Being Johnny

by Nigel Gordon

Chapter 23

I laughed, which seemed to surprise the barrister.

"That was the last thing I wanted," I stated. "My mother had messed up my life; I just wanted to mess up hers. I wanted to destroy her career as a barrister and put an end to her plans for marriage."

The moment I said that I realised I had the opportunity to do something that I had not figured I could do. I could destroy the Honourable Edward without involving any of the other men I had been involved with. I would just have to hope that Yaland's barrister would ask the question which would enable me to answer the way I wanted to.

"Why should you want to destroy her career as a barrister?" Yaland's barrister asked.

"Because she was a liar and a cheat," I responded. "She had no respect for the law. For her, it was just a tool to use to make money, and she made money."

"Which now you have," the barrister accused.

"I don't, actually," I responded. "It is in trust; I am a beneficiary of the trust, but I do not have the money."

A bit of a technicality, I know. I would get the money when I reached the prescribed age, but at the moment I did not have it. The barrister for Yaland Insurance looked a bit flustered by my replies. Really, Yaland should have got somebody more competent — a Queen's Counsel, at least. This barrister really had no idea how to cross-examine anybody, let alone somebody who was used to being cross-examined. My mother had been cross-examining me since I was able to speak. One thing I could say about her was she knew how to do it and did it well. I learnt about cross-examination from an expert, and this barrister was no expert. Not only that, it was clear she had not been well-briefed.

"Isn't it true that before your mother's death, you were having to work part-time in a boat yard to support yourself?" she asked.


She looked at her notes.

"Do you deny that you work at the Hamden boatyard?"

"I work there but not to support myself," I replied.

"Then why?"

"For work experience. I am following a course of education designed to qualify me to design yachts. My work at the Hamden yard is being supervised by the yard manager and is contributing to my required hours of practical experience for my NVQ."

All very true but a bit misleading, I must admit.

"So, you don't get paid for working at the boatyard?"

"Oh, I get paid, but only for ten hours a week. I usually do a lot more than that."

"Why would you do more hours than you are paid for?"

"For experience and because I am buying a share in the yard, so putting in extra hours is now beneficial to my interest."

"Buying, no doubt, with money from the estate of your mother?" she asked. She was a poor cross-examiner. There was no way she could know the answer to that question, and the first rule of cross-examination is never to ask a question you do not know the answer to.

"No, it is being bought using funds from the trust set up for me by my uncles."

There was a moment of silence in the court. The barrister for Yaland Insurance looked a bit lost. Then the coroner spoke. "Can that be confirmed?"

The barrister who had been introduced to us the first day as representing the trusts stood. She confirmed that the trust set up by my uncles was funding an investment in the boatyard. I noticed the wording was very precise. It did not say that the trust was paying for the investment, just that it was funding it. That implied I was buying it in my own name, not a property of the trust.

The barrister for Yaland decided to change tack as it was clear the line of questioning she had been following was not going where she wanted it to go.

"Isn't it true that your mother threw you out of the house because you were gay?"

"No," I responded. "She did not throw me out; she took me to my father's. That was not because I was gay; it was because her fiancé found me a far better fuck than she was."

There it was, the nail into the Honourable Edward's position in society. I could see the press scribbling away. I had not named the Honourable Edward, but they would easily find out who mother's fiancé was. Of course, they would not name him. They would just report what had been said in court. Everybody in London society would quickly put two and two together and get whatever total they wanted. The more scandalous it was, the better they would believe it.

I was then subjected to an ineffectual hour of cross examination by a barrister who really should go back to basics. Just before one, she decided that she had had enough. I could have gone on all day; I was quite enjoying it. She clearly was not, so she indicated that she had no more questions and sat down.

The coroner then asked a couple of more questions to clarify some statements I had made. I was happy to do so. That done, she discharged me as a witness and then adjourned the inquest till quarter past two.

I was surprised when I returned to the body of the court to find Uncle Bernard sitting next to Dad. He congratulated me on giving evidence. As he was doing so, the barrister for Yaland Insurance was walking past.

"You coached him well, Bernard," she stated.

"Didn't need to, Mellisa; he is his mother's son."

I took that as a compliment. A fact I commented on to Uncle Bernard.

"Johnny, in many ways you remind me of your mother," he said. "Never underestimate her. She had a remarkable brain. A warped one, maybe, but remarkable, and I think you have more than inherited some of her brain power. Now poor Mellisa just is nowhere near that level. She's a good jobbing barrister, mostly does car accident claim's, which is probably how Yaland knows her. Why on earth they used her as their counsel on this case I just don't know. She was totally out of her depth."

Over lunch, Uncle Bernard informed Dad and the uncles that the offer on the sidings and workshops had been accepted. As soon as proof of title was obtained, they could complete the purchase. Dad asked if funding was in place and was assured it was. Short term, Zach was providing the funds to cover the purchase, which would be paid off from the money Dad was putting in and funds from the sale of the Chiswick warehouses.

