Box of Treasures
"No one's home," Tom informed me as he used his key to let us into his house. "Mum and Dad are shopping and Brian's playing rugby."
He led me upstairs, and for the first time I saw the inside of his room. Up until then, apart from my own bedroom, the only teenage male's room I'd been in was Tony's, so my judgement of what a typical such room might look like was questionable. However, it's reasonably safe to say that Tom's room was probably not typical in that it was possibly the tidiest space I'd ever seen.
The single bed on the far side of the room was neatly made, there were no posters on the pale green walls, and there was not a single item of clothing to be seen. On my right, underneath the window, were a bare desk and a chair, and against the wall opposite the window was a chest of drawers and another chair. The only things that indicated that the room was inhabited were the books and a few personal items placed tidily on a couple of shelves.
"You can take your coat off and grab a seat," he said, gesturing toward the desk and chair.
While I did as he suggested, he took a bunch of keys from his jacket pocket and hung the jacket in one of the two wardrobes on either side of his bed. He then used one of his keys to open the other wardrobe, from which he took a wooden box, which he carried across the room toward me.
"Miss Victoria gave me this," Tom announced and carefully placed it on the desk. "If you want to know more about Edward and Tommy, there are some things in here that you might like to look at."
He selected another key from the bunch and bent to unlock the box, and as he did so I inspected it more closely. It was made from a dark and highly polished wood, which had white and gold inlays, and although my knowledge of such things was negligible, I guessed that it might be a valuable antique. I was much more confident of my other guess, that this was the 'box of treasures' that Brian had told me about.
Standing close beside me, and slightly leaning over the desk, he opened the box and gently removed its contents. In doing that, his hip was pressed against my arm, and I briefly felt a slight tingling spread from the point of contact until it seemed to envelop my whole body in a warm glow. Dragging my attention back to the items now on the desktop, I saw that there were several letters, mostly still in their envelopes, some picture postcards, and a handful of monochrome photographs. All were very old, and some of the writing was so faded as to be almost unreadable.
"Recognise anyone?" he said as he placed one particular photograph in front of me.
In the picture were about a dozen young men, mostly in their late teens, dressed in army uniforms of First World War vintage. What immediately caught my attention was that one of those young men seemed to be Tom, and even in the ancient photo the unique eyes caught my attention. It was only on very close inspection that I could see the small differences between them. The person in the photo appeared to be slightly taller, older and bulkier than the boy standing next to me.
"It's Tommy," I said, "but it looks like it could be you in a year or so. When your mum mentioned a family resemblance, I expected that you'd be similar to Tommy, not identical."
"Yeah," Tom said and laughed without much humour, "identical twins separated by about ninety years!"
"Anyway," I said, finding it difficult to look away from the photo, "are you going to tell me about Tommy and Edward now?"
"Okay, just let me get comfortable."
He went to get the only other chair in the room then he put it next to mine at an angle, so that when he sat down he was facing partly toward me and partly toward the items on the desk. Once he was seated, he leaned forward and rested his elbow on the desk, and when he spoke his head was just a few inches from mine and his voice was quiet. This, together with his serious expression, gave me the feeling that he was about to tell me something secret, or at least very confidential.
"Almost everything I know about Tommy and Edward is what Miss Victoria told me," he said, "though I got some more information from the things in the box and church records...
"Which reminds me," I interrupted, "how did you get to be such close friends with someone who was old enough to be your great-grandmother?"
"Easy. She liked to talk about the history of her family and mine, and I liked to listen. Actually, when I was a little kid I never even saw her. She never left the house, and I was too scared to go there, even to see my mum. Then one day, when I was eleven, she was looking out of her window and saw me working in the garden. Apparently, I reminded her of Tommy, so she asked my mum to bring me to see her. At first I refused, but Mum eventually persuaded me."
"And you hit it off?"
"No!" he laughed. "I was so scared of what I thought was a weird old woman that I didn't say a word to her. But a few months later my nightmares started, and not long after that Mum happened to mention them to Miss Victoria, who more or less insisted I go and tell her about them. Eventually, I went to see her, and over the next few months I found that talking with her about Tommy and stuff was interesting. Also, and maybe it was just coincidence, after I started spending time with her, I didn't get the nightmares so often."
Then Tom went on to tell me about Edward and Tommy.
When Victoria was growing up, her father, Albert Armstrong, was a rich and influential landowner who also owned several mines and factories. He had inherited much of that wealth from his father, Henry, who'd built Prospect House, but Albert moved even higher in the social hierarchy by marrying the daughter of a minor aristocrat. Albert had four children, but only two survived infancy, Edward and Victoria. The boy was seven years older than his little sister.
The Crawford family had lived in the local village for centuries before Prospect House was built, and after that many of them had ended up working either in the house or on the estate. Tommy's parents lived in the gatehouse, and by the time he was born the two families, though of very different social status, had developed a sort of symbiotic relationship.
Edward was born a few months after Tommy, and for the first few years of their lives, though their houses were just a few hundred yards apart, they were in very different social circles and rarely even caught sight of each other. As the two boys got older, it happened that they both developed a love of the local woodland, where they could get away from their respective families. Among the trees Tommy could escape from his crowded house, where there were always chores to do, and Edward could escape from his overbearing and domineering father.
When Tommy was ten and Edward was nine, their initially accidental meetings in the woods began to be deliberately arranged. They quickly formed a close friendship, but both boys knew that they had to keep that friendship secret. When they had been friends for less than two years, Edward was sent away to boarding school. At around the same time, Tommy finished his schooling to become an assistant to the head gardener, who also happened to be one of his uncles. For the next few years the two boys saw each other rarely, when Edward came home from school. During that time, Tommy became a skilled gardener and found great joy in growing plants.
