The Observer

by Rafael Henry

Chapter 3

I press the larger of the two buttons, and the bowl flushes, empties, and refills with clean water. James turns towards me, undoes the clip that holds the waistband of his trousers together, lowers them to his knees, and rearranges his shirt, and then neatly reassembles everything. He looks up at me and smiles a smile that says a nice 'thank you'. When we get back to our seats, he turns again to me……

'Thanks Otta.'

'That's ok. You alright now?'

'Yes thanks.'

We had stopped at Ford. We had about ten more minutes on the train before we reached Chichester. I want to bring matters to a head, but give James the final opportunity for closure……if he wanted that.

'So, about ten minutes and we'll be there. It's very nice to have met you James, and thanks for your company. I've enjoyed it.'

'Me too.'

He turns away and watches the ripening corn fields amble by. A minute or so passes……

'Where will you be….in Chichester?'

'I'm staying in Vicars' Row. It's a sort of B and B run by the Cathedral. It has its own private entrance, somewhere to sit outside, so it's very nice. I always stay there. It has a little kitchen too, like a flat really. Do you know where that is?'

'Yes. I know Vicars' Row. It's about five minutes from school. It's on the way to Spooner's Field.'

'What's that?'

'It's our playing field.'

I didn't know it was called that. I told James the house number, and where to go to find me, if he wanted to. There's a small iron gate in the wall just as you go down Vicars' Row, on the right. You can't miss it. Push the gate open…….there's no catch on it, and you're in a small courtyard with a table and a couple of chairs. The French windows lead straight into the room.

It's a ten minute easy stroll up from the station. There were about twelve passengers on the train besides us. James seemed in good spirits, despite that feeling we all have when the reality strikes us. We are back at school, and going nowhere for the foreseeable future. Although the temperature had risen in the early afternoon, James wore his blazer. Just short of the town, there's a left turn through an archway that leads to Vicars' Row, and if you keep walking, you will arrive at the Priory, James's school. We stop at the corner of Vicars'. I look down at James. He looks up, unsmiling. Our goodbyes were brief, and unsatisfactory, at least from my point of view.

I called at Reception to get my key. My room was just as it was the last time I saw it….just as nice. I placed my bag on the bed, went over to the wall mirror and looked in it. I looked annoyed, and half upset.

I had watched James leave me two minutes before. At the end of the road he had stopped and turned to look back. I had stayed where I was, hoping he would. He did.

The shower is ensuite, and a good one, although I often prefer a bath. I felt generally unsettled and opted for the shower. Afterwards, I lay on the double bed naked, and under the sheet. I tried reading my paperback, but I couldn't concentrate. I went over the train journey in my mind, with James, from the beginning. I didn't really know what conclusion I could come to, so I left the subject, only to return to it five minutes later. Momentarily, I considered masturbating, but a rising sense of guilt overcame me as I realised where my imagination was about to take me. I needed exercise. I wandered around the town stopping for a half hour or so to peruse the excellent bookshop at the local Art Gallery established in a magnificent town house. I have a ticket for a rather controversial production at the Festival Theatre tomorrow evening…….'The Cleansed'. Not having my ticket to hand, I passed more time checking my booking at the theatre. Dinner was an unsatisfactory business at the Ship Hotel. Last time it was good. Not this time. In bed, my Patrick Gale novel again failed to impress itself on my consciousness. I made a call from the room telephone to my son Mathew in Canterbury. He's fine. I thought of James in a room somewhere not a quarter of a mile from me……less probably. He rehearsed this afternoon, so he'll be performing, if that's the right word, tomorrow. I intend to listen and watch at a discreet distance.

My curtains do not keep the morning light out, but I wake early so it makes no odds really. I make another attempt to read Gale's novel, but give up yet again. I notice a shadow on the curtains that are drawn across the French windows opposite my bed. It moves slightly as a hand comes more into focus, raised as if to touch the glass. It's exactly six forty. Next comes three soft taps of knuckle on glass. There's the distinct shape of a figure at the glazed door, too small for an adult. Moments later, I hear the door handle lowered and the catch gives. The door opens and the hand moves one of the curtains aside. I see the figure against the sharp light of the June morning. I recognize it instantly as James.

He's dressed in white running shorts and tee shirt, ankle socks and trainers. Not only am I more than surprised to see this apparition before me, but dressed like that? He stands there, expressionless, while I rapidly come to terms with what I'm seeing. James is clearly worried about my reaction to his appearance.

'I'm sorry Otta. Are you really cross with me?'

I'm sitting up in bed. I look at him and smile. He hasn't moved, but just stands upright, with arms to his sides.

'No, of course I'm not cross with you! I wasn't expecting to see you again so…….so it's a lovely surprise. It's a very lovely surprise, James.'

He smiles in relief I suppose, lowering his head slightly. Then he looks back at me……

'Can I come in? Just for a little while?'

'Of course. Come and sit here. What have you been doing……early morning PE or something?'

James walks towards me. He sits himself to my right on the edge of the large double bed, one knee up, the other leg still on the floor.

'No. I go running most mornings. I'm allowed to. I go round Spooner's fifty times. Then I go and shower and get ready for breakfast. I do that most mornings.'

'On your own, or do ever have company?'

'Sometimes, but not often. Sometimes Sam comes with me. He's in my room. There are five of us in there. I get up at half past six to do it.'

'It a quarter to seven now James.'

'I know. I came here first. Did I wake you up?'

'No. I was awake early…….doing my early morning thinking.'

'What about?'

I didn't answer that question. I think about lots of things first thing in the morning. I didn't really consider that telling James that he was one of those things was really very appropriate? Then…….

