The Bull Singer
Dad only had one bull now; most of the herd had been sold off a couple of years ago but Bosun was Dad's favourite and more of a pet than a piece of the farm. He was getting on in years, and his temper had grown with him. Normally he was left to graze at Home Field because it was small and had a suitable fence in line with health and safety laws. He was one bull you didn't see being led along with a leash attached to a nose ring. If he got it into head to go anywhere, he just went. I always thought he had been used as the model for the old saying 'like a bull in a china shop'. But to the family he was a gentle old soul; when Dad had a mind to sing to him. My generation (namely me), was the only one that had not continued the tradition of singing to the bulls of Home and Lower Farms. No wonder Dad was disappointed in my choice of career. With one widowed and two spinster sisters in tow, and now me declaring my lack of interest in the starting a family of my own, Dad saw the demise of the Alton farming family. I had these thoughts running through my mind as I entered the cottage to be hit by a barrage of noise, from hammers to the teeth grinding snarl of power chisels. I negotiated all the mess and tackle one finds on a building site and reached the kitchen without tripping more than once over the cables leading like snakes from room to room. I found Barry, Dad's builder friend, seated at an old pasting table, sipping tea from a large tin mug, every inch the foreman in charge complete with battered sandwich tin.
"How's it going, Barry?" I could hardly hear myself speak over the din of a portable generator shaking itself silly in the back yard.
"No problems as yet," Barry shouted back. "For an old house, it's surprisingly dry. Your dad had me treat the walls and floor for damp a few years back. I didn't like the idea of drilling channels in stone walls for the cables so I've created some new skirting boards and hidden the cables behind them."
"I've stained them dark to match the ceiling beams" He took me into the partly finished main lounge to have a look and I was most impressed with the result. I glanced up at the thick beams running the whole width of the room. One of his lads was up a ladderskimming the spaces between them. "I'll do the job as cheaply as I can, but the work you need doing is going to cost you."
"Don't worry about the pennies, Barry; I have the pounds to spend. I want a good job done, the same you'd do for Dad. By the way, have seen a lad hanging about the place?"
"You mean him from Home Farm? I saw him this morning, about ten o'clock. Someone doesn't like him."
I stared at Barry. "What do you mean?"
"Bruises; someone's given him a pasting recently; probably school kids fed up with his lip. My son is in the same class as him. Says he's right little bastard when he gets going. Has no respect for his teachers or his classmates."
"It's definitely not school kids, Barry. He was suspended a couple of weeks ago." I had to look into this. I left the cottage and hurried up the lane as storm clouds gathered above. I knew I should be down at Lower Farm, helping get the livestock into shelter but my own mission took first place. I reached Home Farm and found yet another car parked beside the Mercedes. A small figure sat huddled against the wind, on the bottom step. Joey had no coat on and his feet were bare. "Joey, what's wrong?"
I started forward and Joey struggled to his feet, glaring at me. "Stay away from me. I don't want you here."
"I want to help."
"Help? All you've done is made a load of trouble; you and your big mouth."
I saw the bruising on his face, arms and neck and started forward again, meaning to calm him down and check him for other injuries but he fled across the drive, leapt for the top of the wooden fence separating the house from Bosun's field, and vaulted over it. I heard Bosun bellow, and I ran to the fence. There were old barrels and stuff lying against it; obviously used to stand on. I stood on one and saw Joey running like the wind, not away from Bosun but straight towards him.
Bosun will kill him, I thought, and I ran down the lane to the nearest gate into the field, ready to fling myself between the boy and a raging bull. I heard Bosun bellow again and icy hands clutched at my chest. Not bothering to struggle with the gate lock, I threw myself over it, landing on my hands and knees in the usual patch of mud and whatever else one often finds inside farm gates. Out of breath, I struggled to my feet and looked across Bosun's field, excepting to see a crumpled figure being tossed in the air. Bosun was standing, quietly, in the middle of the field with Joey leaning against him with his arms as far round the animal's neck as they could reach. Astonished, I watched the two of them for a minute, then, realising he was safe, I made my way to Home Farm, aware of my wet and muddied jeans sticking to my legs. It began to rain hard as I reached the house and hammered on the door. I waited for several minutes, the rain soaking through my jacket. At last I heard the door being unlocked; it opened and the stranger standing there made the hairs on my neck prickle as I stared up at Frankenstein.
