by Andrew Foote
The walk home was subdued. I was in my own little world and Callum had the common sense not to question me. He knew me well enough by now that given time, I'd open up to him but for now I had issues to deal with, not the least of these being the AIDS thing and whether or not I should try and make contact with my Father.
Another thing that I'd learned was, that being sixteen, I wasn't breaking any laws by not living at home without adult supervision. I guessed that I was also entitled to leave school so getting around during the day wouldn't pose a problem, but I'd have to register for work or get into full time college education, an idea I much preferred as it would still mean I had time to help some of the younger kids with their reading, writing and maths.
I needed to talk with someone, someone who wasn't involved or wouldn't take sides, a totally independent individual who would listen to me rather than lecture me.
I decided to sound Ronny out. He and I had always had something of a rapport. We had talked about so many things in the past, nothing directly connected to my situation, but things in general and I felt as if I could trust him and more importantly, give me the benefit of his knowledge without being biased one way or the other.
Whatever. I had to tell Callum how I felt about stuff.
He was standing there foursquare behind me. He was like a loyal puppy who never so much as questioned my actions, supported me at times when I can only imagine he felt like a fish out of water, but still he was always there for me and I never wanted it to be any different. Damn it, I really did love him, but my middle class and prudish upbringing told me that expressing that love physically was wrong, even if I found myself thinking about that aspect of our relationship more and more.
I had ponded this situation many times but the only conclusion I had reached was that girls didn't do it for me.
I liked them well enough…… well, what dealings I'd had with them were nice enough, I liked them but…… but I didn't fancy them and at sixteen years of age, surely that's weird?
Callum had struck a chord in my heart.
He was a complex individual though. One moment he'd be bouncing around playing silly games with our younger lads, the next he could be serious and thoughtful but always his kindness and tolerance towards even the biggest idiot shone through.
He was an organiser, where he set the pace, others followed his lead. Even the most menial of jobs around our squat were actioned by him setting an example to even the laziest of our number. His infectious fun-attitude rubbed off on everyone, but then I'd find him looking at me, a gentle smile holding my eyes for a fraction of a second and I'd melt inside.
The weather turned really nasty. The cold penetrated everything, the fire making things slightly more tolerable but we were rattling through coal at an alarming rate to the point where as fast as the kids nicked it from next door, we burnt it.
"Shit Callum? If we carry on like this, the waterways people will suss it out and call the police!"
"No they won't. I think they'll be glad to see the back of it."
"What makes you think that?"
"It's been here for years. They bought it to sell on to boaters but then the law changed. Boaters can only use certified smoke-free coal and this stuff isn't certified meaning they'd be breaking the law if they hived it off.
Anyway, I caught the tail end of a conversation the other day. Some big-wig from the waterways was telling Ronny that they were out of there at the end of January but he had a problem with this coal and like he didn't know what to do with the stuff. Ronny told him it was okay to leave it where it was, then he winked at me, you know, one of 'those' winks.
It's ours for the taking Ed!"
"Absolutely! No shit!
Mr Waterways is one happy bunny and we stay warm…… well, warmish."
"In that case we better get the lads on the job a bit later. Maybe we could open up the other fireplace and really get the place stoked up."
"What other fireplace? There's only the one in here?"
I saw it when we tested the electrics. This used to be two rooms and each had its own fireplace but then when it was knocked through, I guess one was blocked off, you can see the difference in the brick bonding plus I looked at the roof…… two chimneys!"
"Well, fuck me!"
"I normally charge shit loads for that but beings as it's you Callum? No charge!"
"Sod off Ed. Don't play with my emotions okay?"
"I wasn't playing…… I…… I think I need to get closer, we need to get closer…… that is if you still want to?"
"If this is because you're upset about your Mum then no, I don't think we should but……"
"This hasn't anything to do with that! No, that's not true either. It does have something to do with it, but only because she said something, something that for once, made sense."
"But you didn't see her so what are you driving at?"
"In her letter to me.
In that letter she told me to find love and when I found it, I was to cherish it, honour it and stick with that person. What's more, she also said 'who ever that might be'. It was as if she was giving me her blessing to find happiness in whatever way it manifested itself.
I don't get all excited by girls but I see you looking at me sometimes and my stomach turns over. I can't explain what or how I feel, it's sort of alien to me but I do know that you turn me on and I want you to do stuff with me and me to you."
Callum turned away and shook his head.
"I want you too, you know that for fuck's sake but…… look Ed?
