Not Understood

by Mihangel

Note

Although this story is set in Wales, the Welsh language plays little part in it. For those who like to pronounce the more important names aright, Cilmin is (fairly obviously) Kilmin, Clynnog is Klunnog, and Lleuar approximates to Hlay‑ar, all with the accent on the first syllable. For further guidance, see http://www.cs.brown.edu/fun/welsh/Lesson01.html.

All verses in the chapter headings and ( limericks apart) all unattributed verses in the text are by Robert Hunter. All the places mentioned are real, although I have moved Lleuar to a new site. All the historical personages mentioned are also real, although Cilmin Droed-ddu, St Beuno and St Cybi are only mistily so. But all the present-day characters are wholly imaginary.

As should be clear enough, the chapters are narrated alternately by the two protagonists.

This story is dedicated, with respect and gratitude, to Ben.

July 2005

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. We gather false impressions,
And hug them closer as the years go by,
Till virtues often seem to us transgressions;
And thus men rise and fall, and live and die --
                    Not understood.

Not understood. Poor souls with stunted vision
Oft measure giants by their narrow gauge.
The poisoned shafts of falsehood and derision
Are oft impelled 'gainst those who mould the age --
                    Not understood.

Not understood. The secret springs of action
Which lie beneath the surface and the show
Are disregarded; with self-satisfaction
We judge our neighbour, and they often go --
                    Not understood.

Not understood. How trifles often change us!
The thoughtless sentence or the fancied slight
Destroys long years of friendship, and estrange us,
And on our souls there falls a freezing blight --
                    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.

O God! that men would see a little clearer,
Or judge less harshly when they cannot see;
O God! that men would draw a little nearer
To one another; they'd be nearer thee --
                    And understood.

                                                   Thomas Bracken

1.  Cilmin

Walk into splintered sunlight,
Inch your way through dead dreams
to another land.
Maybe you're tired and broken,
Your tongue is twisted
with words half spoken
and thoughts unclear.

                          Box of Rain, 1970

Not understood . A short phrase and sharp, hammering in my head like the opening bar of Beethoven's Fifth. Try it in German, then -- nicht verstanden.  Different rhythm, but just as terse. Try French and Latin -- non compris, non comprehensus . Different again, yet still succinct. Now try my mother tongue (is it really my mother tongue?) -- dim wedi cael fy neall. Definitely not pithy. Five words where two should do. The language of heaven, they claim, but still a primitive language. Am I a traitor for thinking so?

But all that is mere word-play. None of it matters. Language is only the wrapper round the parcel. What matters is what's inside. Whatever the language, it's me that's not understood. Me, Cilmin. And it's my fault that I'm not understood. If I don't explain myself, how can I expect to be understood? But how can I explain myself, if I don't know what I am? At Penygroes they thought they knew, and laughed at me. Here at Pwllheli they don't laugh because they know nothing about me. Keep it that way. Head down, Cilmin. Be unsociable. Huddle under your hoodie. People assume it hides a menacing tearaway brooding on aggro. It actually hides a wounded teenager bent on anonymity. And it works. They leave me alone.

I suppose, looking back, that last year was easy. I was fresh to Pwllheli. Nobody knew me, nobody got to know me. The move from Penygroes was a good move. The down side was living in Clynnog -- no free transport from outside the college's catchment, only public service buses. But that's all over now, thank God, now that I'm seventeen at last and can drive Dad's old MG. There's a new down side, though. There always is. All the macho lads suck up to the driver of a snazzy red sports car and enthuse about RPMs and injectors and how fast it accelerates from 0 to 100 and can they have a go? None of which is my scene. Macho lads, what's more, tend to have other interests that I don't share. But I'm unsociable with them and they're taking the hint. This year promises to be more relaxed than last. And I will be equally alone.

Which is what I want, yet what I hate. Aloneness means loneliness. Desperate loneliness. At least it does to me. I'm not a natural loner. And aloneness underlines that swamping sense of non-fulfilment. How can you find fulfilment if you don't interact with people? I used to be quite a popular character. Until eighteen months ago I did interact, and I want to interact again. On top of that, I'm conscious of an outward urge, of a sense of rebellion, of an impatience with the narrow world of Clynnog and Pwllheli, of Gwynedd, of Wales. I want to break free. But I'm trapped in this narrow world. Just as I'm trapped by this walnut-shell of secrecy which I dare not let anyone pry inside.

Keeping that shell closed shuts out any hope of fulfilment, any chance of being understood. If I'm to be understood, I've got to open up, I've got to trust, I've got to make my identity known. But what is my identity? An unknown quantity, to most. A laughing-stock, to some. An object of respect and love, to just three people. But what am I to myself? I'm not sure. Am I ashamed of the contents of that shell? I'm not sure. Would I want to change its contents? I'm not sure. I'm different, and proud of my difference. Aren't I? Aren't I? Yet what sane person wants to be fundamentally different?

So I don't know what I am. Maybe there's someone, somewhere, who can tell me. But to date nobody has. The only people I've opened up to are Mum and Dad and the vicar. They sympathise and they support, but I doubt if they know what I am, any more than I know myself. And they're of a different generation. Of my own age, I've not come across a single soul I feel in the least inclined to trust.

So here I am, reasonably good to look at (as if it matters), reasonably well-off (as if it matters), reasonably intelligent (I ought to make university), reasonably likeable (look at my past record), and pining for companionship and more. Yet what am I doing to find it? Hiding under my hoodie.

Such thoughts regularly chased pell-mell around my head, and they chased around it that Tuesday as I sat in the common room belatedly eating my sandwiches. Sandwiches, because the college canteen's menu is far from inspiring. Belatedly, because my history class ran from 12: 30 to 2: 00 and I don't like eating too early. And, as I nibbled the last bit of apple from the core, this boy passed me. I had seen him around a number of times over the first few weeks of term -- evidently a new student and therefore presumably sixteen. I had overheard him talking to his friends in English with a noticeably Scottish intonation -- evidently an incomer. He was eye-turning, too, his manner one of thoughtful independence, his hair curly and almost auburn, his face square and almost freckly, his eyes blue verging on green. Those eyes met mine as he passed, as eyes do, and in them I seemed to see a sympathetic recognition.

He was heading for the lockers. On the spur of the moment I ventured a step which I had never ventured before. I threw my core in a bin, pulled my hood back off my head, and followed him. I rummaged in my locker, he rummaged in his, and as he rummaged he sang softly to himself. The music was hardly my sort. It was the words that held me transfixed like a butterfly on a pin.

In the attics of my life,
Full of cloudy dreams unreal,
Full of tastes no tongue can know
And lights no eye can see,
When there was no ear to hear
You sang to me.

2.  Kenneth

Shut your eyes and listen
to the colours in your mind?
Except for private vision
you might as well be blind.
Coast across the ruin
with the mudflaps of your soul
Slapping to the rhythm
till it sounds like rock and roll.

              Easy Answers, 1994

That Tuesday did not begin well. At an unholy hour I was dragged out of bed by a shrill shriek of "Kenneth!" It was Mum, of course, and all het up. She was off to a meeting in Llandudno, she was already late in leaving, and she needed my help in push-starting the car. Her mood hardly improved when I incautiously reminded her that she had known for a week that the battery was on the way out. Nor was my own mood serene. I liked to launch myself into each new day with a little peaceful exercise, in bed, on my back, with my right hand, and my routine had been interrupted. I returned to bed to resume it, but today's fantasies, as well as the delayed explosion, somehow lacked their usual magic.

Showered and breakfasted, I sat in my room in a disgruntled reverie, trying to come to better terms with a misty late September day. I found myself grappling with the melancholy that had so often washed over me since we moved to Wales, and especially in the last couple of years. It was not so much a melancholy of soul as a melancholy of place: of a place that seemed to live not for the future, nor in the present, but off the past. It was a feeling of transience, not always obvious; but once I had noticed it I tended to notice it everywhere.

I noticed it from my bedroom. One window looked out across the flatlands, here less than half a mile wide, to the ridge of Ralltwen which dropped sheer to the back yards of Tremadog, its cliffs offering foothold only to clumps of heather, the scree slopes at their foot invaded by mature oaks. Towards one end was an abandoned slate quarry, light glinting uncertainly from the tumbled slabs on its waste tip. The window in the adjoining wall faced the precipitous slope of Moel y Gest, gashed horizontally by the shelf that had once been a granite quarry, slashed vertically by the incline that had once taken the stone down to the railway. This quarry was equally dead, the spoil that spilled below it heavily colonised with bracken and rhododendrons.

Within the circuit of the foothills, the nearby scenery of fields, roads, railway and housing -- ours included -- lay below mean sea level, protected from disaster by only a single sluice gate. In the foreseeable future, what with global warming and rising sea levels, the immediate area would be under water again. If one returned in five hundred years, what would one find? An empty expanse, no doubt, of tidal mudflats. Even, most likely, the old farmhouses on the foothills would be derelict. Hill-farming was already a precarious livelihood and few youngsters followed in their fathers' footsteps. All that would survive unchanged was the bones of the mountains. They would long outlast mankind, long after the flesh of human endeavour had been corrupted away. Permanence and transience.

I sighed. I was a two-faced character, and could not help knowing it. Until the last few years I had been childishly cheerful and carefree, joke-cracking, laughter-sharing. I still was, to some extent. But since the onset of GCSEs, since the onset of puberty, since the trauma of that atrocious revelation, more and more of the cheerfulness had been whittled away by new preoccupations.

There was my growing workload at school and more recently at college. There were my sexual desires, as insistent as any teenager's but perhaps untypically focussed on gentle and abiding intimacy rather than quick and casual copulations. And, ever-present, there was the responsibility of jollying Mum along and the nagging burden of coping with the flagrant injustices of life. No surprise that the light-heartedness, nowadays, was often overlaid by an introspection which sometimes, like today, took the form of an aimless melancholy.

But it was time to go. I pulled myself together, shovelled my books into my bag, locked up, and walked the quarter mile to the station. One of the many advantages of college over school was that you did not have to be there all day, only for your own classes. If I had an early class, I caught the college bus. If I started later, I took a later train. The reverse when coming home.

And so, this Tuesday, I sat by the grubby carriage window for the twenty minutes it took to trundle the thirteen miles to Pwllheli, ears glued as usual to the headphones of my discman, eyes open to the scenery which was still relatively unfamiliar. Past the same abandoned granite quarry. Over the dreary marsh of Ystumllyn. Beside Criccieth castle, built to subdue unruly Welshmen but, long superfluous in this genteel resort, now a ruin in the care of Welsh Heritage. Past Hafan y M˘r caravan park and its incongruously sad jollity. Between the mudbanks of the harbour and the suburban gardens a-flap with washing. Into the diminutive terminus, in every sense the end of the line.

Out of the station, past the cluster of signs pointing to the Promenade, Marina, Toilets, South Beach, Leisure Centre, Library, Golf Course, Aviary. I cackled whenever I saw it. My sense of humour is filthy and I don't mind who knows it, except Mum. And that word aviary always sets me off. Because of a limerick:

There was a young curate called Lavery
Whose desires were uncouth and unsavoury.
      With demoniac howls
      He deflowered young owls
Which he kept in an underground aviary.

Yes, I know, I know. Think what you like. But I always recited it to myself when I passed that signpost, and today it banished a slice of my melancholy. A couple of hundred yards more, up Stryd Penlan and Troedyrallt, to the college. Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor, to be formal. The Dwyfor campus of it, to be yet more precise, the Meirion campus being in far-off Dolgellau. And down to work.

At least Tuesdays were pleasantly undemanding. Biology class. A quick bite of lunch. Maths class. All over. How easy. Should be able to catch the 2: 37 back to Porthmadog. A cheery word with Megan and Iorwerth. Apart from Mum, Megan was the first person I had come out to. At school I had resolutely kept it under wraps. At college I had decided to be open: not to flaunt it, just to let it be known. I had been there only a week when Megan showed marked signs of interest in me. I liked her, but I had told her straight out that I was not in the running for more than friendship, and why. She had taken it just as I hoped, with no revulsion or contempt, and had drowned her evident sorrow by chasing Iorwerth instead. She had also spread the news, as I told her she could. But there had been no public reaction whatever. Nobody had reviled me. This was a civilised place, it seemed, but also a barren one, for nobody had tried to chat me up either. And Megan was still a good friend. The last of my morning melancholy evaporated like the morning mist.

As I headed through the common room towards the lockers I passed this chap sitting munching an apple. I had seen him around before and, yes, I had already lusted. He was always withdrawn, always alone, always wanting, it seemed, to be alone. He was usually mysterious inside a black hoodie. But when his head was visible he was startlingly attractive. His hair was short and dark, his eyebrows heavy, his mouth expressive, but his brown eyes were sad. And I already approved of him for reasons other than his looks. I had seen him arrive and leave in a cool red MG, which meant he must be seventeen and in his second year. Anyone who drove a cool red MG modestly and quietly, without ostentatious gunning of engine or squealing of tyres, earned my automatic approval.

Today he was wearing his hoodie as normal, hood up as normal. But our eyes met as I passed, as eyes do. In his, shadowed though they were, I saw the usual sadness, but perhaps a spark of hope as well. I sympathised. But contentment was still upon me and, as I scrabbled in my locker, I sang a song to myself. On reaching the end of the first verse I sensed a presence behind me, and swung round. It was the lonely laddie, his hood now off.

"Sorry to eavesdrop," he said, in a voice low in pitch and low in volume. "I was trying to hear. That sounded good."

"My singing? Good?" I laughed. "I've been told my voice is like a bullfrog with the trots."

He smiled back, and the sadness was no longer there. "It wasn't so much the music. It was the words. Where's it from?"

"The Grateful Dead. Their album American Beauty."

"I think I've heard of them. But never heard them."

He hadn't heard the Grateful Dead? He only thought he'd heard of them? What sort of heathen was this? They were my musical gods. I almost lived my life by them. They spanned all my moods from frivolity to anguish. They were my stimulant and my painkiller.

"That song," I explained, "Attics of my Life. The lyrics are by Robert Hunter. He wrote a lot of their lyrics. And he's a poet in his own right, too."

"How does it go on? Or is that all of it?"

"Oh no. Several verses. Look, why not listen to it? Sung properly, with the band. I've got the CD with me."

"But I don't want to waste your time."

Spreading the gospel to the heathen was never a waste of time. Even more to the point, here was a personal opportunity emphatically not to be missed.

"No problem at all. Let's go to the common room."

We found two chairs. I dug the discman out of my bag, gave him the headphones, set the right track. and sang along in my head.

In the attics of my life,
Full of cloudy dreams unreal,
Full of tastes no tongue can know
And lights no eye can see,
When there was no ear to hear
You sang to me.

I have spent my life
Seeking all that's still unsung,
Bent my ear to hear the tune
And closed my eyes to see.
When there were no strings to play
You played to me.

In the book of love's own dream
Where all the print is blood,
Where all the pages are my days
And all my lights grow old,
When I had no wings to fly
You flew to me.

You
flew
to me.

In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed,
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold,
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me.

As I sang in my head, I watched him. He was sitting there with eyes closed, his heavy eyebrows bent in concentration as he penetrated the American accent. He looked . . . what was the word? Velvety was the best I could rustle up. I had to lean forward to disguise what was going on in my jeans.

"I like those words," he said when the track ended, "very much. How could I get hold of a copy? I wonder, could you possibly dictate them to me? It would be easier than trying to write them down from the CD."

"Easier still to print them off the web. They're all there, all his lyrics for the Grateful Dead. Let's see if there's a computer free. I've got Robert Hunter's website bookmarked at home, but it'll be easy to find."

Off to the computer room, surreptitiously adjusting myself. Google obliged instantly.

"There you go. Attics of my Life. Let's print it off."

"No, don't bother, thanks. I'll just note the URL and do it at home. And read the rest too."

"It'll take you some time. There's a lot of it."

"You're a fan of his, that's obvious. Can you tell me more about him? Once I've read his stuff?"

I had two reasons for educating him, and no hesitation on either score.

"Course. No problem."

"Thanks very much. Well . . ." He paused as if uncertain how to wind up our chat. "I've finished here for today. I'd better be getting home."

"Same here." I stood up and looked at my watch. "Oh, shit!"

"What's up?"

"Missed my train. Never mind. I'll do my homework in the library and get the college bus."

"But I made you miss your train. I've got a car. I'll run you home."

"Don't bother, thanks. I'll be OK." But I hoped against hope that he would insist.

"No, I insist. It'll save you time, the way the bus stops at every lamppost. Where do you live?"

"Porthmadog. Where do you live?"

"Clynnog."

"But . . ."

Pwllheli to Clynnog via Port is a long way, two sides of a bloody big triangle. But I looked at him, and saw that he wanted to drive me. And I knew that I wanted him to.

"OK, then, if you really don't mind. Thanks."

3.  Cilmin

I do not know if a tree
remains a tree when
I turn toward a cloud --
nor if my love is love
or infatuation of the eye
with the bright gilding
of the heart's foundation
by whose inexact light
I happen to see another.

Sentinel, Fifth Watch, 1991

He gave way. We picked up our bags and went out to the car park and the MG. As we shoehorned ourselves in, a posse of macho types was eyeing us.

"I reckon they're envious," he said.

"Or pitying, that I don't drive this thing the way they think I ought to drive it."

"I'm glad you don't. I don't like speed, or noise. Not of that sort."

"Nor me." So we agreed on that too. "I'm sorry, I don't know your name."

"Kenneth. Kenneth MacAlpine."

I almost drove up on to the pavement. I had overheard people at college saying interesting things about Kenneth MacAlpine, but had not hitherto had a face to put to the name. Were those macho types sneering at me for consorting with the likes of him? This isn't keeping your head down, Cilmin. It's sticking it up above the parapet, a target for snipers.

"Oh," I said, trying to push my fears aside. "Same as the Scottish king?"

"That's right. You've heard of him, then? Not many people have. Not here."

"Comes of doing history. So you are from Scotland?"

"Yes. We came down five years ago, Mum and me."

"No brothers or sisters, then?"

"No, just me."

"Same here. What brought your Mum here, then?"

"She works for the Edinburgh Woollen Mills, and they put her in charge of their shop in Port."

"Ah. And you prefer Kenneth, not Ken?"

"Yes. Not Ken, please. And definitely not Kenny." I almost felt him shudder. "And I don't know your name, either," he pointed out.

"Sorry. Cilmin. Cilmin Glynne-Williams."

I was glancing at him, and saw him blink.

"Cilmin? How do you spell it?"

I spelled it out.

"Never heard that one before."

"Not surprising. I've never heard of anyone else called Cilmin, either."

"Where does it come from, then?"

"Oh, it's an old, old name, from the top of the family tree. Cilmin Droed-ddu, Cilmin of the Black Foot. A semi-mythical character. Supposedly founder of the Fourth Noble Tribe."

There was a pause as Kenneth, I sensed, stored that away to pursue later.

"And the Glynne-Williams -- that's a double-barrelled surname?"

"Yes."

"I've never met anyone double-barrelled before, either. It sounds like an old county family."

How right he was. "Well, we were once. Cousins of the Glynnes of Glynllifon, who became the Wynns, who became the Lords Newborough. But that was centuries ago. We're just minor gentry now."

And thoroughly inbred and on the way out, I thought, but did not say so. Best shift the subject back to him.

"So you were at Ysgol Eifionydd in Port before coming to the college?"

"That's right. Where did you go? Glan y M˘r?" That is the secondary school in Pwllheli.

"No. Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle. In Penygroes."

"But . . ."

I knew exactly what he was going to point out. That Penygroes, like all the secondary schools in Arfon, has a sixth form. None of the schools in Dwyfor or Meirion does. Which is why Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor exists, as a sixth-form college for everywhere in the Pwllheli and Porthmadog area and southwards. Ordinarily I would have stayed on at Penygroes. I willed Kenneth not to ask why I had left it.

