Boy on the Towpath
by Andrew Foote
It had been a good day if a very tiring one. The journey I was undertaking with my narrow boat was almost over and now only the British Waterways winter stoppages stood in the way of reaching my new moorings. A couple of weeks and they'd be lifted.
I wasn't bothered. I was warm and cosy on the boat, I had every possible luxury I could cram into its 72 x 7 foot hull and the food cupboards and drinks cabinet were fully stocked. I could wait out the next few weeks and in truth the rest wouldn't come amiss as I'd been cruising for the best part of three weeks stopping each day either when the light gave out or the cold got to me. Normally the former.
Down in the saloon I kicked the stove back into life and pulled the cork on a bottle of red wine, swallowed a couple of glasses and promptly fell asleep.
The following morning dawned crisp and cold and with the breakfast things cleared away I locked the boat and wandered up the towpath to see how the waterways engineers were doing.
"Morning guys. How's it looking?"
"Yeah it's going well. Another week to ten days and we'll have finished. Are you waiting to come up?"
"Yeah. I'm down at Whitton bottom lock but I'm in no hurry."
"Well give us your phone number and we'll shout you when we're through."
Back on the boat, I was just about to unlock when a couple of young lads came hell for leather down the towpath on their bikes. One of them skidded to a halt and the other one stopped twenty yards further on.
"Nice boat mister!"
"Hey thanks. Glad you like it!"
"Do you like live on it?"
"Yep, this is home for what it is."
At this the second boy shouted out.
"C'mon Tom for fuck's sake!"
Tom rolled his eyes and smiled.
"He don't like boats much. I do though. See ya around." And with that they raced off.
Why I thought about this is beyond me. Quite often kids stop and say 'hi'. Nothing unusual in that but this kid Tom just seemed to have something about him.
He was cute as a button for sure but many boys of his age are and the fact that I find boys of his age very sexy budding into puberty as they are, no longer little boys but caught in that magical few years before adulthood spoils them forever wasn't the reason either.
I shrugged my shoulders and went below for some coffee dismissing them from my mind.
Two days later I had just finished servicing the engines when I heard a familiar voice.
"Hey mister! It's me again!"
"Hi Tom. You okay?"
"Yeah I'm good. I told Paul, - that's my mate by the way, that I was coming down to see if you were still here but he didn't want to come."
"Oh? Why's that?"
Tom giggled! "He don't like it when I talk to strangers! Thinks I'll get raped or summat!"
"He's got a point there. There are some weird folk about."
"You wouldn't do that would you?"
"Only if you asked me nicely!"
Tom giggled again! "You're funny!"
I glanced up to the sky and the ominous clouds that were building.
"We're about to get pissed on big time my friend. Do you want to come on board until it passes? I was going to make some coffee anyway and I promise, your virtue is safe with me!"
"Cool. Can I have tea instead? I don't like coffee?"
"Wow! It's fantastic! I'd like to live on a boat! My uncle has a cruiser, you know like a day boat or summat. A GRP?"
"Yes a GRP cruiser but you couldn't live full time on one of those. Too small and bloody cold in the winter."
"Yeah. My uncle took me and Paul out for a week last summer. He and my auntie slept in the rear cabin and me and Paul had to squeeze into the front bunk. Not much room but lots of fun though! Anyhow. What does virtue mean?"
"Umm. Your innocence, your virginity if you like but if you've been squeezed in with Paul like two sardines in a tin you probably haven't got much virtue left!"
Tom blushed deep crimson and spluttered into his tea!
"I'm sorry. That was uncalled for. Forget I said that."
"No it's okay honest. Like I said. You're funny that's all and anyway it was a bit.....and you couldn't help but.... You know?"
"I know. No need to explain."
"Paul was the one who got all fucked up about it. Maybe that's why he don't like boats. I was cool with it, sort of exciting really but then my Mum says nothing much fazes me."
