Soon afterwards, exams started and, what with all the revision, life became hectic. The Prof was more or less back to his usual self and I still saw him frequently if only briefly – he knew better than to distract me at this time. But with exams over, the pace slackened again.

Having so little common ground, Isaac and I rarely discussed anything but birds. Other subjects always seemed, inexorably and uncomfortably, to lead on to religion, and one memorable Saturday proved no exception. We were sitting in the dappled woodland shade of Coed Cymerau, our backs against a gnarled oak just above the old packhorse bridge near Bryn Melyn, keeping an eye and an ear open for woodpeckers and nuthatches, amid the soporific hum of insects and the plash of the waterfall. Nearby rustlings suggested that there were little mammals on the move – voles, probably. It was blissfully peaceful.

"I’d love to do this sort of thing full-time," I said sleepily. "Warden in a nature reserve or whatever, looking after woodlands and wildlife."

"What qualifications would you need?"

"Well, I’m thinking of carrying on with biology at A-level, along with chemistry and maths. Then university, I hope. Biology there. Ending up specialising in conservation and environmental studies. That should be enough. What are you thinking of doing?"

"No need to think. I know. Theological college, and ordination. That’s God’s destiny for me."

"God’s destiny? You mean he’s got it all mapped out for you?"

"Of course. God determines everything we do, good or bad. We can’t resist it."

"Heck, that’s crazy. That means we’ve got no choice. We must have that."

"Oh no. There’s no free will outside God. There’s no room for it, because everything happens by divine predestination."

I was shocked, but tried to meet him on his own ground. "But, Isaac. You’d say we end up either in heaven or hell, right?"


"Well, whichever we end up in, it must be decided by whether we’ve lived good lives or bad. Right?"

"Wrong. It was decided at the creation. Look, Tom. The church on earth is made up of two sorts. There are the saints who can never lose their crown. They’re the elect, the predestinate, chosen by God for heaven. Grace is given to them. They can’t say ‘yes please’ to it, or ‘no thank you.’ Then there are the sinners who can’t attain salvation, no matter how hard they try. They’re reprobate, not elect, damned. Salvation’s beyond their reach." Strong echoes of the pulpit were coming through.

"Then what’s the point of even trying to be good, for heaven’s sake?" I hadn’t intended the pun, and Isaac didn’t spot it.

"Better to try than not. Lots of people think they’re Christians, but only a few of them are entitled to everlasting life. The rest think they do all the right things. They may feel the same way as the elect, they may find the same uplift. But their faith’s only apparent, not real. Even so, God insinuates himself into their mind, so they can still taste his goodness. That taste is a good deal better than nothing."

"But that can’t be right, Isaac. You must have got that wrong."

"I haven’t. I don’t expect you realise, but you’re being Arminian." Armenian? What the hell was he on about? "You’re misreading the bible’s message. Making it into an easy cop-out. Its true message was laid out by Calvin. You have heard of Calvin, haven’t you?" he asked, without much conviction.

Actually, no. The only Calvins in my experience were Calvin Klein and Calvin and Hobbes. He’d hardly mean either of those, so I shook my head.

He sighed. "John Calvin. French reformer. In the Reformation. Sixteenth century. Calvinistic Methodists – right? – because our teaching is based on his. I think I can quote him word for word on this. ‘Therefore some men are born devoted from the womb to certain death, so that God’s name may be glorified in their destruction. Because life and death are acts of God’s will.’"

"Destruction?" I was horrified. "But Isaac. I thought God was supposed to be a God of love, not of destruction."

"So he is. Love for those he’s chosen. Not for those he’s condemned."

"But that’s not fair. It’s not just. If you’re condemned from the word go, it makes life … pointless. A nightmare."

"No, it doesn’t. You don’t know whether you’re elect or reprobate till it comes to the crunch. So it makes sense to hope you’re going to heaven, and act accordingly."

"Well, it makes no sense to me. It’s against all reason. God can’t, um, discriminate like that."

"God can’t …? Oh, Tom, sometimes I wonder why I put up with you. Look, who are you to question God? He made you. You can’t dispute with your maker. Remember Romans 9:21? No, you wouldn’t. ‘Has the potter no right over his clay, to make out of the same lump one beautiful pot and one crude one?’ If God wants to show off his power, doesn’t he have the right to put his splendid pot on exhibition, to be admired, and allow the workaday ones to get smashed?"

Hmmm. I thought I could see the point. A potter might expect some say over the fate of his own pots. But damn it, men weren’t pots. It sounded like blatant favouritism, cosseting a few special products and writing off the bulk of humanity as cheap crockery. Well, I didn’t believe in God at all, so it was an academic question. But I was still appalled at a belief which insulted reason and mankind. And I was saddened to hear it from a gentle boy like this, whom I certainly liked, certainly lusted for, and thought I even loved.

These thoughts were very unwelcome, and they had shattered the magic of Coed Cymerau. I needed, quite urgently, to consult my oracle. As soon as I could without hurting Isaac’s feelings, I suggested we should go home. Once I’d got rid of him I bearded the Prof and poured out my problems.

"You’re dipping your toe into deep waters here, Tom. Yes, predestination. It’s a harsh doctrine, with an intolerant God. Harsher than perhaps you realise. According to the bible, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were tempted by the snake and disobeyed God, didn’t they? That was the first sin committed by man. It’s called the Fall. Among Calvinists, there are various shades of opinion here. The more moderate ones say that God, after he’d created the world, looked at his list of everybody who was ever to be born, right up to the end of time. He decided which of them should end up in heaven – that’s what’s called election and predestination – and left the rest to punishment. He allowed the Fall to happen, though he didn’t actually set it up.

"That seems bad enough to you. But the extremists say that all this came before creation. That God chose who was to go to heaven, and who was condemned to sin and hell, before he’d even created Adam."

I worked it out. "But that means God decided the Fall should happen. He actually made Adam sin. That’s bonkers."

"But it’s what they say, Tom. And what follows on from it is original sin."

"Original sin?"

"It means that everyone has inherited Adam’s sin. Everyone is born with sin in-built. Nobody is born innocent. It means everyone is damned unless they’re rescued – born again, they call it – by baptism."

"But that’s … disgusting." I was flabbergasted. "It means that if a baby dies before it’s baptised, it automatically goes to hell."

"It does. That’s why I called it a harsh doctrine. The MCs … well, what they teach is based on a document called the Confession of Faith, which they drew up in 1823. That doesn’t say anything about election. It’s up to the individual minister. And I think I know the line followed by our friend across the road."

And therefore by his son, who saw me, from his viewpoint, as beyond the pale, an unbeliever, damned. But he accepted me as a non-Welshman, and he still seemed to like me, which surely meant that he had some tolerance left. From my own viewpoint, I saw him as beyond the pale too, for keeping a blinkered and inflexible mind, for soaking up all that crap in the first place. But I still liked him, or more than liked him.

"But is that only the MCs? Other churches aren’t so tough?"

