by Andrew Foote

Chapter 32

Sleep that night? You're having a laugh aren't you?

It was a good thing we were well separated from the other kids otherwise they would have been kept awake all night.

Our conversation seemed to lurch erratically from first one subject then to another but always returning to the possibility of Jus finally being home educated.

"I tell you this Alex, I'm really going to put my back into it. I'm going to make damn sure that I'm able to convince my parents that it's the only way to go. I've always wanted to achieve but now? I'm going to prove to them that not only can I do that but more, I can shine!"

"Tell you what? Let's have a little friendly competition. No prizes, no rivalry but let's try and out-achieve each other! That should motivate us to really pull out all the stops!"

"You've got it! Game on! What's going to be your first goal?"

"I wanna take pure and applied maths and physics at 'A' level before I'm fifteen. How about you?"

"Similar. Get my 'A's in French, German and Italian before this coming summer's recess."

"Slight flaw in your plan Jus. We don't have a recess remember?"

"Stop being sooo pedantic! You know what I mean? I'll sit the exams in June next year!"

"Hey. I've just thought. You're a year older than me so you're always going to out-achieve me. Not fair!!"

"Not necessarily? It just means you've got to cram eighteen month's-worth of work into eight! Simple!"

"You rat-bag! Alright? I'll do it but on the understanding that your grades will have to all be firsts whereas so long as I get passes, we're equal. Shake on it?"

So began a friendly rivalry which was going to take everyone by surprise.

Nine o'clock the following morning saw me wheeling Jus out of the ward in the company of 'Doc Holliday' and the fair Patricia. My Dad was waiting for us along with Mr Armstrong, the Bentley parked on double yellow lines!

Introductions were made and all four of them seemed engrossed in an animated conversation leaving Jus and I to hang about and wait.

"Sod this Alex. It's a bit nippy out here. Do you recon you could get me into the car?"

"I don't see why not? Can you use your legs at all?"

"Yeah some. They're not as dead as they were since that Maud tried to kill me!"

I opened one of the rear doors and moved the wheelchair as close to the car as it would go, set the break, removed the arm rest and helped Jus wriggle over and onto the back seat. I then leaned against the door and stared at the back of my Dad's neck, concentrating hard! It always worked! Suddenly he scratched his neck then turned to look at me.

"Oh God! I'd forgotten all about you two! Where's Justin?"

"In the car Dad. Don't you think he's been in hospital long enough? We are waiting for our ride home?"

The four adults shook hands and Patricia came over to say good-bye to us giving us both a hug.

"Sorry about that. It would seem that the good Doctor and your Father, Justin, were at University together doing their degree's and to top it all, Your Dad, Alex, and the Doc were both up at Oxford at the same time doing their PhD's hence the delay.

Take care of each other, okay? Much though I love you both to bit's, I don't want to see you in hospital ever again!"

'Doc Holliday' came over and shook both our hands voicing much the same message and we were off.

Jus seemed to be fascinated with everything.

"It's as if I've never seen any of this before. Cooped up in hospital for so long, you forget that there's a world outside."

"You'll get bored with it soon enough!

"That's where you're wrong Alex. I came so very close to never seeing it again, I will never take it for granted."

We passed Sir George walking up Mapledurham Hill with the dogs and on seeing the car, went ape! Sir George deliberately dropped their leads allowing them to run after us. Needless to say, we were mobbed once we'd opened the car doors, Spatz and Dizzy making a beeline for me, Ben and Sam, Jus's two hot water bottles swamping him!

Finally I manage to call them off and shoo them away towards the house then went to retrieve the wheelchair from the boot of the car.

"Alex? If you could support me, I'd like to see if I could walk it."

"Bit iffy on the gravel but maybe if my Dad's on the other side just as a precaution we could?"

Taking it very gently, Jus persevered slowly putting one foot in front of the other until he reached the front door.

"Hey! That was pretty good I recon! Get me as far as the kitchen and I'll be ready for a sit-down and a cup of tea! Thanks Tim, thanks Alex!"

Sir George had been watching Jus's efforts.

"That's the spirit my boy. Fight it!"

"Oh don't worry Granddad, I intend to do just that! From now on you'll see a 'me' you've never seen before, totally focused and up to the challenge!"

Mr Armstrong seemed not to understand.

"Why so son? What do you feel you have to prove?"

"I'm going to make you proud of me. I realise I've let you down, not being the son you really wanted but it's my intention to make it up to you."

Did I see tears in Mr Armstrong's eyes?

"You have nothing to prove to me Justin. I'm already proud of you. How you managed to get from Buckleberry Common to Caversham with those injuries only serves to show that you have the guts and determination to achieve anything you set your mind to."

"Thanks Dad but there's still more I can do, need to do. Alex and I have plans in place that if we can pull them off, they will blow your mind!"

My Dad looked at the pair of us sipping our tea.

"And what might those be pray tell?"

I interjected.

"Not now Dad. We'll tell you and Mum in the morning before our studies if that's okay."

"You mean like you want to dive straight into studying already? I thought you might just want to, you know, let things settle down."

"No Dad. We'd prefer business as normal wouldn't we Jus. Keep our minds occupied."

