I turned round to the voice behind me. What the hell? There was this kid walking away from me. I got an impression of a bag slung over a shoulder, a head turned back towards me, and bright eyes. He was grinning. I stopped, and was just about to yell for him when he went round a corner. I was tempted to run after him, but that was too undignified. Who the hell was he, and what did he mean by that?
But I was already late as it was, and I had other things to do than chase after kids who didn't
know their place. I didn't even know who he was, so how the hell he knew me I hadn't a clue.
But I had more lessons to go to, and after forty minutes of chemistry I had forgotten all about
the cheeky brat.
Then, about a week later, I was walking back with some friends to House for lunch, when this same kid comes past again.
Without warning: "Hi freak," and he carried on walking past without a break in his step.
The others with me looked round at him, then back at me. It was a bit embarrassing.
"Who the hell was that?" asked Patrick.
"Some kid - I don't know him. But he said the same thing when he went past me the other day."
Patrick grinned at me. "Freak - yeah, right."
I pushed him in the chest. "Don't you start."
"Or?" he said, pushing back.
"Come on, you two, or we'll be late."
"Who was that kid, anyway?"
"He's a Remove in Hawke," said Adrian. "Everyone reckons he's weird."
"Not surprising they think he's weird if he goes about saying things like that."
And yet again the next day. He was walking along by himself as usual, and this time I saw him some way off. He walked toward me, his eyes fixed on the ground, until he was almost level with me. Then the head came up, the eyes bright again: "Hi freak."
I was ready for him this time. "Hi dickhead." Not desperately original, I know, but it was all I could think of on the spur of the moment.
His eyes widened. "It speaks."
Then he was off again. Elusive.
Although I had never noticed him before during the past year, now he seemed to crop up everywhere. The next time it was just: "Hi."
Two can play at being weird. "Six foot."
There was a check in his pace, then he carried on past.
Then a few days respite.
The next time he walked past: "Hi."
This time he stopped. "You said that before."
"And you don't think your conversation is pretty monotonous too? I've only ever heard you say two words up to now."
He looked at me with those bright intent eyes, said nothing, and then turned and walked on.
Was it just me he persecuted like this?
And the time after that: "Hi."
Then he stopped once more. "I get it."
"Six foot high." His eyes danced with glee.
"You're going to get a reputation for being weird if you keep on saying things like that."
"You've already got one," I told him.
"I know. Great, isn't it?"
I found out who he was. Douglas Rogers. A reputation of being weird, an oddball. He was always to be seen by himself, never in company of friends. But that obviously didn't stop him accosting people a year older, like me. Removes should know their place. Or, at least, go not round cheeking people who were senior to him.
Then for what seemed like an age, I didn't see him again. It seemed odd, not having him to exchange bandinage with. Until the theatre trip up to London for a Shakespeare play - Julius Caesar. It was our set text for GCSE, and all my year were going, plus anyone else who wanted to come along.
I was already on the coach, about half way down, sitting by myself. The others from my form hadn't arrived yet. I'm the sort of person who's always ten minutes early for any appointment. In the dim light of the coach, I could see a figure making its way down the aisle, hesitating for a moment, then sitting down on the seat next to me. Then I saw who it was. Rogers. He said nothing until after the coach had pulled away.
Then, "Hi, King of the Israelites."
My name is David.
"Hi, man without spade in head."
"Dug-less. Ha ha. Haven't heard that one before." Then he looked at me: "How did you know my name?"
"How did you know mine?" I asked in return.
He hesitated for a moment, then wetting a finger on his tongue, chalked an imaginary mark in the air. "OK, one to you."
"Do we have to keep a score?"
He looked at me again. "Don't you want to be one up?"
I shrugged. "It's a competition?"
"Yeah well. Something to do on a long boring coach ride up to London."
"If I bore you, you don't have to sit here. There are plenty of other seats on the coach."
"No, I don't have to. But I have."
"So why aren't you sitting with the other Removes then?"
He looked at me again, but very briefly. "I prefer older boys."
I couldn't quite believe what he'd said, or that I'd heard it right, but thought I had to say something in return: "But do I prefer younger ones?"
"I don't know. Do you?"
"Careful. You might find out."
"Chance would be a fine thing."
I shifted uncomfortably. "Are you like this all the time?"
"Thank God for that."
"Most times I'm weirder."
"Yeah. Don't you think I'm weird?"
I looked at him, and our gazes locked. "No," I said slowly, "but it's a nice act you put on."
His eyes flickered at that, and he held my gaze for a few moments more before looking down.
"Why do you say that?"
"It's true, isn't it?"
"So what if it is?"
"So why act?"
"So why not? Keep close to Nurse, for fear of worse."
He was being weird - or elliptical - again. I sighed. "Look, don't bother."
"If you want to talk to me, do. But you really don't have to bother with the act. Just be yourself. If you can."
"What is the man and what is the mask?"
I couldn't take it any more, and transferred my gaze to the passing road. He was quiet after that. I don't know whether I was sorry about that or not.
As we got off the coach in London, Patrick stopped and said to me, "Lucky you!"
"What do you mean?"
"Being stuck with the weirdo of the Removes all the way up to London."
He was right behind us. He must have heard Patrick's remark.
In the theatre he was sitting in a row in front, back with his own year group, although not mixing with them at the interval, but instead going round the theatre foyer looking at all the posters on the walls intently.
On the way back, after the play, we filed slowly onto the coach. Halfway down, I could see him sitting by himself. On an impulse, I took the seat next to him.
He said nothing for a while, then as the bus drew away: "Sucker for punishment?"
"Look," I said awkwardly, "I'm sorry for what Patrick said as we were getting off the coach."
He shrugged. "Don't worry - I'm used to it."
"Then why behave like that?"
He turned and looked at me for a long time. Then: "A mask is useful, you know."
"Because..." He looked out of the window then back at me. "Because it hides the person who's underneath."
"Do you want to hide the person underneath?"
"If you knew the person underneath, you'd know why."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," he said, with finality.
The rest of the journey was silent. I think I slept for the second half of it. He got and left as
soon as the coach had drawn to a halt.
The next time we met, things were very different.
The school was in what once had been countryside, although suburbia had made its inroads. It had been built on the top of a hill, and the views from the grounds still gave the illusion of open country. Like all traditional English public schools, it had fields and fields of playing fields for rugby, for soccer, for hockey, for athletics. Far too many for my liking. At the edge of the playing fields, the woods dropped down steeply to the river below. A path ran all the way round the perimeter, half hidden in the trees, kept in some degree of maintenance by the ground staff, but it was little used except by smokers and Housemasters' wives exercising their Labradors. At intervals benches had been placed by the side of the path, looking out across the valley.
On many afternoons - when it wasn't raining - I used to go and sit on one of these. It was an escape from the feeling of being surrounded constantly by noise and by other people, endemic to life in a boarding school. Sometimes I would bring a book; at other times, would just stare mindlessly across the valley. It was a way of unwinding. This was one such afternoon, a bright spring day, when I could gaze across to the trees beyond and let my mind go blank - at least, until I got the feeling of being watched. I swung round, and standing a few yards behind me was Douglas, his dark hair blowing about slightly in the breeze. He was dressed casually, in jeans and a fleece. From behind him came the faint cries and whistle blowing of a hockey practice from one of the playing fields. I couldn't see him as a games player. And he was very obviously not a team player.
He stood motionless, watching me for a reaction. Neither of us said anything for a moment or two. Then softly, he said "Hi."
"Hi yourself," I replied.
He didn't move, but stood as he was, his eyes fixed on me.
"How long have you been there?" I asked him.
Then he shrugged. "Dunno. I don't have a stop watch."
"Don't," I said.
"Be weird. Putting on that act again."
His face twisted a little then settled back. He looked down at the ground.
"It's easier that way."
"It might be, but see if you can try without it."
"OK." He moved forward a little.
I looked at him. "You can sit down if you like."
He glanced at me again, but said nothing. I could imagine him refusing the invitation out of sheer cussedness. Then he sat on the other end of the bench, gazing across the valley as I had been doing.
He was silent for some minutes, then turned to me. "What were you thinking about?"
"I wasn't. That's why I was sitting here."
"So that you needn't think?"
I nodded. "That, and to escape, as well."
"From the House. From noise and people."
He nodded. "I can understand that. Do you want me to go then?"
"No. Otherwise I wouldn't have asked you to sit down."
He nodded again. "Fair enough."
"So you can survive without the mask."
"Not for long."
"You don't want to know."
"If I didn't want to know, I wouldn't have asked."
He looked at me again. "You're just being nosy, that's all."
I didn't feel like answering that. It was half true, half untrue.
We sat there for some time, not talking, until the chimes of the school clock rang out.
He stood up again at the sound. "Got to go," he said. "Orchestra."
He hesitated, then blurted out: "Are you here most afternoons?"
"Usually. When I'm free."
He thought about that, then turned and left.
I was there again the next afternoon, as usual, but he didn't come. I felt an obscure sense of
He flopped onto the seat the afternoon after, saying nothing. After some minutes, he asked: "Were you here yesterday?"
"Had to clean out the prefects' buttery as a punishment. Took all afternoon."
He said no more. There is companionship in silence.
The next afternoon was wet and windy, but I put on my anorak, and took an umbrella. The
drizzle and rain were such that there was no view across the valley. And no Douglas.
The day after that he was there before me. It was my turn to sit down and say nothing. After the customary five minutes, he turned and said: "Were you here yesterday?"
"I thought it would be too wet for you. I stayed in House."
I said nothing. Water dripped off the wet trees. I looked across the valley.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"I've been coming here for a long time now," I said mildly. "By myself." He flushed and looked down at his feet.
"For being so presumptuous."
"Using words like that. Not many people would know what you meant."
He smiled another twisted smile. "Didn't you know? I'm the top scholar in the Removes."
"Really?" Although it didn't surprise me.
"You wouldn't think it, would you?"
"The way I behave."
"Oh, the mask, you mean?"
He scratched at the muddy ground with his shoe. "I need the mask."
"And you still haven't told me why."
"You don't want to know."
"So you've said before."
"And as I said before - if I didn't want to know, I wouldn't ask."
"Yeah." He stared across the valley, a faraway look in his eye. "It's there because I don't want people to see what's underneath."
"You told me that before as well."
"So what is underneath?"
"Something you wouldn't like."
I was suddenly exasperated. "How do you know that? I don't want to sit out here with someone who's not prepared to trust me."
"Trust?" He looked at me sideways.
"I tried trust once."
"And what happened?"
He shrugged. "What do you think happened?"
"So why do you come out here?"
"To sit with you."
"And you won't trust me?"
"Maybe one day."
"Fine." I stood up.
"You're not going?" with a note of panic in his voice.
"There are some more benches further along," I told him. "They're as good as this one."
"Don't." A gulp. "Please."
"I'd prefer it if you stayed."
"And I would prefer it if you were honest with me."
He swallowed hard. "Can I trust you?"
"Depends. What are you trusting me with?"
A crooked grin. "Me."
"You? In what way?"
"If I were to tell you, you would have the power to destroy my life here."
I sat down again. "That's a bit melodramatic, isn't it?"
"No. It's true. That's why I put on this act. I can still talk to you and to the others that way. It's one way of surviving."
I said slowly, "There's only one thing that would destroy your life here if people found out about it."
There were tears in his eyes. Then he nodded and looked down.
"So why pick on me?" I asked.
"Can't you guess?"
"There's nothing special about me."
"There is." He wouldn't look at me.
I sighed. "You feel like that?"
He nodded, miserably, the tears making their way down his cheeks.
I didn't know what to say. "Doug," I began.
"It's all right. You don't have to say anything. I know what you're thinking. I'd better leave you in peace now."
He started to get up.
"Sit down," I said, more sharply than I had intended. Slightly startled, he did.
I paused for a moment. "Doug, I'm not shocked."
"Not shocked, and not repelled." He looked at me sideways. "But not ..."
"I know, you don't have to finish."
"Doug, you have to give things time."
He sniffed, and reached for a hankie, blew his nose. He sat twisting it between his fingers. "What do you mean?"
"I'd guessed ... something of the sort. So why have I still come here each afternoon?"
"I don't know."
"Doug. And you the top scholar."
"They give them out for intellect, not emotions."
"On that score, you've just won one this afternoon."
He blinked. "Thanks."
There were rustling sounds from further down the path. A Labrador bounced out from the bushes, startling us both. It was followed by the wife of my Housemaster. Doug looked alarmed, then put his elbows on his knees, his head into his hands, his dark hair tumbling across his fingers. She smiled at me, having seen me here often enough before, and then looked at Doug, slightly puzzled.
"Afternoon, Mrs Philips," I said.
She looked at Doug curiously, but then continued with her walk. After all, we had been sitting a decorous distance apart, and we hadn't been smoking. No alarm bells were rung.
"You can sit up again now," I told him.
He blew out a deep breath. "Thanks for that."
"Look," he said awkwardly, "you won't tell anyone else what I've just told you, will you? Please?"
"What's that worth?"
I shrugged. "Sometimes you do just have to trust people. I hope you'll find you can trust me."
He turned a tear stained face to me. "Can we meet here some other afternoons? Just to talk?"
"You see, there's no-one else I can talk to. And that makes life very difficult sometimes."
"And I've been nominated for the post of agony aunt?"
He scuffed the ground with his shoe. "More than that, I hope."
"Never build your hopes too high."
There was another silence. Eventually I said: "So what happened the other time?"
"The other time?"
"When you told some one?"
"Oh." He went a deep red. "Do I have to tell you about it?"
"If you want to."
Silence again. Then: "It was at my last school. I ... well, I told some one how I felt about him. I thought I could trust him. He was supposed to be my best friend."
I said nothing. The silence would drag more out of him than any number of questions.
"He was horrid about it. Told me he didn't want to talk to me again. Then he went round spreading gossip around the school - about what I'd said to him. The last few weeks there were hell. People calling me names. Writing things on my folders. That sort of thing."
"And no one here knows of that?"
"No. My last school was a long way from here. No one usually comes to this place from there. But I won the scholarship, which is why I'm here now." He was quiet for a moment. Then: "You know, when you say something to someone, you can't ever unsay it. You can't wind back time. Once you've said it, that's it. You just have to live with the consequences." He gazed across into the distance.
I gave him some time to recover. "So if no one here knows about it, you're safe again."
"That's right. No one does know about it. Except of course you. Now." Another crooked grin as he looked across toward me. "My life is in your hands."
"So that's when you started to develop that act?"
He nodded. "I thought that if I behaved like that, no one would really know what I was like, no one could guess."
"So why was I chosen for part of your act?"
He hesitated. "I can't tell you that."
But I could guess. "You were lucky," I told him.
"You could have chosen someone less ... sympathetic."
"It wouldn't have mattered. They would just have thought that it was that loony Rogers again. You're the only person who's seen through me. That night on the coach - when we going up to London. I wasn't going to sit there with you at first. Then I thought, what the hell? Why not? Then you said that to me - about the act. No one else would have realised." He paused. "But then I was surprised when you sat down again next to me on the way back."
"Why did you do that?"
"To apologise for Patrick."
"You didn't have to do that."
"No. But I felt I should."
"Any other reason?"
"I thought you were different - more interesting - than the other people on the coach."
"That can mean lots of things, you know."
"I suppose." He looked at me with those intent eyes. "Have you ever fallen for anyone?"
I was uncomfortable. "I'm not sure. Perhaps not in the way that you mean. But aren't you reading too much into it? I mean, couldn't it be that you're just looking for a friend? Someone you can talk to?"
"I've asked myself that - often. Then there are times when I know that it's more than that."
"Not that I've ever - done - anything with anyone."
"You don't get much of a chance here."
He looked at me again with that crooked grin. "Don't be too sure of that."
"What do you mean?"
"I know people that do. People in House."
"Then why haven't I? Look, the people who do that sort of thing aren't really that way, they do it because they want the pleasure for themselves. They don't care for the other person at all. If I did it with someone, then I would fall in love. And that's not allowed."
