Passing Stranger

By Mihangel

7. Not understood

Not understood. We move along asunder;
Our paths grow wider as the seasons creep
Along the years; we marvel and we wonder
Why life is life. And then we fall asleep --
Not understood.

Not understood. How many breasts are aching
For lack of sympathy! Ah day to day
How many cheerless, lonely hearts are breaking!
How many noble spirits pass away --
Not understood

Thomas Bracken, Not Understood

So things stood in the middle of March 2003. It was a sad and lonely time for me. Those hurts still weighed heavily. Hilary had disappeared to China for research and a conference and I was on my own for a fortnight. The news was gloomy with the imminent invasion of Iraq. Then an email arrived from someone calling himself Jonathan. I always look first to see where new correspondents come from. His address was a Hotmail one, but the time zone was +0000 and, as I read his words, he could only be British.

Dear Mihangel,

I've hardly ever used email before as I've nobody to contact, and I've never written to an author before. I'm not sure about the right way to do it, but I've got to try.

I've read all your stories and want to tell you how much they mean to me. They're not just moving and gentle and intelligent and witty, but you understand how boys, some boys, can feel. I've sometimes thought I was mad, or a freak, but they show that there are others like me. They're by far the best I've read, and I've read a lot. Aside from school work I don't have much else to do.

You see, I'm 16, and gay, and horribly shy, and don't have any proper friends. But (please don't write me off as arrogant) I'm reasonably intelligent, and I think a lot because I have plenty of time for that too. All your main characters are intelligent and thoughtful, and Leon is shy as well. From the way you describe him it sounds as if you were just like Leon when you were a boy, and just like me. From the way you write it sounds as if you still are. And you've opened my eyes to what love can be.

Nobody understands me because nobody knows about me. So I'm desperate for someone to talk to who will understand, and I think you would. Please, may I tell you about myself? And perhaps even hear more about yourself? I know you're married. It must be wonderful to live in both worlds.

Thank you for your stories, and for giving me hope.

Jonathan

PS. I'm doing Latin and history and Eng Lit for GCSE, so I appreciate the classics and history in your stories, and I love your quotations.

An appeal which could not be ignored. It touched my heart. But it would be all too easy to get trapped again, and my bruised soul urged caution. I replied immediately.

Dear Jonathan,

Thank you very much indeed. Rarely can an author get feedback so heart-warming, and from so obviously kindred a spirit. You're absolutely right. I too was shy and lonely when I was your age, and I too desperately wanted someone to commune with. Yes, I was Leon, without his fulfilment. To some degree I still am.

A word of comfort first, to a lonely soul. You've probably not come across Radclyffe Hall'sThe Well of Loneliness, a lesbian novel of the 1920s which few people read nowadays. One passage always gets to me. "You're neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you're as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you're unexplained as yet -- you've not got your niche in creation." Doesn't that apply to you too? I'm not sure I've yet found my own explanation or my whole niche, but I do understand your need. So by all means tell me about yourself, and I'll respond as best I can.

Next, a word of warning. Please don't tell me too much too fast. The net is a marvellous place, but it can be a dangerous one. You have to take so much on trust. Written words can be utterly deceitful. You can't see the eyes, the face, the body language of the people who write them, or hear their voice. For all you know, I might be a predator, waiting to groom you into unspeakable things. I might be a pathetically dirty old man prompting you into prurient talk. As it happens, I'm neither, but you mustn't take my word for it, not until you're convinced I'm trustworthy. Protect yourself.

And I need to protect myself, against you. Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting you're a dirty young man, let alone a dirty old one in disguise. But I need to trust you too. Let me explain. Not long ago I met someone on the net. I was searching, as you are, for a male soul with whom I could commune, and I thought I had found him. We became great friends, it seemed, and I told him a great deal about myself. More than I should, for he let me down badly by being dishonest about himself. I'd invested so much trust in him that I was shattered. I'd been over-hasty and over-trusting, and all I reaped was grief. I don't want to go through that again.