Victoria was only a small child when Edward first went away to school, but although she didn't know her brother well, she looked up to him and admired him. Similarly, although she didn't know Tommy well, she saw him often when her nanny took her walking in the gardens. As she grew up, she got to like Tommy, not only because of his striking good looks but because he was so gentle and treated her like an adult, especially when he patiently answered her questions about the plants and flowers.
One afternoon during the school summer holidays when Victoria was eight, she followed her brother out of the house and into the woods. She just wanted to be near her hero without bothering him or risking his anger, and she didn't intend to be sneaky or spy on him. Having managed to cross the stream without messing up her dress, she saw her brother disappear between two trees. Peering through that narrow gap, she saw that Tommy was already in the clearing, apparently having been waiting for Edward.
The two boys hugged briefly then sat down on the grass, talking. Although Victoria was still so young, she already knew that it was unusual for boys to hug each other like that, and such familiarity between boys of such different classes certainly wasn't appropriate. This very strange behaviour aroused her curiosity, so she decided to hide and watch them for a little longer. However, she couldn't hear what they said, so she quickly became bored. Just as she was considering going back to the house, Edward took hold of Tommy's hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed it.
Of course, at her age and in those days she had no idea of sex or sexuality, but she was totally unused to seeing such physical affection. Occasionally her nanny, or more rarely her mother, would hold her hand or even give her a brief hug, but she thought that such things were reserved for children. As far as she knew, even her parents never hugged each other. Once the initial surprise wore off, however, Victoria found that she was quite pleased that two people she was so fond of were being so nice to each other. In fact, the only negative thought she had was a twinge of jealousy, because neither of them ever hugged her. One thing she was old enough to realise, however, was that her parents would not approve of their son being so familiar with a gardener.
At that point, she heard her nanny calling her name, and she knew she'd be in big trouble if she was caught in the woods because she was under strict instructions not to go near the stream, much less cross it. Panicking, she began to turn away from the clearing, and in doing so, she broke a small branch and caused the leaves to rustle. This noise attracted the attention of both boys, and the last thing she saw before she fled was Edward's face looking in her direction.
Unfortunately for Victoria, she was just crossing the stream when she was caught by her nanny, who dragged the girl by her ear all the way back to the house. There the nanny gave Victoria's mother a full report of her daughter's transgressions. Had Victoria been a boy, she would have been soundly beaten by her father, but as it was she was confined to her room for a week. She was told that her diet was to be just bread and water for the first two days of her confinement.
Late that evening, Edward sneaked up to her room with some cheese and fruit, but kindness was not his only motive. He also wanted to find out what she'd seen in the clearing, and when she told him, he begged her not to tell anyone. As well as admiring her brother and being fond of Tommy, she also felt very proud of being part of the big boys' conspiracy, so she readily promised to keep their secret. From then on, Edward, who'd previously not paid much attention to his little sister, became a much more caring and considerate brother.
Over the next few months, whenever Edward was home from school, she noticed that the two boys would often go missing at the same time, and she guessed that they were meeting in the woods. She also saw the looks and smiles they exchanged when they thought no one else was around, though they didn't seem to mind her seeing these exchanges. In fact, when Edward noticed she was watching them, he sometimes gave her a conspiratorial wink, which pleased her tremendously.
While Tommy had been recounting this tale, he'd leaned closer and his voice became quieter, and that made me feel he that was sharing something very private with me. Occasionally, I felt his knee brush against my thigh, and sometimes I felt the touch of his breath on my cheek. All this, together with the intimate tone of his voice, sent delicious tingles along my spine. However, his next words changed those warm tingles to a cold shiver.
One unusually mild night in the spring of the following year, 1917, Victoria was unable to sleep. Her window was open, and in addition to the more usual night sounds, she heard a tapping noise. At first when she looked outside, she didn't see anything except the outline of the tree whose upper branches were just level with her room. Then she heard the sound of an opening window, Edward's window, which was immediately below hers. Peering down, she saw a large shadow move from the branches of the tree and into Edward's room, and then she heard the window close again.
The next day, Victoria discreetly mentioned her observations to Edward, who seemed to become very worried and almost frightened. He apologised for disturbing her and begged her not to tell anyone. Of course, she readily agreed. However, now that she was aware that something was going on, each night when her brother was home she tried to stay awake long enough to hear the noises again. Several times she succeeded, and one moonlit night she caught a clear view of Tommy climbing from the tree into Edward's window. Although she stayed awake as long as she could, she didn't hear him leave.
Toward the end of Edward's Easter holiday, Victoria was awakened in the early hours of the morning by loud shouts and banging from below. She couldn't make out most of the words, but it soon became clear that her father was doing the shouting and that most of the noise was coming from her brother's room. Eventually, after more shouting and banging of doors, the house became quiet, though before she fell asleep, Victoria thought she could hear someone crying.
The next morning, neither Edward nor their mother came down for breakfast, and everyone seemed angry, or sad, or both. All the information she could get from her nanny was that her mother was ill and that Edward was being punished for something. Her father was even more ill tempered than usual, and so she knew better than to ask him any questions. After a couple of days, her red-eyed and obviously unhappy mother appeared in public again, but Edward was not allowed out of his room until the day he returned to school. She never saw Tommy again.
Over the next few months she managed to find out a little of what had transpired that night, but it was only after her father's death, some years later, that she managed to piece together the events leading to the later family tragedy. Eventually, by the time she was in her late teens, Victoria had something like a complete story, gleaned from her mother, old letters, and some of the more talkative Crawfords.
On the night Victoria heard all the shouting, her father had burst into Edward's room and found the two boys in bed together. She never discovered what caused her father to do this, but perhaps Tommy had been seen climbing the tree, or maybe the boys had made too much noise. Whatever his reason for invading Tommy's room, her father, shouting curses at both boys, punched and kicked Tommy out of the room, down the stairs and out of the door. The only options open to Tommy were to fight back or to flee, and he chose to flee.
