I wish to express my gratitude to my editor, Richard, for his time, patience, comments and encouragement.
David had been my best friend for more than five years, ever since we'd started at primary school, but his mum had never approved of me. As far as I knew, she didn't dislike me personally, but on several occasions she'd made it clear to David, even when she knew I could hear her, that I wasn't a suitable friend and that our friendship wasn't 'appropriate'. She didn't tell him outright that he couldn't see me, and it would have been difficult for him to obey such an instruction, even if he'd wanted to do so. After all, we both went to the same school, he had to walk past my home to get there, and our houses were less than five minutes walk apart.
He was an only child, and my brother was much younger than I, so it just seemed natural that each of us became like the brother that the other had always wanted. We spent as much time as possible in each other's company and we did everything together. We were intrepid adventurers, exploring the jungle that was really just a small clump of bushes on the vacant land opposite my house. We learned to ride bikes at the same time. We even had chicken pox together.
At that time my relationship with my brother, Andy, wasn't very close, but the only real frictions were caused by having to share a room. The age gap of almost five years between us meant that our lives just didn't intersect or overlap very much. For example, his first year at primary school was my last year there. My paternal grandmother looked after me when Mum went back to work a few months after I was born. When she went back to work after Andy was born, he was left in the care of my mum's sister, Mary.
My brother looked like a younger version of me, though he was referred to as wiry, whereas I was usually referred to skinny. Although we were both shorter than most of our contemporaries, Andy was a couple of inches taller than I was at an equivalent age. Despite a physical similarity, however, we had different personalities and few shared interests. He liked sports, but I preferred reading. He loved gadgets and electronics, but I was interested in them only insofar as they had a specific use for me.
Andy's actions were strongly influenced by his emotions, but I tended to try to think things through before taking action. He was more outgoing and sociable, possibly because for his first five years he'd grown up spending weekdays with cousins of similar age at my aunt's house. Apart from when I was with David, I was uncomfortable in social situations, possibly because I spent much of my first five years alone with my rather eccentric grandmother. So it sometimes felt to me as if my brother and I were just two kids who happened to live in the same house.
During my time at primary school there were other kids I was friendly with, but they were more like acquaintances than friends. David had a couple of friends near where he lived, and they sometimes joined in our adventures, but I believed that I was his one and only best friend. Although David was almost four months younger than I, he was bigger and stronger, but so was almost every boy my own age.
David and I were different in many other ways, too. My light brown hair was kept so short that it looked tidy even when I'd just got out of bed, whereas his medium-length black curly hair always looked messy, even when freshly combed. My eyes were hazel with a hint of green, while his were large and dark brown, and the way he could roll them, especially when he was telling me about being nagged by his mum, always made me laugh. He'd been the leader who invented new games and got us into trouble, though for some reason his mum had always seemed to blame me.
Although our homes were quite close and in the same area of town, David's house was bigger and had both front and rear gardens, while mine had just a paved-over rear back yard. Both my parents went out to work, dad as a lorry driver and mum in a local supermarket. David's dad was the manager in a hardware store and earned enough to enable his wife to stay home and be a housewife, a role that she relished. As a young boy, I accepted her merely as David's mum, though I often thought she was a bit scary. However, in retrospect I realised that she was a social climber, as indicated by her insistence on getting a better car than the neighbours and by her trying to persuade her husband to move to a house in a better part of town. She didn't merely keep up with the Joneses; she kept ahead of the Joneses, and wanted to get away from the Joneses.
One afternoon in the summer holidays when we were nine years old, David suggested that we should go and explore the piece of land at the bottom of his street. We couldn't remember that there'd been anything on that land, but the grown-ups had mentioned that there used to be a church on the site, which was now empty and surrounded by a wire mesh fence. Despite the fact that we'd been told many times not to play there, we'd disobeyed that instruction before, and I readily agreed to his suggestion, so we made our way to the small gap in the fence that we'd discovered more than a year previously.
There was nothing that could fairly be described as soil on the ground, which was covered mostly with pulverised red bricks and blown-in dirt, but that hadn't prevented the growth of what seemed to us to be a jungle of shoulder-high weeds. The predominant type of weed was tall and thin, and at that time of year was producing masses of seeds, carried through the air on what appeared to be little bits of cotton wool. We had a great time, chasing each other, trying to make our own crop circles, fencing with the stems of some of the more woody weeds, and generally messing about. Then I started sneezing uncontrollably.
