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 4, afternoon: Max
As Amit ran away down the street in pursuit of Don, I turned and looked out of Derek's wide window, out across the hills towards the mountains a few miles off. The sun was out now, and the valley beneath Hillside was steaming, the mist rising in front of me in layers. I stood frozen by the horror of what had happened.
"Max..." said Michael.
"Everything we've done," I said. "Everything... This place was meant to be liberation for them. That's what I planned... For them to be free here, down here, invisible to the world, and free, free to do whatever they liked. To be free of all the pain. That's what we wanted, wasn't it? But for him..."
"For that one boy."
I said nothing.
"Max, you can't let that one thing..."
I whirled on him.
"Can't you see, Michael? Don't you see what's happened? That one boy's story destroys everything! He's right, don't you see? Because he's here, this place isn't a liberation any more. It's nothing more than a prison! And we - we're nothing but kidnappers and brutalisers. We're as bad as anyone those kids had to deal with! As bad as those pimps and rapists and slavedrivers we took them from. We thought we were liberators, but we're not! We're just the worst abusers of the lot, because there's no escape from us! Never! Not even death will free him from us!"
For a moment, Michael looked as if he would shout at me. Then he raised his hands and let them drop.
"So what are you going to do?"
I turned away from him again.
"If I could, I'd abandon the whole thing. I would, Michael. I'd gladly open Bathys to the sky to let Don free."
"Well, you can't. So what will you do, King of Bathys?"
"There's nothing I can do. I no longer have any moral justification for anything."
"Then let me tell you what you'll do. You'll try to help him; and you'll continue as before. No, wait, Max," he said, as I tried to interrupt. "You're the King. This is what happens to rulers; their hands become dirty, and they lose their innocence. And what do they do? They carry on. They carry on, Max, because that's their duty. A King..."
"You're asking me to fake it."
"No. I'm asking you to understand that there's no such thing as perfection; above all, there's no such thing as moral perfection. You find yourself in a situation, and you make the best of it, Max, because that is your job. No one else can do it. You carry the burden. Do you expect me to believe that the Chairman of Summa went through life with completely clean hands?"
"Of course not. But down here I hoped..."
"For thousands and thousands of years, to live without compromise, without ever taking a decision which meant pain and loss to someone? If you really thought that, you're a fool, Max."
"But this is right at the foundations. The dream..."
"Damn it, Max! The dream is still there, for more than twelve thousand people. You're responsible to them, whether you like it or not! Not just to that one boy. They're all depending on you to keep the dream for them. You don't have the right to give it up!"
"I? I don't have the right? It's nothing to do with that, can't you see? The fact that Don is here destroys the dream. It's over! We no longer have a place to stand. From now on we're just criminals, Michael, however we choose to disguise it, and Bathys is a concentration camp!"
"That's just crap, Max. For twelve thousand people, this is the nearest to paradise the human race will ever get. I can't believe I'm hearing this! Is this the man who argued this whole thing through with each of us, one by one, until we fell in line behind him? Have you forgotten what you did? You didn't give a fuck who you hurt to build this place, I had never in my life imagined such ruthlessness, such unscrupulous and brutal and wholesale use of power! You killed, Max, don't forget! You poured out the wealth of the world without limit and trashed the greatest industrial empire that history has ever seen! What the fuck has got into you?"
"If you can't understand what I'm saying, there's no point..."
"Looking at you just now, Max, all I see is a kid whose new toy has been scratched, so he won't play with it any more. Okay, okay! It isn't perfect! Yes! So fucking what? It's still the best place in the world, there's still nothing like it, never has been, and it still has a destiny which we can't even begin to anticipate. It's our job - no, quite specifically, it's your job to tend it and protect it and help it grow."
"He's right, Max," said Derek. "No one can do it but you. If you give up, well, I honestly think it will be a concentration camp. It's always been your vision. It'll be a long time before we're ready to do it without you."
