Not Always Easy
Chapter 24 - Friendship Is Not Always Easy
James and I arrived at the GLYG meeting shortly after its usual start time of eight o'clock, and found that there were fewer than a dozen people there. All but one of the organisers were on vacation, and he decided to skip the formal 'announcements' part of the proceedings, making it a purely social event. There was no sign of Rob, Tony, or his friends, but Simon was there chatting to a girl I didn't recognise.
With such a small number of people in the room, James was certain to have spotted Simon already, but I decided to point out the obvious.
"Not many here tonight, but I see your biggest admirer is here," I said to tease James as we approached the drinks table.
"Don't know what you mean," he replied unconvincingly. Then, clearly eager to change the subject, he quickly continued, "I'll buy the drinks. What d'ya want?"
"Mmm, fizzy orange, please."
He bought my drink and a Coke for himself, and as he waited for his change I noticed him furtively glancing over in Simon's general direction.
"Seriously, though," I said as we wandered away from the drinks table, "he does like you, and I'm not just teasing you."
He looked at me and frowned slightly before he replied with more than a hint of suspicion, "I've noticed that sometimes you say 'Seriously, though' when you're not being serious at all."
"Well, maybe sometimes," I responded, blushing, "but now I'm being really serious."
He waited a second, looked into my eyes then grinned. "If you'd included the word 'honestly' in that sentence I would've been sure you were just winding me up."
"Well I didn't, and I wasn't," I said indignantly.
"Anyway, if he really fancied me, why hasn't he said 'hello'?"
"Maybe cos you virtually ignored him last time he did."
"I didn't ignore him. I just couldn't think of anything to say."
We stood in silence for a few seconds then began discussing our imminent vacations. Several times during our conversation I noticed him looking over at Simon, and even more frequently I glimpsed Simon looking at us. While we chatted, I considered my feelings when Simon had first shown an interest in James, and I wondered if my opinion that Simon was too old for him was based on the real situation or generated by my big-brotherly protective feelings. Because of all that James had been through, in many ways he was more mature than other boys of his age and, as Dan had pointed out, there was only a couple of years difference between them.
Simon seemed very sweet and gentle, and certainly not the predatory type, so I decided that regardless of any boyfriend possibilities, he could become a good friend to James, who could certainly benefit from having more friends. Therefore, dismissing my qualms about interfering in the private lives of others, I decided to help matters along. Noticing that Simon was standing at the edge of a group of four people close to the drinks table and that he didn't have a drink in his hand, I had an idea, though the plan wasn't exactly subtle.
"Want another drink?" I asked James. "It's my turn to buy."
"Okay, then, I'll have another Coke."
I went over to get our drinks, nodding and smiling a greeting to Simon as I passed him. Then, on my way back to James, I went over and spoke to Simon.
"Hi, Simon, could you do me a quick favour?"
"Sure," he replied, looking mildly surprised by my request.
"I'm dying for a pee, and I wonder if you could hold my drink for me till I get back?"
"Uh, yeah, of course."
He seemed a little confused, possibly wondering why I hadn't asked James to hold my drink. Knowing my plot was unsubtle and full of potential flaws, I didn't give him time to consider the matter, and quickly handed him both my orange juice and James' Coke.
"Oh, and would you give the Coke to James, please?" I asked as I turned away from him.
Without waiting for a response, I quickly made my way to the door.
As soon as I left the room, my pace slowed and I proceeded in a more leisurely manner in the direction of the toilets. In fact, I did want to pee, but the need was by no means urgent, so to give my plan more time to work, I went as slowly as I could without appearing to be loitering suspiciously. Thus almost ten minutes had passed before I returned to the meeting room, where James and Simon were engaging in what appeared to be a slightly nervous conversation.
James saw me first and gave me a puzzled frown then Simon noticed James' expression and turned toward me. The expression on Simon's face was less easy to read, but I thought that it contained more suspicion than accusation. It occurred to me that my best course of action would be to avoid questions by taking the initiative and 'hitting the ground running', as the saying goes.
"Sorry about that," I said to James, "but I desperately needed to pee."
Before he could reply, I turned to Simon and plucked my drink from his hand.
"Thanks, Simon, you saved my bladder!" I quipped then quickly added, "But you don't have a drink. Let me get you one. What will you have?"
My tactic of not giving them too much time to think seemed to be working, because he responded almost by reflex.
"Erm, Sprite, please."
"Right, then," I said breezily. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes."
With that, I immediately turned and made my way to the drinks table, leaving the two of them alone together. So far things had gone according to plan, but I knew that things could still go wrong. They hadn't seemed very comfortable together, so maybe I'd misinterpreted their attraction for one another. After all, unlike Dan, I'm not very sensitive about such things.
If I'd been wrong then James would certainly be very annoyed with me, and Simon would probably not trust me in future. Even if wasn't wrong there was a good chance that James would still be a little annoyed with my interference. With that in mind, I decided to take as long as possible getting the drink, not only to give them more time together but also to delay the possible discovery that I'd screwed up. When I returned to them, I breathed a huge sigh of relief on seeing that they were now talking more comfortably and even exchanging genuinely happy smiles. They fell silent when I got close, and grinned knowingly at me. Not surprisingly, I blushed deeply.
"We're not stupid," James said accusingly as I handed Simon his drink.
I stared at him, not sure what to say and pretending that I didn't know what he was talking about. Simon, clearly enjoying my discomfort, remained silent.
"C'mon, Paul," James continued kindly. "I've known you since I was a little kid. You can't hide that guilty look from me. You know what I mean."
I blushed even more deeply and hoped that Simon would take things with equal good humour.
"Erm, yes," I mumbled. "I was just trying to help."
"I didn't need any help," James said, glancing at Simon, then adding almost grudgingly, "but I s'pose you meant well."
"James was just telling me about his holiday," Simon said after a brief silence, obviously eager to change the subject.
The conversation went on easily from there for several minutes before I noticed that the room was almost empty. There had been no sign of Rob or Tony, and I realised that they certainly wouldn't be turning up now.
"Almost ten," I commented as I looked at my watch.
"Are you going to the pub?" Simon asked hopefully.