Up until that time, I'd never suffered from hay fever, and after that time I suffered from it only rarely and mildly. However, on that afternoon I had a massive allergic reaction to something. Apart from the sneezes, my nose dripped like a tap, tears poured down my cheeks, and my eyelids began to swell up so that I could barely see. So we immediately set off to David's house, but before we could reach the front door, it was flung open by his mother, who presumably had been looking out of a window and had seen us approaching
"Stop right there!" she shouted, making me cringe. "You're not coming into my house in such a disgusting state. I've just finished cleaning."
We froze in our tracks, and for the first time I noticed that our T-shirts, shorts and hair were covered in the fluffy seeds and that our shoes were caked in reddish dust. When I wiped my nose on the back of my hand, I noticed that my arm was covered in tiny scratches. While I awaited further instructions, David said, "But Ian..."
"Yes," she interrupted, "we all know who's responsible. How many times have I told you not to go onto that waste ground?"
Although at that age we weren't familiar with the word 'rhetorical', we were familiar with the fact that she was very fond of asking questions to which she didn't want us to respond. So, apart from my sneezes and sniffles, there was a brief silence.
"You two stay there," she commanded, staring particularly at me. She went inside the house and a few seconds later returned with a hairbrush and a plastic bin liner, which she handed to David. "Brush your hair, put your clothes and shoes in there, and then go and have a shower."
"I can't get undressed outside!" David protested
"You can do whatever I tell you to, young man!" she replied angrily, glaring at him and completely ignoring me. "But in any case, you can keep your underpants and socks on."
"What about Ian?" David asked as he carried out her orders.
"Is your grandmother looking after you today?" she asked me, her expression and tone making her words seem like an accusation of a serious crime.
"Ye-achoo!" I sneezed, nodding.
"Well, you'd better go and show her what a state you're in." With that, she pulled David inside and closed the door.
Fortunately, my gran's house was in the next street over from David's, and it took me only a couple of minutes to walk there. Gran looked a little dismayed when she saw me, but seemed more concerned by my allergic reaction than by the condition of my clothes. She made me take a bath and then put on one of the sets of spare clothes that were always kept at her house. The water was barely lukewarm, but I didn't mind because it was a warm day and I felt very hot and sweaty.
Although, I felt much better after that, she insisted on taking me to the local pharmacy, where she bought a nose spray, eyewash, and some tablets. By the time Gran handed me over to my mum, most of my symptoms had gone. Much to my relief, and a little to my surprise, when Gran told her that I'd had the allergic reaction while I was playing outside, she didn't mention either the condition of my clothes or where she must have suspected I'd been.
The following day was again sunny and warm, and my boredom overcame my fear of David's mum, so I went round to David's house to see if he wanted to come out and play. His mum opened the door and informed me that he'd been grounded, so I went back to Gran's house, where I spent much of my time sitting in her back yard and reading comics. A couple days after that, I was relieved when David came round to see me.
By the time I was about eight years old, I had a vague idea about how babies were made, and the information was interesting in that it offered an explanation for my own existence, but apart from that it didn't seem to have any direct personal significance for me. Even before then, one thing I did know was that I preferred being with boys rather than with girls and that I yearned to be close to certain specific boys. Whenever I was close to one of those special boys, or even when I just saw them nearby, I'd feel a pleasantly exciting tingle deep inside my tummy. However, it would be another couple of years before I associated that feeling with sexuality
Although I very much enjoyed being with David, and I'd rather spend time with him than with anyone else, he wasn't one of the boys who gave me that special feeling. The boy who produced the strongest tingles was Simon, and although he was in my year, I rarely interacted with him at all. In fact, what little I knew of his personality didn't really impress me, possibly because he exuded an air of self-confidence that seemed to be bordering on arrogance.
Simon stood out from all the others in our class not only because he was tall for his age but also because of his thick, pale-gold hair and sparkling green eyes. My yearning to be close to Simon remained unfulfilled because we never socialised together. He was a talented sportsman, but I was far too clumsy to be picked for any teams. Unlike me, he was from a relatively wealthy, upper-middle class family with a large home in the posh part of the school's catchment area. In fact, he lived in just the sort of place that David's mum aspired to live.
