Taking Back the Words

We came round the windward mark for the last lap. I looked in front of us: we were fourth, with quite a large gap between us and number three. Doug was first, however. I looked behind. Dave was sixth. I remembered the rule about dinghy team racing - first and not last wins. First, fourth and sixth was definitely a losing combination.

"Ken?" My crew looked round. "Tactics time. We've got push their last man into last place."


He let the jib fly, slowing the boat. Number five starting making up on us. I steered so that we would be windward of him. He saw what I was doing and began to alter his course. Got him! I altered course further and he followed. Dave had a chance to slip behind us now.

"Jib," I said to Ken. He was getting too close now. We accelerated slightly, just enough to hold him off. Dave was coming through. Then the opposition saw what was happening. He shot back to try to block Dave, but I kept in front of him, slowing him. He was sandwiched now between the two of us.

"Go for it, Dave," I yelled. Across the water I could see his head nodding. His thumb went up.

The opposition had been squeezed back to sixth place. All I had to do now was hold him off until the finish line. We shot round the wing mark, gybing. Dave was clear in front now. The opposition was sitting tight on my transom. It would be the final beat that decided it. We skidded round the downwind marker, hauling in hard.

They must have been well taught, because they tacked off as soon as they were round the mark.

"Tacking," I yelled to Ken.

We spun round. They were slightly ahead, but we had quite a bit of room to windward.

"Bearing off!"

By bearing away we could go slightly faster at the expense of our windward advantage. We were sitting on top of him now - level, and two boat lengths up to windward.

He tried hard - I'll give him that - but every time he tacked away we followed. Dave was well away now, in clear air. Their number three could have tried coming back, but too late - he was already over the line, and finished.

We held them off until the line, when we got our hoot. First, fourth and fifth - a winning combination. Doug was milling around past the line.

"Great stuff, Jon. Good team racing."

I waved at him, and turned the bow towards the shore.

"Well done," said Ken. "We held them off nicely there."

Ken and I had been racing as a pair all season, and by now, we could predict each other's moves without thinking. He knew when I was about to tack, and was prepared. Equally, I knew that I didn't have to think about what he was doing - I could get on with helming and leave him to do his own thing.

I swung up into wind, sails flapping, and we drifted up to the jetty. Wright was waiting for us.

"Well done, Jon. Good tactical teamwork there. It's won us the match."

This was a school we liked to try to beat - but rarely did. It made the win all the sweeter.

We got the boats hauled up and derigged, then off to change.

"God, I hate wearing these waterproofs," I grumbled, hauling them off.

"Get breathables, like these," said Ken. He had a fancy dry suit that must have cost a bomb. He was wriggling out of it as he spoke.

"If you'll pay for them. I stink. Where're the showers?"

I stripped off and headed for a sluice down. Doug was already there.

"Well done, Jon. Quick thinking there. It's nice to beat this lot occasionally."

"All that winter practice must have paid off. Even if it was bloody cold at the time."


I could see Ken making his way in as I grabbed my towel.

"Well done, Ken," I heard Doug say, as I dried myself off.

"Jon's idea."

"But you two work together well. You're a good combination."

"Like Jon said - all that winter practice."

The tea afterwards was fun - if only because the opposition was so obviously pissed off by their defeat. I could see Wright, our sailing master, talking to his opposite number with a quiet smile.

It was the last match of the season, which made it all the better - going out on a high note.

In the mini bus on the way back, we talked about the schools regatta in the week after the end of term. We were entering two boats - Doug and his crew, myself and Ken. The logistics were quite complicated, and we had to get the two dinghies down from the school and rigged in the next couple of days.

Most people going to the regatta had to camp out, or doss down somewhere. I was lucky. Ken's parents had a cottage about 100 yards from the sailing club - his dad was a keen sailor. It wasn't very big, though, as I found out. When we got there, he took me in to a small living room.

"Mum and Dad are coming down tomorrow," he said.

"Going to be a bit crowded then?"

"Yeah. You get a camp bed on my floor." Ken had a brother a couple of years younger, and they had only the three bedrooms.

I shrugged. "Better than a tent in the field."

He grinned. "Yeah. And we can talk tactics."

"You're that keen?"

"Well, we don't want to disgrace ourselves, do we?"

"Right, OK. Show me where we're sleeping."

There wasn't much room to spare. Two sixteen year olds filled what empty space there was. I dropped my bag down and looked round.

"Well, I suppose you could call it cosy," I said.

"Want to go back to the field?"

"No thanks."

There was a briefing that evening for all the competitors: we made our way down to the club and found seats. The briefing lasted an hour: despite the late evenings, it was almost dark before we got out and went down to do a last minute check round the boat. Then we headed back. We knew that we were going to have a long day in front of us, and went straight to bed.

But that camp bed was not comfortable. It might have been better than sleeping in a tent in the middle of a field, but even so, I found it hard to drop off. I kept waking up, and turning from side to side, trying to get comfortable. I could hear Ken breathing away steadily, fast asleep. At least he was in a comfortable bed.

