One of Us

by Richard Campbell

Chapter 2

As the days passed Mark and Peter got into the habit of spending most of their free time together and Mark discovered the joy of having a friend. He was still very reserved and didn't talk much but as Peter could talk enough for two (as he freely admitted!) it didn't seem to matter that he contributed little to their conversations.

As he got to know his friend better he found that the more he learnt the more puzzled he became. Not only was Peter extremely well informed about almost everything, he appeared to have led such a full life and experienced so many events and adventures that Mark wondered how he could have crammed them into a life that was only a few months longer than his own. Amongst other places he had even lived on the western coast of France for some years, for heaven's sake, and to Mark's admittedly ignorant ear, spoke the language fluently. Peter explained that his father, a self employed financial consultant, had to move to wherever the work happened to be.

The remark struck a chord of dread in Mark's heart. How long would it be before the Dorans moved again? When he recalled what his life had been like before Peter appeared he knew that he wouldn't find it easy to go back to loneliness and isolation. He never mentioned it because he wasn't sure how Peter would react. He liked him tremendously and it was obvious that Peter liked him return, which he still found strange, but he didn't feel confident enough to talk to him about a subject so close to his heart.

In the meantime, there was much practise to be done in preparation for his visit to the Dorans. In a typically ruthless fashion, Peter had sat him down at the school piano one afternoon and made him play through his entire repertoire before putting a programme together.

"I can't play as long as that," Mark objected in dismay as he contemplated Peter's list. "They'll be bored out of their minds."

"Of course they won't," retorted Peter scornfully, "You don't know them, they'll love it. Next I think you should play…"

"No!" Mark interrupted so forcefully that Peter looked up in surprise. It was the first time Mark had used that tone of voice. "It's too much. I'm not going to play anything else. It's not fair to expect people to listen for so long."

"They'll appreciate and enjoy it. Trust me, I know they will. But we'll leave it at this if you want," he acquiesced, and left Mark to practise while he attended a strenuous football training session.

When he came quietly into the room an hour later, Mark was concentrating so hard he didn't notice until Peter sat down beside him.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to make you jump."

Mark gave him the small smile that he was finding more and more appealing. "It's okay," he murmured, then added shyly, "You look hot," and daringly put out a hand to touch Peter's arm. "You're sweating."

"Sorry," Peter replied, pleased. "I didn't shower. I probably stink."

Without thinking Mark bent his head and inhaled. "You smell fine to me. Nice," he added, then went red.

Peter smiled, grasped Mark's arms, put his nose against his chest and sniffed dramatically. "You do too. Let me see," he went on with the air of a connoisseur about to describe a rare and expensive wine. "This young lad has a marvellous bouquet, very fresh and piquant with a hint of maturity that will improve as he ages. I would advise that he is worth laying down and keeping for a few months before he is opened and enjoyed," he added suggestively. "Now for the supreme test. How he tastes!" And before the giggling boy realised what he intended, Peter pulled him close and kissed him.

It was so unexpected that Mark's mind admitted defeat and gave up. When it finally resumed work he found that he was still being held firmly. Peter, his face close to his own, looked as if he was about kiss him again. His brain was clearly malfunctioning because half of it wanted Peter to kiss him while the other half, well aware of his father's views on the subject, shied away from what was an unmistakably queer action.

"I did it because I like you," Peter said quietly, correctly interpreting the expression on his face. "In fact I've wanted to do it ever since I saw you that first day in class."

Mark's heart was beating rather fast. He had no idea what to say to the serious boy holding him.

"It's not bad you know, unless you think it is."

"I…" Mark began. How could it not be bad? Everything he had ever heard told him it was, from his father's unpleasant remarks on the subject, to his church's vicious teaching with its concomitant threat of mortal sin and burning in hell forever. He gazed helplessly at the other boy.

Peter knew he had been too premature but was finding Mark more attractive by the day and hadn't been able to stop himself. He thought about it for a minute, wondering how to handle the situation. Should he tell Mark the truth, some of it at any rate, or pass it off lightly? He decided on the latter. It was simply too soon.

"Listen to me, Mark. French people kiss each other on both cheeks as a matter of course and I got into the habit while we were in France. It doesn't mean anything." Scrutinising Mark's face, he thought he detected a trace of disappointment and went on, "But I meant it when I told you I liked you and if so, why shouldn't I kiss you? My parents kiss me because they like me and I do the same because I like them. I'm used to kissing people, and being kissed."

