On the face of it, it was a very ordinary day, a typical grey afternoon. The shopping centre was busy, shoppers were manoeuvring past each other, laden down with bags, as they made their way towards their various destinations, coffee shop, chain store, car park, bus stop. Mr Jenkins emerged from Marks and Spencer's in the wake of his wife and took in the dynamic of the traffic flow for a moment before attempting to join the throng of moving shoppers, like ants, scurrying this way and that.
A sudden movement at the edge of his vision drew his attention, a movement that didn't belong, that was not part of the consumerist ritual that surrounded him. He focussed. Against the Marks' shop window a young man was lying on the ground, curled up like a bean seedling, his forearms shielding his head from the rain of blows and kicks he was receiving from a much bigger heavy-set youth who was towering over him. Beside the assailant, a girl was cheering him on: “Go on, Ray. Give it to him. It's what he deserves. Hit him harder. That's it, in his face, the little shit.”
He experienced one of those moments when time seems to slow. Only a fraction of a second passed, but a lot went through his mind. He took in the scene and was shocked to realise that other shoppers were aware of the violence taking place, but were dissociating, walking by on the other side like the hypocrites in the Bible story. Mr Jenkins was not a brave man, nor was he a particularly fit man, and he was no longer young. But he strode purposefully up to the big shaven-headed thug whose fists were still flying, landing one-two on the flinching body of his victim. His palm held out in front of him like a locomotive's buffer, he moved between the two, made eye contact and spoke with as much grit in his voice as he could muster: “Enough!”
The other man didn't react immediately, ducked around Mr Jenkins and landed a couple of vicious kicks to the ribcage of the little heap of humanity on the ground. So he repeated his “Enough!” and this time got the attention of the owner of the fists and the boots, who halted, uncertainly. Mr Jenkins pressed his advantage. Positioning himself protectively in front of the man on the ground, he opened his mouth to speak again, but was forestalled by the girl, who weighed in, waving her arms about dramatically, with: “He deserves it. He's disgusting. He's only got what was coming to him.”
Violence was not really in Mr Jenkins' repertoire. He had no skills in that area, could not have defended himself, let alone attacked. But words he could do. Now he turned to the girl and peered over the top of his glasses at her. “I don't know or care what he's done, but nothing justifies beating him to a pulp in the middle of the mall. Enough, now, leave him alone!” And he stood his ground, and maintained eye contact, until the boy and the girl backed off, dropped their bravado and slunk off, merging into the crowd.
Mrs Jenkins was watching all this from a short distance away, open-mouthed. After a glance at the boy on the ground, who was groaning and bleeding but only from a cut lip, and appeared fully conscious, Mr Jenkins rejoined his wife and they walked off, heading for the car park and their journey home. Perhaps he walked slightly differently than his usual middle-aged slouch, more upright, his shoulders back, his head high, a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye. And they had gone no more than about a hundred yards when he stopped abruptly, took his wife by the elbow and frog-marched her into the trendy coffee shop franchise, telling her to buy them both a coffee, and that he would be back in a minute. He left her there, and returned to Marks and Spencer's.
There was no sign of the victim of the attack, he scanned the moving crowds but didn't find him. He hadn't had a good look at the face of the boy and realised he probably wouldn't recognise him if he saw him, unless he saw someone clutching his ribs and groaning. He gave up and returned to his wife and an overpriced, oversized paper cup of coffee which tasted bland and milky.
– O –
Jenny Taylor waddled along the narrow passageway that ran from the shopping centre where she worked to the car park, carrying a bag in each hand. She disliked the alleyway, it didn't feel safe, but the alternative was a much longer walk and she'd been on her feet all day. Wearing a shapeless anorak over her uniform fleece with the shop's logo on the breast, she emerged from the alley into the car park and headed across to the row of spaces reserved for staff, where she could see her little car waiting for her.
She got to the car and dropped her bags, bent and fumbled in one of them to find her car key. With the key in hand she straightened up, and... screamed. In the gap between the cars a young man appeared, dishevelled, scruffy, shambling along, clutching his chest and groaning. Jenny's scream appeared to frighten him almost as much as his appearance frightened her, and he backed away.
“Sorry lady, I didn't mean any harm.” His words came out muffled, through his cut and swollen lip. Jenny recovered some of her composure and told herself there was nothing here to be afraid of. She didn't quite believe herself, but she approached and peered closely at the youth.
“Dear dear, you're in a bad way. Whatever happened?”
The boy looked away so as not to meet her eye. “I got beat up.”
“Well, yes, I can see that. Who did it?”
He just stared blankly. She frowned in frustration.
“You need that lip seen to. Drop in to Casualty at the hospital and get them to look at it for you.”
The young man was still staring mutely.
Jenny sighed in resignation. She wasn't going to get home to a nice cup of tea for a while.
“Come on. Get in.”