At lunchtime on a Friday in early summer when I was nine years old, David and I were in the schoolyard discussing our plans for the weekend when Simon caught my attention. He'd been kicking a ball about with a few of his friends and had paused to take off his pullover. David continued speaking for a few seconds before he noticed my distraction.
"Well, what do ya think?" he asked.
"Erm, what about?" I said, tearing my eyes away from Simon.
"About going for a bike ride to Swan Park on Sunday," he said irritably.
"Great idea. I'll ask my mum and let you know for sure when we meet up tonight."
"Anyway, why were you staring at Simon just now?" he asked.
I was embarrassed that he'd seen where I'd been looking, but relieved that he now appeared to be less irritated. Even if I'd understood why Simon fascinated me, I couldn't have admitted it to David, So I just said the first thing that came into my head. "I wasn't staring, I was just looking. And I was wondering why he's always with lots of friends."
"He may have lots of friends, but I don't think he has any proper friends," he replied, frowning slightly. "Not real best friends, like you and me."
Just after my eleventh birthday and a little before David's, we both took the entrance exam for the most prestigious school in our region. I did well enough not only to get into the school but also to get the scholarship that actually enabled me to go because it paid for my uniform, books, and other expenses as well as school fees. Unfortunately, David didn't pass, and we were both dismayed at the prospect of not going to the same secondary school.
His mum was very annoyed, not least because I did well when her own son had failed. In fact, David and I overheard her say as much to her husband when he got home from work on the day after the results came out. I don't think that she knew that David and had just come indoors from their back garden and could overhear her, though we couldn't see what was going on.
"What are we going to do about David failing the entrance exam?" she asked.
"Well, it's not the end of the world," his dad replied, sounding tired. "There are other good schools."
"But they don't have the same sort of reputation," she said irritably. "And to make things worse, David told me that his scruffy little friend, Ian, passed. It's embarrassing."
"Well, that's just the way things are," his dad said resignedly, "and there's nothing we can do about it."
"They might let David attend the school as a fee-paying student."
"And where would we get that sort of money? I thought we were saving up so we can move."
"Maybe we should reconsider our priorities."
At that point, David grabbed the sleeve of my jacket and tugged me back out into the rear garden. He was obviously embarrassed and uncomfortable, and I was still smarting at being described as 'scruffy', so we avoided eye contact and neither of us said anything for a few seconds.
"I'd better go inside. We'll be eating soon," he said eventually.
"Yeah, I'll go home," I replied, taking the hint.
"Better not go through the house. Use the back gate."
After that, things were never quite the same. At school, he behaved more or less as before, and as far as I could tell, we were still best friends. However, he no longer invited me round to his home, and when we played together outside school, it seemed that the closer we were to his house, the more strained our interactions became. As the end of our last term at primary school approached and I'd heard nothing more about him becoming a fee-paying student, I assumed that after the long summer holidays we'd be going to different schools.
"We can still be best friends, even in different schools," I said as we left the primary school together for the last time. "There's weekends and after school. And the whole summer holidays."
"Yeah," he replied with a lack of conviction that made my heart sink.
"Want to stop by at my house?" I asked hopefully.
"Nah. Mum says I have to go straight home."
The next day, Saturday, my parents insisted that I go shopping with them, so I didn't get a chance to see David. The following day the rain poured down in torrents, so I knew that we couldn't spend time together outdoors. I had the feeling that I wouldn't be welcome at his home, and my small house was crowded with parents, little brother, and my visiting grandmother. So, I decided to phone him to arrange to get together as soon as possible.
At a time when very few eleven-year-olds had their own mobile phones, my only option was to phone his home landline and hope that he was the one who answered. If it was his dad then I guessed it would probably be okay, but I was a little scared at the prospect of having to talk to his mum.
"Hello." Unfortunately, it was his mum.
"Erm, can I speak to David, please?"
"Is that Ian?"
"David's not home."
There was a sound like a brief whine in the background, and I thought it could have been David's voice.
"Please will you ask him to call me when he gets a chance?"
"I'll pass on the message," she replied, and immediately hung up.