Mark finally found his tongue. "Do they really, I mean, does," he hesitated, then emboldened by Peter's encouraging nod went on, "What I mean is, does your father kiss you?"

"Of course he does," replied Peter, grasping the opportunity to find out a little more about him. "Doesn't yours?"

"You must be joking," Mark responded bitterly. "He doesn't even talk to me."

"What, never?" Peter asked, wondering if he was going to hear Mark say that his father didn't understand him.

"He doesn't talk to me, he talks at me. When he isn't giving orders."

"You mean telling you what time to be home, things like that?"

"Oh no, not like that. Orders. Orders to get my room ready for inspection, or that I'm on KP."


"You know, like in the army. Kitchen Patrol. He used to be in the army. He's 'Captain Gordon' and that's what I have to call him. It's a wonder he doesn't make me salute whenever I see him."

"You're the one who's joking," interjected the astonished Peter. "He's your father, not your, your, commanding officer."

"Oh yes he is. I have to answer 'Yes sir' or 'No sir' to whatever he says, and stand at attention."

"Is he the one who made you think that you shouldn't kiss people, or let them kiss you?" asked Peter shrewdly.

"He would say it was queer and only, only homos and poofs do it."

"He sounds as if he came out of the ark," Peter responded, pleased to see Mark smile slightly. "Listen, I know he's your father, but he could be wrong, you know."

"Maybe he is wrong, but he is my father and I have to listen to him."

"Well, when you're with me you don't have to care what he thinks or says," Peter declared reassuringly, and feeling that the boy had told him as much as he was going to for the moment, changed the subject.

In bed that night Mark's mind kept returning to the kiss. He knew in his heart of hearts that, despite of Peter's assertion, it was wrong for boys to kiss each other and although he hadn't solicited it, he was to blame in some way and would have to pay for it sooner or later. The trouble was, he recollected guiltily, he had so many things to pay for already it was probably going to take all eternity to atone for what he'd done since sex had begun to figure so largely in his life. Judged against the acts he had already committed a single kiss he hadn't asked for didn't seem to be such an enormous thing but he had been well schooled in his religion by both the Captain and his parish priest and was well aware that even thinking about sex was a sin. But he couldn't stop thinking about it and deep down, once he had got over his surprise, he had thoroughly enjoyed Peter's kiss and wouldn't have minded if he had done it again. It followed, therefore, that as he was already destined to go hell forever he could hardly be punished any further.

He was wondering if he'd got that right when another thought occurred to him. Wasn't an eternity of suffering, of the most severe nature according to what he'd been told, rather excessive for a couple of seconds of pleasure however intense? It seemed inconsistent with the concept of a loving and forgiving God. Greatly daring, he wondered if the Church had got it wrong, or whether God was in fact a vicious entity who enjoyed punishing people.

Whatever the case, the fact remained that for fifteen years he had been indoctrinated into beliefs which included an uncompromising prohibition of any form of homosexuality, all sex outside marriage, and a total proscription of any sexual thoughts whatsoever. The injunctions had been ingrained deeply into his psyche and would not be easily abandoned. Recalling Peter kissing him was a serious sin in itself, and far worse, he knew that he would not have said no had it gone a lot further than that. When he recalled the feel of Peter's hands soaping his back in the shower his penis began to fill. He tried to turn his thoughts away but it was a battle he always lost and this time was no exception. Giving in, his guilt increased when his uncontrollable imagination presented him with a picture of what it would be like if it was Peter's hand manipulating him instead of his own.

His tension assuaged, in contrast to the increase in his guilt, he finally fell asleep.

When he met Peter at school the following morning those thoughts were still very much on his mind and he was more than usually self-conscious. He couldn't help wondering what Peter would say if he knew what he'd been thinking, to say nothing of doing, before he fell asleep. Peter seemed to like him, which was a very comforting thought, and he didn't want anything to spoil it. He had become very dependent on this friendship and was seriously worried that if his friend found out what he was really like he wouldn't want anything to do with him. As often happened when he was feeling upset or unsure of himself, his attitude became self destructive and he gave the impression of being sulky and indifferent.

Peter, who had realised soon after they met that Mark couldn't help himself when he was in this state, became really worried when it looked as if his attitude was going to get him into trouble during maths, the final lesson of the day.