I've done the rounds. I know all about sex with another guy but you? Have you really thought about what you've just said?
I don't want you on the rebound, I love you too much for that. If we get together then I want to be absolutely sure it's what you want, not only for your sake but…… but I have feelings too and I don't want to get hurt."
"This isn't a new thing. I've known for ages that my feelings towards you were the way they are but I've always been brought up to believe that homosexuality was a sin but I see things differently now.
We hang labels, unfair labels on relationships that don't conform to the majority view. Society used to mock people who said the world was round, they were seen as heretics, anti-God trouble makers but we now know they were right so why not this?
I didn't wake up one day and think to myself, 'I know? Today I'm going to covert to gay!'
That's so much bullshit. I've fallen in love with another guy in much the same way I could've fallen in love with a girl.
Isn't that my normality?"
"I want it to be, but just for now, let's not go bull at a gate at this Ed? Slowly, gently gets my vote, okay?"
"Deal. I'll be in your hands."
"Not now, not tonight, maybe not this week but we'll both know when the time is right. I want you to want me, so nothing gets rushed."
"Look, I'm really sorry to burden you like this Ronny but I need advice and I couldn't think of anyone else I trusted."
"Me? You flatter me Ed.
Look, my night girl is due in at any time so let me get these meals out and on the table so when she gets here we can talk somewhere less public."
Eventually Ronny appeared and with me slightly relieved, we went through to his office where he sat me down.
"Alright. So what's eating at you?"
"Stuff. Stuff I don't know how to deal with.
I thought I was getting to grips with life but then, just as I was starting to feel hopeful, something comes along and kicks me in the guts."
"I think they call that the reality of life my friend, but I know you well enough to realise this isn't something insignificant.
Tell me all about it."
I went through the entire thing from my Father doing a runner right through to the news from the clinic.
Ronny studied his hands before looking at me.
"That's one fucked up story Ed and to be truthful, I'm not so sure I'm the right person you should be talking to. I don't have any experience when it comes to this kind of thing. My life has been all about staying afloat and keeping the family together, but shit? I wouldn't know where to start or how to advise you when this sort of thing happens.
Can it wait for twenty-four hours to give me time to think about it?"
"Twenty-four, forty-eight, who cares. I just need answers."
"I know you do but just as a starter, you know that all of you are welcome to stay right where you are. I admit I had misgivings once the numbers started to increase but so far as I'm aware, there has been no bother, no acrimony so I've no intention of kicking anyone out.
Go back once you've finished your meal and I'll try to come up with some answers in the next couple of days.
Just one other matter while you're here Ed? Callum said something about fitting a door where that hole in the wall is.
Without wanting to sound mean, I'd prefer that the damn thing was bricked up rather than making it even more obvious that the place is being used but I do understand that you want to keep out the draught, so if you can wait a couple of weeks, the waterways people will be gone and I'll arrange for you to have keys to their old place so you can knock through where the old internal door used to be, use both places if you want, no one else is going to."
"That's very generous of you. Thanks."
"That's okay. Buildings are best when they're in use. I can only imagine that the fires you've been burning constantly have dried the place out no end. Then there's that old engine and generator? I nearly sold it for scrap a few years ago!"
"You did? Christ Ronny? Have you any idea just how much it's worth?"
"Not a clue but I imagine you're about to tell me."
"Between five and ten grand in decent working order."
"Nice to know but don't worry because so long as you kids need it, it's going nowhere but the one next door…..?"
"There's another one?"
"Oh yes but I had it bricked up when the waterways decided to rent the place. The same with the first floor. They didn't want to pay the rent on a two story property so I wasn't about to give them access.
I'll have it all opened up as it should be once they've disappeared."
"What's up there?"
"I haven't got the first idea, I've never been up there. I bought the entire block as an investment believing the City Council would regenerate the area but put until now, they've past this part of the canal frontage by bless 'em!"
"I bet you're not pleased about that then?"
"I don't mind. I was left some money and it was a case of sticking it in the bank where I'd get sod-all interest worth talking about or buy property where given time, I should see some sort of return. Buildings, like everything else, are better off being used rather than letting them rot, so if it gives you lot more space, you might just as well use it."
I walked back feeling a lot more positive. I had straightened things out with Callum and now I had Ronny on side, so buoyed up with enthusiasm, I enlisted some volunteers and made a start on opening up the second fireplace while some of the other lads nipped next door for more coal, now safe in the knowledge that we could take it without any nasty consequences.
