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"She's not coming back, Steve."
"Don't be silly, dad. Of course she's coming back." My eyes were on the floor, though. I didn't dare look at them. Something in his voice told me there was something dreadful wrong.
"Stephen, look at me. Please?"
I didn't want to, but I did look at him. All fourteen years of me I looked at him. In the eyes. I saw those eyes, then. They looked a long way away, and very, very tired. "She's only gone to Aunt Mary's. Just for the week. She'll be back, dad."
He took both my hands, one in each of his. "I know you love mum very much, Steve, and so do I. But she isn't coming back. She told me."
"She can't have?" An indignant question. In my heart I'd known something was wrong for a long time. Maybe for years. The sudden silences when I'd come into the room. I'd thought it was my fault at first. But they'd each told me carefully and separately that it wasn't. And I'd known it wasn't, but I'd still felt in a way that it was.
"She's going to stay with Mary for a while, and then mum wants a divorce."
"It's my fault... " I couldn't hold it back. The dam broke, and I started to feel tears heading for my eyes and sobs for my voice. "My fault... "
"Not your fault, no. Mine. Hers. Not yours."
"It's because of me. Has to be." He didn't know, you see. Dad didn't know. Mum knew. Dad didn't. She'd left because of me. I was crying, pulling back from him. He was holding tight, not knowing. And, not knowing, he couldn't know what to do, or how to do it.
"Stephen?" He was having trouble himself. I knew he'd be having trouble himself. It was my fault and my parents were breaking up because of me. Mine. He was still trying to hold my hands. I was still trying to break his grip, half wanting to run, half wanting him to hold tight and pull me to him, to hold me, to cuddle me, to tell me I was his sweet little baby boy and everything was going to be all right. "Stephen?" I could see him fighting to stay on top of his own tears. I couldn't tell him. Not now. "Stephen, it isn't your fault. You haven't done anything."
"It's because of me. It has to be." I was managing to get short words out between sobs. Mum was half of everything in my world. Dad was the other half. And I'd just lost half. I tried very hard to pull away, praying he'd hang on, praying I couldn't break his grasp. It wasn't a strong grasp, it was just enough for me not to want to break it.
"How? How can it be because of you? I don't understand? It's because she and I can't get along, Stephen, not because of you."
"Is!" God, I'd be stamping my foot next.
"Perhaps you'd better tell me what's on your mind."
"I don't think I can, dad. Because it was telling mum that made her go away."
"At least sit quiet, then. Please?" His face showed that he didn't know what to do. I couldn't hit him with a second blow in the same day. I just couldn't. But mum had gone. "Steve, mum still loves you. She asked me to tell you very particularly that she still loves you. It's me she's stopped loving, not you."
I was still crying. Fourteen years old and blubbing like a baby. I sat. We were upstairs, in their room. His room. Dad's room. I sat on the edge of the bed. He sat too, at the foot. We were sort of half back to back. I didn't know what to do. I needed his love, his approval, but he was having his own troubles. But I was the kid, and he was the adult. And boys need their dads. They need their mums too. And mine wasn't coming back. "I can't tell you. I just can't."
"No need. I mean it. If you can't, then you can't." he paused. Deep in thought, or maybe just quiet. I was getting control of my sobs. A bit easier to breathe. "Do you want to go and call mum? At Mary's, I mean? In private?"
Half. I half wanted to. Half of me said that she was gone. Fine for the big things because she'd not be around to see what happened. I thought she'd loved me, and she'd just gone. Gone. Not fair. "No... " I was gathering my wits. "No. If she's gone, then she's gone." I was half thinking aloud. "Dad?" I got a gentle grunt for an answer. "It's just... I just... Oh shit."
"Go on?" His voice was gentle. "I love you, and you can't change that. Just go on. When you're ready."
"I told mum something."
I'd expected a word or two in reply. Instead dad was silent. As the silence extended I found it was too loud, and I had to speak.
"Before she went. I told her something and that's why she left."
I was still expecting him to speak. Instead he reached back an put his hand on my knee. Just a squeeze, and then took it away. The silence lengthened to become deafening.
"It was at half term. And she couldn't stand living with me any more. Even though she said it was all right, I know she left because of it." I took a deep breath. "Dad, you won't go away when I tell you? Will you?"
"I told you. I love you. Unless you want to go and live somewhere else, nothing, nothing will make me go away. Only I can only prove it by not going."
"I'm gay." I said it very quietly. Half a whisper. I almost ducked as I said it.
"And that's big enough to make me run from you, is it?" He wasn't asking in a joky way, nor a serious way. It was gentle. A question I hardly heard, but enough to draw me out.
"It made mum go."
"Well, I don't think that's true. In fact I know it isn't true. Steve, I don't want to tell you why she left. Even after your telling me something as big as being gay, I'm not ready to tell you yet. But your being gay is fine by me. Really."
"You don't mind that I'm gay?" I had my head in my hands, elbows on my knees, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Mum started giving me lots of advice, and looked a bit horrified. Are you horrified, dad?" I felt all trembly inside. Scared to death, but trusting him totally.
"Let's see. 'Mind.' That's an odd word. No, I don't 'mind'. I'm concerned for you, to make sure that you'll be happy, to know that you're sure that you're gay, that kind of stuff."
"Not happy. I hate it."
I did. I told him. I told him about Martin Thomas at school. About Martin Thomas and how I loved him. About Martin Thomas and how I loved him and how I'd dared to tell him that I loved him. And about how Martin was wonderful and beautiful and horrible and a total sod, and how he'd told the whole school I was a queer. And how I hated it. And how I didn't even know what being gay was, not really, but that none of the girls were attractive, and how none of them would want me now anyway. I told him the lot. About how being gay was the worst thing in the world. And how I'd told mum all this stuff, and how it hadn't helped. Well, it had in a way, but she'd gone now."