"... that dare not speak its name."
"Yeah. Oscar Wilde. And look what happened to him."
"Things are different since those days, you know."
"Not among the Removes in Hawke they're not. You can go into someone else's room late at night, and that's OK, but to be gay - that's not on."
"Hmm. Love? Or a crush?"
He looked at me ruefully. "Who knows?"
"But just as painful."
The chimes of the school clock rang out across the fields.
"Orchestra," he said.
"When you gotta go, you..."
"You're reverting back to the act again."
He stopped and looked at me, then smiled. "Sorry. Never again - not between us, anyway. OK? I promise."
And with that he was gone. But there would be other afternoons.
I suppose that from then on we met on the bench about once or twice a week: our different schedules precluded meeting much more often. Our conversation was often desultory: as I said, I am happy with silence, and so, often, was he. I tended to go home quite a few weekends as well. Living so far away, Doug didn't have that option.
Meeting elsewhere was well nigh impossible: people in different Houses and different year groups simply didn't. Not that was any formal rule against it, but it would have seemed odd to have had a Remove visiting me in my study - especially a Remove from another House. With Doug's reputation as an eccentric, that would have been even more difficult. And visiting a younger boy in another House was completely out.
I think he was envious of my weekends home - apart from anything else, it must have been even more lonely for him when I was away. I wondered once or twice whether to ask him to come along, but I had no idea how my parents would react to him. And there was no obvious common link between the two of us.
So, term ended, and we all went home for four weeks. What was unusual, however, was an email waiting for me. Each weekend I would clear out the inbox, ninety per cent of which was spam. But I found an email from firstname.lastname@example.org, and nearly deleted it along with the rest of the rubbish. But then, on an offchance, I opened it. It was immediately obvious who it was from - it just said: "Hi freak." No signature, but it didn't take much of a brain to work out its origin.
I was also curious as to how he found my email address, and mailed him back. Simple, he said. He'd hacked into the school computer system to get all my personal details. For some odd reason I had included an email address with my home address, phone number and so on, all of which was part of the pupil database.
Hacking into the school system was dangerous stuff - two people had been suspended for a couple of weeks for just that a few months ago. But Doug reckoned there was no way it could be traced back to him. On your head be it, I told him.
I suppose I started to get emails from him almost every day after that. They started to contain links to sites, all of which turned out to be gay teen websites. Nothing nasty, nothing pornographic - unless you included the content of some of the stories on the sites. Some of them were distinctly hair raising, and anatomical to a degree which I found unpleasant.
Then he started emailing pictures as attachments, pictures he also must have picked up from the Web. They were relatively innocent ones, at least to start with, but they became more and more revealing. I had to tell him to stop that one. Apart from anything else, I didn't want pictures of that sort lying around on the hard disk of my computer. I deleted them as soon I got them, but there was always the chance I would miss one. I can't imagine my parents ever wanting to trawl through my machine, but that, in a way, wasn't the point.
My request to stop was ignored. I told him again. His response this time was email an extremely explicit picture with a rather petulant comment. Top scholar he might have been, but there was a strong streak of immaturity there too. In desperation, I told him that if I ever got something like that again, I would cancel this account and get myself a new email address. That seemed to work. In fact, I heard nothing from him for four or five days, until I got a panicky note. "I'm in trouble I'm in trouble I'm in trouble..." it went on, a dozen times or more. And that was all. I sent back a reply asking what the hell was going on. But I received no answer.
But I soon found out what had been going on in a way I certainly didn't expect. I was alone in the house the next afternoon, when the doorbell rang. And rang. And rang. I wondered what the hell was happening. I ran downstairs and flung open the door.
There, standing outside, was Doug, looking tired and distraught. At the sight of me, he rushed forward and flung his arms round my neck, bursting into floods of tears. I was staggered, and staggering as he leant up against me.
"David, David," he kept on saying. "Thank God you're here."
I slammed the door shut and managed to pull him off. He stood looking at me, wiping the tears from his cheeks.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I demanded. I was fairly curt.
His eyes started watering again, and I could see the lower lip quivering.
"For God's sake," I said. "Don't start bloody crying again."
His head went down and he sniffed away. Then he said, in a hiccupping sort of way, "Can I talk to you? Please?"
I took him through into the sitting room. A bloody good thing Mum or Dad weren't here. God knows what they would have said. He took my arm and dragged me down onto the settee. He sat there, catching his breath, recovering.
"I'm sorry about this," he said finally, still snivelling slightly.
There was a long pause. Eventually I had to say: "Go on, then."
"I couldn't stay at home. I couldn't. And I couldn't think of anyone else to go and see."
He'd come down from home? But that was miles away.
"How did you get here?"
"I got a coach, then walked."
And that would have been a fair hike.
"So why couldn't you stay at home?" I asked cautiously.
Another long silence. "Do I have to tell you?"
"Come on, Doug. Don't start all that again. If you're here, and in this state, I want to know why."
Then: "You know I sent you ... some pictures?"
"Yes," I said, again very cautiously.
"Well, I used to keep them all on a zip disk. All the ones I'd downloaded. I usually keep it in a drawer. But I suppose I'd been getting careless recently, and leaving it in the computer. Well, yesterday Father needed a disk, and I was out, and he took the one out of my machine. And of course, before he used it, he checked to see what was on it."
Dear God. "And he saw ... all those?"
A sniff and a nod. "You can imagine - there was all hell to pay when I got back."
"I bet there was."
"And afterwards they went on and on and on at me, and I couldn't take it any more. So I just had to get out. And I didn't know where I could go. Then I thought of you - and I knew your address."
Oh my God. What now?
"You don't mind, do you?"
I cleared my throat. "Well..."
"It's all right. You don't have to tell me. I'm just an embarrassment to you coming here like this."
That was true. But I couldn't just throw him back out to cope by himself. I mean, he obviously wasn't coping.
"I'll go if you want me to," he said.
"No. You've got to stay - at least, until we get something sorted out with your parents."
He relaxed a little after I said that, and I felt him leaning against me. I straightened him up and held him away from me - partly so I could look at him. He stared back at me, hope gleaming in his eyes.
"First thing," I said, "is that we'll have to call your parents so they know you're all right."
He shook his head. "No, I'm not calling them," he said. "I don't want them knowing where I am."
"You've got to," I told him. "They'll want to know that you're OK. Apart from anything else, they've probably got the police out looking for you."
He considered that. Then: "I don't think they'll have even bothered."
The tone of hate in his voice took me right aback. "Well, we don't know that, do we? The only way we'll find out is to ring them."
"I'm not going to phone them," he said, stubbornly.
Inwardly I sighed yet again. "OK. Then I'll do it."
He thought about that one. Then: "Will you?"
He was trying to cuddle up to me again. I held him off.
"I'll need to know what the number is."
He sat upright and looked sulky. "Oh, OK, then, let's go and call them. Except you talk to them, OK?"
"If you insist."
"Well, I'm not going to talk to them."
He was being petulant as well as stubborn. It looked as if I was going to have to do all the talking. The phone was out in the hall. There was a little seat by it, and I sat in it. Doug hovered in front of me for a moment or two. I thought he was going to try and sit on my lap, then he thought the better of it, and sat on the floor instead.
I dialled the number he gave me, and a man answered.
"Rogers here," he said.
"Mr Rogers? My name is David FitzWilliam. I'm ringing because your son Douglas has just arrived here. I'm a school friend of his."
There was no mistaking the relief in his voice. "Doug is with you? And who are you again?" I told him again. "Is he all right?"
"A bit upset, but otherwise fine."
Doug had a hand around my ankle now, but I kicked him off.
"His mother and I were very worried about him. What's going to happen now? Is he coming home?"
"I'm not sure. I'll ask him."
I put my hand over the phone. "What are you going to do now?"
He looked up at me. "I don't want to go back home, that's for sure."
"So what then?"
"Can I stay here? Please?"
"Not for the rest of the holidays!"
"Oh. Suppose not. Well, just tonight then?"
"OK. I'll tell them you're travelling back tomorrow."
He nodded, and his head drooped down. I took my hand from the phone.
"He says he'll be travelling back tomorrow. Is that OK?"
"Where will he stay?"
"He can stay here tonight."
"Will that be all right with your parents?"
"No problem. We have a spare room. He can sleep in that."
"You had better give me your address and phone number. And thank you for looking after Douglas. We were worried. You can tell him that."
"I will," I promised. Then I gave him the address and phone number.
It was a relief when the call was over, but Doug showed no particular reaction. Instead, he jumped to his feet and demanded: "Show me your house."
"It's a fairly ordinary sort of house," I protested.
"Even so. Show me round."
So I did the tour downstairs and he peered about the place. "Now upstairs," he demanded.
"There's not a lot up there. Just the bedrooms and bathroom."
"Show me your room then."
We went up and I opened the door. He stood on the threshold just in front of me, and gazed in. Then he went in and started peering round at my bookshelves, CD collection and so on. I was reminded of the time at the theatre when he went round looking at all the posters during the interval. His scrutiny was intense. Then he stopped at my desk.
"What have you got on your computer?"
"Oh, the usual. Microsoft Office, some games."
"Not much. Sim City. Civilization."
He nodded again, and leaned forward to turn it on. I nearly protested - this was becoming obtrusive. He looked at the Hall of Fame in Civilisation.
"King Bill - 110%. That's a pretty good score."
"A private joke," I said shortly.
He was going to investigate the contents further, when I leaned past him and switched the machine off. He stood gazing at the blank screen for a moment or two, then turned back me. He stood very close.
"What are we going to do now?"
I was exasperated. Was I supposed to entertain him as well?
He sat down on the bed, and tugged at my arm. Reluctantly, I sat down next to him.
"Thank you," he said.
"For ringing my parents like that, and not throwing me out again, and everything."
I was a little mollified by that. "That's OK. It must have been traumatic when they found out about the pictures."
He nodded and looked down at his hands.
A pause. Then: "Oh, nothing." He went and stood by the window, staring out. I remembered his oddities from old, but this time it was no act. He was genuinely bizarre in his behaviour at times.
"When do your parents come back?" he asked, still staring out of the window.
"Father will be back around seven, mother at six."
It was about five now.
"I suppose we wouldn't have time anyway," he said obscurely.
He turned round. With the light behind him it was impossible to make out his features. "Nothing. Doesn't matter."
The surge of irritation again. "Look, Doug, don't start with it again."
"If you like."
"This is no mask. This is me you're seeing."
"You can make life very difficult for other people at times, you know."
"Other people make life difficult for me," he said simply.
"There's just one of you, and lots of them. Maybe you should try adapting yourself to them, for a change, rather than try and make the world revolve round you."
"Fair enough," he admitted. "But how do you change yourself?"
He must have seen my face.
"Not an act that time, David. A genuine philosophical question. How do you change yourself? Should you change yourself?"
"Do you want to change yourself?"
"In lots of ways."
"Well, so that I can talk to people without them thinking that I'm weird, for one."
"You're too elliptical. You jump forward six steps in the argument and expect people to see your logic."
"What else would you like to change?"
A dangerous question. The room was very quiet. Then he turned back to the window and stared out.
"I can't tell you that."
The awkwardness of the afternoon was relieved when I heard the front door open. Mum was back. Doug looked at me questioningly.
"Mum's here. You'd better come down and meet her."
For a moment I could see the fright on his face, then he nodded, and followed me down.
"Hello, dear," she said, sorting out her things. Then she saw Doug close behind me.
"This is someone from school," I told her. She looked inquiringly. "Doug Rogers. He called earlier today. He's in a spot of bother with his parents."
"Oh?" she said, inquiringly.
"Well..." - I hesitated - "actually, he's run away from home."
Her interest sharpened. "Run away? That is quite some falling out." She looked past me. "Where have you come from, Doug?"
He told her. Her eyebrows went higher. "That's some way away."
"Yeah, well." He shuffled his feet.
"I've rung his parents to say he's safe and well. But he would like to stay here for the night. Is that OK?"
"That's no problem," she said briskly. "He can have the spare room." Mum often used it as a study.
I could see that she wanted know why he had run away, but I couldn't tell her the real reason. Not yet, anyway. Nor why he had come here.
"So you know David from school?" she asked him. He nodded. "You're in the same House?"
He shook his head. I could see her trying to work out how we knew each other. "Same form?"
He shook his head again. He was being more mute than usual.
"He's a Remove," I told her.
I could see her turning that one over in her mind as well. Then: "Well, right, I'll show you the spare room."
She took Doug upstairs. I stayed down in the hall. When she came back, she was by herself.
"I showed him the bathroom and told him to take a wash. And to take his time about it." She looked at me and I could see she wanted an explanation. I took her through to the front room.
"Sorry about this," I said. "It was as much a surprise for me as it was for you." I stopped and she waited. Rather awkwardly, I said: "I can't really tell you why he's run away, but he's had a big bust up with his parents."
"Not drugs?" she said automatically - every mother's nightmare.
I shook my head. "No, not drugs. Perhaps I could tell you after he's gone."
She looked at me steadily.
"I know this is difficult," I went on, "but can he stay here just for tonight? Then we can get him back home tomorrow, I hope."
"OK. But if he's in a different House and a different year, how does he know you? Why did he come here?"
Why did he pick me, was the unspoken question.
"He hasn't many friends in his own year," I said. "We've met at odd times, and he's sort of latched on to me."
She nodded, and I could see she had accepted that one.
"Right. Well, I'll go and make supper. Your father will be home soon."
Not surprisingly, the meal began rather awkwardly. But things warmed up in a surprising way. Mother had started a part time MA course at a University not too far away - in, of all things, Science Fiction. One of her stock lines when people asked her about it was yes, it can be done, and she was doing it.
It was an odd choice - she had discovered about the course when following up some links when surfing the web - but she was a fan of the older type of science fiction, not the modern variety of fantasy that she detested. She always maintained that the rot set in with Tolkien. "Good books, darling, but all those hopeless imitators."
I could see that Doug might have been a science fiction fan too, and he was. But not only had he read all the modern fantasy stuff, he also knew his Wells and his Wyndham. Soon the two of them were in an animated discussion about The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. Doug came to life in a way that I'd never seen before. He gave no ground in intellectual discussion. I could see Father was bemused, whereas I was fascinated by this new glimpse of Doug.
"You should have been at this afternoon's seminar," exclaimed my mother. "We were talking about Wells then. You could have held your own with Professor Parrinder with no trouble!"
Then they broadened the conversation out. What was also obvious was the sheer breadth of Doug's reading - he was at home in the writings of the 1950s as he was with Wells or the present day. They carried on talking well past the end of the meal, whilst Father and I sat and listened.
Then suddenly it was as if he were a puppet whose strings had been cut. He collapsed almost in front of our eyes as the strain of the day hit him. I could see the shock on Mother's face at the sight of him. She left Father and I to clear the supper things away and took him upstairs to put him to bed. She came back after a quarter of an hour.
"What an extraordinary child!" she exclaimed as she joined us in the front room. "And he didn't have any spare clothes or anything with him. I had to lend him a pair of your pyjamas."
"I'll agree with that - the extraordinary bit," I said.
"I've never heard a boy of that age talking like that. And he's read so much! And not only has he read it, he's understood it and can analyse it in such a sophisticated way."
"How did you come to meet him?" asked Father.
I shrugged. "We've bumped into each other at school from time to time. He hasn't many friends of his own age."
"Yes, I can see he might be better with adults than with boys his own age."
I nodded. "That's right. And that's probably why he latched onto me - someone older."
"So why has he run away?"
I was wary. "It's - awkward. Can I tell you later?"
He raised his eyebrows. "Not drugs?" echoing Mother's reaction.
"No, not that. But for him it's fairly personal. Probably better left until after he's gone. I'll tell you all about it then."
I could see that neither of them was entirely happy with what I had told them, but they didn't
dig deeper. Which was just as well.
