I was making my way along the crowded hallway that led to the main doors of the school building when that yell assailed my ears at close range. A fraction of a second later a hand grabbed my shoulder and, taken by surprise, I spun around.
"Tony!" I said, recognising my grinning best friend and quickly recovering my composure. "Bloody hell! You nearly gave me a heart attack."
"Oh, Mark, don't be such a wimp. It's the last day of term and the start of the Easter holidays!"
"Strangely enough," I responded, returning his infectious grin, "I already knew that."
"And there's no more school for two whole weeks," he continued, ignoring my comment, "so let's get outa here!"
Tony had just turned sixteen, and although he was only a few months older than I, he was almost six inches taller than my five foot seven inches. With his tall frame and long arms he easily maintained his proprietary grip on my shoulder as we manoeuvred our way through the crowd. When we exited the building, his hand left my shoulder and we made our way toward our bus stop.
"Karl and David are coming over to my house tonight to celebrate the end of term," he said as we walked. "Are you coming?"
"Afraid I can't," I replied, trying to sound sincerely regretful. "Dad will be home for dinner, and he said he wants to talk to me."
That was true, but I was glad of the excuse because an evening with Karl and David was not on my list of fun things to do. They were two of our school's star rugby players, and their idea of a good time was drinking large amounts of beer and talking about sex. Of course, at sixteen they were too young to buy alcohol, but Tony's parents kept a large amount in their house and didn't seem to bother keeping track of it.
"Wow!" Tony exclaimed. He stood still, shaking his head and staring at me in mock amazement. "You're dad's home for dinner?"
"It's not all that unusual," I protested without much conviction. "He manages to get home early at least twice a week."
I resumed walking in the direction of the bus stop, and Tony effortlessly caught up.
"What's he want to talk about?" he asked, demonstrating yet again his insatiably inquisitive approach to life.
"No idea," I said, shrugging my shoulders. "I've been thinking about that all day."
By this time, we had reached the line of boys already at the bus stop. Surprisingly, the line was quite short, so I supposed we'd just missed a bus. However, that didn't really bother me because I knew it wouldn't be more than ten minutes until the next one.
"Still, at least you know you're not in trouble," he said.
"How d'ya work that one out?"
"Well, you're such a goody-two-shoes that you never do anything wrong," he replied, his bright blue eyes twinkling mischievously. "And if you ever did do anything wrong, you're too clever to get caught."
I frowned, not knowing whether I should be irritated or pleased by his comment.
"Well," I sighed, "it won't be long till I find out."
The conversation turned to different topics while we waited for the bus and during our twenty-minute journey. One of the things he talked about was the fact that his parents would be out at least until after midnight that night, and as his older sister, Sarah, was away at college, he'd have the house to himself. When he mentioned in a lowered voice that Karl would be bringing an 'interesting video', I was even more glad that I wouldn't be there.
From the bus stop we went in different directions to our respective homes, but before we parted company, Tony brought up the earlier subject again.
"Will you phone me after you've talked with your dad?"
"Won't you be busy entertaining guests?" I teased.
"Never too busy to talk to you," he replied, apparently a little offended by my question.
"Okay, I'll see how things go."
As I walked the couple of hundred yards to my house, I wondered yet again if Tony and I would have become friends if we hadn't travelled on the same bus every school day since we were 11 years old. After all, it was difficult to imagine how two people could be more different both physically and psychologically. Whereas Tony was tall for his age, I was shorter than average. Although we both had our hair cut short, his was black and curly, while mine was light brown and straight. His most striking feature, at least to me, was the brilliant blue colour of his eyes, which contrasted with the much more mundane hazel of my own.
Although such physical differences wouldn't influence our friendship, our very different personalities might have been expected to clash. Tony was exuberant, popular, sociable, always getting into trouble, loved sports and was not really interested in his studies. He was very intelligent, as I could tell when we did our homework together, and his disinterest was the only reason he did not get better grades. By contrast, I was reserved, respected rules, avoided socialising, and thrived on my academic studies. His semi-joking description of me as a goody-two-shoes probably held more than a grain of truth.
Despite these differences, we became best friends. Well, to be honest, he was almost my only friend. I got on with people well enough when it was necessary, and didn't have any real enemies, but apart from Tony, most people I knew were just acquaintances. To most people at school, if they noticed my existence at all, I was just a nameless face. Indeed, although I'd met Karl a few times when I was with Tony, the last time I'd seen Karl he'd forgotten my name and just referred to me as 'Tony's friend'.
So, it's hard to say why Tony and I were friends at all, and even harder to understand why we were such close friends. Maybe our opposite characteristics complemented one another. Whatever the case, we enjoyed being together. Sometimes I got the impression he thought of me as a little brother. For my part, I thought of him as the sort of person I could easily fall in love with. Probably fortunately, that train of thought was interrupted as I arrived home.
Home was a four bedroom detached redbrick house, built in the 1930s and situated in a leafy suburb just outside a large city in the English midlands. The gardens, front and rear, were what estate agents might call 'compact', but what other people would call small. For me, this was good thing because it was my job to mow the lawns, a task which I profoundly hated.