Having thrown Tommy out of the house, her father returned to Edward's room and beat his son with a stout cane kept specifically for that purpose. Throughout the prolonged beating, Edward was subjected not only to a deluge blows but also to a torrent of shouted abuse and threats. Her brother was so badly hurt that for several days he couldn't move from his bed.
Of course, Tommy was immediately dismissed from his job and banned from the estate, which effectively meant that he could no longer live with, or even visit, his family in the gatehouse. Ideally, Mr Armstrong would have wanted Tommy to be thrown into prison for corrupting his only son, but he couldn't make any official complaint without risking a scandal. So, while Edward was recovering in his room, his father hatched a plan with which he intended not only to punish Tommy but also to keep him as far away from Prospect House as possible. Years later, when Victoria discovered this, she became quite sure that her father also hoped that the plan might ensure that Tommy could never return.
Mr Armstrong summoned Tommy's father to his study and instructed him to pass on an ultimatum to his son. Either Tommy immediately joined the army or Mr Armstrong would dismiss all of the Crawford family and throw them all off the estate. This, of course, meant that those living in the gatehouse and other tied accommodation would become homeless as well as unemployed. Furthermore, if Tommy didn't join up then no member of his family would be allowed to work in any factory or mine owned by Mr Armstrong.
Although Tommy's father wasn't completely sure exactly what his son had done to deserve this, there were enough clues to support his own suspicions, and he thought it was likely that Edward had corrupted Tommy. However, he had no choice but to pass the ultimatum on to his son, and two days later Tommy enlisted with the Northumberland Fusiliers. No one was allowed to mention Tommy again, and no one would have dared to do so if there was even a slight possibility that Mr Armstrong might overhear it.
Edward, still covered in bruises, returned to school, and Mr Armstrong probably hoped that his son would forget this childish aberration and become a respectable citizen of the British Empire. After that, Victoria noticed that Edward seemed to have become a totally different person. Of course, she had no idea how he behaved when he was away at school, but whenever he was home, he was no longer the brother she'd previously known. He seemed to have no interest in anything, he never smiled, and he spent much of his time alone in his room. Although he obeyed his parents, his sullen attitude earned him frequent beatings, yet he didn't seem to care whether he was punished or not.
Despite what had happened, Tommy was still very popular with many of his large extended family, and Victoria suspected that they might even have passed on news of him to Edward. However, none of the Crawfords ever admitted this to her, and she knew they would never have dared pass on any direct communication. Then, the following year, Victoria heard from one of the servants that Tommy had been killed during a German counter-attack at Cambrai.
Edward also heard that news and became even more sullen and solitary. Victoria hardly ever saw him, even when he was home for the long summer holiday. Early one morning, shortly before Edward was due to go back for his final year at school, she heard a commotion outside her bedroom window. Looking out, she saw two men standing at the base of the tree and another lying on a sturdy branch cutting through a piece of rope. The leaves obscured whatever was suspended from the rope, and before she could get a clearer view, her father appeared at the foot of the tree. He yelled at her to get away from the window and draw the curtains. Knowing that her father demanded instant obedience, she quickly did as she was told and sat on her bed, hoping someone would tell her what was going on.
Victoria didn't dare to do anything but wait for the maid who usually woke her and set out her clothes. The servant, clearly upset and occasionally having to dab tears from her cheeks, arrived late and told her that Mr Armstrong had given instructions that Victoria should have breakfast in her room. At first Victoria wondered if she was being punished, perhaps for looking out of her window, but the maid just said that there had been 'an accident'.
A couple of hours later, her father came to see her. That in itself was a unique experience, because the top floor of the house, where her room was located, was only used by servants and children. Also, she was shocked to see him so agitated, because he'd always been so controlled and reserved. Indeed, the only real emotion that she'd seen him display in the past was anger.
He told her that Edward had been playing in the tree when he fell and broke his neck. Her first reaction was disbelief, because as far back as she could remember her brother hadn't ever played in any tree. Apart from anything else, he knew his father would disapprove, and if he were going to go against his father's wishes, she thought, why do it in a tree so close to the house? When Victoria tried to voice her doubts, her father silenced her and told her that whatever she thought she might have seen that morning, she must never mention it to anyone.
When she realised that Edward was indeed dead, the initial shock gave way to grief, and she cried all through the funeral which took place three days later. Two days after that, the tree was chopped down. The following week, Victoria was walking in the formal garden and passed close to two of the under-gardeners talking quietly together while they worked. As soon as they noticed she was there, they looked guilty and greeted her respectfully. However, before they noticed her, she'd overheard a few words. "...why Master Edward killed himself?"
Tom finished the story and sat back, assessing my reaction. I don't know what he expected, and I don't even know what my expression showed, because I was too busy absorbing what he'd told me. As my mind processed the information and linked it to my own experiences, some things seemed to fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
"So, what do you think?" Tom asked. He seemed to be a little disappointed at my apparent lack of reaction.
"Very interesting," I replied, still distracted by my own thoughts. "You think Edward killed himself, then?"
"Miss Victoria was certain that he hung himself from the tree."
"And she believed your nightmares were Tommy's last memories," I said pensively.
My brain was still putting various bits of information together, so those words were really my thoughts spoken aloud, rather than a statement addressed to Tom. However, he must have interpreted them as a criticism of his elderly friend.
"You think she was just a crazy old woman!"
"No," I said quickly, anxious to rectify the misunderstanding. "I was just thinking aloud, trying to get everything straight in my head. Some of the things you said were quite scary."
"Yeah, because if you've been having some of Tommy's memories, I think I may have been picking up some of Edward's. Remember I told you about the sadness followed by choking in my nightmares? Maybe that's what Edward felt when he hanged himself."
