by Rafael Henry
'Is it the job of a writer to primarily consider questions of taste or concensus, or being on the right side of the establishment?' Hilary Mantell. BBC Radio 4….Front Row……27.09.2015
It's always a bit of a strange feeling. After all I've been miles away for quite a long time.
It all looks familiar of course……the soft hills of the South Downs that are just coming into view as I look out of the train window….the white windmill, and then the tunnel, and then out into the light again. There's something about those hills, and I know them well. I've rolled down their slopes, smelt the scent of them in summer and winter, picked their fruit in early September, and always felt part of them. They are my home….the place I know and love, and always will do. They are part of my being, all my knowledge and awareness. They are me.
I have cycled over them, daydreamed in their long dry grasses of August, cursed the rain that has fallen on them, walked through their valleys, sweated on their brows, and gazed over them dreaming of what might lie beyond, far away, into the future perhaps. I have dreamed as boys do……and it was amongst these hills that I first encountered the desires of the flesh but knew it not…… too young to know about such mysteries……too young to know that even at the age of eight I could be, and was, the object of a man's desire……an object he discovered quite by accident for his pleasure.
The journey down to Sussex from Norfolk was a typical one……the noisy extrovert type of boy being noisy and extrovert, excited at the prospect of eight or so weeks of relative freedom…….and then the quiet boys being quiet in the corner of the compartment, reading, or just looking out of the none-too-clean window watching the East Anglian landscape go by, and then there's me somewhere in the middle, getting on well with most of them. We pass nondescript Ipswich with the crap football team [I'm a Norwich City supporter remember?] followed by even worse Colchester, and then ghastly Chelmsford, and finally the magnificent Liverpool Street Station with its vast memorial to the fallen employees of the Great Eastern Railway Company from two World Wars, and the funny statue of John Betjeman at nearby S. Pancras, looking around him and holding his attache case. Then there are the obligatory goodbyes and the 'see you next term' waves and thumbs ups as we go our separate ways……some to laze on a foreign beach somewhere…..me to be at home and be useful. And then a new world dawns…..a different world……a quiet world full of 'what will I do today because I don't know anyone' world…….the 'I wonder how my mother is feeling today…..not too depressed I hope' world……the warm and repulsive atmosphere of the Underground, and the sudden noise of Victoria Station, and the mesmeric sound of fifty two miles of welded rail to Brighton carried along by electric train, the sudden blast of air banging rudely against my window as we enter another tunnel, and then the light as we emerge from under the hill and close to the sea I know so well. It's goosebumps time when I see those hills again.
It was five years ago now, and I know what it was now, but I did not know what it was then. What I do know is that there's a bit of me still up there in the tall grass, and always will be. Huh……I wonder what Betjeman would say about it all? I read chunks of his poetry last term on the recommendation of my English teach, the Doc as we affectionately called him. A week or so later he asked me if I had read any of the poems and I said I had, and I asked him which one was his favourite. He didn't tell me, but asked me if I had a favourite. I said I had quite warmed to 'A Subaltern's Love-song'.
'Ah, that one……..the speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy…..'
'Yes sir…… that one.'
That line rather a resonates for me, as a few weeks prior, a couple of us had had a weekend on his Broads sailing cruiser, prancing around the deck in glorious sunshine with not a whole lot on. It's all in my last diary I entitled 'Jon'. The Doc has just left the school which was probably a shrewd move on his part before he got himself into trouble, and I'm sad about it because he is, or rather was, an absolutely brilliant teacher, and gave so much more than a passing understanding of Shakespeare or bloody boring Milton. Samson Agonistes? We are one the ones with the 'agonistes', not Samson in my view, but that probably down to my ignorance.
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy…….furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun . What nice stuff……so poetic.
I remember years ago my mother taking me to Hove Station to watch the steam trains rattle through on their way to Portsmouth or somewhere, the engines swaying from side to side, holding my arm tightly to stop me getting too close to the edge of the platform……my poor mother, dealing with her own agonies, or trying to, on a daily basis. Boarding school might not be one's first choice as a life style, but I can't help thinking that in my case it's rather a good thing…..good to be away from all that. I don't blame my two sisters for getting out when they did……both to new lives in Australia.