I'd lived in the same house since I was three years old, and had lived there alone with my dad since I was seven. Life there was comfortable, and we'd arranged things to our mutual convenience. Downstairs were living room, dining room, large kitchen, utility room and toilet. Upstairs were four bedrooms, one of which Dad had turned into his office/study. Dad's bedroom had an en-suite bathroom, which meant that the other bathroom was just for me. Theoretically, that left us with a 'guest bedroom', and the room did indeed have a bed in it, but as we almost never had guests it was really used as a storeroom.
"Hello, Mark. Welcome home," Elaine greeted me, stepping out of the kitchen into the hallway as I closed the door behind me.
"Hi, Elaine. Something smells good."
Elaine, a thin red-haired woman in her late forties and about my height, gave me one of her warmest smiles. I put my bag down by the foot of the stairs and took off my dark blue school blazer. Before I could hang it up, Elaine took it from me and put it onto one of the empty hooks by the door. Long ago I stopped protesting when Elaine did such little things for me.
"I'm making chicken lasagne," she said, turning to go back to the kitchen. "As your dad's going to be here for dinner I thought I'd make something that's a favourite of both of you."
"So he hasn't called to say he can't get back for dinner?" I asked sarcastically as I followed her into the kitchen.
"O ye of little faith!" she responded and ruffled my hair. "He actually called to say he'd be home by seven o'clock."
Ever since I was a small child, I've hated it when adults ruffled my hair, and if it had been anyone else apart from Elaine I'd probably have protested and stormed out of the room. As it was, I just gritted my teeth and pretended not to notice. Of course, Elaine knew this, but she still did it occasionally, probably just to show she could get away with it.
In fact, physical contact of any sort with other people made me uncomfortable, the only exceptions to this being Tony and Elaine, and even with them it was more a case of tolerance rather than comfort. Tony was an exception, well, because he was Tony, and Elaine because she was the closest thing I had to a mother. My real mother, together with my baby sister, died in a car crash when I was seven. However, that's something I spent many years trying not to think about.
Officially, Elaine was our housekeeper and cook, coming in on weekdays from 2 pm to 6 pm. She started working for my dad a few months after Mum died and rapidly became an important person in my life. Her importance was reinforced when I was eleven years old and had just started going to secondary school. That was when Dad began spending more and more time at work. Maybe the timing was coincidence, but I think it's more likely that Dad, a university professor, thought I'd be more independent after starting a new school. In any case, just a few months after that, he was promoted to head of the Department of Pharmacology.
"You off in one of your dream worlds again, Mark?" she asked, breaking into my thoughts. "Sometimes I wonder if you're totally in the same world as the rest of us, or if you just pay us occasional visits."
Her teasing tone was gentle and kindly, so I just smiled and didn't take offence. Also, her words were partly true; I found that reading, especially sci-fi and fantasy, was preferable to socialising with real people.
"Anyway," she said in a more businesslike way, "why don't you go upstairs and change out of your school clothes while I make us a nice cup of tea?"
I went upstairs to my room, where I took off my school uniform. As I wouldn't be needing it again for a couple of weeks, I tossed it on the floor until I got around to putting it in the laundry basket. My school was one of the very few in the area that still had a school uniform, and unlike all the other local schools, it was not a state comprehensive. It was one of the few schools in the country that had maintained its status as an independent grammar school when most others became comprehensives.
The school held on doggedly to all its old grammar school traditions, including the uniform and the fact that all the students, apart from a handful of girls in the sixth form, were boys. This latter fact had proved to be a blessing for me. Now, I'm not a misogynist and have nothing against girls as people, but I just had no sexual interest in them. As far as I could tell, this made me different from all the other boys I knew at school, and that was something that I didn't want others to find out.
Most of the boys my age talked a lot about girls and sex. Many also claimed to have girlfriends, but as the girlfriends were not at the school, it would be difficult to check the truth of those claims. That's why the absence of girls at the school was a blessing for me. As no one was ever seen at school with a girlfriend, my lack of sexual interest in girls could not be inferred just because I, too, was never seen with a girl.
Having stripped off my uniform, I began to put on some jeans and a comfortable sweatshirt. Then, before I completed zipping up my jeans, I wondered if I shouldn't put on something a little smarter. Despite what I'd said to Tony, it was rare to have dinner with my dad more than once per week. The only time we almost always ate together was Sunday lunch. So, on this relatively special occasion, I didn't want to look too scruffy, so I decided to wear a grey polo shirt and some black casual trousers.
My motives for this were mixed. I wanted to look nice for my dad to show respect and give him a good impression. Unlike the apparently typical teenager I'd seen on TV, I'd always wanted to please him and make him proud of me. However, despite my attempts to please him, most of the time he'd hardly seemed to know I existed. This was possibly because for the last couple of years I'd hardly ever seen him.
Although in recent times he hadn't been around much, in the couple of years after Mum died he was always there for me. For months after the car crash I'd had nightmares and wake up screaming, and he would always sit with me, holding my hand until I could get back to sleep. Sometimes I'd have those nightmares five or six times per week, but Dad was always there for me and he never complained or even indicated that this was a burden for him.
