Towards the Decent Inn

IX

By Michael Arram

Heathrow at dawn was bleary with fog and they were bleary with sleeplessness. There was a long and tiring trudge from their gate to customs and immigration, which seemed to take them the entire length of the airport, and then a very long and tedious queue. It took ages to recover their bags from the carousel. Outside, the cold cut through their clothes, despite their thick wool coats and Andy's Elmer Fudd hat. They struggled with their many bags to the Underground and then struggled to find an early train at Paddington. A taxi dropped them under the bare trees of home well before midday. They pushed the front door open and entered the hall, dumping their bags noisily. Their breath steamed in the cold air indoors. The musty smell of damp and the lack of heating were hardly welcoming, but there was something strangely comforting about the return to the strictures of poverty. All that choice had been confusing.

A stirring upstairs told them that Paul was in bed, and his sleepy and shaggy head was soon peering round the stairhead. His face brightened, and he scampered down the stairs to hug them both.

'This is great. Got your cards. Wow. Can't believe what you guys have been up to and where you've been.' He shivered and clasped his thin arms round his ribs. 'Oooh it's chilly. I'll stick the heating on and get some clothes. I'll make some tea.'

They wandered into the lounge, 'Urggh, look at the place. It's disgusting; unhealthily clean. Paulie! You bastard! You've polished the furniture. This is too much.'

He called down from upstairs, 'Wait till you see the kitchen. Matt's dad wouldn't recognise his own cooker.'

They looked at the post. Andy put some money on his mobile and checked in with his mum. He had a long muttered conversation with her, staring out the back window into the winter wasteland of the yard. Matt looked around upstairs. Paul had been sleeping in their bed, which was understandable and a bit touching. There was no trace that he had enjoyed any company over Christmas.

'You've been on your own then since we left,' Matt asked.

Paul grimaced into his tea, 'I saw me mate Terry twice after you left, but he disappeared off wiv his family to Ibiza. I went to see me mum wiv a card on Christmas Eve, but I wasn't invited to stay. Have to say, I got so bored I went to church on Christmas morning. But thanks for the prezzies, lads. I found them where you left them under the telly.'

'Yes, well we got some more for you too,' grinned Andy. He unzipped a case and triumphantly pulled out bag after bag of clothing they had bought for him in the States. Paul was ecstatic as he tried on highly expensive jeans, trousers, trainers, tops and jackets. He never knew quite how expensive because Andy had removed the tags. But he did recognise a leather Gucci jacket when he saw it. They all fitted. Andy had furtively measured up Paul with a tape as he slept uncovered, just before they left. The Gucci shop on Sixth Avenue, impressed by Andy's credit rating and level of spending, had been happy to find a sales assistant of Paul's approximate dimensions to model items. Matt reckoned that dragging them across a continent had been well worth the effort. When he grinned posing in that gear with his hair gelled up chaotically, Paul looked like a kid who finally knew the meaning of Christmas.

'I love you guys. There's enough to fill a wardrobe, and I can throw out the old crap. Where did you get the money for all this?'

'Andy's dad gave us a wad, probably heard what a tramp you looked like,' said Matt.

'Now we can stop being embarrassed to be seen with you,' added Andy

'Yeah, I realised it was an essentially selfish act on your part, but I'll say thank you just the same. Now I can be embarrassed to be seen with you. Hey Matt, does that tan cover you all over?'

'If it wasn't so cold, I'd show you. Bed, Andy?'

'Definitely.'

They finished their teas and went back to their bed. They undressed and huddled together under the duvet. They were soon warm, and desperately happy to be together for the first time for over a week. They slept all afternoon dozing in each others' arms.

The next day, they packed again, and headed off to their families for New Year. 'And you're coming with me,' said Matt to a surprised Paul. 'You're a first year student I met in the chess club, right? Now you look so respectable, there won't be a problem, and you know more about university than any of my family, so you'll pass it off. Go find a bag.'

'Yes sir!'

Andy and Matt said a long and aching goodbye. It would be ten days before they saw each other again. But they had mobiles and text, and they would cope.

As he sat opposite Paul on the train to home, Matt felt for the first time the full distress of separation. Paul was good company and a friend, but he was not Andy. Paul seemed to sympathise. He tried to explain it all to Matt, looking unusually thoughtful.

