The Observer

by Rafael Henry

Chapter 2

The train reverses out of Eastbourne because it's a terminus, so it goes in headfirst, and then out backwards heading for Brighton, where I will have to change trains. Again, not many people boarded our coach…four I counted. We didn't change our seats. It just meant that we were now at the front rather than the back of the train, with the boy facing the 'engine', as it were, and not me. The term 'engine' is a throwback to the good old days of steam, which as it happens has made a bit of a comeback in England. Our train is a diesel because the line is not electrified which is an expensive undertaking. The boy's curiosity has got the better of him.

'What's that? He asks, referring to the small black book I'm holding.

'It's a sketchbook. I like to draw when I'm out and about.'

'What do you draw?'

'Anything…….bits of landscape……..people, and so on…….anything that I notice really.'

'Are you going to use it now?'

'Yes, maybe.'

'What are you going to look at then? There's not much on a train is there?'

'There's plenty if you know where to look.'

The boy smiles at my evasiveness, and turns his gaze towards the passing landscape through the window. I look at his head in profile. His neatly light brown trimmed hair is shaped over a well formed cranial bone structure….longish neck and lean shoulders that impress acutely on his jumper. I watch as his chest rises and falls. He's probably thinking about what I've said to him. He's turned his body away, with his left leg drawn slightly up towards the other, almost slumped into the corner as if contemplating sleep. The grey shirt that became detached earlier, is detached again, revealing a little bare flesh at the hip and back. I study the small area of skin. I notice his mid-grey worstead trousers have an elasticated waist band for comfort, so no belt required. He's had those trousers a while judging by the way they reveal a pair of lightly tanned thighs, nicely formed calf muscles and ankles clad in short grey socks. There is an area of paler skin near the top of his thighs where the sun doesn't normally reach. The trousers were new last winter maybe, and due to be replaced soon. It's early June…half term ended….a summer holiday in the sun perhaps, just for the fortunate. But today is a Saturday. That's strange. Back to school on a Saturday? That is odd. I look at the pale band of flesh again. I look for hands but neither one is visible. The left is in his pocket, deeply hidden, and perhaps unconsciously placed around the thigh. I search for the hidden signs I'm familiar with. There it is, faintly visible and impressed into the now tightened grey fabric. That's interesting….the barely visible that can be made visible in my mind. I've looked for the evidence many times before, in streets, shops, cafes, beaches, and seen it. I am an observer of life.

I work quickly, attempting for the thousandth time, to catch the essence of what I'm seeing. I don't wait to notice mistakes, but work on until I have him on paper. It is him . The boy loses patience, and turns towards me.

'Did you do me ?'

'Yes, I did do you , if you put it that way. Would you like to see?'

He gets up and sits beside me, and close enough for me to feel a slight weight against my arm to my right. He keeps both hands in his pockets. I don't know his name, but for the first time I'm aware of a scent. His jumper is new. It has the aroma of new wool. Also, he's washed his hair this morning. I can pick up the smell of the shampoo he's used. He smells fresh, clean, and healthy. For a few seconds, it's all I can think about.

'It's good. Can I look through the book please?'

I hand it to him. The boy stays where he is while he works his way through the pages. The book is about half full, mostly figures seen here, there, and everywhere.

'Are you an artist then?' the boy enquires, as he looks up at me, mouth slightly open. I notice his teeth. They're nicely spaced and look well cared for.

'No. I work in publishing, amongst other things, but I draw for fun. It's like keeping a diary….a visual diary.' Boy thinks about what I've told him.

'Do you write then?'

'No much, but I facilitate the publication of what other people write.'

'Oh. What's that then?'

'I help to make it happen…….for some of them…….the good ones…….the best ones.'

We cross the grand viaduct far above the streets below just before entering Brighton Station, a view we both admire from our window. It's a spectacular entrance to the town from the east as the train curves its way towards our platform under an impressive double arched canopy. This is where I change trains. From Platform 6, I need to cross the crowded concourse to the opposite side where the Southampton train leaves from…….Platform 1. I have ten minutes before it leaves. To my delight, the boy has made a request.

'Can I sit with you again please……to Chichester?'


It's an electric powered train this time. The power is picked up from a third live rail which is placed a few inches outside of the main track. It will be a quieter journey than the rather noisy diesel two-coacher. As we walk along the platform we pass four coaches, then a fifth, and then we opt for the sixth….the front coach. It's empty. Two thirty on a Saturday afternoon is a quiet time. It's warm now, and I offer to carry Boy's blazer. He says I can if I want. He smiles again. I still don't know his name. Boy heaves his bag onto his slight shoulders. His expression has changed. I stop, and so does he.

'Are you ok?'

'Yes thanks.'

He looks away. That worries me slightly. He's had a thought and I don't know what it is. I need to know.

Boy chooses two seats at the far end of the coach. There's nothing but a wall in front of us, but the leg room is good, and there are no seats for anyone else to sit opposite us. It's like our own little space. He stretches up and places his bag on the overhead rack. I see the same flesh again, between grey and grey, from the hip and curving around towards his tummy. I place the vermilion blazer carefully over his bag. He settles himself down in the corner next to the window. He looks at me.

