“Am I talking to Mr Trescott?”
Groggily I struggled to pull my mind to attention, to make sense of the voice on the end of the phone. A woman's voice, domineering, almost military.
“Yes, I'm James Trescott. Who is this?”
“Mr Trescott I'm sorry to call you so late, we have a situation here, and I think you may be able to help. I didn't know who else to call, I hope you'll forgive me.”
“I still don't know who you are or why you're phoning me at...” I checked the bedside clock. “one thirty in the morning.”
The voice on the line changed tone.
“Oh, dear, no, I haven't explained, have I? How tiresome of me. I'm Georgia Miller, your neighbour. I live on the corner, where the lane joins the main road. You know? The one with the rose bushes.”
“Yes, Miss Miller, I know your house. Why are you phoning me at this hour? We've never spoken before, I think.” Drowsiness was giving way to irritation. I probably wouldn't be able to get back to sleep.
“Well, you see, I work for the Council. Children's Services. And I'm on duty tonight and we've got a jumper and we don't really have anyone here who can handle this one. Now, Mr Trescott, tell me, please. Is it true you're a homosexual?”
I'm afraid my rational brain shut down and instinct took over – the instinct for self-preservation.
“What business is that of yours? And why are you phoning me in the middle of the night asking personal questions? Just get off the line and let me get some sleep!” And, to my shame, I slammed the phone down.
It was probably three minutes later when the phone rang again, by which time I was feeling a bit sheepish. Irritating as this woman was, she did appear to be asking for my help, and I can never resist an appeal to my knight-in-shining-armour fantasy, so I answered the phone. She was apologetic, which wrong-footed me – I was the one who'd lost my temper and put the phone down.
“Mr Trescott, I'm so sorry, I haven't explained myself well, the truth is I'm so flustered. We have a young boy here who tried to kill himself this evening, and we're all so upset about it. I don't know if I'm coming or going. It's so difficult to know how to help when we know so little about him. He told the officers who brought him in that his name's Alex and he's fourteen. He apparently told the police he wanted to die because he gets called queer at school, but he hasn't spoken at all since he arrived here. We can't get a word out of him and we're worried he'll try again. I've got nowhere with him, I just thought he might respond to you. Would you come?”
“You don't have any gay staff members?”
“Not as far as I know, no. I'm sorry. I'm on the night shift, I can't very well phone up everyone to ask if they're gay, but if the gossip among the neighbours is right, you might be the man to help. Please?”
“Miss Miller, I don't disguise who I am, but you seem to have a very odd idea of what it means to be gay. We're not a race apart, you know. We're as different from each other as I am from you. There's no earthly reason that this kid will respond to me just because we're both gay. I expect I'm twenty years older than him and that puts a barrier between us much bigger than the one between a gay teenager and a straight teenager.”
She gave up pleading. I heard it in her voice.
“Yes, of course. I see what you mean. I'm sorry. So sorry I disturbed you. I hope you understand you were my last hope, really, I just don't want to see the kid sink.”
And it was then that something fell into place, like the last piece of a jigsaw. I realised that I was talking to a hero, or rather a heroine. The little blue-rinsed middle-aged woman that I'd seen many times as I passed, and waved to, but had never before spoken to, was trying to make a difference. She was way out of her depth, probably under-staffed, under-trained, under-financed, but she wanted to make the world a better place. And the least I could do was respond to her bugle call.
“I'll come. I don't know if I can do any good but I'll come. Tell me how to get to you.”
So that was how I found myself in a dismal room in the early hours of the morning of Friday, November 11th being introduced to a fourteen year old boy who looked sullen and frightened, and very tired.
“Hello, Alex, I'm James.”
No response. The poor lad's face was all grimy and streaked with tears, his grey school shirt was rather the worse for wear, torn at the shoulder where it looked like someone had tried to pull the left sleeve off. Maybe he'd struggled when the police had found him.
“Where did they pick you up?”
Still no response. I looked up at Miss Miller and raised my eyebrows.
“He was on the pedestrian walkway of the Suspension Bridge. The CCTV cameras picked him up and an alarm rang in the Clifton Police Station. Two officers were on the scene quickly but he tried to jump as they apprehended him, they caught him just as he went over the railing and at one point he was swinging by the arm Constable Harford had him gripped by. It was touch and go.”
I took a moment to digest that.
“Why would you want to do such a thing, Alex?”
No response. I tried another tack.
“Look, Alex, when I was your age I had a lot of trouble at school. And I mean a lot of trouble. Just about everybody, even the juniors, thought it was okay to call me names – queer, homo, poof, and even worse stuff. And the bullies, the ones that picked on all the little kids, and the fat ones, and the geeky ones, they really went to town on me. They would knock me over, trip me up, push me into the lockers, anything. One time I got beaten up so badly I had to take a week off school. But you know what? I never thought of jumping off a bridge. So you tell me, what happened to you that was so bad you thought that was the way out?”
I'd been watching him as I spoke. I'd got his attention, I could tell, by identifying myself to him. But had I got through? He was watching me, inquisitive, but slyly, from under his eyelashes. His shoulders relaxed a little and his eyes opened a little more, coming out from under the lashes. He'd resolved some sort of internal conflict.
Then, to my delight, he spoke.
“What about at home?”
“How do you mean?”
