The Bull Singer
To say I was nervous about Joey coming to tea was an understatement, not for me but for the boy when Aunt Mabel's announced her rules on table manners and appearance. He was due to arrive at half past three; the table had been laid with Aunt Mabel's best linen, cutlery and her Sunday tea set. Every year, my dad bought her a new tea set from a reputable stallholder at the annual fair. That would go in the glass cabinet to be used only on Sundays or special occasions, the one it replaced would become second best and used when they had visitors to afternoon tea, and the one it replaced became the everyday tea set. So I wondered why Aunt Mabel saw fit to bring out her very best for a kid she hardly knew. This year's best was white porcelain with gold pattern work around the rim. A matching teapot and water jug stood on the range, ready to be filled. Aunt Cissy's cake stand was overloaded with her latest batch of farmhouse cakes and pastries, and two plates of sandwiches waited to be demolished by a hungry teenager.
Dad already sat in his carving chair at the head of the table, looking every few seconds at his pocket watch, and comparing it with the mantle clock. As the clock struck the half hour, the front door bed rang. Major knew who it was and bounded to the door to bark his welcome for the boy he seemed to have adopted. Aunt Mabel signaled for me to let our visitor in and, when I opened the door, I stared, wide-eyed at him. Gone was the tangled mess of hair, and the shabby jeans and trainers. In their place was a shining mop of black shoulder length hair, neatly creased black trousers, polished shoes, his school shirt, sweater and tie, and a black trench coat. I trembled from head to toe, and my throat clammed up. I was looking at Billy.
I almost reached out to take him in my arms, when Aunt Mabel's voice brought me down to earth. "Mags, you fool, let the boy in and close the door; you're letting all the heat out." I showed him into the dining room then fled upstairs to the bathroom to pull myself together and wipe my face with a damp flannel and cold water. 'Oh, Billy, why does he have to look so like you? I miss you so much, but he isn't you, is he? The hair is different; thicker and not as straight. Help me, Billy; please help me.' I thought I heard a whisper in my left ear , 'I love you,' and felt a hand on my shoulder, and my manhood suddenly sprouted, then a featherlike kiss touched my lips. I scanned the bathroom through the shaving mirror, but there was no one there, but I distinctly felt something take hold of my penis and stroke it through the material of my trousers. 'Let me love you.' I opened my fly, and took my rigid penis out, and began to strive for release, covering the hand already there with my own. I staggered to the toilet, grabbed a handful of toilet tissue and stood over the pan. I felt a mouth take me in, just the glans; the one thing I had managed to get Billy to do for me, and I felt his lips, once again bringing me to a mind-blowing deliverance. Had his ghost really come to me? Or had it been just my imagination desperately trying to deal with my grief the only way I could? As I cleaned myself up and flushed the toilet, I heard a knock on the bathroom door. "Mags, are you all right?"
Dad! How had he climbed the stairs by himself? I opened the door and he shuffled in and closed and locked the door behind him. Not wanting to look at him, I sat on the edge of the bath and stared at the floor. Dad put a bony finger under my chin and lifted it until I had to look at him. My eyes filled as he studied me thoughtfully. "I think I know what's wrong, son. He looks like Billy, doesn't he?" Dad put his arms round me and hugged me to his skeletal body, crushing my head against his stomach. He stroked my hair with one hand while he held me tight with the other. I began to cry and he shushed me as if I was four years old, not thirty-four. "It's not his fault, but he's sitting down there thinking he's done something wrong. If you don't want him to run away like a scaredy thing, you need to go downstairs and show him he's wrong. Tell him the truth; that he reminds you of Billy Junior. That way, your Aunts will be put in the picture without them knowing what's what. They're wondering about you too, and you have to give them just a bit of info to stop them digging further. Just tell them you've lost a dear friend who looks like Joey. They'll find out about you soon enough; you can't hide things like this to too long from your family, but right now, that boy downstairs is our main problem."
He let me stand up and I dried my eyes on a towel. "What did you say to his mother, yesterday?"
"That if we saw one more bruise on him, we'd call Social Services and I would have her dad come down on her like a ton of bricks. I doubt we'll have to worry too much about the lad for a few days. She's going abroad with some friends. I said I'd keep an eye on him, although he's old enough to be left on his own. It'll give him a break from her."