And he did not ask. Instead, we compared notes about the college, me with a year's experience of it, he with only a few weeks'. It turned out that he was doing chemistry, physics, maths and biology at AS.

"I envy you that," I confessed, "in a way. But I'm hopeless at science. My GCSE results were dire."

"What are you doing, then?"

"A-level history, music and English literature."

"And I envy you that, in a way. I like history. And I haven't read much literature, not of that sort. And I'm probably rather narrow in my music."

"Nothing but the Grateful Dead?" I asked teasingly, daringly.

"Not much else," he admitted with a smile. "The Byrds, a bit. Bob Dylan, a bit. But I've got a one-track mind."

He coughed as if he had said something embarrassing, and went on quickly.

"What music do you go in for?"

"Rather different. Classical. Especially baroque, anything from Monteverdi to Mozart. I've got a one-track mind too."

And so on. Small-talk, but we got on famously. He was as he looked, gentle and intelligent. No hermit like me, but no great socialiser either. Confident but modest. Self-contained.

As we crept into Porthmadog in the tailback of traffic on the Criccieth road he began to give directions, "Left at the roundabout."

We passed the Coliseum cinema, showing some ancient film, and he nodded at it.

"I don't often go there. But there's bugger all to do here, you know."

"Ten times as much as in Clynnog. It's only a small village."

"Mmmm." It was not clear if he was sympathising or approving. "Second left beyond the level crossing, into the estate. Y Ddol. Yes, here. Know what we call this?" he added mischievously. "Midmadog, because it's between Porthmadog and Tremadog. Next left."

Nineteen-fifties housing gave way to nineteen-eighties.

"Left again, into Maes Gerddi. Follow the curve. Last box on the left."

It was indeed a cramped and flimsy box of a house, to one born and bred in seventeenth-century space and solidity.

"I've got a book," he said abruptly as I pulled up, "of Robert Hunter's poetry, if you'd like to borrow it. Do you want to pop in? Mum won't be home for ages."

Was that a bait? If so, a bit early to rise to it.

"No, I'd better be getting home, thanks. But I would like to borrow it, please. I'll wait."

He seemed disappointed, but grabbed his bag, levered himself out of the car, let himself into the house, and soon reappeared.

"Here you go. I hope you'll like it. And thanks for the lift, Cilmin. See you tomorrow?"

"Yes. I'm in first thing. Till then!"

I had not felt like this for years. Wrong -- I had never felt like this. On a high, I drove home via Pant Glas, faster than usual, almost falling foul of the police speed trap at Bryncir. I was already deep in nefarious plans. No, not nefarious. Calculated, rather. Caution was called for, extreme caution, but at the same time boldness. Boldness? From me? It sounded laughable. But already, on impulse, I had taken the boldest step. I found room to hope that it had not been a crashing mistake, that I was not inviting public curiosity, that . . . that he really was what he seemed to be.

Over dinner I checked with Mum and Dad. It must have been seven years since I last had a friend to stay, but they exchanged a single glance and agreed without hesitation. Although not a word was said about motives or reasons, they understood. They often drove me mad, but in this area they were wonderful. Then I settled down to Robert Hunter on the web and in print. Much of his work, I found, spoke to me.

Just as Kenneth spoke to me.

While you were gone
These spaces filled with darkness.

Next day, Wednesday, I buttonholed him in the break between first and second class.

"I've read quite a bit of Robert Hunter. It's great. And I'd love to hear more about him. But my timetable's pretty full for the rest of the week. Um, could I persuade you to come and stay at my place over the weekend?"

He was looking at me wide-eyed, and replied with heart-warming speed.

"I'd like that. Thanks very much. But I'll have to clear it with Mum. Let you know tomorrow?"

"Of course. If it's OK, I'll drive you back here on Monday morning, so bring everything you need on Friday. And Kenneth . . ."

This was tricky, but very necessary.

"I've got to say this, because we need to know where we stand. I've heard people talking about you. I hope I'm not speaking out of turn, but I get the impression it's no secret. That you're gay."

"No, it's no secret. Not now. Do you mind?"

"Not in the least. I've no problem with it. But at Lleuar . . ."

"Lleuar?"

"That's the name of our house. At Lleuar you'll be in a spare room, and I'll be in my room. I don't leap into bed with boys, or men. OK?"

"OK by me," was all he said.

But his face visibly fell. Qualms beset me. Had I misjudged him? Was he, after all, just out for sex? Wait and see, was the only answer. And meanwhile give him the benefit of the doubt.

4.  Kenneth

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full may it be again,
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men.

                                                                                  Ripple, 1970

Mum was a bit of a name-dropper. A whopping big name-dropper, in fact. Whenever Lord or Lady Thingummy patronised her shop, I heard of little else for a week. So when I told her I had been invited to stay with an old county family, and promised her (before she could ask) that it would not be a weekend of torrid sex, she preened herself in reflected glory and readily agreed. Maybe she also welcomed the extra time with her gentleman-friend, without the bickerings that were the norm when I was around.

As for Cilmin, I already liked him and wanted to build up the friendship. He could become -- he looked like becoming -- as good a friend as Megan. And I already lusted for him as a great deal more than a friend. For the rest of the week my mind, as I jerked off first thing in the morning and last thing at night, was full of his image. Despite his very plain statement, moreover, I had this feeling that he too was after something more than friendship, that even as a soul-mate he might not be wholly inaccessible. But never before had I trodden this road, and I had to tread it with the utmost care.

His parents, Cilmin had told me a trifle apologetically, liked, er, to do things the old way, and would appreciate it if I brought a jacket and tie. Tie, eh? I had not worn one since my last day at school. By Friday afternoon I was in a state of high expectancy and some trepidation. After my last class I found Cilmin slumped in a chair in the common room, staring into infinity. I sat down beside him.

"Anyone there?" I asked after a minute of not being noticed.

That jolted him back to earth, in confusion.

"Sorry, Kenneth. I was miles away. Very rude of me."

"Not rude. We all need to go there. Well, I do, and I can't dictate when."

He was still patently embarrassed, and to help him over it I quietly sang a song, quietly both to avoid public attention and to spare him the worst of my voice.

"Wake up to find out
that you are the eyes of the world,
but the heart has its beaches,
its homeland and thoughts of its own.
Wake now, discover that you
are the song that the morning brings,
but the heart has its seasons,
its evenings and songs of its own."

He listened with a grave air of appreciation and, I could have sworn, relief -- not relief that I had covered his embarrassment, but at something else that eluded me.

"Yes," he said thoughtfully. "Homeland and evenings. I do spend a lot of time there." He snapped out of brooding into briskness. "Right, then. Ready to go?"

Out to the MG. North from Pwllheli, through Y Ffor's single unprepossessing street, skirting Llanaelhaearn and the shoulder of Yr Eifl, under the screes of Moel Penllechog, and into the scanty village that was Clynnog. Left into a lane immediately short of a large church with a stumpy tower, right between stone gateposts on to a crunching gravel drive, through a small plantation of big trees. And there stood Lleuar four-square ahead.

"Bloody hell!" I muttered.

We swung to the right, then left round a wing, to pull up at the front door. I gawped, almost expecting, from my vast experience drawn from films, to see a butler or footman emerge to take charge of our luggage. Cilmin read my mind.

"No servants, I'm afraid," he said. "It's an infernal nuisance, but one just cannot find them these days."

I looked at him suspiciously, but his face was deadpan. When I looked back, his parents -- they must be his parents -- were coming out of the door, a big black labrador cavorting round their feet. Father, a forty-ish version of his son, in tweed and twills. Mother, ultra-elegant in hair-do and make-up, in heather-coloured cashmere and skirt. Cilmin introduced us, the dog introduced himself, and they all welcomed me with warmth. I did my best to reply in proper form.

"It's very good of you to invite me, Mrs, er . . ."

I was visited by a sudden and ghastly fear that they were really Sir and Lady, not Mr and Mrs, and that Cilmin had forgotten to tell me.

She laughed, but kindly. "Oh, call us Priscilla and Goronwy. Please do, Kenneth. We don't stand on formality here. Do come in. Cilmin will show you your room. I'm sorry there's nobody to bring in your luggage. It's an infernal nuisance, but one just cannot find staff these days."

Cilmin, pink in the face with the effort of keeping it deadpan, acted as footman and carried my bag himself. My room was next to his, with a view up the coast to Dinas Dinlle and clear across the sea to Anglesey and Ynys Gybi. Next to mine was a dingy bathroom with an antique tub and basin and loo but also, incongruously, a new wall-mounted fan heater and a shiny shower-head over the bath.

"This is just for us. There's another in the south wing where Mum and Dad sleep. If you'd come four months ago there wouldn't even have been a shower. Such things probably hadn't been invented when my great-grandparents put the plumbing in." In my turn I hid a grin. "But I begged for this shower for my birthday present, and life's much more civilised now. Right, let me show you round the rest of the house and the garden."

Lleuar proved to be twin-gabled, twin-winged, built of solid stone -- no pebble-dashed concrete blocks or plasterboard at Lleuar -- with tall chimney stacks and all the authority of age. Yet, grand though it was to my modest eye, it was far from a stately home. It was not even large, as large houses go. But these things are relative. Our little box would fit into it ten times over, and every room was at least twice the size of our counterpart.

"Seventeenth century, mostly," said Cilmin, and it looked it. The hall and reception rooms were oak-panelled, small-windowed and dark, with open fires warding off the early October chill. "No central heating," said Cilmin. Gentle decay pervaded the place. Carpets and curtains and upholstery, though not quite tatty, were threadbare and faded. The garden, while not unduly large, was only half-kempt, with grass in need of cutting and beds in need of weeding. "No servants," said Cilmin, and this time he could enjoy the joke.

"It's five o'clock," he added, looking at his watch. "An hour or so till it gets dark. I could show you the church, but we'll see that on Sunday. If you don't mind coming to Matins, that is -- it's in English this weekend. Evensong's in Welsh, and we don't go to that. So what about taking Rasmus for a walk now? Did you bring your boots?"

"Fine by me. Yes, I did."

So, while Rasmus bounded ahead, I walked by Cilmin's side down the lane strewn with autumnal leaves, venturing the first tentative steps towards discovering him, alert for any hint of the direction he might take, ready to stop, ready to sprint. We passed several large and ancient holly trees.

"There are lots of them round here," said Cilmin, "which is right and proper."

"Why right and proper?"

"Because that's what Clynnog means. Celynog. The place of holly."

A comforting and homely name. The berries were beginning to turn, some still green, some amber. Like traffic lights. Green, carry on. Amber, be prepared to stop. Message understood, though it was not Cilmin's.

Five minutes brought us to the coast. The sea was simply sea, sullen and grey. The narrow beach beneath gravel cliffs was shingly and disappointing.

"It's lousy for bathing," said Cilmin. "It's uncomfortable to walk on, it shelves steeply, and the currents are fierce. And the farm buildings up there" -- he nodded to a cluster a few yards inland -- "have been turned into holiday homes. Down here, in summer, it's a-squawk with kids."

No message on the coast, then. We retraced our steps towards the more uplifting view inland, a gentler landscape than mine at Port. The coastal plain a few hundred yards wide. Lleuar and its trees and, just beyond it, the church. The huddle of the village. The lower slopes with their jumble of small fields. The mountain wall. Then open acres of moorland, pale green even in the dwindling light. Finally, standing distant watch, the knobbled summit of Bwlch Mawr, for all its sixteen hundred feet a hill rather than a mountain, benign rather than stern. Nature might one day reclaim the meadows and tumble the buildings, but the essence of the scene would remain.

We left the lane for another track, which led us to a crude monument surrounded by a battered railing in the middle of a field. Four big upright stones carried a flatter one on top, maybe nine feet long, like a giant table-top almost at eye level.

"Meet the Bachwen dolmen," said Cilmin. "Neolithic. About 3000 BC. There would once have been a barrow round it and over it. A great mound of earth, like this." He demonstrated with his hands. "These stones were just the burial chamber in the middle. And look at these cup-marks." He pointed to the table-top, pocked with a hundred little round depressions.

"What were they for?"

"Nobody knows. Some sort of magic, I suppose. Something ritual. Maybe they put offerings in the holes, to placate the spirits of the people already inside, to apologise for disturbing them. I'm sure there are spirits here. I always find it a spooky place."

So did I, though their presence seemed benevolent and earthy. Yet Rasmus did not like them. His tail was between his legs.

"But the holes," I objected, "would've been covered by the mound."

"Ordinarily, yes. But they kept reopening the thing for more burials, generation after generation. Like a crypt in a church."

Now that word crypt, like aviary, always sets me off.

"What's the joke?"

Oh dear. First decision to make. Did I mind Cilmin knowing about my dirty mind? He seemed so serious a young man. Not prim, but serious, restrained, austere. He did smile, but I had never seen him laugh, not properly. I had never yet heard him use the earthy language that was normal to me. Maybe he had religious scruples. After all, he went to church. Be honest, though. Let him be himself, and I could not in honesty be other than myself. I took the plunge.

"Well . . . Crypt always reminds me of a limerick. A very funny one. Well, I think it is."

"Let's hear it, then."

"Well, it's dirty. Very dirty, and gay. Do you mind?"

"No. Let's hear it."

I felt a fool as I solemnly recited.

"From the depths of crypt at St Giles
Came a scream that resounded for miles.
    Said the verger, 'Good gracious!
    Has Father Ignatius
Forgotten the Bishop has piles?'"

The ghosts, I sensed, approved, but Cilmin's laugh was not very convincing.

"What the word reminds me of," he replied, "is that silly little sentence, 'The cat crept into the crypt and crapped.'"

I laughed in turn, feeling awkward. Luckily Rasmus rescued me. He had had enough of the spooks and was insisting that we leave. Through the fading light we ambled back to Lleuar. Cilmin gave me first use of the shower, and when he had done he collected me. Both of us were now resplendent in jacket and tie.

"Right, if you're ready, let's go down to the drawing room for some sherry."

I had not felt it hitherto with Cilmin, but at Lleuar, in the company of the Glynne-Williamses, I was conscious that I came from a different walk of life. Drawing room, eh? We called it the lounge. Sherry, eh? I had no more than heard of the stuff. Indeed I had hardly drunk any alcohol at all. There was plenty of gin and whisky in our house, but it was reserved for Mum and her gentleman-friend. From the noises in the kitchen, Priscilla was evidently cooking, but Goronwy was in the drawing room and poured us a sherry apiece, and very pleasant it proved to be. Although he must have known it from my accent, or my name, or from Cilmin, he pretended to be surprised that I was Scottish, and we talked about Edinburgh, which he knew a little. Then Priscilla called us in to the dining room for dinner.

Dinner, eh? At home we called it tea. The food was great -- four courses in all -- but there were pitfalls. Each place had an array of silver. I watched carefully and tried to use the right knives and forks. There was a choice of drinks. White wine, I saw, went into tall glasses, red into round ones, water into tumblers, all of them different from the sherry glasses. But even if I had got it wrong, I had the impression they would not have minded. Traditionalists they may have been, but not snobs. Not real snobs. Humble though my background was, they seemed to envelop me in a warm blanket of approval. I wondered why. And they were all generous in including me in their talk. The message here was good.

Goronwy told Priscilla that I was a Scot.

"What's more," added Cilmin, "he's named after Kenneth MacAlpine the Scottish king."

His parents had clearly never heard of him. "When did he live, and what did he do?"

"Ninth century, I think. He started uniting Scotland into a single kingdom."

That did interest them. "Really? At the same time as Merfyn Frych started uniting Wales, then."

I, in turn, had never heard of Merfyn Frych.

"He was a Celtic prince," explained Cilmin, "from the Edinburgh area, as it happens, who married into the dynasty of Gwynedd, and who married his daughter off to the prince of Powys. So things began to come together for the first time. And one of his lieutenants was Cilmin Droed-ddu, who settled at Glynllifon."

I knew about Glynllifon, of course. It was only a few miles north of here, and it was the Newboroughs' seat, a proper stately home. Or rather it had been. It was now the third campus of Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor, where they taught agriculture, forestry, animal care and engineering. Its wide acres of grounds were a country park open to the public. There was a museum in the stables. Signs of the times, all of them.

"And as I told you, Cilmin was ancestor to the Glynnes of Glynllifon who ultimately became the Newboroughs. And he was also ancestor to us. We're how many generations down from him, Dad? Thirty-five?"

"That's right, for me. Thirty-six for you."

Thirty-six generations. My mind boggled.

"But why Cilmin Droed-Ddu?" I asked. "Why Black-foot?"

Goronwy laughed. "There are various legends. The one I like best is that a sorcerer asked him to go to Tre'r Ceiri and rescue a book written by no human hand, which was guarded by demons. He warned him not to touch water on his way back. So off Cilmin went, and after a brisk tussle with a giantess he grabbed the book and hurried away, with a horde of demons in hot pursuit. He came to a stream which he knew no demon could cross. Beyond it lay safety and, just in time, he leapt across. But in scrambling up the bank his foot touched the water, and a sharp pain ran through his leg, and his foot turned black. A black leg has been part of our coat of arms ever since. Look at your plate."

I had noticed that every plate, large and small, was of porcelain, with an inch-high shield painted on the rim. The quarters at top left and bottom right indeed had a black leg. The others had a two-headed eagle and three burning sticks. These were explained to me, as was much more about the family tree, but I took little of it in. I was happily mellow after a glass of sherry and two of wine. Was I drunk? I certainly did not feel in full control, and distrusted myself. Tempted to say more and more, I decided to say less and less.

When the meal was over, Cilmin, all unsuspecting, insisted that we wash up, and banished his parents to the drawing room with their coffee. I was feeling yuckier still, but it was only when we had almost finished, and when I had almost dropped a priceless plate, that I had to run, and run urgently.

Cilmin tracked me to our bathroom, where he found me at the mouthpiece of the great white telephone to God, saying goodbye to my dinner. He was sympathy itself, and even apologetic.

"I'm sorry, Kenneth. I'm used to it, and it never crossed my mind that you weren't. Look, wash your mouth out, and drink plenty of water to dilute it."

I was feeling bad about my performance, very bad indeed. Had I fatally disgraced myself? I was also feeling better, but not up to company.

"Oh God. It's me that should be sorry, Cilmin. I'll know for next time. But I'd best get to bed. Say thank you to your parents for the meal, would you? Don't tell them I threw it up. Just that I'm knackered. Which is true."

That night, for once, my right hand remained unexercised. I slept like a log and woke late, feeling a touch delicate but -- was it because I had cleared my system at an early stage? -- no worse than delicate. I was fit, at least, to make up for the omission of the night before. Then Cilmin knocked at my door and enquired how I was, and we came down to find that Priscilla and Goronwy had already gone into Caernarfon to shop. Over a leisurely breakfast we debated what to do with ourselves. I remembered that Tre'r Ceiri had been mentioned over dinner. Giants' Town, it ought to mean, and I asked Cilmin for details.

"Well, let me show it to you. Much better than trying to describe it. It's a great place. A ten-minute drive, then a half-hour walk. Are you up to that?"

He pointed it out from the landing window, the leftmost of the three peaks of Yr Eifl. Yes, I ought to be up to that and, after throwing some sandwiches together, off we went. It turned out to be a forty-five-minute slog, not a half-hour walk, but well worth the effort. We found ourselves at an Iron Age hillfort surrounded by dry-stone ramparts ten feet high, its interior dense with the tumbled walls of round huts. By the cairn at the highest point we sat to eat our lunch and drink in a vista as spectacular as the fort. It was a superb day, and warm for the time of year. To the north we could see the whole of Anglesey, and only four miles away picked out Clynnog church and Lleuar. We looked east to my own Moel y Gest and the real mountains beyond. Southwards we saw right down the Llŷn peninsula and clean across seventy miles of Cardigan Bay to the pencil line of the Pembrokeshire coast. Only to the west were we thwarted by the main peak of Yr Eifl obstructing the distant view.