"Yes? Can I help you?"
I swallowed hard and said, "I need to speak with Mrs Street. It's about Joey."
"Mrs Street is not available right now," the giant's voice rumbled in his chest. "And it is Ms Not Mrs. Please come back tomorrow."
"No chance, Buddy." I said, with more bravado than I felt. "Someone's given Joey a beating and I want to know who. Was it you?"
"No, sir, it certainly was not. I would never harm a child, especially Joseph." The man stood calmly before me with his hands clasped in front of him. His face might have been the ugliest I have ever seen, but he regarded me with the eyes of a gentle giant. "I wish I knew who hurt him, sir. I would dearly love to repay him in kind, on Joseph's behalf. May I ask who is calling, sir?"
"I'm Mr Alton's property agent; I'm also his son. May I come in?"
"I don't know about that, sir. I have no authority to let anyone into the house."
"If that's the case, you have no authority to refuse me entrance either. Like it or not, I'm coming in. Ms Street knows who I am." I thought at first that I would end up at the bottom of the steps, but Frankenstein stepped back and opened the door. After cleaning the soles of my shoes on the doormat, I walked into the house and followed him into the lounge. I took a notebook and pen from my coat pocket and made like I was inspecting the place, gazing at the ceiling, the doors, the window frames, and scribbled a load of rubbish in the book. I asked him if I could see the kitchen. He took me through and I did the same there, noting the pristine worktops and double sink; it felt so strange, standing here in the house I had been born and brought up in, and not being a part of it. I knew every part of it, the layout of the four bedrooms and the attics above. I knew every creaking floorboard, like the one that creaked above me now. "If Ms Street isn't here," I asked, "who's upstairs?"
"I didn't say she wasn't here, sir." Frankenstein rumbled. "I said she was unavailable." His eyes were slowly losing their welcome. "Now, if you don't mind, I have other things to do."
"That's okay; I'll just wander round a bit. It isn't as if I don't know the place." I pointed at the ceiling. "That bedroom used to be mine."
"We have guests," Frankenstein said, as if he expected that statement to answer all my queries. His eyes had lost their warmth all together by now.
"And you are?"
"Benjamin Roach, sir. I have the honour of being a close friend of her father, Mr Elias Chambers." Frankenstein's face softened into a smile, which made him look even uglier. "Now, if you'll excuse me, sir, I'll leave you to make your inspection."
Five minutes later, I had finished looking around the ground floor; having discovered several security cameras, well hidden unless you knew what you were looking for. Having set up a security system for Billy and the band at the Bingford house, I had no trouble finding them. But why have hidden cameras in a place like this, or did they serve another purpose? And who was Mr Roly-Poly from a few weeks ago? What else did I find? Plenty.
In the lounge I found evidence that a party had been held; dirty glasses and napkins etc. Out in the back I found the rubbish bin stuffed with empty bottles, and the remnants of a feast. I knew Benjamin would be watching me so I took a good look at the back of the building as an excuse for being in the back yard. I saw a curtain move at one of the top windows and wrote busily in my notebook. There were several outbuildings to check, and I searched for anything of interest, like evidence of vehicles parked there over the last few weeks. In a barn I found muddy tyre prints and an oil spill, and the smell of petrol. Back in the house, I thoughtfully took my shoes off and climbed the stairs, finding Benjamin waiting for me. I racked my brains for an excuse to look in the bedrooms. "I think you've got a bit of damp on the rear wall. I'll have to check the windows from inside."
Benjamin gave me a slight bow. "As you wish, sir." To me, that meant that whoever was in the house that he didn't want me to see, had already made a quick exit while I was in the back yard. I looked in my old bedroom and the aroma of an expensive perfumewafted under my nose. I walked to the window and examined the frame. As luck would have it, it was actually beginning to show signs of old age.