I followed him downstairs, and sat down at the table under the close scrutiny of my aunts. Surely they must have noticed my red eyes. I glanced quickly at Joey, and he gave me a slight nod. Did he understand, I wonder?
While Mabel poured the tea, Dad prompted me to explain myself. "I'm sorry about what happened just now, Aunty Mabel. I lost a friend a few weeks ago and Joey looks a lot like him. I just lost it for a while."
As if to confirm my statement, Joey rose from the table and went to his coat hung up behind the front door, he came back with the replacement CDs he had bought, and placed them in front of me. The top CD was 'Billy Junior'. I picked it up and turned it so my aunts could see Billy's face on the cover.
"Oh, my goodness!" Aunt Cissy said as she stared at the disc then at Joey. "There is a likeness, isn't there?"
"Kids all look the same to me these days." Aunt Mabel retorted. "They all have long scraggy hair. In my day it was short back and sides. Help yourself to the sandwiches, young man, we don't stand on ceremony in this house, and there aren't any servants."
I caught Joey's eye and winked at him. We both dived in and demolished the sandwiches at our end of the table in no time, resulting in Cissy transferring some of the sandwiches from the other plate. We soon got rid of them and started on the cakes. Aunt Cissy smiled her delight at us but Aunt Mabel sniffed. "Kids, these days, I don't know where they put it all." But there was satisfied gleam in her eye.
"Well, young man," Dad said, as he stirred some sugar into his third cup of tea. "I suppose we'll be seeing a lot of you in the next few weeks; if you still want to be the next Bull Singer." My aunts stared at him then at Joey. "Now don't look so shocked; I'm not going to be around forever and someone needs to do it. Mags isn't interested so it might has well be this lad as any."
Aunt Mabel glared at him. "If you think I'm going to let you go out among the bulls in this weather, you're sadly mistaken. Anyway, the lad hasn't said he wants to yet."
"I want to," Joey said quietly.
"There you are!" Dad smiled in triumph. "That's settled then, and you women can shut up about me not going out. It'll be a break from listening to you two rabbiting on at me." Their reaction was one of hurt feelings, and Dad winked at me. "More tea please, Mabel; this is stone cold."
After tea I showed Joey round the farmyard and introduced him to our randy rooster, a monster of a bird that lived in his own fenced off portion of the back yard with its long run when he wasn't allowed to service his ladies. Another old friend I introduced him to was Jack, the last horse to be bred on the farm. He was an enormous Shire who had won Dad a lot of trophies over the years. While Joey got to know these additional members of Lower Farm, I watched him carefully and decided he had an affinity with animals, clearing up the mystery of how he got so close to Bosun. Jack snorted softly and lowered his huge head to have his ears scratched. "Careful of his feet," I said when Joey got up real close. "If he steps on your toes with those feet of his you'll know about it."
"It's okay, Jack wouldn't hurt me, would you fella? You know a friend when you see one, don't you Jack? I'll bet he takes a lot of grooming for the shows, when's the next one."
"In April, I think; but Dad hasn't shown Jack for some years because of health problems, and he doesn't trust anyone else to run him. Mabel and Cissy wouldn't stand a chance; he's a big horse to handle."
"What do you mean, run?"
"You have to have someone lead a horse round the arena."
"Maybe we could do it?"
"I did it a couple of times and it nearly killed me."
"I'd like to try."
I laughed. "Are you trying to take over this farm or something? First you have Major slobbering all over you and acting like a puppy; then you have Bosun as your woolly pillow, now it's Jack." Joey's head dropped and his hand dropped from Jack's neck, and he turned away from me. "Hey, kid! I was only joking." I caught hold of his shoulders and turned him to face me, and in seconds he had melted into my embrace. I felt him shudder with a wracking sob and I tightened my arms about him; and the old urges begin to fester. I was holding Billy in my arms again, and I knew without touching further what my hands would find under his shirt, the soft smooth boyish skin of a hairless body going through puberty, the warm homely smell of him, the shapely lips waiting to be kissed, a young penis and scrotum waiting to be lifted and held.. Oh My God! What's happening here? But this wasn't Billy; this was wrong. This kid was jailbait. I released him and stood back, and he gazed up at me with moist eyes. "No friends, huh?" I asked.
