no big deal."
"Didn't even enjoy it then?" he said rather savagely.
This was all going badly wrong. "Look," I said, "we'll talk about it later on, if you want to. But I'd like some breakfast, and then we can go sailing."
That stopped him in his tracks too. Then: "Yeah, OK."
We did everything in almost complete silence. The whole thing was still hanging over us like a big black cloud. We cast off, motored down the river, began sailing. That started to improve things. He relaxed a bit more, began enjoying what he was doing. He started to show me how to steer the boat, how to watch the sails, and so on. He was good.
"You should have been a teacher," I remarked idly.
Oh dear. He tensed up again for a minute. "I was, once."
"Oh." I didn't know what to say.
He sighed. "No, I didn't molest any boys." He give a slightly sideways look, and I gave him a bit of a grin in return. "Trouble is, you can still get too close to them. It's not good for them and it wasn't good for me. And I never knew whether if one day I might overstep the mark. So I thought the safest thing to do would be to get out."
"Ah. Right. So what do you do now?"
"Freelance. I.T." Then: "Look out - we're going to have to tack."
Oddly enough that little confession seemed to lighten his mood. We anchored somewhere for lunch. The wind died away. We motored back to that mooring. With the engine switched off, it was peaceful. Tony had a glass of wine. I had one to keep him company. We didn't talk. But the atmosphere was easier.
The day had been moderately hard work, and I was tired. I started yawning and couldn't stop. "Come on," said Tony. "We'd better get you to bed." He stayed outside a little longer, finishing the wine. I woke briefly as he came down. "Night," I muttered. "Night," he said, as he went past.
Because I'd gone to bed so early, I woke early too. The sky was hardly grey outside. I didn't know birds could be that noisy. There were no other sounds at all. I lay in bed thinking. Screwing up my courage. I was going to need it. I thought a bit more.
'If the deed were done, 'twere best done quickly.' Or words to that effect.
I threw the duvet aside, climbed off the bunk, pulled off my tee shirt, dropped my boxers. Silently, naked, I padded across the deck to the front cabin, and eased the door open. Tony was asleep under the duvet. As swiftly and as quietly as I could, I climbed under the duvet with him. He woke with a start.
Then he froze. I could feel him tense up. I laid next to him, not dating to move, again with that feeling - half excited, half sick. Slowly I could feel him relax again. Then: "I think you'd better go back to your own bunk, Ben."
I didn't believe him. I didn't think he meant it. He was just saying it. I lay there, and the silence stretched out. But I could feel myself wilting. "Ben," he said softly. "Your own bunk."
"Tony," I began.
He lay there, still, not touching me, waiting. I could feel my face begin to burn red. I had wilted completely.
Again: "Ben." There was a sharper tone in his voice.
"All right, all right, I'm going."
I swung myself off the bunk, the humiliation burning deep. I stomped back into the main cabin. I was breathing hard, almost sobbing, aching inside. I pulled on some clothes and went outside. The sun was just appearing on the horizon. It was a beautiful morning. Unfortunately, I was in no state to appreciate it. Slowly, very slowly, I got myself back under control. Perhaps this is what Ems had felt that summer afternoon two years ago. Rejection. When I had been thinking about it lying there in bed in the dark, I was thinking I would be doing him a favour. Ben, offering his body. Here you are, wasn't that kind of me? I had been expecting - what had I been expecting? I had been expecting anything except what happened. And I really had wanted to feel his hands again - not only down there, but all over. Really finding out what is what like - not that fumble of the night before.
After a quarter of an hour or so, Tony appeared in the hatch. He was holding two mugs of coffee. "Here," he said gently. He sat and looked at me with a mixture of amusement and concern. Fuck it! I didn't want to be laughed at.
I couldn't answer him. I took the cup and sipped the coffee. Normally didn't like the stuff, but now I couldn't even taste it.
I heard him sigh. I couldn't look at him. "Sorry for doing that, Ben. But it wouldn't have worked."
"Didn't stop you the night before." I suppose my voice was a bit vicious.
"Yeah, I knew, and I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done it."
"Yeah. But you did."
"I know." There was pain in his voice too.
"Why wouldn't it work? All you had to do was ..." I wasn't quite sure what I meant myself.
"It's never as simple as that, Ben. Yeah, we could. We could go back down now and have our orgasms together. Is that what you want?"
I was confused. "Why not?"
"Because, Ben, there's more to sex than that. There's love and guilt and betrayal."
I wasn't understanding any of this. "If you say so."
"It's not your fault, Ben. But thank you." I didn't say anything. I couldn't say anything without sounding ungracious, surly. "What you're feeling now is pain. Humiliation. Disappointment. Relief."
I thought about that. Finally: "Yeah," I admitted. Because deep down there was a feeling of relief too.
"You know," he said conversationally, "the night before this - it was the first time I'd ever touched another bloke - like that."
"What?" I was startled.
"Yeah. Mr Repressed you can call me. And just now - I wanted to, but I was afraid too."
I could understand that. "OK."
We sat in silence again. I finished the coffee. I hadn't even tasted it.
"We might as well take advantage of the early start. Come on, let's get moving."
It was a relief to be doing something. Perhaps for him too. Then before we set out he took a couple of pictures of me with his digital camera. "Evidence for your parents," he said. "You can show them that you were on a boat."
So, a couple of shots of me on the bow, casting off the mooring. Of me on the wheel steering us down the river. "I'll download them onto the laptop before we get back and put them on a couple of floppies."
There was no wind at all - the water was glassy calm. We motored back with the mainsail slowly slatting from side to side. We tied up at Gosport, and he tidied the boat away quickly, efficiently. "Quicker if I do it," as I stood there rather helpless. "I know what needs doing." A couple of jobs were easier with two of us - like putting the sail cover on.
He handed me a couple of floppy disks before we got off the boat. "There's your alibi. All taken by Darren."
"OK." Something else to feel slightly ashamed of.
We were both silent on the way back. Perhaps both of us had a lot to think about. He put on a CD of classical music - Beethoven. When we got back, I climbed out of the car.
"Thanks for the weekend," I said, slightly awkward, slightly formal.
He smiled slightly. "OK."
"No, I mean it."
He nodded. He didn't invite me in - I thought it better not to ask, anyway. I climbed on the bike and headed home. Mum and Dad were out, thank God - they'd gone off to some garden centre. I knew I wasn't in the mood to meet them just yet. Because I'd have to be all bright and excited about all the fun I'd had.
I went up to my room and printed the pictures out. They were good. He'd caught me with the right expression - I had been smiling into the camera, and you'd have had to have looked hard to see the pain. Mum and Dad came back about six. I bounded down the stairs.
"Hi, Mum, how are you?
"Had a good time, Ben?"
"You've caught the sun," she said. "It suits you."
"Yeah? Look - Darren took some photos."
She put on her glasses - she'd recently had to use them for close work. "Oh, these are nice." Dad came in from emptying the car. "Look, dear, photos of Ben."
"Hmm. Looks a nice boat." He seemed more interested in the boat than me.
"I'll make supper soon," said Mum.
"Sounds good. Look, with being away all weekend I need to catch up with work."
"You go and get on with it. We'll eat in about half an hour."
And it was a good excuse to escape after the washing up. Mind you, I did have work to do anyway. So when Mum came into my room at around ten I was still sitting in front of my laptop, a history essay just finished. Mind you, I'd been staring blankly at the screen for the past ten minutes.
"Nearly done, dear?"
"Yeah." I yawned elaborately. "Sorry. Tired. Long day."
"We haven't seen much of you this weekend."
"Yeah." I gestured at the laptop. "All this work to catch up with."
Ctrl P to print. Ctrl S to save. Alt F4 to close it.
"There we are. All ready for tomorrow morning. I'll get to bed now."
"Sounds a good idea. See you in the morning, dear."
Monday morning was a relief in lots of ways: the usual rush to get things ready for the morning's lessons, the normality of sitting down with everyone else to talk about Britain in the Twentieth Century: Social Change. Yet there was one thing that seemed to colour everything I did that day: in some small obscure way, I was no longer innocent, no longer a virgin. Not that that quick fumble under the duvet had been that significant, but it had happened, and my life was different for it. Ems noticed something.
"So what did you do over the weekend?" she asked at lunchtime.
I shrugged, acting the nonchalant. "Not much. This and that."
"You were away. Your mum said something about a sailing trip."
Ah. Now here was a pitfall. If 'Darren' and 'College' and 'sailing' came up in some conversation at home when Ems was around ...
"No idea what that was about," I lied as best I could, eyes open wide and innocent. "What did you do?"
She shrugged in her turn. "Not a lot."
Mark Rushden walked past, and I saw her head swivel. She noticed I noticed. "Jealous," she said.