Jus nodded his head in agreement.

"That's about the size of it."

Dad acquiesced.

"Okay but I'm intrigued!"

"Tomorrow Dad. All will become clear!"

That evening everyone ate up at the house, interesting manoeuvring around the bed that had been made up for us, yes us, in the dining room.

I had to cut Jus's food up into small chunks so he could eat them without too much difficulty. The adults looked on, almost with a degree of fascination but yeah, it was my Dad who had to speak!

"You know? One day you will might make some little baby a good Daddy!"

I mouthed to him 'Piss off Dad!' to which he replied, "I almost heard that!"

Mr Armstrong had also picked up on it.

"So did I but to be honest Tim, it's no more than you deserved!"

The rest of the evening was simply put? Wonderful! There were no barriers between us, the conversation non-stop and the atmosphere relaxed and convivial. Mr Armstrong had me in conversation on a number of occasions and I discovered that rather than him being the stiff, ultimately 'correct' person I had remembered him as being, actually had a sharp wit and a sense of humour I'd not before seen. Yeah! I started to rather like him!

At ten-thirty Jus could no longer stifle his yawns so the adults left for the drawing room for brandy and cigars, the maid cleared the table, said good-night to us and left us to our own devices.

"It's so good to be home Alex! So good that we'll be together and so nice that you and my Father are hitting it off, not to mention him hitting it off with Tim! I'm his son but I've never seen him act this way."

"He's a nice guy. Got a wicked sense of humour as well! Hey? You still up to our challenge then?"

"Never doubt it but before we start, I need the toilet! Tonight is going to end not the way it began. I need a shit and guess who gets to clean me up!!"

'No greater love doth one boy have for another than happily to wipe his arse after a sticky dump!'

We slept soundly not waking until seven-thirty.

I helped Jus step into the bath and while I was sure he was perfectly able to wash himself, I just couldn't resist the temptation to do it for him and needless to say, he made no moves to stop me!

He was as hard as a poker even before I'd got close to his 'naughty bits' but once I did, it didn't take very long for him to explode over my exploring fingers and into the bath water.

"Eww Jus? Got to collect that otherwise it'll stick to your legs and we'll get it all over the towel!"

I fished around with some bog paper, most of which disintegrated before it had done any good then finally decided what was left, the towel could have and lifting him up, dried him off. Back in our make-shift bedroom, I dried his hair and helped him dress into some fresh clothes then announcing that actually he looked edible, I helped him to walk down to the kitchen, the smell of a full English brekki spurring us on.

We were joined by Lady Eleanor and my Mum, apparently they had decided to go to bed before the drinking session got out of hand. My Dad arrived shortly before nine o'clock looking suitably 'green'!

"So what's cooking with this big plan then?"

"Jus wants to take his 'A's' in what was it?"

"French, Italian and German. I want to do them before next summer."

"And you want to what?"

"Take Pure and Applied Maths and Physics at the same time Dad."

"Tough targets! Justin? Kaz is of the opinion you're so in advance of yourself that maybe it's doable but Alexis? Christ! You have your work cut out! Bright you maybe but let me suggest you try and walk before you run, take your 'O's' at Christmas and see how you're doing and take it from there? You will still be two years in advance of yourselves, both of you, three in the case of Alexis so no big issues. Agreed?"

"Well I suppose so Dad. Makes some sense."

"Tim? Could I take my 'O's at the same time as Alex takes his?"

"I can't think of any reason why not but both of you have to bear in mind that it's not just your chosen subjects you'll be sitting, it will be all the core curriculum ones as well such as English, Geography, History and so forth. Get decent pass marks in all of those, then you can concentrate on your subjects of choice."

Jus looked serious.

"No. That won't be good enough," then looking at me, "it's straight 'first's or it's back to the drawing board isn't it Alex."

"That's right Dad. 'First's' or we resit them until that's what we achieve."

"I hope you're up for a lot of hard work then! Let's make a start right here and now."

For the next two weeks, the days were divided up between morning studies starting at 8am finishing at 1pm rather than the old 9 to 12 regime, Jus's physiotherapy, dog walking and visits to the mill. In the evenings we studied and revised for our exams and then, at the end of the second week, Jus had regained sufficient strength and mobility to move back on board 'Spook'.

Progress at the mill was going well. My Dad and Joe had successfully stripped out the old mill workings, removed the water wheel where Joe was busying himself repairing or replacing the old paddles.

"It needs new bearings, the original ones are shot to pieces so Tim had me write a letter to British Timken asking about replacements. We got lucky! They had a pair on the shelf but as they hadn't sold any in about twenty-five years, nobody knew what to charge us so we eventually got them for the same price as they were all those years ago! Penny-money!"

"Hey! Result! Are you enjoying it working here?"

"You are joking? I'm getting paid for something I'd gladly do for a hobby! I've been given the independence to just get on with things, your Dad's one cool guy to work with so yeah, I couldn't be happier. How are you holding up Justin? It was in all the local papers you know?"

"Was it? Shit! I'm doing okay. Like you I'm really happy even though the bloody physiotherapist regularly tries to kill me! Next week I lose the plaster cast which means I can go swimming. That will help with my recovery a lot. How are Katie and Alison? It would be good to catch up with them sometime."