Until I was about twelve, Dad and I were very close. Then, for some reason that was a complete mystery to me, he'd become more and more distant. He remained kind, always polite, and usually considerate, but he became less and less affectionate and apparently not very interested in me. My caring father had been replaced by a stranger and become just another kindly adult, and I would have done anything to get my dad back.
At the back of my mind there were also a couple of less praiseworthy motives for my choice of clothes. First, Tony's faked amazement that Dad would be home for dinner had stung me a little, so by dressing smartly I hoped my dad would realise that I considered that eating with him was unusual. Second, despite what Tony had said about me knowing that I couldn't be in trouble, I wasn't so certain of that. So I wanted to present myself in a good light, just in case.
True to his word, Dad was home before 7 pm, and shortly after that we were sitting down to dinner. He and I sat at opposite ends of our large oval dining table, and anyone seeing the two of us together would probably not recognise us as father and son. He was a tall, muscular man with short dark brown hair and deep brown eyes. He also looked somewhat younger than his 45 years. In his youth he'd been a keen rugby player, and even now he looked more like a rugby player than a university professor. It was obvious that my physical characteristics owed more to my mother than my father.
Whatever it was he wanted to talk about, he didn't bring it up during the lasagne and salad. In fact, most of our conversation revolved around my studies and life at school, though it was clear he was just making polite conversation and wasn't particularly interested in my answers. He took it for granted that I would do well in my studies, and I didn't disappoint him in that. I was almost always in the top three in my classes.
"Do you have much planned for the holidays?" Dad asked when we'd almost finished our portions of Elaine's delicious chocolate torte.
As usual, his tone was cool and almost formal. Sometimes I felt he chose his words as carefully with me as he did when giving one of his professorial lectures. However, on this occasion I thought I could detect a hint of genuine interest behind his question.
"No, not much, apart from studying for my GCSE exams,"
Actually, I had nothing at all planned, and I wondered where this sudden shift of topic was leading. He'd seemed a little uneasy all evening, and his body language when he asked the question indicated that he wasn't just showing a casual paternal interest.
"Yes, of course you have to do some studying, but I thought you and I could take a holiday trip for a few days."
That surprised me so much I nearly choked on my last mouthful of dessert. Every summer Dad took me on holiday for a couple of weeks, but I couldn't remember ever going on holiday at Easter. Indeed, he'd never taken more than a couple of days off work for the Easter holidays. For the last few years it had seemed to me that he felt that taking me on a summer holiday was part of his parental duty rather than something he actually enjoyed. Once we'd reached our holiday destination he'd usually go off and do his own thing and left me alone most of the time.
We always planned together in advance where we should go, but we always chose somewhere we could both do things independently. During our holidays he at least gave me more attention than when we were home, but when we returned I always felt he was glad to return to his work. Indeed, during our last holiday-related discussion he'd hinted that next time I might want to go with friends on some sort of 'adventure holiday'.
"Well, what do you think," he prompted as I began to recover from my shock.
"Erm, sounds good," I said cautiously, almost certain that there was more to this than just a vacation. "Where were you thinking of going?"
"Northumberland. Lots of castles, cathedrals and a gorgeous empty coastline."
The rapidity of his response, together with the mention of some of my favourite things, made me realise immediately that all this was rehearsed. Dad knew very well that I loved romantic ancient castles and medieval cathedrals. He knew I hated crowded places and that I could happily spend hours wandering along deserted beaches and rocky coastlines. Suddenly I felt like a fish, taking a taste of a baited hook. However, although I could detect the bait, I was still trying to see the hook.
"What's the matter?" he asked, looking slightly guilty as I just stared at him.
"C'mon, Dad, you definitely know I'm not stupid, and I think you know I'm not a little kid anymore. What's really going on?"
He smiled and appeared to be a little relieved that I'd cut through his roundabout manoeuvres.
"Okay, I admit that it's not just a simple holiday." He frowned and hesitated before continuing, "I was trying to find some way of breaking the news gently, but I can see there's no point in beating around the bush. I want you to help me to look for a new house."
I was stunned into silence as the implications of his words began to become clear.
"In Northumberland?" I asked when I could eventually speak.
Of course, I knew what the answer would be, but I had to hear it from him before I could believe it. He just nodded his head in a silent 'yes'.
"Why?" I asked quietly, still not quite believing.
"Remember a couple of months ago I went to that conference in Newcastle? Well, while I was there I went a bit further north for a job interview with Stella Pharmaceuticals."
"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked, maybe a little too loudly as my shock gave way to annoyance.
"I didn't know if I'd get the job, and there was no point in risking upsetting you about something that was just a possibility. I found out only yesterday that I'd got the job."
"What's wrong with the job you have now?" I asked petulantly.
Either he'd expected this question or he'd been rehearsing answers to many possible questions. In either case, his answer came immediately.
"I've had this job a long time. I need a change, and this new job as Head of Clinical Trials is much more challenging... and much better paid."
