A Bathys Serial
by Nial Thorne
Usual warnings. Reading further constitutes an unambiguous gesture of assent to the statement: I am not a minor person, nor in the company of a minor person. The story and the Bathys scenario are copyright © 2002 Nial Thorne. You may copy this for your own private use; all other rights reserved.
Comments very welcome at Nial_Thorne@hotmail.com
October 3-4: Igor
Karl thought it would be better if he went to get Brent by himself; he thought my appearance at the Flat might frighten the child. So I was left alone.
I couldn't work out what to do with myself. I moved from room to room, trying to tidy things up, dropping it, moving to another room, starting to prepare food; I made myself some coffee, drank a mouthful, then went outside to rearrange the patio furniture. Finally, I found myself looking out of the window, over the bushes and beachgrass and reeds, down to the lake, and tried to work out what was happening to me.
"I'm missing him," I said.
I started to laugh at myself. I was behaving like a love-lorn teenager, that was it; I recognised the symptoms. In fact, in a way, I was a love-lorn teenager: at the age of thirty-five, I was encountering for the first time feelings which most of the human race learnt to handle, in some way or other, long before they were twenty. It's pathetic, I thought. Theory and practice; where's the great child psychologist now?
I gripped myself. There were things to organise. If Karl was going to stay here, he would need a room; he mightn't sleep in it much, but it had to be there. Brent would need a room too. I summoned some robots, and set to work.
Lunch came and went, and Bathys told me the boys had visited the clothes shop, and Karl was taking Brent to the opticians. I decided to go for a swim, something I hadn't done before alone, and I was a bit surprised at my daring. I trotted down to the lake naked, and plunged in.
A bit later there was a yell from the beach, and there they were. I felt a surge of happiness at seeing Karl again, standing there and waving.
"Come on in!" I shouted.
Karl dumped a bag on the sand and stripped off, and seeing this, Brent followed suit. He was a small child, black, and agonisingly thin, really on the boundaries of malnutrition. I knew that he was eight years old, and that he had lived alone on the streets of Washington DC for the last four years or so; apart from that, his background and history were unknown.
They both came wading into the water, but after a few steps, Brent started to swim, an easy crawl. Karl embraced me.
"I - I missed you!" I said.
"Yes. So did I."
We looked at each other, smiling, for a few seconds.
"Brent?" he said. "This is Igor. He is my friend."
"Hello, Brent!" I said.
The child ignored us, intent on his own play, diving under the water, jumping and splashing.
"He usually ignores people," said Karl. "Sometimes he'll look at you, but not if you look back. But he never goes far away."
We played in the water for some time. Although neither of us could swim properly, we found that if we ducked under the surface, we could paddle our way forwards. We tumbled together, and Karl climbed onto my shoulders to jump. It was completely unlike any way I had behaved before in my life, and I loved it.
Often, looking out of the corner of my eye I could see Brent watching us, but he never made any move to approach us, or to meet my gaze. It was strange and a bit disconcerting. When, finally, we left the water he came too, the sunlight glistening on his black skin, picked up his clothes as we did and followed us up the path.
"Who'd like something to drink?"
I poured some orange juice for us, and some for Brent as well. He wouldn't take it from my hand, and stood well away from us, looking the opposite direction. But when I put the glass down, he darted for it, and in seconds had drunk it all. Clearly he was very thirsty indeed; I poured some more, and he drank most of that too.
"Brent?" said Karl. "The toilet's here... Use it whenever you need to, okay?"
It was a strange time, as I learnt how to interact with the child. You could tell him things, and he would clearly understand, but made no acknowledgment at all. You could never know when he wanted something; you had to put them out, and see if he would take them. We manged to get him to eat quite a lot, and drink; he used the toilet, and when Karl showed him his new room, he waited until we had gone elsewhere, and then went in. We watched from the corrdor as he walked all round it, looking at things, touching them.
"There's a room for you too," I said to Karl.
