The Scholar's Tale

by Mihangel

Part 1, Chapter 8 - Approbation

Next Saturday Andrew was playing in an away match. He'd left early and would be back late. I got in from lessons to find a note in my study.

Dear Leon,

We've come over for the weekend on the spur of the moment, foolishly forgetting that Andrew's away today. We'll have to leave him till tomorrow. But if you've nothing else on today, can we tempt you out to lunch and for the afternoon? We've had a word with Mr MacNair and he's given you leave of absence. We hope to see you in the lounge at the Red Lion.

Yours ever,

Helen and Jack

It had threatened to be a tedious day alone, and my heart rose. Lunch was cheerful, as it always was with the Goodharts. I wondered what had brought them over so soon after Speech Day, so soon before the end of term, but they gave no clue until we'd finished coffee. Jack then leaned over and said quietly, "Leon, we've a confession to make. I'm afraid we've brought you here on false pretences, and we've told you a white lie. We knew very well that Andrew was away, and came today so that we could talk to you by yourself. When you hear why, we hope you'll forgive us. But it's too private and personal" - he looked round the lounge - "to discuss here. And it's pretty cold and damp outside. Would you mind coming to our room?"

Strange. With anyone but the Goodharts it might have seemed sinister, but I followed them readily. Their room was pleasant: double bed, two easy chairs. They tried to get me to take a chair, but I preferred to sit on the bed facing them. Jack began.

"Leon, we're in need of your help and advice, if you will. To put it in a nutshell, we had a letter from Andrew on Tuesday." Ah, so he had been writing home on Sunday evening. "In it he told us some of his deepest thoughts. We've always encouraged him to talk to us, if he feels the need, on anything that's worrying him. He knows that we're here to help or advise. And he's always open and honest. The news in his letter didn't come as a total surprise to us. It said that he was in love with a boy, or more accurately that he was fairly sure he was but wasn't certain yet. He didn't name the boy. He said that he thought he was loved back, but that nothing physical had taken place. And he'd got to the stage where he wanted to know what our reaction was.

"Well, we put two and two together and made what we think is four. Quite an easy sum, really. We couldn't see that the boy was anyone but you. We know that you're the greatest of friends. To our eternal delight. We've seen how you look at Andrew, and very occasionally how he looks at you - I think he's better than you at hiding his feelings. No, before you speak let me add one thing more. About our reaction. Male love is unconventional, and it can be difficult, very difficult, and dangerous too, in a generally hostile world. It's also illegal. But we're not shocked. We think that homosexuality is a natural state, not a disease or a perversion. And we'll support him as far as we possibly can. We love Andrew. We love him deeply. And therefore we want him to be happy and fulfilled. Nothing else matters. But we need to know more, from both of you, about what you think love means. Not just because you're both boys. We'd ask the same if one of you was a girl. Or you both were, come to that. If this love of his is right, if it's laudable, be blowed to convention and the law." He smiled at me. "You see why we didn't want to talk about this in the lounge. And if we're correct and you're the object of his love, and if everything else is in order, then we couldn't ask for better. Not possibly. Now, what can you tell us, Leon?"

To gain time, I took off my shoes and brought up my legs to sit cross-legged on the bed. I was flabbergasted. But only because this had come straight out of the blue. It was no surprise to hear their view of male love. The news that Andrew did love me, or was well on the way to it, was new and very welcome, but I had long suspected it. Things were at last beginning to fall into place. And they fitted. Last Sunday he'd asked and received my advice. He'd now asked, and would shortly receive, his parents' advice, which in turn would be informed by what I had to say. There was total trust all round, and I owed total honesty to everyone.

"Wow. Jack, Helen. Oh, where do I start? Yes, your sum is right. At least I hope it is. He's never told me. But I know I love Andrew. I've not told him either. But I've loved him since we first met. I owe everything to him. I was in a dreadful state when I came here, and from the very first day he was my salvation." I raised a questioning eyebrow to see if they knew what I was talking about.

"Yes, we can take that as read," said Helen gently. "Andrew told us all about you. Much more than you imagine, I fancy. And he's kept us updated. In addition to what we've seen for ourselves."

"Well, my love for him's been growing all the time. As you say, he doesn't show his feelings much. But I think he's been in love with me since last winter. Or rather, feeling his way towards love. Slowly. It doesn't sound as if he's gone the whole way yet."

