Date Stamp

by PeterG09

Can you put a date and time on when you fall in love? I think not. It is easy to say when you met someone, and even where. But falling in love can be a long process, the development of a feeling, the awakening of an awareness that someone has suddenly become important to you: more than important, they are consuming your soul, your every waking moment, your life. It is hard, if not impossible , to date and time it.

I arrived at the school hall at 10:47 am. My piano exam was due at 11:00. There was one other candidate waiting, and I found that he was to be examined before me, so they were obviously running late. He was there to do his Grade 5, I was in for Grade 3. Funnily enough he seemed not much older than me so he must have started taking exams much earlier than I did.

We sort of nodded to each other. I could not tell if he was nervous: I knew I was, to the point that I felt I needed to go to the loo every few minutes. It must have been obvious to him that I was a nervous wreck even before sharing my incompetence with the examiner.

Part of the problem was that I wanted to play the piano. I really did. But my teacher insisted that passing exams was the only thing that mattered. It took me years to realise that as far as she was concerned, I was simply a means to an end. The more of her students that passed, and the better they did, the more this enhanced her reputation. If I could have understood it at aged fourteen I would have told me parents to sack her. As it was I was stuck with doing exams I did not want to and endlessly rehearsing and preparing the same pieces. I wanted to branch out, try tunes I had heard, learn different styles, generally learn about music and not be shackled to an exam regime. So here I was.

The other candidate was, I found, called Mark. He seemed quiet relaxed about doing his Grade 5. For those who don't know, Grade 5 is the great turning point in exams. The theory side gets more academic and intense. The music becomes markedly harder and much more is expected f you.

Mark was called to perform. I was told that they were running late, which was already obvious, and I would have more personal torture to endure before my chance to show off my general inability, and I was left alone in the waiting room. I could hear him playing and it sounded brilliant. I heard him delivering the sight-reading pieces, and then tackling the various elements of the theory test. It all sounded depressingly perfect.

Eventually I was called in and if the waiting was bad, the reality was absolutely awful. The piano was on the platform of an otherwise empty school hall. The examiner sat at a table on the side of the stage behind the piano stool so that he could see me, whereas I could only hear a disembodied voice. But the piano! It was a concert grand. I had never before met one face to face. All my teaching and practice and previous exams had been on an upright. Much more homely and less intimidating. And there is one massive difference. On an upright the music stand is roughly on eye-level so that you can read the music and also see the position of your hands on the keys more or less at the same time. On a grand the music stand is about 20cm higher, which means that to read your music you have to look up and lose visual contact with the keyboard. If like me you wear glasses then you have to re-focus each time you look up or down.

This black monster sat glaring at me, it's lid open as though it were going to eat me. Somehow I got on to the piano stool and fumbled with my music until I had it on the stand, It was well up above my eye-line. I tried to take a deep breath and concentrate but I couldn't stop trembling.

At the command I started to play the first of my three pieces. It quickly unravelled, so much so that the examiner suggested I take a few minutes to get used to the instrument and then try again. I did my best and stumbled through all of the pieces. Then there was the sight-reading, clapping of rhythms and the rest of the theory stuff. The examiner thanked me for my efforts and that was it. I somehow got back to the waiting room to get my coat. To my surprise Mark was still there, waiting for me. I flopped down and he came and sat near me. He asked me how it went and I started to tell him. Before I could do anything about it I was in tears. The tension, the horrible environment, the not wanting to even be here in he first place all got to me and I melted. I felt Mark's arm across my shoulders. He said nothing but just waited until I was cried out. Then he gave me a couple of tissues to clean up. Eventually I was something like human. He took me by the arm and helped me downstairs and out of the building.

He led me to a small café just around the corner and ordered hot chocolate before steering me to a seat near the back where the light was dimmer. I was more than happy to let him take control.

As we sat and talked I was able to look at is face properly. I thought he was somehow familiar but I could not pin it down. At some point I asked him what school he was at. "Yours. I'm Year 9, just above you." Oh. That Mark. The captain of the school chess team. The team that was top of the local league. That Mark. And I was blubbing all over him and letting him mop me up. "You're Mark Beeston?" I burbled. "Yes, and you're Ian Mills."