"Not at all," I told her, almost truthfully this time.
Ems would soon enough have something to take her mind off any problems of mine. I didn't hear the big bust up which happened just after lessons on the Friday: I had waited for about ten minutes for Ems to appear, then gave up and cycled home by myself. I didn't find out about it until about nine that evening, when I was picking desultorily through an essay on The Imagery in an Ode to a Grecian Urn. I heard Mum go to the door, and Ems' voice. I carried on changing a word here and there as she came up the stairs. Then I got a shock. Her face was swollen, red, blotchy. The rest of her appearance fitted her face.
"Ems!" I jumped up, shocked.
She didn't say anything, just sat on the bed. I took her hand.
"Lynds? What is it?"
It took a long time to get the story from her - not because she was reluctant to talk, but because she kept stopping and sniffing and wiping her eyes and blowing her nose.
You might guess what it had all been about. Apparently Mark Rushden had gone along to some party on Saturday - Ems had been on late shift at Sainsbury's - and had picked up some girl - some one I didn't know.
"Sheila Benforth. A slag. A right slag. A complete trollop!" And so on. Ems got quite inventive in her descriptions.
And Sheila had kissed and told. Well, done more than kissed, apparently. I knew Ems was keen on Mark, but what she had been keeping from me was that they'd been having sex for the past three months.
"Ems! I remember once that we swore to tell each other exactly what it was like! And you kept it from me!"
She smiled, faintly shame faced. "Yeah, well, there are a few things that, well ..."
"I'll have the details on a later occasion."
I never did get a full blow by blow, but I wangled an edited version from her. Mind you, by that time I had things to trade.
I think it was past midnight by the time she left. I'm not sure how much consolation I was to her: I think I was more of an audience than anything else. The topic did occupy the rest of the weekend as we cycled back and forward to work.
I hadn't seen Tony at the checkouts recently - whether that was just coincidence, and whether he decided to try and avoid me I didn't know. It had taken a week or so for me to digest, to come to terms with, what had happened on the boat. I wasn't even sure what conclusion I'd come to. But I felt drawn back. Several times I was on the point of walking round to see him, then deciding against it. Once I set out towards his house and then turned into the park. Then eventually I did pluck up the nerve and walked down the drive to ring his front doorbell.
When he opened the door, an expression of complete surprise came over his face. "Ben!"
"Am I welcome?"
"Of course. Always welcome. Come in."
I followed him through to the kitchen, the ritual of tea making. In my amateur teen psychology way I'd worked out that was effectively some form of displacement activity. Eventually we were settled at the table. He sat opposite, silent, with an unspoken question. Why was I there?
"I'm sorry I haven't called round before," I told him, feeling awkward.
"No reason why you should have done." He was polite, formal. Had I ruined things for good?
"If nothing else, to thank you for the sailing."
He nodded. "Not a bad weekend."
"To say sorry."
"For being so gauche." A new word for me. He raised his eyebrows at that, slightly mockingly. I grinned.
"We both were," he eventually replied.
Another silence. Then: "It never was going to work, Ben."
"I know. But we could have found that out more gracefully."
Now he did smile. "True. And that is quite a mature comment." Then: "We have to do something for you, Ben."
"Find you some one of your own age."
"Oh yeah? What do you think I should do: put up a notice at college - wanted, one boyfriend? Or perhaps an ad in the newsagents window: seventeen your old available. Almost new. Not even run in?"
His smile was a little pained. "Not quite. But you've missed a trick."
He disappeared for a moment and came back clutching a magazine, which he tossed down onto the table in front me. "That," he said.
I looked at it and gaped. Gay Times.
He cleared his throat rather noisily. "I am not a regular reader. And I did find a newsagent I'd never been in before."
I looked at him, trying to imagine uptight, in the closet, repressed Tony walking up to the counter clutching a copy of Gay Times.
"It was an embarrassing thirty seconds. But I bought it for you."
I hadn't even touched it. "Most kind, but how does it solve my problem?"
"Page 122," he told me.
I picked the thing up and found the page. It was full of columns upon columns of small print Personal Ads. I started glancing through them with a shocked fascination. Most of them seemed to be in some sort of code. Some of them I thought I could work out. S/M was fairly obvious. And I thought I knew what a twink was. But what was a 'bear'? I looked back at Tony.
"So what are you suggesting?"
"Closeted seventeen year old in Guildford area would like to meet similar. Apply Box Number whatever."
"Come on. An ad like that would pull the perves in for miles around."
"Perves are what you are looking for," he said slightly primly.
"Yes, but you know what I mean."
"People like me, you mean?" with a slightly acid tone.
"Of course not," I told him uncomfortably. "You're different."
"Oh? Really? One day you must tell me. Anyway, you can get round that."
"Ask for mobile numbers. Ring them up. You can tell from the voice whether they're seventeen or not."
"And suppose I do ring some disgusting perve." I was being deliberately provocative. "They'll have my number then."
"Most phones nowadays have a function where you can block unwanted numbers."
I thought about that. "Yeah. I suppose."
"Any other ideas?"
I sat there mulling it over. "Not really." I looked across the table at him. "Thanks for this. Can I think about it and come back to you?"
The magazine lay on the table between us. I could swear I could hear it ticking like an unexploded bomb. We both carefully ignored its presence.
I sipped my tea. "Thanks for the sailing."
"You've already thanked me for that."
"OK. Well, I enjoyed it. Am I welcome to come a second time?"
He looked at me warily again. "Just to go sailing?"
"Just to go sailing."
He shrugged. "Why not?"
"Thanks for the warmth of the invitation," I said dryly. He looked at me but said nothing. "I've had an idea." An eyebrow was raised. "To reduce the number of fibs."
"Darren's father is promoted. No time for sailing. They have to sell the boat. Guess who buys it?"
"Telling more fibs to tell fewer?"
"Something like that."
"How does this help?"
"Well, new owner needs crew. Ben here has sailed on the boat before."
"Wouldn't your parents want to vet the new owner?"
"So what if they do? Respectable gent. Might be single, but Ben's old enough and big enough to take care of himself."
"Yeah," he said with a half smile. "Well, I'll think about it."
"Gives us both something to think about." I stood up, glanced down to the magazine. "I'll give that some thought."
"OK. Do you want to take it with you?"
For a moment, I was hideously tempted. Then I thought it was something that I could live without for the moment. Life was complicated enough without getting into the realms of gay subculture. But there was another reason too.
"Um, might not be a good idea in case Mum gets into her head to do some spring cleaning."
Which was pretty unlikely, but even so ...
And I did give the matter a lot of thought. Suppose I did put an ad in. If I had cold feet, I could still ignore the replies. And Tony's point about the mobiles was a good one. It's more difficult to find out who owns a particular mobile number than it was with an ordinary phone. But it was the sort of ad that might provoke a flood of, well, rather unwanted applications. On the other hand, what else could I do? Put that notice up on the college noticeboard? In the newsagent's window? I thought not.
So, two or three days later, I went round again. This time Tony was less surprised to see me. Back at the kitchen table he raised an eyebrow again and said: "Well?"
I took a deep breath. "OK."
He nodded, walked over and opened a drawer, pulled out the mag.
"How do we do it?" I asked. "Put the ad in, that is?"
"Got a credit card?"
"A debit card."
I thought a credit card was too much temptation. Mum and Dad certainly did. But you couldn't run up debts on a debit card. Made spending easier, but that was the intention.
"Visa?" I nodded. "Easiest thing is to do it on line."
"Oh, right." Here's me, modern generation, and I missed something that obvious. "Umm - how will appear on my bank statement?"
"Oh, it'll be the publisher's name. They're a big conglomerate. Could be for anything. CDs or whatever."
"We can do it from here."
He got up from the table, and I followed him through to his study.
"Wow!" I stopped at the door, impressed. His computer set up was really something. The room itself was very neat, very tidy, very well organised. Box files stood on shelves, racks of CD ROMs, the lot.
"It's my workplace," he said in a matter of fact voice. "I go into the office about once a week."
He took the mag, moved the mouse so the screen flickered on, then looked for the web address.
"I think I'll clean the cookies off afterwards."
Paranoid or what?
We filled in all the boxes. "They can send all the replies to an email address I've set up. One of those Hotmail ones. I'll scrub that too when we've done."
He made me type in the card details myself. Then - hit RETURN. No going back now. Well, yes there was. We could always just delete all the replies.
"The ad will go in their issue in ten days time. They forward all the return emails to our email address and leave it up to us."
He killed the browser.
"There you are."
He looked up at me with an expression difficult to read. He was always fairly buttoned up, but this time he was even more inscrutable.
"What's the problem?" I asked him.