The next morning, Mother left for the University quite early. She spent two days of the week on her course. I am not an early riser by any standard, and it was about nine o'clock when Doug came in to my bedroom. He looked odd wearing my pyjamas. He sat down on the bed and starting talking. He was more relaxed, less highly strung than the day before. We were able to talk more naturally, with, again, silences as he thought his way through what he was saying. Gradually he spread himself across the bed, ending up lying back next to me. I was more relaxed to, which meant I wasn't ready for what happened next.
He twisted himself round suddenly, and made a dive for me, squirming in so that I found him under the duvet with me, clutching me. I tried fending him off as he tried cuddling up next to me, but it was like dealing with a combination of a puppy, a small boy, and a randy teenager as he squirmed and wriggled. He was enjoying the struggle, giggling as we wrestled. Eventually I was able to hold him, as he lay next to me, warm, panting. He started rubbing his head up and down on my shoulder. I needed three hands at least to subdue him properly. And I think he was enjoying being held down too. Then the inevitable happened. His excitement communicated itself to me. The movement of his body against mine became slower and more languorous.
"David," he murmured as he fitted his body to mine, and I succumbed, relaxing my grip. He pulled the duvet over our heads as our limbs tangled together, as I returned his embrace. I couldn't have done a more stupid thing.
A long time later I woke from a doze to find his head on my chest as he slept, his legs draped across mine. I could feel his breath on my skin as he exhaled. I cursed myself for my own stupidity. After what had just done together, how was I ever going to cope with him again in the future? There he was, with a crush, a fixation, on me, and I had given in and yielded to him. If he been clinging before, what would he be like now, after this? I was prepared to be a friend of his, but I knew I could not be more. He wanted what I could not give. And despite the number of times it had happened to him, he still took rejection badly.
I stared at the ceiling for a long time trying to think of a way out of this impasse, without success, until eventually he too stirred and woke.
"David," he murmured again.
Now I was able to shake him off me, relaxed as he was.
"Let's stay here. It's so nice and warm and comfy. Please, David."
I threw the duvet onto the floor and let in a blast of cold air. He sat up, affronted, staring at me.
"What did you do that for?" he asked.
"Time to get up," I told him.
He tried stroking my chest, and I had to push his hands away.
"Can't we stay here a little bit longer? It's nice being with you. Don't say you don't like it." He smirked. "I know you do."
His hands were becoming more persistent now, and I know that if we didn't get out of bed now, we would be in for another bout of naked wrestling. And I knew how that would end. I threw him off me and he tumbled out onto the floor. That gave me a chance to escape, and climb out and put a dressing gown on. He sat on the floor looking at me sadly, reproachful.
"What's the matter? Wasn't it - enjoyable?"
Too enjoyable was the answer to that, but not the one I was going to give him.
"Yes, Doug, but that's not the reason."
"I'll sit and tell you if you promise not to molest me again."
He looked at me then slowly nodded. I sat down again on the bed, Doug at my feet.
"You want me as more than a friend," I said. "And that's not something I can do."
"Why not?" he asked softly.
"Because of all sorts of reasons. Because we're too young for this sort of thing. Because the only way to do it is to make it furtive. Because I can't tell my parents what we're doing. And because you can't tell yours either. Because we can't do that sort of thing back at school. Because I don't know if I want to, anyway."
He looked down at my feet. "Does it matter if we have an hour or two to ourselves just now and then?" I could hear his voice quavering.
"Yes. Because if we do, you'll start becoming even more attached to me. And you know it won't end there either. It'll end with something very messy."
He reached out and started stroking my feet. I pulled them back.
He really did start crying now. In some ways, he was like a small child being deprived of a new toy. And there were times when I felt his crying acts were being manipulative. I was getting tired of them.
"Doug," I said sharply. "Sit up and grow up." Taken by surprise, he jerked up his head to look at me. "Come on. Time to get a shower and have some breakfast. Mum's going to be back in a couple of hours."
Last night she had offered to drive him back home. It would take about two hours from here, but she finished relatively early, so we wouldn't be back too late getting there and back. Had it been someone else, I don't think she would have made the offer, but Doug had made an impression on her.
"Suppose," he said rather sulkily.
I sighed. "Don't do that either," I told him.
"What?" he said antagonistically.
"Sulk. It's second only to self pity."
That silenced him. I went out to the bathroom for a shower. He was waiting for me with a towel when I stepped out, and I made sure that I took it out of his hands. Given half a chance, he'd have started towelling me down, and it wouldn't have stopped there. Then he stepped in for his shower.
By the time he was finished, I was dry and back in my dressing gown, and handed him a towel in turn. I looked at him. He was on the thin side for his height, with narrow shoulders. Whether he'd fill out with adolescence was uncertain, but somehow I didn't think so.
I took him back to the bedroom, and started dressing. He stood in the middle of the room, still nude. I think he was enjoying that. And he was showing off, hoping that I still might yield to him.
"What's the problem now?" I asked.
"I've nothing to wear," he said. "Only the stuff I had on yesterday, and by now that's a bit ... well, yucky by now."
"Oh." I hadn't thought about that. Then: "Help yourself to some of my clothes." I nodded toward the chest of drawers. He was almost my size - and if the clothes were too big, it wouldn't matter that much.
He started rummaging through the drawers, taking out T-shirts, looking through them, then my underwear. I turned away. I think he was enjoying going through my wardrobe. Eventually he had some clothes laid out on the bed, and, rather reluctantly, began dressing. I took him down for some breakfast.
Sitting the other side of the table, drinking his coffee, he locked his feet around my ankles. I think he enjoyed these tokens of affection or possession. I said nothing and ignored it. Or tried to. He chatted on inconsequentially.
Mum was home at just after two, ready to take him back. He was quieter now, knowing he had to go back home. She found him a carrier bag for the clothes he'd brought with him, and rather reluctantly on his part, we went out to the car. But now Mother was here, he couldn't try on any of his tricks. I think he wanted to sit in the back with me, but I pushed him into the front seat.
As we drove along the motorway, he began asking Mother about the morning's seminar, and soon they were well away. A lot of it passed over the top of my head - the difference between 'soft' S.F. and 'hard' S.F. took them half an hour of the journey. I was also aware that he was showing off, and doing his best to impress Mother. There was a streak of intellectual vanity in him. He was also showing off to Mother to impress me, I think. But it made the journey seem a good deal shorter.
Meeting his parents was always going to be difficult. He directed us through the town and out to a small cul de sac in a suburb on the outskirts. He pointed out the house where he lived, and we pulled up into the drive, and got out. Doug hung back. Mother looked at him as he stood there, head down, and then went to ring the doorbell. His father answered.
"Mr Rogers?" she asked. "I'm Roma FitzWilliam."
"Ah, you've brought Douglas back with you? Thank you very much. Come in, come in."
I could see that he was considerably older than the usual run of parents: I find it difficult to put an age on people, but he must have been in his late fifties. He ushered us in to their front room, and insisted we sat down.
Mother and I sat on the sofa, and Doug took an upright chair. Then his mother came in. I stood up, and she shook hands with us all.
Then: "You'd like some tea after your journey?"
"That's very kind."
I noticed that not only had Doug not spoken to them, but they hadn't spoken to him either. There was a few minutes of rather awkward small talk as we had our tea, then Mr Rogers said: "We're very grateful to you for looking after Douglas, and for bringing him back like this. It must have been a nuisance for you."
"Not at all," said Mother. "Actually, I was very impressed with him. He has a very good mind and is extraordinarily widely read. Talking to him has been a pleasure. You're very lucky to have such a talented child."
I could see that from the expression on their faces that they didn't really know how to take this. Mother had diffused the awkwardness by extolling Doug's virtues. Coming unforced from someone near their own age in this fashion took some of the wind from their sails.
Instead they turned their attention to me. "So you're in the same House as Douglas?" his mother asked.
I sighed. We were going to have to go through this routine again.
"Neither the same House nor the same year. But we've met on quite a few occasions - theatre trips up to London and so on. I think Doug has difficulties with people in his own year, and perhaps gets on better with adults, or people a little older, such as me."
I was talking about him as if he weren't there. And for all he said or did, he might not have been.
"Oh, I see."
But I don't think she did.
I hadn't told Mother yet why he'd run away, and I could see she was still trying to work it out. But our conversation reverted to banalities, and soon she stood up and said we had to be making our way back. Doug had changed from the bright confident boy of the journey to a miserable, whitefaced youngster. But there was nothing much more we could do for him. And I was still uncomfortable and guilty about what had happened this morning.
"Thank you very much again for being so kind to Doug," his father told us, as we made our way to the front door.
"Not at all. We enjoyed his company."
As we got into the car, I could see his white face pressed to an upstairs window. I gave him a wave, and a hand appeared in return. I knew that the last thing Doug wanted was to be left here. He had acquired not only a lover in me but an admirer of his talent in the form of Mother. And I could see what Father had meant about him getting on better with adults. Intellectually, he could hold his own with them, whereas I knew that he baffled most of his contemporaries. And as we drove away, I could see that white face staring out of the window after us.
"Phew," said Mother, backing the car out, "that was hard work. He's an only child, you say?"
"Well, I can imagine why he gets bored and frustrated there. They don't seem very exciting people."
Mother was silent for a few more minutes, then again exclaimed, "What an extraordinary boy. He's wasted at that school of yours. He should be at University now." I was silent. She gave me a sidelong look. "Now tell me why he run away."
How could I put it tactfully? Eventually, I said: "His father found ... some stuff on his computer."
"Stuff? Oh - porn?" I nodded. "Surely they're not that prudish, are they? He is a teenager, after all."
"Well," - I cleared my throat, uncomfortable with the topic - "it wasn't the usual type of porn."
She was expecting more. I had to go on.
"It was ... well, it was pictures of other boys."
"Oh." This time there was a flood of comprehension in her voice. A pause. Then she asked the question I had been hoping she wouldn't. "So why...?"
"Why did he come to you?"
An even more difficult one. "Because, I think, there was nowhere else. He doesn't have any friends in his own year or in his House. I'm someone he can talk to, who doesn't make fun of him all the time. Which is why he's latched onto me like this."
"A crush?" she asked directly.
I shrugged uncomfortably. "Could be." I was becoming tired of the half truths and evasions.
"If it was, you need to be very careful. You can't afford to encourage him or to reject him. Either would be a disaster." If only she knew.
"I know. It's a tricky situation. I'm glad we got him back home so easily."
"Well, I must say, you were very good with him."
"It couldn't have been easy, particularly with him turning up on the doorstep like that."
"It wasn't. It was awkward, and I know it. But as you say, I couldn't really turn him away. You can see what he's like. And what his parents are like."
"Yes, indeed. I hope they aren't too hard on him."
Luckily for me, the increased rush hour traffic kept her attention on the road, so we didn't
have to discuss Doug much further, which was a relief. I don't think there was much more I
could have said without being too revealing.
I didn't hear from him again that holidays - not that there was much left of it. I later discovered that his parents had made him remove the modem from his computer, so he couldn't access the Internet any more. Given the legitimate use that he made of it, that must have hurt.
And once back at school, it was as if the incident in the holidays had never happened. Neither of us mentioned it again - although I think that our reasons for not doing so were very different. We would meet on a bench in the woods perhaps once a week or so as before. And when we were there, we would chat idly, or just sit quietly. As with me, I think the quietness was in itself a solace.
In the new school year, I moved up to the Sixth Form, and Doug was supposed to be working for his GCSEs. But I knew the schoolwork was not going so well for him - I noticed his name on the School Detention list several times. I could well imagine the tedium of GCSE coursework being a source of frustration for him. And I began to notice other changes in him. The angst was slowly being replaced by a deeper sadness, and there were times when his behaviour was odd, but not in a way I had noticed before. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, pin it down, but I knew something was amiss, something not quite right. Then, one day, I discovered what.
He was sitting on the bench as usual, looking out across the valley, as I approached. I was slightly earlier than usual. I suppose that in many ways I am a creature of habit, and I tend to stick to a routine. As I came closer, I saw him take a swig from a small bottle which seemed to contain orange juice. It wasn't the sort of day where a cooling drink would have been pleasant, but a cold, damp, raw autumn day, a harbinger of winter. There was something odd about the way he was swigging from it, too. I stopped a pace or two behind him and watched as he took another gulp. He hadn't yet realised I was there.
As he drunk from the bottle, I leaned forward and snatched it from his hand. Some spilled across him. He swung round: "What the hell..." then saw it was me. He stopped, hesitated. He looked at me anxiously.
"David," he said, with uncertainty in his voice, looking at me and at the bottle I was holding.
He stood up, and came round the bench, then made a sudden grab for the bottle. I was expecting something of the sort, and held up it at arm's length, out of his reach. He was as tall as me now, and we grappled for a moment. Then he stopped, and instead of fighting me, put his arms around my neck. His face was close to mine. He stared at me. His arms grew tighter round my neck.
"Give it back," he asked eventually. His face was anxious, pleading. "Please."
Slowly he leaned forward, until his face was only inches from mine. But then I noticed his breath smelt of something. I pulled away from him, and sniffed the contents of the bottle, then took a swig of it myself.
I stared at him. "Vodka?" I asked.
He nodded, not looking at me, his arms falling from my neck and dropping by his side.
"So that's why you're been behaving so peculiarly at times."
He nodded again. Then I upturned the bottle, emptying its contents. He uttered an incoherent cry, made another grab for it, but failed. I threw the empty carton into the bushes.
"Bastard!" he cried, furious now. This time he almost looked as though he really was going to hit me.
"Do you really have to do it this way, Doug?"
He turned and sat down on the bench again, his head in his hands. I sat next to him. He was crying again, but this time I don't think it was an act. It was a hopeless forlorn crying. It made me feel a complete bastard. For once I lowered my guard and put my arm round him.
It took a long time before he could speak to me properly. Eventually he sat up, and wiped his face with the back of his hand. He stared down at the ground, then said: "It rounds off the edges."
For once he was struggling with words. "It gives - insulation. When I've had a bit to drink, I can go back to House, and if people say something, when they are getting at me again, it just doesn't register. It doesn't matter. I can just walk past them and not care. I don't even have to bother saying 'fuck you' in my mind. I just don't care about them - not after I've had a drink."
I knew that he came in for a lot of verbal from the others in his House: he had been in trouble in the summer when he had suddenly flipped, and vented a lot of pent up anger and aggression on one of his tormentors. If Doug hadn't been pulled off in time, he might well have done the chap some serious harm. I could imagine that Doug's manner would spark aggro from others, which he would return with interest.
But to be drinking like this at sixteen. That was both sad and serious.
"Where do you keep it?"
"I'm not telling you that!"
"Carry on like this, and you'll be an alcoholic in a couple of year's time."
He shrugged. "Who cares? I mean, who does care?"
I looked at him. He looked back, and then flushed red. "Sorry," he muttered. "I know you do. It's all the others."
"I'd wondered what it was," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"There have been times when you were different. Not quite something I could put my finger on, but noticeable. It must have been the drink."
"Yeah, well," he muttered.
"It dulls you, Doug."
He looked taken aback. "What do you mean?"
"That when you were like that, when you'd been drinking, you weren't as sharp. You were duller."
Now I had offended that streak of intellectual vanity. "Oh."
He stared listlessly at the ground. I felt helpless.
"Doug, you've got to try to not let the place get you down."
"I hate them all," he said with a sudden passion. "And all the lessons are so ... tedious."
"It gets better in the Sixth Form."
"There's another two terms to get through before that."
"Do the work properly and they'll go quicker. Trite, I know, but true."
I didn't think my exhortations were going to be much use, but I felt it incumbent on me to try. There must be something else I could do for him. I remembered that time he'd run away, when he'd stayed. How well he'd got on with my parents. Perhaps there was something I could do for him.
"Do you want to come home next weekend?" I asked.
"What do you mean?" he asked, startled.
"Come home to my place. Stay with us next weekend."
He looked at me, not quite believing me. "You really mean that?"
I nodded. If he were with us, at least he wouldn't be drinking. He stared sightless into the distance, thinking about it.
"Your parents," he asked.
"Did you ever tell them why I ran away like that?"
"I told Mother in the car on the way back."
"I had to really - I mean, they were obviously curious, and I didn't think I was up to inventing any other story."