Tom considered this for a moment and then frowned doubtfully, so before he could voice any doubts, I told him about the tapping I'd heard and, with a blush, I even briefly mentioned the erotic feelings. However, I didn't mention the subsequent frenzied masturbatory sessions.
"Hold on, though," he said after a few moments thought. "Maybe my nightmares are linked to Tommy because we're from the same family, we look like twins, we both fancy boys, we were brought up in the same place, and we even lived the same house. But look at this."
He picked out one of the photographs that he'd taken from the box and showed it to me. It was clearly a portrait of a family, all dressed in formal old-fashioned clothes, with a teenage boy and a younger girl positioned between their parents. The boy was tall and thin, with high cheekbones and dark, possibly black, curly hair."
"That's Edward," Tom said, pointing at the boy. "See, you don't look anything like him, and you don't have anything in common. Your family isn't from around here, and you've only just moved into the house. And, erm, well, you're not gay. How can you have a link to Edward?"
I sighed, realising that an important decision had to be made. I could just shrug my shoulders and accept his points, or I could expose my secrets, showing him the same trust that he'd shown me. At that point, I wasn't too concerned about revealing my sexuality to him, but I was very worried about admitting that I believed that I'd inherited some sort of 'sensitivity' from my mother. Because I so desperately wanted him to like me as much as I liked him, I was terrified that he'd think I was crazy. With another sigh, I made my decision.
"Actually," I said, "I am gay, so at least I have that in common with him. Also, I've been sleeping in Edward's bedroom, I have the same birthday, and I don't think I need a genetic link to, well, feel things."
For a moment his face lit up in a smile, then his brow furrowed.
"Feel things?" he asked, "What sort of things?"
Although I'd felt comfortable enough with Tom to mention my sexuality, I wasn't yet ready to tell him about my mum and about some of my own strange experiences, especially since my first visit to Prospect House. My friendship with Tom was going so well that I didn't want to give him cause to think I was mad or a freak. Thinking quickly, I looked at my watch.
"Damn!" I announced, standing up. "I'm late for lunch."
My attempt to avoid his question was crude and probably obvious to him, but if he suspected that I was just making excuses then he was polite enough not to show it.
"You can have lunch here if you want," he offered as he got to his feet.
"Sorry, but I told Dad I'd be back to have lunch with him, and I should've been there ages ago."
Actually, it wasn't a complete lie. Dad had in fact been due to arrive home about half an hour earlier, and although we hadn't made specific plans for lunch, we did always eat together when we were both home. Tom escorted me downstairs, and as he reached over to open the door for me, he leaned in and briefly touched his lips to mine. He blushed and I felt my own cheeks flush, then before I could react, he opened the door fully.
"Thanks for telling me that you're gay, too," he said as I stepped across the threshold.
Embarrassed, I raised my hand in acknowledgement and trotted up the slight slope to Prospect House. The kiss had been the lightest possible touching of lips, but I could still feel it as I made my way home, and although it had lasted for no more than a second, in my mind there was no doubt that it had definitely been a kiss. That was the first time I can remember anybody apart from Mum kissing me on the lips, and I will remember it forever.
When I went to bed that night I was half expecting to hear the tapping and half hoping that it would be followed by an erotic episode, but nothing unusual happened. However, my bedtime fantasies were filled with memories of being so close to Tom that day. Recalling the emotional closeness he'd shown when he shared his favourite places with me was just as erotic for me as the vivid memories of the feeling of his knee on my thigh and his lips on mine.
The next day, I moped about the house, hoping that Tom would visit and maybe invite me to accompany him on another walk, but he never came. Of course, I could have gone to see him, but I didn't want to get in the way if he had other plans, and I didn't want him to think I was chasing after him. As the day wore on, I mentally kicked myself for not making specific arrangements to see him again. By the time I went to bed that night I was miserable and wondering if my talk of being 'sensitive' had put him off. As I lay in bed my heart was heavy, but I fell asleep consoling myself that at least I'd see Tom on the way to school the following day. Perhaps surprisingly, it never occurred to me that he'd been at home all day hoping that I'd contact him and that he was afraid to come to see me in case I'd been freaked out by his little kiss.
I woke up in the early hours of the morning, and it took a long time to get back to sleep because I couldn't stop thinking about Tom and how we seemed to have suddenly become so intimate. I'd never admitted my sexuality to anyone before, not even to Tony, who'd been my best friend for years, yet I'd shared that and other secrets with Tom. I knew that I had very strong feelings for him, though I couldn't yet allow myself to describe those feelings as love. At first, I felt guilty about those feelings, not because of the sexual overtones but because until then I'd only ever felt that way about Tony. It was almost as if I was being emotionally unfaithful to Tony. However, it occurred to me that although I still fancied him and loved him as my best friend, my feelings for Tom were different and unique.
When I turned up at the gatehouse to meet Brian and Tom the next morning, Brian was his usual cheerful self, but both Tom and I were subdued. We were both trying hard to pretend that nothing was different, and I was determined not to let anyone suspect the way I felt about Tom. However, our caution must have made our behaviour seem unusual, because at the bus stop Chris frowned at me, and Brian actually asked if Tom and I had had an argument. With sheepish expressions on our faces, Tom and I both denied any form of disagreement or altercation.
That afternoon Tom, Chris and myself were on the same bus going home from school, Brian having decided to stay in Moreton with a couple of his friends. Tom and I walked home from the bus stop together in silence, and I really wanted to ease the uncomfortable atmosphere between us. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of a natural way to break the ice, so when we reached the gate house and were about to go our separate ways, my desperation made me say the first thing that came into my head.
"Erm, do you want to come up to the house for a Coke or something?" I said, my heartbeat speeding.
Tom, who'd been gazing down at the ground as we walked, looked up at me with a slightly startled smile, which quickly faded to be replaced by a frown. "Sorry, I promised Chris I'd go round to his place and do some homework together before dinner."
