It was the first day of the first term of my first year at university and the first time I was living away from home. Classes wouldn't start for another couple of days, which was just as well because I was excited and nervous and so couldn't have concentrated on any lectures. By lunch time I'd registered, had a quick look around the crowded Freshers Fair and was waiting outside the Students Union building to meet up with John and Martin. Those two were also experiencing their first day at university and had attended the same school as I had. Although they were little more than acquaintances they were at least friendly faces in the sea of strangers. Normally I'm rather unsociable and they weren't exactly my friends, but they represented a sort of familiar security, which is why I'd agreed to meet them for lunch.
"I'm starving!" John, a stocky dark haired lad said. "Let's go and get some grub."
"The Union's very busy," I said with a frown. "I bet we'll be standing in queues for ages... I s'pose we could go into the city centre?"
"It's lunch time," Martin said dismissively, "so it'll prob'ly be busy there as well... and be more expensive."
Martin, who was tall, blond and so thin that he looked deceptively fragile, appeared to be much younger than his eighteen years and maybe that was one reason he was trying, not too successfully, to grow a beard. He also came from a poor family and so was always trying to limit his expenditure.
"Well, if you want cheap," John said cheerfully, "there's always the Catholic Chaplaincy. They're offering free food to Freshers and I hear they also have a bar with very cheap beer... and I doubt that it'll be busy!"
"That sounds good to me," Martin said with a grin, then turned to me and added, "That okay with you, Terry?"
"The reason it won't be busy," I pointed out, "is that people won't want the God Squad breathing down their necks while they eat."
I'd attended Catholic schools since I was five but I'd not been a believer since I was fifteen, although I still felt there was some sort of divinity 'out there'.
"Yeah, I guess that is a bit of a disadvantage," John said, indicating he shared my views at least in part, "but it can't be much worse than school."
"But we have to go to Mass somewhere..." Martin began, showing that he was still a believer, then seeing the way we looked at him he blushed and changed tack, "And you won't get better value than free."
"That's true," John admitted, "And I am starving... C'mon, Terry, lets go."
Realising I was outvoted, and not wishing to have to find somewhere to eat alone, I sighed and nodded my agreement.
The brick built Chaplaincy building, just across the street from where the three of us met up, was totally and utterly characterless. As we approached the unwelcoming wood and glass doors I lost my appetite and almost changed my mind about joining the other two for lunch. However, as they were the only people I knew in the whole city, I decided it wouldn't be a good idea to risk alienating them. As soon as we entered the building the hint of stale alcohol in the air provided evidence for the truth of John's statement about the existence of a bar. I hoped that his other assertion, that the beer was cheap, also turned out to be true.
The doors opened into a very short but wide passageway which led directly into a large hexagonal central room, in the centre of which were tables and chairs and around which were doors leading into other parts of the building. On the far side of the room was a table on which was the promised food, and adjacent to that was the bar. As John had predicted, the place was certainly not busy and there were only about twenty people there. A chubby ginger haired young man came to greet us and in a Welsh accent he introduced himself as Steve, the president of the Catholic Society. When he bade us welcome I hung back, allowing my companions to take the brunt of his attentions.
Steve pointed out a nearby table heaped with leaflets about the society and told us about the society's activities as he escorted us to the food table. Then after inviting us to help ourselves to the buffet-style food, he went over to greet some new arrivals. Martin and I immediately attacked the food while John, despite his earlier claim to be starving, volunteered to go the bar to get three pints of beer. My intention was to eat and drink as quickly as possible and then get out, whereas Martin's intention seemed to be to eat as much as possible and John, finding the beer was indeed cheap, apparently intended to drink as much as possible.
We had just sat down at one of the empty tables when a very young priest came over and introduced himself as 'Father Bill'. Despite the fact that he was quite attractive in a dark haired Irish kind of way, I found that his enthusiasm, though apparently genuine, made me want to escape as quickly as possible. I wolfed down my food as fast as I could, leaving the conversation to John and Martin. Actually, from the conversation I gathered that Martin was still a devout Catholic and that he intended to join the society as well as attending Mass in the Chaplaincy. I'd just finished my food and was downing my last drop of beer while thinking up an excuse for a rapid departure when a young man entered the room.
I've no idea why he immediately caught and held my attention as I'd seen dozens, maybe even hundreds of guys just that morning who were cuter and more attractive than this newcomer. Indeed, as I have a particular weakness for tall blondes, I don't know what attracted me to this short guy with dark brown hair. There was just something about him that made me sit back in my chair and watch him as discreetly as possible. From the way several people greeted him I guessed the he wasn't a Fresher and from the way he responded it seemed that he was as shy as me. Then he smiled at a girl who waved to him from across the room, and in that moment my heart was lost.
Now I must point out that my behaviour that day was very unusual for me. Well, looking at cute guys was quite usual, but meeting acquaintances for lunch, voluntarily going to a place associated with religion and falling in love at first sight, all those things were very unusual. Indeed, I didn't even believe that 'love at first sight' was possible, though I had been in love a couple of times and I had frequently experienced lust at first sight. However, at eighteen I was still a total virgin and had never even kissed another guy, so how was I to know what was and wasn't possible in the way of love?
"Ah, there's Andrew!" Father Bill said, standing up and breaking into my reverie. "I need to speak to him about the SVP meeting... Well, it's been nice meeting you and I hope we'll see you again soon."
Then he went off to speak with the guy who'd just stolen my heart.
"SVP?" I muttered, mostly to myself.
The initials seemed vaguely familiar and it occurred to me that it was one of those school groups that I'd so carefully avoided. However, I was also wondering if whatever it was might be a way of seeing more of Andrew, provided of course that it wasn't too intimately associated with religion.
"St Vincent de Paul society," Martin said. "They do charitable stuff. Ya know, visit the sick, help the poor, that sort of thing."
Oh dear, I thought to myself, that's not at all my sort of thing. Being an impoverished student, I didn't have any money to give away, I would be too busy studying to give up my time and I had a phobia about germs, so being near sick people was definitely out of the question. Disappointed, I decided to take my lusting elsewhere.
"I'm off to see more of the Freshers Fair," I said as I stood up. "Are you two coming?"
"Nah," John said. "The Fair will be on tomorrow as well, so I thought I'd have another pint here before I go."
"Yeah," Martin said, nodding, "and I think I'll grab some more of that free food. Waste not, want not as my mum always says."