"No, most of them aren’t. True, some Presbyterians in Scotland and Northern Ireland are still Calvinistic hard-liners, like the Wee Frees. So are some Baptists, especially the Southern Baptists in the States. But most churches which ever taught predestination and original sin have now watered them down. Some even say that all unbaptised babies are saved. Most churches here follow the Arminian line now. That’s named after a Dutchman called Arminius, who led the protestant backlash against Calvin."

"Oh, I see. Isaac called me an Arminian. I thought he said Armenian, and wondered what that had got to do with it."

The Prof chuckled. "Anyway, Arminians say that man can haul himself up by his bootstraps. Everyone can be saved. If you aren’t saved, it’s your own fault, it wasn’t decreed by God. You do have free will. God is a God of love, not destruction."

"That’s a lot better. And the Anglicans say that too?"

"Yes. Quite forcibly. That’s why I went to them from the MCs."

I mulled it over. "Yes. I would too. So both, um, sides claim the bible’s behind them?"

"Oh yes. You can find texts in the bible to ‘prove’ – in inverted commas – almost anything you like. It’s not consistent."

"That reminds me, Prof. Isaac said something else. He called God a potter who made lovely pots which he had the right to look after, and cheap ones which he had the right to chuck out. If we don’t believe in God, it doesn’t really matter to us. But I can see some sense in it. If God did exist, and did create everything, shouldn’t he have control over what happened to his own pots?"

"Hmmm. Like most analogies, you can only take this one so far. If we were only pots, yes, agreed. But we’re human beings, who feel, who think for ourselves. We’re all different, but we’re all marvellous, we’re all potentially top-quality. If you had children, Tom, wouldn’t you try to give all of them the same chance?"

"Yes. Of course I would. Anything else would be favouritism."

"And that’s unfair. But this business about pots is interesting. Look, Tom, it’s time to introduce you properly to my old friend Omar Khayyam. I quoted him to you the other week. He was a Persian, in the twelfth century, best known in his day as an astronomer. And he also wrote poetry. The Rubaiyat. In my humble opinion it’s superb poetry. And in Edward FitzGerald’s translation it’s superb language. I can’t read Persian so I don’t know, but they say that FitzGerald is even better than the original.

"But the point is this. Omar was a Muslim, of course, and strict Islam is another harsh faith. Like Calvinism, it says that in the beginning God decided the destiny of every person who would ever be born. Predestination again. Well, Islam generated almost as many dissenters as Christianity, and Omar was one. He couldn’t find any alternative to predestination, but he didn’t like it. He took refuge in irreligion.

"Now, Omar uses that same metaphor which Isaac quoted. He has the pots in a potter’s shop talking among themselves:

Said one among them, ‘Surely not in vain
My substance of the common earth was ta’en
And to this figure moulded, to be broke,
Or trampled back to shapeless earth again.’

Then said a second, ‘Ne’er a peevish boy
Would break the bowl from which he drank in joy;
And he that with his hand the vessel made
Will surely not in after wrath destroy.’

Whereat some one of the loquacious lot –
I think a Sufi pipkin, waxing hot –
‘All this of pot and potter. Tell me then,
Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?’"

The Prof looked at me quizzically.

"Yes, I see, I think," I said slowly. "We’re back to man creating God, aren’t we?"

"Yes. We are. People tend to see Omar’s message as saying ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ But there’s a great deal more than that. He’s a rebel. Here are some verses of his on the standard theme of predestination. Orthodox, if a trifle cynical:

’Tis all a chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

The moving finger writes, and having writ
Moves on: not all your piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.

With earth’s first clay they did the last man knead,
And there of the last harvest sowed the seed:
And the first morning of creation wrote
What the last dawn of reckoning shall read."

I found myself grinning broadly, as if I’d had too much to drink. Hitherto, I’d always reckoned poetry pretty boring stuff, but I was already on a high, catapulted there by the splendour of these verses as recited in the Prof’s clear and sensitive diction. I felt much the same incredulous delight as if I’d spotted a hoopoe in Coed Maentwrog.

"And then the rebel, the heretic, comes out – the Arminian, if you prefer. And more than the Arminian:

Oh you, who did with pitfall and with gin
Beset the road I was to wander in,
You will not with predestination round
Enmesh me, and impute my fall to sin!

Oh you, who man of baser earth did make,
And who with Eden did devise the snake,
For all the sin wherewith the face of man
Is blackened, man’s forgiveness give – and take!"

I grinned more broadly still. This was rebellion on a grand scale, to talk of forgiving God for what he’d done to man.

The Prof smiled equally broadly back at me. "He’s cheered you up, hasn’t he? Borrow him, Tom, and read him properly. There’s plenty more there that you’ll like. Take the paperback. That bookcase, top shelf but one, about eight books from the left, blue – yes, that’s it."

Now that Calvin had been balanced by Omar, I went home much happier. I read the Rubaiyat in one sitting, and became totally intoxicated on it. Over the week I read it again and again, learned some by heart, and decided to share my new delight with Isaac. Even though he’d dislike much of the message, surely he’d appreciate the language.




Next Saturday we climbed up to Wrysgan to watch the peregrines that lived in the fissured cliffs – some of the cracks, Isaac said, were a relic of the great earthquake of 1984. We carried on along the old quarrymen’s track round the contour to Llyn Stwlan, where we sat on a rock overlooking the dam. On the right loomed Moelwyn Mawr, ahead loomed Moelwyn Bach, the jagged crags on its right-hand side famously in the shape of a man’s profile. It was supposed to resemble the Duke of Wellington, the Prof had told me, but in his opinion it looked much more like Ted Heath, the last prime minister but four. Not having seen either, I had to take his word for it.

I told Isaac about Omar and got out the book. He was wary. I read him some verses that weren’t contentious, and he seemed to like them. I read the orthodox verses about predestination which the Prof had quoted, and he nodded approvingly. But when I ventured on to the rebellious ones, his face grew thundery. He snatched the book from me to check that I wasn’t making it up.

"But that’s blasphemy!" He flung it far out into the lake where it floated for a bit, then became waterlogged and sank, perhaps to be sucked down the outlet pipe and pulped in Dad’s turbines.

"For God’s sake! That wasn’t my book!"

He looked abashed. "Oh. Whose was it?"

"The Prof’s."

"Oh, him. That’s all right, then." The Prof’s property was evidently fair game. "He’s destined for hell anyway, but that’s no excuse for trying to drag other people down there with him."

I was livid. "The difference between you and the Prof is that you’re a bigot and he’s not. And I go along with him, not you. You claim you’ve got the monopoly of being right. I claim that you’ve just as much chance of ending up in hell as I have, or the Prof has. There’s another verse in that book" – I gestured at the lake – "which goes:

Oh you, who burns in heart for those who burn
In hell, whose fires yourself shall feed in turn,
How long be crying, ‘Mercy on them, God!’
Why, who are you to teach, and we to learn?"

