The Scholar's Tale

by Mihangel

Part 1, Chapter 10 - Anticipation

I didn't see him for nearly a month, but I thought of him nearly all the time. Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Yes. At least in this case, it did. He wrote briefly, giving his train time and reporting that he'd read the book and - bafflingly vague - found it interesting. I wrote back confirming everything, but did not press for more. That could wait, and the omens were good. The Goodharts phoned me one day, by arrangement, at a time when both Andrew and my parents were out. They reported that Andrew was in good form - alternately pensive and radiant, they described it - and checked that their proposal was still acceptable to me. We ran over the timetable. Andrew was coming on Saturday the 16th, arriving on the 2.05. We'd get home by bus at say 2.30. My parents would leave by taxi at 3.30 to catch the London train and spend the night with friends before boarding the morning plane at the airport. There they would meet up with the Goodharts, who were coming direct from Oxford. If all went as we hoped, I was to ask Andrew how he felt about my joining his family ("surely a mere formality," Jack repeated), and I was to phone the news to the Goodharts either before they left Oxford or in their hotel in Athens. Once they had the go-ahead, Jack and Helen would open negotiations.

The arrangements, then, were simple. Meanwhile, I continued to repackage Leon. The major item proved surprisingly easy. My parents were pleased with my results. They'd expected no less, if not more, they assured me; but the size of the reward showed that they were happy enough. So I made a beeline for the optician and demanded contact lenses, which were then pretty new and pretty pricey, but within my budget. Mercifully I took to them, or they took to me, without undue discomfort. The next stop was the barber, or rather the hair stylist. I couldn't make my straight hair curl; well, not without a perm, and that was hardly on, given that perms weren't permanent. But I reckoned I could make do with what I had. I'd already let my short back and sides grow further than school guidelines liked, and I now got the stylist to replace my meandering side parting with a central one, and to adjust my hair accordingly. He did his best, and instructed me how to train the new parting to stay put.

Finally I continued with my swimming at the public pool, and joined a gym club for the month. It kept me out of the house most of the day. The rest had to be spent on housework and gardening, which I reduced to a finely calculated minimum, just enough to avert complaints. I went to bed knackered, but my schedule kept me largely out of my parents' hair, and them out of mine. But my transformation could hardly escape their notice. They were miffed that I'd spent my reward not on aids to scholarship but on personal adornment. Because they couldn't understand it, they were suspicious, and muttered about bad influences, modern youth and trendy fashion.

But the transformation was working, had worked. Looking in the mirror I saw no longer an owl - understandable - and for some reason no longer a mouse. Instead, I saw a boy who had shaken off his timidity and found a new confidence. No heart-breaker (as I saw Andrew), but a least a damn sight more presentable than before. My more manly chest, already broadening and adorned with some reasonable muscles, swelled with pride. My abdomen had acquired tone and definition and my arms and legs were no longer sticks. I was mercifully spot-free, and had gained a good tan from the open-air pool and the heat-wave. When I dropped my pants, too, there was less scope for shame. Things were definitely bigger down there, and I was halfway towards a decent bush. My armpits were beginning to sprout, though there was not a whisker anywhere else that deserved the name. But I felt happy enough with my body, happier than I'd ever been. No Charles Atlas, but neither a six-stone puny weakling any more.

So I counted down the days. Andrew was due on the Saturday. On the Friday evening, coming in from gardening, I found the cat lying by the gate, its hindquarters mangled, clearly run over by a car. Dead. When my parents got home from dinner in college I had to break the news to them. Messengers bearing bad tidings are rarely popular, and I was treated as if I was personally responsible for the cat's fate. There were tears, anguish, and almost literally tearing of hair. Father sat up half the night writing, and early next morning, on instructions, I dug the grave. The corpse was committed to the earth inside a large flower-pot in true Greek style, Father read the funeral oration he had composed, in Greek of course, the soil was replaced and herbs sprinkled on top. They planned, when they should return from Athens, to commission a classical tombstone from a sculptor friend. They'd had screws loose before, undoubtedly. Now I began to fear the whole machine was falling apart. High time to break free from this bizarre and malign house. God prosper what I hoped would happen later in the day. Mercifully the cat, the main reason for my staying in Cambridge, had died too late for plans to be changed. When the funeral was over and my parents went mournfully off to pack, I felt jaded and battered. But Andrew's arrival would - should - change the atmosphere dramatically.

In haste I made up the bed in the spare room. I didn't want Andrew to jump to conclusions, and anyway the spare bed was double where mine was single. Quite unlike my old boring self, I'd taken some care over clothes. I had a naughty little plan in mind, and for the purpose had bought, out of the accumulated residue of the Goodharts' gifts, some light-coloured slacks and a stylish pale green shirt, short-sleeved and open-necked. I wanted to test how different the new-style Leon was from the old, and my new and utterly un-Leon clothes would accentuate the difference. So I grabbed a bite of lunch and took the bus to the station, bought a platform ticket, and carefully positioned myself beside a pillar, not hiding, but not prominent either.