“Oh, I see. My parents did their best but in those days bullying wasn't really recognised like it is now, and the school didn't take it seriously when they complained. My Dad tried teaching me to fight so I could defend myself but I was never going to make a fighter and...”
I would have carried on, but his face had screwed up and he was sobbing and shrinking into a ragged ball, his knees drawn up to his forehead, his heels tucked over the edge of the seat and his arms wrapped around his calves holding it all in place.
I looked for help to Miss Miller but she shrugged. I couldn't just let him cry so I got down on one knee beside his chair and wrapped my arms around him, hugging him to my chest as best I could. He responded, his arms released his knees and wrapped themselves around my back, then his legs dropped back to the floor and he pushed his face into my shoulder and cried there, shaking gently. I held him like that for a long time and eventually the heat of his anguish began to dissipate. He pulled away from me and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
He nodded. Miss Miller handed him a box of tissues and he blew his nose noisily and wiped his eyes again.
“When my Mum found out I'd been beaten up for being gay, she, she threw me out. She said the only fairy allowed in her house is the one on the Christmas tree.”
He looked up into my eyes, pleading. Was he expecting rejection? I couldn't hold it together any more; my eyes watered and I began to cry for him, I hugged him and we stayed like that, both of us crying hard, both with arms wrapped around the other and holding on tight until we were all cried out.
I had talked up the trouble I'd had as a youngster. Actually I got off fairly lightly; except for the bullies who picked on all the soft targets, not just gays, I got through my schooldays without anything you could call persecution. And my parents were very supportive all the way through. So Alex's revelation about being rejected by his mother came as a shock.
When, eventually, his crying subsided, I pulled slightly away from him and grasped him by both shoulders, looking him directly in the eyes.
“Alex, what has happened to you is wrong. Perhaps your mother doesn't understand, I don't know. But the problem is hers, not yours. Don't let it affect how you think of yourself. You are a valuable person with all your strengths and abilities. The world needs you just as much as it needs me, or your mother, or anyone else.”
He dried his eyes but didn't say anything so I continued.
“Miss Miller is a good person. She's my neighbour. There are people who can help you and she can find them for you. It's going to be okay, really it is. And Alex – listen to this – gay used to mean happy and it can still mean that. I know lots of people who are happy being gay. I'm gay and I'm happy. It doesn't have to be a problem. Can you remember that?”
And I got a nod to that, so I felt I'd achieved something.
Miss Miller took over.
“Alex, I have to phone Social Services now, and they'll send someone to collect you. They'll find a family for you to stay with for a bit, until we can sort it all out and find you a new home if they find that your mother won't have you back. So come with me now and we'll start filling in forms.”
She held her hand out, and she probably thought Alex would take it and follow her off down the corridor. But instead he flinched away from her. Looking to me, then back to her and back to me again, his face creased up again and I thought he was in for another bout of tears. But instead he cried out:
“No, please, I can't! Please, Mr James, can't I stay with you? Please? Miss Miller, please? I'll be no trouble!”
Georgia Miller exchanged a glance with me. She raised her eyebrow in a question. Rational caution was quite beyond me by this time, and I nodded very slightly. She turned back to Alex.
“Alex, Mr Trescott is not a registered foster carer (at least I don't suppose he is), and neither is he on the staff here. We have plenty of trained people who can look after you very well, and I'm sure you'd be happy with them. It would be better for you to be with one of our carers, really it would. So how about it?”
Alex just sat there looking uncertain. Tentatively, he began shaking his head and when Miss Miller didn't scold him for it he spoke up.
“If Mr Trescott will have me I'd rather be with him, please. There's things I need to ask about and I think he might be able to help.”
To my own amazement I found myself swelling with pride. Perhaps I was going to be able to do some good in the world, something I'd got used to assuming was someone else's responsibility. Alex wasn't exactly small, only maybe four inches shorter than me, but I couldn't help seeing him as a little scrap of humanity, damaged but not yet broken, and just needing support to help him heal. I think Alex could see something of it in my face, and Miss Miller could certainly see it too, the wily old bird, and so it was decided.
I had to sign a lot of forms and then Alex was released into my care. It was six in the morning and getting light when we drew up on my front drive. Alex had perked up considerably and grinned broadly when I showed him around the house. I put him in the guest-room, closed the curtains and showed him where the bathroom is. I got him towels, a toothbrush, and lent him my dressing-gown. I baulked at lending him a pair of my pyjamas, which would be too big for him, or my underwear, which seemed a bit creepy, somehow. Perhaps he would be okay sleeping naked, or perhaps he'd wear the gown to bed.
“Have yourself a nice bath or a shower and then climb into bed and sleep, it'll do you good. I'll put some biscuits and milk by your bedside. Try to have a good long sleep, I won't wake you. But when you wake up, bang on my door to let me know you're up, in case I'm still asleep. I'm in the room across the hall.”
It was a while before I got to sleep, despite feeling exhausted. I lay awake, worrying about the responsibility I had taken on so lightly. What if he tried again to kill himself? And succeeded? Had I taken all reasonable steps to prevent that? I got back out of bed and padded around the house taking steps. I took all the sharp knives from the kitchen and put them in a cardboard box in the garage. I collected the medicines from the bathroom cabinet and tipped them all down the lavatory. I found the only length of rope in the garage and put it in the dustbin. And then I sat at the kitchen table for an hour nursing a cup of hot chocolate and worrying, before finally returning to bed.
