This story is a continuation of my previous story, Quartet. It will make little sense unless you have read the earlier story. While Quartet could stand alone as a story, this episode continues the story of Nick and Ashley as seen through other eyes.
Id just put my feet up when the call came. And it was a very odd call.
"This is Philip Knight Nicks Housemaster at school."
"Theres a problem with Nick, and I think you need to come over to talk about it with Nick and with me."
"Really? Whats its all about?"
"Difficult to explain over the phone. Can you come over? Now?"
"Now? You mean this evening?"
"Please. It would be helpful. And one other thing. Nick will probably be coming back with you."
"What?" I exploded. "Does this mean hes been suspended or expelled or something?"
He was evasive. "Its probably better that you learn the full story when you get here. Nick might want to tell you all about it himself, anyway."
"So lets see - you want me to come to school, now, this moment, and bring Nick home?"
"Yes, Mrs Thompson."
"And youre not going to tell me why?"
"As I say, I think Nick wants to tell you himself."
"Is Nick being expelled?"
Again he was evasive. "That hasnt been settled yet."
"Is he all right? I mean, nothings happened to him?"
"No, nothing in that sense."
"In what sense, then?"
"He has a problem which we need to sort out as soon as possible. And, as I say, it would be better all round if the were to tell you himself."
I realised the only way I was going to find out was to go there myself. Im damned if I knew why he wouldnt discuss it over the phone, but he obviously wasnt prepared to. I left a note for Freddie, who wasnt home yet, and got into the car. It was a forty minute drive. My mind was running round, squirrel in a cage syndrome, turning over thoughts. Drugs was of course the most obvious thing, but in other ways the least likely. Mind you, Nick had been acting oddly at times recently, but I had put that down to adolescence. Drugs would not have been top of my list. But nowadays you never knew. Alcohol? That wouldnt have merited a phone call like that. And what else could he done that was so heinous he might be expelled? And needed me to be there to help sort out?
I parked outside the House. It was dark, and all the windows were lit up, but there was no-one around. Prep. I made my way through the silent building up to Mr Knights study. The door was ajar, so I knocked and went in. Mr Knight was there behind his desk, and James and Nick were sitting on hard chairs in front of him. I remembered James I had met him before. He looked agonised, but Nick was as white as a sheet. He looked up at me dumbly.
"Mrs Thompson." Knight stood up and shook my hand.
"Mr Knight." I looked round at Nick, then back at Knight. "So?"
"I think we had better leave the two of you together. Nick might be able to put things better than I could."
Knight nodded at James, and the two of them left. I turned to Nick. He was so white and miserable that my heart went out to him. Nothing I could imagine him doing could justify this.
He looked up briefly.
"Im sorry to do this to you, Mum."
"Forget me. What about you?"
He shrunk further into his chair. "This is going to be embarrassing for both of us."
I couldnt help it I burst out: "Its not drugs, is it?"
He shook his head. "No, Mum, not drugs."
Bewildered, I asked: "What then?"
Briefly, he said: "Another boy."
For several seconds I didnt grasp his meaning. Then all I could say was "Oh."
"Youd better sit down, Mum," he said, with a small twisted smile. "I told you this would be difficult."
I did. "When you said another boy," I asked cautiously, "did you mean "
There was silence for perhaps a minute. Then he started. "We were caught together doing things we arent supposed to do. Its public knowledge now. They cant let me stay. Not after whats happened."
"Do I know him?"
He shook his head. "No."
"Is he having to leave too?"
"I dont know. Maybe not." What I thought of that must have showed through on my face. "Mum, theres no point in wrecking two lives."
I could see the logic of that, but still couldnt suppress the emotion.
"OK," I said briskly, "well leave that until later. Whats happening with you?"
"Do you want to?"
A small smile. "I dont think Ive much choice. But things would be impossible now, anyway."
Then Mr Knight came back in and interrupted us. "Look, you can take all the time you like. Its just that at the moment all the boys are in prep. But theyll be out in fifteen minutes. If you want to go while things are quiet "
"Come on, Mum. It would be better that way," said Nick quietly.
Somehow, I allowed myself to be ushered out of the study and down to the car. Everyone seemed intent on manoeuvring me around today.
"James has already put Nicks things into the car," said Knight. "Mrs Thompson, if you want to come and see me tomorrow or any other time to talk about it, ring me."
I also got the feeling we were going to be ushered off the premises as fast as possible. Nick was obviously an embarrassment.
"Ill certainly do that," I told him briefly.
I could see Nick staring intently up at one of the windows. I looked up - the room was lit but the curtains drawn. Knight looked up too.
"Hmm " he began.
"Dont worry," I said, "were going. Get into the car, Nick."
Reluctantly, he climbed in, and I reversed the car, catching Knight momentarily in the headlights. It was going to be a long drive back.
But we were both silent for the first five minutes. Then Nick began, his voice thin and weary beyond belief.
"Look, Mum, I cant talk about any of this tonight. When we get home, Im going straight up to bed. Tomorrow, we can talk for as long as you like. Is that OK?"
Now his voice was a little scared too. "Dad. I cant talk to him tonight. Can you possibly?"
Freddie. How was I going to talk to Freddie about this?
"Of course, dear."
"Thank you." This time there was relief in his voice.
To take my mind off things, I concentrated on driving in the dark, but soon realised that Nick had fallen asleep. Another half hour saw us home. I stopped the car and switched off, but still Nick slept on. I had to reach over and shake his shoulder.
"Dont worry. Go straight up to bed. Get some sleep. Well leave everything until tomorrow."
"Thanks Mum. That would be wonderful."
As we went in, Freddie came out of the sitting room. I caught his eye and shook my head. Nick, head down, made for the stairs. When hed disappeared, I turned back to Freddie, and put a finger to my lips. Then:
"Go and make me a very strong G&T."
I followed him into the sitting room.
"That was Nick," he said, unnecessarily.
I took a deep swallow. "That was indeed."
"Whats going on? Why isnt he at school?"
"Sit down Freddie."
I thought he was going to protest, but he gave in. I sat in an armchair opposite him. "Right. Brace yourself. This is not good news."
"OK. Fire away."
"Nick has been expelled from school."
"No, Freddie. Another boy."
"Another boy you mean?"
"I do indeed."
"Well " he was at a loss for words " I mean sometimes boys do things together, but its not always that serious."
"I think it might be, Freddie. At least judging by his reaction and the schools reaction."
"Oh." He took a swig of his drink, and I held mine out for a refill. It had disappeared without my really noticing.
"Have you talked to him about it?"
"A bit. But hes obviously completely shattered physically and mentally. He fell fast asleep on the way back, and hes gone straight up to bed now. He told me hed tell me all about it tomorrow."
"Right," he said, sitting back in his chair. "So we wait and see what he has to say for himself?"
"I think so. Tell me, Freddie, would you say hed been behaving at all strangely?"
He shrugged. "Not as far as Ive noticed. He seemed very down when he came back at the end of last term, but seemed to recover. Hes been moody, but then, arent all teenagers?"
"Hes never had girlfriends," I observed.
"Well, he doesnt have much of a social life here at all."
"But on holiday, last summer, he didnt seem at all interested."
