Matthew's Christmas Carol
(or Christmas in the Closet)
by N Fourbois
Government health warning: This story refers to relationships between young gay people. If this is not to your taste, don't read it.
Author's note: The Tim who appears in this story is the same person who is the subject of Ode to Tim. Don't forget that all writing is memory, pace Aidan Chambers. Comments and questions are welcome.
Matthew was sitting in front of the television. The broadcast of the Queen's Speech was fading out with the National Anthem playing and he was awaiting the next programme. To say that he was awaiting it eagerly, keenly or even positively would have been an exaggeration far beyond either probability or possibility for the programme planners had plumbed depths even deeper than the previous year's nadir as if it were some kind of professional in-joke to make the licence-payers suffer. The difference this year was that it was Matthew's first Christmas on his own.
An only child, he had inwardly rejected the Christmas festivities since the death over that period of his mother many years previously, while outwardly conforming to the expected norms of jollity and merriment, but with the passing of his father he now permitted himself the indulgence of not having to feign the slightest jollity and that was his choice. He had turned down several invitations to join others on this festive day, offered, he believed, more out of pity than a genuine desire for his company. Normal service would be resumed on Boxing Day. For the first time in his life he had attended Midnight Mass at the parish church and found that sufficient celebration in itself. The true meaning of Christmas was too easily forgotten in this commercial age and so-called multicultural society which provided the PC squad with a field day for hypocrisy and being patronising. It must be marvellous to be politically correct, he mused as he ignored the commercials. It excuses you from the necessity of having to think before adopting an opinion.
The room was warm and Matthew was not only feeling mellow after his ample, but simple self-catered Christmas lunch, but was just half awake as the film started. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. As a young boy, when time was a less precious commodity, he had read the novel each Christmas and so he was not expecting any surprises in the screen adaptation. His eyelids were admittedly heavy, but they soon blinked wide open when the knocker on Scrooge's front door appeared not as the face of Jacob Marley, but of Lewis. Matthew's jaw dropped, his heart missed a beat and then thumped in his chest and now sitting bolt upright in his chair he felt wide awake. Lewis was the first boy he had fought against falling in love with. That had been when he was at university at an age and at a period in social history when he was desperately trying to prove to himself he was really heterosexual despite the secret knowledge that he had been interested in boys, or to put it another way lacked any interest in girls, since the age of seven. However, society's code of behaviour made its demands supported by very strict laws in those unenlightened days and so Matthew had until he eventually retired from his profession tortured himself with the pain of hiding his true sexuality and by acting straight, exhibiting a thoroughly foreign one in order to survive. Thank goodness, he thought, he had never married. That would have added to two people's misery and by now he'd have been a divorce statistic, and perhaps worse still, responsible for the suffering of any innocent offspring. He would love to have had children, sons of course. He had never penetrated the psychology of women, let alone that of juvenile females in full and burgeoning adolescence.
Scrooge's door knocker glowed again and the face of Lewis filled the television screen as it spoke in that rarity, the educated Glasgow accent. Matthew had tried to contact Lewis after his year's service abroad, but his letters were neither answered nor returned. In Austria he found the social pressures lacking and with some distance and independent thought he came round to the idea that he was truly gay and that meeting Lewis on his return would probably confirm, or, less likely, destroy this self-assessment. If only he had been less naïve at the time and developed the psychological insights which in later life came to him so easily, he would have admitted to himself sooner that Lewis was gay, proud of being gay and would have more than willingly accepted him as his boyfriend. If only... If only... How wonderful hindsight is.
The film continued and Matthew relaxed back into his armchair. His brain was still pounding and his senses had achieved that feeling of hypersensitivity so that he knew for certain he wasn't dreaming. The warmth of the room finally comforted him as he watched the film. It had now reached the point where Ebenezer Scrooge had retired to bed after consuming a bowl of gruel and the clanking chains of the first of his ghostly visitors were to be heard. At that point there was a ring at the front door. It startled Matthew. 'Who on earth could this be on Christmas Day?' he thought to himself, but not wishing to appear unfriendly or unsociable on this, the most charitable day of the year, he hauled himself out of his comfortable armchair and without even stopping to glance out of the window to see who the arrival was he opened the door and to his utter astonishment found Tim standing before him.