Isaac threw me a look of pure fury, picked up his rucksack, and marched off. I didn’t call him back or try to follow. What was the point? I sat brooding over his forecast about the Prof’s destination. Hell. Or heaven. I really hadn’t thought about them before, any more than I’d thought about most such things. Isaac, I reckoned, was aiming for heaven in the next life by going through hell in this, confident that God would reward him for it. But I didn’t believe that God existed. If he didn’t, could there be an afterlife? And if there wasn’t an afterlife, could there be such places as heaven and hell? Once again, Omar suggested the answer.

I sent my soul through the invisible,
Some letter of that afterlife to spell;
And by and by my soul returned to me
And answered ‘I myself am heaven and hell.’

Heaven but the vision of fulfilled desire,
And hell the shadow from a soul on fire,
Cast on the darkness into which ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.

That made sense. I could go along with heaven and hell being inside you, in this life. But if they didn’t exist in the afterlife, where did your soul go after you died? What was the soul? From my biology, I understood a bit about the mind: consciousness, sensation, thought, reasoning, all the product of electrical activity in the brain. And when the brain died, the mind died. The soul must be something different. Or even – I felt I was taking a big step here – did it exist at all? Omar thought it did, but then he believed in God. If you didn’t believe in God, or in the accepted heaven and hell, why believe in the soul? The Prof had made me think for myself, but some questions were still too big for me. I must ask him.

As I made my long way home round the hairpin bends of the access road I could see Isaac striding away, far below me. Even at that distance, he seemed to radiate a smouldering glow of self-righteous anger. But the Prof welcomed me as placidly as always, hot and bothered though I was. First I told him of the fate of his book.

"I’m sorry, Prof, it was my fault. I shouldn’t have shown it to him. I’ll buy you another."

"Thank you, Tom, but no. I do have other editions. No, I will buy you another copy, for you to keep this time. And you know, this business is a good illustration of intolerance, isn’t it? One of the many reasons why Calvin challenged the Catholics was that he objected to their excesses in persecuting heretics. The inquisition and suchlike. But he ruled Geneva – that’s where he was based – with a rod of iron. When he found himself opposed by another reformer called Servetus who wrote books castigating him, he had him burned at the stake, with the offending books tied to his girdle. Pots and kettles, eh? Anyway, he might destroy Servetus and his books, but he could never destroy his message."

Pots and kettles indeed. Not pleasant. "Prof, why do some people fly off the handle like that? Why can’t they chew things over calmly? And if they can’t agree, then agree to differ?"

"I think the short answer, Tom, is pride. Some people just have to be right. They can’t admit they might be wrong. They can’t stand their sense of power being challenged. They have to demonstrate who’s the boss. I believe the modern term for them is control freaks. It’s the closed mind again. Which is why I’m so glad that yours is open and questioning."

I blushed, and was prompted to raise my latest question, about heaven and hell. He listened patiently to my stumbling thoughts. "You’ve a knack, Tom, of coming up with knotty problems. And the answers to them. You’re not the first to locate heaven and hell in the mind, you know, but you’re in distinguished company. Milton, for example.

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

Even better, perhaps, T. S. Eliot.

Hell is oneself;
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.

And I’d entirely agree with them, and with you. Heaven and hell are inside us."

"And Prof, following on from that. If there’s no God, and no afterlife in heaven or hell, can we have a soul? I know what the mind is, I think, more or less. Activity in the brain, and it dies with us. But what is the soul, Prof?"

"It’s a woolly concept, it seems to me, not easy to distinguish from the mind. It’s said to be the noble, the emotional, the immortal side of ourselves. The emperor Hadrian wrote a delightful poem to his own soul. Animula vagula blandula – ‘wandering, charming little soul, guest and companion of my body.’ I rather like that idea. A guest and companion would be independent of us, and it wouldn’t necessarily die with us. If it didn’t, I suppose it could be called immortal. But your question is, where would it go after we had died? You’re suggesting that if life after death is only man’s imagining, then the soul must be imaginary too. Given that premise, I don’t think I can shoot down your logic." For once, he seemed to be slightly side-stepping the issue, but I didn’t pick him up on it because I had another important question.

"Prof, you said you wanted to be buried by the Anglicans. But if there is no God, and no afterlife, even no soul, why does it matter?"

He chuckled. "Mainly because I hate the thought of being sneered into my grave by the MCs."

"But why not have a service without any religion in it at all? You’re allowed to, aren’t you?"

"Oh yes, no problem there. Why not a secular service? Well, maybe I see a church service as an insurance policy, just in case God does exist, just in case I do have a soul. If you had a child, Tom, would you have it baptised, just in case it died young, just in case unbaptised infants really were damned for eternity?"

I cogitated. It would be good to stand by one’s principles. But he was right. I’d admitted God might exist. Therefore baptism might, just conceivably, do some good. It couldn’t do any harm. "Yes, maybe I would."

He nodded. "Yes. And it’s for the same sort of reason that I’ve plumped for a church funeral. Have you been baptised, Tom?"

I hadn’t the foggiest idea. I asked Mum and Dad when I got in. Yes, they rather sheepishly admitted, I had been. They weren’t religious, but their own parents and grandparents had expected them to have me done. And better safe than sorry …

Next time I saw Isaac he apologised about the book, to my surprise, and offered to buy a replacement. I thanked him but said no. I knew his pocket money was microscopic, and thought that it might not hurt to rub in the lesson.

"The Prof’s buying another copy himself. He said it all reminded him of Calvin and Servetus." Isaac understood at once, and had the grace to blush.

I still felt I loved him, though. He was entitled to his opinions. While I couldn’t stomach their rigidity, I admired him for sticking up for them. Neither of us wanted our friendship to founder on this rock, and we made a big if undeclared effort to continue as before. But my frustrations also continued, unabated. Even if either or both of us were predestined for hell, one thing that did not seem predestined was a sexual encounter between us. Yet I still hankered desperately for my heaven, for my vision of fulfilled desire.




The Prof’s state of health was now variable: sometimes he verged on the sprightly, sometimes he was painfully slow. He saved up his bigger shopping expeditions for Saturdays, so that I could carry his bags home. One July day, when I let myself in, I couldn’t find him. I was quite worried until I heard noises from upstairs, where I’d never set foot – his bathroom was beyond the kitchen – and I found him up there looking for a book. It turned out that he had another library on the first floor, at least equal in size to the one downstairs. Not only did it cost him a huge effort to climb up, but it struck me as downright dangerous for a man of his age who lived alone.

"Prof, are there any books downstairs which you never use? Or hardly ever?"

"Oh yes, quite a lot."

"Well, why not move them up, and replace them with upstairs books which you use more often? Save you traipsing up and down stairs."

"Why haven’t I thought of that before? Why not, indeed? Do I take it, Tom, you’re offering to do the fetching and carrying?"

As it turned out, the job took a whole weekend. We had a hilarious time. We called the game Predestination, and the Prof played the part of God. In his study, he decreed which books were reprobate and damned, and I took them off the shelves. Then, both of us giggling like six-year-olds, he put his arm round my shoulder, and I put my arm round his waist and half-carried him upstairs. There he chose the elect, the saints, which I likewise pulled out. Their destiny decided, I installed the damned in hell and the elect in heaven. The only thing awry was that heaven was downstairs and hell was up. Our frivolity would have shocked Isaac to death, not to mention the Parch. But we had a whale of a time.