"Oh, okay," I said, unable to hide my disappointment. Avoiding meeting his gaze, I began to turn away from him to carry on up the drive toward home.
"Hold on a sec," he said before I could turn away completely. "What about tomorrow? I could come up after school. Is that okay?"
"Yeah, great!" I said. "I'll look forward to it. See ya tomorrow, then."
"Okay," he replied with a grin. "See ya tomorrow!"
The rest of my short journey home was completed with a smile on my face and a warm glow of happiness in my heart. As I dug the house key out of my pocket, I reflected on the fact that just a few words from Tom had raised me from depression to euphoria. No one else, except possibly Tony, could effect such a profound and rapid change in my emotions. The thought of him having this power over me was scary, but it was also strangely elating.
Three times during that week Tom came around to my house after school. Although he brought his homework with him, mainly to help justify his visits, neither of us actually did much studying, apart from on one occasion when I helped him with a maths problem. Most of our time together was spent just chatting, mainly about ourselves, and I even talked about my mum. However, not once did we mention our sexuality or 'the kiss'.
We told one another about our respective pasts and discussed the relative merits of growing up in the city and the countryside. We talked about our current interests, school, and family, and we shared our hopes and plans for the future. Never had I been so open with anyone, not even Tony, and never had I been so excited about exploring and discovering another person. Up until then I'd never had any interest in gardening, but Tom's love of growing things was infectious. Also, I enjoyed being with him so much that in order to spend more time in his company I would have gladly shared any of his interests.
That, however, was how I felt when I was with him. When I was alone, especially lying in bed, my feelings were more sombre. For years, ever since Mum died, I'd been emotionally independent and had held myself aloof from everyone except Dad, Elaine and Tony, and even with them I always kept a large part of myself private and reserved. When I was with Tom, however, it was much more difficult to maintain this reserve, and I was scared of this threat to my emotional independence.
At the weekend, Tom gave me a guided tour of his walled garden, entertaining and amazing me with his horticultural and botanical knowledge. He also took me on another walk, and although on that particular walk we didn't go to either of his special places, he did show me several parts of the estate I'd not seen before. The reserved and taciturn Tom I'd met when I first arrived at Prospect House had become a lively, amusing and totally engaging companion.
Of course, the two of us didn't exist in a vacuum, so others must have observed this change in our relationship. However, at that particular time, everyone apart from Tom existed like shadows on the periphery of my consciousness, so it really didn't occur to me to wonder what they were thinking. What I did know was that those few days were the happiest I'd been since Mum died.
Then, as if to punish me for being too happy, in the middle of the following week I had another very bad nightmare. It started off as usual, with the deep sadness and sense of loss, but this time, instead of being crushed by a weight on my chest, I felt I was being suffocated. All the air seemed to have been sucked out of my room, and I was overwhelmed with a need to escape. However, I couldn't move and didn't have enough breath to scream. Somewhere in the distance there was a crash, and then a wave of freezing coldness washed over me.
"Mark! What's happening?"
Suddenly, my breathing became a little easier, but my screams were still silent and I still couldn't move my body or even open my eyes.
"Mark! Mark! Wake up!"
Someone grabbed my shoulders and shook them, ending my paralysis, so I opened my eyes and I tried to sit up. At first I was terrified because the grip on my shoulders was holding me down on the bed, but then I relaxed when my eyes focused and I saw Dad's worried face in the light from my bedside lamp. Seeing that he was sitting on the edge of my bed, I allowed my body to go limp and took a huge, deep breath.
"What happened?" Dad asked.
"Bad... dream..." I replied, hyperventilating.
"But it looked like you were choking!"
"I'm okay now," I said, still a little breathless.
Dad looked at me doubtfully and released his grip on my shoulders. Feeling a chill, I shivered and looked down to see that I was lying uncovered, having apparently thrown off my duvet. Embarrassed at being seen naked by my dad, I moved my hands down to cover my crotch, trying to seem as casual as possible, despite the fact the reaction to the nightmare was making me tremble.
"And what about the window?" Dad asked.
"Window?" I echoed, having no idea what he was talking about.
"Yes. What broke the window?"
Looking over my shoulder, up at the wall next to my bed, even in the dim light I could see that the lower half of the window was broken. The cold winter air was blowing into my room, and that obviously explained why I was so cold.
"I don't know," I said, shivering. "Where's my duvet?"
"It's here on the floor," he said, looking down toward his feet.
"Well, can I have it please?" I asked, a little irritated that he hadn't already picked it up and covered me with it.
"Better not, there may be broken glass on it," he said pensively, looking up to the window then back down at me. "Actually, I'm surprised there isn't any glass on you or the bed.
Having just woken from the nightmare to be questioned about a broken window, I was confused, and all I could think about was how cold I felt.
"But I'm freeeeezing!" I said, whining a little.
"In that case," Dad said, standing up, "we'd better get you out of here."
He leaned over, and with surprising ease picked me up in his arms, demonstrating that he'd retained much of the strength that he'd built up when he used to play rugby. Now I was embarrassed not only by my nakedness but also by the fact that I was being carried like a child. He took me into the adjacent spare room, placed me on the bed, turned on the light and then covered me with the duvet.
"How're you feeling now?" he asked.
"Better. Still cold."
"How about I bring you a hot drink, then? Milk? Tea? Hot chocolate?"
I chose the hot chocolate and curled up under the duvet while he went downstairs to prepare it. A few minutes later, he returned with a mug for each of us, and still keeping myself wrapped in the duvet, I sat up and sipped my drink. Dad sat on the edge of the bed and gazed at me thoughtfully then he gave a little smile.
"I remember sitting like this quite often when you had all those nightmares after your mum died," he said. "You used to wake me up with your screams. But this is different. Tonight I didn't hear any sounds at all, apart from the breaking window, and you seemed to be having difficulty breathing. So it's just as well that I still hadn't gone to bed, because I doubt I would've heard anything if I was asleep in my room."