By mid morning the following day, David hadn't called me, so I screwed up all my courage and went round to his house. His mum opened the door and looked at me disdainfully.
"Yes?" she said, as if she didn't know who I was or why I was there.
"Is David in?" I asked nervously.
"He's out playing with friends."
"Oh. Well, please tell him I came to see him."
"He needs to make new friends, now. Friends at his new school," she said coldly as she shut the door.
I stood for a few seconds, trying to process what she'd said, then turned and walked away. As I went through the front gate, something made me turn around and look back at the house. There was movement at one of the upstairs windows, and I just caught a glimpse of a face before the lace curtain fell back into place. It was David's bedroom window and his face. It didn't take me long to conclude that his mum was trying to put up a barrier between my best friend and me.
At first I believed that David would find some way of getting around his mum's blockade and come around to my house, or that he'd at least phone me. After all, he'd known for a long time that his mum didn't approve of our friendship, but it hadn't stopped him seeing me before. However, almost a week went by, and I heard nothing from him, so I decided to try to communicate by letter.
Without any attempt at careful composition, I just wrote down all the things I wanted to say to him. Then I'd realised that the words I'd written were not the sort of words that one eleven-year-old boy usually uses with another. Of course, I never mentioned the word 'love', or even hinted it, but the note still seemed far too sentimental, even after I'd rewritten it. So I rewrote it yet again, just telling him how much I appreciated his friendship, how much I missed him, and almost begging him to get touch.
Thinking that his mum might see me and intercept the letter if I just put it through the letterbox myself, I put a stamp on the envelope and posted it. There was no response at all, not by letter, not in person, and not by phone. That hurt me more than I would have admitted to anyone at the time, even to myself. When my mum asked what had happened to David and why I didn't see him any more, I merely shrugged as if it was a matter of no importance and mumbled something about him being too busy.
Of course, I wondered why David had apparently cut me out of his life. Perhaps he really was just too busy with his new school and new friends. Perhaps his mother's strange idea that I was a bad influence had rubbed off on him. Perhaps the letter I'd sent hadn't got to him, or maybe it had and, despite my rewriting, it had been too sentimental and had embarrassed him. Whatever the reason, I persuaded myself not to care.
Everyone told me I was very lucky to get a scholarship to such a prestigious school. Of course, I agreed with that, but being lucky and being happy don't always go together. During the first few weeks after the transition from primary school to secondary school, I was a long way outside my comfort zone. I felt like a fish out of water, especially as only a handful of boys from my primary school, none of whom could be regarded as my friends, had made that transition with me.
One small consolation was that Simon was also there, and although he was in a different class and I still wasn't part of his social circle, at least I got to see him and admire his good looks. Now that I was eleven years old and puberty had started, over the long and lonely summer holidays I'd discovered that the pleasant tingles I got from seeing certain boys were in fact related to sexual urges. Simon begun to play a star role in many of my fantasies, though those fantasies didn't include any details of what we might actually do if I ever did get close to him.
As it happened, the link between my experience of puberty and what I'd previously been told about making babies was established only after I'd done some surreptitious research just before starting secondary school. My formal sex education, which consisted of my class being shown a movie containing mostly diagrams, took place one afternoon some months later, when I was twelve years old. Furthermore, when as a child I'd been told about a man and woman falling in love and the man planting a seed, there'd been no mention at all of willies or orgasms.
So it was that my first orgasm took me by surprise and, at least in my memory, was too frightening to be pleasurable. The effect on my body made me wonder if I was having a seizure, and there was no association in my mind between planting seeds inside a woman and the small amount of liquid and bubbles that emerged. In fact, it reminded me of the time my gran put salt on a slug, causing it to produce a similar bubbling slime. Thus my fright was mingled with disgust, and it occurred to me that I'd broken my willy.
Of course, that fear didn't stop me repeating the experience a few days later, and I didn't feel so bad about it after my private research had indicated that it was normal. The pubic hairs that began to emerge a short time after that were expected, though not entirely welcome at the time. I was concerned that anyone who saw them might guess that I was now indulging in my newly favourite hobby.
