by Andrew Foote

Chapter 18

Saturday found all of us at the top of the drive waiting for taxis that would take us to Malvern Link station.

Roll on seventeen and a driver's licence proper!

A very typical Arriva Trains Wales, full to capacity with commuters, too few carriages, and stopping at every milk churn along the way, eventually saw us at Birmingham New Street Station, legs aching from having to stand the entire journey, but for Thilo and I, it was excitement time.

We left the guys to pursue their own interests but with a time and place where we could meet for lunch.

"Café Rouge at one o'clock if everyone is happy. Find St Stephen's Square then ask a policeman for directions if you can't find it."

Rather than waiting around for a bus, we walked the mile to Birmingham's famous Jewellery Quarter and began our search for engagement rings.

The criteria we had decided on meant that they had to be fairly simple and understated, but most that were on offer were either specifically designed for women or loud and vulgar.

We were about to knock it on the head when I spotted a doorway with a sign 'Thorne and Mason Goldsmiths Limited'.

"Come on. One more bite of the cherry, and if we don't meet with success, we can have something specially made."

"But that's not a shop. No shop window, so maybe it's just a studio where they make stuff."

"We won't know unless we try, and even if you're right, perhaps we can ask them if they're happy to craft bespoke items to order."

The door took us into a small workshop where an elderly man, well past retirement age, was bent over a bench obviously instructing a young lad of about seventeen.

He looked up at us.

"I won't keep you a moment gentlemen."

"No worries. You carry on."

He turned his attention back to the boy, probably his apprentice.

"That's fine work Paul. Very nicely done, but might I suggest that for fluting of that intricacy, you use a number three? I believe you'd find it much easier."

"Yes, Mr Thorn. Thanks for the tip."

Finally, he came over to where we were standing.

"Sorry to keep you waiting, but Paul is coming towards the end of a five-year apprenticeship where even the smallest detail is very important.

Anyway, how may I help you?"

"Engagement rings. We've been looking all morning, but nothing's taken our fancy and we wondered if you might be able to do something for us."

"Well, we don't normally take commissions directly. We get our work from the shops, all pre-designed to their customer's specifications."

I could almost feel Thilo's shoulders droop with disappointment, Mr Thorn also picked up the vibes.

"Am I to assume they're for you two gentlemen?"

I coloured up slightly.

"Yes, they would be if we could find anything we liked."

"No need to be embarrassed. Mr Mason and I were life partners until he passed away, so I do understand.

I might have something of interest to show you? If you'll give me a few minutes, I'll go and fetch them."

He disappeared into a back room, then a moment later, reappeared holding a velvet box about two-inches square.

"If you come around here where the light's rather better, you can take a look."

We followed him to the rear of the workshop where he switched on an inspection lamp and opened the box.

Simultaneous sharp intakes of breath from both Thilo and I about say's it all.

"My God. They're beautiful!"

"I am rather proud of them!

These two rings were my final project as dictated by my mentor and tutor before I finished my apprenticeship almost sixty years ago.

The remit was simple. Apart from their size, they had to be identical in every detail. Believe me, my tutor scrutinised them for hours before declaring them just that. 100% identical in every detail, even down to the depth of the hallmarks."

"But surely they aren't for sale? Their value to you personally has to be huge!"

"Not really. My only reason for hanging on to them was to show to my apprentices, the standard of craftsmanship I expected from them. Other than that, they've been hidden away in the safe since I made them, so no sentimental value, and once Paul has gained his Fellowship with the Royal Guild of Goldsmiths in a few weeks' time, I'll retire only to oversee things for a while.

There might be one problem though, and that's their sizes.

Because they're identical, they can't be expanded or shrunk, so if they don't fit, then I'm sorry, but I will not allow for alterations.

Let me explain what they're made from.

The centre band is eighteen-carat white gold while the inner and outer bands are of eighteen-carat yellow gold. The reason being, is that pure twenty-four carat gold is too soft and the engraving would wear away very quickly. Nine carat is too hard for delicate work, hence the compromise. Take a look under a magnifier."

"They're tiny! No more than an eighth of an inch across! How do you manage so much detail in something so narrow?"