"So they know about me - you told what the pictures were?" I nodded. "What did they say?"
"Not a lot."
"I mean, weren't they shocked?"
"Not really. I think you'd have to try harder than that to shock Mother."
"Mine were. They couldn't stop going on about it."
"Yeah - I'm sorry. It can't have been easy for you - them finding out about that sort of thing."
"You can say that again." He was silent again for a minute or two. Then: "Did they ask why I came to see you?"
"What did you say?"
I hesitated, then: "That we talked from time to time. That you didn't have many other friends at school."
"That's true enough. Did they accept that?"
"So what will they say about me coming to stay with you again?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. But I can ring them up and ask them. Mind you, it would have to be the spare room again."
"Yeah." He gave a crooked smile. "David...?"
He started to say something then stopped. Then: "Will you really ring them?"
"I enjoyed talking to your mother."
"You enjoying showing off, more like it."
He looked startled, then laughed. "Yeah. I suppose." Then: "What time is it?"
I looked at my watch. "Three."
"I have to get back to House. Hogge wants to see me." Hogge was his Housemaster.
"About your work?"
He nodded. "I'm in trouble yet again."
"Do it, Doug. Boring but necessary."
"Yeah." He was silent again. Then: "You'll ring your parents?"
"I said I would."
"That's one thing about you, David."
"If you say something, you mean it."
He stood up and gazed across the valley, then said: "See you later."
I called home that evening and explained.
"You see, Mum, he's starting to get into trouble at school, with his work, and it would do him good to get away. He really hates the place at times."
"That's no problem. Of course he can come. I'll get the spare room ready."
"Thanks. You see, there's something else as well."
"He's started drinking."
"I caught him the other day with some drink. Some vodka. He says he drinks to dull the edges."
"So this is a rescue mission?"
"You could say that."
"Have there been any other problems?"
"Well, you did say ... well, something about him getting attached to you."
"He's not mentioned anything about it at all. I don't honestly know how he feels. I mean, I haven't encouraged him. We've just been friends, that's all."
"In that case, he's been lucky. Having you to look after him like that. Not everyone would have bothered."
"I suppose." I paused. "So I'll tell him it's OK then? For him to come for the weekend?"
"No problem. I'll collect the two of you at the usual time. Saturday afternoon."
"Yeah. Thanks, Mum."
The weekend passed off better than I could have hoped. Doug was on his best behaviour. I think he knew he had to be. He was polite, he tried to say all the right things. And he didn't try and molest me. I was worried he might try and sneak into my room at night. But he turned the charm on with my parents - and he had charm when he wanted to use it.
And, as Father had remarked, he was good with adults. I think he didn't have many people to talk to - not in the way he wanted. I knew there were a few of his teachers who encouraged him, but most were too concerned about going through the exam rituals to bother with all his questions. Plus, of course, there were twenty other people in the class who also needed attention. Hence he would often drop out from sheer boredom.
So rather than being the ordeal I thought it might have been, it was all very enjoyable. While Mother and he were busy washing up after lunch on Sunday, Father said to me: "You must bring him more often. He's good value. And he certainly gets on well with your mother."
Then I told him of the vodka incident, and real reason why I'd asked him out for the weekend.
"Oh Lord," he said, dismayed. "And at that age, too."
"Exactly. I think I got at him through his vanity."
"I told him that the drink made him dull, boring. Not as sharp."
"I see what you mean. He's sharp all right. I suppose he didn't like been told that."
"That's right. I think he knows that's all he has going for him, really. So I'm hoping that's the way to stop him."
"There are some people you can't stop," said Father, frankly. "A friend of mine - well, he just lost it. By the end, he was having to have his first drink of the day at nine o'clock in the morning. He was lucky enough to be able to take early retirement. But there are some people who once they've started just can't stop. I just hope he's not one of them."
"So do I."
After that, Doug would come and stay every few weeks or so. It wasn't a particularly regular arrangement, but it seemed to work, and helped, I hope, to keep him on the straight and narrow. He seemed steadier at school, and if he was still drinking, I didn't notice it.
It was sometime not long after term ended in the summer that I got the phone call. I suppose it was about nine o'clock on a Saturday evening- Mum and Dad had gone out to a dinner party somewhere. Not really my scene. I was at the age where I was too young to enjoy dinner parties but old enough to be left at home by myself. I was idly watching the television when the phone rang, and, mildly irritated by being disturbed. I answered it, expecting to have to take a message for Mum or Dad.
Instead, I heard: "David?" The voice was subdued, indistinct, breathy, painful, hard to make out.
"Yes, it is - who's that?" I couldn't quite place who it was calling.
"Oh - sorry, it didn't sound at all like you."
"Yeah - well, I'm not surprised. Look - I've a problem - quite a serious one, really. Can you help me out?"
"Sure. Where are you?"
I wasn't expecting that.
"Right. What sort of a problem?"
He paused. "I'm hurt. Rather badly."
"Oh?" That would account for his voice.
"Well..." he paused. "I've been raped, actually."
"What?" I couldn't quite believe what I'd just heard.
"I'm not going to say it again. Anyway, I think I need a hospital."
"Christ. How are you - I mean..." I stuttered into silence.
"Bad enough. Can you help?"
"Of course I can help. Where exactly are you in Kensington?"
"A phone box. It's in Rowledge Street."
"Never heard of it. Where's that?"
"No idea. I can just see the road sign from here. You've an A to Z, haven't you? You can find it in there. David ... please."
"Sure. It'll take me a little time, though."
"OK. Don't worry - I won't be going far."
We live in the suburbs - neither in London nor out of it. But we are at the end of a Tube line - which is why we had bought the house in the first place, so Father could commute in more easily.
By the time I'd left a note for Mum and Dad, found the A to Z, and caught a train, it was the best part of an hour before I get to Kensington High Street. I came out of the Tube station into the twilight, into the turmoil of a Saturday night. From the map, Rowledge Street was in the middle of a maze of back streets not too far away. At least there were plenty of cabs round here. I stood on the edge of the pavement and managed to flag one down, and climbed in.
"Rowledge Street, please," I told the cabbie.
"Right. Any particular part?"
"There's a phone box somewhere along the street. By there."
It was only a minute or two by cab; on foot, in this maze, it would have taken me ages to find him. We pulled up by the phone box, then I saw him. He was up against the wall of a nearby house, lying on his side, knees up to his chin, his arms hugging his legs. Not a pretty sight.
"Can you wait a moment?"
I went up to him. "Doug?"
His eyes opened. "David. The ever dependable."
"Yeah. Look - how are you?" I squatted down next to him. He was rocking gently, his eyes closed, obviously in pain. The pavement was dusty and dirty, with weeds sprouting from the cracks where the red bricks of the wall met the grey paving stones.
"Bloody," he said, his teeth clenched. "Literally."
Oh God. What should I do with him? I couldn't take him home with me - not in this state. I went back to the cab. "Where's the nearest emergency hospital unit?"
"About half a mile away. What's up with your friend?"
"Been hurt," I said briefly.
"I can see that," he said. "Not drugs, is it?"
"No, not drugs." I hesitated, then said quietly, "He's been raped."
"What?" He looked at me. "Do you mean what I think you mean?"
I nodded. "I think he's in quite a bad way."
"OK. Better get him into the cab then. It won't take long to get him there. But it'll be busy in there this time of a Saturday night."
"Yeah - I can imagine." I went back to Doug. "Can you walk?"
"Not easily. Can you help me?"
I got him to his feet and to the cab, sliding him in. I closed the door and went round the other side. I could see the driver looking at him.
"It looks as if he really is in a bad way," he said quietly. "Friend of yours, is he?"
"Yes - from school."
He took off through the back streets to the hospital. Doug had gripped my hand, holding it tightly. I squeezed back. He made an attempt at a smile. When we got to the hospital, I had to help him make his way out of the cab, then I glanced at the meter.
"How much do I owe you?" I asked.
The cabbie looked at Doug. He shook his head. "Have this one on me," he said.
I was startled. "You mean that?"
"Yeah. Get the kid inside before I change my mind." Then he drove off. There weren't many cabbies like that one.
Saturday nights in casualty units of hospitals in London are like hell. Two visions of hell actually: that of Bosch, and that of Satre and Kafka. The Bosch surrounds you with faces of the drunk, the mad, the injured. The Kafka lies with the attempt to get through the bureaucracy of the hospital.
I got Doug indoors, and we were waved to some seats by a nurse, and then ignored. I got Doug down, and he gasped.
I looked round. All the staff and the nurses seemed busy, and no one was the slightest bit interested in us. I turned back to Doug.
"My own bloody fault. I accepted this invitation to a party. Yes, I knew what sort of party it would be. That's why I went. And I got picked up. Which is why I had gone in the first place. Unfortunately, I chose the wrong sort of guy."
"And we went back to this house. When we got to his room, well ... he attacked me. I couldn't stop him. I told him - I told him I've never done anything like this before, but it didn't make any difference. He was much bigger and stronger than me. I think he enjoyed it. Seeing me in pain like that, I mean. It just made him rougher. And God, was he rough."
There was nothing I could say to all that. I was silent.
"Shocked?" he asked.
"Yes. No. Does it matter?"
I looked round. We were still being ignored by all the nurses and staff. It was as if we were invisible. Time to do something about it.
"Look, I'd better go and get things moving."
I went up to the reception desk. The woman behind it was busy arguing with two men, and they both seemed drunk, and belligerent with it. They seemed to take forever, and to get nowhere at the same time. Then, as they left, she turned away.
"Excuse me," I said.
She ignored me. I put on my best prefect's voice. "Excuse me!"
She turned and looked at me, stone faced. "Yes - what is it?"
"My friend over there need some urgent medical attention."
"You've got a seat, haven't you? You'll have to wait - it's busy tonight. Can't you see?"
"Yes, but he needs a doctor fairly urgently."
"So do a lot of people." She looked over at Doug, hunched over. "What is it then - drink, or drugs?" The question everyone seemed to be asking.
"Neither. He's been attacked. Raped, actually."
That got her attention. "Raped?" She looked at me more closely. "You mean attacked - by a man?"
I nodded. "I think he's hurt quite badly."
She stared over to where Doug was sitting. "Right, well - in that case, I'll see what I can do. It'll take me a little time to find a nurse who's free, though," she warned. Some of the aggression had left her manner.
"OK, that's fine. Just so long as we know something's happening." I smiled at her. Best to get her on side.
"Wait there." She bustled off.
It took another five minutes, but then she came back with a nurse.
"You're with that boy over there?" the nurse asked.
"That's right. I think he's in quite a state."
"Let's have a look at him," she said briskly.
She sat down next to him. "Can you walk?" she asked.
"Not very easily."
She nodded. "You'd better help him," she told me.
We got him into a cubicle and she drew the curtains round. "You'd better wait outside," she told me.
"No, he can stay. I want him to," said Doug, anxiously.
She looked at me. I didn't relish the prospect, but nodded.
We managed to get the jeans off him, but his underpants were soaked in blood, much of it dried and clotted by now. "I'll have to cut these off," she said briskly.
I moved so I couldn't see what was going on. Doug stretched out a hand, and I took it. He squeezed it hard as she hacked away at the clothing with some scissors. She obviously didn't like what she saw.
"Wait here. I'm just going for a doctor."
Again the wait seemed interminable. Eventually he arrived, not much older than Doug or I, and looking very, very tired. He took a brief look.
"Can't really tell what's happened to him until we've cleaned him up. I think probably theatre and an anaesthetic - it's going to be very painful. I'll give him a jab to be going on with. Have you taken any drugs of any sort this evening?" he asked Doug.
"Not a thing."
"A couple of cans of beer some hours ago."
"That should have gone through the system by now."
The injection seemed to relax him. His grip lessened, and he seemed to become semiconscious as the drug took effect. The doctor took me outside.
"I don't honestly know. He rang me at home earlier this evening, asked for help. I found him like that."
"Did he say anything?"
I shrugged. "He'd been to a party and was picked up. Whoever it was was very rough with him. Forced him. I think this was his first time, and the chap enjoyed hurting him."
The doctor winced. "Yes, I can see that. OK. It's going to take some time before we got a theatre free and someone competent to examine him properly. I'll clean him up and give him a preliminary examination first. The injection should have taken effect by now." He paused. "You're a friend of his?"
I nodded. "From school."
"Right. Are you going to stay with him?"
I nodded again.
"How old is he?"
"Have you a contact number for his parents?"
Oh God. Ringing them would really make the shit hit the fan. But I hadn't any choice. He was still under age.
"I can find it from the book. But they live some way away."
"Well, I shall need to speak to them, even if it's just over the phone."
"I'll go and find the number."
"Are you going to call them or shall I?"
I hesitated. Making a call to give them news like that ... he must have seen my face.
"I can call them if you prefer," he said quietly.
"No, I'd better do it."
"OK. And have you informed the police?"
I hadn't even thought about that. I shook my head. "I don't know whether he would want to involve them."
"We ought to ask him."
"Will he be in any fit state?"
"I should have thought so. Let's go and find out."
But when we suggested it to him, Doug got almost hysterical over the idea. "No, not the police. You mustn't tell them! I don't want them involved. You can forget that."
"It was a very serious assault," the doctor told him quietly.
"It doesn't matter. No police. And you're not to tell my parents either."
"I haven't any choice over that. You're not eighteen yet. That's a legal matter, if I'm to treat you."
"Christ." He stared at the ceiling. I could see the tears again.
"Do they know where you were?"
Doug looked at him and laughed. "What do you think?"
"So where did they think you were?"
He went quiet, then looked over to me. "At David's place." The doctor looked back at me and I shrugged. "Sorry," Doug said. "I shouldn't have done that."
"Ok. Well, we'll go and see if we can get them."
As we stood outside, the doctor asked me: "Did you give him an alibi?"
I shook my head. "No. He stays sometimes for weekends during term. But not during the holidays. Except once when he ran away." The doctor raised his eyebrows. "His parents found he was downloading porn from the Internet. But boys, not girls."
"Ah. Well, it all sounds rather a mess. But I do need to talk to the parents before we can go any further."
In the end, I got the number from directory enquiries, and the doctor made the call.
"It's about your son, Douglas," he began. "He's suffered a rather serious assault ... well, it's difficult to give details over the phone, and I haven't made a full examination of him yet ... there's a friend of his here with him. He can tell you more than I can about that."
He passed over the phone.
"What's happened to Doug?"
"Well, it's difficult..."
"I think my wife and I have the right to know."
I sighed. This was going to be awkward and embarrassing. "Right. Well, Doug wasn't with me this weekend as he might have told you. Apparently he went to a party somewhere. And then was subject to a serious sexual assault."
There was silence down the line for a minute. "Did you say sexual assault?"
"Yes, Mr Rogers."
"Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"And what was your part in this?"
"I knew nothing at all about it until I got a phone call from him about nine o'clock this evening. I went and found him and managed to get him to the hospital here."
There was another long silence, then a very heavy sigh. "We'd better get down there. Where exactly is the hospital?"
"Not quite sure myself. I'll have to hand you back to the doctor."
He took the phone from me and started telling them how to find the place. Then he hung up. I looked at my watch. It was past midnight by now, and I needed to call home. Then I realised the doctor was talking to me again.
"We're ready to take a look at him now. I'll have to leave you here for the moment."
"OK. Look - can I ring home from here? I just left my parents a note, and they'll be wondering what's happened to me."
I dialled the number - it didn't take long to get an answer. "Mum?"
"David? We were worried about you. Your note didn't say much. Where are you?"
"Sorry. I couldn't say much in the note because I didn't know much myself at the time. I'm at a hospital somewhere in Kensington. Doug was attacked by someone - he rang me for help."
"Rang you - why not the police?"
"He doesn't want the police involved."
"It's a bit delicate."
"Again? Anyway, what do you plan on doing now?"
"His parents are driving down. I thought I'd hang on here."
"Is there anything you need?"
"How about a Walkman, and two - no, three - of your science fiction books?"