She opened the passenger door for him. He didn't respond.
“Get in. I'll take you to the hospital.”
Dumbly, he walked into the open car doorway, and sat backwards into the car seat, flinching with pain. He didn't seem able to do more, so Jenny grasped his calves and swung his legs into the footwell, which made the boy cry out in pain. She crouched beside him, placed her hand very gently on his knee.
“Are you alright? Can you make it to the hospital? It's not far.”
“I think so. Thank you.”
So Jenny loaded her bags into the boot and settled her considerable bulk into the driver's seat. She started the engine and moved off, and drove very gingerly over the speed ramps out of the car park and the couple of miles to the local hospital. She pulled up at the ambulance rank outside the Accident and Emergency entrance, and helped the lad out of the car. She handed him over to a green-clad medic and made sure he was taken in, before returning to her car, fending off the parking attendant who remonstrated with her for blocking ambulance access, and drove off. At home with her shoes off and her feet up and a cup of tea cradled on her ample bosom, she replayed her little adventure in her mind. She realised she hadn't even asked the lad his name.
– O –
The medic took his patient straight into one of the Accident and Emergency cubicles before bringing him to the attention to the nursing staff and returning to his ambulance. Shortly afterwards a young man with very blond hair pulled the curtain back and slid into the cubicle. He showed no surprise at the dishevelled and bloody appearance of the patient. He smiled at him.
“Hello, I'm Timothy. I'm your triage nurse. What's your name?”
“Burdon. Stephen Burdon.”
“Well, then, Stephen, let's take a look at you. You've been in the wars, by the looks of it. Lie down here, would you, take your top off and we'll check you over.”
The young nurse helped Stephen to pull his t-shirt over his head, easing the neck opening past his lip without touching. The thin chest that was revealed showed great red weals on the left side, a couple of identifiable boot-prints, and there was a suspicious-looking protrusion near the middle. Gently, efficiently, he worked his way over Stephen's body, making notes as he went. When he finished, he helped the boy into a hospital gown, and went to fetch pain relief. He returned and installed a cannula into a vein on the back of the patient's hand and then injected a dose of painkiller through it.
“That'll help with the pain. The doctor will get to you soon and he'll see what can be done about your broken rib, and the cut on your lip. I'm sending you for an x-ray because I think you may have a fracture of the forearm.”
He sat down, touched the patient momentarily on the forearm, spoke softly.
“Now, Stephen, I need to ask you how this happened?”
At first there was no reply. Timothy waited.
“I got beat up.”
“Okay. Who beat you up, and why?”
“Can't tell you.”
Timothy frowned. Nothing more was forthcoming, so he tried again.
“Whoever did this is a criminal. The police will want to know who it is, Stephen.”
“Don't want the police.”
“I'm sorry, Stephen, but I'm duty bound to report this. I can't let it go.”
He closed his file and put it down on the bed. He brought the chair up and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees.
“Okay, Stephen. Off the record. I won't be writing anything more down, and I won't be telling the police or anyone else what you say. So... who did this to you, and why?”
Stephen saw the concern in the nurse's face, and his eyes suddenly watered as he realised he was going to trust that face. He took a deep breath and screwed up his face as his chest gave him a stab of pain. It took a moment for him to recover before he spoke.
“It was my own fault.”
Timothy waited, but Stephen had clammed up again. He tried prodding gently.
“What, you beat yourself up?”
“No but it was my fault.”
“How does that work, then?”
“He's my friend. My best friend. We were at school together.”
“A friend? What kind of a friend would do this to you?”
“I told you. It was my own fault.”
“How can it have been your fault?”
“I told him.”
“Told him what?”
Stephen's face contorted and he spat the words out: “I told him how I feel. How I feel about him. I told him... I fancy him.”
Timothy schooled himself not to show a reaction. He shifted his position, sat more upright. “How long have you known?”
“That I'm in love with him? I think I've always known.”
“And he doesn't feel the same way?”
“What do you think? He's straight. I knew there was no hope for me.”
“So you've kept that secret for years. What made you tell him now?”
“It was eating me up.”
“And he took it badly?”
“I thought he would understand.”
“But he didn't, did he?”
“His girlfriend turned up. He... freaked. Just went wild.” Stephen's face twisted again.
“So I see. Look, Stephen, what happened to you was very wrong. Your ex-friend sounds like he has a serious problem. You should consider reporting him to the police in case he does it again. To you, or to someone else.”
“Mmm.” Stephen looked doubtful.
The doctor arrived and Timothy left him to it.
– O –
Later that evening, Stephen was running a bath, considering how to wash off the last of the dried blood without wetting the bandage around his chest. The telephone rang, and he turned the tap off before going to answer it.
“Stephen? Stephen Burdon?”
“Yes, who's this?”
“It's Tim. Tim Johnson.”
Stephen took a moment, wondering whether the painkiller was fogging his brain.