"How do you think the inquest is going?" Uncle Bernard asked Martin.

"I think it will finish this afternoon with a direction," Martin replied.

In that, he was correct. Once we were back, the coroner stated that no more witnesses were being called. She then directed the jury to make a finding of unlawful killing. A direction they were happy to follow. We were back at Uncle Bernard's by half past three. Uncle Bernard suggested we stay for dinner, so avoiding the rush hour on the trains, something that Dad was agreeable to. Mum, of course, would be in college, so he sent her a text saying we would be home sometime after eight. Joseph got home about quarter to five. As soon as he had changed, we took Sandy for a walk on the Heath.

We had not been back long and were sitting in the kitchen with Dad and Uncle Bernard when the front doorbell rang. Joseph went to answer it. A few moments later, he returned with Micah and Bethany.

"What's with the locks, Dad?" Micah asked. "My key wouldn't work."

"Got them changed after your mother moved out," Uncle Bernard stated. He stood up and went over to the Welsh dresser that stood at the end of the kitchen. From the top-right drawer, he took out a couple of bunches of keys. He gave one set to Micah and one to Bethany. Micah looked at him questioningly when he handed the keys to Bethany. "She's your wife, Micah, and soon to be the mother of my grandchild; she has a right to a set of keys to the family house." Micah nodded. Uncle Bernard continued, "How come you are here now? Thought you were coming down on Saturday evening."

"You mean with grandfather?" Micah replied.


"Apparently, according to grandfather, she is not family, so has no right to be at the meeting. The lift offer was just for me. Lectures and tutorials finished for Easter this morning, so we got the afternoon train down."

"Bethany, let me assure you that you are family and you have every right to be at the meeting," Uncle Bernard stated with emphasis.

Before anything else could be said, Joseph insisted that he had to introduce Micah and Bethany to Sandy. The three of them vanished in the direction of the conservatory.

It was a good half hour before they returned. Then, there was a discussion about what to do for dinner. In the end, Joseph and I were sent down to an Indian take-away to collect the order that Bernard had phoned through.

What I had not realised until we got back with the order, was that it was entirely vegetarian. It had not occurred to me before, but being Buddhist, Bethany was probably vegetarian. Not that it made any difference to the meal; it was really good.

Once dinner was over, Micah wanted to know what was going on.

"Dad, Mum's been bending my ear since Saturday. When she's not on the phone, Granddad's been making his presence known. All I have had from you is a text saying you and Mum have separated and you will tell me the details when you see me. Now you're seeing me."

"I'm not sure where to start," Uncle Bernard said.

"Let me start," Joseph said. He then proceeded to tell Micah about him leaving home and why he had. When he finished, Uncle Bernard told Micah about the argument he had with Aunt Debora and the decision that they should separate."

"Bastard!" Micah exclaimed. "Sorry, Dad, not you. I was thinking of Granddad. You know he tried to marry me off to that Aronowitz girl.

"When was this?" Uncle Bernard asked.

"When I started at uni last October. He invited me to join him for the Shabbat service at his shul. Of course, I was required to go back to the house for the meal after the service. Leah Aronowitz was always there, together with her younger sister. He's already got Ari betrothed to her.

"Granddad was onto me about how good a match Leah was for me and how good a Jewish wife she would make. I told him I was going to marry Bethany. After that, I stopped going to shul. To be honest, Dad, I am thinking of converting to Buddhism."

"You'll probably be safer; it will put you outside your grandfather's plans," Uncle Bernard stated.

"Can I convert?" Joseph asked.

"No, you can't," Uncle Bernard stated.

"Why not?"

"Because vegetarianism is widely practiced in Buddhism. Even those Buddhists who eat meat, strictly limit their indulgence in it. You, Joseph LeBrun, like your bacon too much to be a good Buddhist."

"Good point," Joseph agreed. "I could become Russian Orthodox; that would not stop me eating bacon."

"I suspect that for them it is probably compulsory; read something about eating bacon before drinking vodka, but why Russian Orthodox?"

"Because I could tell Granddad that I was Orthodox."

On that, Uncle Bernard burst out laughing. We all joined in, even Bethany.

Dad decided that we should really get a move on if we were going to get to the Priory at a decent time tonight, so we thanked Uncle Bernard for the accommodation, then left to get the tube to Liverpool Street. However, before I left, I had to say goodbye to Sandy. As we were walking down to the tube, Dad phoned Lee to let him know we were on our way back. He promised to let Lee know which train we were on as soon as he knew.

In the end, it was not that simple, there was no direct train to Southminster. We had to change. As a result, Lee was at the station well before we were. He said he did not mind; I noticed he had one of his Open University texts with him so he had something useful to do whilst waiting.