In reality, at the time my pubic hairs first appeared, the only person who might have opportunity to see them was Andy, though I took great care to keep them hidden when I was undressing in our shared room. For a brief time, I tried shaving them off, but then realised that I was fighting a losing battle. If Dad noticed that someone was using his razor, or guessed what it was being used for, he never gave any indication of it
Despite the presence of Simon, the transition to my new school was stressful, and made worse because, although I wouldn't admit it to myself, I still missed David. Furthermore, many of the students at my new school were obviously very well off and most had what sounded, to my working class ear, like posh accents. One thing I rapidly got used to was the semi affectionate nickname of 'Titch', though the less affectionate epithet of 'Runt' from some of the older boys wasn't so easy to get accustomed to. So, outside of the classroom, I spent much of my time reading in whatever places I could find away from the more boisterous and sporty boys.
One of the places I'd found to sit and read was the narrow wooden bench that ran along the inside of the covered walkway that linked the main school building and the large outdoor recreation area. The buttressed wall of the school building formed one side of the walkway, but the other side was open and supported by redbrick pillars. Fortunately, my chosen spot was sheltered from the wind by a couple of the buttresses, which also provided at least an illusion of privacy.
For some reason that seemed to me to defy all logic, the small hut that was the tuck shop was located at the junction of the walkway and the school building, so my chosen spot was close to a relatively busy area. Despite that, no one had seemed to notice my existence until one lunchtime, about four weeks into my first term. I was deeply immersed in a fantasy novel about a magic sword inhabited by the soul of a long-dead king, when I heard a lightly boyish voice.
Surprised at being addressed directly, I tore my gaze from the book and saw the smiling face of my blond classmate, Teodor.
"That's a good book," he continued. "I read it a few months ago."
"I'm on the last chapter and was hoping to finish it before the end of lunch break," I replied, blinking as I tried to refocus both my eyes and my attention. As soon as the words left my lips, I regretted them, concerned that they might be interpreted as a hint that he should leave me alone. Not wishing to seem rude, I hurriedly added, "I'm enjoying it so much that I'll be a bit sad when it's finished."
Again, I immediately regretted my words, which I thought might imply I was some sort of sad wimp who took a fantasy story too seriously. Trying to guess what he was thinking, I studied his face and hoped he didn't notice me admiring his Slavic good looks. From my sitting position, I had to crane my neck to see his face, but even if we'd both been standing, I would've had to look up at him because he was at least a head taller. However, like me, he was also very thin, so he probably weighed less than most boys our age.
" Yeah, I know what you mean," he said. "There is a sequel, though. It's not so good as the first book, but worth reading." He was still smiling, and his pale blue eyes were twinkling, so it appeared that he'd not been too put off by what I'd said so far.
"I'll see if I can find it next time I go to the library," I said, grateful for the information.
"No need to do that," he replied, his smile broadening. "I've got a copy you can borrow. I'll try to remember to bring it in tomorrow."
Teo and I quickly became close friends, and began spending a lot of time together. During our very first conversation it was revealed that we both enjoyed reading and had very similar tastes in science fiction and fantasy books. Very soon after that we discovered that our birthdays were close together in March, with me being just two days older. Having found that we both enjoyed cycling, we immediately arranged to show each other our favourite routes.
There were some interests, however, that we didn't share. For example, he quite enjoyed sports, and he occasionally went to professional soccer or cricket matches with his father and brother. Although he wasn't a star soccer player, he had played for his primary school team. He now hoped to play for our secondary school, but that dream wasn't realised, though he did get onto his House team. By contrast, even if I had any interest in sports, no one would want someone as useless as me on their team.
He was very proud of his family background and told me a lot about it. For example, his parents had moved to England from Poland before he was born, and his father was a surgeon at the local hospital. His unusual surname, Jaworski, with the J being pronounced like a Y, was occasionally the source of a little teasing by some of our fellow students. However, although that teasing irritated me, it seemed to have no effect at all on Teo, who didn't appear to notice it.
Just a few weeks after Teo and I started spending a lot of time together, I felt comfortable enough with him to tell him about my friendship with David. I also told him about David's mum and her dislike of me, and how that friendship had ended. Perhaps I'd subconsciously expected Teo to comment on how horrible David's mum had been or on how badly I'd been treated, but that wasn't what he did.
"You're lucky," he said. "I never had a best friend at primary school."
