by Andrew Foote
As we wandered up to the house, I couldn't help but wonder what 'secrets' Justin was so bothered telling me about.
He was so obviously worried about it, the way he tripped over his words just broaching the subject told me that but just wanting to let it all out and to me, after our rather faltering beginning had me thinking but as he re-joined me having told his Grandfather where we were going, I dismissed it from my mind.
"So where we going?"
"Mapledurham Mill. One cool place to be."
"What's up there?"
"Umm, a mill maybe? Sorry! A disused water mill. Really old and dilapidated but loads of fun.
The mill race has been sort of diverted down to the river and the waterwheel is rusted up but the pond is great to swim in and especially for you as it's like crystal clear right down to the bottom. Oh yeah, the dogs love it too and it'll give you a chance to get to know them."
"Is it very deep?"
"Nah. Tippy-toes I can feel the bottom so maybe, I dunno, four foot and a bit?"
"We've nothing to wear and no way am I going in naked man!"
"You're wearing shorts, aren't you? Anyhow the only person you'll be flashing is me…….. oh I'm sorry."
"Hey, it's one thing showing you although…….. no, it's what if some little old lady happens to walk past?"
"Stay underwater! Anyway what's the problem being naked in front of me? You saw me this morning?"
"A conversation for another time.
C'mon, let's just do it."
We walked on up to the mill but my thoughts were still riveted on Justin's reluctance to open up to me, his reticence to expose himself and even once I managed to persuade him into the water, he hid his front to me standing sideways on or with his back to me. Even when we lay out in the sun drying off, he was on his stomach or pitched on his side facing away from me like he was blanking me or something.
I wondered what or why he was so very frightened of me and I got a bit upset.
"What's the matter?"
"Please Justin, have I done something to upset you?"
"Alex it's me, not you.
You're doing everything spot on right. I……. I have something I need to work on okay?"
"Sorry. Stupid of me."
We lay there for some time. I was dry already and I guessed Justin was as well but I didn't want to break in to his thoughts. I knew he wasn't asleep so I just bided my time until suddenly he turned over and smiled at me.
"Look I'm sorry, I just needed that quiet time, you know, get my head together."
"And is it, like together already?"
"Yes! I'm good!
What are your plans for tonight?"
"Same old I guess. Mum and Dad will go to visit friends, get stoned and come back in the wee small hours. Why?"
"Don't you go with them?"
"Nah! Are you kidding?
Their friends are okay people, you know, lovely and kind but when they hit up, they change and I see what happens to them and I want no part of it.
No, I stay put on the boat."
"Have you seen the canoes in the boathouse?"
"Never been in there so no, I've not. Why?"
"Two doubles. I just thought we could grab them, borrow Grandfather's tent and camp out for the night, like together?
What do you think?"
"Now that……………… is the best idea ever! I've one smallish problem. – sleeping. I don't have a sleeping bag and no way will my Mum let me take my bedding along. Too bulky anyway."
"Grandfather has an old sleeping bag and if I cozied up to his housekeeper I think I could borrow a couple of blankets, maybe even some food we could cook.
"Far out! Too right I am but I'll first have to clear it with my folks. Shouldn't be a problem, I also know just where to head to. Monkey Island."
"No! Please no monkeys!"
"No, that's what we call it!
There are monkey trees, you know the ones, all twisted and knotted. It'll be just us and the trees, honestly."
"No monkeys then."
"Okay, c'mon. Let's go and see what goes down." And with that we ran full pelt back to the house.
"I can't see there being a problem Kaz? The boys are really good swimmers even if Justin prefers to see the bottom!
What do you think?"
"Yeah why not! You Alexis, just make sure you behave. We don't need the fuzz calling okay?"
"We will and they won't Mum.
Can we take something to cook on the fire?"
Just as I spoke, Justin knocked on the roof fit to punch a hole in it.
"All sorted. Grandfather is happy enough. Is it cool Alex?"
I dragged him in, mortified both Mum and Dad had witnessed his enthusiasm but elated that they also approved of our adventure and probably relieved they could get mashed without feeling the need to get back too early in order to check up on me.
Mum fished out some sausages and bacon, half a loaf of bread and some butter together with a tin of baked beans for us to cook. A change of clothes in a backpack and I was ready to rock.