Under his tactful questioning I began to tell him of frustrations with music and how I hated the whole business and wanted to give it all up. "Don't do that" he said, "music is wonderful, you just need a different kind of teaching." He was so soothing I almost felt as though I could hand the whole problem over to him and he would solve it for me.

I looked at my phone and found we had been there almost an hour. The time flew by and I didn't want it to ever end. I also remembered that I was supposed to call my Mother and tell her how it went. I made the call and explained what had happened, leaving out the embarrassing stuff about crying all over Mark and dribbling snot down my chin.

Mark walked with me to the bus-stop. We established that he lived not far from me and we could use the same bus to get home. We sat rather awkwardly together on an upstairs seat and talked about nothing. You never knew who might be listening.

Was that the day I fell in love? No. That day was all about my misery and unhappiness and the emotion of finding someone who seemed interested in me. I was certainly interested in him in ways I could not understand.

We got off the bus and stood by the bus-stop. "Can we meet again some time" he asked. Suddenly my useless brain leaped in to action: "It could be difficult to meet at school. Would you like to come around and play our piano?" He seemed taken with the idea. Just before we parted I remembered that we needed each other's numbers.

It was difficult to meet at school, even though we both tried to make it work. For a start there was never much mixing outside our own year groups, and anyway lessons and free time seemed not to coincide. So we texted a lot. He asked me for a photo and I sent him one and he sent me his. I set it up as the background on my phone and then realised that the parents might see it and wonder why it was there, so I saved it. It got pulled out and looked at several times a day. I could get quite soppy looking at him, looking in to those dreamy eyes and the soft curl of his hair. Could I ever tell him those things?

Mark came around most weeks and increasingly at weekends as well. I went to his house, which was a bit posher than ours. Mark's piano was what I discovered was called a baby grand which looked a little like the exam monster, but shorter. My Mother would insist on asking whether Mark was coming around to play. God, if she said that in his hearing I would die of shame. I would have to hope that he would think she was referring to playing the piano and not to some kiddy play-date. Did she not notice that I was growing up and changing?

I told my Mother and Father that I was not going to see Mrs Barret for piano lessons any more. I explained that I liked playing and that's what I wanted to do, not be fodder for some crazy woman's hang-ups with status. We tried Mark's teacher but he already had all the students he could handle. He put us on to another teacher, a young graduate who was just starting out. His name was Paul and he said he would take me on a probationary basis, three months and see how we both felt.

I went to his house, about five bus-stops away on a rather busy road, too busy to cycle in safety. The fact that he had an upright piano was a great bonus for me and gave us something to talk through at the first meeting. I liked his easy manner, and that I always got a drink and a biscuit when I arrived. As far as he was concerned exams were things to be done if I wanted to. I didn't, and the topic was never discussed again. We worked through so many pieces of so many different types. This was exactly what I wanted and I suddenly found that I really enjoyed playing. He showed me a book of classical themes arranged for about my level of capability. Instead of boring five-finger exercises I got Bach preludes. He introduced me to the melodies of Schubert and Mendelssohn, the elegant construction of Mozart's works, the very English lyricism of Elgar and the solid musicality of Vaughan Williams. I enjoyed the pompous grandeur of Handel and the Baroque era. He encouraged me to look around his collection of music and I found Shostakovich. I'd heard the name and I thought his work was frightening, but in fact it was light and fun. Suddenly I was enjoying playing for it's own sake and actively looking forward to going to lessons. My parents were persuaded to get the piano tuned and I was soaring.

I would babble away to Mark when he came round and tell him of the latest things I was working on. Sometimes he would try them out as well. I found that Mark enjoyed making his own arrangements of music, and had even written some pieces of his own. One day when I was enthusing about a new piece I had started I noticed that Mark seemed very quiet. I finally stopped talking and went to sit with him. Something was wrong. "What is it? Has something happened?

"You have. You've changed."

"I've changed? I don't think so."

"You spend all he time talking about Paul and how good he is. I don't seem to have any part in this."

"Of course I'm not leaving you out. I don't talk about Paul all the time."

"You do. It's all you care about."