Eventually I gave up trying to get to sleep and quietly went across to the window to gaze out. The sky was quite light, and the tide was in. I could see the ripples as the wind blew across the water. It was very still and quiet.

Then I realised Ken was standing next to me. I moved slightly to one side, and he too gazed out across the water. In the confined space he was very close, almost touching. He half turned towards me just as I moved, and we came into contact. We both stayed still, and I could feel the warmth of his body, his leg half across mine, his breath on my cheek. Then he reached up and touched my bare arm.

Involuntarily I flinched. Not in revulsion, or fear - just a physical reflex that made me jump back. I heard a catch in his breathing - he snatched his hand away, then moved back a pace.

Both of us stood there for another thirty seconds or so, then he turned, and I heard him climbing back into bed. I stayed by the window.

I knew what he had wanted. I wasn't sure that I didn't want it myself - but it was too late now. I might have responded to him as we were standing there, but the moment had passed. I wasn't sure what I wanted - but I wasn't confident enough or willing enough to take up where he had left off.

I climbed back into my camp bed as quietly as I could, and this time did fall fast asleep. When I finally woke, disoriented by my surroundings, Ken's bed was empty. I looked at my watch: half past seven. Late enough to be thinking about rising myself.

When I got downstairs, he was fiddling about in the kitchen. He didn't meet my eyes.

"Cereal's there," he said. "Milk in the fridge. Toaster, butter ..."

I muttered some response.

"Going down to see what the tide's going. I'll look at the forecast too," he said briskly.


He went out, still avoiding my gaze. The episode last night had obviously embarrassed him considerably. I hoped it wasn't going to put him off his stride during the racing.

Which it didn't. He was brisk and businesslike as we had the morning briefing, and as we rigged the boats. When we were on the water we didn't talk much anyway: this was one of our strengths as a team - we knew instinctively what the other would do.

And this was one of our better days. Indeed, at the end of the day we were third overall - much higher than our skills really deserved. And Doug was only seventh, as a result of having been over the line at the start of the second race.

I tried saying something to him as we came away from the club.

"Ken ... about last night ..."

He cut me off. "Parents will be here," he said briskly. "You'd better come and meet them."

So he didn't want to talk about it. Fair enough. I could understand that. But there was a reserve between us that hadn't existed before. I liked Ken, got on with him well. We were a good team together in a boat. He was slim and agile, moving in the confines of a dinghy with grace. But the one moment had created a barrier. How long would it last? It would be very tiresome if it lasted all the three days.

His parents and brother had just arrived, and were unpacking. The small cottage became smaller. They were eager to know how we had got on, and were pleased no end by our result. We were all busy - unpacking, sorting things out, preparing supper, washing up. Then Ken's dad said he would take us down to the yacht club.

Wright - our sailing master - was fairly relaxed about us being in the bar. As he had told us before the event, it was the holidays. But we were representing our school, and so if we did do anything stupid, there would be hell to pay. Someone had found that out last year the hard way. I didn't want to find myself taking the next train back home.

We drank cider - which is not a particularly good idea. At least beer tastes foul - well, it does to me - but drinking cider is rather like drinking lemonade but in addition leaves you very drunk if you aren't careful. I stuck to two - but noticed Ken having more.

I had met up with an old friend from prep school - he had gone on somewhere else - and we were talking away when I noticed Ken leave. I was a little worried, given the amount I'd seen him drinking.

"Hey, Ian, I've got to go and track down my crew. Can I catch up with you tomorrow?"


I put my glass down and went out into the faint evening light. It took a minute or two for my eyes to adjust. There were odd people wandering around, but there was no one looking like Ken. I went down to the dinghy park - no one there either. I looked across the water, and then a figure caught my eye at the end of the pontoon. I hesitated, then made my way down.

It was him: he was sitting crouched down on his heels, rocking slightly back and forward, right on the edge of the pontoon. The current was strong, with the tide ebbing fast.

I walked as quickly and quietly as I could, and seized his shoulder, pulling him back. He sprawled full length, arms flailing.

"What the hell?" he cried, thickly.

"You've drunk too much, Ken."

Slowly he raised himself up. He pulled his knees up to his chin, and wrapped his arms round his legs. At least he was a couple of feet from the water now. I sat down next to him.

"Not the safest of places to be after several ciders," I told him.

He didn't say anything for a minute or two, then: "Why do you think I drank so much then?"

I was perplexed. "Dunno. Why did you drink so much?"

"It would make it easier that way."

Suddenly his meaning dawned, and I was appalled.

"You don't mean that!"

"Why not?" he said defiantly.

"Why would you want to?"

"Isn't it obvious?"

"What? Last night, you mean?" He said nothing. "Look, I've felt randy enough myself at times. It isn't that big a deal."

He turned and looked at me. The whites of his eyes glittered in the faint light. "How many people have you told about it so far?"

"Christ - do you think I'd do a thing like that?"

He looked back at the water. "You will - sooner or later."

"Ken - if I ever do - I'll join you in the water." He was silent. "Anyway - nothing actually happened - did it?"

"That's not the point."

I was lost now. "Well, what is the point?"