He sighed, shrugged. "I wonder if I should be doing this for you."
"Better than hanging round the gents in the park," I said, semi facetiously.
His gaze sharpened. He would have been formidable in the classroom if he was crossed. "Have you ever done that?"
I was slightly abashed. "Well, once I had to use them, if you see what I mean." He nodded. "Then - well, I mean, you can't help seeing all the graffiti. And I went back once or twice more." Like looking at that mag - a sort of sick fascination, repelled yet attracted. "Then, one time, this bloke made a move on me, and I ran. Never been back."
What I didn't tell him was how terrified I'd been. It was like that time on the boat - I wanted to, but I'd been scared sick. Well, actually, seeing him, I didn't want to. And for six months after, I'd made sure that I never came within half a mile of the place.
"Good," he said. "Don't."
I suppose I used too much of the tone of voice - 'don't tell me what to do'. He looked at me again.
"The reason I say it is that the people you'll meet there are the real dregs. It's not like a club or a pub. It's the resort of the desperate. If you thought going off me with me for the weekend was dodgy, it's nothing compared to that lot."
He wasn't easily mollified. I picked up the mag and we went back into the kitchen.
"Come back in ten days, and let's see what we get."
Ten days. It seemed a lifetime. Even when I was busy in lessons, or writing essays, the thought of it crept back. I would have thought about it at the checkouts, except that now I'd been promoted! No longer a humble checker outer but now on Customer Enquiries.
"You talk nicely, dear, and you deal with people well," said the supervisor. "You're bright enough, too. I can't promise you'll be there all the time, but we'll give you a try out, see how it goes."
More money too. Ems was as sick as anything.
"I could do it just as well as you," she grumbled.
"Yeah, maybe, but they obviously wanted it done properly."
She swung a book at me. "Bighead!" she hissed.
"I'll give you jealous." She paused for effect. "I'm back with Mark again."
"I'd crossed him off my available list years ago. And after what he did?"
"He regretted it," she said grimly. "I mean, what with Sheila's reputation, there was no way he was going to stay with her. It was her that spread the news. Another conquest for her. Well, I don't think conquest is the word to use when you're going about giving it away."
"Hey," I said, holding up a hand, "cool it. So what happened next?"
"Well, he wanted back, didn't he? And I wasn't going to take him just like that."
"So he had to serve a penance, then, did he?"
"Yeah. I should think so too. And I wanted to make sure that he really did want back. So I kept him hanging. Let him know today that he can take me to the pictures tomorrow."
"That's what I love about girls. Let him take you to the pictures. He pays."
"Well, there has to be some advantage in being female, hasn't there?"
In fact, I didn't do anything about the ad even after the ten days were up. I just left it. I suppose in one way I couldn't face it. Until I got the text on my mobile. No name, but I recognised the number. Tony. Just 'Replies arrived'.
Even then it was difficult to walk round to his place. When he opened the door, he must have seen my face. And instead of the cup of tea ritual, he took me straight to his study.
"I've sorted them," he told me. "One folder for likelies, one for maybes, and," he hesitated, "I hope you don't mind, but I deleted some of the more, well, graphic ones."
"Oh? Might have been worth a try," I said, with an attempt at bravado. He just looked at me. "Soo-ree," I said, drawing the word out into two long singsong syllables.
"There's the likelies folder," he said rather primly. "I'll leave you to look through while I make the tea."
"Sure." Typhoo must make a fortune from him.
I opened the folder and looked at the ten or so replies. Deep breath. I put the mouse over the first, clicked on it.
"I'm just outside Guildford. I'm seventeen. Well, I was until last week. Give us a call. Andy." Then the number.
I tried the next two or three. They were all much the same. Tony came back.
"What about the other folder?" I asked.
"Well, on the surface they seem OK. It's just that - well, some gave me vibes. And you've got those others to be going on with."
"OK." I put my phone down on the desk and opened one of the replies at random. Started punching the number in.
"I'll leave you to it."
"No, Tony, you stay. Give me moral support."
"Moral?" he queried.
"You know what I mean."
The phone rang. And rang. An answer service came on, and I hung up. Try again. Another at random. It rang three or four times, then someone answered.
"Yeah?" The voice sounded rough. I hesitated. "Who's this then?" I hung up.
Tony looked at me with a question in his face.
"Something about the voice. Dunno."
A third one. A voice answered: "Yeah? Is that you, Jeff?"
Whoever was speaking certainly wasn't a teenager. It sounded more like someone in their forties. Hang up and try once more.
I opened the first one I'd read. Another number to type in. The phone rang.
"Hello? Andy here."
"Andy? Hi, this is Charlie."
"You don't know me, but I think you answered an ad of mine. In a magazine."
"What? Oh. Yeah." A sudden change in tone. "Can you wait a second?"
There was a few seconds break, then he came on again, his voice lower.
"Bit more private here. Now, which ad was that?"
He sounded my age, voice quite neutral - it could have been anyone from college. Perhaps it was! I gulped.
"Ah - the ad in, um, Gay Times?" I rushed those last two words.
"Yeah. You're the bloke that put it in?"
"For the next two months. Unlike you, who was seventeen until last week."
There was a sudden laugh down the phone. My remark had somehow broken the ice.
"That's right. What sort of thing" - he was picking his words carefully - "did you have in mind?"
"Well, meet somewhere perhaps? Have a talk, that sort of thing?"
"Could do." He was as cautious as I was.
"MacDonald's in Guildford?"
"Yeah ... when?"
Tomorrow was Friday. "Tomorrow about seven?"
"How will I know it's you?"
"Well, I won't carry a copy of the mag, if that's what you mean. I'll be wearing ..." - I thought for a moment - "a dark blue top. Black hair. No glasses. No studs or earrings."
Again the laugh. "OK. And I'm red haired, blue eyes. No glasses, no tattoos."
"Fair enough." I gulped again. "Tomorrow at seven?"
"Right. See you there."
I pressed the red button and put the phone down. My hand was clammy. I turned to Tony and tried to smile.
"Sounded OK to me."
"Yeah." There was still a sick feeling of apprehension in my stomach.
"What was with the Charlie bit?"
"It's my second name."
"Right. By the way, I'm thinking of buying a bigger boat."
"One called 'White Knight'."
"But that's the name of ..." I broke off. "Right. I see. Does this mean I get an invite to come on the maiden voyage?"
"Something like that. Except your maiden voyage is tomorrow."
"No, it's not." My voice was sharper than I wanted it to be. "It was a few weeks ago. Remember?"
Tony looked stricken for a moment, then said quietly. "Yeah. Sorry."
"No, it's OK. I've a lot to thank you for here," I told him, pointing to the screen. "I know it's not the sort of thing you'd have liked to done on your machine."
"Yeah. But I'll clean it all up. I need to keep wiping stuff for client confidentiality, anyway."
"Which of these do you want to keep?"
"Well, I'll delete these two. Hang on to the rest just in case."
I walked home feeling queasy. Sick with apprehension, with excitement. A date! Well, we'd see. And I'd leave the boat business for the time being. Too much else to worry about.
I had to concentrate really hard in lessons the next day. In an odd way, it helped, since it helped to take my mind off things. And soon after I got home, I said casually to Mum, "Don't do supper for me. Meeting some friends in Guildford for a burger."
"Oh? Well, be careful on the High Street, dear. Friday night. It can get rough there."
"Not my style."
"The drunks don't know that," she said darkly.
"OK, well, I'll keep my head down."
"How many of you will there be?"
I shrugged. "Depends on how many turn up." Which was true enough.
And of course the train had to be late. It was a ten minute walk from the station, which meant that it was nearer quarter past seven when I got there.
I walked in and looked round. It was fairly crowded. But there in a corner was someone with red hair. No glasses. By himself. I stopped to look at him first. Seemed harmless. He had a Penguin Shakespeare open in front of him, and as I watched him, he looked at his watch and glanced up. He caught my eye before I could look away. From the look in his eye, I knew he knew who I was.
Awkwardly I made my way over to his table.
He stood up. "Yeah. You're Charlie?"
I nodded. I had a momentary mad impulse to reach out and shake hands, then realised how stupid that would seem.
"I'll just get a burger."
And of course, being crowded, it took ages to get served. He was reading his book again when I got back.
"At college?" I asked, biting into the burger. I was starving.
"What subjects are you doing?"
"English, maths, physics and electronics."
"English, history, French and politics."
We talked to each other as if we were just two casual people meeting up. Then Andy looked round. "Gets full in here. And the High Street can be quite rowdy."
"Yeah. Mum warned me."
"There's somewhere quieter in the Friary Centre."
"OK. Lead on."
The High Street was noisy, but not threatening yet, although I imagined it might be different after closing time. We ambled down to where it was quieter.
