While I was discussing plans to visit my parents with Matt, I noticed that in the short time I'd been living with him I'd already begun using the word 'home' when I was talking about the flat. I realised that my parents' house was no longer the main place that I associated with my concept of 'home', and when I thought about that I experienced transient feelings of disorientation and dislocation. Although those feelings were a little unsettling, they were not altogether unpleasant.
On one of the weekends that Andy was away with his friends, about four weeks after we moved into the flat, Matt arranged his work schedule so that we could arrive at my parents' house late on the Friday evening and return on the Monday morning. Personally, I would have preferred to spend less time there, perhaps just one night, but Mum and Matt both wanted the visit to be longer. Although I knew they hadn't discussed it together, indeed they'd only exchanged brief greetings on the phone, I still felt like the victim of a conspiracy.
"I want to have enough time to see where you grew up," Matt said when we were debating the matter. "And I want to see all the places that were part of your life."
"But it's just a boring little town," I pointed out, "and you can see anything that might be a bit interesting in a couple of hours."
"Well I want to spend at least two nights," he said, grinning mischievously. "After all, it's going to be a real turn-on shagging in your old bed and thinking of all the wanks you had in it."
There had been a time when I would have been genuinely shocked, not only by what he'd just said but by the way he'd said it. However, over the past few months I'd often experienced, and admittedly enjoyed, his sexual adventurousness, so I wasn't quite so easily shockable any more. Still, I had to maintain an image of moral superiority, even though I knew he wouldn't believe it for an instant.
"You're sick!" I said, trying to pretend I was disgusted. "You're an evil pervert!"
"Yeah, I know," he agreed happily. "But isn't that why you like me? And don't you think it's a sexy idea?"
Although deep inside I reluctantly agreed with him, I had no intention of admitting it.
"Anyway," I said, "I already told you it's just a bunk bed. We won't even be able to fit both of us in, much less do anything physical."
"Mmmm, sounds cosy," he said. "I'm sure we can manage to have some fun."
"Not with my mum and dad in the next room," I said vehemently. "No way!"
"We'll see," he said confidently.
The week after I sent the letter to Mum, I decided that it was about time I came out to my brother. The decision wasn't totally spontaneous, because Mum had been nagging me to do so. She complained that she didn't want the strain of having to be careful about what she said in front of Andy and that she didn't want to risk being the one to give away my secret. So, late one evening, I phoned him.
"Hi, Ian," he said as soon as he answered. "I suppose you're calling to tell me to make sure the bedroom's clean and tidy for you and Matt."
"Erm, no," I replied. "I just assumed you'd do that without needing me to remind you."
"You're right about that. Mum's been nagging me about it, so I didn't need you doing it as well."
"Yeah, I know how she can be. Anyway, I, erm, I wanted to tell you something."
"You sound serious. It's nothing bad is it?"
"Well, I certainly don't think it's bad. It's about me," I said, trying to hide my nervousness. "And Matt."
"Ya mean something apart from the fact you moved into a flat with your boyfriend?" he asked, sounding very amused.
"What? Did mum tell you?"
"Course not. I probly knew before she did."
"Knew what, exactly?" I asked.
"That you're gay and that you and Frank used to be an item."
"And when did you find out?"
"Well," he said gleefully, "first of all, let's say that in future if you give your computer to someone, make sure you erase the hard drive and don't just delete the files you think might be incriminating. I guessed you were gay when I was twelve."
"And you didn't say anything?" I asked as soon as I'd recovered from the shock. "Not to anyone?"
"Of course not," he replied, clearly a little hurt and offended by the question. Then sounding as if he was explaining something that should have been obvious, he added, "What was there to say? You're my brother."
"And how did you know about me and Frank?"
"C'mon, Ian, I'm not an idiot, and it didn't take a genius to work out what was going on when you and Frank went around like you were joined at the hip. And last year, when Frank came out to his family, it just confirmed it."
"Ya mean everybody knows about Frank? Even Mum and Dad?"
"Course not. Just his family and me, as far as I know."
"How come you know, then?"
"Ah, Rachel told me. We were quite close," he said, sounding rather smug.
