Tom had woken early and lay for a while watching Stuart sleep, his resemblance to some voluptuous Caravaggio verging on the ridiculous. He marvelled at his eyelashes - no doubt the envy of the girls - and the mingled suggestion of innocence and sensuality in his parted lips. How, he’d asked himself, had this impossible young man taken over his world – his carefully considered, artfully arranged, still life of an existence? How does he both prick and flatter his ego, challenge and validate him and move him as easily to tears as laughter? Maddening, maddening boy! He wondered how long he might be loaned this happiness and how long before he’d feel it unkind not to set him free. Maybe never. Not yet, at least. Not today...
And then he’d drifted off into one of those fitful early morning dozes, full of vivid dreams whose emotional resonances colour the day. He dreamed of mangled, feathered bodies and the shrieking cries of mobbing birds - yesterday’s anecdote perhaps not as free from metaphor as he’d pretended.
He wakes later to some soft reggae coming from the living room and blearily stumbles in to find Stuart sitting on the floor surrounded by records – gatefolds, singles and limited editions scattered carelessly around him. He is unable to resist touching the top of his head as he passes, pushing his fingers into the springy mass, “Morning, Dakin”, he says.
Stuart lifts his head and grins, enjoying the easy mutual acknowledgement of the absurdity; they are no longer those people – unless they choose to be. “Hello, Sir”.
Tom grins back, “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like?”
“Alphabetical and then chronological?”
“Yeah, but I’m getting totally side-tracked reading lyrics and sleeve notes. Sorry, it’s a bit of a mess – I expect it’ll get worse before it gets better. Look at this one”. He holds up a gatefold tome of closely printed text, which Tom cranes his neck to read.
“Fascinating, but I wasn’t in education long enough to have perfected the art of reading upside down”.
“S’pose not...I did not expect to find Ska in your collection”.
“No, that is definitely my sister’s influence. I was always hearing it coming out of her room; I suppose it reminds me of home, the good things about home anyway. I woke up to it just now, that was…”
“… What are you smiling at?”
“You. You look… at home”.
“I feel at home”. He doesn’t add that he feels at home in a way home has mostly eluded him – relaxed, unguarded, himself.
“Good. Just be careful, please. Make sure the inner sleeves are the right way round so they don’t fall out”.
“I know! I do have records you know”.
“Yes, but you probably eat your dinner off them”. Tom gives him a playful nudge to the thigh with his foot, to make it clear he’s teasing.
“Cheek. I might have to grab some when I get my mum’s stuff – you haven’t quite dragged yourself into the 80’s, have you?”
“I’m going to treat that with the contempt it deserves. So, we’re going to see Posner and Scripps tonight, is that right? They’ve barely dragged themselves past the 50’s".
“Yeah, is that okay?”
“Will everyone be there?”
“As far as I know”.
“So, how will we… Stu, leave the records alone for a second…what do they all know?”
Stu has descended down the record sleeve rabbit hole again, “Hmm? Sorry... what?”
“How much do the others know about us?”
“Oh, everything - probably. Are you nervous?”
“Of course I’m fucking nervous. Nervous is reasonable, complete disinterest isn’t”.
“Sorry. What are you worried about? You know they all know – they all took the piss out of me at school. Scripps? Well, you and he have your own thing… whatever that is. Scripps and Pos… you know about that and I think it’s your doing anyway. And it’s not like we’re going to be snogging in public, is it – more’s the pity… don’t come if you don’t want to...”
“What?... Am I being insensitive?”
“Shall I bring you a mirror so you can see what insensitive looks like? Yes, you’re being insensitive. Stu, leave the damn records alone”. He stops talking until Stuart is forced to look at him. “I do want to come. It’s just – you only have to be who you’ve always been; I have to be someone else”.
Stuart sighs and hauls himself off the floor - being careful to avoid treading on any of the precious artefacts. He grabs Tom by his dressing gown cord and pulls him in. Decides, on second thoughts, to pull the cord undone and slip his hands inside. Running his hands around Tom’s ribs, he says, “Penfold, shush” and tries to kiss him.