As for Isaac, after our heart-to-heart by Llyn Cwmcorsiog, I saw no sign that he harboured any – let’s say – impure thoughts at all. Until one night, shortly before the end of term, when I looked out of the window before going to bed. Isaac’s light was still on, a sizeable strip showing between his curtains which weren’t completely closed. There was nothing unusual about that. They never were fully closed, simply because they were too narrow to meet. That household just didn’t have the money to replace curtains which had been made for a narrower window in some previous manse. What was new was that through the gap I could see the middle of his bed. He must have moved it, unaware that I could see it now. Mine was the only window in the street that was high enough to look down into his room. And on the bed was Isaac, or the relevant part of him. Naked, and vigorously beating himself off.

I knew it was spying, and knew I shouldn’t. But I couldn’t help it. I watched, through my binoculars, which I tried to hold steady with my left hand while my right was active, very active, elsewhere. We came at the same time, he into a handkerchief, me onto the carpet. Then his light went out. Well, I thought, winding down as I cleaned up the mess, however high-minded ministers’ sons may be, at least this one’s human after all. Or a little bit human. And if he’s that human, is he more human still? But the big unknown is whether he’s straight or gay. Or neither. If I was going to get anywhere at all, I’d have to put it to the test. A scientific experiment, if you like. I spent the next hour or so hatching nefarious plans.

I found a juicy porn site of chicks being shagged, printed off a good picture, put it in a blank envelope and sealed it. Next day I took it to school, and while nobody was around I posted it into Isaac’s locker through the slit between the door and frame. When school finished, as I burrowed in my own locker nearby, I saw him collect some books, cast a puzzled look at the envelope, and stuff it in his pocket. That night I stood watch, a bit back from my window, lights off, binoculars in hand. His light came on and after a while he crossed the gap between the curtains, wearing his pyjamas and holding a piece of paper. He squatted down at the fireplace, which was on the far wall, struck a match and burned the paper. Then he got into bed, under the blanket, and his light went out. I couldn’t be sure, but I deduced the chicks had not turned him on.

On to the next stage, then. This time I went to a gay site and printed off another juicy picture, and followed exactly the same procedure. It had better work this time, I thought that evening. It was only two days to the end of term, and three days before our family was going off on holiday. And I was rewarded. His light came on and stayed on, he lay naked on the bed, and he looked at the picture held in one hand while he wanked with the other. As before, I went along with him. Once he was done, his light went out. I was getting closer.

Next evening, I asked him to come in to see something new on the RSPB site. He showed no suspicions. At the window I pointed to the square where a gaggle of sparrows was ridiculously having a bath in a puddle. He looked briefly, laughed, and sat down at the computer, while I stayed where I was, pretending to watch the sparrows but actually keeping an eye on him in the mirror beside the window. I’d put a good gay porn site on the screen, long enough ago for the screensaver to have come up. As soon as he touched the mouse, there was the porn. He glanced round at me, but saw only my back. He knew plenty enough about computers by now to navigate round a site, and I saw him clicking thumbnail after thumbnail for several minutes. When I thought the time was ripe I turned, and pretended surprise.

"Oops! Forgot that was up!"

But all my lovely plans crashed instantly in ruins. He leapt up and whirled round, hard-on very evident, face red. "Dos yn fy ol i, Satan," he spat out. "Rhwystr ydwyt ti i mi: am nad ydwyt yn synied y pethau sydd o Dduw, ond y pethau sydd o ddynion." My Welsh was good enough to catch the beginning, and I read up the rest later. ‘Get you behind me, Satan. You’re my stumbling-block. Your mind’s not on God’s things, but on man’s.’

Out he stormed, and I spent a very unhappy night.

Next day was the last day of term, which ended at lunch time. Awash with trepidation, I carefully avoided Isaac all morning. Indeed our paths didn’t cross until the very last class. When it was finished, he came purposefully over to me. "Tom, a word with you." His tone was now of sorrow, not of anger.

He waited until the room was empty before continuing. "Tom, about last night. You know much more about all this than I do. But I’ve been thinking. I’ve been blind and slow, but now I see what you’re after. You’re gay, and you hoped I was too, and you were trying to tempt me."

I could only nod.

"Yes, Tom, I am tempted that way. Yes, you did tempt me. With what you told me that day at Cwmcorsiog. And especially last night with the … computer. "Yes, for a bit I did get carried away. Every one of God’s children is tempted. But God helped me to resist."

It was the only chance I’d ever have of saying what I needed to. I gulped. "OK, Isaac, I did tempt you. Because I love you. I wanted to show you how I love you."

"Tom, you mustn’t love me. I know you’re tempted. But you must resist it, for your own sake. And for mine. I like you, Tom. But I can’t love you. Not in that sense. You think about it while you’re away, and you’ll see what I mean. Right?"

I was too confused to answer, but he seemed to take my agreement for granted, as if the whole episode was over and done with. "I must run," he said. "I’ve got to change and get up to Llechwedd." He’d found a holiday job in the cafe at Quarry Tours.

Virtually everybody had already left, but as we went out into the corridor we saw Meurig and Ianto, two of the school’s younger bullies, emerge from a classroom a couple of doors along and head for the main entrance, sniggering as they went. Even though my mind was in turmoil, I wondered what they’d been up to and, as we passed the room they’d just left, I glanced inside. There, behaving very oddly, was a boy named Geraint, a year below us, whom I knew slightly. He was standing with his back to the wall, trying to cover his chest with his arms, and clearly on the verge of tears. He saw Isaac first, and cringed, but at the sight of me he relaxed a little.

"Geraint! What’s up?" I asked in Welsh.

"Oh, Tom, please, you don’t have a spare shirt or sweater you could lend me, do you?"

What on earth for? It was a sweltering day. "Sorry, Geraint, not here. I took my sports stuff home yesterday. But why …?"

"I can’t go home like this," he wailed. "Look!"

He lowered his arms. He was wearing a plain white tee-shirt, or one that had been plain white. But scrawled across the front in black marker pen was the message ‘Rydw i’n gadi hoyw’ – I am a gay sissy. He turned round, and the same was written on the back. He lifted the shirt, and the same was written on his skin, front and back. I understood. Geraint lived, I knew, in Congl y Wal at the very far end of town. Unless he could find something to cover it up, he was condemned to walking a good mile through the centre of Blaenau announcing to the world that he was gay, and announcing it to his mother when he got home. He was a quiet and artistic type, almost feminine in face, a sitting target for torment by homophobic louts like Ianto and Meurig. But I also knew that he was an unjustified target. He had a girlfriend, and presumably was not gay.