"Pity about that," said Cilmin. "It blocks out the Wicklow Mountains."

"What, in Ireland?"

"Yes. On a day like this they're bound to be visible. Want to climb the next peak to see?"

"Mmmm. Not sure I feel that energetic."

"OK. Plenty of chance in the future."

So he was looking ahead to more outings together, was he? That was encouraging. I was evidently forgiven for yesterday. Not a soul was in sight, not even demons or a giantess. The only sounds were the breeze in the heather and bleatings of distant sheep. We sat, backs to the cairn, side by side, contented.

Cilmin broke the silence.

"Tell me about Robert Hunter, then. There's been no chance yet.

Sometimes the light's all shining on me,
Other times I can barely see."

I painted in the background. How the Grateful Dead had started in 1965 under the lead of Jerry Garcia. How they had ended thirty years later with Jerry's death, though some of them were now playing together again. How they had fused rock, blues, country, jazz and Lord knows what else into a new sound, creating a legacy of great musical substance. How Robert Hunter had joined them as a non-performing songwriter and raised the level of their lyrics far above that of any other band. How they had become an international name and, apart from the Rolling Stones, had been probably the longest-lasting rock group ever. How their concerts had been fired by the interaction between band and audience, both of them fuelled high on LSD or worse.

At that, Cilmin stirred. "I'm not comfortable with drugs. Are you?"

"No. I'm not. I'd never want to get high on anything, especially after last night. But I suppose it was inevitable, in the circumstances. Given the pressures they were under. And in their psychedelic period it was an inspiration too. What do you make of the GD's music?"

"From what little I've heard, it's not really my scene. But I can see myself getting to like it. Hunter's lyrics go well with it. And it goes well with them."

"And you like them?"

"Very much. They're impressive. Some are fun. Some are nonsense. Some are profound. Some are obscure but seem to hide a very important meaning, if only one could get at it. And that's even more true of his poems."

"I know what you mean.

One watch by night, one watch by day,
If you get confused, listen to the music play."

He chuckled. "That's from Franklin's Tower, isn't it? And I like the themes that run through so many of them. I'm not one for analysing poems clinically. I go more by what they say to my emotions. And his say a lot. About light and darkness, particularly. He's got so much about the light of understanding and knowledge and grace and bliss, which so often slips away when we try to reach for it. And about their opposites."

"Yes. I know what you mean about that too.

What fatal flowers of
darkness spring from
seeds of light?"

More good messages. And so we went on, at a length which cannot be repeated here, until the falling temperature drove us down. We took a supposed short cut through the heather and found ourselves in a boggy patch. Cilmin tried to leap across a pool of peaty water, landed short, and pulled himself out with one leg dripping.

"Cilmin Droed-ddu!" I cried.

I was creasing myself with laughter, and so was he -- proper laughter, for the first time in my presence. There was much about him which I did not understand, and this episode gave me confidence to ask further, as well as excuse. As he sat on dry ground, boot off, wringing out his sock, I raised a matter which puzzled and, I admit, slightly disappointed me.

"Cilmin. You know about my dirty jokes. And I'm always using bad language. Well, earthy language. So do all my other friends. But you don't. If I'd fallen into a bog I'd have said shit. Or worse. All you said was bother. Is it because you're, um, religious?"

"Oh, I'm not religious. I only go to church because Mum and Dad do, and because I like the vicar. Religion doesn't come into it. But earthy language . . . well, I'm not a prude either, I hope . . . let me think."

He pondered.

"I do use it, you know. Occasionally. I seem to remember saying crap yesterday."

Well yes, he had. But that was hardly . . .

"But I suppose bad language just isn't my habit. I don't feel a need to use it. We all express ourselves differently. I might as well ask you why you do use it."

It was my turn to ponder, relieved that he had not mentioned social differences.

"Well. My Mum's pretty strict. Not churchy. But she tries to keep me on quite a short rein. So maybe it's my form of protest. Though I don't use it in front of her -- she'd throw a fit. And I draw the line at the f-word, at least as an expletive. Some of the macho types at college throw it around like confetti. That's just pointless."

"Agreed. And perhaps I don't use earthy language because my parents give me plenty of freedom."

"But it doesn't offend you if I use it? Or tell my dirty jokes?"

"Oh Lord, no. Not a bit. You be true to yourself. You say what you need to say, as you need to say it. Please do, Kenneth. It's all a part of you. I'd never want you to change your habits just for me."

Hmmm.

He pulled up his wet trouser leg, exposing his shin damply plastered with black hair. I stared at it, mentally drooling, stiffening down below.

"Anyway," he said, wriggling his foot into his sock, "I've got a dirty joke for you, in return for yesterday."

That was a step forward. "Let's hear it, then."

"Well, there was this innocent young assistant priest at a Catholic church, and his boss -- let's call him Father Ignatius again -- went away for a few days and left him in charge. All went well until confession time. Father Ignatius had left him a list of standard sins and the standard penances to give for them. No problem at first. A woman who confessed to lusting for the bloke next door -- that's ten Ave Marias. A man who confessed to nicking ten quid from the office cash-box -- let's see, sliding scale, ten quid, that's twenty Paternosters. Then a man who confessed to having a, er, a blow-job. Blow-job? The priest had never heard of it, and couldn't find it in the list. So he stuck his head out of the confessional and beckoned to an altar boy.

"'Hey, sonny, do you know what Father Ignatius gives for a blow-job?'

"'Course I do. Two Snickers and a Coke.'"

I laughed. It was a good joke, and he had told it well. But I was puzzled. Why, I wondered as he laced up his boot, hadn't he trotted it out yesterday, as a follow-up to my limerick? It would have been far more relevant then. And he had noticeably winced at using the word blow-job. On top of that, I had met the story before. If you asked Google for 'gay jokes,' this was one of the first that came up. I knew. I had tried it the other day.

Hmmm, again.

So back to Lleuar, another walk with Rasmus, shower, and dinner. This time I knew my limitations, and this time the conversation was on science; once more, I thought, for my benefit. We then sat down companionably, Cilmin and I, side by side at his desk, to clear our weekend homework out of the way. His room was as neat and tidy as Cilmin himself and, with the gas fire going, it was snug. There was music in the background. I had riffled through his collection, which was all classical and unfamiliar, and left it to him to choose. He chose something he called the Brandenburgs, as orderly and restrained as Cilmin himself, and fun.

He was writing an essay on his computer, and I longed to look at its History record to see if he had visited Google last night. But of course I could not. I finished my work before he did, and sneaked a look at him as he sat intent on his monitor. My eyes travelled slowly across his face. The narrow pink strip in front of his ear before the shadow started, a single short black hair at its edge which he had missed in shaving, a dusting of down on his cheekbone, the long narrow nostril, the satin of the nose above, the lips moving slightly as he dictated to himself. Those lips . . . I grew uncomfortable. And I had been staring too long.

I got out my latest New Scientist, which had arrived the day before but was still unopened. 'Which way is up?' was the lead article, all about the quantum world and Schr÷dinger's cat -- very much my cup of tea, but difficult. Cilmin noticed.

"New Scientist? I've heard of that. Is it good?"

"Brilliant. It covers everything you can think of, as intelligibly as they can make it. A lot of it's still over my head, but it keeps me up to date with the latest findings. Very useful, now that I'm specialising. Mum gave me a year's subscription for my birthday."

And so to bed, to the usual accompaniment.

Sunday morning took us, in jackets and ties, to church. It was clearly a weekly ritual for my hosts. The building itself, spacious and bright with big windows, felt hospitably open.

"It was a monastic house, this," whispered Cilmin helpfully in my ear as we took our seats in the front row, "and rich -- a major staging point on the pilgrim trail to Bardsey. That's why its full name is Clynnog Fawr, Great Clynnog. And that's why the whole thing's so large and light and airy, compared to most of the dark and poky little churches round here."

I was a heathen, wholly non-religious, wholly at sea in any service other than the dour Scottish funerals and weddings of which I had fair experience. I had to follow Cilmin's lead in sitting down and standing up. But, to my surprise, the service was lively, livelier even than a Scottish wedding. And, to my profound astonishment, the vicar's sermon, short, well-argued and witty, was a devastating attack on creationism.

"When the Methodist minister hears about that," whispered Cilmin delightedly in my ear, "he'll be hopping mad. There's a running battle between them."

We filed out with the rest of the congregation and I was introduced to the vicar, who welcomed me with more enthusiasm than I deserved. Gwilym was his first name, and nobody mentioned his surname. Priscilla and Goronwy peeled off home, but Cilmin offered me a guided tour. He led me back inside, through the tower and along a vaulted passage to an otherwise detached little chapel.

"Scream when I bore you. But I'm proud of this place, somehow, and can't help showing it off. It all began around 630, with dear old St Beuno. He came from the south, where he'd been a buddy of Dewi Sant -- you know, St David -- and he set up shop here. And like Dewi he was a right old evangelical, strict as they came, and up here in Gwynedd he became very influential. When he died he was buried here. So this is his grave chapel, Capel y Bedd, which was a place of pilgrimage in its own right. They've found the footings of the original building under the floor -- these marks on the flags show where. This building's a replacement of 1500, give or take a few years. So's the whole of the church, come to that. The original church was presumably under the present one."

He took me back to the church proper. We admired the old furnishings. But what interested me most was the north transept. Here were the tombs of the Glynnes and Glynne-Williamses going back to Tudor times, carrying the same coat of arms with the black legs. I found myself marvelling at the length of Cilmin's pedigree, at the mind-blowing stability of one family in one place. I could not have named any of my own ancestors beyond my grandparents. Rabid old dissenters they had been, too, as were my aunts and most of my cousins still, though at least Mum had broken free. I much preferred this liberal and open atmosphere. We ended up beside the altar at a memorial to the William Glynne who died in 1609. It showed him on his knees with a brood of twelve diminutive offspring charmingly strung out in line astern, like ducklings behind a duck. We laughed, and in this tolerant place our laughter did not feel amiss.

"Let's have a look round outside," Cilmin suggested.

"Will it take long?"

"Only a few minutes. Why?"

"Because I need a pee."

"Sorry, no loos here. As they say on the incontinence hotline, can you hold, please?"

It was so unexpected from Cilmin that it caught me off guard, and I guffawed out loud. In Scotland, lightning would have streaked down from heaven upon anyone guffawing in church. Here, nothing happened, and it left me on a high.

"All right," I agreed. "I'll tie a knot in it."

Cilmin led the way out of the porch and turned left, which offended me.

"Hey! Dinna gang widdershins aroon a kirk!"

"Eh?"

"Sorry. Being frivolous and Scottish. Don't go widdershins round a church. It's unlucky. I don't know much about churches, but I do know that. Don't you?"

"Widdershins?"

"Anti-clockwise."

"Oh. No, I didn't know. Why?"

"Well, the opposite is deasil. That's Gaelic. Clockwise, following the sun. Something to do with old Celtic ritual, following the sun. You ought to know about that."

He laughed. "But I don't. OK, let's be good Celts, then, and go deasil."

So we turned right, abandoned the path and threaded our way through thickets of gravestones commemorating Gwladus Evans, beloved wife, and Ebenezer Pritchard, Pant, cobbler. Most were in Welsh, and many carried verses which I found hard to translate.

"I saw an In Memoriam once," I remarked, "which said,

The last trump sounded,
St Peter said 'Come!'
The pearly gates opened,
And in walked Mum.

Can you credit it? Are these Welsh verses any better?"

Cilmin was smiling. "Well, they're more, um, literary, but a lot of them are pretty hackneyed. Yet some englynion are good. There's one by Tegidon -- where is it? Oh yes, here -- to a father and his young son."

Yr eiddilaidd ir ddeilen -- a syrthiai
    Yn swrth i'r ddaearen;
Yna y gwynt, hyrddwynt hen,
Ergydiai ar y goeden.

I struggled with the Welsh, and Cilmin came to my rescue.

"'The sickly leaf, still green, fell to earth. Then the wind, the ancient tempest, struck at the tree.'"

I was jolted out of my flippancy.

"Oh God. That gets you in the guts."

Cilmin was watching me with a curious expression. What was he thinking? That this boy is more than rock music and dirty jokes and earthy language? For a moment I wanted to cry.

We worked our way to the corner of Capel y Bedd. There stood a tall slab with a simple sundial carved on it and a hole where the pointer had been.

"About a thousand years old," said Cilmin. "Let's see if it still tells the right time."

He stuck his pen into the hole, and the shadow fell down the vertical line.

"Oh dear," he said. "That ought to mean twelve, but it's nearly one."

"Summer time. It's really twelve, by God's Mean Time."

"Oh, of course. Silly of me. But lunch is at one. We'd better hop it."

But as we left the churchyard by a different path, Cilmin paused by a flat slab surrounded by a low spiked iron railing.

"This one always touches me too. Sorrowing parents struggling with unfamiliar English."

Here Lie the Remains of John Jones son of Griffith Jones of Wern by Mary his wife was Drownded on the 19th August 1796 Aged 14 Years.

Also William Jones his brother happened of the same Accsidence in the same time, in the 13th year of his Age.


How had it happened? Swept away from the beach by the currents? What had those boys been like? Carefree and cheerful, like me at that age? Oh God, the unfairness of life. Our eyes met in silent agreement, and we went soberly back to Lleuar, and the loo.

After a 'light cold luncheon' for which Priscilla apologised, Cilmin dragged me out again, minus tie, to a place he thought I would like. He too sounded apologetic, but I did not mind in the least -- simply to be with him was inspirational enough. This time we drove south to a village named Llangybi. We parked beside the church, cut through the churchyard, over a stile and down a field. At the bottom ran a stream bridged with crude slabs, and across another field lay a small cluster of ruins. The slope beyond was thick with ancient beeches, still rustling in their leaves, and above them rose a hill.

"Carn Pentyrch," said Cilmin, nodding at it. "Another Iron Age hillfort, but not half as good as Tre'r Ceiri."

It was a magical spot, soothing, peaceful, even secretive, with an aura of vast antiquity. Our goal, it turned out, was the ruins. To the left was a massive square structure built of huge irregular blocks. Inside was a basin some ten feet square and a couple of feet deep, surrounded by steps and rough stone benches. It was full of water which gently welled up at the back and overflowed through a drain in front.

"Meet St Cybi," said Cilmin, introducing us. "He was a Cornishman, a century before old Beuno. And this is his well. There's no way of telling how old the building is. But the water was supposed to be healing, and in the eighteenth century they added this cottage" -- he gestured at the adjoining ruin -- "for the custodian to live in, and to house the people who came here for the cure."

"What did it cure?"

"Lameness, fever, blindness. I don't think any of those applies to you."

Except blindness, just possibly, if I over-used my right hand.

"But do you have any warts?" he asked. "It cures them too."

"Well, actually I do. Two of them. What do I do? Drink the water?"

I could hardly believe it would work, but anything for a giggle.

"No, just rub it on. Hang on, I'll fish some up for you."

Someone had left a plastic bottle behind. He stepped down to the pool, filled it, climbed up again and sat on a bench. My warts were in an interesting place, and to get at them I would have to partly undress. Oh well. I was not bashful, nor was I averse to putting a little temptation his way. It would be interesting to see how he reacted. He might even anoint me himself. So I stood in front of him, my middle quite close to his head. I undid my belt, unzipped my flies, and lowered my trousers. One wart, which was rather a nuisance, was under the waistband of my boxers, which I pulled down further than was strictly necessary. But he was not going to anoint me.

"Hold out your hand."

He poured water into it, and I rubbed it vigorously on, wetting my boxers.

"God, it's cold!"

Cilmin only smiled. To ring the changes, I yanked up the left leg of the boxers, which not only exposed the second wart high on my thigh but emphasised my package. He poured me another handful and I applied that too. But he was watching with an interest that was no more than clinical.

Damn.

I rapidly resumed my trousers before the package grew too big.

"How long does it take to work?"

"Oh, a few weeks at most."

Over dinner it emerged that in ten days' time Goronwy and Priscilla were off on a cruise to the Caribbean in search, as they put it, of a bit of warmth.

"But you're not going?" I asked Cilmin, alarmed, and surprised at the strength of my alarm.

"No. I can't, what with college. Half term only lasts a week, and they'll be away for three. And somebody has to be here to exercise Rasmus. And, above all, I'm the world's worst sailor. Whenever we've crossed to Dun Laoghaire I've been seasick. Three times now."

"Four times, dear."

Discussion of the cruise and the Caribbean saw us through the meal. It left me puzzled.

"I like your parents, Cilmin," I said over the washing up. "In fact I'm envious. My Mum's OK, if you deal with her right, but I sometimes wish I had a father. A good father."

"You never see him, then?"

"He's dead. And they were divorced soon after I was born."

I was not ready to let that gross skeleton out of the cupboard. Not yet.

"But there's something I don't understand," I went on. "Do you mind me asking? What does your father do?"

"Nothing. Or not much that pays. He's director of a company or two. But we live off investments, and off the meagre rents of the farms we own. He's an anachronism. He lives in the past, or tries to. He's a JP. He's been High Sheriff. He's chairman of this county society and president of that. He votes Tory, he's in favour of our troops in Iraq, he's pro-hunting. He's everything I'm not. And his priorities are weird. If he wants a bit of warmth, he splashes out on a Caribbean cruise rather than spending it on central heating. Mum's of the same mind. I love them, but they drive me mad."

Lovable, yes, however traditionalist. And on Monday morning they brushed aside my thanks for the weekend with a pressing invitation to come again, and actually thanked me for coming. They made it sound much more than a polite formula. Why? What I had done for them? But as I saw them glance at Cilmin, standing beside me as cheerful as I had seen him, I began to wonder. Did they think I had done something for him?

In the car, as we drove to Pwllheli I tried to thank him too, for his companionship, for showing me the sights, for the hospitality of his family home. That reminded me . . .

"Cilmin, another thing I don't understand. How Welsh are you? And your parents?"

"Utterly. Yet barely. We're a contradiction. I'm not surprised you don't understand. We speak Welsh like natives. We are natives. But we never speak Welsh among ourselves, or with our county neighbours. We've been anglicised so long. The first William Glynne married an illegitimate daughter of Henry VII and became serjeant-at-arms to Henry VIII. OK, the Tudors were Welsh, sort of, and that William would still count as a proper Welshman. But in the Civil War another William married the daughter of Cromwell's governor of North Wales, who was emphatically not a Welshman. It wasn't a very wise move either, seeing that most of our neighbours were Royalists. But ever since, like all the old families, we've been getting more and more anglicised. English public schools. English universities. English soldiers and MPs. But curiously, for the most part, marrying our neighbours -- Mum's an Edwards of Nanhoron. We're getting more and more inbred."

There was something there that did not quite add up.

"Why didn't you go to public school, then?"

That seemed to catch Cilmin unawares.

"Well, I did go to prep school," he said defensively. "In Llandudno, as a boarder. But when I was thirteen and should have gone on to Harrow, I decided I'd be, um, better off in a state school. That's all there was to it."

His tone discouraged probing. Oh well. Back to the original thread.

"But where do your sympathies lie? I mean, do you feel Welsh, or English?"

"Neither, really. I've never lived in England. I'm floating in a sort of vacuum, to be honest. And at the same time I feel trapped in a time-warp. It doesn't help that I'm doing history, I suppose. Or literature and music, come to that -- even there I gravitate by nature to the older stuff. Though you're dragging me up to date with Robert Hunter. But do you realise that pretty well everything I've shown you this weekend comes from the past? From the dolmen to the church. Even Lleuar itself. Wales is a dangerous place, in that way. At least rural Wales is. There's a nostalgia about it. It's anchored in the past."

"I know. But don't we need some sort of anchor?"

"Yes, I suppose we do, in moderation. But an anchor also stops us moving. I'm a contradiction too. I've a love-hate relationship with the past. And with Wales. I want to get out of Wales. Out of this time-warp. I always have wanted to."

Odd again. If he had always wanted to get out of Wales, why turn down the English public school that was lined up for him?