"Well, thanks for not telling anyone about me and Frank, but I think Mum guessed anyway," I said. Then another thought occurred to me. "Does Mum know about you and Rachel? She never said anything to me about it."
"There's nothing to know!" he protested. "It wasn't that serious, and we've broken up now. We're only sixteen."
I wasn't sure what, if anything, the reference to his age was meant to imply, but the way he said it sound almost like an excuse. Although I was certainly curious, I didn't want to pry. There were cans of worms that I didn't want to open up, at least not yet, so I decided to wind up the conversation.
"And you're okay about Matt and me, then?"
"Yeah. It's all the same to me. Just one thing, though."
"What's that?" I asked cautiously.
"Well, it would've been nice if I could've met Matt. Pity he's here while I'm away."
"There's not much space for three in a small room with two bunk beds," I pointed out, trying to make a joke of it. Then I must have had a brain spasm, because without thinking, I added, "But you're welcome to visit us if you don't mind sleeping on a sofa."
"Yeah, I'd like that," he replied happily.
On the Wednesday before the weekend of the trip, Mum phoned, and when I greeted her I expected that she would just be fussing about some details of our visit. However, the main reason for her call was to give me some news.
"Frank's been in an accident," she said. "He's in hospital."
"Wh-What? When?" I stuttered. "Is he okay?"
Although it had been more than two years since my last direct communication with Frank, I occasionally had snippets of news about him. Mum occasionally chatted to Frank's mum in the Lewis family bakery shop, then she passed on to me any bits of information she thought might be of interest. Obviously, though, none of those bits of information had included Frank coming out to his family. Anyway, although Frank wasn't part of my life anymore, I often remembered our happy times together, and I certainly cared about his wellbeing.
"It happened almost two weeks ago," Mum said, "but I only found out today. Anyway, I just talked to Frank's mum. She'd just come back from visiting him in hospital."
"So he's okay now?" I asked.
"He's recovering, and there's no permanent damage, but he'll be in hospital for a couple of weeks yet," she replied. "Apparently he broke several bones."
"He crashed his car," she said. Then, lowering her voice, she continued in a conspiratorial tone, "His mum said he'd been drinking."
"At least he's going to be okay," I said, feeling relieved.
"Maybe you should go and visit him in hospital while you're here," she said brightly. "His mum said that she and his dad took a lot of time away from the business to be with him after the accident, but now he's recovering they can't take so much time off and can't visit as often."
The idea of going to see Frank made me feel very uncomfortable, and I had no intention of doing so, but I didn't want to flatly refuse Mum's suggestion, so I just remained silent. However, Mum wasn't going to let me off the hook so easily.
"Anyway," she continued in her mother-knows-best tone, "isn't it about time the two of you made up for whatever silly quarrel you had?"
"Well, there's a lot I planned to do with Matt while I'm there," I lied, "so I'll have to see if I can find the time."
She could probably tell that I was just being evasive, but fortunately she didn't pursue the matter, at least not on that particular occasion. However, I realised that she would probably bring it up again at a later date.
We had fine summer weather for the drive down to visit my parents, and the traffic wasn't too busy, so the journey was pleasant and uneventful. Matt, as always, did the driving because at that time I still hadn't got my licence. Even if I'd been an excellent and experienced driver, however, I doubt that he would have let me take control of his beloved car.
When we arrived at our destination, Mum greeted us warmly, and Dad was his usual self, politely distant with strangers like Matt, and showing a sort of distracted kindliness toward me. Both of my parents behaved toward me just as they had before I'd sent the letter to Mum. Neither of them referred either to my relationship with Matt or to my sexuality, and for that I was profoundly grateful.
Soon after I'd met Matt, I realised that he had a disquieting knack of getting me to talk about myself, and in the ensuing months I found myself revealing many details about my past. For some reason, he wanted to see all the places I'd mentioned, so all of Saturday was spent giving Matt the guided tour that he'd insisted upon. He even wanted to see my old school and the disused quarry where Frank and I had often gone camping. The quarry, being outside town, didn't fit into our Saturday tour schedule, so we decided to go there on the Sunday.