It was his worst subject, with the possible exception of PE at which, with Peter's assistance, he was making a small improvement, but maths was the bane of his existence. He didn't understand the concepts, had difficulty with anything more advanced than the basics and loathed the entire subject. The run in with his teacher came towards the end of the lesson when after trying hard to grasp something, and failing, he was told that he was bone idle and wasn't trying. The remark which was both untrue and unfair, made him furious.

He said nothing but his face went scarlet and he shook off Peter's hand angrily when he discreetly attempted to calm him down. Fortunately, after five blistering minutes, the teacher lost interest and allowed him to resume his seat where he sullenly brooded over his wrongs for the remainder of the lesson. When the bell went he was the first out of the door and Peter wasn't able to catch up with him until he had walked out of the gate. Saying nothing he walked quietly beside the angry boy. Gradually, as he knew would happen, Mark's anger began to diminish and he began to feel sorry for himself.

"I suppose you think I'm stupid and lazy too," Mark muttered, looking down at his feet and wishing he hadn't said it as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Suppose Peter said yes?

"I know that you're not either of them, but I don't think you handle people well."

"What do you mean?" Mark demanded aggressively. "What was I supposed to do, call him a liar?"

"Of course not. But the thing is, you didn't say anything at all did you? You just looked ready to kill someone."

"That's what I felt like. I'd like to burn the whole bloody place down. I'm sick of it!"

He looked so much like a small boy that Peter wanted to give him a hug but the street was too busy. All he could do was link arms with him.

"We all feel like that sometimes but it's something we have to put up with."

"Well I'm not putting up with it for any longer than I have to," responded Mark angrily. "I don't care what they say."


"Everyone," he replied comprehensively, if rather obscurely. "Where are we going?"

"To my house."


Peter smiled. "Because I want you to. Come on, Mark," he went on after a pause. "If you go home in the mood you're in, you'll get into even more trouble."

"I can't come with you."


"Because I've got all this homework to do."

"So? We'll do it together. It won't take long if we both work on it and you won't spend all night worrying about it."

"I don't worry about bloody homework," growled Mark sullenly.

"Well, when it's done you won't need to. Come on Mark. Please? I want you to come with me. It's Friday, if we get it done tonight you'll have the whole weekend free."

Mark was attracted by the idea. He always did his homework on Fridays but invariably there would be something unfinished which he had to tackle on Sunday evening, and the whole thing hung over him and spoilt the weekend.

"Are you sure it will be okay?" he asked, weakening.

"'Course I am. Em and Vic will be really pleased to see you when they get home."

"Who are Em and Vic?" Peter had never mentioned siblings.

Peter grinned. "My parents you dope. They were asking the other day when they were going to see you again."

Mark frowned. His own case was different, but other kids, when they spoke of their parents—if they talked of them at all—didn't use their first names. It was Mum and Dad, or my folks, or whatever. Peter was funny. He was trying to imagine discussing his own parents in those terms, Arthur and Prudence instead of Father and Mother, when another thought struck him. Peter, like his contemporaries, always mentioned his mother first. It was 'Mother and Father' or 'Mum and Dad'. He on the other hand always referred to his father first, and frequently left out his mother altogether. Another difference between himself and other people to ponder on.

It was difficult, though, when walking beside Peter to think about anything except him. He suddenly awoke to the fact that Peter's arm was still linked with his. He'd been too angry earlier to notice. Straight away he became self conscious. What would people think if they saw? It didn't seem to worry his companion. Unconsciously he made a small movement of withdrawal and Peter, with a slightly twisted smile, let him go. If he had realised that Mark immediately regretted breaking the contact, he would have been happier.

Well at least I've kissed him Peter told himself, and he didn't have too much of a fit. And while they walked, talking about nothing in particular, he made up his mind to do it again at the first opportunity.

Mark was envious as soon as he walked through the front door. The house wasn't particularly untidy but it certainly wasn't as spotlessly sterile as his own home. It had a comfortable, lived in feel, and he decided straight away that it was a happy place. He hadn't been invited to other people's homes often so had never thought about it previously but there was a sort of casual cheerfulness about it which dispersed the last of his bad temper. The only thing that kept him slightly on edge was the thought of meeting Peter's parents again. As Peter had discovered, he wasn't very good with people. His shyness made him tongue tied and his poor self image made him feel that people were being critical, and probably scornful as well. He followed Peter into the kitchen.

"What would you like to drink?" Peter asked, peering into the fridge. "There's coke, or lemonade, orange or grape juice, tomato juice…" the list seemed endless.