In the event it was after four in the afternoon when I woke. No sign of stirring from Alex's room, so I padded down to the kitchen, set the coffee machine doing its stuff and began cooking a fried breakfast. I love to wake to the smell of frying bacon and I thought Alex might like it too.
Sure enough, the meal was just about ready when a bleary-eyed Alex showed up in the doorway in my towelling robe.
“Sleep well?” I grinned at him.
In answer he surprised me by bounding across the room and hugging me tight. While I still had the use of my arms I turned the gas off and moved the frying pan away from the burner. Then I turned and returned the hug warmly.
I spoke quietly, into his ear. “It's going to be all right, Alex, I promise. I don't know how it'll all work out, but it will work out, you'll see. Bad things have happened to you, you poor boy, and no-one deserves to have such things happen, especially not a fine young man with his life in front of him.”
He pulled apart so that he could look me in the eye. “Can I stay here, with you?”
“You can stay here as long as you wish and as long as they'll let me keep you.”
“Thank you.” And he beamed a smile at me that warmed my heart. I felt silly about having hidden the knives.
Breakfast at five in the afternoon was great. I don't usually bother with breakfast, on my own, but to sit and share a fried breakfast with Alex gave me a paternal feeling, protective towards him, that I wasn't used to. The thought crossed my mind that I was deep in uncharted waters, with no idea how far out of my depth I was getting, nor any sight of land on the horizon. And yet it didn't feel scary, somehow.
We had finished eating and I was stacking the dishwasher when there was a ring on the doorbell. As I turned, I caught Alex's eye, he looked scared. I smiled reassurance and went for the door, drying my hands on a towel as I went.
It was Georgia Miller, looking rather more composed than the last time I'd seen her, her silver and blue hair perfectly arranged and frozen in place with lacquer.
“How is Alex?” she asked as soon as the door opened.
“Come in, Miss Miller, you can ask him yourself.”
So she bustled into the kitchen where Alex favoured her with one of his killer smiles. I reloaded the coffee machine.
Settled around the kitchen table, I'm not sure which of us was more nervous, Alex or me. Miss Miller seemed cheerful, though her first words did nothing to put us at ease.
“Alex, I visited your mother. It's standard policy that we try to reconcile families if we can. I'm afraid I wasn't successful.”
I could imagine what this confirmation of his mother's rejection must have been doing to the boy, and I put my arm around his shoulders and pulled him gently to me. He leaned in to my side, and I hugged him a little tighter.
“I'm sorry, Alex. Your mother says she doesn't want you back, and she's quite happy for us to find a foster home for you. She signed some documents to say so.”
Behind her plaster facade Miss Miller was visibly shaken by having to tell a child such a thing. She took a moment to muster her reserves and continued.
“Alex, how do you feel about that? Tell me?”
Looking younger than his fourteen years, Alex looked up, the picture of woe but dry eyed. “Why doesn't my mother want me? What have I done?”
Taken aback, Georgia Miller opened her mouth to reply and then closed it again. There really wasn't much you could say in answer to such a question, I realised.
The boy looked at Miss Miller, and then across at me. Seeing no answer in either of our faces, his face crumpled up and the tears flowed.
Miss Miller reached across the table and took both of Alex's hands in hers. “My dear boy, you mustn't let any of this change how you feel about yourself. You are a fine young man, I can see, and Mr Trescott thinks so, too. I'm sure, deep down, your mother loves you, but she has a problem that she needs to get over, and maybe one day you'll be able to help her do that. In the meantime, lots of people care about you. We do, and you'll meet many many others too. So, what's to be done for now? Are you happy staying with Mr Trescott for a while?”
Still taking all this in, Alex just nodded.
“Well, you need to ask him if he'll have you.”
At this I glanced sharply across at her in reproach but she was armoured against my attack and didn't even flinch. Poor Alex had to ask me.
“Mr Trescott, can I stay with you for now? Please?”
I hastened to reassure him. “Of course, Alex. You have a home with me for as long as you want it.”
I got a weak smile out of him, and renewed the shoulder hug on the strength of it.
“Well, I'll see if I can't get some of this paperwork sorted out a bit quicker. Mr Trescott, I'll have to talk to you again, to sort out some of the details. Will you need any funds to be going on with? He'll need things, I expect?”
“He needs clothes, if we can't get his from his mother, and school books I expect. Maybe tomorrow when he's had a little more time to get used to the new reality, I'll talk to him about that. But we'll be fine for the time being, I think. Thank you for the offer, though.”
She smiled, perhaps grateful to be relieved of one problem. In her business-like manner she gathered herself together and left, shaking hands rather formally with me, and giving Alex a brief hug. Alex and I were left on our own and I asked him if he was ready for something more to eat. He shrugged in answer which brought home to me that I was in charge of a teenager. Not for the first time I asked myself how this had happened, and didn't get an answer. I phoned for a pizza delivery, it seemed easiest and likely to meet with approval. I wasn't wrong. Alex and I sat together in the living room watching 'I, Robot' on DVD, his choice, and eating pizza slices with Cherry Cola, which was new to me but Alex recommended it. I quite enjoyed feeling what it must be like to be a father.
