"What's for sweet?" Mike's dad asked, putting his knife and fork onto his plate.
"William brought round some of his mum's rice pudding," his mum replied.
"Again?" his dad asked, frowning. "That's three times in two weeks."
"She just likes cooking and sharing, and she does a nice rice pudding. Mikey likes it, don't you?" she said, turning to her young son.
"What?" the boy asked. His disappointment at missing William's visit had distracted him. It occurred to him that he must have been playing in the back yard when William had come around.
"You like Mrs Croft's rice pudding, don't you?" she repeated impatiently.
"Not the skin," Mike mumbled his reply. Maybe the rubbery surface wouldn't have been too bad if it wasn't called skin. He couldn't help wondering why they call it that if it wasn't real skin.
Mike's thoughts drifted back to William, who had always been Mike's favourite neighbour. Being five years and one month old, anything or anyone who'd been around since before Mike was born seemed to him as if it had been there always. For some unknown reason, seeing William always made him happy. Maybe that was because, though he was a big boy, aged eleven, he was the only neighbour boy even close to Mike's age.
"How on earth does she get the skin so thick, anyway?" his dad asked, distracting Mike from his distraction.
"Probably the way she bakes it in the oven," his mum replied. Then, sounding irritated, she added, "Now do you want some or not?"
His dad just nodded, and Mike repeated, "Not the skin."
"Well, you can't have anything at all until you finish your cabbage. And if you think I'm going to take off the skin for you, you can think again," his mum said, sounding even more irritated. She sighed, and added more softly, "But you can just eat the ricey bits. You might as well enjoy it while you can, because once William starts at secondary school Mrs Croft will be going back to work and won't have much time for cooking."
His mum had been even more irritable since she'd brought The Baby home from the hospital a few weeks ago, so Mike didn't want to risk making her angry by complaining. Holding his breath so that he didn't have to smell it up close, he reluctantly shoveled up the cabbage and swallowed it. As he leaned over his plate, his untidy mop of dark-blond hair fell into his eyes.
"Mikey needs a haircut," his dad observed.
"No I don't!" Mike said loudly.
"I'll take him to the barber's next week," his mum said, totally ignoring his protest.
"I hate the barber's," Mike muttered. He was preparing to go into a sulk, but changed his mind when it became clear that neither of his parents were paying any attention to him.
The Baby started crying while the pudding was being served, so his mum just ate a little of it before standing up and declaring, "I'd better go and feed The Baby. You can clear away your own dishes when you're finished."
With more than a little resentment, Mike noted that his mum and dad usually referred to his little brother as 'The Baby' but scolded him when he did the same. They told him to use The Baby's name, Pat or Patrick, and stop calling him 'it'. However, as far as Mike was concerned, names were only for people and pets, but The Baby, being just a boring, noisy, smelly little thing, wasn't a real person and wasn't even interesting enough to be a pet. He wished that his mum had brought home a dog, or even a cat, rather than a baby
Before they'd started eating, Mike's mum had put his brother into his carrycot, which had been placed on its stand near her chair, and now she took out The Baby and carried him upstairs. Mike wondered why she always made sure that he never saw her feed The Baby. He'd actually asked about that once, but the only response had been a scolding that he hadn't really understood.
When they'd finished eating, both of them leaving a pile of skin on the plates, his dad cleared the table. Mike stayed where he was for a few seconds, trying to decide if he needed permission to leave the table. Sometimes he thought that all the rules could be a little confusing and not always consistent.
"What are you going to do until its time for your bath?" his dad asked.
Taking that as permission to get off his chair, Mike climbed down. Not only was it a lovely early summer evening but there was always the chance he might see William if he went outside. So he replied, "Can I play in the back yard?"
"Okay, then. But don't get dirty."
Mike sighed. He was going to be having a bath anyway, so it seemed stupid to bother trying not to get dirty. Adults in general, and his parents in particular, often said such stupid things, but he'd long ago learned that it was a waste of time trying to argue with them.
The back yard had a couple of flowerbeds with a few sickly bedding plants and a couple of straggling bushes, but it was mostly paved over, so couldn't really be called a garden. On one side of the yard was a tall solid wood fence, separating them from the Meadows' property. Mike had no idea what was on the other side of that fence. The Meadows were a scary old couple that, he'd been told, didn't like children, so he made sure he avoided them.
On the other side of his back yard was a small picket fence. It was just about his height, so he couldn't quite see over it, but he could see through the gaps into the Crofts' garden. That was a proper garden, with lawn, flowers, rose bushes, and a narrow crazy-paved path that took an indirect rout from the back door down to the gate in the tall brick wall. On the other side of the wall was a narrow back street, and on this side was a small garden shed.
Just outside the back door of Mike's house was a small sand pit. His dad had replenished the contents the previous weekend, and the sand was fresh and dry, so Mike was tempted to play there. However, he heard voices coming from the Crofts' garden, and, deciding to investigate, he went to peek through the fence.
"You'll have to be quicker than that!" William's melodic voice sent a little shiver down Mike's spine.
"If you'd stand your ground and fight like a man, I'd easily beat you!" Thomas responded, his voice sounding harsh and uneven, giving the impression that it couldn't decide whether it was that of a boy or a man.
William and his brother, Thomas, were waving sticks at one another and play-fencing. Although Thomas was two years older, he wasn't much taller than William, who was quite tall for his age. In fact, the two didn't really look like brothers. Thomas was much broader and more muscular, and both his complexion and hair were considerably darker.
Both boys wore shorts, and Mike couldn't help comparing William's legs, which were long, smooth and pale, to Thomas', which were thickly muscular, darker, and slightly hairy. Mike much preferred William's legs, and his eyes were frequently drawn back to them.
The two brothers moved back and forth, beating their sticks together for a while, then William dodged sideways to avoid a lunge. Thomas tripped over part of the crazy paving and fell to the ground, dropping his stick. Taking advantage of this, William moved forward and jabbed the end of his stick into his brother's chest.
"You're dead. I win," he said smugly.
"Hey! That's not fair!" Thomas complained. "You can't kill a man on the ground."
"Why not? I'm sure real knights did."
"Well, it's just not right. Knights are supposed to show chivalry and stuff."
"You've hurt your knee," William pointed out, looking down at his brother, who was still sitting on the ground.
Thomas saw that blood was starting to ooze from a graze and muttered something that Mike thought might be a naughty word. Then he looked up and noticed the little boy peering through the gap in the fence.
"That weird kid from next door is spying on us again," he said, almost sneering.
"It's only Mike. He's only watching us play."
"He's staring, and he's always doing it," he said to his brother. Then he turned to Mike and chanted, "Wickle baby Mikey has no friends so spies on us!"