"I think you've hit the nail on the head. That's Andrew all over. On things that matter, his decisions take time. If it's a choice between a vanilla or a mint choc ice, he doesn't hesitate, because it's unimportant. But when we gave him his latest bike we looked at various models, he went back to the shop at least three times to look again, and he chewed it over for a fortnight before making up his mind. This is infinitely more important still, and so he's taking longer. Don't worry about that. But - sorry to press you on a very personal matter - what exactly do you mean when you say that you're in love?"

"Well, as Andrew told you, there's been nothing physical. No sex. In my book, there's the world of difference between common love and heavenly love. You know, Pausanias." No need to elaborate. They'd know the Symposium inside out. "I don't want common love without the heavenly. We were talking about this last Sunday, in an abstract way, not with reference to us. And he feels exactly the same as me, though he'd never even heard of the Symposium. So that's one side of it. The other side is the proper love. The heavenly. I stand by Aristophanes' allegory of the search for your other half. The search for permanence. Stability. Equality. I told Andrew about that too, and he liked it. Very much. He wants to read the Symposium."

"And have you shown it to him?"

"No. Not yet. I don't want to rush things. I was thinking of giving it him at the end of term, to read before he comes to Cambridge."

"Very sensible. Go on."

"Well, Andrew asked too about how you can be sure you've found your other half. All I could suggest was that it might be like doing a jigsaw." And I trotted out my analogy.

"But Leon, how could you possibly know?" This was Helen again, exchanging incredulous looks with Jack.

"Know what?"

"About the jigsaw. The analogy. Where did you come across that?"

"I didn't. I made it up."

"Good God." Pause. "Look, Leon, when Jack and I first met, we talked about love in much the same way as you've just done. No great coincidence - anyone who's read the Symposium could do so. But we also made up the analogy of the jigsaw puzzle. Just like you've done, quite independently. I know it's a cliché, but this is a classic case of great minds thinking alike." She said it lightly, with a smile, but she was absolutely right: we did think alike. "Leon, has Andrew ever told you that you're a wise man?" She was looking at me shrewdly now.

"Yes," I said in surprise. "He has. Why?"

"Good. Because you are. At least we think you are, and I'm glad he thinks so too."

"Well, thanks," I muttered, embarrassed. "But what I don't understand is what Andrew sees in me. I mean, anyone could love him, he's handsome, he's caring, he's bung-full of good nature. Everything I'm not."

"Oh, Leon, you're not only modest, you're wrong. You are everything you said."

"Me? Handsome? You're joking. All right, I am trying to improve my appearance. I want to be a bit more worthy of him. But, I mean, he's a Greek god. I know very well I'm not, and never can be." The thought of my emulating Andrew's looks was so incongruous I actually smiled at it.

"Don't be so sure of that. Remember, beauty's in the eye of the beholder. And on top of that you've got your inner beauty." What on earth could one say to that? Helen consulted Jack with her eyes, and on getting a barely perceptible nod she went on, "Leon, you've thought deeply about all this, you've explained it with splendid clarity, you're showing an impressive sense of responsibility. And we approve. Heartily. And we'll do everything in our power to help you on your way."

"Oh gosh, Jack, Helen. I don't know what to say." A lump was rising in my throat. "You're marvellous. Just marvellous. You've no idea what it means to have your blessing. But there's still one thing." I felt no embarrassment at all at raising the matter with these wonderful people. "You approve of the love. But do you approve - will you approve - of the sex?"

Again the eye consultation. "Yes," said Helen. "From all that we've been saying, that follows naturally. Provided both of you are considerate, and careful, and clean."

"But Helen! If we weren't, we wouldn't be in true love!"

Helen blinked, her maternal instincts having overridden her logic. And laughed out loud. "True, O Socrates, I grant you that. Yes. But there are still quite a lot of questions that'll need answering. May we ask, for example, have you any plans for breaking it to Andrew that you love him? Or will you wait for him to take the lead?"

"I don't know, Helen. I'll have to play it by ear. I don't think anything's imminent. School's hardly the right place - there isn't the time, the privacy, it needs. Anyway, I don't know yet that he does love me. For sure, I mean. Nor does he. I don't want to do anything too fast. All the way through, my motto's been festina lente. But I'm hoping things may come to a head at Cambridge, when we have a fortnight by ourselves."