Although my dad and I hadn't been exactly close for some years, I was stunned that he'd made such life-changing plans and decisions without consulting me or even telling me in advance. How could he uproot me and mess up my life just for his career? How could he treat me like a piece of furniture to be moved around to suit his convenience? My initial surprise and shock were overtaken by anger.
"I don't want to go!" I said, glaring at him.
"You're just a boy and you have no choice. I'm your father and you will go where I say you go."
His voice was quiet and almost without emotion, and his eyes answered my angry glare with a cool determination. He was confident in his position of power, but I wasn't going to give up without a struggle.
"I want to stay here!"
"And where would you stay?"
He spoke with the syrupy tone of an adult trying to reason with a small child who was having a tantrum. However, beneath the syrup I could detect a hint of acid sarcasm. I tried desperately to find an answer to his question, but as my nearest relatives were hundreds of miles away, I was left with only one possible response.
"I could stay with Elaine," I said hopefully, my eyes pleading.
"I couldn't allow that," he said firmly. "It would be an unfair burden to her. And what would people think if I left behind my only child? No. Absolutely not."
"What about school?" I asked, though I already felt defeated and knew I was clutching at straws.
"My new job won't start until July. By then you'll have finished your GCSEs and can start sixth form in a new school."
He obviously knew I was upset, and his tone was sympathetic and soothing. However, it was also firm, and I could tell from his eyes that his decision was made.
"What about my friends? What about Elaine?"
Those words were not so much a question as a complaint made in a miserable and barely audible voice. However, he chose to answer it.
"It's not the other side of the world! It's only about three hours travel. Your friends can visit you, and you can come back here to visit your friends and Elaine."
From his tone I could tell he understood how I felt about Elaine, but I'm pretty sure he also knew that I had only one other real friend. Suddenly, something occurred to me, and I stopped thinking about myself.
"But what about Elaine's job here?" I asked.
"Mark, do you really think that Elaine has worked here all these years because she needs a job?" His voice was tinged with soft sarcasm, and he looked at me as if I were some kind of simpleton. He continued as if explaining the obvious to a small child, "Of course I pay her because that's only fair, but she doesn't need the money, and I bet she would have still kept coming in even if I didn't pay her. Her husband brings home more than enough for them."
I sat in silence, beginning to realise what should have been obvious to me for years.
"And how many housekeepers would have taken you into their own home and looked after you when I had to go away?" he continued with studied patience. "She was your mum's best friend and wanted to make sure you were looked after properly."
Having never had experience of other housekeepers, I had nothing to compare with Elaine. Indeed, to me she was just 'Elaine', and I only referred to her as a housekeeper when outsiders asked about her. She was an important part of my life that I took for granted, but I suppose I should still have realised the situation. I felt guilty that all this time I'd been just a self-centred kid and never truly appreciated all she'd done for me.
"Well, we can't just go and leave her!" I protested.
"She has her own family and wouldn't want to come with us...."
"How do you know?" I interrupted without thinking.
"I talked to her this morning..."
"What! You told her before you told me? She never said anything when I got home from school."
Although it was clear, even to me, that I was being illogical, Dad replied as if I'd made a reasonable point.
"Actually, I wanted her advice on how best to break the news to you. So I went to her house on my way to work this morning. She was obviously a little sad, but she acknowledged that it might be good for you to make a fresh start somewhere else. She also said that now you're almost grown up she wouldn't be needed so much any more. In fact, she was thinking of giving up the job when you're sixteen."
"Why not? Of course, she would've still come round as a family friend, but someone else would have to do the housework."
We sat in silence for a couple of minutes. My mind was still trying to come to grips with the situation, and I couldn't think of anything to say. He had effectively anticipated and countered every objection I'd made.
"Well," Dad said eventually, standing up, "you have a lot to think about, so I'll clear away these dishes and leave you to it. You know where to find me if you want to talk more about it."
He went into the kitchen, and after a couple of minutes I went upstairs to my room, feeling the need to be alone while I sorted out my thoughts.
When I got to my room, I didn't bother putting on the light, but simply flopped onto my bed and lay on my back, staring upwards into the darkness. My mind just kept screaming silently, 'I don't want to go! I don't want to go!', over and over and over. I felt like crying, but I didn't and couldn't. When Mum had died I cried for days and days, and I think that must have used up a whole lifetime of tears, because after that I could never cry again, no matter how sad I felt.
Until that night I hadn't properly appreciated how much more Elaine was than just a housekeeper/cook. She'd never told me she'd been Mum's best friend, possibly because she knew that I usually avoided talking about Mum. Now I realised that Elaine had become a point of stability in my life, always being there to greet me when I came home from school. All these years I'd never understood that, but now I did understand, and now I was going to lose it.
Then there was Tony, my only real friend. So many times when I was immersed in my own thoughts, he'd pulled me back to reality with his kindly mocking words. He often made great efforts to show me that life isn't always serious and that there's nothing wrong in having fun. No matter how unsociable I felt, he'd always tried to include me in his social life. I wondered if he knew how much I'd appreciated his efforts, even though I'd never told him so.