He was silent as I showed him; the bed, his own console, a wardrobe. I had asked Bathys what kind of disks he had got from the shops, and had ordered some more, and books, both in German and English, and posters on the wall. He looked at me, and there were tears in his eyes.
"But - but I thought, I thought that we'd sleep together."
He turned away.
"Of course we will. When you want to. But you might be cross with me..."
"Peter and me, we used to fight, sometimes. But we said, always make up before bedtime."
I took him into my arms.
"You need a place. You need somewhere to put your stuff, and do your own things, and there should be a bed there. Just in case, okay?"
"Okay, I suppose."
He pulled my head down and kissed me, and I relaxed into him. I'd been wanting to do that ever since he left in the morning.
"I want to sleep with you every night, and have sex all the time," he whispered.
I could feel him hard against me, and I wanted him then almost more than I thought I could bear. But a tiny sound alerted us, and we separated with a sigh; we walked quietly along the corridor to Bent's room. He was lying on the bed, hugging his pillow tightly with one arm; the thumb of his other hand was on his mouth, and tears were running silently down his face. I started towards him, but Karl grabbed my arms.
"No," he whispered. "He always does that. If you go and touch him, or get too close, he'll jump up and run away."
"What can have happened to him?" I said, back in the kitchen.
"I don't know. But it must have been terrible."
I'd dealt with children like Brent before, of course, although his case seemed pretty extreme, and I had little doubt that in the end I'd be able to get through to him. But I was beginning to realise that having him in the house was going to restrict what I could do with Karl, and suddenly I intensely resented it. Still, that was my job; that was why Max had recruited me, and we would just have to get used to it. And it was impossible not to feel compassion for him. Karl obviously felt it too, and that made me love him even more.
"We'll have to cope," I said.
Dusk was approaching now, and I began to make some supper for us all. Before long, the smell of frying onions and garlic, one of the best smells in the world, must have reached Brent, because he appeared, still sucking his thumb and avoiding us.
I put three plates of pasta with a sauce on the table. Before we could sit down, Brent came and took one, and a fork, and went to the furthest corner of the sitting room to eat, sitting on the floor, his back towards us. Karl showed no surprise, but sat and started to eat, so I did the same. When we'd finished, I loaded up another plate and left it on the table.
"There's some more to eat if you want it, Brent," I said.
So I put on a disk, and Karl and I sat to watch it, our arms round each other; it was a nature programme, about animals in Africa. After a little while, we heard Brent go and get the food. He must have been starving. Then he stood by the door, motionless and silent as ever, watching the console screen. It was an immensely frustrating experience; I longed for Karl, longed for his kisses, longed to be in him, as I had been in the morning, but with our strange, silent little chaperone, I felt constrained, deprived of spontaniety.
"Let's go to bed," I said finally.
"Oh yes. Please..."
We turned to see that Brent had gone; we found him in his room, standing in front of a picture of an elephant I'd put on his wall, just standing and looking at it.
"We're going to bed, Brent," I said.
To my surprise, he turned and looked at me solemnly.
"You're safe here, little one," I said. "No one will hurt you, and Karl and me, we'll look after you whatever happens."
He blinked a few time, but made no sound.
"Use the bathroom if you like," I said. "Then you can go to bed, or watch the console, or whatever you like. And we'll see you in the morning."
I left him standing there and went to my room.
"Yes!" said Karl. "Yes! My God, Igor, I've been waiting for this all day!"
He was tearing his clothes off as he spoke; and I just stood there.
"Come on! What's the matter?"
"I'm sorry. I feel bad about him. I was - out there, I was resenting him. I was really resenting him being there, and it's unfair of me. I..."
In a moment he was in front of me, naked, his arms round my neck.
"You feel guilty."
"That's not right. You do so much for the boys, you work all the time. They all know that. It's not surprising if you feel that way. But I know you'll be kind to him, so it doesn't matter how you feel, does it?"
"No. I suppose not."
He lent into me, and kissed me, and I felt the tension begin to flow out of my shoulders.