Isaac evidently did not know. "Go home like that," he pronounced. "Proclaim your sins to the people, and repent, canys ffiaidd gan yr Arglwydd dy Dduw bob un a’r a wnelo hyn" – for all that do such things are an abomination unto the Lord your God. "Goodbye, Tom, I must go." Off he went, as stern and righteous in his judgement as any Old Testament prophet.

"But I’m not gay," cried Geraint.

"It’s all right, Geraint. I know you aren’t. Don’t pay any attention to him. Look, come home with me – there’ll be nobody there – and we’ll clean you up. And put this on to get you there."

I peeled off my tee-shirt with its RSPB logo and, whimpering with relief, he put it on over his own. Naked to the waist, I walked him the hundred yards home. We were close enough behind Isaac to see him disappear into Ty Capel.

Once in the refuge of my house, we surveyed the damage. The first priority was to clean the writing off Geraint’s skin, but the marker pen proved obstinate. Experiments with soap, washing-up liquid and white spirit hardly affected it, and we began to despair. Then I tried rougher tactics and found that the pan-scourer and Cif would shift it, at the cost of leaving his skin red and tender. He bore it stoically, but as I worked carefully around his nipples I saw a bulge grow in his jeans. Close contact with his very attractive body had already given me a bulge in mine. The setting was perfect for seduction, and he was so touchingly grateful for my help that I reckoned he’d give me anything I asked for. But I couldn’t ask. No way. It would be utterly wrong to take advantage of him.

Instead, I asked him what had happened. The louts, much as I guessed, had been taunting him for most of the term, and as a final fling, the work of seconds, Meurig had pinioned his arms while Ianto wrote the messages. I was surprised he could spell that well. They couldn’t be allowed to get away with it. "Stand up to them, Geraint. I know you aren’t gay. You’ve got a girlfriend, haven’t you? Esyllt, isn’t it?" He nodded. "If they try any more monkey tricks, let me know." I wasn’t very sure what I could do. But even if they were bigger than me, I was a year above them, and I did have my other friends who’d back me up. Something else that needed thinking about.

Once Geraint’s chest and back were clear of ink, I soothed his soreness with antiseptic cream. We then looked at his shirt. A write-off, we decided, so I binned it and dug out an almost identical one of my own.

"Oh Tom, you’re a genius. I’ll bring this back tomorrow."

"Don’t bother, Geraint. Keep it. I’ve got plenty." I knew his family didn’t have many beans to rub together.

As I’d been cleaning him up, I’d heard the letterbox rattle, and when I saw him out, bubbling with thanks, I found a hastily-scribbled note on the mat. "Tad’s just heard that he’s being posted down to Ceredigion, and we’re leaving at the end of August. But there’ll still be three weeks after you get back from holiday. Have a good time. Isaac."

So. So Isaac was going, and I knew I’d miss his company. But unresolved questions were tumbling in my mind like washing in a dryer. Thinking that Geraint was gay, he’d just been unforgivingly harsh to him. Unforgivably harsh, I felt. That was typical of his attitude to anyone he saw as reprobate. Yet there was a conundrum here. He now knew for a fact that I was gay and therefore reprobate. Why had he been so considerate to me? After last night, I’d been afraid our friendship had crumbled to nothing. But, provided I tempted him no more, he seemed ready to overlook my behaviour. To forgive it.

To forgive it? Yes. Last night had left me wallowing in disappointment and self-pity. Now I began to see his point, and to feel stirrings of guilt. I knew at last, for certain, that I’d never win him over. I’d tried, and I’d failed. But had I been wrong in trying? That was the other question. What I’d been tempting him to do was in his eyes a sin, an offence against the divine laws he believed in. But then, from my point of view, if I wasn’t bound by those laws, it was hardly a sin to succumb to the temptation, was it? It might be a crime in the eyes of human law, at least until we were sixteen. But that was another matter altogether.

After pondering long and inconclusively, I took my problem, as usual, to the Prof. "May I ask your advice, please, Prof? I can’t tell you the details. But I’ve been trying to get … someone to do something he didn’t want to. It might have been a crime, in law, but only a minor one. But how do I know if it was wrong, morally wrong?"

The Prof looked at me shrewdly. "I think the best yardstick, Tom, is that if it’s likely to hurt anyone, including yourself, in any way, short-term or long-term, then it’s wrong. True, punishment hurts, but that’s a quite different affair, provided it’s a just punishment. But that yardstick, in my humble opinion, is more important than the letter of the law. And it also applies to behaviour outside the law, like being rude or inconsiderate, which can hurt just as much as physical assault. Does that help?"

Yes. It did. I’d been tempting Isaac to break one of his taboos. It didn’t matter that his taboo wasn’t mine. "Yes," I said heavily. "I have been inconsiderate. I have hurt him. And I’ve lost him. I never had a chance, anyway. I can see that now." I’d been thinking out loud, and suddenly realised what I’d said. The cat was out of the bag. I looked at the Prof with mouth open and face red.

He smiled gently. "Don’t worry, Tom. I’ve had a pretty good idea what’s been going on. Or not going on. I do not disapprove, and it’s safe with me." I went slack with relief. "You’re right, Tom – it was a forlorn hope from the start. Of course you’re disappointed. I know how you’re feeling now.

Ah love! Could you and I with fate conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Re-mould it nearer to the heart’s desire!"

But don’t be disappointed, not for too long. You hoped you’d find love from Isaac, but it’s clear you never will. Will even your friendship survive?"

"Yes. No. Look, Prof. Something’s just happened." I told him all about it. "So Isaac’s going. I don’t know what to think. It might be a good thing, since I’ve hurt him. But he seems to have forgiven me, even though he sees me as, um, a sinner. As if he still values me. Yet he was ready to let Geraint face the music. I don’t understand."

"Put this in context, Tom. Think what you give Isaac that Geraint can’t. Think why ..." He tailed off.

We looked at each other, and I found to my surprise that I could supply what he’d left unsaid, not from my own mind, but by reading it in those brown eyes.

"Prof. You’re thinking it is no bad thing that Isaac’s going, because it never can be a real friendship anyway, because we don’t have enough common ground. If it weren’t for birds, we wouldn’t know each other at all. We hardly talk about anything else, except religion, and we don’t exactly agree on that. Isaac doesn’t have any other friends – to him, everybody’s a sinner, beyond the pale. To him, I’m a sinner too. Yet he puts up with me, even forgives me. You’re thinking that’s not tolerance, but self-interest, because he doesn’t want to lose my company. Isn’t that what you’re thinking? And you don’t want to say it because it might seem unkind?"

The Prof was smiling lovingly. "Tom, if you can read my mind that accurately, I’ll soon have no secrets left. Yes. Exactly that. And do you think the same?"

I gazed across the street at the drab grey building opposite, TABERNACL M. C., where Isaac’s mind was centred and mine emphatically was not. I’d lusted only for his body, hadn’t I? Not for his mind. Birds were our only bond. I was his only friend, but his was a friendship only of convenience. There was no real meeting of minds. Whereas the Prof and I ...

"Yes, I do think the same."