"I thought so, Mr Roach. It's time my father had the place double-glazed. See this?" Benjamin came and stood beside me, and looked at where I was pointing. "It's only a small patch but it won't take long for that rot to spread. This one being on the east side of the house, it's less exposed to the elements than the others, so if this frame is showing signs of damp, the others will be much worse. I'll take a look at them and then I'll leave you in peace and arrange for our builder to call next week. I'll ask him to have a look at the roof and the chimney as well." I checked the other bedrooms; the only interesting one being Joey's attic bedroom. It was interesting because it was devoid of the kind of clutter a normal teenager would collect. No football or pop star posters, no personal items, and hardly any clothes. Those I saw were pretty worn and ready for the bin. I saw one pair of school shoes and one pair of old trainers; but what disappointed me more than anything were the contents of the box Joey used as a waste bin. The jewel cases of my CDs were in it, in bits with the covers ripped up, and my discs badly defaced and unusable. There was no sign of the Billy Junior disc. By the bin was a smashed CD player. I brought my inspection to a swift close and left the house vowing to make the kid replace the CDs next time I saw him. I looked over Bosun's fence in search of the kid. He was nowhere to be seen. By the time I got home, I was at boiling point. I told Dad and my aunts what I had found, and about the kid and Bosun.
All three looked amazed, and Dad said, "No one makes friends with Bosun, never!"
"Well, I don't know how it's happened, but Joey has."
"You must be mistaken. Must be another boy you saw."
"No, Dad, the kid I saw with his arms round Bosun was definitely Joey."
Dad shook his head. "Well I'll be damned!" He began to chuckle and hid his face behind his newspaper.
Aunt Mabel gave me a warning shake of her head, but that only made me more curious. "What, Dad? You know something?"
"No, it's nothing." Dad said, and muttered to himself, "Well, I never!"
I turned to appeal to Cissy and Mabs but they were already on their feet and clearing the lunch things off the table.
"So what do we do about him being beaten up?"
Dad raised his head to look at me. "Is it bad?"
"I think so."
"Take me up there; I'll have a word with his mother."
"You are going nowhere." Mabel snapped at him. "Not in your state of health."
"And what state of health is that?" Dad flung his paper to one side and glared at her. "Only what you want it to be so you can keep me pinned down like some old man in his death bed to suit your own pitiful existence. No wonder Charlie Monks ditched you at the altar. He looked at me and saw what you'd treat him like and got out when he could, you miserable old spinster."
There was a stunned silenced as my aunts and I stared at him, then Mabel ran from the room with her apron held to her face.
"Edward! How could you?" Cissy gasped, and hurried after her sister.
"You didn't have to be so blunt, Dad," I said. "That was really cruel."
Dad picked up his paper and hid behind it once more. "She's needed to be told for a long time. The sooner I move out of here, the sooner I'll be on my feet."
"Where would you live?" As soon as I said those words I knew I was in trouble.
"You've got a big house; I'll come and live with you."
"It wouldn't be as simple as that."
Dad's head jerked up and his eyes bored into me. "You let all your friends live there. What's the difference?"
"It's not that, Dad, it's...well I wouldn't want you to be embarrassed."
"Embarrassed? Why should I be embarrassed?"
"My friends are gay, Dad."
I started feeling hot round the cheeks. "I let them use my house in the winter so they can unwind and relax, and sort of be themselves while they work on their next tour program. I wouldn't want you to see things that might upset you. And they would feel just as embarrassed for you."
Dad snorted in disgust. "D'ya think I don't know what gays do? D'ya think I didn't see all those gadgets and stuff in your bathroom?" I went deep crimson as I remembered the polished chrome enema hose attached to the bidet, and the various pots and jars of lubricants and lotions. Dad suddenly grinned at me, and then started laughing. He glanced towards the kitchen where Cissy was trying to console her sister, and leaned over the table to whisper, "Why d'ya think you're an only child, ya' daft bake? I were right happy in that house of yours. I'm just wondering when you'll be inviting me to go back there."
Shocked by Dad's confession, I began to laugh with him, and I remembered how easily he had settled in with the band. "So you guessed the band is gay?"
"I don't think all of them are, are they? I guessed the war chief isn't. Nice lot though; I'd love to meet them again some time. Who knows, I'm still not too old to find myself a toy boy some time; now that would have your Aunt Mabel's knickers in a twist!"
I shook my head in amazement. "You old rogue, you hid that from me well enough. I never would have guessed."
"Oh, it happened long ago, lad, before you were even born."
"When you were in the navy?"
"Why didn't you say something while we were at the house?"