'Andy... what can I say? He's unique. He listens to me and he understands me, and I think, yes I think he actually loves me.' He looked hastily at an astonished Matt, 'No, not like that, Matt... you're the only guy in his life. What I mean is that he's got a big heart in his little body. He's the only person in my life who's just got time for me, to listen to me and try to understand me. You gotta understand how different that is for me, Matt. Some days me mam'd throw a kitchen knife at me if I as much as looked at her. But Andy's amazing. He loves people quietly without wantin' anythink back, anythink at all. It's rare, really rare. You can't but love him when you get to know him. I've never met anyone like him; I'd rather cut me throat than upset him. He loves you Matt. It shines out of him. And I think you make him complete, like his second half, the shade to his light, sort of thing.' Matt was comforted, and somehow reassured.

Paul was a great success with his parents, and even his brother, Carl. Matt's mum was particularly approving when Paul happily joined the family not just for mass, but for the rosary. 'Good Catholic boy' was the verdict, and Matt got credit for picking his friends with such care. His mother was quite ready to beatify Matt when he rejoined the sanctuary party on Sunday and carried the processional cross.

'What would Andy say if he saw you in that alb. He'd wet hisself,' Paul said back at home later.

'My mum would be happy to oblige, she's got a box full of embarrassing photos of me.' Matt replied.

'No need,' he produced Matt's mobile, with inbuilt camera.

'You didn't!'

'You look great, really. And look at this text, Andy thinks so too.'

'Oh thanks, it'll get circulated round the whole gang now.'

'C'mon it's lovely, you look quite angelic. Or at least anyone would think so who hadn't heard what you and Andy were doing on your last night together.' He started panting and rolling his eyes: "Now! Now, Matt!" "Oh God Andy, faster, harder... please!" "Christ I'm coming!"'

Matt was not at all amused, 'We really must think about moving you up into the loft once my dad's done the conversion, or maybe even before.'

'Otherwise you might think about keepin' the enthusiasm down, or even soundproofin' the wall between us. Just a thought.'

There was a huge family gathering on New Year's Eve, and Matt's edited stories of California and the high life were much in demand. Andy was a subject of great fascination for the family. But Matt disguised quite how wealthy was his background, and Paul knew little more. Paul by transference was assumed to be another jet-set student prince, a belief his clothes seemed to confirm, despite Matt's denials. Paul was tagged around by several of Matt's teenage female cousins, an attention he very much enjoyed. He was good with girls.

Less happy was his Uncle Bob; Matt's aunt had gone into the Sacred Heart hospice, and it was only a matter of time now. He went over to talk to his uncle, who was making a valiant effort to be seasonal. It was hard to know what to talk about, but in fact his uncle did all the talking, and seemed very grateful to have found a ready listener.

Paul was bemused to be in the heart of a functional family. This was a thing he returned to again and again, and especially on the train back to university. 'They don't give you much privacy do they? They gotta know everythink about you. Surprised you have the patience.'

'You get used to it. On the other hand it makes going away to university the harder. Still, you don't want to be too self-contained and self-reliant, it's not good for you.'

'Easy to say, but when you only have yourself you never get out of the habit of bein' selfish.'

'It's difficult to learn to get on with people if you don't have a supportive family. But maybe it's as well you've noticed it; at least you know there's a skill out there which you have to cultivate.'

'Mmm. And how is the fact that you're gay goin' to be taken by them? They'll have to know one day.'

Matt looked a little grim. He knew very well what coming out would do to his parents, and did not relish that day one little bit. 'I guess,' he said, 'that'll be when I discover quite how good is the family I've got.'

Andy's return for the new term was not quite the reunion Matt had planned. He was streaming with a bad cold, which he promptly gave to Matt. They kept each other awake for other reasons than sex: temperatures, blocked nasal passages and sneezing.

'God. How can you still be beautiful with a head cold? How do you do it?' Andy marvelled as he looked at Matt spread out languidly across his bed. Colds sent him into hibernation, and he slept them off. Andy looked anything but attractive: his nose was red and peeling and his blue eyes were watery

Paul was impervious to the virus and had to take care of both of them. But they were both recovering when he got his offer from their university on his birthday in January. They celebrated both occasions with a meal out at an expensive Chinese restaurant. They were not too surprised to discover that it was the first time Paul had been in a restaurant with waiters and a wine list. He was all eyes.