The next morning I woke at about ten, having stayed up with Alex until about one the previous night. I did the fried breakfast thing, which brought Alex into the kitchen and we ate together and planned our day. It wasn't difficult. We decided to go straight to the shopping mall at Cribbs Causeway. Alex knew it and it's a big complex, with a good choice of shops including the cool ones that teenagers frequent. It occurred to me that the clothes he was wearing when I met him hadn't been anything to write home about, but I didn't say anything.
At Cribbs Alex led me rapidly from shop to shop, with a clear idea of exactly what he wanted and because what he wanted seemed very reasonable, if expensive, I waved the plastic and paid. He became quite excited about his purchases, and when I cried pax and we stopped for coffee, he sat at the table taking his new things out of their wrappings and admiring them, trying some of them on. I just watched, and found enormous pleasure seeing him so much happier.
When, eventually, he noticed me watching him, he said: “I never had nice things like this before.”
“Well, why is that?”
“If you take an interest in clothes you get called a poof. So I had to wear boring stuff.”
I thought about this for a moment.
“You've got nice clothes now, so will that get you called names?”
“They'd started calling me names anyway, and worse. I am a poof, I might as well admit it, I think.”
I felt something needed to be said about that, and I said it.
“Alex, words like 'poof' are abusive, they're intended to make someone feel bad about themselves. So you should never think of yourself as a poof. If what you mean is that you're homosexual, then say that, or choose another word for it that isn't abusive. Language doesn't always provide the right word, but some people think 'gay' is a useful word and not derogatory. I describe myself as gay when I'm asked. Do you understand what I'm getting at?”
I'd certainly got his attention – he listened to my little diatribe closely. And he answered me with a nod.
“Good. Now, you mentioned admitting to being a poof. If we put the wording to one side, that sounds to me like you're planning to tell everyone you're gay. Have I got that right?”
“Um, yes. They all think I'm gay anyway, I might as well admit it.”
“Will you take some advice from me?”
Another nod, so I continued. “It's usually good, and healthy, not to hide what you are, but sometimes it's very brave and perhaps foolhardy. Alex, it's nobody's business except yours who you're attracted to, so don't feel you have to announce your sexuality to anyone, especially if you think of it as 'admitting' something. Like confessing to having done something wrong. Sexuality isn't wrong, it just is. So you can't 'admit' to it, you just declare it, or not, it's your choice and no-one can bully you into it. Does that make any sense to you?”
“I think so. So you don't think I should come out at school?”
“I didn't say that. I said it's your choice. But you should certainly think about the effect it would have – will it make anything better for you, or will it just make things worse? You have to think these things through. What I would suggest is don't do anything in a hurry. Take time to decide. Okay?”
“Okay.” I got another of his killer smiles and I was transported. I was overwhelmed with happiness because I had offered advice in pure altruism, and it had been appreciated. If I'd known how happy it would make me I'd have done it before. But perhaps then Alex wouldn't have been around and it wouldn't have worked. I began to realise how much I was benefiting from his presence.
Coffee over, we continued our shopping marathon and I was exhausted when we arrived home loaded with goods. But Alex had clothes to wear, for school and out of school. He also had pyjamas, a toothbrush and a load of other stuff apparently essential for the fashionable fourteen year old, including five different deodorants, and non-matching 'pairs' of socks. I didn't ask why.
That evening, after a home-cooked casserole meal, I broached a subject I knew we had to talk about, even though I thought it might freak him out. We were sitting in the living room at either end of the long settee. The local news had just finished on TV and I turned it off. No mention of Alex or a suicide attempt, I was relieved to note.
“Tomorrow's Monday, Alex. How do you feel about going back to school?”
I watched carefully for his reaction. He seemed to shrink a little. He withdrew into his shell like a tortoise. I wasn't sure if I would get anything out of him but I gave him time.
“I know I need to go back, I have to face them all, but I'm not sure I'm ready. Do I have to go?”
“You don't have to go, at least not while you're here, but I think it's good that you're determined to go back despite the bullies. Tell me, how do the teachers deal with bullying?”
“There's a policy, they're not supposed to allow it, but the kids know that and they just make sure the teachers don't see it.”
I thought about that for a moment. “Have you thought that if they have a policy of not permitting bullying, they need to include in that policy some practical way of enforcing it – if it can go on without the teachers knowing, it's not much of a policy, is it?”
Alex didn't immediately reply to that, so I continued. “Look, I have to go to the school to deliver copies of the temporary fostering papers. How about we go in together, and talk to the head teacher?”
“Would you do that?”
“Well, yes, of course I would. Do you think it would help?”
“I think so. Worth a try. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
A little taken aback by his gratitude, I thought to ask “Alex, didn't your mother talk to the school about bullying?”
“No, she never went in to the school.”
“Maybe she went in to enrol me, I don't remember. But she never came to open days or the play I was in.”
We both fell quiet and after a minute I got up to do the washing up. I left Alex on the settee but he soon came into the kitchen and helped.
That night I lay in bed thinking. I realised that the house felt different, more like a home, more occupied. I found I liked it. Me, and Alex. Lying there I suddenly thought of the two of us as a family. My eyes watered. It was going to break my heart to give him back.
After breakfast the next morning I asked Alex how he felt about going with me to the school.
“If I go, will I have to stay?”
“I don't think they would make you stay, you've been through a traumatic experience. But you will certainly need to continue your schooling before you've got too far behind, so probably within a week or two. Do you think you need some more time?”
“I, er, I think I'll come if I know I can come away again if I need to.”
“Okay. Can you be ready in half an hour?”