"You never were compatible, Tom. Don’t think too badly of Isaac. He’s been conditioned into the way he is. Brainwashed, if you like. But you’ve each learned lessons from the other. I suggest you talk birds with him as usual, until he leaves. And then, without grief or guilt, let him go his own way, and you go yours. They’re very different ways. Do you know this most excellent of limericks?

There was a young man who said ‘Damn,
I now know at last what I am.
I’m a being that moves
In predestinate grooves.
I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram.

That’s Isaac. He’s a tram, who can follow only the narrow track that’s been laid down for him. You’re a bus. You can drive anywhere. Anywhere you like. You’ll find better friendships elsewhere, Tom. More important, you’ll find a better love. I wouldn’t dare call that your destiny, not after our discussions. But it’s simply inconceivable that so inquisitive and intelligent a person as you, so lovable and so loving, should not find it, though it may take time."

I drew a deep breath. He’d given me plenty of new food for thought, especially about myself, but he’d already solved my conundrum and lifted a heavy burden off my shoulders. "Thanks, Prof. Thanks. That’s good. You’re a star!"

"And you’re lucky, Tom. As you search for your love, you’ll be going out into a world which is ever more tolerant. Of course there are exceptions, and plenty of them. Individual exceptions like Ianto and Meurig. And general ones too – Macaulay found ‘no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.’ That was a century and a half ago, and it still holds true. Sometimes society still has a fit and takes a step backwards. But most of the steps are in the right direction.

"In fact another small one has been taken today. You won’t have heard the one o’clock news. You know the Archbishop of Canterbury’s retiring?" I nodded. "As head of the whole Anglican communion throughout the world, he’s in a pretty influential position. George Carey, who’s on his way out, is a sadly stodgy character. Well, they’ve just announced his successor. Rowan Williams, who’s currently Archbishop of Wales. He’s a good man. A liberal. A moderniser. He’s already ordained gay priests."

"Wow! That’s great!" I’d had no idea the Anglicans were as progressive as that.

"It might ultimately rub off on other churches too, though not everyone will approve. One thing I’m sure of is that there’ll be thunder from the Parch’s pulpit on Sunday morning. Tom …" – the eye he cocked at me had a truly wicked gleam in it – "shall we be very naughty and celebrate, while he’s thundering, with a glass of madeira?"

I laughed. "I’d have loved to, Prof. But we’re going away tomorrow, for our holiday. Remember?"

His face fell. "I’d forgotten. How long for?"

"A fortnight. Back on the tenth. I’m going to miss you, Prof. But I’ll phone you regularly, just to check you’re all right. I feel a bit mean, not being able to help with your shopping and stuff. But Rhiannon will look after that."

There was a long pause. "Don’t you worry. You’d better go and do your packing. Enjoy yourself, Tom, away from this old man."

He creaked to his feet, and to my amazement he opened his arms, clearly expecting a hug. I obliged. Though I’m not tall, he was shorter than me. Inside his baggy jacket he felt like a small sparrow, heart fluttering. And I kissed him lightly on the lips. To this day I don’t know what prompted me. I could perfectly well just have hugged him.

After a few seconds he broke free and almost pushed me out of the door. As I turned round with a wave and a "Be good!" he was gazing after me as if he’d never see me again.




He didn’t.

But I saw him. We had our holiday, in a caravan on the Devon coast. Superficially fun, but all the time my heart was in Wales. I phoned him every other day, briefly, and all was well. My last call was on the Thursday, and we got home very late on the Saturday night. Next morning I had two important things to do. I wanted to see Isaac, but he’d be in chapel. The first priority, anyway, was to check on the Prof.

I let myself in and was making for the study with a cheerful greeting on my lips when a middle-aged woman came out of the kitchen. "Diawl, what on earth do you think you’re up to?"

"I’ve come to see the Professor."

"Where did you get the key from?"

"Why, from the Prof. I let myself in and out."

She looked at me speculatively. "Who are you?"

"Tom Robertson. I live two doors along."

Surprise showed on her face. "Oh yes. I do know about you, then. I didn’t think you’d be so young. I’m Wil’s niece. Megan Parry." I recognised her now, from the photos on the mantlepiece.

Then came the bombshell. "My uncle’s dead."

My heart stopped and my mouth fell open.

She gazed at me, taking in the sight of a young-looking boy, fair-haired, struck dumb, with tears already starting down his cheeks. A portly man appeared behind her, of much the same age. "This is Tom Robertson," she explained to him. And to me, "This is my husband," and she tacitly handed me over to him, as if deputing an unwelcome job to a minion. Both gave the impression that they disapproved of me.

"What happened?" I managed to ask.

"Oh, he was taken ill on Friday morning," said Mr Parry. "He had a heart attack, on the way back from the Co-op. They carted him to hospital and called us, and we came over at once. His mind was still active, and he was just about able to speak. But that evening he had another massive attack, and died. Do you want to see him?"

I was taken even more aback. I’d heard of the Welsh custom of the dead being put on display in their own home, for friends to pay their respects and to say a last goodbye. Having been brought up in sanitised English ways, I’d never seen a dead body before. I didn’t want to see any dead body, let alone the body of my friend. But I could only say yes. I had to say yes. To say no would be to betray him utterly.

Mr Parry led me into the study. The curtains were closed. The coffin sat on trestles in front of the desk. He lifted the lid off and I forced myself to look. There the Prof lay, in a white shroud, his hair covered in an obscene little white bonnet, his hands like claws folded over his stomach. He was a sparrow lying on its back, small, shrivelled, and dead. But beneath the beaky nose and the bushy eyebrows his face was still and peaceful. I looked for a long time, re-memorising what was already engraved on my mind. Then, my throat far too tight to utter any sound, I bent to kiss him very gently on the lips, smelling a mixture of chemicals and cosmetics.

Silently I framed a simple farewell. "Bye, Prof. Thanks. My love. And good luck. If you need it where you’ve gone." That said it all.

Mr Parry was speaking. "You must have been, er, good friends. If you want to come to the funeral, it’s the day after tomorrow. Tuesday. 11.30, at Llan. And you can come to the gathering at the Pengwern Arms afterwards."

I escaped without opening my mouth, crept home, and collapsed on my bed. Mum and Dad, hearing my sobs, came up to investigate, and were kind and gentle. "You’ve been privileged to know him, Tom. Don’t grieve too much. He had a good innings. Just remember him, for his goodness, his kindness." The whole day I grieved, and didn’t step outside the house. I lay, and thought, and remembered. Or just lay, and ached in wretchedness. I tried to find comfort in the Rubaiyat, and cried myself to sleep.

Next morning I bestirred myself and went to the florist, where after much deliberation I bought a modest bunch of red roses. I wrote a card for it, and took it round to the house. Mrs Parry’s eyes widened, but she thanked me nicely. After all, the flowers were as much a token for her, the bereaved, as for the dead. Or were they also a symbol of mortality?

Oh threats of Hell and hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain – this life flies;
One thing is certain, and the rest is lies:
The flower that once has blown for ever dies.