New worries about Paul's university place soon stacked up. He had to get forms completed by his mother, who didn't want to co-operate in the belief that university would cost her a fortune. Matt and Andy hung around outside his mother's house as Paul went in to try to talk her around. They were appalled by the sounds of shrieking coming from inside. Passers-by looked curiously at them and the house; they wished they could melt into the pavement. Paul left at speed, pursued by items of crockery that shattered on the path. Matt was amazed by how cool he was about it all. 'You get used to it,' he confessed, 'and you soon learn there's no point shoutin' back'.

In the end, Paul had to let his head of sixth form in on his circumstances. Since he had passed his eighteenth birthday this did not cause legal problems, but some difficult questions had to be asked and answered. Once she was satisfied, she took matters into her own hands, writing to the grants authority, the university hardship fund and personally visiting Paul's mother. Finally declarations were signed and all he had to do was get the A level grades. The school at least was impressed by his progress since October; he spent a lot of time now in the library with Andy and Matt.

February arrived and with it two important dates. Matt's birthday was on the 14th of the month, and Andy's on the 19th. 'Twenty years of age. I'm going to be old. This is my third... my third decade.' Andy moaned.

'Then let's do something to cheer ourselves up,' responded Matt.

'What do you suggest?'

'A little holiday somewhere. How about London?'

'That's not a bad idea, not a bad idea at all, Matt.'

'And we take Paul.'

'Uh?'

'Sort of late birthday present and also a compensation for leaving him here when we went jetting off across the Atlantic.'

'I suppose the stash will take the damage without much of a problem. Let's do it.' Andy's $9000 had become over £6000, and against all sense they kept it in cash in the house hidden under one of the many loose floorboards. Andy's argument was that no one would expect to find more than small change in a student house, and he was determined that it belonged to all of them, not just him.

They decided on the long weekend which included Andy's birthday, and Matt booked an inexpensive hotel in Bloomsbury with his card.

'I love London,' Matt said as they got off the train at Paddington on the Friday. 'We used to have a great time when I was a kid when my parents brought us down here. We used to go to a show, the zoo, Legoland, the British Museum.'

'So where do we go to today then?' asked Andy

'It's all the same to me, lads,' chipped in Paul, 'I've never been here before in me life.'

'Ironic, since last year you were planning on sleeping on the streets here,' said Matt.

'Thank God it never came to that.'

They navigated the tube to Russell Square and checked into the hotel, a single room for Paul and a double room for Andy and Matt. They pushed the beds together. Andy had a map and they decided to walk down to the river. The swarms of young people drew them from Charing Cross Road into Leicester Square, where they checked out the new film releases. The barriers and red carpets were laid out for a premiere, and they hung around for a while watching the preparations, chatting happily to a large and mixed group of Dutch students. They got very friendly. In the end they all headed together with them down towards the river and booked on the London Eye. Paul distinguished himself by his abject cowardice on the ride, clinging on to the central seat and sweating as the cabin went over the top of the arc.

'Your friend does not like heights,' said one of the Dutch girls, who had rather taken to Paul, the way that girls usually did.

'Let's find somewhere to eat.'

They ended up in a pub till late. Somewhere during the night, they realised that two of the male Dutch students were also a couple, and the night became very interesting and instructive.

The Dutch boys were the same age but had come out in a very different environment. Matt and Andy finished the night with a much expanded vocabulary for what they had been doing to each other. They also learned a good deal about what they might get up to, but hadn't, and downloaded a bank of data about gay life that they hadn't even dreamed of. Paul too was drinking it in, although in his case it was simply salacious. It was a fascinating and slightly scary night in that packed, overheated and smoke-filled South Bank bar, straining to pick up the Dutch boys' forbidden wisdom through the bellowing of estuarine conversation round them.

They said their farewells at closing time, an involved process when the Dutch boys insisted on a proper goodbye. Matt found it disturbingly erotic to be touched and thoroughly kissed by someone other than Andy. He nearly climbed the wall he was up against when he felt a questing hand where only Andy's had ever been before. Paul was lurking under a streetlight when they emerged, the Dutch couple waving, laughing and blowing kisses as they walked off.

'I thought you guys were goin' to have it off right here and now in that alley.'