"You seem to forget, we never imagined it would be perfect, did we?" said Michael. "Perfect means static, and static means dead. Every kind of thing is going to happen here, isn't it? Remember what Ian said: Bathys can't be a 'banal utopia', that was it, wasn't it? Moral perfection - that's never been the promise. No one promises that, except - well, the only ones who promise that, we know who they are, don't we? The fascists and communists of the twentieth century, the genocides, the gaybashers and racists and anti-semites, the religious fundamentalists... Death-lovers, Max, that's what they promise - perfection for evermore - perfect and dead..."
I turned to the window, my mind a turmoil, because I understood the justice of what he said, and he was right: this wasn't the first time we had said these things.
"So what do we do about him, then? Just accept that he's prisoner and say 'who gives a shit?'"
"No! No, of course not. What's happened is that we've bumped into something which we can see is bad. So what do we do? We do our best to put it right, Max, that's all that anyone can do! That's how life is! That's - that's how an adult behaves. It's how we deal with things like this - that's how people will judge us."
"But I don't see how..."
"We hold him in all our arms, respect his grief and anger, and gently show him how things don't have to be as bad as he thinks. There are various things... Don's not weak, anyone can see that. He'll pull through this in the end. Our job is to help him, Max, not just throw a moral tantrum and kick the furniture!"
"Let's go along to the pub and have a drink," said Derek, after a moment of silence.
He put an arm across my shoulders, and I was moved; a gesture like that from him meant something. I let myself be led out along the sparkling street through the rain-washed air of the hills, alive with the smell of wet grass and autumn trees. I felt dazed.
"Know what I remember?" said Derek. "Me coming to you to say that the capsule was impossible, we needed a fifty-fold increase in the world-wide production of HVCS to build it. And you just said, 'Okay, it'll take six months', and I found out afterwards you'd sold the entire telecoms industry of North America to pay for it..."
"I remember that guy, what was his name?" said Michael. "Yes, Piet Ventner, he said he wouldn't come if there were any blacks on the team. 'Send him to Mars,' you said, 'Port Mandela. He'll feel right at home.'"
I couldn't help laughing.
"And Ortan saying at a meeting he'd selected a hundred and fifteen species of beetle, and Michael sniggered, and you said: 'Okay, Michael, you can have a hundred and fifteen species of schizophrenic if you like...'"
Michael laughed, and held open the pub door for me. I'd never been there before, but I liked it at once: warm, cozy and familiar.
"Look!" whispered Michael.
By the side of the fire stood a huge wooden settle with red cushions, and sitting at one end was Ortan. A little blond boy in a red ormic was snuggled against his side, one of Ortan's arms round his shoulders, and lying beside him, its neck across their laps, was what was indubitably a dinosaur. All were asleep; and the looks on their faces, as the firelight flickered over them, showed us how sweet they found the rest.
"Look! That's what it's all about. That's it, Max..."
I couldn't answer. I put my hands to my face, and for the first time since I was a boy myself, I wept.
October 4, morning: Darren
"Let's go in there!"
We had dashed into the Southwall Centre to escape the rain, and now, dripping, we were looking for something to do.
It had been a crazy couple of days for me. The twins were a whirlwind. Now that the Gathering was over, they seemed to be determined to grab Bathys with both hands, charging from end to end on flitters, dropping down at random to look at whatever caught their eye, shouting, running, tussling with each other. They had visited the Centre several times, to the gym, the games arcade, to nightclubs and pubs and restaurants and fast-food joints, rowing and joking with everyone they met.
And everywhere they went, they took me with them; everything they did, they included me. It was wild, and amazing. I had been for years a studious and rather geeky sort of person, wrapped up in computers and my grid work, and like many of us had hid myself from view as much as I could. The twins weren't having it. I was their friend; in Bathys we had nothing to hide. The fact that I was a Lord interested them not in the slightest, and they treated me like anyone else. I was shy, and they laughed at me; hesitant, and they taunted me on. I had got drunk, and danced, and smoked dope, and had heard and done things I had never imagined. I was acting like a teenager - after all, I was only 23 - and loving it. I was having the time of my life.