On Friday, I was at a bit of a loose end as I had expected still to be stuck at the inquest. There was no college, the Easter vacation having started. I could have gone into the yard, but Steve was not there. He had gone up to Simmon's Reek to finalize arrangements for moving the boats down. If I had thought about it, I would have phoned him when the inquest finished and gone with him.

Dad was entrenched in his office with Lee, catching up on everything he had missed over the last two days. There seemed to be a lot of it. Mum and Marcia had gone to Chelmsford shopping. I had hoped I could hang around with Steven and Jim, expecting them to be busy in the nursery, but when I went looking, there was no sign of them. In the end, I spent the day in my workshop, sorting it out. Not that there was all that much left to do.

Just after twelve, I went into the house to prepare some lunch. Dad came in just as I had put the kettle on. He started to make some sandwiches.

"If you're making coffee, could you make some tea for me?" he asked.

"Yes. Will Lee want anything?"

"No, he's gone to Southmead."

"What for?"

"Officially, to pick up the business cards and brochures we ordered. The printer called to say they were ready."

"And unofficially?"

"I think he's taking Simone out to lunch."

"They're getting close," I commented.

"I know., I think that's why he is taking her out to lunch; he's going to tell her he's been inside."

"I don't think that will come as a surprise," I stated. Dad raised an eyebrow. "Dad, she's Miss Jenkins' niece. Neal knows about Lee; you can bet Simone does, as well. At the very minimum, Neal will have briefed her. Knowing Simone, she has probably read his whole case file and the probation reports."

"Oh. Well, that should make it easier when he tells her."

"I hope so."

I mentioned to Dad that Steven and Jim weren't around. He told me that they had gone up to Birmingham to pick up Jim's brother. Apparently, he had car problems.

"Any news on the gardener's cottage?" I asked.

"Yes, the nine-hundred-ninety-nine-year lease is out. It does not make sense to separate the cottage from the walled garden. What the legal wizards have suggested is that I sell the whole lot to them on a ninety-nine-year lease, with a nominal ground rent."

"What's the advantage for you in that?"

"It means, Johnny, I get a whole chunk of cash when I can use it. It also means that I can put a clause in the lease which will ensure that the property is kept as a nursery and not used for other purposes. More important, as it will class as a commercial lease, there is no right of renewal. If I just leased them the cottage, then that would be a residential lease. They would have the right of renewal; they might even get a right to buy."

"What have they said about the idea?"

"Haven't spoken to them yet; they left early this morning. Only know they've gone up to Birmingham because they told Anne where they were going. Thought I would phone Steven's uncle this afternoon and run the idea past him. Then Martin can draft a formal offer on Monday if it's a goer."

"How much are you going to be asking?"

"Not certain. Martin has suggested we should get an independent valuation, and I think we will. However, to be honest I would be happy with anything over a hundred grand."

After lunch, I went back into my workshop and started to sort out my model of America, the yacht that gave its name to the America's Cup. I must have got totally absorbed in it because, before I knew it, Dad was knocking on the door, telling me that dinner would be in half an hour.

After dinner, I went over to the dojo. Simone and Lee were there; so were Steven and Jim. Jim told me they had not long got back from Birmingham. Delcie was there with a young man whom I did not know and was introduced just as James. I am not sure if he was a brother or a boyfriend. There were also two mixed race lads in their twenties, whom I also did not know. Jim introduced them as his cousins. Another lad there was Lee's cousin Jarrom, who I remembered was the Tae Kwon Do instructor.

After the session, we all went down to the Crooked Man. I played by the rules and stuck to cola. During the chat about the session, Jarrom seemed impressed with Lee.

"Lee, man, seeing you've been out of action for two years, you ain't doing bad," he said.

"Simone's pushed me to get back into form," Lee replied.

I wondered what else she had pushed him to do.

Saturday morning, I was up early. I had promised Steve I would open up, and this close to Easter it was likely to be busy. I knew Steve was going to be occupied interviewing summer help. He was also looking for a boatwright to come on board. I was just finishing my breakfast when Dad came into the kitchen. He dropped a bunch of keys on the table.

"What are those?" I asked.

"The keys for the Salvage Yard. We got possession yesterday. Martin dropped them round whilst you were over in the dojo. In fact, he dropped off two sets, but I'll go to the big Tesco's — they've got a branch of Timpson's in there — so I can get some more copies made. I think two extra sets should be enough."

"Why two?"

"Well, I think we will have to let Steve have a set."

He was right about that. I fastened the keys on my keychain. It was starting to get heavy.

I got to the yard well before nine. We were not due to open till ten, but there were already a couple of customers waiting. As soon as I had done the safety inspection of the yard, I opened up. By the time Steve got in, it had gotten busy. It was a pity that Joseph was not there. We certainly needed a spare pair of hands. Unfortunately, Steve could not help. He had the first interview lined up for ten.

