The Bull Singer
I knew the cottage was almost ready to move into, so I invited Dad to inspect it with me. I got him into the 405 – I had left the new car, a BMW 3 series 328CXI coupe, in a rented lock up garage in Fordage – and drove him and his wheel chair the short way to the cottage. He had protested about bringing the chair but I argued it was just in case he got tired and he could have somewhere to sit. I unlocked the front door, noticing that the front rendering had not been seen to yet, and pushed the door open to the clean smell of fresh paint and new plaster. I helped Dad up the one front step and into the hall where he looked up at the newly plastered ceiling, sizing up whether his friend had done a good enough job. First we went into the mirror room, and the place echoed with our footsteps. Dad admired the new newly stained and varnished wood flooring and how the frame of the mirror had undergone a transformation, from peeling paint to gleaming gilt. The walls had been cleaned of years of grime and dust, and triple sealed to preserve their almost marble whiteness and prevent any dampness getting through.
"Nice," I heard Dad mutter, as he gazed round the room. "Very nice; new windows as well, I see."
"The old ones were just about ready for the tip." I indicated we should go and look at the rest of the place. The other rooms and the bedrooms were exactly like the mirror room and ready to be filled with furniture, furnishings, and stuff that made a house a home. The kitchen walls had been finished with blue and cream tiles above light wood cupboards and speckled worktops, a blue oven and gas hob, and a shiny new sink and drainer. The bathroom sparkled with pristine white tiles and chrome fittings. Bright blue towels and accessories would add the colour. Dad eyed the bidet with amusement. "Not quite finished is it?"
I knew he meant a chrome enema hose. "It needs finishing by a more understanding builder than Barry, don't you think? Anyway, do you like the place?"
"Of course I do. When do I move in?"
I laughed at his cheek. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"Is the Pope Catholic? The sooner I get out from under the feet of those two sisters of mine, the sooner I can sort myself out with a sweet young man to keep me satisfied. It gets a bit lonely doing it by yourself. Can't ask those two; they'd have a heart attack."
My astonishment at his plain speaking must have showed on my face because Dad started laughing. I saw his joke but I wondered if, in his heart, he meant those words for real. I tried the lights and some of the sockets, found they were working and went out to the car to bring in Dad's chair and the tea making things we had brought with us. When I went back in with the first box riding on the seat of his chair, I found Dad in the main lounge, staring at the fireplace with tears in his eyes. "I was just thinking of the days when I used to play in front of this fireplace as a kid. I wonder if I will ever see a little child playing here again."
Feeling guilty, I put my arms round him, feeling it was now my turn to comfort him. "I'm sorry, Dad, but what can I do? I've tried to make a go of straight relationships and got stung too many times. Maybe I could adopt some day."
"It wouldn't be the same though, would it? Not our flesh and blood."
"No, I suppose not." I went to switch the central heating on, so the place could be aired over the weekend, and made two mugs of tea. Dad sat in his chair while I perched on one of the kitchen worktops, both of us in a downcast state of mind. After our tea, we went round the cottage once more, taking measurements for curtains and rugs, beds and wardrobes, and making a full list of the things I needed to buy. Just to continue Dad's joke I let him choose which bedroom he'd like.
Dad had not yet heard me play except when he watched the Jools Holland show with me, so I went back to the car and got my saxophones out of the boot. I carried them back inside, wheeled Dad into the main lounge and took out my alto and tenor saxes. Dad sat quiet while I treated him to a selection of pieces including Belvedere Hotel, Working Girls, and Yele Ye. Then dad asked me if I would play some of his wartime favourites, so I walked around the room playing Daydream, How Deep Is The Ocean, Willow Weep For Me, and very poignantly The Man I Love, after which both of us ended up reaching for our handkerchiefs.
"Well, Dad?" I asked as I put my instruments away. "Will I do as a busker, do you think?"
"Aye, you'll do," was his curt reply but I could see, by the glint in his eyes, that he was satisfied how his son had turned out, grand kids or not.
I felt it safe to ask him some questions. "Dad, you said you knew Ms Street's father. What does he look like?"
"Like someone out of Belsen, last time I saw him."
"When was that?"
"About five years ago, why?"
"There was a guy up at Home Farm the other day and I thought it might be Mr Chambers."
"Nah! It wouldn't be Elias; he's a recluse. He lives by himself in a big house the other side of Rochdale, with a load of hard necked bruisers for company. What was this man like?"
"A model for Humpty-Dumpty in an expensive suit; with piggy eyes I didn't like. Funny though, Elias's chauffeur was driving the car he came in. At least he said he was; big ugly looking fella."
