Boy on the Towpath
by Andrew Foote
Seconds past that seemed like minutes as Janet struggled to maintain composure but in truth I was having serious problems of my own and I'm not normally given to emotional outbursts. Once she had settled down, Janet looked at me and continued.
"You must understand that I'm not upset for myself. Angry perhaps that my life is to be cut short but we all have to go at some point, the only difference for me is that I know more or less when it will be. It's Tom. He is my major concern. His future, his happiness and wellbeing are all I'm concerned about. Pour us both another drink?"
I don't believe either of us needed another drink but it gave Janet a minute to gather her thoughts as quite obviously she was building up to ask me this very big favour. I was of a mind to ask her to cut to the chase as I really believed that I was incapable of nothing to fulfil whatever request she had in mind but I held my tongue to allow her to set her stall out as she saw fit.
"It's very strange how this sort of news concentrates the mind. Rational thoughts become very easy. I'm able to map out and plan things in a way that I've never able to do before so you must understand Stu, I've put a lot of thought into this. The very thought of Tom going into care or being fostered is abhorrent to me. The thought that he would have to go and live with my brother and his family isn't very much better. Oh my brother is okay but his wife is an oddball, a hippy type and she's into this free parenting crap and allows her kids the freedom to do pretty much as they please and I don't want Tom to be influenced by that sort of lifestyle.
Tom has always been a reasonably good boy, yes okay the odd temper tantrum and the occasional mini rebellion but that's just a part of growing up, you know kicking the system and pushing boundaries to see how far he can go. All pretty normal stuff for a boy of his age. The thing is, since you've been on the scene even those episodes have diminished to the point we have the occasional spat but he's become a far more rounded individual in just about every way."
She paused to take another sip of her drink before continuing.
"So the bottom line is this. I need Tom to grow up in an atmosphere of love tempered with discipline to enable him to flourish and make the most of himself and I honestly believe that there is only one person that can help him to do this and that is you. Before you interrupt Stu, please hear me out. It would take months if not years for you to go through the adoption process and with no disrespect, the outcome might not be positive even then, you know being gay and stuff however there is another way. I feel guilty putting you under emotional pressure like this but……..If we were to marry then you would automatically become Tom's legal stepfather and there would be no question about custody. My will has been re-written although as yet not ratified by my solicitor and aside from a lump sum to be put in trust for him until the age of eighteen, you are named as the sole beneficiary of my estate. I own the house outright and I don't owe anyone any money so…….. Will you marry me Stu?"
I lost it! I cried like a baby but fortunately managed to get myself together after just a few minutes. Janet's logic was perfect. All her problems solved in one hit although the implications of me becoming a full time father hadn't hit home there was no hesitation.
"Yes Janet. It would be the single biggest honour I've ever been given in my entire life and I will move heaven and earth to live up to your expectations."
She was smiling through her tears as she leant over and hugged me and in a low voice,
"Thank you Stu. Thank you so very much. I know absolutely that you will be good to my boy and good for him as well."
She chuckled "Soon to be our boy," but the melancholy came back.
"All I have to do now is explain things to him and I really don't know where to start."
"Well as we're engaged to be married might I suggest that it's something we do together. I'm not sure how we go about it but at least we'll both be there for Tom and for each other?"
"That's really sweet of you but I don't want you to feel…….."
"Under pressure? Never! You are entrusting me with Tom's life and his future and so I think that it's important that we make this journey together for all our sakes."
The remainder of the evening was actually quite business-like -- agreeing a date for the wedding -- if we could get a slot at the register office for later that week so much the better and as it wouldn't be a joyous occasion, just the absolute minimum number of people would attend. There would be no reception as we would go on to see the solicitor that same afternoon to ensure all the legal essentials had been attended to. We needed no complications. We would also make an appointment with a family lawyer just to make absolutely sure that there could be no counter claims regarding the will and also of my custody of Tom.
As the evening progressed Janet looked increasingly tired and by ten o'clock she admitted it.
"Stu if you don't mind I need to get to bed. This was one of the first indicators that all was not well as I've always been a night owl but then I found I couldn't do it!"
"You sure you'll be okay here by yourself? I mean I'll stay if you prefer."
"No I'll be fine, honestly. You go back to the boat. You must have a lot to think about after tonight, probably more than me as I've had some time to think all of this through but there is just one other thing I need to say before you go. If after you've slept on it you change your mind then that's okay. I mean it was all a bit traumatic and I understand if you need to think on it before making up your mind."
"There's one thing you can be absolutely sure about Jan. I have no hesitation in marrying you and if you think it's just to make things easier for you, you're wrong. Gay or more probably bi-sexual, I'm more than just fond of you. I'm not very experienced with girls although I've had relationships in the past but had things progressed and given us more time to get to know each other I just might have asked you the self-same question you asked me tonight. Go to bed and ponder that one!"
A meaningful embrace and a not-so quick kiss and I walked back to the marina and my haven.
Despite the one third of a bottle of vintage brandy, once back on board I liberated a good bottle of red wine and sat at my desk and started to make notes.