"No, I want to get home," I replied. Then before James could speak, I added, "Anyway, James is too young to go."
James, flushed with a mixture of embarrassment and annoyance, glared at me, while Simon gave me a slightly startled look.
"Oh. Okay, then," he eventually said.
James, probably because he was annoyed with me, made his way to the exit more quickly than Simon or I did, so he was some distance in front when Simon whispered in my ear.
"You're welcome," I grinned back at him.
From his tone and attitude, I presumed his gratitude was for my attempt at getting them talking rather than for my implication that James was under the legal age. Nothing else was said as Simon walked with me to the car, where James was waiting.
"Want a lift anywhere?" I asked Simon.
"No, thanks, I'm only going over to the pub," he replied. He turned to James, "Will you call me after your holidays?"
"Okay," James replied with a grin as Simon waved and walked away.
Despite my curiosity, I waited until we were in the car before I spoke.
"Call me?" I prompted James pointedly.
"He gave me his phone number when you got him a drink," he replied with a note of triumph and a hint of defensiveness.
"Oh, I see," I said cryptically as I started the car.
Though I was tempted to tease him a little, it seemed better to let the matter rest for the time being. After all, I didn't want to risk spoiling my earlier good work. So we sat in silence as we drove home, with me feeling more than a little smug and James no doubt relieved that I didn't ask any further questions. Of course, as soon as I got home I immediately called Dan to tell him the gossip.
The rest of the week flashed by in a blur. Almost before I knew it, we were on our way to Skye and I was sitting snuggling with Dan in the comfortable leather seat in the rear of his dad's Jaguar. We'd set off early on the Saturday morning so that we could get to our destination in one day's drive. Fortunately, I'd stayed over the previous night at Dan's house, because five o'clock was far too early for me to fully wake up. Steve had also stayed at Dan's house that Friday night because he would be house sitting for them. Had I not been so dazed with sleep, I might have been more surprised that Steve had got up so early to wave us off. As it was, I hardly noticed that Dan had more-or-less dressed me and helped me to the car, where I immediately returned to my slumbers.
We arrived at the cottage early in the evening and decided to just freshen up and find somewhere to eat before unpacking. It didn't take long to find a nearby inn, where we had a pleasant but, by Dan's standards, 'ordinary' meal. Although it was only a little after eight o'clock when we finished eating, we were all tired, and so went immediately back to the cottage to unpack and have an early night. Before bed, we took turns in the single small shower, and Dan and I showering separately. I showered last, while Dan finished unpacking, and when I returned to our bedroom in my newly bought dressing gown, he was waiting just inside the door.
"Close your eyes," he whispered in my ear as he grabbed my arms from behind.
Thinking that this was the start of one of our little sex-games, and knowing that his parents had already retired to their room, I obeyed. Observing my compliance, he led me to the bed and sat me down.
"Keep your eyes closed and hold out your hand," he said, taking his hands off me.
Again I obeyed, and as this was not a game I was familiar with, I was intrigued. However, I was totally relaxed because I trusted him completely. After a few seconds, during which time I heard him close the bedroom door then unzip one of his bags, I felt a small, cold object being pressed into my palm.
"You can look now," he said as he sat next to me and put his arm round my waist.
Even before I opened my eyes I knew it was a ring.
"Thank you, gorgeous," I said, then kissed him on the cheek. "But you didn't have to..."
"Of course I know that," he interrupted, "but I wanted to do it, and it just felt, well, right, I s'pose."
"It's just like the one I gave you," I said, as I examined it more closely.
"Well, apart from the inscription, it's identical."
I lifted the ring closer to my eyes and read the inscription, 'And Ever', which was in exactly the same script as the one on the ring I'd given to him. He took off his ring and held it next to the one I was inspecting.
"Get it?" he asked with a twinkle his deep-brown eyes.
At first I was too befuddled by emotion to understand, but then I did 'get it'.
"Ah, yes. Clever," I said, my voice beginning to crack "Forever... And Ever."
He smiled, put his arm back around my waist and squeezed, knowing that I understood what he'd intended.
"Sounds a bit like a fairy tale," I continued, not completely as a joke.
"Maybe it is," he giggled. "But you're more of a fairy than I am!"
That almost started one of our play-fights, and sensing I might be about to pounce, he pulled away, preparing to defend himself. However, I held myself back and became a little more serious.
"Before I get my just revenge for your insult," I said, "there's something I want us to do."
"I thought that would be after..." he said with an evil grin.
"Not that," I grinned back. "You've got a filthy mind!"
"Only since I met you."
"Anyway," I said, becoming serious, "this is what I had in mind."
We were each holding our own rings, and I gently took his from him, then looking into his eyes, I held his hand.
"Together forever," I said solemnly as I placed his ring on his finger.
He held my gaze as his gentle smile grew larger, and I knew he understood exactly what I was doing. Then he became as solemn as I had just been, took my ring, and placed it on my finger.
"And ever," he said.
We stayed like that for a few seconds, before I began to feel embarrassed, wondering if Dan was thinking I was a being a bit cheesy.
"I hadn't realised you were such a romantic," he said teasingly, rescuing me from my embarrassment.
"Now it's time for my revenge!" I growled playfully.
I pounced on him, and we wrestled around on the bed for a couple of minutes, but soon our play-fight turned into a most exciting but tender lovemaking.
That holiday on Skye was probably the happiest time of my life so far. The weather was warm, it didn't rain too often, and the scenery was gorgeous. I even got to drive Mr Harris' car a few times, and the combined feeling of luxuriance and exhilaration gave me the ambition to own just such a car one day. Dan told me that his dad must really trust me because he hardly ever let even Dan's mum drive the car. However, I did note that I was only allowed to drive when his dad was a passenger.
Our large and well-appointed cottage was nestled between the steep hills and the sea, just a couple of minutes walk from a quiet, rocky beach, and although it was only about a mile to the nearest habitation, it felt completely isolated. Because of the location, it was also isolated in regard to our mobile phones, which couldn't receive any signal anywhere within walking distance of the cottage.