"Okay then," I said, not at all disappointed at the prospect of exploring on my own. "I'll prob'ly see you in Hall tonight."
Then, with one last look at Andrew who was still deep in conversation with Father Bill, I headed toward the door. On the way I passed the table with the leaflets and without any real premeditation, I decided to see if there was one about the SVP. Quickly scanning the papers, I found a couple with those initials written large on the front, so I surreptitiously pocketed them and headed for the exit, hoping no one had seen me.
The Fair was so busy that I had an unpleasant couple of hours pushing my way through the crowds. However, I persevered both because I wanted to make sure that I didn't miss out on anything and also because I didn't feel like going back to my tiny room in the hall of residence. There were lots of stalls filling three large rooms of the Union building. Some stalls offered information, for example about sexual health, but most were set up by university social and sporting societies hoping to pick up new recruits. Certain stalls were very busy, one of the most crowded being that of the Campaign For Real Ale, who were offering to new members free tickets to a beer tasting.
Some stalls seemed to draw little interest and the most deserted of these was the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered & Friends (LGBTF) society. Apart from possibly being put off by the ungainly politically-correct name, it appeared that no one wanted to advertise their sexuality by being seen signing up, even just as a 'friend'. Of course, the young man and woman manning the stall attracted many sidelong glances, but they seemed unperturbed and I'm sure that they didn't expect many people to join their society in such a public place. Although I'd been sure of my sexuality since I was fifteen, I was firmly in the closet and, needless to say, didn't sign up for the LGBTF. In fact, I didn't join any society at all.
That night it took me a long time to get to sleep, partly because of the excitement of the day, partly because of the strange room and bed, but mostly because I couldn't get Andrew out of my mind. Of course I'd had crushes before, on boys at my school and even on one of my teachers, but they had all involved people who were, at least in my eyes, exceptionally attractive. However, no matter how hard I thought about it, I couldn't think of anything about Andrew that was exceptional or even that fitted the 'type' that usually attracted me. He was at least four inches shorter than my average height, his dark brown hair was average and his build was average. I hadn't seen him close enough to assess his eyes, but his clothes were ordinary and typical of a university student. Despite all that, whenever I closed my eyes I saw his smiling face.
The next morning I woke up tired and irritable and after breakfast I returned to my room to look through the huge pile of literature, information sheets, course schedules, and suchlike that are handed out to new students. I'd only just started building my 'keep' and 'discard' piles when John and Martin stopped by my room to ask if I wanted to meet them for lunch. I declined, pointing out that I'd already seen all of the Fair and as it was raining I didn't feel like exploring the city. Returning to my piles of documents, I rapidly got bored and my thoughts drifted yet again to Andrew, and that reminded me about the SVP society leaflets in my jacket pocket.
One of the leaflets was just general information about the society but the other contained details of the local group which was based at the Chaplaincy. There was also a list of local society officers, one of which was: Andrew Molloy, vice president and visits co-ordinator. I wondered if that was 'my' Andrew and what exactly a 'visits co-ordinator' was. Then, almost reluctantly, I consigned the leaflets to the discard pile, but not before I made a mental note that meetings were at 6 pm on Wednesdays.
The next few days flew by as I settled into my classes and study schedule. I made plenty of new acquaintances but no new friends. Even if I wasn't by nature a loner, I would have been too busy to be lonely, though I did have an occasional twinge of homesickness. Several times I toyed with the idea of going along to an LGBTF meeting, but then I told myself that I was too busy, though in reality my main reason for not going was cowardice. Despite being in a city full of complete strangers, I didn't like the idea that anyone would find out that I was gay.
Although there were many other things on my mind, whenever there were quiet moments, and always when I was in bed, my thoughts kept being pulled back to Andrew. On the second Wednesday afternoon of term I worked late in the library, researching for an essay, and on the way back to Hall I passed the Chaplaincy building. Okay, to be honest I didn't just accidentally pass it but in fact took a considerable detour, and despite my internal denials, in retrospect I'm sure that the timing, just before 6 pm, was also not totally accidental. Anyway, as I slowly walked past the Chaplaincy, Andrew strode quickly and purposefully across the road and into the building. Of course he didn't pay any attention to me even if he'd seen me. However, for some inexplicable reason, I followed him inside.
At the far end of the main room the bar was just opening up and there were a couple of dozen people standing or sitting around. Andrew was talking to a thin, red haired young woman who had a serious and slightly irritated expression on her face, so I just hovered in the background. Then he went over to talk to Father Bill, whereupon the red head suddenly looked in my direction and caught my eye before I could avert my gaze. When she started to approach me I grew concerned and I wondered if she'd seen me staring at Andrew and was about to berate me for it. Trying to back away, I just ended up backed against a wall with no choice but to await my fate.
"You're new here, aren't you? Are you here for the beer or the SVP meeting?" she asked, frowning.
She was clearly irritated by something but I had the impression that it wasn't me and that I was just getting the backwash of her emotions.
"Erm, can't I be here for both?" I asked, smiling weakly.
It was intended to be a joke to lighten the mood and divert her negative emotions away from me, but I immediately saw that it had backfired badly. Her frown deepened and her annoyance was now aimed directly at me.
"Of course not!" she snapped. "You can't go around visiting people with beer on your breath!"
"Yeah, of course I know that!" I said, maintaining my smile through my own growing annoyance. "I was just joking."
She looked me up and down as if I were some interesting but slightly distasteful biological specimen and I began to think that she didn't believe me.
"Well I'm glad you have a sense of humour," she said, forcing a smile and suppressing her irritation. "Actually, it's a good job you turned up because we're short of people and this is our first visiting night after the long holidays. Anyway, we'd better get in to the meeting."
Having said that, she herded me, along with a couple of others, into one of the side rooms.
The room was small and with a dozen or so of us in there it was almost full, making me feel a little claustrophobic. A quick glance around showed that about two thirds of those present were female. Having ushered me in, the red head closed the door behind us and then went to join Andrew on the other side of the room. After clapping her hands to get everyone's attention and then calling for quiet, she began to speak.
"Welcome everyone. I see there are some new faces here, so for those of you who don't know me, I'm Kate, society president, and this," she said, indicating Andrew, "is our vice president. This is our first pre-visit meeting and I'm glad that there are more of you here than turned up to our administrative meeting last week."