Mike wanted to run away and cry, but didn't want William to think he was a baby. After all, He might not be a big boy, but at least he wasn't a baby.
"He doesn't like being called Mikey," William said.
"His mummy calls him Mikey," Thomas said, then again addressing Mike directly, he added, "Doesn't she, Baby."
Mike stood his ground and didn't make a sound. He hoped neither of the big boys saw the tear running down his cheek.
"Being mean to a little kid isn't very nice," William pointed out, frowning.
"If you think calling him Mikey is mean, what about if I call you Willy? You hate that even more, don't you?" Thomas asked spitefully.
When Mike heard that, he felt sorry for William. After all, Mikey just sounded babyish, but Willy sounded, well, rude. Of course he knew what a willy was, and he knew that it was something that must be naughty because there were so many rules about it. His mum had told him all those rules. Don't let people see it, even when you're having a wee. Don't touch it except for weeing and bathing. Don't ever play with it. Don't let anyone touch it, and scream and shout if they do.
By the time Mike had finished listing the rules in his head, Thomas had stood up and gone inside to see to the wound he'd sustained in knightly combat. William came right up to the fence and looked down at Mike, who avoided his gaze and took the opportunity to study the lovely legs up close.
"Don't take any notice of him, Mike. He's in a bad mood cos he hurt his knee and he hates it when I beat him at anything."
"S'okay," Mike mumbled, happy to stay close to William for as long as possible.
"You're five now, aren't you, Mike?"
"Five years and one month," Mike said proudly.
"So you'll be starting school next term."
"Yeah, I s'pose," Mike replied without enthusiasm. He wasn't quite sure what a term was, but he knew it was something to do with school. The idea of school, with all the strange people and places, was rather scary.
"Don't worry," William said, as if he'd read the little boy's thoughts. "It's not all that scary and you soon get used to it.
"I'm not scared!" Mike protested. He didn't want William to think he was a baby.
"Well, maybe a little bit nervous, though," William said softly. "I start secondary school next term, and I'm a bit nervous."
"Just a bit," Mike said. After all, if a big boy like William could be nervous, there couldn't be anything shameful about Mike admitting it.
"Everything will be okay," William assured him, reaching over the fence and gently tousling Mike's hair.
If Mike had been a cat he would have been purring, and he would have gladly stayed there forever. Unfortunately, at that point his mum called to him to go inside for his bath.
A couple of days later, Mike was playing with some toys in the sand pit when he again heard the voices of the boys from next door. Not wishing to risk being teased again by Thomas, he carefully made his way to the fence at a point where he could be at least partly hidden by one of the scrawny bushes.
The brothers, wearing just shorts and trainers, were just putting a couple of large towels onto the lawn. Then they lay down on their backs on their respective towels. Seeing William like that made Mike feel a bit like his tummy was being tickled. The two boys closed their eyes, and Mikey felt safe, realising that they wouldn't know he was there, as long as kept quiet.
"I don't know why you bother," Thomas said, not unkindly. "You know you won't tan and you'll probably just burn."
"I just like the feel of the sun on my skin. Anyway, I put on lots of sun block."
Mike remembered from his last family holiday that he'd seen lots of people sunbathing. He didn't know why anyone bothered with it. There were so many exciting and fun things to do on a beach that just lying still seemed a complete waste of time. As for the two brothers, it seemed to Mike that Thomas was already brown enough and William was already perfect.
"I suppose I should get as much sun on my legs as I can," Thomas said, with an air of superiority. "After all, next term I get to wear proper long trousers. You'll have to be in shorts like a little boy for another two years."
"That's okay," William replied contentedly. "I like shorts."
Mike was glad to hear that. The prospect of never being able to see Williams's legs would have made him feel sad.
As things turned out, even when William graduated to long trousers at school, Mike was able to see him in shorts quite often. That was because soon after starting at secondary school, William took on the job of doing the gardening, a task he always carried out in shorts. As Mike's bedroom overlooked the Crofts' garden, he had many opportunities to admire William.
Sometimes Mike, remembering that Thomas had accused him of spying, felt a bit guilty about watching William in the garden. However, as he grew older, he managed to convince himself that it was no worse than bird watching and no one was harmed by it.
As William had predicted, when Mike started at primary school, it was indeed a bit scary, but he soon got used to it. In a way, it was just like home; once you got to know all the rules, it was easy to stay out of trouble. By the time he was six years old and on his first day of his second year at primary school, he was a veteran, and smugly watched the new five-year-olds on their first day of school.
Two boys, part of the new intake, made him doubt the evidence of his eyes for two reasons. First, they were identical; not just wearing the same clothes, but the same faces and everything. Everyone joked that the teachers wouldn't be able to tell them apart. These identical twins fascinated Mike.
The second reason that he couldn't believe his eyes was that the twins went around school all the time holding hands. Even more amazing was the fact that no one told them off or made fun of them. It was acceptable, at least for limited periods for girls to hold hands, but kids made fun of two boys holding hands, even when the boys were told to do so by a teacher while they were walking outside the school on class trips.
After a couple of days seeing the twins get away with this, Mike went to talk to his class teacher. She was a very motherly, kind woman. In fact, she was even more motherly than his mother, so he felt he could ask her even such a delicate question. However, he did make sure that no other kids could overhear them.
"Mrs Darby, can I ask you something?" Mike asked tentatively.
"Of course, Mike. That's what school is for."
"Erm you know Keith and Kevin, the twins?"
"Yes, isn't it amazing that two little boys can be identical?"
"Well, yes it is, but, but have you noticed them holding hands all the time?"
"Oh, yes. Isn't it sweet?"
"But," Mike said, frowning, "but I thought boys weren't supposed to hold hands with other boys unless we're told to. Like to cross the road, or something."
"Maybe it is a bit unusual," she said gently, "but twins are special, and identical twins are even more special. All twins are very close and have a certain bond. A link. But identical twins are like the same person. So for identical twins to hold hands is almost the same as you holding your own hand."
"Oh," Mike said. He thought about what she said and was beginning to get some idea of what she meant.
"So you understand, now, Mike?" she asked kindly.
"Yes, Mrs Darby. Thank you."
After school, that night, Mike considered the special relationship of twins, and envied them their closeness. It occurred to him how wonderful things would be if William was his twin.
Mrs Croft was a tall, slightly chubby woman, who was always very kind to Mike. By contrast, her husband, who was considerably older, was thin, and always seemed to have a sour look on his face. Mike had rarely interacted directly with the man, and in fact he avoided him as much as possible, not least because William and Thomas were clearly very wary of their father.