"What are you doing here?" enquired Matthew in an astounded tone of voice, forgetting the normal civilities of the festive day, even forgetting himself and without further ado taking Tim in a warm hearted embrace and ushering him into the warm heart of his end-of-terrace house.
Matthew could not remember how many years it was since he had last seen Tim, nor was he prepared to count. The only surprise was that he appeared to be no older than at their last encounter when Tim must have been all of fourteen years old, albeit a mature fourteen year old who could probably have been served in a pub without questions being asked. He was Matthew's last object of passion before his retirement from teaching, and that is just what Tim for professional reasons simply remained although if he had read the signs correctly the adolescent Tim was as much attracted to him as he was to Tim. He had in fact only known him for two years before that painful parting. It had been an instant meeting of minds. They met in the French class and on the sports field and the repartee between them sparked off an immediate relationship closely supported by Tim's juvenile beauty - shining brunette, almost black hair parted in the middle, an open handsome face with sparkling eyes matching the colour of that hair and a smile which radiated honesty of feelings, a body, tall for the age of twelve, without an ounce of fat and promising a muscular and sinewy future without the drawback of being musclebound, a narrow waist and a pert bottom. That was the boy Matthew said goodbye to at the end of the first summer term with best wishes for the holidays. The boy who returned in September, defying all possibility, was even more beautiful. A slight increase in height, but adolescence had started and throughout it was kind to him. Adolescence takes one or the other course. It can present a boy at his ugliest with acne, boils even, moodiness, lack of coordination and grace, body bearing both ill-fitting clothes from the growth spurt and a bitter odour, a voice that can jump an octave in the same sentence on the rare occasion it is able to utter a sentence rather than the accustomed adolescent grunt, and unsightly hair on his face and other parts of his body. The gods had blessed thirteen year old Tim with the second course which only enhanced his prepubescent beauty. His voice had broken into a mellifluous bass, his skin was smooth and healthy, his character was unscathed displaying its customary kindness and consideration for other people and his loose school trousers had developed a bulge to excite all-comers and Tim knew exactly how to exploit that, particularly as far as Matthew was concerned. In fine Tim enjoyed the kind of adolescence which brings a boy's beauty on to its peak and which sadly starts an inevitable decline from the age of sixteen or so.
Matthew now only saw Tim in the German classes and it was a dull day whenever he happened to be absent. This was to be the final year they were together. He regretted not seeing Tim any longer on the games field for he was one of those boys who could model sports kit to perfection without even trying and Matthew would melt at the rare glimpses he gained of him, whether kitted out for rugby, cricket or athletics, and he only regretted that he had never had the opportunity of taking him for swimming lessons. It did not end there for, as previously stated, Tim was fully aware of these God-given gifts and was not afraid of exploiting them in front of Matthew to the furthest extent that professional propriety would permit. In short he would often tart even in front of a class, though it was solely for the benefit of his schoolmaster.
It was therefore with a heavy heart that Matthew said farewell to Tim at the end of his second year. They did keep in touch for a little while, but time causes a drifting apart. Matthew's enduring memory was a photograph of the fourteen year old, still beautiful, but unfortunately on that occasion showing the signs of tiredness.
Matthew took his outdoor clothing and hung it up for him. Tim was dressed in his dream outfit. A pale blue polo shirt and 501s which scarcely touched at his waist, but compensated by tightly touching and emphasising his crotch and buttocks. Now they could greet on another properly and in a tight embrace they were both instantly able to feel that they had not lost any of their old passion for one another when, despite the cold weather Tim had come through, they enjoyed the expansion of their own and the other's loins as they pressed together. Matthew, even if he had been granted the three proverbial wishes, could not have asked for a more desirable Christmas present, and that was in spite of the fact that, as far as he was concerned for himself, Christmas presents were of the greatest irrelevance. He offered Tim the normal yuletide hospitality and they sat and talked together. Despite the long time since they had met their relationship was as close as ever, even closer as they were no longer bound by the bonds of professionalism, or more precisely kept them apart by them. They sat cosily together on the sofa, touching one another, putting their arms round each other and holding hands as their conversation or lack of it demanded.