She almost laughed. "Do you want us to bring them up?"
"No, I'll be OK."
"How will you get back?"
I hadn't thought of that. It would take Doug's parents a couple of hours to get here. That would make it two or three in the morning. No trains at that time - and tomorrow was Sunday.
"We'll set off in half an hour or so. It'll take us a fair time through the traffic."
"OK, thanks." I was grateful.
I wandered back to Doug's cubicle. Standing outside talking to the doctor was a policeman - I could see the doctor pointing towards me. The policeman came over and stopped. What took me aback was the equipment he was carrying. He seemed to be festooned with all sorts of bits and pieces. He looked more like Robocop than your average friendly bobby.
"Was it you who brought that kid in?" I nodded. "I've just been talking to the doctor. He was attacked?"
"Sort? The doctor's just told me what happened to him." I said nothing. "I need to talk to him."
"Go ahead, if the doctor's happy."
"You don't seem very concerned."
"I'm concerned that he gets proper medical attention as soon as possible."
"And I'm concerned to find out what happened."
"Then ask him."
We went in to the cubicle where Doug was lying there, eyes closed. The policeman sat down by the bedside.
"Excuse me, but I need to talk to you."
He opened his eyes, then saw the uniform.
"I gathered you been assaulted."
"None of your business. Forget it."
"We can't overlook an incident like this."
"You'll not get any help from me."
The policeman turned and looked at me. I shrugged.
"We really ought to investigate this, you know," he said.
Doug closed his eyes. The policeman sat back, obviously frustrated. Then he stood up, and with a jerk of his head, indicated that I should follow him out.
"Why won't he talk?" he asked me when we were outside.
"I think he's too ashamed, for one thing. Not just the assault, but the whole business. I think he went along to that party voluntarily, hoping to meet someone ... for, well, you know. But he went off with the wrong person."
"Do his parents know?"
"They do now. They're on their way."
"Can you talk to him tomorrow?"
"We can try."
"He may have thought things over by then. Try and persuade him to see us: we need to talk to whoever did this to him. Look, here's a card. There's the phone number of the local police station, and that's my name. If you get anywhere with him, give me a call."
"OK. I'll do that."
The traffic must have been light, for my parents were there in under an hour. An hour in Casualty in a London hospital on a Saturday night opens your eye to a lot - particularly when you lead a nice sheltered middle class life. The drunks and the drugged, not to mention the violent, all milling around incoherently. No wonder we had got such cursory attention when we first arrived.
And true to her word, Mother had brought the Walkman and a couple of books with her.
"How is he?" she asked, as they sat down next to me.
I shrugged. "They're working on him now."
She hesitated. "What happened, David?"
I gave them the story unexpurgated. I think I shocked both of them.
"Poor Doug," she said, sitting down.
"Apparently he used me as his alibi."
"What do you mean?"
"Told his parents that he was spending the weekend with us."
"Oh dear. That wasn't very clever. So when are they arriving?"
I shrugged. "Depends on how long it takes them."
"What are you going to tell them?"
"The truth. I mean, the medical people are obviously going to tell them about his injuries, so I can't really invent some sort of cover story."
"How did they take it when you rang?"
"Difficult to tell. But I think it was a shock to them."
"It must have been. Do you want me there when you talk to them?"
"Thanks, but no. I can't tell them that much anyway."
And she took one of the books she had brought. I took another, and slipped on my Walkman.
It was another ninety minutes before his parents arrived. I recognised them as soon as they came, in, staring round anxiously at the mayhem around them. I headed them off as they made for the desk.
He turned and looked at me, then came a flicker of recognition.
"David. Can you tell us what's happening?" he asked.
"Of course. Come over here where we can talk."
"How is he?" his mother asked urgently.
I shrugged, and told them what I'd told my parents. "They're working on him now."
"Oh. Can you tell us more about what happened to him?"
"We'd better sit down."
I played it straight with them: narrated the story as I knew it. When I had finished there was a long, long silence.
Then his father said: "What do we do with him, David?"
I shrugged. Then: "Treat him gently."
"I know, I know - but there are times when that can be difficult."
"He can be awkward at home?"
I could imagine him when he wanted to cause trouble.
"He can indeed. You see, he's an only child, and we tried our best not to indulge him. Firm but fair, if you see what I mean."
I nodded. "But Doug's always going to be difficult. I think that's something you have to put up with."
"I know - but these days it's almost become a battle between us."
"This might be a chance for you - to accept him for what he is, and try to work out some way of getting along together."
"It's just that we find all this very hard to accept it, David," his mother told me.
"You've talked to him a lot?" his father asked.
I hesitated. "Up to a point. But you only find out what he's prepared to tell you."
"I think we reached that point a long time ago."
But we were interrupted by the doctor, looking, if possible, even more tired.
I stood up. "These are Doug's parents. Mr and Mrs Rogers."
They introduced themselves. "Well, he's on a ward now. We've patched him up. It'll take a bit of time for him to heal properly, but he'll be fine."
"Can we see him?"
He nodded. "Sure."
"Do you want to come too, David? You brought him in, after all."
I hesitated. "Are you sure?" He nodded. "I'll just have a quick word with my parents."
"Are they here?"
I pointed. "Over there."
Mrs Rogers came in: "You and they have been very good to Doug. All those weekends."
I shrugged. "No problems."
"Can we have a word with your parents afterwards?"
"Sure. I'll just let them know what's happening."
I went over. "We're just going to the ward to see Doug. The Rogers would like a word with you after."
"Sure. Have they somewhere to stay the night?"
"Could we offer them the spare room, Freddie?"
"Don't see why not, dear."
"Don't tell them yet, David. We'll ask them when they come back."
I nodded. "No prob."
I could see the Rogers with the doctor. He was obviously giving them some more details. I joined them.
"If you want to come along with me, I'll take you to the ward. He's still only semi-conscious, and won't really be very coherent."
"Even so," said his mother, "we'd still like to see him."
He was in a fairly dimly lit room, lying there, eyes closed. I could see some marks on his face now, bruises that had swollen up. Presumably part of his fight. His mother went up to him, and took his hand.
"Doug," she said softly.
His eyes opened slowly, and he looked around. Then he focussed on his mother.
I was relieved to see a slight smile on his face.
"How are you now?"
"Now? I'm not really with things, I'm afraid. They've given me something, and I don't really know what's happening."
"You're not hurting?"
"No - whatever they've given me - I can't feel a thing."
His father was hovering anxiously behind Mrs Rogers. I could see Doug refocus.
"How are you, son?"
"I'll be OK. It was a fairly stupid thing to have done. And I'm sorry to have caused you so much trouble. Especially David."
"Oh?" Then he saw me. "Thanks David. I owe you a lot."
"No probs. Look, I'd better leave the three of you together."
Doug nodded. "OK."
I went outside and watched them through the window. At least he and his parents seemed to be talking to each other. Maybe something good would come out of this after all.
I suppose they were in there for about a quarter of an hour before the nurse turned them out. They looked subdued and slightly dazed as they emerged.
"Is he OK?" I asked them.
They nodded. "Thank you for helping him. It's nice to know he has someone to turn to," said his mother.
"Come on, I'll take you back to my parents."
Father was slumped in his chair, eyes closed, obviously asleep. Mother was deep in her book. They hadn't met Father before, so I woke him and introduced them. Then Mother asked: "Can we give you somewhere to stay tonight? It's going to be a long drive back for you."
They looked at each other.
"It would be no trouble," Mother added.
"That's very kind of you."
"If you'd like to follow our car," said Father, "then it shouldn't take long at this time of night."
Outside it was dark and chilly. I shivered: I wasn't wearing much - only a tee shirt and jeans. I had dashed out of the house in too much of a hurry. Certainly when I got in the car, I was so tired by now that I collapsed immediately into sleep. I was pretty groggy when I climbed out of the car, and Mum sent me straight up to bed.
I think we all slept in quite late the following morning, given the time we had all got to bed last night - or this morning. When I got downstairs, there was an argument going on about whether to involve the police.
I could see the Rogers were ambivalent: they wanted whoever had done this to their son dealt
with, but were hesitant about the publicity that might be involved. Father pointed out the
anonymity that surrounded both youth cases and rape cases, and Doug fitted into both those
categories. By the time we were all ready to go and visit him, I think we'd all agreed to try and
persuade Doug to bring the police in. But whether we would actually be able to persuade him
was another matter.
I suppose it was midday when we set off back for the hospital. Doug was sitting up now, much more alert since the effects of the drug had worn off. It was obvious he was still in some discomfort though. And I think he'd received quite a bashing when he'd tried to fight back. He told us that he'd have to stay in for a few days yet apparently, until the worst of it had healed, and to make sure there was no infection.
I knew there was another possibility that no one had dared mention, and that was the possibility of some form of sexually transmitted disease. How soon they could test for that I didn't know.
When it came to the idea of talking to the police, I think Doug was overwhelmed by simple weight of numbers. On that Sunday morning, not only did he have his parents, but my parents plus me visiting him. And we were all unanimous in our opinion. In the end, it was my mother who asked him directly why he wouldn't talk to the police. An appeal from my mother was hard for him to resist.
I think one of his initial reasons for saying no was that he didn't want anyone to know of the affair, not even his parents. Now that they knew, his opposition was less. Even so, I think the thought of having to go to court terrified him. Mother settled the matter for him.
"It's not just you," she said. "How many other young men are going to be treated like this unless he's locked away?"
It was an unanswerable question, and I think between us we wore him down. Not that he had a lot of strength left anyway, and the painkillers were having their effect too. But eventually he agreed, and his father went off to call the local station. I had given him the card I had been presented with last night.
I must say the police were fairly prompt in arriving, but Doug insisted that he was going to make his statement to them by himself. Almost certainly he didn't want his parents to hear the full details. Since they were going to keep him in for the next night as well, we all went back to our house.
Having Doug's parents staying with us was difficult: they still found it hard to accept what their son had done. My parents were more pragmatic, but it wasn't their boy involved. The Rogers grilled me fairly intensively about Doug's life at school, and producing the right answers was not easy.
From the police point of view the investigation was relatively easy: the attack had happened in a house around the corner from the phone box, and they were able to track down the man responsible quite quickly. They then had to go along the house where the party had been, to find people who had been there and take more statements. Once Doug had been fit enough to pick out his assailant in an ID parade, the case was fairly well wrapped up.
His next fear was that the trial would take place in term time, and that he'd have to ask permission to disappear off to London. What excuse could he give? Fortunately, as it turned out, the trial was scheduled for the holidays. Another of his fears was removed when he was told that he would have full anonymity. Even so, I could see that he was dreading the whole thing.
Although I wasn't needed to give evidence, when the time came, I went along for support. My parents decided to stay away: Father would have had problems with time off from work, anyway. Although we offered them accommodation, the Rogers decided to stay in a nearby hotel.
I hadn't seen the person responsible for the attack before the trial opened, when he was brought up into the dock. He was a tall, well built skinhead type, and I had no feeling for why Doug might want to go off with someone like that for his sexual initiation. I could see his parents looking at the man and probably thinking the same.
The prosecution outlined their case, then called some witnesses who were at the party, and who had seen Doug and the man leave together. From what I gathered, they had been very reluctant to testify, and I think the police had resorted to some moral blackmail. The defence had little to offer in cross examination.
Then the medical evidence. The prosecution brought in the doctor who had first examined Doug, then the specialist who had dealt with him. Most of it was too technical for me, and went above my head. If that was the case, I wondered what the jury would make of it. But it sounded impressive enough.
That took up the morning. Doug had been outside for this part of the proceedings, and didn't ask what was said. His parents obviously didn't want to discuss it either. I was left as a sort of buffer between them. In addition, of course, he was incredibly nervous.
And first thing that afternoon he was called to give evidence. The prosecution took him through his story step by step, and white faced, he gave his answers. I could see him falter from time to time. Going through such intimate details in public must have been torture for him. Then, to forestall the defence, the prosecution established that yes, he had gone to the party voluntarily. Yes, he had left with the defendant with the intention of having sex. Yes, he had asked the defendant to stop. Yes, he had been forced. Then the barrister sat down.
The defence tried chipping away at his story, but without success. I could see they had a dilemma: push Doug too hard, and they would risk alienating the jury. I could see that the barrister realised that he wasn't going to get any further. Doug was released. He came down and sat between his parents and me, white faced, trembling. I could feel his hand come down and take mine, squeezing it hard. Sitting packed together as we were, no one could see us. I looked at the clock: only three o'clock. Doug had been up there for less than an hour. It had felt like a lot longer.
The defendant was put on the stand and taken through his story, which was basically that the whole thing had been consensual. He was not convincing, and the defence let it drop. Then the cross examination. I must say the barrister was good: did the defendant really believe that with such injuries that the act had been consensual? He effectively put the same question in about four different ways, and I thought at one stage the defence was going to object. The replies he got were again fairly unconvincing.
By then it was past four, and both sides had finished calling their witnesses, but had still to make their closing speeches. The judge adjourned for the day. The four of us stood on the pavement outside the court, blinking in the sunlight. Doug didn't look as bad as he had done.
"Thanks for being there," he said to me.
"The least I could have done. You're looking better now."
He nodded. "Thank God that's all over, and I'll never have to go through the story ever again."
"You were good up there."
"Maybe, but it was hell at the time."
His parents said thank you as well, then they set off for their hotel.
The speeches in the morning were fairly predictable: the prosecution emphasised the medical evidence; the defence argued that there had been consent. The judge summed up, and I could tell that he was on our side.
"As to consent," he said, "there is no evidence one way or the other. We have two conflicting stories. The defendant says there was. The complainant says not. However, I would ask you to consider whether any young man would willingly undertake such an ordeal, which, from the medical evidence alone, must have been extremely traumatic. That, I think, is at the heart of this case."
That comment, if nothing else, I thought would have settled the case. Then the jury was sent out. We went for lunch, but then, of course, had to hang around waiting. It didn't take long for the jury to decide. Guilty. I could feel Doug's hand grab mine again as we sat listening. The judge deferred sentencing for medical reports, but as far as we were concerned that didn't matter.
We had a brief talk with the inspector in charge of the case, then found ourselves back out on the pavement once more. It was all something of an anticlimax now. Doug was again just as white faced, but this time, I think, through simple exhaustion. As we stood there, he leaned forward and gave me the briefest of hugs.
"Thanks for the support."
His parents joined in with the thank yous.
"I'm just glad he was found guilty," I told them. "That's enough for me."
We all shook hands, and they made their way off ready to go home. But it was never ever
referred to again by Doug and myself. We buried it, and did our best to forget it had ever
Some time after the court case, I got a letter from Doug's parents, thanking me for my support and help. Among other things, they said they were very grateful to me and my parents for taking Doug out from school at weekends. In return, would I like to come and stay with them for a few days in the holidays?
I'm afraid that my initial reaction was that my heart sank. The thought of spending a few days in that household was not an attractive one - even if I did have the company of Doug. But it would have been both impolite and churlish to have refused, so I penned my acceptance.
I got some funny looks at the weekend when I told my parents about it. Mother gave me a quizzical look: "Are you going out of duty or out of pleasure?"
I hesitated, which partly answered the question. "I think I ought to go - and I hope I'll have a good time while I'm there."
"You can't really turn them down. It was a kind offer - or, at least, that's how they meant it."
"I know - but I don't think it'll be a bundle of fun."
"Doug will be there though."
"Perhaps a mixed blessing."
"I see. Why do you put it like that?"
"I dunno. You never know - it might be OK after all."
"Accentuate the positive."
So we duly arranged the dates for a three day visit. I took an early train from home, and his mother picked me up from the station. Doug was there with her: I got a smile from him as I got off the train. Then I shook hands with his mother.
"I'm very glad you're here," she told me.
"And it's very kind of you to invite me."
I could see Doug over her shoulder pulling a face, but there was no real malice in it. Perhaps he was happier at home now than he had been.
When we got to the house, his mother suggested that he showed me round, and up to my room. I dumped my stuff on my bed.
"So - where's your hideout then?"
He smiled. "Through here."