My close friendship with Teo didn't prevent the existence of some rivalry between us, mostly because we were in the same class and often competed for the top places in our frequent tests. However, I never felt any resentment when he beat me, which he did more often than not. I knew and accepted the obvious fact that he was cleverer than I, and resenting that would have been as pointless as resenting the sun for being bright or the rain for being wet.
He also had a great skill with languages, and spoke French and Polish as fluently as English. In fact, as soon as he arrived at the school he started in the GCSE French class, where he apparently needed just to polish his use of the written language before taking the exam. Being an eleven year old in a class of fifteen year olds would have intimidated me, but it didn't seem to bother him at all. In any case, he was only thirteen years old when he got an A grade in GCSE French, and I was more than a little envious when he proudly gave me the news.
"Congratulations," I said, genuinely happy for him. However, for some reason, perhaps a meanness of spirit, I added, "But I suppose it was really easy for you."
"Why do you think it was easy?" he asked, frowning. "I worked hard for it."
"Well, you already spoke the language like a native."
"You speak English like a native," he replied, prodding my shoulder with his finger. "Does that mean you expect your English GCSE will be really easy?"
My only response was to smile and shrug, admitting defeat. When it came to discussions involving logic, Teo almost always had the upper hand.
A couple of months after we began our friendship, Teo invited me to Sunday lunch with his family. His father was quite slim, with thinning light brown hair, and very tall, or at least so it seemed to me. Teo's mother was much shorter and almost chubby, and it was obvious that he'd inherited his father's build but his mother's blond hair and Slavic looks. His younger brother, Krzysztof, who was known more familiarly as 'Kris', looked like a miniature version of their father.
Teo's facility with languages clearly derived from the fact that he lived in a multilingual household. His father was fluent in Polish and English, and he was able to get by in spoken Russian and German. His mother was fluent in Polish, English and French, and in fact taught French at a local secondary school. Even Kris, at just nine years old, slipped easily from English to Polish and back again without any hesitation.
At the time, I was quite unadventurous with unfamiliar foods, especially when they had strange names like borscht, pirogi, kielbasa, and so on. I sampled it all and liked most of it, except the thick sausage with a strong garlic flavour. However, I couldn't really do justice to the large amount of food put before me. Perhaps that's why I was never invited round for a meal again after that, or maybe it was because Teo was never invited to my house for Sunday dinner. In any case, over the years I went round to his house many times to see him, and his family always made me feel welcome.
Sometimes Teo came around to my house, but that was something I didn't actively encourage. Although I wasn't ashamed of my family, I was a little embarrassed by the difference between our homes. He lived in a large house, not only having a bedroom just for himself but also a spare bedroom and extensive gardens. By contrast, I had to share a bedroom with my younger brother in a tiny terraced house. So when he did come round to meet up with me, for example when we went cycling at weekends, I tried to ensure we left as quickly as possible.
One thing that I noticed when I first visited Teo was that his house appeared to be full of computers. His parents each had a laptop as well as a shared desktop computer, Teo had a desktop computer in his bedroom, and even Kris had one. By contrast, there were none at all in my house. The first thing I did when I got home after that visit was to point out to my parents that although it wasn't essential for me to have a computer in order to do my homework, it would certainly help, and would probably enable me to get better grades.
That Christmas my present was a pre-owned computer that Mum had obtained from a friend at work. A couple of years later, I used a similar argument to persuade my parents to get us an internet connection. They agreed, but the subscription for that was provided as my birthday present, and any cash gifts from relatives also had to contribute to the costs, which meant that I didn't get any other birthday presents until I was eighteen. Technically, I also had to share the computer with Andy, but in practice that wasn't a big problem because, being so much younger, he rarely wanted to use it, especially as he was more interested in console games.
Early in my friendship with Teo, he encouraged me to expand my range of interests and taught me to play chess well enough to get onto the school team. However, in all of our chess games, I beat him only once, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't feeling very well that day. He persuaded me to expand the range of my reading interests to include more classic novels and even foreign books such as 'Le Grand Meaulnes' and 'L'Etranger'. However, I read them in their English translations whereas he read them in the original French.
One Friday, Teo gave me a gift of a paperback copy of 'Le Grand Meaulnes', and because he was obviously eager to find out what I thought of it, I read it over the weekend. When we got together during the mid-morning break on Monday, he immediately asked me what I thought of the novel.