He shook his head. "I'm better with animals. I don't know why." He wiped his coat sleeve across his eyes, squared his shoulders, and turned to walk back to the house. I followed him, wondering how I was going to cope in the days to come. I was no child molester; a supposedly straight guy, I'd only surrendered to Billy because I had fallen under his spell, and had vowed never to touch another male again, preferring celibacy if anything. Why were these kids so damned bewitching?
Back in the house, Aunt Mabel gave us a cloth to wipe the mud off our shoes before letting us into her front lounge. We found Dad already there, and the conversation turned to music.
"Where did you learn to dance, son?" Dad wanted to know.
Joey shrugged his shoulders. "Wherever we lived if there was a dance class there; but don't tell mum that. She thinks I've picked it up from watching videos and films."
"What do you want to do?"
"Go to a school for performing arts somewhere, but it's going to be hell getting her to agree. As far as she's concerned there's only room for one performer in the family."
"There's a good school in North Wales," I said, "in Colwyn Bay, but you'd have to finish school and take your GCSEs first."
Joey's eyes lost their sparkle. "Yeah, I know."
I turned to Dad and asked, "Where's Aunt Millie these days?"
Dad raised his eyes to me and knew what I was getting at. "Oh yeah; Millie!"
"She's our older sister," Aunt Mabel explained. "She was a dance teacher for many years. Mags told us you've been using her mirror at the cottage. She doesn't teach professionally any more, just messes around with kids like you who want to dance and sing but can't find a teacher or a school."
"She rents the old Luxor cinema in Fordage , our nearest village, and has loads of kids in there," Dad said, "dancing and acting and whatever. They put on some good shows now and again, and make their own scenery and props. Why don't you take Joey down there to meet her, Mags?" I looked at Joey to see if he was interested. He shrugged his shoulders. Major had sneaked into the lounge, where he wasn't supposed to be, and rubbed up against Joey's legs for a fuss. Joey obliged, more interested in the dog than listening to grown-ups.
"I'm sorry, Joey," Aunt Mabel with unbelievable gentleness, "but Major isn't allowed in here. It's not your fault of course, but Major knows he's in the wrong. Would you care to take him to the kitchen? There's a bowl of treats on the table for him, but don't give them all at once." The look of relief on Joey's face was amusing as he stood and made for the door with Major romping around him like a little puppy.
"MAJOR!" Aunt Mabel yelled. "Bad dog; behave yourself or it's out in the yard for you tonight." At this, Joey grabbed Major's collar and forced him to lie down. He held the dog there with one hand on his throat and one on his shoulder, and then bent down to whisper in the dog's ear before standing up. Immediately, the dog sat up and gazed up at Joey. The boy opened the door and stood for a few seconds, returning Major's gaze, and then pointed to the hall. To our amazement, Major preceded Joey out of the room and Joey turned his head to give us a crafty smile before closing the door.
Dad shook his head. "Well, I'll be... the mutt's never done that before."
The next day I took Joey down to meet Aunt Millie, and hoped, while he was otherwise occupied, to nip out and visit his school. If he wanted to go to college, whether school of art of not, he had to get those all-important GCSEs this year. I put on the one good suit I had brought with me, not expecting to need them on a farm, and picked Joey up at three o'clock, as Aunt Millie never started teaching until after school time. Fifteen minutes later, I found a convenient parking space across from the Luxor, the haven of my childhood love of space adventure films and Superman. We kids never took any notice of the state of the place; such was our thirst for what was on the silver screen, so it hit me like a sledge hammer to see it in its present state, with its paint peeling and the rendering needing repair in several places. Inside it was no better. The rows of seats, which used to be comfortable, were now in need of replacement. Half the lights were missing, and the stage drapes were faded, with some of their gilt braiding coming loose. As we made our way down the centre aisle, I glanced up at the domed ceiling and saw tell-tale patches of damp. On stage, a group of kids were gathering, each with a tote bag full of dance gear. There was no sign of Aunt Millie.
I got the attention of one of the older boys and asked where Mrs. Devonshire was. He said, "In the office, backstage." The boy stared down at Joey before turning to his mates. "Hey guys, look who's here!" They gathered at the front of the stage, their manner certainly not welcoming. Joey glared up at them with equal hostility. Oops!
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