"I have brought you this video, Matt," said Tim. Strangely Tim had become the only person he had ever tolerated calling him Matt. It was a tease. Tim was trying his luck. To Matthew a Mat(t) was there to be walked over by other people and for that reason he had never liked the name, but with Tim it was different in the way that Matthew was the only person that ever called him Timmy or Timothy, albeit inconsistently. Tim could walk all over him. He would allow Tim anything and so what started as a tease had by now become a sign of their mutual affection. "You must watch it," said Tim.
"I will. I will when you're gone, if you'll leave it with me. I'll post it on. What is it?"
"Now, I mean." There was something urgent and commanding in Tim's voice he could neither resist nor disobey. Matthew went into the kitchen to fetch some munchies and more drinks. He put the video into the recorder which replaced the film that had been quietly continuing in the background. They settled back on the sofa with their arms around each other.
Matthew watched the video intently but unquestioningly for it started with scenes from his childhood, scenes which could never have been videoed as the video hadn't even been invented and he had certainly never faced any film cameras in his young days, but completely absorbed he remained oblivious of the fact. The camera panned in on the corner of a school playground. There was a six year old Matthew cornered by three girls. He remembered the scene vividly as one of his few bad moments at school. The girls from a higher class were asking him questions, ridiculous questions the adult Matthew realised, questions the child Matthew could not answer because he had difficulty in pronouncing to their satisfaction the girls' outlandish names and on failure to do so in true 'doctor and nurses' fashion he needed an 'injection' which in reality was a pinch with the sharp nails of their fingers on his arm or leg under the threat of being reported if he did not comply. This had gone on for days, he remembered, maybe weeks until like the realisation that you can wake yourself and thereby end a nightmare, he realised that you could walk round the playground in company with the teacher on duty and spare yourself that torture.
The scene faded. Although he soon recovered from that barbarity, it was only years later that he realised what a deep effect this prolonged incident had had on him as apart from his mother there would rarely be a female in his life that he could ever trust. The next scene faded in. Not much older he was on the top deck of a crowded bus with his father. Until the age of thirteen his father only made occasional appearances in his life since his career at sea frequently took him away from home as there was little need for engineers at shore bases. The engines were on ships and the ships were sent to different places around the world. In fact for such a little boy his father's presence upset the routine of home life when he was there and caused resentment, something he was too young to understand or control and the régime was stricter as well. On the bus the only free seat was next to a girl. So Matthew wanted to sit on his father's lap.
"I'm not sitting next to a girl," shouted the petulant little boy. A scene ensued and ended with a slapped leg.
Again the picture faded and now Matthew was twelve or thirteen and at the grammar school. He was desperately trying to figure out the rationale behind the video. He had always enjoyed school and been on top of his work, but he had other lessons to learn. An only child with no brothers to look out for him or sisters to explain, he had always been bullied, or at least up to the age of ten when the idea occurred to him to thump one of his tormentors. Why had it taken him ten years to learn this fact of life? Basically he was until then a peaceful person who knew no violence. But after that one event he was very seldom bullied any more and was prepared to issue a swift reminder on the rare occasions some thug tried it on. He was happy at the grammar school. For one thing the work was at last challenging enough to interest him and make him work hard, but secondly he was finally at an all boys' school and that suited him. However, something else had come to his attention. Now at grammar school they changed and showered together for games and PE and he realised that despite rumours not all boys were the same and he was fascinated by this. It began with checking his classmates out, something he did unconsciously and at first that was the end of it. In those days puberty started on average by the age of fifteen and the rare early starters were in many ways regarded as freaks. But later in the school year there were opportunities to check out the older boys and then it became interesting, especially as shorts were short in those days and tracksuits worn only by top athletes. The wisdom of keeping warm for physical exertion had not reached the lower echelons. Even in the depth of winter you were expected to turn out in shirt/singlet and shorts with absolutely nothing underneath until the onset of puberty at least permitted the addition of a jockstrap. Why were people expected to suffer for the sake of suffering in those bad old days? It was not character building; it was was a turn-off.
The scene was now the fourth form and one of those infrequent occasions when Matthew had been allowed to pick up a hockey stick. School policy was in the middle term to cream off the natural sportsmen for the hockey squad while the also-rans literally ran on cross-country. With proper encouragement and training Matthew could have learnt to love cross-country at this age, but that only came later in life. On this particular occasion he was finding more interest in white shorts than hockey until one of his classmates, a certain Russell Bull, shouted "Hey, Fat Matt, stop looking at my bollocks!" Perhaps Matthew was slightly overweight at this time of his life. Since the age of eight he had certainly never been thin. Shamefaced at first, Matthew took an executive decision. The games master was busy setting out cones for the next part of the lesson, so Matthew ran across to Russ and taking the Bull by the horn so to speak, slipped his hands between his legs and said in a stage whisper loud enough for this mates to hear
"If you put the goods on display, Russ, you tart, you must expect the customers to handle them." The crowd reaction was evenly split with cheers for Matthew's quick reaction and the normal torrent of abuse. Call it a score draw, until the games master sprinted across to see what the disturbance was and the present-day Matthew recalled to himself that in fact when the incident took place all those years ago he had simply withdrawn shame-faced, muttering that he was not looking at all.
Another change of scene to swimming lessons. These he really enjoyed for those were the days when Bermuda shorts were only seen in Bermuda and trunks were yet to become fashion items. And so it was virtually impossible not to check out the other swimmers in costumes that decades later became known as Speedos. Edited into this were scenes from mass athletics practices where all ages turned out in white shorts and singlets, the swimming gala which the whole school had to attend and finally the annual inter-house boxing championships. Matthew hated boxing which he was though forced to learn in PE lessons. Fortunately he had a permanent like-minded sparring partner, but while he was prepared to punch an opponent when it came to a genuine fight over some schoolboy matter he could never understand that aiming to inflict physical damage with the fist on someone's head, chest or stomach could ever be considered a sport. But the inter-house championships were pay-back time for Matthew for although he was never going to be selected to represent his House he would have to sit at the ringside and could take pleasure from looking up at the strapping physiques of the boxers in their House singlets and brilliant white shorts.
The scene changed again, this time to a hotel room. Matthew recognised it instantly. The Hôtel du Midi, Brussels, near to one of the main railway stations. He was sixteen and the occasion an overnight stay on a school holiday to the Rhineland, his first visit to Germany. Another event which had stubbornly and frustratingly remained in his memory. They had been billeted in one room, Matthew, a fifth form friend and three third formers, a room with two double beds and a single. Such arrangements wouldn't be permitted these days. Still, he had lost the toss and had to share a bed with one of the third formers, but not any third former, one he had admired from a distance, a well developed specimen of boyhood. Matthew could not sleep a wink that night, not because of the noise of the trains, but from the fear (or was it from the desire?) that during the night he would turn over and gently grope his bedfellow. In a feeling of frustration Matthew had been up by six o'clock that morning and exploring the streets of Brussels, but here on the video he had finally dared to put his hands inside the other boys pyjamas and was giving him the treat of his fourteen year old life while pressing his own boyhood against him. Now he was sure of the video's message.
The final school scenes were of Matthew in the sixth form. He was in reality still a virgin, had long begun to think he might like to be other than a virgin, but he was destined to leave school a virgin. He would watch house matches untouched by the game. He had an intimate knowledge of nearly every pupil from the third form up simply from observing them at sport and he knew lust, but from fear of damaging his reputation (whatever that was) he could not bring himself to do anything about it, even though many he lusted after had accommodating reputations or even went as far as tarting for his benefit or making an explicit offer. At the same time his reading in German literature classes described the love of one boy for another in Thomas Mann's works and although it remained at the level of rumour it was generally thought in the School that one of his modern language masters was gay. That meaning of the word, however, had not yet come into usage. The video reminded Matthew of his feelings of utmost frustration at urges he could scarcely satisfy even at home in the privacy of his own bed. But that was not how the video continued. It switched to a tennis game, one with a boy in the lower sixth who had aroused Matthew's interest, not to mention his ardour, for some time, a neat beauty in white tennis shirt, white socks and white shorts with the straps of his jockstrap explicit across his buttocks.
"You know, Tony, I feel like a bet on this game."
"It's no use asking me for money. I'm skint," came the reply.
"Same here, but it's not your money I'm interested in."
"What do you mean, Matthew?"
"I mean your body. You're a boarder, aren't you? Are you up for it?"
"What does that mean?"
"If I win, I can jerk you off. If you win you can jerk me off." Tony thought about it for some seconds.
"You're on," he said and they shook hands. Matthew could remember that game from nearly forty years back. He could still picture Tony who was an inch or so shorter than himself in his white kit and recalled how much he had been taken by his neat appearance. He could even recall thinking about the proposal he'd made on the video, but he also remembered that nothing like that did in fact ever happen and was just another cause of frustration. The video showed a fast and furious game. As it was after school, it was limited to one set. Matthew played furiously. The last game went to deuce several times until he remembered which side his bread was buttered on and happily threw the last point and the pair headed for the changing rooms, feeling stiff from both the game and anticipation.
There was a click and the television screen returned to the film of A Christmas Carol at the point where the Ghost of Christmas Past was leaving Scrooge to continue his disturbed night's sleep. The video recorder whirred as it automatically rewound the tape.
"Timmy, you will stop for some supper, won't you?" The subtext was naturally 'Tim, you will stop the night, won't you?'
"I regret I shall have to leave you, Mattie," replied Tim batting his eyelids and with a seductive smile as he took the video out of the machine. "Before I make way for two further visitors who are already on their way to bring you Christmas greetings, I must ask you the lesson you have learnt from what you have just seen"
"The lesson? I don't know. It was familiar and yet not entirely true. Those things happened, but they didn't turn out like that at all."
"You have two more chances, Mattie. Pay good attention."
"Two more?" enquired Matthew a quizzical look on his face, but his question was to remain unanswered as Tim fetched his own coat, gave Matthew an embrace which brought back all the longing he had suffered over the years and made his way to the front door. Matthew opened it for him, hugged him once more before he stepped out into the clear but raw afternoon. The door closed behind him, Matthew ran upstairs to watch his former loved one depart, but he must have moved quickly for there was not a person to be seen. The street was devoid of life, not even the ubiquitous cats or the odd bird, just cars belonging to the neighbours. With a sense of disappointment and loneliness he returned to the living room and slumped down into his armchair absent-mindedly watching the television as the second of Scrooge's tormentors clanked its chains and woke the old man from a light sleep. His mind, temporarily elsewhere, was peremptorily summoned back to his body by another ring of the doorbell. He remembered. 'Two more visitors. This must be them.'
Standing outside in the fading light, warmly wrapped against the damp cold which had intensified as the sun sank in the south-west, was a fourteen year old boy. Matthew knew he was fourteen, could have told you his birthday even, for he recognised him instantly and was not even amazed though he had since retiring seen him once as an eighteen year old.
"Come in, Rick. I was expecting a visitor, but I would never have guessed it would be you." Rick stepped into the warmth of the house, shed his outdoor apparel and they hugged in greeting If Tim had been Matthew's first love when he was teaching, Rick ran a very close second although they were very different boys. Rick had been one of his rugby captains. Never destined to be tall, genetics had determined that, he had fair hair, short, but parted in the middle as was fashionable amongst his age group, blue eyes and a complexion made ruddy by the weather. He was dressed in a tee shirt covered by a pullover, and stone coloured cargos, the type that tied at the waist and clung to his svelte figure emphasising that he was all boy. Rick's peculiar gift was his eyes for whenever he smiled with genuine joy they sparkled, something he could never make them do with a forced smile. This was perhaps the only way he ever betrayed his emotions for he was not demonstrative by nature and Matthew had only discovered after knowing him for three years how loyal a friend he could be. Rick had come out at a party held for his third form classmates when he performed a blowjob on the host. Matthew had been advised of this a week or so afterwards by one of the other partygoers, not normally a thing a schoolmaster is told, but perhaps demonstrating the trusting relationship in this instance between the teacher and the taught. It had only added to Matthew's admiration and love, tinged with a little envy, for the fourteen year old.
With both sat on the settee and amply provided with festive food and drink they talked of old times.
"You know why I'm here?" enquired Rick.
"I knew I was to expect two unexpected visitors, but I never guessed that you would be one of them, nor the purpose of their visit." As if from nowhere Rick produced a video cassette and asked Matthew to put it into the recorder. They settled back down together on the settee in a loose embrace. The film was cut as the video took over and from the sky it panned in on a Matthew in his first year at university. It had not been a happy year for him. He had gained the independence he so yearned for, but found out the meaning of a large fish in a small pond as he discovered how small a fish he was now, both intellectually and socially, and coming from a small single-sex country grammar school he was only too conscious of his own ineptitude in the Big Smoke where he very quickly had to learn how to co-exist with women, and able women at that.
However, that was a gentle prologue, a gentle reminder, for the first scene of importance took place in his second year when he had moved into a hall of residence, much more to his liking. Walking back one afternoon after college he spotted a face he knew from hall, but one he had never spoken to. It was a pleasant face with blue eyes beneath a mop of straight black hair. The body was dressed smartly if casually as is a student's wont - Pringle pullover, light blue slacks, well cut and not cheap, and as was Matthew's habit he checked out the well formed and well displayed packet, something which the owner neither missed nor commented on. As the stranger spoke he immediately noticed the Scottish accent, not common among undergraduates in London, as he asked Matthew whether he was walking back to hall as well. They introduced themselves. This was Lewis. Matthew's jaw dropped as he remembered the face that had appeared on Scrooge's door knocker. Things were beginning to fall into place, but he could not bring himself to pass any comment. They must have become instant friends for the half hour walk between college and hall along Kingsway and Southampton Row passed as in an instant. Lewis became a regular table companion at meals and pre-bedtime coffee sessions.
And they acted and talked as friends do. Yet Matthew's naïvety still restricted his emotions and confined his sense of sexual adventure. All the signs were there if only he would let go and follow his inclination, but he bore an inward fear.
"Shall we go and shower together?" was the first indication, an offer of a loan of his sexy underwear, which was very much ahead of the times, another. Lewis' conversation revealed wide reading, particularly of gay authors, an similar appreciation of music and a personal philosophy almost dismissive of women, but not in an offensive way. The video film covered the causes of Matthew's repeat year, then the ensuing term travelling from home when he would have to visit Lewis or meet him at college. But Matthew's naïvety still prevented him from believing that Lewis was gay, while battling to convince himself he was straight. That belief was soon to be dispelled in an irrefutable way.
The January of his repeat year saw Matthew's return to the hall of residence. The video introduced a young lad called Keith, young that is to be at university, still eighteen. He had been apprenticed to Arsenal football club until a broken leg put an end to any thoughts of a career in professional football. Matthew was irritated at having to share a room, not particularly with Keith, but with anyone, but he had two abiding memories captured by the video - Keith's beautiful young girlfriend whom even he found attractive. At a time when the miniskirt found its first popularity she was one of the few girls who could successfully wear them and whose attractiveness helped to convince Matthew at the time he was indeed straight. The other was Keith's habit of stripping off in front of his roommate and the difficulty he found in pretending he had a lack of interest for although not big either in stature or genital provision he was well proportioned and his body hairless apart from a tuft of pubic hair. The video switched to a Saturday evening, one spent just hanging out with Dave the Dentist in the bar and the television room until they made the executive decision to seek out a midnight movie in the West End, If... as it turned out. Returning to his room to fetch a coat Matthew walked in on Lewis' seduction of Keith. None of the three were fazed and Matthew walked out with his coat saying where he was going that they might know they wouldn't be disturbed again. Matthew intended to take a Trappist vow on what he had just witnessed and he kept it, mentioning it to no one at all, in some ways pretending it had never happened. At least he was now convinced that Lewis was gay. It increased his desire for him, but he could never bring himself to do or say anything about it.
Up to this point the video was factual in its biography of Matthew, but so had the previous one been up to a point and now that point had been reached. There were now two strands to the story.