'Yeah, your dream finally come true, Paulie!' laughed Andy. 'Enthusiastic lads those boys, weren't they? Henk wanted to know what you were like in bed, Matt'

'What did you say?'

'I said it's like being shagged by an archangel.'

'Flattering, but a bit of an exaggeration wouldn't you say?'

'Well, yes. But I couldn't say it was like being shagged by an altar boy, could I?'

'You're never going to let me forget that are you?'

Saturday was all about galleries and museums. The three of them had developed into devoted cultural tourists. In the evening they went to a burger bar and a film.

'Was it like this in New York then?' asked Paul.

Matt had not told quite the truth to Paul about their American experiences; he had left out the private jets and the luxury hotel. Paul assumed they had gone on scheduled flights, and they had hinted that the expensive clothes had come from a cut-price outlet mall.

Matt tried to looked innocent, 'Pretty much.'

Sunday was Andy's birthday, and Matt had decided to make it his too. He had brought up his unopened cards and gifts from home. Andy had only one family present, a book from his mother. But Matt had got him some of his favourite music and a new scarf, which he tied round his neck with a kiss. Apparently, Andy's father was not encouraged to send anything, although Matt believed that a card with a US postmark had turned up in the house the week before.

Paul came in and sang 'happy birthday' with his own cards and small gifts bought on a staff discount from the supermarket where he worked on Saturdays. They were touched, especially as he had an unexpectedly nice singing voice. They made another happy day of it, roaming the streets despite the rain, and they ended up in a good restaurant in Charlotte Street for a birthday dinner.

'Twenty years old, eh? Do you feel mature now, boys?' asked Paul after toasting their health in a good red wine.

'Don't feel any different really,' Andy responded.

'And I bet we'll be saying that on our fiftieth birthdays too,' said Matt.

'Hope so, and I hope you'll be there to hear it too, Matt.'

The Tuesday they returned, Matt's mobile bleeped just after they had gone to bed. It was his mum.

'Sorry to wake you, love, but I thought you'd better know. Auntie Carol passed away in the hospice at eight this evening, Uncle Bob and the girls were there. It was quite quick in the end; poor thing, she was worn away to nothing. But it was all very peaceful. Your dad's with Bob now. The funeral's set for Friday.'

'Aw mum, I'm so sorry. Course I'll be there.'

He rang off and told Andy, who was very sympathetic. 'How well did you know your aunt?'

'She used to babysit for mum and dad most weeks when I was small, she was really patient and kind, she'd play boring games with me for hours, bless her, and never complained. She did the same for Carl too, although by then her daughters were old enough to babysit too.'

'How many kids did she have?'

'Three girls, all grown up. Natalie has got two little boys now.'

'When are you going?'

'I'll catch the bus up on Thursday afternoon. Change at Oxford.'

'Can I come?'

'What?'

'I said, I'd like to come and hold your hand if you think your parents won't think it too odd.'

'They'll certainly think it's odd if you hold my hand. Dunno Andy, perhaps a funeral's not the best time to make a home visit, but tell you what, why not come up for the weekend after? You can cheer me up.'

The requiem mass was at Matt's old church of the English Martyrs. He had rung up Fr Jenkinson to volunteer his services, and other young Whites attached to the church had also come forward. So Matt swung the thurible in front of the coffin, Carl took the cross, and four girl and boy cousins made up the rest of the sanctuary party as acolytes. His dad and his uncles and oldest cousins carried the coffin, the funeral director fretting in case they mishandled it.

The church was packed out and the singing was powerful. Matt sat with Carl in the sedilia half watching his family and spending the other half of his time trying desperately to remember what times he needed to get up and recover the thurible ready for censing. It took his mind off the sadness of the day a little. There couldn't be any mistakes that day.

There were many mourners weeping as the coffin was taken out to the hearse. The graveside was crowded, and according to White family tradition, Matt and his elder male cousins filled in the grave with spades as the cemetery supervisor looked on. The clods hit the coffin lid with a very final thud, as Uncle Bob and his daughters stood and watched blank-faced. Matt's shoes and the bottoms of his suit trousers were caked with clay by the time the young men had finished. The funeral tea at a local pub went on all afternoon and well into the evening.