"Well you have to do what you have to do sometimes. It doesn't sound to me like you were scarred for life by it!"
More giggles! "You know I really like you. You make me laugh. Not many grown-ups can do that y'know?"
"Well if it's time to trade compliments, I really like you too. I don't feel if I'm talking to a kid but more like an equal. Make sense?"
"How old are you anyway?"
"I'm twelve. I'll be thirteen in three months time and I can't wait!"
"Now this just might sound like a seedy old grown-up talking but please don't wish your life away? I wish to God I could be your age again! It's perhaps the most exciting time for you with so much to explore, so much to learn and understand. Just enjoy being twelve, then thirteen then fourteen. Don't be in any rush. Huh?"
A pause for thought.
"How old are you then?"
"I'm thirty-seven. Old enough to be your Dad!"
"That'd be well cool – being my Dad that is."
"What's wrong with the one you have?"
"He's dead. He was killed in Iraq three years ago."
Ever had one of those moments when you just wish for a massive hole to open up and swallow you? This was one of those moments!
"Oh shit! Tom I'm so sorry. That was so thoughtless of me! I feel like a complete wanker now. Can you forgive me?"
Tom smiled at me, "What's to forgive? You weren't to know and anyhow that was three years ago and it's time to move on, right?"
"I suppose you're right but still. I am sorry but that was a sweet thing to say."
"When you said that me being your Dad. I've never been a Dad. Never married you see."
"How come? I mean you're a great looking guy and stuff?"
"Just didn't. That's all."
"Can I ask you something? I mean like really personal?"
"I think I know where you're coming from but fire away."
"Are you like.....gay?"
"If I didn't respect you so much I'd probably lie to you but you deserve better. Yes I'm gay and sad bastard that I am, I've never even had a steady boyfriend. Now you might want to take flight now you know but you asked the question."
"Why would I want to do that? Besides I think that's very sad not having a boyfriend and stuff. You must be very lonely."
"If I cared to dwell on it then yes, I probably am but it's just the way my life is and there's nothing I can do about it. Maybe one day....."
"Can I come again and maybe keep you company sometimes? I mean I'd really like to that is unless you don't want some little kid around?"
"Tom I'd love that! You don't come across as a little kid and I've loved your company today so anytime you want but please do me one big favour? Tell your Mum where you're going. She might not take kindly to your visiting a man who you know is gay. Do that for me?"
"She'll be cool with it but okay – I'll tell her I promise."
After Tom left I had a chance to mull things over in my mind.
What a great kid! I really didn't deserve his friendship but I was elated that I had it.
He was just so laid back about my sexuality. Most kids would have freaked but not Tom and more, he was sympathetic!
God is kind. Even to gay guys!
The next few days were much the same as any other. I busied myself cleaning the boat and carrying out the various minor repairs that crop up after extended periods of being out on the water, washing and ironing clothes (the ironing I hate) and taking the chance to rest.
It had occurred to me that Tom hadn't put in an appearance but as it was still term time he probably wasn't allowed out in the evenings.
I also wondered if he'd been refused permission to visit due to my orientation and that seemed to weigh heavily with me after all I wasn't looking to get his pants off even though he was cute as hell. I just wanted his company.
Okay it sounds daft but even though I'd really only met him the once, I missed him but if that's the way it'll be then so be it.
Saturday dawned bright and clear. Spring was in the air and with the promise of a long hot summer just around the corner my spirits were right up there.
My boat looked immaculate thanks to the last three days graft and I was getting impatient, wanting to get on the move and complete the last five miles to Headingly Wharf which was to be my permanent moorings for a while at least.
I'd just put the kettle on to boil for coffee when I felt the boat rock and a familiar voice calling me down the companion way.
"Hey! It's me! Can we come in?"
The 'we' bit didn't register at first and I just shouted back "Sure. Come on down!"
Tom wasn't alone. There was a woman with him who I correctly guessed was his Mum.