I continued in my grief, and was incapable of going out again. Isaac would have to wait.

On Tuesday morning, both Mum and Dad were at work and I caught the bus to Llan Ffestiniog, the age-old village three miles away, mother of the young industrial offshoot of Blaenau Ffestiniog. It was nearly half past eleven when I got out at the Pengwern, and the parish church was almost full. Some of the congregation were locals, the rest obviously strangers – the elderly ones ex-colleagues from Cambridge, I guessed, the younger ones perhaps ex-students. Feeling totally out of place, I sat at the very back. The coffin stood in front of the altar, and on it lay red flowers and something silver – too far away to make out any detail.

The service was essentially in English, presumably for the benefit of the strangers. And not the modern form of service, but the old. No doubt the Prof himself had insisted on the Tudor language, even if he didn’t go along with its message.

The introduction. ‘We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.’ Nothing tangible, no. That he wouldn’t deny – who could? And nothing intangible either, if we didn’t admit the idea of the soul as guest and companion of our body.

The psalm. ‘Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days, that I may be certified how long I have to live.’ Lord, let me know nothing of the sort. The Prof had known the number of his own days. With hindsight, I was sure of that. But I didn’t want to know mine.

The lesson. ‘Behold, I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.’ My skin crept. ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ This sort of stuff had once been mumbo jumbo to me. Why did it now strike a sudden chord?

The address, mercifully short. The vicar spelled out the distinguished career of this son of Ffestiniog, praising his kindness and good nature. He clearly hadn’t known the Prof, and was merely mouthing the platitudes the family had told him to say.

Finally the hymn, requested, so the vicar informed us, by the Prof himself. A good Welsh hymn too, Calon lan.

Nid wy’n gofyn bywyd moethus
Aur y byd na’i berlau man.
Gofyn rwyf am galon hapus,
Calon onest, calon lan

‘I ask not for a life of luxury, worldly gold or petty pearls. I ask for a happy heart, an honest heart, a pure heart.’ Amen to that.

The Prof was to be buried in the new overflow cemetery, the churchyard itself being too full for further occupants. The coffin was trundled out down the aisle on a trolley for the hundred-yard journey. As it passed slowly beside me, I looked closely. The silver thing was a deep circlet, a sort of diadem or crown. The flowers were red roses, and seemed familiar. I saw the writing on the card. It was mine.

I was last out, in a daze. The congregation emptied itself in reverse order from the front. It ambled down the road, with me at the back, my feet trying to keep up, my mind trying to keep up. At the cemetery, I stood on the fringe of the crowd, on tiptoe, trying to see. Someone grasped my arm. Mr Parry. "Come to the front, lad," he muttered, and pushed me through the throng to stand next to his wife, beside the rectangular hole lined with artificial grass. The coffin lay at its head, but the flowers and the circlet had been removed.

The vicar began to drone. ‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.’ My eyes wandered, and with them my mind, to the mountains across the valley. If the Prof had any way to enjoy it, his resting place commanded a broadside view of his beloved Moelwyn. I scanned the town sprawling across to the right, three miles away, and picked out Tabernacl. Beside it, I thought I could make out my attic window. If so, I’d be able to see his grave from there, with my binoculars.

I came back with a start, willing my emotions not to take over my mind. The coffin was being lowered into the grave. ‘We therefore commit his body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust: in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.’ No. Not sure. Not certain. Not hoped for because not believed. But still a pleasant contrast to the doom and gloom of the Calvinists. We threw down handfuls of stony earth which rattled on the coffin lid, on the little silver plate which read

William Davies
11 Mawrth 1920-
9 Awst 2002

‘That we may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul.’ Why did that hit me between the eyes? Yes, if we do have souls, but only if we do. And we don’t.

The ritual was over. It had answered no questions, only raised them. It had given no comfort to the living – not, at any rate, to me – and surely it had given none to the dead.

When I pulled myself together enough to ask about the flowers, I found that the Parrys had disappeared. Some people still hung around the cemetery chattering, but most were straggling up past the church to the Pengwern Arms, and I straggled after them. Inside, tables of sandwiches and quiches and cakes and tea were surrounded by a politely jostling crowd. I wasn’t feeling in the least sociable. I didn’t want to stay. But I had to find the answer to my question, so I hovered on the outskirts again. After a while I was buttonholed by an elderly man – I never discovered who he was – clutching a glass of whisky. He gave the impression that it was by no means his first of the day, and he was friendly and unguarded.

"Hallo, I saw you with Megan. Didn’t know Wil had any young relatives."

"No, I’m not a relative. Just a friend, from along the street."

"Oh. Nice of Megan to put you at the front, then. And nice of her to put the bardic crown on the coffin. Wouldn’t have expected it of her."

"Bardic crown?"

"Didn’t you know? Wil won the crown at the National Eisteddfod. Just after the war. 1946, it must have been. Not the chair – that’s for the awdl. The crown’s for free verse. Very clever bit of poetry, his. Coded, of course. Had to be, then."

I looked my puzzlement.

"Oh, it was a love poem. To his boyfriend. Who was only a boy, too, not much older than you. Come to think of it, he looked very much like you."

I was slow on the uptake today.

"Oh Lord, didn’t you know?" He leant conspiratorially close, wafting whisky fumes into my face. "Wil was gay. Quite a scandal, I can tell you. In the family and out of it. But they were made for each other. They were very happy together."

"I didn’t … know about that. Er, what happened to his, um, friend?"

"Oh, he died. Cancer, you know." The alcoholic face had mercifully withdrawn from mine. "Very sad. Remember that well. It was soon after Wil retired and just before he left Cambridge. Tom died on Christmas Day, must have been 19, um, 85."

Before I could grapple with that, Mr Parry emerged from the crush. He evidently heard the last bit, for he gave the old man a withering look and drew me away.

"Tom. I have a duty to do. Wil made a few requests to us before he died. We don’t, er, entirely approve of them, but we have to carry out his wishes. He said that you were to be at the front at the interment. He said that if you brought flowers for the funeral, of your own volition, they and they alone were to go on his coffin. He said that his crown was to go on the coffin too, and that as soon as the funeral was over it was to be given to you. And he told us to give you a package which he’d addressed to you. It’s in here with the crown."

He handed over a quite heavily laden bag – a thin plastic bag from the Co-op which no doubt symbolised the Parrys’ opinion of the whole business. His obviously unpalatable duty done, he disappeared back into the throng.

I couldn’t have spoken a word to anyone, so I turned and went out. With misted eyes I stumbled along the alley which skirts the churchyard, and up onto the rocky knoll beyond. It looks across the valley to the Moelwyn, down the valley to the estuary, and into the cemetery below where they’d nearly finished filling in the grave. I sat on the rickety bench and opened the bag, blinking enough tears away to see.

Inside was the crown, and with it was a large envelope which contained five items.