"She didn't tell me, you know."
"I'd asked her not to." I carried on to tell him when this had all happened, that it had been last term, the winter term, and how I'd been teased, and how people kept away from me in the changing rooms, and how Martin fucking Thomas had made them call me names. And how I hated myself. It was a long time before I finished telling him, and I told him some parts several times. I found we were lying side by side and he was stroking my hair. And telling me that it was horrible to be teased so badly, and how he didn't like that at all. I think we were talking, well I was talking, for an hour, more than an hour. And as time passed I did start to feel better. "Dad?"
"I was wondering. I mean could I change school? So no-one knows. So I can start again?"
"We may have to. I can't afford this house any more." It was a big house. Nothing very special, but big. We hadn't been in any of our houses long, so none were really what you'd call home, except they were, because we lived there. But moving didn't seem to matter. "Does moving school mean that much to you?"
"I still love him, dad. I hate him for the way he's treating me, but I can't stand seeing him each day. It hurts." It hurt horribly. I really didn't mind if I never saw Martin again, because seeing him just hurt, and hurt and hurt. And worse he enjoyed hurting me..
Sometimes things move fast when you want them to. Sometimes they drag. This was both of those times. The house went on the market the next day, and dad had some professional cleaners in to make it look spotless. Which meant my PlayStation stuff had to be put away, and I had to keep my room tidy. But we got a good offer, and dad accepted it. He wrote to mum to tell her what he was doing. She had to know. She was getting half the house. I visited her, too, at Aunt Mary's. Dad'd been right. It wasn't because of me she'd left. It wouldn't be until years later I found out the real reason, the reason she never moved from Aunt Mary's. Not that Mary was a real aunt. She was just a very good friend of mum and dad's, so I called her Aunt Mary. It'd been Auntie Mary when I was smaller, but now I was grown up the word auntie seemed babyish, so she was Aunt Mary. All those years later I wondered if it was hereditary. I also wondered how dad had been able to cope with hearing that his son was gay at the same time as hearing that his wife was leaving him for another woman.
We chose a new place to live. It was pretty special, and the removal men were a bit specialised. When I was younger we'd often gone to Kingston to watch the boats on the river at the weekend. We used to park the car by the waterside on the south bank, well downstream of the town centre, opposite Tamesis Sailing Club, where the road runs right alongside the water, and if you drive carelessly you can be waterborne. Sometimes we'd go around Easter time when there was an Easter regatta at the sailing club, so lots of boats were out, and also the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race came past. And I'd always loved the idea of taking part in the Devizes-Westminster race. No idea why, but it seemed so tough and so out of reach that I just wanted to do it. Of course I was hindered by two things. I had no canoe, and no partner. It's a two person race. Two man sprint kayaks. We often saw people paddling those from the Royal Canoe Club on the little island just downstream of Tamesis.
I couldn't believe it when dad showed me the house he wanted to buy.
It was very small. Living room, two real bedrooms and a boxroom, kitchen, bathroom, and that was it. Not a large garden either, and a bungalow. But it was the location! It was halfway down the island that the Royal Canoe Club was on, and facing the river, with a green lawn, and a sort of landing stage at the water's edge. It was tatty, too, the bungalow. Needed a load of work to be done, so dad got it at a very good price.
"Do you like it, Steve?"
"Like it? It's wonderful!" I did, I loved it. "Can I get a boat?"
"All in good time! We have to move in first."
"Can I join the canoe club?"
"If they'll have you, yes."
"Where do I go to school?"
"We'll sort that out after we move in."
"When do we move in?"
"Two days after the end of term."
All of which sounded good to me. Very good. Only five more weeks of being teased. And I found I wasn't in love with Martin any more, too. I wondered if I was gay still. I asked dad.
"Time will tell," he said. It only matters if you make it matter."
Moving day was fun. The big things went by boat, and were craned onto the island. The little things by handcart across the chain ferry to the island and down the walkways between the houses. We only dropped one chair into the Thames. Luckily a kitchen one, an old one. And of course we got it back. And then we were in!
Better than that, we had neighbours. Not like our last house where we just had people who lived next door, on the island we had neighbours. It was a community, almost a village. Lots of different people lived there, some with kids, some retired, and at least one artist. Right near the downstream end was a young gay couple, too. I know it sounds weird, but that made me feel uncomfy, a little. The only person I'd ever thought of as gay was me, really, and seeing other gay men, especially men, somehow, was odd. It made me feel no longer alone, but at the same time was a bit intimidating, and I really don't know why I felt like that.
We spent ages getting things just right. And some of the stuff just didn't fit, so we set aside a pile for a car boot sale. "You can buy your canoe from the proceeds, if you like," dad said. "Oh we're going to have an open house thing on Saturday, to get to know everyone." He was like a big kid. He'd told me that he'd always wanted to live on an island in the river, ever since he read The Wind in The Willows. "I'm sorry we can't have a holiday this year," he'd said before we moved in. I kind of hope the summer and the river and stuff will be enough for you. We're a bit strapped for cash for a while. I bust a gut to get this place."
"I'll be all right, dad," I'd told him then. Now we were here I was sure I would be, too. I was good at making friends. I was hoping that some kids my age would come on Saturday to the 'not party' we were going to have. He got me to design invites on the computer. They said 'Jim and Steve Harrap are holding open house on Saturday. The barbecue will be lit at five o'clock, and we've got loads bread and salad. Bring what you'd like to cook and like to drink and join us any time until as late as you like.' "Can we really ask the to bring their own food, dad?"
"Don't see why not. They want to get a look at us, and you've heard of a 'bring a bottle' party? Well this is a 'bring a bottle and a burger party'! Anyway, I can't feed the whole island!"