"But I can't get out," he went on. "Not yet. But till I do, I don't know what I am, Welsh or English or whatever. Any more than I know what I am in . . . in any other sense."

He was driving more slowly than usual and frowning in obvious pain. I had to offer him comfort, and went further than I ordinarily would.

"Well, I know what you are to me. A damn good friend. And we agree on so much. I know exactly what you mean about that nostalgia. That melancholy. I feel it too, here in Wales. I didn't in Scotland. Maybe I was too young then. But things are just as old up there, yet it's bustling and go-ahead and you can see a future. At least in Edinburgh."

He was interested. "Lucky you. And I envy you doing science, you know. That's for the present and the future, not the past. Do you feel Scottish still?"

"Oh yes. Certainly not Welsh, or English. Maybe British, a bit. And European too. But what I want to be is -- sorry, I know it sounds corny -- a citizen of the world."

"What are you aiming for in life, then?"

I thought very hard. "Fulfilment," I said at last. "Fulfilment in work. Fulfilment in my, er, personal life. What about you?"

"The same. I want both. Of course I do. But I can't see a prospect of either."

Cilmin's voice was infinitely sad.

5.  Cilmin

Built to last till time itself
Falls tumbling from the wall,
Built to last till sunshine fails
And darkness moves on all,
Built to last while years roll past
Like cloudscapes in the sky,
Show me something built to last
Or something built to try.

                  Built to Last, 1990

There was much to think about, that week. The ice of my self-imposed solitude was breaking. Like a seal long trapped below, I could now begin to poke my head up through the cracks and look around. Consorting with Kenneth seemed to have done me no public harm. He introduced me to Megan and I liked her. I still wore my hoodie, the hood now usually down but ready to go up. Caution, rather than total withdrawal, was my new watchword. It was not much, but it was a start. And I knew who was responsible for it.

And I knew him better now. Not well, but better. In him were visible many of the standard features of the adolescent, and I had no problem with them. Unabashed earthiness, which I was coming to envy -- could I even coach myself to emulate it? Frivolity, which I longed to share. A degree of discontent, which I already shared. And opportunism, which amused me -- I had not missed how he flaunted his body. At the same time he revealed a quite unexpected depth, an unusual sensitivity, and an obvious honesty. My qualms had been unfounded. He was surely a rarity for his age. I had met nobody like him. And I already needed him as I had never needed anyone before.

On the other side of the coin, he too had his needs, and they were not the same as mine. What he had seen of me, I felt, he approved and understood. But would he understand what he had not yet seen? There had been some near misses. Some of his shots had been perilously close to the mark, and I had barely dodged them. Yet at last I had met a travelling companion. We had started off together, and started well. He seemed as happy to walk along with me as I was to walk with him. How far could we travel down the same road? Only time would tell.

But another stage of the journey was already in prospect. On Tuesday, Kenneth invited me to his place for next weekend.

"You're sure it won't cause any problems?"

"No, if you're your usual polite self. Mum's already quite intrigued about you."

I wondered what he had told her. As expected, my parents readily agreed, and on Friday afternoon I drove him home to his box in Maes Gerddi. He showed me the spare room, which was poky, and his own, which was bigger than I imagined, untidy, bright with Grateful Dead posters, and very much Kenneth. From the windows he pointed out the lie of the land and told me his vision of a flooded future.

"I see what you mean. When that happens,

Dim byd ond mawnog a'i boncyffion brau,
Dau glogwyn, a dwy chwarel wedi cau."

"Boncyffion?"

"Stumps."

"Oh, right. 'There's nothing but bog and brittle stumps, two crags, and a pair of quarries both closed down.' Yes, that's spot on. Who wrote it?"

"T. H. Parry-Williams. It's from a poem about Llyn y Gadair, up near Rhyd ddu. Your Welsh isn't bad, Kenneth, you know."

"Well, I've been learning it for five years. It gets me by. But it's still very much a second language. It always will be . . . Cilmin, want to see more of what I love and hate about this place?"

He took me down the High Street, past a succession of pubs and fish-and-chip shops and gift shops and charity shops and, near the end, the Edinburgh Woollen Mills shop. After crossing the river, we climbed to the top of a rocky tump which looked out across the sea and down the shadowy coast to where Harlech castle pricked the yellowing sky. Below us was the terminus of the narrow-gauge railway, built to bring slate from the quarries but now a Mecca for tourists. Beyond lay the quays, where the slate had once been stacked but now there sprouted a fungal growth of jerry-built holiday homes. Alongside was the harbour, created for the schooners which had carried the slate to the ends of the earth, but now a marina a-bob with expensive pleasure boats. 

"Commercialised leisure," said Kenneth, "paying lip-service to the past. There's no long-term future in it. Come the next depression, it'll be gone. Now look to the left."

There was the Cob, the mile-long embankment which dammed the estuary, dwindling neatly to the far shore like a lesson in perspective.

"One day that'll be breached. With global warming, it's inevitable. Now look inland."

In the foreground were the sluices that let the river out but kept the sea from coming in. Beyond, the drab pastures of the reclaimed estuary receded flatly into the distance. Over them towered the presiding majesty of the mountains, layered in successive shades of blue-grey -- Ralltwen dark and Moel Ddu darkish on the left, Cnicht and the Moelwyn mid-toned to the right, and between them, remotely pale, the flanks of Snowdon.

"This was all water once," Kenneth said, "five miles of it, till a couple of the centuries ago when they built the Cob. I was reading a book about it the other day which quoted Thomas Love Peacock -- you know, the novelist. He was devastated when they drained it. I memorised what he wrote: 'The mountain-frame remains unchanged, unchangeable; but the liquid mirror it enclosed is gone.' Unchangeable, yes. And when the Cob breaks, it'll be a liquid mirror again. That'll put man back in his place. That's real permanence."

He turned to me.

"Cilmin, remember we were talking last Monday in the car, about history? I've been thinking about that a lot, these last few days. I can see the danger of getting anchored to the past. But don't we need a continuity, not just from the past, but into the future? A stability, to set our rickety little lives against? Maybe we'll make our own wee contributions, you and me, but we won't significantly change history. Any more than man will significantly change the universe."

"Agreed," I said. "Man's a blink of the eye in geological time. An amoeba in the universe."

"That's right. That's why I like these mountains. They were here before man appeared. They'll be here after man's gone. I find that reassuring. And now narrow the scale down to me in my little world. I'd include you in the picture, but I can't speak for you. I'm only sixteen, but I'm very different from what I was at ten, say, or even twelve. I'll change more as I get older. It would be sad if I didn't. Some of the changes won't be in my control. Some of them I'll choose to make. I hope they won't be casual changes, random ones, shooting off at a tangent, settling nowhere. But life's nasty. It's full of doubts and mistakes. What I need is a certainty to help me make the right changes. A continuity to reassure me, like these mountains. A road to follow, one that I know is going in a good direction. Sorry, that's very muddled."

I had not dreamed there was such philosophy in him. And while he had carefully steered clear of the word love, it was implicit. His metaphor was virtually the same as mine.

"Not muddled at all," I said. "I do understand. And you do speak for me. I hope for that road too."

"But you said you saw no prospect of it."

"I don't. But . . . perhaps it's less unlikely than it was. And I don't hope just for that road. I hope for someone to travel it with."

"That's right," said Kenneth. "The right person. I hope you find him. I really do."

He astonished me by putting his arm round me and giving a quick squeeze. It was an endearing gesture, hard evidence that he liked me, and a hint, perhaps, that he still had hopes of me, despite my warning that I did not leap into bed with boys. Then it struck me that he had said 'I hope you find him.' Not her, but him. That puzzle occupied me until, halfway back to Midmadog, Kenneth remarked that his Mum would be home by now, and I prepared myself to meet her.

"You said she was divorced. Does she call herself Mrs MacAlpine?"

"Yes. And I'll eat my hat if she tells you to call her Kirsty." He grinned. "She's been agonising over how to treat you. I think she thinks that at Lleuar you live off caviar and foie gras, so she'll probably put us across as provident and frugal Scots. And Cilmin. She knows I'm gay. So she may be a bit, um, wary of you. Don't let that worry you." 

In the event she was politely but not effusively welcoming, in a voice more Scottish than Kenneth's. Her manner, though hardly servile, was appropriate to the manageress of a shop which sold quality goods. But her tone, as she thanked me for having Kenneth last weekend, implied that it must have been a considerable condescension on my family's part. It was tempting to play the role she cast me in, especially when tea turned out to be kippers, boiled potatoes and sprouts, washed down with water.

"They're from Joe Lewis in the High Street," she announced apropos the kippers. "Not as tasty as Aberdeen ones, but very good value." Kenneth winked at me surreptitiously. "But his haddock is wickedly dear."

She asked where we, marooned in Clynnog, did our shopping. Maybe she expected to hear that Fortnum & Mason sent us a weekly hamper up from London, for she seemed taken aback when I told her that the village shop was good for the basics, and that otherwise it was either the Co-op in Penygroes or Safeway in Caernarfon.

"But we do occasionally come into Port," I added. "My Mum was in the Edinburgh Woollen Mills shop a month or so back, and said what a wonderful range you had of cashmeres."

That was shameless soft soap, and not wholly true, but Mrs M purred. "And I didn't know! Please tell your mother, next time she's in, to say who she is."

Woollens saw us, or her, through to the end of tea. Kenneth and I washed up. Then down to our homework, both of us at Kenneth's desk, me on his computer for my essay, the Grateful Dead quietly in the background, the door deliberately open "so she can see there's no hanky panky" -- and indeed she visited the loo next door surprisingly often. Kenneth was right. She was suspicious. Like last week, Kenneth finished his work before I did, and with a word of apology buried himself in today's New Scientist -- "it's fascinating -- they think they've found a new species of chimp or gorilla in the Congo." I watched him for a minute as he read. His was a comfortable presence to be in. He was . . . what was the word? . . . yes, reassuring.

I slept well in my cubicle of a bedroom, and next morning Kenneth suggested a walk in the mountains. Had I been up Cnicht, a grand one, and quite easy? No, never. So we drove to Croesor, and walked, and climbed -- I found you could hardly get up Cnicht without using your hands -- and did a circuit round the head of Cwm Croesor. The clouds were reasonably high, but the wind was viciously strong and talking virtually impossible. I learned little new about Kenneth except that he had strong legs and a good stamina. Weary and buffeted, we returned for tea (Irish stew) and then fell in with Mrs M's suggestion that we watch a video. She patriotically brandished Braveheart at us. I had seen it already and did not much want to see it again, but she had hired it for our benefit and we could hardly say no. Before long both Kenneth and I were nodding, and were driven not unwillingly to bed.

Sunday morning was less windy but threatened rain.

"You don't want to go to church, then?" Kenneth asked solicitously.

"No thanks."

"That's a relief. I've never been to a service here. And the church is Victorian. Not a patch on Clynnog. What shall we do?"

Silly to venture too far, and we had to be back for Sunday Lunch, with capital letters, which was evidently as standard a focus for the week as Matins was to my folk. So we went up Moel y Gest, close at hand and of modest height. Inland the cloud sat low on the mountains, but seaward the visibility was better. In the anaemic distance we made out Bardsey, Ynys Enlli, the island of twenty thousand saints.

"I wouldn't mind going there one day," Kenneth commented. "Have you ever been?"

"No, never. You have to get a boat at Aberdaron, and even in summer it can be too rough for days on end, if not weeks. The tides and the currents are wicked. So are the seas, all too often. And remember my seasickness. There are some places I could never bring myself to go." In more senses than one, I reminded myself gloomily. "It's just one of those things. But tell you what. Next time you're at Lleuar, let's make the next-best pilgrimage, to Braich y Pwll."

"Where's that?"

"The very tip of the mainland, opposite Bardsey. You get a good eyeful of it from there."

A distant squall blotted out the view, and we turned our attention to the nearer scene. From our eyrie it was easy to see the former extent of the estuary.

"How did people cross it," I asked, "before it was reclaimed?"

"Oh, there were routes over the sands, at low tide. If you were sensible you hired a guide. If you weren't, you risked disappearing into the quicksands. Quite a lot of people did. If you came from the north-west, you'd cross from Bodawen over there." He pointed. "But if you came from the Criccieth direction you'd start from Penamser, down below us." He pointed again. "It was a pub as well as a farm, catering for people waiting for low tide."

"Penamser? What an incredible name! It means 'the end of time'."

"Yes. But I've heard that it really means the end of the tide. After all, time and tide can mean the same. Like in Yuletide."

"In English, yes. But it doesn't work in Welsh. End of tide ought to be Penllanw. I prefer to think of the publican calling 'time, gentlemen' at half past ten."

Kenneth raised his hand like a kid in school.

"A glass of wine at the end of time,
The waves beat grim and slow,
A glass of wine at the end of time,
Love me and let go."

Quoting Robert Hunter at each other was becoming quite a game. I had not come across that one before. Singularly apt. And there was no message in that last line, was there? Pure chance, surely.

As we got home, rain began to fall heavily. Sunday Lunch over (lamb, scrag end of neck), Mrs M seemed put out. She had a visit to make, she said, and had evidently expected us to go out again as well. But she could hardly expel us into the downpour, and had to leave us by ourselves. We went up to Kenneth's room, where I sat on a chair and he lolled on the bed.

"It's not you she's suspicious of, really," he said. "It's me."

"She doesn't like it that you're gay, then?"

"Not one bit. Nor does her boy-friend -- she's got a boy-friend, you know, though she insists on calling him her gentleman-friend. It's him she's gone to visit. She's told him I'm gay, and every time he sees me he taunts me -- 'How's the chip off the old block, eh?' Things like that. He can be a real pain in the arse."

"Chip off the old block?"

"Yes . . . Oh God . . ."

He sat up on the bed and crossed his legs, leaning against the wall, facing me, anxious.

"May I tell you about it, Cilmin? About my father? It's not a pretty story, but I'd like you to know."

"Of course."

"Well, I only heard the full story after he died, a couple of years ago. But as early as I can remember, I'd known that Dad didn't live with us. I grew up knowing that he and Mum were divorced, and accepted it. It was common enough, after all, nearly as common as now. Several of my friends were in the same boat. And he came to see me every month or so, as long as we were in Edinburgh, while Mum made herself scarce. Or he'd take me out for a few hours. He never took me to his place, though."

"Did you like him?"

"Sort of. Cupboard love, I suppose. He bought me sweets and ice cream, far more than Mum ever did. He was fun, in a way. And I was getting to look rather like him. But I never really related to him. Then five years ago we moved down here and I never saw him again. Mum never talked about him. Nor did anyone else in the family, not that we saw much of them after leaving Scotland. Then two years ago, out of the blue, she told me Dad had died. I was shocked. Not distressed, but definitely shocked. I think one's bound to be when one loses a root, even if it's a . . . flimsy root."

He slid forward to sit on the edge of the bed, leaning forward, elbows on knees.

"Well, Mum's always been a stickler for family weddings and funerals. We'd been to a number even after we moved -- her granddad's funeral, then her mother's, and several weddings of my cousins'. So I automatically expected to go to Dad's funeral. But she'd have none of it. She said it would be quite wrong in the circumstances, but wouldn't say what the circumstances were. OK, I knew she hadn't been on speaking terms with him. I could see why she wouldn't go. But why shouldn't I? I got rather cross. Why should she forbid a son to see his father off, even if he'd been a pretty remote father?

"Well, after hours of argument she gave way. She paid for my fare and arranged for me to stay with an auntie in Edinburgh. So I went alone. I was only fourteen. I don't much like that auntie -- she's got a face like a slapped arse -- and she was equally tight-lipped and disapproving about it all. Next morning she didn't even offer to take me to the funeral. I had to find my own way."

Kenneth gulped.

"That was the day I grew up."

He was in obvious distress. I went over to sit beside him and put my arm round his shoulders. He gave me a small smile, and carried on.

"It was in the crematorium, not in a church, and it was non-religious. No hymns or prayers, just people getting up and saying nice things about him. How he'd supported the local football club, how he'd been the life and soul of the pub. All trivial things. Until this fantoosh chappie stood up, almost in tears, and went on about his life with Alex -- that was Dad's name. He went on about the fourteen years of love and bliss and faithfulness that Alex had given him. Fourteen years. In other words, since I was born. I was . . . scunnered. I stayed to see the coffin through the curtains, and then I skeltered oot."

Kenneth's voice was getting more and more Scottish.

"I was meant to stay another night with Auntie, but I went to the station and phoned her that I was going straight home, and phoned the shop with a message for Mum to pick me up at Bangor that evening. I didn't have a mobile, so she couldn't get back to me. Then I got on a train and agonised about it all the way. It was pretty obvious that Dad had betrayed her. I didn't mind that he'd been gay. Not as such. It was the betrayal that stuck in my craw . . .

"That was the end of my innocence . . .

"Well, Mum met me off the train, fashed that I'd made her change her plans. And I was fashed that she'd kept me in the dark. I'm afraid I was quite rude. The moment we got into the car I told her I'd discovered that he'd been gay, and insisted she tell me everything. Well, she hedged at first. Then she admitted there was something that she'd been going to tell me anyway. That he had died of AIDS."

He gulped again, and my grip tightened on his shoulder.

"God, that knocked me back . . . And she said there was a risk we might be HIV-positive, and we'd have to go for tests."

"And have you?"

"Yes. I'm negative."

"Thank God for that. Sorry, go on."

"Well, in the end she gave me the whole story. Or her version of it -- OK, it may be biased. But it confirmed that Dad had been a bastard. Utterly dishonest. And that Mum was completely innocent. Apparently he courted her in the usual way, they got married, they had me. Then he walked out. I was only a few weeks old. He told her quite brazenly that he was gay, and had been all along. And a practising gay, too. That fitted, Mum said -- he'd often been away from home on flimsy excuses. But he'd now found a partner, he said, and was moving out for good."

I was horrified. "As if he'd just been sleeping around before?"

"That's right . . . Cilmin, look, I know that quite a lot of gays do marry. Either out of desperation, or trying to conform. Or even for love. But if they've got a gay past, a serious and active gay past, I reckon they're morally obliged to say so. Before they marry. Even more so if they've got a gay present. If they've only had, well, experimental fumblings, or if they're only gay in theory not in practice, then possibly not. But it's obvious that Dad was entirely in the wrong. He hadn't just been dishonest. He'd been unfaithful -- if you give yourself to somebody, surely you're in honour bound to be true to her. Or him. He may have been faithful to his new partner, but he certainly hadn't been to Mum. She was very bitter about it. And she's even bitterer now -- I'll tell you about that in a minute. And so am I.

"Well, we had all this out in the station car park, and found we agreed. She was still het up that I'd confronted her so abruptly. I shouldn't have done, I know. I should have been more sympathetic. But I was all het up too, because there was a complication she didn't know about. I was gay myself."

Kenneth heaved a big sigh, and I gave him another squeeze of encouragement.

"I'd known I was gay for six months or so. But I'd kept it very quiet because Mum was not gay-friendly. She didn't show it very often, but occasionally she'd tut-tut at something in the paper or on the box, or make a snide remark about someone in Port, and I'd read the warning signs. But I hadn't realised how homophobic she really was. She sat there in the car molligranting about Dad. Fair enough. But when she'd finished with him she started molligranting about gays. All gays. Well, I didn't let on. Not then. I wasn't ready to. And if I had, we'd never have got home in one piece. She was upset enough already, and her driving on the way back was pretty scary."

He smiled wryly in reminiscence.

"Well, you can guess I did some hard thinking. I was ashamed of Dad. Disgusted. I didn't want to end up like him. I'd learned two lessons. To be honest. And to be faithful. Before then, I admit, I'd . . . fantasised about casual sex, and I'd happily have told lies about it. Not any more. I didn't have anyone to be faithful to, of course. But I knew now that I'd wait till I found the right bloke, and then stick with him. And I hadn't been exactly dishonest about being gay, but I hadn't been honest either. Ought I to tell Mum, even though I knew she'd be bitterly disappointed? In the end I decided I ought to. That it was fairer to both of us if my cards were on the table. So a few days later I told her. And soon wished I hadn't. God, it was tough. She burst into tears. And started blaming herself for bringing me up to be another pervert."