It was an ordinary enough room but for one thing: one wall was entirely books, from floor to ceiling.
"Good God. Have you read all those?"
He nodded. "All those and all the ones I get from the library each week."
I went up to them, scanning the titles and authors, feeling as though I was behaving like Doug did when he came into my room. Most of them were old, probably second hand. Half I'd heard of, but never read. Perhaps a quarter I had read. And the final quarter were books or authors I'd never even heard of. I marvelled at how much he must have read.
"No wonder you can talk to my mother like that."
He sat on his bed. "There isn't much else to do round here, so I read a lot."
"You can say that again." I saw the computer on his desk. "Got your modem back?"
He nodded. "I had to promise not to ... misuse it. And I've kept it." He gave me a sly grin. "But the disk Dad found - that was my overflow disk. They never asked if I had another - and I didn't tell them."
I laughed. "Just like you. Sticking to the letter of the law if not the spirit."
His mother called us down for lunch. I managed to chat away to her without too much difficulty. After lunch, Doug said he'd show me the town.
"Not that there's much there. But still."
We put on coats and took a bus to the town centre. There was a mall we went into to have a look at the shops. As I was walking along, I realised Doug wasn't with me, and turned round. He was waiting with a small digital camera at the ready, and clicked it as I turned, then once or twice more.
"There - gotcha." I was slightly taken aback. "Don't worry," he said. "I'll give you a framed print of the best one."
I didn't quite know what to say. And little did I know that in a few years time I would be looking at versions of those pictures under very different circumstances.
"It was a birthday present," he said, holding up the camera.
It would have been churlish to object, and I smiled. He used the moment to snatch another quick shot, before putting the camera away in a pocket.
We exhausted the possibilities of the town fairly quickly. It was a fairly typical small English town, full of the usual chain shops.
"There you are," said Doug, "the hub of the universe."
"It's not that bad."
"It's all right for you metropolitan types who can swan off up to Town whenever they please."
"Crammed like a sardine among the commuters? Not that much fun."
"Maybe." He shrugged. "Perhaps we'd better be heading back."
We ambled slowly out of the town. In fact, we had plenty of time, and so walked all the way back. Doug's father was there when he got back, and we sat down to supper. His father was an accountant - "God! So boring!" as Doug put it. "He even drives a Mondeo!" But both his parents were obviously making an effort. Perhaps they looked on me as a good influence or something of the sort.
The spare room was comfortable enough, and I slept well. Early the next morning, Doug wandered into my room in his boxers and T-shirt and sat down on the bed. I must have looked uncomfortable, for he smiled slightly.
"Don't worry - I'm not going to rape..." he broke off, and the muscles in his face moved subtly, "umm, molest you."
I did my best to smile. "I'll be thankful for small mercies."
He looked down at his hands, then back up at me. "I've never thanked you properly. For all you did for me."
I was embarrassed. "The least I could have done. Not only for you, but for anyone."
"Doug?" He looked up. "Why did you do it?"
"Go to that party."
A small, sad, slight smile. "You have to ask me that, David?"
"I sometimes think sex is a bad joke visited on us by God. Well, on some of us, anyway. But it's like all these things - you don't find out what it's like until you try. And the joke was on me." I didn't know what to say. "And love is another of those cosmic sick jokes. To love the unattainable. What better way to screw up your life?"
I was acutely aware of the difficult ground we were treading.
"You know," he went on, "love isn't all sex. Love is wanting to be with someone, to see them, to talk to them. You know what I mean?" I nodded. It wasn't a very subtly coded message. "Of course, it doesn't make it complete. But it's better than nothing." He paused for a moment.
"I thought that what happened to me that time might put me off sex for good. Well, it did for a time." Again the crooked sad smile. "But only for a time."
"What do you want of me?" I asked quietly.
"Understanding but not sympathy. Not pity, please."
"God, I don't know, Doug. This is all too much for me."
"I know, I know. Think of me as the poor child who has nothing else to do but follow you round, dog your heels."
"You're very different, you know."
"From that boy I met three years ago."
"A lot has happened in those three years. We all grow up."
"Although maybe you were born middle aged."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're the embodiment of rationality. I've never seen you do anything on impulse."
"Like you, I can't help the way I'm made."
He lay back now, his head not far from my hand, staring at the ceiling. "You know, I sometimes wonder how my parents produced me. I must be some sort of throwback. Father goes off to his office each day, and busies himself with facts and figures. Mother stays and home and hoovers and cooks. I think the person I get on best with in the world is your mother. If it weren't for the age difference, I could think we had been swapped as babies."
He rolled over. "I'm sorry."
"Being so rude to you. Here I am, with you as my guest, and all I can do is be rude to you."
"People have been ruder. And you talk about me as the embodiment of rationality. I think you're the epitome of analytical."
He laughed. "A pretty play on words. Well done."
"And I'm not entirely stupid either."
He looked at me. "No, you're not."
"Don't worry - the compliment was genuine."
"Glad to hear it."
He was quiet for some time. Then: "Have you ever been in love?"
"But you must have seen people you fancy."
We were treading on dangerous ground again. "Yes," I said shortly.
"So how do you know when it's love and it's sex?"
"You told me the answer to that one. When you want to be with them when they're not there, all that sort of thing."
"And you've never known that?"
"Not really," I said, in a half truth.
He looked at me wondering. "You must be the most self contained person I know." I shrugged uncomfortably. "So how did you see through me that night on the coach? That's one thing I've never worked out."
"You were trying too hard."
"Was I? That's interesting."
"And as I told you, the real Doug is far more interesting."
He smiled and wriggled a little closer. "Really? Tell me more."
"It's not something I can put into words. I don't analyse people like that."
"Oh." He sounded disappointed.
"Don't be so egocentric."
"Yeah well." He looked at his watch. "Mother'll be back soon."
"Where's she gone?"
"Shopping. Forty minutes to the supermarket and back. You can time her to the minute." He looked at me carefully. "David?"
"Can I have one small favour before I leave you to get dressed?"
Then he leaned forward, and put his lips on mine. This wasn't such a gentle kiss. I could feel
myself respond for a moment - then I pushed him off. He didn't say anything ... just gave me a
small satisfied look, picked himself off the bed, and walked out.
I had been expecting something of the sort to happen, and in one sense, was relieved that I'd got off so lightly. But by now I think Doug knew exactly how far he could push me.
And after that, the visit was uneventful. Doug was never dull, but his parents could be hard work. When the time came for me to go, it was something of a relief. Doug gave me a rueful smile.
"Sorry this has been such a bore for you."
"You're never boring," I said, truthfully.
"Yeah, well. But my parents are a bit hard to take."
"They do perhaps lack your sparkle."
He gave a slight laugh. "Yeah. And give my regards to your mother."
"Will do. Thanks for entertaining me."
Exams were over, the summer term was almost over, and so was my school career. Five years of work and exams. I wasn't sure whether I would be sorry to leave or not. But I had certainly got tired of the petty rules and restrictions of school life. I wanted to be my own man at last.
The night before I was due to leave, I had an unusual visitor to my study: Doug. He'd never been there before. People knew, of course, that we were friends, that he stayed weekends at my house, but there was somehow still an unspoken taboo on visiting each other in House. There had been jokes and comments initially, but they faded away in time. It was accepted that however unusual it might seem, we did get on together and were friends.
There was a knock on my door. I yelled: "Come in," expecting to see anyone other than Doug. But to my surprise the door was pushed open to reveal him standing there, a faint smile on his face.
"Hi there," he said.
"An improvement on 'hi freak', I suppose."
"What a surprise to see you." I put down the books I had been sorting out. "How are you?"
"OK." He looked round with a slight smile. "So this is it. The study."
"Just the same as any other in the House."
"It has you in it."
"And now you."
"Yeah. Now me." He came in and sat himself down one the battered armchair. "It'll be odd next year, without having you around the place."
"Well, you're beginning to make something of a reputation for yourself nowadays. You don't put on the act so much these days."
"I haven't needed it."
And it was true - academically, he had blossomed in the Sixth Form, and also musically. He led the orchestra, and had organised some quite ambitious concerts. He had what to me seemed some odd musical tastes. He was a great fan of the Handel oratorios - not just the Messiah, but odd ones I'd never heard of, which he made me listen to from time to time. He never listened to any pop music, and wouldn't have had a clue who the latest bands were. He made no concessions to others, and expected no concessions to be made for him.
"So," he said, with a slight smile. "Off to Oxford next year."
I was lucky - I had scraped in and got a place on a day when the wind was behind me. I knew I hadn't the brains he had.
"Don't worry. I'm under no illusions how hard I'll have to work to cope when I get there."
He nodded. "I might apply for Oxford," he said casually. "Either Oxford or Cambridge. I'll have to decide which one soon."
"Oh, Oxford, definitely. Who would want to go to Cambridge?"
He smiled again. "Hogge wants me to apply to Cambridge. Says there's a tutor there he knows."
"So why don't you go for that?"
"I don't know. I'll think about it. I've all the summer holidays to make my mind up." He looked at me very directly. "And I want to thank you, David. For the time together. For the weekends. And especially for that time in London. I'll miss you."
That was the first time he had made even an oblique reference to that awful time. We'd never talked about it again once the trial had ended. No one knew about what had happened that night except the two of us and our parents.
"And I'll miss you too. It won't be the same without seeing your face about the place. And talking to you as we did."
He smiled sadly. "Yeah, well. So, what are you doing in the summer?"
I wasn't quite sure whether it was a simple question, or whether he had something specific in mind.
"Taking off for Europe. I'm not having a year off, so I've got to make the most of the summer."
"How are you doing it?"
"Oh, probably student rail card. See how far I can get in three months before I have to turn round and come back again."
"I'm looking forward to it."
"Send some postcards, will you?"
He stood up, then without warning, stepped forward, put his arms around me and hugged me. He leaned back. "Take care, David."
"I will. And you."
Again without warning, he leaned forward, touched his lips lightly to mine, then released me,
turned away, and was gone. I would miss him.
I had decided not to take a gap year before going up to Oxford. That meant I had about four months of my own free between leaving school and starting University, and as I had told Doug, I was determined to make the most of it. I had had too many years and years of exams: Common Entrance, GCSEs, AS and A2 levels, and as I said, I knew I would have to work to keep up at Oxford. I spent that precious time on a grand European tour by rail from Paris to Bucharest and back, doing my own thing in my own time, and with no one to tell me otherwise.
I had had holidays enough abroad before, but that was with my parents. Now I was free to go where I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted. I learnt a lot of things the hard way: how to make good use of the toilet facilities on the train if I was going to sleep on the station; how to find the cheapest rooms in a city; how to keep clear of the thieves and the scroungers. It was what I needed after years of a nice sheltered middle class upbringing.
I kept in touch with my parents by email, finding internet cafes in each of the cities as I passed through, but these were just notes to say where I was and that everything was OK. And of course, the postcards to Doug.
I arrived back home near the end of September, with only a week to go before the Oxford
term began. I found two or three emails waiting for me from Doug, and sent a reply back to
him at school - they would have started back by now - with a picture of me in Florence
attached. I soon got a reply:
'Florence! Lucky you. And to Bucharest and back. Makes our week in Florida seem a mere
trifle. But I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for all the postcards. Work hard. Doug.'
I was obscurely disappointed - I felt that he could have told me more. But he was in his last year now, the Upper Sixth, and no doubt was busy enough. And the last comment - 'work hard' - was faintly ironic coming from him!
The college I had got in to was tucked away from the main road: it was actually rather hard to find unless you knew exactly what you were looking for. It wasn't far from the town centre, Carfax, but a long way from many of the University buildings, particularly for the scientists. As an historian, it wasn't too bad, though I was often sent out for tutorials to specialists in other colleges.
I knew people from school who were at other colleges, but we didn't really keep in touch. I soon found I had a new circle of friends. In some ways it was not that dissimilar to school, but without the petty, stifling restrictive rules. And with a heady intellectual air that had been completely lacking at school.
Oxford has a term that is only eight weeks long, but they are incredibly intensive weeks. They say that when someone comes from a school where they have always used been top of their year, only to find themselves competing with several hundred other people, all of whom had also come top of their year, they get a sudden sharp shock. Well, that didn't apply to me. I had rarely been top at school, so not being top now didn't worry me so much. But it was not only the work - there was so much else going on, in College and in the University. Life was wonderfully hectic. Then, towards the end of Eighth Week, when I was thinking of packing and of journeys home rather than books to be read and essays to be written, I had an unexpected visitor. It was Doug.
He came in unannounced - just a knock on the door. I called out, and the door opened to reveal him standing there, looking slightly out of place in a school uniform.
"Freak," I replied almost automatically.
I looked at him. He had changed in the months since I'd last seen him. Not heftier, not taller, but indefinably more adult.
He stood by the door, smiling.
"Come on in. What are you doing here?"
He closed the door and shrugged. "There's a nice welcome for you. I'm looking round. I'm applying here, and I'm up for interview next week. Thought I ought to do a recce first."
"Applying here? To Oxford?"
He nodded. "Yeah - to Oxford - and to here."
I was surprised. "You mean to this college?" It wasn't one of the more distinguished ones - I thought Doug could have got into somewhere like Balliol with no trouble.
He nodded again. "Yeah. Sounds a reasonable sort of place."
He stood looking around the room, at my books and so on, and I was reminded of the day he had arrived unannounced at home, and I had taken him up to my room. He had scanned my bookshelves in exactly the same manner.
"Want to give me a tour of the place then?" he asked, turning back to me.
"Of course. No probs. Full guided tour coming up."
As we were walking around the college, I asked him: "Why are you applying to come here? There are places with a much greater reputation than this that you could easily walk into."
He shrugged. "Why not here?" He looked round at the yellow sandstone buildings glowing in the winter sunlight. The place did look impressive at times like this. "Besides," he said, "I've got to pass the interview first."
"Oh, come on, you'll walk that with no problem."
"Your mother's been giving me some coaching."
I hadn't heard about that. "Oh?"
"Yeah. They rang me up at school a few weeks ago. Asked me out for a weekend."
"Not at all."
"They've been very good to me. Must run in the family."
"Yeah, well," I said, embarrassed.
"Your mother knows someone who knows someone. Gave me some tips on what to read up, and so on."
"They'll throw some off beat questions at you too," I warned.
"Oh, yes, I know that. It'll be the best part of the interview."
I burst out laughing. "You haven't changed, have you?"
"No. Why, do you want me to?"
"Not at all. You're fine as you are."
"Good. I'm glad to know that."
"And still as vane as ever."
"Vane?" he asked, in mock horror.
"Oh, yes. You like to be thought of as being bright. It's a different part of your act."
"Oh." He pondered that one, and we walked on in silence for a minute or two. Then he changed the subject.
After the tour, he stayed for an hour or two, sitting in my room telling me the news, then said he had to be heading back to school.
"I told them that I'd be getting the academic low down from you. Tips on how to get in and so on."
"You don't need tips from me."
"It was just an excuse to visit you, really."
"Yeah. Well, I must be going if I'm to catch the train."
"Give people my regards," I told him.
"I'll do that. By the way, you must come down next February. I'm organising a performance of Judas Maccabeus."
"Judas Maccabeus. Handel. It's very accessible. You'll love it."
"It's been very kind of you to show me round like this." He gripped my hand. "Thanks."
"No worries. Best of luck with the interview."
"Sure." He gave my hand a squeeze, and released it. "Thanks again."
And he was off.
Sure enough, a week or so into the holidays, I had an email from him:
'Hi. Interview successful. See you in Feb. Doug.'
I immediately emailed back with congratulations. It would be good to have him around next
It was later in January when he sent me details of the concert he was organising back at school. I'd bought the work on CD, and listened to it several times. He was right - it was accessible, and dramatic as well. He'd invited Mum and Dad too, and with it being on a Saturday night, it was easy enough to get away from Oxford. I took a train down, and Mum and Dad picked me up for the last leg of the journey.