She paused to look around the room as if she were a teacher scolding her class, then her face softened into a slight smile as she continued.
"Still, we all know that what we do is more important than administration, so now let's get on to the important stuff. Andrew has organised the list of visits, and as usual he's tried to arrange it so that those of you who were with us last year will keep to the same visitees."
To be honest I'd not been paying too much attention up to that point as my mind had been preoccupied with the question of how I might make my escape without looking like a complete prat. I was also somewhat distracted because I found it difficult to take my eyes off Andrew, and I was taking this opportunity of being able to look at him without drawing attention to myself. However, Kate's use of the word 'visitee' drew my thoughts back to her and I wondered if such a word actually existed or if she'd made it up. Unfortunately, my deliberations made me miss an opportunity to slip out while everyone else moved forward to look at the list in Andrew's hands, and by the time I realised that such an opportunity existed, Kate materialised by my side and grabbed my elbow.
"Hello again," she said in a more gentle and friendly manner than the last time she'd addressed me. "I'm sorry about the way I talked to you before, but I was a bit stressed out. Our numbers are down on last year and I was worried we might not be able to keep our commitments for tonight. I'd hate to disappoint any of our visitees, especially as this is my first term as president."
"It's okay," I replied nervously.
I felt embarrassed and a little guilty because despite her words I still wanted to escape. However, as her attention was on me and indeed her hand still gripped my elbow, I couldn't see any way of retreating gracefully. As I looked around in mild desperation my eyes met with Andrew's and I saw that he was looking at me with a small shy smile. I don't understand why, especially as I'd never even spoken to him, but it seemed to me that even if I did manage to escape now, then I'd be letting him down, and for some reason I was very reluctant to do that. Kate must have sensed my nervousness and hesitation because she spoke to me in a very gentle and reassuring tone.
"You're a Fresher aren't you? No need to be nervous," she said, making me drag my eyes away from Andrew. "We're all very friendly here and you'll find that visiting those less fortunate than yourself can be very rewarding."
For the first time I took note of the way she was looking at me. The expression on her face, combined with the fact she was still holding on to my arm, caused me some discomfort. I had the strong impression that she fancied me, although I didn't understand why. Admittedly I was quite proud of my swimmer's body, but I didn't think that my looks were otherwise exceptional. At a little under 6' I wasn't particularly tall, my short hair was a little too dark to be described as blond and my eyes were a very ordinary hazel.
Still, without wishing to seem immodest, that wasn't the first time that a girl had apparently found me attractive. One girl in my school spent almost a year trying to chat me up and always tried to sit near me in class. During that time she also used to go to almost every swimming competition I took part in. At first the way she looked at me in my Speedos freaked me out a bit, but after awhile I got used to it, and eventually she gave up. However, despite my previous experience I still hadn't worked out a good way of dealing with that sort of situation, so if Kate did fancy me, I decided it would be best to ignore it.
"By the way," she said, breaking into my thoughts, "I'm sorry I forgot to ask, what's your name?"
"T-Terry," I said, stuttering slightly in my embarrassment.
"Well, Terry, let's see what Andrew's got on his list. Don't worry, we always make sure that new people are paired up with an experienced visitor."
With that, and still gripping my elbow, she led me toward Andrew as I pondered her last words. Knowing my luck, I thought, I'd be paired up with Kate or one of the other females. Still, there was always hope that something good could be salvaged out of the disaster of my current predicament, so as we approached Andrew I uttered a silent prayer to my nondenominational divinity. By that time it seemed that almost everyone else had received their assignments, and some were jotting down addresses while others were preparing to leave. Kate introduced me to Andrew and for the first time I got a close look at his lovely green eyes.
"As he's new," she said to Andrew after he'd greeted me, "I thought you might assign him to go with me tonight."
My heart sank and without conscious thought I cast a pleading look toward Andrew, though I thought that even if he wanted to, he seemed too shy to stand up to Kate's strong personality. However, his response surprised me.
"Ah, sorry. I'm afraid I've already put you with Stephanie," he said, somehow managing to sound both firm and diffident. "She's new too and specifically asked if she could be paired with another woman. So I thought I'd take Terry with me tonight."
Although it was obvious that Kate wasn't too pleased with his reply, it seemed that she couldn't do much about the situation apart from accepting it as gracefully as possible. She turned to me with a wry smile as I silently thanked the unknown beneficent deity who had so surprisingly answered my prayer.
"Oh well, sorry about that Terry," she said as if she expected me to be disappointed. "Maybe next time."
Then she went off to join a skinny young woman with long dark hair who was standing about half way between us and the door. While Andrew was gathering his papers together from the small table beside him, everyone else left the room, leaving the two of us alone together. Partly because I was nervous and partly because events had carried me along so quickly since I'd impulsively followed Andrew into the building, I was bemused and couldn't think of anything to say, so I just stood there with a rather silly smile on my face.
As I was considerably taller than him and as he was bent over putting papers into his bag, I took the opportunity to look at him close up. Although his medium length hair was an unremarkable dark brown, it was luxuriant, glossy, slightly curly and seemed to bounce as he moved. Of course I resisted the strong urge to run my fingers through his silky locks, though it took considerable willpower. Then, taking me by surprise, he quickly looked up and our eyes met briefly before we both averted our gaze.
"Right," he said in a businesslike manner, "now we're ready to go."
He must have read the confusion in my face because he flashed his small shy smile at me, that same smile that had melted my heart and now almost melted my knees. In order to steady myself I put my hand on the table which had held his papers.
'Now Terry,' I thought, 'get a grip on yourself. He's only a very ordinary guy and he's probably not gay, and even if he were he probably doesn't fancy you, and even if he did, being so closely associated with the God Squad he'd probably suppress it. You've already got yourself into a mess by following him in here, why not cut your losses, say you're feeling sick or something, and go back to Hall.'
"Are you okay?" he asked with a worried frown.
Just as I was about to use his question as a prompt for me to claim illness as an excuse for leaving, his hand covered mine on the table. Startled, I looked down just as he immediately withdrew his hand and gave me an embarrassed and apologetic look, an unspoken implication that the touch was purely accidental. However, with that brief touch I realised that all was lost.
"Yes," I said shakily, "I'm just a bit nervous... I've never done anything like this before."
"What?" he said, giving me a strange look. "You've never visited people before?"