"Come on," he whispered. "Take your clothes off. I want to turn the lights out. I just want - to feel you, that's all. Come on."
So I stripped, stripped there in the darkness, and found him on the bed, running my hands over his body, the angles of his limbs, the valleys and crevices. He was on his back, and I found his face, and ran my hands into his hair, over the nose and the eyes, and he giggled.
"Igor!" he whispered. "Don't touch. Just fuck me! First of all, just fuck me!"
I knelt between his kness, and he raised his legs.
"Get into me!"
I fumbled in the darkness, sliding up and down him.
"That's it! Get it in me! I just want to feel you in me..."
Tentatively I pushed, and I could feel him open to me.
"Hard! Fuck me hard! Ugh... That's it! Hard!"
Suddenly urgent, I thrust into him firmly, and his warmth, his tightness enveloped me. In the darkness, nothing to distract me, the feeling was overwhelming, and I knew I couldn't last long.
I started to move, and in a moment I was frantic, moving into him and out, pushing, then pounding, and he was crying out, moaning and shouting. It was intense, almost violent; we had been on edge all day, and it was consuming us both. Both of us were screaming now, writhing over each other, yelling, and we were rising, rising...
There was a loud crash. The door flung back against the wall, and for a moment I could see Brent, silhouetted against the light; and then he was onto us, hurtling across the room, and beating on me with his fists.
"Don't! Don't hurt my friend!"
I couldn't do more than hold up my arms to protect myself.
"Brent! He isn't! He isn't hurting me! Wait..."
I felt Karl fumble for the switch, and then the room was flooded with light. Brent stood beside us, naked, his face twisted with fury, his arms raised.
"Get off him! Stop fucking him! Stop it! Stop it!"
I rolled away from him, pulling oncomfortably out of Karl. He groaned.
"Brent! Listen! Igor isn't hurting me. Stop hitting him!"
"He was fucking you!" screeched Brent. "I saw him!"
"I wanted him to! I asked him to!"
"You - you wanted him to? Why?"
"Because I like it! I like it! I love him and I like him to fuck me!"
"But - but it's nasty being fucked! It hurts!"
"Oh, Brent," said Karl, and there were teers in his voice. "Come here, kid."
Brent stared at him for a long moment, and then burst into tears. And Karl grabbed him and hugged him; the first time anyone had touched him since he entered Bathys.
It took a long time, a very long time. We sat on the bed, wrapped in sheets, and went over it again and again. And in the end, I think he believed us, partly, at least; and partly he was just exhausted. But we ended up, all three of us, asleep together. And if it's possible for anything to be better than sex with the person you love, I think that night was it.
October 4, afternoon: Derek and Don
I led Don out onto the street. Under our feet the flags were still wet from the morning's rain, sparkling in the sun, and after the warmth of the pub, the air felt cold on my face, rich with the smell of damp trees and grass. On our left we passed the doors and windows of houses, set into the hill, and on our right the hill fell away alarmingly into the valley below.
He followed behind me, perhaps wary of walking between me and the drop. I was glad of a few moments without speaking. I knew him, of course, the moment my eyes fell on him; but that wasn't all. There was something else, something familiar which I couldn't put my finger on, and it disquieted me. Beyond that, there was him, and he was increasingly fascinating me. There was in him a quality of profound stillness and quiet which attracted me; and behind it, the sense of terrifying loneliness and sorrow which I had noticed before.
"Here we are," I said, as we reached my house.
For a moment he looked surprised; I suppose, as one the almighty Lords of Bathys I'd been expected to live in a palace. I didn't want that. This was just an ordinary Hillside house, and I led him through the flagged hallway into my workshop. I could see him coolly scanning the contents, the clutter of easels, tools and workbenches, the turnings spread over the floor, my lathe and the table, positioned in the light and its piles of papers, flooding over its edges.
"Take a seat over here, son. Now, let me see..." I rummaged over the table and found it. "What do you think?"