The brothers often mentioned the risk of feeling the sting of Mr Croft's belt. However, Mike, who was horrified at the idea of any violence being directed at William, found it hard to believe that the risk would ever become a reality. Then, one Sunday afternoon when he was six years old, he was in the back yard when William came running out into their garden.
He was distressed to see that William's eyes were red and that it was clear that he'd been crying. He went over to the fence to get a closer look at the bigger boy. Mike had discovered that if he stood on the lower horizontal wooden rail with his feet through the gaps, he could easily see over the fence. He realised he'd get in trouble if his parents saw him, but he knew his dad was out and that his mum was occupied with Pat.
"What's the matter, William?"
"Oh, nothing much," William replied, trying to put on a brave face. "Me and Tom just got a belting."
"We were just messing about and knocked one of Dad's crystal whisky glasses off the shelf."
"And he hit you just for that?" Mike was shocked.
"Well, it did break, and Dad said they're very expensive," William said ruefully, apparently accepting that his punishment had not been too excessive for the offence.
"What about Tom?"
"He's older, so got it much worse than me. He's lying on his bed and probably won't be sitting down anytime soon."
"So he really does hit your bottom with his belt?" Mike asked. Although he didn't really doubt William's word, he still found it hard to accept.
"Yeah, we've told you that before," William replied. Then, wanting to clear up and doubts that Mike might still have had, he added, "D'ya want to see?"
"What, see him hit you?" Mike asked, even more horrified.
"No, silly!" William laughed, despite the residual pain in his buttocks. "D'ya want to see what it did to my bum?"
Under different circumstances, Mike would have quite liked to see William's bum, but he wasn't totally sure he'd like to see it in a battered state. On the other hand, the prospect was temptingly intriguing and naughty.
"Okay," he said, nodding his head.
Mike hadn't considered exactly how or when he might get to see William's bum, but he was a little disappointed to find that William didn't just pull down his shorts. Instead, he turned around and, wincing several times, very gingerly pulled up the leg openings of the loose shorts until Mike could see the bottom half of his buttocks. Most of what he could see was fiery red, but there were a couple of strips of deep purple.
"Wow! Is it really sore?" was all Mike could think of to say.
William gently and carefully pulled the leg openings back down and turned back to face the younger boy.
"Not as sore as it was when he was doing it! And I bet there will be bruises for at least a week," he said. Then he took a deep breath and added, "I'd better get back inside before he gets annoyed again."
When William had disappeared from view, Mike climbed down and went to get a drink. As soon as he got through the back door, he saw his mum.
"Ah, there you are," she said, "I was just coming to get you . I want you to keep your eye on your brother while I start preparing food."
A few months earlier, Mike would have resented being given such a task. However, since his baby brother had started crawling and becoming more interactive, having to look after him wasn't too bad. Sometimes it was even fun to play with him, as long as he didn't have to do it for too long. Mike had decided that a little brother might not be as much fun as a dog, but was probably more fun than a cat, so he'd started thinking of him as 'Pat' rather than just 'The Baby'.
While he was entertaining Pat by tickling him and pulling faces, he kept thinking about William' sore bum. For a long time after that, the sight of those red and purple buttocks kept appearing in Mike's mind. It was terrible yet also a little bit exciting, and that twinge of excitement made him feel very guilty. The complicated mix of his emotions, was dominated by an intense anger toward Mr Croft.
When Mike was seven years old, William, then aged thirteen, got a bike for Christmas. Shortly after that, he also acquired lots of new friends from school, and he often went cycling with those friends. At that time of year William spent very little time in the garden, so for a few moths Mike rarely spoke to him or even saw him, which made the little boy quite sad.
During the school Easter holidays Mike looked out of his bedroom window and saw William working on his bike in the garden. He immediately rushed outside and went over to speak to the older boy.
"Hi, Mike," William said, looking up and greeting him with a big smile. "How are ya doing?"
"Okay. Wotcha doing?"
"The chain broke, and I'm putting a new one on."
"Yeah, grease and oil seem to get everywhere," William said, grinning and holding up his hands for Mike to see. "It's a good job I put on the old T-shirt and shorts I use for gardening."
The older boy bent down to pick up the new chain, which meant that the slightly too small shorts were stretched even more tightly. Mike had to tear his eyes away from the sight before he could remember what he was going to say.
"You're really lucky having a bike. I wish I had one."
"I'm sure you will, when you're a bit bigger."
"Dad said I'd have to wait until I was bigger, but not to get my hopes up cos bikes are expensive."
"Second hand bikes can be cheap," William pointed out, feeling sorry for his little friend.
"Yours is new, though, isn't it?"
"Yes, but it's a reward for working on the garden, and I've had my pocket money cut in half for a year."
"We don't have a garden and I don't get any pocket money," Mike replied despondently.
"I'm sure you'll get some pocket money when you're a bit older," William said, trying to cheer up the smaller boy. Then he had a thought. "When I've done this, maybe you could have a ride on my bike, but you'll have to ask your mum or dad first."
"Really?" Mike asked, his face lighting up with hope.
"Really. But only if your parents say it's okay."
Mike rushed inside to find his mum, who was loading laundry into the washing machine. He was so excited that at first she didn't understand what he was talking about, but eventually she understood his request.
"I don't know," she said frowning. "It might be dangerous. You might get hurt."
"Please, pleeeease," Mike whined. "William would never let me get hurt!"
His mother pursed her lips then sighed. "Well, let me finish this, and then I'll talk to William to see what he has in mind. If it seems safe then maybe you can do it."
Unable to contain his excitement, Mike immediately ran outside and told William what his mother had said. By the time she joined them, the new chain was on and ready to try out. She immediately vetoed the idea of Mike sitting on the saddle and holding onto the older boy, and neither she nor her son were happy with the idea of Mike sitting on the saddle while William just wheeled the bike around.
Another suggestion was that Mike might sit on a cushion on the crossbar while William cycled up and down the yard. That way the smaller boy would be secure between the older boy's arms. Eventually, worn down by her son's pleas and anxious to get back to check up on Pat, who was having a nap in his cot, she agreed.
"Right," William said to Mike as she went inside, "I'll just get cleaned up, put on some fresh clothes, and bring the bike round."
After what seemed like an eternity to Mike, William appeared through the back gate, wheeling his bike and carrying a cushion. After a little experimentation and adjustment, and thanks to the fact the cushion was overstuffed and thick, the idea worked out quite well. The only problem was that the length of the back yard allowed only for an extremely brief ride.
Both boys went to point out the problem to Mike's mum and ask if they could go outside.
"Yes, I could see," she said. "I was watching you through the kitchen window. But I'm not sure about going outside."
"We'll only be in the back street, just outside the gate," William said. "And I'll stay on the pavement and be very careful."
"Alright," she eventually agreed, "but just go slow."