And on Saturday dad lit the barbecue at five o'clock, and the smoke drifted lazily on the breeze, filled with paraffin fumes from the firelighter. And they came! It was a lovely day, had been very sunny, and the river was still filled with pleasure boats, trip boats, rented rowing boats, the lot. And our little garden and bungalow soon filled with people. Happy people, nosy people, people who just came to see whether we were human or not, people who were genuinely friendly and had come to wish us welcome to the community. No need for music, there was all talk, laughter and happiness. And there were kids my age, too. One family with a son and daughter, and a few others as well. I think we had almost the entire island there. Giles and Nick, the couple from the downstream end were there, and a few people made mild 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink' comments about them. And they didn't mind at all! Gave as good as they got. I wondered about whether I dared to talk to them, to ask them what it meant to be gay. I mean it looked pretty much normal, except that it was unusual to see two men holding hands and looking into each others' eyes. I realised that was what I'd wanted to do with Martin bloody Thomas. And I was very clear that I didn't now. Not with him. Bastard.
Only there wasn't anyone else I wanted to do it with either.
The evening was great fun, though. I like people. I mean all people. I think I'm good at people. The only person who had ever made me shy was Martin, and that was only afterwards. Before I told him I was totally confident. Afterwards I wished I'd been shy. "Martin," I'd said, "I love you." Simple stuff. I'd been reading stories on the net. Every story went well, every last one. Each time a boy told another boy that he loved him, each time he dared, each time he was very brave, it went well, and they ended up in bed together, and were lovers for ever.
When I'd told Martin he said "You're queer! A poof, a fucking poof. No way!" And then he'd done worse. Far worse. Told everyone he possibly could, and made me feel like a total shit. It didn't go like the stories. It all turned to shit. My life turned to shit. And then mum had gone. And I was so scared to tell dad. But it hadn't mattered, not in the end. And I had a new life and a new school where no-one knew me. No-one could possibly know me. We'd moved far enough for that. Our old home was in Leatherhead, on the Dorking side. Now we lived on the far side of Kingston in the middle of the Thames. And I was going to go to school in Teddington. And we had all these new friends, and even if mum wasn't living with us it was fine, and she hadn't left because of me at all.
"We'll clear up tomorrow," dad said when the last guest had gone. "Did you enjoy yourself?"
"Was good," I told him. Then I knew I had to thank him. "Dad, I love you."
"What's that all about?"
"You've given me another chance, dad. Let me get away from my past, made sure it doesn't matter that I'm gay, shown me that mum didn't leave because of me. And we've got this great new home. It's going to be a great summer. And I love you."
He ruffled my hair. Short light brown hair, that I like to wear spiked at the front with gel. "You'd have done the same, Steve. I'm just a dad. Just your dad. And I love you, too."
"I spent a while chatting to Nick and Giles. They're nice."
"They are," dad said. "They've been together for about four years. Nice boys."
"Boys?" they seemed old to me, too old to be boys.
"They're only in their twenties! Anyway that makes them boys to me. I like them a lot."
I went to bed really happy. In the morning I was happier still. Dad woke me. "I've got a surprise for you. On the lawn."
And there was a surprise all right. A brand new sprint K1 and a set of asymmetric sprint blades. "Dad! You said the car boot sale! And it's Sunday! How did you manage?"
"I managed," he said. "This thing looks so unstable! Listen if it's wrong we can exchange it, they said so. But I went to the club and asked about what you'd need, and I asked a lot of advice. Everyone said that this one is pretty hard for a beginner, but worth it, because it's fast, too. Start without the seat in, everyone says, so you sit lower, get an easier balance."
I put my arms around him. "I love you. Thank you. It must've cost a fortune."
"Well, I'll get some back from the car boot sale! Now look, I reckon you need lessons. I know you can paddle a slalom canoe, but I think this is a bit different."
"I'll see if I can get the hang of it first, I think."
"After breakfast, then. The stream's not running too fast, but I reckon you need to stay near the island. And wear your buoyancy jacket. I know no-one seems to in these, I've seen them paddling past at full speed, but you don't know how to stay upright in this one yet."
I hadn't found out how deep the water was at the island edge. Don't know why not, but I hadn't. I checked. It was deeper than I could stand in. "I think I'll take the dinghy and tow it over to the other bank. It's shallow there. I can stand and empty the boat each time I fall out if I tow it over there. Can't do that here. I need to stand up to empty it. I'm going to fall out a lot." I knew that. I'd learnt to paddle a slalom boat with the school. They took us for afternoons sometimes to a sailing and canoeing school, and they'd had a sprint boat there. I'd fallen out of it a lot! But I'd been determined to conquer it. Except I hadn't. Now I could learn how to paddle my own. "I'm going to get very wet!" I was grinning from ear to ear.
"Go and get on with it. Only have breakfast first. And make sure you're safe!" Dad's grin was as wide as mine.
After breakfast I got changed into trunks, shorts and shirt, got my buoyancy jacket, and went and got the canoe sorted out. I knew what I was in for, so I took the seat out, and I reached deep inside and adjusted the footrest. Then I made sure that the foot tiller worked and was properly connected to the rudder. Sorting out how to row the dinghy over and get the canoe over at the same time. I chose to put one boat on top of the other, the use the sculling notch on the dinghy's stern and scull over with a single oar. Even so it wasn't easy, but I managed it, and got to the other side complete. Then the fun started.
Canoe on the water, arse in the canoe, me in the water, water in the canoe, water out of the canoe, canoe on the water, arse in the canoe, me in the water. This thing was so unstable that I was getting close to screaming pitch and feeling very foolish within the first fifteen minutes. The water was cool, but not too bad, and the effort I was making was keeping me warm.