Much to my relief, the two bedrooms were at opposite ends of the building, so there was plenty of privacy for Dan and me. Although we had some sort of sexual interaction at least twice per day, we didn't have anal sex every day. Also, as our experience of anal sex developed, Dan decided he liked both giving and receiving about equally, whereas I obtained more pleasure from being inside him. Thus, as the holiday progressed, it turned out that he was on the receiving end about three-quarters of the time.
We spent about half our daytimes with his parents, visiting castles, etc., but the rest of the time, for example when his parents went to the whisky distillery, Dan and I were alone together. However, every evening all four of us ate together, usually at a restaurant. In that way, the two weeks flew by quickly, and although there were many things to enjoy, my main pleasure was just being with Dan.
During the whole time on Skye, I never read a newspaper and rarely watched TV. As far as I was concerned, the world outside the island may as well not have existed. Occasionally, I thought about my family and wondered how James and John were getting on in their shared room on holiday. Once or twice I thought about Rob, but selfishly pushed those thoughts out of my mind, because I didn't want to risk any such worries spoiling my perfect vacation.
Even when Dan mentioned Rob, I would rapidly change the subject, and that would cause him to look at me a little askance, but he didn't press the matter. Maybe my avoidance of the subject made him think I wasn't concerned about Rob's welfare, but he didn't say anything. Perhaps I was being callous and selfish, and I did feel a little guilty about it, but I comforted myself with the thought that my worrying couldn't help Rob. My guilty feelings were further placated by the thought that in order to contact Rob I would've had to drive miles to a public phone, and that even if I did call him, he would probably have had his phone switched off.
All too soon, our two weeks on Skye came to an end, and we made the long drive home, arriving at my house late on Saturday evening. My family and James had arrived back from Bournemouth just a couple of hours earlier, so the house was in chaos with them still unpacking. Dan's parents went inside briefly just to say 'hello', but declined the invitation to stay for a cup of tea, because Mr Harris was tired and they wanted to get home.
Dan decided to go home with his parents, because he was keen to see Steve and tell him about our holiday and the little 'ceremony of the rings'. For some reason, it seemed Dan attributed the exchange of rings to me, though I felt it was a mutual idea. Whatever the case, Dan had been so impressed by what had happened that he'd started referring to it as the' ceremony of the rings'. On the morning after the event, he even announced it as such to his parents, and doubled my embarrassment by giving me sole credit for the idea.
As soon as Dan and his parents had driven off to go home, I felt a terrible empty feeling. For two whole weeks, the two of us hadn't spent more than a few minutes apart, and as their car disappeared from view I felt as if a part of me was missing. I went back inside, telling myself that I was just being silly and sentimental, especially as I'd be seeing him again the following day. Mum was waiting for me in the hallway when I went back into the house, and as soon as I closed the door she gave me a big hug. I was very grateful that no one else was in sight, though I was still a little embarrassed by such an unusual show of emotion.
"Motheeeerrrr!" I whined.
"Well, I've not seen you for ages," she said as she released me. "This is the first time you've not been on holiday with us, and we all missed you."
Seeing me turn red with embarrassment, she smiled and continued, "And at least I waited until Dan and his parents had gone."
"Thank goodness for that!" I said with genuine relief.
"We tried phoning you a few times," she said, almost as an accusation, "but your phone was never switched on. Didn't you get our messages?"
Suddenly, I remembered that soon after I'd found that my phone didn't work at the cottage, I'd switched it off to conserve battery power. Since then, I'd not needed to use it and so had completely forgotten to switch it back on. I explained that to her.
"Yes, your dad said it was probably a problem with your phone, but I couldn't help worrying a little."
"You worry too much," I said, my smile negating any hint of criticism.
"I was just about to order pizza," she said, suddenly changing subject as I bent to pick up my bags. "Do you want your usual?"
"Yes, please," I replied, turning to go upstairs.
Upstairs in my room, as I was emptying my bags I realised that no matter how much I'd enjoyed my vacation, I was happy to be back in the secure familiarity of my home. A few minutes later, as I was dumping clothes into an already full laundry basket, John came looking for me. His smile of greeting was superimposed on a slightly worried frown.
"Isn't your phone working?" he asked without preamble.
A little irritated by the directness of his question and the fact he hadn't bothered to ask about my holiday, I ignored his question.
"I had a wonderful holiday, thank you for asking," I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm. "And did you have a good time in Bournemouth?"
For a moment he seemed shocked, almost as if he'd been slapped in the face, and I immediately regretted my sarcastic response.
"Erm, yeah," he said, recovering his composure. "But what about your phone?"
I gave him the same explanation I'd given Mum earlier.
"Oh," he said. "In that case, have you checked your messages yet?"
"No, not yet, but I will as soon as I finish this," I replied. In a teasing tone, I continued, "Why d'you ask? Have you been leaving messages cos you missed me so much?"
I was surprised by his reaction to my light bantering. First he looked startled, as if I'd caught him off-guard, then he looked confused. "Yes, I left a couple of messages, but I was wondering if there was any message from Rob. While we were in Bournemouth, Marie's been talking to me on the phone about him..."
"Surely you've not been talking just about Rob," I interrupted, unable to resist teasing him.
"No, of course not," he replied with a frown, "but she and her parents are worried about him."
He went on to tell me that Rob had been spending very little time at home, telling his parents that he was staying at Tony's house while the latter's parents were away. Apparently, what worried Rob's family most was his behaviour on the few occasions they did see him. According to Marie, he was secretive, arrived and departed at odd hours, sometimes late at night, and when he was home he spent most of his time locked in his room.
My own parents would never have let me or John go unchallenged if we started to behave like that, but I knew that Rob's parents had allowed him to get away with a lot since his brother died. To some extent, I could understand and sympathise with their motives, but I think they were misguided, and I suspected that in retrospect they, too, were wondering if their strategy had been wrong. I voiced those thoughts to John, and we discussed it for a while.
"By the way," I said, changing the subject as John was about to return to his room, "how did you get on with James, sharing a room for two weeks?"
"Fine," he replied, looking slightly puzzled. "Why d'you ask?"
"Well, you two have never shared a room together for so long," I said, avoiding my real concerns.