For the next half hour or so, they rode up and down the back street, sometimes going rather faster that Mike's mother would have approved of. For Mike, that was probably the happiest time of his life so far. Not only was the ride itself exciting, but he was close to William, and he felt totally safe and secure between the older boy's arms. Besides that, there was the tingle Mike felt every time William's bare legs brushed against his own.
All too soon, Mike had to leave his paradise. William announced that he had to make sure he got some chores done before his dad got home from work.
"Aww," Mike moaned. "I was really having fun."
"So was I, but you don't want me to get a belting, do you?"
"Well, I've got to go. But we can do it again, sometime, if you want."
"Oh, yes! How about tomorrow?"
"Sorry," William said, shaking his head and smiling, "but I'm going out with friends tomorrow. But sometime soon, I promise. When we get a nice day."
"I don't care if it's a nice day." Mike replied, pouting a little.
"But I do, and I'm sure your mum will."
"Okay," Mike agreed reluctantly.
William kept his promise, and during the next few months the experience was repeated several times, though not anything like as often as Mike would have liked.
The following year, Mike's parents decided that Pat, at three years old, could be trusted with a baby sitter. So, on the occasions when they wanted to go out in the evenings, they got William to look after their children. Because Thomas was older, they'd first offered the job to him, but he'd politely declined. As it turned out, not long after that, Thomas went off to join the Army. Of course, Mike was overjoyed to find out that William and not Thomas would be spending time with them.
That arrangement worked out well for everyone, and especially for Mike, for several months. Then, just before Mikes ninth birthday, which was soon after William turned fifteen, Mike was looking out of his bedroom window and saw something that upset him. He'd just got home from school, and it was a pleasant afternoon, so he hoped to see William in the garden and then he would have an excuse to go and chat.
When there was no sign of William, Mike started reading a book, occasionally pausing to look out of the window. William did eventually appear, but Mike was surprised and disappointed to see that he was not alone. He was with a slightly shorter boy who had very dark hair and appeared to be about the same age. Mike guessed the boy was one of William's school friends.
What happened next surprised Mike even more. William led the other boy into the narrow gap between the garden shed and the brick wall at the far end of the garden. Bushes grew beside the picket fence opposite the shed, so in that position they could be seen only from a very small part of Mike's back yard and from his bedroom. In that small space, the two boys started hugging and kissing.
Mike was shocked, horrified, and upset. Boys shouldn't touch one another like that, and boys certainly shouldn't kiss like that. Despite his feelings, Mike couldn't stop watching, and although it lasted only a few minutes, to Mike it seemed like hours before the pair separated and the other boy went out of the back gate.
The scene replayed over and over again in Mike's head, and he couldn't get it out of his mind. At dinner, he was still so upset that he hardly ate anything, and afterwards his mum insisted on taking his temperature because she thought he might be ill. By the time he went to bed, he'd almost recovered from the shock, though he still felt very upset. The thing was, he didn't really understand why.
He'd heard of gay people, and that you should feel sorry for them because they weren't normal but couldn't help it. Personally, he didn't think about kissing girls, but he didn't think about kissing boys, either. Being kissed and hugged was something imposed upon him by parents. So maybe he should feel sorry for William, but it didn't explain why he was so upset and why his stomach churned.
For several days, he kept looking out for William, but he didn't see him with the other boy again. Also, for the first time in his life, Mike actually avoided opportunities to speak to him. Then, his parents announced that they'd be going out on the following Friday and that William would be coming round to look after him and Pat.
He wasn't sure if he wanted to speak to William again, much less spend the evening with him, but there wasn't anything he could do, so he didn't say anything to his parents. When William came round at seven thirty, Pat was already in bed, and his parents left the usual instructions that Mike should be sent for his bath by nine o'clock and should be in bed by nine thirty.
"So, what do you want to do?" William asked cheerfully. "Anything on TV that you want to see? How about a DVD, or maybe a game?"
Mike just stared at him and remained silent.
"You've never been like this before," William said, frowning. "Is something wrong? Are you sulking about something?"
When Mike still refused to speak, William sighed and shook his head. "Okay, I'm just going to watch TV. Let me know if you want anything."
He turned on the TV and went to sit in one of the two armchairs, and after a few seconds Mike sat in the other. They stayed like that for a few minutes, with William pretending to watch the television and Mike pretending not to watch the older boy, who was clearly concerned by this totally unusual situation.
Mike was tormented by conflicting feelings. He wanted to talk to William, but didn't know what to say. He wanted to enjoy being with the older boy, just as he always had, but he felt uneasy. He was annoyed at William, but didn't really want to make him uncomfortable. Worst of all, he didn't know why he was so upset with William, who was clearly the same kind and lovely boy that he'd always been.
Then, as he continued to study William, he realised something. He was upset because he wanted to be the one who hugged William, and he was angry because William had hugged someone else instead of him. The older boy was his William and had always been his William. Mike was jealous, and that realisation was even more shocking than seeing two boys kissing. There was a long silence while Mike screwed up his courage.
"I saw you," Mike said eventually.
"What?" William said, no longer needing to pretend to be watching TV.
"I saw you with that other boy."
"What other boy?"
"The one you were kissing and hugging behind the shed."
Terror and horror caused William's body and mind to freeze totally. Eventually, face dead white, he croaked, "You've not told anyone?"
Mike shook his head, surprised at the strength of the other boy's reaction.
"You won't tell anyone, ever, will you? Promise me, please!"
This was a new experience for Mike. Never in his whole life had he felt such control of any situation, even with little Pat. Now here was a big boy, fifteen years old, practically begging him. The feeling of power was intoxicating, and he surprised even himself with his response.
"I promise not to tell if you hug and kiss me."
William was shocked by the words, but only a little more so than Mike himself. For what seemed a terribly long time, they stared at each other. Then, with a face drained of both colour and expression and with a voice devoid of emotion, William spoke.
"No," he said flatly.
"No?" Mike responded, not sure if he was disappointed or relieved.
"No, I'm not going to do that with a little boy, not even if I'm being blackmailed. I thought you were my friend, but a friend wouldn't blackmail me."
The word 'blackmail' and the harsh tone of William's voice brought home to Mike exactly what he'd done. He was horrified and ashamed, but didn't know what to do next.
"I hope you realise, though," William continued in a deadly serious tone, "that if my dad ever finds out, I'd get the worst beating I've ever had, and I'll be lucky if he doesn't chuck me out."
Mike, now feeling totally miserable and full of guilt, began to cry, gulping as he tried to speak, "I'm sorry. I won't tell, ever. I promise."