I wsn't sure why I was doing this, or why I didn't say. He looked at the sketch for a while, the boy sitting on the wall; the expression that came to his face mirrored it exactly, and for a moment I congratulated myself.
But then, with a start, his face changed.
"It's - it's me!" he whispered.
"Yes. I saw you down at Southwall the other day. I wanted - to make a carving of you."
His face flared.
"You - you drew me? You want to carve me?"
He threw himself out of his chair and stood facing the wall, and I could see his shoulders heaving. Disconcerted and puzzled, I went to lay a hand on his shoulder, and he whirled on me.
"Don't - touch - me!"
I let go of him as if scalded.
"Don? What - what's the matter, son?"
"You ask me? You're one of the - of the leaders of this thing, aren't you? You drag me here, have me kidnapped and dragged here, and you ask me what's the matter? Fuck you!"
Something had cracked in him; somehow I had broken his reserve, and he was yelling at me like a demon from hell.
"Dragged down into this horrible pit, and I'm stuck here for ever, and now you want to fucking carve me..."
Screaming, face convulsed with fury, hands clawed, he flung himself at me. It was no good, of course; Bathys has no subtlety; she just zapped him, and he fell to floor, gurgling and convulsing.
I picked him up and carried him to the couch I had in the corner, where I liked to doze sometimes in the afternoon, and laid him down. He was unable to resist me, moaning and thrashing. I poured some water into an earthenware beaker and held it for him.
"Just relax, son, you'll be all right in a minute. Here. Drink this."
"Come on, son."
He covered his face with his hands and gave a cry of such pain, such heart-breaking grief, that for a moment I sat frozen with horror.
"Don, please! Please, son! Tell me what's wrong!"
He looked at with hatred, still sobbing.
"You kidnap me and drag me down here, and now I'm stuck down here, and I'll never see my parents again, never again, and now you ask me what's wrong?"
His parents? What was this?
"Bathys? Where does Don come from?"
"A boys' home in London, my Lord. He was one of the last group. There he was registered as an orphan."
"I'm not an orphan! That fucking computer doesn't know what it's talking about. My parents are alive!"
I stared at him, horrified.
"But Don - why were you in that home?"
"My parents - they went to Venus. That was four years ago, when I was eleven, and they left me with my aunt Amy. And then she was killed by muggers, that was a year ago, so I got sent to the home. And my parents are coming back next year, and I won't be there, and I'll never see them again..."
I didn't know what to say.
"Everything was nice before, before they went. It was just us three, and everything was nice. But they explained, they had to go for their work, the Government insisted, and they had to go. But they would be paid a lot, a lot of money, and they promised they'd make it up to me, it was only going to be two years. So I stayed with my aunt, and she was nice to me, so it wasn't too bad. And there was Liz, there's always been Liz, we've been together since we were in nursery school..." He started to cry once more. "Then suddenly the Government changed its mind, and they had to stay for five years instead of two, and that was awful. Then - then my aunt was killed and there was no one to look after me, so they sent me to that home, miles away from Liz, and it was horrible, really horrible, and I was birched three times, but I thought, Mum and Dad, they'll be back in two years, and I just waited and longed for them to be back. And Liz wrote every week, she never stopped. And now I'll never see any of them ever again..."
"Oh, Don, I'm so sorry."
"You're sorry? Sorry? Have you thought about my Mum and Dad? Coming back from Venus, expecting to see me, and I'll be gone. They'll think I'm dead. And Liz, too. Have you thought about them?"
It was my worst nightmare. The fact was that by sheer carelessness we'd completely trashed the lives of four people, and there was absolutely nothing I could think of which could make it better. Don would lead his life down here, surrounded by kids for whom Bathys was a liberation, and all the time the people he loved the most would be no more than a few hundred miles away, and totally inaccessible; he wouldn't even be able to let them know he was alive.
"We didn't mean to..."
"You didn't care, you mean. You just wanted a pile of kids to - to fuck, so you went out and grabbed them, and if some of them didn't want to come - well, who gives a shit? That's it, isn't it? D'you think I didn't say, to the fuckers who came to get us? Do'you think I didn't struggle, and shout and scream 'Leave me! I don't want to go!'?"