"Right, and good luck to it," said Jack. "But that raises two more questions. Holidays are one thing, but have you thought about how to handle it at school? From next term onwards? Assuming things turn out as you hope, of course?"

"Well, yes, a little, but I've no real answer. It's a tricky one. At the moment I'd rather not jump the gun. Andrew and I'll have to chew it over. And ask your advice too. Assuming things go right."

"Fair enough. But don't forget it. The other question is, what line do you think we should take with Andrew tomorrow? We'll have him for most of the day from chapel onwards."

Another tricky one, and I thought hard. "Does he know yet that you're here? Or rather will be tomorrow?"

"Yes. We replied briefly to his letter saying that we'd be over at the weekend."

"Look, Helen, Jack," I said slowly, "I think it calls for white lies again. Pretend you really did forget he'd be away today. Tell him you had me out to lunch, but not that we talked of anything important. Act as if this afternoon hadn't happened. And talk over what he said in his letter as you ordinarily would. I know it's not entirely truthful, and I don't like that much. But I think forcing the pace would be worse. I'd rather allow him to move ahead at his own speed."

"Very good point. All right. Yes. Understood. We'll do that." That was Helen. Then Jack: "Leon, one last thing. At least I hope it's the last. You know what our reaction is now. Any idea how your parents might react?"

My face dropped. "I can tell you that straight off." And I told them about the conversation of nearly a year ago, ending with those words that were engraved on my memory, 'Should you ever contemplate practicing such obscenities, let me warn you that you will never practice them in this house. We will not tolerate iniquity and scandal.'

"Oh Leon, that is a blow. I'm sorry. That means you'll have to limit your, um, activities to Oxford. But at least you're welcome there. I mean it."

"And I second it," said Helen. Pause. "Right. Is there anything else we ought to discuss?"

"Helen, can I ask you something? When we were talking at Christmas, remember? You said that whether you loved women or men was a fact which couldn't be changed. Did you know that I was homo then? Or Andrew?"

"You don't miss much, do you? No, neither. We didn't know, or really suspect, about either of you But we did know that Andrew shows no interest in girls. And of course we'd seen your growing friendship, and we felt it was possible that it might blossom into something more. So I said what I said. If you weren't homosexual, it would do no harm. If you were, it might help you."

Wonderful people. "It did. It helped a lot."

"Good. Well, Leon, dear, we have to thank you for being so frank with us. You're so clear-headed about it. You've helped us beyond measure. And we're enormously grateful."

"But Helen, I'm just as grateful to you both. Always have been. I know it's still some way to the finishing post, but I'm much more optimistic than I was this morning. Thanks to you." I looked at them, a trifle shy about what I was going to say. "D'you know, ever since I met Andrew and you, I've thought how well you all fit your surname." The tears which I'd been fighting off began to trickle, so I got up and hugged them. And mumbled, as I buried my face in Helen's shoulder, "I wish you were my parents."

"If we were, we'd have a son to be proud of."

Surprise. "But you've got one already."

"Yes. We have. But we wouldn't say no to another." She was weeping too.

When we'd recovered, they saw me down to the entrance, and slipped me some money. The usual amount. "But you gave it me on Speech Day!"

"Speech Day was Speech Day. Today is today." I looked at them almost in despair. "Go and do your usual. Goodbye, Leon. And the best of luck." Words were beyond me, so I walked along the street to the music shop, blinking. Coming back ten minutes later, my business done, I was surprised to see them still at the door of the Red Lion. So I showed them my purchase.

'Mozart concert aria, Exsultate Jubilate,' read Jack. "Is that how you feel, Leon?"

"Yes, it is. I'm exulting, I'm rejoicing. I feel like singing it to the High Street!"

"Nice idea, if a little rash," said Jack. "We like your taste, Leon. We were never more surprised than when Andrew told us you'd converted him to classical music and got him to join the choir. He'd never shown any interest in that sort of thing before. But that's by the way. Leon, we've been having a quick talk, and something else has occurred to us. Would you mind coming up to our room again for a moment?"

We went. "This is a difficult question to ask, Leon," he resumed, his round face unusually anxious, "and probably difficult to answer. Maybe we have no right to raise it. But we'll take the risk. What are your feelings about your parents? You say they don't love you, and we can see no sign that they do, either. But do you love them?"