"I didn't break the window," I said.
"I know that. When I got to your room it was just seconds after I heard the glass breaking, and you were lying on your bed and obviously having a nightmare. So there was no way you could have done it."
"Maybe someone outside threw something?" I suggested tentatively.
Even as I said it, I wondered who it could be. It surely wasn't any of the Crawfords, and it was a long way for anyone else to come just to break a window. Also, of all the windows in this large house, why choose mine, especially as only the Crawfords and Chris knew which room was my bedroom.
"That did occur to me," Dad said, "but there didn't seem to be much glass inside your room. I'll check outside in the morning and see how much glass is out there."
I'd watched enough TV detective stories to realise the implication if he found most of the glass outside.
"Anyway," he continued, "while we finish our drinks, why don't you tell me more about your nightmare? I'm concerned that you seemed to be choking."
From the expression on his face and the tone of his voice there was no doubt that he was genuinely concerned, so I described the nightmare to him."
"This isn't the first time, is it?" he asked.
His question took me by surprise, and I wondered if he knew or if he was just guessing. I was reluctant to lie, but maybe he'd think I was crazy if I told him the truth, especially if I included my speculations about a link to Edward. While I was considering how to respond to his question, he spoke again.
"Sometimes, especially before we got married, your mum had really bad nightmares, and they were rarely just one-off events. You're very like your mum in lots of ways, and I thought..."
"You thought I might be mentally ill like her!"
I don't know why I said that just then, especially in such an angry tone. The words just burst out without any forethought, rising up from deep inside me, and spewing forth uncontrollably. I was shocked by my own words, and Dad looked as shocked as I felt. As my shock turned to embarrassment, I also experienced a sense of relief, as if the expression of my inner fear had released a pent-up pressure inside me.
"I... I never thought that!" Dad said, then with a hint of anger in his voice he added. "And who said your mum was mentally ill?"
Only then did I realise the implications of my outburst. I'd trapped myself into an extremely uncomfortable situation and I couldn't see an easy way out. Even if I'd wanted to lie to my dad, I couldn't think of any credible lie to tell him. Telling the truth would mean breaking my promise to Gran, but there seemed no viable alternative.
"Gran told me. But she didn't want to. I just kept on at her till she gave in."
"Your gran told you that your mum was mentally ill?"
"Well," I said, trying to remember Gran's actual words, "she told me mum had been in a psychiatric hospital."
"Not everyone in a psychiatric ward is crazy. Your mum wasn't, and I don't think you are."
"But Gran said that Mum saw things and heard voices that weren't real."
"They were real experiences for your mum."
"But if no one else saw or heard those things, that's got to mean she was crazy," I muttered.
Dad frowned, and I detected an increasing annoyance in his face. Then his expression relaxed, and after taking a deep breath, he spoke again. "Look, if you lived in a country where no one could see colours and you started talking about green leaves or a blue sky, would they be right to think you were crazy? And if people kept denying that colours existed and kept telling you that you were crazy, don't you think that you might get so frustrated that you might begin to shows signs of mental illness?"
"Maybe," I said, shrugging my shoulders.
"Your mum was never crazy, so she didn't 'get better'. She just realised that she had to keep her experiences private. But locking them away inside herself gave her some really bad nightmares."
We both sat in silence for several seconds while I tried to assimilate this information and Dad waited for my reaction.
"Did you say she didn't have so many nightmares after you got married?" I asked, hoping that maybe Dad might have some way of stopping the nightmares I'd been having.
"Yes. Over the years they became less frequent and less severe, and eventually she rarely had any."
"And that was just because she talked to you about being able to see and hear stuff?" I asked doubtfully.
"And because when she talked with me she knew that she was talking with someone who believed that her experiences were real."
"But. But you're a scientist!" I protested incredulously. "How could you believe in what no one else can see?"
"People do that all the time," Dad said and laughed gently. "People believe in love, and even scientists believe in subatomic particles that no one has ever seen. You can't see the love that other people feel for you, but I hope that from the way they behave you can believe that they love you."
I blushed when he said that, because I realised that he was referring to himself when he said 'other people'.
"There were so many times that your mum's feelings about a person or a place turned out to be true," he continued, "and so many times when her experiences mirrored real events, so eventually I couldn't help believing. Eventually, when she talked about her experiences, I always believed they were real, though I didn't always agree with her interpretation of them."
While he was speaking, I began to see my dad from a different perspective, and the mental model of him that had developed during my childhood seemed to be crumbling away. It was all very disconcerting and unsettling, and as if trying to steady itself, my mind grasped upon one word.
"Interpretation?" I asked.
Dad looked startled that I should have chosen that particular question out of all the possible things I could have asked.
"Er, yes," he said, gathering his thoughts. "For example, sometimes we'd go to a place and she'd see and hear people that no one else could see. Occasionally, they were dressed in old-fashioned clothes, or maybe we found later that they seemed to be linked to the history of the place and were no longer alive. So your mum, who believed in spirits, thought they were ghosts...."
"But you didn't?" I interrupted.
"Let's say that I had my own explanation that I thought much more likely."
"Which was?" I prompted.
"Well, we know that the brain produces electrical signals, so maybe extreme emotions, especially if they continue for a long time, can produce strong signals that are imprinted on a particular location. My own interpretation is that you mum was somehow able to detect and decode those signals, so they appeared to her as sights and sounds."
"And you think I'm like Mum?" I asked after a long pause for thought.
"A bit, yes. But your sensitivity probably isn't as great."
There was another long pause while I absorbed the implications of what he'd told me. I began to understand why he'd told me that I mustn't tell anyone about my 'mini-visions', but there were several other things that were still unclear. However, before I could form my thoughts into specific questions, Dad spoke.
"I know you've got a lot to think about, but you didn't really answer my question."