Then, appallingly, he began sobbing. At least, it was a combination of a gulp and a sob. I could suddenly see the tears glistening on his cheeks.

"Ken ..." I put my arm around his shoulders. Bad move. He shook it off. I tried again. "Ken, it's more than just last night. What is it?"

"I can't tell you."

I lost patience. "Ken, you're into self pity now. And it's very unattractive. Now tell me what the hell this is all about."

The sobs stopped, and he sniffled. Then again: "I can't tell you."

"Ken, you are going to tell me. Apart from anything else, if you're going to be like this tomorrow, we stand zero chance in this regatta."

That produced a combination between a laugh and a hiccup. He gazed at the water for a long time. Then he looked at me, his cheeks still wet, his eyes now tired, almost afraid.

"You won't tell anyone?"

"If I do, you can push me in before you jump in after me."

He considered that. Then: "Do you wank?"

Of all the questions that I had been expecting, that was the least likely. It threw me completely.

"Do you?" he repeated.

"Well, yes," I said, uncomfortably.

"And what do you think of when you wank? That poster of Claudia Schiffer on your wall?"

"Well, sometimes. Hey, you've got that poster too."

"Yeah. But it doesn't work for me."


"Oh?" He mimicked my tone.

I was exasperated. "OK. What does work for you then?"

"What do you think?"

"I don't know, for God's sake. I can't read your mind."

"Just as well." He threw a pebble into the water. Then, very quietly, very tiredly, he said: "Other boys."

I didn't know what to say. He turned his head once more, eyes glittering, the tears on his cheeks now dry. "Well?"

"That's why you were here?"

He nodded. "I thought plenty of cider would make it easier. It's full ebb now - I'd float out towards the sea."

I was suddenly angry. "Before you do that, first write a letter to your parents. I think they might like an explanation as to why their son is dead." He seemed to shrivel slightly at that. "And keep it until after Wednesday, so I've still got a crew for the regatta." He turned to me horrified. "Well?"

He crumpled, his head falling between his knees. I stood up.

"Come on. It's late. Your parents are going to be wondering where we are. We've got four races to sail tomorrow."

I dragged him to his feet. The fight had gone out of him, but the drink made him unsteady on his feet. I put my arm round his shoulders, and this time he didn't resist. I steered him back to his house.

His father was still up, and looked at us anxiously as we came through the front door. Ken was staring down, unfocussed.

"A bit too much cider," I told his father.

"Ah. Will he be all right?"

I nodded. "I'll put his head in some cold water, then get him to bed. I'm in the same room, so there shouldn't be a problem."

"Right." He hovered, uncertain, and I bundled Ken upstairs. I got him into the bathroom, and persuaded him to splash his face with water for a long time. He clung onto the basin, still unsteady.

"Do you want a pee?"

He nodded, wordless. I supported him - though didn't offer to hold it for him. The cider took its revenge. It was long and very smelly.

"OK, bed."

He needed help undressing, although again I was as careful as I could be. Things were delicate enough. But the alcohol knocked him right out - that, and the trauma of the evening. He started snoring like a pig.

I was dead tired too, and the discomfort of the camp bed meant nothing. At least, not until the next morning, when the light through the curtains became too much. Ken was still out to the world. I had to shake him hard.



"Wake up. Time to get moving."

In fact, there was plenty of time, but I wanted him to be able to clear his head.

Like an automaton, he shuffled off to the bathroom. I followed him, then we went down to breakfast.

He peered at his watch. "It's only seven o'clock!"

"That's right. Now have another cup of coffee, and another glass of orange juice." Caffeine, vitamin C, and fluid to overcome the dehydration.

Eventually, he was able to meet my eyes across the table.

"Sorry about last night," he said quietly.

"No worries. Come on. We're going for a walk."


"Fresh air. To clear your head."

The little village was almost empty. We were one of the first up - apart from the poor buggers in the tents. We went down to the water's edge again, then, on an impulse, down the pontoon again. The day was grey and overcast - just as well, since I think the brightness of the sun would have been too much for both of us.

"Ken ..." I began awkwardly.

"Yes?" A non committal yes.

"Ken, what you said last night ... what's said can't be unsaid. And in one way we're not going to be the friends we were once. But we can still be friends." He looked at me, his face unreadable. "And, Ken?"


"There are people, you know. The Samaritans for one. They're trained. And they can tell you who to talk to."

"You make it sound like a disease."

I was embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to."

"And next you're going to say it's just a phase you're going through. That I'll grow out of it."

"Will you? I've no idea."

"I don't think so. It's always been like this."

"OK. But, look, if you don't talk to some one like the Samaritans, who else is there you can talk to?"

He sighed. "No one."

"It's not true, you know. There are other people out there who feel like you, who have the same feelings. You've got to go out and find them. And there are people who are trained in helping you to come to terms with it. Because you haven't yet, have you?"

He gazed across the water. "No, I haven't." He sighed. "I suppose you're right." He looked down at the water flooding past the pontoon, then back at me. "Silly idea, wasn't it?"

"I think so."

We were both silent for another minute, then I said: "Come on - we've a boat to rig and a race to win."

Comments, criticisms etc: email The Composer