It's from Hove Station that I walk from on my way home….just a five minute third train journey this day. I phoned home to say I'm there now and I know exactly how long it takes…….how long it will take me to be at the far end of Nevill Avenue. She and Marco will meet me about half way along the road. They did as they always do, and Marco never forgets. Dogs know ….they understand….they remember.
He's old now, poor old boy, but he still has a turn of speed as he runs full pelt towards me along the pavement, unable to stop himself as he overshoots me at speed, his claws skittering as he puts the brakes on, turns and gives me his 'I'm glad you're home' welcome with tons of frantic licks and snuffles. He's this boy's loyal friend and I love him dearly.
This time there's something different. From a distance there is not one figure a hundred yards away from me, but two.
I'm nervous……excited to see my mother and my dog again after so long……but nervous too, because I know who the second figure must be. It must be Evert…..and it is.
I don't know what I am expecting……well I do actually. I'm expecting a stereotype French person…….probably very dark and Mediterranean looking……olive skinned and rather romantic looking. Or, alternatively, a long fair curly haired Norman type with blue eyes and a tan, and good at anything to do with the outdoors. Suffice it to say, he was neither of those things.
He said it was a German name really, but quite popular in France too. You pronounce it air..vay apparently. Anyway, that's how I say it and it has stuck, and he seems to like it said like that although I'm not at all sure we've got it right. He's like that, Evert, quietly amused at our English ways.
I am surprised at his ordinariness…..and if I'm honest, slightly disappointed too. When I've dealt with Marco's enthusiastic welcome, giving him my customary hugs and kisses around his lovely velvet like ears, I stand up and give my mother a hug too. She returns everything that I'm feeling for a few seconds before I let her go and look at Evert who has by now crouched down to hold Marco by his red collar which stands out nicely against his black fur.
'Darling, this is Evert.'
He looks up at me and smiles……attaches Marco's lead, stands and looks back at me again.
There are moments of assessment whenever one meets someone for the first time. I've come to no conclusions apart from the obvious. I can best describe him as ordinary looking……nothing remarkable at all at first sight. He's not as tall as me, about six inches shorter I would think. I already know he's thirteen. The next thing I notice is that he's conscious of his mouth because he tries not to open it, and he moves his lips about as if he doesn't want anyone to see inside it, but I get glimpses and I realise why. He has a brace on his front teeth……not one of those gimmicky sparkly ones, but horizontal wire lower and upper. Even his brace is quite unremarkable. I have a go at pronouncing his name correctly, get apologetically corrected, and then try again and get pretty close.
We exchange a few pleasantries, and at this point I'm not going to attempt to put his speech into a typed French accent……..you will need to hear his words spoken quietly and in that way we have all heard so many times. I'm surprised, and a bit relieved, that his English is good, and sad to say, miles better than my schoolboy French. So you'll hear him speak as if he were English, but of course we know he's not. You will just have to imagine everything he says is with a fairly thick French accent.
I'm holding Marco now which gives me the opportunity for diversion……for not having to talk to Evert who walks beside me. I can tell he likes Marco. I turn my head sideways to see Evert walk. I like to see how people walk which might sound a bit odd. I imagine what people are like by the way they walk. Evert walks nicely…..very upright, and holding his shoulders back naturally. I'm betting he's from a good family. He's careful not be intrusive, and he's mindful of the situation……my homecoming. He's keeping to the outside. That's good manners and I'm just beginning to get over those stupid feelings of disappointment. He listens to my mother's questions……all the questions that I expect to field in the first hour of being home again. You can imagine them surely? I answer everything, but smooth out the detail so we can pass on to the next one and get the process over as quickly as possible. I remind myself that I must be patient and demonstrate to Evert that I am a nice polite English boy . Well I am, usually, but dealing with my mother is not easy. There are parts of me you could describe as stroppy for want of a better word, especially when dealing with a mother.
I find myself adapting to Evert and what I imagine he will find good about me. I'm trying to make him like me because he is our guest and it's my job to see that he's a happy French Boy.