"Thats a bit unfair. You know, he fell in with that group half a dozen boys and a gaggle of girls?"
"Hmm. I dont know."
"Hes a bit young for that sort of thing, anyway."
"Not that young. Seventeen. It isnt young these days."
"But hes always been a late developer."
"I suppose so."
"Anyway, to be practical, what do we do now?"
I sighed. "I dont know, Freddie, I dont know. I suppose we wait until the morning when he starts talking again."
"OK. Sorry Im going to have to leave this to you. I wont be back until late tomorrow."
"I suspect its the kind of subject which boys feel easier talking to their mothers about than to their fathers."
"Oh. Yes, youre probably right there."
There was nothing else to be done that night, and in the morning I let Nick sleep in undisturbed. I sat in the kitchen, drinking cup after cup of coffee. He surfaced sometime after ten, shuffling in slippers, wearing jeans and a T shirt. Despite the hours of sleep he had managed he still looked white and drawn, with huge dark bags under his eyes. He saw the table was still set, and devoured cereal. Neither of us had spoken a word. I made him toast, and he munched his way through three thick slices. Then he pushed his plate away, and sighed, looking up at me for the first time.
Another pause. I wasnt going to push him into saying anything. Let him speak for himself. I sat and waited.
"Im going to be completely honest with you. Youll have to believe that. Everything I tell you is going to be the truth."
He took another gulp of his tea.
"At the end of last term," he began, "I started " his voice faltered for a moment " doing things with another boy in the House."
"This boy," I said, more harshly than I intended, "has he a name?"
He winced, then nodded. "Ashley."
"Ashley. Do I know him? Have I met him?"
He shook his head. "No."
"Tell me about him."
He face twisted. "Honestly, Mum, I dont think I can. I mean, Im not exactly unbiased, am I?"
"Fair enough. OK. Carry on."
More tea, then: "Well, when we came home, in the holidays, we got in contact again, and carried on seeing each other."
Light dawned. "Ah, your visits on Thursdays to a school friend."
He nodded. "Yes. Thats right. And we carried on when we got back to school."
"Carried on ... with what?"
He went red. "Mum, Im not going to tell you everything. Everything I tell you is true, but Im not going to " he groped for words.
"Go into intimate detail?" I supplied.
"I suppose. The thing is, people in House began to find out. James moved me to another room so it couldnt happen again."
"James knew before it all blew up?" I asked in surprise
Nick nodded again. "He was trying to keep us apart, you see."
"And Mr Knight did he know about it then?"
"James told him."
"OK. What happened after that?"
"Well we started meeting again. In the Scout Hut. But yesterday afternoon a School Monitor came in when we were " again he broke off and went red.
"In flagrante delecto?"
He obviously didnt know the exact translation, but got the meaning. He nodded. "Yes. And he told James, who told Knight, and so on. And it all went from there. Thats when Knight rang you."
I sat pondering the whole sad, sorry story. "This Ashley," I asked again, "what is he like?"
His face screwed up. "Mum Ive told you - I cant answer that one."
"Ok. Well same age?"
"Hes in the year below." He was silent for a moment, then went on: "That was one of the problems at school, I mean. The fact that he was younger."
"Right. And how do you feel about him now?"
He sat forward, his elbows on the table, and put his head in his hands. His thin fair hair stuck up. Then he looked up at me.
"I cant bear it, Mum."
"Cant bear what?"
"Not," he swallowed convulsively, "not being with him."
That rocked me back. Not two boys having cheap sex. This looked to be a good deal deeper. I could see now why the school might have been worried.
"Youre going to have to live with it. Youre here at home, and hes there, thirty miles away, at school."
"I know." And his head went back into his hands. "Thats whats so awful."
All this was a lot more than I had bargained for. I realised he was almost crying. I left him in silence for a few minutes, then:
"OK, Nick. Practicalities."
His head came up and he sniffed, and I noticed with another sudden shock that he really had been crying. Because of the situation he was in, or because of this Ashley? I wasnt sure.
His voice was thin.
"Do you want to go back to school?"
He thought for a moment then shook his head. "I cant. Everyone knows. And even if they let me back, life would be hell. Theyd say things all the time. And Id see Ashley all the time, but wouldnt be able to talk to him, or " his head went back down into his hands again.
Oh God, I thought. This gets worse. "Right, school is out. At least that school. The local sixth form college?"
He head came up again. Hed obviously never even thought about it. Hed been thrown out of one school, but hadnt even begun to work out what came next. And A Levels in not much more than six months. University applications.
"I suppose - why not?"
"We can arrange it without too much trouble, I would have thought," I said briskly.
Momentarily he looked wary. I suddenly saw another Nick, one too used to subterfuge. I might have to get used to that. And how much had he left out?
"Do they have to know?"
"About why you left? I dont see why the have to. Not if we dont want to tell them."
He nodded. "Ok."
"Well leave it for today; we can go and see them tomorrow."
He nodded again.
We left matters there it was obvious I wasnt going to get much more out of him just then. The next sticky moment came when Freddie returned that evening. We sat round at supper talking generalities there was nothing else we could do until Id filled him in with the details. We even opened a bottle of wine Nick had a couple of glasses and it went more easily than I might have expected. After supper, Nick went up to his room, and I sat down with Freddie, and told him of our conversation.
Freddies reaction was more cautious than mine.
"It may well be just a phase. Hell grow out of it. Boys do particularly at that age."
"You didnt hear him this morning. The way he talked about about Ashley. It had me seriously worried."
"In what way?"
"I dont think its two boys having sex together because they cant find a girl. It seemed much deeper than that."
Freddie thought about the implications of that. "Then what do you suggest we do?"
"God knows. But weve got to get through the next few days, and get him back into school. Things may get back onto a more even keel then."
Freddie nodded. "OK. Lets see how things go."
And they seemed to go well. We went to the local sixth form college: no problem. Yes, Nick could start on Monday. They would take him on his GCSEs without a reference from his previous school which surprised me. They were curious, but accepted our assurances that it wasnt drugs or theft. But neither of us complained about that.
There was a letter for Nick a couple of days later, postmarked from the village by the school. I didnt recognise the writing, but left it on the hall table for him. It disappeared without comment. That was another thing I was going to have to learn to live with. He might have been quite honest in what he had told me, but, as he said, he wasnt going to tell me everything. I was going to have to live with a secretive son. As long as he didnt become furtive too.
Then, a few days later, something else - a small package. Same handwriting, same postmark. Left on the hall table again, and just as quietly it disappeared. But no more after that. And I didnt ask questions. Let it die a death, I thought.
He started at the Sixth Form College on the Monday, and all seemed well. He seemed quiet but happier. He coped with the work quite easily, and seemed to settle in with no problem. I crossed my fingers. Perhaps he was going to get over it whatever it had been. Until things all fell apart again, a few weeks later.
I had gone out into the garden about nine oclock in the evening, remembering Id left something out on the clothes line. I was going down the path when I heard Nicks voice. Odd, I thought. I stopped, and, unwisely listened.