The next time Keith stripped off to change in front of Matthew he made no attempt to turn away, but said
"Did anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are?"
"Not me," answered Keith. "You like my body?"
"For weeks I've been trying to ignore it, but after Saturday I know I don't have to any more."
"Oh, Saturday," said Keith and lowered his eyes.
"No worries, Keith. I just never suspected..." The scene cut to bedtime when Matthew and Keith undressed together, showered together and slept together. And this was not the last of Matthew's communal showers, as belatedly he also accepted Lewis' invitation and by the end of the summer Lewis' combined lust and love for Matthew had been returned, emotionally and physically. The video portrayed the continued friendship up to their parting, Matthew to his year abroad to teach and Lewis because he had failed his second year exams.
The video jumped a year. In the final year of his degree course Matthew desperately tried to make contact with Lewis and failed and after finals during the PGCE year it portrayed the doomed relationship with Helen which foundered in the first year of his new teaching post. Matthew blamed himself of course and did so again during the showing of the video, but he was brought back to reality by the click and whirr as the video stopped itself and rewound.
By now it had grown completely dark outside and as he drew the curtains Matthew noticed the departure of the Ghost of Christmas Present in the screen version of A Christmas Carol. Rick took the cassette out of the recorder. Matthew knew the drill by now and when Rick said he had to go he made no attempt to detain him, but after an emotional hug fetched his coat, saw him to the front door wishing him all the best and a reunion in the near future.
"I think, Rick, I am beginning to understand what you are trying to tell me." Rick just repeated his farewell. Out of curiosity Matthew stepped outside to see how Rick had reached his house. He was standing with him at the end of the drive when suddenly all the street lamps flickered and went out simultaneously and in the pitch black Rick disappeared. Since the house lights were still on, it couldn't have been a power cut. Puzzled Matthew hurried back inside into the warm. He had not forgotten he was to receive a third visit and agonised over who it might be. On the television the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was just leading Scrooge off to Tiny Tim's funeral.
Matthew sat back in his armchair watching the television. He did not have long to wait before the doorbell rang for a third time that Christmas afternoon. His curiosity made him rush to open the front door and to his utter surprise he found no one else but Lewis himself, dressed just as he remembered him from some forty years previously, and to his further astonishment he was wearing no protection against the frost that was now setting in. He invited him in immediately fearing for him so scantily dressed and as soon as he was in the living room he gave him a welcoming hug. Yet to Matthew's repeated astonishment his arms passed straight through Lewis' body and he found he was embracing himself, but with Lewis standing there as real as Tim and Rick had done.
"Don't be afraid, Matthew," said Lewis soothingly. "Tim and Rick are alive. That is why you could take them solidly in you arms. I on the other hand am dead. I have been for many years." A shudder went through Matthew's body accompanied by a tear rolling down his cheek as another truth he had tried for years to deny dawned on him.
"How did you die, Lewis?" he plaintively enquired.
"After you went abroad, I decided to leave college before they could kick me out. You know my life was in turmoil and naturally it affected my work and progress. When I died, I realised that I was still in your thoughts. Yes, I did receive your letters and I was, I am, ashamed of myself for not replying, but I was also ashamed of the depths my life had plumbed and perhaps it was for the better. You see, I was one of the first AIDS victims in the country. We didn't know much about it in those days and once I became HIV positive, it was not long before AIDS developed and I died. There was little treatment at that time and I would never have forgiven myself if I'd infected you. When you die, everything you've ever questioned in your mortal life becomes clear. I knew I was in your thoughts and that was a great comfort, but of course there was until now no way to make contact."
They sat together on the sofa.
"I suppose there is little point in offering you something to eat or drink in your immortal state?"