The conflict between honesty and discretion. My heart bled for him.

"Things did get a bit better, for a short time. Soon after telling her, I read this story on the web. They probably haven't come your way, but there are lots of gay sites with stories about boys in love. And this particular story interested me because it was set in Cwmystradllyn, just north of here. On top of that, it said there was some scientific evidence for a gay gene passed down from father to son, though it wasn't yet proved. So I tried to sugar the pill, and it helped. I told Mum about this gene. That I'd quite likely inherited my gayness from Dad. That there was nothing to blame herself for because she wasn't responsible for my X chromoso . . ."

Kenneth broke off, staring at the carpet in a puzzled way.

"What's up?" I asked.

"There's something wrong," he said slowly, still staring. "I'm sure it said the gene was on the X chromosome. Not the Y."

"I'm lost. What does it matter?"

"A hell of a lot." He pulled himself together. "Look, Cilmin. Everyone's got two sex chromosomes, one inherited from their father, one from their mother. Women have two X chromosomes, one from each. Men have one Y from their father, and one X from their mother. There are lots of genes which only exist on the X -- like for colour blindness and haemophilia -- and men can only inherit them from their mother. So if there is a gay gene, and if it is on the X chromosome, I got it from Mum, not Dad."

"Well, if it's that important, why not check? Will this story still be up?"

"Oh yes, it will be. Yes, you're right. Better do it now. It's got me worried."

I dropped my arm from his shoulder, and he sat down at the computer and switched it on. At that moment, as if on cue, we heard Mrs M's key in the lock, and she came upstairs without even taking off her wet coat. She seemed relieved to find everything decorously proper. I got to my feet -- Cilmin ever polite -- and she offered to put the kettle on and bring us a cup of tea. The computer was now booted up, and Kenneth carried on.

"Right, find Iomfats first. It's the best site for stories. Here we are. I'm glad Mum didn't come in when this was up."

This was a startling but rather nice photo of two boys, totally naked, cuddling.

"To do her justice, actually, she doesn't try to read what I've got up, if it's text. But she could hardly miss pictures like this. Right then, now Mihangel, that's the author. Now the story. Yes, this one. Somewhere very near the end, I think."

He scrolled a long way down.

"Yes, here it is. And I was right. Look, one of the characters says 'There are scientists who claim to have found a gay gene. In one particular region of the X chromosome.' Hmmm. I suppose it's always possible Mihangel misquoted his source. I think there's a note about it at the end."

He scrolled down again.

"Yes, here we are. Five generations of gays in the story, father to son. And Mihangel reckons his own father and grandfather were gay. And here are his sources -- New Scientist, 12 May 2001 and 7 August 1999." He jotted them down. "That's a bit of luck. Now that I subscribe to the New Scientist I can access back numbers. Where did I put my password?"

A few more clicks gave him the articles, which he skimmed through.

"Well, Mihangel's right that the gay gene, if it exists, is on the X chromosome. And he's also right," Kenneth chuckled grimly, "in admitting that he's no geneticist. Because it's bollocks to say it goes in the male line. Two years ago, when I read this, I didn't know about chromosomes. But I do now.

"So there we are. If I've got a gay gene, it comes from Mum."

As if on cue again, up she came with a couple of mugs of tea and, in blissful ignorance, handed them over.

"Honesty's all very well," he said thoughtfully when she had gone. "But I don't think I tell her that, do I?"

"It's ironic. Very. But no, I don't think you do."

We sat in silence for a minute, sipping tea. Then Kenneth stirred and swung his chair round to face me.

"But the worst is still to come. I think it helped when I told her about the gene. But not for long. Soon afterwards, the results of our HIV tests came in. Like I said, I'm negative, and I've had another test since, to make sure. But Mum's positive."

"Oh, no!"

"It's pure chance, I suppose, that she didn't infect me during pregnancy, or with her milk. And nobody can say if her HIV will develop into full-blown AIDS. She's on drugs, of course, though she started them horribly late. And she's had no symptoms yet. You usually go without symptoms for ten or twelve years. But with her it's sixteen years now, more like seventeen. She may never get it. We can only cross fingers."

What an inconceivable burden to bear. For both of them -- Kenneth was just as much in need of support as Mrs M. Small surprise that he craved for reassurance and stability.

"Oh God," I said. "I'm sorry . . . But go on. Her attitude to you -- are you saying it got worse again when she heard she was positive and you weren't?"

"And how." Kenneth pulled a gloomy face. "I tried to encourage her as best I could. To support her. And I still do. Who wouldn't? But she's treated me differently ever since. It was one more black mark against Dad, that he'd given her HIV even though she was innocent. And one more black mark against me, that I'd got away scot-free even though I'm guilty."

"For God's sake. You're not guilty. Of anything."

"Oh, but I am. As she sees it. Guilty of being gay. She sees me as tarred with the same brush as Dad. She sees me as dirty . . . infected. Not with HIV. With gayness. I'm gay, therefore I'm dishonest, I'm unfaithful, I'm irresponsible. And yet another black mark against me is that I've grown to look very like Dad. She sees him in me now, more than she's ever done. I can understand her attitude. But it does make life . . . difficult."

Difficult? Talk about understatement. Oh Lord, talk about injustice, talk about the sins of the father being visited upon the son. And he could understand her attitude? Talk about charity and forbearance. Yet from her he got precious little of the reassurance and stability he so badly needed. All things considered, Kenneth remained strikingly resilient, on the surface at least. He was outgoing and had plenty of friends at college. But I had been surprised that none of them seemed to be close friends. This weight on his mind would explain it. When you carry a dark secret, as I knew all too well, you are wary. You guard your mouth.

"It must be well-nigh impossible," I agreed. "What astonishes me is that you seem to cope with it so well."

"Seem?" He snorted. "Maybe. But you don't know what goes on inside."

None the less, I did know, or I could guess. I too could cover up and appear strong. Usually. The difference was that Kenneth knew what he was, and I did not.

"You're a lot older than your age," I mused, thinking aloud. "Aren't you?"

"Sometimes I feel like a little kid. Sometimes like an old man. You should know, Cilmin. You're older than your age, too. A lot older. But are you ever a kid? When did you last fool around? Have horseplay with anyone?"

That was a bull's-eye, and I winced. "I can't remember."

"No," he said wistfully. "Nor can I."

But back to the subject. An immediate question arose.

"Kenneth, your Mum keeps a beady eye on us here. I can understand that. But why does she let you come to Lleuar where we might get up to anything, for all she knows?"

"I'm not sure. I've wondered myself. But I think that I'm already beyond the pale, in her eyes. Beyond redemption. But she can't bear the thought of, er, dirt in her own house. Of me resurrecting Dad under her own roof. I see her point."

He sighed once more. "Well, I reckon that's the end of my unburdening, isn't it?"

"And what a burden. Thank you for telling me, Kenneth. If I can do anything to help lighten the load . . ."

"You've helped already, more than you can imagine. I'm glad somebody else knows. Just talking about it has helped."

That was another unintended blow below the belt. "I suppose so," I said painfully. "You haven't told anyone else, then?"

"No, you're the first."

"Why me?" That was a very loaded question.

He did not look at me. "Because I trust you."

"Well, thanks again. I'm honoured. But Kenneth, can I ask another question or two? To fill in the picture. But they're very personal ones."

"I don't mind. Like I said, I trust you."

"When did you come out to other people?"

"Oh, less than a month ago, at college. I didn't feel it was safe to at school. There were some pretty homophobic types there. I told Megan first. She was angling for me, and I had to be honest with her. And she told other people. I told her she could."

"So you haven't, um, had any practical experience yet?"

"None at all. Except with my own right hand, of course."

"And how often do you use that?"

"Twice a day, normally."

My heart, which had been rising, sank. A highly-sexed young man, evidently.

"You said you were aiming for fulfilment in your personal life. Slap me down if I'm being too nosy. But what are you looking for, exactly? Who exactly?"

He took his time over answering.

"Well, someone who's gay, obviously. Someone who's on the same wavelength. Someone I can be myself with, with no guard up, and the other way round too. Someone to trust, fully. A soul-mate, if you like -- someone to love, and someone to love me back. Someone to be with, for ever."

"And someone to have sex with? Two-way sex?"

He was surprised. "Yes, of course. After all, I'm clean. And old enough, as if it mattered."

"So you haven't found anyone who fits the bill?"

Again he did not look at me. "Not yet. Not in every way."

No, I did not fit the bill in every way. I fell short in one important respect. And my guard was still partly up. He had been extraordinarily trusting and honest in telling me about his problem, which was just as thorny as mine if not more so. It was up to me to reciprocate. If we were to get much further, I would have to. But I did not dare. Not yet.

6.  Kenneth

Love begins to be uttered
but cannot finally be told:
escapes from the far stroke
of an eyelid to become,
in its own turn, flame, 
by which light we learn
that to love is to burn,
return to naked elements
transparent as the ash of snow
borne on our own breath
by our own true wind.

     Sentinel, Toad in Love, 1991

We were growing closer, no doubt about it. Very much closer. Friendship, on my part, was already crystallising into love, as a water droplet crystallises into a snowflake. Perhaps that is a poor simile. Snowflakes start cold, and then they melt. But I dreamed of us living together and of what I would like us to do together. My right-handed rituals were already increasing from the normal twice a day, which I had admitted, to three times.

But the real Cilmin, as opposed to the stuff of dreams, remained a mystery. Was he gay after all? He held his cards close to his chest. If I hoped that he would show them to me as I had shown mine to him, I was disappointed. Yet I would not probe too deep. No harm, I reckoned, in asking about superficial things like bad language. But profound things should be told voluntarily, not under pressure.

After tea, Mum wanted us to watch the rest of Braveheart, as if limiting our opportunity for hanky panky. No doubt she also wanted full value from the hire charge. Cilmin instantly agreed, as if grabbing a let-out. He had been polite to her over the meal. Of course he had -- Cilmin and impolite were a contradiction in terms. And he was polite to her next morning in saying goodbye. But it was a slightly strained politeness. As I knew from experience, sympathy and outrage are another contradiction in terms.

On the way in to college on Monday morning, as we passed Penamser perched above the road, Cilmin put forward a startling proposal: that I should spend not only the next weekend at Lleuar, but the whole of the following week, which was half term.

I could ask for nothing better, and I had the feeling that matters were slowly coming to a head. But there were potential problems.

"I'd love to, but I'm not sure Mum would swallow that. Another weekend, yes. But ten days?"

"If you asked her, you mean?"

"Yes. I've never been away that long by myself."

"What if I got my Mum to phone and ask her direct? Might that persuade her?"

I laughed. He had got her measure. "Much more easily than if I asked. But your parents will be away, won't they? She mightn't be happy about that."

"Well, my Mum needn't mention it, need she?"

All right, not complete honesty, but not dishonesty either. And it was heartening to hear that some Mums could connive with their sons. In the event, my Mum was tickled pink to be phoned by the lady of an old county family, and did not think twice before saying yes. So Friday morning found me at college geared up for ten days away. No jacket and tie, this time. And, once at Lleuar, Cilmin proved to be on excellent form. He felt freer, no doubt, on his own patch and with all parents out of reach. We took Rasmus for his walk, and for our meal we slummed it, by Glynne-Williams standards, with a fry-up eaten in the kitchen.

"This has to be called tea," said Cilmin, poker-faced. "It can't possibly qualify as dinner."

But we still had our wine, in moderation. Hitherto at Lleuar, wine had come out of bottles. Today, Cilmin produced a box. I had only seen such things on supermarket shelves, never in operation, and was intrigued. He let me open it -- break the perforations, lift the flap, and fumble inside to pull out the tap.

"Just like fishing your willy out of your flies," he observed, grinning evilly at me.

That set me guffawing. These flashes of humour out of the blue were a rarity with Cilmin, and all the funnier for that. They were hardly dirty, yet hardly to be aired in front of parents. He was clearly right in claiming to be no prude, yet clearly right in saying that dirty talk did not come naturally to him. And he had begged me not to suppress my earthiness, a request which I obeyed. Another puzzle to mull over.

The meal finished, he insisted, orderly as ever, that we be virtuous and wash up. As I filled the bowl there was a sound of distant hammering.

"What on earth's that?"

"Oh, only some quirk of the ancient plumbing."

Now plumbing, like aviary and crypt, is a word guaranteed to set me off, and I only half suppressed a splutter. Cilmin cocked an eye at me, and an indulgent smile.

"You've got a joke up your sleeve, Kenneth. I know the symptoms by now. Let's hear it."

He didn't miss much. And this time I felt less of a fool.

"All right then. Two, actually. Both about plumbers. One of them's another limerick.

There was a gay plumber called Lee
Who plumbed a young man by the sea.
      Cried the lad, 'Stop your plumbing!
      There's somebody coming!'
Said the plumber, still plumbing, 'Yes, me!'"

"That's quite clever," said Cilmin, dispassionate as a judge. "What's the second?"

"Do you know about the sexual position known as The Plumber? So called because you stay in for ages and nobody comes."

"That's clever too." He was smiling broadly, but more at me, I thought, than at the joke.

"Your turn, then," I said. "Two turns." We were blatantly playing a game.

"Well, do you know about the constipated accountant? He couldn't budget."

I grinned, and he visibly racked his brains for a second one.

"Yes. What's the difference between a bad marksman and a constipated owl? No? Well, a bad marksman shoots but cannot hit, a constipated owl . . ."

I chuckled. That was quite clever. But the answer to my puzzle, or part of the answer, suddenly dawned. While my dirty jokes were all sexual -- no surprise, knowing me -- Cilmin's dirty jokes were only lavatorial. OK, there was the one about the priest, but he had looked that up, I reckoned, just to keep abreast. His own jokes were not dirty at all, by my yardstick. They were juvenile, in fact, the sort you might expect from a kid of ten or twelve, more juvenile even than mine. But his mind was not juvenile. Very far from it. What did that mean? Should I pursue it?

But Cilmin was reporting that there had been a phone call from his parents, by now well into the Atlantic and having a whale of a time, and the opportunity passed. The washing up done, we went to his room. He already had the gas fire going, because we were not bothering with the log fire in the drawing room. It was the first time we had been together, relaxed and at leisure, since my unburdening.

He looked at me consideringly. "Would you like some music?"

"Good idea." I glanced at the CD rack. "Wow! You've got American Beauty!"

"I went into Caernarfon for it last week. But you'll have heard it a million times. Actually, I meant live music."

"Live? You play, then? What do you play?"

"The cello. After a fashion."

"Then yes please."

I had not thought of Cilmin in this role, but it fitted. All I could do was strum amateurishly on a guitar. He took his cello case out of a big cupboard and tuned up.

"Anything special? So long as I can play it."

"I know bugger all about classical music. Whatever you want."

"Well, my party piece is the Bach Suite Number 1. OK?"

Never heard of it. I shrugged my shoulders. "OK."

Whether he played it well or badly I have no idea. All I know is that he held me in thrall. At first he glanced across from time to time with a quizzical smile. Thereafter he concentrated intently, eyes closed, heavy eyebrows bent in a slight frown, playing from memory, listening to himself. I had no notion that a single instrument could express so much, and my soul melted. Quarter of an hour later the piece wound itself up. He opened his eyes and carefully laid the cello and bow on the bed. Only then did he look at me, with an unspoken but anxious question. By that point I could hardly speak.

"Cilmin . . . Cilmin, some of the time you were talking to yourself. Most of the time you were talking to me. Weren't you?"

"So you heard that." He peered at me more closely. "Yes, your cheeks are wet. Did you hear what I was saying?"

"No words. It was a strange language. Only your voice. A message. Certainty. Permanence. Reassurance."

"Good." He nodded. "I'm glad you heard that. It's the advantage of playing solo. You can say what you want, the way you want, without having to tie in with others. Right, would you like a CD now? Anything in particular?"

"No. You choose."

I do not even remember what he chose. I hardly listened to it. I was thinking, and thinking hard. We had reached a new stage. I recognised that. I now knew for sure what I had only suspected before, that we belonged to each other. Surely Cilmin knew it too. He wouldn't talk like that through his cello to a mere friend, would he? And emotion told me that he was gay, whereas reason, based on his statement that he did not leap into bed with boys, told me that he was not. I could make little sense of it. Did he mean he didn't leap casually, but only once he'd come to love them? Possibly, possibly.

But he was leading the dance. There were umpteen questions unanswered, and until I understood what was going on, until I understood him better, I could make no move myself. The ball was emphatically in his court. I was therefore pensive, and so was Cilmin. When I finally slid into bed, I heard the cello talking to me again, very quietly, from the room next door.

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,
Would you hear my voice come through the music,
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

My nightly exercise was quite different from usual, and more exhilarating.

On Saturday, as agreed, we made our pilgrimage to Braich y Pwll, as near to Bardsey Island as we could go. We got up late, gave Rasmus a walk, and stocked up on basics from the village shop. The journey along country roads was surprisingly long, and we dropped in to Aberdaron to inspect the church and its gravestones of sixth-century monks. It was two o'clock before we nosed the last twisting miles to the car park.

Finally we stood on the high headland where the utmost tip of North Wales's finger points out towards Ireland, a wild place, gnarled with fractured rock, swilled by the untamed sea. It was bright but very cold, a tempestuous wind whipping a sluggish swell into stampedes of white horses. Gouts of spray shot from the foot of the cliffs. Ravens and choughs rode the gusts below us. This time the horns of the Wicklow Mountains did poke up from the western horizon. But it was Bardsey that drew our attention, two miles away, hump-backed like a surfacing whale, white-fringed with breakers. I tried to hold Cilmin's binoculars steady as I looked across the tide-racked strait at the scant remains of its monastery. 

"Surely there can't have been twenty thousand monks there."

"Not all at one time, no. But over the centuries . . . It lasted a thousand years and more. There could well be twenty thousand buried there. Until quite recently, when they gave up cultivating the island, they were always digging up bones."

"And fancy living there," I brooded, "and making pilgrimages in tiny boats across this dreadful sea. Think of the faith it must have taken. The loyalty to what they believed in."

"Agreed. All the same, they were promised that to be buried on Bardsey guaranteed eternal life. That was a pretty good incentive. And three pilgrimages to Bardsey counted the same as one to Rome. That wasn't a bad bargain either, when you think how far it was to Rome. But I do agree. I am a bit envious of their faith."

"You'd have made a good monk," I remarked.

I was thinking of his reclusiveness. But as he huddled from the wind, withdrawn under the cowl of his black hoodie, he also looked the part. Yet he was markedly less monkish now than when our paths first crossed. He wore his hoodie less often, he was meeting the world, he was breaking out. The catalyst, humbling thought, had been . . . me. It was I who was somehow luring him out of his dreary life. Unbidden, another limerick leapt to mind.

There was an old monk of Siberia
Whose existence grew drearier and drearier,
    Till at last with a howl
    He threw off his cowl
And deflowered the mother superior.

Oh, Kenneth! Not now! Be your age! It was quite the wrong occasion for flippancy, and I kept it to myself. Cilmin was still in thoughtful mood today, as if considering his next move. Was he contemplating the final step of throwing off his cowl and deflowering me? Ultimately, perhaps. But not yet. I knew him well enough by now to be sure that he would explain himself first, and unveil the hang-up which so obviously plagued him.

"I do sometimes feel like a monk," he admitted after a long pause. "But a monk short of love. And hope. And faith. You don't have any faith, do you, Kenneth? Religious faith?"