"May I have coke please? If you're having something too," he added, not wanting to give trouble.

"Sure. Or you can have tea or coffee if you'd prefer."

"I'm not allowed coffee."

"Well you're allowed it here if you want some."

Mark smiled. "Just coke, please."

"Right." Peter selected a large bottle and handed it and a couple of glasses to him. "Take these and I'll bring the cake, I'm hungry and I bet you are too. Butter fingers," he added as Mark, juggling with his school bag, almost dropped one of the glasses.

Mark smiled again. It didn't seem to matter when Peter called him names. "I can't help it. I'm always dropping things."

"It's because you're growing. It makes you clumsy."

"You're not."

"I am sometimes, you just haven't noticed. Come on."

Thinking about it as he followed him up the stairs Mark couldn't recall the boy in front of him ever making a clumsy move. He never knocked things over, tripped over things or fell over his feet. It seemed to be part of his make up, like his competence at everything he did. He wondered again what Peter saw in him. He was just the opposite. Sometimes when reaching for things he misjudged the distance and knocked them over because his arms were a longer than they used to be. It had happened at the dinner table recently when reaching for his glass of water. He'd endured a humiliating ten minutes while the Captain told him exactly what he thought of his carelessness, then had to spend three quarters of an hour polishing the table to get rid of the stain because he hadn't been allowed to dry the surface straight away.

Peter was so different. He scrutinised the stocky figure in his well fitting trousers, admiring the play of muscle as his strong legs propelled him effortlessly up the stairs. In contrast, his own legs were far too thin and had no muscles at all. He hated wearing shorts for that very reason.

Peter's bedroom was precisely what he would have expected. The convenient shelves, which Peter mentioned in passing he had put up himself, were packed with books and there were more of them scattered around the room wherever a place could be found. On his desk was a small computer and in a corner of the room a hi-fi system, complete with cassette deck, and what seemed to be dozens of tapes and records. Mark, who found reading and listening to music an immense comfort in an uncertain world, put down what he was carrying, torn between the books and the music. Music won and he walked over to read the titles of the records. To his relief there was no pop music and Peter's taste appeared to embrace the romantic composers. Brahms, Dvorak and Chopin, composers he loved himself, as well as a great many he had only a nodding acquaintance with. But it was when he examined the tapes that his wistful envy turned to outright jealousy.

Most of them were recordings of concerts or operas, all carefully titled in Peter's neat handwriting. When he asked about them Peter explained that they were recordings of live performances broadcast on Radio Three.

"Most of the operas are in English," Peter went on, "Because I like to know what the story is about, so I record the ones from English National Opera, especially if I've seen the production."

Poor Mark who didn't know anyone apart from his piano teacher who even listened to Radio Three, let alone went to a concert or an opera, could only stare at him. His own listening was necessarily furtive, the Captain having no opinion at all of 'that highbrow stuff' and only listened to radio four or, when in the mood, to country and western music.

"Here you go," Peter handed him a glass of coke and an enormous slice of fruit cake.

While they ate and drank Peter told him about the various concerts, operas and ballets he had been to.

"I didn't always listen to that sort of music," he admitted while they were getting their homework out, "It was Em and Vic who taught me to love it."

Yet another of Peter's strange remarks. Surely he would have heard classical music all his life? Something else to puzzle over.

"What are you thinking?" Peter asked, amused that the silence had lasted for several minutes. It interested him that Mark often became silent and, from the look on his face, was thinking deeply.

Mark came to himself with a start and before he could stop himself responded, "You," and blushed.

Peter looked at him steadily for a minute said, "That's good," and opened his maths book.

Mark had no idea what he would have said had Peter asked him to elaborate and turned to his own book with relief. In the worry of what Peter would think of his stupidity over maths, he forgot his involuntary answer.

It hadn't taken Peter long to realise that Mark knew nothing more than basic arithmetic but to his surprise, when he went back to the beginning to fill some of the gaps, he found that he enjoyed teaching him. Mark was very slow and had it been anyone else only his natural kindness would have kept him going without becoming impatient. But he found it touching that Mark tried so hard to understand concepts that came easily to himself, and when he apologised for his stupidity again, remarked, "I've already told you that you're not stupid. The problem is that no-one ever taught you properly. I love maths so it's easy for me, but you hate it and that's why you find it hard. I'd tell you not to bother except it will be easier for you in class if you're a bit better at it. But if you're getting bored we'll stop."