Also, I'd never admit this to anyone, and didn't even dare admit this even to myself. I loved him. Probably, if I allowed myself, I could fall in love with him. Yes, deep down I knew I was gay, I could never let anyone find out. I realised how much would it hurt Dad, who'd had lost his wife and daughter, to know that his only child would never give him grandchildren. I was terrified by the thought of how the obviously straight Tony might react if he knew his best friend was queer.
My mind resumed the silent screams. 'I don't want to go! I don't want to go!'
Eventually, my thoughts became more coherent, and I tried to think about positives. Elaine's idea of a 'fresh start' didn't convince me. The prospect of starting in the sixth form at a new school, not knowing anyone at all, just terrified me.
Dad had mentioned some nice things about Northumberland, and another thing occurred to me; we'd be much closer to Gran and Auntie Kath. Gran was Mum's mother and Auntie Kath was Mum's older sister. They lived near Edinburgh, and so in Northumberland we would be somewhat nearer to them. Where we lived now, we rarely saw them more than a couple of times per year. However, on further reflection, I wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
That set my confused thoughts onto a sidetrack. Dad never talked about his family, and I'd never even met any of them. The one time I'd mentioned them, when I was about twelve, he'd told me they'd disowned him after he married Mum when they were both students in Liverpool. He'd never said why and had made it very clear he never wanted to talk about it again.
Oddly, despite all those thoughts spinning in my head, I must have fallen asleep. The next thing I knew I was dying for a pee, and as I made my way to the toilet I noticed that my bedside clock showed that it was 2 am. After relieving myself, I brushed my teeth, got undressed, and went to bed. It occurred to me then that I hadn't phoned Tony, but maybe that was just as well because I had no idea how to tell him the news.
The next morning, I awoke just after nine o'clock, still tired after a restless night filled with disturbing dreams. By the time I'd showered and dressed, I felt a little more refreshed and went downstairs to get some breakfast. As I went from my room to the top of the stairs, I noticed Dad sitting at his office desk and looking through some papers. This was a mild surprise because he often went into the university for a couple of hours on Saturday mornings. My intention was to try to get downstairs before he noticed me, but I was thwarted.
"Good morning, Mark." His overly cheerful voice brought me to a sudden halt.
"Hi," I mumbled. "Not going into work today?"
"No, I'm officially on vacation for ten days."
"But you brought some paperwork home with you?" I asked, nodding my head toward the papers on his desk.
"I did bring some home, yes, but this isn't work," he said picking up some of the papers, "These are details of some houses that I thought we might go and see. Want to take a look?"
"Mmm, I'll have breakfast first," I replied without enthusiasm.
I went downstairs to the kitchen and began preparing some tea and toast, and Dad joined me before the kettle had time to boil. He stood by the doorway, his eyes on me, but it seemed his thoughts were elsewhere.
"D'ya want some tea and toast?" I asked, just for something to say to break the uncomfortable silence.
"Just tea. I'll make it," he replied and stationed himself by the kettle.
There was an even longer and even more uncomfortable silence, during which Dad stared at the kettle and I stared at the toaster. He and I didn't usually talk very much, but our silences were usually much less strained than this.
"Are you okay?" Dad asked eventually, apparently concerned. Then, when I made no reply, he added, "Mark? You're not sulking, are you?"
His question brought a flush of anger to my face. I wasn't sulking, but even if I had been, I felt I would have had a very good reason to do so.
"No, Dad, I'm not sulking, just thinking. I don't really feel okay just now. It's all been a big shock and I need time for it to sink in..." Unable to think of anything I wanted to say, my voice trailed off. He nodded his understanding, and we both went to sit at the kitchen table, he carrying the teapot and I carrying my toast.
"I'm really going to miss Elaine and my friends," I said. Of course, by 'friends' I really meant Tony.
"You'll l still be able to see Elaine and your old friends. After all, it's not as if we're moving to Australia. And you'll make new friends," he replied confidently.
I fought to suppress my anger at his superficial assurances, and I wondered if he had any idea just how hard it was for me to make new friends. Of course I knew it was my own fault for being so unsociable. Making friends was problematical when I'd rather stay home and read a book or play on my computer. Even at school I preferred to keep myself to myself.
"The idea of a new school and lots of strangers is a bit scary," I said.
By 'scary' I really meant totally terrifying. I was still hoping against hope that he might see things from my point of view, although I already knew that nothing I could say would alter his decision.
"Yes, I can understand that, but it will either be a sixth form or a sixth form college, so it will be smaller and," he added with a grin, "probably more civilised than a typical large school. And don't forget, there will be lots of times in your life, like going to university or getting a job, when you'll have to got to new places and meet new people. Think of this as an opportunity to make new friends rather than losing old friends."
I just sighed, nodded, and munched on my toast, not really wanting to say that I wasn't sure I wanted any new friends. The rest of breakfast was spent in a thoughtful and even more uncomfortable silence.
"Do you want to look at some house details now?" Dad asked hopefully when I stood up to clear the breakfast dishes from the table.
"In a few minutes," I replied, "but I need to phone Tony first."
In truth, I was just putting him off in the hope that I could think of some way of avoiding the disaster he planned to cause in my life. Even if I couldn't think of anything, I wanted to slow things down and make it as difficult as possible for him.