"Well, I've spent two weeks sharing with you lots of times, and if I can put up with that, I can put up with anyone." His grin belied the implied insult, and his attitude gave me the impression that he'd been quite comfortable sharing a room with James, despite the fact that he knew James' feelings for him were more than just ordinary friendship.
"And did James manage to put up with you?" I countered.
"You can ask him yourself in a bit, cos he'll be back here for pizza as soon as he's dropped his stuff off at Mike's house. Mike and his mum aren't back until tomorrow, so Mum said James should stay here tonight. " He paused and grinned again. "So he'll be sharing your room."
He turned to leave the room, looking much happier than when he'd entered. Just before he went through the doorway, he said something very quietly over his shoulder, as if it were some throw away remark.
"Oh, and yes, I did miss you."
By the time his words registered in my consciousness, he'd disappeared from sight. After just a few minutes being with my family again, I was soon cheered up, and found that being separated from Dan wasn't quite so painful.
When I went to check my phone messages, I found the battery totally flat, so I had to plug it into the charger. There were a few messages, some from my mum, some from John and a couple from Mike. There was nothing from Rob, which didn't surprise me. However, there were three 'blank' messages, in which the caller remained silent for a few seconds before hanging up, but I had no way of knowing who had made those silent calls.
While I was listening to the last message, I heard the doorbell ring, and shortly after that Mum shouted upstairs to say the pizza had arrived. When I got downstairs I found Mum putting plates and napkins on the table, where Dad, John and James were already sitting. James, who was looking very well and happy, greeted me with a huge grin. We were all so hungry that we were too busy eating to say much during the meal.
"Well, boys," Mum said, as James finished off the last slice of pizza, "I don't know about you lot, but I'm tired out. So I'm going to get ready for bed now and leave it to you to decide who does the dishes."
With that, she got up, and with a brief 'goodnight' went upstairs. All of us, including Dad, knew that she was including him when she used the term 'boys' in that way. However, he apparently chose to ignore that usage, because he stood up, said 'goodnight' and headed for the door. Before leaving the room, he turned spoke again, as if he felt a need for justification.
"You know, I'm really tired after all that driving today," he said then made his exit.
John, James and I looked at one another. Although none of us minded doing the dishes, in our house it often became a sort of game and a challenge to try to get someone else to do it. While I was still thinking up some excuse, James spoke up.
"It's okay, I'll do it," he said cheerfully. "After all, I've had more pizza than anyone else."
Over the years he'd spent enough time in our house to know all about our little competition, so I was a bit surprised and almost disappointed that he'd ended the game so quickly.
"In that case," John grinned and stood up, "I'll go and phone Marie."
Although I was tempted to take the opportunity to phone Dan, I was also eager to ask James about how things had been between him and John. My curiosity won out.
"I'll give you a hand," I said to James as I stood up.
"Thought you might," he grinned. "That's why I offered to do it. I thought you'd want to interrogate me as soon as possible."
"Nah, I'm not. I just know you better than you think I do."
"Anyway," I countered, trying to sound hurt, "I don't want to 'interrogate' you. I'm just an interested friend who wants to know about your holiday."
"Oh, in that case I can tell you that the weather was mostly hot and sunny, the food was good, and we all had a fabulous time."
From his expression of glee as he carried the plates to the sink, I could tell that he was having a lot of fun teasing me. As a counter move, I considered the possibility of pretending that he'd told me all I wanted to know. However, my frown of frustration had already given me away, so I decided not to play any more games.
"Okay, you've had your fun. Now tell me how you and John got on. Knowing how you feel about him, I was worried you might be uncomfortable sharing a bedroom for two whole weeks."
"And," he said, smiling gently and raising an eyebrow, "weren't you worried if John would be uncomfortable sharing with me?"
"Mmm, yes, but not so much. I think it's easier for him than for you."
He looked at me thoughtfully for a few seconds then sighed before he spoke again. "Yeah, you're right. But he sometimes seemed a bit, erm, different in the first couple of days ."
"Different?" I prompted.
"Well, like when he was getting dressed... Before he knew how I felt, he just carried on as if I wasn't there..."
"You mean he wouldn't get dressed in front of you?" I interrupted, feeling a bit surprised. "I can't believe that John would think you might make a move on him."
"No, of course not!" he responded, frowning at my lack of understanding. "In fact, the thing is, well, he was just the opposite. He carried on doing exactly what he'd always done, but I got the feeling that instead of just doing it without thinking, he was doing it to make a point. He was trying to show me that nothing was different. But that in itself made it different."
That all sounded very convoluted to me. However, I think I understood what he was trying to say.
"Anyway," he continued, "I pretended not to notice, and after a couple of days, John seemed to forget he was making a point. After that, things really were back to normal."
He stopped rinsing glasses for a couple of seconds and smiled at me, obviously happy with the way things had turned out.
"Which brings me back to my first question," I said after a brief silence. "How did you feel, sharing a room with someone you love and not being able to do anything to show it? And you find him attractive..."
"Ya mean gorgeous!" he interrupted.
"So weren't you feeling, erm, frustrated?" I continued.
"Well, yes, a bit, " he admitted, "but the, erm, physical stuff isn't so bad as loving him and knowing he can't feel the same."
"So you found things difficult, then?"
"For the first few days things felt a bit strained, but there was so much to do, and he's such a fun person to be with that the feelings faded..."
"You don't love him so much?" I asked, surprised that the intense feelings he'd had for years could fade so quickly.
"Don't be stupid!" he hissed, trying to keep his voice down despite his annoyance. "Of course I love him just as much!"
He took a deep breath and thought for a couple of seconds.
"It's just, well, just that I've sort of got used to the fact he won't ever feel the same and it won't go anywhere. But being so close to him for two weeks showed me again what a special person he is and how lucky I am to have him as my friend."
"He's lucky to have you as well," I said with deep sincerity. "We're all lucky to have you as a friend."
"Whatever," he mumbled, clearly embarrassed.
He fell silent, his hand playing with the suds in the sink, and I had the impression that he wanted to say something else, but was still searching for the words, so I remained silent.
"I know I'll always love John," he continued in a very quiet, wistful voice, "but over the last few weeks I've also realised that my feelings for John won't stop me loving someone else in future."