Shortly after ten thirty, Steve came through into the chandlery followed by a youth who I did not think was much older than I was. Steve introduced him to me as Colin and told me that he was giving Colin a two-week trial starting immediately. Steve then told Colin that he would be helping me in the chandlery until he had finished doing interviews, then he would be shown around the yard.

Not that Colin was that much help. He knew nothing about boats and/or what things were called. He could, though, fetch and carry. As long as I could tell him exactly where something was, he would fetch it. That saved me a lot of running back and forth to fill orders. The thing was, Colin looked vaguely familiar, but I could not remember where I knew him from.

Just before twelve, Steve brought a woman — I would guess she was in her mid-thirties — into the chandlery and introduced her as Katherine Jones. Turned out she was a boatwright from the Isle of Wight. He suggested that we close the chandlery for lunch, and we could discuss the yard with Katherine.

I must have looked a bit surprised. Why was Steve involving me in the interview with Katherine?

Steve checked that Colin had come on his bike. That being confirmed, he gave him twenty quid and told him to cycle up to the Pig, the closest pub to us and pick up an order of pie and chips for the four of us. On his bike, Colin could use the footbridge up by the Salvage Yard to cross over onto the Marsh Road. The Pig and Whistle was only about half a mile further along the road, so it would not take that long for Colin to get there and get back.

Once Colin set off, Steve started to tell Katherine about the yards. He told her that presently we had five working slipways, the three at the Hamden yard and the two at the Salvage Yard.

"Incidentally, this young man owns the Salvage Yard," Steve said, indicating me.

"Not quite," I replied. "The trust I am a beneficiary of owns it. We got it yesterday. Dad's getting a set of keys cut for you today, Steve."

"That will be helpful," Steve commented before going on. "I also own a derelict yard at the mouth of the creek. There are a number of slipways there but none currently usable.

"At the moment, Johnny's family are in discussions with the yard next door about buying it. If that goes through it will add another three slipways and two boatsheds."

"That's a lot of slipways. Are you going to have the staff to operate them all?" Katherine asked.

"Hopefully, yes. Two of my regulars are returning to work for me next week, and I am aiming to get at least one other experienced boatbuilder on board, together with a couple of temporary labourers."

"Steve, you said boatbuilder then, but you introduced Katherine as a boatwright, what's the difference?" I asked.

"Johnny, a boatbuilder is somebody who is generally skilled in the craft of building boats. Most boatbuilders these days are trained in using fibre, composite and metal. They may have the skills needed to repair a wooden boat, but few could build one from scratch. A boatwright is a boatbuilder who has the skills to build a wooden boat from scratch."

"What is puzzling me is why you need a boatwright?" Katherine stated. "I know from our talk this morning you have the skills of a boatwright, so why the need for another?"

"Johnny, can you answer that question?" Steve inquired.

I had to think for a moment. Then the answer hit me. "The Princess of Alba; it's going to have to be completely taken apart and rebuilt for the restoration. We need somebody to take charge of that."

"Princess of Alba?" Katherine asked.

"Yes, it's a Thames barge in a pretty bad shape. One of our clients has bought it, and it will be arriving here the week after next. I plan on putting it in one of the Salvage Yard sheds.

"Johnny is right. It is going to have to be completely disassembled then rebuilt. I think it will be at least a two-year job. Could even take three. That's why I need a boatwright. I can't take the time off from the rest of the yard to supervise the restoration of the Princess."

"Sounds like a big job. Why go to all the trouble? Wouldn't it be easier to build a new Thames barge?" Katherine asked.

"For a start, a new barge could not take part in the Thames-barge races. The barges have to be historic to take part. More importantly though, The Princess of Alba is one of the Little Ships. That's why our client wants to restore her."

With that, the conversation moved onto why Katherine was looking to move from the Isle of Wight.

"My family's from round here. I grew up in Maldon; trained at the International Boatbuilding School," she informed us.

"That's where I'm hoping to go next year," I stated.

"It's good training," she replied. "Moved to the Isle of Wight when I married ten years ago. Well, the marriage is over, we're separated and waiting till we can divorce. Nothing for me on the island. My ex owns the boatyard where I am working. So, a move home or near home is logical. If I get this job, I'll just have to find a place to stay until the divorce comes through and I get my settlement."

"I think we may be able to sort something there to help," Steve stated.

Colin arrived back with order of pie and chips. Steve put the kettle on to boil to make some tea.

After we had all partaken of our pie and chips and some builder's tea, Steve showed Colin and Katherine around the yard. I gave him the keys to the Salvage Yard so he could show them that, as well. They took longer than I had expected, and by time they got back, I was somewhat overwhelmed in the chandlery. There was also a queue waiting to speak to Steve about booking jobs in. Fortunately, Katherine stepped in to help me with the rush in the chandlery. Although she did not know where things were kept, at least she knew what people were asking for. Once she had taken an order, she would ask me where the stuff was and then go off and fill it. Colin was kept busy collecting things from various parts of the yard, things that were not kept in the chandlery itself.