It was a burger bar, but a bit more upmarket than MacDs. It was full enough for us to blend in, but not so full that it'd be really noisy. I ordered something more substantial this time.
Then after we'd sat down: "So you're a closeted seventeen year old?" he remarked, as if talking about what subjects I wanted to do next year.
"Something like that."
"I'm not into long term commitment or anything like that. Just, well, sex."
"Yeah, I suppose the same here really ..."
He had been staring at his plate while he said all this, but then he looked up. He looked faintly embarrassed.
"I haven't had sex with anyone before."
That time with Tony didn't really count. Besides, I bet Andy had probably had a fumble or two with someone before now.
"I'm not into anything, well, nasty."
"No. Nor me," I hastened to tell him. Suddenly the conversation was having an unwelcome effect on me. I wiggled slightly in my seat. I wasn't sure whether he had guessed or not. "There's the problem of logistics, though," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"One or the other of my parents seems to be in all the time."
He grinned. "Oh, that's easy."
"Yeah. You see, Dad left home ages ago, when I was a kid. Mum's a solicitor - she has offices here in the High Street. Leaves home each morning at half past seven, comes back at six."
"This sounds too good to be true," I said, finishing my coke.
"Yeah, well, having only one parent's got have some advantages, hasn't it?"
"So when does your term end?"
"Same with me."
"So - you'll text me?"
"Yeah. I've got your number stored."
"How are you getting back?"
"Right. I'm the other direction."
We walked down to the station. We parted, quite casually, at the barrier. After I got home, I sent a brief text to Tony: 'went ok'.
It was Mum who raised the subject of sailing.
"Darren asked you to go out on their boat again?" she asked at supper on Sunday.
"No," I said quite truthfully. "They're selling it. His Dad's been promoted, and they don't have the time," I invented cheerfully.
"That's a shame."
"Well, they may well sell it to a chap who lives in Huntingdon Close. Apparently he's moving up from a smaller boat. He may need a crew."
"That's handy. Do you know him?"
Just a bit. I shrugged my shoulders. "Met him once. Oh, more than that, I suppose. He comes into the supermarket, and I've seen him there."
"Ah, well, you might have another chance. You seemed to enjoy it last time."
"Yeah. We'll see," I said dismissively.
Term ended. But so that we wouldn't relax too much in the holidays, we had a load of coursework to finish off. The Sunday evening I got a text from Andy: 'are we on?'
'i am if u are.'
'how do i get there?'
'here's how: ...'
And directions followed.
Having met him, I wasn't too worried about him - only that he might want to do things that I wasn't so keen on. I mean, there are some things which you've got to move on to, so to speak, and there were some things that I knew blokes did that I didn't think I'd ever want to move on to.
Still, set up an alibi with Mum. Coursework was a good one: researching together. Then - what should I wear? Silly, in one way, because I'd only be taking it all off. I hoped. Even so. Something clean, obviously. But - I mean, you never really worried about what pattern you had on your boxers when you went out each day, did you? Who'd see them? But this time someone would.
OK, then. Plain boxers. Chinos. Tee shirt. Denim top. That it? Apart from shoes and socks. Ah, shoes. Ones easy to kick off?
So, to the station. Pretending that it's just an ordinary day, ordinary visit. Get off the other end, look at the scrap of paper with the instructions jotted on. Arrive in the road - nice houses - walk along, find the right number house, take another look at it, then a deep breath, walk down the path, ring the bell. Stand there feeling an idiot.
Thump of feet on stairs. Door opens. There he was. A relief in one way.
A pause. "Come on in then." He closes the door behind me, and we look at each other, appraisingly. "Upstairs?"
I follow him. Nice room. Stereo playing quietly. Desk, computer, bookshelves, all quite tidy. Bed. I gulped. Bed in the middle of the room. Bed made up tidily. I turn and look at him, and he's looking back.
"How do you want to play this? I mean ..."
" ... how do we start?"
"Well, I, er, I mean I haven't ..." he was as nervous as I was underneath that smile.
"No, well, nor have I. And I'm not into anything really, well ..."
"No, nor am I," he said quickly.
"Good. It's just that ..."
"I know what you mean."
And we were still standing there like prats. Another silence.
"Well, take your shoes and socks off then. And your jacket," he told me.
I smiled. "Your wish is my command." And I did. He was already in bare feet. "Tee shirts next?" I suggested.
He nodded, and we both slipped them off. We looked at each other.
"Do I pass?" I asked him. He made a flip flop movement with his hand. "Yeah, OK."
He wasn't bad. Not scrawny. Not a muscle man either. But then I don't go for that type.
"Jeans?" I asked him. He nodded. Excitement, embarrassment. I threw mine to one side and looked at him. He seemed reluctant to straighten up as he put his jeans to one side, then I realised why. He had a very obvious tent. So obvious that he turned and made a dive for the bed, sliding under the duvet, pulling it up to his chin. He slid to one side and patted the other side. I slid in with him.
No, I'm not going to give you the details. If you want that, go somewhere else. There was quite a lot of fumbling, but eventually we worked things out, and, well, yes, had a good time. And we didn't hurry things.
It took us quite a long time to get our breath back at the end of it all. Quite a long time indeed. I think I drifted off into a snooze at one point. When I was next really with it, Andy was lying with his head on the pillow, hands behind his head. He smiled faintly when he saw I was awake.
"Well, that wasn't bad."
"I'd often - wondered."
"Now you know."
"Yeah." He paused. "Have you ever fancied girls?"
"Me? No. You?"
"Occasionally. But not that often."
"It's a bastard, isn't it?"
"What is?" he asked.
"Being gay. I mean, if you're straight, you can at least go up to a girl and ask. You can't do that with another bloke. Apart from the fact ninety nine per cent of them won't be interested."
"And would just thump you for it."
"Which is why I've been lumbered with you."
"I meant it, you know. About commitment and that."
"It's ok. I'm not going to fall in lurve."
And I never did - not with Andy. The grand passion of my life would be later. And another story.
"I've got a DVD you might like," he said.
"I'll get it," sliding out of bed and clicking something on his computer. He had an enormous flat screen monitor that we could easily watch in bed.
In fact, that DVD almost became part of our ritual whenever we met up. It was a film I'd never heard of before called Get Real. But that first time, I was completely bowled over. Even being naked in bed wrapped around another boy was no distraction. Well, not much of one. The movie was brilliant. Apart from anything else, it was very funny. Andy and I would use lines from the film at odd moments, just to make the other crack up.
'I don't know what came over me.'
'I find the usual problem is not knowing *who* came over me.'
When the film had finished, we had, so to speak, got our second wind. And the film had certainly put us in the right frame of mind for things.
At about four o'clock, I went for a shower - very necessary - and began dressing again. We went down the stairs and stopped at the front door.
Andy looked at me. "A repeat performance?" I nodded. "So it's on then?" Another line from the film. I nodded again. "Soon?"
"You didn't enjoy yourself?"
"Well, maybe you don't have eyes like Brad Pitt, but ..."
"But text me. Soon."
He nodded. "I'll do that."
It felt odd in the train going back. It had finally happened. If not love, then at least sex. And I had my own code for what Andy and I had been doing: 'therapeutic sex'. If you're a teenager, then you need to assuage the hormones sometimes. Mum was there as I walked in: "Had a good time, dear?"
"Oh, well," I said, "as good a time as you can have when doing coursework. But we watched a DVD as a diversion."
So that was it. Just like any other teen who tells his parents one thing, when actually he's doing something completely different.
So, Andy and I got to carry on with our liaison. We were friends, we got on well, we weren't in love, but we did spend a lot of time exploring each other's bodies.
And I got to go sailing again with Tony. The next time he gave me a bunk that was a little less accessible. I didn't mind: I was getting my kicks elsewhere and he knew it. I owed him a lot. He never probed into my relationship with Andy. Occasionally asked me how he was, but that was it. I got another copy of the Get Real DVD and we watched it on his laptop on the boat. He was as bowled over as I was, and so I presented him with the copy, and got another one for myself. I could have watched it for ever. Sad bastard that I was, I could probably have recited the script from beginning to end without a slip.
So, you might have thought. Life was good, wasn't it? Well, yes. But oddly - I put it down to those teen hormones rushing through the blood - about then I went through a bad patch. In fact, one of the worst patches ever. Why? I don't know. Maybe it was just part of growing up. Perhaps partly the feeling of being different from everyone else. Partly the secrets I was hiding. And partly the inevitable - being gay.
At College I used to be with lots of other boys my age. Some I liked, some I didn't. Some I fancied, and others I didn't. I knew that almost all those I fancied almost certainly weren't gay. I knew that intellectually, but deeper, down, emotionally, it was much harder to accept. And - well, I didn't fall in love, but I did develop a crush on someone. A rather serious one. What's the difference? I don't really know.