“Johnson, did you say? Sorry, do I know you?”
“Tim Johnson. Triage nurse, the Royal and General, this afternoon?”
“How are you feeling now?”
“Not too bad. I want to have a bath but I don't want to get the bandage wet.”
“If you get it wet, it would be best to change it after your bath. I don't know if you'll be able to do that on your own. Probably best not to get it wet if you can manage that.”
“I think even if I sit up in the bath, the bandage is going to get a bit wet. And even if I could change the bandage, I don't have another one, or any idea how to wrap it around.”
“In the hospital we give bed-baths. You might be able to do something like that. Put a couple of layers of towel on your bed, and get a bowl of hot water and a sponge, and squeeze it out well when you use it. It might be worth having two bowls, and two sponges, and use one for soaping and the other for rinsing. That way you can rinse the soap off more thoroughly.”
“I'd rather have a nice soak in a bath.”
“Well, yes. Bed-baths are awkward, certainly. Look, if you want to have a proper bath, if you like I could come over and help you with the bandage after?”
Stephen's surprise was palpable over the telephone. “Would you do that? Do you do home visits?”
“I wouldn't offer if I didn't mean it.”
“No of course. I'm sorry I didn't mean to offend you. If you're sure it would be okay, thank you I'd like that.”
Stephen gave directions, and so it was that half an hour later his doorbell rang and he opened his door to the nurse, and for a moment they stared at each other. Stephen was in a dressing gown, and Timothy's eyes were drawn to his bare lower legs, nice shaped calf muscles, slim ankles, elegant feet with tiny tufts of hair on the top of each toe. Timothy was dressed in jeans and a sports jacket over a black t-shirt, and Stephen was for a moment fascinated by the maroon tufted fabric of the jacket. Italian, nice, he thought. He resisted an impulse to reach out and feel the fabric, pulled himself together and looked the other in the eye, sparkly blue eyes, and gave a welcoming smile.
“I almost didn't recognise you. You're not in uniform.”
“Well, no. I'm not on duty.”
Stephen was stunned. “Not on duty? Then what... why...?”
Timothy coloured. “I'm sorry. This is awkward. I didn't mean... did you think the hospital provided a home visit service?”
“I... I don't know what I thought. I guess I just assumed... you phoned me. Why...?”
“For some reason your phone number stuck in my mind from the admissions form. I just thought you might be glad of some help. I... well, I wanted to see you again.”
Timothy's blush deepened. They stood in Stephen's hallway, awkwardly silent, until Stephen broke the moment.
“Can we, er, can we start again? Would you like some coffee? Come into the kitchen and we can talk while I make some.”
So they moved into Stephen's little kitchen and talked while the coffee brewed, and then sat in his living room and talked over their drinks. Gradually Stephen came to realise that Timothy was trying to make friends.
Stephen did have his bath, although he nearly changed his mind because he found himself suddenly very shy about taking his dressing gown off in front of Timothy. For some reason it felt different than in the hospital. He overcame his misgivings, though, and Timothy helped him remove the bandage, helped him into the bath, washed his back for him, helped him out of the bath, dried him gently, and wrapped a fresh bandage around him before helping him back into his dressing gown. It was all very intimate and comforting, and therapeutic for Stephen, whose faith in human nature had taken as bad a beating as had his ribs.
During the following weeks Timothy saw a lot of Stephen, and not only so that he could check on his recovery.
– O –
Raymond Higgins was having a difficult time. His life seemed to be falling apart. For days he hadn't been able to function. He hadn't been able to get out of bed in the mornings and failed to turn up to work at the warehouse. He had managed to alienate the group of mates that he had hung with for years, he'd split up with his girlfriend, and now he'd lost his job. The manager had phoned to tell him but he hadn't answered, so the message was there on the answering machine, he could play it over and over if he wished. He didn't wish.
He felt... angry. Angry with life. Angry with himself, really. Yes, with himself. He'd screwed up, ruined what was best in his life and he felt like throwing himself under a bus. He spent hours pacing his flat, occasionally punching walls, smashing ornaments, self-destructive and miserable. He was torn between lashing out at life, going out and getting blind drunk, smashing a telephone box, throwing a brick through a shop window, ending it all in a final, dramatic, ultimate enactment of self-destruction, and hiding away, wallowing in self-pity, crying like a baby. So far the self-pity was winning.
Worn out with misery, he slumped into a chair. He knew he couldn't go on like this; his mental state was beginning to change, a little, from unreasoning anguish to reasoned resignation. His mind gradually came into focus. He had hit rock bottom and there was nowhere left to hide. His self-image, built over years, the king of the heap, leader of the pack, stud, every girl's hero, had crumbled to dust and he saw himself as loser, creep, bully, human garbage. In that condition he saw things in himself he had never dared to look at before. The aspects of his character that the king of the heap could not and would not accept were now open for his consideration. It came as a shock. Something else, too, became clear and it wasn't a shock. He knew what he had to do. He'd always known, really, but now he could face it. He had no self-respect left, so he could face anything. He sat for a long time before getting up and putting shoes on to go out.