"None at all. I don't believe in a god. I'm the despair of my family. Not Mum -- she threw over the religious traces ages ago and despairs of me in a quite different way. But my aunties despair of me, and my grandparents did when they were still around. Gloomy Wee Frees, all of them, and I never saw anything in what they preached. I don't feel any need for a god. I don't see any place for one. OK, we do need a sense of wonder, at the complexity and immensity of things. Life, mankind, the world, the universe, they're all mind-blowing. We shouldn't take them for granted. But we don't have to assume there's intelligent design behind them. All right, we don't understand them all, not by any means, not yet. But I reckon they're capable of being understood one day. Without a god."

"There speaks the robust scientist. And again I agree . . ." He tailed off.

"Or you'd like to agree, but . . . ?" I ventured. I was close enough in wavelength to his sombre introspection to detect the discontent in it.

"That's right." He seemed surprised at the insight, yet not surprised. "Yes, that's absolutely right. I'm usually a humanist to the core. I don't feel any rational need to bring the supernatural into the picture. But I admit there are times when I hanker for something to pin a bit of faith on. Maybe it's the same need that you describe, for a permanence and a certainty. If I had a worldly certainty, maybe I wouldn't hanker for an unworldly one. But I do sometimes envy Gwilym and his gritty conviction. Or even my parents and their bland conformity."

"If you were a Christian at all, what sort would you be?"

"Anglican, probably, the tolerant and human version which Gwilym preaches. Not Catholic -- too authoritarian. Not Orthodox -- too remote. Certainly nothing fundamentalist -- much too intolerant. I've a lot of time for the Quakers, although I confess I do like a modicum of ritual. But I reckon that most of the differences between them all are later distortions of the original message. So are the differences between Christianity and other faiths. They're cultural frills. After all, most religions seem to be based at root on a moral code that's common to humankind. The ground-rules of a viable society."

"I'd go along with that. A moral code doesn't have to be the word of God, whatever name people put on it."

"No. You're right, it doesn't. Somebody once said that the idea of God is the ideal of a goodness entirely human. OK, like all ideals it can never be attained, not fully. But it's a human ideal. If you call it God it implies the superhuman. And people who think they've got God behind them tend to become dogmatic and authoritarian. Which perverts the ideal."

He sighed. "Yet I still have this niggle. Have you heard of R. S. Thomas? One of the major Welsh poets of the last generation. He was vicar of Aberdaron, in fact. He wrote an extraordinary poem called Via Negativa. I can't remember it word for word, but remind me to show it you when we get home. I don't really understand it. But it seems to be saying something very important, if only I could work out what. Some things are so difficult to understand . . ."

Cilmin's expression was almost pleading. His voice faltered, and his next words were all but blown away by the wind.

"And it's so difficult to be understood."

"Let it ride, Cilmin," I protested, trying to ease him out of his gloom, "and it'll sort itself out. It's a bit like quantum physics. The concepts are so strange that we're still floundering. But give them time and they'll become clearer. It'll be the same with you."

He heaved a sigh. "Yes. I know."

"Don't agonise about it, then. Don't piss against the wind." I was growing too cold for philosophising. "Which reminds me. I need a pee. This wind's cruel hard on the bladder."

I glanced round, but nobody was in sight and I peed where I stood, turning my back on him to pee downwind. On zipping up, I saw that he was peeing too, also downwind, behind me and to one side. I forced myself not to look, for the occasion was still wrong.

Our pilgrimage, we decided, had earned us enough grace for the day. Chilled to the bone, we would warm up at the fire of our virtue. We drove home, Cilmin still so deep in his thoughts that I took refuge in my discman and the GD. After another brief but energetic walk with Rasmus and an early meal, we sat down in Cilmin's room with our coffee and the gas fire at full blast. He had not forgotten, and showed me Via Negativa.

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them too; but miss the reflection.

I had to read it several times before a meaning began to emerge.

"Is it saying that there's something we need, that we hanker for? But we have to wait for it, without pretending that we've found it when we haven't? But it is there, even if we can't quite lay hands on it. Come to think of it, isn't it rather like that bit of Robert Hunter?

It seems we
must learn to
value the place
of becoming;
the almost but
never quite --
the sense of
impending as
opposed to the
consummation
of any desire.

Does that make sense?"

"Yes. Yes. I suppose it does. I hadn't thought of it that way. But isn't it frustrating that it's almost but never quite?"

That put me in mind of Cilmin himself, almost mine but not quite. I read the poem again.

"Cilmin. For God, try reading love. The love we hope for. The person we want to travel that road with."

"Let's have a look." I handed the book over. He took his time, and lifted a troubled face.

"Yes. Yes. It fits. If only because y . . ." It almost sounded as if he was going to say you. But he started again. "If only because it's always just out of reach."

"Always? Maybe it's within reach already, but we don't recognise it because we're expecting it to look different. You find that in quantum physics." I chuckled. "You even find it in Hunter.

Once in a while
You get shown the light
In the strangest of places
If you look at it right.

And another thing, even more to the point. If it's out of reach and it won't come to you, why not try moving towards it?"

Cilmin sighed. "Nice thought. But wouldn't it keep moving away again?"

He handed back the book and returned to his brooding. I leafed through the collection of R. S. Thomas's poems, dipping in here and there. Equally difficult, many of them. But I lit on one, an easy one, which caught my attention.

"Cilmin! Talk of the devil! Here's one about the past. Exactly what we were talking about a couple of weeks ago."

"Read it to me."

"It's called Welsh Landscape.

To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went to the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
There is the language for instance,
The soft consonants
Strange to the ear.
There are cries in the dark at night
As owls answer the moon,
And thick ambush of shadows,
Hushed at the fields' corners.
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.

I think we can agree on that!"

There was no answer, and I looked up. His face was buried in his hands. He was in tears.

"Cilmin! What's the matter?"

He still did not reply. Alarmed, I knelt in front of him, my hands on his thighs.

"Cilmin? Please? What's the matter?"

"I . . . oh . . ."

He slid to his knees and put his arms round me, his head on my shoulder. I did the same to him, patting, stroking, soothing, waiting for the flood to subside, waiting for enlightenment. I could not see where the problem lay. The poem said much the same as he had said himself. But it, or I, had touched some very raw nerve.

Eventually his sobbing eased. He panted, sniffled, and finally found a voice.

"Oh God . . . I'm sorry . . . It was that word . . ."

"What word?"

He began to sob again, out of control. I hugged and stroked more firmly. He was doing himself no good, and I could not help without knowing more.

"Cilmin! Tell me! What word?"

He hiccupped a few times and sat back on his heels to look at me, face wet, mouth hanging open He made a major effort to pull himself together.

"Impotent," he said thickly. "Kenneth, I'm impotent."

Oh Christ!

I stared back, aghast. That explained it. It explained a lot of it, maybe everything. And there went my hopes, my dreams of the fulfilment I ached for. I felt instant self-pity. But as I focussed on his face, crumpled in pain and despair, the self-pity evaporated. It was unworthy. His need was infinitely greater than mine. He was hiccupping again, and again I hugged him tight, so that his chin went back on my shoulder and he was hiccupping in my ear.

"Cilmin. You may be impotent. But you're still Cilmin. And I still love you."

Brave words, spoken unthinkingly. Would I live to regret them, on reflection? But they caught him in mid-hiccup, which turned into a belch, right in my ear. This fastidious soul, ordinarily, would be mortified by a social gaffe like belching in public, let alone in someone's ear. But ordinary rules did not apply. And my words jerked him out of the grief of despair into the anger of despair.

"You just say that! I hoped you loved me. But you can't. Not now. What's in it for you? Nothing!"

Off he went again. He must be calmed down. From my deep experience drawn from films, I decided that brandy was the medicine required, and eased Cilmin on to the bed.

"Stay there a moment. I'll only be a moment. I promise."

Down I dashed to the drinks cupboard and rummaged. There must be brandy there. At last I found it, disguised as Martell. Grabbed a glass, no doubt the wrong shape. Dashed up again. Poured -- how much? Dunno. Be generous. Gave it to Cilmin with the classic words "Drink this." He drank, hiccupped and belched again. This time he did apologise, and regained something of his usual poise. At any other time I would have been quite proud of my treatment. I sat down beside him, my arm back round his body.

"Tell me, Cilmin."

7.  Cilmin

Suspicion -- that my
grief is not so noble
as the grief of
the deeply ensouled
who face ruin without
the comfort of delusion.

    Sentinel, Fifth Watch, 1991

I told him. Although Kenneth had plucked me out of my bucket of selfish frustration and wrung me fairly dry, I still felt as soggy and soiled as any floor-cloth. And although, so far, he had shown nothing but love and understanding, I was ashamed at being seen with all my barriers down. I had to explain myself. I owed it to him, even if it spelled the end -- surely the end of his love and maybe the end of his understanding. So I told him. I told him hesitantly, incoherently, in the wrong order. Let me try to retell it here in less garbled shape.

As a kid, I had no obvious problem. Such things hardly loom large in childhood. It was at prep school that I became aware that not everything was as it should be. I was perhaps ten when my friends and I began to compare the naughty parts of our anatomy, with no motive beyond curiosity. Sometimes my friends went stiff. I had occasionally reached this state myself, involuntarily and by night, and was not unduly surprised; not until it emerged that they could deliberately make themselves stiff. To keep abreast of them, I tried. But every time I failed. And whereas they obviously enjoyed it, I found that I hated it.  It slowly dawned on me that I was different.

At first it hardly signified. But as we grew older, as we hit puberty, as erections in the changing room or the dormitory became more common, as the others took to masturbation as a matter of course, my difference became increasingly difficult to hide. I became the object of speculation. Kids can be very cruel. One day they tested me out themselves. They pinioned my arms and stroked and tickled it. Still nothing happened. At that age I hated any form of physical contact, and I was sickened. But my difference was not the result of their abuse. It was the cause. It had always been there, it was still there, and it was now on public display. I became the object of outright derision. Innocent happiness changed to shame-faced misery.

When I was twelve I began to develop. Hair appeared, my equipment enlarged, my voice started to wobble. I had already heard from my peers about the basics of sex. But while it fascinated them, I simply could not understand the fascination. It depressingly underlined my difference. And when Dad tried to give me The Talk, I burst into tears and told him. He was magnificent. He understood. He took me to the family doctor, a fine old pill-pusher no doubt, but in this realm a broken reed who prevaricated with clichÚs. It's early days yet. Boys bloom at different ages. Give it time and it'll sort itself out. Come back in a few years if things haven't improved.

But the time was near when I was due to move on to Harrow. From all that I had heard, nakedness was as standard at public school as it was at prep school, and sexual experimentation was almost a norm. At Harrow my difference would be even more conspicuous. My heart quailed, and Dad remained magnificent. We talked it through and through, and agreed that I should go to a state school instead, where students were together for eight hours a day not twenty-four, and the changing room was the only potential source of embarrassment. And so I went to Penygroes, to Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle, where I made some good friends, both girls and boys. But I had not been there a year when I made a new discovery.

Ordinary school friendships were one thing. But on another plane I was still wounded and still felt an outcast. I found myself longing for deeper companionship, for a meeting of souls, for understanding, for love. Girls, however fine as friends, did not fit this bill. Boys, at least in theory, did. Boys had hurt me, boys could heal me. Their mindsets were closer to mine. I liked their bodies to look at, and by now I was yearning for physical closeness, so long as it was of my choosing. But I had no hint of desire for sex. The very idea revolted me. So did the whole vocabulary of sex, clinical or vulgar. I even closed my ears to dirty talk and dirty jokes. Apart perhaps from the few bible-bashers, my language was the least earthy in the school.

But while I knew what I wanted, I could not pursue it. I had no friends close enough to confide in, let alone make overtures to. In that department I was thwarted. And now I was doubly different -- gay without physical desire: almost, on the face of it, a contradiction. In that department I floundered. Gayness was a recognised category if not, at Penygroes, a popular one. I might have coped with that by itself, for at least I would have known what I was. But lack of desire was not a recognised category. I did not know what I was, any more than I do now.

Still as dysfunctional as ever, I went back to the doctor. This time he referred me to the sexual health clinic at Ysbyty Gwynedd. God, that was horrific. The waiting room was full of sufferers, presumably, of gonorrhoea or worse. The specialist to whom I had to explain myself was disgustingly breezy. He quizzed me. He examined me. He tested my testosterone and found it normal. He showed me pictures of naked women, with no response. Of naked men, with no response. He asked if I had involuntary erections in the night, and was delighted to hear that I did, and, er, involuntary emissions too. The mechanics are all right, then, he said. It's the trigger that's missing. You simply (simply?) have a low libido, a low sexual drive. It's not wildly uncommon. Not to worry. When you find the love of your life, she'll turn you on. And if all else fails, there's always Viagra, though you're too young for that now.

I won't be going back to him. He had totally missed the point. I had told him, but he had missed it. That even if I had an involuntary erection, it went down as soon as I noticed it. That I just did not want sex. That the very thought of it repelled me. That nothing, nothing, could possibly turn me on. But he had put one idea into my head. I would experiment. I bought some Viagra on the internet and tried it out. It did work, mechanically. For the first time in my life I could masturbate. I hated it, but I forced myself to carry on to orgasm. And when I experienced for myself what orgasm involved, when I saw my, um, body fluids emerge, I threw up. Literally.

That was my private life, at home. At school, everything continued smoothly enough on the surface until eighteen months or so ago when I was fifteen, almost sixteen. I used to play in a seven-a-side team. The others often talked about sex, but in the changing room there was no practical problem until one day when we had won an important match and everyone was on a high. They chattered at length about their girlfriends and  their plans for that night. Someone sprang an erection, and everyone else followed suit. Everyone except me. I tried to hide my failure, but they saw. It was a repeat of my prep school. They were astonished, and grabbed me, and handled me, and still nothing happened. They roared with disbelief and laughter. They called me disbaidd, a eunuch. Next day it was all round school, and I was dead. Socially dead, and bruised once more to the core.

Dad was magnificent again. So was the vicar to whom, at Dad's suggestion, I told all. But they could do no more than comfort and support. I stuck it out until my GCSEs were over, and left. My exam results were lousy. I moved to the college. At Pwllheli, so far so good, both in my work and in my. . . secret.

"So there you are, Kenneth," I ended dejectedly. "That's why I told you I don't leap into bed with boys. You've found yourself someone with a major defect. A wimp with an abhorrence of sex. Without potency or virility. Just what a virile and potent gay like you is looking for." I laughed bitterly. "Kenneth, I'm sorry."

But he was still hugging me, lending me strength to finish the litany of my woes. He had been strengthened by his own tribulations, I thought enviously, where I had been weakened by mine. Now he hugged me tighter.

"Cilmin. I'm sorry too. For you. It's hell if people laugh at you. Of course it is. But do you feel defective? Inferior?"

I considered it as dispassionately as I could. "No. Not normally. I know it's just my natural state. The way I'm meant to be."

"So it only worries you when it becomes, um, relevant? Like in the changing room? Like now? If it really is relevant now."

"Yes. And of course it's relevant now."

"Is it?" He cogitated. "It must be rather like being deaf, you know. There was an article in the New Scientist about that, a month or so back. About cochlear implants to restore hearing, or partial hearing. Deaf people on the whole get on perfectly well -- they've learned the skills to cope. It isn't them who have problems with deafness. It's hearing people, who don't understand it. A lot of deaf people don't see themselves as disabled, so they don't reckon there's anything to cure. And if they have implants they feel they don't belong to the deaf community any more. They feel they've been changed from first-class deaf people into inferior versions of hearing people. And it makes some sense to me, to want to stay clear of the bedlam of the hearing world. Isn't that rather like you?"

That was interesting. "Yes. I suppose it is. But there are differences. There's no community for people like me, like there is for the deaf. I'm all alone. And I'd be happy to stay where I am, clear of the bedlam of sex, if it weren't that I do want love. But love only comes in a package, with sex included whether you want it or not. That's the trouble. Nobody stocks love without sex, do they?"

"Don't they? Look, Cilmin. I'm beginning to understand. Impotent isn't the right word for you, is it? Not in the ordinary sense. It means wanting to, but not being able to. You're the other way round. You're able to, but you haven't got the desire. There's bound to be a name for it, though I've no idea what . . .

"Look, can we try to pin things down more accurately? Where the boundaries are between what you can stand, or even like, and what you hate? Can I ask some very personal things?"

Nothing could be sacrosanct now, and I steeled myself to answer unpalatable questions as honestly as I could.

"Go ahead."

"You say you can't stand, er, body fluids. What about pee and crap? They're body fluids too, sort of."

"Oh, no problem there. I've no more hang-ups about them than anyone else. Everyone craps and pees. You have to."

"What about kissing? Expressing love without sex?"

I had kissed Mum, of course, but that was different.

"I don't know. I've never tried. Maybe, er, light kissing would be OK. On the cheek, say. Even on the lips."

"But deep kissing? With tongue? And saliva?"

"No, I doubt I could take that. It seems too, um, intimate. I think it comes into the same category as physical sex. That's what repels me."

"Can you describe how it repels you? The thought of it?"

"Not just the thought. I told you that actual masturbation made me sick."

"But the thought of a blow-job, or fucking, would be worse?"

He saw my expression.

"Sorry," he said. "Just my dirty language."

"It's not that. Don't apologise. I told you I don't mind that. No, it's thinking about . . . those things. God, how can I describe it? Well, what's the most disgusting thing you can think of?"

"Hell, I don't know. Putting a live frog in my mouth and crunching it, guts and all?"

"No, I meant disgusting sexually."

"Mmmm. I think I'd be willing to try anything, with someone I loved."

He still did not fully understand. I had to be brutal, and forced myself to use Kenneth's language.

"But what about with Rasmus, say? What about . . . giving Rasmus a blow-job?"

Horror came over his face.

"Christ, no!"

"Or fucking him?"

"No way! Anyway, I couldn't get a hard-on to do that."

"Exactly! And that describes me! That's exactly how I feel. At the very thought of doing it to you. Or you doing it to me. Oh, no offence to you, Kenneth -- I'd rather do it with you than anyone. But does that explain it?"

It did. There was a long silence as the last pieces of his understanding fell into place.

"Right," he said at last. "Right, I'm with you. Let's try again. We're hugging. You don't mind that?"

"God, no. It's great. You've no idea how comforting it is. Mum isn't a huggy person. Let alone Dad."

"What about nakedness? Hugging skin to skin?"

"I . . . I don't know."

"Shall we try, then?"

I looked at him. Trustworthy, reassuring, a buttress in time of trouble, at least until it should register that there was nothing in it for him and he would look for his fulfilment elsewhere. Draw on his comfort, Cilmin, while you can. It won't last long.

I took the decision, stood up and rapidly stripped. So did he, and we gazed at each other's nakedness. He had a good young body. Nothing like as hairy as mine -- it probably never would be -- but sturdy, well-muscled, desirable for everything except . . . that. And he looked me over with obvious approval. But he remained flaccid. That surprised me, and reassured me. We squeezed into my bed, a single bed, which brought us flesh to flesh, face to face. It was bliss. He hugged me, he stroked me gently down the back from shoulder to thigh, he kissed me on the cheek, I kissed him on the lips, and it was still bliss. But, bliss though it was, it did not turn me on, not in that sense. Nor did it turn Kenneth on. Still puzzled, I asked him why.

"I don't know. I thought I'd be randy as hell. Maybe my cock's taking its cue from yours. Knowing you can't, um, answer back. Not to worry. But if you're OK so far, can we go a bit further?"

I felt his tongue rest very delicately on my lips and begin to inch inside. Hesitantly I brought mine forward to meet it. The tips touched, and I recoiled as if stung.

"Sorry," he said. "Obviously not. Not yet, anyway. Shall we try, um, elsewhere?"

"Well . . ." He was right, of course. We had to try. "Yes."

"Turn on your other side."

I wriggled round and he spooned in behind me, reaching over to stroke my front, tickling the hairs on my chest. His hand moved slowly down until it was on my genitals. Needless to say, there was no reaction, but no problem either. Then he stroked them again, over, around, under. The sensation at once became alien, repugnant, as if he were rubbing a sore. I could not help flinching. Kenneth sensed it, and stopped.