So we showed up together for my appointment with Mrs Simpson the head teacher, and I don't know about Alex but I was feeling like a child in detention.
I don't know what I was expecting, but Mrs Simpson wasn't it. What should a headmistress look like? This one looked like Margaret Thatcher on a bad day. A woman, but somehow not a woman. I couldn't imagine her winning the confidence and trust of her pupils.
We dealt with the paperwork first, basically ensuring that the school would accept me as 'in loco parentis' – having parental authority and responsibility for Alex. Then she folded her arms and fixed first Alex and then me with a gimlet stare that filled me with trepidation. I fought back bravely, just about managing to meet her eye.
“Mr Trescott, Alex has put the school in a very difficult position. We are bound by government policy to make provision for all pupils and we will do so, but Alex poses a problem. He has revealed that he has a, er, a personal problem that not all of our pupils are comfortable with.”
She was clearly just getting into her stride, and had a lot more to say, but I was already reeling with shock. I didn't react, my mind was racing, trying to grasp the things she was saying. Could she really be thinking that Alex was the problem?
“Alex can return to school and continue his classes, but I think it better for his own safety that he be excused from sports, and considers the changing rooms out of bounds. Other than that he has full access to the school's facilities, but I'm sure he will understand that it will be best for him to keep a low profile.” She finished with a momentary grin towards Alex which didn't reach her eyes.
I couldn't believe what I'd just heard and wanted to round on the woman, but I didn't know if that was what Alex would want, and I didn't want to make things worse for him. I needed to talk to him, so I hustled him out of that room as quickly as I decently could. Out in the corridor I almost frog-marched him down to the double doors and out into the car park area.
Once outside I stopped, stood still and breathed for a bit, trying to calm down. Alex stood watching me with a puzzled expression, so I explained myself.
“Alex, that woman thinks you're the problem. She should be sacked, there are laws against public servants behaving that way. She needs to protect you against the real problem, the school bullies, but with her attitude she's not dealing with them – she's dealing with you, when all you want is to get on with your life in peace.”
He shrugged his shoulders: “She says I can stay at school, that's good, isn't it?”
“Well, yes, but that's your basic right – she's not doing you any favours. It's her job to provide a safe environment for you and all her pupils to study in, and she's sidestepping her responsibility by implying that you are a problem pupil. It's scandalous.”
Alex was watching me as I spoke, a wry smile on his face. “That's what school's like. It's always been like that. You can't expect it to be the way it's supposed to be, it never is. You just keep your head down and try to survive. Don't worry about me – I'll be fine.”
“Uh-huh. I'll see you about four. Will you be home?”
“I'll come and pick you up. You finish at half past three, don't you?”
“It varies a bit. But don't come out just to pick me up. I'll enjoy the walk and it's not far.”
“Okay, are you sure you know the way?”
“I'm sure. See you later!” - and he walked off back into the school building.
I felt a little deflated. It seemed to me that there was unfinished business. I wanted to give the head teacher a piece of my mind, to shake her out of her complacency, make her face up to her responsibilities. But Alex seemed to be accepting things as they were, and I had to take my cue from him. So I left quietly.
I had some errands to run and chose to run them on the way home. One of the things I wanted to do was to pick up a book that I'd ordered at a Clifton bookshop, and that detour took me past the suspension bridge. I couldn't resist parking the car and walking onto the bridge. The sturdy old landmark has seen a lot of life, and death, in its time. Unhappy people have jumped to their death from the bridge onto the rocks below ever since it was first built a hundred and fifty years ago, and there is not a lot that can be done to prevent it. There are signs with the phone number of the Samaritans helpline, and obstructive guard rails to make jumping difficult, but someone who has come to such a point that death seems the way forward isn't going to be kept alive by a guard rail.
I walked along the pedestrian walkway with tears streaming down my face.
After I came away from the bridge I needed a coffee and sat at a pavement café for a while, thinking of Alex and how he must have been feeling, and forming a determination that I would do whatever I could to change his life for him so that he would never again feel that death was preferable to life. Melodramatic, I know, but that's how I was feeling after walking on the bridge. I had no idea how I was going to accomplish it, of course, and if Georgia Miller found him a foster family quickly I might not get much time to accomplish it. But the sentiment was there.
It was a subdued Alex who walked into the living room that afternoon and dropped his school books on the settee before sitting beside them.
“You found your way back here, then! How was your day?” I tried to sound cheerful but the sight of him left me anything but.
- which, I gathered, is teen-speak for 'not fine at all, but I'm not talking about it.'
“What would you like for your tea?”
“Anything's fine. Thanks.” I took the thanks as a good sign.
“Did you see any of the bullies?”
I thought I'd better push a bit. “And?”
Alex flashed me a look that shocked me – pure rage. “And they set fire to my locker. Okay? You satisfied? I should never have gone back there. It was stupid. Stupid!” - and he launched himself out of his chair and ran out of the room, slamming the door.
Bugger, I thought.
I had allowed myself to believe I was doing so well, but clearly I had no idea how to deal with a teenager, and now I'd screwed up. I spent a few minutes feeling sorry for myself while mechanically loading the oven with frozen pizza and garlic bread, and then I pulled myself together.
I went up to Alex's room and tapped on the door.
There was no response, but I could hear something from inside so I knew he was there. I tapped again.
Alex's very muffled voice called “ 's not locked.”
