by Rafael Henry

Chapter 22

Sorrow begets kindness.

I want somewhere quiet where I can think, or not think, on my own and away from the rapidly diminishing group of boys awaiting collection, or a taxi to the station maybe. The School Chapel is the perfect place, avoided by the boys by and large because it has associations that bore them, like services they have to attend, and concepts that fly in the face of their most basic instincts, namely filth of one sort or another. Mind you, from what I've heard, a little bit of naughtiness is not out of the question amongst the officialdom of the Church of England [and others]; no different I suppose than any other 'caring' institution that has the power to beat the hide of us. I use the side entrance thinking it less likely that anyone will notice my going in, or my coming out. But someone has noticed.

Roger Manning, the School Chaplain has seen me. He doesn't miss much. He's been saying a few farewells to boys, and hellos to their people collecting them in cars. Otta is one of those, like me, having to wait a little longer. I know nothing of Otta's circumstances, where he lives or what kind of home he's from. Roger will always notice Otta who is standing with his friend Tim, Roger's adopted son, for that reason. Tim is dressed in the familiar scruffy summer casuals fit for the warm weather, and Otta stands upright, in smart uniform as ever, but sans blazer, hands in pockets which in a certain way is emphasizing that cute bottom of his. He's shot up this summer so his wrists show when he's wearing his dark navy blazer. Whatever he's dressed in looks good on him. He's that type.

Almost everybody is out on the gravel forecourt of the ever-so-slightly-grand-and-pretentious Main Building, all façade, enjoying the atmosphere of release, and relief that's it's almost over for another year. Roger walks over to Otta and Tim. Otta looks up, always slightly in awe of the cleric. Tim, with a tendency to be naughty and not listen, is distracted by something and looking elsewhere.

'Can you go and check the Chapel in a couple of minutes please Otta. I think someone has just gone in there. Best check that they're alright? Tim, no need for you to go darling.' He says as he turns to Tim, his mind still elsewhere.

'And gently does it Otta. I think it was Jonathan.'

Yes, gently does it please. But Otta would never other than his gentle self. If you want to laugh, he'll laugh with you, and the opposite too. He's a very easy boy to love.

I had parked myself three pews back from the front on the right-hand side of the centre aisle with its patterned encaustic tiles on the floor, the same side as the pipe organ with its brightly painted ornamental steel tubes [that I'm told actually do nothing] showing at the front, 1885 being the date painted at the bottom of the nearest grey tube, alongside the organ builder's name; Henry Willis. I like the sound of it when played loud and strong. It always makes my eyes prickle for some reason I've never fathomed. It's where the boys sing in neat rows, to the north and south sides, most attentive farthest away from our Music Director, smallest and silliest nearest, at the front, and the oldest boys with lower voices on the back row behind them. In front of them is where Otta sings. We always sit in the same place, and I can see Otta, a side view, very slightly behind him, and a back view when they face the Director of Music and his waving conducting hands. Very clever all that stuff. Prickly eye time. The figures of the boys and teenagers, and the nearly-men look dark against the blazing light from the huge east window with its flying angels, golden birds in air, gold against blue, dark against light, good versus evil, all love excelling.

I have felt it welling up inside me for a few minutes now. I've come here to get release. A sort of psychological and emotional dumping of everything in my head right now. Roger always tells us that this is the place where we can go, should go, to let it all out when we need to. No one will ever interfere with what goes on in a boy's head and heart when he needs this time with his thoughts. It's not the first time for me I've come in here, and no doubt it will not be the last. I'm not thinking straight, not really thinking at all; just feeling. Roger warned us about this time of our lives; how tricky it can be; and it surely is. Love divine, all loves excelling, it says in front of me. Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know. There's a list of Old Boys on the wall. 1914-1918. A boy called Archibald. His body still lies in the mud on some foreign field; somewhere unknown probably and just below the reach of the plough, hopefuly. And another stone tablet next to it with far fewer names on it. 1939-1945. Then in that little window, a young man's face in air force blue uniform, the image divided up with black lines of lead, but the light shining through to perpetuate his memory. His dates are underneath. Soon I shall have to let go. I'm thinking of Lael, a grey ghostly face now, once pale cream and ethereal that covered my face so many times; and still does surely? A figure in the sky, falling hapless to the ground, broken as it pierces the ice, to disappear into the dark and icy depths. Higher up come those feelings now. No, try to hang on for just a few moments? Don't spoil the memories as my eyes cloud over, brimming. Think of Lael once more. Love divine, all loves excelling. Yes he is here. He's touching my shoulder.