Even before he spoke I knew that what I'd said could be open to more than one interpretation, so I quickly tried to explain. "Well, actually I've never been to visit strangers before... except maybe when my parents might have taken me somewhere when I was a kid."
"Oh, yes, I know it can be difficult, but you get used to it," he said, then with a smile he added, "But you can pretend I'm your parent if it makes it any easier."
The way he said that, combined with the difference in our heights, washed away my nervousness and brought a smile to my lips. That was my introduction to Andrew's acute but understated sense of humour.
Andrew didn't say anything else as he led me out of the building and along the road that led toward the city centre. As I wasn't keen on mystery tours I had to ask him where we were going.
"First stop," he replied without slowing his rapid pace, "is Mr Barns on the West Side, then down toward the river to see Mrs Tanner."
"And we're walking all that way?" I asked incredulously.
"Of course! It's a fine night and only about twenty minutes to Mr Barns' house. If we wait for a bus it could take at least that long."
His walking speed increased even further, so I was grateful that years of swimming had built up my stamina and I wondered what Andrew did to maintain his obviously high degree of fitness. Whether he was conserving his breath or was just naturally laconic I don't know, but the continued silence was increasing my nervousness still further.
"I s'pose you've visited these people before?" I asked.
"Yes, most of last year," he replied, showing no signs of breathlessness.
"Well can you tell me a bit about them and why we're visiting them? It might help me to know what to say to them."
He slowed a little and looked at me with a frown, apparently giving careful thought to his response.
"You really don't know what we're doing, do you?" he said eventually. "Why did you volunteer for visiting?"
"Like I told you, I'm new to all this," I replied, deciding that it would be wiser not to answer his second question. After all, I could hardly tell him the truth, that I'd been trapped into it because I'd fallen in lust with him.
"Well first of all," he replied, "they're not 'these people' and we're visiting them because we want to. If you go with the idea that you're doing a favour for the needy then it won't help them and you won't enjoy it. If you go worrying about what you're going to say then it will be an uncomfortable time for everyone. Yes, they may ask for help with little jobs like changing light bulbs and stuff, but that's not why we visit. Just think of it as visiting a friend, or in your case, a potential friend... which is why I'm not going to tell you anything about them. You should take them as you find them without someone else filling your mind with preconceived ideas."
After that long speech, delivered with considerable passion, he lapsed back into silence. Bearing in mind that I wasn't really keen on this whole visiting situation anyway, I was more than a little irritated by the fact that he wouldn't give me any more information. However, because I was hoping to get to know him better and I didn't want to antagonise him, I just took a deep breath and tried to absorb what he'd said. As my irritation began to fade I considered how pleasant it was just to listen to his voice and how I might of overestimated his shyness.
Mr Barns turned out to be a cranky widower in his late sixties who lived in a tiny Victorian terraced house. He seemed perfectly able to get about and probably even capable of changing his own light bulbs, so I wondered why we were there. He and Andrew did most of the talking during the hour or so we spent with him. Once I tried to make conversation by asking about the photographs on his mantelpiece, but he told me to mind my own business. Of course that irritated me so when Mr Barns said something derogatory about immigrants during his conversation with Andrew, I couldn't resist tackling him on the matter. That led to a heated discussion on politics, during which Mr Barns called me some quite unpleasant names, and the discussion ended only when Andrew said we had to go.
"That went well!" Andrew said cheerfully as we walked downhill toward the river.
"Yeah, right!" I responded sarcastically, assuming he was being facetious.
"Yes, really," he said with a grin. "I think he likes you."
"Seems to me that he hates me," I retorted.
"Oh, no. If he didn't like you he'd ignore you, like he did with the previous two people I took with me. He thrives on confrontation but only if he thinks he's got a worthy opponent, which he must think you are otherwise he wouldn't have resorted to name-calling so quickly. Now he respects you, so you'll probably find him more pleasant next time we see him."
Actually, I rather doubted there would be a 'next time' but I didn't want to say that to Andrew, so instead I changed the subject with a question.
"He seems quite fit and capable to me," I said. "Why does he need visitors?"
"Don't you understand yet?" he replied, giving me a look of exasperation. "He doesn't need visitors, he needs friends. His wife died about three years ago and she was his whole life. Most of his old-time friends have died and his family all live far away... a couple of months after she died he tried to kill himself... Oh, and by the way, that's confidential, so keep it to yourself."
Another ten minutes or so of our high-speed walking brought us close to the river and to a modern single storey block of six flats which, according to Andrew, were 'sheltered accommodation'. Mrs Tanner, a thin woman in her eighties, buzzed us in and greeted us at the door with great enthusiasm. Well, to be precise she greeted Andrew with great enthusiasm, some of which overflowed in my direction when he introduced me to her. She treated him like a long-lost child and it seemed that he returned her affection because I later found out that he sometimes went to see her outside of his normal SVP visiting times.
"There's cake and sherry in the kitchen, Andrew pet," she said as she limped back to her armchair. "Be a dear and bring it through while I say a proper hello to Terry here."
At the sound of the word 'cake' my stomach rumbled and I remembered that I'd missed dinner in Hall and I'd not eaten since my mid-afternoon snack. She invited me to sit on the sofa and I complied, marvelling at her energy and, apart from the limp, her apparent good health. My gran, who was about twenty years younger than Mrs Tanner, never seemed so fit and energetic. In fact, I was a little intimidated by her extrovert personality. She was also very observant because she detected my nervousness even though I tried to hide it.
"Well young man," she said jovially, "there's no need to be nervous. I don't bite... and I certainly wouldn't bite a friend of Andrew's even if these were my own teeth!"
She gestured briefly at her dentures and laughed at her own little joke while I smiled uneasily. I didn't point out that as I'd never even spoken to Andrew before that night I couldn't honestly claim to be his friend, though I certainly wished that I were. Andrew returned from the kitchen carrying a tray on which were a vanilla cake and a bottle of sweet sherry, together with plates, glasses and cutlery. He placed the tray on a low coffee table next to Mrs Tanners chair, whereupon she proceeded to cut portions from the cake while Andrew poured the sherry.