"Well, it was interesting, and I'm glad that I read it. It was an enjoyable read, but it also left me feeling a bit sad, like something important had been lost. On the other hand, I found it very satisfying," I said slowly and pensively. After a brief pause, I added, "Do you think it's a bit odd that a sense of loss and satisfaction can go together?"
He smiled, clearly happy that the story had given me food for thought.
"Actually, I don't think it's odd at all, and maybe it's not an unusual combination. After all, an adult remembering when he was a kid might make him nostalgic about his lost childhood, but that doesn't mean he isn't satisfied as an adult," he said. Then with an impish grin, he added, "And when you lose your virginity, you can still be satisfied."
"Anyway," I said, not wanting to end the discussion with a feeling of being defeated by his logic, "why is it you like the book so much?"
"I s'pose I'm just an incurable romantic," he replied with an enigmatic smile.
By the time we were in the second year at school and were both thirteen years old, I'd realised that I was probably gay. However, I wasn't comfortable with that realisation and found it difficult to accept. Of course, I never even considered mentioning that to Teo. Although he and I were as close as I could imagine being to another person, and although we sometimes discussed romance in the stories we read, we never discussed our emotions or sex. With mere acquaintances I could swap rude jokes, but not with Teo. Other boys often featured in my sexual fantasies, but on the very rare occasions when Teo made such an appearance, I always immediately felt guilty.
The only time Teo mentioned sex at all was as we were leaving the sex education movie when we were twelve years old. With an air of smug boredom, he simply whispered in my ear that his dad had told him all about that sort of thing years ago. That revelation wasn't totally surprising, not only because his dad was a doctor but also because I'd realised some time earlier that he was much closer to his dad than I was to mine.
In retrospect, I realised that I'd probably fallen in love with Teo, but even if I'd understood those feelings at the time, I could never have admitted to myself that it was anything other than the platonic love for a best friend. As far as I was concerned, he was too pure, our friendship was too pure, and my feelings for him were too pure for me to allow them to be sullied by sexual thoughts. Even when I eventually admitted to myself that there might be an element of romantic love for Teo, I tried to reject any sexual attraction. I was content to just bask in his presence, even when we were merely sitting in a room together, each reading our own book.
Of course, he was just a boy like other boys, and even at the time I must have realised that. Regardless of his sexuality, he must have had a sexual nature and sexual thoughts of his own. Maybe he even had his own loves, but if he had, I preferred not to know. The nearest we ever came to expressions of our feelings was when we exchanged birthday cards and Christmas cards with little scribbles such as 'Thanks for being such a good friend'.
Toward the end our third year at the school, we were required to choose which subjects we intended to take for the GCSE exams. Teo thought that he might eventually like to study politics and economics at university, and although my own long-term ambitions were rather more vague, my general interest was mainly in the sciences. So it was that in the fourth year we mostly took different subjects. However, outside the classroom we still spent a lot of time together.
One dreary and damp autumnal Wednesday afternoon, at the start of my fourth year at school, when I was fourteen years old, I was in the gymnasium building. I was tidying equipment cupboards as a punishment for forgetting to bring my soccer kit. Actually, for me this 'punishment' was greatly preferable to spending ninety-odd minutes on a cold, wet, muddy soccer field while being yelled at by team mates deriding my incompetence.
Furthermore, there was something about the smell of the changing rooms that gave me a mild erotic charge. Maybe I'd learned to associate the subtle olfactory mix of sweat, leather boots and chlorinated water with the chance of seeing naked bodies. Maybe the smells themselves directly stimulated the erotic parts of my brain. Whatever the reason, I half-shamefully knew that I enjoyed being in the changing rooms whether I was alone or not. So I conveniently 'forgot' my football kit as often as I felt I could do so without incurring any real punishment.
Unusually, on this occasion I was the only boy in class without any medical excuse for not bringing my kit, so I was alone doing punishment work in the gym. After about thirty minutes of desultory pottering about I heard the outer door open and close, and thinking it was a teacher coming to check up on me, I tried to give the impression that I was putting some effort into the job. However, when I looked up it turned out to be Simon striding toward me.
