The Bull Singer
"SIT!" The command rattled round the old living room like a ricochet bullet. As if joined at the hip we literally fell onto the two chairs on our side of the table; me trying to hide myself from Mabel's sharp gaze, and Pete with his mouth hanging open and his eyes popping out of their sockets as he stared back at her. The big teapot clunked down on the table, followed by four mugs and a jug of milk. Cissy winced at the sound, covered her face with her apron and scurried into the kitchen.
"I'm sorry, I-." Mabel's glare stung Pete into a stunned silence.
I decided it was time to rescue him. "I'm letting Dad use the cottage. We've come to get some of his things; mind if we go up start packing?"
I got the same glare, which boded ill if I so much as twitched a face muscle. Mabel pointed at the teapot. "Help yourself." Then she marched into the kitchen where we heard a frantic barrage of whispering, but nothing we could understand. I reached for the pot, filled two mugs, and pushed the milk towards Pete. "Might as well go down fortified with Mabel's brew," I whispered. We had almost emptied our mugs when we heard a stifled giggle. Puzzled, Pete and I stared at each other. Just what was going on?
Cissy came out to place her scones on a cooling rack, pointedly avoiding our gaze. Mabel followed a moment later, carrying a pile of neatly folded washing. Dumping them on a chair she proceeded to sort through them. Separating Dad's clothes from the rest, she thrust them at me. "Here, take these with you. Never go upstairs empty handed, I say." We fled upstairs to the safety of Dad's bedroom.
Once the door was shut, Pete leaned on it and let his breath out in a sigh of relief. "Is she always like that?"
"Welcome to Godzilla and the world's worst dragon on two legs combined." I sank down on Dad's bed. "I certainly wouldn't like to be in Dad's shoes when she gets hold of him."
"Well, what about me?" Pete protested in horror.
"Oh, you're safe enough. She might chew you up and spit you out, but it's Dad she'll go after, for keeping her in the dark all these years. Oh well, I suppose we'd better do what we said we were going to do." It took us a good twenty minutes to sort through Dad's things, during which I was sure I heard stifled laughter coming from the dining room below us. We sorted them into three piles; stuff we would pack into his suit case for his immediate use, stuff Pete could come back for with the car, if I could persuade him that his skin would be intact; and stuff that would remain here till Dad decided whether he wanted it or not. Once the case and a large holdall were packed, we went downstairs to face the dragon once more. My aunts were sat at the table drinking tea, and there were two empty plates in the places where we had sat before, along with clean mugs, a large cake stand full of scones, and dishes of butter, jam; and cream at this time of day?
I placed the case and holdall by the hall door and turned to face Aunt Mabel. She pointed to the table and told us to sit down. She poured tea into our mugs and watched as we added milk and sugar. I stared at the scones and I literally drooled. Mabel picked up on the fact. "Well don't just sit there; nobody's going to feed you and they aren't going to be eaten by themselves."
Pete and I took a bite of scone; I knew how delicious Cissy's scones were but this was the first time for Pete. I glanced sideways at him and saw his eyes close as he savoured the scone. "Mmmm! Miss Alton, this is delicious; the best I've ever tasted!"
Cissy nodded her head. "Thank you, young man. I love to bake. Perhaps you'd like to take some with you. I know Edward likes my scones." She received a dig in the ribs from Mabel.
We ate and drank in painful silence till the scones were gone. I rose to my feet. "Well, I think we ought to be leaving. The band will be wondering where we've got to."
"Before you go," Aunt Mabel said, her countenance stern, "there is something we would like to say." She and Cissy got up from the table and put their arms round each other. "You can tell that brother of ours it's about bloody time too. We've been trying to get him out of our hair for years." Mabel tightened her arms round Cissy and smiled down at her. When she looked up at us once more, there was a glint in her eyes and the start of a crafty grin appearing on her face. And while we stared, slack mouthed at them, they burst into fits laughter, and Mabel said between chuckles. "Oh, if you… could only… see your… faces!"
"I don't believe this!" I spluttered.