Unable to think of anything useful to say, I put my hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
The next morning I had a nice long lie-in and didn't get out of bed until after ten, so everyone else in the house had been up for ages by the time I'd got down to the kitchen to get myself some breakfast and the essential cup of tea. John had gone out to see Marie, Mum and Dad were reading the Sunday newspapers in the living room, and James had gone over to his room in Mike's house. Mike and his mum were not due back from their holiday until late evening, so James would be joining us for lunch. In fact, lunch promised to be a lively occasion, because Dan and Steve were going to cycle over to join us. The day was sunny and warm, and as I sat in the kitchen, nibbling on my toast and feeling the tea waking up my brain cells, it seemed that all was well with the world.
"Is that your phone I can hear?" Mum's voice broke into daydream.
"Wha'?" I shouted through my mouthful of toast.
"I said is that your phone I can hear?" she called again from the living room.
Now that it had been brought to my attention, I could faintly hear the ring tone of my mobile, still on its charger in my bedroom.
"Yes, Mum, it is. Thanks!" I called back as I hauled myself to my feet and headed for the stairs.
By now I was almost fully awake, and as I accelerated up the stairs, it occurred to me, not for the first time, that mobile phones were both a blessing and a curse. This little wonder of technology enabled me to communicate with others from anywhere I happened to be - well, almost anywhere, I corrected myself, thinking of the cottage on Skye. On the other hand, people expected to be able to contact me at any time, and disapproved if I had the temerity to leave it switched off.
"Bloody hell! What took you so long?" John berated me as soon as I answered. "I thought you'd left it switched off again."
"I was in the middle of breakfast," I responded, irritated by his lack of civility. "And if the phone was switched off I wouldn't have answered at all, would I?"
"I'm sorry," he said, sounding only a little contrite, "but we need you right away."
"Who's 'we', where am I needed right away, and why?"
"Look, Paul, there's no time for long explanations. Can you come to Marie's house now? Rob's locked himself in his room, his dad's threatening to break the door down, Marie is worried sick, and her mum's is trying to calm things down, though she doesn't seem very calm herself."
"And what're you doing?" I asked, trying to get my head around the situation.
"Feeling helpless," came the barely audible reply.
"Why me?" I said, not so much as a question to him but more as a cry to the heavens.
"Who else?" he answered.
John, the usually confident young man, sounded like a lost child. For Rob's sake I would probably have gone over immediately, even before John said those last two words, but hearing the tone of his voice brought out all my big-brotherly protective instincts. Whatever choice I might have had before, it was now taken away completely.
"Okay, I'll be there as soon as I can."
On the way to the car I told Mum and Dad what little I knew and asked them to explain the situation to Dan and Steve if they arrived before I returned home.
Throughout the drive to Rob's house, my mind was awhirl with questions: Why had Rob locked himself in his room? Why were his family so worried that his dad was prepared to force his way in? Had this anything to do with Tony? Actually, I was sure the answer to the last question was 'Yes'. Two other questions caused me particular worry: What could I possibly do about the situation? And what would happen if I couldn't do anything? I felt inadequate and wanted to run away and hide from it all, but John was my brother and Rob was my friend, so I had to at least try to help.
As I was parking the car outside the house, John came out to meet me.
"I'm glad you're here," he said, grabbing my arm and almost dragging me indoors.
When I got inside, Mr and Mrs Streeter were standing in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. I had the feeling that my arrival had interrupted an argument, or at least a heated discussion. Both were red-faced and it looked like Mrs Streeter had been crying, an impression that was reinforced by her husky voice when she spoke to me.
"Thanks for coming!"
"Er, that's okay," I replied, feeling very uncomfortable. "What's going on? John didn't say much on the phone."
"That's cos I'm not sure myself," muttered John. Then he scuttled off into the living room to join Marie, who was looking miserable and sitting on the sofa.
"Rob won't come out of his room," Mrs Streeter said, her voice cracking.
"Erm, won't he have to come out eventually?" I asked, trying to sound calmer than I felt. "After all, he'll have to eat and go to the loo. Why not just wait?"
"Marie says he's hurt," Mr Streeter growled.
His voice grated with barely suppressed emotions that may have included anger, or worry, or both. I didn't know him well enough to say for sure, but if a big man like that was angry, I definitely did not want to be on the receiving end.
"I said I thought he was hurt!" Marie called out in a strained voice, emphasising the word 'thought'.
She remained on the sofa, where John was now sitting with his arm over her shoulder. John looked from me to her, and back to me again, as if he expected me to fix everything. That made me feel even more inadequate and uncomfortable.
"I don't suppose I could have a cup of tea while you tell me what's been happening?" I asked.
Actually, unusually for me, I didn't particularly feel like drinking tea. However, I hoped it would give me a chance to find out what was going on and hopefully give them all time to calm down. Also, it would give me time to think, because I wasn't sure what, if anything I could do to help them.
Mrs Streeter smiled apologetically and nodded.
"Why don't you go and sit down. Marie and her dad can fill you in while I make tea," she said then went to the kitchen.
I went into the living room and sat next to John. Mr Streeter hesitated, frowned and looked up the stairs before he came to sit in one of the armchairs. Marie and her dad took some time to start telling me what had been happening, and they'd barely got going when Mrs Streeter arrived with the tea. Between them, in bits and pieces, they brought me up to date. As I'd already gathered from John the previous evening, for over three weeks Rob had been spending most of his time with Tony and was hardly ever home. At first, his parents weren't too worried, because they thought Tony was 'quite nice' and Rob seemed happy. Also, most days he would phone to let them know he was okay.
More recently, on the few occasions they saw Rob, he was coming and going at odd hours of the day and night and he'd not seemed very happy at all. They began to get quite worried when it had been a few days since they'd even had a phone call from him and he wasn't answering his phone. Eventually, they considered going round to Tony's, but they didn't know his address. As I listened to all this, it occurred to me that my own parents would have insisted on knowing my boyfriend's address before they let me stay with him. However, Rob's parents hadn't pressed him when he would only tell them the general area where Tony lived.