"Never mind," he said. "Would you try the same on me?"

We turned over so that I was spooned behind him, and I stroked his smooth chest. It felt good. My hand slid down over his pubic hair to his penis. It was still soft, and it also felt good. It was just another part of his body, a good part of a good body. It did not disgust me, any more than I was disgusted when his hand was first on mine. But as I lingeringly cupped it, as he had mine, it grew hard. What I was doing instantly became offensive, equally alien and repugnant.  Holding my breath, clenching my teeth, hating every moment, I stroked it more.

"No, stop," he said. "You're not enjoying it. I can tell. So I'm not enjoying it either. It's no good if we're not in it together."

I breathed again, and we lay as we were. Occasionally I stroked his front. He was already soft again. God, he was good. And God, it was good. I was in both heaven and hell. The heaven of the present, of bodily contact, of being understood, of being loved, of fulfilment -- my brand of fulfilment. The hell of the future, of the knowledge that it could not last, of the prospect of loneliness again. The hell of frustration at my difference, that it would snuff out our love.

"Cilmin," he murmured. "I meant what I said. I still love you."

Teetering on the cusp of hope and despair, I could not reply. I barely believed him. We had talked about sexuality, but we had not talked about love. I loved him, and I needed his love. God knows I did, but it could only be on my terms, and that was something I could not expect from him. I could only hope for it, forlornly. I could not bring myself to talk about it because he was beyond my reach. For the same reason, presumably, Kenneth had not talked about it either, beyond kind words of encouragement which he could not mean. No blame to him. On his agenda, sex was high. On mine it could not feature. Love on his terms and love on my terms were simply incompatible. Our paths could converge no closer. I seem to remember that I cried before I fell asleep.

At one point I half-woke, half-aware of my erection pressing into the cleft of his buttocks. But the moment the fact registered properly, the erection subsided. When I next awoke, I awoke fully. Morning was filtering past the curtains, and Kenneth was no longer in the bed. Had he left me already? I sat up with a jerk of panic. But no. He was at the desk, fully clothed, reading his New Scientist. On seeing me surface he brought it over, a finger marking the place, beaming.

"Shove over, Cilmin. I've got news for you. Great news."

He squeezed in beside me and put an arm round my back.

"Read this."

He flipped the magazine open and laid it on my lap. Bewildered, I looked. On the right was a photo of a handsome young man wearing a T-shirt with the message 'Nobody knows I'm asexual.' At bottom left was a bold headline, 'Glad to be A.' Below it was a subtitle, 'If you absolutely, positively, have no desire to have sex, you're not alone.'

Oh, my God! I tore through it, all six pages of it, as if it might at any moment be snatched from my hands. Kenneth's arm was still round me, and as I reached the end he hugged me tighter.

"Now you know what you are, Cilmin. And you're not alone."

I hardly heard him. I was turning back to the beginning to read it again, more carefully. It started with David Jay in St Louis, the young man in the photo, who was twenty-two and had never felt sexual attraction to anyone, let alone had sex. He called himself asexual. It wasn't a matter, as it was in celibacy or abstinence, of deliberately rejecting sexuality. It was a matter of not wanting sex, or even of being repelled by sex.

Asexuals came in all shapes, the article went on. Some were straight, some gay, some bi, some had no orientation at all. What united them was the lack of desire for sex with anyone. Some masturbated, some experienced little arousal or even none at all. Some were loners, some were strongly attracted to others and, short of actual sex, wanted the deepest and most romantic relationship possible. Of these last, David Jay was one. He believed that his form of love, unconditional and unencumbered by sexual feelings, was particularly powerful. He had founded a web forum which now had over 1200 members constantly interacting in a virtual community. Science was beginning to recognise the condition, and surveys suggested that one per cent of the population might be asexual, compared to the three per cent who were gay.

The overall message was that, in most cases, lack of arousal is not a medical or psychological problem and is not a defect to be cured, any more than homosexuality is. It is a natural state, and not even particularly rare. A tidal wave of relief was washing over me. Here in my hands was the answer to the conundrum that had plagued me for years. At last, as Kenneth had pointed out, I knew what I was. At last I knew that I was not alone. The equally thorny conundrum of my love for Kenneth receded into the background, still unanswered and, for the time being, disregarded.

The article gave the link to the website and, while Kenneth went downstairs to collect some breakfast, I went straight to it. It was called AVEN, for Asexual Visibility and Education Network, a large and complex site with not only the forum but all kinds of information and advice and FAQs. I was still on its fringes when Kenneth came up with a trayful of coffee and toast.

"So I'm asexual! " I said delightedly. "I've heard that word before. But doesn't it usually mean lower forms of life? Worms and things?"

"That's right. Some worms, like tapeworms. Starfish. Jellyfish. Anything that doesn't copulate to reproduce. Plants as well, of course."

I did not feel like a tapeworm, or an asparagus.

"I think they're using it here," he went on, "in a different sense, on the lines of homosexual and heterosexual."

"But it doesn't describe an orientation, like they do."

"No. It's another dimension, isn't it? The old Kinsey scale is supposed to cover all shades of orientation, from straight to gay. But that's just a line. To include sex drive you need another axis, like a graph. Something like this." He found a pen and sketched rapidly.


graph of asexuality


"Take Megan. She's totally straight and I reckon she has a strong sex drive. She'd be at A. Someone who has a middling sex drive and is bi -- say a bloke with a bit of a preference for girls -- would be at B. And you're at C."

Firmly at the bottom right-hand corner. My other problem momentarily raised its head.

"And where are you?" I asked.

Kenneth hesitated, but honesty made him put his D at the top end of the vertical axis. A long way from me, just as I had feared.

"I thought I was there," he said, a trifle shyly. "But I'm not sure I have to be. I might move down here." He drew a long arrow from D towards C.

Was he really contemplating changing himself to meet my needs, or lack of needs? That would never do. But he knew what was in my mind.

"Don't worry, Cilmin. I'm still thinking about it. There's plenty of time. You get on with your website. Come to terms with your identity. That's your first priority. After having something to eat."

He almost force-fed me with toast and marmalade, then flicked me on the ear.

"OK. Back to your screen, but don't forget your coffee. I'm going to read this again."

He picked up the New Scientist. Unshaven, still stark naked, bursting for a pee, I returned to the website and tried the forum. It turned out to be forums in the plural, nearly twenty of them, on different topics. There was a mass of stuff there. It would take weeks to read the lot, and I could only dip. But by dipping into likely-sounding threads I lit on much that resonated with me. A typical message ran,

For me, I think the repulsion largely comes from the thought of having what amounts to a pulsating, vaguely sausage-like appendage jammed inside of me. Sorry, guys, I can't help feeling that way. But if it makes you feel any better, I don't find female genitalia any more attractive. Who knows, maybe I'm just confusing repulsion with fear. On the other hand, I do find the whole 'exchange of bodily fluids' thing rather gross. Hell, I feel gross when I wake up in the middle of the night sweating like a racehorse because my room's so damn hot, so you can imagine how I'd feel about other peoples' juices getting on my sheets.


That spoke for me, that and much else. I would register and make myself known and join this community of like-minded souls. I looked happily across at Kenneth, and he looked up at me from his magazine with a smile on his own face, bubbling to tell me something. I had to force myself to listen.

"This is a bumper issue, Cilmin. It's got a report and an editorial about the gay gene. Or genes -- it says there are probably more than one on the X chromosome. They'd soon die out if they affected only men. But someone's found that the mothers and maternal aunts of gays have more children than the mothers and aunts of straight men. Which suggests that those genes also increase a woman's chance of having more children. They carry an advantage, and so they're passed on. It's not the whole story, of course. But it fits me. OK, I'm an only child, and we know why. But Mum has four sisters who have countless kids. It fits."

It fitted me too. I was an only child because my own Mum had had medical problems, but I had three aunts on her side, and a whole herd of cousins.

"But again you don't tell your Mum?" I observed.

Kenneth smiled. "No, I think not."

Back to the screen. A little later the church bell rang.

"Cilmin . . . are you going to church?"

"No. Matins is in Welsh today, and there's no evensong. Anyway, I want to get on with this website."

"Then do you mind if I go out by myself, to do my thinking?"

"Of course not."

He came over, gripped me by my naked shoulders, and kissed me on the lips.

"Cilmin. I love you. Don't ever forget that. But I've a lot of sorting out to do before we can talk about it properly."

With a sweet smile, he was gone. I sighed guiltily. I recognised that, riding the crest of my wave of self-discovery, I was being inconsiderate. But I could not help it. The forum was beckoning me irresistibly back. I took the plunge and registered, posting a brief message introducing myself. Then I dipped at random into the FAQs and immediately spotted one that shouted at me in my new-found flush of optimism.

I'm in love -- I want to be with him all the time, I can't imagine life without him -- I like to cuddle and be affectionate and everything couples do -- I know I'm attracted to him! I just don't want to have sex!


That was me. I loved Kenneth. We were in harmony. We read each other's minds. I wanted to be with him all the time. I wanted to cuddle and be affectionate. And I just did not want to have sex.

Some asexuals, ran the answer, do have a strong romantic drive, as opposed to a sexual drive. That can be confusing, because sexual and romantic attraction are often taken to be one and the same. Not so for the asexual. Yes, that was bang on the nail.

But next to it was the question, "How exactly does an asexual compromise with a sexual?"

That is determined by the individuals involved. Some asexuals simply cannot ever have sex, the idea is repulsive. If they are in a relationship with a sexual who is okay with that, then there is little problem.


There are varying degrees of aversion to sex . . . How to talk this out is sometimes a challenge because it is so personal and so many feelings are at stake. It's important to stay on the same side and reassure each other that love is the most important thing -- not the sex. If in the end you can't work out something that is mutually pleasant, then perhaps sacrifice is required . . . And some have found that compromise is simply not possible. Ultimately it's a very personal decision.

Oh God. That brought me back to earth with a bump.

'Cilmin. I love you,' had been his parting words. 'Don't ever forget that.' I still could not believe that he meant it. And even if he meant it now . . .

'I've a lot of sorting out to do,' he had said. That, in contrast, I could well believe. And his love would certainly evaporate during his sorting out.

Compromise was simply not possible. Surely it was not possible. My aversion was total. There was no way I could meet Kenneth's needs, or begin to meet them. I could meet him in trivial areas like earthy language or the music of the Grateful Dead, but not in any area that mattered. He might meet my needs, but only by dint of an impossible sacrifice, one which I could not possibly expect of him. And another thought struck me. Even if he made that sacrifice, our love could not be complete. Love, after all -- what was it Cowley said in that poem? -- is 'not complete till bodies too do join.'

The article and the website had given my confidence a miraculous boost. Now it slumped back to where it had been when that fatal word impotent reared its ugly head.

8.  Kenneth

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow.
That path is for your steps alone.

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow.

You who choose to lead must follow,
But if you fall you fall alone.
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.

                                              Ripple, 1970

I was woken by the pressure of Cilmin's hard-on against my crack. As I rubbed it gently with my bum, he wriggled in his sleep and I felt it deflate. But I stayed awake, thinking. For the first time in my life I was naked in bed with a boy, an attractive boy, a gay boy, a boy I loved. We had cuddled and stroked and kissed. I had even been briefly wanked.

All this, until yesterday, would have driven me into a delirium of desire. In the event, weird though it was, it had left me sexually unexcited. Why? Because, I supposed, my desire was not reciprocated, because Cilmin was disgusted by what I had hoped for.

Nor was I even disappointed that my hopes had been dashed. Why? Because I was already in heaven, at last in the arms of the reassurance and the stability I craved. That higher craving, at least for the moment, overrode the lower. Even I recognised that the craving for sex, strong though it might be, really ranked lower.

That made me shift my gaze to the future and to some hard questions. I had never experienced sex. I had never been in anyone's arse or mouth. Nobody had been in mine. So would I miss it? No. On current showing, I would not. He was spooned behind me, in tight contact along his whole length, his breath warming my neck, his hand on my chest, his leg over mine, his pubic hair tickling my cheeks, his flaccid cock along my crack. We could not be closer. Yet my own cock was infected by his flaccidity. In this heaven, that was something I could live with.

I had two choices, didn't I? One was to look elsewhere for my fulfilment. To abandon Cilmin, not as a friend, I would hope, but as an object of love. To take him back to the shop, so to speak, as a defective product to be exchanged for a functioning one. Where would that leave him? Alone again, and in despair, and surely no longer even a friend. Where would it leave me? Racked, surely, by loss and guilt.

The other option was to throw in my lot with the boy I loved, the boy I wanted to love. To live a sexless life with him. To be wholly faithful to him. To sacrifice shallower physical hopes for the sake of deeper spiritual needs. An omelette, after all, cannot be made without breaking eggs. Where would that leave him? Fulfilled, I had every reason to believe. Where would it leave me? Fulfilled too, in almost every way.

The questions were not so hard after all. They required no significant debate. I could do it. I would do it.  I made up my mind there and then, lying tight beside Cilmin in his troubled sleep. At intervals he muttered and stirred and groaned, too modest, too considerate, to expect his needs to be met, and therefore expecting the worst. Should I wake him and tell him of my decision? No, let him sleep.

But I needed a pee. I carefully disentangled myself, crawled out of bed, and padded to the chilly bathroom. As I took hold of my cock to aim it, I found it was now stiff, and I peed with difficulty. Ludicrous that it should behave like this as soon as our bodies were out of contact. Nor did it not go down as night-time woodies normally do. Rather it was demanding its statutory release. All right, you win, I thought. After all, it was overdue. But not in bed, or even in the bedroom -- I could not risk awakening Cilmin and his disgust.

I switched on the fan heater, slumped back on the loo, and got busy. God, the ecstasy as the dam burst and the flood flowed free! I mopped up with toilet paper and stayed there to unwind. Instead, I began to feel guilty. There was an aspect that had not so far occurred to me.

The soggy paper in my hand accused me. I had said I loved him, and so I did. I wanted to give myself to him, all of myself. But here I was reserving something for my own selfish pleasure. Was that love, or was it self-love? Was I being unfaithful already? I looked at the mess in the paper. Rightfully it belonged to Cilmin, but emphatically he did not want it. I had produced it solely for my own gratification. He was not involved. It demeaned him. It somehow defiled his purity. Self-disgust took over.

I ought not to be doing this. But could I give it up? That was the challenge. It was engrained in me. Twice a day at least, ever since I had first discovered it when puberty hit. Lordy me! That decision so easily taken a few minutes ago was already in tatters. It had to be rethought, even discussed with Cilmin. I flushed the wretched paper away, flannelled my chest and belly to remove any contamination that was left, washed my hands, and returned to the bedroom.

He was now sprawled right across the bed. Why disturb him? He needed his sleep. Until he woke up I would spend the time in thought. Putting on some clothes, I sat down at Cilmin's desk. The light was still on from last night and the gas fire still burning. But my mind refused to think. It chased itself round in guilty circles and refused to stop and focus. All right then, give it a chance to settle. Do something else.

I nipped to my room for Friday's unopened New Scientist, ripped off the wrapper, and took it back to his desk. A glance at the cover showed a picture of a faceless head and the headline 'Return of the liquid universe.' Something to do with the big bang and quantum chromodynamics, it seemed, distinctly beyond my little brain. But at the foot of the cover, in bold yellow letters on red, was another headline.

The Asexual Revolution
People who live without lust

I sat up with a jolt and hunted inside. And read, and read. And then I saw that Cilmin was awake, and handed it over to him to read.

We talked about identity. I fed him his breakfast. I read more of the New Scientist and learned about a new slant on the gay gene. All the time he was sitting starkers at his desk, either engrossed in his new website or visibly pining to get back to it. No blame to him, none at all -- he was at last discovering himself, locating the community out there which he had not known existed. If his attention was off my immediate problem, I could in no way reproach him. But I had to pick up my interrupted musings of last night and attempt to plot a path ahead, for both of us.

I tried to look into the future with adjusted eyes. I still loved Cilmin. I still wanted to be with him for ever, and the little Welsh corner of my brain concocted a little wry joke. For ever. Until the end of time. Hyd Penamser. As far as Penamser. That fitted. Hugging Cilmin, sleeping with Cilmin, would be no problem at Lleuar. But at Port, once we had passed Penamser, it would be taboo. Best behaviour only, there.

Even so, no great hardship, this academic year. But what of the year after, with Cilmin at university and me still at Pwllheli? Well, he could take a gap year, couldn't he, and we'd both go to university together. Pie in the sky, maybe. Don't cross your bridges . . . But not impossible. One does like stories to have happy endings.

All very well to daydream. But being with Cilmin for ever . . . On what terms? On whose terms? That was the crunch. Should I break the habit of all my adolescent years? Could I break it? My mind was overcrowded and confused, and it was difficult to be dispassionate while he was a few feet away, seductively naked and velvety. To find any answers I needed to be alone, receptive to any outside guidance that might come my way. I asked if he minded if I went out, held him by his bare shoulders, and kissed him on the lips.

"Cilmin. I love you. Don't ever forget that."

I first tried the beach, which took me past the holly trees. Their berries were now turning red, and no green ones were left. Red meant stop. Go no further. But plants could hardly dictate my life, asexual though they were. Nor was there counsel from the sea. The grey waves were gentle now and their repetitive splash unenlightening. The tide was in and the shingle uncomfortable underfoot.

I turned back and found myself at the dolmen in the middle of the field. Had the old ghosts any advice in my quandary? A fortnight ago -- was it only a fortnight? -- they had seemed to enjoy my lewd limerick. Wriggling through a gap in the railing, I leaned against the capstone, my nose level with its top, my fingers wandering over the cup-marks, my mind blank.

It had been built, this monument, five thousand years ago by the earliest farmers, and through its boding aura of ancient mystery the message of their spirits spoke clear -- sow, and you shall reap. Well, I would never reap in the sense of generating offspring. Cast your seed wide, they said. But that to me, with my standards, was anathema. Then spill your seed by yourself, they replied. Seed that never leaves the sack is seed wasted.

Hmmm.

I wandered inland again, past Lleuar's gateposts, to the church. Matins was over and the last of the congregation was straggling away through the lychgate. I ambled across the empty nave, under the tower and along the vaulted passage to Capel y Bedd. Beneath my feet, within the ancient foundations marked out on the flags, lay the bones of stern old Beuno who fourteen hundred years ago had been a power in the land. Two weeks back, in his church, I had laughed out loud. That, had he been close enough to hear it, would undoubtedly have earned his rebuke. Repentantly, I opened my mind to him.

Sow no seed, he told me. No seed at all, unless it be the word of God. Which, in the context, meant celibacy. More than celibacy -- total abstinence. Well, he was an ascetic, wasn't he? An evangelical in the mould of dour old Dewi Sant. His was a partisan message, and I could have expected nothing else. But it made the score one-all.

In search of a deciding vote, I returned to the church proper and sat in the front row of chairs, within sight of the family tombs in the transept. Through the screen I could see, beside the altar and below the great wide east window, the memorial to William Glynne with his gaggle of offspring. In the light and airy openness of this building, might the more enlightened philosophies of the last five hundred years offer a more liberal answer?

I tried to empty my mind again, but dark shadows swirled insistently around it. For maybe an hour my thoughts found nothing on which to crystallise, until I became aware that someone was sitting beside me. The vicar. I had no idea how long he had been there.

"You've been so far away," he remarked when he saw that I had surfaced, "and for so long, that I wondered whether I could be of any help."

"Well, thanks." I was almost in tears. "But it's a decision I've got to make for myself."

"I hope that doesn't rule out a helping hand. But if I am intruding, Kenneth, tell me to go away."

That I could not do. I did need help. And why should he remember my name? We had barely been introduced, and a fortnight ago at that.

"Let me draw a bow at a venture," he went on when I did not reply, "that your perplexity is about love."

That surprised me still more. "Yes, it is."