"Hey Tom! Who's the lovely lady? Not your girlfriend is it?"
Tom giggled as was his habit. "Told you Mum. He's funny!"
His Mum was a pretty lady but did look a little frayed around the edges.
"I'm Janet Saunders and yes I'm Tom's mother. Tom didn't even know your name when he told me about you."
"You're right now I think about it. I never did tell him. I'm Stuart. Stuart Mailing but my friends call me Stu. I was just about to make some coffee. Can I interest you?"
"I'm more interested in your interest in my son actually! A gay man inviting a little boy onto his boat isn't right and I was tempted to call the police but Tom wanted me to meet you before I made up my mind."
"Understandable. I can't blame you for thinking that way and actually I'm pleased for him. Had the boot been on the other foot I probably would have called the law anyway. Look please take a seat and let me get you some coffee."
Mrs Saunders sat down.
"Milk no sugar please. I still want to know what is going on here."
"Nothing is 'going on' as you put it. Tom and I got talking – at his instigation I might add and it started to rain big time so he came on board to weather it out and we got talking. You obviously have preconceived ideas about gay guys but we're not by and large interested in young boys in fact I'd go as far as to say your son is far safer with me than with your average catholic priest!"
It was her turn to suppress a giggle! Hit the spot!
"Okay, okay. You understand my concern though don't you? I know how outgoing he is and I've always been worried that he would get hurt as a result."
"Sure I understand. He asked me if I was married and I told him no and the reason why. Had I had any ulterior motive, I would've lied. I even told him I would understand if he wanted to leave. Does that sound like someone grooming him?"
"No. I'm sorry. I spoke out of turn."
"You didn't. You were just being a good mother. Perhaps I'm speaking out of turn now but ever since he came on board that day, I've missed his company. I'm going to embarrass you now Tom so you might want to block your ears and hum loudly for a moment.
He's a very bright lad. His conversation is beyond his years and it was almost like talking to another adult friend. He knows his limits and boundaries and I'm sure that if he felt uncomfortable with me he would have left at the first opportunity. I'm fond of him not sexually attracted to him."
"But you're moving on once they've finished rebuilding that bridge. It's not fair on him to get close to you when you'll be gone in a week or so. His little heart has been broken once with the death of his Dad. I can't.....no won't let that happen again. I'm sorry."
"Yes I'm going to move all the way to Headingly Wharf. I'm booked in and paid up until this time next year and if I like it then year on year from then on in."
"Headingly? We live in Headingly village!"
"So not so far. In fact much closer. Look it's for you to decide. Tom is your son but I know this might sound crazy. I really like him and I think he likes me. Maybe I could be a force for good in his life? If you want to do a CRB check* on me then I'll give you all my personal details and welcome."
"I don't know what to say. He does need a male influence in his life but....."
I went to the desk and found my birth certificate, driving licence and National Insurance number.
"There you go. You can get the authorities to check me out with my blessing. I've nothing to hide if you discount a couple of parking tickets."
"You really want me too?"
"I don't mind if it gives you some piece of mind."
The 'once quiet Tom' chirped up. "Mum he's really cool y'know? I like him loads and loads. Mum please?"
"Well okay. I will get you checked out though. I hope you understand? Until that's done Tom can visit but no overnighting. Strict curfew and no taking him anywhere without my prior consent. Fair?"
"Very fair. The CRB costs £35. Here's a cheque. I'm really pleased you came to visit me without just putting a blanket ban on it."
"I was put under pressure from him" nodding in the direction of Tom. "It's been good to meet you Stu. It'd be good for him to spend time with a father-figure and I pray that the check works the way you say it will. Come on Tom, let's leave Stu to his tasks!"
*The CRB check was the prior name for a check by today's Discolsure and Barring Service. It checks the criminal record (Criminal Records Bureau) for the current status of anyone who works with children and vulnerable adults (etc).
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