Half an hour and I needed a serious rest. I'd made some progress, though. The best I'd managed was four complete strokes, each side that is, before plipping in. They hadn't been great strokes. Each one had been wobbly as hell, but it felt good. It was overconfidence that got me. 'This is good' I thought. Plip! Straight in. but I was winning. Just. After I hauled everything to the bank and emptied the boat I pulled it out into the bank and sat down for a while. It wasn't planning exactly, but I tried to psych myself up to be able to paddle this thing. If I was going to get accepted for the club, and dammit I was opposite the club, I wasn't going to look a total dork when I arrived.
Ten minutes in the sun and I started again. Luckily I was fit, because this was tiring. I'd worked out that actually paddling the boat was less tiring than emptying it, and I was determined to paddle it, first a way upstream, and then back to the dinghy. I had about fifty yards in mind. After another hour I made the first fifty. The turn did for me. Plip! Maybe I'd turned too sharply. But another half hour later and I'd made it. Upstream, tight circle with support strokes to turn, and close to the bank back. I was getting to the point when I was nearly almost able to paddle the thing and predict when I was going to fall out. I always fell out just too soon, though.
I had something in mind. Across the river, turn and back. Somehow the lack of bank in the middle made it seem harder. It wasn't harder. The river's only about fifty yards wide there. Well, more, but the straight line part wasn't too much of a problem. Probably! So I set off. Like riding a bike without stabilisers. Pulled away from the bank, grew in confidence. Relaxed to balance the boat better, and put firm pressure in the paddle. And it started to fly. I mean really fly! I got a taste of what it would be like once I could paddle it properly. The current took me a little way downstream. I was looking forward, not down. And I was doing well. In front of me, dead in front I could see something. Something blue and grey and brown.
He had a trampoline and he was bouncing up and down on it. Loose blue shirt, baggy grey trousers, bare calves, bare feet, tanned bare calves, brown hair, and as I got closer the cutest face you ever saw. Gorgeous. Bouncing. Somersaulting, bouncing high, almost doing it for me. He was so beautiful. About my age, I thought. And living in the same island. And he hadn't come to the party. And then he was suddenly invisible.
But he was there when I got my head above the water. Still bouncing. Only I swear he was grinning at me as I tried to work out where the nearest bit of solid ground was to empty the boat.
"I bet you didn't mean to do that."
I looked up. He was sitting on the edge of his garden, feet trailing in the water. And he was talking to me. I'd ended up not very far away at all., maybe ten yards. "I didn't. I think I've got to swim it back to the other bank."
"Give you a hand if you like?"
"Look, we've got a bit of a slipway. Water's too deep to stand here, but I reckon we can empty it together."
"Let's try?" 'Oh please let's try, and please keep talking to me, you're so beautiful. You're smiling at me. Where have you been all my life?' My brain was working overtime.
We tried. We managed. Even without scratching the boat we managed. "I'm Sam."
"I'm Steve. We moved in the other day."
"I know. I saw you."
It seems so natural chatting. I had to keep the fact of my being gay to myself. Had to. I wanted him as a friend. More? That would be too much to ask. Just as a friend, this wonderful smiley athletic boy with the brown hair and tanned calves. "You didn't come last night? To our place I mean!" I added that just too quickly. Double meaning. Damn. I blushed.
"I know what you mean. No, we were out. I wanted to come. Been a while without someone to talk to round here." He saw I was shivering. It wasn't from the cold, it was from being bathed in the light of his eyes. "You're cold?"
"Not really. Just shivering."
"You must be shattered. I was watching you trying to get the better of that boat."
"I'm going to beat it. I can manage a slalom boat, but I never fancied white water. I want to get good at this, and then find a partner and do the D-W."
"You want to paddle all the way from Devizes to Westminster?"
"With a good mate, yes. I want to be good enough to do the next one."
"Mad bastard! Hey, want a go on the tramp?"
"I'm knackered! Yes, please!" I wasn't going to look a dork in front of Sam. I did, though. After watching his practiced ease I could just bounce.
"It's ok, I'll teach you if you like."
"I would, yes please. Er, but I have to get my dinghy."
"Hmm. You look knackered, and it isn't easy to get into a canoe from here."
"I was worried about that. I'm totally exhausted. I don't think I can do it."
"I'll get it if I can use your boat."
"Can you paddle one?"
I watched. Boat on the water, same into the boat, draw stroke away from the bank, and firm strokes straight across the river. Oh he could paddle one. He was like a Greek god. I was in love. I couldn't believe the other end. He untied the dinghy while sitting in the canoe, and took hold of the painter in his teeth. Then he paddled back towing the dinghy still gripping the painter in his teeth.
"How long did it take you to learn to paddle like that?"
"Dunno! I've been in and out of these things all my life!"
"Can you teach me, Sam? Please?"
"You're not doing badly yourself, you know!"
"You're on." His smile was so wonderful. I was trying so hard not to fall into his eyes. All that morning I hadn't drowned in the Thames, but I was in great danger of drowning in his eyes. "Want a drink? If you haven't had enough river water, that is!"
If he'd offered me a glass of sand I'd have said yes, just to be with him. We chatted and drank and drank and chatted. Sam and I were the same age. He was born the same month that I was. He'd lived on the island all his life, and spent all summer every summer mucking about in the river. Oh, and he was a member of The Royal, and he was going to propose me for membership.
My heart was pounding almost all the time I was with him. Martin Thomas be damned. That hadn't felt like this. This was different. Heart stoppingly different. Gigglingly different. I spent a lot of time in giggles. And I spent a lot of time looking at Sam. Looking, well, stealing glances, at his face. Hard to describe, easy to fall for. Almost symmetrical, long, firm chin, straight nose, long eye lashes, chestnut eyes, soft eyebrows, rosy cheeks. But that doesn't describe his beauty. That describes his face. Something shone from within to make his face beautiful, awesomely beautiful. Gentle, masculine, yet fragile at the same time. Vulnerable yet strong. He looked proud, yet as a total contradiction somehow unsure of himself at times.