We closed at four, but it was getting on for five before we had finished serving customers. Colin left with instruction to be at the yard at nine on Monday. Steve invited Katherine and me to join him for a pint in the pub. Over a drink, he confirmed the offer of a job to Katherine.

"You said you could sort some accommodation?" Katherine said.

"Yes. I would not recommend it for long term, but if it is only till you can get sorted out, there is a granny annex to my husband's house. It's got a bedroom with an en-suite bathroom that can just take a double, a small living room and a kitchen. It is self-contained with its own entrance. My husband had it built for his aunt, but she died before she could move in."

I noticed a slight flicker of surprise on Katherine's face when Steve said husband.

"Where is it located?"

"On the Dunford Road coming out of Maldon," Steve told her.

There was a bit of a general discussion about it before she said that she would be interested in taking it. She also confirmed that she would take the job.

"When can you start?" Steve asked.

"Technically, I need to give a calendar month's notice," Katherine replied. "To be honest, though, I think my ex will be glad to see me go. He will probably let me off without serving my notice. He's got an incentive; when I leave, he can move back into the house. At the moment, he is living at his mother's. The only problem with moving is where to store my furniture?"

"How much is there?" I asked.

"A small van load," she replied.

"I might be able to help there. There are some storage areas at the Priory. That's where I live. I'll ask Dad about them."

Before we finished, Steve asked if there was any chance I could work tomorrow. He was doing some more interviews but thought if today was any guide, Sunday would also be busy. I said that would not be a problem and told him I would get in early to open up. Katherine said she could come in and give me a hand.

"I've got nothing else to do and am not booked on the ferry back till nine tomorrow night," she stated.

"I would have thought you would have been visiting family," Steve commented.

"That was the plan," Katherine admitted. "However, when I arrived last night, I found that most of them are away at a wedding. Won't be back till late tomorrow, by which time I will be on my way back to the island. Stayed with my mother last night and staying with her again tonight. Going to take her to see my aunts later today. Not much on tomorrow."

Steve dropped me off at the Priory just after six. Dad was in the kitchen preparing dinner. I asked him about storage space for Katherine. Matt's people were in the process of converting what had been a row of pigsties into garages. Originally, I thought there would be six, but in the end, it turned out that there were eight. The thing was, the two end ones opened out onto the drive, not inward onto the yard. After I explained what Katherine needed, Dad was happy to let her rent one of the two outward-facing garages, though he did point out that would not be ready for use until the end of the coming week. At the moment, the walls were up but the garages needed to be roofed, and the doors had to be fixed.

"Matt told me the doors are coming on Thursday, and it will take two days to install them," Dad informed me.

"What about the roofs?"

"They're being done on Monday and Tuesday. Once they are on, the electrics will be put in—on Wednesday."

I sent a text to Katherine telling her that storage was available and giving her Dad's contact details. I also told Dad that I was covering the chandlery in the morning.

"You can't!" Dad exclaimed.

"Why not?"

"There is the family meeting; Bernard's confirmed the location."

"I thought that was next Sunday," I explained.

"No, it's tomorrow."

"Shit, I've promised Steve I will open up for him."

"Do you think you could get away about twelve?"

"Should be able to. Why?"

"We have to be at the Grosvenor for two. If I pick you up at 12 at the chain ferry, we should be able to make it if we drive in. Put some clothes you can change into in the car tonight, and you can change when I pick you up. Now you'd better call Steve and let him know you have to leave early tomorrow; hopefully, that will not be a problem."

"Shouldn't be. Katherine is coming in to help in the chandlery. She should be able to cover for the rest of the day once she knows where things are. I will need a lift in first thing, though; don't want to leave the bike at the yard."

I phoned Steve, apologised and explained I had not realised that the meeting I had to attend on Sunday in London was this Sunday. I thought it was next. Fortunately, he understood. He said he would phone Colin and see if he wanted an extra half-day's work and could come in from twelve to help Katherine.

Dad dropped me off at the yard just after nine Sunday morning and found Katherine waiting for me. I apologised for being late, but she pointed out that the notice said the yard opened at ten on Sunday. I told her I tried to be here about nine. She informed me that is what Steve had said. She had set out aiming to be here at about quarter past nine, but the traffic had been a lot lighter today, so she had made it a lot quicker from the far side of Maldon, where her mother lived. Also, she had been able to cross the causeway , which cut a few miles off the journey.

That sorted, I then had to explain to her about having to leave at twelve. Katherine assured me that it was not a problem but did suggest we spend the next three-quarters of an hour showing her where all the stuff was stored in the chandlery. That is what we did. While we did that, she said she had seen Steve's granny flat, and it would work in the short term.

Steve arrived about ten minutes before we were due to open. He told Katherine that he had arranged for Colin to come in and do four hours from twelve till four.