I had never met jealousy before and I had no clear idea of how to cope. I have no siblings so I had never experienced it through that route. I had no idea how corrosive and destructive it could be, how it fed on suspicion and misunderstanding. All I could do was to protest that, yes I liked Paul a lot, but it was because of what he taught me and how he taught it. I had not notion of how deep and complicated the relationship between Mark and I had become.

That evening straight after tea Mark left to go home. There was an obviously strained atmosphere that even my Mother picked up on. I couldn't tell her what it was about but she must have sensed that there was some real tension between us, and maybe even guessed why.

I couldn't sleep that night for worry. Eventually at 2:00am I broke the ban on using mobiles after bedtime. I knew I had to do something. I sent Mark a text telling him that Paul was only about music and that he, Mark, was my very special friend. The reply came by return, which I found interesting since he was also banned from using his device after hours, and must have been awake just as I was. His reply was noncommittal and just said 'see you sometime'. I was in agony.

Was that when I fell in love? Was that when I first knew what love was about and how much it could hurt? I don't think we were there yet.

Mum was obviously worried about the atmosphere and maybe even talked to Dad about it. The next day was Wednesday, then it would be Thursday, piano lesson day. Usually I was all up for it but there was a reluctance. If I went on seeing Paul would I drive Mark away? I could not even consider the possibility. Had I already driven him off?

I couldn't settle to anything. A dozen times or more I reached for my phone. Would I phone him, or would a text be best? Do nothing and wait for him to contact me? I dithered around and did nothing. The same unspoken conversations kept going round obsessively in my head.

I tried to turn on the TV and found the battery in the remote was dead. It needed a screwdriver to undo the cover so I wandered in to the garage to get one. My Father was already there, tinkering with some piece of kit as usual. I told him what I wanted and as he handed it to me he said very quietly "do you want to talk?" "What about?" I said angrily. "Nothing to talk about."

I think there is, son. The house is full of your unhappiness. What's happened?"

"Nothing. I'm all right."

"That's not what I'm sensing from you. You're really sad and you don't know what to do about it." He'd got me nailed there. I muttered something about being OK and I was about to walk out when he said "I've been here, you know. I know what it feels like."

What? How could he possibly know what I was experiencing? This was my pain. But all the same I held back from leaving. Dad quietly closed the door into the kitchen so that Mum could not hear.

"Let me tell you a story. When I was a young man I shared a cottage with another man in a little village. It was the kind of place where everyone knew what everyone else was doing, so you had to be careful. Anyway the two of us were great friends, actually he was a very special kind of friend. I sort of thought that we would stay together, maybe for years, maybe for our lives."

Dad was looking in to the far distance. I assumed he was visiting somewhere special in his past. His voice took on a same faraway sound.

"His name was … Actually it doesn't matter what his name was. He was very special to me and I thought I was to him. The trouble was that being young I did not invest enough time and effort in to the relationship. He drifted away from me and I didn't notice. And then one day he told me he was going to move in with another person. Another man. Someone I didn't even knew and had never heard of and didn't know he was seeing. If I had paid more attention I might have held on to him, but I didn't. And then he was gone."

"What happened after that?" I asked. "Nothing. At least not in that direction. I completely lost track of him, of course it was before mobile phones and computers so tracking people was difficult. I just lost him and I never heard from him again." There was a trembling note in Dad's voice that I had never heard before. He seemed to be choking up.

I kept quiet, uncertain of what to do. At last he turned his face to look straight at me. "Don't let that happen" he said. "If he matters to you then do something about it today. Now."

I had often wondered whether my Dad would give me 'the talk' and I supposed it would be about the perils of unprotected sex. Not this. I had just been outed by my Father, and I had not yet even said out loud to myself that I might be gay. He knew I was, and had even suggested that he might have gone that way himself. I was completely lost for words. And for good measure Dad had outed himself to me. This was something for the two of us to explore another time. I hoped it would be soon.

I put my arms around him and he gave me a rather oily hug and then suddenly the two of us were crying. There was no more point in being defensive or pretending there was nothing wrong. The whole mess was out in the open.

"Dad, what should I do?"

"First thing is to call him. Text if you can't speak, but speaking is better. Tell him it is all a mistake. Ask him to meet you, not here or at his place, somewhere neutral. Tell him how much he matters to you. Meet as soon as possible, even today if you can. If you want me to take you somewhere just say, but it'll be better if you go alone."