I'm sorry this isn't the wholly enthusiastic answer you were hoping for. It's not meant to put you off, only to beg you to be cautious. Not to jump in at the deep end, not to put all your eggs in one basket. It's all too easy to be hurt, and all too easy to hurt even without meaning to.

But with care and honesty a really good net-friendship is perfectly possible. So yes, tell me about yourself. But please, Jonathan, bear all this in mind when you do. Reveal nothing that could pin you down -- no surname, no address, no phone number. Take it one step at a time.

All my good wishes,

Mihangel

A whole day went by without a reply, and I feared I had scared him off. But the evening of the day after, about 7 o'clock, it did arrive.

Dear Mihangel,

Thank you. I've been thinking about what you said. I do understand what you mean, and I'm sorry you were let down like that. You don't say if this person met you through your stories. But I did, so I already know quite a lot about you, or think I do. I find it hard to believe that someone who writes like you could be untrustworthy.

You tell me to be cautious. I see why. But I found a verse by Fanny Kemble that I like. It says the opposite.

Better trust all, and be deceived
And weep that trust and that deceiving,
Than doubt one heart that, if believed,
Had blessed one's life with true believing.

In other words, nothing venture nothing win. I'm normally so unadventurous that I haven't won anything so far. But now I have ventured, by writing to you. You've no idea how I had to screw my courage up to do that, and now that I've started I don't want to slow down. I've got a gut feeling that this is going to work. So I've decided to trust you fully, with my eyes open.

But though I know so much about you by reading between your lines, I do realise that you know nothing about me. I can only swear that I'd never be dishonest with you. I know what it is to be hurt, and I swear I'd never hurt you, certainly not deliberately and I hope not by being thoughtless. I don't know what to swear it by, because I don't believe in any gods. Perhaps it's best to swear it by my gayness, which is the biggest pride I have. It's strange that you're the only other person in the world who knows about it.

But you've only my word to go on. I'd love to know more about you, but I understand that you won't tell me until you're sure of me. But I'll take the risk and tell you about me. I need to tell you. Is this OK? As soon as you say so, I'll mail it. I've already written it out.

I like that quotation about loneliness.

Thanks,

Jonathan

When I finished reading I let out a long breath. Yes, he wrote well. Yes, his need was clear. Yes, he was thoughtful and considerate. And yes, he had the courage of his convictions. Subject to a couple more warnings, I had to give him the go-ahead. Again I replied at once.

Dear J (may I call you J? Saves 7 letters and I'm a lazy bugger!)

Thanks again.

Before you throw caution to the winds, two final points. First, you judge my trustworthiness by my stories. I'm flattered, but it doesn't follow. There are authors who're nothing like as sensitive as their stories suggest. Second, are you ready to trust me simply because you're desperate and have nobody else to trust? Don't answer that. Not to me. But ask yourself.

All right, maybe I'm too cautious. And maybe I'm too thin-skinned and feel undue pain when things go awry: more pain than "ordinary" people do. Yes, I take Fanny Kemble's point. So if you're still happy, fire away. I'm all agog.

Hugs, M

He must have been at his computer, for he was back within minutes, long enough only to read my message and type a brief reply.

M

I like M and J. And I like the hugs. Thanks. Here it is.

J

I opened the attachment, which proved to be quite a treatise. It started off simply and factually, but became more personal as it went on. What follows is only a summary, for I am not allowed to quote it verbatim. "This is your story," Jonathan says, "not mine. One fine day I may want to write my own. So don't poach too much. Please" -- even now that we know each other so well, he is always impeccably polite. Well, nearly always.

He was born in London in 1987, the son of City yuppies who worked hard by day and socialised hard by night. How they thought a baby would fit their lifestyle is a mystery. His earliest memories were of endless child-minders, and when he was four his father disappeared abroad with another woman and had not been seen since. His mother carried on, with boyfriends now, and at the earliest possible moment sent him off as a boarder to an inferior and uncaring prep school, and in the holidays farmed him out to reluctant relatives. Homeless and friendless, lacking all self-confidence, he lived, like Leon, in a shell, reading endlessly. Like Leon, he was bright. It was all he then had to be proud of.