"Not sure how much use he'll be," Katherine commented.

"Probably not much," Steve agreed. "But he can hump stuff around, fetch and carry."

"By the way, Steve, I phoned my ex and told him I had a job off the island. He is quite happy for me to finish as soon as I have handed over any work I currently have on. We agreed I would finish on Friday, so I can start with you the week after Easter. That will give me a week free to sort out my packing and move."

"That works," Steve said. "The granny flat is yours to move into as soon as you want to. Just let me know when you're arriving so I can sort out the keys. Now, let's get ready for the rush."

Actually, things were a lot quieter today compared with yesterday, which allowed me to explain how the chandlery's computer system worked. I was also able to explain the logic of how we had the stock stored. Fortunately, Katherine quickly caught on.

Dad phoned at half-past eleven to let me know that he was on his way to the chain ferry. Steve told me that I might as well pack up, clean up and go and meet him. Rather than get changed in the car, I had brought a change of clothes in with me, so went to the washroom, had a wash and changed, then went up to the chain ferry. Dad pulled in as I was crossing over to the parking area.

Dad must have exceeded the speed limit on the way as we arrived in Park Lane just before one-thirty. It then took us a good fifteen minutes to find a parking space. Then we had to find the meeting room where we were supposed to be. After Dad asked for directions, I got the distinct impression from the staff that they thought we really should not be in the building. Probably something to do with the fact I was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt over a t-shirt and boots.

As a result, it was five-to-two when we entered the meeting room. There were a number of tables placed in a semicircle, with five or six seats at each table. One table stood alone at what would have been the centre of the circle. There were two chairs by it. Some people were standing around talking. As we entered, a number of people turned and looked at us. I saw Joseph and his father on the far side of the room.

"What are they doing here?" a voice called out. "They're not family." I looked over in the direction of the voice and saw Joseph's grandfather. He was standing there with a tall, elderly man who had a long grey beard.

"I invited them," a thin elderly woman replied. "If you look at the email that was sent, it says family and friends. I would remind you that your guest is not family, either." On that statement, she banged the floor with her walking stick with a resounding thud. Then she made her way over to us.

"Michael, thank you for coming," she said as she came up to Dad.

"Well, I couldn't very well refuse, Aunt Ruth. I suspect you've still got that hairbrush."

"Yes I have, young man, and don't you forget it," she said with a smile. Then she turned to me. "You must be Jonathan. I remember seeing you at Manston, but I do not think we were introduced. I'm Ruth Goldberg, but your father calls me Aunt Ruth, so you can as well. If you call me Great Aunt, you will find out why your father fears my hairbrush." That was said with a serious tone, but there was a laughing sparkle to her eyes.

She banged her stick on the floor again and announced that everybody should take their places. She then informed me that I was seated next to Joseph. Dad was informed he was seated next to her.

I went over to where Uncle Bernard, Micah, Bethany and Joseph were seated. Joseph pointed to the place next to him, which I took. Then I looked around the room. There must have been about thirty people there. Some, like Aunt Debora and her parents, I knew. Others, I recognised as I had seen them at Mum and Dad's wedding, but most I did not know.

"I thought she was supposed to be scary," I whispered to Joseph.

"She is. Just wait."

"Right," Aunt Ruth announced. For a small woman she had a voice that reverberated around the room. "We are here to see if we can sort out the problems that have arisen in the marriage of Debora and Bernard that have caused them to separate. If we can't, we may have to look at a fair way for them to divorce. Now before we start, we will have a blessing."

Two men and a woman stood.

"You lot can sit down."

"But—" Joseph's grandfather started to say.

"No buts, Abraham Holzstein," Aunt Ruth interjected.

"It's Woodstone," Joseph's grandfather replied.

"Maybe it is to you, but I knew your family when they were Holzstein, and they still are Holzstein to me, and they have about the same intelligence as the cows named after them."

Joseph's grandfather turned a deep shade of red.

"If I asked your rabbi friend Abraham to give the blessing, I would insult the two members of the family present who are rabbis. If I asked Miriam to give the blessing, you would be offended because you do not recognise female rabbis. If I ask Aaron to give the blessing, the non-Hasidics here would be offended because he is Hasidic.

"I can't ask any of the rabbis present to give the blessing because whichever does, it will offend one group or another of you here. Therefore, I will make sure you are all equally offended. I will ask the one person here that all of you can object to, though probably the only one here who can pronounce the Hebrew correctly."

There was a general silence in the room. Joseph made a note on the pad in front of him and slid it over to me. It read, see what I mean.

"Michael, please say the words of the blessing."

Dad looked at Aunt Ruth. She nodded. Dad stood and started to speak in Hebrew. Joseph leaned over and whispered the translation to me:

May the Lord bless you and guard you.May the Lord cause his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.May the Lord lift up his face to you and place upon you peace

That done, Dad sat down.