It was not a long walk but when he got to the nondescript building that he knew so well he stood across the road for ages, unable to pluck up the courage to walk up the five steps to the front door and ring the doorbell. When, eventually, he managed it, he stood on the step for five minutes before he pulled himself together and realised that there was no-one home, or at least no-one answering the door. It did occur to him that there might be a pair of eyes watching him through the net curtains, perhaps from the bay window to his left. What a sight he must be, a big gorilla of a man, all muscles, but with head hung low and eyes downcast and shoulders drooping, as they had been for days now, and he didn't have the heart to stand up straight and pull his shoulders back. He walked home as dejected as ever.
– O –
A week had passed since the shopping centre incident, which meant that Mr and Mrs Jenkins returned for their weekly ritual of provisioning. As usual, Mr Jenkins was the beast of burden, progressively becoming loaded down with thin plastic carrier bags in bright colours, proclaiming their origin by colour co-ordination. Orange for Sainsbury's, yellow for Morrison's, green for Asda. After the Tesco ordeal (white) he was carrying his limit and his wife took pity on him and sent him back to the car to unload, and then to meet her in Starbucks where he would be rewarded with a coffee. Oh, joy, thought Mr Jenkins.
After depositing the bags in the boot of his car, he returned along the alleyway which gives pedestrian access to the precinct, and opens into the broad cobbled area just beyond Marks and Spencer. Turning to join the throng of shoppers he remembered the last time he'd been there, and looked towards the scene of the crime. There was someone there, huddled almost like the victim had been huddled the week before. He negotiated his way through the stream of shoppers, changing lanes, as it were, so that he was still moving along the pedestrian precinct, but now coming close to the Marks and Spencer's window as he passed. The youth was sitting on the ground with his back against the window glass and his knees tucked up and acting as a chin rest, his arms wrapped around to hold them tight against his chest. His stare ahead was blank and defocussed and Mr Jenkins wondered about drug addiction.
Looking closer, a glimmer of recognition assailed him. The lad, who would have been called skinhead two decades previously, wearing a tight white t-shirt which showed every muscle contour, even tighter faded blue jeans with an exaggerated turn-up at the ankle and with a brown leather belt which was probably entirely unnecessary, and cherry-red boots reaching up his calves, might have been the attacker from the previous week, except his whole demeanour was different. Here was no macho bravado, supreme self-confidence or cock-of-the-roost swagger. This, thought Mr Jenkins, was a broken man. And so young.
As he passed within a yard of the bedraggled figure, much closer than the other shoppers who veered away from him as they passed as though by magnetic repulsion, the head rose off the knees and the eyes peered blearily upwards in mild surprise at the proximity of another body. And Mr Jenkins saw, unmistakable, the answering glimmer of recognition. The bleary eyes watered, but held his own, watching, waiting to see what he would do.
He bent, to bring the boy into the region of vision that his old eyes worked best at. What he saw reassured him that he was in no physical danger.
“You're the boy I saw beating up that other lad, last week.”
There was no answer, but the eyes no longer held his own, and the head dipped back down to rest on the knees. Despite that, Mr Jenkins was now sure that he was right. He decided to ask the question that had been running through his mind all week.
“What did you do that for?”
Still no answer, but the shoulders began to shake. The thought, 'the boy's laughing at me' floated through his mind but didn't settle. The head rocked from side to side, one hand came up from around the knees and thumb and forefinger pushed into the eye sockets. The shaking of the shoulders continued and Mr Jenkins thought he could hear, through the general hubbub of the mall, a whimpering.
He didn't know what to do. He was beginning to feel sorry for the boy, which was unexpected and incongruous. He should be feeling indignant, even angry. And he really did want to know the story behind the beating. Now that he was facing the perpetrator he knew he had to know. Otherwise he would lie awake at night wondering.
“Come on. Get up, we'll go and get a coffee.” He heard his own voice with mild surprise. Had he really invited the thug for coffee? Yes, he had. And he meant it. Would he be accepted? He watched the downcast head. No response. Doubtful, then.
He didn't give up. He reached down and patted the muscular shoulder.
“Come on. Coffee.”
The body below him unfolded and stood up, and up, until it towered above him. He had a moment's doubt about his decision, but one look at the woebegone face and the non-threatening attitude put his mind at rest. He led the way, turned to check that the boy was following him, and suddenly realised that he couldn't take him into Starbucks. He remembered that the local bookshop had a café attached and headed towards it. He wondered whether his wife would be waiting for him at their rendezvous point, but decided that was unlikely. Mrs Jenkins was in love with shopping, and could always be relied on to be longer shopping than she had planned. He reckoned he had a good half hour before he needed to be at Starbucks.