"It's half-term hols next week. They're both going to be at our house so I'll pass the message on if you like, get them to call you."

"Cool! Thanks for that! Oh yeah, before I forget, Tim is going over to the University next Friday morning to see Professor Standish, something to do with our production method and he thought it would be good if you went with him. You up for it?"

"What? Meet Professor Standish? You bet your life I am! Ask him where and when to meet him and I'll be there!"

"Most likely he'll collect you by car. Your house is pretty much on route. You'll see him before then anyway."

I whistled the dogs to heel and we wandered back to the house.

"Seems like a nice lad?"

"Joe? Yeah he does. My Dad says he's very conscientious, solid and hard-working, never turns up smack on time, he's always early and has been known to still be up at the mill at eight in the evening. We need people like him!"

Being back on 'Spook' made the temptation of going to bed early for a bit of 'extra-curricular' very tempting but although we did succumb on a few occasions, we had become really focused on our studies in preparation for our exams in December.

That Friday my Dad collected Joe and went up to the University and by all accounts Joe was slightly in awe of the professor what with him studying from his textbooks never dreaming he'd ever get to meet a man he looked upon as something of an idol but then after quite a long conversation, Professor Standish had one of the lab technicians give Joe a guided tour of their facility, something we hadn't been allowed to see but apparently he saw Joe as 'a real up and coming engineer' and thought that it would be good for him so see and maybe understand something about their 'state of the art' industrial production machines and procedures. Certainly Joe didn't stop talking about it for weeks!

Through the Professor's contacts we managed to buy a late second-hand plastic injection moulding machine which, not being exactly ideal for what we wanted to do, the Professor thought that the manufacturer's service engineer would be more than happy to carry out the various modifications necessary to make it fit for purpose, also making the comment that it might be good if Joe gave him a hand thus gaining first-hand knowledge of how the machine 'ticked'. We were almost ready to go!

That Sunday after our studies, we caught up with Katie and Alison. They got rather emotional when they saw Jus.

"What on earth were you thinking about Justin? Why didn't you just go to the sanatorium and report it?"

"I'd reached break-point Ali. I couldn't bear to be in that place a moment longer. I needed some space. I needed to be with Alex but why I went where I ended up, I've no idea. I've always been drawn to that place. It has good vibes but it's weird, I don't remember making a conscious decision to go there, it's almost as if something took me there."

"Could you take us there? I mean I can understand if it's too painful but we'd like to get an idea of where you were."

Jus looked at me, I just shrugged my shoulders.

"I don't have a problem going back there so long as Alex doesn't mind?"

"It's cool. I've no problem with us going either but are you strong enough to make the climb Jus?"

"I think so but there's you and the girls so you can drag me up there if all else fails!"

I laughed!

"I've a better idea. Get the dogs to drag you instead! I'll go and get them."

Half an hour later found us walking along the apex of Balmore Hill. Jus had managed really well getting to the top although he commented on how much his legs might ache come the morning.

The dog's stayed to heel for most of the walk but then all but Dizzy suddenly raced off into the woods.

"Where are they off to Alex? Are they chasing rabbits?"

"No. We know where they're going and it's really bizarre. They only ever do that if Jus is with me. If I'm by myself or with my Mum or Dad, they just act normally and here's something even Jus knows nothing about. You notice Dizzy has stayed with me? That is just what he did the night I found him and now for the really strange part. When we get to the tree, Ben and Sam will be side by side in front of it with a gap between them and Spatz will be sitting in front of them as if on guard duty."

"What's the significance of that Alex?"

"Well, when I found you I cut away your soaking school uniform and dressed you in what I was wearing, had Ben and Sam lay right up close beside you, covered all three of you in my oilskin and had Spatz sit guarding you."

Jus burst into tears.

"Nobody ever told me, I just assumed you'd found me, run back to the house and raised the alarm. Why didn't you tell me Alex, why?"

I cuddled him and calmed him down.

"Why should I? You're okay now so I didn't see the need."

"So that's what they meant by 'it was all due to your actions', I just thought……."

"Don't think Jus. Be happy you're here and none the worse for wear. Come on. Let's go see if I'm right about the dogs."

"Yes, yes but what were you wearing when you went back to the house then back to me and then back with the dogs? Your Dad said you just swore at him and legged it!"

"My wetsuit and hiking boots. I was plenty warm enough and remember, I was running full tilt."

We reached the tree, the dog's exactly where I said they would be. Jus was very emotional as he hugged them in turn then pulling himself together, once more looked up into the tree before casting his eyes around the small clearing.

"Oh God. Look what I've found. My old school tie! I'm taking this back to the boat Alex. What did you do with the rest of my things?"

"The policeman took them. Evidence of your attack. Obviously they didn't spot your tie. Why do you want it? If it were me, the last thing I would want is something to remind me of that evil place?"

"Are you staying over on the boat tonight ladies?"

"Love to if that's okay. Why?"

"Because tonight, over a bottle or two of wine, I intend to burn the fucking thing. That's why!!"

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