"I'm not really bored, you make it much more interesting than any of the teachers, but I am getting tired, and you must be sick of it."

"Not really. I like helping you. We'll have another piece of cake to give us some more energy then finish the rest of the homework."

"We've eaten an awful lot," Mark remarked, eyeing the remnants dubiously, "Won't your mother mind if we finish it?"

Peter shook his head. "I can always make another one."

Mark stared. "You made it?"

Peter grinned. "That's why it's so good."

"I might have known. Is there anything you can't do?"

"Well I don't want to show off, but not much. There is one very important thing I haven't been able to do yet, though."

"What's that?" asked Mark, interested.

"I'll tell you one day," Peter replied in a teasing voice.

Another hour's work saw their homework completed. There were several mistakes in Mark's maths which Peter spotted but didn't comment on. It would be a mistake for him to turn in perfect answers, he would be accused of copying from someone else.

"That's a relief," he pushed back his chair and stretched, "Now we can relax. While I have a quick shower, would you like to listen to something?"

Mark's eyes lit up. "Yes please."

"Choose something then." Peter stripped off his shirt and threw it onto the bed.

Mark's hand hovered indecisively over the tapes and it wasn't until Peter stood beside him that he realised that he had removed his trainers, socks and trousers as well, retaining only his underpants. He felt himself colouring and concentrated on the titles.

"What about this?" Peter enquired, pulling out the Symphonic Variations by Cèsar Franck, his bare arm brushing Mark's as he did so. "Can you play it? The piano part I mean?"

Mark shook his head regretfully, confused by the seemingly accidental contact. "I've only heard it once."

"I love it," Peter told him, switching the system on and inserting the tape. "I'll only be a minute."

Mark watched him furtively as he left the room. He was a beautiful shape, he decided wistfully, I like everything about him. He sighed. He himself would never have a body like Peter's even if he exercised for years. Regretfully he turned away and concentrated on the music.

When Peter returned, a towel wrapped around his waist and his wet hair looking darker than its normal light brown, he nodded towards the hi-fi. "Do you like it?"

"Very much. I'd love to learn it but some of it's quite difficult and it wouldn't be the same without the orchestra."

"That doesn't matter, learn it anyway. One day you'll be good enough to play it with an orchestra if you want to badly enough."

Mark shrugged. There was no way he would ever be that good.

"Yes, you will," Peter pronounced. taking off his towel and beginning to dry his hair. "You're very good, Mark, I knew it the first time I heard you play." His voice was muffled in the folds of the towel.

Mark couldn't resist looking. He was careful to avoid doing so when they showered after games or PE because it would have embarrassed him horribly had Peter noticed. It hadn't occurred to him that Peter didn't seem to worry about being naked in front of him, though he was more discreet when there were other boys around. Feeling both excited and guilty, his eyes fell from the broad chest to the trim waist then to the patch of dark hair surrounding his penis. He had only caught brief glimpses previously but it seemed rather more prominent as it curved out from Peter's body. Blushing, he looked away but was powerless to prevent his gaze returning. There was no doubt about it, it was getting bigger! He felt his own begin to swell in sympathy. Peter must know what was happening. Didn't he care? Or did he expect him to turn away like any normal person would Mark thought, feeling disgusted with himself. He tried to look away but found it impossible. The rising organ was lifting away from Peter's testicles.

He closed his eyes in desperation. What's wrong with me? He's my friend, how can I feel like this about him? What would he think of me if he knew? With a slight gasp he turned abruptly and stared at one of the loudspeakers which was pouring out a torrent notes.

His reaction, noted through an unobtrusive gap in his towel, was all the proof that Peter needed. Unaware that he was being watched Mark had reacted exactly as he'd hoped and hadn't been able to disguise either his interest or his response. Pleased with the success of his ploy, but aware that he needed to ensure that Mark didn't feel guilty about it, Peter began to get dressed.

"Pour yourself some more coke and some for me please."

Glad to be able to do something, still blushing furiously, Mark did as he was asked, carefully not looking in Peter's direction until he had to.

"Thanks." Peter steadied his hand as he accepted the glass. "I could do with that. It's nice having you with me," he went on, "You're the first person who's been here since we moved in."

Mark was so pleased by the implied compliment that his embarrassment diminished.