- which, since the bedroom doors don't have locks, I translated as ' you can come in if you want but I'm not actually inviting you.'
I opened the door gingerly. He was face down on the bed and propped himself up on his elbows as I approached. His eyes were very red and blotchy, poor lad.
“I'm sorry about what happened today at school, Alex. Do you want to tell me about it?”
“I'm sorry, but it just isn't getting any better. I wish I had jumped off the bridge.” The tears burst out again and he buried his face in the pillow.
“Alex, maybe it isn't better yet, but it is about to be, I promise. And right now, I think it's time for you and me to take a little walk and see if Miss Miller's at home. Pop into the bathroom and wash your face and we'll go straight away, and see if we can't, between us, work out something better for you.”
I reached out and patted his shoulder, and nearly jumped out of my skin when that momentary touch triggered a jack-in-the-box reaction from Alex. He rolled, reached out to me, grabbed at my upper arms and pulled himself up, transferring his grip as he went until he had his face buried in my armpit and his arms around my chest, his body convulsing with great sobs as his misery poured out of him wetting my shirt with tears. I just held him tight, murmuring rubbish into the top of his head and rocking very slightly. “There, there. You let it all out. It's all right, have a good cry, you'll feel better soon. I won't let any harm come to you. Don't worry, it'll all work out right in the end...” Platitudes that almost burned my tongue as I uttered them, I knew how false and insubstantial they were. But it seemed right to say them, calming words to soothe the poor boy.
It felt like a whole day but it was probably half an hour later that the aroma of cooking pizza wafted through and I disentangled myself from Alex and busied myself serving our meal. So we didn't visit Miss Miller until later that evening. By that time Alex had told me some more about his experience at school, and I'd learned that he knew who had torched his locker, and when he'd been called into the head's office he'd given the names but had been dismissed with no indication that action was going to be taken. So I explained all that to Miss Miller and she questioned Alex and then agreed that he should change school. There's a perfectly good school that's nearer to my house, so we decided to pay it a visit the next day. It turned out Alex knew some people there already, and was very happy at the thought of changing. Before we left her, Georgia said quietly to me that she would be lodging a formal complaint on Alex's behalf against the school and the headmistress for their attitude to homophobia and bullying.
Alex didn't go to school Tuesday, and we had a telephone call from Georgia at lunchtime to tell us we had an appointment to see the headmaster of Clifton Comprehensive School at nine in the morning the next day. I didn't get much work done but we spent the day mostly together. I was pleasantly surprised to discover Alex's willingness to help with housework. He joined in the clearing away after each meal and loaded the dishwasher, and that afternoon he even took my laundry basket to the kitchen, loaded the washing machine and set it going. He'd obviously done it before, I watched him separating whites and coloureds, delicates from cottons, and loading the detergent and even though my machine must have been unfamiliar he knew just what to do. I wondered what his home life had been like.
I took an instant liking to Clifton Comprehensive, and to John Parsons, the headmaster, who I noticed didn't ask why Alex was changing school. I wondered if Miss Miller had spoken to him, in which case he was being commendably tactful. The school was a typical ugly glass-and-concrete structure with an untidy sprawl of additional buildings, but inside you could tell there was a lot of creative learning going on. The school specialised in the arts and drama, and while I had no idea what areas Alex might do well in, I found the place very much to my liking.
Mr Parsons called a senior boy in to give us a tour of the campus and while we trotted along behind him I asked Alex what he thought. There wasn't much doubt about it, he was clearly keen. “It's great. I'm going to love it here. When can I start?”
Mr Parsons was prepared to let him start straight away. He was enthusiastic, but I suggested delaying a few days, thinking that he should have time to recover from the last trauma before launching himself into the potentially stressful experience of being the new boy mid-term in a new school. So it was agreed that he would start the following Monday. At the end of the tour we met up with Mr Parsons again and signed some forms, and it was all settled. He would need some uniform but we now had the rest of the week to buy it. I thought I might need a day's break before our next shopping expedition.
Over the next few days Alex changed. He became more cheerful, more confident, more energetic. He was looking forward to attending his new school, sure of a better reception there. I was not so optimistic but I hoped for the best for him. We talked, about all sorts of things, but especially about life, and death. I didn't challenge him about his suicide attempt, but it was as though he'd forgotten all about it. His attitude was so upbeat, so positive. I hoped it would prove to be permanent.
His first day at the new school arrived. Alex was impatient to get to school, I was apprehensive and trying to disguise it. Although the school is within easy walking distance, I took him in the car and we both got out at the school gate and I gave him a hug and a kiss on the forehead although he squirmed a bit, and too late I realised it isn't cool for kids to be seen being smothered with parental affection. It brought home to me that I really was 'in loco parentis', and I drove home with a smile on my face.
We'd arranged that he would come home on his own, so I had to wait for him at home, chewing my fingernails. I needn't have worried, he breezed in at four, carrying a pile of books and asking if he could have a rucksack to carry them in like his friends. His friends – and on his first day! It turned out that several people he had known in junior school had gone on to Clifton Comprehensive, while others had gone to his old school with him. So he knew three people in his year and several in the years above and below too. And they had introduced him to their circle of friends and he'd fitted in immediately. I was so relieved, my eyes watered and I had to blow my nose to hide it from Alex.