On Sunday morning, immediately after breakfast and while Dad was pottering about in our tiny back yard, Mum again suggested that I go and visit Frank in hospital.
"His mum says he's getting very bored stuck in bed," she said. "You know how he likes his physical activities."
She was obviously referring to activities such as rugby or hiking, but I suppressed a smile as I remembered some other physical activities he used to like.
"Rachel's been on holiday for a couple of weeks," Mum continued, "and with his two older sister away and married he's not getting many visitors. You could at least go and spend a few minutes to cheer him up."
"I don't think that seeing me will cheer him up," I said wryly. "In any case, I promised Matt I'd show him round, and we've only got until tomorrow morning. He's our guest so it wouldn't be fair to neglect him."
"I'm sure that Matt won't feel neglected," she said. Turning her attention to him, she added, "Will you, dear?"
"Erm, no, of course not," Matt replied.
His response sounded rather unenthusiastic to my ears, but Mum continued as if he'd agreed wholeheartedly with her. "There you are, then! And there's no reason you have to go in the morning, is there? If you go after lunch you'll still have plenty of time to show Matt around."
At such short notice I couldn't think of an argument substantial enough to counter the persuasive pressure she was exerting. I was also surprised and rather perplexed by the fact that she was pushing so hard on the matter. Perhaps it was just her way of testing her maternal control over a son who'd now left home.
"Okay," I said grudgingly. "I'll think about it, but I'm going out for a drive with Matt now. I promised to take him to the old quarry, but we'll be back by lunchtime."
As we drove out of town toward the old quarry, I raised the topic of visiting Frank. I half hoped that Matt might be able to give me at least some moral support in opposing my mother's proposal.
"Sorry about all the fuss that Mum was making earlier," I said. "I don't know why she's making such a big thing about me going to see Frank."
"Maybe she knows how important he was to you," Matt said, sounding more subdued than usual.
"Well, I long ago gave up trying to understand how her mind works, but it wasn't fair of her to bring you into it and put you on the spot like that."
"She probably realises that we're a team now, so she wouldn't think of what she said as bringing me into it."
A first I was a little taken aback by what he'd just said, because he'd never before referred to us as a team, and in fact since our brief break up we'd not really discussed our relationship at all.
"So what do you think, then?" I asked. "Do you think I should go to see Frank? I've no idea what I'd say to him if I did go."
"It's up to you, really," he said, still subdued. "It doesn't sound as if you want to, but maybe you ought to see him."
"You're starting to confuse me," I accused, feeling slightly irritated. "It sounds as if you don't want me to go but you think maybe I should go."
He greeted my words with a slight smile, which surprised me. "That's right. I'm not ecstatic about the idea, but he's been an important part of your life, he's in hospital, and from what your mum says he's lonely. What sort of person are you if you just ignore that?"
"But he's the one who made it clear that he never wanted to hear from me again," I said defensively.
"And I suppose you've never said or done something and then regretted it later?" Matt countered. "Even if he still refuses to talk to you, if you go to see him at least you'll have tried. And then we'll all know where we stand."
There was no doubt that he had a point, though that last part about us all knowing where we stood left me a little baffled.
"Okay," I said and sighed. "I'll go this afternoon."
Following Mum's suggestion, I phoned Frank's parents to check up on visiting times, find out what ward he was in, and ensure that I went at a time that fitted into their schedule. As it turned out, the family had private health insurance, so Frank had his own room and visiting hours were very flexible. They'd planned on going that afternoon but said that it would be convenient for them if I went in the afternoon and they went in the evening instead.
After a substantial Sunday lunch, Matt drove me to the hospital and accompanied me to Frank's room. However, when we'd successfully found our way through what seemed like miles of corridors, all painted in the same cream and pale green, Matt hovered in the doorway and left me to enter the room alone. Although he didn't say so, I suspected that he wanted to see what Frank looked like but didn't want to intrude on our interaction.
When I first saw Frank I nearly went to check on the room number, because I didn't immediately recognise the figure lying on the bed. However, it took only a momentary examination to reveal that it was indeed Frank, though his facial features were camouflaged by fading bruises and he was looking much thinner than I remembered. He was lying on his back, his right arm and leg in plaster, and with bandages around his ribs. His only clothing was what appeared to be large, baggy black rugby shorts.