Dad frowned at me. "That sounds like Benjamin, all right, but I'm not sure about the fat one." A squirming movement, and a deepening frown, accompanied his last statement. He knew who the fat guy was, right enough, but was not going to tell me.
"Who is Elias Chambers, anyway?"
"Someone you don't want to meet, lad," Dad said in a stern voice. "A dangerous kettle of fish if ever there was one. In his day he made the Mafia look like boy scouts. The less you know about him the better. The same goes for his daughter."
"So how did you get involved with them?"
"Like I said the other day, I don't want to talk about them. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to go home." I knew the signs of old; a slow boiling over until the volcano erupted, and I certainly didn't want to be in the firing line.
I'd known Major since he was a pup and I didn't recall him ever being disturbed, except once, by bad weather. Aunt Mabel had told me he'd whined and scratched at the back door till she let him out. He came home an hour later, bedraggled and limping, but herding a couple of sheep and their lambs.
Tonight, a storm broke. The temperature dropped to two degrees Celsius on the hall barometer, and the rain lashed down in sheets. We all went to bed early with extra blankets and hot water bottles, and I woke up at two in the morning to the sound of Major's noisy whining. This time he was at the front door. Mabel was behind me as I tried to pull him away. "Leave him, Mags. He's telling us something."
As we watched the dog, he pawed at the door, and his whines changed to desperate howls. I unlocked the door and something wet and bedraggled fell into the hall. Major was all over him, yelping and whining, and Aunt Mabel had a hard job pulling him off while I dragged the shivering body further into the hall so we could close the door. I turned him over onto his back and stared down at Joey, half unconscious and without a coat or shoes.
"Oh, My Goodness!" Aunt Mabel let go of Major and knelt beside me as I sat Joey up and held him against my chest. "Get him into the living room. We've got to get these wet clothes off him and warm him up very slowly. I've seen Hypothermia often enough to know he's near to it." I picked him up and carried him into the living room where Aunt Mabel spread Dad's throw over the settee. I laid him down and started to unbutton his shirt. Aunt Mabel thrust me aside. "Build the fire up, Mags, and put some water on to boil. This lad will need plenty of hot drinks inside him." The fire had been banked up for the night, all I had to do was to break it open and add some more logs and coal. As soon as it started to blaze I turned to help my aunt but she had already stripped the boy and was wrapping the throw around him, but not before I had a fleeting view of a neat package and the first signs of a dark bush. "Shouldn't we give him something, like brandy?" I asked.
Aunt Mabel shook her head. "That's an old wife's tale; does more harm than good. I've got something far better than that; here boy." She beckoned Major to her and coaxed him onto the settee. Sensing what was wanted, he spread himself out on top of the shivering boy's legs and laid his head where Joey's feet were. "Better than a hot water bottle, aren't you boy." Aunt Mabel pulled his ears. "Is that water hot yet?"
I checked it. "Not quite." I grabbed the teapot and put it to warm.
"What's going on down there?" I looked up and saw Dad and Aunt Cissy leaning over the banister.
"I don't know, Dad, you'd better ask Major."
Aunt Mabel thrust a hand under the throw, causing the limp form to jerk. "He's getting warmer. Now where's that tea"
A moment later, I helped to raise Joey to a sitting position and Aunt Mabel handed him a mug of tea. His hands shook and almost spilt the lot. I got behind him; made sure he was well wrapped up in the throw and let him lean back on my chest. I held him close while Aunt Mabel held the mug to his lips and fed him sips of tea. By then, Dad and Aunt Cissy had joined us, wanting to know what had happened. Aunt Mabel glowered at them. "For God's sake, give the lad a chance. He'll tell us when he's good and ready. If you want to do something useful Cissy, go and run a bath, the lad is filthy dirty. As soon as he's finished this tea, Mags can carry him up to the bathroom. Edward, get up to bed; I don't want another sick patient to deal with. This isn't a hospital, you know."
"No, it's just my own bloody 'ome, damn it." Dad made a meal out of struggling up the stairs with hurt feelings.
Cissy pushed him up before her in her rush to get the bath run. "Come on, Edward; you're in the way."