The boy was following him, a pace or two behind, but without any enthusiasm. Mr Jenkins' curiosity was running on overdrive. They arrived at Waterstone's and walked through to the seating area at the back, where Mr Jenkins sat the boy at a vacant table where he would be able to see him while he queued for their drinks. The boy didn't seem to know what kind of coffee he wanted, so he suggested hot chocolate instead, which he accepted with a nod.
He kept an eye on the lad while he queued, but all that happened was that he folded his arms on the table and lay his head down on them. When he brought the tray of drinks, and a couple of slices of cake, the boy sat up to make space on the table, and Mr Jenkins emptied the tray, placing cups and saucers and the plate of cake on the table, before disposing of the tray on the shelving unit provided for the purpose.
He gave the boy a minute to begin drinking his chocolate, and noticed that after the first time he put the cup to his lips he was left with a white moustache of whipped cream. In other circumstances he would have smiled in amusement, but now he felt it would be more tactful to keep his thoughts to himself. He decided now was the opportunity to ask his question again.
“Why did you do it?”
The boy licked his lips, removing some but not all of the cream.
“It was Jenny. She came in. She heard what he said. I had no choice...” he tailed off.
“It was you who beat him, not Jenny. Why?”
“She was my girlfriend.”
“You're not making any sense. What's that got to do with anything?”
The boy looked up in surprise, and then put his elbows on the table, forearms up and rested his forehead on his palms so that his face was downwards. He was quiet there for a minute and then he began speaking.
“Stevie told me something. Something shocking. It's personal. He was – is – my friend. My good friend, and I would have been okay with it. I could have helped, perhaps; he needed my support. But Jenny came in. She heard what he said and she was shocked. The thing is, then I had to be shocked too. I couldn't let Jenny see I was okay with it. She said he was disgusting and... and she expected me to beat him. That's... how you deal with something like that. So I beat him. I was afraid, I know that now, I was afraid that Jenny would think I wasn't disgusted, I was afraid of what she would think of me if I didn't react the way she expected. So I was beating poor Stevie,” his voice cracked up and he paused before continuing “... beating him to show Jenny that I'm normal. I was using my best friend to tell a lie to my girlfriend.” He was actively sobbing now, pressing his palms to his eye-sockets.
Mr Jenkins looked around the café. It was mostly empty now, and there was no longer a queue at the serving counter. No-one seemed to be paying any attention to them. He scooted his chair closer to the boy's and reached out to him. Rather to his surprise, the boy immediately leaned towards him, put his head on his shoulder and cried into his tweed jacket. He reached around the broad shoulders and pulled him close, and held him there, patting his back, until the crying stopped.
It had been a long while since the last time he'd held a crying child to comfort it, and the sensation came back to him, along with the memory of how protective he felt, how he radiated security to calm the child. This felt a little different, the child in this case being several inches taller than him, but the protective instinct was still there.
When the boy calmed, and sat back against his own chairback, Mr Jenkins asked another question.
“Stevie, his name is? How is he now?”
The boy shook his head. “I don't know. I've tried to see him, but I can't. I just can't. I beat him, what must he think of me now? I can't bear to think he might be afraid of me. If I see him and I see that fear, it would... it would break my heart.”
Mr Jenkins quietly sipped his espresso macchiato. Something occurred to him.
“I don't know your name.”
“Okay, Ray. Earlier you said Jenny 'was' your girlfriend. You didn't say she 'is' your girlfriend. But when you said Stevie 'was' your friend, you corrected yourself and said 'is' instead. Do you see the difference?”
“I don't understand.”
“Well, you make it sound like your relationship with Jenny is over.”
“It is. We broke up.”
“Okay. What about your relationship with Stevie?”
“I still want to be his friend.”
“But you can't even go and see him to see if he's okay? He had some pretty bad bruises!”
“I'm afraid he'll hate me.”
“He won't hate you if he can see you're sorry.”
The conversation seemed to be over so they concentrated on their drinks. Mr Jenkins was drinking the last of his little cup of heavily sweetened coffee when he remembered his wife with a guilty start.
“I have to go. Thanks for talking. I think you should tell Stevie what you told me. I think he'll forgive you.”
Ray nodded. “Thank you for listening, and... thank you for your advice. I'll try.”
Just before he reached the invisible line between the café and the children's section, Mr Jenkins turned and asked one last question.
“Why did you come and have coffee with me?”
Ray smiled for the first time. “You stopped me from hurting Stevie worse. I wanted to say thank you!”
Mr Jenkins smiled back and nodded. He nearly knocked over a Harry Potter cardboard cutout.