I like his smile. It's discreet because he has a habit of lowering his head slightly as he smiles [trying not to open his mouth of course]. I imagine he, like me, tries hard to be nice to his mother. He strikes me as sensitive, but not a mummy's boy at all. No, he is definitely his own person and quite bright with it. I spend the first hour with him exchanging views on this and that and he deals with questions with proper answers that have content rather than one-worders. Behind a shy exterior, he's confident. He's a match for me any day, and he'll be interesting company hopefully.
We both play with Marco, rubbing his tummy and pretending to be dogs. Evert has been here for two weeks already so he and Marco have had time to make friends.
He helps me upstairs with my two bags, one with school stuff in it….a few books, sketchbook and materials, wash kit and so on……the other with a small supply of clothes. Everything else comes back in a small trunk via courier. We go into my small bedroom which is off the narrow hallway and between my mother's at the back overlooking the garden, and his at the front of the thirties semi, and looks out onto the road and identical chalet style houses opposite. I will use the bathroom and separate lavatory downstairs, but Evert has his own shower in his bedroom, put in by my uncle in Norfolk as part of the modernisation of the house. Uncle bought the house for us to live in following my father's departure. I can't imagine where we would be if he hadn't been so generous. He pays my school fees and also picks up the tab for all my personal expenses while I'm there……uniform, trips and all the other incidentals that have to be paid for. I am eternally grateful to him for what he has done for me, and I have told him so. He can't tell me he loves me in words, but he can and does through his actions. I hope he feels I am a credit to his trust in me, but he is an academic and I am not.
Evert was behind me as I opened the door into my room. He followed me in and put the rucksack down. He stood there not knowing quite what to do.
'You can come in if you want to…….talk to me about France maybe…….while I put my stuff away?'
I put the bag of clothes on the single bed. The room isn't big enough for anything larger. I began to extract the items and laid them on the bed. He sat on the bed and watched.
'I like that colour Jon.'
He was looking at my school blazer which is an interesting variation on royal blue.
'It's nice isn't it. Most kids wear a uniform in England. They don't in France do they?'
Answer, no they don't. I opened the wardrobe.
'They go there…….on top of the others……the blazer goes on that hanger at the end……..those socks under there.'
He seemed reluctant to let go of my blazer.
'Try it on if you want?'
He was dressed in a pair of jeans and a red polo shirt. He looked himself in the mirror wearing my blazer.
'You look nice in it Evert…….it suits you.'
He turns towards me and smiles that smile. My mother said he had a lovely smile and she was right. He has. I know, of course, the room Evert is in, but I want to see it.
'Can I see your room Evert?'
It was just as I remember it, apart from one or two personal items he had on the bedside table…….a small travel alarm clock, a tiny framed photo of his family and a few coins. On the dressing table, a survivor from my sisters' occupation, were two or three textbooks, a tube of sun protection, a red purse type object, and a bottle of water. Draped over the chair in front of it was a pair of blue shorts, and on the floor a pair of lightweight sandals. Looking towards the fitted cupboard in the corner I asked….
'May I look in there?'
It wasn't exactly full of his stuff, but what I saw was in good taste, no cheap printed tee shirts or horrendous shorts. No……..good quality clothes and not uninteresting . The French have style, and French parents spend money ensuring that their children look good, at leat the fortunate one who can afford it, do.
Taking Marco for walks was a thing we did lots of. Despite his age, Marco still loves walking with me, as much as I love taking him. Now there were three of us to enjoy the early morning and evening light. Neither Evert or I are chatterers, so conversation is kept to the essence of what we are thinking and feeling. I say feeling, because I thought that Evert is missing his family a little. Several times he seems to biting his lip when the conversation drifts homeward. You don't have to tell me about that feeling….I know it well.
Earlier I said he looked ordinary which sounds like dull . It's odd that once you get to know someone a little better, their physical appearance seems to fit the personality better. By 'ordinary' I mean he has dark brown hair which falls forwards with no parting. He definitely looks more English than French, to me at least, and his skin tone is fair, nose ever so slightly retroussé and in a nice way, mouth fullish, lips likewise hiding the metal, eyes brown and quite large, under long eyelashes. There is no sign of acne and his voice is soft and as yet unchanged from boyhood but with just a hint of the oncoming changes. I'm five feet tall now and likely to be six feet at least eventually, but I doubt if Evert will be. His build is slight, not muscular at all, shoulders the same, and slender limbed. No, I doubt if he'll make six feet or anywhere near it.