Lord. Disloyalty or dishonesty? I gazed out of the window. The sparrows were squabbling on the window-box. People, ordinary people, were going in and out of shops on the other side of the High Street, on their lawful business. Everything was normal, friendly even. And love permeated the Goodharts' room. My answer really needed no debate. My parents were not normal. They gave no love. I could give none in return. So I looked back at Jack. "No. I respect them for their scholarship. I'm sorry to sound disloyal, but I can't love them. I don't love them."

"Very honest. We rather thought so. In your shoes we'd probably say the same. I know it's not the done thing to criticise a chap's parents to his face, but may I be brutally frank? This is important." I nodded. "The point is, Leon, as you know all too well, that your parents are strange people, difficult people, who treat you in a very strange way. Not a way that commends itself to us. We find it very hard to understand what makes them tick. Now, Helen said a few minutes ago that we'd wouldn't mind two sons. She said it hypothetically, of course. But she meant it. I endorse it. Fully. And when you'd gone, it occurred to us that it might be possible to make it reality. Provided that you really would like to come to live with Andrew and us in Oxford. In one sense it would make little difference to you - you could use our books just as you use your parents' now. In another sense you'd be helping us all. Not just yourself. Remember we said that what we want for Andrew is happiness and fulfilment? Well, I'm quite sure that if you lived with us Andrew would be happier and more fulfilled. So. Would you like to?"

Dawning anticipation, astonishment, puzzlement, but no hesitation whatever. "Jack. If I could, I'd come like a shot." Far too serious to notice double meanings. "But how on earth?"

"Well. Your parents' present attitude to you is ambivalent, to say the least. To them, it seems to me, you're a curious cross between a prize poodle, a minion, and a nuisance. Am I right?" I nodded. It was a very good description. "And in addition, if all goes according to plan and you declare yourself to them as a homosexual, you'll be anathema in their house. Wouldn't they then be glad to see the back of you?" I nodded again, slowly. "They might, of course, blow their top and send you for treatment, to be 'cured,' in inverted commas. But from all that we know of them, they put a high value on their own good name, and we're pretty sure they'd just wash their hands of you, to avoid the stigma of having fathered a queer. Sorry, I know I'm putting this crudely, but I have to. So what we suggest, if you approve, is that we discuss the matter with them in Athens, where we'll have plenty of time to talk. And propose that they transfer you to our guardianship. Of course, we can't guarantee that they'll agree. But we're hopeful. And of course we'd need Andrew's agreement in advance. Though I somehow fancy that would be a mere formality. There. How does it strike you?"

I wanted to cry again, but it was too important for that, though it was hardly to speak coherently. "Oh God, yes. Please. Apart from Andrew's love, there's nothing I'd like more. But ... but there are two things. Don't do anything, please, before Andrew and I are ... I mean, if we don't, don't ..." The possibility was too horrible to contemplate, but in fairness to the Goodharts it had to be raised.

"Oh yes, understood. We'd make no move until you both gave us the go-ahead. What's the other thing?"

"Well, er, money. If they gave you guardianship, I can't see them funding me any more. They're as mean as Scrooge. I don't cost much at Yarborough, what with the scholarship. But I still cost something. Clothes and things. And there's the holidays. And then university. I hope. Who'd pay for all that? I mean, you're generous enough already. Far too generous."

"Oh, Leon," said Helen. "That's a perfect example of why we love you. And, I'm sure, of why Andrew loves you. You're always thinking of others. The answer is that we'd pay. That would be part of the bargain. No" - I was trying to butt in - "it's all right. It's really all right. We're not millionaires, but we're well enough off. We can easily carry two sons. And we want to."

The prospect, please God, of a true lover, and with it the prospect of new parents. I could hold out no longer, and collapsed again in heaving sobs. They hugged me until it was time for me to go back for tea.

Andrew returned too late for any talk, and next morning we had chance for no more than a brief exchange of news, heavily censored on my part, and he was hugely tickled by his parents' arriving a day too early. The Goodharts attended chapel with Wally, and afterwards collected Andrew and bore him away. I stood inconspicuously outside and, as I watched them disappear through the school gates, tried to transmit my love to them. Helen evidently felt it. She paused, looked back, and gave me a discreet wave.

Andrew was back for tea in a state of what seemed to be serenity. He told me nothing, and I asked nothing, but I concluded that all had gone well.

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