"Three millimetre's to be precise. Three bands, each of one millimetre width, and in answer to your question, why not ask Paul, but he'll tell you it's five long years of getting it wrong before you finally get there. This is one of the reasons that finding and keeping craftsmen is so difficult. To begin with, it's soul-destroying believing you'll never find the necessary skills. Day after day, month after month and year after year of frustration drives people away.

Would you like to try them on?"

"I hardly dare. This morning was disappointing enough, and if they don't fit us, even that'll seem like the sun's been shinning all day!"

"Well, let us look at the weather, shall we?"

Mr Thorn removed the rings and placed them on a pad of velvet so as not to scratch them.

"Which one of you is going first?"

"My fingers are thicker than Thilo's, so if the larger of the two doesn't fit me, then there's little point in doing much more, so why don't we go together?"

"However you like."

I looked into Thilo's eyes and saw a single tear roll down his cheek which brought a lump to my throat, but then moments later came floods of them, not just from him, but I was gently weeping as well.

They fitted us like a glove.

Slowly the tears abated, then once we'd gained a level of composure, Thilo wanted to know the asking price.

"I'm sorry but I can't let them go for less than a thousand pounds each, boys."

"Is that all?? Certainly, I fully expected to be paying twice that amount for such amazing workmanship!"

"Sixty years ago, gold prices were an eighth of what they are today, and the other thing to take into account is, I was paid to make them. So, all in all, I'm getting a very good return on my money. One thousand each, and if you have the time to wait, I'll write a certificate of authentication."

"We can wait.

Would you prefer card or cash?"

"Not being a dealer, I don't have the necessary fascilities to accept cards, so it'll have to be cash, but if you do telephone banking, then a BACS transfer is fine."

"Are they your personal possessions, or do they appear on your books?"

"They belong to me."

"Then we'll nip to the bank and draw out cash. No VAT, no income tax. Sound fair?"

We didn't wear them immediately, instead we kept them in the box until we got back to Malvern.

Tonight, would be a celebration of our bond of love. I would propose formally with our friends as witnesses, but arriving at the Café Rouge, neither of us could hide our smiles.

Pete looked at us suspiciously.

"You look as if you've had a good morning? Why the ear-to-ear grins?"

"Tonight. You'll find out tonight. And while we're on the subject, tonight we eat in the main dining room, so evening suits please."

"No problem, but may I enquire who's cooking?"

"An Indian carry-out establishment."

"A WHAT??"

"You heard. In-di-an carry-out!"

"How can you possibly have a formal Indian meal?"

"I'm not sure, but please try your best?

Anyhow, what have you blokes been doing?"

"Try, look at the bags, dipshit. Shopping I think it's called."

"Jesus! I think we better get a taxi back!"

"That's what we thought. My treat as I was the only one to spend less than five-hundred quid."

"Thanks Pete."

A fifteen-seater minibus took us back, but I think we were a touch noisy having consumed rather more than our fair share of wine with our lunches, so with our driver paid together with a healthy tip, (Number six. Gone with the Wind. 2.30 race at Kempton Park was Mark's input), twenty quid split between me and Thilo, and a fiver each from the other's, we went indoors, got changed and went for a swim.

I hope our driver took note and backed that horse, because we found out later it had come in as a 50:1 outsider and would have netted the guy, all assuming he'd put our combined tips on it to win, a nice little earner of two-thousand-two-hundred and fifty smackers less tax.

Isn't inside knowledge useful. Mark's Dad owns and runs one of the most successful racing stables on the Berkshire Downs!

We trawled through the Carry-out menu and decided that if the good people at the Taj-Mahal, purveyors of fine Indian Cuisine were happy, then a set meal for eight was the best option, except their menu only extended to a set menu for four, so I called them.

Yes, they could provide a good selection.

Was there anything to be avoided?

No, we weren't putting them to too much trouble, and what time would be best to deliver.

Meet in the drawing room for drinks at six-thirty, so I went for between seven-thirty and eight then went to the kitchen to warm the hostess trollies.

Okay-okay. So, hostess trollies went out of vogue in the 70's, but have you ever tried serving a set meal for eight without one? By the time the last dish is on the table, the first one's gone cold!

Get a life?

Seeing your friends dressed in evening suits when normally you expect them to be either in school uniform or in jeans and tee shirts, is quite sight to behold.

Bugger, we looked good! So good, that James went back to his room and fetched a digital camera complete with tripod so he could take a group photo of all of us standing in front of the fireplace.