The door was quite small, glass, like most of the others, with an undramatic placard: The Labyrinth.
"Have you been in there?" I said.
"Nope," said Jess. "Come on! Let's give it a try!"
So we pushed through the door, and a short passageway led us into a small room, panelled in wood.
"Can I help you, gentlemen?"
He was small; in fact, when he hopped off his tall stool I could see that he was tiny, no more than four feet high; but his voice was deep and resonant.
"Yeah," said Kev. "We'd like to go in the Labyrinth."
"Indeed. Well, I am Sir Keith, and I am the Master of the Labyrinth, and after I've told you a bit about it, you may change your minds. The Labyrinth is dangerous. You can get into trouble here, and if you do - well, you can get injured. For that matter, you could get killed and the next thing you know, you'd be waking up in Igoni. There aren't any rescue robots and no one will come and save you. You're on your own. You up to that, kid?"
"I've always been on my own. No difference."
"Call me Sir, brat!"
Keith snatched up a pole which was leaning against the wall, and before I could say a word, he'd struck Kev a vicious blow on the leg.
"Fuck! That urt!"
Together, Jess and Kev advanced on him.
"Two on one, eh? Come on, then, street scum! Show me what you've got!"
They both dashed at him, and I waited for Bathys to zap them, but it didn't happen. Instead, faster than I could see, he let fly with a volley of blows which landed them in a heap on the floor; then he stood, hands on hips, laughing at them.
"You've got a lot to learn, boys. C'mon."
He gave them both a hand and hauled them to their feet, rubbing their arms and sides.
"Bathys doesn't zap people in the Labyrinth. If anyone wants to attack you, they can, and there's all kinds of creatures as well. You'd better know how to look after yourself! Done any fighting?"
"Yeah, too straight," said Jess. "Not your kind, though..."
"Well, we've got training rooms behind that door, and you'd better use them. You too, my Lord, if you want to go in - no privileges for Lords in there, and there'll be lots of kids wanting to have a go at you, believe me. Knights too, for that matter."
"Not sure if it's quite my thing," I said.
"Hey, come on! It'll be great!"
Their eyes were gleaming and I could see that nothing was going to stop them.
"Well," said Keith, "I'll make sure you have a easy time of it just once, if you want to go and have a look. After that - you'd better know what you're doing."
"You control the whole thing?" I said.
"To a degree, my Lord. Not completely."
"How big is it?"
"Several hundred square miles. It's still growing. I don't know the half of what's down there, to be honest. It'll be all over the bottom of the capsule in the end."
"C'mon, Darren! Don't be chicken!"
Suddenly, I smiled.
"Okay. What the fuck? After all, what's the worst that could happen? Being killed? Who cares about that?"
"Oh no," said Keith, quietly. "That's not the worst. Nothing like..."
I wanted to ask him what he meant, but the twins gave me no time.
"Where do we go, Sir Keith?"
"That door. Enjoy yourselves!"
He laughed, not entirely pleasantly. The door was wooden, studded and crossed by iron bands, and as we approached it, it opened. We went in.
October 4, evening and night: Yuexing
Artur led me out of the great temple hall into his personal quarters. For some reason I was expecting a monk's cell, or at the very least, white walls, bare boards and cool colours: an atmosphere of elegant ascetism, perhaps. It was not like that at all. The floors were covered with thick rugs, the walls with hangings in volutuous colours, the furnishings seemed to be piles of cushions. A huge fire of sandalwood warmed the room. It was wild and sensuous, and against my will I felt an upsurge of puritan revulsion.
"Artur! My goodness!"
He laughed at me.
"Yuexing, if you could only see your face! The revolutionary cadre confronts a vision of bourgeois degeneracy!"
"You read me well." I giggled shamefacedly. "It's - a bit much, really."
"My Lord, my palace is at your disposal," he said, bowing. "Would you care to partake of a glass of wine?"