– O –
Raymond Higgins once again found himself at the foot of the steps leading up to the front door of the building which contained the small flat in which his former best friend lived. Again he climbed the steps and rang the bell on the panel with the little loudspeaker grille, the bell next to the label 'Flat 2 – Stephen Burdon'. It was Saturday morning and he thought Stevie would be home. He knew he usually did his weekly shopping on Saturdays around noon, after a leisurely morning. Sure enough, the loudspeaker crackled into life.
“Yes?” The voice was distorted, unrecognisable.
“Stevie, it's Ray. Can I come in?”
There was no further voice through the loudspeaker, but the door lock buzzed and Ray pushed. The door opened with a click and the buzzing stopped. He closed it carefully behind him and followed the hallway a few yards to the door marked with a brass 2. Usually by the time he got to the door, Stevie would have opened it and be standing waiting for welcome him in, but this time the door remained resolutely closed. Ray wasn't going to take offence, he knew how badly he'd damaged their friendship, so he knocked on the door with his knuckle. It opened and Ray stepped forward, and then stopped, stunned, because the young man behind the door was not Stevie. He gaped.
“Stephen's in the shower, but he'll be out shortly. Would you like to come in and wait?”
Ray couldn't reply. He was looking at the handsome young man with the blond highlights in his hair and his air of being at home and all the despair returned. He mumbled something about coming back another time and turned and fled. What had he been thinking of? Why did he think he might be able to patch up the relationship? What deluded him into believing he and Stevie might... and Raymond Higgins cursed the old man who had persuaded him in Waterstone's coffee shop.
– O –
Mrs Higgins was at the kitchen sink, peeling potatoes, when the doorbell rang.
“Ray! RAY! Doorbell!”
She knew he was up there, in his bedroom, but she didn't hear the characteristic elephant-stampede sound as he hurtled downstairs to the door. She was worried about her son, he had become sulky and withdrawn, and that wasn't like him. He could be boorish and bad-mannered, and ever since he'd turned thirteen, which was eight years ago now, he'd been a typical boy, loud, smelly and with a sense of humour which seemed to revolve around bodily functions. His room had a permanent rather disturbing odour, composed of fetid clothing discarded on the floor, unwashed bedlinen, and other less identifiable esters. She could cope with all that, she even found it endearing, like a puppy that was not quite house-trained. But he'd changed, quite suddenly, and for the first time she found his clothes from yesterday in the laundry basket today, resulting in a visible floor space in his bedroom that she could vacuum. That should have been delightful, but instead it worried her. Along with his new-found tidiness came a new despondency, almost desperation. It wasn't right. Perhaps it was her fault. Had she nagged him too much about his room?
The doorbell rang a second time, and she sighed and dried her hands on her apron as she walked to the door.
“Stevie! How nice to see you! You haven't been around for a while. Come along in. He's in his room, go straight up.”
Cheered considerably by the arrival of Ray's oldest friend, she returned to her potatoes, hopeful that perhaps Stevie could restore her son's good humour, even if it meant more fart jokes at the dinner table. She listened for the clatter of shoes on the stairs as Stevie ran up them two at a time as was his wont. She heard nothing. Perhaps Stevie is depressed like Ray? she thought. She promised herself to check the football results, perhaps their team was doing badly.
Stephen did climb the stairs, but slowly, stair by stair, hesitantly. At the top he found Ray's door closed and stood staring at it for a long moment. Before, when they were friends, he would have just barged through the door, heedless of his friend's privacy. Privacy hadn't been an issue between them. But now the dynamic had changed. Ray knew that his ex-friend was a poofter, was disgusted by him. Stephen couldn't presume on the friendship any more. He knocked on the door, timidly.
From the other side came a muffled cry: “Just push it, Mum.”
He pushed and it swung open a few inches, the catch hadn't been engaged. He pushed further and the room was revealed, not exactly tidy but much more presentable than Stephen could remember seeing it before. Ray was lying on his bed in the middle of the room, and sat up, swung his legs off the side of the bed and looked away into the corner of the room when he saw that the intruder was Stevie, not his mother.
“Timothy says you called to see me.”
“A friend. A good friend.”
Ray choked. “I'm... I'm glad for you.”
Stephen smiled, walked into the room, sat at the foot of the bed, twisted so he could face Ray, although Ray was still looking away from him.
“Not that kind of friend, you chump. Just a friend, okay?”
For the first time Ray turned to look at him.
“He was there, yesterday morning, looking like he lived there, and you were in the shower.”
“He's a nurse. He comes and helps me put on a new dressing after I shower. He doesn't get paid to do it, he's a good friend.”
The silence between them became awkward, which made each of them realise how much their relationship had changed. Silence could never have been awkward before, they'd spent ages sitting together on the couch in Mrs Higgins' living room drinking beer and not talking much if at all and it had never been awkward.
When the silence broke, they both spoke at once.
“I hear you broke up with Jenny?” and “Stevie, I have to tell you I'm sorry” got jumbled together so that neither really registered what the other had said. Stephen was the first to try again.