He was talking to someone, but I couldnt hear who. It seemed a one sided conversation. Then it dawned on me. He must have a mobile phone. That was what had been in that package! It didnt take me long to work out who he was talking to either. What he was saying was pretty graphic stuff, interspersed with Mills and Boon type lovey dovey. Finally, he whispered. "OK. Tomorrow same time. I love you too. Night."
"Nick," I said.
Although it was dark, I knew that he had frozen still.
"Yes Mum?" very quiet.
"Who were you talking to?" No reply. "Nick?"
A sigh. "To Ashley."
"Did he send you the phone?"
"Come out into the light."
He stood, blinking in the light from the kitchen.
"I didnt mean to eavesdrop, Nick, but I couldnt help it."
A thin worried voice: "How much did you hear?"
"A lot. You know, you were saying things to him which I dont think your father and I have ever said to each other."
"Yes indeed. Come inside."
We went into the kitchen and sat facing each other across the table. He was stuffing the phone into a pocket: not quite concealing it, but trying to be inconspicuous. My furtive son.
"He really means a lot to you?"
Nick nodded, wordless.
"This has been going on since you left school?"
Reluctantly he nodded again.
"Whose idea was the phone?"
Again he hesitated, then: "Both of us, really. But Ashley got them somewhere cheap, and sent me one."
"And how often do you talk?"
"Have you seen him since you left school?"
"No. Weve just talked."
"But what I heard was typical?"
He shuffled and momentarily looked evasive. "Then, staring at the table, he said: "Suppose so."
"God." I stared at him across the table. "What are we going to do?"
Nick looked everywhere apart from at me. He looked both miserable and terrified.
"I suppose Id better meet this Ashley."
His head went up, startled. "What?"
"If he means so much to you, Id better meet him. I want to know more about him. A lot more."
"But " he was open mouthed, wordless.
"Why not? I need to find out for myself what sort of person he is particularly if hes having an effect like this on you."
That silenced him. He stared back down at the table. Then: "How?"
"Well " I hadnt worked that one out myself. "Well drive over together, pick him up, go somewhere, and talk things over."
His eyes lit up. "Do you really mean that?"
"Some ground rules, Nick. Im not going to set the two of you up so you can go and " I didnt know what to say " . and do the sorts of things you were talking about just now. Its going to be the three of us and I want to hear him for himself see what hes like."
He had the grace to look ashamed. "Yeah."
"Ring him now."
"I cant." He looked at his watch. "Its Adsum now."
Schools and their timetables. Bloody anally retentive schoolmasters.
"OK. Text him." He blinked at my mastery of modern jargon. "Tell him to ring you as soon as he can, and set it up."
He blinked again. "OK. Right."
So he got out his phone, fiddled around making those beeping sounds, and sent off a message.
"I asked him to ring me later," he said.
"OK. A quick call upstairs if you like."
"I cant get a signal there thats why I was in the garden."
"Right. Out you go."
"I asked him to ring at a quarter past ten hell be in his room then."
"Fine. Then fix up a time when we can collect him and go somewhere to talk."
The arrangement they made was that we were to collect Ashley at half past two on Saturday afternoon. We could go to a tea shop in a town a few miles away - talking in the car would be impossible. I didnt tell Freddie what I was planning, either.
I really didnt know what to expect. I really had no idea, although perhaps various lurid images had been swirling round my mind. But as we drove down a narrow lane not far from the school, Nick suddenly cried, "There he is," excitement in his voice.
And there was an ordinary schoolboy, fairly tall, broadshouldered, wearing blazer and tie just as Nick had done. He stood by the grass verge, and I had time to look at him more closely as I pulled up. Superficially, he seemed even more ordinary: dark, slightly spiky hair, gelled up in the modern teenage fashion with a slight quiff, a somewhat closed and maybe sullen face.
But that changed when he saw Nick: it lit up with pleasure, but then became wary once more when he saw me. Just like my sons had done too often. I stopped the car, and Nick was reaching back to open the door. He slid in, slamming the door behind him.
"Nick!" Then, more formally, "Mrs Thompson."
I had to screw myself round in the driving seat to see him properly. I wouldnt have given him a second glance if Id seen him walking around the school grounds. But that wary expression was there again.
"Ashley," I said neutrally, "good to see you at last."
Was there a touch of pink among the wariness? "Yes, well." Then he started giving directions to the town where we were bound. We parked in the High Street.
"No onell be here from school. Its too far."
We got out, and I thought Nick was going to reach for him, but they stood stiffly a yard apart.
"Come on," I said briskly. If this were to work, we had to keep things moving.
We found the tea shop, and a small square table. We sat one each side: Nick opposite me, Ashley on my left. There was a lot of unspoken communication going on between the two of them.
"So," I said.
Ashley looked at me, and in polite schoolboy manner, said: "Mrs Thompson?"
"You and Nick."
This was getting us nowhere slowly.
"I overheard most of your conversation on your phones the other night."
That hit home. He went white, then looked across to Nick, horrified. Nick nodded shamefaced.
"Hmm .." he began.
"Did you really do all those things together?"
Now he went very red, very red indeed. He broke my gaze and stared down at the table cloth.
"Yes," he whispered.
"And at the end, Nick said love you."
"Yes", he whispered again.
"So do you?"
He looked confused, and lost for an answer. Nick started: "Mum?"
"Youre going to say that we dont know what love means. We probably dont. But we do want each other " now it was his turn to go red " not only for sex, but just to be together. Talking on the phone is one thing, but being with Ashley now, well, its like a birthday and Christmas together."
I could see him getting a grateful glance from Ashley.
I didnt know quite what to say, and took refuge in the cup of tea. Then I put it down.
"Look, you two havent even begun to think things through. Ashley, youre away at school. You have another eighteen months there. Nick, youre at home. Next year you go off to University somewhere."
"There are the holidays," said Nick.
"Oh?" I said. "And are you intending to go off to Ashleys each Thursday as you did last holidays? To do whatever?" He looked a little shamefaced. I turned to Ashley. "And did your mother know Nick was there, and what you were getting up to?"
A direct hit below the waterline, or below the belt no perhaps, on second thought, not a good analogy. He went very, very red, and ducked his head down. For a moment he looked young and very vulnerable.
Then he did his best to look me in the eye. "No, Mrs Thompson, she didnt."
"In fact, do your parents know anything of this?"
He shook his head. "No, they dont."
"The school didnt say anything?" He shook his head. "And youve told them nothing."
"You should," I said bluntly. "Apart from the effect it must be having on your work, and your life at school, youve been deceiving them." He looked back down at the table. I was getting used to this mannerism now from both of them. "And, dammit, look at me!"
That startled him, and worked. He looked at me like a frightened rabbit.
"I suppose whether or not you choose to tell your parents is your business and I think you should but Im not having Nick visit you unless your parents are fully informed as to whats going on. And what you might get up to."
Nick protested. "Mum!"
"So you can enjoy more of your sticky times?" I asked, quoting from their telephone conversation.
That did bring matters to a grinding halt. I shouldnt have said that.
"You cant stop me going over," said Nick defiantly.
I sighed. "I can while youre living with us." That shook him. "And Mrs Rees is only a phone call away." That shook both of them. They looked at each other. Perhaps I was pressing this too hard. I didnt want them doing something stupid, or even more furtive.