'What's your name?'

'Otta. What's yours?'

'James.'

'That's nice. James….I'm very pleased to meet you.'

We both smile at the belated formality. I put my hand out, and he takes it in a gentle handshake. I'm careful to let go first. It's a soft handshake, but I apply the appropriate amount of pressure. His hand is slim, and I notice his long fingers with neatly cut, clean fingernails. I'm guessing now…….

'Do you play the piano James?'

'How did you know that?' He smiles.

'I don't know……just an idea I suppose. So you do then?'

'Yes. We all do.'

'All?'

'All of us do……we all have to play instruments. Some play more than one.'

So that's it. I'm guessing that his services will be required tomorrow, a Sunday. Normally, boarders return on a Sunday evening. I ought to know. If James is going back on a Saturday, there's a reason. I could have worked that out for myself. How interesting. I need to know more.

'So James, how did you get into all that?'

'My mother's a musician. She plays with the Bournemouth Symphony. She's away a lot. They're always looking for new singers, so she put me in for a trial. They offered half fees. Mum couldn't afford that, so they said I could go for nothing. I'm there 'till I'm thirteen.'

'And how old are you now then?'

'Twelve….and a bit. Next year will be my last.'

'And then what?'

'Rye I suppose……or the grammar in Kent, if they had room by then. I could go by bus I suppose……or the train.'

'What about a senior fee paying school? There are several around our way.'

'Maybe. Mum hasn't said anything.'

'What about Dad?'

'I haven't got one.'

James looks away, and watches the landscape roll by. The train has picked up speed as it passes Shoreham harbour and the little wooden footbridge over the River Adur. The chapel of Lancing College looms over us to our right, like some French gothic monument that it pays homage to.

'Oh. Do you want to tell me?'

James thinks for a moment, still looking out of his window.

'I never knew him. I know his name but he never wanted anything to do with me.'

Right. I can guess the scenario. Mum gets pregnant and boyfriend doesn't want to know. Mum has baby, and struggles henceforward. But…….with her musical skills and the love she has for her child, James gets a chance. Good for them. I can feel myself being drawn into his story.

James still looks away, quite obviously not wanting any further questions from me. I want to know how he feels, telling me something so personal. I decide to push it a little further……

'Are you hurt James?'

He doesn't look at me, but I can see he is. He's twelve years old and has never known his father. That's a sad state of affairs. It's rejection on a grand scale. I was rejected as a child and I know how it hurts. I can feel James's pain. It's a pain that goes on…….and on. It doesn't go away. It's palpable. I need to be careful about this. All I can say is that I'm sorry, gently. I tell him that I understand how he feels because it happened to me, and that I found that there was light ahead. He will summon up hidden reserves, and survive. The Priory will have been made aware, and no doubt have done, and will do what they can. Good for them.


'Look James, there's Arundel Castle. See this river we're crossing……Turner painted it at sunrise.'

'Did he?' James replies with a big smile, and just a note of sarcasm.

'Yes he did as a matter of fact. It's just that things like that interest me, but not you of course.'

'Yes they do……and I am interested. I need a wee.'

'Fine. The loo is right there….just round that corner.'

Boy stares back at me. Then quite out of nowhere comes a question…..

'Have you got a wife?'

That's easy enough.

'Where's that question come from? Yes I have, but we separated about a year ago. She found someone else unfortunately……but we are still friends.'

'Do you have any children?'

'Yes, three. I was twenty when I got married and she was nineteen. Too young really, but Mathew was on the way if you see what I mean. Mathew is our son.'

'How old is he?'

'A bit older than you. He's thirteen. He boards, like you. He lives with me in Rye. The two girls live with their mother.'

'What's her name?'

'Amy.'

'How old are you?'

'Thirty three.'

'My mother is thirty two. That's funny isn't it?'

I'm not sure why, but I laughed. I wish Mathew was here…….right now on this train.

'So, are you going to go then?' I ask.

'Where?'

'To the loo. You said you needed a wee?'

'I don't know how to work those things……you know, opening and closing the door?'

'Just press the button I suppose. It'll be obvious.'

'I don't like going on my own. Will you come with me please, just in case I can't work it?'


I agree, it's not the easiest thing in the world to achieve, with the train rocking this way and that. The door was open, and once inside the unexpectedly large space, we found the button that shut the door, and pressed it. James clearly needed to get on with it. I held his shoulders to steady him as he stood over the stainless steel bowl, feet apart. Unsurprisingly, there was water on the floor. Taller by some way than him, I watch as he fumbles around. Finally, he hooks out the whole set in one go……pale stretched skin with tiny blue veins, and then as he eases back the prepuce, the shiny glans emerges. We wait a few seconds for the sphincter to relax. The penis is slightly enlarged, due probably, to the urgency of the situation. It reminds me of the many occasions I have gone through this process with Mathew, but not a twelve year old Mathew. This is a fatherly thing to do. A warm feeling flows through me. James is a stranger to me in one way, another man's child, his mother's child, but in another universal way he is not……..not now.

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