Apparently, Rob must have come home the previous night when everyone else was asleep, because Marie had seen him on his way to the toilet that morning. She was just coming out of her room after getting ready to see John when she caught a glimpse of Rob in the hallway. He ignored her greeting and made a dash for the bathroom, quickly closing the door behind him. The whole encounter was over so quickly that details didn't really have time to register on her consciousness, and although she was a little disconcerted by his behaviour, it was no more unusual than it had been for the last few weeks. At first she thought he just urgently needed to use the toilet, but then, after he'd disappeared from view, she thought she had seen bruises on his face and that he'd been limping.
"That's when I got a bit worried," Marie said, continuing her part of the story. "So I knocked on the bathroom door and called to him. He didn't answer, but I thought I could hear him crying, so I went to tell Mum."
"And by the time I got upstairs," Mrs Streeter added, "he'd gone back to his room and locked the door. He didn't answer when I knocked, and I'm sure I could hear him crying."
"When I told Dad about the bruises," Marie continued, "he started banging on the door and asking Rob if Tony had done it. He said he'd kill Tony if he'd hurt Rob."
"I'd go round there now if I knew where he lived!" Mr Streeter said, almost exploding with suppressed anger.
"We're not sure Tony caused the bruises," Mrs Streeter said without much conviction.
"And I'm not absolutely certain they were bruises," Marie contributed. "I s'pose they could've just been dirt. But that didn't stop Dad threatening to kick the door down if Rob didn't open it."
"Well maybe he needs a doctor!" Mr Streeter said, apparently to justify his threat.
"And that's when I arrived," John said in a very quiet voice, speaking for the first time since he sat down.
"John suggested we call you," Marie said, "cos Rob might listen to you."
All eyes were turned to me, and I squirmed inwardly as I felt like an insect impaled on a pin. Their hopes and expectations weighed heavily on me, and I felt a flash of annoyance at John for putting me in this position. The annoyance quickly passed when I realised he genuinely wanted to help Marie and her family, and I felt some pride that he had such confidence in me.
On the other hand, suppose I failed and disappointed them? After all, Rob had chosen to avoid me over the past few weeks, so why should he listen to me now? I was afraid of letting them all down, and even more afraid that John would lose confidence in me. Did I want John to see his big brother as inadequate and foolish? Just as I was about to start thinking of excuses for why I couldn't stay and help, I realised I was being very selfish. No matter how Rob regarded me now, as far as I was concerned he was still my friend. For that reason alone, and despite all other considerations, I had to try to help.
They were all still looking at me, and Mr Streeter seemed to be getting impatient, though only a few seconds had passed. There was no more tea to drink, and I couldn't delay any longer, so I took a deep breath and sighed.
"Right, then," I said trying to sound confident. "I think you'd all better wait here while I go and see if I can get Rob to talk to me."
Not surprisingly, there was no response when I tapped on Rob's door, and when I listened with my ear to the door I didn't hear crying or any other sound. I banged on the door as loudly as I dared without risking scaring him.
"Rob," I called loudly enough so I was sure he must hear me, "Rob. It's Paul."
I repeated that a few times, slightly louder each time, listening carefully for a few seconds after each repetition. A couple of times I thought I could hear movement, but I wasn't sure, and there was no other sound. I sighed and wondered what to do next, eventually deciding that the only course of action was to persevere. I sat down on the floor with my back propped against the doorjamb and my ear resting on the door.
"Rob, I know you're in there."
I tried to make my voice loud enough to be heard through the door but not so loud as to seem threatening. Also, I pitched the tone to be as calm and reassuring as I could manage.
"Your family are worried about you. I'm worried about you. Can't you at least say something to let me know you're alright?"
Still there was no response, but I thought I heard a shuffling sound. Trying to think positively, I imagined he might be moving nearer the door so he could hear me better."
"You know we all care about you, don't you? You're one of my closest friends and I care about you very much."
Although I said that with total and genuine sincerity, I suddenly felt a pang of guilt as I remembered how I'd avoided thinking about him during the last two weeks. As I paused to listen for any response, I tried to assuage my guilt by telling myself that at least part of the avoidance was because I did care but couldn't do anything about it at that time. Then, because the task at hand was to help Rob, and my self-examination wouldn't help that, I set all those thoughts aside.
"C'mon, Rob, at least say something to let me know you're okay."
After quite a long pause, I was about to say something else when I heard his barely audible, hesitant, trembling voice.
"Yeah, I'm okay. Now you can go away."
The last five words lacked conviction, but even if I knew he really meant it, I wouldn't have gone away.
"I'm glad you're okay. This is the first time we've talked for weeks. I just got back from holiday, can I come in for a chat?"
There was no reply, but I allowed myself to be encouraged by the fact that he didn't refuse.
"It's not very comfortable talking through the door," I persevered. "Please let me in."
"What about the others?" he asked dubiously after another long pause.
"They're all downstairs and won't come up while I'm up here."
He took some time to think about that, but I remained silent, not wishing him to feel under any pressure. Then I heard the lock click and stood up, expecting the door to open, but it remained closed.
"Why?" he asked, confusing me.
"Why're you here?"
My mind raced. Was he testing me or was I being paranoid? What, indeed, was the truthful answer? Of course, partly because John asked me to come, but I asked myself again, why exactly was I outside Rob's door, talking to him? I gave the truthful answer.
"Because you're my friend and I care about you."
The door opened just enough to let me in, so I stepped inside, and he immediately closed and locked the door behind me. Although it was bright and sunny outside, his thick curtains were closed and his room was almost dark. While I stood still, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dim light, he moved away from me and sat on his bed.
After a short while I could see that his room was now very different from the first time I'd seen it. There were no longer any obvious signs of Chris' former occupancy, and indeed the room was so spartan that there seemed no way to tell that this was even Rob's room. Looking more closely at Rob, I could see darker areas on the left side of his face, but whether those were bruises or not, I couldn't be sure. He was wearing dark jeans and a light-coloured long-sleeved shirt, so I couldn't see if there were any other signs of bruising.
He sat in silence and didn't move, apparently just staring at his hands, which were clasped together and resting in his lap. Not wishing to cause him any anxiety by crowding his space, I stayed by the door and didn't move, and from his continued silence I assumed he was waiting for me to speak.