"What was that?" I asked.
"This isn't the first nightmare here is it?" he asked. When I shook my head, he added, "Did they start when we moved here? Are they getting worse?"
When I began to answer, I intended only to address his specific questions, but it needed only a couple of gentle prompts from him before I found myself pouring out everything, including how I felt it might be linked to the story of Edward and Tommy. The only things I kept back from him were Tom's nightmares and my feelings for Tom.
"I'm worried about the choking part of your nightmares," he said when I'd finished talking, "and about that broken window. I'll have to look into that in the morning, and we'll talk more about all this tomorrow. But for now, I think we should both try to get some sleep. "
He stood up then leaned over and kissed me on the forehead.
"G'night, Mark," he said softly.
This was the first time since I was twelve that he'd given me a goodnight kiss, and I was so taken aback by it that it took me some time to respond.
"Night, Dad," I said as he left the room.
My sleep was undisturbed until I heard Dad knocking on the door and telling me it was time to get up. In the grey light of dawn, I dragged myself wearily out of bed and went to my bedroom, which was bitterly cold. I went in and out as quickly as possible, just to grab some clean clothes then got dressed in the bathroom. When I went down to the kitchen, the lights were on and the kettle had just boiled, but Dad was nowhere to be seen, so I began to prepare breakfast. A couple of minutes later, Dad came down the stairs from the hallway.
"I've just been outside to look at the glass from your window," he said in response to my questioning expression. "As I suspected, there's a lot more out there than there was in your room, so it was most likely broken from the inside."
I was just about to protest my innocence when he raised his hand and spoke again.
"Don't worry, I know it wasn't you," he smiled and then frowned in thought. "The odd thing is that the pieces are really small, as if the glass was almost pulverised rather than just broken. Anyway, I'll try and get someone to fix the window today."
He joined me in getting breakfast ready, and nothing more was said until we sat down to eat. This early morning silence was quite usual for us, mainly because I'm not usually fully awake until after my morning cup of tea.
"You know, Mark," Dad said as I began eating my croissant, "even when the window's fixed, maybe it's best if you move into a different room. If your idea that the nightmares are linked to Edward is correct then maybe they'll stop if you sleep somewhere else."
"I don't think it's as simple as that," I said. "I had a really bad nightmare when I slept in the old guest room during Tony's visit. And it's harder for me to get to sleep in the guest room than it is in my own room."
Dad's expression became even more concerned. "The nightmares would be bad enough on their own, but they would be even more of a problem if the broken window is somehow linked to them."
"Maybe it was just coincidence," I said without much conviction.
"Maybe it is. I've been thinking about that. It was very cold outside last night. Maybe that interacted with fault in the glass and caused it to break, especially if there was a rapid drop in outside air pressure. We'll probably never know. But if it is linked to your nightmares, I don't want to risk anything happening to you."
"I'm sure I'll be okay," I said confidently. "Anyway, there's not much we can do about it."
"Actually, I was thinking about that as well. Perhaps we should think about moving..."
"No!" I protested loudly. "No way! I like living here!" The idea of moving, especially of moving away from Tom, filled me with panic. Trying to calm myself, I continued, "You've spent a fortune on this place, and in any case it would take ages to sell the house and find somewhere else."
"Mark," Dad said earnestly, "your safety is more important than money and inconvenience. And you could stay with Elaine or Gran until we find a new house."
His words and obvious sincerity touched me deeply, and they even cut through my panic at the idea of leaving Prospect House.
"Surely there's something else we can try," I said in desperation. "Can't you think of anything less drastic than moving?"
"What, you mean? Like an exorcism?" Dad asked doubtfully. "I really don't think that would have any effect on your nightmares."
My mind went into overdrive as I desperately tried to think of a way of allaying Dad's fears and staying in the house. After a couple of minutes an idea surfaced.
"Last night you said that Mum's nightmares gradually went away after she started talking to you about things. Well, last night I talked to you, and last week I mentioned them to Tom, so maybe mine will go away as well."
"I don't know," Dad said doubtfully. "It may not be the same as it was for your mum. After all, nothing ever got broken during your mum's nightmares."
"We don't know what broke the window," I replied. Then I had another idea. "You said you thought Mum could pick up signals of strong emotions recorded..."
"Imprinted, not recorded," he interrupted.
"Imprinted then," I said, mildly irritated and not seeing much difference. "Imprinted on places. Maybe those recordings, or imprints, or whatever, can be erased or covered over by the emotions of people who live there later. Maybe if I stay here the bad recordings will fade away."
Dad looked even less convinced by that idea than he'd been by the suggestion that talking about my nightmares would make them go away. Before he could voice his doubts, I spoke again.
"At least let's give it a chance," I pleaded. "Before we make any drastic decisions, let's see if the nightmares fade like Mum's did. Please?"
He considered that for a few seconds. Then he sighed and said, "Okay. We'll wait and see how things go, but you must promise to tell me if you have more nightmares or if, well, if anything odd happens."
With a sigh of relief I eagerly nodded my agreement to his conditions. "I promise."
The conversation at breakfast put me behind schedule, so I had to hurry to get down to the gatehouse to meet up with Brian and Tom. As Tom had recently been having nightmares on the same nights as I had, I thought that he might have a migraine, so I was a little surprised as well as very pleased to see him at all that morning. In fact, he looked very well and completely rested.
On the way to school there was no opportunity for us to speak privately, so I didn't mention my nightmare until he came up to my house late that afternoon. He informed me that he'd had an undisturbed night's sleep and asked me for details of my experience. When I told him about the broken window, his brow creased into a worried frown.
"It's just as well your dad heard it," he said, "or you might have frozen to death in your sleep."
"I'm sure the cold would've woken me up if Dad hadn't," I said, making light of the matter.
He didn't look very reassured by my assertion, so I continued in an even more cheerful tone, "Anyway, look on the bright side. At least it means that your nightmares aren't caused by mine."