I back pedalled a little. "Were going to have to work something out. I dont know what yet. But Im not having you going behind Ashleys mothers back, and Im not having you at home doing whatever upstairs."
Forbidding them to see each other would be counter productive anyway. And if I took away his mobile phone, hed only get another one. I couldnt intercept every letter he received.
They sat digesting what Id just said. Then Nick said quietly: "Would you have said the same thing if it had been a girl?"
"If it had been a girl you wouldnt have been expelled. And even if you did have a girlfriend, Im not sure whether I would let you usher her upstairs at home for a quickie."
I think they were both taken aback by my language and the tone of my voice. But they needed reality bringing home to them. We finished our tea in silence. Ashley looked at his watch.
"Adsum?" asked Nick, and Ashley nodded. The world they shared had shared from which the rest of us were excluded.
"You need to go?" I asked.
Ashley nodded. "Please, Mrs Thompson."
"OK." I started gathering my things.
"Can we have five minutes just to ourselves? In here?"
I looked at them, sighed. "You cant get up to much in here. Ill pay the bill and wait for you in the car."
It was nearer fifteen minutes than five: I was getting ready to go and winkle them out when I saw them coming down the street, looking like any other pair of teenagers. I could see that Ashley in a year or so might break the hearts of lots of girls; instead, he was breaking the heart of me and my son. What did take my breath away, however, was the way they were walking. Close together, but not perhaps unusually so. But the little finger of Nicks left hand was entwined with Ashleys little finger. I looked away then, my eyes filling with tears. What I was crying for I didnt know, but this was almost more than I could bear.
They climbed in, wordless, obviously happy, and I started the car and drove off, back to school. I stopped in the same small narrow secluded lane.
"Im glad to have met you, Ashley," I said. I had needed to see the boy who had set our lives into such turmoil, but now, having met him, wasnt any the wiser as to where to go from here.
"Thank you, Mrs Thompson," the polite public school boy mask slipping over him again.
He opened the door, and as he got out, leaned forward a little and squeezed Nicks shoulder. Then he was outside, closing the door. As I drove away, I saw him staring after the car, and Nick craning round as well, until we disappeared round a bend.
That evening I had to confess to Freddie what Id done, and told him about the mobile phone and what Id heard. And about our conversation in the tea shop.
"Oh, Lord," he said. "So its not a schoolboy crush?"
"Doesnt seem like it at least, not in the sense I think you mean. Its just as well you didnt hear that conversation. They were obviously being quite graphic. I mean, they were saying things to each other that weve never said to each other."
"Saying them? Do you think theyre doing them?"
"I dont know. But, then, why was Nick expelled?" And I told him of the visits to the Rees in the summer.
"So what do we do now?"
"Ive no idea at all. I thought if I met Ashley, it might give some ideas. I mean, I was building up this image in my mind of some freak, or monster."
"And was he?"
"No, just an ordinary school boy. Or so he seemed. Good looking, quite well built."
And then I told him of the twining together of the fingers. That seemed to shock him more than anything.
"So what do we do, Freddie?" We seemed to be saying that to each other a lot these days.
He shook his head. "Ive no idea. The only thing we can do is give it time. Itll either burn out, or the separation will do it."
I wasnt entirely sure about either of those, but I couldnt see an alternative. Things seemed to be going well once more after our meeting: Nick seemed back on a more even keel again, and was obviously making good progress at the Sixth Form College. He filled in his University application forms and posted them off. I heard no more about him and Ashley, although they still had their phones. I didnt push Nick on that one.
Term finished in the first week in December, and I looked forward to a family Christmas. One afternoon I came back from the supermarket, car filled with all the food we would need, to find an envelope on the doormat. A letter from one of the Universities Nick was applying to. I took it up to his room. Nowadays I knocked before going in, and so as usual knocked, waited. No answer. I looked in. The room seemed tidier than usual, and the bed was made with great care not the habitual throwing over of the duvet. In the centre of the bed was a large sheet of paper, and I could see the word "MUM" filling the page. I picked it up; the letter was on the other side.
"Dear Mum and Dad,
"Just going away for a few days. Ill be fine, and dont worry about me, OK?
I sat down in a rush, and now I couldnt stop the sobbing. I turned the piece of paper over and over. It was pretty obvious where he had gone, or, rather, who he had gone with. To hell with it this was more serious. I had to contact Ashley or his parents.
I ran downstairs to find the phone book. I knew the town where Ashley lived, but unfortunately there were a lot of people called Rees in the book. I struck lucky at number six.
"Sorry to bother you, but do you have a son called Ashley?"
"What? Who are you?"
"My name is Mrs Thompson."
"Yes, I do have a son called Ashley, and hes missing."
"I thought he might be."
"Why? What do you know about it?"
"Has he left a note?"
"Yes. And how do you know that? Who are you?"
"Have you any idea of why hes gone?"
"None at all," and she started crying.
This was going to be difficult. "I think I do."
"Why? Tell me wheres he gone?"
"Its going to be a long story. I think hell be OK, but it would be better if I told you about it in person. I live about half an hours drive away. Can I come over and talk to you?"
"Yes. Yes, please."
I looked at the house as I drove up. Nice, smart solid middle class home, probably built in the Thirties. A smartly dressed woman was standing in the doorway, twisting a handkerchief around her fingers.
I introduced myself.
"Come in. But I dont understand this at all. How do you know Ashley?"
"Its a long story," I said dryly.
We went into the kitchen and sat at the table. I could see how in looks, at any rate, Ashley took after his mother. She was looking at me with a mixture of anxiety, curiosity, and a touch of hostility.
I produced Nicks note. She looked at it, bewildered.
"But its identical to the one Ashleys left."
"I can believe that. And youd no idea at all? The name Nick Thompson means nothing to you?"
"Nothing at all."
Oh dear. You shouldnt have done it this way, Ashley. This really was cowardice. And I meant I was the one who was going to have to give the message to his mother a job I didnt relish one little bit.
I started telling her the story as I knew it. I didnt get far before she interrupted me.
"This is nonsense. Ashleys not like that. Hes " she paused " normal."
"Mrs Rees, do you go up to London on Thursdays?"
"Yes," she said bewildered.
"How do you think I know about that? Thats when Nick used to come over to well " She looked at me, still unconvinced. "Has Ashley a girl friend?"
"No," she said, "but hes still very young."
"Not that young," I said. "And if you still dont believe me, try ringing the school. There may well be someone there. Ask them exactly why Nick was expelled last term."
"But Ashley said nothing. Just left me with that note."
"That was inexcusable going away without telling you why. At least in Nicks case, I could take a pretty good guess as to what hed done," I said.
She stared at me, plucking at the edges of the piece of paper that I had put in front of her.
"Lets be practical," I said. "Theyve certainly gone off, and just on the evidence of these notes, theyve gone off together. Now, have you any idea of where they may have gone?"
"Ive no idea at all," she said, uncertain. "Perhaps to a friend?"
I shook my head. "Unlikely. Even if they had someone to go to, itd be a bit difficult explaining it to the rest of the family. And if you run away together, its because you want to be alone together." I could tell from her face that she didnt care for that. "No, its somewhere else. Do you have a holiday home somewhere, perhaps?"