"And they still...?"
"'Don't worry, kid, you'll love it when we get there.' That's what they said. Yeah, right."
He turned away from me, covering his face, and for a long while I just stared at him.
"Bathys. A message for the King and Lord Michael. Priority. Max, Michael: this is Derek. Drop everything and come to Hillside at once, please."
"Transmitted, my Lord."
"Don, lad, I know it's terrible. But if there's anything I can do..."
I wasn't getting it out right, and he was merciless.
"Like make a carving of me looking miserable, so that everyone can see how fucking compassionate you are."
I winced. This wasn't the sort of thing I did well; all I could do was wait until Max and Michael arrived. But I swore to myself that I would do anything and everything I could to help this young man that we had broken so cruelly.
October 4: Yuexing
The rain poured down, so heavy that the hills were only black shapes, indistinct through the grey falling water, looming against the dark sky. The thunder grumbled round me and far away the lightning flickered round the invisible mountains.
I stood outside, naked in the middle of my little grove of birch trees, and the rain washed over me, plastering my hair to my skull, running over my shoulders and down my back and chest. Around me it hissed through the yellowing leaves. It was unclear to me why I was doing this, but it seemed necessary, somehow. Perhaps by communing with the water in this way, allowing it to soak me and permeate me, perhaps in this way I could absorb something that would lead me to the answer to my riddle: why so much of it?
That was not the only reason, of course. At the back of my mind was still the thought of Bathys as an entity which was essentially dead, a construct, an artificiality, its ecologies laboriously propped up by the labour of robots and the power of the nucleonic reactors, its people not dying, not being born for the most part, but simply continuing. Was that all? Or was there something here which was authentic, something with potential, which could, in the fullness of time, have a history, a developemnt? If there was, and it came to me as the merest hint, would it it not be here that we found it first of all, in the circulation of water?
It poured over me, bringing the nutrients this part of the land needed, for rain in Bathys was not just water: everything washed away, down, down into the lakes, and then through the recyclers, and just the right amount of just exactly what was needed went into the rain. Water brought life; water washed away pollution... And there that line of thought stopped. Everyone has things they cannot bear to bring to mind.
Suddenly chilled, and both annoyed and amused at myself, I shook the rain from my hair and went inside.
"Light the brazier, please, Bathys. And make some strong tea."
I went to have a shower while she did it. As I warmed up, I remembered that Mao used to do that, when a young man. He used to bathe in the rain and wind to toughen himself; he described it in one of his endless writings. Was nothing we did truly spontaneous?
Wrapped in sheepskins, I huddled by the brazier, sipping the tea, and a thought came to me. I went to a far corner of my bookshelves and got down the Oracle and the stalks. I did not do this often; but it sometimes had its uses. Once again I grinned at myself. Superstition! Feudal relics... Oh well. It did not do to be too self-critical.
"What of Bathys?" I asked aloud.
And the stalks rippled through my fingers as I built the hexagram, the familiar ritual calming me, centering my thoughts. Here it was: Heng: The Long Enduring. Well, yes. Success and freedom from error! It is favourable to have in view some goal.
Some goal? Some goal for Bathys? Did it, could it have any goal at all, except for simple endurance? A puzzle. And yet the answer was clear: Bathys would continue, built upon the joining together of men and boys; we could understand it just by thinking of what made it continue, its seasons, it alternations and changes. Nothing that I could see about the water problem; presumably the Oracle did not consider it important.
"And what of me, then?"
Guan: Looking Down. The ablution has been performed, but not the sacrifice.
I sat frozen. Not for the first time, the book had astonished me with the precision of its response. Here I sat, contemplating the world from on high, and yes, the ablution had been just been performed. But what was the sacrifice that was required? Wait, there was a line.
By contemplating our lives we learn to advance and retreat, as required by circumstances.