"That's right, you can tell that old codger he's not the only one who likes a bit of slap and tickle," Mabel broke away from Cissy to come round the table and hug me. "Why do you think we never married, you silly goose?" Turning to Pete, she hugged him as well. "Thanks for taking him off our hands and giving him a new lease of life, Pete. You're welcome here any time. And take care of Joey for us; he's turned out to be a lovely lad. And don't you dare call us Miss Alton! Our names are Cissy and Mabel, or you don't get any more scones." We left the farm, grinning but speechless.
Dad and Daley had made a buffet lunch for us all, and despite our having eaten three of Cissy's scones each, we did it justice as I thought about how I was going to tell him about his sisters. While we helped ourselves to the food and sat wherever we could, Joey never left my side, his sad eyes brimming with tears as he kept his gaze down. He didn't want me to go but what could I do? Pete sat down next to Joey on the floor cushions, and noticed how tightly Joey clung to me. His food finished, he reached out and began rubbing Joey's shoulders. Joey glanced at him and saw the compassion in his eyes. "Come here, little bro," Pete said softly. To my surprise, Joey eased away from me and let Pete wrap him in a warm hug. "It's going to be all right, kiddo; any time you need a hug or a chat, me and your grandpa will be here for you."
I glanced up as Dad and Trilby rose to their feet. Dad winked at me, assuring me that things would be okay, but I doubted Joey would see it that way. Trilby looked at his watch. "Right lads, it's almost two o'clock and we have a sound test in Halifax at five thirty; best get going. Thanks for the hospitality Edward; we'll be back soon." I got to my feet, dreading the next few minutes.
Everyone around us made ready to leave, putting on their coats and picking up hand luggage and stuff, and I knew I would have to move to let Pete get to his feet. Somehow I managed to stand up, and I stood still, staring at nothing in particular while Mags hugged Gramps and Pete. Tears made my eyes all blurry so I kept my head down, and fought the rising feeling of being abandoned. I knew it for what it was because that feeling of being cast aside had always been my shadow since I could remember. From the boyfriends the bitch brought home, to school friends avoiding me when they found out I was gay; it was nothing new but it hurt the same as always. Gramps had tried to reason with me while Mags and Peter took a walk, and had hugged me; I had responded as he expected me to, but only because I didn't want to disappoint the old guy. I didn't really believe they could fill the void that Mags's absence would create; after all Gramps and Pete looked like they were getting to be a couple and they wouldn't want me around to spoil their fun; two's company and all that. That meant only one thing for me to do; go back to the house and face the bitch.
That one single thought made my head spin, and I found I couldn't breathe. I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a distant voice calling my name. I flung the hand off and stumbled away, crashing into furniture and doorways in my struggle to escape the blackness that threatened to envelope me. PANIC ATTACK! I knew the signs; I could even hear the doctor saying to the bitch, "Keep a paper bag handy and get him to breathe into it." I could even feel her thrusting one into my trembling hands and her shrill pitched voice yelling at me, "I'm no fucking wet nurse, get on with it." Kitchen! Paper bag! Had to get one. "Pa…per…b…bag…pa…per…bag…have to…." Hours later it seemed, I realised I was breathing again with strong arms holding me tight and something held over my mouth. The hateful voice in my head changed to a softer one telling me to "calm down and breathe slower." I finally recognized the arms that were holding me, and the scent of the chest my head was resting against. He hadn't gone after all; Mags was still here. Oh, please, God, let this be real. I opened my eyes and found we were alone in the kitchen. I raised my tear-filled eyes and saw him gazing down at me, and he was crying too. My legs felt like jelly and if he hadn't been hugging me I would have collapsed. "Feeling better now?"
I shook my head and buried my face in his coat, clinging to him as tight as I could. "I'm so scared, Mags; and I'm sorry for acting like a brat."
"What is it that's scaring you?"
"You'll go away and never come back, and I'll never see you again; just like all the others."
"Just others; people come into my life, say nice things, then go away and none of them ever come back."
"And you think I'm going to do the same?" I nodded against his chest, and felt the tears welling up again. "Joey, look at me." I forced myself to look up at him. "Joey, did any of those people ever promise they would come back?" I thought hard and realised that none of the bitch's friends had ever made a promise like that. They hadn't even said goodbye when they left. "They didn't, did they?" When I shook my head, Mags lifted my chin and kissed me. "There's the difference. I'm promising you right now, I am coming back, and when I do I'm going to stay here and look after you and love you like you've never been loved before."