Much as he wants to, Tom can barely return the kiss for laughing. “Is that how you see yourself – Danger Mouse? You’ve got delusions of grandeur. And I’m a cowardly, bespectacled hamster, am I?”
“A loyal, cowardly, bespectacled hamster though”. Stu loves to hear him laugh – feels it a reward worth putting some effort into. “That’s better. Right, let’s start again. Good morning. No, you were someone else then , now you just have to be yourself. But maybe that’s harder?”
“Yes... it’ll be like letting daylight in upon magic for the poor boys. Then there’s Posner – how do we face him?"
“Pos has definitely moved on. He and Scripps... I don’t know what you said but it lit a fire under them. Look, there’ll be a few awkward moments, but it’ll be fine, honestly. They love me and I love you… so…” He kisses him again, without resistance this time.
Tom, lost in the blissful insistence of Stuart’s kiss, hears the implication from a long way off and pulls away. “What, like - love me; love my dog?”, he asks.
“Something like that”.
He shakes his head at him and heads towards the kitchen, “Yeah, thanks Stu. Tea?”
Stuart stands for a few seconds observing the chaos he’s created - it’s not what he’d intended. He follows Tom into the kitchen where he’s waiting for the kettle to boil. He slips his arms around his waist from behind and pulls him back to rest against him – Tom surrenders to it. Burying his face in his neck Stu says, “No, nothing like that at all”.
While Tom’s in the shower, Stu calls Scripps. He says it’s to get the details for tonight but, before he rings off, he says, “By the way, can you do me a favour? Is there any chance you could warn the others about me and Tom and tell them not to be dicks about it? Please".
“Are you worried about it?”
“Me? Couldn’t give a toss. But he is and I don’t want him to feel… you know. And tell them not to call him Sir – don’t think that will go down too well”.
“Okay, leave it with me”, Scripps replies.
The things he does for Dakin.
Scripps takes his chore seriously and has five separate conversations explaining and cajoling. They’d all seen the state of Dakin last Saturday and, while none of them is exactly surprised, reactions range from the bemused - Rudge - to the befuddled - Timms. Timms says there’ll soon be more nancies than not, proving he’s no mathematician. Scripps hopes he’s counting two and not three. Lockwood is philosophical, Akhtar caustic and Crowther enigmatic – he says he might bring a friend. They all agree, with varying degrees of conviction, not to be dicks about it. But no one defines their terms.
All his entreaties have had to be spoken at a hissed volume below his mother’s range and, by the time he’s done, he’s wrung out and parched and not really in the mood for what comes next. But when would he ever be?
His mum is in her natural habitat – the kitchen.
“You’ve been on the phone a long time”.
Is that a statement or a question? No, it’s fishing - always fishing. He doesn’t reply.
“Is David coming round today, love?”
“Yes, we’ve got this thing on at the pub later, so we need to run through it a bit”.
“Okay, that’ll be nice. Tea?”
“Yes, please… I was just about to make one anyway. Sit down, mum, I’ll make you one, for a change”.
She sits at the kitchen table feeling she should be doing something. She watches her son carefully, noting how tall and handsome and self-possessed he’s become and allows herself a moment of pride in having raised a whole, fully-formed man - no mean feat. But still, there’s a storm brewing.
The endearment as question. Never a good sign. His heart begins pounding.
“I want to ask you something. But I want you to know you don’t have to answer, if you don’t want to”.
No conversation should start like this, especially with one’s mother. The assurance that you need say nothing is a monstrous trap; you may certainly remain silent but you will be judged on it. He deflects and makes light.
“Oh God, what have I done now? Did I forget to use a coaster?”
She laughs, “Twit!” And, after an interminable pause, “Donald… I have to ask you about David… about you and David”.
“Oh”. He turns his back on her as the kettle boils, thankful for the moments to collect himself.