Half way down the stairs I could hear my mother crying. I never heard my mother crying before. I knew something dreadful has happened.

I had heard Otta come into the building, I thought, thinking back. Now there is his presence, as Lael steps aside, just a foot of golden-brown wooden pew between us. I can't see him clearly; just a blurry shape but I know it's him. He must have been sitting there for a while during my outpouring, my body shaking with remembered grief returned. Oh dear. With my head in my hands, I'm staring at the wooden boards that appear between my knees, stained with dark dots of wetness. The figure beside me moves closer. There's an arm around me now. My outpouring begins once more as we join our tears together.

And then the quiet, separated now. The worst is over; tension released.

'Are you ok?' He says, touching me lightly on the thigh. Of course I'm not, but I nod. I'm breathing faster than normal. I touch his hand. He responds by taking mine properly. It's what Lael would have done. It's what Lael did do. He always did that. Minutes pass. Emotions calm.

Otta releases my hand and stands beside me, the tiny hairs on his legs standing up oddly, the skin on his knees smooth. That little bicycle accident scar showing a deeper tone of pink. I look a little higher. The paler skin where the sun rarely touches him. Higher still. How quickly he might respond, his little sex buried in there behind the layers, as yet unseen by me; unfelt by me, unsatisfied by me. He stands. I look again. He smiles and sees me look. Then he moves to the wooden bench in front of the keyboard of the organ console and sits down, fingers outstretch. There's a whirring sound as the electric motor starts that will drive the air through the pipes and make those haunting sounds I know so well. The small electric switch operates the pump, just to the right and below the console. The boy leans over and down to push it.

'Shall I play?' He says, looking back at me just ten feet away. I nod and smile.

It only lasts perhaps three or four minutes. Even I recognize some errors, non- musician that I am, but that doesn't matter. I look at the back of the boy playing, feet just touching the long wooden pedals below him, pushing down to let the low notes out. The long dextrous fingers pressing the notes down, and slowly comes the tune, the look of concentration on his face. The changes of expression, the head movements, the hands. Such beauty. Such control. And like so many good things, it's over too soon. How on earth can anyone coordinate all those keys and stops and pedals, not just with their hands, but their feet at the same time?

'Can I tell you about my idea Jon?' He says, his hands on the cool wood of the pew now, face alight, distracting face, pulling me out from the hole I had fallen into. The blur has focused now, the mist has cleared, and what was just an impression has taken shape.

'What idea?' I ask.

'They've asked me if I can help. They are short of volunteers Jon. It'll be fun. It's only one week.'

'Who has. Help what?'

'Summer Camp. You know. It starts in a week.'

Yes I knew about it. Everyone knows about it. It happens every year. The facilities get used and it makes money for the school. Extra cash for the tutors too. Lots of boarding schools run these events in the summer holidays. Residential and non-residential. There's a brochure that goes out with full details of all the activities on offer, ranging from various sports and games, musical activities, art workshops, academic tutoring, all aimed at the local community as well as those from farther afield. The Reverend Roger Manning told me about it ages ago. There's a small Multi Faith Awareness group too. He runs it. Would I be interested in that he once asked? Not really.

'There are a hundred and twenty people coming Jon. They need some boys who know the place to act as liaison ; whatever that is.'

'Helping out Otta. Showing people where things are. Making yourself useful. You'd be good at that.'

There's always an appeal for helpers, but no boy in his right mind wants to spend more time in this place than he has too surely? All you want to do is to get home and forget the place. We'll be back here in the wink of an eye anyway.

'You said you weren't going anywhere this summer. Why not Jon? Roger says I can stay in the Hut. You could too if you wanted to.'

I thought for a moment about what Otta had just announced. A moment later I had made up my mind. I told Otta. From his reaction, I think he was rather pleased.

He's rejoined me on the wooden pew. It's the first time my face has been so close to his. Warm sweet breath. We don't touch, but I know we will.

I asked him what he had played for me, for it was for me that he had played.

'Man's desiring Jon. The joy of. I thought you would like it. Anyway it's the only decent thing I can play; so far.' He says smiling. Eyes shining.

Man's desiring? My mind drifts towards one man's desiring. Why shouldn't he? But desiring is one thing.

And now there's this boy that sits beside me. I can feel the warmth of him, right now. His delicate perfume that the warm weather makes in him, mixed with the faint remains of incense hanging in the thickened sacred air. There's a kind of certainty about all this. I know he's mine now, with just one condition; if he wants me too.

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