Big boys don't cry, so shame added an extra dimension to his emotions, causing him to curl up into a ball as he began sobbing uncontrollably. At first, William, who was still scared, angry and embroiled in his own complex mix of emotions, hardened his heart against the little boy's misery, but it wasn't long before his heart began to melt. He went over to sit on the arm of Mike's chair and began stroking the little boy's hair.
"It's okay," he said gently. "Everything will be okay."
With reassuring words and soothing tone, he gradually managed to get the younger boy to stop crying and uncurl his body.
"I'm sorry," Mike said, sniffing. "I'd never do anything to hurt you. I promise I wouldn't. You're the best person in the world, and I always want to be your friend."
"Well, I'm not sure about being the best person in the world," William said, unable to suppress a smile. "But I believe you wouldn't deliberately hurt me and I want to stay friends, as well. Now, just wait here a minute."
He stood up and went into the kitchen, returning with a handful of tissues, with which he proceeded to wipe Mike's face.
"There," he said soothingly." That's better."
"I'm sorry," Mike repeated.
"Yes, I know you are. You don't need to keep saying it. What's important is that you feel it and that you've learned something. Some information is dangerous as well as private, and threatening people you like can stop them liking you."
"Do you still like me?" Mike asked, feeling very worried and vulnerable.
"Of course I do. You made a mistake, and you've learned from it, so you won't make it again. We can forget all about it. Now, I think it's about time for you to go for you're bath."
Mike was clearly reluctant to move, so William asked, "Is there a problem?"
"N-no, not a problem, but, well, could I ask you something?"
"You can ask," the older boy said, frowning slightly, "but that doesn't mean I'll answer."
"Erm, well, is the other boy your boyfriend?"
The question obviously made William very uncomfortable, and at first it seemed that he might not answer it. However, eventually he said, "No, not really. He's a close friend. A special friend."
"Oh, like twins are special," Mike said, not sure why William's reply made him feel so relieved.
"Erm, not really," the older boy said, not following Mike's train of thought. "Now, you really should go and have your bath. Then you can come down and say goodnight before bed.
When Mike returned, freshly bathed and wearing his pyjamas and dressing gown, he was surprised when William gave him a hug as they said goodnight.
"I thought you said you wouldn't hug a little boy."
"You were asking for a big boy hug, and I couldn't give you that. But the hug I just gave you was especially for little boys."
"I'm not really a little boy, you know," Mike said, feeling a little irritated. "I'll be nine in a couple of weeks."
"Yes, but it's relative. To Pat, you're a big boy. To you, I'm a big boy. To my dad, I'm a little boy. Don't you see?"
"Yeah, I s'pose."
For a few weeks after that, their friendship was a little strained and not quite so easygoing as it once had been. However, it gradually recovered, and Mike thought it was stronger than ever. Perhaps the shared secret provided an extra bond and an additional layer of trust.
He never again saw William being intimate with another boy, though he couldn't suppress a pang of jealousy when he thought about the possibility. Of course, he would never mention those feelings to anyone, and especially not to William. Mike had learned many lessons, not least of which was that he shouldn't take people and friendships for granted.
For the next year or so, all went well for Mike, and he was content. He didn't spend as much time with William as he would have liked, but he very much enjoyed the time they did have together. Not only did they have those evenings when his parents went out and William looked after them, but he also helped William with the gardening.
At first, it had started out with Mike looking over the fence and chatting while watching William at work. Then the younger boy started asking questions about what, how, and why certain things were being done. After that, William invited him over to see exactly what he was doing, and then, without any discussion, it just seemed to be accepted that Mike had become William's assistant.
Then disaster struck. One Friday night in late summer, Mike was awakened by loud noises from the Crofts' house. There was a lot of shouting, banging doors, and even the sound of a window breaking. At one point, he thought he heard the sound of Mrs Croft crying. By midnight, all had gone quiet, but Mike was concerned about William and wondered if he'd had another belting, so it was a long time before he got back to sleep.
The next day there was no sign of either William or his mum, and Mike was too scared of Mr Croft to go next door and ask to see his friend. That night Mike heard Mr Croft shouting again, and more glass breaking, though this time it sounded more like a bottle than a window. The following afternoon, he saw Mrs Croft standing in the garden, but as she appeared to be crying, he decided not to ask her about William. Instead, he went to tell his mum.
At first, his mum seemed reluctant to get involved, saying that some things were private and that interference was seldom appreciated. Mike pointed out that Mrs Croft was obviously upset and that being outside in the garden was only partly private. So, eventually, she went out to speak to Mrs Croft.
Mike observed things through the kitchen window, but couldn't hear what was being said. Mrs Croft shook her head several times then buried her face in her hands. Eventually, she appeared to start speaking to Mike's mum. After a few minutes, both women went into their respective houses.
"What's going on?" Mike asked.
"There's been a family row, and she's very upset."
Mike refrained from pointing out that so much had been obvious even before she'd gone out to speak to Mrs Croft. Instead, he asked the important question, "What's happened to William?"
"Apparently, he's left home."
"What? Why?" Mike, close to panic, was almost shouting. "Where's he gone? When's he coming back?"
"She said he had a big fight with his dad and that his dad threw him out. She has no idea where he's gone. And, from what I can tell, his dad won't let him come back."
"He can't do that, can he? Kick out his own child?" He was now finding it very difficult to control the rising panic.
"He's not really a child anymore," his mother said patiently. "He's sixteen."
Mike had more than just an inkling as to why Mr Croft's actions had been so extreme, even for him. One evening, later in the week, that was confirmed. His dad had just got in from work and had gone into the kitchen to help his wife prepare dinner. Mike went to the kitchen and heard his mum talking. The tone and volume was the sort she used when she didn't want Mike to overhear, so he stopped in the doorway. Not noticing him standing there, she continued speaking very quietly to her husband.
"... because he likes boys, and I heard that's why his dad threw him out."
"No!, Really?" His dad was clearly too surprised to keep his voice low. "But he spent all that time looking after our boys! What if..."
"Oh, I'm sure nothing happened. He's a nice lad, and just because he likes boys doesn't mean he likes little boys."
"But he's always been very friendly to Mike. Isn't that a bit suspicious? Maybe he did something..."
At that point, Mike was unable to remain silent and entered the room. "He never did anything that you wouldn't do, and he never would! You mustn't say things like that about him!"
He burst into tears, ran up to his room, and threw himself on his bed. His parents, thinking that things were best left alone, at least for the time being, didn't disturb him until his mum called up to tell him that it was time to eat. He never overheard the two of them discussing William again.
For several weeks, Mike was very depressed, he had little appetite and ate only enough to stop his mother nagging at him. He rarely went outside except to go to school, and at school he did just enough to avoid getting into trouble. Eventually, his parents became so concerned that one evening after dinner they confronted him.