"Thanks for letting me in," I said eventually. "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Why should you want to help?" he said so softly that it he might have just been talking to himself.
"Because you're my friend."
He remained silent for a few seconds, apparently pondering my words.
"I've not been very nice to my friends recently," he said in a dull voice, "especially to you. Ya know I was avoiding you just because Tony told me to?"
He sat, motionless, slumped and lifeless, not even raising his eyes when he spoke to me.
"I sort of guessed that."
"I don't deserve friends," he said simply.
I was shocked, not so much the meaning of his words but much more by the way he spoke them. His voice was dead, a monotone devoid of all emotion, as if he didn't care about anything. He didn't even sound sad or depressed, but more like a machine making empty, meaningless noises. This wasn't the Rob that I'd known before, the boy I'd thought I was in love with. That Rob was full of life, and even when he was sad, he'd showed emotion and cried.
I cleared my throat, delaying because I didn't know at first how to respond. Of course I knew that what he said wasn't true, but I also knew that a simple denial of his statement wouldn't do any good. As I racked my brains, it occurred to me that what Mum, Mike and Dan kept telling me, that I thought too much, was true. By waiting until my intellect found the right words, I might delay too long, so I decided to just say what I felt and not worry too much if it made sense or sounded good.
"Well," I said slowly, "I can't speak for other people, but for me, friends are people I like and respect. But a lot of people I like and respect aren't really friends. Friends are people I just happen to relate to and people I enjoy being with. I never think about it in terms of 'deserving' or 'not deserving'. My friends are my friends just because they are...."
My voice trailed off because I knew I wasn't making any sense.
"I s'pose that sounds stupid," I continued, feeling foolish. "What I'm trying to say is that you're my friend, and you don't need to worry about 'deserving' it or not. I guess this is being selfish, but helping a friend makes me feel better. So if you let me help you then you'll be doing me a favour, and that favour will make up for you ignoring me recently."
For the first time since he sat down, he raised his head and looked at me, and even in the dim light I thought that there might have been the faint glimmer of a smile superimposed on his otherwise lifeless features. When he remained silent, I thought that perhaps I'd only imagined the slight twitch at the corners of his mouth.
"You really do spout rubbish sometimes," he said after almost a minute of silence.
There was some sign of life in his voice now, a slight bantering tone. This small change in him had a disproportionately large effect on me, and although I tried not to show the possibly premature relief and elation I felt, I couldn't suppress a small smile.
"Maybe I wouldn't get the chance to spout so much rubbish if you contributed a bit more to the conversation," I said, trying to gently reflect his banter.
I went over and sat next to him, my shoulder not quite touching his. This was because I remembered that he'd been avoiding physical contact with his family recently, and I didn't want to push things too far or too quickly. Just before I sat down, I noticed that there was a considerable bruising to the left side of his face, and as far as I could tell in the dim light, the bruises looked relatively recent.
He didn't say anything but showed a little more liveliness, fidgeting and picking at his fingernails. The silence dragged on, and I was just about to say something when he spoke.
"I don't know what to say," he said, sounding miserable.
Superficially, his words may not have been very inspiring, but at the time I felt it was a big improvement. I thought that even misery was better than no feelings at all and that not knowing what to say possibly implied at least a desire to say something.
"You could start by telling me why you're hiding in here and wouldn't talk to your family," I prompted.
"I'm scared, and... ashamed of myself. I've treated them horribly, even worse than I treated you. I don't know what to do and I don't want them to see me like... like this."
"There's no need to be scared," I soothed. "Your mum and dad are just worried about you. I'm sure they just want to make sure you're okay and help if they can. And by 'seeing me like this', do you mean the bruises?"
"They already know about it. Marie saw them, and that's one reason why they're so concerned. Did Tony do it? And the bruise I saw on your arm a few weeks ago?"
"Yes. No. Well, not on purpose."
"On purpose or not," I said with a wry smile. "I wouldn't like to be Tony when your dad finds out."
"Tony'll be okay. He went back to Brighton yesterday."
There was a brief pause while I thought about what Rob had told me.
"Erm, what exactly did you mean by not on purpose? How does something like that happen accidentally?" I asked, pointing at his face.
"It's a long story," he said wearily.
"I've got plenty of time, and maybe you'll feel better if you get it off your chest. Even if I can't help directly, sooner or later you're going to have to tell your parents something, so talking to me first may help with that."
He took a big sigh and leaned sideways so that he was propped against me.
"I s'pose you guessed why I found Tony so attractive?" he asked, sounding more than a little embarrassed. "Well, attraction doesn't really describe it. It was fascination. Magnetism. I don't know how to put it in words."
"That's not surprising, under the circumstances," I commented gently.
"Anyway, it didn't take long for Tony to realise how strongly I felt for him, and he seemed to really like me as well. But I wanted him to like me more. I wanted him to love me, and I kept telling him that I'd do anything for him."
His voice indicated he was sad, but it was a sort of disengaged sadness, almost as if he was telling me about something that had happened to someone else. At this point, he shifted his position a little so that his head could lie on my shoulder, so I let my cheek rest on the top of his head.
"At first," he continued, "he didn't ask me to do anything. Maybe he thought I didn't mean it. Then he wanted me to do little things, like get my hair cut short, just to please him. After that he said I was still a bit 'soft' and even 'girly' and that he preferred masculine men, so he told me to start wearing more 'butch' army-type clothes. I was happy to do all that if it would make him happy and make him like me more."
He heaved a sighed of sadness and leaned on me even more, so I put my arm around him.
"But then he wanted me to do more difficult things. He said that you didn't like him and that you'd try to turn me against him, so he wanted me to stay away from you. Not even talk to you on the phone. That was really hard, and I got really lonely, but he said he loved me, and so I did it. I'm sorry."
"No need to be sorry. I understand." I said, squeezing him gently.
My attempt at a comforting squeeze made him wince, making me realise that the bruises were not just on his face.
"Sorry," I said, "I didn't mean to hurt you."
"S'okay," he whispered, settling back against my side. "It's just that I'm a bit sore."
"Did Tony do that? Make you sore?" I asked.