"I'm always in the bloody way," Dad snapped. "Women! God protect me from 'em. The sooner I get out of here the better." After much muttering, Dad finally got out of her way and I remained sitting on the settee cuddling Joey while Mabel fed him more tea. Eventually, Cissy called down that the bath was ready. I carried the boy, still wrapped in the throw, up to the bathroom where Mabel helped me remove the throw and lower him into the water with his head resting on Mabel's bath pillow. I reached for my shampoo and a flannel, and Mabel handed me a beaker to pour water over Joey's head with. And it was just like bathing Billy on our return from hospital after Ken's vicious attack. I washed his hair and started on his neck and shoulders, and I felt something spring to life. I was glad it was hidden from view by the side of the bath as Mabel leaned down to place her hand on Joey's chest. "He's not shivering any more. Keep topping the water up with more hot water. I'm going down to make up a bed on the settee for him, and then I'm going to bed. I have an early start in the morning, what with storm damage to check on."
"I can do that Auntie."
"No thanks, lad; I'd rather do it myself." She went out of the bathroom and closed the door behind her, leaving me with this beautiful copy of Billy. I continued to bathe him, letting some water drain away to be replenished from the hot tap till the temperature rose to a comfortable heat. I put my hands under the water and gently worked my way down his torso till I reached his flaccid penis. I glanced up and froze. He was watching me with half open eyes. Blushing, I went back to what I was doing, bypassing his package to bathe his legs. When I started on his feet, I noticed that the soles were hard and calloused with ingrained dirt. I had seen feet like this in Africa where a lot of the poorer people walked barefoot. I remembered seeing only one pair of shoes and a pair of battered trainers in his bedroom. Something was wrong here; very wrong. Moving along the bath on my knees I said, "Could you sit forward for me? I need to wash your back." I put a hand behind his neck and helped him lean forward. I lathered the flannel and moved to wash his back, and I saw the bruises. From shoulder to buttocks he was a mass of purple and yellow. For a moment I felt confused. The bruises were smaller than an average male fist.
"Who did this, Joey?"
"I fell." His voice was just a whisper.
"No you didn't. I'm not that daft." I used the same trick the doctor had used on Billy, and placed my clenched fist against one of the marks, causing him to flinch; it had been made by a fist a lot smaller than mine. "You came here without a coat or shoes. What happened?"
There was silence for a moment, and then Joey whispered, "I locked myself out of the house."
"The wind, it made the door slam."
"Joey, why are you lying? I know that house. Dad said he had the doors changed three years ago. You can't slam them locked.
You have to use a key."
"Please, I…don't feel…too good."
I thought he was faking it to get out of answering my questions, but he slumped against the side of the bath. I laid him back against the pillow and pulled out the plug. Once the water level was low enough, I slipped my arms under him and lifted him out. I sat down on the closed toilet seat with him on my lap, and reached for the big bath towel Mabel had brought in. With his head lolling against my left shoulder, I managed to get him reasonably dry, then wrapped him in the throw and carried him downstairs. Mabel had spread one duvet on the settee and I laid him down on this. Keeping him as flat as possible, I covered him over with the second duvet. I wondered whether or not to wake Mabel up again and show her the new bruises, but then I thought about her having to struggle with the farm work after a sleepless night. I was feeling pretty drained myself. Instead, I went into the kitchen and found some of Mabel's farmhouse soup. I heated it through and brought it into the living room and spoon-fed it to him. He ate half the bowl before he shook his head and closed his eyes. After banking the fire up, I sat in Dad's chair to watch him fall asleep. Major hopped up onto the settee and resumed his role of foot warmer. I was so absorbed with the likeness between him and Billy, and at one point I actually moved to kneel beside him with my face close to his, and I thought those lips of his were so kissable. I placed my lips on his and gave him the lightest of kisses, and I felt a slight response, a pushing against mine and a parting of his lips; the tip of his tongue coming out to lick his bottom lip. Then he settled once more and I left him to sleep. I dragged Dad's armchair near to the settee, and grabbed a blanket Mabel had airing on the rack above the table. I made myself as comfortable as I could, and settled down to watch Joey sleeping.
I woke the next morning, stiff necked and aching, to the smell of bacon cooking. Mabel was bustling about in the kitchen and the settee was empty. I felt so drained and sleepy, it took me a while to get up to the bathroom. I shuffled in and saw Billy standing at the basin with a towel wrapped round his hips, adjusting his fringe to almost cover his right eye, with a pair of scissors raised to his hair. Fuzzyheaded, I put my arms round him. "Morning Billy." He turned in my arms and I kissed him, feeling his lips press against mine. Then I drew back and looked into his eyes. But they weren't Billy's eyes; they were…Oh, My God!
I fled from there, up to my attic room where I slammed the door shut and sank down to the floor with my back against the door. What had I done?
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