"Bloody lace broke," he said, gesturing vaguely toward his right football boot and glaring at me as if it were my fault.
I just looked up at him blankly, wondering why he should be telling me about his problem, but I didn't put my thoughts into words. After all, he'd already had his fifteenth birthday and was considerably taller and stronger than I, so I didn't want to annoy him.
"Mr Thompson said that as it's half time I should change it and that there are some spares in one of these cupboards," he said, exasperation joining the irritation in his glare.
"Oh, yeah," I muttered, embarrassed by my own stupidity. Then I pointed to a pinewood cupboard on my left and added, "That one, I think."
His glare softened and I was about to return to my work when he spoke again in a slightly friendlier tone.
"Look," he said. "I'm bursting, so why don't you find it for me while I go for a pee?"
Although the words were in the form of a request, the tone had more than a hint of command. Apparently assuming that I would comply, he immediately turned and went toward the toilets. Of course his assumption was correct, and I hurriedly went and found the box of spare laces. After a couple of minutes he still hadn't returned, so without any real thought and totally out of character for me, I went to the toilets to take the lace to him. When I got there and looked inside I saw him standing at one of the urinals at the far end of the room with the top of his shorts and his jock strap tucked under his scrotum.
He was facing the white-tiled wall with a distracted expression on his face, and it took me a couple of seconds to notice that his right arm, which was nearest to me, was moving slowly. Although I couldn't see it, I realised that he was gently stroking his dick, though it wasn't really fast or hard enough to really count as masturbating. Again totally out of character, I spoke.
"More than three shake is a wank," I said, repeating the schoolboy half-joke frequently heard in the boys' toilet.
He turned his head quickly and looked at me with a startled expression on his face. Embarrassed by my own audacity, I blushed deeply, immediately turned away from him, and left the room before he had any opportunity to respond to my quip. It was only then that I realised there was an uncomfortable bulge in my trousers. When he joined me in the changing room a couple of minutes later I was thankful that the bulge had subsided, and while trying to avoid eye contact, I silently held out the boot lace for him.
With a brief nod of acknowledgement, he took it from my hand and walked over to one of the benches, where he sat down to put the new lace in his boot. Unable to think of anything sensible to say or do, and unable to rid my mind of the picture of him at the urinal, I just stood there with my gaze fixed on his boots while he completed his task in silence, seemingly oblivious to my presence. Then he stood up and stamped his foot on the floor a couple of times as if testing the comfort of the new lacing.
After giving me just the briefest of glances, he headed toward the door, and it was only when I began to relax that I realised how tense I'd been. As I turned my attention back toward the cupboards I'd been working on, I was surprised to hear Simon's voice.
"What're you doing after school on Friday?"
Thinking that he was talking to someone who'd entered the changing rooms without me noticing, I glanced toward the door to see who it might be. To my surprise, I saw that he was alone and looking at me with a thoughtful expression on his face. Eventually, I realised that he must have been talking to me, but by then his pensive expression had become one of mild irritation, and he put his hand on the door handle. At first it seemed he might leave without waiting for my answer, but then he spoke again.
"The history of science project that Mr Edwards gave us yesterday. He said we should work in pairs." He paused as if wondering whether or not to continue then seemed to make his decision. "Apart from me, you're the best in our class, so if we work together on this project it should guarantee top marks."
"Er, yeah, I s'pose," I replied uncertainly as my mind began to grasp the situation.
"Look," he said irritably, his face showing annoyance tinged with embarrassment, "if you don't want to, just say so. I won't have any problem finding someone else to do the project with."
The way he emphasised the word 'I' seemed to imply that others, including myself, might not find it quite so easy to find a partner. Frankly, as we had four weeks to work on the project I'd not given the matter much thought. However, he was right. He would have lots of people eager to work with him, and I was surprised that he hadn't already arranged something.
"Y-yes," I stuttered. "Great idea. Of course I'll do it."
"Good," he replied with a grin. "So what're you doing after school on Friday? I thought we'd go back to my house so you'd know where it is when you came round to work together."
Of course, I didn't object to his assumption that I would be going round to work at his house. However, I didn't let him know that I already knew where he lived or that I'd sometimes walked past his house in the hope that I might catch a brief glimpse of him. After all, I didn't want him to think I was a stalker.
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