"Well, I don't think he did it deliberately. He, well, he just liked to do things rough, and I just happened to get bruised."
"You mean he didn't care that he hurt you?" I growled, my anger at Tony increasing.
"He said he cared and he said he was sorry. But he also said if I was a real man then I could take it. And later on, I got the impression he actually enjoyed it. Like that time he held me down and did it without lube. And I think I told you that he's got a big one. It hurt like hell..."
"And you let him do that?" I exclaimed, horrified.
Before he could answer, something else occurred to me.
"You don't enjoy that sort of thing do you? Being hurt?"
"No! I hate it. But I love him and wanted to make him happy and didn't want to risk losing him."
"You still love him?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yes. At least I did then, but maybe not after yesterday morning..."
"You mean he went too far? Is that how you got the bruises on your face?" I interrupted.
No," he said then made a sound like a humourless laugh. "No, that really was an accident. I fell down some steps."
"Why don't you tell me what happened," I said dubiously, not really believing it was an accident.
"Well, I'd been spending so much time with him that I was beginning to think we were a couple. We had a great time in his house, with his parents being away, but after we got up yesterday morning..."
He paused, his body started shaking, and his chest began to heave. It occurred to me that he was either about to cry or about to throw up, and I prayed that it would be the former. When I heard him sob I was doubly relieved; not only were tears easier to deal with than stomach contents, but crying would probably be good for him. Gently kissing the top of his head, which was still resting on my shoulder, I waited patiently for him to be able to continue.
"Yesterday morning," he said eventually in a trembling voice, "Tony started packing his clothes and said I should collect my stuff and go home. I was confused and asked him when I should come back. He said never."
His voice cracked and he sobbed uncontrollably. Eventually, when he could continue, his voice was aching with misery.
"I told him I didn't understand. I asked him what I'd done wrong... why he was throwing me out. He said I'd not done anything wrong and he wasn't really throwing me out, but he was going back to Brighton. I said I'd go with him and do anything he wanted. But he just laughed."
"Yes," he said bitterly. "He laughed. He told me I'd already done everything he wanted and that his boyfriend would get upset if I went to Brighton with him."
I must admit that although I was a little shocked by the mention of a boyfriend, I wasn't really surprised.
"At first I didn't believe him," Rob continued, "and I told him I thought he was just saying that to get rid of me. He laughed again and told me all the details... his boyfriend, Andrew, was studying French at university in Brighton. Andrew has spent the last few months in Belgium, but will be returning to Brighton in a couple of days. They'd agreed that they could have 'fun' with others while they were apart, and Tony said I was his bit of fun, but now it was over."
He broke down into sobs again and just collapsed, slipping down until his head was in my lap. I gently stroked his hair, so short it felt like suede, and I made little comforting noises while I waited for him to recover. Eventually, he calmed down and even seemed to fall asleep. He stayed like that for several minutes, and I was reluctant to disturb him. However, my back was beginning to ache because I'd been sitting up on his bed for so long, and I was forced to move enough to rest my back on the wall. My movement seemed to bring him back to life, and he heaved a great sigh, though he still kept his head in my lap.
"I suppose you're still wondering about my face," he said. "Well, after telling me about Andrew, Tony just ignored me, despite all my screaming, shouting and begging. When he finished packing his bag he went to the front door and told me to get out, so I waited for him outside, and when he came out and locked the door I grabbed his arm, trying to get him to talk to me. He pushed me away, and I fell down the front steps. My face hit the wall and I hurt my arm and knee."
"What did Tony do then?"
"He walked off."
"He just left you there?" I said, angry and appalled at Tony's behaviour.
"Yeah. I s'pose he went to the railway station," he said with a mixture of misery and bitterness in his voice.
"But that was yesterday morning. Your family thought you must have come home last night."
"I did. After all, I couldn't let them see me and ask me what happened. So I just sat in the park until it closed, then walked around until it was dark and I was sure everyone had gone to bed."
"Why didn't you call me? Or just come over to see me?"
He twisted round to lie on his back, looking up at me before he answered.
"I didn't know when you'd be back from holiday. And after the way I ignored you, I didn't know if you'd want to even see me, much less help me."
"Of course I want to see you and help you. I'm here, aren't I?"
For the first time I was seeing his face close up, and even in the dim light I could see he was a mess. The bruises, trails of old tears, and red eyes still brimming with new tears, all combined to make him look so sad and almost pathetic. I'd shed a few quiet tears as he told his story, but looking at him like that and thinking of all he'd been through, made me really cry.
"I'm sorry, Paul," he said, bursting into tears again and burying his face in my T-shirt.
"So am I," I said quietly, but if he heard me, he showed no sign of it.
We stayed like that for some time, with me stroking his hair and my T-shirt getting soggier. I waited until he'd stopped crying before I spoke again.
"Right then, young Rob," I said in my most business-like voice. "Let's get things sorted out..."
His body stiffened and he looked up at me.
"I don't want to talk to Mum and Dad! At least not yet."
"I should think not," I chided gently, trying to lighten the mood. "At least not until you've showered and tidied up. You're a bit of a mess at the moment, and you're starting to smell a bit, erm, ripe."
Actually, he didn't smell badly at all, considering he'd been wearing the same clothes in warm weather for well over twenty-four hours. However, I was sure that he'd feel better as well as look better if he had a shower.
"Tell you what," I continued, "why not let your 'uncle Paul' take care of things. I'll go and get us a cup of tea and maybe see if your mum's got any of her delicious cakes, cos I'm bloody starving. Then, while you have a shower, I'll talk to your parents..."
"What will you tell them?" he squeaked, panicking and starting to sit up.
"Relax," I said soothingly, smiling down at him. "I'll tell them just enough to stop them worrying. Then after your shower, I'll come back up here and let you know what I've told them. When you're ready to talk to them, I'll be with you."
"Okay," he said hesitantly, "but can you just hold me for a couple of minutes before you go for the tea?"
"Course I can, Robbie, course I can."
I bent down to kiss his forehead and felt him relax a little. He closed his eyes and gave a little sigh when I began stroking his hair. A little later, as I held him in my lap, it occurred to me that friendship is not always easy, but it is always worthwhile.
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