'Can I stay for a while please?'

'Yes, if you want to. That would be lovely.'

'Until I have to go back?'

'Yes…until you have to go back.'

James told me more about his home, and life with his mother. It was nothing out of the ordinary for a boy in his situation. I wanted to be sympathetic and interested. I looked at my travel clock on the bedside table. Time was getting on. We'd been talking for the best part of half an hour. I was concerned.

'When do have to be back James?'

He looked at the clock.

'I've got another quarter of an hour……if I miss my shower.'

He looks sideways at me. I'm saying nothing. Then….

'Do you have one?'


'A shower.'

'Yes. It's over there.' I gesture to the corner of the room.

'Can I? Now?'

'Yes, if you want. Everything's in there. Use the smaller white towel on the ring.'

'Can I leave my stuff here?'

I deliberately look away. James notices……

'Why are doing that?' he demands.

Turn back to face him.

'I didn't think you want me to see you……with nothing on.'

'Why not? Don't you like me?'

'Of course I like you….silly boy. It's just……'

'I don't mind.'

Well, there was something in his tone just then. Ok young man, that's fine.

It's not every day that I can observe a boy undressing, in fact it's not any day until this morning. I wasn't going to stop him. Socks and trainers first, then standing sideways on to me, he lowered his shorts, leaving his underpants in place. Tee shirt next…and then that last item. What was left was a naked boy called James. I made no attempt to hide that fact that I was watching. I smiled as he stood before me. He's a well-made boy of twelve, still very much a boy and not yet a youth.

'You remind me of Mathew when he was your age……at your stage.'

James smiles and looks down. He's perfectly aware. Perhaps he remembers that I've seen this part of him before.

'Just turn the big lever to the right. It's set at the right temperature. If it's too hot, turn the knob in the middle to the left slightly. You can leave the door open if you want. I won't be offended.'

I chuckle as I drop that half-joke. James has his back to me as he goes through the motions….tests the temperature, and starts the usual processes. There's a bar of soap which he uses first. He's thorough, ending with a rinse of his head. When I'm close to him again, I'll be aware of his freshly washed body….the scent of a virgin perhaps…..a feeling of newness……of new beginnings…….of a rising sun……a new day…….the next day of a life…..perhaps the first day of a new life?

Dry now, James walks back to me. He stands again before me. I'm up on an elbow, and careful to hide myself from him. He must not know, or worse….see.

There's a little game going on here. The room is warm, but James is pretending to be chilled. He holds the towel under his chin……..

'I'm cold. Can I get in please?'

'Of course.'

I pick up what clothing he had, and place it neatly behind me, and lift the sheet clear so James can join me. He lies on his side with perhaps two feet between us. He's facing me. He has questions…….

'Your son Mathew. Where is he now?'

'He's in Canterbury. He's a boarder at school, like you.'

'Why does he live with you and not with his sisters?'

'Because he chose to. He thought it was unfair not to have any of the children with me…so he chose to stay. He's a very sweet and loving boy. We all have time together. There are no arguments, we all get on well. It's just that Amy, she's my wife, found that she loved someone else so much that she had to be with her all the time. She's sad about what has happened, just like I am, but we all have to accept changes sometimes. Life can get complicated, but there it is. We don't have a choice in everything. We have what we have, James.'

'Are you sad now Otta?'

'In a way I am, but in another way, I'm not. I still have them all, but in a different way. You have your mother. She loves you. Nothing will ever change that. I have a photo of Mathew. Would you like to see it?'

James finds my wallet which I'd put on the bedside table behind him. It gives me a nice opportunity to 'observe' James's figure, the naughty man that I am. James has the physique of a runner, still without any significant muscle growth, and so obviously at that charming transitional stage. He carries an air of innocence, but as we all know, appearances can be very deceptive. I don't think James is anyway near as innocent as he would like me to think. He hands the wallet to me and I extract the photo of Mathew, and I hand it to James. It was taken on holiday on Sennen beach in Cornwall last year. He's sitting on the bow of a boat. I think it's the most beautiful picture, now slightly dog-eared, we have of our boy and very much at the same developmental stage that James is at now.

For Mathew now, it's the mirror in the bathroom, and tissues under the pillow, bless him. I remember it well…..choices to make amid all the hormonal confusion. He sleeps in the room next to mine in our two bed terraced house in Watchbell Street, Rye. It's not as basic as it sounds though. Watchbell Street is a highly desirable location in that historic Cinque Port town, and being on the south side of the cobbled street, we have a magnificent view over the marsh that was once the sea, to the English Channel beyond.

James studies the photo of Mathew.

'Well James, what do you think?'

His answer surprises me.

'He looks nice. I think he's……'

He's what?

'What were you going to say James?


'Nice? You had already said that word. Anyway, that's very kind of you James. Would you mind if I told him that? I'm sure he'd be rather flattered that another boy thought he was beautiful. That's very nice.'

'I didn't say that!'

'That's quite right, you didn't. Sorry.'

I'm teasing him now. James puts both hands over his face. I move a little closer to him as I pull his hands away to reveal the smiling face.

'No, don't . Don't tell him…. please don't.'

'Ok, I won't. If I did, he'd only want to meet you. You only live a couple of miles away remember?'

The smile disappears to be replaced by a questioning expression. My remark gradually sinks in. Then James looks up…..

'Do you think he'd want to?'

'Why not? He doesn't have many friends in Rye. Can I tell him about you? And something else. I think I should tell your mother that I met you on the train. Would you mind if I did that?'

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