I hugged him again then a horrible thought hit me: "What if he says no?"

Don't let it happen. Push for at least a chance to explain whatever it is you need to. Don't be afraid to say sorry but make sure you mean it."

Then another horrible thought struck me. "What about Mum? What do I tell her? What does she know?"

"Don't worry about your Mother. That's my problem to deal with. You've got enough to handle on your own. Now go."

I never did know what Dad said to Mum, or when, or what she thought.

Back in my room I quickly turned over whether I should phone, or text, or maybe even go to Mark's house. In the end I decided to call first. My hands were shaking as I turned my phone on and called up Mark's number. He answered almost immediately. He didn't sound angry, just upset. I pushed my case, about needing to explain and to talk, but I really stressed how much he meant to me and how special he was. I probably overdid it, but hell, there was everything to lose.

"Where do you want to meet? Not here."

"No" I said. "Somewhere else." Inspiration struck. "What about the café where you took me after that awful exam. I can get there in twenty minutes." He agreed, a bit reluctantly. Maybe he just needed me to grovel a bit more. I didn't care.

"Dad I'm off" I yelled in the general direction of the garage. Dad shouted "Go" as I rammed my feet into my trainers and shot out of the door. Then I ran back upstairs to get my phone and left the house again. I had no money, no keys to get back in, not even a coat. But I did have a clear mission.

I got there first and was able to bag the same table as before, at the back. I sat with my back to the door so that I would not see him come in. I couldn't bear it if I saw rejection on his face. I heard him come up behind me and then, without a word he sat down opposite. Apparently it was for me to open the batting. I wanted to grab his hand, but we had not got to that stage yet.

Actually I have no clear recollection of what we said, or even how we started saying it. I know that I went through Dad's checklist of things to be sure to say. Mark opened up a bit and told me what it felt like to be left out. At some point the owner of the café came up and reminded us that he was closing in thirty minutes and how about ordering something. Mark had a fiver with him so we got more hot chocolate and we went on talking. At the end of the half hour we had to leave but at least by then the tension had eased. As we stood awkwardly outside the café another inspiration struck.

"Mark, will you come with me to Paul's on Thursday for my lesson? He's heard so much about you and your playing. He'd like to meet you and you could play him one of your compositions. I'll tell him you're going to with me. Please say yes." He said he'd think about it. I prayed that it would not be too long.

We travelled back together by bus. We were chatting reasonably freely. At our stop he stood up to go, turned to me and said "OK, I'll come. Tell me what the arrangement is."

I babbled my thanks and he went off. I left the bus-stop, walking on air. I didn't notice how cold it was, or that I had no coat. I had to ring our doorbell and I heard my Mother coming to answer it. Then I heard my Father saying rather loudly "I'll get it" and he opened the door. There was a question written all over his face. I leaned in and whispered "We're talking." "Good boy" he whispered back then he called out "It's Ian."

Mum never asked me where I'd been, which was really unusual. Dad must have given her a pretty good briefing. The atmosphere in the house was interesting, as we sat down to tea. Elephant in the room came to mind. We chattered about nothing in particular though it must have obvious to the parents that something important had happened. I told them that Mark was going to go with me to Paul's on Thursday, and I saw my Father's eyebrows shoot up questioningly. I gave him a big smile to signal it was a good thing.

That evening before bed I texted Mark to tell him how happy I was. I thought of talking, but really I wanted him to have something to read, that he could keep and re-read if he wanted to.

Then as an afterthought I texted Paul and asked him if it would be OK for Mark to come along.

Was that when I fell in love? I think not because of the tension, the uncertainty, and even some doubt about whether what I had done was a good thing. But as Dad said when he came to wish me goodnight, "Forget what's been said, you can't unsay it or make it different. Concentrate on moving forward from this."

After school on Thursday Mark came to our house. He would not come in, but we walked together to the bus and went to Paul's place. I told Mark that I always took off my shoes at the door then I rang the bell. The door was opened by a woman I had never seen before. She was young, about Paul's age. "Hi" she said "I'm Annie." As though that was an explanation. We kicked off our shoes and I led Mark through to the studio, and there Paul introduced us to Annie. "My fiancé. We're getting married next month."