"Oh, very well. It's - oh, Artur, I don't know, really. I long ago rejected my parents' ideology, but - well, some things are just too ingrained to get rid of, I suppose. My childhood was pretty austere."
"Yes, I know. I hoped this place would shock you."
A nasty suspicion entered my head. This man, after all, was in charge of the systems which registered us, which tracked everything we experienced and all our histories, in preparation for rebirth.
"You haven't scanned my registrations, have you?"
He gave me a sharp look.
"No, my friend, I have not. You aren't the only one with inveterate scruples, you know. However, I have investigated you, in a purely conventional way. Your history is not secret, any more than mine is."
"I apologise." I spread my hands. "I'm sorry. I have insulted you."
"I'm not insulted. Please, Yuexing, relax. I like you, and I regard you as a friend. Friends don't take insult in that way. Here, drink this."
He handed me a beautiful glass, tall and slender, filled with straw-coloured wine. I had never drunk alcohol - another atavistic remnant - but I was determined not to risk offending him again. I drank, and it was delicious. My eye was caught by a scroll of calligraphy, exquisite Southern Sung work, and for a moment I was speechless.
"Artur - my God. That's magnificent."
"Are you a calligrapher?" he asked, flinging himself into a pile of cushions in front of the fire.
I sat more carefully opposite him. I had already drunk half the glass, and it had gone straight to my head; the sensation was unfamiliar and disorientating, but far from unpleasant.
"Yes, a little. In fact, I'm not at all bad, although a bit out of practice. Heng..."
I realised I was babbling a bit, and giggled.
"What was that?"
"I was just thinking," I said. "I consulted the Oracle before I came here. Another feudal relic... It was what you said, really. It gave me heng. It means 'persevere', or 'endure for a long time'. The shape of the character just came to me."
"That's the Yi Jing, right? It gave you that reading? Yuexing, will you write that character for me? Really big? We can hang it in the temple. I really think that should be the first thing there. Maybe the only thing, for a long while. It's weird that you should get it."
"The Oracle does that. I'm an engineer, you know, I shouldn't believe that sort of thing, and I don't, not really. Or only sometimes, maybe. It's an odd thing, because my parents - well, they used it too, once or twice. All I can say is, it's worked for me, on occasions. This time it gave me some other stuff, too," I added, recklessly.
I stared at him for a long moment. Sacrifice...
"Um. Not yet. I think - I think perhaps you can give me some more wine. It's very nice."
"Then you must come and sit over here."
"Artur. Not - not quite yet."
He smiled kindly.
"You've never done this?"
I shook my head.
"It's ridiculous. I'm a fifty-year old man, and - at the moment, I feel like a teenager. Like a fourteen-year-old. It's pathetic. I'm ashamed."
"Come here, Yuexing. It'll be all right."
I stumbled across the floor and almost fell onto him. The cushions did not make it easy to sit in such a way that we stayed apart. He put an arm round my shoulders, and gently pulled me to him.
"Before anything, you're my friend," he said. "There's nothing to be worried about."
"I know that, but it's hard to feel it."
"Just trust me."
I relaxed slightly. The feeling of his body against mine was both comforting and arousing; I suddenly felt with him, in his company, in a way I had never felt with anyone before.
"Test me," he said. "What's the worst thing I could know about you? Come on, try me. Tell me."
I stiffened, and tried to draw away. The words of the Oracle came to me again, and almost inconceivably, I knew I would do it.
"No," he said. "Relax against me as you do it. That's the test."
I drank some more wine. It was making me feel reckless it a way that was completely unlike me, and another corner of my mind was examining this, noting this strange phenomenon.
"Is it possible to make yourself not think of something?" I said.
"One of the great questions. By deciding not to think about it - you've thought about it."
"Then - then I think about it ten times a day. Twenty times, maybe. Every day..."
I sighed. Maybe he understood, because he hugged me again: it was a sigh of capitulation.