The combination of sherry and cake was one that I hadn't tried before and in any case sherry was definitely not one of my favourite drinks, so I was expecting to have to force myself to eat and drink just to be polite. However, possibly because of my hunger or maybe because of the sweetness of the sherry, I found the combination surprisingly palatable. During and after our little snack Andrew and Mrs Tanner chatted away, with me making occasional contributions, mostly in response to direct questions from Mrs Tanner. The first time I addressed her as 'Mrs Tanner' she mildly rebuked me and told me to call her 'Mary' just as Andrew did. At first such familiarity felt a bit strange, but partly because of her friendliness and partly because of the relaxing effects of a second glass of sherry, I soon got used to it.
At around nine thirty Andrew announced with apparently genuine regret that he had to leave as he had to finish off some work for one of his classes the next day. He went to the kitchen to wrap the leftover cake and wash the plates and glasses, then Mary insisted on getting up to escort us to the door. Before we left she hugged him and kissed him on the cheek, which amazingly didn't seem to embarrass him, but I was relieved when she merely squeezed my arm and said that she was looking forward to my next visit.
Bearing in mind how chatty Andrew had been with Mary, I thought he might have been more talkative with me after we left her, but he returned to his former laconic self. At first I just followed him in silence until it occurred to me that I was in a part of the city that was unfamiliar to me and as a new arrival I had no idea which bus to catch to get home. When I voiced my concerns he asked me which hall of residence I lived in and then he told me that although he lived in a different one we could get the same bus, so I continued to follow him in silence until we reached our bus stop.
He seemed very shy and almost nervous while we sat next to one another on the bus and he responded to my occasional questions with only the briefest of answers, so I wondered if this could be the same person who chatted so easily with Mary and even with the irascible Mr Barns. It seemed that my desire to get to know him better was doomed to failure and I felt annoyed at myself for wasting the whole evening as well as missing my dinner. So when we got to my stop I got up and said a somewhat sulky monosyllabic 'Bye'.
"I'll see you next week, then," he said, smiling for the first time since we'd left Mary's flat.
As I'd already started making my way along the aisle, my only response was a noncommittal grunt
That night in bed I entertained myself with fantasies involving Andrew, but after my release of sexual tension I more-or-less decided that I wasn't going to go to any more SVP meetings or visits. The whole thing was too closely associated in my mind with the God Squad and I could think of many more useful and interesting things to do with my evenings. After all, Andrew wasn't that special and he certainly hadn't shown any interest in getting to know me. He also hadn't even said definitely that we'd be paired for future visits, and the prospect of me being paired up with Kate was too horrible to contemplate.
The next few days passed quickly because I was busy with studies and settling in to life at university. On the Saturday night I even went on a pub crawl with people from my hall of residence, telling myself that it would be a good way to explore the city. Although I enjoyed myself more than I expected, I suffered from the after effects all day Sunday and my memory of the locations of the pubs was vague to say the least. What weren't vague, however, were my memories of Andrew's face and his musical voice, and several times per day, especially when I was in bed, my thoughts were drawn to him.
On the Wednesday evening, despite my previous decision that going to the SVP meeting would be a waste of time, my desire to see Andrew again dragged me to the Chaplaincy building. However, because of the conflict between my intellect and my emotions, I was late arriving and most of the assignments had already been handed out. When I entered the room Andrew gave me a brief shy smile and Kate greeted me with grin.
"I'm glad you turned up again," she said, grabbing my arm and leading me toward Andrew, "I've not been paired off with anyone yet."
"Oh," I said, my mind racing, then I had an idea, "I'm sorry but Mary.. Mrs Tanner said last week that she was really looking forward to seeing me again this week. Isn't that right, Andrew?"
I looked at him pleadingly and he nodded his head.
"Yes, she did," he said in a neutral tone, "and Mr Barns seemed to like Terry as well... and you know how unusual it is for Mr Barns to get on with people."
Kate was clearly unhappy at having her plans foiled two weeks in a row. However, to give her credit I believe that she really did put the interests of the 'visitees' above her own pleasure, and she went off to find another unpaired Fresher.
The trip down to Mr Barns' house was much like the previous week, with Andrew saying very little. As he had predicted, Mr Barns was much less hostile to me, though he rapidly started a heated discussion with me, this time not on politics but on abortion and the interference of science in the process of reproduction. Andrew stayed in the background during this and I got the feeling that he was a little relieved that he could leave me to argue with Mr Barns.
Later, Mary again greeted Andrew as warmly as before but this time she also seemed genuinely happy to see me as well. There was chocolate cake but no sherry, so we washed it down with tea. On this occasion she spent a lot of time questioning me about my background, parents, interests and so on, giving me the impression that as I'd turned up more than once she now considered that it was worth the effort to find out more about me. One of her questions puzzled both Andrew and me - she asked how we'd met and how long we'd been friends. I left that for Andrew to answer.
"We only met last week at the SVP meeting," he said, making no mention of any friendship.
That response seemed to take her by surprise, but she quickly recovered and continued trying to find out more about me. However, she also began mentioning more about herself and, interestingly, kept bringing Andrew into the conversation by asking him questions like how his sister was doing in school, how he was enjoying his course, had he thought anymore about his future, and that sort of thing. Andrew seemed a little taken aback, as if she were asking about things she already knew, and I wondered if she had problems with her memory and if it was a sign of senility.
During the conversation I found out more about her, and it seemed as if her memories of events long ago hadn't deteriorated at all as she recounted in detail some stories of her colourful past. She'd married when she was in her twenties and she and her husband, Joe, were happily married for over forty years before he died of cancer. Unfortunately, they hadn't been able to have children. For most of her working life she had been a paediatric nurse and I wondered if that might have been some sort of compensation for not having children of her own. Joe was also fond of children and, so Mary said, he'd been a talented amateur magician, frequently giving shows for the children at the hospital where she worked.
When Andrew stood up, pointing out that it was almost ten o'clock and saying we should be going, I was surprised at how quickly the time had passed. As before, Mary hugged Andrew and kissed him on the cheek, but this time I too received a hug, though thankfully without the kiss. On the way to the bus stop Andrew was again very quiet, but once we got there he actually initiated a brief conversation.
"Ya know," he said without looking at me, "considering how nervous you were at first, you're really good at this."
"Good at what?" I asked, not exactly sure what he was talking about.
"Making friends with people," he said. "When I first started it took me ages to be able to talk to people and make friends as quickly as you do."
"You think Mary and Mr Barns think of me as a friend?"
"Aren't you?" he asked, turning to look at me with a frown.
"Well," I said after a pause to consider the matter, "if I am, it's only because I was with you and you were their friend already. I'm sure I wouldn't have been able to talk to them at all if I'd met them on my own."