God, what an evening. How can Janet keep so focused with all that she is facing? I'm sure that I wouldn't be able to be so rational under the same circumstances. No! I'd fall apart with self-pity? They do say however that women as a gender are mentally stronger when faced with life threatening situations but even so... I will take my admiration for her to my grave.
The next huge obstacle was how we were supposed to tell Tom. I'd made the promise to tackle the situation together but I had no idea where to begin.
I looked at my watch. Ten forty-five. Oh sod it. What the hell!
"David? Yes sorry it's so late but this couldn't wait. I need to talk to you…….. Yes right now…….. Thanks mate, you've just no idea how urgent this is otherwise believe me I wouldn't have called. I mean I know how desperately you need beauty sleep!"
My very old and dear friend David is a Church of England senior vicar and no he's not gay but he knew about me and he was the first of my friends I came out to and his loyalty to me has been unequivocal. Over the next half hour I covered the evenings' events and asked the vital question.
"Dave I've said I'd be with Jan when she has to tell him. I thought I might be of some help but we're both of us at a loss to know even how to begin!
Please mate I need help here?"
"Oh Jesus Stu! I've done my share of bereavement counselling's in my time but those were only after the event so to speak. To break it gently is going to be hard for all of you as emotions will be running high as a kite but to introduce a third party might just make things worse as it could make it look as if you're abdicating responsibility somehow. My gut feeling is, as in all things, you must tell him the truth. -- No fudging the issue no matter how painful it may be. You bet your next bottle of the good stuff he'll see right through it in a heartbeat. Look Stu. I'll call my Bishop first knockings tomorrow and see if he knows someone who'll give you better advice but for the time being I'll sleep on it and so should you. There's nothing to be gained from lack of rest. --- Oh and don't get pissed tonight! Vicar's orders!"
Probably not pissed but perhaps a gentle list to starboard having finished the wine but it still took a couple of hours until I finally dropped off to sleep but the night was dogged by bad dreams. I remember a car crash. I remember walking totally lost through a featureless moonscape and most vivid of all, I was making love to Tom by the side of a lake. I was being passionate and gentle with him but suddenly I became aware of him crying -- asking me to stop but I couldn't. I woke and sobbed my eyes out for what seemed like hours before finally calming down telling myself that it was just that. A dream and that I shouldn't attach any credence to it. None the less I felt guilty that even my subconscious could come up with something as hateful as that and the more I dwelt on it the worse I became.
In my wanderings on the boat I'd met all types of people, some of which had been seriously odd. One of these was 'Maggi the mystic' or so she claimed.
A woman of uncertain age, most probably in her late sixties or thereabouts who professed to be able to read minds and look into people's souls. I'd always thought it was a load of crap but now I was desperate enough to try anything but unlike me who preferred to have a base camp, Maggi was a continuous cruiser and she and her boat could be anywhere but I did have her cell number.
"Hello Stuart? I wondered when you'd call me."
"Yes! I was thinking about you last night and I knew you wanted to talk to me."
"Oh shit. How come?"
"Intuition. Yes it was about half five this morning. I woke and you were the first person I thought about. You want my help, don't you?"
"That's just too weird. I woke up around then having had a really nasty dream and it's still upsetting me big time."
"Tell me all about it."
Without going into graphic detail I explained the basic nuts and bolts, how I'd woken in floods of tears and how unlike most dreams, it was still very fresh in my head.
"Well that's quite easy Stuart but first a few questions. Am I right in assuming that this person is in danger? Frightened maybe?"
"Not as of this moment but later today... yes."
"And you feature in this person's life. Perhaps he or she loves you and you love in return?"
"Your dream isn't anything sinister. Actually, quite the opposite. This person will be in need of your help, support and your love more than any other time in their life. You know this and are more than ready to freely give of yourself whatever it takes to achieve this end. Your dream indicates this but also it's telling me that you're worried that you might screw up or not be up to the task. Now you may think this is just the ramblings of a crazy old bat but I believe that it's because you dreamt what you did that shows that you do have the ability and strength to do everything that is required of you. Self-doubt can be a healthy thing because it will make you try even harder to do what is right."
"But in my dream I was, for want of a better word, committing an act of rape!"
"Stuart. Sex is the single most powerful driving force in our lives and so naturally something somewhere used sexual imagery to stamp it firmly in your conscious mind. Had any other scenario been played out you would have dismissed it as just another dream and chances are you wouldn't be able to recall it. You see, the fact was in your dream you thought you were being loving, kind, gentle, appropriate behaviour if you will but when your partner started crying you knew that appropriate it was not! There's your fear that you'll bollocks it up by not doing the right thing. Do you see what I mean? Your intentions were good but your approach wasn't."
"Dear God almighty! It does make sense! Now let me tell you exactly what's happening."
I told Maggi pretty much everything that had gone on since that first chance meeting on the towpath and I didn't pull any punches. Her final comment somehow also gave me confidence.
"I know this also Stuart. You will succeed. You will be good for the boy and good for his mother. You might not give much credence to what I claim to be able to do and foresee right now but perhaps you will change your mind in the months and years to come."
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