"I was eighteen, a student at Zhejiang University. I worked hard; it was a mission to me, you see. Serve the People! An intellectual can only justify his life of ease by total dedication and seriousness. And I was serious. I was a late developer, maybe; I hadn't really come to understand myself, but it was hovering around, just below the surface. I was not thinking about it, and often! Sometimes I'd see a boy or another a student, and... But I wouldn't give in to it; it horrified me and shocked me. And it scared me, too. It was the first time that I had an inkling that the State and I could be on opposite sides, that I could ever possibly not identify with it completely."
I took another gulp of wine, and he refilled the glass. I was running at it now, completely heedless.
"There was a boy, he was from my home town and we knew each other well. It threw us together, because the University was enormous, and we had never been away from home. We got closer and closer, till we were seeing each other every day, and he began to haunt me, awake and asleep. He was so beautiful! And kind, and brave. He was younger than me, even, and tiny, so, so small. He was also funny, and made jokes about things in a terrifyingly risky way, and that was unbelievably exciting and new and grownup. But the feelings he aroused in me frightened me to bits.
"One day we were out walking in a park. We sat down near a tree; we were talking about our studies. There came one of those moments when you catch each other's eye, and there's a pause; and in that pause, he simply lent across and kissed me on the lips.
"It was in broad daylight and in public! I was totally aroused, but scared witless. I just stared at him for a moment, and then fled without a word, fled back to the student dormitory...
"I spent an awful, terrible night. I was in such dreadful fear. And I knew that I was at a crossroads, at an utterly incompatible boundary between my history and beliefs on the one side and my feelings on the other. No reconciliation was possible, no compromise.
"The next day, I denounced him to the authorities. He was arrested and shot."
I stopped talking. I could not go on; in any case, there was nothing more to tell. The twenty years that followed, twenty years of denial, of hating myself, of emotional sterility: there was really nothing that needed to be said about them. During those years, it was hard to say that I existed at all.
"You were young," said Artur.
"Yes. But the fact is, I betrayed him. I loved him, and he loved me, and I betrayed him, knowing exactly what I was doing, and what would be the result. There's no justification for what I did; it was cowardice at every level, and treason. I'm a traitor, Artur."
"Maybe. I don't feel like judging you. I can't imagine the pressures you were under."
"I know all the arguments. Don't suppose I haven't gone over them again and again over the years, till their banality makes me want to scream. The fact is he died because of what I did, and that's it. I no longer even try to evade it. I'm - I'm not a person who deserves the happiness of love."
"You don't get love because you deserve it. It just happens. Look at me."
I turned towards him. I even managed to meet his gaze, the sapphire eyes, so strange and alien, and to my surprise they were soft: serious and kind.
"Now I'm going to kiss you," he said. "Kiss you properly. And this time - this time you are going to enjoy it."
It was like the sun rising over the mountains, was my thought while I could still think: first it's a pink glint on the peaks, and then gradually, inevitably, it slides down their sides, over moorland and heath and meadow and forest, and down, down into the darkness far below, until in the end the floor of every valley is flooded with dancing, golden light.
It did not entirely heal my pain, what we did that night; but it did show me that even in the shadow of my history, it was possible to live, and to be happy.
October 4, afternoon: Don
We found the others in the pub, where Bathys had directed us.
I was feeling a bit ashamed of my earlier outburst, and this time was determined to keep my dignity. To my surprise, as we went through the door, Amit grasped my hand. I was still a bit astonished by his maturity and strength, and I found his touch reassuring.
Rhys was sitting on a large settle near the fire, with Ortan by his side. The others were on chairs facing them.
"Your grace, I apologise for what I said earlier."
I tried to look him in the eye, and for a moment I thought he was on the point of tears, which would have been unbearable.
"I accept your apology."
He spoke formally, which was much better. I went to sit by Rhys.
"You haven't much to apologise for, frankly," said Michael. "We've done you a wrong, Don, we acknowledge that. And there's not a lot we can do to help you, that's true too. What we can do, we will. When are your parents expected back from Venus?"
"Next year. Not the next tender, but the one after. Isn't there any way to contact them?"