"No, nothing like that." Then her eyes widened. "We have a boat."
"What sort of boat?"
"A yacht. Its quite big thirtysix foot. We go on holiday sailing each summer."
"Where do you keep it?"
Not too far away. "Are the keys still here?"
She stood up. "Ill check." She rummaged in a drawer. "Theyre not here." She was still bewildered.
"Thats it, then. Got a spare set?" She nodded. "OK. Get the spare set and a coat."
"Right well OK."
Coat and handbag gathered up, we went out to the car. It would be dark soon. The drive to Southampton would take about an hour.
As we drove along the A3, I could feel the vibes again, anxious and hostile. Then she started questioning me about Nick. I tried to be as honest as I could, but at the same time needed to defend my son. She had obviously been kept completely in the dark by Ashley, and was amazed and upset when I told her of our meeting in the tea shop.
"You should have rung me straight afterwards!"
I sighed. "Youre probably right, Mrs Rees. But I thought that was Ashleys job. I had enough to worry about with my own son."
She accepted that reluctantly, but obviously felt that I had let her down badly. Well, as I said, Nick was a sufficient worry to me without taking on another familys problems as well.
She directed me into the city and down to the marina. It was completely dark now, the evening a little breezy, and ropes were banging against masts. I knew nothing about boats other than that they floated.
"Were down over there," she said. "Be careful its tricky in the dark."
Then: "Theres a light on in the boat!" she exclaimed.
Ha! Mission accomplished.
"And theyve put the line out to connect in the shore power," she continued.
I took her elbow. "Mrs Rees?"
"It might be an idea to give them a little warning," I said.
She stared at me, puzzled, then my meaning dawned. Her face screwed up: "Thats disgusting!"
I said nothing. I had overheard that conversation she hadnt. Indignantly she strode down to the boat. Hastily I followed. She stopped, and reached for the wires that came down from the mast to haul herself on board. The boat rocked, which I hoped would give them some warning.
"Hey," I cried, "can you give me a hand? Im not used to boats."
Grudgingly she turned and helped me. I tried to be as clumsy as I could.
"Sorry," I gasped.
She made her way down the boat, and slid back a hatch. I was close on her heels. The inside of the boat was dimly lit, but there seemed to be a much brighter light from a cabin further forward.
"Ashley," she cried.
There was a muffled yell of "Oh shit!", followed by a long pause.
"Ashley!" more urgently.
"Coming, Mum. Just a minute "
After another pause Ashley appeared, wearing only jeans, and pulling a T shirt over his head. It was pretty obvious that hed needed the time to get some clothes on. There were other scrabbling noises forward, and I asked him: "Is Nick there?" He nodded.
I thought Mrs Rees was going to have hysterics. "What have you been doing?" came out at a fairly high decibel rating.
Ashley shrugged, looking down, shuffling his bare feet, the epitome of the sullen teenager once more. Nick came tentatively from behind him, also clad only in jeans and T shirt. Even their T shirts matched. "Mum?" he said.
"Yes," I said wearily, "its your mother. And Ashleys mother." They had not seen each other before.
"What have you been doing?" she asked Ashley again, at a slightly lower level.
I grasped her elbow. "Lets sit down and talk about this," I told her.
With surprisingly little resistance she sank onto a seat. In the middle of the cabin was a table, with a bench seat either side. I motioned her along and sat next to her. I looked at the two boys.
"You can sit down too," I told them.
They shuffled into the seats opposite us, Ashley opposite his mother. No one spoke. I had to start the ball rolling.
"OK. Tell us about it."
They looked at each other then down at the table. Again. I was getting tired of this evasion.
"Look," I said, "it doesnt need the brain cell of a newt to work out that the two of you have decided to spend a couple of days in this " I waved my hand around " this love nest."
The boys looked startled. Mrs Rees made an incoherent sound.
"Ashley," I continued, "you have treated your mother very badly indeed." He had the grace to look shamefaced. "You went off, without giving her a clue as to what was going on, where you were going, or who you were going with."
"We left notes," he muttered.
"Twenty word, Ashley, twenty words." I had counted them.
"Your mother hadnt the faintest clue what was going on. I had to get the phone book and try all the Reeses in your town. Then when I find her, she wonders what the hell Im talking about." There was now a mixture of sullenness and shame on his face. "I then have the job of breaking it to her gently that her son has been carrying on a passionate love affair with my son. I really did enjoy that one."
He flicked up his eyes to me briefly. "Im sorry about that, Mrs Thompson."
"Why didnt you tell me about it, Ashley?" She was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
"I couldnt, Mum."
"And you, Nick. Going off like that without a word for your dirty weekend."
He flushed, but was still able to hold my gaze. "If Id asked you first youd have only said no."
True but irrelevant. "And you didnt think wed work out where youd gone?" They shuffled again. "Teenagers and the ability to plan ahead!"
I was almost burned out now.
"OK. First - Nick, you and I are going to take a walk outside. Then you, Ashley, are going to explain it all to your mother. Start with what happened last June. Why Nick was expelled. The mobile phones. And dont forget the Thursdays in the holidays either. Ill know if youve left anything out."
His white face looked up at me absolutely terrified.
"Come on," I said to Nick, standing up.
"Sure," he mumbled. "Id better get some shoes though."
He came back in short order with trainers and a fleece to cover him. Ashley and his mother were still sitting in silence. I turned to him.
"Youve got ten minutes starting now, Ashley. And dont leave anything out."
I hauled Nick out of the boat. We stood on the pontoon, now shivering in the bitter night air.
"Oh, Mum "
He sounded so desolate that I couldnt help it: I reached for him and wrapped my arms round him. He clung to me like a six year old.
"OK, Nick, its OK."
He was sobbing now. I held him for two or three minutes as it slowly lessened.
"OK, Nick, grown up time now. Get a hanky."
He fumbled in his pockets then blew his nose. We started walking slowly down the pontoon.
"You didnt think this through at all, did you?"
"So, what are we going to do?"
I sighed, exasperated. Freddie always said I was the organiser of the family. The sheer messiness of the situation depressed me. I looked at my watch.
"OK, Ashleys times up. I hope hes spilled the beans to his mother."
"It wasnt his fault, Mum."
"Maybe not. But to go off like that, with his mother having no idea, really was gratuitous. I worked out what youd done immediately. But that poor woman . Then I had to explain the facts of life to her."
"I really am sorry."
"Not your fault, his."
I was still fuming at his thoughtlessness. We reached the boat again. "Come on."
Ashley and his mother were sitting in silence, not looking at each other. We slid into the seats next to them.
"Spoken to your mother?" I asked him. He nodded. She looked completely dazed. "OK then, what happens now?"
She sat up, suddenly animated. "Ashley comes home with me."
I saw Ashley stiffen, and could see the makings of a full scale family row brewing up.
She looked back at me. "What do you mean?"
"We talk about this, not argue."
"Theres nothing to argue about."
"Tell Ashley that." She looked at his face, and faltered. This was something new to her and by the look on Ashleys face, he was going to dig his heels in. Good looking maybe, but I could see a lot of stubbornness in him as well.
"Well, you two, what happens next?" I asked them.