Over the next week I met some of Alex's new friends. He brought two boys home on the Wednesday because they were going to help him with some homework, and I bowed to the inevitable and invited them to stay for tea. I was in the middle of some work I didn't want to leave, so I just ordered pizza, and the boys took over when it arrived, freeing me to keep working. I ordered twice as much as I thought they would eat, which was a mistake – I should have ordered more.
We settled into a comfortable domestic routine which was I think more of a challenge for me than it was for Alex – I had never thought of myself as set in my ways at just thirty five years old but it was a wrench to change my routines. I began to get up earlier, to make Alex a good breakfast and ensure he went to school with everything he needed. I got out my old dressing gown and began wearing it for trips to the bathroom at night instead of walking around naked, and closing the bathroom door when in residence. Alex wasn't as careful, and I got used to seeing his bare bottom disappearing into his room after he'd showered, and I was very glad that he was so comfortable in his new home, but I didn't feel I ought to take his cue.
He developed quite a wide circle of friends, both boys and girls, and I began to get a feel for where his interest lay. He joined the drama club and became involved in the school's forthcoming production of Romeo and Juliet – as a stage hand, but also as understudy to Romeo so we spent a lot of evenings learning lines, in my case with a sense of futility – there were only three performances planned, so the likelihood that his services would be called upon was small. Nevertheless he was determined to have the part memorised and could be heard around the house muttering under his breath such unlikely lines as
'If I profane, with my unworthiest hand, This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this. My lips, two blushing pilgrims ready stand, To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.'
I couldn't think that this choice of play was going to do anyone's street cred any good, but I supposed the drama teachers knew what they were doing.
He came home one afternoon and announced that there was an orienteering expedition planned by the Geography department, and that he and his friend Tom wanted to go. He would need waterproofs and walking boots, and a rucksack (he'd been angling for one to carry his school books in) and a map and compass. I have Ordnance Survey maps of most of the walking territory in this part of the country, and several compasses, but the rest was going to involve expensive purchases.
I love hill walking so the thought that Alex was developing an interest was encouraging, and I had little difficulty deciding to take him shopping for kit, especially since just before this the fostering allowance had come through from the council, so I was getting a small payment for looking after him.
Then I got a letter from the school confirming that Alex would be going orienteering, listing the requirements, the start point that I had to get him to ridiculously early, and the finish point I had to collect him from much later. There was also a plea for help from any parents who could join the expedition and help supervise. I mentioned it to Alex and he seemed to think there was an urgent need for helpers, without whom the whole thing might have to be cancelled. By this time I'd been to the school quite a lot, discussing Alex's progress, helping with the set design for the school play, and I'd got to know most of the teachers by sight, and the head of Geography was a good looking man about my age, blond, healthy-looking, nordic features, rosy cheeks. It wouldn't hurt to walk over a hillside or two in his company. So I put my name forward.
I got a phone call from the man with the cheeks, one Greg Sheldon, taking me up on my offer and asking about my experience and aptitude. Apparently not many volunteers had come forward, and there was a need for stewards at various vantage points, as well as a need for adults to walk with the kids. Greg was hoping I might be prepared to do the walk because most of those he'd contacted had cried off, and those that were still offering their services were better suited to steward duties. When I explained that I'm a keen walker and have suitable kit, he made gurgling noises over the phone which I took to be a good sign.
So I ended up with a noisy rabble of schoolchildren, twenty-three boys and three girls (brave girls), and just four adult supervisors, on the school bus heading out to a point at the foot of the Mendip hills a little south of Bristol. Mr Sheldon, as I schooled myself to refer to him for the sake of school discipline, gave out maps and compasses and guide sheets and warned them all about safety and respecting the countryside, and we set off. I assumed I would walk with Alex, but he stuck with his friend Tom. I was still surprised that hiking was to his liking, and expected that I would discover as the day progressed that he'd made friends with someone who was a keen walker, and who had enthused him and his mate to join him. But to my surprise neither he nor Tom took much notice of the other walkers, keeping themselves to themselves. Thick as thieves, as my mother would have said.
As for the adults, there was a married couple, who joined the forward group of kids, so Greg and I stayed back with the stragglers. Alex and Tom kept up at the front. I found Greg very pleasant company, easy to talk to and amusing to listen to. And, of course, nice to look at.
At one point a farmer turned up driving a Land Rover at breakneck speed and when he got to the first of our party he stopped, leaped out and started haranguing the kids. I pushed my way to the front of the thicket of children and put on my best 'I'm in charge' display and calmed him down as best I could. It turned out that someone, and until I put him right he'd assumed it was us, had amused themselves snapping dead branches off a nearby tree, and when they tired of their game had dumped all the wood in the irrigation channel at the edge of the field we were in. Unfortunately the farmer's cows used the little stream as their water source, and one of them had stepped down into the stream to drink, but her feet had got caught in the tangle of branches of wood hidden in the water and she had been unable to get out again. The farmer explained that a cow in that situation will simply keep trying until it exhausts itself and can no longer stand, and he took us and showed us the cow, still stuck in the stream. She could not lie down without breaking her legs and now could no longer hold her head up. He told us that a cow whose front legs give way will suffocate because of the pressure of its own weight on its lungs, and he'd called for the vet to come and put the animal out of her misery.
I'm not sure how the kids took this but I was very shocked. I was struck by the determination that somehow this must be prevented and I looked for Greg, for his approval and help. We made eye contact and that was all I needed. I asked the big question.