Peter chattered for a few minutes to put him at ease then said casually, "You didn't mind me dressing in front of you, did you? After all," he gave a slightly shrug, "We're both boys so we know what happens to us sometimes, it happens to all boys." Then he changed the subject before Mark felt he had to say anything in reply.

By the time Peter's parents got home half an hour later he had skilfully distracted Mark's mind to such an extent that the younger boy had stopped feeling guilty, exactly as he'd planned.

As soon as he heard the front door open, he said happily, "Hey, they're back. Come on down," and precipitately led the way down stairs.

Standing back shyly Mark watched as Peter hugged and kissed his mother then did the same to his father before coming back to take his hand and draw him forward, saying happily, "Look who I've got!"

Mark, bashful, and astonished by the fact that Peter thought nothing of holding a boy's hand in front of his parents, missed the rapid glance Mr and Mrs Doran gave each other. She took his free hand in both of hers saying, "Mark, how kind of you keep Pete company. And how very nice to see you."

Feeling warm inside, his face broke into a small shy smile as he looked up into her face. For a moment he wondered if she was going to kiss him too but she simply held his hand for a moment longer before passing him to her husband.

"We've been wondering when you would come and see us," Mr Doran remarked, shaking his hand. "Pete's always talking about you."

"Can he stay to supper please?"

A look passed between them that Mark was unable to interpret. For a fraction of a second he felt excluded but before the feeling could take hold, Mr Doran was smiling down at him and saying, "If he would like to, he's more than welcome. Em, will you phone Mark's mother and ask if it's alright?"

"Of course," she replied, going through an archway and saying over her shoulder, "What is your number, Mark?"

Peter released his hand and gave him a slight push in her direction. Mark followed her into what turned out to be the sitting room, glanced around, and came to a dead stop. Standing in the bay window of the surprisingly large room was the most beautiful grand piano he had ever seen.

Obviously it was old. It didn't have the severe lines of a modern instrument but was discreetly decorated in the fashion, although he wasn't aware of it, of the turn of the century. Equally obviously, it had been lovingly cared for over the years or else superbly restored, for it gleamed as if it had just left the factory. He knew instinctively that it wasn't simply a piece of furniture.

Hardly daring to touch it in case his hands were sweaty and marked the polished black surface, he opened the lid and looked at the name. Inlaid in softly glowing gold was written 'RUD IBACH SOHN' a make he had never heard of. Reverently he touched one of the ivory covered keys so gently it didn't sound as he depressed it, loving the distinctive feel of a really first class grand piano action, the slight give as the check mechanism came into play. He sighed. It was considerably bigger than a baby grand, but not so large that it overpowered the room.


He turned, realising that it was probably the second time she had said his name.

"Sorry. That was rude of me."

"Not at all," she answered, smiling at him. "Do you like it?"

"It's the most beautiful instrument I've ever seen," he replied simply.

Mr Doran came into the room, a hand on Peter's shoulder. "We had it tuned last week hoping that we might persuade you to play for us."

Peter smiled at Mark then looked up at his father. "I told you that would happen. He's fallen in love!"

Victor smiled down at him. "There could be worse things to fall in love with." He turned back to Mark, who managed to tear his eyes away from the Ibach. "We're hoping very much that you will play it for us, Mark. It will make a change from hearing it played so badly by Pete."

Mark stared at Peter. He'd never said a word about being able to play. Knowing how well he did everything he knew at once that Peter was a far better pianist than he was, and would show him up.

Sensing this, Peter came to him and unselfconsciously put an arm round his waist while shaking his head. "It's not my instrument at all, that's why I'm so bad. Besides, I never practise, not like you. He's far better already than I'll ever be," he said sincerely to his parents.

"Well, if you would like to play for us after supper we will be delighted," Mrs Doran said, smiling at them both.

"Of course he will," agreed Peter positively. "We've already worked out what he'll play."

"Peter," there was a note of warning in her voice. "Mark is a guest. He doesn't have to play if he doesn't want to. Don't let him talk you into doing anything you don't want to do Mark. He can be very persuasive, as we know only too well. It's entirely up to you whether you play or not, and either way is fine with us." She looked at her husband who nodded his agreement.

Mark turned to Peter and gazed into the hazel eyes so close to his own. There was a look on Peter's face that he didn't understand for a moment until he realised that it was a mixture of hope and, and resignation? He frowned slightly. Was it possible that Peter would actually be disappointed if he didn't play? It didn't seem very likely. No one had ever cared whether he did something or not. Yet, yet here was this boy, the same age as himself, waiting for his answer and worrying about what it would be. His frown deepened. "Do you really, really, want me to play?"