They looked at each other. They had the irresistible moral force of two mothers bearing down on them. But I knew what they wanted. And I didnt think they would be moved by us.
"Look," I said, "Im going to take Mrs Rees outside for a little chat. You two are also going to have a little chat. Then we work out what to do."
Freddie said I was bossy, too. She looked at me open mouthed.
"Come on," I said to her. Then to the two boys: "Youd better start thinking about what you want do with your lives."
She followed me out, leaving behind two very uncertain teenagers.
I took her arm. "Is there a bar or pub round here?"
Uncertainly: "Theres the yacht club."
"OK. Thats where were going. I need a very stiff drink, even if I do have to drive home again."
We fell into step. The water glistened blackly by the pontoons. We both had a lot to think about.
The club was warm and bright, even if almost empty. She got drinks for us both, and we went to a table.
"Look, Mrs Thompson " she began.
"Youd better call me Roma particularly if were going to be mothers in law." That shook her too. She wasnt used to my sense of humour.
"OK, well, Im Ruth."
"Ruth. Youre going to ask me what we do next."
I took a big gulp of G&T. What a pity I had to drive back. I was going to get sozzled when I got home. And to hell with Ruth, Freddie, Nick, Ashley and the rest of them.
I started ticking off the options on my fingers. "Well, we either go back with them or without them. If were lucky, they come quietly, and thats the end of the story. Collapse of big runaway heroes. If were not lucky, they scream, and refuse to come back. And we cant force them to, can we?"
She looked into her drink. "I suppose not."
"So. What if they dig their heels in and say they wont come back? In that case, we have to decide whether we part in sorrow or in anger."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, suppose they decide theyre going to stay put. We shout at them, say whatever, and storm off. Which leaves no-one talking to anyone, and our two boys getting up to God knows what with absolutely no come back. Or, we say OK, you stay here. Its not with our blessing but thats what you want to do. But if thats how its going to be, then we tell them to give us the numbers of their mobiles, and tell them to ring us regularly. If they want to go off anywhere, or whatever, they let us know. Properly."
She was looking dazed again. "How can we do that? I mean, just walk away to leave them to "
"What are the other options?"
"I dont know." Suddenly she looked frightened, then a good deal older. She might have been a smartly dressed lady, a good middle class mum, but this had hit her hard. "I mean, a few months ago, Ashley was well, this sounds stupid but a sweet young boy. Now hes grown big, and "
"And secretive and furtive and gay."
"Just like Nick."
"Are they gay, then?" wonderingly.
"God knows. Ive talked about this often enough with Freddie. As I said to him, its either a passing phase, or we wont be grandparents."
That hit her with another jolt. "Do you think it might be a passing phase?" she asked quietly.
"I dont know. If it is, its taking a damn long time to pass. And look at them. They almost canoodle when theyre together."
"You know," she said, "I didnt really believe you at first. When you came round and started telling me about it. It seemed as though you were talking about some other boy, not my son. Even though you seemed to know all about us and about Ashley. It was only when we went down into the boat, and into the cabin, and they came out like that. I mean "
"You mean they cant have been wearing anything when we arrived. And I shudder to think what they might have been doing together. But I thought it might have been the case. Thats why I wanted you to give them time."
We fell silent. I looked at my watch. "Theyve had half an hour. Lets go back and talk to them again."
But when we got down into the cabin, I could sense their mood. There was an atmosphere of defiance in the air. I looked at them hard.
"Ready to go home?"
Neither of them moved. I looked at Ruth, and we both sat down.
"Youre not coming quietly?"
They looked at each other, but didnt say anything. They were digging their heels in, as I had feared. I sighed.
"OK then. Youre staying here. But were laying down some ground rules. The first of which is that you give us your mobile numbers." I fished in my bag for a pencil and my diary. "Here." I thrust it across the table to them.
There was a pause I think they were more surprised than anything then Nick reached for it and wrote in silence.
"Ashley," I said, pushing it over to him. Meekly, he put his in too. I put the diary back in my bag.
"OK. Next thing is that you ring us each day once in the morning and once at night will do. If you have any plans to leave the boat to go anywhere unless its just for the day, you ring and clear it with us. OK?"
They nodded like the small boys they had only recently been.
"Good. When you want collecting, ring us. When its convenient for us, well collect you." Dont let them make all the running. "Oh, and have you any money?"
"Twenty pounds," said Nick.
"Been saving up your pocket money? OK, then," and I fished for my purse, "heres another twenty. Ashley?"
"A fiver," he whispered. He looked at his Mum. She bit her lip, and then reached into her handbag. Another twenty passed across the table.
"Youve food?" Nick nodded. "And some fresh clothes?"
"OK well, then." I stood up.
Slowly, reluctantly, Ruth stood up too. The boys stood up. Awkwardly, we all stood in that small cabin. I reached for Nick.
"Its all right, Nick, I still love you."
"Mum." And he sniffled. My heart almost broke.
Ashley had his arms around his mothers neck too. "Sorry, Mum," he was whispering.
I pulled away from Nick, then tugged at Ruths sleeve.
"Come on," I said harshly.
We somehow made our way on onto the pontoon. I had to wipe my eyes now. Without a word to each other we walked back to the car. I knew that on the way back Ruth was weeping quietly to herself. I had to concentrate on the road. That way, I wouldnt cry either.
When eventually Roma dropped me off at home, I think I had got beyond the tearful stage and had reached the hysterical. The lights were blazing in the house, and Jack was waiting for me, no doubt anxious for his supper. And he would have to stay anxious for a good deal longer.
"Hello, darling, been out?" he greeted me.
"You might say that. First, get me a good stiff drink."
He looked surprised, but: "OK."
He poured one out which wasnt really stiff enough. I think I gulped at it. He looked even more surprised.
"Is supper ready? And is Ashley around?" he asked.
"No and no."
Now he looked more than surprised. "Darling, what is it?"
I took a very, very deep breath. "Jack, darling, sit down." He did. So did I. "Now, Jack, I have a story for you."
"Cant it wait until after dinner?" he asked, looking at his watch.
"Bugger dinner." That did get his attention. I poured myself another drink.
"How many of those have you had?" he asked with curiosity and concern.
"Not as many as you think. And not as many as I would like."
Then I really did begin to cry.
Jack came and sat beside me and took my hand. "Darling, what is it? Whats the matter?"
"Im sorry, Jack." I sniffled. "Its just when you learn things about your nearest and dearest that you had never suspected it comes as something of a shock."
"Your nearest and dearest?" he asked, bewildered. "Me?"
"My other nearest and dearest."
"Ashley? Where is he?"
Another gulp of the drink. "Down in Southampton, on the boat. Ive just come from there. Thats why Im so late."
"On the boat?" his voice rising in incredulity. "Whats he doing there?"
"Whats he doing? That, Jack dearest, is the question. Probably something quite unmentionable with his boyfriend."
He was exasperated. "Come on, Ruth, pull yourself together and tell me what this is all about."
"Ive just told you, havent I."
"No. Come on, seriously."
I took another gulp of my drink.