His eyes were closed and he had the earphones of his iPod plugged into his ears, so at first he didn't notice that I was in the room. Then, possibly sensing my presence, he opened his eyes. Despite the bruising on his face, I could detect a series of emotions in his expression, first surprise, then disbelief, and then anger. Using his left hand, he removed the earphones and glared at me.
"What are you doing here? Mum didn't warn me you were coming," he said, making it sound like an accusation.
"I just came to see how you are," I replied.
Even before I'd entered the room I'd felt uncomfortable, but now I also felt foolish as I suddenly realised that I'd not brought him anything and that I'd not even asked his mum if he needed anything.
"Who's that?" Frank asked, looking past me toward the doorway.
"That's Matt," I said, "a friend from Linchester."
I didn't think that it was a good time or place to introduce him as my boyfriend or even to hint at our relationship. However, Frank must have guessed.
"Is he the guy you dumped me for?" he said bitterly. "I thought he'd be better looking than that."
At that point I began to regret my decision to visit him, and I felt my anger rising. Although I was annoyed that he'd obviously intended to insult Matt, my anger wasn't specifically directed at Frank.
"No," I said, trying to remain calm. "The guy I was seeing when we split up was called Derek. I'm sure I told you that."
"You expect me to remember names?" he said sarcastically. "Derek, Matt, and who knows how many others in between."
Oddly, his implication that I was some sort of slut decreased my anger rather than increasing it. Perhaps it was because I felt he might not be too far from the truth, but in any case I didn't rise to the bait.
"Whatever happened in the past," I said gently, "I'm here now, and I hope we can forget about what happened then."
"Have you come to gloat or just be kind to a poor invalid?" he asked sarcastically, ignoring my olive branch. Then with an increased bitterness he added, "You never cared about me before, so I don't want your pity now."
"You're the only one who feels pity for you," I retorted. "And I've always cared about you. It's just that you couldn't accept that I didn't care in the way you wanted me to."
"I don't love you anymore," he said as if it were something to be proud of.
"Good," I said. "Now you can find someone who can return your feelings."
There was a brief pause, during which it seemed that Frank intended to say something but was suppressing it.
"But I still don't forgive you for just dumping me like that," he said eventually.
"You're the one who didn't want to see me anymore, remember?" I pointed out.
"Maybe I still don't," he said, his anger now considerably diluted by sadness.
He looked away from me and stared at the ceiling. My initial reaction was that I should leave immediately, but then I realised that he'd used the word 'maybe'.
For almost a minute I just stood there in silence, wondering what to do or say next. Many times in the past I'd looked back to my break-up with Frank, but there still seemed no way that it could have been avoided. From the moment he fell in love with me it became almost inevitable that he'd get hurt, and regardless of whether it was my fault or not, I still felt somewhat guilty. I decided to make another effort to get past his anger by changing the subject.
"What were you listening to when I came in?" I asked.
He lowered his gaze to look at me again and smiled. For a moment I caught a glimpse of the old Frank. Although there was some bitterness in that smile, there seemed also to be some genuine humour mingled with it.
"Pet Shop Boys," he said. "A song called Jealousy. It always makes me think of you."
It was a song that described the feelings of someone, alone and lonely in bed, lying awake all night and wondering what the person he loved was doing and why he hadn't been in touch despite promising to do so. I knew the song well, and the irony of its significance for Frank made me laugh. It was a genuine laughter, though it wasn't one of real happiness, and at least for me it released some of the tension in the room. Frank looked at me as if he thought I'd gone crazy.
"Yes, I understand," I said. "It always makes me think of Derek."
Then, to show Frank that I knew what he meant, I quietly sang part of it, though my singing skills left much to be desired. After I finished there was a silence that lasted for a few seconds and which was eventually broken by Frank.
"So now maybe you understand," he said cryptically, and in a lighter tone he added, "But you still can't sing."
"Unless you've been taking lessons," I countered, "I'm still not as bad as you."
"So why are you here?" he asked, ignoring my attempt to lighten the mood. "And why now after all this time?"