Removing the brickwork was child's play, it was what we discovered lurking behind them that took us by surprise.
An old cooking range that had to be over one hundred years old and seemingly in good enough condition.
Callum was especially vocal.
"Shit! Do you realise what this means? We won't have to go out in the cold and rain to cook our grub! We can do it in-house so to speak. Fucking rock on!"
"What sort of state is the firebox in? The fire bricks might've collapsed for all we know?"
He took a look and pronounced them as being soft but intact.
"Light a small fire. That might just dry them out sufficiently enough but if not then there's some fire clay left over from when I had to patch up our original fireplace plus there's probably more next door, 'cos that's where I nicked it from!
The flue looks in good enough condition which is good 'cos I haven't a clue how we could fix it otherwise.
Want me to set a fire Ed?"
"Nothing ventured I guess."
"And loads to be gained. This beauty is made of cast iron and once it gets warm, it'll kick heat into the place much more efficiently than the old fireplace ever did!"
A crowd of us cleared up the debris while Callum sorted out laying a small fire and once he'd set a match to it, we went out canal-side and looked up at the chimney.
It had smoke wafting up into the sky then slowly dissipating to a sight heat haze as the wood burned away leaving our uncertified smokeless coal to do its work.
After about two hours, the difference in temperature was noticeable but Callum was cautious about pushing our luck by building up a larger blaze.
"Leave it for tonight then tomorrow once it's burned itself out, we can take a second look at the firebricks and patch them up if we need to."
Bubba stood there, his assumed role as the community cook taking his thinking to another level."
"Shit man? This gives me so many ideas!
Ronny has so much left-over grub, he either feeds all of us or chucks it away. If we get a huge pot, we can take it off his hands, chuck it in with some seasoning and hey-presto, an ever-lasting and nutritious stockpot, constantly on the go, hot food for the taking with the added bonus, we get Ronny's over-cater to add to it each day."
"What, like chuck everything in? Potatoes, vegetables…… everything?"
"Yeah! That's the beauty of a stockpot man? Mince it all up, keep it ticking over on a low heat and you've a meal in a bowl. Good for you and very filling. Bring it on!"
"You'll have to figure out how to bake bread next!"
"I already know smart arse. Gimme the ingredients and the rest is down to my fingers."
The next morning with the firebricks declared fit for use, we put a match to a bigger fire and once it had caught I turned to Callum and told him I had to go back home for a few days.
"I need to organise things like that bank account, get the Council to empty the house of all the soft furnishings, carpets and the like then have someone look at my bedroom window. Just for now I'm going to board it up to stop the place getting any damper than it already is then decide where to go from there.
Will you come with me?"
"Yeah sure. It would be good to get away from this place for a while but if you're going to strip the place of furniture, where do propose that we sleep?"
"My Mother bought me a new mattress for my bed. It never got further than the garage so once everything is out of the way then we bring it in and use the main bedroom. I don't think it's necessary to get shot of the hardware, just anything that might be contaminated so like carpets and mattresses, easy chairs and so on. Bed linen I'll take a close look at but the clean stuff should be fine and we have spare pillows in the attic which I vacuum packed.
What I could really do with is a laptop then I could sell all the clothing on Ebay, then once everything is done…… I guess it's a case of deciding what I do next."
"You reckon you'll stay there?"
God knows, if I could, I'd sell the fucking place but I can't until I'm eighteen, so I really don't know what to do for the best."
"Rent it out?"
"Not mine to rent out. The power of attorney rests with…… Callum? You're a genius!
The solicitor at the clinic together with the doctor and Mother's bank manager have a duty to maximise her assets. They won't want the place to stand empty will they?"
"Like the posters point out. 'Watch out, there are thieves about'."
"They just might take the money and run."
"I was told that Mother's estate was being held in trust until I was eighteen when I would become the sole beneficiary. I am also allowed an input as to how it's invested although I can't override their decisions but if they did do a runner, I'd have a pretty good case against them."
"Trust no one and you won't ever be disappointed Ed."
"There are times when you have few options open to you. They're trusted by the hospital so not being aware of any good reasons not to, I have to trust them, but don't make me paranoid!
I'll go and tell some of the guys we'll be away for a couple of days so go get a coat so we can get out of here pronto."
I found Pip and Tiny in the courtyard and explained where we were going. Pip offered his services if we needed him so I promised to call him should the need arise, and with that done, we left for the station and the trip back to Solihull.
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