During the next couple of weeks I settled comfortably into life at university and began to learn my way around the city. Each week I went with Andrew on the SVP visits and Kate quickly got used to the idea that I only went on visits with him. The visits themselves went on much as before, although on the third visit with Mary she seemed to be a little irritated with both Andrew and me, though neither of us could understand why. Occasionally I saw Andrew around campus and we exchanged brief greetings but never had any real conversations. A couple of times I even went into the Chaplaincy, telling myself it was for the cheap beer or to see Martin, who had become a regular there. Deep down, though, I knew it was because I hoped to see Andrew. However, on the second occasion I was waylaid by Kate and so decided not to risk going again.
By the time that the fifth week of term had started I'd convinced myself that I had no chance of becoming close to Andrew so there was no point in causing myself heartache by trying any more. Also, I reasoned, even if we did become friends then that's all we'd ever be and I doubted that I'd be content with that. I decided that it was better to make a clean break. Therefore, on that Wednesday I just didn't bother going to the SVP meeting. Yes, I know I should have sent some sort of message, but I was too cowardly and didn't know what to say. I told myself that they'd managed without me before and they'd manage without me now I'd stopped going. Although I felt a bit guilty about just 'dropping' Mr Barns and Mary, I reassured myself with the fact that they'd still have Andrew. However, I didn't sleep well that night.
The following evening I was studying in my room when Martin came knocking at my door.
"Are you okay?" he asked when I let him in.
"Yes, thanks," I said, puzzled. "Why do you ask?"
"Well when I was having my lunch time pint in the Chaplaincy, Kate and Andrew came to ask me about you cos they know we're friends and that we're in the same hall of residence."
I noted that there was a slight hesitation when he said the word 'friends' and I guessed that he, like me, wondered if the word was really appropriate.
"Anyway," he continued, "when I said you seemed fine at breakfast, Kate seemed annoyed that you'd let them down."
"Was Andrew annoyed as well?" I couldn't help asking.
"Dunno. You know Andrew, it's hard to tell what he's thinking... Anyway, Kate asked me to come and check up on you and ask if you're turning up next week."
"I have a really heavy workload this term," I lied. " So I'm not sure I'll have time for visiting. Tell them it's best not to count on me and to assume I won't be going."
"Okay," he said, turning to leave.
"Oh, and Martin," I added, "Thanks for checking that I was okay... Will you tell Kate and Andrew I'm sorry that I didn't have time to tell them yesterday that I couldn't turn up."
He smiled and nodded, then left me to contemplate my lies.
The next evening there was another knock on my door, and as I rarely had visitors I assumed that it was probably Martin with some follow-up message from Kate. Much to my surprise, when I opened the door I saw Andrew shuffling nervously from one foot to the other. As soon as I opened the door he looked up into my eyes then quickly looked back down to a point somewhere near the middle of my chest.
"Andrew!" I said before shock, embarrassment and guilt tied my tongue.
"Can I come in?" he asked eventually in a strained voice and without raising his eyes.
Only then did I realise that I'd been standing there silently in the doorway for several seconds.
"Oh, erm, yeah," I said, moving to allow him to enter.
He stepped inside, quickly looked around the room, glanced briefly at my face, then fixed his gaze on my chest again.
"Hope you don't mind me coming to see you..." he said hesitantly. "Martin told me what room you're in."
"No, of course I don't mind," I replied. "Look, I'm sorry about Wednesday night.... work, ya know."
"Yeah. Martin said. That's why I'm here... to see if I can give you a hand with anything? Give you more time so you can go visiting next week. Mary really missed you... even Mr Barns."
As I was studying sciences and his main subject was history, I wondered how he thought he might give me a hand. I wondered, even dared to hope that perhaps it was really Andrew who'd missed me, but in that case why hadn't he shown any interest in me during all the times we were together, even when we were alone, walking or on the bus. Against my better judgement I allowed hope to determine my response.
"I'll tell you what, I'll see if I can get myself organised better and try to make sure I have time next week," I lied.
He gave me a shy smile and in my hopeful mood I half expected him to accept my invitation to stay for tea or coffee, but he seemed very eager to leave so I didn't try to persuade him when he declined my offer.
The following Wednesday Kate seemed happy to see me again and thanked me for turning up, so I assumed that she'd believed my workload excuse. I was disappointed when Andrew greeted me as he always had, with just a brief smile, and I was even more disappointed when he was no more talkative than he'd been before. He was his usually chatty self with Mary, but a couple of times she seemed a little impatient with him. She appeared to be impatient with me as well, and besides that I had the impression she was annoyed at me but trying to hide it. As I couldn't think of any other explanation, I assumed that she'd taken my absence the previous week as a personal slight.
After we left Mary's flat Andrew was just as uncommunicative as ever on the way to the bus stop and on the ride home. My hopes of getting closer to him began to fade again and yet again I felt that I was just wasting my time. However, I felt trapped because I didn't have the courage to tell him that I didn't want to participate in any more SVP activities. The following week my frustration showed itself as irritation during our visits. Mr Barns either didn't notice or didn't care, but Mary certainly noticed my irritability and I think that Andrew detected it also, but he didn't react in any way. Mary, however, asked me outright what the problem was but I just apologised and lied about pressure of work.
After that, I decided that enough was enough and that I would tell Andrew that I wasn't going to go on any more visits. However, I also kept putting off the execution of that decision and before I knew it another Wednesday had rolled around. Cursing myself for my cowardice and procrastination, I determined that rather than just not turn up, I would have one more visit then take the bull by the horns and announce my decision to Andrew on the way home. Full of resolve, I arrived at the SVP meeting to find that Andrew wasn't there and that Kate was handing out assignments.
"Andrew's got the flu," she told me, "and so have a couple of others, so we're very short of people and we won't have any pairings. You'll have to visit Mr Barns and Mrs Tanner on your own."
"Don't worry," she added when she saw my look of concern, "You'll be fine. You know them pretty well by now and anyway, Andrew says you're a natural."
There was nothing much that I could say in response to that, and as I didn't want to disappoint my 'visitees' I went off to see Mr Barns. Walking there on my own felt odd and even though Andrew rarely spoke when he was with me, I felt almost lonely without him. Once I'd explained the situation to Mr Barns he seemed quite content and even said he was glad Andrew had stayed away because 'at my age the flu can finish you off'. However, Mary's reaction to Andrew's absence was definitely not what I expected.