"Well don't be too long," he said with a hint of irritation. "I want to go up to Northumberland as soon as possible. Although we've got until July to make the move, we still have to find a new house and sell this one. Buying and selling houses can take quite a long time."
His mention of selling this house froze me in my position by the sink. This house had been my home for as long as I could remember, and almost all of my few memories of Mum were located here.
"What's the matter?" Dad asked when he saw my reaction and the stricken look on my face.
"Leave the house... Mum..." I muttered, hardly able to speak at all.
Despite my incoherence, he seemed to know instantly what was on my mind. "Your mum isn't here in the house, she's here in our memories," he said gently, tapping his temple with his forefinger. "No matter where we live, she'll always be there."
Although my brain accepted his point, my heart wasn't convinced. Somehow, no matter what my intellect told me, I often felt some residual loving presence, especially when I was alone in the house. Maybe it was imagination, maybe it was wishful thinking or maybe I wasn't quite totally sane. Without another word, I went upstairs to my room.
When I phoned Tony it took him ages to answer, and I thought maybe I'd just end up leaving a message on his voice mail. As it turned out, he did eventually answer, probably just a couple of rings before his voice mail would have started up.
"Hullo, Mark," he said, sounding tired and a little shaky.
"Hi, Tony. Wassup?"
"Oh, I just got up. I'm feeling a bit, erm, delicate today."
Yeah, ya know, hung over."
"Oh, right. You had a good time last night, then?"
As soon as he's said this, I heard him hiss, as if in pain.
"You okay?" I asked.
"Just a bit of a twinge in my head. The pills haven't had time to work yet."
"Maybe I should call back later."
"Nah, it's okay. Did you phone last night?"
"Wouldn't you have remembered if I had?" I joked.
"Oh. Well, no, I didn't."
"So what did your dad want to talk about?"
This reminded me of why I'd phoned him, and the enjoyment I'd always had when chatting to Tony was somewhat decreased.
"Actually, it was something quite important, but I'd rather talk to you about it in person. D'ya want to come over after lunch?"
"Can you come over here instead? I'm not sure I'm up to travelling, and I think I might be grounded."
"You think? You mean don't know whether or not you've been grounded?" I asked in amazement.
"Well, I remember Mum and Dad being very annoyed with me when they got home, but I can't remember what they said, and I've not been downstairs to see them yet," he answered sheepishly.
"Were Karl and David still there when they got home?"
"No, thank God!" he said, then hissed again with pain. "I'll tell you all about it later, okay?"
"Okay, I'll be over about two o'clock."
"Fine. See ya!"
Almost as soon as I hung up, Dad appeared in the open doorway of my room. His rapid arrival made me wonder if he'd been listening in to the phone call.
"Ready now?" he asked.
"I've got a headache. I'm going to rest here for a bit."
"You'll have to accept it sooner or later. Why not co-operate and make it easy on yourself?"
The complacency in his tone and assurance in his body language bordered on arrogance, and my annoyance boiled over into anger.
"You mean easy on you!" I snarled. "It's already as hard for me as it can get, and I can't think of anything that'll make it easier for me. But maybe if I don't co-operate I can make things a bloody lot harder for you!"
His face indicated first surprise then shock. He'd rarely, if ever, heard me swear and he'd never known me to resist his will so vehemently and with such bitterness. My behaviour was so out of character that it was no wonder he looked at me as if I'd been possessed by a demon. Possibly for the first time since Mum died, he seemed genuinely lost for words. He turned on his heel and headed toward his office.
Only then did I realise that my whole body was shaking with the adrenaline rush. I sighed deeply and closed my eyes, trying to calm down. Slowly, my heartbeat slowed to a more normal rate and gradually my limbs stopped trembling.
Of course, I knew that I hadn't scored any sort of victory and that Dad's apparent retreat would only be temporary. However, I felt a little better about myself. No longer did I feel quite such a powerless victim. Although I still might be powerless, I was damned if I'd become a victim. As if to emphasise the hollowness of my apparent victory, Dad appeared in the doorway. This time, he appeared a little less arrogant and a little more thoughtful.
"Okay, Mark," he said firmly, "let's both admit that we can both make life more difficult for each other. There's no way you can change my decision, but I agree that if you don't co-operate you can slow things down and make things less pleasant. On the other hand, you must know that I can make your life very unpleasant if I have to. But I don't want to."
He studied at me intently to see how I would react to his words. If he expected me to speak, then he was disappointed, but no doubt he noticed my angry glare was replaced by a less hostile expression.
"Look," he continued, "I know you're not a kid anymore and that you are capable of being logical and reasonable. You must know that one way or another you're going to be living with me for at least a couple more years. I'd prefer it if you helped choose exactly where we live, but if I have to chose a house without your input, then I will."
He paused again, waiting for a response, but I remained silent and content to hear him out. Realising that I was indeed listening carefully to him, he continued.
"On the other hand, if you make an effort to get involved then it's more likely you will enjoy living there. I promise that I'll take notice of your opinions and that things like the locations of schools will be given a high priority. Now, if you want to have a say in the new house, you'd better come and look at the documents. Don't be too long making up your mind. Time is limited, and I won't wait forever."
He turned and went to his office, leaving me deep in thought. It didn't take long for me to conclude that he was right. Even if a miracle happened and I didn't have to move to Northumberland, looking at a few houses wouldn't do any harm. Indeed, it might even be fun, especially as it would involve a few days exploring Northumberland. Then a rather evil thought occurred to me: if I wanted to sabotage things, it would be much easier to do so if I got involved.
When I got to Dad's office he had the grace and good sense not to comment on my decision to take part in the house hunting. Instead, he got straight down to business.
"Here's the information on the houses I thought looked interesting," he said, pointing to the papers on his desk.
I pulled up another chair next to his, sat down, and began looking through the stack of papers, all of which had at least one photograph attached. There were more than a couple of dozen houses represented there, and they were apparently located over quite a large area of countryside.
"How long are we going up there for?" I asked.
"I thought we might go up tomorrow and stay until Friday or maybe Saturday."
"Will we be able to see all these in less than a week?" I asked dubiously.
"I doubt it. That's why I wanted you to go through these with me, so we can pick out about ten of the most promising. See if you can find ten you like the look of. All of the ones here are in our price range, so that's one detail you don't have to think about."
Before looking at any detailed information, I decided to get some sort of overview by quickly scanning through all the papers in the pile. Immediately, one thing drew my attention.
"Dad, aren't all these places a bit, erm, big? I don't think there's one with fewer than six bedrooms, and some seem huge."
"Houses up there are a lot cheaper than here, and my salary in the new job will be much bigger than I get now. We can easily afford any of these houses."
"Yes, but there's just two of us, why do we need such a big place?"
"Well, there are a few reasons. First, it would be a good financial investment, and someday when it's all yours you might be glad of that. Second, with a big house we could have rooms for visitors as well as our own special rooms, like an office, computer room, games room, music room, or whatever. I know how much you dislike me playing my jazz records so loud, so maybe I could have a sound-proofed room."
From his businesslike tone I couldn't tell whether or not this last comment was a joke. However, as we were apparently in a state of truce, I decided to respond politely.
"I don't mind it all that much," I said without conviction. "It's just that jazz isn't really my thing."
"And thirdly," he continued in a more solemn tone, "your mum and I always dreamed of a big house in the country."
There was nothing I could say in response to that point, so I shifted the subject a little. "Some of these places also have huge grounds. Acres and acres!"
"Are you worried about having to mow the lawns?" he teased, his serious look replaced by a brief smile.
"Well, that thought did occur to me," I replied, by now just about relaxed enough to return his smile.
"Then don't be concerned. If we go for one of those places we can pay someone to look after the lawns... or maybe just borrow some sheep to graze on them!"
We returned to looking through the property descriptions, and after an hour or so we'd each chosen ten we thought most promising. As it turned out, six of my selections were also in Dad's top ten, so then we went through together the four in each group that didn't overlap. After discussing the pros and cons of each of them, we found that we had a further five we could compromise on. Thus we were left with a final list of eleven that we decided we should visit.
By that time it was almost one o'clock, and there was just time to grab a quick lunch before going to see Tony.
I arrived at Tony's house a few minutes after two o'clock, and when I rang the doorbell his mother opened the door. She was a tall, pale, slim woman in her mid forties and with the same blue eyes and dark curly hair as Tony, though of course her hair was considerably longer than his.
"Hi, Mrs Anderson!" I greeted her cheerfully. "Is Tony in?"
"Oh, hello, Mark. Yes, he is," she replied, frowning, "and he's going to be in for quite a long time. He's grounded."
She just stood in the doorway and for a moment I wasn't sure if she was going to let me see him.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know, " I said in the most grovelling tone I could manage. "I'm going away with my Dad tomorrow and won't be back for a few days. D'ya think I could see Tony for a few minutes before I go?"
"Oh, alright then," she replied, her frown being replaced by a smile. "As you're the only friend he has who's a good influence on him, and as you're already here, you can see him."
She stepped back into the hallway and held the door open for me to enter.
" He's in his room, so you can just go straight up," she said gesturing with her hand in the general direction of the stairs.
"Thank you, Mrs Anderson," I said in my most politely grateful tone before I made my way upstairs.
Tony's door was open, so I tapped on it and walked straight in to see him lying on his back on the bed with his forearm over his eyes. The couple of seconds it took for him to react to my presence gave me the opportunity to feast my eyes on him. He looked very handsome in his close-fitting dark blue sweater and black jeans. The way he was lying on the bed made him seem a little vulnerable and even more attractive.
"Hi, Tony," I sad quietly. "How are you?"
"Much better than I was this morning," he replied, peering blearily from under his arm. "I see they let you in, then. I'm grounded till Easter."
"So it seems. Apparently they think I might be a good influence on you," I teased.
"Maybe you are," he said very quietly.
He sat up, squinted at me, propped his back on the headboard and shut his eyes again. Meanwhile I went over and perched myself on the end of his bed.
"Why did they ground you? I s'pose they came home and found you drunk?"