Matt and his favourite cousin Xavier, two years younger and not dissimilar in looks, settled into a corner of the bar. Xavier was applying to university, and Matt had long been working on him to go through with it.

'What about if I went to your place, Matt? You say it's good. What's it like for English?'

'Great, I think,' Matt said, and then suddenly was struck by horror. Xavier would end up in the same year as Paul, whom Matt had passed off at Christmas as a first year student. He would also want to share the house, where Matt was sleeping with Andy. If Xavier came to his university, there'd be no more secrecy about his other life. Talk about your sins finding you out. He coughed, 'So... er... did you apply, Zav?'

'Nah, Matt. I just thought that if I screwed up on the grades I might try to get in there in clearing.'

'Oh, sure. Well, I'd be glad to see you, you know that Zav. So where do you really want to go?'

'I've got Warwick for my firm offer and I'm thinking of Luton for my insurance.'

'Sounds good. I'm so glad you're doing this, Zav. It's been lonely being the only White with A levels, believe me.'

'It was sad, of course,' he told Andy on Saturday after he had met him from the bus. 'But in a way it was quite affirming. All the White family was there, paying their respects. The church was packed, the service was beautifully done by Fr Jenkinson who knew her well, and everybody said the right thing. You get to appreciate the power of words at times like this, and it's a relief to find that there are even words against death.'

He and Xavier had met Andy at the bus station and they had gone to a pub in the city centre before going on to his parents. Matt was quite keen to introduce the two of them. He so wanted his family to get to know Andy, and see how wonderful he was before the inevitable bombshell that Andy was his lover blew his old world apart.

'I suppose the fact that the family was so involved in the funeral helped, giving you some feeling of it belonging to you,' observed Andy.

'Yeah, you're right of course,' said Xavier. 'But it was also the fact that the family rallied round Uncle Bob and the girls, too. The funeral tea was almost cheerful, lots of laughing and jokes, although no one was expecting Bob to laugh, of course.'

'I've never been to a funeral.'

'No?' said Matt.

'Not once. My mum's dad died long before I was born, and I never knew my dad's parents. My grandma in Stockport is made of steel and whipcord; she's going to outlive me. I've got no relatives to worry about, apart from my half-brothers and half sister in the USA. Suddenly, I wish I did have more.'

A call came from the bar, 'Hey, Whitey! You back?'

'Jonno! Jammie! Hey lads, what's up?'

A group of former inmates at his college came over and settled round their table. They knew Xavier, and Matt introduced Andy. They greeted him cheerfully enough, but then ignored him as they swapped stories and news with Matt. Xavier and Andy found other things to talk about, mostly music so far as Matt could tell. After half an hour, Andy was beginning to look bored to Matt's eyes, so he finished up his drink and they left. Matt and Xavier hugged outside the pub, and he went off to find his own mates, who were getting ready for a heavy night out clubbing.

On the way to the bus, Matt asked, 'How did you get on with Zav?'

'Fine. He's a nice kid, very bright. You really like him don't you.'

'Yeah. He was more of a little brother to me than Carl ever was. I often had him over to play when I was ten and he was eight. Zav's more like me than any of the other Whites.'

'He has a crush on you too,' suggested Andy.

'Had a crush on me, I think, when we were a lot smaller. I was his hero, his big brothers are a lot older than him.'

'He's good-looking; he's got the same skin, hair and eyes as you. You could be brothers. Anyway, let's get this right. He's your uncle Dan's youngest son, yes? And his big brothers are Mikey, Eddy and Joe. His little sister is Siobhan.'

'I'm impressed,' Matt confessed, 'How did you remember that?'

Andy pulled out several sheets of printout from an inside pocket. 'As I'm going to have a lot to do with the Whites of Northampton, I downloaded some of my mum's genealogical software and programmed your family's details into it as and when you let them slip. So now I have a family tree, so far as I can reconstruct it.'

'Let's have look. Mmm. That's very impressive you know. You have your mother's talent.'

Andy gave him a hard look, 'I can see tomorrow's headline: SAVAGE MURDER OF GAY LOVER WHO INSULTED PARTNER. Are you trying to bug me, Matt?'

'No offence, Andy. I'm really impressed by the thoroughness, that's all.'

Andy trudged along quietly with him for a while, and then said, 'Somehow I got the idea you were quite a solitary boy at school.'