"Of course I'm sorry that the poor dear is ill," she said, "and I hope he's going to be better soon, but in a way it's lucky because I was hoping to get to talk to you alone."
"Er... Why?" I asked, feeling a little disconcerted.
"Well, for the last few weeks you've been behaving rather strangely, and different from how you were when you first started coming round. It's been quite upsetting... especially for my Andrew."
I opened my mouth to give her the usual 'overwork' excuse, but she cut my off before I could make a sound.
"Now don't give me all that stress-of-work rubbish. I worked with kids for long enough to know when they're trying to pull the wool over my eyes. I've grown very fond of you over the last few weeks and I want to know exactly what's happened to change you recently, so sit down and tell me what's going on."
I sat down, more than a little resentful that she'd referred to me as a kid when I was almost nineteen years old. However, I had no intention of telling her that I was frustrated and depressed because Andrew kept shutting me out and he didn't seem interested even in just becoming friends. Perched on the sofa with my arms crossed, I maintained a somewhat sulky silence. Mary shook her head and sighed.
"You think about things for a minute and I'll get us some sherry," she said.
A few moments later she returned from the kitchen carrying the tray on which were two glasses and an almost full bottle of sherry. Seeing the bottle swaying as she limped toward me, I started to get up to give her a hand but before I could fully stand up she told me to sit down again. She poured us each a large glass, gave one to me and sat back in her chair with the other.
"Right, young Terry," she said in a gentle but serious tone, "drink some of that and relax, then tell me why you've been so touchy recently."
At first I just sipped my drink and tried to think up some plausible lie. When it became clear she was prepared to wait patiently for me to reply, I drank some more and did indeed begin to relax. She smiled at me gently and before I could protest she leaned over and topped up my glass, then just as I began to hope that she'd forgotten her question, or at least had decided not to pursue it, she spoke again.
"After eighty six years on God's Earth," she said, smiling at me knowingly, "I think I've learned to recognise a love-sick young man when I see one."
Startled by the accuracy of her guess, my hand jerked and some of the sherry trickled down my fingers. As I licked it off I took a strange satisfaction from noting that I'd been promoted from kid to young man. Again she topped up my glass.
"I'm right, aren't I?" she continued with a hint of triumph, making it more of a statement than a question.
Perhaps it was the effect of the alcohol or maybe because she seemed so genuinely caring and harmless, but without any real thought, I broke my silence.
"Maybe," I admitted reluctantly.
"And as it's been making you so miserable I can guess that your love isn't returned?"
My only response was to shrug my shoulders, so after a few moments she continued.
"I don't suppose you want to tell me anything else... like who it is?"
I shook my head 'no' and looking away from her, I began to study the pattern on her carpet. She sighed again and for a few minutes we both remained quiet, sipping our drinks.
"I know!" she said brightly, breaking the silence. "Why don't we work some magic?"
I looked at her, wondering if she'd gone mad or had been badly affected by the sherry. After all, I had no idea how an old woman like her might react to too much alcohol.
"No," she said with a smile, "I'm not crazy. But for everyone's sake we need to sort out your problem, and I can only think of two solutions. Either you stop being in love or the other person starts loving you back."
Although there was some logic behind her words, neither of her 'solutions' seemed very practical.
"Easier said than done," I mumbled.
"Not if we do a bit of magic," she responded.
Again I wondered if she were senile, or drunk, or both and if she thought she were some kind of witch. Whatever the case, though, I thought that it would probably be best to humour her.
"Like what?" I asked.
"Well, I know one bit of magic that might work," she said. "If you write down your name and the name of the person you love on a piece of paper, I'll recite a spell over it and then you can throw the paper in the fire. The fire will then either burn away your love or set the other person on fire with love for you. Either way, your problem is solved and we get our nice friendly Terry back."
"Mmm, no," I said as soothingly as I could. "I'd rather not. I don't believe in magic."
There was no way I was going to risk her seeing me writing 'Terry Kennedy loves Andrew Molloy'.
"C'mon," she said, "what have you got to lose? If you like I'll leave the room while you write the names. Then you fold and scrunch up the paper, I recite the spell and you put it in the fire. Your secret will still be safe and if it doesn't work you're no worse off than you are now."
Instead of replying I just took a big swig of sherry, emptying the glass.
"Why not do it for me?" she wheedled. "Just to please an old woman."
My resolve began to crumble, and I reluctantly agreed.
"But only if you're not in the room when I write it," I insisted.
She gave me a pen and a sheet of paper from a small note pad and then she went into the kitchen, telling me to call her when I was ready. My first instinct was to write down a random girl's name, or even 'Terry loves Mary' - now that would screw up any magic! However, for some reason I decided to write the truth, then I folded and crumpled the paper and called out to tell her I was ready.
"Right now, Terry," she said when she returned, "stand up and hold out your hand with the piece of paper resting on your palm."
I did as instructed but I began to panic when she placed her hand palm down on mine.
"Don't worry," she soothed, "the paper will be on your palm all the time. I'm just touching it to pass on the magic."
She made some incomprehensible sounds and then removed her hand, and much to my relief the paper was still there.
"Okay," she said, "throw it on the fire and watch it burn."
I did as she instructed and when the paper had burned completely to ash I looked back at her with a questioning expression on my face.
"Now we wait a few days," she said as if she really believed all this nonsense, "and next time you're here we'll see if it's worked."
The following Wednesday I almost didn't go to the SVP meeting but at the last moment I decided to do so, not least because I wanted to see if Andrew had recovered. When I got there I was relieved to see he was okay, though he looked a bit pale and washed out. However, he was obviously well enough to maintain his usual rapid walking pace when we set off on our visits. After spending about an hour with Mr Barns we arrived at Mary's flat, where she made a fuss over Andrew and got me to prepare the tea and carry in the cake while he 'rested' on the sofa. For a half hour or so the visit proceeded as usual, then Mary inserted a question into a brief lull in the conversation.
"Did the magic work?" she asked casually.
Because of the way that it was just slipped into the conversation, I answered the question automatically.
"No," I said.
"No," Andrew said almost simultaneously.
We looked at one another and I could see my own emotions of surprise, shock and alarm reflected in his face. We both looked at Mary, who was grinning at us in a way that I found rather disturbing.