His name was Rob. I'd seen him around the place at lunchtimes and so on, then one day, because of some timetable cockup, he had to join one of our classes. He seemed a nice guy. He was also very attractive. That made him worth talking to for two reasons. So at the end of that first lesson I made sure that I was near him as he picked up his books, nodded at him, gave him a quick smile.
He smiled back, told me who he was. We made our way out. It was the last lesson before lunch. You learn to get devious if you're like me. I ambled along with him down the corridors, we put our books down, wandered into the dining room together, and it seemed perfectly natural for us to sit together. Because he was a genuinely nice bloke. As well as being very attractive. He had a motive: he wanted to pump my brains on what we'd been doing so far. I said I'd lots of notes at home: he was welcome to borrow them provided I got them back. And yes! He asked if he could drop round that evening to get them. I didn't want to seem too eager: thought about it for at least five seconds, then said OK.
I wandered round afternoon lessons in a daze, then tried to get a grip on myself. He was only borrowing some notes, for God's sake. It wasn't exactly a romantic date. But even so, I sat upstairs after supper trying to write an essay, and failing abysmally. Eventually I heard the doorbell ring. Cool it, I kept saying to myself. It might not even be him. Then I heard my mother calling me. Don't run, I said, saunter.
And there he was, in the hall, talking to Mum.
"Hi," he said. "Come for those notes you said you had."
"Sure. Come on up," as casually as I could.
He smiled at Mum, said thank you, and followed me up.
I'm not the world's greatest note taker. However, we'd been given quite a few handouts and that sort of thing. I'd assembled a folder of it for him. I'd put it on the desk, and as we went in, I waved at it.
"What I've got's in there. You're welcome to browse through it."
"Thanks." He hesitated.
"Use the chair."
"Thanks," he said again.
As he leafed through the folder, I sat on the bed. As a form of displacement activity, I started sorting through my CD collection. He looked through the folder for five or ten minutes, then put it down again.
"A lot of the stuff's the same, but there're some useful extra bits there. Can I borrow it?"
"Sure. No prob."
"What's Eliot like?" referring to the teacher.
"Good. He knows what he's talking about, and he's not that boring."
Rob gave a slight smile. "Good. They cocked up my timetable which is why I've had to move to this group."
"Shame," I said, ironically.
"Yeah, well. The other bloke wasn't that good."
"You've covered more than we have."
"Well, as I say, you're welcome to the notes."
And then we started talking more generally. He stayed for about half an hour or so. I mean, as I said, as well as fancying him, he was a nice guy. After he'd left, I lay on the bed staring at the ceiling, trying to work out why I found him so attractive. He wasn't good looking, nor was he ugly, but ... I don't know, there was definitely something about him. Some spark.
I knew that I'd have to be careful, for all sorts of reasons. I didn't want to scare him off. And I knew very little about him anyway. Apart from the effect he had on me. And I was trying to hide that.
But I was standing reading some notices the next morning when I heard his voice behind me.
"Thanks for those notes."
"No prob," not turning round.
"It's History third lesson?"
"I'll see you there then."
And he moved off.
He sat down in the desk next to me in History, and slid the folder along.
"Finished with it?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Thanks."
But I suppose we began hanging out together around the college. Sometimes we'd have free lessons, and we'd work together in the library. He was bright. We got to comparing essays - partly because we'd come at things from a different angle, and his were always worth reading. Not that we copied - our approach was too different. But it was useful to see his take on whatever we'd been set.
I tried not to push things. I wanted it to be more than friends, but knew that wouldn't happen. I'd try to deconstruct some of our conversations: was he straight? Was he gay? I know the chances of that were remote, but I had to cling to some sort of hope. He dropped in at home once or twice more: we talked work, we talked. I never got an invite round to his house: I knew roughly where it was, but not exactly.
And I knew my crush was intensifying. I would have to ration my looks in his direction. I would look over, then look away, putting the image into a mental camera. I longed to touch him, even casually, but knew if I did I might go too far. Then one evening we were in my room: I was lying on my bed, he was looking through something on my computer. The conversation somehow turned to the weekend.
"Won't get much work done then," he said. "Alastair's giving a party."
"Yeah. And when he gives parties ..."
"Anything. But it might not be your sort of thing anyway."
"Lots of guys and girls kissing and groping."
"Not your scene."
I thought about that. Carefully, I asked: "Why's that?" again.
He gave me a sideways look. "Come on."
I put on my best puzzled expression. "You've lost me."
He looked back to the screen. "Come on, Ben. Are girls your thing?"
There was a sick feeling in my stomach. I could feel a hot tide of humiliation washing up my face, followed by a surge of anger. Why should I have to feel ashamed? I don't how long it took me to say something, but eventually I heard my voice, stiff with feeling, saying: "Is it that obvious?"
He looked back at me. "Not really. But I did get the vibes, that first time."
Another feeling of humiliation. "And you still talk to me."
"Hey, Ben, don't go off the deep end."
"Sorry. It's just ... well ..." I stared at the ceiling. I hated it, but knew my eyes were prickling with tears, and I couldn't stop them.
His voice was apologetic now. "I shouldn't have said anything."
"No, it's okay," I lied.
"You weren't holding out hopes?"
"No," I lied again.
There was a long silence. Something had been broken, and we both knew it. He stayed a little longer, but I was too wound up to say much.
At the door he hesitated: "Ben ..."
"It's no problem," I said, but awkwardly.
"We're still friends?"
Odd that it should come from him. "Of course."
That night, I lay in bed, and cried possibly for the first time since I was a child. Crying not so much from the loss, or the rejection, but from humiliation. Why the humiliation, I don't really know. Perhaps I had felt that I was being subtle, clever, and suddenly this house of cards had collapsed around me. Perhaps it really came home to me for the first time what it meant to be gay. Whatever it was, it hit hard.
The next morning, I seriously considered faking an illness, spending the day in bed. I did think long and hard about it: I just was not up to facing Rob again. The main consequence was that I was late, which was some small relief. Everyone was in classes. I was able to sidle into history and sit at the back. I could see Rob two rows in front, and I knew that even though he was unattainable, he was still desirable.
He wasn't in my other lessons, which was a relief. Unusually, again I took a seat at the back, and let most of what was said wash over me. At lunchtime I couldn't face the dining room. I needed to be by myself. In fact, I don't think I'd spoken to anyone that morning.
I found a corner of the grounds where I could sit and gaze across the valley. It wasn't that warm, but I didn't really notice. Then I heard someone walking up behind me. Oh, shit. I knew who this was going to be. And it was. Rob sat down next to me.
He said nothing to begin with, then, "So." It wasn't a question, more of a simple opening gambit. I said nothing. Not because I had nothing to say, but because I couldn't say it.
"It's okay," he went on. "I haven't told anyone, and I won't."
"Thanks." It was dragged out of me through politeness.
"We can still be friends."
"But it won't be the same."
"No," he said, "it won't. But I do value our conversations. You have some good ideas about things."
"You mean you like to pick my brains?" I was being hurtful, and I knew it, but couldn't help it.
"Partly that," he admitted. "I want to get into Cambridge." I knew he was ambitious. "Having someone else to bounce ideas off is useful. And," he paused, shrugged, "I like talking to you anyway. Don't get up any hopes. I mean, I don't go for blokes. But when you're over this, I hope we can be friends again."
I hated the way my eyes were prickling again. I knew my voice would give me away. "Yeah. Thanks."
"I'll leave you to it," he said, getting to his feet again.
For a moment I hated him even for his tact. I heard him walk away. I couldn't even bear to look back at him.
That afternoon I did something I hadn't done since the worse days of the comp: I skipped the afternoon lessons and went into the town to spend the time in the public library. Not that I read the book in front of me: I just stared at it sightlessly. I wasn't even thinking - my mind was a blank. I sat there until they closed at five, and threw us out. I could then make my way back home.
I knew it would be a waste of time trying to seem normal, trying to put a brave face on things. Mum and Dad would have to take me as I was. Supper was a silent meal. Even Dad - who wasn't normally the most sensitive of people - felt the vibes. I could feel the concern coming in waves from Mum. But she wasn't going to ask, and I wasn't going to tell.
For what was there to tell anyway? 'Mum, there's this boy ...'. I don't think so. And even if I did tell them, what had he done that was so awful? Made a passing reference to the truth? You can hardly censure him for that. More than ever I appreciated that line in Get Real: "Life? What do you know of my life?" Because I had this dirty great secret at the centre of mine, and one which I couldn't share with Mum and Dad. Not yet, anyway. I knew that would come one day though.