"I could do nothing with it." Lewis pointed at the television set and the picture altered. "You see, the dead can't even bring a video cassette." There was a reprise of his disastrous love affair with Helen which again rent Matthew's soul asunder and a run-through of another affair of the heart with Judy which had likewise ended in disaster, but still Matthew hadn't been able to come out, even to himself. The film, for want of a better term, then took a more positive and happy turn. Matthew realised he loved those boys he taught and many loved him, something that had never entered his mind. The extracurricular activities, which along with his teaching duties had exhausted him for thirty years, had not been in vain. It focussed on all the temptations, the way in his younger days he had spotted the occasional pretty boy and as time went on how he found beauty in so many of them. But in all cases he had acted professionally, selflessly, under the constant knowledge that one false move among them would at best have meant instant dismissal and at worst a court case and imprisonment and so he could only show his love by working hard on their behalf, taking an interest in their development and being there, should anyone want to talk to him. That is until that fatal time when he and other colleagues of a similar age were cast on the heap by the thrusting young management that had taken over the school, which understood professionalism and business management and modernity, but did not understand schools, the communal sense of humour or human beings, particularly schoolchildren.
Matthew sank back in the sofa blinded by tears of self-pity.
"Has my life been a waste, Lewis?"
"Watch these last two scenes." The first was of Rick's class, the final lesson where the boys made a presentation to him, while the girls were frozen out into the cold.
"Sir, we want you to know that we appreciate that you have always fought our corner while most staff favour the girls." The book had been signed by every boy in the class. The last scene was Tim's year group on Activities Day, shunned by other members of staff because they could be troublesome. And yet the class had given Matthew a perfect day.
"You're free of all that now," said Lewis. "Live your own life for yourself. You've earnt it and no one can hurt you if you are true to yourself."
"Lewis, I have come to realise the number of lost opportunities in my life and I have only myself to blame for that. Is there anything I can do about it? I feel dreadful about the way you died so young. If only I'd known... Perhaps if we'd become lovers you would never had suffered that awful death." Tears had started to roll down Matthew's face, not tears of self-pity for he was beyond that, but tears of love for Lewis. Matthew comprehended his missed opportunities in life and, far worse, their consequences. He realised that he had only ever fallen in love with one person, proper love, love that would have been returned, that could have been a reality, would have become a reality. His love for Tim was in many ways lust and separated by too many years. Lewis had been the one true love in his life and through his neglect and lack of trust in himself he had caused his one true love such suffering; and now standing in front of Lewis he could not even take him into a hug.
"This day, one of the three holiest days of the year, you have come to realise, to admit your mistakes. You can do no more, but having come to that realisation, now you can do something. Think positively."
The television had returned to A Christmas Carol, the final scene as Tiny Tim cries "God Bless Us, Everyone."
"God bless us, everyone." repeated Lewis.
"God bless us, everyone," echoed Matthew and turned to Lewis to show some appreciation. However, Lewis was no longer there.
Matthew rose from the settee and went across to his chair to check the Radio Times. Yes, a black and white film of A Christmas Carol had been broadcast that afternoon and it finished five minutes ago. He went out into the kitchen. Yes, Tim and Rick's plates, cups and glasses were there on the draining board waiting to be washed up. Of Lewis there was no tangible evidence whatsoever. The intangible evidence was Matthew's lightness of heart, a willingness to be more open about himself and a desire to help those closeted like himself in their own minds. He was not going to wait until the 31 December. His New Year began on that very Christmas Day.
He did what he had to do to clear up. It had grown surprisingly late and Matthew had grown exceedingly tired. He returned to his armchair to watch The Great Escape, but he could no longer keep his eyes open. So he decided to cut his losses and go to bed. He soon fell asleep and slept a dreamless sleep all through the night until the late Christmastide sunrise sent shafts of light through his bedroom curtains. His bedroom curtains, he thought, the curtains of his bedroom. No! It can't be, for he woke up naked in a kingsize double bed. Surely he had put his shorts and tee shirt on the night before? As he looked around he realised he was not alone. Next to him lay his loved one, still sleeping. At first he didn't dare touch him after the experience the day before, until he stirred, opened those bright blue eyes under the mop of black hair and was wished good morning in an educated Glasgow accent. Lewis appeared to be in his early twenties and as Matthew looked across into the mirror of the dressing table he noticed that he too had returned to that age. Lewis took hold of him in an embrace and kissed him passionately on the lips. It was not until after they had made love that Matthew realised that he too had passed on.
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