Walking the Wild Side
by Nigel Gordon
Christmas that year was on the Saturday. University and school had finished the week before, so Tom had come down picked me up and we spent five days in his flat, except for the occasional trip out to buy food and Christmas presents. On the Thursday, though, we had to go home, and that meant to our separate beds. Friday I was pretty down and moping around the house.
"Leo," mother called to me from the kitchen as I switched once more between channels on the TV, "why don't you go over to your boyfriend's."
"Can't. His parents don't like me being over there."
"Why the hell not?" mother exclaimed, slamming down her mixing spoon.
"They don't want him flaunting his ways in front of his brothers," I responded.
"Then tell him to come and flaunt them here. I am sick of you moping around." Tom arrived about twenty minutes later. He left at eight-fifteen on Christmas morning saying he had to attend the Christmas day service with the family but would be back as soon as he could. After that, on those occasions when Tom had to visit Cromford, he tended to stay with us.
The only change in the next few months was the fact that Mr Meadows started inviting us to join him for dinner if we were in Cromford on a Saturday evening. It had already become our tradition to join his Aunt Alice on Saturday evenings for an Indian meal when we were in Brum.
By Easter I had offers of places from all the universities I had applied for. Now all I needed was to get the grades. Mr Meadows' Aunt Alice came in useful there as well. Turned out she had been a Senior Tutor in Mathematics (this was in the day before women could be professors) and still had a quite brilliant mind. In the weeks leading up to my A levels she spent quite a few Sunday mornings coaching me on some of the more puzzling aspects, for me anyway, of the subject.
Middle of June and exams were finished. I packed up what stuff I wanted to move to Birmingham and Tom came and collected me. There was no big emotional send off, no parting of the ways, actually there was not even any discussion about it. It was just accepted that I was moving in with Tom. He had finished his master's and was now into his doctorate. That had advantages — it meant he got research funding which gave him some income. It also meant he was no longer fixed in his studies to the university term times. I managed to get myself a summer job at a garden centre in Edgbaston. In recent months I had come to enjoy helping Tom in the garden, under the watchful eye of Aunt Alice, as she insisted we call her.
I ended up having to do the early shift, which consisted of going in at six in the morning to get all the plants watered before the customers arrived at nine. The good side to that, though, was that I was home by mid-afternoon and ended up having tea on the patio with Aunt Alice. This event was always interesting, especially if I got her talking about the anti-apartheid movement. It was clear that a lot more was going on than we ever got taught about in school. Of course, I had read about the protesters outside of South Africa house for all those years. What I had not been told about were the workers who refused to work on equipment that was destined to go out to the South African regime. Aunt Alice also taught me about the gay history of Birmingham and how in the early years after the repeal of the legislation that made male homosexuality an offence, it had been more gay friendly than London or Manchester. Clubs like the Nightingale and the exclusive Grovernor House had very much led the way but the former was no longer like it used to be and the later long gone. A status now unfortunately lost.
Tom insisted on having the day off on the third Thursday in August to drive me over to Cromford to collect my grades. Two As and an A star. It was more than the required grades for any of my offers. I immediately accepted a place at Aston. I'd be starting there the third week in September.
Life settled into a pattern. An easy one at that. Unlike many of my fellow students I had no real financial pressures. Tom's income from his research work and some private tutoring he did more than covered what we needed to live on. My parents had insisted that they would support me through university, and did so to the tune of a hundred quid a week. The one down side was I found that I was missing my friends from Cromford.
Maddie had excelled, getting two A stars and two As — she had insisted on taking four. That got her into Cambridge to study Computer Science. Her brother John had got an A star and two Bs, which, while not getting him into his first choice, London School of Economics, had got him into Imperial College, so he was off down in London. Simon, though, had been disappointed with his results, two Bs and a C, and eventually ended up going through clearing and got a course with a former polytechnic on the South Coast. Tom speculated that it might have been deliberate as the course was titled Film, Theatre and Design, which was what he had been interested in. It had been his parents who had been pushing him to do architecture.
Gradually, as I got into my course, I started to build up a new circle of friends and now, being openly out as gay, I got quite a few gay ones, male and female. For a few months Tom and I had been holding small dinner parties for friends from the universities on a Friday evening. We could just sit five around the table in our kitchen. One Friday, I had invited Tracy, one of the activists in the LGBT group on campus — she was quite a laugh — and her partner, a medical student who told some of the funniest jokes I had ever heard. Tracy phoned up about half an hour before they were due to arrive saying that her partner had been called home for a family emergency and she would be coming on her own. Not wanting to have an empty seat at the table or to waste any food I suggested to Tom that we invite Aunt Alice to come up and join us.
"You know, boys," she stated when we invited her, "I'm not sure my legs could get me up those stairs and I don't want to take the risk of you to trying to carry me. Why don't you bring the meal down here and use my kitchen? I'm sure there is a damned sight more room down here than up there." There was. Her kitchen table sat eight with ease, ours only five at a push. From then on Friday dinners parties took place in Aunt Alice's kitchen. For the first couple of months we cooked the meals upstairs and brought them down but Alice soon insisted that we use her kitchen, pointing out it was far better equipped.
After that, dinner at Aunty's became quite a social event amongst out small group of friends. It was a much sought-after invitation and woe betide anyone who upset Aunty. To be struck off the list of acceptable guests made you a complete social nobody. Not that anybody ever suffered that fate, but the threat of it was always there.
As most of my lectures and tutorials were in the morning, I often found myself free in the afternoon and would spend time pottering around in the garden. Keeping the garden nice looking had become something of an obsession with me. Whenever I was there Aunt Alice would come out onto the patio with a couple of mugs of tea, or if it was chilly, hot chocolate. After I had finished whatever bit of pottering I was doing we would sit and talk. It was during these talks that Aunt Alice expanded my thinking with respect to mathematics, and I started to see it far less as a tool to get results than a language to express ideas.