“I hear you broke up with Jenny?”
“No, no, it's for the best. It... wasn't right.”
“She and I... well, we didn't see things the same.”
Stephen thought this over. “Was it about me?”
“Don't be. She's, um, homophobic. I didn't realise.”
“Oh, God, Ray, I'm so sorry. I should never have spoken up. I should have kept my big trap shut. None of this would have happened.”
He flinched, because Ray's hand had landed on his, on the counterpane. He looked up and found Ray's eyes boring into his.
“Stevie, none of this is your fault. It's all mine. I wasn't prepared, I just flipped, and I'm ashamed. I came over to tell you how sorry I am, and to ask you to be my friend again, but when I saw your friend I bottled out.”
Stephen pulled his hand out from under Ray's, and then took it and held it in both of his.
“Why did you attack me?”
Ray was prepared for this question, and had been able to answer it when Mr Jenkins had asked it. But it was still difficult to explain to his best friend.
“I... I did it to show Jenny that I rejected you.”
Sensing that there was more to come, Stephen waited, and more came.
“I had to show her that I hated gays as much as she did. Even though it was a lie. And I'm sorry, Stevie, can you... can you ever forgive me?”
The big youth with the figure of a wrestler and the face of a gangster burst into tears. He pulled his hand away from Stephen's, and wrapped both arms across his own chest and sat there on the bed, rocking backwards and forwards a little, his face red and distorted, crying freely. Stephen watched him, unsure what to do. Unlike Mr Jenkins, he didn't feel able to hug his friend.
When the crying subsided, Stephen addressed Ray's question 'can you ever forgive me'.
“You just went mad. You attacked me, like a crazy person. I've never seen you like that, over anything, least of all me. For God's sake we've known each other all our lives. We've had our nappies changed together!”
“I know. I'm so sorry. There's more to tell you. Give me a moment?”
Stephen nodded. Ray left the room and returned a moment later trailing several feet of toilet paper, which he proceeded to use to blow his nose on, and then to wipe at his face. He made a ball of the used tissue and dropped it on the floor. Despite the tension of the situation Stephen found he give a little attention to this, and found himself smiling wryly. Ray hadn't totally changed from the old Ray he'd known and loved.
Ray sat down, a little closer to Stephen than before.
“Stevie, when you told me you're gay and that you, er, liked me that way, it was a shock. You must have realised it would be. All these years I never knew you were gay. We discovered girls together, didn't we? All those late night chats about this girl's knockers or that girl's arse? I thought you were straight. Look, I'm not blaming you, you never lied to me, but I thought you were straight. How long ago did you know you weren't?”
Stephen grinned. “Difficult to say. There were signs, but I ignored them. I never really knew for certain if I wasn't so affected by girls as other boys, or if I was just better mannered than some of them. Some of the guys seemed to lose their brains and turn into dribbling idiots when a pretty girl walked by. On the other hand I've always had to work to control myself in the changing rooms. Do other boys look at each others pricks? I don't know. But I certainly don't. I couldn't take that risk.”
He paused, and looked across at Ray, checking to see if he was traumatised by this conversation, but Ray was looking at him with a little smile. So he continued.
“Don't freak on me, but you've asked and I'm going to tell you. Look, I'm a guy like any other guy, and it doesn't take much to get me, er, aroused. And I, er, relieve myself sometimes. You know that, and I know you do it too. Don't deny it. You also know that, er, manual relief works best if you think thoughts that, er, help it on its way. I don't know what you think of, but I've tried thinking of girls, with and without clothes on, and I have to tell you it doesn't work nearly as well as thinking about boys.”
He paused again to check on the effect he was having. He didn't want to risk another violent response from the much larger boy. But the much larger boy was still smiling at him.
“For a long time I assumed I just wasn't far enough through puberty yet. Like everything else about me, it would be changing very shortly, and any day now I'd find girls sexy. But it didn't happen. I'm twenty now, I reckon it's not going to happen, is it?”
Stevie was clearly expecting some kind of response. Ray said:
“So, how long ago did you decide you were gay?”
“When I got jealous. I didn't like you going out with Jenny, and for a long time I told myself it was because she wasn't right for you. Well, she wasn't, but that wasn't the reason. I was jealous. I wanted you.”
Stephen realised with some surprise that he had blushed a deep crimson. He began to giggle.
“Look, you dinosoar, I've been in love with you as long as I can remember. I've always loved you, but it wasn't until I began to notice your body, how you'd grown, how your muscles moved under your skin, how the hair on the back of your neck grows sideways, your beautiful blue eyes, the graceful way you walk, like a leopard, that I realised I was stuck on you. You became the image I held in my head at night and that worked, worked every time.”
Now they were both giggling. “Eugh, Stevie! I didn't need to hear that! You wank off thinking of me? That's... well, it's... it's...” and a change came over Ray's face and a new determination showed. “It's sweet.” and the giggling stopped dead.