The first was an old unframed studio photograph, head and shoulders, of a teenager. Striking, and recognisably the Prof. The hair was black, the eyebrows were already heavy, the eyes held that unmistakable twinkle of penetrating amusement. I turned it over. On the back was written ‘Wil Davies, 1935, yn 15 oed’ – aged fifteen.

And there was the typescript of the poem which had won him the crown. It was entitled Y Cyfeiliorn, which can mean the quandary, or the perversion, or the heresy, as you choose. It started by adapting a pennill, a folk song:

Mae dwy galon yn fy mynwes,
Un yn oer a’r lall yn gynnes;
Un yn gynnes am dy garu,
A’r llall yn oer rhag ofn dy golli.

‘There are two hearts in my breast. One is cold and the other warm. One is warm through love of you, the other cold for fear of losing you.’ Later, with the help of a dictionary, I worked out the rest. A man was telling of his love, which was frowned on by all except the two most closely concerned. It was addressed, on the face of it, to a girl. If one had the clue and read between the lines, it was addressed to a boy.

And there was the framed photograph which I’d briefly seen before it disappeared from the Prof’s mantlepiece. It was of another boy of about fifteen, but rather more recent – his hairstyle, tie and jacket smacked of the 1940s. And his face had rung a bell, I now realised, because he looked quite remarkably like me. It was signed, in young writing, ‘Wil, from Tom, with love.’ The hairs rose on my neck.

And there was a large book bound in soft red leather, a sumptuous edition of the Rubaiyat illustrated with sensuous Preraphaelite-style paintings. The inscription on the flyleaf read, in the same youthful hand:

Wil, from Tom.
Ah, my beloved, fill the cup that clears
Today of past regrets and future fears.
Christmas 1945

My flesh crawled.

Finally, there was a letter to me, from the Prof.

My dear Tom, my second Tom,

You cannot know what joy you have revived in an old heart. Remember me, if you can.
And remember that sooner or later a new and better love will come your way. It will be
easy to recognise. Go out into the world, Tom, in search of it. Go in search of what we
are not allowed to call your destiny. Go with my thanks, and my blessing, and my love.

Your Wil

8th August 2002

There was nothing else. If there had been, I could not have seen it for tears. The jigsaw was beginning to fall into place. The first Tom had died, and on the same day the second Tom – me – was conceived. Coincidence, surely. It could only be coincidence. The name was common enough. But the Prof had seen me as his first love’s double, as his second Tom, and had loved me too. That was what bowled me over. I had known full well that he liked me. I had thought that he loved me almost as a son. I’d had no idea that his love was of the other kind, the love of a lover. He had not shown it, in word or deed. But this bequest of mementoes of the first Tom could mean nothing else. And, he had said, "Love lies beyond the tomb."

I couldn’t confront it rationally, not yet. I simply sat, gazing unseeingly at the eternal mountains, noting subconsciously a flight of starlings, glancing at the raw earth which now filled the grave, sensing the warmth of his love washing over me. Once back in the shelter of home I’d give way to floods of tears. No matter there. Mum and Dad would assume, with every reason, that I was merely moved by the funeral. Even if I were capable of speech, I couldn’t tell them the whole truth. They wouldn’t understand. Or, if they did, they wouldn’t approve. I loved them dearly, and they loved me, but there were some things they could not be allowed to know. Not yet. Not for quite a time to come. The crown would sit openly on my desk as a gift from my friend; a surprising gift but, shorn of its background, in no way offensive. The rest of the treasures could easily disappear from sight in the jumble that was my bookshelf.

I don’t know how long I sat there before I felt enough under control to catch the bus back. I got off opposite the Co-op. No more shopping for the Prof, I thought inconsequentially, and tears began to trickle. But the stresses of the day were not yet over.

Standing outside Ty Capel was a removal van. Isaac came out of the house, spotted me fifty yards away, and shouted along the street, "Tom! Tom! We’re leaving! Now! Tad’s needed in Ceredigion earlier than expected. We only heard a week ago, and I haven’t set eyes on you since. We’re almost ready to go." We were closer now. He saw the tears on my cheeks and misinterpreted them. "Hey, it’s not that bad. I know I’ll miss you too. I’ve enjoyed being with you, Tom, watching the birds, talking about them, even if we haven’t agreed on … much else. I don’t suppose we’ll see each other again. But we can still write. I’ll send you our new address."

He held out his hand. I was ready now to let him go, but I couldn’t let him go like that. Not him. Not my first, inaccessible, love. To his astonishment and embarrassment, I took him by the shoulders and kissed him on the lips. He was tall and vibrant and very much alive. Not small and shrivelled and dead, like the Prof. But I could only give him the same message. "Bye, Isaac. Thanks. My love. And good luck. If you need it where you’re going." As he stood staring after me, I turned and went home, without looking back, clutching my precious bag.

Neither Mum nor Dad was yet in from work. From the haven of my room I glanced out of both the windows. Behind, a faint half-moon was rising above Carreg Ddu. In front, the Evans family was climbing into its ancient Cortina, and the removal van was already rolling away past the scruffy flower beds of the square. I opened the red-bound Rubaiyat at random.

Yon rising moon that looks for us again –
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same garden – and for one in vain!

Today I had said a last farewell to two friends. One was young Calvin, lovely in body but incompatible in mind. Well-meaning but self-interested and self-righteous, imprisoned by his holier-than-thou dogma, incapable of giving love outside its walls. The future bore that out: he never even sent his address, and memory soon grew dim.

The other friend, however decrepit in body, had been lovely in mind – I did not dare say, in soul. Wise old Omar, free-thinking and tolerant and generous in his love. No, it was not Calvin who would be missing from my garden. It was Omar himself, the Prof. To him I would have written, every day, could mail have reached him. His memory stayed green.




And now, against all hope, he is more than mere memory. He is back beside me once again, in the flesh.

He had foretold that I would find a new love, a love better than Isaac, a love easily recognised. For sixteen forlorn and lonely years I searched, and failed, and almost despaired. But now at last, in this year of grace 2018, his prophecy has been fulfilled. I have found that better love, out of the blue, in a form beyond all expectation.

He did prove easy to recognise. Small build, black hair, eyebrows already heavy, eyes holding that unmistakable twinkle of penetrating amusement. The spitting image of the Prof at fifteen. And, yes, inquisitive and intelligent, lovable and loving. We matched.

He was conceived – he asked his parents, and they could pin it down – on the ninth of August 2002, the very day the Prof had died. His name is also William. Wil the second, now united – should I say reunited? – to Tom the second.

Coincidence? Once, possibly. Twice, no way.

Reincarnation, then? The transmigration of two souls? Formerly, I would have laughed at the thought. No, I would have answered, that’s not possible either. How can it be possible, if we don’t have souls?

But that premise is wrong, after all. We do have souls. I know it, now.

The Prof had known it, long years before I did. He had known it from the moment he first set eyes on me. "Clouds of glory!" he had exclaimed. He had known it, then.

I had not known it, not until I first set eyes on my Wil. But in that moment I learned, for myself, that love can lie beyond the tomb. I knew it, then. I know it, now.



Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.

William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality