On the night following my churchyard conversation with Tom, I heard the tapping again. Unlike the two previous occurrences, which began just as I was falling asleep, on this occasion I awoke to the sound in the early hours of the morning. The tapping was very quiet, and because I generally sleep quite deeply, it was possible that it had been going on for some time and that something else had awakened me.
Although I'd had only two other experiences of the tapping, they must have been enough to condition me into expecting erotic feelings, because without thought I reached down and started fondling myself. Still only half awake, I realised that I didn't have an erection and that I wasn't even remotely horny. On the contrary, feelings of deep sadness and loss began to grow in me, and as I gradually reached full consciousness those feelings became stronger. I got the impression that someone wanted to make me cry, and when I didn't cry they cranked up the level of sadness and despair. However, the last time I'd cried was after Mum died, and after that I'd been unable to cry no matter how unhappy I was.
The emotions rapidly became so intense that it seemed they were suffocating me, and I became very afraid. Beginning to panic, I got up and fled from my room. Once I was in the hallway, the feelings slowly began to fade and I could breath more easily. As I stood panting and trying to gather my thoughts, I became aware that I was naked and that the summer night was not particularly warm. Reluctant to go back into my room to get some clothes, I went along the hallway to the second entrance to my en suite bathroom.
Once inside, I turned on the light and put on a bathrobe. Then I saw my reflection in the mirror and became so disoriented that I had to sit down on the side of the bath. Of all the disturbing experiences that night, that was the most nightmarish. In the mirror I recognised the individual features of my face, but it seemed as if the person in the mirror wasn't me. There are no words to describe it exactly, but felt as if someone else was wearing my face.
Totally freaked out, I staggered back into the hallway, leaving the bathroom light on. Leaning back against the wall, I wondered what to do. My first instinct was to go to my dad, but I quickly dismissed that idea. What would he think of me, a sixteen-year-old, running to his daddy and waking him up just because of a nightmare? What could he do or say even if I did wake him up?
Although I was rapidly convincing myself that it had all been just a nightmare, I was reluctant to go back to bed, so I decided to go down to the kitchen and get a drink. As it turned out, I made myself some tea and toast, not so much because I was hungry but more as an excuse for not going back to my room. While I sat and sipped my tea, I tried to make some sense of my experience. I told myself it had probably been just a nightmare triggered by the afternoon in the graveyard. Maybe seeing all the headstones had brought back some of the feelings I'd had after Mum's death, and especially during her funeral.
In some ways the emotions I'd just experienced were similar to those I'd felt when she died, but there were significant differences. First, and most obvious, when Mum died I knew the cause of my misery, but in the nightmare there was no obvious reason for it. Second, for weeks after she died I was in such a state of shock and denial that the sadness and loss were not as intense as the nightmare emotions.
By the time I'd finished my tea I could see through the large kitchen windows that the sky was getting lighter, and then I noticed that the wall clock showed that it was almost four o'clock. Although I was feeling drained and tired, I didn't relish the thought of going back to my bed. However, I told myself not to be so silly and childish, and thereby motivated myself to go upstairs.
Warily, I entered my room, where it seemed that I could feel a hint of the sadness, but it was more like a memory or faint echo of the earlier emotions. I got into bed, but I couldn't settle, so I carried my duvet to the spare room next to mine and curled up on the guest bed. There I fell into a fitful sleep, but was awake again before seven o'clock. I decided to get up, shower and have breakfast with Dad. Although it was a Saturday, he was going to go into work, and I thought it would be nice to see him before he went.
Around the middle of the afternoon I was sitting in the living room and dozing in front of the TV when I heard the front door open. Then I hear Mrs Crawford call out.
"Hellooooo! Professor Kenny? Mark? Anyone home?"
I managed to find enough energy to drag myself up off the sofa and go into the entrance hall.
"Hello, Mark," she greeted me with a smile.
Her appearance had taken me by surprise because she didn't usually come in at weekends. Instead, she made extra meals during the week and chilled or froze them for us to heat up for lunches and dinners on Saturdays and Sundays. While I got my brain into gear enough to return her greeting, she studied me and must have noticed my sleepy eyes and messed-up hair.
"Sorry, did I wake you up?" she asked apologetically.
"No, it's okay, I was just watching TV. Well, maybe I dozed off for a bit."
"Yes, you are looking weary," she said with concern. "You're not ill, are you?"
"No, just a bit tired, that's all."
"Well, why don't we go down to the kitchen and you can sit and relax while I make you a nice cup of tea to go with this." She raised a cake tin, which she was holding between her hands.
"But it's Saturday," I said, a little confused, as I followed her downstairs.
"Oh, I'm not here for work, pet," she said, following my train of thought. "I just came by to bring you a birthday cake."
"B-but," I stammered.
"Yes, I know it was your birthday three weeks ago. Tommy told me last night. But as we just missed it on the weekend you moved up here, I thought it would be nice to make you a belated birthday cake. Much better than a belated birthday card, don't you think?"
She smiled, put the tin on the breakfast bar and began filling the kettle.
"Erm, yes, of course. Thanks. But you really didn't need to."
"I know I didn't need to," she laughed, "but with all my men folk away or out of action, I thought I'd keep myself occupied. And you know I enjoy baking!"
"Thanks," I repeated, not knowing what else to say.
She took the chocolate cake out of the tin and placed it on a large plate so that I could see the words 'Happy Birthday Mark' written in orange icing.
"Speaking of men folk away," she continued, "I suppose your dad's not home?"
"No, he's at work,"
"Well, maybe you'll save some cake for him," she joked.
"And I hope you'll take some back home for Tom, and Brian, and Mr Crawford. Did you say they were away somewhere today?"
"Andrew and Brian have gone to see the football in Newcastle. Apparently they're playing Manchester United," she said in a tone that indicated she lacked any enthusiasm for the game. "And Tommy's still in bed with a migraine."
"Oh, I'm sorry he's ill. Please tell him I hope he gets better soon."
"Yes, I'll tell him," she said with a little smile.
She appeared to have something on her mind, so I didn't say anything except a brief 'Thank you' as she served up the tea and cake. She cut a huge piece for me and a small piece for herself. While I was eagerly eating the delicious cake she spoke again, this time in a tone that made me feel she was sharing a confidence with me.
"Tommy only has these migraines after a really bad nightmare," she said. "He's not had one so bad for ages, and I was really hoping he'd grow out of them. But last night he woke us all up with his screams."
The mention of the words 'nightmare' and 'last night' suddenly took away my appetite, and I stopped eating. Maybe she interpreted my action and expression as signs of guilt, because she gave me a penetrating stare.
"He told me you spent some time together yesterday afternoon. Did anything happen that might have upset him?"
"N-not that I know of. We were just looking at gravestones."
"Whatever for?" she asked, frowning.
"Well, I was more interested in the church than the graves," I said. "I like old buildings. Castles, cathedrals, that sort of thing."
The relaxation of her expression indicated that although she might consider such interests to be eccentric, she didn't think they merited disapproval.
"I know Tommy and Miss Victoria were friends," she said as if trying to explain her earlier frown, "but it doesn't seem natural for a young lad like him to spend so much time visiting her grave."
Although I didn't say anything, I thought it just as odd that Tom had also been taking equal care of the grave of a boy who'd been dead for almost ninety years. She must have sensed that I was refraining from saying something that was on my mind, because she spoke again.
"Do you think our Tommy's a bit strange?" she said defensively. "He may be a bit unusual, but he's got a heart of gold."
She took a drink of her tea, and not being able to think of a response, I returned to eating my cake. Then, I thought of something I wanted to say, though it didn't seem obviously connected to the earlier part of our conversation.
"I don't think Tom likes me," I blurted out.
"Whatever makes you say that?" she said with a look of genuine surprise.
"Well," I said hesitantly, "lots of times when we're talking he'll just say something and walk off before I can reply."
I was apprehensive about how she might react to this apparent criticism of her son, so I didn't expect the smile and expression of mild relief that accompanied her next words.
"I wouldn't worry about that. He does that with everyone, so you shouldn't take it personally. When he has strong feelings about something he doesn't like to show it, so I think he finds it easier to run away."
"Oh," I said.
From what she'd told me, I still couldn't decide whether Tom liked me or not, and for some reason it was important for me to know. However, I couldn't bring myself to ask outright, so I tried a more oblique approach.
"Does he usually run away from strong good feelings or strong bad feelings?" I asked.
"Either," she said. Then, showing that she could see through my attempt at subtlety, she smiled and added, "But he does like you. Last night he suggested that I make the cake for you."
I couldn't hide my blushes, but she had the good grace to pretend she didn't notice.
That night, with a little trepidation, I returned to my own bed and, contrary to my expectation, I fell asleep quickly. Nothing unusual occurred, and I enjoyed a restful and uninterrupted sleep.
On the following night, Sunday, Tony phoned to let me know that he'd just returned from his holiday and that he'd had a great time. Of course, it was good to hear his voice, which was just as well, because he was so eager to tell me everything he'd been up to that I could hardly get a word in edgeways. I had ambivalent feelings regarding one of his pieces of news. He'd met a 'gorgeous English girl' in his hotel, and they were going to stay in touch now their holiday was over.
I should have been happy for him, and I was a little. However, it seemed that not only were we separated by distance but also that now he was finding new friends to replace me. Although up until then he'd never had a serious girlfriend, I knew he was totally straight and that I had no chance of getting romantic with him. Now I wondered if we would remain close friends once he'd become romantically involved with a girl.
The rest of that week was mostly uneventful. Although I was a little apprehensive going to bed the first few nights after the nightmare, I slept well, and the apprehension soon wore off. During the week I didn't see much of Brian, who spent a lot of his time with his friends in Moreton and Alnwick. According to his mum, Tom had quickly recovered from his migraine, but the few times I saw him we didn't say much. The more I found out about him, the more he fascinated me, and after his mum told me that he liked me, I'd hoped to see more of him and get to know him better. As it turned out, in the middle of the week I did see more of him. In fact, I got to see even more of him than I'd hoped, but I'm not sure how much better I got to know him.
The weather at the beginning of the week was cool, cloudy and wet, so when Wednesday turned out to be much nicer I was grateful for the opportunity to get out of the house and stretch my legs. In the morning I went into the village to do a little shopping, and after lunch I decided to go for a walk down by the stream that ran through our grounds. I crossed the stream and went to the clearing that I'd found in the woods when I was exploring with Tony. Although I felt a slight tingle down my spine as I entered the clearing, there was no repeat of the disorientation. Even the tingling was probably not a real experience but was more likely the result of my expectations.
Mildly disappointed, I decided to walk eastward, upstream. Eventually, I reached an area I'd not yet explored and found a small tributary that flowed down from the wooded hillside. Although the hill wasn't particularly steep, the water in the narrow channel flowed rapidly into the main stream. On a whim, I decided to see if I could follow the tributary to its source which, I deduced, must be somewhere between where I was and the top of the hill.
The undergrowth in that part of the wood was quite dense, but running parallel to the flowing water there appeared to be an easy route upward. While it certainly didn't qualify to be called a path, it did give me the impression that in the recent past other feet had trodden there. As I walked uphill, the trees, with their full canopies of summer leaves, grew closer together, so the stream and house behind me were soon hidden from view. However, I didn't feel oppressed by the closeness of the trees and the decreased light, but instead there was a comfortable feeling of sheltered seclusion.
The water flowing past me made a pleasant chuckling sound, but after walking about a hundred yards I thought I could hear a louder splashing ahead. Suddenly, I had the feeling that I wasn't alone, so I stopped and looked around. As far as I could see there was no one else around, though the trees limited visibility to just a few yards. The only sounds I could hear were birdsongs and the splashing of water. Despite the lack of evidence of the presence of anyone else, I proceeded more quietly and cautiously.
After walking just a short distance, the splashing grew louder, and I saw something pale-gold through the trees. I wondered if there was someone up ahead and thought it might be Tom. After all, it was our private land and only Tom had permission to be here. Despite the fact that I thought I knew who it was, for some reason I wanted to see him before he saw me, so I approached quietly and carefully.
Crouching down and peeking through the undergrowth, I could see a small open area, about ten yards long and just over half that in width. On the far side from me was a tall outcrop of brown rock out of which, about a third way up from the ground, water poured, presumably from an underground spring. Where the water dropped onto more of the brown rock, it had worn a large hollow, and water overflowing from the hollow proved to be the source of the tributary that I'd been following. Because of the surrounding trees there was no direct sunlight on the water, but the movement of the dappled light filtering through the leaves reflected around the hollow to produce an almost magical appearance.
That alone would have been a beautiful sight and well worth the climb up the hill. However, what really took my breath away was the sight of Tom lying on the edge of the hollow. He was on his back on a dark green towel, with his legs bent at the knee and dangling over the edge so that his feet were in the water. His head rested on his hands, his eyes were closed, and he had a contented smile on his lips. The reason my breath had been taken away was that he was completely naked.
Up until that time I'd considered Tom to be reasonably attractive, but not as much as his brother, and certainly not in the same class as Tony. However, at that moment Tom shone with a beauty that put even Tony in the shade. In his face there was a serenity that I'd never seen in anyone else and that I would never have expected from him. His whole body, slightly tanned to a pale gold, seemed to glow with health and vitality. His smooth, slim body was certainly not muscular, but his muscles could be distinctly seen, as if finely drawn by an artist. And he was naked.
Believe it or not, it was several seconds before I could tear my eyes from his face and look at his more private parts, and what I saw did not disappoint me. His soft uncut penis, just a little darker than the rest of his skin, was resting in the crease at the top of his thigh, just below his light brown pubic hair. At that moment in time he was the most desirable person I'd ever seen, and in my crouched position my erection became extremely uncomfortable in my jeans. Not wishing to disturb him, I crept slowly away until I was far enough from him to stand up without betraying my presence.
Then I made my way as quickly as possibly back to the house, where I shut myself in my room, threw off my clothes, lay on the bed. Then I enjoyed a quick but very satisfying release of the intense sexual arousal generated by what I'd just seen. That night I heard the tapping again. Much to my relief, it turned out to be the prelude to intense erotic feelings. This sort of strange experience I could live with, especially when I had images of a naked Tom to add fuel to those feelings. Eventually, I was exhausted and fell asleep.
The following week was my last full week of vacation before I started at the sixth form college, and I was getting rather nervous. I was dreading having to meet and deal with lots of new people. At my previous school I'd managed to hide myself away in a sort of social backwater, and I was quite happy that few people apart from Tony paid any attention to my existence. I hoped that my new face and outsider's accent wouldn't attract too much attention in my new school.
On Tuesday morning Brian turned up at the house and invited me to go into Moreton with him. Because I'd declined similar invitations in the past, I was surprised that he'd asked again. Then I remembered that Brian and Tony were in occasional email contact. Bearing in mind that Tony had frequently told me I should be making new friends, I wondered if Brian's persistence had something to do with their email communications. On the other hand, it occurred to me that maybe I was just paranoid and imagining a conspiracy.
My first reaction was to find some excuse to decline Brian's invitation, but three things changed my mind. First, I'd run out of reasonable excuses. Second, Mrs Crawford, who came up from the kitchen when Brian arrived, encouraged me to get out of the house and make the most of my vacation before term started. Third, Brian was accompanied by identical twins.
The twins were introduced to me as Keith and Kevin, and Brian informed me that they lived just outside the village and they played in the college rugby team. They were so identical that the only way I could distinguish them was by the colours of their T-shirts. They were about the same age and height as Brian, though not quite so muscular, and they had very short sandy hair and pale blue eyes. Although I might not have found them particularly attractive individually, when I saw them together I found them fascinating.
We turned left out of our driveway and walked the few dozen yards to the bus stop. On the other side of the road were fields marked off by fences and hedgerows. In the distance I could see farm buildings but the only nearby building on that side of the road was a white-painted cottage, which was separated from the road by a large garden. About fifty yards to my left, in the opposite direction to the village, the road forked, with the larger, left-hand branch leading toward Moreton. In between the two branches of the road was a densely wooded area.
So far Brian had been doing most of the talking, and I'd said nothing to Keith or Kevin apart from my initial greeting. While we waited for the bus there was a lull in the conversation and, contrary to my usual reluctance to speak to strangers, I felt the urge to say something more to the twins
"There's a lot of woodland round here," I commented and nodded my head in the direction of the fork in the road. "Where I come from there's a lot more houses than trees."
"That's Shotton Wood. You should stay away from there," Keith responded. Although he laughed I got the impression he wasn't totally joking.
"Oh?" I said, expecting to be told some sort of ghost story or hear about some grisly local murder. However, Keith's next words, and even more his tone, were more shocking than my expectations.
"Don't go there, especially at night," he said, "cos that's where the queers go."
"Yeah," Kevin added. "Bloody poofters!"
"My dad keeps getting patrol cars to come by and chase them off," Brian said disgustedly, "but the buggers just keep coming back."
If my three companions were typical, I thought to myself, then the local people were much more anti-gay than people where I used to live. Having just met the twins, I had no previous opinions about them, but Brian's attitude shocked me because it seemed so out of character.
The conversation turned to other things, but I didn't join in much, perhaps because I was subconsciously afraid of saying something that might make them suspect I was gay. Although they were very friendly toward me, I didn't feel as if I was with friends, and I started trying to think of an excuse to go home. However, the bus arrived before I could come up with anything.
As soon as we got to Moreton we went to a cafe and met up with two girls and another boy. One of the girls, Julie, behaved as if she were Brian's girlfriend, but it didn't appear to me that he had any deep feelings for her. Brian, apparently keen to make me part of the group, told me that all of us, including the twins, would be going to the same college. I rapidly got the feeling that Brian was the leader of this little group, although I couldn't point to anything specific that was said or done to confirm that impression.
The boy, Nick, was about my age, and the most notable thing about him was his height, which I guessed to be at least six feet six inches His height was further emphasised by the fact that he was so slim. Although it had been an exceptionally sunny and hot summer, his skin was very pale and contrasted with his short black hair and big brown eyes. One thing that quickly became clear to me, though Brian didn't seem to notice it, was that Nick had taken an instant dislike to me. However, that didn't bother me because the antipathy was mutual. As soon as I could do so without being rude, I made my excuses and went home. Needless to say, I was relieved to get back to Prospect House.
The first morning of the new school term arrived, and as had previously been arranged, I went to meet Brian at the gatehouse. Dad had offered to give me a lift, but his office was in the opposite direction and he needed to be in work by eight-thirty. So I declined the offer because I was already nervous and I didn't relish the prospect of hanging around the college for more than an hour before classes started.
As I walked down the drive, it hit home to me that this was the first time for years that I'd started a new term without Tony by my side. Despite Brian's good intentions, after meeting up with his friends in Moreton I realised that I'd never fit in with his group, and since then I'd been missing Tony more and more.
When I arrived at their house, Brian and Tom were ready to go, and we immediately set off to the bus stop, with Tom lagging a couple of feet behind us. Brian was very chatty and cheerful and seemed to enjoy playing the part of my mentor, whereas Tom never said a word after he greeted me. Since that day by the spring he'd become a regular part of my fantasies, so after that, whenever I'd seen him I'd been a little embarrassed and found it difficult to look him in the eye. Also, I felt a bit guilty about spying on him and was worried how he might react if he found out.
Just as the school bus came into sight in the distance, movement in my peripheral vision drew my attention to the other side of the road, where I saw a red headed kid coming out of the garden in front of the cottage. The boy ran across the road, and although he arrived at the bus stop just a few seconds before the bus, there was enough time for me to get a good look at him. He was slightly shorter than me, slim but with a round, boyish face, and he appeared to be about the same age as Tom. His green eyes and darker green sweater made an interesting contrast to his bright red hair. He and Tom greeted one another with big grins, but Brian seemed to make a deliberate point of ignoring him. Neither of the brothers introduced us, so I had no idea who he was. Feeling a little awkward, I gave him a hesitant smile then turned my gaze to the approaching bus.
Brian led me to the rear of the half-empty bus, where I saw the twins in the middle of the back seat, which they'd apparently reserved for us. Brian sat next to Keith and I sat between Brian and the offside window. Tom and the red-haired boy followed us onto the bus and sat together a couple of seats in front of me.
"Your brother's still hanging out with the little fairy, then," Keith said disapprovingly.
"I'm fed up of talking to him about it," Brian said, frowning and shrugging his shoulders a little. "I've told him he should choose his friends better, but he doesn't take any notice."
"They are only friends, then?" Keith said suggestively.
Brian's face went red and he turned, pushing his muscular forearm against Keith's throat, forcing him against the back of the seat.
"Are you calling my brother a queer?" Brian growled.
"Of course he's not!" Kevin said, grabbing Brian's arm. "It was just a joke, now calm down before you get us chucked off the bus."
"Well, it wasn't very funny," Brian said, releasing Keith.
As Brian leaned back in his seat, he seemed to remember I was present, and he turned to me with a sheepish smile.
"Keith's got a sick sense of humour," he said.
Realising that Tom and the other boy were near enough to have heard most or all of what had just been said about them, I looked in their direction. The red haired boy was sitting with his head bowed as if he were studying something on his thighs, and I had the impression that he was pretending he hadn't heard anything. Tom had turned around, and after glaring long and hard at his brother and the twins, he gave me a less harsh look before turning back and saying something to his friend.
For the rest of the journey the memory of the look in Tom's shining eyes burned in my mind, and my imagination produced several possible interpretations of the look he'd given me. Perhaps he disapproved of me associating with the homophobic twins. Perhaps he was disappointed with me, or perhaps he was indicating why he didn't get on with Brian. Maybe the real meaning of was a mixture of all three.
Nick and Julie got on the bus together a couple of stops after we did, and both immediately joined us on the back seat. Julie seemed rather put out when she saw that Brian was sitting between Keith and me, and with great determination she managed to squeeze between Keith and Brian. As Nick passed the red haired boy, the back of his hand tapped against the seated boy's face. Although I couldn't be sure, it didn't seem like an accident, but in any case the red head appeared to ignore it.
By the time the bus got to Moreton it was almost full, and I noticed that seating arrangements were roughly related to age. Although there were a few exceptions, often with apparent siblings, I observed that the older a student was the nearer they sat to the back of the bus. I also noticed from the way that many of the other passengers greeted him that Brian was a very popular person, even among the younger kids.
About half way through the first week of term, we were waiting at the bus stop when I heard Tom address the red-haired boy as 'Chris', and that's how I found out his name. Tom never introduced us, and Brian continued to ignore Chris's existence. Chris and I occasionally made very brief eye contact and exchanged hesitant half-smiles, but it seemed that neither of us had the courage to say anything, especially when Brian was around. Also, I only saw Chris when we were travelling to or from school, because he, like Tom, attended the high school, whereas I went to the sixth-form college.
Brian, I suspected at least partially at Tony's request, kept a friendly eye on me and continued to try to include me in his group of friends. I must admit that I admired his surprising persistence. However, for the most part I tried to keep to myself, not least because the more time I spent with Brian the more Tom seemed to avoid me.
Several times on the school bus I'd heard people refer to Chris as being gay. Mostly the words they used and the general tone were derogatory, but sometimes the terms were neutral and their motives seemed to be just curiosity or gossip. Of course, I observed Chris as much as I could without appearing to do so, and although I thought I detected a slight effeminacy, it may have been my imagination, because it certainly wasn't obvious.
As far as I could tell, whenever Chris heard comments about his sexuality he just ignored them, but on a couple of occasions I saw his eyes, and then I got the feeling that he was hurting inside. When Tom was present during such comments he'd glare at the speaker and then say something, presumably comforting, quietly to Chris. This only rarely elicited any negative comments directed toward Tom, and I guessed that he was to some extent protected by his brother's reputation.
Although I didn't know definitely that Chris was really gay, his apparently close friendship with Tom made me wonder about Tom's sexuality. I wondered if he was gay and showing solidarity with Chris, or if he was straight and just showing a protective loyalty to a friend. In either case, he earned my admiration. He also made me feel guilty, because I didn't have the courage to try to help Chris. I was too afraid even to be seen talking to him, just in case people would question my own sexuality. The only thing that I did was to try to ensure I wasn't associated with the negative comments made about him in my presence.
One evening in the middle of the second week of term, I was doing some maths homework in my room while Dad was working in the office downstairs. I'd nearly finished the last problem when he came upstairs and stood in my doorway.
"Your Gran just phoned," he said.
That wasn't a great surprise because we exchanged phone calls with her a couple of times per month, and we were about due for a call. Usually she'd chat to Dad then to me, so I stood up, expected him to hand me the phone.
"She's already hung up," Dad said, stopping me in my tracks.
I wasn't really disappointed at not being able to talk to her, but I was a bit concerned by the departure from the usual routine.
"Is everything okay?" I asked.
"Everything's fine. She's just about to go out and didn't see any point in spending money on a long call when she can talk to you in person soon."
We both smiled, and he knew that I'd understood his humourous reference to Gran's parsimony. She had a reputation for being very careful with her pennies. She wasn't mean or anything like that, and she could be very generous with others, but when it came to paying for things for herself she always bought the economy version and never spent more than absolutely necessary. Then the second part of Dad's statement sank into my brain.
"Talk to me in person soon?"
"Yes, she's coming for a long weekend next week," he replied without much enthusiasm.
"Presumably with Auntie Kath?"
"What do you think?" he said, smiling at the expression on my face.
Of course Auntie Kath would be coming as well. She always did. She lived with Gran, supposedly to 'help her out', but Gran didn't really need help as far as I could see.
Dad and I had similar rueful expressions, but for different reasons. He dreaded Gran's visits because she didn't believe that a single father could bring up a child properly, so she constantly interrogated him and tried to find fault with his parenting. On the other hand, I dreaded Auntie Kath's visits because no matter what I said or did there was always something wrong with it. She criticised everything from my choice of clothes to the way I talked to my dad. Even when Dad told her I was doing well at school, she told him to keep an eye on me because I was 'too clever by half'.
"How long is a long weekend?" I asked.
"They're arriving on the Friday afternoon and leaving Monday."
"I s'pose we'll survive," I joked.
"That's the spirit," he laughed. "And at least you won't have to sleep on the sofa now we have plenty of spare rooms."
"But we only have one spare bed," I pointed out.
"There's just over a week to do something about that."
"And we need some more bedroom furniture," I added. "It wouldn't be very nice staying in a bare room with just a bed."
"This could turn out to be an expensive weekend," he said with a rueful smile.
"Would it be cheaper to put them up in a hotel?" I asked brightly, only half joking.
"Don't tempt me!" he laughed.
In the early hours of the following morning, I awoke to the tapping sound, and while I was still half asleep I began to feel a sadness and loss. As I became more awake, I attempted to fend off the increasing misery by joking to myself that it was just a bad dream, probably caused by the prospect of spending a long weekend with Auntie Kath. However, despite my attempt at levity, the waking nightmare progressed.
The previous nightmare had involved the impression than an abstract 'someone' was trying to make me cry, but this time was worse because the 'someone' now seemed to be a real presence in the room. Oddly, instead of making me more afraid, the 'presence' gave me something to fight and made me determined not to panic and flee the room as I'd done previously. As a matter of personal pride, even if I'd been able to cry I would've resisted the pressure to do so. Lying on my back I stared into the darkness with my fists clenched, trying to assert control over my own emotions.
Suddenly, the painful misery was replaced by a resigned depression, and at first I thought the worst was over. However, then I felt an increasing pressure on my chest, as if the unseen presence was sitting on me, and it became more and more difficult to breathe. By now, my determination to fight the fear had evaporated, and in growing terror I tried to sit up but found I couldn't move. Then I blacked out.
The next morning, thinking back to the experience, I wondered if instead of blacking out maybe I'd just fallen back into sleep, or maybe I'd never been awake and had drifted from nightmare to normal sleep. In any case, I had no more memories until I was awakened by my bedside alarm clock. I found that getting out of bed and into the shower was a real struggle, because not only was I as tired as if I hadn't slept at all, but I also ached as if I'd spent all night doing heavy physical labour.
Over breakfast Dad commented that I looked ill, but I told him I was okay and had just not slept well because of a nightmare. I was grateful that he just let things drop there, but it turned out he wasn't the only one to notice my haggard appearance.
"You look like shit!" Brian greeted me when I met him at his front door.
"Thanks," I said sarcastically.
He didn't ask for any explanation, and I didn't offer one. Instead, he just closed the door behind himself and started walking toward the bus stop.
"Where's Tom?" I asked.
"Oh, he's in bed with one of his headaches," he replied without slowing his stride.
"Is he ill?" I asked when I'd caught up with him.
"Not really. He usually spends the day in bed after waking us all up with one of his screaming nightmares," he said, apparently less concerned about his brother than about the loss of his own sleep.
Struck by the coincidence of both of us having nightmares on the same two nights, I stopped in my tracks. At first the coincidence seemed weird, but then with a little more thought it seemed probable that it was just the result of random chance. As his mum had told me, he'd started having bad nightmares years ago, long before I met him. Also, I reasoned that as I'd only had the nightmares recently, there could be no relationship between his and mine. Still, I wondered what Tom had nightmares about.
"What's the matter?" Brian asked when he noticed I was no longer following him. "If you don't get a move on we'll miss the bus."
"Just wondering if Tom's okay," I said, not wanting to divulge my real thoughts.
"Don't worry about Tom," he said with a wry smile as I resumed walking. "At least he gets to catch up on his lost sleep, which is more than you can say for the rest of us."
"Does he have these nightmares often?" I asked.
"He used to have them a couple of times a month, but he's hardly had any for the last couple of years. Mum said he was growing out of them, so I hope they're not starting up again."
When we got to the bus stop Chris was already there, looking anxiously behind us, and it was obvious he was wondering where Tom was. He gave us a hesitant questioning look, but as usual Brian ignored him.
"Tom's staying in bed," I found myself saying. "He's got a headache."
Brian frowned his disapproval at me, but didn't say anything. Chris looked despondent at my announcement and slightly surprised that I'd spoken to him. Whether either of us would have said anything else I don't know, because at that moment the bus arrived.
That afternoon I was going home on the half-empty bus, sitting alone in my usual seat at the back. Brian and the twins were at rugby practice, and I'd no idea where Julie was. Nick, who seemed to be avoiding me, was sitting a couple of seats in front of me. Chris was sitting alone across the aisle from Nick. Not long before reaching his stop, Nick looked around as if to see if anyone was taking any notice of him. The few people on the bus either had their attention elsewhere or were, like me, obviously of no consequence to him, because much to my surprise he went over and sat in the empty seat behind Chris. Then he stared out of the window for a few seconds.
The whole manoeuvre made me think of some second-rate spy movie, as if he thought that anyone who'd noticed him changing seats would think it was just to look out of that side of the bus. He then leaned forward and said something into Chris's ear. I could see Chris's shoulders tense up, and then he shook his head, apparently saying 'no' to something. Nick said something else, and Chris shook his head more violently. Then, as we were approaching his stop, Nick stood up and made his way to the front of the bus. Although I caught only a glimpse of his face as he moved from the seat into the aisle, I got the impression that he was frustrated or irritated.
During the rest of the journey Chris didn't turn around, and although he stood up before I did when we were approaching our stop, he kept his head down, so I didn't see enough of his face to be able to detect any emotion. While I stood behind him waiting to get off, I toyed with the idea of asking if he was okay, but as soon as the doors opened he ran off toward his home. Maybe it was my imagination, but as he paused to check for traffic before he crossed the road, it seemed to me that he was crying.
On the Friday afternoon, Dad met Gran and Auntie Kath at Newcastle railway station then brought them back to the house. By the time I got home from school he'd already given them the grand tour, and it appeared that even Auntie Kath was impressed. They both loved the kitchen, not only for its size and traditional feel but also for the views across the rear lawn and over to the wooded hills. Those hills were especially beautiful at that time of year, with the leaves turning to all shades of gold and red.
Of course, Auntie Kath found things to criticise. For example, she said that it was a pity that so many of our rooms were unused, especially the beautiful huge dining room. Gran scolded Dad for choosing a house so far away from the nearest town and my school, but I pointed out that the choice of Prospect House had been a joint decision. Despite that, it was nice to see them, though anything more than a long weekend would probably have become irksome.
Dad and I decided to put Gran in my room, where she would have easier access to the bathroom. I moved into the spare bedroom adjacent to my room, and Auntie Kath had the newly furnished spare bedroom on Dad's side of the house. When Dad had suggested giving Gran my room I wondered if she would experience anything strange, but if she did then she didn't mention it.
On the Saturday morning we had a walk around the garden areas and down to the stream before returning for lunch. After we'd eaten, Dad and Auntie Kath went into Alnwick and Newcastle to do some shopping, but Gran said she was too tired, and as I don't enjoy shopping I was happy to stay home and keep her company. In the middle of the afternoon we sat in the kitchen enjoying the view as we drank tea.
For a couple of years there'd been something that I'd wanted to talk to Gran about, but the right combination of circumstances had never cropped up before. The two most important circumstances, my being alone with her and my being determined enough, now coincided, and I decided that this was the best chance I was likely to get. While she looked out across the rear lawn, I studied her to try to judge her mood so that I could pick just the right moment.
From her face, especially the deep brown eyes, it was clear she was my mum's mother. Even the light brown hair, now touched with grey, reminded me of my Mum. Not for the first time, it occurred to me that Auntie Kath, with her thin face and black hair, didn't look like either of them. In fact, from photos I'd seen of my granddad, who'd died soon after I was born, I don't think Auntie Kath looked like her dad either. Then I realised that I was allowing my thoughts to wander because I was nervous about how to start the conversation I wanted. However, the more I delayed the more nervous I got, so after a deep breath I took the plunge.
"Graaaan," I said.
She must have recognised that the lengthening and modulation of the vowel indicated a potentially delicate topic, so she gave me her full attention.
"Yes, dear?" she responded in her Edinburgh-Scottish accent. My liking of the accent was slightly offset by my hatred of being called 'dear', but from Gran the epithet could be tolerated.
"You know I've never met my other gran, and I don't even know if she's still alive," I said, approaching the topic obliquely. "In fact I've never met any of Dad's family."
"Of course I know that, dear," she said patiently, "and you already know why. They didn't like it when he married your mum."
"But why didn't they like it?"
"Maybe you should ask your dad about that," she said warily.
Her tone of voice, her body language, and the fact she looked away from me, all told me that she wasn't comfortable with this topic. Of course, I'd expected that, which is why I'd waited so long for this opportunity.
"I can't. Whenever I get anywhere near the subject he finds some excuse to avoid it. He was more comfortable giving me the 'facts of life' talk!"
"Perhaps he's waiting for the right time. When you're older you may understand better."
"I'm sixteen now, Gran. Surely that's old enough?" I said, my frustration increasing. "After all, I'm old enough to have sex now..."
"You're not, are you?" she interrupted, raising an eyebrow.
Her question threw me off balance for a moment, and I lost my train of thought. Then I wondered if that had been her intention.
"Er, no," I said before dragging the conversation back to my chosen topic. "Anyway, I think I'm old enough now to know about Dad's family, but he won't talk about it."
She chewed her lower lip, obviously wondering what, if anything, to say. So, though I'm not proud of it, I admit that I decided to apply a little emotional pressure.
"You're my gran. Surely I can rely on you to tell me about Mum and my dad's family?"
"I know almost nothing about his family," she said, still trying to evade my questions.
I was beginning to feel a little guilty about putting her on the spot and putting pressure on her, but I felt I had a right to know about my own family. Having gone so far, I was unwilling to give up, especially as she seemed almost ready to tell me what I wanted to know.
"But you do know why they disowned him when he married my mum," I said.
She remained silent for a while and it seemed she was trying to gather her thoughts.
"Alright," she said eventually. "But I'm not sure you should let your dad know that I've told you this. At least not until you give him another chance to tell you himself."
I nodded my agreement, and she continued.
"As I said, I don't know much about your dad's family, and I never met any of them. I'd only met your dad a couple of times before your mum told us she was going to marry him." She paused and smiled. "Notice I said that she told us. She didn't ask and she didn't consult us. But I didn't mind, because I liked him and she was obviously in love. Anyway, after they got engaged we intended to meet his family before the wedding, but with us being in Scotland and them living south of London it took some time to make arrangements. Before we could make any definite plans, your mum, very upset, phoned us and told us that your dad and his family were no longer on speaking terms."
"But why not? What happened?" I asked. I already knew most of what she'd just told me, at least in outline, so I was anxious that she should get on and tell me the things I didn't know.
"Well, I only know what your mum told me, and she only knew what your dad told her, and even that I didn't find out until just before the wedding. So if you want to know for sure, you should really ask your dad."
She sat back in her chair and looked out of the window, obviously hoping that I would indeed wait until I could ask my dad. However, I knew from past experience that Dad wouldn't talk to me about it, at least not in the foreseeable future.
"Well, at least tell me what you do know. Pleeeease!" I wheedled.
She returned her gaze to me, sighed, and continued.
"Alright, then," she said, then paused as if considering her words carefully. "From what I understand, your dad's family is very well off and quite well known in their part of the country, and they didn't think your mum was a suitable wife for him."
I was hurt and outraged. How could anyone think that my beautiful, loving mother wasn't 'suitable'?
"Not suitable?" I almost shouted, unable to hide my anger. "But why not?"
"I suppose they were just snobs." Something about her tone and the way she glanced away from me gave me the impression that she wasn't being entirely truthful, or that she was at least keeping something back.
"But after they were married, after me and my sister were born, surely they could see they were wrong? Surely they could see what a good mother she was? Didn't they ever want to meet their own grandchildren?"
She smiled gently and reached across the table to put her hand on mine.
"I think it was all too late by then," she said sadly. "But believe me, Mark, the fact they never met you is more their loss than yours."
I blushed at the indirect compliment. Of course Gran was always nice to me, and I knew she loved me, but she wasn't usually so open about her feelings, so I felt a little embarrassed. Without giving the matter any real thought, I said the first thing that came into my head.
"Maybe I could get in touch with them. Maybe that could fix things up between Dad and his family."
"Trust me, dear," she said with a frown. "I don't think that would be a good idea. You'd only get hurt."
Although this time she didn't look away, I knew again that she wasn't telling me everything she knew.
"Why would I get hurt? What makes you say that?" I demanded.
I think that by now she'd got the message that I wasn't going to give up and that I wasn't easily diverted. Of course, if I'd tried the same tactics on Dad he would have angrily cut off the conversation by now and would probably have walked out of the room. Although I felt guilty for the way I was almost bullying Gran, I just couldn't help myself. I felt that I needed to know what she was keeping from me. Maybe she realised this because she removed her hand from mine, and I detected both irritation and resignation in her voice when she replied.
"Well, if you really must know," she said bluntly, "either your mum or your dad happened to mention to his parents that your mum had been in a psychiatric hospital. As soon as they found that out, they told your dad he shouldn't marry her because they didn't want 'bad blood' being brought into their family. They didn't want any defective grandchildren, especially as your dad was their only son. They told him if he married her then he would no longer be part of the family. Maybe they expected, or at least hoped, that the threat would make him break off the engagement. But it didn't work, and as soon as he married your mum they broke off all contact."
After all her attempts to be evasive, I was shocked by the almost brutal way she'd recited the whole story. I was so shocked that I couldn't actually think of anything to say, though two words unconsciously slipped from my lips.
"Defective grandchildren?" I breathed.
"Of course you're not defective!" she said angrily. "There's nothing wrong with you."
I wasn't sure if her anger was directed at me for dragging the story from her, or whether she was angry with herself for telling me, or angry with dad's family, or any combination of those. However, even if I was at least partly the target of her anger, as the story sank into my brain, there were other things I had to know.
"Why was she in the mental hospital?" I asked. "When? How long for?"
"Psychiatric hospital," she corrected.
"Whichever," I said, unable to see any distinction.
"You remind me of your mum," she laughed.
The sudden change of subject as well as the rapid change of mood took me by surprise.
"What?" I asked, totally confused.
"Sometimes you're like a mix between a bloodhound and a bulldog," she replied and smiled. "Once you get the scent you won't be distracted, and once you get your teeth into something you won't let go. Your mum could be like that."
Before I had the chance to demonstrate further the canine characteristics she'd just mentioned, she continued speaking. "About your mum. It's a long story."
"Well, Dad won't be home for a couple of hours, and I've nothing better to do."
"At least let an old lady have a cup of tea, first. All this talking has parched my throat."
Maybe it was just a delaying tactic, but it probably wasn't because my throat was dry as well. So I nodded my agreement, and we made tea together. When we sat down to drink it, I waited silently, but not quite patiently, for her to tell me more.
"When your mum was a little girl she sometimes had strange, vivid dreams..."
"Nightmares?" I interrupted.
"Not usually. Just very detailed lifelike dreams, and she could remember them all when she woke up. I think it was just that she had an overactive imagination, which wasn't a problem until she was fourteen. Then her imagination just seemed to get out of control."