I stared up at him, hardly daring to believe what he was implying. "You'll leave the band for me? I couldn't ask you to do that."
Mags smiled at me and kissed the tip of my nose. "You don't have to ask me. I'm doing it because I want to. I've only been hanging on with the band because it was the only link I had with Billy; I didn't really know which direction I was going, now I know, and I'm happy. I've made it up with my dad and I'm going to look after him, and help Auntie Mabs with the farm. I've also got a nephew to love now; someone who has taken all my grief and turned it into a lasting jewel in my heart. For that, I'm truly grateful."
I shook my head and dropped my gaze. "That's because I remind you of him, the way I look."
"Not just that. Billy and I talked a lot with the band about helping damaged kids have a chance to live a normal life; I also know Billy wouldn't want me to grieve and be alone. Now I can keep Billy's memory alive."
I rested my head against him again and thought about what he had just said. "I'm still going to miss you like crazy."
"But at least I'm coming back. I won't be gone all that long, and you'll be busy with the show and school, and I promise I'll phone you very day."
"Mags, the boys are ready to go," Gramps said from the hall door.
"Just give me a minute," Mags said, and when Gramps had gone, he gave me a warm hug. Then he lifted me to my feet and led me into the hall and out of the front door where Pete and Gramps were watching the boys getting into the bus and the 405. Mags handed Pete the keys to the BMW, hugged Pete and his dad, and pushed me gently into their arms. "You three, look after each other, you're my favourite people." We followed him to the gate and watched him get into the 405. Seconds later we watched the bus and the 405 disappear from sight down the lane. Pete must have sensed that I wanted to run after them; his grip tightened on my shoulders and he turned me round to walk me back into the cottage. In the lounge, both Gramps and Pete brought me into a comforting hug, and Gramps said, "Don't think you have to be brave in front of us, lad; we know what you're feeling. Now, I suggest we find out what there is to eat in the kitchen cupboards, make a shopping list, and go shopping."
"But it's Sunday."
"No problem, there are plenty of places to shop on a Sunday. After that, we'll pick up your new clothes from the house and get you settled in here. But first of all, go and treat that face of yours to a nice cold-water wash. Okay?" I guess I must have looked a sight, and I was glad to escape to the nearest bathroom where I spent some time dealing with my puffy eyes and occasional sniffles. Once I was satisfied I looked no worse than someone with a cold, I went to the kitchen and found Gramps and Pete looking through the cupboards. "Not much here," Gramps remarked. "Daley and Co. just about cleared me out at lunchtime. I don't suppose Mags realised the place was going to be used so soon. What kind of food do you like to eat?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "I had to eat whatever I could afford."
Pete brought his head out of the fridge to stare at me. "She never fed you? The situation gets worse than we thought. So, if you had the money, what did you buy?"
"Salads, vegetables, potatoes, eggs, and some bread and milk, and sometimes a bit of meat."
"No pizzas or burgers?"
"It was a toss-up between junk food and good food. I had to keep healthy for when there was no money. I couldn't do both, could I?"
"No, I suppose not; very sensible." Pete shut the fridge door and opened the freezer below. "I'm just surprised you know what's best to eat. Most kids your age would exist on junk food; I know I did when I left home." Shutting the freezer, he turned to Gramps with a sigh of resignation. "Not much point making a list. I suggest we just hit the shops and load up the car with what we can find. I also suggest that this young man gets to meet the inside of a MacDonald's or Pizza Hut."
Gramps chuckled. "That makes two of us, lad. What do you say to us having tea out tonight and have a blast? I think this kid needs to be taught how to live a little."
I really didn't want them to be cheerful just for me; I didn't deserve it, and I wished they would leave me at home with my misery. But there was no talking them out of their plans. They didn't even bother to shop locally but insisted on going down to Manchester where I was treated to a whole array of outlets from the Trafford Centre to old-fashioned markets. They just couldn't believe I had never been to places like these. We shopped till the BMW could hold no more and then they dragged me into a huge Macdonald's where they let me choose whatever I wanted. I settled for my very first Double Mac with all the fillings, and a huge portion of chips and salad. We got back to the cottage around seven o'clock, and unloaded the stuff and put the food away. Then we got back in the car and drove up to Home Farm, and my heart was in my mouth when Edward finally knocked on the front door.
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