Peter gave him a half smile. "I really, really do, but not if you don't want to. I mean, if you don't want to play because you don't want to that's okay because I don't want you to play just because I want you to, only if you want to but not if you really don't want to."

"That has to be the worst sentence I've ever heard you string together," said Mr Doran with a chuckle. "But I think it meant that he would like you to play, just as Emily and I would, but only if you're happy about it."

Mark turned to them and smiled fully for the first time.

"I would love to," he said quietly, sure now that they really wanted to hear him.

Seeing that brilliant smile Emily felt a lump in her throat. Good heavens, no wonder Pete has fallen for him so badly, that smile transforms him. "After supper then? I'll phone your parents and make sure it's alright for you to stay."

In something of a daze, Peter still had an arm around his waist for one thing, Mark told her the number and listened vaguely while she spoke to his father. By the time she put the phone down, after assuring the Captain that they would bring him home later, he was feeling euphoric and the feeling persisted throughout supper. In his excitement at the thought of the piano he lost much of his diffidence and managed to join in the conversation without feeling the sense of strain he would have expected under the circumstances. Without making it obvious the whole family worked to put him at his ease. The questions Peter's parents asked were carefully calculated to be those he could answer easily, and with Peter smiling at him across the table, he enjoyed himself more than he would have thought possible.

When offered a glass of wine he had smilingly refused. The way he was feeling he had no need of further stimulus, and if his father smelt it on his breath…! It came as no surprise when, without comment, Mr Doran poured a glass for Peter and refilled it when it was empty. The Doran family relationship was unique in his experience.

They refused his offer to help with the washing up and sent he and Peter into the sitting room where, as soon as he was seated at the piano, Peter took charge and told him to play some scales to get the feel of the instrument.

From the very first note Mark felt that it was a dream come true. The action was a little heavier than he was accustomed to but so smooth and even that the instrument almost seemed to play itself. And the sound! As he began to use the weight of his arms to get more depth of tone, the response was amazing. For the first time in his life he knew what it was like to be in partnership with a superb instrument. Whatever he asked of it, the response was greater than he anticipated and seemed to beg for more. The tone was so rich and beautiful it brought a hint of moisture to his eyes.

In the kitchen Victor looked at Emily, "Well?"

"Pete was right. You can hear his talent even when he's just doing technical exercises. If his technique and musicianship match…"

"That wasn't what I meant though you're right about his talent—and you would know."

She sighed. "I was trying not to think about it and just look on him as a friend of Pete's which, as far as he's concerned, is all he is. But you're asking what will happen when he finds out that Pete's more than that? I simply don't know. He seems a very nice boy and has real charm when he allows it to show, but he's so young and inexperienced compared to Pete. I just don't know."

"I'll tell you one thing, Em," Victor said, leaning towards her and kissing the back of her neck, "Pete is right about there being something seriously wrong with him."

"It's the father," she asserted positively. "I could tell within five seconds of speaking to the man. There could be trouble there if Pete isn't careful."

"And Pete himself?"

"If he hasn't fallen in love with him already it's so close as not to make any difference. How it will turn out, I don't know. But I don't want either of them to get hurt."

"Pete's pretty tough."

"Not this time, Vic. I know we've seen him in love before but this time it's different. He's fallen for Mark badly and it worries me because it's obvious that if Mark reciprocates, it will be the first time for him. I would prefer him to have had some experience if it develops into any sort of relationship. He's so young, and anyone can see he's very vulnerable. He could get hurt if it were to turn out badly. In a way I'm sorry that Pete ever met him, though it was inevitable that something like this would happen sooner or later, given what Pete is. It could have been a lot worse, I suppose." She sighed. "If only the boy were a few years older."

"Is there anything we can do about it at this stage?"

She shook her head, "No. It's already too late, I think. All we can do is help where we can, and if the worst comes to the worst, pick up the pieces."

"What pieces?" demanded Peter from the doorway, "And are you going to stay here talking all night? I've got Mark all prepared."

"The pieces of the crockery you break when you do the washing up on your own, nosy," Emily replied with a slightly forced smile.

Peter grinned. "I do love you, Em. You tell such lies."

"That's enough from you or you'll give our guest some very strange ideas about our family."

Peter stopped smiling and looked at them anxiously. "He's alright isn't he. You do like him?"

"Very much. He's charming Pete."