"What exactly happened?" I asked.
"We'd just moved from a block of modern flats outside Edinburgh to a lovely old apartment in the city centre. It was more convenient for your granddad's job and bigger than the flat. Your mum didn't want to move and said she hated the new place. We couldn't understand why, and her dad thought it was because she didn't want to move to a new school or that she was just being awkward."
She paused to sip her tea then continued. "Of course she had no choice but to move with us, and at first she seemed to accept it. When she became withdrawn and sullen we put it down to teenage rebellion, but then one morning she got up looking quite ill and begged me to let her go and live somewhere, anywhere but there. When I pointed out that it just wasn't practical, she burst into tears and said something evil was in the apartment. I told her it was just her imagination and she should make some local friends and get more involved with real life.
"Well, it seems she must have made new friends, because she started staying out with them all the time. Your mum was a very clever girl, but she started doing badly at school, so her dad and I tried to make her stay in and study. She said she'd study with her friends, but her dad insisted she come home to study, and she seemed to accept that.
"The next morning," she continued, "when I got up, I found a note on the kitchen table saying she'd gone away and wasn't coming back. We thought it was just teenage dramatics or emotional blackmail, but when she didn't come back that night we became frantic with worry. We tried to contact her friends, but as she'd only just met them we didn't know who most of them were. We ended up searching the local streets for her. Eventually, we decided we had to call the police. Two days later, the police brought her home. They told us she'd been sleeping rough in a derelict building.
Gran drank more of her tea and seemed to be gathering her thoughts.
"Your mum seemed to be happy to see me, but she said she'd run off again if we made her stay in the apartment. Her dad lost his temper and locked her in her room until, as he put it, 'she came to her senses'. He thought she was just going through a teenage phase, or maybe that she was on drugs. I wasn't sure it was so simple, but couldn't see any harm in locking her in the room until we could think things out more calmly, and at least she'd be safe and off the streets.
"When her dad put her in her room she begged and pleaded and screamed and banged on the door. I was in tears, but her dad said we should just wait until she calmed down, then we could all discuss things reasonably. After a while things quietened down, and when she'd not made a sound for an hour or so, I went in to see if she wanted something to eat or drink, or if she needed to go to the toilet. It was fortunate that I went in when I did, because your mum had slashed her wrist with a piece of broken mirror. I put on a tourniquet, and we just managed to get her to hospital in time."
I stared at Gran, hardly able to believe what she was telling me. The girl she was describing couldn't possibly be my calm, loving, devoted mum. Wouldn't she have had scars on her wrist? I didn't remember seeing any, but the last time I saw her was almost nine years ago, when I was only seven. Maybe I'd just forgotten seeing them, or maybe I'd just never noticed.
"You must think we were awful parents," Gran said sadly, "locking up a sick girl when she needed treatment. But we didn't know enough about mental illness to recognise it, even in our own daughter."
I didn't know what to say. My heart bled for my mum, and I was angry, though there was no specific focus of my anger. Gran didn't seem like a horrible cruel parent, and I'd no doubt that my mum had loved her. Would I have dealt with the situation any better than Granddad?
"What happened when she got out of hospital?" I asked, my voice not much louder than a whisper.
"Actually, she didn't get out for almost a year. After the cuts were fixed up she was moved to a psychiatric ward, and after a couple of weeks she seemed almost back to her old self. But as soon as anyone mentioned coming home she became hysterical, and she threatened to kill herself if we made her live in the apartment. She claimed she heard voices saying horrible things to her and telling her that if she didn't kill herself she would kill someone else. Eventually, she was transferred to a long-term specialist hospital.
"The doctors couldn't seem to do anything for her apart from giving her drugs that turned her into a zombie. So, as the apartment seemed to be the centre of her problem and we could, just about, afford to move, we found a house just outside Edinburgh. It was a greater distance for your granddad to go to work, the local schools weren't so good, and Kath didn't want to move, but we thought it would be worthwhile if we got our daughter back.
"As soon as we told her we were moving she started getting better, but she insisted on visiting the house before we bought it. We managed to get the doctors to agree to us taking her out for a few hours, and as soon as your mum went into the house she seemed really happy and gave me a big hug. Over the next few weeks she returned to normal, especially after they took her off the drugs. The doctors seemed surprised at her rapid recovery, but then I got the impression that they hadn't ever really known what was wrong with her. Anyway, she came out of hospital and never had any more problems. There. Now you know everything."
When Gran stopped speaking she gave a deep sigh and studied my face, trying to read my reaction to her story. I don't know what she might have read in my expression, because my thoughts were such a jumble and my emotions were all mixed up. Unable to think of anything coherent to say, I just looked at her. She looked tired and maybe older than when she'd started her tale. I realised that complying with my request for information had been an ordeal for her, and I was deeply grateful to her.
"Thanks, Gran," I said eventually. "I really appreciate you telling me all that."
That night I lay in bed wide awake, unable to sleep because my mind was still absorbing what Gran had told me. I wondered if Mum's reaction to the apartment had been similar to my feelings when I fled from the house we'd looked at before Prospect House. I asked myself what I would have done if I'd been forced to live in that house. A shiver ran down my spine as my mind shied away from imagining that possibility, but I suspected that I, too, would have ended up in a psychiatric hospital, or worse. Then it occurred to me that maybe she'd just pretended she'd heard 'evil voices' in order to avoid going back to the apartment.
My mind was flooded with questions and speculations. Were mum's vivid dreams related to my little waking dreams? Did she really stop having them, or did she just start keeping them to herself? Possibly she confided in Dad that she was still having them, and when I told him about my own visions, he may have thought I had the same overactive imagination as Mum had. Perhaps he thought that was a sign of a potential mental illness.
Maybe Dad told me not to talk about my mini-visions in case I got sent to a psychiatric hospital. If that were so, then I dreaded what he might think if I told him about my recent nightmares and strange experiences. I wondered if he already thought of me as the 'defective grandchild' his parents wanted to avoid having. Maybe I was.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]