And mostly I looked at his feet, well his legs, too. Looking at the bare tanned calves, seeing them go to his ankles and then to his perfect feet, tanned except sandal strap marks, long clipped toenails, neat toes, the second slightly longer than the big toe, neat feet, somehow feet I wanted to kiss. I'd never wanted to kiss feet before, and I wanted to kiss his! Weird. I hardly knew Sam and I wanted to kiss his feet.
"I'd better tell dad I'm ok. He'll worry if he can't see me." The I had a thought. "It's lunchtime. Want to come and take pot luck? It'll be sandwiches and crisps and stuff."
"My mum will have cooked. Look, leave your boat here, go back in the dinghy so your dad's got it, and meet me here after lunch. Like two-ish? I'd love to have lunch with you, but I can't today. And there won't be enough here to invite you."
"Two? Sounds good to me." I got into the dinghy, and rowed it this time, back to our place.
"Where's the canoe?"
"Up at Sam's place, dad." I had a silly grin on my face.
"He lives a bit further upstream and he's got a trampoline and he can paddle like a demon, and he's going to teach me to paddle properly... " I was babbling.
"Is he that nice?"
I hadn't expected that. I blushed. Felt suddenly ashamed. Then decided not to be ashamed. "Yes, dad. Yes he is. I like him a lot."
"I don't suppose you need me to remind you that he may treat you badly if he finds out you're gay?"
"He might not." I said it almost petulantly.
"I hope he doesn't. I really hope he doesn't. Only, well, don't get your hopes too high, eh?"
I know he didn't mean to bring me to earth with a bump. But I needed to hear it. I think I did anyway. "Dad?" I paused, not knowing what to say. "Dad?"
"Ham or cheese?"
"Sorry, what? And take a sandwich."
"It's just that, well, oh heck. Dad I think I've fallen in love with him." No answer. "With Sam," I added as unnecessary confirmation. I half expected a lecture about being too young.
"When I was your age," dad said, "there was a record that really pissed me off by a group that really pissed me off. 'Puppy love', it was called, by a band of white toothed boys called the Osmonds. Unless it was just Donny. Used to get right up my nose. Puppy love."
"What d'you mean?"
"Well, I was in love with a girl when I was your age, and my parents kept teasing me about it. They kept calling it puppy love. And every time they played the tune on the radio, or on Top of the Pops, my father teased me about it. So I am so not going to do anything to make you upset over this, Steve."
I had tears in my eyes. My dad was wonderful. "It feels good, dad. Only... "
"Only what if he doesn't want you? Or isn't gay? Or doesn't like you?"
"Yes, all of that. No, he likes me. I know he likes me. Just the other stuff."
"You can't make him gay, and you can't make him want you. You just need all the luck in the world. I am concerned that you're young, not to put you off. Just to make sure you don't get hurt."
"I suppose. This feels so strange, dad."
"I can imagine. Steve, just be his friend."
"I only really want to be his friend. Only, well I love him."
"Just play it cool."
"You mean you think I have a chance?" I was level headed enough to tease dad a bit, too. I knew he would be expecting that as an answer, well as a question.
"Idiot!" He was smiling, using his 'reserved for totally exasperating sons' voice. Dad could always get the better of me in the teasing stakes. "You know what I mean. Er, you do know what I mean, don't you?"
"Yep. I'd already decided. I want him as my friend. It's so unlikely that he's gay. I wish I weren't. I just want a friend and I've fallen for him. I don't want to love him. I want someone as just a mate. I'm going to try so hard to, well, not to. Oh heck I don't know what I'm not going to do, only I'm not going to do it."
"Don't try that too hard either, Steve. Trying hard looks obvious, odd. Just let yourself be a kid. Heck I don't know how to help you sort this out, but I'm here for you, ok?"
"Thanks." It was getting towards two. Time seemed to have passed more quickly that what I thought had been a short conversation. "I'm meeting him after lunch. Two-ish, he said."
"Twit. It's only a quarter to. Go and take a cold shower! No, better than that, go and fill out the forms to join the canoe club. That should take you a while."
It did. It was five past when I finished. I wanted to run, but I walked up between the bungalows to Sam's. I didn't take the dinghy, I figured we could always get it later if we needed it. He was waiting for me. Wow! Sam was waiting for me. My heart did a stupid jump until I got it under control. "What kept you?" He asked. "I was finished ages ago!"
"Hey, it's only ten past!" I had to be imagining this. I felt his beautiful eyes meet mine, hit mine, lock on mine and into my soul. I saw, imagined I saw his mouth smile a delicious smile at me.
"I've been looking at your boat. I think we need the seat."
"I can't sit it upright properly without yet!" I didn't think I could do it at all with the seat.
"Well, let's get it anyway. The whole technique's the same, but you learn better with the right things in place. You can sit it well enough without now."
I managed the home-and-back bit in no seconds flat. Nervous, sure, but confident I was going to be able to do it. "Got it," I said, unnecessarily.
"Right. First we'll get you launched, and paddling over to the far bank. Then I'll get me and your seat over there too. And then I'm going to teach you how to paddle!" He smiled at me. "And Steve, how d'you fancy the D-W with me next year?"
"You mean it?"
"I mean it."
"Yes. Yes, please." I had a friend. I had a friend. I had a friend! I nearly hugged him for joy. Only I didn't, because I didn't dare.
"I might not be good enough!"
"Or we might win!"
"Yep!" He looked really happy. I felt really happy. I had a friend! "But right now let's sort out you and getting you afloat and safe."