It was only when we got to the school that I realised that not only was he organising the performance, he was conducting as well. And putting on a performance of a work like that within the limited musical resources of the school must have been a logistic nightmare. He'd lined up all the visiting music teachers as soloists and additional members of the orchestra, as well as massing the school orchestra and Chapel choir. Given the amount of rehearsing that would have been needed, this was truly impressive. The school had quite a good musical tradition, but nothing on this scale.
The concert was being put on in the school hall, a massive building with a hammer beam ceiling. The orchestra and chorus were on an improvised stage, which took up a good quarter of the floor space. But the seats were full: not only parents and members of staff, but also quite a number of boys who had come along for just the music. And that was unusual. Your average teenager didn't really go for this sort of thing.
And he could conduct too. It couldn't have been easy with an amateur, schoolboy orchestra and choir, but he got the rhythms bouncing. The first half didn't really catch fire, but the second and third parts went with a blaze. The audience cheered him like mad when eventually it was over. I watched as Doug, once the oddity of the Removes, now the man of the moment, stood and took the plaudits, waving in the soloists for a bow, making the choir and the orchestra stand for their ovation. He had come on a long way since I had first met him.
There was a party organised afterwards in the Music School, and we were invited along. It was strange being back, looking at faces I hadn't seen for nine months. Sometimes they were faces that were hard to recognise, as they had changed so much in such a short time. There was no one else of my year there, and that made it seem odder still.
I found myself talking to the Director of Music.
"This must have taken some organising. It was certainly an ambitious piece to have chosen."
"Yes - Doug has been extraordinary. He went round all the visiting music teachers asking them to help out. I didn't think he'd pull it off, but my God he worked hard."
"And it was a great success."
Philips, my old Housemaster, caught my eye and came over to join us.
"Come to see your protégé in action, David?"
"He's certainly come on a long way from his early days in the school."
"To have organised an event like this, and conducted it as well, is quite a feat. I must say you spotted his talent long before we did."
I smiled. "It was rather the other way round, sir. He latched on to me when he didn't have any friends in the Remove."
I still called him 'sir' automatically.
"Really? Well, things are different now. And how is Oxford?"
Whilst I talked to Philips, I could see Doug chatting to Mum and Dad, and felt an obscure pang of jealousy. He had moved away from me now, perhaps no longer needed me as he once did. And Mum and Dad seemed almost to have adopted him as another son. I chatted on to Philips as the party wound down. Then Mum came over.
"We're going soon. And Doug is coming - spending the weekend. You're staying?"
"Sure. He told me you were coaching him for Oxford."
"Well, I tried to help out a bit. Mainly providing books and so on. He's stayed the occasional weekend."
"That's right. He was saying."
I could see everyone was making their way by now, and that we were going to get thrown out soon.
"Come on. We'd better be going. You go on out to the car - I'll go and fetch Doug."
I walked over to him. It was the first time I'd had an opportunity to speak to him that evening.
"Congratulations on your triumph," I said to him.
"David! How good of you to come down."
He was looking tired but exhilarated.
"When you said you were organising it, I didn't realise you were conducting it as well."
"Oh, well, you know."
"It must have taken an awful lot of work."
"You can say that again. I'm absolutely knackered."
I took his arm. "Come on. Mum and Dad are waiting for us in the car."
I could tell he was exhausted after his efforts, and he fell fast asleep as we drove back. I had to nudge him awake when we arrived.
"Mmm? Sorry," he said. "Been a long day. A long, long day."
"You'd better go straight up to bed," said Mother.
"I suppose. Don't really want to, but I'd better."
We stayed up a little while longer, as I told them something of Oxford. But I was fairly tired too.
The next morning at breakfast Doug was obviously still fairly wiped out, with huge bags under his eyes. But that didn't stop him giving a blow by blow account of the story of the politics behind last night's oratorio, and how the conqu'ring hero referred to was the Duke of Cumberland after his massacre of the Scots at Culloden. As I was studying history, I was familiar with that background, but I could see it going over Father's head. It was marvellous, though, to see Doug on such form.
But I needed to be back at Oxford that evening, and so after lunch we had to go. Mum and Dad dropped me off to catch a train before taking Doug back to school. When we stopped at the station Doug got out too.
"Thanks for coming down. It was good to see you again."
"I enjoyed it. And it's good to see another conquering hero."
His eyes glowed. "Thanks." And again he leaned forward to give me a quick hug before climbing back into the car.
The start of the next academic year saw me in my second year at the college, and Doug's arrival as a freshman. He made his mark on the place from the outset. I could see him at dinner in Hall, holding forth to the table. He had no intellectual doubts of his status here. Within the first week, he was organising a concert in the College Chapel. He started attending the Union, making speeches. I went along to watch him in debates. I knew that he prepared for them with meticulous care, yet he kept to the tradition of speaking without notes, seemingly effortlessly. Even after a few weeks, he was beginning to make a name for himself.
One night he joined our table in Hall, and consciously set out to dazzle everyone, throwing out ideas in a firework display of erudition. I could see that streak of intellectual arrogance coming to the fore again. Afterwards, some one said to me dryly: "Is he as good as he thinks he is?" Yes, I told him, that's the trouble. He was.
He spent a lot of time up in my room too. I told him he ought to spend more time with his own year, to get to know people there, but he shrugged it off. He could see them in Hall, or people would drop in to his room from time to time. He said he knew a lot of people in College already, so what was the problem? It wasn't worth arguing with him. And he was company too, reminiscent of those afternoons on the bench by the hillside.
He would sit for an afternoon in my room as I worked on an essay, sitting in an armchair with a book. Annoyingly, he would then read through the essay in five minutes, an essay I might have spent five hours on, and point out places where I could have made my argument stronger. And we weren't even doing the same courses. He would lean over my shoulder as he did this, close to me, and I could never quite decide whether it was just the natural closeness of two friends, or whether he still had that crush on me. But his moves were never overt.
There were times too when he seemed invisible - he would disappear without trace for a day or more, without saying where he was going or where he had been. Then the next afternoon he would be back in my room, sometimes with a CD for me to listen to, sometimes with a book, sometimes just to talk, sometimes just to sit quietly. I rarely went up to his room - I didn't need to.
But one Saturday evening near the end of term I was returning to College late. As I came through the darkened Quad, I looked up, and saw the light still on in his room. On an impulse, I climbed his staircase, knocked on the door. There was silence. Perhaps he wasn't in after all. Perhaps he'd done another disappearing act. I knocked again. Then I heard noises from within, and the door opened an inch or so.
"Who is it?"
"Doug. It's David."
There was silence again. I almost turned away, then the door opened a little more.
"You'd better come in then," I heard him say.
The room was dimly lit, with only a fairly feeble desk lamp on. In the gloom I saw Doug making for his chair again. He clutched at it momentarily for support as he went past. His movements were the movements of the over control of drunkenness, of habitual drunkenness. Of an alcoholic?
Even in that dim light he must have seen the expression on my face. He smiled sadly.
"Caught out," he said. There was a pause. I could see that, rather drunkenly, he was thinking what to say next. Then: "Would you like a drink? Keep me company?"
After a moment's hesitation, I said: "Of course." I didn't want to show my reluctance.
He found another glass, and rummaged in the locker by his bed. Then he poured out an orange juice for himself, but added some vodka to mine.
"There you are. I'm being a good boy now, as you can see."
"Thanks," as I took the drink from him.
"Sit down, sit down."
I lowered myself into a chair. There was a silence, but not the comfortable silences of the past. There was guilt in this silence.
"So," he said eventually, "what have you been up to? Been out?"
"Trinity Film Society," I told him. "Showing, curiously enough, one of those sci-fi classics of the 50s: The Day The Earth Stood Still."
"Ah." That animated him. For a few minutes we got into a heated discussion of the film, the Cold War, and other related ideas. Then he ran out of steam, and lapsed back into silence. I sipped my drink, and remembered how I had poured the same mixture on to the ground three years ago, by the bench on the hillside at school.
"Do you do this much?" I asked him bluntly, after more minutes of awkwardness.
"Drink like this. By yourself."
He shrugged. "Occasionally."
"I hate to see you like this. I mean, it's not even as if you were enjoying getting drunk."
I could see the flare of anger. "So what is it to you then?" he said, his tone savage.
"Well, Doug, oddly enough, I do care about you."
"Caring is not enough."
"What do you mean?"
"Care is not love."
I didn't what to say in reply, and took refuge in another sip of my drink. Then: "Maybe not, Doug, but you'll have to make do with it."
"Do you never feel any passion, David? Do you?"
"Passion? I don't know. Perhaps it's something that's eluded me."
"Ah, David. Dull, dull David."
I did my best to smile. But that last remark hurt. What is true rankles the most. I wasn't sure how intentional it was, or whether it was just a drunken slip. He stood up, walked off a pace or two, stopped and stared at a poster on his wall. Then he turned back. I could see that he was ashamed by what he'd said.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."
"You did, Doug, you did. Sober you might have thought it, but drunk you said it."
I stood up myself, almost prepared to leave him be if he was in this mood. If I stayed much longer, one of us would say something we'd regret. And as Doug himself had once remarked, once it's been said, you can't unsay it. You can't wind time back.
"True." There was a rueful smile. His tone was more emollient. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. Maybe - David the rational. Perhaps that what I really meant." I was silent. "David the ever reliable. Always there to get me out of trouble. What would I do without you? What would I have done without you?" He paused for a moment. "But you should really lighten up, you know."
"Perhaps I was born without yeast."
"A joke yet! Perhaps there is still hope for you."
I shook my head. "Too late for that."
He came up close to me again. "Too late? Some things are never too late, you know."
I was uncomfortable - I didn't know what to say in reply. He came closer still, then his lips were on mine. But I was unresponsive - outwardly, at any rate.
He drew back again. "David the cool. David the iceberg."
I smelt the vodka on his breath again, just as I had done those years ago. But I could feel myself shaking with emotion, and with a little anger too. We stared at each other for a long, long time. Then he turned away, and walked over to that locker and reached down inside, pulling out the bottle of vodka, spiking his orange juice with a heavy slug.
"Doug - don't. Please."
"Why not? As I said to you a long time ago, it dulls the edges. Removes the pain. Makes you sentimental. Makes you want to weep."
Doug always had one layer of skin too few. And why were we always evoking the past?
Neither of us said anything for a minute or so. I stood by the door, still uncertain as to whether I should go or not. Doug was a pace away, looking down, not meeting my eyes. His dark hair, slightly dishevelled, tumbled forward over his forehead. He looked up, and I could see the moisture in his eyes, the appeal on his face. Then he sighed, and looked down again.
"Don't you remember that morning?" he asked quietly, staring into the glass. "That one, wonderful morning. The best morning of my life. When we were alone in your house. The morning I seduced you. The morning I spent in your bed. The morning I could go through your clothes, choosing what to wear, knowing you had worn them before me. Knowing I could choose whichever ones I wanted. That one morning when you didn't push me away." He paused. "At least, not very hard. Do you remember it, David? Do you remember it?"
My voice was husky. "Yes, Doug, I remember it."
"Do you regret it?"
"Ah. And I'm the one mixed up."
I smiled reflexively. Then: "No," I said slowly, "we're all, in our own way, mixed up."
"David - you gave me all those reasons that morning. All those reasons why we couldn't be lovers. That our parents wouldn't stand for it. That the school wouldn't stand for it. That we were too young. And all those other reasons. Remember?"
"Yes. I remember."
"Well, my parents know now. And we're not at school any more. And we're grown up. So those reasons don't mean anything now, do they?"
"Doug, you don't seduce people through logic."
He smiled sadly into his glass once again. "And I'm the one who called you too rational. TouchÚ."
"Doug - have you ever been frightened?"
"Often. But frightened of what?"
"I think sometimes that I'm frightened - of intimacy, of not being able to love anyone."
"You don't have to tell me that. I think I know it already." He paused. "Still, I suppose if I don't have you, I still have the memories of you. Memories of that morning. And of all the other times. You remember that coach trip up to London?"
"And the cries of 'Hi, freak'."
"The bench on the hillside."
"The vodka I poured onto the ground."
He looked up at me, his eyes glittering. "I didn't know whether to hit you or to kiss you then, when I had my arms round your neck. But kissing you would have been no use, would it? Then you poured it on to the ground, and I just wanted to hit you instead." He stopped, then said quietly: "You know why I applied to come here, to Oxford, to this college, don't you?" I shook my head. "To be back with you. To be somewhere where you were."
"It's true. Where I could see you again, where I could talk to you again. I spent a year at school without you, you know. That's why I worked so hard, did things like putting on that concert. If I was busy, if I was occupied, then I wouldn't have time to think of you so much. But now I can call on you whenever I want. Sit with you. Talk to you. But not love you - not as I would like to."
I said nothing - I had nothing to say.
He came back closer to me once more. "A fresh start, David?"
"You and I?"
I trembled. My throat had seized. I stared at him wordless. The silence went on for a long, long time. Our eyes were locked together. I could see the appeal in his face again. Then eventually he turned away again, blinking back the tears.
"Go away, David. Go away. Please," he asked in a muffled voice.
"Just go away. Please."
His head was in his hands, as he stood, swaying slightly.
I opened the door behind me.
I didn't sleep much that night - at least not until late on, when it was almost morning. I finally got up about ten, feeling like death, feeling as if I had not slept at all. Doug had never been far from my mind, in a way he never had been before. I suppose the logjam of my emotions had begun to break up, and it was a painful business. I think I washed and shaved by remote control that morning, before stepping out blinking into the bright sunlight of an Oxford Sunday morning. Bells were being rung around the city. But that apart, the quad was quiet and empty of people.
I looked up to Doug's staircase, to his room where the curtains were still drawn across the window. My feet took me there without conscious thought. Perhaps - perhaps it wasn't really too late for a fresh start. Had I wasted all those loveless years?
The wooden steps on the staircase echoed as I made my way up. I stood outside his door for some minutes, summoning up courage to go inside. Then I tried the handle. The door wasn't locked. I stepped in.
Inside, the room was dark, with only a little light filtering through the curtains. I could see the bed in the corner of the room, and, closing the door, I made my way over and knelt by the bedside. Doug was lying on his side, facing away from me, facing the wall. He was still fully dressed as I had left him the night before, lying on top of the bedspread. Tentatively I reached out a hand to touch his arm.
His skin was cold to my touch. Suddenly I realised how quiet the room was, with not even the sound of breathing. I snatched my hand away, then put it to his neck, to find the pulse in the carotid artery.
There was no pulse. Instead, his neck was as cold as his arm. I moved my hand to his cheek, which was cold and clammy. He hadn't stirred, moved, to the touch of my hand. The life that had quickened him was no longer there.
I rocked back onto my heels, flooded with panic and despair, then fumbled in my jacket pocket for my mobile. The little screen lit up, and I pressed the same button three times - 999. Police and ambulance - that was what I needed. I told them what I had found, who I was, and directed them to the College Lodge, then called the Lodge itself to warn them. I remembered Doug's words of the night before. A corner of my mind told me that I was still being rational in the midst of my panic.
Perhaps - perhaps I was wrong. I reached out again, but one touch of that too too solid flesh convinced me. I moved to the window, opening the curtains to let the bright morning light flood into the room. Now, looking at him, or the husk remaining, there was no doubt. I went over to the bed, leant over him, and with the tip of a finger tilted his head towards me. The waxen face was expressionless, without animation, the eyes closed. I stood back. This was not how I wanted to remember him. I sank into a chair, and perhaps for the first time since I was a small child, the tears began to fall.
The rumble of feet on the staircase. The room started to fill with people, with strangers. Paramedics in their fluorescent jackets. A porter from the Lodge. Then the police. I was ignored as they turned over the body on the bed. I stared down at the carpet, not wanting to see what they were doing.
The College porter and a policeman were at my elbow. I nodded.
"Can you tell us what happened?"
I shook my head dumbly. I was aware of them looking at each other, talking across me. Somehow the ambulance men had brought a trolley up those narrow stairs, and they picked up Doug. Not Doug any more. An arm fell loosely as they transferred him. Straps around the body. Then they began to take him away. I could imagine the crowds beginning to form in the Quad below, drawn by the drama.