Oh no. Not that. Not - that. But if we followed that, if we went that path, then...
Jien: Gradual Progress. The marriage of a maiden brings good fortune.
Well, if anyone was a maiden, it was I. The book was brutal in its demands, as always, but as always, it offered its reward. I stood up, resolute.
"Send me a flitter, Bathys."
Down, down over the hills and across the Grasslands. The damp air rushed past me, and I exulted in the freshness, the cleanness of the water-scoured land. My water! I found the little wood to the north of Southwall, circled round it and landed nearby.
A small lake, shallow, curled round the edge of the wood; and beyond lay the temple. It was all of wood, and in a style I could not place; not Chinese, nor Japanese, nor anything from the West. It was long and low, and its roof steep, sloping towards me, but curved down in the middle; and all this side was open, supported by pillars, with wooden steps, four or five, down to a lawn in front, and a scattering of trees, willows, hazel and beech.
To get there, I saw, you had to cross the lake on stepping stones; there was no bridge. The stones were shining from the rain, and as I crossed I could see fish circling round them, golden carp, long tailed, mysterious. The lawn was wet, too, and the trees dripping, and as I stepped ashore, a little tribe of rabbits bolted for their holes. I mounted the steps, and found my friend, waiting at the top.
He was a bit younger than me, a man of ordinary size with brown hair and sapphire-blue eyes. I found myself smiling,
"Artur, my friend."
He held out his arms, and we embraced; and that, in itself, was reason enough for my journey: to feel in my arms the body of another human being.
"I wanted to see..."
"Then come inside," he said. "But there isn't much there."
The hall in itself was beautiful, and large: maybe sixty feet long, the walls all wood, and the floor too, polished and rich. The sun, still pale and watery, shone through the open side. It was peaceful; light, airy and peaceful. But there was nothing there, no statue of any god, no hangings, no furniture of any kind: nothing.
"It's - it's empty!"
"Yes. Yes, it is."
Seeking an answer, I was almost annoyed to find, instead, another question.
"Why?" he said. "Well, what would you put here?"
"I don't know. But I think I came to find out. I asked you before, didn't I? Do you think - is there really nothing here? Is Bathys real, or, in the end, is it just - just nothing?"
"Oh, no. Bathys is something. We haven't found out what, that's all. As we find out - well, things will appear. We'll find that they're needed. Have you found anything worth commemorating?"
"Water," I said, impetuously.
"Water? Well, there it is." He gestured to the lake I had just crossed. "You see? It got here before you... You shouldn't try to chase things too much."
I felt suddenly gauche and raw and overeager, like a teenager, but I could not refrain. I was looking for something, and I had to ask.
"Artur, what - what is Bathys for? It must be for something. There must be some goal. Is it for no purpose?"
He looked at me oddly.
"I'm not sure. I, too, have felt that. What is it? It's a child, Yuexing. Most of its people are children, and will always be children. It's - well, it's an offshoot. There's something of everything here, isn't there? Landscapes, animals, plants, people, and everything that people have done and thought, and all in the care of children. Buried here, buried underground, like hidden treasure..."
"But why? What are we supposed to do?"
"I don't know. Maybe we'll never know. But for now... I think what we're supposed to do is just to... continue."
"To maintain ourselves, to guard what we have," he said. "To endure."
He put his arm across my shoulders.
"My friend, you're far too serious, d'you know that? Far, far too serious. We - you know, we're just human beings. We aren't important enough for such seriousness. I don't know about the goal of Bathys, but I think I have my goal for today."
"And - and what is that?"
"To get you disgustingly drunk. And once I've done that, I plan to take advantage of you in a completely disgraceful way."
I looked at him, astonished and not a little frightened, and he laughed.
"Has anyone ever told you?" he said. "You have the most beautiful eyes. Like a startled deer..."
October 4: Jack
The next day started with a stupendous storm, thunder crashing over the lake and rain so heavy that we could scarcely see beyond the end of the jetties. Fishing was obviously going to be impossible until it was over, but Angus said that after the storm was the very best time. So we sat in their front room with the door open, and watched the rain as we finished our breakfast.