"No, Don, there isn't. There's no way of communicating out of Bathys. I'm sorry. It will be possible to know what they're doing and what's happening to them, however. We monitor communications."
I wasn't at all sure if this made things better.
"If only I had even a photo of them!"
"You haven't?" said Michael.
"No. I did, but - but your people took it away, with my clothes. I saw them dump it in a rubbish skip."
"Bathys? Where is it?"
"It has already been destroyed, my Lord."
I kept my face stern, and looked him straight in the eye. I didn't think it would be necessary to say anything more, and I was right.
"Don, I'm sorry again. There doesn't seem to be any end to the hurt we've done you. There may be something in the records..."
"I have a record of the photograph," said Bathys. "I am printing a copy; it will be there in a few minutes."
"If we could only think of something else we could do," said Michael.
"Why didn't you tell me, Don?" said Rhys. "You never let on!"
"Oh, kid, how could I? You were having such fun. And what could you do, after all? It wasn't your fault."
"I could have given you a special hug."
"Well, you can do that now, if you like. I could do with it."
In a moment he was astride my lap, hugging me. I could feel his breath tickling my ear.
"You're my best friend in the whole of Bathys," he whispered, and a tiny spark of happiness glowed within me.
"Why don't you make him a Knight?" said Amit. "If he wants?"
"We can't," said Michael. "The changes are permanent. I'm sorry."
"I wouldn't want to be," I said. "I wouldn't..."
I stopped. I was about to say I'd no desire to become an abuser myself, but at the last moment I remembered my resolve.
"I understand," said Michael, and I could see he did. "No one expects you to like us, Don, or to be pleased you're here. We just hope that in the end you'll find some kind of happiness."
I said nothing; it wasn't necessary. Rhys continued to hug me, and on the other side of the room I could see Amit nodding.
At that moment a robot came into the room, carrying a scroll of paper easily a yard long. It brought it to me, and I unrolled it. Bathys had hugely enlarged it, but the picture was perfect. It showed my parents, standing side by side and smiling; my mother was holding my baby brother and my father was waving. Tears ran down my face.
"They look nice," said Rhys. "You're lucky."
"Yes." He hugged me again. "To have nice parents."
"May - may I see?" said Derek. "Earlier I had a thought..."
I turned the picture round, and showed the room. I wanted my parents to be seen, to be admired.
"Yes," said Derek. "I thought so. Don, I know them. They were friends of mine. They're Harry and Louise Maxwell, aren't they? Electronics engineers. Somehow I was certain I'd met you before, and I have, several times, the last must have been when you were about six. They're very brilliant people, and I'm not surprised they've gone to Venus. They were working on electronic shielding; some of the work they did is in our own shield, in fact."
"You knew them?"
I don't know why this was important to me, but it was, desperately important, a life-line.
"Yes. I used to go and visit them at your home in the West Country. That's where I met you."
"If you're their friend, how do you feel about taking their son away?"
I couldn't resist it; he must have been thinking it anyhow.
"How do I feel? I feel worse about it than I've ever felt about anything. It's the worst thing that's ever happened to me. But I'll tell you this, Don. Whatever I can do to help my friends' son, I will. Don't deny me that; they were my friends, and I know that's what they'd want, and it's the only way I can make some kind of amends."
"It wasn't their fault, Don!" said Rhys suddenly. "They didn't do it on purpose! It was a mistake!"
"No, Rhys, that's not good enough," said Michael. "We shouldn't have made a mistake; it was too important for that. No, it was our fault. We believed the home's records; they said that Don was an orphan, but they got it wrong. We should have checked. But it wasn't anything to do with Derek. It was me, the King and Lord Igor; we chose all the boys. It's our responsibility."
I looked past Rhys's head into the fire. I felt that they were waiting for some kind of judgment from me, and I resented it. I simply couldn't find it in me to forgive them; not yet, if I ever could. But at the same time, I didn't want to continue the row we'd had earlier. And I was surprised to find myself feeling sorry for Derek, and ashamed of my harsh question. I wanted to get away from this, and just chat with him about my parents and what he remembered of them; after all, it was four years since I'd seen them myself.