So at the end of my meal I got up. I usually helped with the washing up, but this time I just headed for the door with a muttered apology. And up in my room all I could do was stare sightlessly once more.
At around eight I heard the front door bell go, and suddenly I was seized with panic. Could this be Rob again? But I didn't hear his voice. Then someone came in, and I turned to see who it was: Ems. She stopped when she saw my face, and I could see the shock in hers. She came in and sat on the bed, patted the space next to her. Reluctantly I sat next to her and she took my hand, just as I had when she'd had her row with Mark. We didn't speak for some minutes.
Then: "I wondered why you weren't in lessons this afternoon. Then your Mum told me you were upset about something." I just nodded. "Someone say something?"
"Yes ... no." I smiled faintly. "Not in the sense you mean."
"Fallen out with someone?" I shrugged. "Not Rob, was it?"
I jerked to attention and looked at her. "Why do you think that?" Which was really another way of saying yes.
"Oh, Ben, it's been obvious for so long." That scared me even more, and I made some inarticulate noise. "No, not to other people, but I've watched you two together. You're different talking to him. You're more alive - you sparkle."
"Oh." I didn't know what to say to that.
"You didn't make a move on him?"
I smiled sadly. "Nothing as crass as that."
I gave a deep shuddering sigh. "He was round last night, and we were talking. He said something - quite harmless - but I suddenly knew that he knew."
"Is that a bad thing?"
"Dunno really. But I suppose it had been the shock. I mean ..." - I was struggling for the right words - "it wasn't as if I had made any moves, or said anything, or done anything - he just knew. And it wasn't just that that I liked him for. I mean, he's a nice bloke, and he's intelligent, and all the other things as well. But when he said it, everything seemed to fall apart. It wasn't his fault - it was mine for being so stupid."
We didn't say anything for a long time. Then: "What are you going to do?"
"There's nothing I can do. Just - live with it."
"Do you want me to talk to him?"
I shook my head. "No point. He's got everything under control." Perhaps there was a note of bitterness in my voice. "He does that well."
"It's not his fault, Ben," she said gently.
"I know, I know. I over reacted. It's just that - well, everything seemed to come crashing down at once. I don't know - I suppose I'd been building up things that weren't there. I mean, I didn't really have any idea of whether he was straight or gay, and I should have used the ninety nine per cent rule. But it's more than that - I liked him ... just for who he was. And he wasn't trying to hurtful. At least I don't think so."
"He's not like that."
"Yeah, you're probably right. Don't worry, I've been spending all day telling myself things like that. But - you know what it's like: it still hurts no matter how rational you are."
She squeezed my hand. "Yeah."
Ems helped me come down a bit. I mean, I can't say that I was on top of the world when I went to bed, which was soon after she left, but I felt better. And when I woke in the morning, things were better too - apart from knowing I had to go back and face things. Face Rob, really. Poor bloke. All he did was make friends with someone and this happens to him.
When I got to College, I was leaning over locking my bike when I heard his voice behind me.
Carefully I finished what I was doing, plastered a smile on my face, and turned round. "Rob."
"How are you today?"
"Better than yesterday. And sorry if I was rude."
"You weren't." He paused. "I meant it. I'm not telling anyone, so you needn't worry."
I was able to look him fully in the face for the first time. "Yeah. Thanks."
"Do you want to talk about it later?"
I paused. "Maybe. I don't know. Well, yeah, I suppose."
"Decisive," he said.
I did my best to get that smile back on my face. "Probably better now than later. Clear the air."
"Yeah. Lunchtime? Where you were yesterday?"
I nodded. He hesitated a moment, then went into the building. At least we didn't have a lesson together that morning. I was able to concentrate better - in fact, I did my utmost to keep up with what was going on in order to keep my mind off Rob.
When the bell for the end of fifth lesson went, I took a deep breath and packed my books. I bumped into Ems in the corridor.
"Lunch?" she asked.
I shook my head. "Meeting Rob for a talk."
"Oh. Right. Well, my fingers are crossed."
He wasn't there when I arrived, so I got out a book and started reading. In fact, I didn't even hear him approach. But there he was, sitting next to me.
A silence. Then: "I'm sorry," he said, slightly formally.
I smiled - genuinely this time. "Why is it your fault?"
"If I'd just kept quiet ..."
"Yeah, well. But it was only the truth."
"I suppose. But there are times when it's best to keep quiet, even if it is the truth."
"When did you first guess?"
"You won't like this, but ... that first time you came up and started talking to me and offered me your notes."
"Jesus. Was I so obvious?"
"No, you weren't. I wasn't sure. And it wasn't anything in particular. Just a hunch. But you didn't talk about girls. About sex. A lot of blokes don't. But you never mentioned it. And although you never came on to me, you seemed to - enjoy my company."
I smiled sadly. "Yeah, I did. And to be truthful, for two reasons."
"I guessed that. And I didn't want to lead you on. Or give you false hopes." He hesitated. " I suppose that's one reason why I said it."
"Fair enough." I stared across the valley. "And I over reacted. I know that. But - it's difficult."
"I can imagine. No, well, I can't. But I can see that it can't be easy."
"You can say that again." I paused. I couldn't look towards him. "But thanks for being so good about it."
"In the old cliché - isn't that what friends are for?"
"I suppose. Then I go and freak on you."
"It happens. You over it?"
"Not entirely," I admitted. "Give me time. I'm getting there."
"Good." He stood up. "See you in history."
He walked away.
Well, there was one thing I had to be grateful for - at least he was going to keep it to himself. I mean, I wasn't against the idea of coming out - but if I did, it was going to be on my terms. The last thing I wanted was to be forced out.
I reckoned the best way to regain my equilibrium was to bury myself in that book, until I heard the five minute warning bell for the afternoon lessons. Double History. Well, I had to face it. I closed the book and readied myself.
This time I decided I'd sit at the front. That way, I wouldn't be able to see Rob - even if I did know he was sitting behind me. I made it through the afternoon, and at the end, was able to stand up, turn round, and give him something of a smile - and rather less forced.
This was one time when Tony was really helpful. I went round the next day and knocked on the door. He answered it, ready to make some quip, but the words died on his lips.
"You'd better come in."
And I got the tea treatment again. He didn't push it, just let me sit there. It was a real relief in one way, just being able to sit there, knowing I'd nothing to hide. And I knew that if I wanted to tell him he'd listen, and if I didn't, he'd wait until I was ready.
It did take a long time before I could even begin. I stumbled through a lot of it - it was all still too raw to tell properly. But he listened. He didn't say much. He was sympathetic - in many senses of that word. He didn't try giving false comfort. He knew where the pain came from, and that was enough. And having someone to talk to, someone who would understand the pain, was worth the world.
They do say time heals all, don't they? Trite, isn't it. But yeah, it did. I suppose I'd given Mum and Dad a scare - and they never did summon up to courage to ask why, thank God. Rob and I got back onto some sort of equilibrium. It was never quite the same again, because whatever you might say, once something like that stands between you, things never can be the same. So, slowly, we became friends again, but never with that early intimacy. Ems had talked about the sparkle when we were together: that had gone for good.
But being at the college had made a lot of difference to my work. The teachers were good. The atmosphere was good. In fact, my history teacher persuaded to apply to Oxford. I wasn't convinced myself, but he pushed me. Rob encouraged me too. Just as well Oxford had been suggested rather than Cambridge: I couldn't have taken that. And, amazingly, I got a place. I had submitted a piece of coursework: 'Britain and the Deterrent', as an essay, and apparently it was that that clinched it. But there was something else that was worrying me.
Right, I was gay, and I knew I was gay, and I'd known for a long time. Ems knew. Tony knew. Andy knew. And Rob, of course. But that was it. And I knew I wasn't going to come out at college: far too close to home. University was different, and I also had the feeling that it would be accepted better there. But I felt I owed it to Mum and Dad as well.
And that was a different ball game for all sorts of reasons. If the world knows, you can walk away from people who take it badly. You can't walk away from your Mum and Dad. And telling them would be far more personal than telling the world.
Tony and Andy weren't much help either. I rather admired Andy in some ways: he had such an uncomplicated outlook on it all.
"Why tell them? It'll only ruin their day."
"But I owe it to them. Besides, they're going have to know sooner or later."
"Well, sooner or later I might end up in a, well, permanent relationship."
"What's this been then? A one night stand?"
"Yeah. But we don't live together. And sooner or later I'm going to get the questions: 'Got a girlfriend yet?' "
Andy shrugged. "None of their business."
"Maybe. But you can't hide it forever."
It didn't worry Andy, and he wasn't bothered. No help there then. And neither was Tony.
"I've never been out, so don't ask me," was all I got from him. Much use that was.