His first question, though superficially simple, was difficult to answer because any truthful response would be very complicated. Part of the reason I was there was the pressure from my mum, but that wasn't a major factor, and it certainly wouldn't help the current situation if I told Frank about it. There was no doubt that part of my motivation was guilt, but I felt that, too, would not be a good thing to mention at that moment.
Now that I was actually there with him, I realised that I still cared for him a great deal. However, I'd already told him that I cared about him and he hadn't seemed convinced, so I needed to explain it in a way he would understand and believe. Then I had an idea.
"Don't you remember that we're blood brothers?" I said. "I care about you because you're my blood brother, and I'm here because I care about you."
From the expression on his face I could tell that he remembered the incident on our first camping trip together, and it was clear that he was pleased that I, too, remembered.
"As for why I'm here now," I continued, trying again to lighten the mood. "Well, it seemed like a good opportunity to talk to you when you couldn't run away and avoid me."
The corners of his mouth curled into a slight smile, then the smile faded and he frowned before he spoke again.
"But I still don't forgive you," he said then looked away and up toward the ceiling.
This time the silence dragged on even longer, and I couldn't think of anything else to say. I turned to look at Matt, who was leaning against the doorjamb, and shrugged my shoulders. Then I sighed and turned back to face Frank, who was still not looking at me.
"I'd better go, then. I hope you get better soon," I said and turned toward the doorway.
"If you come back tomorrow," Frank said, sounding as if he didn't care whether I did or not, "you could bring some seedless grapes."
"White or red?" I asked.
"Okay, I'll see you tomorrow," I said.
There was no reply, so I left the room and we set off to find our way back to the hospital's main entrance.
"You're really coming back tomorrow?" Matt asked as he walked by my side.
"I told him I would," I pointed out.
"But we're going home tomorrow," Matt said, sounding a little concerned.
"Well, I thought I'd stay on for a couple more days," I said, realising that I'd just reached that decision without giving it any thought.
"I have to be back at work on Tuesday morning, so I need to set off by tomorrow evening at the latest."
"Yeah, I know," I said sympathetically, "but I'm still on holiday. I'll get the train in a couple of days."
"You won't be long, will you?" he asked, sounding quite worried. "The flat will seem very empty without you."
"I promise I'll be home soon, and definitely before Friday," I reassured him. "But maybe I can make Frank feel better, and maybe we can even be friends again. At least there's a possibility, and if I miss it there may not be another chance."
"Okay, I understand," he said and sighed.
I was pretty sure that he really did understand, though he obviously wasn't happy with my decision. Neither of us spoke again until we were just leaving the hospital building.
"So," Matt said hesitantly. "So do you still have feelings for Frank?"
"Only as a friend," I said patiently. "It's nothing like the feelings I have for you. It's just that spending a little time with him while he's laid up in hospital seems like the right thing to do. After all, as you said yourself, what sort of person would I be if I ignored a friend in hospital?"
"Yeah, I s'pose you're right," he said. "But he didn't seem as if he appreciated you being there, and some of the things he said were downright nasty. So why are you going to so much trouble now, when you've not even talked to him for so long?"
At first I couldn't think of a good answer to his question, then I recalled what I'd just said to Frank.
"Well, it just seems like the right thing to do, because, well, Frank and I are blood brothers," I said, and immediately felt embarrassed and rather stupid.
"Oh, right," he said, looking perplexed. "I was going to ask you about that. What exactly did you mean about being blood brothers?"
As we walked toward the car I told him how Frank had made us blood brothers on the camping trip. That explanation seemed to make Matt feel better, though he still appeared to be slightly troubled. Realising that he was probably feeling a little insecure, I wondered how I might be able to reassure him. Then I had an idea, and after quickly glancing around the car park, which was quiet but not deserted, I put my arm around his waist and gently squeezed. Furthermore, I kept my arm where it was as we continued walking.
At first he was startled, then he gave me a grin, and without bothering to look around, he put his arm over my shoulders. He'd clearly understood my gesture, and I could tell that it had made him happy, so despite my nervousness and discomfort at exposing my affection in such a public place, I knew that I'd done the right thing. Still, I was relieved when we reached the car.
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