"Now, young man," his dad said, "you can't leave the table until we've sorted things out."
"We know you're not happy, and you're hardly eating," his mum added, "And school says the quality of your work has gone down drastically."
Mike remained silent, staring down at the tabletop, and massaging one hand with the other.
"We're worried about you," his dad continued. "And, well, we're not convinced that you were telling the whole truth, about, well, William."
"It was the truth!" Mike protested, raising his head to look his dad in the eyes.
"Well, if he didn't do anything to you," his dad persisted, "why are you behaving like this? Why are you so unhappy?"
"Because I miss him and don't know if I'll ever see him again!"
"Calm down, dear," his mum soothed. "We just want the best for you. We want you to be happy again."
"Then bring William back," Mike pleaded.
"You know we can't do that," she replied.
"And wouldn't, even if we could," his dad muttered. Then, more loudly, he added, "You're obviously troubled and it's our job to sort things out. We think that if you get some professional counselling from an expert, they'll be able to find out the truth and fix things."
"You already know the truth!"
"But what else can we do?" his mum asked, almost pleading. "Things can't stay as they are."
Mike hated all the horrible suggestions that they were making about William and he certainly didn't want them to go any further, so he said the only thing he could think of that might defuse the situation.
"So, if I'm happier, and eat more, and do better in school, and go out more, you'll stop going on about counselling and stuff?"
"Yes, of course we will," his mum said.
His dad just nodded his head, but didn't seem to be in total agreement with his wife.
Over the next few days Mike did everything he could to get back to a situation that his parents would consider to be normal, or at least acceptable. He tried to look happy, he ate even when he wasn't really hungry, and he worked hard at school. He even went out for walks occasionally, telling his parents he was going to meet school friends. Of course, he was still grieving inside, but he managed to convince his parents that all was well.
As it happened, as the months went by, he did gradually begin to feel better and really did start going out with friends. The excitement of starting secondary school helped to remove the last vestiges of depression. However, he never forgot William, and his feelings for him remained strong, though they changed in nature as he grew older. One thing that always kept him going, though, was the promise he made to himself that as soon as he was old enough, he'd try to find William.
When Mike was twelve years old, he asked his parents for a bike for Christmas, pointing out that he was the only one of his friends who didn't have one. His parents, realising that a bike wouldn't just be a means of transport but also a source of social activity, said that they'd see what they could do. However, they did warn him that a new bike was beyond their budget and that he'd have to settle for second hand.
A few days before Christmas, his dad delivered the bad news.
"Mike, I'm sorry. We saved as much as we could to get you a bike, but I'm afraid we can't even afford a decent second hand one. Honestly, I think you'd be ashamed to be seen riding the ones we could afford."
"Oh. Okay," Mike said, making no attempt to hide his disappointment. "Do you think maybe you could afford one by Easter? Some of my mates are going on a cycling trip and I'd really like to go with them."
"Mm, I suppose it's possible," his dad replied. After pausing for thought, he added, "How about you take some of the responsibility yourself? For Christmas we could give you the money we've saved so far, and you can spend it how you like or you can keep it and put it toward the cost of a bike later. You could save up your spending money as well, and when we get closer to Easter we can see if your mum and I can contribute some more."
"My spending money?" said dismissively. "Even if I saved all of it, there wouldn't be enough to make a difference."
"Well, you can't expect everything to be handed to you on a plate," his dad said, exasperated by his son's tone and negative attitude. "Maybe you could get a job, delivering newspapers, babysitting, or something."
"You'd pay me to look after Pat?" Mike asked without much hope.
"Of course, not!" his dad said sternly, though he had to suppress a smile at his son's cheekiness.
"Will you help me get a job, then?"
"You really ought to show some initiative and do that yourself. You're not a little boy anymore, so you shouldn't need spoon-feeding."
Mike wandered off to find his mum, who was in the living room making last minute shopping lists. Pat was kneeling by the coffee table, making his own Christmas cards.
"Dad told me about the bike," Mike said.
"Yes, dear. I'm sorry about that," she replied, still looking at her list and not giving him her full attention.
"He said I should get a job. Will you help me?"
"Yes, dear," she replied without being sure what she was agreeing to.
A few days into the New Year, Mike went to his mum and asked if she'd had any ideas for a job.
"Job? What job?"
"I need a job so I can save money for a bike."
"Oh, that. I'm sure we'll think of something," she said, then went back to sorting the laundry.
A couple of days later, Mike was certain she'd forgotten again, and he was looking for a suitable time to remind her. However, before he could do so, his mum brought up the subject.
"I was talking to Mrs Croft this afternoon. Their garden's become a bit of a mess since, well, in the last few months, and Mr Croft hasn't been well enough to deal with it. She said she'd pay you to tidy it up."
"That's something you'll have to negotiate with her. You can't expect me to do everything for you." She paused and sighed. "But don't expect too much. With Mr Croft just on Sick Pay, they don't have much to spare."
Since William's departure, Mike had been avoiding the Crofts, and he wasn't sure he wanted to work for them. He hated Mr Croft for throwing William out and he felt that Mrs Croft must share at least some blame for allowing it to happen. On the other hand, he really needed a bike, and he couldn't think of an alternative source of income.
So the next day, he went next door and rang the bell, hoping that it would be Mrs Croft who answered. Fortunately, he was in luck.
"Hello, Mrs Croft. Mum said you might have a job for me, clearing the garden. So I came to see how much you were offering."
"Erm, how about ten pounds?" she asked, rather taken aback by his directness, which she thought was bordering on disrespect.
"The state the garden's in means it'll be huge job. At least a whole weekend. So I'd need at least fifty pounds."
"Absolutely not," she replied firmly. "Even if it was worth that, we couldn't afford it."
Mike thought that what he'd asked for was a fair price for the work, but he'd also been pretty certain that she'd refuse it. In fact, as he didn't really want the job, not least because of the risk of having to deal with her husband, he wasn't really disappointed. At least now he could go back to his parents and tell them that he'd tried.
"Okay, then," Mike said, turning to go.
"Wait a minute," she called out before he'd gone more than a couple yards. "Your mum said you wanted the money for a bike. There's a bike in our garden shed, so maybe we can come to some arrangement."
"What sort of arrangement?" he asked.
"Perhaps you could pay for the bike partly in work and partly in cash."
"Can I see the bike?"
"Yes, of course. Come on through."
Mrs Croft led the way through the house to the back door. Mike kept a lookout for her husband and was relieved when he didn't see him. As they walked through the garden, he got a better idea of the state it was in and decided that it would probably take at least two weekends to get it even half-way decent. So fifty pounds would have been not only fair but in fact considerably under priced.
"There it is," Mrs Croft said as she opened the door.