"Well, I didn't know if your band knew about Billy and you. And I didn't want to embarrass you in front of them, but...shush." Dad jerked his head towards the kitchen. His two sisters came out, each wiping their eyes on pieces of kitchen towel. He looked up at Mabel and reached out a hand to her. "I'm sorry, Sis, I was out of order."
"So you were," Mabel sniffed, and tried to resume her starchy look. "When you see that...that city bimbo, you tell her from me we don't want her here if she can't care for her lad any better; her and her men friends polluting the air with their fancy cars. And her with her fancy clothes and four inch heels; and that boy walking around in rags."
"It looks like he doesn't get much to eat either." I remarked.
"In that case," Cissy said, "perhaps we could have him down here a time or two."
"I know he likes your sandwiches," I said with a grin.
Aunt Mabel sniffed. "I'll think about it."
The next day, I drove Dad up to Home Farm where I knocked on the door while he stood at the bottom of the steps with Major. There wasn't much point him struggling up the steps if his wasn't going to be admitted. When the door opened, it was the boy we saw first; he quickly drew a thin bomber jacket closed over a torn shirt. He came out onto the top step and, while Major's tail wagged furiously in greeting, he looked down at Dad who nodded to him. "I've come to see your mother, and I'm not leaving here until I do. Is she in?"
Joey glanced at me before he nodded and went back inside. Telling Major to stay where he was, I helped Dad up the steps and he stood there, leaning on his stick and panting for breath. Joey came back and held the door open for Dad and I to step into the hall. Joey showed him into the lounge, closed the door after him and came to me. "Can we talk?"
I followed him outside and we walked down the steps and across the gravel to Bosun's fence. He stepped up on a barrel and leaned his folded arms along the top of the fence with Major sitting at his feet and leaning against his legs, whining for attention. He watched Bosun cropping contentedly on the last of the summer grass. I joined him at the fence and studied him carefully. The bruises had faded to a light yellowy green, and his lip was no longer swollen, but he still looked rough and unwashed.
"Why did you destroy my CDs?" I asked.
"It wasn't me, but don't worry, I'll buy new copies for you. I hid the Billy Junior one so that's one's okay." He turned to me with eyes alight with curiosity. "I read the credits. Was that really you playing sax on those tracks?"
"You're in his band?"
"Yes. Do you like Billy Junior?"
"Wow, yes! You really know him? I don't suppose you could get his signature for me?"
"I'm afraid not, Joey." I felt choke up as I added, "He died a few weeks ago."
Joey's face fell. "Oh, man! I am sorry. My mates keep on telling me I look a lot like him. What will happen to his band?"
"We'll still carry on if we can find a drummer good enough to take his place. The band was playing as a cover band long before they met Billy. Now, about those CDs; if you didn't destroy them, who did?"
Joey went back to watching Bosun. "I can't tell you."
"It wasn't Mr Roach was it?"
"Uncle Benjie? No way; he's a big teddy bear. Granddad's chauffeur wouldn't hurt a fly."
"Why would anyone want to break them?"
"To warn me."
"Warn you about what?"
Joey turned to fix me with a look of hate. "If you must know, there's only one dancer in this family; my mother. She didn't know about my dancing until you blew things wide open with your big mouth. She destroyed them and my player to punish me. Satisfied now?" He made to go back to the house when the door opened and Dad came out on his mother's arm. He turned back to the fence, his face working with anger and hurt.
I went to help Dad down the steps and watched Ms Street glare at her son before going back inside and slamming the door. Dad signalled that he wanted to talk to the boy. I walked him to the fence and he took up the same pose as Joey. "Nice old bull, isn't he? He's called Bosun."
"I know." Joey replied. "Your herdsman introduced me to him."
"I hear you've made friends with him. There's not a lot can say that. He's a rumm'n' is old Bosun but he likes to be sung to, he does. I'm known as the bull singer round these parts. Any farmer got a stroppy bull, they send for Farmer Alton. Can you sing?"
"Interested? My son isn't."
"I might be."
"Come to tea tomorrow."
"And wash your hair."
On the way home I asked Dad why he had talked to Joey about bull singing. Dad stared at me and said, "Well you're not bloody interested are you? And never will be I suppose. It might keep him out of trouble."
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