Duly at 2.05 the train from Oxford via Bletchley puffed in and spilled out its few passengers. There in the distance was a trim and sturdy blond figure swinging a large suitcase. The platform at Cambridge is said to be the longest in Britain, but I'd have recognised Andrew a mile away. Standing motionless, I saw him scanning the platform and failing to spot me. He moved slowly towards the exit, still scanning. Even when quite close his gaze swept over me without stopping. He was already a yard past me when he did a classic double-take, halted dead in his tracks, swung round and stared at me open-mouthed. By now I was grinning from ear to ear. "Hullo!"

"Leon! What the ... How ... Leon! You are a sw -." He stopped in blushing confusion. I wanted to hug him. But boys don't hug on platforms, so I decorously grabbed his hand instead, and pumped it. Still grinning: my little trick had worked a treat. His babbling subsided. "Your hair! Where are your specs? What's going on? You're so different!"

"It's still the same Leon inside, Andrew," I said gently, though as I said it I felt it wasn't entirely true. "Same Leon, but in a better box, I hope."

"But why?"

"I didn't think the old box was good enough," and silently added "for you."

He may not have read my mind, but as he gazed I saw wetness in his eyes. "C'mon," I said, to break the spell. People were milling around us, and it was no place for a heart-to-heart. "Let's find the bus." He followed meekly. We gave up our tickets, found the bus, stowed the case in the luggage hole, and sat nearby to keep an eye on it. As we trundled round Cambridge I filled Andrew in on the cat's demise and on my plans for things we might do. No, not those plans. Walks, swimming, museums and things. He kept darting sideways glances at me, but said little. From the bus stop we took turns to lug his case home.

Andrew had never encountered my parents before, and the meeting was not a success. Luckily it could only last an hour. Father was still put out by his bereavement, and his first reaction was to look us up and down - Andrew was as smartly dressed as me - and grunt "Huh. Pretty boys. Waste of money." I introduced them. Andrew was polite, Father cold and distant. Perhaps he'd never met a Greek god in the flesh. I dragged Andrew away for a quick cup of tea and a quick tour to show him the geography. Then Mother buttonholed me with a long list of reminders - feeding the cat (crossed out), locking up, paying the milkman, cleaning the house, mowing the grass, etcetera etcetera.

Father came in, looked suspiciously at Andrew, and shot him a question in Greek. Andrew stared helplessly.

I tried to reduce the tension. "Father, Andrew has small Latin and less Greek."

"No Greek?" He sounded as alarmed as if I was being left alone for a fortnight with a homicidal maniac. "What is your subject, then?"

"The sciences. Chemistry, physics, some engineering.":

"'The work of the engineer, and the whole business of handling practical needs, is sordid and vulgar,'" said Father. Andrew, who could hardly be expected to recognise a quotation from Plutarch, flushed as if he had been insulted. As indeed he had. This was one of Father's many foibles, inherited from the ancient philosophers including, I'm sorry to say, Plato. In his eyes, nothing but mental activity was appropriate for honest men. Once, when we'd had a water pipe burst on Boxing Day, a plumber had come in immediately to oblige, only to be told that his was an ignoble trade. He left in a huff, and we were without water for a week.

Father's suspicions were reinforced. A Greek god who could not speak Greek. Who indulged in sordid and vulgar business. Who dressed like a pretty boy. As did his own son. You could almost hear the connections being made. "Leon. You will recall a conversation from a year ago, when I warned you about obscenities in this house. That warning still holds." At this point, thank God, the taxi driver rang the doorbell. Thank God, too, my parents' priorities were clear-cut. They were going to the Plato conference, whether or not the world was ruled by Sodom and Gomorrah. They supervised the loading of their luggage, climbed into the taxi, and were gone. Nobody had said goodbye to anyone.

We stood on the doorstep and watched them disappear down the road. I was mortified. "God, Andrew, I'm sorry. That was beastly. They've been getting worse recently, but that really takes the biscuit. If you ever think I'm getting like them, let me know and I'll cut my throat."

"I'm sorry too, Leon. I've always known you had a rough time with them, but I'd no idea it was that bad."

"Look, let's forget them. We won't see them for a fortnight, thank God." I had to lighten the atmosphere. "Now we've just got each other for company. Hope you're not regretting your rashness."

"No, I'm looking forward to it." His stilted words and strained smile showed that he was far from his usual ebullient self. True, he was still shocked by my parents' behaviour. But even before meeting them he'd been patently unsure of himself. Visibly nervous. My own heart was beginning to palpitate at the prospect of taking that last difficult decisive step. But at least I was on firmer ground. I had the advantage of knowing that he loved me. He did not know that I loved him. It was up to me to take the lead.

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