'Well I was, and I wasn't. I kept myself to myself, and kept out of trouble. I didn't hang round the centre like Jonno and Jammie did, and still do - my mum would never have let me – and I liked reading. But I had a good set of mates, and didn't seem to have that many enemies. We used to go biking a lot, sleep-overs and stuff. Then there's all my cousins, a whole tribe of them, dozens of Zavs.'

'Sounds idyllic,' Matt could not help noticing the envy in Andy's voice, but couldn't think of anything to say, and he certainly wasn't going to apologise for having had a decent childhood in a big family.

'A funny thing...,' began Andy.

'Hmm?'

'Well, when I was sixteen, after Cameron got expelled and I got depressed and lonely, I started having this dream. Night after night. It was so powerful. It was of waking up in my bed in Nuneaton with a dark-haired boy next to me, and feeling really safe and really peaceful as he wrapped his strong brown arms round me and buried his head in my shoulder. I thought it was something to do with my depression at losing Cameron. Now I think it was a promise, as if I was to keep the faith and be patient, and it would all come right.'

'The mind's a funny thing, Andy.'

'I know...' then he continued half to himself, 'but the boy in my dream had no blemish on his skin and his hair was a cloud of black. And you make me feel so loved and so safe, Matt.'

'You know what's even odder?'

'What?' Andy looked intrigued.

'Well when I was sixteen I kept on having a dream, too. I was in my bedroom and this beautiful boy came up behind me, and put his hands over my eyes.' They had stopped and Andy was staring at him intently, '... he was blond, with startling blue eyes and this amazing body and smile.'

'Wow...' Andy was looking at him transfixed, then doubt crept into his eyes, 'Hey, hang on, if he came up behind you how did you know he was blond with blue eyes?'

'I did say it was odd...'

'You... horrible person. You're sending me up, and I was being serious.' Matt couldn't reply for laughing. Andy fumed for a while, and then shrugged and smiled.

They arrived at the door of Matt's home, a large semi-detached house on a 1980s estate on which his father had been a contractor. His mum answered the door.

'Hullo Andy love, come on in.' She surprised and pleased him immensely by giving him a hug and a kiss. They had a pleasant chat over a meal she promptly made for both of them. His dad came in later and joined in. Andy seemed really delighted to be a part of a cheerful family group. Carl poked his head round the door but then disappeared back to his room.

'It's his age, Andy. I expect you were the same, Matt certainly was. Matty, Andy'll have to sleep with you in your old room, your dad's still redecorating the spare room.' She shot an accusatory glance at Matt's father, 'We've put out the old camp bed your friends used to sleep on.'

'Thanks dad.' He managed to give a wicked sidelong glance at Andy, with a raised eyebrow.

So they slept together that night in his three-quarter bed, and Matt made full use of his opportunity, although they kept things very quiet. 'This really is the filthiest thing I've ever done,' he gasped as he began making his slow entry into Andy, who was lying on his back beneath him on his childhood bed, his legs brought back to his chest.

Andy had found the first penetration of Matt's large penis into him difficult, though he had desperately wanted it. It had not been so difficult when Andy had first penetrated him, because his member was smaller and Matt seemed to have more control over his anal muscles. Matt knew he had caused Andy a lot of pain by his clumsiness that first time, and the memory always made him nervous whenever it came to pushing past the muscle ring of his anus. So he always took it very slowly, although he had lubricated and massaged Andy's hole tenderly and carefully first. He didn't quite believe Andy's assurances that he had a lot more control down there now than in their first days.

But it was always for both of them the high point of their lovemaking. Andy was driven into ecstasy by those moments of sweet submission as Matt's superb body loomed over and took possession of him, and Matt was sent into ecstasy by the utter sexual abandon of the face and arching body under him. Later, as they lay together in the dark, Matt had to confess that this was the consummation of every adolescent fantasy he'd ever had. They had all involved being naked in his own bed with another boy. Andy slipped out to sleep on the camp bed, to avoid suspicions in the morning.

The next week, after they had returned to university, Matt had a Damascus Road experience, of a sort. The university library had an archive, which offered training days for second-year history students going into their dissertation year. They both went, but Andy was unimpressed, remarking that it was just the sort of place his mother would feel at home in. But Matt was fascinated by dusty registers and tattered letter collections. He started hanging round the archives on odd afternoons when Andy was at soccer training. He was now in the university B team and had even once played in an away fixture against Reading. They still swam in the mornings when they could.