"I don't know what to say. I understand that what you did was not intentional. But what you said is right, Lord Michael. You should have checked. I think you were so into your wonderful plan that you just didn't care that it was individual people you were dealing with. That was wrong. And it makes me think that you're probably wrong in the same way about other things. You need to think about that!"
"But I've got to be fair, because Rhys and Amit and lots of other kids are happy here, and I - I admire what you've done for them, and I hope it's a success. Don't stop trying because of me. And at the moment, that's the best thing I can say. I'm sorry."
"Thank you, Don," said the King quietly. "That's more than fair. And I, for one, will take what you said very seriously."
"I said before, Don," said Michael, "We're not asking for forgiveness, or for you to stop feeling angry with us. That would be stupid and trivial. What you said was fine and good, and more than enough. What do you want to do now?"
"I think - I think I'd like to stay here for a bit. And - and if Lord Derek has the time, I'd like to - to chat with him. About my parents. Is there somewhere to stay in Hillside?"
Derek's face lit up.
"You could stay here in the pub," said Derek. "Or if you prefer, there's room in my house. You'd be very welcome."
"Thank you, I'd like that very much."
"Hey! Then you won't be far away!" said Rhys.
"Aren't you going back to the Flat?"
"No." He wrinkled his nose. "I don't like it there. I'm going to go and stay with Lord Ortan! He lives in a tree in the forest, and we'll go and see all the animals, badgers and wolves and chimps and everything. Fred's coming too!"
I was startled, and gave Ortan a hard look.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'm kind to all small animals."
"It's okay, Don," said Rhys. "He won't fuck me. Not till I'm older and I want to!"
I couldn't help laughing, and so did everyone else. But I'd had enough; I waited with impatience as the King, Michael and Amit took their leave.
October 4 - 5: Jack
That night I stayed with Angus and Kostas again. I was relieved to be back in Lakeport; somehow, without realising it, I had begun to think of the little fishing village as my home.
My encounter with Liam had left me confused and unsure, doubting both my feelings and my thoughts, and I was distracted and distant with my new friends. They didn't press me, but left me alone when I needed it. I had enjoyed what Liam had done, and that was bad enough; worse, in a way, I enjoyed being held by him, just lying next to him with his arms round me. It had been six years since anyone had done that for me, and it had filled a need I hadn't even realised I had.
But giving in to that need had stripped me. Like everyone, I suppose, I had my defences; they had taken a long time to build, and I had needed them too, needed them to protect me from the life where I found myself, and the rejection of my parents. Now I felt naked before the horror of what had happened to me, and as the evening wore on, my story began to crowd into me. Incidents from the past flooded my mind. It might have been better if the others had confronted me, but they didn't; as always, they respected my privacy.
Through my little bedroom window I could see the moonlight flowing over the surface of the lake, and the sounds of the night came to me, owls and birds I didn't know, and the stange, distant, lonely hooting which Kostas had told me was a swampland dinosaur. I couldn't sleep. Things that happened to me played over and over again in my mind, and the taunts, faggot, cuntboy, whore... Weren't they true? Was that what I was becoming? If that was what I was, then weren't they right? Wasn't everything that had happened my fault?
I thought of Liam, and the kindness he had shown me became more and more impossible to bear. Fuck him! He'd taken advantage... Poofs! They were always the same. Give them and dick, and...
It went on and on; I don't know how long it was before I got to sleep, but finally I was woken by the sounds of Kostas and Angus moving around below, and then there was a knock on my door.
"Jack? D'you want to come out with us? The weather's brilliant!"
I don't know why I said yes, but I did. I struggled into my clothes and went downstairs.
"Jesus! You look like shit. Didn't you sleep well?"