It was one of those moments when the universe gently but firmly re-arranged itself. I had never heard that there was a fiancé in the wings, but then as a school-boy student what business was it of mine. Only now suddenly it was very much my business. Mark sagged slightly at the shoulders as the implications of the introduction sank home.

The lesson, if such it was, was a laugh. Annie produced squash and cake. Mark played one of his compositions and he and Paul got heavily involved with an analysis of it. Then Paul dug out a book of piano duets and suggested we try one. It was by a composer called Aleksandr Borodin (or so it said on the cover). It was called In the steppes of Central Asia and was a lovely tune. If you haven't met a piano duet before, it is for two hands (obviously). The lead (usually the pupil, called the Primo) plays on the top end of the keyboard while the teacher (Secundo) plays on the lower half. We tried running through the two separate arrangements and then played them together. It was a lovely piece, full of Slavic emotion and an incredible sense of atmosphere. It apparently portrays a camel- train coming in to view, passing the composer, and the fading away in to the distance. It was written for the celebration of some Tsar doing something or other. All that didn't matter as I could feel Mark's body moving alongside me as we sat together on the piano stool. He was lost in his music, and I was lost in him. If I could have, I would have kissed him there and then. I wonder what Paul and Annie would have thought. My instinct is that they would have been thrilled.

In the bus on the way home Mark was very quiet. We sat together, mostly just looking out of the window. By the time we got to our mutual stop it was almost dark. We got off the bus and watched it drive off. I had no idea how to continue the mood or what to do next. But Mark solved that. Behind the stop was a passageway that led between the houses to the playing fields behind. He drew me in there and we stood facing each other. He took my hands in his. In a voice just above a whisper he said "I'm sorry, I got it all wrong." And then he drew me to him and we kissed. After some time we had to break our hug. I said "Come to my place and say hello to my parents." This time I had my key. As I let us in I called out "Mum, Dad we're back." My Dad made it to the hall first. One glance told him all he needed to know. He took Mark's hand in a proper manly shake and said "Welcome again. I'm so happy too see you". Mum of course made a fuss, as though we had returned from a foreign expedition. Which, in a sense, we had.

That Saturday Mark came around. He'd made a duet arrangement of one his own pieces. When I looked at it something seemed very odd. The primo part was obviously to be played on the middle section of the keyboard while the secundo part had to be played at the extreme top and bottom. It could only be done if the primo player stood between the outstretched arms of the secundo. He sat on the piano stool and motioned me to sit on his lap. After some adjustment we started to play and I became aware that there was a bulge developing in his crotch: it matched the one in my own trousers. We got to the end somehow and at the then I turned round to face him. Even though he was taller than me, I was standing and he was still sitting so I had to bend down a little. This had the unexpected effect of making my bottom stick out and play an unrehearsed cadenza on the middle keys. Helpless with laughter we collapsed on to the sofa.

Sometime later he said "I've got a gift for you" and produced a CD. It was called something like Composers of the French Romantic . "Listen to this." He put on a piece I had never heard before. Even though outside it was a grey late October, in the house it became a wonderful soft French summer afternoon. As I lay back in his arms we listened to Claude Debussy's L'Apres-midi d'un Faun . Mark nuzzled my ear and told me it was the single most erotic piece of music ever written. When it was over I had him put it on again, then again. Then I asked him to come upstairs with me.

I can tell you that if you want background music to the moment you lose your virginity to a gentle considerate lover then the beautifully measured beat of Erik Satie's Gymnopedie is it. And for afters? Faure's Pavane .

That was when I fell in love.

A month later Mark played for Paul and Annie's wedding in the local Parish church. I was honorary page-turner.

Years later I met Paul in the street. We chatted a bit and he suddenly said "That day was very special. Probably the best lesson I've ever taught. There was something electric in the air." I told him how special it had been for me too. Then he asked about Mark. "Your friend what's he doing now?"

"Oh, he's at home. Waiting for me." As indeed he was. He would be playing his old baby grand, now with a special adaptation so that as well as the usual high music stand, it has one on my eye-level.

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