When he was ten his mother was killed in the Southall rail crash. Her parents were uncaring and none of her brothers or sisters had a family. A maiden aunt of his up north drew the short straw and took him under her wing, from a sense of duty. She did her best for him as she saw it, but a prim and narrow-minded spinster had little in common with a desperately shy but intelligent and liberal-minded youngster. But he mustn't complain, he said. Home life is better than it was: there'd been none at all before.

School, a local day school, was all right in its way. It was pretty laid back, the teachers were mostly good, and all seemed pleased with his work. No problem there. His problem was himself, so self-conscious and withdrawn that he could hit it off with nobody. In six years he had made no friends. The kids thought him a nerd and a geek. He knew he wasn't, but he did see himself as a misfit. The usual teenage interests left him cold, a fish out of water in usual teenage conversations. His intellectualism and his taste for classical music marked him out as an oddity. He was not exactly bullied, but his peers took the mick.

A boy in his class, for example, offered to take him to a concert. As was intended, Jonathan thought he meant a classical concert he wanted to go to but couldn't afford. It turned out to be a heavy metal concert. He was a fool, he admitted. He should have smelt a rat. He should have cut and run. He did neither, and he died. Next day the whole class was laughing behind its hands. He knew what I meant about over-trusting and being let down.

He was in a cage. He watched television little, because Auntie took precedence. But at least he could be by himself in his room with his computer and his radio. He still read endlessly, borrowing books from the public library, and he lived in a historic town full of museums and old buildings. Auntie worried about him, wondering why he didn't do the things she expected boys to do. But when she heard from her colleagues at work what their sons actually got up to, he suspected she was glad that he didn't.

And he was in another sort of cage. For two years or more he'd known that he was gay. He wasn't ashamed. He knew it wasn't a failing, but as much a part of his make-up as his left-handedness. Like his intelligence, it made him distinctive, it was a source of pride. But it couldn't help him publicly. The other boys chased girls. They hardly expected him to, because he was an oddity anyway. But he could never admit his gayness, for intolerance was rife at school. Tell Auntie? He'd be an abomination in her churchy eyes.

So what did he do alone in his room, with Vivaldi on the radio and the computer on? Homework, of course. But when that was done he went to gay sites in search of comfort. He had never known love, but he knew he needed it. Most of the stories he read were crap, he reckoned, and for a while he feared that he was going round the bend yearning for something which didn't exist. He feared that love between boys was all a fantasy, no more than dodgy sex at the best.

I do have permission to quote his final paragraph.

But you changed my whole way of thinking. You showed so clearly that honest gay love is as possible as honest straight love, and how different it is from sex for the sake of sex and from close friendship that isn't sexual. I don't know where to find the right person to love, or even what to look for. What with my oddities, he's probably beyond my reach. But a friend who understands is another matter. "A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud." I've been sincere in writing this. I've been thinking aloud. Thank you for listening.

God, what a naked appeal. He was in a worse state than I had been in at his age. What he needed, first and foremost, was company, closer company than emails can offer. I attacked the keyboard.

J, my heart bleeds. It would be much easier to talk by messenger than by email. Would you like to? If so, I'm on MSN and AIM. Are you?

Hugs, M

He came back immediately. No, he wasn't because he had nobody to talk to, but he'd like to try. We spent half an hour setting it up. Messenger chat is tedious reading after the event, so I have heavily selected and edited, and corrected the typos (mostly my own). Once he had got the hang, we were off, cautiously and a bit formally at first, measuring each other up in a new context.

"J, messaging's more like talking face-to-face than emails. Don't worry if it takes time to warm up. Better start low key than jump in the deep end. OK?"

"OK."

"Where would you like to kick off?"

"Anywhere. I'm not expecting solutions. It's just so good having someone to talk to."