"Ashley is, at this moment, on the boat, probably in bed with a boy called Nick Thompson. Dont ask what they might be doing in bed. I dont know and I dont want to find out." He stared at me speechless. "Yes, darling. Where do think Mrs Thompson and I have just been?"
"Youve been down to the boat?"
"And Ashley was there?"
"With this boy whatever his name is?"
"Nick Thompson. Yes."
"And they were ?"
"Yes, they were."
He sat up violently. "Where are the car keys?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean no."
"Weve got to bring him back."
"Tried that. Been there. Done that. Didnt get the T shirt."
He looked at me, his face screwed up in disbelief. "You mean you left him there? Doing God knows what?"
I shrugged and stared into my drink. "They werent going to budge. And theyre bigger than Roma or me."
"Theyre not bigger than me."
I sighed. "What will that solve, Jack?"
He stared at me. "Itll mean he wont be doing well, whatever it is he is doing."
"Jack, dear, hes being doing those sorts of things for the past few months. And if we try and stop him, I think hell just run away again. Except this time it wont be as easy to find him."
"I dont believe you."
I shrugged again. "Fair enough."
"Sorry, darling, I didnt mean it that way. But its kind of difficult to believe."
"Tell me about it. When that woman came round this afternoon, I didnt believe her either. Then when we went into the boat and saw them there wasnt much doubt. In fact, there wasnt any doubt."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I went into the cabin they were up in the front. There was a light on there. And they didnt come out for a minute or two. And when they did, it was obvious that theyd had to get dressed in a hurry. So work that one out."
Jack sat back and stared across the room. We sat there in silence. I think hed forgotten about supper. I had my supper in a glass in front of me.
We were jerked back into life by the phone. I suddenly thought it might be Ashley on his mobile. I didnt want him talking to Jack yet. I made a lunge for the receiver.
"Are you OK?"
"Im fine. And look, Im really sorry. Mrs Thompson was right I was a selfish bastard."
I think Jack had cottoned on to who it was. He sat up and I turned away so that he couldnt snatch the phone from me.
"Have you told Father yet?" he asked in a very cautious voice.
"Ive just been doing that." I could see him out of the corner of my eye.
"How did he take it?"
"Not very well. Hes still digesting the idea."
"I think he wants to talk to you," with considerable understatement, and handed the phone over.
"Ashley yes, she has what are you doing down there? and is what your mother has been telling me about you and this Nick true? " The answer seemed to deflate him. "Look, Ashley, were not going to let you stay down there like that "
I snatched the phone back.
"Yes, Mum," subdued.
"Tomorrow. The yacht club. One oclock. Just you. Not Nick."
"Im not coming back, Mum."
"I think youve made that obvious enough. But I think you owe it to your father to talk to him, face to face, dont you? And to me."
"No suppose about it. You do. So tomorrow, the Yacht Club, one oclock. Right?"
"OK, well " I could hardly say sleep well. "Well, well see you tomorrow then."
"OK. Gnight, Mum."
I hung up.
Jack was helping himself to another drink. He looked shell shocked. He brought it back to where I was sitting on the sofa.
"Where did we go wrong?" he asked.
"What sort of question is that?"
"Look, Ruth, have I ever come the heavy father?" I was tempted to tell him, but thought it more politic to mutter something emollient. "And I dont get my knickers in a twist about gays. We have one in the office."
"Honestly, Jack, you make it sound like a ornament to decorate the room."
"Come on, Ruth, you know what I mean."
"But when your own son turns out like that and he was such a pleasant, easy going " he sought for words " delightful child."
"And now hes a teenager, and starting to get spotty, and his voice has broken, and his balls have dropped, and hes discovered sex, and suddenly theres nothing better in all the world."
He turned to me bewildered. "But is it just sex, or is he " he found it difficult to use the words " in love with this boy?"
"I can understand him discovering sex. Pity it had to be with another boy."
"His balls have got him by the throat," I said rather coarsely. Jack almost laughed at that. "But I thought you were going to blow up there, which is why I snatched the phone back." He looked shame faced at that. "We can talk to him properly tomorrow."
"I suppose so." He suddenly looked very tired.
"Theres nothing we can do tonight."
"Maybe not." He stood up. "Im going to make some sandwiches. I need something to eat, soak up all the alcohol."
He was very quiet as we had our makeshift supper and went to bed. He obviously had a lot to think about. So did I, for that matter.
Breakfast found us hung over not surprisingly. We drove down the A3 in silence.
It had become one of those cold clear frosty days of mid December. There was ice on the puddles around the marina. We made our way over to the Yacht Club Ashley was already there at a table by the window, in jeans and a T shirt, nursing a Coke. We sat down opposite him, and no one said a word.
"Ashley " Jack cleared his throat.
Ashley looked up at him. He had changed over the past few months. His arms were bare in the T shirt, and I could see how much more muscled theyd become, the tendons in his arms standing out, the veins running from the back of his hand. No longer the smooth skin of a small boy.
And his Adams apple, bobbing down up and down, his neck thicker, the tendons prominent. No, no longer a boy. But not yet a man.
"Your mothers been talking to me ..." Jack began awkwardly. Ashley flicked his gaze across to me, and there was still warmth there. I couldnt help but feel that rush of love for my child.
"And youve been finding all this too much to take," Ashley told him.
Jack looked surprised. So was I this was more sophisticated than I would have expected from Ashley. Was this a line hed been fed by Nick? Or perhaps theyd spent half the night talking over what they might say to us. And the other half of the night I closed my mind to that.
"Well, yes, frankly." Jack leaned forward, about to wade in. I nudged him. "What?"
"Dont come the heavy father," I told him.
There was a look of faint amusement in Ashleys eyes.
"Oh. Well." He leaned back, trying to keep his body language more restrained. "I think your mother was very distressed yesterday by the way you ran off like that."
Now Ashley leaned back, put on to the defensive. "Yes. I shouldnt have done that. It was cruel and thoughtless."
Another thought more mature than I would have expected.
"Well, thats over and past. The question is, where do we go from here?"
With honesty, Ashley admitted, "I dont know."
And that answer floored Jack. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I dont know." He swirled his glass, the ice in it tinkling round. "I mean, we would like to spend the next few days down here." He looked at us defiantly. Neither of us said a word. "What we do after that, God knows."
"It at least sounds if youve been thinking about it," I told him.
He looked at me, then back to his drink. "We spent a long time last night, Nick and I, trying to talk things through. About us, about you, about the future.
"Things seemed pretty simple when we thought up the idea of coming down here. The idea was just to have some time together. We knew we wouldnt be able to at home. We only wanted to come away for a few days, then wed have come back. But you caught us pretty easily." He gave me a crooked grin. "And Im sorry you had to find us " he paused " like that."
"So am I. If nothing else, it convinced me that it wasnt a dream."
"Yeah, well. But where do we go from here? We dont really dont have a clue. I mean, we cant live together, anything like that, even if we wanted to. Im at school, Nicks at the Sixth Form College. And I dont think either you or Mrs Thompson would fancy us moving in together." Jack was going to say something there, but I put a hand on his arm. At least the two of them had been giving it some thought.
"And, as I said, I dont even know if we would want to do that. I mean, coming down here, and so on, its more like an adventure, a holiday."