On the lawn were two boats. His and mine. First he parked my seat in his cockpit, then we put my boat on the water, and he braced it while I got in. A bit unsteadily I drew away from the bank, more support stroke than draw stroke, and then set off surprisingly confidently for the far bank, the shallow one. Sam had overtaken me by the time I got sorted out, but I got there still upright. I was amazed that I'd made it. I heard "Keep going, turn upstream," from Sam in front of me, and I managed the turn, gently, and headed upstream next to the bank.
He paddled alongside mw with very easy strokes compared to my more hesitant ones. Encourage me to make the strokes longer, more finished as the blade left the water, and we got another hundred yards or so upstream, well upstream of Tamesis on the other side, and nearly at the grassy bit he'd told me on the way that we were aiming for. I had to stop when we got there. It wasn't that my arms were tired, it was my nerves. I needed to finish without plipping into the river. That was easier said than done, mind you. I pulled alongside the bank, but a paddle's length and a half away. Unfair. Plip!
"You were doing so well," Sam smiled at me after he'd got out of his, totally dry, and had come to help me empty mine. "I think you're a natural at this. You know how to relax already."
I found the words 'must be the company' rushing towards my lips, and I only just managed to stop them forcing their way out. "Thanks," was the word that made it. I couldn't afford, to spoil anything by even hinting what I was feeling for him. So beautiful, and just in swim trunks. So confident that he had no buoyancy gear. Just bare torso, bare legs, and old fashioned plimsolls in his feet in case of broken glass on the river bed. And what a sight he was. The only way to describe him was taut. No, that doesn't do the job, than implies wiry, and he isn't wiry. It's half way between taut and lithe. The sun was catching the down of light hairs on his legs and arms, and glinting in it. The few splashes of water on him changed from olive green grey Thames to pure crystal where they lay on his skin. His eyes, brownest brown, were shining in the sun, almost reflecting the sunlight back with the same power that it shone in the sky, and his skin was tanned and like bronze cream all at the same time. He looked awesome under the clear blue sky, standing up to his knees in the river, reflections of sunshine in the ripples playing on his legs. I didn't dare let my eyes linger too long, but I wanted this vision imprinted, etched on my retina for ever. "Nearly made it," I grinned at him, wondering what else to say "It's the furthest I've got so far."
"I know, I was watching you all morning," he said as he lowered his end of the boat and let a load of water pour out of the cockpit. "You're a pretty determined guy. Most people would have given up and bought a gin palace after only half a morning like that. I was impressed."
I blushed. There wasn't any avoiding it. I blushed. "Well, I just want to master this," I said. "Truth is I like canoes, but white water scares me shitless, so it's a sprint boat or nothing." It seemed a daft thing to say, but it was true. I'd had a nasty experience in Hampton Court weir, and it'd put me right off. I suppose I'd lost confidence.
"It's time to put the seat in."
"Ah." I wasn't looking forward to that.
"Well, it has to happen sooner or later. And sooner's better than later. Anyway you'll hardly notice it."
"Yeah, right." We got the boat onto the grass and he got the seat from his cockpit and put it into place.
"Sit in a sec. We may need to adjust the footrest." We did I got out.
Then I found both of us reaching inside to get at the footrest, at first all unknowing, then suddenly conscious that our forearms were touching, our shoulders were touching, our hands all that way deep inside the boat were touching. I wish he'd felt the same electricity as I did when I flinched and pulled away. It was a simple reaction. I didn't dare let Sam think that I was enjoying touching his skin. He didn't seem to notice. I was relieved. Anyway we got the boat right, and I sat in, nervously. "Unstable."
"Relax, you clown. You can do it." I wobbled. "Relax. Slump a little, you'll soon get used to it"
"Oops! Well I suppose it's the same as this morning!"
"Rotten sod." I was Thames soaked again. And then again, and again, and again. And again. Just like the morning. But even though I was getting more knackered, it was getting easier. I was aware suddenly that I hadn't fallen out for a while, and that there was a voice alongside me.
"Now that," Sam said, "is much better. How d'you feel about sitting more upright but still relaxed?"
"Dunno." But I tried, and the strokes became more natural. "Wow!" I might be able to do this!"
"You're pretty amazing you know. Takes most people ages to get this far."
"Don't put me off!" I was glowing inside.
"Race you back once we turn round?"
"Maybe." But I was up for it.
"Want a few strokes start?"
We went. He leapt ahead, but I wasn't going to be beaten, so I piled on the power. And kept it on! I was flying! The boat was alive. This was what I wanted. To paddle light and powerfully and even and feel the boat lift underneath me and cut through the water. And I was pulling back the lead that Sam had grabbed at the start. And then it all went wet and grey-green. "Bugger!" My head had come back to the top of the water. A long swim ahead hauling the boat.
I got the bank to find Sam chuckling at me. "Wet again?"
"Yeah, but it was worth it. I can do it. Well, almost." I was smiling at him, pride of achievement rather than love. I was truly happy. Sure, I had a long way to go, and a lot fitter to get, but I could do it.
"Looks like the D-W's a reality, then."
"Yes please. Do you really mean it?" His smile and his eyes answered me. "I'm glad I met you, Sam." I so wanted to move towards him, to take him into my arms, and then to kiss him. He looked so glorious. Almost naked, and glorious. A demi-god. I nearly spoke. I was itching to speak, aching to speak. We even took a half pace towards each other. I know something was going in that was outside my experience. I know it was.
"What are you doing, poof? Who's that with you?"
I jumped out of my skin. The Martin Thomas thing all over again. Couldn't recognise the voice. I felt cold. Dead cold. It had followed me here, to my home, to my new friend. I couldn't escape it. Branded as a poof for life. And all because I'd told Martin I loved him. And now I realised I'd never loved him, just been stupidly infatuated with him. Sam! What would Sam think? Oh shit, I was going to lose the best friend I hadn't yet made, the boy who had been going to paddle from Devizes to Westminster with me, the boy who had helped me to learn how to get started with my new boat.