Then the room was emptier, quieter, with just the porter and two remaining policeman. They hovered close, uncertain.
"I'm OK now," I told them, untruthfully. "You'll want a statement from me, I suppose."
The policeman looked relieved. "Yes, sir, if you wouldn't mind. We can do that at the station later though. But first, can you tell us what happened?"
I sat back wearily. "Yes, I can. I saw Doug last night - I suppose I left him about midnight. I came up to see him again this morning - the door was open. I found him just as you saw him. Then I called you."
"You called us straightaway?"
I nodded. I could see the other policeman going round the room, picking up papers, books from the desk.
"Why? How?" I asked.
"Why? The cause of death you mean?" He shook his head. "Much too early to tell, sir. We need the pathologist's report before we'll know properly. Can you tell us his state of mind last night, sir?"
I hesitated. "He was drunk. Well, not that drunk, but he'd drunk a fair amount. We - talked for some time."
"Was he depressed?"
Again I hesitated. "Depressed? Yes. No."
Now it was the policeman's turn to hesitate. "What do you mean by that, sir?"
I sighed. "It's difficult. Can we leave it for the statement?"
"If you like, sir."
The other policeman had finished his search and looked over, shaking his head.
"No note then?"
"Apparently not. We'll need to go through his things more carefully." He turned to the porter. "The College will have his details?"
"I can give the address and phone number of his parents."
"Oh. Do you know them?"
I nodded. "I knew him at school. For some years now."
"Oh - I'm sorry. This must have been a shock then."
I had been intending to give Doug my life, and had instead given him death.
"You might say that. I'll come down to the station with you now."
We came into the bright sunlight Quad. There were still a few people standing around, people I knew. They stared at me with curiosity. I made my way to the patrol car, for them to take me down to the station.
Time moves slowly when you are sitting in an empty interview room. It was some while before two plain clothes men came in.
I nodded. The one in charge began.
"I'm Inspector Gray. You spoke to our constables earlier, but we really need a full written statement from you."
"Do they know? What happened?"
He hesitated, then: "There are few things you can help us with. Were you aware he was a heroin user?"
It took several seconds for that to sink in, then I shook my head dumbly.
"From a superficial examination of the body, it would seem that he has been injecting for some months now."
I shook my head again. "I had no idea."
"You said he was drunk last night?"
"Yes. Not Saturday night drunk, though. I think he was well on the way to being an alcoholic. He'd been drinking steadily by himself most of the evening."
The eyebrows went up. "Had this been going on for some time?"
I nodded. "For some years."
I nodded again. "We had an argument about it four years ago."
"I see. Well, we also found some white powder in his room. We need to analyse it properly. But there have been two other deaths this month - up in the estates - Blackbird Leys. You see, the stuff you buy on the streets - sometimes it's one hundred per cent chalk, sometimes hardly cut at all. Someone's being selling stuff that's much stronger than usual. We think that that might be the case here."
"Could it have been deliberate?"
"Suicide?" He shrugged. "We can't tell really until we see the pathologist's report. It's possible, certainly. The preliminary time of death is about three, four a.m. - probably he injected himself soon after you left him, around midnight."
He must have seen the expression on my face.
"Would that have been likely? What was his state of mind?"
I sighed. "Not good."
"Can you explain that, sir?"
"Yes. You see, as you'll probably find out, he was gay." The inspector's face was expressionless. "We had known each other for a long time. I know - knew - he had been in love with me for a long time. Last night - well, I turned him down."
There was no point in telling him that come the morning, I had changed my mind. It had been too late by then.
There was a pause. "So you think it might be suicide?"
"I don't know. I don't honestly know."
He nodded. "OK. Well, I'm afraid you're going to have to wait a little while longer while we
get this onto paper, but then you're free to go."
The funeral was delayed by the necessity for an autopsy. I received a note from Doug's parents, asking me to the cremation.
I had been to one of those fairly recently, an aunt of my mother. To me, the whole process bordered on farce. I remember how we'd had to wait, as a previous service overran. I remembered the perfunctoriness of the service, despite the best efforts of the priest. Then, as he reached his peroration, the curtains closed on the coffin, and you could hear a distinct rumbling sound as the conveyor belt began. It was more farce than tragedy. Then we were ushered straight out, with another service on our heels. We stood around for half an hour, looking at the wreaths which had been assembled on a small concrete area behind the crematorium. I knew hardly anyone there, and had to try to make small talk with strangers. Then I imagined that for Doug. Imagined having to talk to his parents afterwards. There was no way I could do that.
I wrote as best a reply as I could devise. Where did you begin and where did you end with a note like that? But I worked through it, word by painful word, and posted it.
Mum and Dad had been invited as well: they rang me to ask about arrangements. I had to tell them I wasn't going to be there.
"But, David, you must go!" cried my mother, horrified.
"His parents would want you to."
"I know, and I've written to them as best I could. Perhaps you could say something to them on my behalf."
"It's not the same. You should say it to them yourself, in person."
I hesitated. That was the one argument for going. For whatever I thought of them, the Rogers had lost their only son. Yet I thought my presence might produce as many bitter memories as happy ones.
"No, Mum. Sorry, but I prefer to remember him as he was. Not in a box being shovelled into a furnace."
"Well, if you're sure..."
"I am. Say to the Rogers that I'm very sorry. If you like, tell them it's not heartlessness on my part, but if anything, the too much of the opposite."
"All right, darling. And - I'm very so sorry for you."
"Thanks. I'll be OK."
"Yes. Don't worry."
Not long after the funeral, I found a letter waiting for me in my pigeonhole in the Lodge. I
ripped open the envelope, and stood reading it, oblivious of the people passing by. It was a
note from the police station.
Dear Mr. FitzWilliam,
We have now received the pathologist's report on Douglas Rogers, and have examined his papers and personal effects.
I have to prepare a report for the Coroner, and since you appear to have known the deceased
better than most, it would, I believe, be helpful if we could have a further talk.
Inspector S. Gray
I rang the station and made an appointment to see him for that afternoon. The main police station was not far from the College, and in the cold damp drizzle, I made my way down. He was waiting for me by the desk.
He smiled slightly and we shook hands. "Come through."
Another functional, cheerless interview room. Appropriate perhaps for this meeting.
He cleared his throat and picked up a file.
"Thanks for coming down so promptly. I appreciate it."
I nodded a reply, and he held up the file.
"We've just received the pathologist's report. First, the cause of death - heroin overdose. Analysis of the sample found in the deceased's room shows a high concentration of the drug. There are two possible scenarios for his death: either the high concentration of the active ingredient was responsible, or an extra large dosage was administered. A combination of the two is also possible. Death occurred some three to four hours after the drug was administered. Time of death as far as can be determined was probably in the region of 4 a.m. You saw him last at midnight, so the timing fits."
He must have injected himself not long after I had left him.
"Second, a high level of blood alcohol." He looked up at me. "That's commensurate with your account. We also found two more bottles of vodka at the back of the bedside locker. That, plus the way they were hidden away, tends to back your theory of private drinking."
He went back to the report. "From an examination of the body, the deceased could have been injecting heroin for some months. However, he was probably not a regular user. This could mean that the overdose was exacerbated by a lack of tolerance. It is impossible to determine whether the overdose was deliberate or accidental. However, the alcohol present would have added significant to the depressive effects of the drug, and would certainly increase the possibility of a fatal reaction to the drug."
He looked up at me. "Does that fit with what you knew of him?"
"Yes. Though I didn't know about the heroin. That really is news to me."
"Would you say he had an addictive personality?"
He nodded. "It fits with the drinking. Particularly if, as you say, he used to drink alone. That's often a good correlator."
He stopped for a moment. Then: "We found no note or other indication of suicide. However, there was an envelope lying on the top of the bedside locker containing some diaries and a CD ROM." He produced it from the file. It was obviously a fairly well worn envelope, creased, and with frayed corners. However, what did take me aback was the one word written on the front: DAVID.
"Were you aware of the existence of this?" he asked.
I shook my head and reached for it.
"It's probably better you read it later. By yourself. It's fairly personal, and some of it may come as a surprise. Legally, I suppose it belongs to his parents, but I think under the circumstances you should see it. It's up to you whether you return it. I don't think we'll be needing it as evidence, or anything like that."
"I would imagine that on this basis of the pathology report, and a lack of any other evidence, an open verdict would be returned. Do you understand that?"
"Well, if you could read those diaries, and then drop me a note if you think there's something significant in them. Otherwise, we'll pass the file along to the Coroner. Is that OK?"
I nodded yet again. "Thank you. So we never will know."
"Whether it was suicide?" He hesitated. "No, I don't think we will. I don't think the evidence really points one way or the other, to be honest."
"Thanks. I appreciate that."
"The inquest won't be for a month or two yet. I'll keep you posted."
"Thanks." I got up to go, clutching the envelope. He saw it, was about to say something, then stopped. He reached out and we shook hands.
I walked light headed up the road. No evidence either way. But if I'd stayed with him that evening, he wouldn't have needed to take any other drug. But would he have succumbed some other time? Or would the need have been removed? I would never know.
Back at my desk I slid the diaries out from the envelope. A CD ROM clattered out too. I would leave that for later.
Two smallish hardbacked notebooks. I recognised them - I had some similar to these myself. They had come from the school bookshop. Inside, on the first page, was the one word again: DAVID. I turned the page and began reading.
His diary started some years before, back from the first times I met him. Almost from our very first encounter.
Ten minutes later the fine handwriting was beginning to blur. I had to stop, to go to the window, wipe my eyes, gaze across the Quad. To read someone else's view of you is very difficult. But to read the account of someone who loved you was insupportable.
Then I came to his account of the morning when he first stayed at our house, the morning after he had run away. He described climbing into bed with me and of what followed. But in his account, he was not pushed out onto the floor, as I had so cruelly done. Instead, for page after page, he wrote of staying in bed with me, of waking next to me, of what we might have done.
Then, a final, crushing line. "None of this happened, of course. Is he capable of loving at all?"
The vodka incident. "When I had my arms round his neck, I could have leaned forward and kissed him. But would he have kissed me back? Then he goes and pours the stuff on the ground!"
Then the weekends when he used to come to stay. "To be in that bedroom, knowing he was sleeping the other side of the corridor. The best of feelings. The worst of feelings. To have sneaked out in the middle of the night to his bed. And to have been pushed back out on to the floor."
I carried on. The day of the rape. I was curious to know how he came to know of that disastrous party, but that wasn't there. But in cold, clear, clean clinical language he gave the detail of the attack and its aftermath. Then the first use of that hurtful phrase: "And David to the rescue. Dull David. Reliable David. Re-assuring David. But not a loving David."
I broke off again, then went back, read it once more.
Then random jottings. More about the weekends he had spent with us. Then:
"Oxford. David has a place at Oxford. That's where I must go."
At that point I had to leave them. I couldn't face reading any more. I had to get out, to get air. I put on a coat and walked round Christ Church Meadows, trying to clear my mind, hoping my mind would be cleared by the crisp cold air, but the exercise was no help. I was drawn back to my room. And I saw, lying on the desk that CD.
I switched my machine on and inserted the disk. There was just one folder, labelled 'david'. I clicked on it, and an array of sub folders came up. I clicked on one at random. In it were a series of image files. I clicked one of those at random.
A picture came up, and at first I couldn't understand it. But then I realised: it was a picture of me, taken a few years ago in the shopping mall when I had gone to stay with them that time, but altered almost beyond recognition. My image had been taken from the original background, sepia toned, vignetted.
I clicked on another - the same image, but with a different treatment this time, producing just an outline. I clicked on more. He must have spent hours with some graphics program, fiddling around with the special effects. Another folder - a different picture, but again altered, filtered, more special effects added.
Then the most horrible of all. A folder where my features had been pasted over images of semi nude boys. Hurriedly I shut the machine down. I could see why the Inspector had given them to me rather than to Doug's parents.
I was shaking. How could I have been so ignorant all these years? How could I have failed to realise? What had I done to him?
Grief is the price that we pay for love.
The College decided that it would hold a memorial service for Doug on the morning of the Saturday after Eighth Week, after term had ended. They invited his parents, who declined. Perhaps they too could not face it. And perhaps, obscurely, they blamed the College. I didn't know which.
The College Chapel was in one corner of the main quad. It had been built at a time when the college had far fewer students, and, I suppose, if you were being polite, you could call it intimate. I have to admit that in four terms I had only been in there a few times, and those were for concerts. It did have quite a fine organ however. The inside was heavily decorated in a very baroque fashion, not to my taste at all. But none of that mattered really: we were there for a fairly sombre occasion.
It was a formal affair, with gowns. I filed in with perhaps twenty others, all from his year. His tutor was there, and some other members of the Senior Common Room. The Master said something to me as I passed, but I didn't catch what it was he had said.
The Chaplain took the service, and he did it well: it was dignified but without sentiment. After some opening prayers and a hymn, the Master stood up in his pew to give an address.
"Douglas Rogers was a member of this College for less than a term, yet he made a very considerable mark on the life of the College even in that short time. We are here not to mourn his passing, but instead to celebrate. To celebrate his life, and what he meant to us. Even though most of us had known him only for a few weeks, we could see the stature of the man he would have been. There are those of us who knew him longer, and perhaps knew his virtues even better." I looked up to him at that point, but he was staring ahead, down the length of the Chapel. He carried on: "But all of us feel the loss of his presence, and feel the pain of his departure. But I also know that we are, all of us, the better for having known him."
I had to look back down again, and missed the rest of what he had to say. Then, after he had finished, came the final hymn. It was one we had sung often enough in the school chapel, sung to the words: "Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son." An excellent choice. The tune itself is a blaze of glory. Handel had written that tune, originally to the words: "See the conqu'ring hero comes." A tune used in Judas Maccabeus. A tune which had resounded through the school hall under Doug's baton one evening nearly a year ago. A tune which Doug and I had listened to on many an afternoon in my room.
The voices of the congregation rang out:
Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son,
Endless is the victory thou o'er death hast won;
It was too much for me. My voice faltered after the first few words, and I could feel the tears starting. At the end, we all knelt for the final prayer. The tears would not stop. After the blessing, the organ voluntary began, and people started to file out. I couldn't move from my place, and stayed until eventually the chapel was empty and the organ had played its last note.
I heaved myself to my feet and blindly made my way down the aisle. I could see the organist standing in the nave, looking embarrassed. The Chaplain was standing by the door. He took my arm.
"Are you all right, David?"
"Yes, sorry... it's just that last hymn."
"Doug conducted a performance of Maccabeus at school last year. I went down to hear it. That's where the tune of that last hymn comes from. See the conqu'ring hero."
I heard the Chaplain catch his breath. "I'm sorry. If I had known..."
I drew my hand across my face. "Not something we could have expected you to know. Besides, it was very appropriate. And it's a very good tune. If I were to remember Doug by anything, it would be that."
The door was ajar, and through it, I could see a dull wintry damp Oxford December day. I pushed the door open wider.
"Will you be all right? Do you want to stay for a few more minutes? Or can I offer you something?"
"No, thank you. It was a very good service. It did him justice. And could you thank the Master for his address?"
The College was almost empty. Most people were on their way home by now. I'd told Father that I would like to be collected this afternoon, but I hadn't told them of the service. I knew they would have liked to have been there, but, selfishly, I wanted to mourn him alone.
Back in my room, I threw off my gown. There was one thing left to do before the mourning could be complete. I looked along my row of CDs, pulled out my recording of Maccabeus, then slid the disk into the player, found the right track. The rooms around me would be empty now: I could turn the volume up as much as I liked.
The sound filled the room:
See, the conqu'ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drum.
Sports prepare, the laurels bring.
Songs of triumph to him sing.
See the god-like youth advance!
Breathe the flutes, and lead the dance;
Myrtle wreaths, and roses twine,
To deck the hero's brow divine.
See, the conqu'ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drum.
Sports prepare, the laurels bring.
Songs of triumph to him sing.
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