"Yes, there was that, but the clincher was that they also found the downstairs loo covered in puke."
"Eeuw!! So you were sick as well, then?"
"Not me. Probably Karl. He had twice as much pizza as me and Dave... and more beer, too. Anyway, whoever it was, I didn't know about the puke until Mum found it and started yelling at me."
"You were lucky they'd gone before your parents got back."
"Yeah. Gone, but with not much time to spare. So I took the blame for the puke. Better than them finding out I had a drinking party."
"You had a good time then?"
"Oh, yeah, we had a great time!"
"Apart from the sore head this morning!" I joked.
"And the sore dick," he muttered.
Or at least that's what it sounded like, but I couldn't believe my ears.
"What was that you just said?"
"Not so loud!" he hissed. "My head's still delicate, and the door's open. I don't want Mum and Dad to hear anything."
"Okay," I whispered and looked toward the door as if I were acting in some melodrama. "What did you just say before that?"
He blushed a little and gave me an embarrassed smile, but didn't immediately speak. I just gave him my most encouraging look, hoping that he knew he could trust me with anything.
"I said," he whispered and leaned a little toward me, "that my dick's sore. It got quite a workout last night."
"You had girls here as well?" I gasped.
"I wish! No, but the video Karl brought was really hot. I got so horny that I spent most of the night wanking."
My mind was working overtime trying to picture the boy of my dreams wanking all night. My heart was thumping and I thought my brain would blow a fuse.
"How did you manage without the others knowing?" I asked with shaking voice. "Keep going to the bathroom?"
"Nah, just did it. Sat on the armchair, whipped it out and just did it."
He spoke very calmly and I could see he was enjoying the fact that he'd managed to surprise and probably also shock me. The expression on my face must have been amusing for him. Certainly, he seemed entertained by it.
"You're kidding, aren't you?" I said when I could manage to speak. "You're winding me up. You'd never do that with Karl and Dave there!"
"Actually, it was Karl who did it first. I told you it was a hot video. And we were pretty drunk."
Again I was speechless, and Tony sat smiling and amused as he studied what must have been a whole series of expressions passing over my face. My mind spun as I tried to picture the scene in his living room. Of course, I would have loved to ask a whole series of questions about the details, but I didn't dare to show too much interest in case he might suspect I was gay.
"You shoulda been here," he said with a grin.
I wondered what exactly he meant by that and if I would really have wanted to be there. I quickly decided that despite the fact that I didn't like Karl and David, I would probably have tolerated them for a chance to see Tony wanking. I was quiet for so long that he must have misinterpreted my reaction because he began to frown and looked almost angrily.
"We're not queer, ya know!" he hissed. "We didn't touch one another or even look at one another. We just happened to be in the same room while we had a wank!"
He glared at me as if he expected me to challenge his assertion. Maybe he really did think of me as a 'goody-two-shoes' and possibly regretted taking me into his confidence.
"Hey, I know you're not queer, " I soothed. Then I added with a smile, "Even good little boys like me like to wank. And I do sort-of wish I'd been here."
That must have made him feel better, because he relaxed and leaned back against the headboard.
"Well," he said after a brief pause, "that's my news, what about yours? What did your Dad want to talk about?"
My smile faded, and I sighed deeply before answering his question. Having spent most of the journey to his house thinking of the how to tell, him, the best way that I could think of was to come straight out with it.
"Dad's got a new job in Northumberland," I said simply. "We're moving there when I finish GCSEs."
Now it was my turn to watch the kaleidoscope of expressions flicker across his face as he sat in silence and digested my words.
"You're going to live in Northumberland?" he said, only partially as a question.
"It's not like I'm going to the other side of the world. It's only three hours travel, so I'll be able to come back easily. And you can come and visit us anytime," I said, repeating what Dad had told me. Then I added with a wry grin, "We'll have plenty of space."
"But it won't be the same, will it?"
"No, I s'pose it won't," I sighed.
We both sat in depressed silence for a while.
"Anyway, I'd better be going," I said, standing up. "I don't want to overstay my welcome with your parents. Sorry to have to break the news when you've got a hangover, but maybe we can talk more when you've recovered?"
"Yeah, why not come over tomorrow?"
"Dad and I are going on a house hunting trip tomorrow, but we'll be back Friday or Saturday. And your grounding will be over by then."
"I'm sure Mum and Dad would let you visit even if I'm still grounded, but phone me while you're away, okay?"
"Okay," I agreed as I moved toward the door. "Get better soon. See ya!"
As I looked back at him before leaving the room, I wondered if I looked as dejected as he did and if he felt as miserable as I did.
When I got home I found that Dad, in his usual efficiently organised fashion, had booked our hotel rooms and organised our itinerary for seeing the houses. There were just two properties he hadn't yet arranged to see, but he was confident that we could fit them into our schedule once we were there.
That night as I lay in bed, I couldn't sleep. It might be expected that my insomnia would be due to worries about starting a new life away from familiar places and people or maybe due to the excitement of looking for a new home. However, none of those things played a major part in keeping me awake. As I lay there, my mind was trying to form a picture of what Tony had told me about his activities the previous night.
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