Nothing to be done; nowhere to run. “Look, mum, can you please ask a direct question I can actually answer”.
So, she does, “You’re more than friends, aren’t you?”
And here everything pivots. If it’s said, it can’t be unsaid; if it’s unsaid, it might never be said. And his future is trammelled up in the decision that hangs between the saying and the unsaying.
He wavers, “I don’t know what you mean”.
“For goodness sake, Donald, I didn’t come down with the last shower”.
“Shit!” This as much at the boiling water he’s poured on his hand while filling the teapot. The pain is a distraction, at least.
“Oh, Donald, your hand! Come on, let’s run it under the cold tap. That’s going to be sore”.
He allows her to fuss, surrendering to the comforting regression. And, while they’re side by side, she holding his wrist and running cool, soothing water over the back of his hand, he whispers his confession into the silence.
“Mum, it’s so new. I mean, really very new. How do you know? How do you do that?”
She smiles to herself, watching the water flow over the blossoming wound and drip from the long, pianist’s fingers – so like her own. “When you were little and got caught doing something naughty, I used to tell you I had eyes in the back of my head and you would get behind me and try to find them… you never did. It’s not new, love; it’s just been a long time coming. And I’ve noticed you seem a lot closer and David… well, David – you know…”
She’s looking at him now and smiling. The relief of it and the memory of a thousand scraped knees and the balm of a thousand magic kisses, draw scalding tears from some forgotten childhood well. She abandons her ministrations to throw her arms awkwardly round his neck and kiss his wet face. “Oh, Donny… don’t cry, love. No, no, do cry. It helps to have a good cry. I do it often”.
“Oh, wow, this is unexpected”.
“Yeah, why am I crying?”
She pulls away from him to hold him by the shoulders and have a good look at him. “It’s a release and it looks like you’ve got something that needs releasing. Oh, my poor little Donny. I can’t kiss this one better, can I?”
“No… are you okay about this?"
She lets him go and turns off the tap – their cloudburst having splashed water everywhere. Her reply is not at all what he expects.
“I can’t lose you, Donny”.
“Lose me? You won’t lose me. Why would you?”
“I think I might, if I don’t get this right... I don’t think I know how to get this right and I can’t say I would have wished it, but there you go – it can’t be helped. Sit down, love, I’ll do the tea”.
He sits in her seat at the table. She hands him ice wrapped in a tea towel for his hand and some kitchen paper for his tears. Her hands are marked in water on his shoulders. He says, “Everything that is the case...”
“Everything that it is the case. It was a thing at school – the world is everything that is the case. Totty, Mrs Lintott, said it was a very feminine way of looking at things”.
“Very clever, I’m sure”. She bristles slightly. She’d felt discomforted by Mrs Lintott, a woman in a world of men – alone and childless or independent and childfree, depending on your perspective. She reminded her too much of her own paths not taken, knowing they are the choices only women make. “I’d say there’s no point crying over spilt milk – but what do I know? How is this fitting in with all the church business?”
“Yeah, I’m struggling with that”.
“You could talk to the curate”.
“Richard? Why Richard?”
“You mean, tall, good-looking Richard. Not married; never had a girlfriend, as far as I know. Donald, you are a very clever boy but your powers of observation let you down”.
“Oh. Really? You, on the other hand, are a regular sleuth”.
“Hardly, I just pay attention. Look, listen, and learn, sweetheart”.
“Thanks for the advice, mum, but I don’t think I will. I know what he’ll say”.
“How can you know?”
“He’ll say I can feel how I feel but I can’t act on how I feel and I can't… not… I can’t, mum. How I feel isn’t some kind of test sent from God to see how much I love him. I’m not meant to prove my love by way of a lifelong act of self-sacrifice, am I? That would be cruel. I wouldn’t do that to my children – would you?”