"So what are you saying?" I asked him carefully.
Again I got that long look, an adult look coming from my boy. Perhaps all this had helped him grow up faster. Innocence had its charm but it also had its dangers.
"What Im saying, Mum, is that I dont know. Do you understand that?"
"I suppose so."
"Well," said Jack, "is this Nick around?"
Ashley transferred that steady look to his father. This wasnt boy to father any more, it was almost man to man.
"Nick, Dad, not this Nick."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jack redden again, and grasped his arm harder. He got the message.
"Nick, then. Is Nick around?"
"Hes down on the boat."
"Can you " Jack sought for the politic phrase. "Can you ask him to join us?"
Ashleys steady gaze held his fathers. "You wont make a scene?"
I feel the self restraint kicking in again. "No."
Ashley smiled. "A promise?"
Reluctantly, "A promise."
"Thank you, Dad," and he leaned forward a moment, and touched his fathers hand, then stood up swiftly, gracefully. "Back in a minute."
We sat back, and Jack gave a whoosh of air.
"Well done," I told him.
"What do you mean?"
"Jack, hes not a boy now. You can see that. The father act wont work anymore. Hell just walk away from you. Hes grown past that."
This was a new idea for him he sat digesting it. "Its difficult after sixteen years of telling what to do."
"I know. But you saw him just now. He wont take it any more."
"Well, he doesnt have to come back home any more if he doesnt want to."
"Jack, darling - what are you going to do: throw him our on the streets?"
"I suppose not. Right, OK. Ill get the drinks while theyre coming."
From the window, I could see them walking down the pontoon together while Jack was up the bar. They seemed like any other two lads on a Saturday morning, but there was something slightly odd about the way they were walking. I couldn't work it out at first, then I realised their arms were swinging together as if they were holding hands. But they werent. Then I suddenly realised they had their little fingers wrapped around each others. It must have taken a lot of nerve to do that in public. And Im glad Jack couldnt see them.
He sat down with drinks for us and two more Cokes for the boys. Then Ashley was at our elbow, Nick behind him.
"Father," he said formally, "this is Nick Thompson."
Wrong footed again, Jack stood up and shook hands with the other boy. He was obviously reluctant to do that, but Ashley had put him in a position where he had little choice.
"Mr Rees," Nick said carefully.
Everyone sat down. Ashley and Nick obviously sitting together; the boys together contra mundem.
Jack cleared his throat again, to my silent amusement. "Nick. I gather you were at school with Ashley."
Nick nodded. "Until I was expelled," he said carefully, quietly, neutrally.
That must have hurt.
"Yes." Jack looked rather helplessly from one to the other. "I gather youve been friends for some time." His voice was a bit strained and it wasnt the most tactful of things to have said.
"Well, weve know each other at school for some time, of course. But, to answer the question you havent asked, Ashley and I began together some months ago. Last June, actually. June 28th."
Jack went red again, but this time from embarrassment. The two boys were looking at him steadily. They had obviously planned this one very carefully last night.
"Yes, well I appreciate your candour."
"And you and Mrs Rees have been wondering whether Im some kind of freak or pervert that has seduced your son."
Coming from such a youngster it sounded bizarre. But yes, that was what we had been thinking. Jack went redder still. I think he was lost for words. So was I, frankly.
"I suppose," Nick went on, "that what we have been doing does count as, well, perverted. Only, we dont feel it like that about it. I dont know how long Ashley and I are going to feel like this about each other, but at the moment the best thing in the world is to be with him."
There was a long silence after that. They had obviously got their speeches prepared, but even so, it must have taken quite a bit of nerve to say what Nick had just said.
"Right, well, yes," said Jack. He leaned forward, but the body language had lost its threat it was decidedly uncertain. "So, your short term plans are to stay down here for a few days, but your long term plans are uncertain. Have I got that right?"
The two of them looked at him almost with gratitude.
"Yes, Dad," Ashley said eventually.
"I cant pretend your mother and I are going to give all this our blessing. Frankly, we do find this all rather unbelievable. And thats putting it mildly. But, as your mother pointed out to me last night, theres not a great deal we can do about it. I suppose if we dragged you back, youd only run away again."
Ashley went a little red. "Well, I dunno. I suppose."
"And its probably better that we know where you are than having you going off God knows where."
"Have you rung your mother this morning, Nick?" I asked.
"Yes, Mrs Rees."
I looked at Jack. "Theyve got phones, they can contact us if they need to. And we can ring them if we want."
Jack sat back, his objections answered for the moment. Or if not answered, then perhaps he felt out manoeuvred. I know I did.
"We wont go anywhere without letting you know," said Ashley. "Promise."
"OK. And youll be coming home in a few days?" I asked him.
"Yes, but wed like to leave that open. The exact day, that is."
"And when you do come home, youre going to talk this through with your father and I. And tell us the full story of Nick, and the school, and so on." He looked very reluctant. "You owe us that, Ashley. And youve plenty of time to think about it."
"Now. Youve got the heater going on the boat?" He nodded. "Well, if nothing else, youre keeping it aired for us. Is the boat presentable?"
"Yes, we tidied up."
"OK. Well, Im sure Jack wants to give it a check over, which we might as well do while were here."
"Ive pumped the bilges, that sort of thing."
"Fine. Jack? Do you want to go down there?"
He nodded. "Ill run the engine up."
The boys looked slightly bewildered by this sudden descent to the mundane.
"Come on then," I told them briskly. At least doing the routine might make the whole business slightly less bizarre.
Slightly awkwardly, we processed down the pontoons. The boys hung back slightly, walking a pace or two apart. Their public display of affection was currently in abeyance. Perhaps they felt they had been defiant enough for one morning.
Jack climbed briskly on board, and suddenly, in his element, started fiddling with things. I sat down in the cabin with the boys. There was surprisingly little evidence of their occupation, although I imagined that they had dumped all their gear in the forward cabin. The heater had made it pleasant enough, and one small tiny silver lining was that at least it would keep the damp at bay.
Jack came back down, his fiddlings complete. Now he was back in an area where he had some control, he was more confident.
"You can run the engine up, cant you, Ashley?" He nodded. "Fine. Give it half an hour. Put it into gear, three quarter revs."
Nick was looked bemused by all of this.
"Right then," said Jack briskly.
For him, the interview was over. I picked up my bag.
"Ill walk with you up to the car," offered Ashley.
We stood up, then Nick sat down again.`
"Ill hang on here," he muttered. He obviously felt he would be intruding.
It was a silent trio making its way to the car park. We stopped awkwardly by the car.
"Ill ring," he said.
I leaned forward and kissed his cheek. He looked faintly surprised.
"Yes, well," said Jack. "As you say, give us a ring."
We got in, and started the car. As we swung out of the car park, I could see Ashley standing looking after us. It was a very quiet journey back.
Unlike the US, in the UK a public school is actually a private school! Often these are boarding schools, and as a result of the size of the fees (perhaps $20,000 a year) are attended by the better off.
The Adsum referred to once or twice is a rollcall for members of the boarding house.
The original story was told from the point of view of four different characters. To live up to this technical challenge, the episode is told from the mothers' point of view.
Comments, criticisms etc: email The Composer.