I felt tears start down my face. Couldn't stop them starting. Concealed by Thames water no-one would see. I could be brave. I could still be brave. Bastard. Why had he followed me here, whoever he was? Why?
I turned round.
Looked at my tormentor.
Blond haired, riding a BMX bike. And I didn't recognise him. I didn't recognise him. But if I didn't recognise him, why was he calling me a poof? Surely he couldn't know?
Again his voice. "Who's your boyfriend, poof?"
It was aimed at me. He was shouting at me. He had to be.
I turned back, caught a glimpse of Sam. Of his face. Of sudden, huge sorrow, of fear. I saw my own face in his just then. Like a reflection. But I saw disgust as well. And the same telltale escape tear, too.
"Sam?" I wanted him to like me still, even though he knew now, knew from a stranger that I was a poof. Was gay. "I... "
"You're not gong to want to paddle with me."
"What? Why not?"
"You heard him."
I was bewildered. The unknown kid had been calling me a poof and Sam was saying that I wasn't going to want to paddle with him. "Don't understand?"
"You may as well know, Steve."
"Know? Know what?" I still had tears running down my cheeks, all fourteen years of me, weeping silently in public.
"Oh shit. He's right."
"What? Who? Sam?"
"I am. I mean I'm not. Not a poof. I'm not, dammit. I'm just different. And you're going to hate me. And I like you and I want a friend so badly, and no-one wants to be my friend because I'm fucking gay!"
"He was shouting at me, though?"
"Didn't you hear? His eyes were blazing. I'm gay. Gay, queer, a fag, diner at the downstairs restaurant, uphill gardener, connoisseur of the French bread shop, fudge packer, shirt lifter. I'm gay, Steve. And you say he was shouting at you. Jeez, that's the boy I was in love with. And I dared to tell him, and he told the whole school. And you think he was calling you a poof!"
I wanted to do it then. To take him into my arms and tell him it was going to be all right. But I couldn't get over the shock. I was angry too. Angry for myself because I'd made a mistake, angry for Sam that he'd been through the same that I had, angry that his face had been made to crumple, that he'd wept in public in front of his tormentor, the boy I thought had been tormenting me. "Sam, it doesn't make any difference to me."
"Yeah, you can say that now! Just wait until they start calling you queer for hanging out with me!" His eyes dared me to disagree.
"Sam, oh Sam, I'm not going to run away. I don't want to stop being your friend." I couldn't say the words yet.
"You will! Everyone else has."
"We can be strong together." I'd stopped hearing the taunts of 'poof', and the little shit had given up and cycled off. Nasty damaging little turd. He was pretty, but I hated him.
"Yeah, right. Like you'll stand up for your gay friend." He was so very aggressive. I knew his pain. I'd left mine behind me, but I knew it.
"If my gay friend will stand up for his gay friend too, yes, yes, Sam, I will. And even if he won't, yes I will."
"What gay friend? You're talking rubbish." A tiredness, a resignation had come upon him.
"This gay friend, Sam. Me."
"Don't tease me. I don't need this."
"Right. I can only prove this to you one way. And not here. Get onto the water, and come back to the other side, back to your slipway. I have something to tell you and I am dammed if I'm going to do all of it in public. Except this bit. Just this bit. Do you believe in love at first sight? Don't answer me. Just hold that thought, and come with me. And you better help me if I fall out."
"Not now. The other bank. Where it's quiet."
"You won't want to know me."
"Shut up and paddle."
He shut up. He paddled. And I was inspired and paddled over in one go and got out without falling in, and got my boat onto his lawn. And he followed. Not leading for a change. "What? I held the thought. What?"
I looked into his eyes, fiery, saw his wet cheeks, saw him somehow smaller than he'd been all day. Here goes. "Sam, I'm gay. Like you. And I met you today and my heart started to pound because you're so very lovely. And I fell in love with you as soon as I saw you. Love, Sam. Love at first sight. I love you. Totally. Are you hearing this?" I had to ask, because he was staring at me open mouthed.
"You... Fell for me? But... I fell for you. And I didn't know how to meet you, and I wanted to be your friend so badly, and I was so afraid I'd scare you off if I told you, and then that shit Tom came and taunted me... "
"And now we know. Sam, will you kiss me? Please? No-one's ever kissed me. No-one. And I want it to be you. Please?"
"Indoors. Not out here. I daren't out here." He led me inside. "They're out for the afternoon. My parents," he added as if it was necessary.
I'll not forget it, not ever. Not as long as I live. The first ever kiss. He turned to me, looked me in the eyes. "I've never kissed anyone either, Steve. And I want it to be you, too." And he offered his lips to mine as I offered mine to his. Gentle lips, soft and firm at the same time, dry, warm, wonderful. He was kissing me. I was kissing him. And I felt him tremble in my arms as we explored each other's mouths gently, learning what was good, what was not. I was in heaven.
"I love you." I was murmuring as we kissed, nuzzling him, smelling the scent of Thames and Sam all mixed together, as well as good honest fresh sweat. I was tasting the salt of his tears, and the sweetness of his mouth. And my hands on his back, feeling his skin, soft, silky, velvety. I could feel his muscles, firm and flexing under his skin. I could hear him sighing, moaning gently as we kissed.
Heard him reply "I love you, Steve, I love you." Felt his hands on my back, felt him pressing his lips into mine, and felt him press his body against mine, too. I wondered if we dared. Hoped we dared, wanted to ask him, didn't know how to ask him. His trunks were so tight it was obvious he was as excited as I was, but I'd never dared to even think about what we might do next.
No, that's wrong.
I knew what I wanted so clearly. Knew it as clearly as day followed night, but I didn't know how to ask him. He'd think I was disgusting, maybe less manly. But I wanted him in a very special way. No, not special exactly, but special for me. I wanted to give myself to him.