I wanted to tell Mum and Dad that summer, before I went up, but they were so thrilled at my having got the place there that I didn't want to spoil things. However they received the news, it wouldn't have been with open arms. So off I went to Oxford in September, the secret still mine. Well, almost mine.
If it hadn't have been for that, my story should end here. Leaving home really is cutting the umbilical cord. And I had something else to worry about. I was determined to make things clear at University. I didn't want to make a fuss of it: Ems wanted me to start a local Gay Pride group, but I told her that was the last thing I wanted to do. No, I thought the best way would be to tell someone casually, and let the gossip spread. For something like that most surely would.
And when I saw the opportunity, I took it. Grasped it with both hands, so to speak. It was our first week. Our tutor had got together all the History Freshers for a party so 'we could all get to know each other'. It was a good party. There were nine of us altogether: four blokes, five girls. I decided fairly rapidly that although the other three blokes were amiable enough, I didn't fancy any of them. But I spent a lot of time chatting to Amy. We were both interested in the same area, and sad to say, spent a lot of time talking animatedly about the short lived Douglas Home administration.
Our tutor threw us out at about ten, and we walked across the Quad slightly high: tipsy on the wine of the heady atmosphere of actually being at Oxford. I invited Amy up to my room for coffee. To me it was an innocent invitation; to her, it might not have been. And whilst I made some rather nasty instant coffee (with fond memories of Tony's tea making ritual), I saw her poking through things on my mantelpiece. All of it was quite harmless. There was something, however, which, truth to tell, was a bit narcissistic.
Over the summer Tony and I had cruised the Channel Islands and northern France. We were away for nearly three weeks, in wonderful weather let down only by the lack of wind. After a fortnight with my shirt off (Tony would give me occasional appraising glances, but made no moves. If he had, well, I wouldn't have thrown him out of bed. But he kept his hands to himself this time.) I was tanned and my hair sunbleached. Vanity, oh vanity. And Tony took this picture of me behind the wheel of the boat, smiling at the camera, the sea bright blue behind, as we creamed along on a fair breeze. Before I left for Oxford he'd given me an enlargement in a small wooden frame. No doubt he also had got his own copy. But Amy had picked up the photo, and was looking at it quite intently. Oh, oh, I thought.
"This is really good," she enthused.
I took it from her. "Better in a drawer."
"Oh, you don't want to do that," and she was looking up at me in a way which if I didn't exactly recognise from experience, I could work out.
"Um, Amy, you know, there's something I should tell you now."
"Oh? What's that?"
Here goes. Deep breath. Jump in at the deep end. Once this is said, it can never be unsaid.
A long pause. A very long pause. She looked down at the photo then put it back on the mantelpiece.
"Oh." Then: "Sorry ... I didn't realise ..."
"No reason why you should."
She took her coffee and sat down, and stayed, and we talked, but, inevitably, the mood was different. It was a shame. But I'd said it. And perhaps saying it once might make it easier to say in the future.
Before she left, she said: "Well, I suppose it's true then."
"All the nicest blokes. They're either taken or gay."
"Thanks for the compliment."
Alarm showed briefly in her face. "I didn't mean ..."
"Don't worry. I took it in the best possible way."
"Oh." A pause. "Do you, well, normally keep quiet about it?"
"Up to now. But I've decided to stop hiding. If people don't like it, it's their problem."
"Right." And to my surprise she gave me a quick peck on the cheek before going down the stairs. Liberal, or just not bothered?
I went into Hall for breakfast the next morning with the feeling that this might be the last time I'd go in without, even obscurely, being the object of some attention. I'd have to get used to that.
Well, the news did get round quite quickly. In fact, by supper that evening. I walked into Hall, got some food, went over and sat down at my usual table. And things went silent. Oh, oh, I thought. I know what they've been talking about.
"Hi," I said brightly.
"Hi," came back from three or four of them.
Then we all carried on eating in silence. So much so that I eventually asked: "Is it something I've said?"
Someone laid down their fork. "People have been spreading rumours about you."
"Oh yes?" I asked, as cheerfully as I could. "What about?"
"That you're gay," he said bluntly.
"Oh, that," I said dismissively. Keeping up the front was hard work, but I was determined to make the best showing I could. "That's no rumour."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it's true. I am gay."
There was a long, long silence. No one knew quite what to say. I wasn't going to push it.
Eventually someone asked for the sauce, and I helped push it down. One or two people finished and left.
Eventually the chap next to me turned and said: "Bit of a bombshell?"
I shrugged. "People would probably have found out one way or another. And I'm tired of being furtive. Hence the bang."
"You've done that all right."
"So are you gay, curious, or just being liberal?"
To his credit he was amused. "Not gay. Slightly curious perhaps. And not particularly liberal."
"You're talking to me."
"So? Are you going to jump me? Am I your type?"
"No and no."
"I'm safe then."
"Yes. And so is everyone else. Just because you're gay doesn't mean you grope every male in sight."
This time he did laugh. "Fair enough." He looked across the table to the two others left. "Coffee? My room?" They both nodded. He turned to me. "Coffee, Ben?"
I laughed too. "You suckered them into it." I looked across. "You don't have to come now."
It was their turn to shrug. James - that was his name - said: "We'll come only if you tell us what it's like."
"Too boring to tell." But we went for coffee all the same.
After Amy had recovered from her shock, we became good friends again. I still got lots of funny looks from lots of the blokes - but no offers! - for the next week or so, then it all died away again. Mainly because I didn't flounce around, or grope people, or drag blokes back to my room. Because all I wanted to be was another student, just like everyone else. Except for that one small difference. Or large difference.
Perhaps I didn't get the invites to the pubs or to the parties that I might have done, but, on the whole, it could have been worse. It could have been a lot worse. And when I did meet my grand passion, which wouldn't be for another couple of terms, he was someone from outside the college anyway.
But come Christmas, it was back home. I even spent another day or two with Andy.
"Good thing about you," he said, "there're no complications."
I wasn't sure whether that was a compliment or not.
And I went round to see Tony, though I sensed we were growing apart. Still, I would be more than happy to have more holidays like last summer on the boat.
And I knew I'd have to tell Mum and Dad. I saved it for the last evening. Until we'd just finished supper.
I pushed my plate away, took a deep breath. Yes, I know I'd been 'out' for weeks now, had fielded questions, had had to deal with the occasional insult. But telling your Mum and Dad is different.
"Mum, Dad ... I've something to tell you." Apart from the banality of the phrase, I think something in my tone caught their attention. I took another deep breath. Go on, then, say it. "Something I haven't told you before, and which I should have done. Mum, Dad, I'm ... well, I'm gay."
The silence was not so much of consternation as incomprehension followed by disbelief. Mum just looked at me. Finally Dad echoed: "Gay?"
Probably of all the things I might have said, that to him was the least likely. Mum, I think, was slightly less taken aback.
"You mean?" his mouth was open.
"How do you know?" I just looked at him. "But ... boys go through phases ..." he started.
How often had I heard that?
"Not a phase, Dad."
"You mean," he said carefully, "what I think you mean?"
"Probably. Gay, Dad. Boys, not girls."
Perhaps that was bit brutal.
He sat in silence for some time, digesting this, then got up and started clearing the table. I looked at Mum, who glanced at Dad and shook her head.
"Not now," she said quietly. "Your father and I need to talk."
I slid my chair back and went up to my room. I stared sightlessly at the screen of my laptop. I still had no real idea of how they were taking it.
At around ten, Mum called me down for the usual late night cup of tea. Well, late for them, anyway. I joined them, and we sat in silence. I don't think it was a hostile silence, but it was certainly a silence. Finally Dad got up to go to bed.
I wasn't going to see him in the morning. Mum was driving me back, but he'd have left for work by the time I'd got up.
"Have a good term," he said.
"Enjoy yourself, but work hard."
"I will," I promised.
I think he wanted to say more, but couldn't, and just walked out with his cup. Mum looked me with a small smile and followed him.
I can't say I went up to bed that night a happy bunny. We'd had no row, but on the other hand nothing had really been resolved at all. What I didn't want was for them to behave as if I'd never said anything in the first place. It would be like sitting there with a gigantic gorilla in the next seat which everyone is politely ignoring.
Anyway, there was nothing else I could do now. I went to bed, and woke around eight in the morning. Dad would have already left. I made my own breakfast, then Mum appeared and helped me load the car. We said very little unless we had to. We got into the car and headed up the A3 in silence. It wasn't until she'd pulled onto the M25 that she said anything at all.
"Your father and I were up quite late last night." Her hands were tight on the steering wheel. I hoped she wasn't too distracted: the M25 is bad enough at the best of times.
"It came as something as a shock to us."
"There was no easy way to tell you."
"I can understand that."