Yesterday Evert came home at three after his classes down in Lansdowne Place where the language school is, one of the many in Brighton. I'd rather naughtily had a good look around his room. I'd found nothing much of interest apart from two letters from home and one which he was in the process of writing. My French is good enough to get the gist from his well-formed handwriting. I'm mentioned in dispatches favourably which I'm pleased about, because I like him. He has his own key to the house which he uses.
I heard the front door close quietly and then rapid footsteps on the stairs, and then the sound of his bedroom door closing. Intuition told me that something was wrong.
I was right….there was a problem. I went and knocked on Evert's bedroom door about four o'clock. My mother was due back about then after doing some shopping in Hove on her way back from her part time job in Kemp Town. He didn't answer so I left it. Later he explained that he was tired and gone to sleep. I'm not sure I believe that. When my mother eventually got home, I said to her that I was concerned about Evert, so she said she would try to talk to him…..go into his room if he didn't respond to a knock on the door. Essentially she is in loco parentis and obviously has a duty towards Evert's well-being and his parents. My mother would take that duty very seriously.
The students at the Language School don't sit in classrooms all day, just part of it on weekdays. They go on trips to London and other places from time to time and they are free to go in groups to the beach on fine days or to explore the town. The weekends are the responsibility of the host family, and that means me. In theory Evert shouldn't really come home until tea time, but Evert does. The question is, why?
I found my mother sitting on Evert's bed with that 'help' look on her face. If there's one thing I know about, it's how boys can feel when they are unsettled about something or unhappy and can't get the solace that their home should provide. Evert was lying on his side on his bed and was clearly upset. My mother was holding his hand. I sat on the edge of the adjoining bed in the gap between the two, and right opposite Evert. We had a crisis on our hands.
His story is a common one…….he felt he didn't fit in with his class…..he had done nothing wrong but they didn't like him and one boy had told him so……..they didn't want him to join the group that went to the beach……and he's unhappy and wants to go home.
Going home is not an option, except in dire circumstances, and as we explained to Evert, that would be admitting defeat to the enemy……and the 'enemy' was essentially one particularly dominant individual called Marcel, whom the others were anxious not to upset lest they got the same treatment. If there's one issue that cannot be tolerated in a group of any kind, it's bullying and this situation is exactly that.
Watching the tears rolling down poor Evert's cheeks as he relived various incidents incited the kind of anger and resolve in me that I only reserve for special occasions. Either the school would sort out Marcel, or I would. In the end, it was someone else, and it was sorted out thank goodness. More of that later, but I thought I had better let you know the good news sooner rather than later. If you're anything like me, you'd be worrying about it. For Evert, he had to wait about one week, but in the meantime we made a change to the arrangements……..I was to move into Evert's room to give him company in the afternoons if he needed it, and to offer moral support at night which would be the most difficult time for him.
Privately, I was thrilled, literally, that Evert wanted me in with him. Not only is it a compliment, but I like being with him, and this way I'm with him for longer. I know what you might be thinking at this point, but you're wrong…….honestly. I'm not thinking that……not really……..but that's not to say that I'm not curious, but still ever mindful of our responsibility to Evert and his parents.
With my mother now gone from the room to 'let you boys work things out', my relationship with Evert changed from 'a friend at the end of the hall in his own room' to 'a real friend who shares a bedroom with me and cares about me', and that is entirely true. There's no reason why he can't be a proper friend and I do care about him…….of course I do. I do now, after what he's said to me.
My mother 'phoned the school and spoke to woman who called herself the Welfare Officer. Hmm…..not a great deal of joy there, just the 'leave it with me, I'll have a word with Marcel' treatment, or in other words 'I'll do fuck all, thank you', at least that's what I suspected. When I asked Evert if he had any mates at all down in Lansdowne Road, he did say there was one other boy he got on with quite well…..a boy called Bale. I thought that was a tiny village in Norfolk [it is a tiny village in Norfolk] but it's also a boy's name in France as well as it turns out. Well, you live and learn don't you? You pronounce it Barl, so there! I asked Ev [as we now call him] if it were possible for me to meet this 'Barl' character. I suggested we three went for a walk along the seafront after classes one day a.s.a.p. or some such activity away from the others. Ev liked that idea. He said he would ask him tomorrow.