"D'you want to come out with us?"
"Um. I think I'd better go back to the Flat."
"Well..." said Angus, and I could see he was disappointed, "If you're sure. But we meant what we said. You'd be very welcome to stay with us for a bit."
I smiled at him.
"It's okay, I just want - to pick up some things. Say goodbye. You know..."
It wasn't quite what I was feeling. I wasn't really sure why I needed to go back there; it was just a sense of unfinished business, of loose ends. I wanted Lakeport to be a new start, and somehow it wouldn't work if I didn't tie things off.
"I'll be back this evening."
"Yeah!" said Kostas. "You can stay with us or find somewhere else here, if you like, there're lots of empty houses."
I smiled at them, feeling happy.
So as soon as the rain stopped, I helped them carry the nets down to their boat; and I stood alone on the jetty and waved as the boat curved out past the islands, and away. Then I called a flitter, and set out back to Southwall.
The sun shone down on the drenched land, and everything seemed brighter than yesterday, the colours keener after the storm. Bathys helped me find my way, and soon I was back at the bottom of the steps.
I mounted them with increasing trepidation. I didn't know who would be there; whoever it was, the meeting was not something I looked forward to. But, although I couldn't work out why, it was something I had to get through. I passed the two lower tiers and paused on the third, leaning over the parapet. Before me the wall curved away, covered with the network of steps and balconies, glistening wet in the sun, and far below and more than a mile in front of me, the roofs of the little town gleamed. On the tier below someone was playing music, a jaunty folktune of a style I didn't know, and I could hear two or three treble voices singing along with it in an unknown language, breaking into laughter from time to time; further away, a cascade of boys poured shrieking down one of the flights of steps, and moments later a little squadron of flitters took off and peeled away to the north. All around me were hundreds, thousands of boys for whom this place was a release from torment, paradise come true; and at last I was starting to feel that for me, too, it could be home.
Up the last flight of steps; and now I could hear from within my Flat sounds and voices I didn't recognise. Someone was playing a disk; so one person, at least, must be there. I hesitated, and opened the door.
"Ugh, ugh, ugh!" said the console, "Give it to me! Harder!"
I couldn't see pictures from where I stood; but I wouldn't have looked, because my eyes were nailed, skewered onto the sight before me. Liam, face slack and languid, naked, lay on the sofa, legs spread wide, and he was gently rubbing himself, his eyes fixed on the console screen. The sun fell through the windows onto him, over his taut stomach and chest, over the hard, curved dick and its purple head. I stood in the doorway, frozen.
"Oh, great!" he said, looking up at me. "Mr Happy has come home. How did we live without him!"
"Ugh! You're so tight... Take it!"
I swung round, and there it was on the screen: one man bent over a table, another thrusting in and out of him; I could see their faces, contorted by feelings I couldn't imagine, and it was too much.
"Fuck you, pal! Fucking queer pervert!"
I fled down the little corridor to my room, slammed the door and lent back against it, panting. The soundtrack of the disk came floating to me; images flashed through my mind, my parents, my father's face twisted, yelling, pervert, pervert, accursed of God, and that boy, my friend, his face broken by the horror of discovery, and other boys, men, leering, groping, their hands and dicks, dicks forced into my mouth and anus... pervert, queer, the curse of God, and then Kostas and Angus, hands clasped, smiling, sitting across from me on the waterfront at dusk, and Emek laughing, a few more good-looking boys like you... God hates you, you little faggot, and so do I...
Name your enemies. Name them!
"Fuck me! Harder! Make me hurt!"
I put my hands to my face and screamed, screamed and screamed...
"Hey! Hey! Jack!"
I was on my back on the floor, and he was kneeling by my side, naked, patting my face, and for a moment I didn't know him.
"You freaked out bad, man. Shit! You had me worried!"
"C'mon. Come to the other room. I'll get you something to drink."