"What about home life and Auntie? You didn't say much about that."

"Well, she's tied up with the local church. Spends most of her free time doing churchy things, and painting pale watercolours of flowers, and watching the box."

"Do you go to church too?"

"No. I've never seen anything in organised religion."

"Does that disappoint her?"

"Yes. When I arrived she expected me to go with her, but I was very brave and said no. To do her justice, she didn't insist, but I'm sure I went down in her opinion."

"So she doesn't have a mad social life?"

"Huh! She only goes out to churchy things and visits churchy people. Apart from shopping. And only churchy people come here."

"What about holidays?"

"Groan. She hasn't got a car. Sometimes she takes me to the seaside by train. Kids love playing on the beach, don't they?"

"What would you rather do?"

"Museums and castles and things. But they leave her cold."

"Summer holidays?"

"We do the rounds of the relatives."

"J. It sounds dire."

"It is. I'm often down in the dumps. But I'm on top of the world tonight. Talking to you, before going back to my cage."

"J, that cage gives me an idea. Do you like jokes?"

"Love them. Cornier the better. But I've got nobody to tell them to."

"Yes you have. Me. Fair warning, I want one from you tomorrow. Here's one for you now. If your hens run away, why do you catch them and put them back in their cage?"

"Well, apart from . . . Dunno. Why?"

"To recoop your losses."

Next day he rose to the occasion.

"M. What did the scoutmaster say when his whistle was mended?"

"Dunno. What?"

"Beep repaired!"

"Oh Gawwwwd! I can just imagine you sitting there grinning like a baboon and scratching your arse."

"Heehee. How did you know?"

"I've got a picture in my mind. Probably quite wrong, though."

"I'd like to send you a real picture. But I haven't got a scanner. I'd love to know what you look like, though. Hint hint."

"A bit early for that, I think, either way. One day, maybe. Anyway, if you saw my ugly mug you'd run a mile."

"I wouldn't. I visualise you like the Prof in Clouds."

"Totally wrong, in looks. And I'm no well-balanced fount of wisdom like him."

"I don't believe that, from your stories."

He embarrassed me by waxing lyrical about them. He knew them back to front and could have passed an exam on them.

"Have many people written to you about them? Like I did?"

"Loads. I've never counted. Thousands. But none as movingly as you."

"All favourable?"

"Almost all. One was bored by them. One thought them implausible. A few wanted more sex scenes. The rest have all been very positive."

"What sort of thing have they said?"

"Well, there was a lovely one from a seventeen-year-old who was coming out to his parents. They were appalled. He was so taken with the Scholarthat he printed it out and gave it to his Mom to read, to convince her that gay love was really OK."

"No kidding? I'm just visualising me showing it to Auntie! Did it work?"

"She became more accepting, apparently, but how much the Scholar helped I'm not sure. And there've been quite a few saying that I've helped people identify themselves as gay. Those by themselves make the whole exercise seem worthwhile."

"Not seem. It is. I'm envious of you, you know. I could never write like that."

"Yes, you could. You think, you're gentle, you've got a good turn of phrase. That's all it needs. And the courage of your convictions."

"Which I haven't got."

"You had the courage to get in touch with me."

"Yes. Because I trust and respect you. And respect myself, for being gay. So I can talk to you fairly coherently. I can talk coherently to my history and Latin and English teachers because I trust and respect them. And respect myself too, on those subjects. On everything else, with everyone else, I don't respect myself. I know I'm a misfit, that I've nothing in common with them, and go incoherent."

"Nothing venture nothing win, remember?"

"You have to screw up your courage to venture. I haven't got enough courage left to venture any more. The other day a teacher asked me to take part in the school play. I said no straight off. Didn't have to think."

"J, when I was your age, even younger, I started taking a public role at school. I was like you. It went against all my instincts. But I had an imaginary friend inside me . . . "

Out of nowhere, memory came flooding in. I had clean forgotten my inner mentor. I had not thought about him for decades. But there he was, the missing link to my youth that I was searching for. And his name had been Jonathan too. I paused for a long time, thinking back.