“How do we save her?”
The farmer seemed surprised that I even thought of it, but he gave it a moment's thought.
“Well, if we could get her out of there and onto dry land, we could lie her down and she could rest. If we could keep her head up a bit, she might pull through, I think.”
Greg went into action. “Okay. Boys, give us a hand, then!” - and he took his shoes and socks off and rolled his trouser legs up and waded into the water and started pulling the lengths of wood out from around the legs of the poor cow. As he got a log up out of the water, I reached it from the bank and took it from him and passed it to one or other of the boys who dragged it clear of the stream. Some of the branches were so tangled around the legs of the animal that he had to snap them before he could retrieve them, but gradually we got the stream clear of wood.
The farmer had anticipated that we'd still need some way of getting the cow up from the stream, and he had the solution in the back of his vehicle. He brought a thin plywood sheet from the floor of his load area, and a tow rope and some broad webbing straps. He placed the plywood over the bank of the stream beside the cow, and arranged the webbing as two slings under the belly of the cow, and he tied the upper ends to the rope and the rope to the towing point at the back of the Land Rover.
“We have to do this quickly. While she's being pulled up, she may not be able to breathe, so we have to get her out quick once we start. Someone try and keep her head up. The best way is to put a finger and thumb into her nostrils and pull, if you can bear to.” I stepped forward at the ready.
The farmer started the engine and moved gingerly off. The rope tautened, the cow fell sideways and gave a weak bellow as she fell against the plywood. As the rope continued to pull, she began to slide up the bank of the ditch and the plywood came with her. He kept going until the cow was on level solid ground and then stopped, and released the rope from the back of the Land Rover. We untied the webbing and the farmer took over from me and gave the animal's nostrils a very firm tug which spurred her to struggle into an upright sitting position. Once she was stable, he let go, but her head drooped, so he pulled at her nostrils and kept pulling to keep her head up.
We hung around until the vet turned up and checked her for broken bones and then announced that the cow would probably survive, and then we left them to it. It had been an exciting, if rather disturbing, episode, and our orienteering seemed rather tame by comparison, and when we realised that we couldn't complete the route in time after the delay, we decided to abandon it and Greg led us on a short cut back to the pick-up point. We got there just before the other group, who'd been ahead of us and missed the sight of the stranded cow, and there were jeers and calls of 'cheat' until we got to tell our story.
There was some confusion at the pick-up point – I had understood that Tom's parents were going to pick Tom up, and that Alex and I would be able to hitch a lift home with them. But Tom said his parents weren't coming, having thought I would be be ferrying the boys home. So Greg's lift, another teacher, offered us a ride and we all squashed into the lady's little car and rode back to the start point, where we transferred into my car, including Greg. I invited him for a coffee, so we all went straight to my place. Tom and Alex disappeared into Alex's room, I showed Greg into my bathroom so he could shower, he was still wet and muddy from the ditch, and brewed coffee while he showered. When he came back down with a towel wrapped around him I couldn't resist admiring the sight of him, before taking him up to my room to find him some clothes. It took willpower not to stand over him while he put them on, but I left him to it and closed the door behind me. He came down looking much better than I do in my clothes, and then he and I settled in the kitchen and talked, and drank the coffee I had brewed.
We talked for an hour, and then I called the boys down and we discussed food, and decided to go out to the local pub, which does reasonable food. The boys were rather subdued, I thought probably because they were in a pub with one of their teachers, but Greg and I continued to get to know one another. After a very good meal, I dropped Tom at his house and then Greg at his flat and returned home with Alex, both of us very tired. We slept in the next morning.
The following Friday I got a phone call from Greg, inviting me for a meal at a favourite restaurant of his. The invite was for me only, without Alex, so I had to check it would be possible for him to spend the evening at Tom's house, after which I phoned him back to accept his invitation.
Greg picked me up promptly, and we had a lovely meal at a rather expensive French restaurant. Somehow I suspected it wasn't really a place familiar to him, I got the impression this was the first time either of us had been there, but it was certainly very good. When Greg dropped me home afterwards, he got out of his car and walked me to the door, and our conversation didn't come to an end, so that we stood on my doorstep for ages, not saying goodbye. I invited him in for a nightcap twice but he refused, saying he needed to be up early the next day although it was a Saturday, but he didn't actually leave. Eventually the conversation ran down, and something changed in the atmosphere between us. He took my hand, I looked into his eyes for affirmation, and when I found it I leaned in for a kiss. It was a lovely kiss, not fiercely passionate, but measured, gentle, slow but not long. A kiss to remember. We pulled apart and met each other's eyes again, sharing a contented smile that told that we'd got something sorted out, and could now move on in our relationship.
I think both of us jumped when the front door opened and we were confronted with Alex and Tom with mischievous smiles, and their arms around each other's waists.
“Good,” said Alex. “Now at least we won't have to trudge over any more windy hillsides trying to get the two of you together.” And he turned and kissed Tom, who responded with enthusiasm. You could have knocked me down with a feather.
I rallied. “You're supposed to be at Tom's. Do his parents know you're here? Is he sleeping over? It's past your bedtime, so get upstairs, the two of you, and I shall expect your light to be out within half an hour. And don't forget to clean your teeth, either of you!”
It's happened. I've turned into a father, and I couldn't be happier. I hope Greg'll fit into the family...
© Bruin Fisher July 2009