"I suppose you're wondering why I told you in the first place."
"Well, it's better than finding out through gossip, I suppose. Who else knows?"
"Around here? Three people. No, four."
"Ems for a start."
Her head did come round at that. "Emily??"
"Yeah." I paused. "It was due to Ems that I first realised."
I told her about that hot summer afternoon four or so years ago, and what had happened. How can you explain this? "The idea of girls just didn't excite me. So Ems told me I was gay. And she was right."
Her voice softened for a moment. "You know, there was a time when I thought it would be wonderful if you and Ems ..."
"Forget it, Mum."
"I suppose so."
We were silent for a little while as the car ate up the tarmac.
Then: "So you discovered girls didn't excite you. What then?"
This could be tricky. "Mum. I'm going to tell you some things. Not everything. But there won't be any lies."
"Have there been lies in the past?" She was sharp enough when she wanted to be.
"Sometimes," I said wearily. There was an ominous silence. "Tell me, how many teenagers haven't deceived their parents at one time or another?"
"Hmm." Then she made another connection. "I suppose that fellow you go sailing with is one of the others?"
"I always had my doubts about him. Did he ever try it on with you?"
"Once we had a fumble."
"What?" I could hear anger there.
"Back off, Mum. It wasn't like that. Tony's been very good to me. You might not believe it, but he has. I would really hate you if you did or said anything that would hurt him."
"If you say so." I could see her mind working again. "Did Darren ever exist?"
"No." Never underestimate your parents.
"So how did that all happen? I mean, how did you meet him?"
"Nothing sordid, Mum."
And I told her about Sainbury's, the lift he'd given me once. How I'd called round to see him.
She took her eyes off the road for a second time. "You went to see him?", stressing the 'you'.
"Mum, you don't know what it's like being gay. There's no one to talk to about it. Ems knew, yeah, but she didn't have idea of what it was actually like. And I couldn't talk to any of the boys at college. All they were interested in was getting into girls' bra straps.
"Tony may have been gay, but he was deep in the closet. Even so, just to have someone else to open up to was amazing. And to be honest, there was no point in telling you or Dad. Dad would want to find me a 'cure' or something."
This was followed by a long silence. We turned off the M25 onto the M40.
Then: "You said four people."
"Yeah. You remember once, last year - I got rather ... upset over something."
She nodded. "Your father and I thought it might be over a girl. But then you didn't seem to know any."
I sighed. "No, it was over a boy. He - well, he guessed, and he said something. And that shattered a lot of illusions of mine."
"I see. Do I know him?"
"Ah." There was a sudden flood of comprehension in her voice.
I still found it painful to talk about. "I had something of a crush on him."
"And he warned you off?"
"Something like that."
"So that was it." She was obviously doing a jigsaw act, fitting everything together. "Ok, that's three. Number four?"
Difficult, this one. "Mum, is this really necessary?"
"Don't you feel you owe us something?"
A touch of moral blackmail here. "Ok then. Another boy."
Her voice was sharp. "And did you ...?"
"We did, yeah."
"Someone else I know?"
"Not someone you know. Not someone from college. He lives near Guildford. Mum, you're a nurse. You know what teenage hormones are like. Let's call it 'therapeutic sex'."
She didn't like that one little bit, I could tell. "Were you .."
"Was I careful? Yeah. Actually, there was never an exchange of what the medical people might call 'bodily fluids'."
"No more details, Mum." I stared sightlessly at the cars in front of us.
"That was the 'coursework' visits?"
"Yeah. You got some fibs from me. Darren. Tony - although I don't think I ever really fibbed about him. More a question of what I didn't tell you. And Andy." Damn. I hadn't meant to mention the name.
"I suppose it could have been worse." Her voice was weary. Thank you for that, Mum. "And you're 'out' at University?"
"Yeah. There I thought I would be honest. And that I could be. It's not like coming at where you live, if you see what I mean."
"How did you do it?" There was curiosity in her voice, which oddly enough I took as a good sign. It meant some of the anger might have receded.
"I'm not into the big gesture. I told someone on the second day, and let the news spread."
"How did he react?"
"It was a girl."
"Oh?" Surprise again.
"We were about to have a romantic moment, so I thought I would forestall it."
"Well, yes, it might have done that." A note of dry humour. "And she spread it around?"
"You know what it's like. She only has to tell someone else, who tells someone else, and so on. I wanted that to happen. Easier than standing up and announcing it in assembly."
"And how have people taken it?"
"Could have been worse. One or two blokes came up direct and asked me if it was true. I just nodded, said 'yes'. If you do it low key, it stops hassle. I suppose there are some who avoid me, but maybe they're the sort of people I wouldn't want as friends anyway."
Another mile of motorway was eaten up.
"You know, it might have been a surprise to your father, but not entirely to me."
That did take me aback. "Am I obvious?"
"In that sense? In mannerisms? No. But I started to notice that you didn't go out on Saturday nights to parties or whatever. I did think maybe those 'coursework' visits might have been to a girl. No, it was something else that started me thinking." She stopped for a moment or two. "It was one weekend when you were away sailing, and Dad was at some conference. I was bored. Then I remembered you'd got a collection of DVDs. Now, I've always let you have your privacy, and I've never been through your stuff. But I thought you might have something worth watching." Shit. I thought I knew what was coming next. "So I looked through your collection. I discarded the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. But I saw something I'd never heard of."
"Get Real," I said tonelessly.
"That's right. Then I read the cover. Then I thought I'd better watch it."
"What did you think of it?"
She thought through her answer to this one. "I watched it two or three times. Not a bad film. The sort of low budget film the Brits do well." She was evading the issue. "Didn't care for the language." Mum was very strict about that: they never swore, and I remembered being blistered for saying 'fuck' when I was thirteen. "The film was really carried by that boy, although the other kids were good too. Some of the lines were really quite funny."
"Get to the point."
She sighed. "Well, dear, I did have to ask myself why you had that film in the first place."
"Yeah." It was my turn to sigh. "I've seen it through thirty two times now. Sad bastard that I am." For once she didn't pick me up on the language. "Go home and watch it again. I know it's not the world's best film, and there are lots of holes in it, but I don't think anything would give you a better idea of what it's like."
"You think so?"
"Yeah. There're a lot of lines you don't really get first time through. Steve's dad saying that he thought Steven had really caught what life was like for teenagers. And Steven turns and says to him: 'Life? What do you know of my life?' "
We were pulling off the motorway. "OK. Fair enough. I'll talk to your father again this evening."
The Quad was full of other cars and parents. Mum helped me carry stuff. Some other people waved at me. "Hi, Ben."
When the car had been emptied, Mum stood there looking round the Quad.
"We were so proud when you got the place here."
"And now you're not?"
"It's not that, Ben."
"Every silver lining has a cloud."
"I suppose so."
She leaned forward and hugged me. I was going to say: "Mum! You're embarrassing me!", but I wasn't sure whether she'd pick up the reference.
"Have a good term, Ben."
I watched her drive away.
That isn't quite the end of the story. It wasn't until the summer that I met the grand passion. And as Steven says in the film: 'Love? Nothing prepares you for that.' It was hard though, getting him accepted. He did come to stay once, although Mum prepared separate bedrooms, and I didn't think it worth the hassle to argue. I did get invited to Lynds' wedding (to Mark Rushden) and I did bring him, again to the astonishment of all those people I'd known for years.
How did it happen? Lecture notes again. I'd seen him in our lectures. Someone I'd check out, think he's nice, but put him with all the others in the 'don't try it' category. Then I missed a lecture and asked Amy for the notes. She hadn't taken any - the topic hadn't been one of her specialities.
"But I saw Alastair taking lots of notes."
"Alastair Westcott. He's from Merton. You know."
"No, I don't."
"I'll point him out next time."
Which she did. Now I had a name to put to the face. Quite tall, brown wavy hair, always neatly dressed. He sat near the front with two or three other people obviously from the same college. I went up to him at the end of the lecture and spoke to him about the one I'd missed.
"Oh, yeah, that one. I've got the notes and handout. Back at College, though."
"Can I borrow them? You'll get them back pronto."
"Might as well. If it's no trouble."
"No trouble at all." He smiled.
Merton was one college I'd never been into before. I followed him up the staircase to his room. He'd got a rather good one, bright and sunlit. It was furnished in the usual student way, with lots of theatre posters. He rummaged through the folders on his desk, came up with the right one. I remembered doing the same for Rob in similar circumstances. Don't go there, I thought.
He turned to hand it to me.
"That's right. Sorry - I should have introduced myself."
"Not to worry. Amy told me about you. You're gay."
I braced myself slightly. "That's right."
"Difficult, isn't it?"
"You could say that."
And we sat down to talk about it.
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