I arranged to meet Ev at two down at the school. Meanwhile he helps me move my stuff into his room, and my friend's mood has lifted noticeably. Yes indeed. With all the angst lifted and someone to be with night and day, he seemed to be a much happier bunny. How I was going to cope with it all…..well that remains to be seen, but first we have to deal with the immediate issue.
Evert has one sister, he tells me, and they each have their own room. By the sound of it, they are members of the bourgeoisie en France, and consequently have a pleasant life style with a holiday home at Dinard which sounded rather nice. His father is a civil servant, and his mother a teacher. Evert attends a day school, no uniform required, which is why he's obsessed with my school uniform which he insisted he carry through to our bedroom. I jokingly suggested he try it on. It would probably be a bit on the large size but would be faintly amusing for both of us. I meant all of it, but he obviously meant just the blazer, which was indeed on the big size. He did look good in it though. He was thrilled.
Never having shared a bedroom with anyone before, it dawned on him that getting undressed might be awkward. That first night we both went to bed at the same time. Great…I can use the shower now I'm in this room. Many thanks Uncle for your generosity! As you will have gathered by now, a seasoned, as opposed to hardened, boarding pupil has no issue with stripping down to his birthday suit in front of all and sundry without turning a hair. We do it all the time and don't give it another thought. I know that a very few boys are self-conscious about it because they perceive their bodies to be in some way inadequate, ugly or wrong in some way, and they do not want it seen if possible. If it's not clinical obesity, then it's almost always to do with their willies. Some quite young boys, even prepubescent ones, are hung like stallions it would seem, which is slightly annoying because I am one those that despite being a bit into puberty, am definitely not. It's not that bad, but I'm not what you would call in the 'well hung' category. I wish I was.
No, they don't mind people seeing their bottoms, but they draw the line at the front bit. There's something intensely personal about their penis that is completely private. The fact that the vast majority of them all look identical doesn't seem to make any difference, but there again, if you're not seeing anyone else's, how would you know? It's only the likes of us exhibitionists all herded together like cattle under the showers that actually might know these facts. Years ago, so I'm told, at least fifty per cent of boys had been circumcised, but nowadays that's quite rare. As it happens I am. My only regret, possibly, is that my orgasms might not be as good as they might have been. I heard that somewhere but I've no proof that it's a fact. Other than that I quite like being different, and no one I've 'known', so to speak, has ever minded or commented either way.
That brings my nicely to another concern I have. When I wake up in the morning, my body is telling me something which nine mornings out of ten, I just have to listen to. My body says……'come on Jon, you've got time haven't you?' I reply…..'indeed I do have time.' This of course is doubly true in the holidays, n'est pas? With Evert two feet away in the adjoining bed, things might be tricky. Well, put it this way……there's absolutely no way I'm not going to. If I to go through the next seven weeks without regular orgasms, I'm going to go completely bonkers. Hopefully he will want to indulge too, thus making the situation perfectly bearable.
Big surprise this morning! A large box arrived by courier, in addition to my trunk. Uncle has done me proud ever since Father quit paying for anything, and not even gracing us with his presence.
Uncle has come up trumps once more, and sent me a new laptop. It's not a Mac, but it's ok. He knew I needed one and here it is, preloaded with Word too which was clever of him. The box also included a cordless mouse which is great. What a beautiful man he is. So this means I can write to my hearts contents any time I want and save it all on the machine rather than have to worry about where I put another one of those memory stick things. Great.
Evert and I spend the evening playing with it, right up until bedtime……our second night sharing a room….the second night that came after the first night.
Yes, back to the first night.
'I'm going to shower Ev……..do you want to go first?'
'No, you go.'
'So you'll go in after me then….I leave the water going shall I?'
He didn't answer the question, but just sat on his bed watching me.
'Have you used the shower yet Ev….I mean since you've been here?'
'No…..I use the basin.'
'Have you got something against showers then? Don't you like them?'
'Yes, I like them.'