"Well maybe," she said, holding up a piece of crumpled paper in each hand, "that's because these weren't burned properly."
I was horrified and my first instinct was to try to grab the pieces of paper, but if she resisted I was afraid that she might be hurt. Then I realised that in any case I didn't know which piece of paper was mine, so I sat back feeling defeated, betrayed and ashamed. Taking a quick glance at Andrew I got the impression that he was experiencing a similar range of emotions.
"I'm sorry that I had to trick you," she said, addressing both of us, "but I love you both and you were both getting so miserable that I had to do something... even if it meant you never came to visit me again."
She opened up the crumpled pieces of paper and placed them on the coffee table next to the cake tray, one piece where I could reach it and the other where Andrew could reach. We both grabbed the nearest paper but as her betrayal had led me to half expect, the piece in my hand was not the one I'd written. The one in my hand said 'Andrew loves Terry', and I suppose that should have made me happy, but instead it made me feel even more embarrassed. A surreptitious glance at Andrew gave me the feeling that he felt the same, and after that we avoided looking at one another.
"How?' I asked, just to break the uncomfortable silence.
"Why?" Andrew added immediately.
"It was a simple substitution when I placed my hand over yours. An easy trick when you've been married to an amateur magician for over forty years. As for why..."
She sighed, sat back into her chair and suddenly looked very tired.
"Fond as I am of you, Terry, I love Andrew as if he were my own flesh and blood. After knowing him for more than a year I can read him like a book," she said to me, then turned her attention to Andrew. "The first time you brought Terry I thought I saw something in your eyes, then on his second visit I noticed that when he answered my questions you drank in his every word. I was sad because I knew you'd be too shy to say or do anything, but at the time I thought that was for the best anyway because I thought Terry might react badly if he found out."
"But... But what made you think I'm... ya know..." Andrew asked, his voice trembling.
"When you've seen so many people in love, you learn to recognise it. But no, I didn't think you preferred boys until I saw the way you kept looking at Terry and especially when I saw how upset you were that time he didn't turn up. Oh, I know you're good at hiding your feelings, but you couldn't hide it from me and that's why I played the little paper trick on you, just so I'd know for sure..."
"And you don't mind if I'm... gay?" Andrew asked, the last word being so quiet that it was barely audible to me, so I suspected that Mary hadn't heard it at all.
"Of course not!" she replied, clearly understanding his question even if she didn't hear all of it. "Like I've told you, you're like a son to me. I know that you're a lovely caring person, so what does it matter who you love?"
"But how could you know about me... how I felt?" I asked. "You don't know me as well as you know Andrew."
"I didn't know," she replied. "I guessed you were in love with someone and that you were trying to keep it hidden. I hoped for Andrew's sake that it was him. But I knew that if it was him then he'd be too shy to encourage you and that would make you as miserable as he was. So I played the same trick on you. If you hadn't been in love with Andrew, if you'd put some other name on the paper then I'd have forgotten it and burned it. At least then I'd know and could concentrate on helping Andrew get over you."
"Suppose I'd refused to write anything? Suppose I'd just written down any old name?" I asked. "After all, I didn't believe in the mumbo-jumbo and just went along with it so I wouldn't hurt you feelings."
"You're a nice boy," she said, "so I knew you'd go along with it. Of course I didn't know that you'd be truthful, but I felt in my old bones that you would be. And if you did love Andrew then maybe fate intended you to get together... though sometimes fate needs a helping hand from us ordinary people."
"I don't believe in fate," I said emphatically. "What's the point of doing anything if it's all just fate?"
"Sometimes I think that fate is just another word for God," she said. "He exists whether you believe or not. I think fate provides certain paths through life that are for the best and gives us the opportunity to choose those paths. We still have to use our free will to decide if we will follow one of the right paths or choose a wrong path... or no path at all."
To be honest, that made no more sense to me than her previous 'magic' mumbo-jumbo, but I didn't say anything. In any case, I was more concerned with what would happen next and I still felt betrayed by her trickery, despite her motives. Just because everything was now out in the open didn't mean that all our problems would go away, and in fact there were probably many more new problems looming ahead. Even if Andrew did feel the same for me as I did for him, it was still possible that he would still reject me because of his religious beliefs or because he was afraid of what others might think.
By then it was getting late and I was feeling very tired. Andrew looked weary and hollow eyed, and Mary was slumped in her chair. I stood up and announced that I was leaving, then looked down at Andrew who still looked shocked and shaken.
"Are you coming?' I asked him.
He nodded and stood up, then Mary wearily got out of her chair and went to the door with us.
"Will you come back?" she asked quietly.
I waited for Andrew to reply but when he didn't I spoke up.
"I will if Andrew does," I said, and we both looked at him.
"Yes," he said eventually, "we'll see you next week."
As soon as we got outside the building, instead of heading toward the bus stop, Andrew and I halted, and as if by some mutual agreement, we simultaneously turned to look at one another. In the darkness his eyes twinkled, reflecting the light from the lamp above the doorway, and he smiled shyly but didn't speak. My mind was recovering from the shock of Mary's trickery and the significance of the events of the previous few minutes was just beginning to sink into my brain. Andrew loved me. All this time we'd both been too afraid to show our feelings, and even now I wanted to make absolutely sure.
"It's true then?" I asked, careful to avoid the L-word. "Not just more of Mary's tricks?"
He didn't speak but his smile broadened and he nodded his head, and those small gestures brought me more joy than all the words he'd ever spoken to me before that time. In fact I couldn't remember ever being happier, and I felt a big stupid grin spreading across my face. As if mirroring my reaction, his little smile also widened into a grin.
"What now?" I asked uncertainly when the silence began to become uncomfortable.
"Dunno," he said seriously after a brief pause, then he grinned again and added, "I've never done anything like this before."
As if reading his mind I knew immediately that he was intentionally echoing what I'd said to him the first time we spoke to one another. I laughed briefly and quietly, showing that I'd understood his little joke.
"That makes two of us," I said, "but I'm sure we'll work something out."
We walked to the bus stop in silence, lost in thought as we wondered what the future might hold, and when we got there we stood close together, sheltered by the night and the deep shadow of a nearby hedge. We'd been there for a couple minutes when his hand crept tentatively into mine and I gave it a welcoming squeeze. Then I felt deep inside that we'd be alright. We still had to work out where things went from here, but at least we knew that we'd be working it out together.
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