"I never thought of him that way but you're right of course, he is. Are you finished here? I don't want him to get too nervous. Can we have coffee later?"

"Yes. And you can make it," Victor told him.

Peter smiled and led the way back to the sitting room where Mark had got up from the piano. He was more nervous than he'd ever been and he suddenly needed to go for a pee. It's only nerves he told himself, but forced himself to ask if he could wash his hands. "They're sweating," he mumbled.

"Do you really need to wash your hands, or is this one of your delaying tactics?" Peter asked as he led the way upstairs.

"I really need to and I must go to the toilet. When I'm nervous it makes me want to go."

"Okay, I'll wait for you out here. You'll be alright once you start playing," he called through the closed door.

Feeling much better when he rejoined him, though still nervous, Mark was grateful for Peter's comforting hand on his shoulder as they returned to the sitting room.

Peter was right. As soon as he started to play, his nerves settled, the slight trembling of his hands stopped and the sheer pleasure of the sound the Ibach produced began to work its magic.

He started, at Peter's insistence, with three of the Chopin nocturnes, then played one of the easier of the Beethoven sonatas. He would have stopped after that but the elder Dorans, holding hands across Peter who was sitting between them on the sofa, were listening with such obvious enjoyment that he allowed himself to be persuaded to play one of the Chopin scherzos, apologising before he started because it wasn't quite up to standard yet. Peter told him that it didn't matter and to play all the repeats. Heartened by this faith in him he started the piece, and once he had cleared the hurdle of the leap to the first fortissimo chord, really began to enjoy himself. It was a work he loved, and he put everything he had into his performance.

He certainly missed a few notes and in some of the trickier patches his finger work was a little uneven but all in all, Emily decided, he had a considerable amount of talent, talent that was well worth nurturing. She began to wonder who amongst their musical friends might be willing to take him on as a pupil. That there would be problems she had no doubt, a major one being the father—judging by what Peter had told them and coupled with her own impressions of the man—but it would be a real tragedy if his potential was allowed to wither through neglect.

When he reached the end of the piece, having negotiated the enormous stretches the composer had written reasonably well, considering his small hands, Mark was still for a moment, resting his hands in his lap. He knew that he had played the piece fairly well, better than he had ever done before, but he also knew that he was going to put a lot more work into it before he played it to anyone again.

Happy but tired, the piece took its toll of physical as well as musical and emotional resources, he basked in their applause and praise but most of all, in the look of admiration on his friend's face.

Peter who had jumped up and hugged him before he had even got up from the stool was delighted. He was musical enough to know real talent when he heard it but Mark had surpassed himself and far exceeded his expectations. Emily and Victor's genuine praise was merely an endorsement of his own feeling. Sensing that Mark had played enough he didn't insist on anything more and left him talking to them while he went to make the coffee.

The only diminution of Mark's happiness came when they insisted on driving him home. The thought of these kind, pleasant people meeting his father made him uneasy. Peter who had become very sensitive to his moods took him up to his bedroom to collect his school bag and demanded to know what was wrong. After much circumlocution, Mark confessed that he would rather they didn't mention to his father that he had played for them.

"He doesn't like it. He thinks it's a waste of time, and he…" he had been about to add that the Captain might even forbid him to come here again but couldn't bring himself to do so. It sounded so stupid in this calm happy atmosphere. "You don't know what he's like," he finished rather helplessly. He didn't look at his friend as he spoke and missed the look of anger that swept across Peter's face.

Living among people who put an extremely high premium on talent of any sort, and on artistic talent in particular, Mark's awkward confession made Peter's blood boil. He determined right then and there that he was going to do something about it. It had given him such pleasure to see Mark's happiness that the thought of anything marring it, even slightly, was unbearable. In a tightly controlled voice he told Mark not to worry, he would speak to Emily and Victor, and went down stairs leaving Mark to follow.

Obedient to his request, and much to his relief, the Dorans merely thanked the Captain for allowing him to stay adding that they hoped he would visit them often. Peter too was discreet and called them Mum and Dad. Mark could imagine only too well what the Captain would have thought if Peter had used their first names. He was too happy even to resent the Captain's tactlessly expressed hope that he had behaved himself as he thanked Emily and Victor for having him.

After they left the edge was taken off his pleasure slightly by a reminder that his bedroom would be inspected in the morning, but he was too tired to care, jumped into bed and was asleep within minutes. It had been a very full day.

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