She bites her tongue against suggesting lifelong acts of self-sacrifice tend to be a mother’s lot and he’ll never know that love is largely unrequited. Freely given, grudgingly received and never fully returned: an ever-flowing downstream thing, nourishing the banks of its course but leaving its source undiscovered and constant. “No, I suppose not”, is all she says.
“No, you wouldn’t. And he’ll do all that... hate the sin, love the sinner – business. And then I might punch him. The sin is part of the sinner”.
Her expression has darkened and her tone becomes sharper. “Sanctimony, doesn’t suit you, Donald, and as you’ve never punched anyone in your life, you’re not about to start now. Richard is a young man who’s probably been through everything you are – give him a chance. I’m sure you’re more than capable of arguing your case, if you need to”.
“Are you angry with me?”
“No. No, not angry. That would be like being angry with the weather.... but you have to allow me... I don’t know... sadness, I suppose. Sometimes you have to let yourself grieve for the life you thought you’d have before you can get on with enjoying the one you’ve got. And it’s not always a quick process. I know this family thinks I’m a bit of a Pollyanna, but I’m not. It's hard trying to please everyone all the time”.
“Trying to please all the people all the time is a thankless task, mum”.
“I know that”, she snaps; because I am rarely thanked, she thinks. She hands him his tea and sits down.
Scripps sighs, “I think I’m doing that too, a bit - grieving for some kind of imagined future”.
And she softens, “There’s no way around it, love, you have to go through it. It will be a hard path and I wouldn’t have chosen it for you. But you love who you love. Nan and Grandad didn’t speak to me for weeks when I said I was marrying Dad. Too old for me! Bugger all they could do about it though - pardon my French”.
“You never swear”.
“Don’t I? Maybe it’s time I started. I’m saving it all up for a crotchety old age. I’ll be like a docker when I’m your Nan’s age. What I mean is, it taught me there’s no point fighting these things. If you try to come between people, it only brings them closer together. It makes them feel it’s them against the world”.
“Would you though, if you could, if there was a way? Would you come between us?”
Would she, if she could? In an ideal world – if it could be done without pain, without rancour, without memory? Yes, she would – in an ideal world. But, in an ideal world, she wouldn’t need to.
“You know I’m very fond of David”.
Scripps is as adept at asking searching questions as his mother. “That’s not what I asked. Would you change it, if you could?”
She drinks her tea and takes an age to answer. Finally, she says, “Do you love him, Donny?"
This question is almost more shocking to him than the original – how quickly she’s moved from more than friends to love.
“Oh, mum… yes… yes, I really do. And I wouldn’t change it, even if I could. I’m only realising that now. I don’t want to change it. Bloody Hell, Mum – I haven’t told him yet. You missed your vocation”.
“That’s good enough for me then. Tell him though, love – I shouldn’t be the first to know. We won’t tell Dad though yet, eh?”
“No, best not. You can’t say anything to anyone. Pos’ parents would go bananas. I’m not even Jewish!”
The doorbell rings and she stands to answer it. She laughs, “I think not being Jewish is the least of it, don’t you? Alright, leave dad to me - I'll work on him - it might take a long time though, just to warn you. And your sister? She’s got her head in the clouds most of the time anyway”.
She answers the door to David. His smile is like the sun coming out. He looks happy and she can’t find it in her heart to be anything but pleased to see him.
“Hello David, lovely to see you”.
But David, perceptive as ever, senses something in the atmosphere, “Hi… is everything alright? Angela?”
“Everything will be fine, love. But Donald’s in the kitchen, and he’s a bit… upset. He’ll be happy to see you though – go on through”.
Angela stands at the bottom of the stairs and watches David go up the hall. At the doorway she hears him say, in a voice edged with concern, “Scrippsy?....What have you done to your hand?” She hears the scrape of a chair and catches a glimpse of her son folding him into his arms.
Angela Scripps takes herself off to the bathroom, locks the door and has one of her silent weeps. A day will eventually come when the happiness that young man brings her son will fill her with an undiluted pleasure. She will doubt she ever wished it were otherwise.