Ben was anxious to find out why we weren't eating around the kitchen table, and why the need for formal wear.

"Because tonight is special, that's why?

Remember today's date, because, and God willing, you'll never see me doing this again.

Shortly after Christmas, we had a new boy join us. Said new boy had witnessed the most horrific acts you can possibly imagine. He was sick…… very sick, and needed to be hospitalised.

You see, I know what he had been through, and had that been me, I honestly believe I would've thrown in the towel and given up.

That new boy was Thilo, but you know that already.

Here's the thing though. I don't recall who it was, but someone assumed that given my sexuality, and how adorable Thilo is, there was something going on between us.

I gave an honest answer. Nothing was going on, but when asked if I wished there was, I preferred not to comment because I was fearful of having the piss taken out of me if Thilo turned me away. Being gay in a school like ours can be rather intimidating, but Thilo didn't turn me away. We've come to love each other in a way I thought was the preserve of Barbara Cartland books or weepy films our mother's watch.

Tonight, I'm honoured to be in the company of the finest friends anyone could hope to have, and I beg your indulgence, and ask you to bear witness."

I dropped down onto one knee, placed the ring I'd bought for Thilo into my open hand before looking up at him.

"Thilo? I love you so much. Once you reach the age of maturity, would you marry me?"

Thilo took my hand and helped me to my feet.

"Without hesitation. I love you too Steve!"

I placed the ring on his finger, then after he did the same to me, kissed me to a round of cheering and whistling.

"Now and forever Thilo."

"Now and forever Stephen!"

Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that given our circumstances, an Indian take-away wasn't the most stylish way to celebrate our formal engagement, but the meal was superb, although I have to admit, that loads of foil containers with cardboard lids did look out of place when surrounded by bone china dishes, Sterling silver cutlery and cut crystal glasses, but we demolished the lot before hitting the drinks cabinet for more liquid refreshment.

Unbeknown to us, James had been busy snapping off photos of our celebratory feast, one of which showed Thilo, jacket removed and patting his stomach. Nothing bad there, but his shoulder holster was clearly on display, so we cautioned James not to go publishing it in the school magazine next term as the reprisals would be devastating.

"That might not be the only problem Steve. If I go ahead and offer any of them to the magazine, I'd have to explain where and why they were taken, and I don't want to embarrass either of you."

"I couldn't give a fuck. So, the younger lads find out we're gay, so what? You can't be serious in thinking that at least a few of them aren't like us? Statistically, one in every eight people are either gay or bisexual."

"Yes, okay, but what about the teaching staff?"

"I'm sure they're big enough to handle it. They can hardly expel us; there are laws against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender or religious beliefs.

Publish and be damned!"

"Who said that?"

"Arthur, Duke of Wellington. It was his response to one John Joseph Stockdale who threatened to publish anecdotes about Arthur and his mistress Harriette Wilson in 1824 I think it was.

He also said, 'Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won'."

"Are you pissed Steve?"

No, that' still work in progress. I just love trivia!"

"Thilo? You're going to have to man up and take control if he carries on like this!"

"Ha! I think I'd be batting on a sticky wicket there James! Why not try ignoring him. You never know, he might just shut the fuck up!"

"There's a first time for everything I guess!"

We rounded off the evening with a bottle of vintage port then made our way upstairs, and as soon as our door was shut, Thilo leapt on me, smothering me with kisses.

"You are just soo romantic! I always wondered how I'd feel if the love of my life ever proposed to me? I know we'd talked about it, - you even asked me in private, but to do it in such style, and with our friends around us, it simply blew me away."

"I'd been planning it. I wanted it to be special, although I didn't have a backup plan had you turned me down, or worse, like if you'd said 'give me time to think about it' or something."

"You knew that was never going to happen!"

"I hoped so, but there's no room for complaisance."

"Did everyone having a dig at you tonight upset you?"

"Hell no! It was my turn I guess. Tomorrow it might be you, James, Tony, or anybody. We all cop for it at some point.

Do you think I would invite people here if I thought they were anti-me?

Do you think they'd waste their precious holiday in coming here if they didn't like me?

It's cool, Honestly!"

"That's good, 'cos I was starting to think that we'd gone a touch too far."

"Worry not, my wonderful fiancé, I'm more than capable of punching over my weight."

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