Justin proudly announced that he'd also bought some food, beef burgers, something really new from America, not that he had the first idea how to cook them but Mum just cautioned us to make sure they weren't bloody on the inside when we ate them.
We found the canoes and once everything was loaded we set out down the river.
I had just assumed that Justin was an experienced canoeist.
If anything he was worse than me but somehow we made it to Monkey Island without capsizing, pulled them up onto the shingle and began to set up our camp.
Erecting the tent was interesting with neither of us having the first idea what was what and where it should go but finally we managed to get it looking as if it might just provide some sort of shelter but we both of us knew that if we had enough rain, the whole damn thing would cave in on itself but the forecast was all good, a warm July night was promised and the following day was going to be a scorcher.
I could do fires.
Damn it my parents are hippies aren't they?
By 7.30pm we were eating a meal that we still look back on as one gourmet banquet, fit for…… kids!
I washed the dishes in the river while Justin arranged the inside of the tent and when I got back he produced his master stroke, a stolen bottle of Lambrusco.
Yes okay it's rubbish! He no doubt new it was safe to nick, no one would choose to drink it through choice, let's be honest it's awful stuff but when you're twelve / thirteen years old, any alcoholic drink is exciting even if it's only 9% ABV!
By 10pm we were skittled and headed for the confines of the tent.
Justin had used the unfolded sleeping bag as a ground sheet, the blankets as a top cover making the whole thing like a double bed.
I was pissed to put it mildly so I really didn't care what the sleeping arrangements were and it was only when my head wouldn't stop spinning and I staggered out, fell into the river before throwing up I realised I would have to crawl back to bed without the protection of my saturated shorts but, still rather drunk, I went for it.
I slept well until I woke to feel a hand on my back. A warm and welcome hand.
"Are you awake? You okay?"
"No I'm not awake and yes I am" I giggled.
"Can we talk?"
"Let me wake up properly please, just a minute."
My head had definitely been in a better place but I knew that Justin had possibly been awake most of the night and he was now ready to talk. Whatever it was that troubled him so much, he was now going to share with me.
I pulled myself together.
"Okay. I think I'm about there now."
Justin shot me a sheepish grin.
"I've been awake half the night and I'd finally figured out how to put this all out but now….. Now I don't know where to start."
His voice was trembling as he looked up at me, tears rolling down his face and my heart went out to him.
"Look you don't have to tell me if it's that painful?"
"I know. I know I don't have to tell you but I need to tell you and right here is the right place, right now is the best time.
If you feel you never want to be around me anymore then you can pack your canoe and head back, I can follow on later, you just say we fell out or even tell your folks what I'm going to tell you if that's what you feel you must do. That has to be your choice."
"You can set your mind at rest on that score. No matter how bad it is, no matter how I take it, I'll never betray your trust. Whatever gets said between us, stays between us okay?"
"That's a big relief at least!
I still don't know where to start though."
"Try at the beginning. Once you get going you'll be okay and another thing, no matter what, I promise I won't get mad at you, it's just not what I'm about."
"Okay then. Here goes.
I've been at Down House since I was six years old. I remember being very homesick at the start but there were a number of us in the same situation and so we sort of, banded together and found ways to cope to the point where boarding school life became the norm and really quite enjoyable.
Okay so far?"
"Yeah it's good, I can get how that is."
"Well I did have this one friend, sort of my best friend and everything was cool until he got a letter from his folks telling him that his sister who boarded at Cheltenham Ladies College had been in a lacrosse accident, a ball had hit her on the head causing blood clots and well basically resulting in irreversible brain damage. I mean they sent him a fucking letter! They didn't come down to school to tell him, didn't even think to tell the Headmaster or even his house master so they could like break it to him gently? No they sent a fucking letter!"
"Shit! I mean that's unforgivable!"
"Right on it is, was. So it was me who was left to pick up the pieces, console him, and look after him. Yeah okay once it was out then the school did their best to help him but the damage was already done. It was me he clung to for support, not his parents, not the school, just me."
"You're a caring guy, I can see how that would work. I think he was one lucky boy to have you around."
"Thanks but the worst is yet to come.