Joseph's grandfather glared across the room. The rabbi next to him looked puzzled; the woman who had stood up was smiling, as was the Hasidic rabbi.

Aunt Ruth was smiling. "Now Bernard LeBrun, can you tell us why you and your wife have separated?"

For the next ten minutes or so Uncle Bernard, in very precise detail, told about being informed that his wife's father had been arranging a marriage for his son. When he asked his wife about this, she had confirmed that this was correct. He then went on to say that he and Aunt Debora had argued about this and that his wife had refused to tell her father that there was no way they would agree to such a marriage. He was about to say something more when Aunt Ruth stopped him.

"Rabbi Deneberg, I wonder if you could guide us?" she asked. "Who is responsible in a Jewish family for arranging the marriage of the sons?"

The man with the long white beard who was sitting next to Joseph's grandfather smiled, nodded and stood.

"Responsibility for such things rests with the head of the household or of the family," he stated. He seemed about to say something more, but Aunt Ruth interrupted.

"Can you clarify one point for me? When a daughter marries, does she remain in the family of her father or move to the family of her husband?"

"She becomes a member of the family of her husband. The story of Ruth makes this clear."

"Thank you, rabbi; that has been most enlightening. Rabbi Miriam, Rabbi Aaron, are you in agreement with what Rabbi Deneberg has stated."

Both indicated that they were.

"Bernard LeBrun, who is the head of your family?" Aunt Ruth asked.

"That would be my father, Isaac," Uncle Bernard replied.

"So, Isaac LeBrun is the head of your family," Aunt Ruth stated. Uncle Bernard confirmed that it was so.

"And did you have your own household or were you part of your father's?"

"We had our own, Aunt Ruth," Uncle Bernard replied.

Aunt Ruth thanked him then turned her attention to Joseph's grandfather.

"Then, Abraham Holzstein, what were you doing arranging a marriage that was not your responsibility?" Aunt Ruth asked.

"It's Woodstone," Joseph's grandfather snapped.

"We've already dealt with that. Now answer the question." There was a sternness in that direction that made me realise just why Aunt Ruth had her reputation.

"Well, nothing was being done, so I had to do it."

"Did you speak to Isaac and ask him about such an arrangement?"

"Well, I mentioned that he should get Joseph married."

"You stated that he should get Joseph married. Why?" Aunt Ruth asked. There was no reply. Aunt Ruth smiled. "We will come back to that."

For a space of time that seemed like an infinity but was probably no more than a few seconds, Aunt Ruth was silent. Her eyes scanned the room as if looking for something, then she smiled. Immediately her eyes jumped back to the table where Joseph's grandfather was seated. Joseph's mother was next to him.

"Debora LeBrun, you knew it was the head of the family that should arrange a marriage. Why, then, did you let your father arrange one?"

Aunt Debora looked surprised and shocked. For a moment, it reminded me of a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car, not understanding what is approaching but knowing that there is no way to avoid it.

"Take your time, dear," Aunt Ruth said. The voice was nice and comforting, like the voice of a mother comforting a child. Behind it was a rock-hard command, forcing compliance.

"I…" Aunt Debora faltered. It seemed she was trying to work out why. Then she found what she had to say. "Daddy said it was for the best. He said Bernard was not dealing with things the way they should be dealt with."

"Did he say why your husband was not dealing with things the way they should be dealt with?"

"Yes, he said we weren't observant and that Bernard was not a true Jew, that he didn't follow the traditions."

"Traditions that say the head of the house will arrange any marriages or the head of the family," Aunt Ruth pointed out. "It seems your father does not respect tradition."

There was a murmur that went around the room. Joseph leaned into me and whispered. "She's played the tradition card."

I whispered back. "I don't understand?"

"You need to be Jewish to understand, but tradition is important to us," he whispered back.

"What do you say, Abraham Holzstein? Why did you go against tradition?" Aunt Ruth asked.

"Because they were not following tradition; they were allowing my grandson to be influenced by that boy to think he was queer." With that, Joseph's grandfather jabbed his finger towards me.

"Joseph, how would you answer that?" Aunt Ruth inquired.

"That Johnny did not make me gay," Joseph stated. "I knew I was gay when I was eleven. I did not meet Johnny till just before my fifteenth birthday."

"Thank you, Joseph," Aunt Ruth said. Then, once again, there was a pause whilst she scanned those seated at the tables around the room.

"So, Debora LeBrun, you agreed to your father to setting up an arranged marriage for your son, Joseph, even though this is against tradition?"

Aunt Debora just nodded her head.

"I put to all of you: is it right that a wife goes against tradition and allows her father to arrange her son's marriage?"

There was a general outbreak of discussion around the room.

"But that's not the point," Joseph's grandfather called out. The room went silent.