I didn't resist as he helped me onto my feet and back to the common room. The console was blank and silent, and he sat me at one end of the sofa. Still confused I waited while he fetched me a glass of water.
"What happened, man? I just heard you scream, and then..."
"Liam, I... The disk. Oh, shit! Cursed of God..."
"Cursed of God? Hey, Jack?"
I gulped the water, and my eyes flicked, and focused on him.
"You... that disk. You ever been fucked, Liam? Have you?"
"Eh? Yeah, once or twice."
"I have," I said. "Hundreds and hundreds of times. When I was a kid. Ten, eleven, twelve - hundreds of times. Boys at the home, teachers - they all did it."
"Shit, Jack! I never..."
"It was at the home I was in. It went on and on... Till I got big enough to fight back. Do you - do you see? Did you know your parents?"
"Yeah. They died when I was seven, and I was fostered."
"What were they like?" I said.
"Okay, I guess. I don't remember them much." He sat on the floor in front of me. "I remember Christmas. That was good."
"We didn't do Christmas, my parents said it was heathen. They were very religious, you know? One day they caught me - caught me..."
I was on the point of telling him, telling him my vile, disgusting secret, and I stopped, appalled.
"Caught you what?"
I just stared at him.
"C'mon, Jack! Caught you what?"
"Caught me - caught me with another kid. We were nine, and we were - we were..."
I blinked. Then I started to titter; and then I was convulsed, rolling over the sofa, shrieking with laughter.
"Playing - doctors!"
"Hey, it wasn't that funny. What were you doing? Diddling each other?"
"Diddling each other!"
For several minutes I couldn't speak; I was almost hysterical.
"Yeah - yeah, we were," I said finally. "Liam? Does that - does that make me queer?"
"Fuck, no. Everyone does that at that age. It's universal."
"My Dad and my Mum - they took me to the home. Cursed of God..."
"Cursed of God? What kind of crap is that? They took you to the home, for that?"
"Yeah," I whispered.
"That's the most fucked-up shit I've ever heard. Know what I think?"
"Your parents were a pile of shit, man. They were evil."
I said nothing for a moment.
"I've thought about him ever since, that kid," I said. "His name was Mike. I've always - imagined meeting him again. We'd just smile..."
There were tears in my eyes. Liam looked at me quizzically, and nodded.
"Hey. Let me do something for you, Jack?"
"Lean back, close your eyes, okay? Don't move."
I did what he said, even though I almost guessed what he would do. And I felt him shift my tunic aside, and so gently, his hands on my knees, moving them, and then - then he touched my dick. I think he knew that any other touch would distract me, would make me think of him, and he didn't want that. His hands moved over me, caressed me, and I was growing, growing into his hands. I kept my eyes shut; it wasn't him I wanted to see, but someone else, someone remote, someone I no longer knew, but who I'd never forgotten. And the feelings grew more intense and closer, closer to me, closer to who I was inside, sharper and tighter; and then I sighed, and came.
It wasn't anything like the strongest orgasm I'd had; it was quite gentle and light. But it was completely different, different from any other time, because after it I felt, for the first time, not horror or disgust, but a kind of peace.
I opened my eyes and looked up at him; he was kneeling between my knees, wiping his hand on his tunic. He smiled at me.
"Why - why did you do that?" I whispered.
"Because you seemed to need it."
"You - you did that - just because I needed it?"
It was the wildest, the bravest, the most extraordinary idea I'd ever heard.
"To help you. Why not? Can you think of a better reason for doing anything?"
I started to cry gently.
"No one's ever..."
"No. There're a lot of evil fuckers in the world," he said.
"I'm going to live in Lakeport. I met some nice guys there. They're - they're queer."
"Yeah." He smiled. "Can I come and visit?"
He slid beside me and put his arms round me. It was strange, because I'd known him for less than a week, and I hadn't much liked him; in all sorts of ways, he wasn't my type, and I don't suppose I was his, for that matter. But he had opened my heart, and just for a few minutes, it was his.