That Christmas Aunt Alice stated that rather than having Stevie come over to stay with her, she would visit Stevie, and we would be transporting her. There was no discussion, no argument, no preparation. Aunt Alice had decided and it was to be. So, on the twenty-third of December we went to load Aunt Alice and ourselves into Tom's Fiat Uno. Aunt Alice took one look at it and said there was no way we would all fit in that and we had better use her car.
"Your car?" Tom and I queried.
"Oh yes, it's in the garage." She pointed to the self-standing garage on the far side of the property. To be honest both Tom and I had thought it was actually part of the next-door property. "I can't drive. For medical reasons they won't let me have a licence but I still have the car. The garage comes every few months and takes it off for a run and to service it, and Stevie will drive me in it sometimes when he is over. I know it's old; got it not long before Adhip's death; it was her sixtieth birthday present. She loved that car and took great care of it. I could never get rid of it. Will only take a phone call to get you two added as drivers." She had been walking us round to the garage whilst saying this. Once there she instructed Tom how to open the doors. Inside under a dust sheet was the form of a clearly expensive car. I helped Tom pull off the dust sheet. It was an extended wheel base Jaguar XJ. Both of us just stood there looking at it with our mouths open.
"I gather you like it," Aunt Alice stated.
"Yes,but…" Tom started.
"No buts, let's go back inside and I'll phone my broker and get you both added to the policy as drivers." At that point I had to admit I had not yet taken my car test. I told Aunty that.
"That's no use, Leo. How are you going to take me somewhere if there is an emergency and Tom's not around? I'm not going on the back of your bike. I'll book you an intensive course for next week so you can get your licence."
So, it was. One learnt not to argue with Aunt Alice. When we got to Cromford later in the day Aunt Alice insisted we keep the car for our use while she was at Mr Meadows. She pointed out that he already had a Jaguar on the driveway, and having two Jags parked outside was a bit over the top. I did suggest that they put one in the garage but Tom pointed out that Stephen kept his SUV in there. Tom of course stayed with us for Christmas, only popping over to see his family on Christmas day and getting back as soon as he could from that chore.
It was becoming increasingly clear that things were not going well between Tom and his parents. I mentioned this to Maddie when she came over on Boxing Day for the small party we gave. John and Simon plus a couple of other friends from school were there as well.
"Of course they are not happy, and they blame you," she informed me.
"Blame me! Blaming me for what?"
"For Tom being gay."
"That's stupid; Tom was gay before I met him," I pointed out.
"Yes, Leo, we all know that. They, though, are convinced it was 'just a phase' that he was going through and if you had not appeared on the scene he would have found a nice girl and got married."
"But that's stupid."
"I know, but it is how they think," Maddie informed me.
After that I made it a point to discuss his family situation with Tom and found that there was quite a lot of tension there. His father was looking at emigrating to New Zealand and wanted Tom to join them out there, strictly without me."
The one big laugh of the holiday was Maddie and the motorbike. She had taken her motorcycle test six months after me and passed but had never bothered getting a machine, as she had her old moped. The few times she had ridden she had borrowed mine. For the last few months, though, she had been saying that a motorcycle would make sense for going to and from London and getting around there. So, unbeknownst to her, we had all clubbed together. Her parents had got her a Honda 250cc bike. My parents, who tended to regard her as the daughter they did not have, had bought her the leathers, Tom had got her the helmet, and I paid for the boots. Simon had chipped in for the gloves and John had paid for a scarf and balaclava. Nobody had discussed colour scheme but we seemed to have ended up with the same one, red and black.
The day after Boxing Day Aunt Alice asked us to drive her out to a small village a few miles north of Worcester. On the way we stopped at a florists for her to buy some flowers, then proceeded to a small country church. It was there that Adhip was buried. She stood for a moment or two, her head bowed in prayer. When she turned to face us she was smiling, her eyes bright with tears.
"This is where I will be buried soon, boys. In this grave with my wife Adhip. You can see there is room on the stone for both our names." We could.
"Why here?" Tom asked.
"Well, this is where the Meadows family is really from. That large house the other side of the church yard is the old rectory. Far too big to be practical in this day and age. I bought it twenty years ago when it came on the market and had it made into six flats. Gives me a nice bit of income and it means there is some low-cost property in the village that the locals can afford.
"My father was the Reverend Joseph Meadows. He was a farmworker's lad and worked the farm himself 'til he got a scholarship to go to school and eventually university and ordination. Not sure he ever believed in god but he certainly believed in people. They also believed in education. He and his wife Kathy raised five children in that house, two boys and three girls. One of the boys, Paul, and two of the girls Suzie and Anne, did not make it to adulthood. That was common in those days. They are buried in this churchyard, as are our parents.
"Enough about the past and my family. We must think about the future. Always plan for the future. You see that white house at the end of the Green?" We looked across the village green with its duck pond to a white house set well back in its own grounds. It looked a bit odd and out of place in the quaintness of the English village. There was something almost mechanical about is shape and form.
"Well," Alice continued, "it used to be the village mill, but the mill brook was diverted or dried up about a hundred years ago. Adhip and I bought it for our retirement home. Adhip had it renovated but she died before we could move in. I have it let out now to tenants. I could never sell it, although I couldn't live in it without Adhip."
We returned to Brum on New Year's Eve, and Aunt Alice, as promised, started to sort out an intensive driving course for me. When I objected, pointing out I could not afford to pay for one, she informed me that she needed me to be able to drive her in an emergency so she was paying. There are some arguments that I knew I was going to lose from the start and this was one.
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