You see there were times when it was almost as if he'd come to terms with it but then there were times, especially at night when he was almost inconsolable and this one night, nothing I could say would calm him down so I did what I suppose just came naturally. I got into bed with him and cuddled up to him.
It worked. It was almost as if I'd administered a magic potion as he pretty much instantly calmed down."
"So what's so terrible with that? I think it's rather sweet and yeah, I could see me doing something like that."
"No that in itself wasn't bad. It's what followed that was bad."
Justin was now starting to lose it. Hard as he tried not to cry, he just couldn't hold it back and burst into floods of tears and slumped back down onto the sleeping bag.
I don't believe I had time to think, as Justin's knee-jerk reaction to his friend, mine was much the same. I lay down beside him and drew him close, his head on my chest, my arm holding him around his waist just holding him there waiting for him to calm down.
No magic potion mine. It took a full ten minutes before he was able to speak.
"This is very special Alex. Thank you. Like deja-vu in reverse."
"Can you have reverse deja-vu?"
He kind of gave a nervous giggle,
Can we stay like this while I tell you the rest?"
"Even if it takes forever."
"I'll try to be quicker than that, your arm will go to sleep else! It's still nice though. I feel kind of 'safe'.
Alright, where was I."
"You said like 'what followed was bad'"
The thing was it became like a regular thing, not just when he was upset but just about every night.
When we were sure everyone else in the dorm was asleep we'd get into bed with each other and well, you see one thing led to another and we………… we sort of started to mess around together, like 'sex' messing around."
"So you had sex with each other?"
"No not like 'full-on' sex but sort of heavy petting and such.
Look I won't lie to you, I loved what we did and so did he."
"So nothing got broke. What's the problem?"
"We got caught at it, that's the problem."
"Ahh! Yes well I can see how that might be difficult to handle.
"I was seen as the big bad wolf. I mean he was the one hurting and I was accused of taking advantage of him, you know, what with him being vulnerable and stuff.
He did try to take his share of the blame, fair play to him, he really did but it mostly fell on deaf ears and probably the only good thing that came out of his attempts, and actually I don't think it was a good thing but it did save me from being expelled."
"You think getting expelled would've been better?"
"Yeah well you see his parents took him out of school, well he left Down House for somewhere else let's just say. That left me to take all the abuse, the taunts and name-calling by myself.
I told you I had a few friends at school. I lied. I don't have any. I'm the queer, the homo of the school, the pariah, the freak and you know what? They're right. I've known for ages that I'm different. I'm not sporting, I really love classical music over rock or whatever, I'd far prefer to go and see ballet rather than an action film. I'm weird, I'm disgusting."
"No you're not. You're a beautiful person, kind, sympathetic, caring, all the qualities that make you what you are the best qualities possible."
"So how do you square that with the mean way I treated you, you know, when you were going out with the dogs?"
"I don't know but how do you feel inside? Do you think like deep down that you're a disgusting weirdo, a pariah and a freak?"
"No but that's how other people see me."
"You don't? Maybe you should reconsider."
I paused momentarily before deciding on my next move.
During the time I'd been holding on to him, the blanket had been wedged between us from the waist down.
With one deft flick I pulled them out from between us.
"Shift over. Let the dog see the rabbit."
I put my arm back around him and pulled him fully into me so now we were touching from head to toe then throwing the blanket over us, I kissed him on his nose.
The look on his face was priceless!
"You…… you……. Me…… I mean you're…….."
"Naked? Yes. I fell in the drink earlier when I was chucking up and I thought you were asleep and so didn't want to risk waking you looking for something else to wear. Is it a problem?"
"Umm…… no I mean yes maybe."
"Why? Feels really good to me with just one possible exception perhaps?"
"You're not. Naked that is."
"You mean you want me……."
"Starkers? Yes. I recon what's sauce for the goose and all that shit?"
With that Justin wriggled out of his shorts and settled back beside me somewhat flustered.
"Oh God. Oh God. Oh God!"
"Alexis actually but that's close enough for government work!"
"But what if someone walks in on us?"
"Like who pray tell?
C'mon, let's get some sleep before I start enjoying this too much. I've stuff I want to tell you but it can wait until the morning."
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