I wanted to give him the most precious gift I had. And I had no idea how to ask, or how to know that he would like it. It was my wildest dream, my fantasy, my one great desire. I wanted my Sam to fuck me. I just knew it. As clearly as other people know its raining, I knew what I wanted, needed him to do. I didn't want to be made love to. I wanted to be fucked. In a way to cleanse me of the teasing before, the awful time when Martin fucking Thomas had told everyone I was queer. I'm not queer. I just love Sam.
"Steve, can we get undressed?"
"You're sure? I mean really sure?" Our faces were wet. Our passion was in our kissing. We were grinding into each other so hard I felt sure I would burst just with that, but I wanted Sam to be inside me, deep inside me.
"I'm scared, a little," he admitted, "but I love you, Steve. And I want you. Oh shit, I know what I want to do and I'm afraid you'll say no."
"I do too. Know what I want, I mean. I'm scared too."
"Nothing, my love, nothing will disgust me. I promise," he murmured into my ears. "Nothing."
"Sam, I want to be yours. I don't know how to say this, and I don't know how to do it, but I want... " I tailed off. Got braver. "Sam, I need to feel you inside me. I just do. I don't know how I know but I want you inside me so badly I can almost feel it. But I'm scared. A bit. I've been on the net. Read stories. It hurts, the first time. But if it's you, Sam... If it's you, then I almost want the hurt. Almost."
"I don't want to hurt you."
"It's not the same thing. I mean if it hurts, then ok, it hurts, but that's part of it, part of what I want. I want it to be you. I want to give myself to you. Please? Even if it hurts badly I want this."
He was undressing me. I hardly noticed anything about becoming naked except the air to my body, and the sudden freeing of the tension of my trunks round my cock. And when I was naked I found he was too. Somehow I didn't want to look, just to touch him, to feel his back and his bum, and to cup each cheek in my hands and pull him closer to me. His own cock pressed hard into my belly and I knew I needed it deep inside me. I felt like a bitch on heat must feel, almost wanting him to take me by force. "I don't know how to do this"
"We'll find out, my love. We'll find out. I think we need some oil or something, to let you into me."
He scurried off to the kitchen. "Extra virgin olive oil! Mum swears by it!"
He may not have known what he was going to do, but he knew by instinct. We led me to the sofa, and sat me down on the edge, and anointed me with the oil. The first fingers other than my own touched my arse and it felt exciting. I knew half what to expect. I'd often played with my arse when I wanked, but another boy's fingers were so different, so intrusive, so masterful. I wanted more than a finger. I wanted his body inside me, his cock, I wanted it rammed inside me. "I want this more than anything in the world," he said. "I love you Steve. Love you."
And he put the tip against me and pushed. And it hurt. Fiercely. I needed it, but it hurt so badly, like I was being wrenched apart. "Go on!" my teeth were gritted together. "Go on, Sam, go on." I tried to relax against the pain and failed totally, but he couldn't resist. Urges never awakened took over and he was deep inside me, so deep he seemed to be rearranging my guts with the tip while he tore me apart with the shaft. And rivers of clear, slippery liquid streamed onto my belly from my cock which was wilting under the onslaught. It didn't need to be hard. He was filling me totally with his body, deep in my soul.
And he started to piston into me, pistoning hard, harder inside me, the pain easing, to be replaced by an emptying and filling as he pumped long and faster strokes into me. I saw his face, eyes wild, mouth curled into a snarl as he was lost in his thrusting, and the snarl made me hard again. I felt owned by him, totally owned, fierce tiger like snarl owning me, leaving his mark on me, pushing tight inside me, deep inside, snarling face, curled lips and I was rock hard and pounding on my own cock for dear life, feeling awesome sensations deep inside, knowing he was fucking me, wanting him to fuck me, feeling him tremble with the effort, surprised he could last so long as I fired past my belly onto my chest onto my own face as I came so hard, gripping with my arse, gripping him tight and making him yell with the pressure as he came hard into me. Lost his rhythm and came, came, came, pulsing, slamming against my upraised legs, fucking me so hard. Fire.
I was on fire. I needed him inside me and I needed him to be out at the same time. I wanted to kiss him and I could hardly breathe. I was calling "Fuck me!" even as he could fuck me no longer, even as his legs gave out and he fell forward not my chest, covering himself with my seed, even as his wilted and plopped out of me. And the emptiness was as fulfilling as the fullness had been.
And he kissed me, full on the lips, even while I was panting like a steam train, and I knew, knew then that we would never, ever be apart, knew that I was his for ever, knew that he was mine. My beautiful Sam, my boy, my wonderful boy, my friend for ever.
I heard him then, weeping gently, but I knew it was good to weep, and I heard me, too, as I was suddenly too tired and crying in his arms as he was crying in mine, kissing and crying at the same time. Gentle weeping, passing happiness to each other in our tears.
"Never leave me, Sam."
"Never, Steve. Never."
"Do you believe in love at first sight?"
"Now I do." And he was running his hands through my unruly, sweaty hair and kissing my tears away. And I knew that together we could face the world. And somehow I knew my dad would be pleased and happy for us too.
Racing canoes come in various configurations. 'K' for Kayak, 'C' for Canadian, and then a number, for the number of paddlers. K1 is a kayak, for one paddler. Sprint canoes are long, with an extremely unstable hull, with a seat set high to raise the centre of effort and allow powerful strokes. This makes them evilly unstable. They're designed to go in a straight line, so have a rudder worked by a foot operated tiller. It isn't the only way of turning them, but it's easier than paddle strokes. I once managed to paddle one for 50 yards before I capsized, but I could stay in a slalom kayak for hours. With a good mate I managed a K2 for over a mile, but they are inherently more stable than a K1. Now if you can paddle one of these brutes you have my total admiration, but you'll know how long it can take to learn.
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