It was Stevie's turn to react, and he said “What?”
“I said, it's sweet.”
“Stevie, I said there's more I haven't told you, and there is. You've always loved me? I've always loved you, too. But I'm not clever like you. I didn't think it out. There was too much at stake, I had to be what everyone built me up as. I couldn't be gay, so I never considered the possibility that I was. Like you I wasn't sensing the attraction of girls, I kept trying to fall in love with one. That was so stupid because I knew all about love, I had a secure, safe, steady love, a love so true and faithful that I'd have staked my life on it any day. It was staring me in the face, staring everyone else in the face too, if they'd only looked.”
Stephen was looking very serious, which worried Ray, but he didn't comment, so Ray continued.
“When you told me how you felt about me, I had to take a lot in all at once, and I'm sorry, I will be sorry till the end of my days, that I failed. You see, I didn't only have to accept that my best friend is gay, and that he likes me, but I had to analyse what the difference was, if any, between what you declared to me and what I feel for you. I did that – I worked it out. There wasn't any significant difference. But the conclusion that took me to, that I too am gay, was beyond me. That was when Jenny walked in, and she'd heard the last part of what you said.”
“I'm sorry, Stevie, but at that moment I was thinking 'I can't cope with this. Make it all go back to being the way it was.' I didn't want to have to deal with the repercussions of being gay, of coming out to my mates who would reject me, to my girlfriend who would dump me, to my mother who would be devastated. And I bottled out, lashed out at you to bolster my self-image. I couldn't be gay. So I rejected you, and my own self too. I'm so sorry.”
Throughout this conversation they had been sitting close together on Ray's bed, but not touching, and talking in subdued voices. Artificially calm, because what they were discussing was highly emotional and it would be impossible if either of them let their emotions take over. But now, what had to be said had been said, and each of them took pause to absorb the implications. It was Stephen who spoke next.
“You prat! You bloomin' prat! You're gay, but you beat me black and blue because I'm gay? Or because I love you? What a berk!” - and he swung a slap at Ray's shoulder, which Ray deflected, and dealt with the next one coming from the other hand by simply launching himself at the smaller man and lying on top of him chest to chest, from where Stephen wrapped his arms around his friend and ineffectually battered against his back with his fists. They were both giggling uncontrollably. Ray reached around his back and grabbed at each of Stephen's wrists, pulled them up and back until they were on the bed above Stephen's head, held there with one big paw. He lifted away from Stephen a little and just looked into his eyes, watching him play at struggling to free himself. Stephen stilled and looked back, calmly, smiling. Ray had a free hand, and stroked Stephen's chin very gently.
“I love you, Stephen Burdon. I love you, and that means I can't be friends with my old mates, and I can't have a girlfriend and my mother's going to have forty fits, but I love you and that's the way it is. I know I've screwed it up in the worst possible way but I'm asking, with all my heart, if we can be friends again?”
Whatever answer he might have been expecting didn't come. Instead Stephen strained to lift his head a little from the bed, couldn't get close enough to kiss Ray.
“C'me 'ere, you!” he murmured, and Ray hesitantly dipped his head to Stephen's and they kissed, lip to lip, gently, oh so gently, they held the kiss. Stephen opened his eyes and met Ray's and he felt that he'd come home. His eyes watered a little.
“Get off me, then, you big lump, let me stand up!” So Ray stood up and held a hand out to help Stephen up. Standing by the bed, Stephen didn't let go of the hand Ray had pulled him up with, but wrapped it behind him and pulled Ray to him into a hug, and another kiss. They stood entangled together, savouring the feeling of togetherness, and Ray felt the tip of Stephen's tongue tracing around the contour of his lips. He opened his mouth slightly and they touched tongues. Ray had never done that, not with any girl and certainly not with a boy but with Stephen it felt right, and somehow intimate. It felt like they belonged together.
An hour later Mrs Higgins shouted up the stairwell.
“Dinner will be in half an hour. Is Stevie staying?”
Ray called out his reply:
“Yes please, Mum. We'll be going out to the pictures after.”
They were lying beside each other on the bed, their heads together, and Ray turned to face Stephen.
“Is that okay? Can you stay?”
There was no immediate answer, so he nibbled Stephen's ear. “Mmm.”
After the meal, roast Sunday joint, the boys washed the dishes. Mrs Higgins was struggling to keep up. Now both boys seemed to be their old selves, but with better manners. Clearly she was missing something. It wasn't until they left for the cinema and she caught a glimpse of them through the living room window as they walked down the road together, that she realised – and sat down very suddenly. They had unconsciously joined hands as they walked. She sat for some minutes, and then got up, poured herself a glass of sweet sherry, and settled into her favourite armchair. She was smiling to herself as she pushed the button on the television remote control to watch the Sunday evening nature programme.
© Bruin Fisher November 2010