'Well then……..go in after me.'
I undressed with my back to him, conscious of him not moving from where he was sitting. I'm not going to pussy foot around this one. If we are going to share, then he's going to have to get used to taking his clothes off in front of me. It'll do him good to get a bit more liberated about such things. In a curious way, I found undressing in front of him quite exciting and I was seriously in danger of getting an erection. Having turned sideways on to Evert when I removed the last item of my clothing, I was aware of the imminent danger, so I turned away from him again. If he is the owner of the dinkiest little willy in the world, then seeing my mini hose pipe rear up might have been the last straw for our friend….a risk I can't take. Suffice it to say, I showered fully erect for most of it, but by the time I had conjugated a few French verbs silently to myself, the situation had subsided to 'normal' thank goodness.
What I would have given for David's presence in that five minutes.
Evert was still sitting on his bed, but had at least taken his polo shirt off. I don't know why he's so shy about it. From what I can see thus far he's nothing to be ashamed of. A bit bony? Yes, very slightly, but that's what most of us are like at thirteen. Thin arms? Yes….the same applies.
'Are you ok about getting undressed with me in the room Ev?'
'Yes of course I am.'
'Well go on then. Would you rather I look the other way?'
I smiled at him, towel around my shoulders, the rest of me fully visible. I could see that he was trying very hard not to look. It was a risk I thought worth taking.
'Would you like me to help you?' I said jokingly, and instantly regretting it.
'No, it's ok.'
I sat down on the edge of my bed in the narrow space between his and mine. He undressed with his back to me, bent down to pick his stuff up, and turned sideways just enough so he could put the clothes on the bed……just enough for me to see him. Well, if that was mine I wouldn't have a care in the world. That's all I have to say. And I'll tell you something else……what a beautiful bottom that boy has…….in fact I fail to see anything wrong with him. Yes, he is on the slim side of 'perfect', which has one very redeeming feature…..there is a slight gap between the very tops of his legs when seen from behind through which his balls are visible, just, and in front of them we see the last few centimetres of his penis. That vision gave me more than an inkling of what I was about to see when he turned sideways.
You can't really come out of a shower cubicle backwards, and guess what……he didn't….but……he was careful to keep the small towel that he had kept to the fore in order to hide his modesty…….draped, no doubt thinking ahead, over the shower door.
'Your hair's dripping all over the carpet Ev.'
Not thinking and anxious not to offend, Evert raises the towel to dry his hair. After a minute or so he realises his oversight and raises his head towards me……and smiles broadly. When I say……
He keeps smiling and looks down at his boyhood.
'Am I at all wrong?'
'No Evert….you are not at all wrong. Not at all.'
I couldn't help laughing….I really couldn't.
He carried on drying his hair, longer I suspect, than he really needed to. In an odd way, from that moment on he seemed more confident. That's probably in my imagination, but I like to think so. Little things can prey on a boy's mind literally for years.
I was lying full length on the bed and on my side supported by an elbow, naked as nature intended. Evert came and sat on the side of his bed facing me having made no attempt to cover any part of his body.
'Are you sure Jon?'
'Yes Evert….I am very sure. I can't imagine why you ever had any doubts about it .'
'But why is yours different?'
Boys eh? Don't you just love 'em?
I explained why it was different……purely cosmetic. He knew about it basically, but just wanted me to confirm the reason….sort of talk him through it if you like, and not sparing him any of the medical details. I also explained to him that I didn't sleep in pyjamas, but just a tee shirt usually, and quite often a pair of pants when I felt like it, usually when I was in the mood. That meant most of the time, not that they stayed in place for very long. I didn't tell him that last bit. They always started out in position one, but ended up in position two halfway down my upper legs. That's just me I'm afraid, and as they say, it takes all sorts. It was a habit I got into at school. If one had to get out of bed without warning because you hadn't woken before the getting up bell went or something, one could pull up one's pants in a second and save oneself some embarrassment. I noticed that quite a few boys used that trick, apart from the very junior boys who were either blissfully unaware or just didn't care. In extreme cases, the dorm prefect would have to physically pull the covers off the slumbering individual to reveal all. You can imagine that more often than not, some minor embarrassment results.
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