"You still there?" asked J.

"Sorry. I was remembering. You see, this friend understood me. Gave me wise advice. Held my hand. Encouraged me to do things I wouldn't otherwise have dreamt of doing. Sounds like you need an imaginary friend too."

There was a long pause from his end as well.

"M. I've got one. But not imaginary. You."

The evening after, it turned out we were both listening to the same programme of harpsichord music on Radio 3.

"Have you heard Sir Thomas Beecham's description of the harpsichord?" he asked. "That it sounds like two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof."

I could almost hear him laughing, and I laughed with him. The impression was growing stronger by the day that our minds pointed in the same direction.

"Do you play anything?" he asked.

"Only CDs and the fool. Wish I hadlearnt an instrument. Megan learnt the flute and piano and still tinkles from time to time. Pryderi learnt the trumpet and now plays bass guitar."

"Are those your kids?"

"That's right." I told him a bit about them, and that both knew about my gay side and accepted it. That both were straight and extrovert, and great fun. "I'll pass on your jokes to them. They'll groan at the scoutmaster. And enjoy the harpsichord."

"I'm trying to imagine Auntie using the word copulation to me!"

He sounded wistful as we finally signed out.

One evening, a week or so after we had started, he was not on line at our usual time. I carried on with my work. About half past eleven he signed in.

"Sorry I'm late. Been listening to the radio. Have you?"

"No. Been on CDs tonight. Purcell's Indian Queen. What was on?"

"Typical Radio 3. About grief in music."

"Sounds interesting."

"Brilliant. But tear jerking. Literally. I never cry in public, but I do sometimes if I'm alone. I'm crying now. Feeling very sorry for myself." He was typing unusually slowly.

"Why? The programme, or something else?" There was a long delay as he typed.

"Both. Term ended today. Three weeks of holidays now. Whoopee! Nobody to even be with. Let alone talk to. OK, I've got you, thank God, but nobody here. You know, one reason I'm so lonely is that nobody understands me. Nobody here. Nobody knows I'm gay, so I don't expect them to understand that. But nobody understands my shyness. I want to shout 'I'm desperate, please talk to me!' But even if they knew what was wrong, I doubt they'd understand. Not like you do. M, have you ever despaired?"

"Oh yes. I spent years in loneliness, like you, and sometimes wondered if there was any point in it all. I always managed to reason my way out, but it was hard work."

"I know what you mean. I'm sorry, I shouldn't be like this now, with you to talk to, but I've worked my way into a right state tonight. A bad go of self-pity."

"Don't be sorry, J. Let it come out. I know the feeling, very well. Do you know that wonderful poem by Thomas Bracken? Not Understood?"

"No."

"It's powerful. Gets me in the guts. I'll email it."

"Please. You know, one thing they played on the programme was that aria from Messiah. 'He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.' It might have been about me. It had me in buckets. Sorry, again. I'm being very self-centred."

"Don't be sorry, again. That's why we talk. To be listened to."

"But I'm bad company tonight. And I feel knackered. M, do you mind if I clock off?"

"Course not. Sleep well, J, and things'll look brighter in the morning. I'll be on line. Call me when you want."

"Thanks, M. As always. Night."

He signed out, and I sighed in sympathy and, curiously perhaps, in approval. He was exposing his naked self. Like water, he was being true to his own variation. Sometimes he felt like ice, sometimes liquid, sometimes steam, and he trusted me enough to make no attempt to hide it. Despite my caution I was well on the way to trusting him too.

I went back to my interrupted work, and when that was done I searched out the Bracken poem and copied it, all seven verses. For feedback correspondence I use Hotmail, but it was now playing silly buggers, as Hotmail sometimes does, and refused to let me in. It was already into the small hours and I wanted the poem to be there when J signed in. So, blissfully unaware that this was another turning-point in my life, I mailed it to him from my ordinary ISP account and hit the hay.

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