"Maybe it's not," Aunt Ruth stated. "However, it is an issue that must be addressed, and I would like to hear the opinions of those who are present. So, until we have them, I suggest you stay silent, Abraham."

For the next half an hour or so, she worked her way around the tables, asking individuals their opinion on this breach of tradition. It seemed to me that everyone was saying that Joseph's grandfather had been in the wrong.

"But he thinks he's queer!" Joseph's grandfather exclaimed when the opinions had been stated.

"I fail to see what that has to do with you breaching tradition in the way you did," Aunt Ruth stated.

"I had to, nobody else was doing anything about it."

"Why should they?" Aunt Ruth asked.

"Because he can't be queer."

"Why not?"

"He's my grandson," Joseph's grandfather stated.

For a moment there was silence. Aunt Ruth looked deep in thought. Then she smiled. I heard Joseph take an intake of breath.

"Given your family, I would think that would make it more likely that he would be gay," she stated. "Remember I knew your uncle Daniel and Fritz. I knew them from Bergen-Belsen."

"Fritz was his personal assistant."

"Very personal. They shared the same bed for over forty years," Aunt Ruth stated. "In the camp, Fritz wore the pink triangle. We all know what that meant."

There was a murmur of acknowledgement around the room.

"Don't forget, Abraham Holzstein, we Jews were not the only ones in the camps. There were others there as well. They suffered with us, and some of us are only alive because of them. Who do you think smuggled the food out of the officers' kitchen that kept us alive. You don't think they would let a dirty Jew cook for them, do you?

"Your mother's brother, Abraham, was a homosexual. He met the love of his life in the camps. After liberation, they were together for forty-seven years. I know many marriages that do not last that long."

"He wasn't queer. He was a hero," Joseph's grandfather snapped.

"I've known heroes, and they can be gay," an elderly man at one of tables near the back of the room stated as he stood. "In 1940, it was a gay man that enabled me and my fellow apprentices to escape from Holland. I saw him standing on the cabin roof of a yacht, shooting at a fighter that was strafing us. He knew he was in danger, but he fought in an attempt to save us.

"I'm eighty-three and grew up in the Old World, the world of tradition and of the old ways. In the old days, we would have shunned men like my brother Daniel. Now we honour them. Who they love does not matter; what they are is important. Daniel, my brother and your uncle loved Fritz. He was also a soldier and defender of Israel. As such, he is a hero to our people; that does not stop because he is gay."

With that he sat down. The mention of a gay man and a yacht had caught my attention, but there was not much I could do at the moment.

"Thank you, Manny," Aunt Sarah said. "Doctor Rachel, maybe you can help us."

A sombrely dressed woman whom I would put in her late sixties, nodded to Aunt Ruth.

"How can I help?" she said.

"Tell us about homosexuality, how does it come about?"

"To be honest, we do not know, though we have some indications. What we can say is that between five and ten percent of the population is exclusively homosexual. In societies where male homosexuality is fully accepted, the indication is that ten percent of males are exclusively homosexual. In societies where it is highly suppressed then we find about five percent of males are exclusively homosexual. The majority of males partake in some homosexual activities during their life, mostly in adolescence. About a third of males, although mainly heterosexual, will partake in homosexual activities from time to time in adult life. Recent studies have shown that most men indulge in homoerotic activities throughout their lifetimes, although these activities may not go so far as to be classed as homosexual.

"What is clear is that homosexuality is a perfectly normal condition for a proportion of human males. It is also a common state amongst the animal kingdoms. The current evidence points to homosexuality being a genetic trait that is mainly carried on the maternal line."

"So, homosexuality is perfectly normal?" Aunt Ruth asked.

"Yes, Aunt Ruth."

"It is part of nature then, part of creation?"

"Yes, Aunt Ruth."

"Thank you, Doctor, that has been most informative."

"Rabbi Deneberg, does the Lord make mistakes?" Aunt Ruth asked.

"Well, it …"

"A straight yes or no will suffice, rabbi," Aunt Ruth snapped.

"No, the Lord does not make mistakes, but such behaviour is forbidden in Leviticus."

"Thank you, rabbi," Aunt Ruth said, putting an end to any discourse on his part.

"Rabbi Aaron, of all the traditions here, yours is the one that probably does its best to understand the meaning of the Torah," Aunt Ruth stated. Rabbi Aaron nodded his head in appreciation of the compliment. "What is to be done when the evidence of science and the word of the Torah are divergent from one another?"

"We must then look at our understanding of what is said in the Torah. It may be that the Torah itself is wrong, that over the centuries, scribes copying the sacred scrolls have made an error and the error has been promulgated through later copies. More likely, though, is that our understanding of those words is wrong. We have to look to our knowledge of the Lord to try and understand what is meant by the teaching," the young rabbi explained.

"But there is no misunderstanding," Joseph's grandfather shouted. "Homosexuals are an abomination before the Lord and should be stoned."

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