The last time he'd seen the inside of the shed, when he'd been William's gardening assistant, it had been neat and tidy, but now it was in total disarray. Despite that, he saw the bike and recognised it immediately, though he should have guessed in advance that it would be William's.
"That's Williams bike," he said without thinking.
Mrs Croft's face hardened into a mask and her voice was emotionless as she asked, "Do you want to come to some arrangement or not?"
His initial reaction was to decline. After all, it was William's bike and she had no right to sell what didn't belong to her. On the other hand, if he didn't buy it, maybe they'd sell it to someone else. Also, there was no way of knowing if or when William would come back for it, but if he did, and if Mike had it, then at least he could return it.
"Okay," he said.
After that, there was a considerable amount of haggling, perhaps made more difficult by the fact that Mike wanted to hang onto as much of the cash he had as possible. Eventually, it was agreed that, in its present condition after long storage in the shed, he could have the bike in return for getting the garden in a good condition and then maintaining it for five months. After that, if it was mutually agreeable for him to continue working in the garden, they could negotiate a price for the continuing work.
In terms of the amount of work he'd have to do, Mike was pretty sure he wasn't getting a good deal. On the other hand, once the initial hard work was done, he'd quite enjoy the weekly maintenance, especially as he could come and go through their back gate, which meant there was a considerably lower risk of having to interact with Mr Croft.
Also, there were other benefits, both tangible and non-tangible. He got to keep all the cash he'd got for Christmas, and he got to take possession of the bike immediately. Besides that, he could feel connected to William by caring for and riding his bike and by doing the gardening work they used to do together. As it turned out, both parties felt they'd made a good deal, and the arrangement lasted for some years after the bike had been paid for.
Between the time he got the bike and having his thirteenth birthday, Mike discovered sex. Of course, on an intellectual level he'd known about it for a couple of years before that, but then it had been something that adults did and that he would do when he grew up. In the years before he got the bike, he never really thought about sex, and the rude jokes and sexy tales he heard at school may occasionally have been amusing but didn't seem relevant to him.
Then, in the months approaching his thirteenth birthday, sex not only became relevant, but the desire for sexual release became a big part of his waking life, and sometimes his sleeping life. That was when he realised he was attracted exclusively to males, though it took him a couple of years to accept the fact.
As part of the process of accepting his sexuality, he realised that his fascination with other boys, such as the twins and especially William, had been an indication that he was gay long before he became sexual. When he'd been a little boy, the attraction to and fascination with William had been just a desire for closeness. Now, however, when he thought of William there was a desire for sexual contact. He used to love William in a little-boy way, and he still did, but now he also loved him in a big-boy way.
One Wednesday night, almost exactly a week after he'd had his last GCSE exam, Mike was in the bathroom getting ready for bed when he heard sirens in their normally quiet street. By the time he got to the landing and looked out of the window overlooking the front of the house, it was all quiet again, but he could see an ambulance with lights flashing. A few minutes later, a stretcher was carried out of the Crofts' house and placed in the back of the ambulance, which then drove off. The flashing lights had been turned off.
His mum went next door, ostensibly to see if she could be of any help, but at least partly just to satisfy her curiosity. Several minutes later, she returned with the news that Mr Croft had apparently suffered from a massive heart attack and had died almost instantly. The paramedics had done their best to try to revive him, but without success.
"The poor dear is still in shock," she announced. "I told her she shouldn't be alone, but she wouldn't let me stay. So I asked if she wanted me to contact anyone. She said she had an emergency contact number for Tom, but that she wanted to wait until the morning to try it."
"You're right," Mike's dad agreed. "She shouldn't be alone, but you can't force yourself on her."
"Well, I told her that she could come round here any time," she said, "and that Mike would do any jobs or shopping for her."
"And Pat can help out as well," Mike said. Although he mildly resented the fact that his mother had volunteered his help without consulting him, he didn't mind helping Mrs Croft, who'd always been nice to him.
"Pat's still in bed," his mum replied.
Mike didn't bother pointing out that her statement was totally irrelevant to the topic being discussed.
"Well," his dad added with equal lack of relevance, "she can't be too surprised. After all, he is, or was, over twenty years older than her. So she must have expected something like this."
His wife and son just looked at him, both made speechless by his apparent lack of sensitivity.
Over the next couple of days, Mike's mum went round to see Mrs Croft three times, and an each occasion the response had been the same; she was grateful for the offer, but didn't require any help. After the last visit, on the Friday evening, his mum returned with the news that Tom would be arriving home on Sunday, that the funeral would be on Tuesday, and that although the service would be for family only, Mike's family were invited to the reception afterwards.
Mike, who really didn't want to go to the reception, went out into the back yard in the hope that the lovely summer evening would inspire him into thinking of an adequate excuse. When he got outside, he was surprised to see Mrs Croft, dressed all in black, standing just outside her back door and staring blankly down the length of the garden.
He froze, trying to decide what to do. Going back inside might be rude and could imply that he was avoiding her. On the other hand, she was apparently deep, in thought, so he didn't want to disturb her by speaking to her. Eventually, the decision was made for him when she apparently detected his presence and turned her head to look at him.
"Hello, Mike," she said with a slight smile. "It was nice of you to offer to help out, but I hope you understand. I wanted to be alone for a while."
"Th-that's alright, Mrs Croft," he stammered. "Just let me know if you want me for anything."
Her lips curved into a smile, but it seemed more like an automatic response, with no real feeling behind the mask. He wasn't sure if she was looking at him or through him, and he began to feel even more uncomfortable. The lengthening silence became unbearable.
"I'm sorry," he blurted out.
"Sorry? For what?" she asked, her eyes refocusing on him.
"I'm sorry about Mr Croft."
She just nodded, continuing to look both at him and through him. He'd expected her to be distraught with grief, or at least to be sad and crying, but instead she seemed almost detached. Maybe that's what his mum had meant when she'd said Mrs Croft was still in shock. Again, he felt the silence becoming unbearable.
"Erm, do you still want me to do the garden this weekend?" he asked nervously. At such a time, the question seemed trivial, but it was all he could think of to say.
"Yes, of course. Life must go on," she replied, as if she was just waking up. Apparently that reminded her of something, because she frowned and added, "Well, there are things to do."
"Tomorrow afternoon, okay, then?" he asked.
She gave him another automatic smile and a brief nod of the head, then went inside.
The following afternoon, Mike decided to do some work in the Crofts' garden. As usual, he put on an old T-shirt and shorts, went in through the back gate, got the tools from the shed, and started work. He was kneeling and pulling up weeds, with his back to the door, and didn't hear it open, so he was startled when he heard a voice behind him.
"Nice," the almost-familiar male voice commented.