I growled at Angus, and they just laughed at me. Despite everything, it was impossible for me to be rude to them, and soon they had me helping them load the boat and fold the nets. And then we were out, out across the lake to the islands, and beyond, over to the other side, where the low rounded hills of the Farmlands ran down to the water. And there we laid out the nets, with Kostas trying to show me how to do it. All this calmed me. I was beginning to understand that the water, the lake and the life of the lake would always be my refuge and my centre of balance. I stripped off, as did the others, and naked I flung the nets and we hauled in a dozen beautiful carp, and it was good.
So after lunch while the others were sleeping I loaded the tanks onto a cart and slowly pushed them through the heat of the day to Emeks' restaurant, my sandals scuffing through the dust along the waterfront.
Once again the side of the restaurant was open to the sun. Emek and his boys were just finishing their lunch, and he hailed me as I arrived.
"Hello, Jack! You're back again? What have you got?"
"Carp, fresh today. What d'you think?"
"Hey, don't try and bargain with me, kid! Kostas is bad enough!"
"No way. All the same, if you had a few of those baklavas? For me and the boys?"
"No problem. Get some, Danny. Take a seat, Jack. How about a coffee?"
Danny brought the baklavas in a foil box, and some coffee. As he put them on the table he lent over me and ruffled my hair.
"Mmm... Red hair. That's so cute!"
I froze. He smiled down at me, and for a moment I couldn't speak.
"Get - your hands - off me."
"Okay, okay!" He stood away from me. "What the fuck's your problem?"
"I don't like to be touched." Suddenly my blood boiled. "And I don't like that faggot shit!"
"Yeah? Well I don't much like that homophobic shit either, man!"
"Sit down and shut up, Danny!" said Emek.
"No! Why the fuck should I? Why should I put up with his shit?"
"Jack hasn't had much of a life," said Emek. "Give him some space!"
"Well, nor have I. Nor have I had much of a life. Ever since I was eight they were down on me, my parents, the school, everyone. Look!"
He held out his arm, and from the wrist up there were dozens, hundreds of round scars, all the way up to his shoulder, across his chest and down the other arm. I stared at them in horror.
"Cigarette burns! That was my dad did that. And he belted me, every fucking day. It was the same at school, the kids and the teachers too. I was everyone's punchbag. Sissy! Faggot! I've heard that shit all my life, and all my life I just took it and took it and took it, and I believed them, I believed it, that I was less than nothing, till I got here...."
"I know, son. But Jack..."
"Okay, so he's got a story. We've all got stories! Why is his more important than mine? Poor Jack, make allowances, he can't help it - well, how about poor Danny, eh? How about me? From where I sit, he's just another homophobic bastard. If he doesn't care about my story, then I don't give a fuck for his! I don't have to put up with his shit, not here, and I won't!"
He flung back his chair and ran outside. I sat, utterly confounded by his anger; it had honestly never crossed my mind that gay kids had their problems too.
"I'm sorry..." I whispered.
"Yes." He looked at me calmly. "Well, maybe you've learnt something."
"I never thought..."
"It's one of the most important things to understand: that other people hurt too."
"It's just - when someone says something like that, it brings so many horrible things back."
"And when you call him a faggot, it does the same to him. Has he ever hurt you in any way?"
"What he said..."
"He said you were cute. What's wrong with that? Why is that so terrible?"
"I - I don't know. But it is."
"You need to think about that. Why should that be so terrible? After all, it's true. You are cute."
"But I'm not a faggot!"
"Who said you were? Why does it make you a faggot, if someone thinks you're cute? And even if someone thinks you're gay, why is that so terrible?"
"You know why!"
"I know why you think so, Jack. I know your story. You have to work out if want your parents and your abusers to run your life. Why should you? They're your enemies! Why should you take their shit?"
I stared at him, unable to think of anything to say.
Danny's voice was barely a whisper. He was standing on the threshold in tears, and Osman was holding his hand.
"Yeah. So am I," I said. "I shouldn't have said that."
I stood and held out my hand, and he took it; and suddenly we were hugging each other, and I could feel his sobs. It tore at my guts; but it was the best feeling ever.