"It is only between you and him, isn't it? There's no third party involved?"

"No, no third party."

"And you are wondering whether the sacrifice is too great."

I nodded slowly. It was dawning on me that he knew exactly what was going on.

"I said it was about love," I protested, "but you didn't talk about her. You talked about him. You know who it is, then?"

The vicar smiled a little. "Yes. I know."

"And it doesn't, um, bother you?"

"Not in the least. And especially not in this case."

I knew then that I had found the adviser I was after: not the licentious old farmers, not the puritanical old saint, but the voice of tolerance and reason.

"About your sacrifice, then, Kenneth. As you say, the decision has to be yours alone. Let me add only this. He's a troubled spirit. But he's pure gold, you know. He's worth a big sacrifice. But not so big that you destroy yourself in the process. In love, in proper love, there are always two partners, and both of them have to consider the other. But not to the exclusion of themselves.

"Yet he needs all the help he can reasonably get. Do you know that wonderful poem by Thomas Bracken, Not Understood?"

I shook my head.

"Well, one verse goes,

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.

That's him, exactly. Only three people begin to understand him, I think. His parents, and me. We're all in on his, ah, secret. But we're not enough. More important, we're the wrong people. He needs understanding from someone his own age. He needs sympathy. And above all he needs love, romantic love. Are you the fourth, Kenneth? Do you understand him?"

"Yes, I do. Now."

"Good. And therefore you sympathise. And if you can take the further step and love him on his own terms, you will have rescued him. But I can guess how great a sacrifice it will be, to forgo the expectations you must have had. It will demand much strength. Do you think you have it?"

"If you'd asked me yesterday I'd have said no. Now I'm trying to persuade myself to say yes. I'm OK with half of the sacrifice. It's the other half that's the problem."

His brow crinkled. "I don't quite understand."

Oh dear. I would have to explain in full. I would have to talk about cringingly personal things, in a church of all places, to a vicar of all people, kindly though he was. But it was too important to wriggle out of. I drew a deep breath and tried to put it as delicately as I could.

"Well, I did have expectations. Um, physical expectations, of what I, er, hoped to do with him." I was sure I was blushing furiously. "But now that I know about him, I'm ready to forgo them. We couldn't get anywhere if I wasn't.

"And I'd never look elsewhere to make up for them. My father betrayed my mother. He married her without telling her that he was a practising gay. When I was a baby he walked out on her to live with his, er, lover. He'd already given her HIV, and in the end he died of AIDS. When I heard about all that, I learned two lessons. One was honesty. The other was fidelity. And a few months back I went to a cousin's wedding in London. I'm afraid I'm not religious, rev . . . er  . . ."

I realised I had no idea how to address him, and broke off in confusion.

"Call me Gwilym," he said helpfully. "Cilmin does."

"Oh, right . . . Gwilym, I'm afraid I don't believe in God. But at this wedding the promises they made seemed exactly right. Something about forsaking all others."

"Yes. 'Forsaking all other, to keep thee only unto him.' And they go on to promise 'to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part'."

"Yes, that's it. Well, that, er, reinforced my ideas about honesty and fidelity. That's the sort of relationship I want. I want permanence. Stability. Not . . . casual affairs. If I, well, teamed up with Cilmin, I would forsake all others. I've no problem there either."

"Good for you, then. So what is the problem?"

"Well . . . what follows on from that."

"Ah, I think I'm beginning to see. Has he asked you for anything more?"

"No. That's the trouble. He hasn't asked for anything at all, and I doubt he ever will. I've got to work it out for myself. What he hopes for. How much to offer him. How much I can give. Of my own accord."

"You mean, how much you can give beyond forsaking all others? Now I understand. As the second part of your sacrifice, you're contemplating forsaking your own self. In other words, you're contemplating total abstinence. Have I got that right?"

At last we had arrived. "Yes."

"Isn't that considering Cilmin to the exclusion of yourself? Self-sacrifice in a good cause is one thing. Unnecessary self-sacrifice is quite another."

"Unnecessary?"

"Yes, unnecessary. Look, Kenneth, let's be blunt about this. As a normal young man you have your sexuality. You have your sexual needs. With the best will in the world, Cilmin can't offer you a sexual relationship, and you're prepared to forgo it, with him and with anyone else. That is a sacrifice indeed. You would be giving him what he needs -- your love, your honesty, and your fidelity. But what about your needs? He does not need your total abstinence. And therefore he surely does not hope for it."

"But Gwilym . . ."

"Isn't it rather like food and drink? Which should be enjoyed?"

"But you can't live without food and drink. You can live without sex. Of any sort."

"True. But sexuality is given by God -- or, you'd no doubt rather say, by nature. Gifts from God -- gifts from nature -- should be enjoyed. In the right way, of course. Enjoy your food and drink, without over-eating or over-drinking. Enjoy your sexuality, without being unfaithful to your partner. Which in your case means enjoying your sexuality by yourself."

"But it also talks in the wedding service about your body . . ."

"'With my body I thee worship'? Yes, it does."

"But my body seems . . . irrelevant. Because I can't worship him with it."

"Oh, but you can. Not directly, true. But indirectly, and no doubt in private. And still in love. He would be absent in body, but present in spirit, present in love, knowing that you were doing it in love. I see no reason why you shouldn't. And every reason why you should. Not only for your own sake, but for his too. That's my advice.

"I must be off. Look, Kenneth. You may not believe in God, but that doesn't matter, because you're a good man. The very best. And the first man, of his age, to see what Cilmin needs, and to be able to supply it. If you fail, I doubt if anyone will succeed. So don't risk failure by making excessive demands of yourself. You will both succeed so long as you understand each other. The last verse of that poem runs,

O God! that men would see a little clearer,
Or judge less harshly when they cannot see;
O God! that men would draw a little nearer
To one another; they'd be nearer thee --
              And understood."

He stood up. I stood up too.

"Kenneth. If it means anything to you, you have my blessing, and you have Goronwy and Priscilla's blessing too. They've told me so. Good luck."

He shook my hand, and was gone. What an extraordinary man. I sat down again to assimilate his message. His had not been a casting vote, after all. Take one step of abstinence, he had advised, but don't go the whole hog.

But this half-way step still did not convince me. As things stood, we were too far apart. 'O God!' that poem had said, 'that men would draw a little nearer to one another.' Only a little nearer? That wasn't enough, was it?

As things stood, the object of my love was out of reach. 'If it's out of reach,' I had told Cilmin, 'and it won't come to you, why not try moving towards it?' Only towards it? That wasn't enough either, was it?

Didn't I have to move much nearer, move the whole distance, before it was within my reach? At least it wouldn't slink away from me. There was nowhere for it to slink to.

A further thought. If I had a sexual Cilmin to give myself to, I wouldn't need my right hand again. Not for myself, anyway. As it was, I was giving myself to an asexual Cilmin. Did that make any difference? Should it make any difference? No, surely not.

And I recalled a story -- another of Mihangel's -- where these two boys are at boarding school. They live together and have sex in the holidays, but at school they can't. And at school they don't wank either, because they've given their bodies to each other. That appealed to my sense of fidelity. With two people committed to each other in love, anything sexual which was not two-way between them smacked of unfaithfulness.

But did that involve aiming for so much that I risked losing the lot? Don't risk failure, the vicar had told me, by making excessive demands of myself.

What we have is
what we may lose
by valuing something
we believe to be higher.

Hmmm.

And total abstinence! Think of it, Kenneth, think of it. In practice it would be penitential, a hair shirt to outdo all hair shirts. Was I being absurdly masochistic, impossibly idealistic?

Yet . . . yet I had my ideals, painfully harvested from Dad's repulsive behaviour. As Cilmin had pointed out, ideals are hard to live up to. But why hold them if, when the crunch came, I didn't try to live up to them?

And the crunch had come. We loved each other. True, battered by the bombshell of Cilmin's revelation, we had hardly talked about that. But, while he may not have declared it straight out, it was utterly obvious that he loved me and hoped for my love. And I had told him, however briefly, that I loved him. In him, then, lay my fulfilment, and his in me. How to secure that fulfilment? There was surely only one way.

Roll for ever higher stakes
And break those aces twice,
It's not an easy point to make
But worth the sacrifice.

Round and round went my thoughts. But yes, surely worth the sacrifice.

I must have sat there all afternoon, for I was sitting there still when an old lady arrived to lock up the church and ever so politely shooed me out. Dusk was falling and rain was threatening. Zombie-like I wandered away down the churchyard path. In my careless daze I strayed off the gravel, tripped on the grass edge, and fell headlong on to a flat tombstone. As I broke the fall with my hands I found myself looking, inches from my nose, at the name of John Jones who was drownded, the all-too-young victim of a tragedy two hundred years old.  Once again I felt pity. But I also felt a twinge of envy that he had at least been spared, presumably, the complications of a perfidious father and an asexual lover. I picked myself up, dusted my hands, rubbed my groin which I had painfully banged on the low railing around the grave, and limped back to Lleuar.

There was no sign of Cilmin. But prominent on his desk was a note in his angular writing, addressed to me. I pulled up the chair to read it.

Kenneth.


I've gone for a walk with Rasmus to try to clear my addled brain.


I've been thinking hard. I love you, but I've realised that it can't work. I've been too selfish and proud. I hoped for your love. But I hoped for too much and took too much for granted. It can't work. I'm reminded of a poem by Abraham Cowley which shows very clearly how it can't work.

 

        Indeed I must confess, 
        When souls mix 'tis an happiness,  
But not complete till bodies too do join,
And both our wholes into one whole combine;
But half of heaven the souls in glory taste
        Till by love in heaven at last
        Their bodies too are placed.


        For a perfect love implies
        Love in all capacities.


And Robert Hunter, come to think of it, says much the same thing.

Only in the body of another
does the certainty of freedom
digress into sheer ideal,
bled white by leeches of light.

I love your soul, Kenneth, and I love your body. But by bodies we're really talking about genitals, aren't we? And because I'm asexual I can't love your genitals, not in the way you want. You were hoping for sex, but I can't give it to you. I can't move up on that diagram of yours to meet you. You were contemplating moving down to meet me, to give up the sex you had every right to expect. That would be a sacrifice which, as an asexual, I can't begin to comprehend. But I do know that it's utterly unfair to expect it of you.


I can't love you in all capacities, Kenneth. Therefore our love can't be perfect. To be perfect, it has to be physical as well as spiritual. You've probably come to the same conclusion.


So forget it all. I'm sorry to have led you up the garden path. As I said, it's all down to my selfish pride.


Get yourself some food. I don't know when I'll be back. But don't worry, I'm not going to do myself in. Not yet, anyway. I've introduced myself on the forum and already had a warm welcome. Knowing that I'm not the only one has worked wonders.


Cilmin

 

God, oh God. Back to square one, or even further back still. I buried my face in my arms. Outside the window the rain began to lash down.

9.  Cilmin

In wickedness of pride is lost the light to understand
How little grace is earned and how much given.

                                            Book of Daniel, 1980

Fool that I was, I had gone out without a waterproof, and by the time I got home I was drenched to the skin. By the time I had dried Rasmus my teeth were chattering. I found Kenneth sitting at my desk, head on arms, fast asleep. Grant him his sleep. Last night I had allowed him little.

To warm up, I had a long hot shower. I was still numb from writing off our love, but surely I had taken the right decision. Kenneth was so near but yet so impossibly far. There was a limit to what he could give, and he too surely recognised it by now. I was towelling myself dry, my body warmed but my mind still numb, when there was a tentative knock on the bathroom door.

"Come in, Kenneth. You've seen it all before."

He put his head round the door. "Sorry, I fell asleep. But I've got a rather urgent problem that needs sorting."

He came in, and I goggled. The crotch of his jeans was dark with a great patch of blood.

"Oh my God! What have you done?"

He smiled sheepishly. "I tripped in the churchyard and impaled myself on a railing. John Jones who was drownded. I didn't even know it was bleeding till I woke up."

Into emergency mode.

"Right. Trousers and pants off."

He obeyed. Trainers first. Then the jeans, which came off easily. But when he tried to drop his boxers he hissed in pain.

"Sssss! The blood's dried and it's glued them to my hair."

"Pull the waistband down as far as you can, and hold it out."

I found some scissors in the cabinet, but he needed both hands for the waistband and his shirt kept falling in the way.

"Sweater and shirt off too."

That done, the way was clear. I reached in and carefully snipped at the offending hair until his pants were free. Off they came. We were both stark naked again.

"Sit down."

He sat on the edge of the bath, legs wide apart, and I knelt to inspect the damage. There was a mass of congealed blood centred in the valley of the right groin and spreading over his pubic hair and penis and scrotum and down to the back of his thigh.

"Kenneth, isn't this a hospital job?"

He looked at it as closely as he could and ran his fingers over it, wincing when he touched the wound.

"No, I think it's all right. It can't have cut the femoral artery, or else I wouldn't be here. And it's stopped bleeding. And it's missed the adductor muscles, thank God. And my tetanus jab's up to date. It just needs cleaning up and plastering. If you don't mind helping, that is. But does blood, um, bother you? After all, it is another body fluid, like saliva and spunk."

"No. I don't mind blood. All right, I'll clean you up."

I put a towel on the floor to catch the drips, ran some warm water into the bath and added a liberal dose of antiseptic. Kneeling in front of him again, I went to work. With plenty of cotton wool and great care it took a quarter of an hour to swab the caked blood away, and all the time my hands were on his most sensitive places. Yet his penis never stirred. Finally all was clear. Deep in the groin, where the hair thinned out towards the thigh, was a ragged tear still oozing a little blood, but not nearly as wide or as deep as I had feared. It did not seem to need stitches. In that position it would not be stretched open.

"Kenneth, if I put a plaster straight on that, on top of the hair, it'll be agony when you take it off. Can I shave round it?"

"Yes. Go ahead."

I took my razor and shaved a vertical strip, going as close to the wound as I dared. I dried it off, found a large plaster in the first-aid box, and stuck it on.

"There you go. But it's an awkward place, right in the fold. I'm afraid it won't be very comfortable."

"Can't help that. Thanks, Cilmin. Thanks very much."

I was still kneeling in front of him, and he put his hands on my head as if in blessing. He sat looking down at the plaster.

"Might have solved a problem if it had got me a couple of inches to the left," he observed ruefully.

I was flabbergasted. A couple of inches to the left could have left him a real eunuch.

"What on earth do you mean?"

"Well, it would have put us on equal terms, wouldn't it?"

I was gaping up at him, my head still between his hands.

"And saved a lot of soul-searching," he added wryly, "for both of us. Look, Cilmin. I love you. I want to live with you, God knows how or where. And you love me, and I reckon you'd like to live with me."

"But haven't you read my note?"

"Yes. I have. And Cilmin, it's bollocks. Or some of it is. OK, perfect love has to be spiritual, but it doesn't have to be physical as well. You say you can't love me in all capacities. OK, you can't. But you can love me in all the capacities you have. I mean, if you hadn't got any arms, we couldn't hug properly. But we could still love properly, couldn't we? Love doesn't depend on appendages. On what's between our legs. On your cock or mine. It depends on what's between our ears."

"But . . ."

"And there's something else where you're way off the mark. OK, you're right that I was hoping for sex. Yes, I was. But you say it's unfair to expect me to sacrifice my hopes. That isn't for you to decide, you know. It's for me to choose. By myself. I've been thinking about it all day, and I've made my choice. We're close already, but not close enough. We're still beyond each other's reach. Either we get closer, or we part company. That would wreck me. Wouldn't it wreck you?

Do we go together or leave alone
With brand new shapes or broken bones?


Terrapin Station , remember? You don't really want to leave alone, do you? Nor do I. And you can't move towards me -- no blame for that. But I can move towards you. And that's what I've chosen to do. Of my own accord, because I love you. I'm offering you whatever you hope for. Whatever I have to give. No limit."

"Oh God . . ."

My mind staggered. Was he offering that impossible sacrifice after all?

"You can't mean that you'd go without sex? That you could live with a . . . failure?"

"YOU . . . ARE . . . NOT . . . A . . . FAILURE," he almost shouted, thumping my head in time with the words. "I'd love you if you were short of arms, or short of hearing, or short of anything you damn well like. OK, you're short of sex drive. So what? What's the difference? It's the way you are. It's part of the Cilmin I love. My cock's irrelevant. It didn't show much interest in bed last night, did it? I can live without it."

"Live without it? For God's sake! It's part of the Kenneth I love."

"But you can't use it. So I won't need it. Will I?"

"Huh? OK, I couldn't use it. And I know you wouldn't offer it to anyone else, not with your ideals. But you'd still need it. For your own purposes. For your own . . . release. Wouldn't you?"

He did not answer. He had let go of my head. His eyes were shut and his lips were moving.

"Wouldn't you?"

Still no answer. In a flash of revelation I understood. He was offering me not one sacrifice but two. The first was mind-blowing, but to my astonishment I found I could accept it after all. The other was simply hateful.

"Oh God, Kenneth. Forgoing sex with me is one thing. But you didn't think I'd want you to forgo . . . everything?"

He opened his eyes and stared at me.

"You mean it?" he whispered. "You mean you don't mind if I wank? You really don't mind?"

"Oh God, of course I don't mind." I was almost shouting in my turn. "It's part of you. Like your language. Like your jokes. Like your music. Like your philosophising. Like your ideals. I'd never want you to change anything just for me. I told you. Don't you remember?"

Still on my knees, sitting back on my heels, I was hammering my fists on his thighs to drive my message home. I drew a deep breath and tried to calm down.

"Look, Kenneth. You're offering to give up sex, with me and with anyone else. Yes, I admit I did hope for that. Selfishly. But I couldn't ask for it. It was far too big a sacrifice to expect. In fact I expected you to turn it down, once you'd thought it through. But now you're offering it to me, in love, of your own accord. And because it's in love, because it's of your own accord, I accept it. Even if it's far more than I deserve. But, oh God, I never hoped that you'd give up, um, wanking. Because I'd never want you to."

"Oh God," he echoed flatly. We were both calling on a non-existent deity with monotonous regularity.

He too drew a deep breath and shook his head, not in refusal but as if to clear it. Then he shifted uncomfortably on the edge of the tub.

"My bum's going numb. Let's get back to your room. We need a proper talk."

"Let me just clean up here."

"Yah, you tidiness freak! Hurry up, then. We need a proper hug too."

I consigned the gory swabs of cotton wool to the loo and flushed it. I took down the shower-head, turned on the cold tap, and began to swill the pink dregs out of the bath. Kenneth was still sitting there, withdrawn in thought now, head down, contemplating his nakedness.

"Oh God!" he repeated. He looked up at me, his face inscrutable but his voice precarious. "Am I glad I met you, Cilmin! I've found a friend. I've found love. I've found fulfilment. And most important of all . . . those bloody warts have gone."

It took a second before the penny dropped. Then I turned the shower-head on him. He screeched, leapt up, grabbed it off me, aimed, and froze my balls in its icy blast. In an instant we were grappling, dripping, tussling, farting with the effort, eight-year-olds shrieking, tickling ribs, feet, armpits, crotches, writhing, kids at horseplay. We ended up on the floor in the tightest of clinches, skin to skin, legs intertwined, breathless and gasping, aching with laughter, on the brink of tears . . .

Fulfilled . . .

And understood.

Acknowledgements

The story was inspired by the article on asexuality in the New Scientist, no. 2469, 16 October 2004, 38-43, sadly available online only to subscribers. It was much reinforced by the AVEN website ( www.asexuality.org ), whose membership, encouragingly, has grown from 1,200 last October to 4,600 now.

I am deeply indebted to Ben for introducing me to Robert Hunter's poetry, to him and to Chris for a great deal of invaluable discussion, and to Charles for sowing the seeds of Kenneth's dilemma in the last two chapters. Ben and Chris have also read drafts, as have Hilary, Pryderi, Neea and Paul, all with their usual helpful comments. And Jonathan has been beside me throughout.

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