Mike turned his head and twisted his body so that he could see the speaker. Then he blinked and shook his head, unsure if he could believe his eyes. The young man was wearing a smart shirt and dress trousers and seemed to be full of self-confidence. It was William. He was taller, and more muscular, but there was no doubt it was William. Mike stood and faced the newcomer, but for a few seconds he was too surprised to speak.
"Nice," William repeated. "You've done a good job with the garden."
"Who else? I've not changed that much, have I?" William laughed. Then he added, "You, though, you've changed a lot. You're certainly not a little boy any more. You're almost as tall as me, now. But I'd still recognise you, even if Mum hadn't said you'd be out here."
"B-but how? When?" Mike stuttered, embarrassed and blushing. He was sweaty, grubby, and dressed in his old gardening clothes. This was definitely not how he'd imagined meeting William again.
"Tom got in touch to tell me about Dad, and I asked him to see if Mum wanted me to come back for the funeral. And, well, here I am."
"Tom knew where you were all this time? And got in touch?" As soon as he's spoken Mike felt foolish asking such obvious questions. He also felt stupid because all these years he'd been so intimidated by Tom that he'd never had the courage to ask him if he knew where William had gone.
"Yes. Tom and I may not always get on, but we're still brothers." William smiled and added, "Speaking of brothers, where's Patrick?"
"He's out playing soccer."
"From the way you said that, I gather you're not a big soccer fan," William commented, apparently quite amused.
"I'd rather go cycling," Mike said, a little defensively. He nodded across to his back yard, toward the bike that was leaning against the wall. Then he remembered it used to be William's bike, and blushed again.
"Ah, yes," William grinned. "I recognise that bike.
"You can have it back, if you want," Mike blurted out.
"Well, that's very kind of you, but I've got a car, well actually a van, now." William looked even more amused as he added, "Anyway, Tom told me you worked hard to earn that bike."
"So you've been keeping in touch with Tom all this time?"
"Yes. I thought I just told you that."
Mike felt a little resentful, almost angry, although he couldn't pinpoint the reason for those feelings. Trying not to show his emotions, he stood in silence for a few seconds. Meanwhile, William appeared to be rather thoughtful, as if wondering what to say next.
"So, what were you doing all this time? Where were you?" Mike was the first to break the silence.
"Ah, a long story," William said, appearing to be rather less comfortable and self-confident. After a brief pause, he continued, "After I left, well, after Dad threw me out... you know why?"
Mike nodded, and William, apparently at least a little relieved, continued, "Well, to cut a long story short, for a couple of weeks I stayed with friends. Fortunately, I had my GCSEs and managed to get a job in a garden centre just a few miles away. Then I found a place to squat in, and eventually a cheap bed-sit. After a year or so at the garden centre I'd learned quite a bit and managed to get a place at a horticultural college down south."
"So you live down south now?" Mike interrupted, trying to hide is disappointment.
"While I was in college, but not now. After finishing college I managed to get a young person's business startup grant, and now have my own little gardening business." He paused, took a little card from his trouser pocket, and handed it to Mike. "I keep some of these with me all the time. You never know when you might meet a potential customer!"
Mike took the card, and William added, "Sorry it's a bit crumpled."
The white card was embossed with deep green ink, which declared:
Landscaping and Gardening
Beneath that were an address and telephone number.
"So you don't live far from here!" Mike said happily, then quickly put the card into a pocket of his shorts.
"About ten miles. And it's okay, you can keep the card," William replied, obviously amused again.
"And you been so close all this time?" Mike asked, trying to hide his annoyance.
"Only for a few months, since I finished college and started the business," William said. Then, almost apologetically, he added, "But it's all been rather hectic, and I've not had much personal time."
Each looked at the other, as if assessing the changes since they'd last met. Neither of them spoke for a while, but Mike didn't feel uncomfortable. This certainly wasn't like any of the ways that he'd imagined meeting William again, but at least they'd met. Eventually, Mike summoned up enough courage to ask a question.
"So, do you have a girlfriend?"
William frowned. "I thought you said you knew why Dad kicked me out."
"I do, but, well," Mike hesitated, then continued his reply in a rapid tumble of words, "I read some books that said that sometimes it's just a phase."
"Well, it wasn't a phase for me," William said. "And anyway, why were you reading books about it?"
Mike, blushing, just shrugged and asked, "Do you have a boyfriend?"
"Why are you so interested in my personal life?" William asked, frowning and clearly uncomfortable. "We've not even seen each other for years, so how would you like it if I asked you such personal questions?"
"You can if you want," Mike replied very quietly, looking down at his feet.
The response took William by surprise, and at first he didn't know what to say. Then, with motives not completely related to turning the tables, he asked, "So do you have a girlfriend or boyfriend?"
"Neither," Mike said quickly, looking back up to meet William's gaze. He didn't think it would be a good idea to add that in his whole life he'd only ever been in love with one person, even though he'd not seen that person for about six years.
"Oh, er, right," William said, this time surprised by both the speed and firmness of Mike's answer. "Well, at the moment all my time is taken up trying to expand the business, so I don't have time for any relationships."
On hearing that, Mike's spirits plummeted and he felt an ache in his chest. As he struggled to hide his feelings, he had an idea.
"Ya know, the long holidays start in a few days, and I won't even know if I'll get into the Sixth Form until after my results come out. Maybe I could come and work for you."
"Erm, I'm really sorry," William replied, looking embarrassed and seeming almost to squirm. "But until the business takes off I can't afford to employ anyone. Not even part time. Sorry."
"You don't have to pay me," Mike said, hoping that he didn't sound too desperate.
"I couldn't let you work without pay. That would be exploitation".
Mike wanted to scream out 'Exploit me! Please, exploit me!', but what he actually said was, "How about we treat it like an apprenticeship? I can work in exchange for training. You can teach me what you learned in college in exchange for me helping out. And if either of us feels we're getting a bad deal we can end the arrangement."
After taking what, to Mike, seemed to be an eternity to consider the suggestion, William smiled and said, "Okay, I suppose we can at least give it a trial period."
Hardly able to contain his joy, Mike grabbed William's hand and shook it, as if the gesture would seal the deal and prevent William from changing his mind. After the handshake ended, it seemed that neither of them was anxious to let go. Neither of them seemed to notice the soil transferred from Mike's hand to William's. When they eventually did break contact, Mike was the first to speak.
"Just one question," he said, trying to look innocent. "Do you still wear shorts when you do your gardening work?"
"You man, like you do?" William laughed. "The answer is yes. Well, most of the time, as long as I'm not clearing brambles, or nettles, or scratchy stuff."
Mike didn't even try to hide his grin. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so happy, though perhaps the times riding on William's crossbar might have been close.
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