It was while he was leafing through a particularly dense and dusty file of eighteenth-century gentry papers that he noticed something odd. A slim parchment-bound volume tied with pink tape was somehow folded into the rag-paper wrappings of the file. He disengaged it and asked the archivist about it. She agreed it wasn't in the catalogue for that file. It was in English but in a crabbed and barely decipherable hand. Since it was so slim, and since Matt had become something of a fixture in the office, and since she was overworked, she said she'd get it copied for him if he agreed in return to tell her what he worked out about it. Maybe they could find out where it properly belonged.

He pored over the copies all weekend and got no further than the first few lines, which seemed to be household accounts. On Monday he got some paleographical guides and worked all the harder. By Tuesday the writing was making sense, and he began a transcription. By Wednesday he was up to the end of the third page. He was dashed to discover that the fourth page was in an entirely different and even worse hand. But he had gained confidence and had learned to scan for decipherable words, look for the patterns of letter formation and then go back to the beginning.

The new text lacked a heading, and began in the middle of its narrative, but before he'd got to the end of the third line he knew it was something unusual. He called Andy over, who listened patiently as he explained the discovery. By Friday he had transcribed four pages and knew roughly what he was dealing with. Before he could be sure, with Andy's help, he ransacked the shelves of secondary works looking for clues to validate what they had. Andy too had got quite excited.

Finally, within a fortnight he knew what he had unearthed, a large fragment of an account of the day of Charles I's execution in 1649 written by an anonymous gentleman-officer of Lieutenant General Cromwell's suite who was at Cromwell's side the whole of the day, and who recorded conversations and even facial expressions he saw. He was willing to bet that it had been part of a commonplace book belonging to a member of the gentry family whose papers he had been working through. He was even able to work out that a certain New Model Army major called Marlowe had married into that particular family in the 1650s and he was now the prime suspect as author.

Matt triumphantly typed up his transcript and analysis, and took it off to show Dr Faber. He was a bit disappointed when he was told to leave it in an in-tray. But a priority e-mail he got the next morning made up for it. He and the lecturer pored over the document all the rest of the day, and the professor of modern history also called in.

'You realise, White,' he said ponderously, although kindly, 'that this is the sort of discovery that a professional historian might make once in his lifetime, if he was very, very lucky. It's incredible that it's just dropped into your lap. But there is something else that is impressive, and that is the way you've dealt with it and edited it. My colleague here and I might have done a better job with our knowledge of the sources, but it wouldn't have been any the more accurate. It may be early in the day but we're sure of one thing. You have a natural talent for research and we want you to think seriously about postgraduate work.

Now, I've filed this in advance as your third year dissertation and awarded it a first class mark so high that you might get vertigo if you looked at it. Keep that to yourself. What you'll be doing instead in your third year is preparing it for publication. We have a reading list for you and some other comparative sources. By Christmas we want it ready for submission.'

'Under my own name?' Matt asked, stunned.

'Yes indeed. I think that we can get it published and I think we can be confident that it will be noticed and that you'll get massive postgraduate support for the year after. This is not entirely unselfish. This is a research coup for the department, and we're going to make the most of it ... and you. My dear boy, you've rewritten the history books, and you're hardly twenty!'

Matt stumbled off in search of Andy. They talked it through in the Union bar with Leo.

'I hadn't actually thought what I'd do after graduation. I just thought I'd look for a job in admin, the civil service or something,' Matt said. 'But now I think about it. I'd really like to go with a graduate degree.'

'Dr White?' suggested Leo.

'Nah, Professor White!' insisted Andy proudly. He was incandescent with pleasure on Matt's behalf.

'Well that's you sorted, Chalky,' said Leo, 'Myself, I'm thinking about teaching. What about you, Andy? Soccer career sound attractive?'

'Sounds attractive, but the big clubs seem not to have noticed me. Or the small ones for that matter. I'd not really thought that far ahead.' He looked thoughtful. As Leo went for the next drink he leaned over to Matt and added, 'One thing's for sure. Wherever you are, I'll be. Even if it's only sharpening your pencils.'

'Love you, Andy... I'd better ring home, and tell them the news.'

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