"Is that what you thought?" he asked, looking mildly surprised. "When you told me we'd been having them on the same nights I was a bit worried that you were somehow picking them up from me. Still, even if we don't have them on the same nights every time, it's hard to believe they're not related at all."
"I s'pose," I said.
When I went on to tell him about my dad's idea that some places could be 'imprinted' by strong emotions, Tom was more sceptical than I'd anticipated, but he was still concerned about my welfare if the nightmares continued. Because I'd already dismissed Dad's suggestion that we might move, I didn't mention that as a possible solution.
Later, we were both even less inclined than usual to do homework, and without even opening our school bags we decided to just see if there was anything on TV. As it turned out, there was very little that either of us wanted to watch, so we ended up just sitting together on the living room sofa and chatting while some banal late-afternoon game show droned on in the background. We both sat back, relaxed and close together, but not quite touching. Close or prolonged physical contact with anyone, even Tom, made me uncomfortable, and I think he could sense that.
He was in a very pensive mood, and I was tired because my sleep had been so disturbed the previous night, so the conversation gradually began to fade. However, we were both very comfortable in the lengthening silences and, neglecting my hostly duties, I dozed off. Not long later I awoke to find my head tilted sideways and my cheek resting on something warm, lumpy, and not very comfortable.
There was a slight pressure on the top of my head, and on opening my eyes I saw a pair of knees, clad in blue jeans. For a few seconds I was disoriented, then I realised that my head was resting on Tom's shoulder and I lurched upright. As I made this sudden movement, the top of my head collided with the source of the slight pressure.
Tom, more startled than hurt, was rubbing his ear, which I guessed had been resting against the top of my head.
"S-sorry," I stuttered, feeling embarrassed and guilty for falling asleep on my guest.
"S'okay," he said and smiled.
Then I noticed that there was a darker spot on the shoulder of his mid-grey shirt, and with shame I realised I must have drooled during my sleep. Not only had I fallen asleep on my guest, I'd banged his ear and drooled on him. My cheeks burned red.
"Sorry," I said again. Because my transgressions were too many to list individually, I added simply, "For everything."
"I told you, it's okay," he said. With a shy smile, he added much more quietly, "Actually, it was quite nice."
Now we were both red-faced, and as if by mutual agreement we looked away from one another and toward the TV.
"Anyway," Tom said in a teasing tone, "I s'pose it's my fault for being so boring that you couldn't stay awake."
"You're not boring!" I protested, turning to look at him again. "I'm just very tired after last night."
"Yeah, I know," he said, his eyes twinkling. "I was just winding you up."
We both relaxed back on the sofa, and this time when our shoulders touched, instead of moving away, I leaned against him.
Although I was very embarrassed about it at the time, the little incident on the sofa signalled the start of a new phase in our relationship. After that, whenever we were alone together we were often in physical contact. At first it was just apparently casual, almost accidental, brushing of hands. Then there were times we sat so close together that our sides touched one another from shoulders to ankles. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but within a couple of weeks we'd progressed to occasionally holding hands.
Having private time together in Prospect House wasn't difficult, because Dad spent so much time at work. Of course, whenever anyone else was around we were careful to maintain both a physical and emotional distance, and our public behaviour, such as where we sat on the school bus, remained unchanged. From the looks that Chris gave us, it was clear that he had some idea about the situation between Tom and me, but his only reaction appeared to be one of mild amusement. His apparently easy acceptance may have been partly because Tom had made an effort to ensure that spending time with me didn't cause him to neglect his friendship with Chris. If anyone else had noticed that Tom and I had become closer, they showed no sign of it.
Neither Tom nor I talked about our feelings for one another or about the more tactile nature of our interactions, but there was no doubt about our growing closeness. My own attitude to this was somewhat ambivalent. I enjoyed being with Tom, and now I felt comfortable when he touched me, but I was still made a little uneasy by the fact that he'd infiltrated both my emotional and physical spaces. The possibility of falling in love scared me so much that I didn't allow myself even to think about it. From my point of view, our relationship was progressing about as fast and as far as I wanted.
As Christmas inexorably approached, my life was going smoothly and my relationship with Tom seemed to reach a sort of plateau. We were very comfortable together, and our emotional intimacy deepened, but our physical intimacy never went beyond the private cuddles and holding of hands. Occasionally, I had the impression that Tom wanted to take things further, but on those occasions the involuntary tensing of my body or the look of fear in my eyes must have dissuaded him.
From what Tony and Brian had told me about their exploits with girls, they sometimes moved from a first meeting to snogging in a matter of hours. Maybe there was an element of bragging in what my two straight friends told me, but I believed they were being essentially truthful. Also I knew that Chris, who was almost a year younger than I, had already got as far as oral sex, so I began to wonder if I was odd because of my reluctance to go further with Tom. I hoped that Tom didn't think I was too weird.
My sexual fantasies involving Tom were frequent and intense, so there was nothing wrong with my sex drive, and I certainly found Tom attractive. On one level I wanted to be more physically intimate with him, but whenever that seemed likely to happen in reality, I drew back in fear. I was afraid of making a fool of myself because of my total inexperience. I was afraid that if I gave in to my desires Tom might change his mind and reject me. I was afraid of how vulnerable I'd be if I became even more emotionally attached to him. I was afraid of how people, especially my dad, would react if they found out about us. The list of my fears seemed endless.
During the weeks between the breaking of the window and the Christmas holiday, neither Tom nor I had any nightmares, and I didn't hear the tapping or experience any of the strongly erotic episodes. Despite this period of calm, I couldn't really relax, because I had a strong impression that my existence was in a state of unstable equilibrium and that, for good or ill, things were about to change. Feeling powerless and unable to control events, all I could do was wait with metaphorically bated breath for events to unfold.
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