One of Us

by Richard Campbell

Chapter 8

His mother was tense and his father was never in the best of tempers after they had been shopping. Each time Mark tried to do some practise his father would march into the room with another job for him. Most of the tasks were comparatively unimportant and, his nerves stretched to breaking point, for the first time in his life Mark answered back, then was aghast at what he had done.

The Captain, delighted to have a genuine excuse to berate him, pulled out all the stops. His harsh, bullying voice resounded through the house and attracted the attention of his mother who came into the room and for once, attempted to stand up for him. All it achieved was to provoke his father to even greater heights and Mark, though appreciating her effort, wished that she had stayed out of it. He stood up to the unpleasantness reasonably well but it left him feeling sick and by the middle of the afternoon he was developing a headache.

Peter phoned at teatime and, as luck would have it, chose the very moment when the man happened to be passing the telephone. He managed to calm him down slightly but a request to speak to Mark was not well received. His son, the Captain informed him, was about to wash the car and no, there was no need for him to come over and help the idle young cub. Peter calling all his cunning into play, denied having any plans to help Mark and mentioned that he had hoped to discuss something in one of the books Captain Gordon had so kindly lent him.

Mollified, the Captain invited him to tea, put the receiver down and reminded his son that he should be washing the car. Not daring to argue, though wondering how he was supposed to be tidying the sitting room, vacuuming the dining room carpet and washing the car all at the same time, Mark left off what he was doing, collected what he needed and went miserably outside. His headache was getting worse.

He was halfway through the job and feeling sick and sorry for himself when to his surprise Peter arrived. He hadn't expected him so early. Unwilling to burden his friend with his problems, after all he was about to endure a lecture on a subject in which he wasn't the least bit interested, he simply told Peter that he had a bit of a headache and left it at that. He was subjected to a rather close scrutiny but beyond asking if he had taken anything for it, Peter didn't press him as to why his father was so angry with him. As the Captain wasn't aware he had arrived, he slipped out to the local chemist where he bought a packet of aspirin. He would have preferred to get something stronger, it was plain that Mark had more than the bit of a headache that he'd admitted to, but the pharmacist refused to give him anything more powerful.

When he returned Mark had finished washing the vehicle but the Captain, outraged that his namby pamby son had had the temerity to stand up to him, had ordered him to give it a long overdue waxing. Mark's heart sank. Washing it was bad enough but waxing would take several hours and leave his fingers bruised into the bargain. There was nothing Peter could do except slip the packet of aspirin to him before he was carried off to the Captain's study. There he suffered an hour of total boredom with a false look of interest on his face, putting in the occasional comment or question as necessary, and worrying continually about Mark. He badly wanted to go and help him but realised that the only thing he could do was to divert his father's attention and try to get him into a better mood.

Listening to the loud overbearing voice he wondered how Mark could stand it day after day. Even the hour he had just endured was tiring. The inflexible mind, convinced that it was right and that anyone who disagreed was wrong, would wear down nerves far more robust than Mark's. He decided that somehow he had to get Mark out of the house and away from the man.

But how to achieve it was the problem. He had great faith in Sir James' ability to resolve the situation but whether he would actually do so was open to question. He was certainly interested in Mark but Peter wasn't sure if he really understood the psychological damage that the boy was being subjected to. With his help and support Mark was coping better, but there was a limit to how much anyone could take and he had a presentiment that his friend was getting very close to that limit. He wouldn't forget in a hurry how Mark had reacted on the day of the concert while they were doing the washing up.

He knew that Mark had a lot more strength than he was aware of and was secure in the fact that he was loved wholeheartedly and completely. But I can't be with him twenty four hours a day, Peter thought angrily. If only I had him with me all the time, he would be fine.

He came out of his thoughts to find the Captain looking at him interrogatively and with a touch of irritation. The man must have asked him something. Thinking quickly he said apologetically, "I beg your pardon, sir, I was thinking about something else and didn't hear what you said. I was wondering whether I should think about joining the army when I'm old enough. You've made it sound like a very good career." Hoping that he wasn't pouring it on too thickly he added, "Do you know where I could write to find out more?"

It worked. The Captain, firmly mounted on his hobby horse accepted the implied compliment as no more than his due and promised to have a word with one or two people who would be happy to help. The lad was excellent officer material, he thought approvingly. He would have a quiet word with the parents and let them know that he could a do a great deal to smooth his path. One might be out of the army but one still had one's contacts, as well as a certain amount of influence. A few words in the right quarter would do it.

With a shrewd idea that the man was overrating his influence considerably, Peter hid a smile under a look of deferential gratitude and went back to his thoughts.

When he finally managed to excuse himself he hurried out to see how Mark was getting on. Pleased to see that he was looking a little better, the aspirins were taking effect, he took charge and between them they had the car finished in less than half the time it would have taken Mark on his own. Then he urged him upstairs and made him soak for ten minutes in a hot bath, while he sat on the edge of the tub, firmly curtailing any amorousness.

"We'll save that for tomorrow when we're alone and safe," he told the indignant boy. "Besides, you'd better not stay in here too long after all the trouble I've taken to get him into a good mood."

Mark could see the sense of this and after he was dressed they cleaned the bath and mopped the tiles before going downstairs where Peter put in another five minutes of good work before leaving.

The Doran's arrived exactly on time to be met by a limp boy who had been forced to endure another tongue lashing because he had been day dreaming instead of getting on with the job.

"Do you expect your mother and I to do all your work for you?" the Captain had barked.

Well aware that his father had done nothing except give orders, complain, and criticise, Mark bit his lip and by thinking of Peter got through the next few minutes reasonably well, but it was desperately tiring. Then he laid the table under the Captain's supervision and after that there were perfectly clean glasses to polish before he was allowed to escape to his bedroom to change. The Captain spent the remaining time before the guests arrived stalking in and out of the kitchen and by the time the doorbell rang his wife was almost as distraught as his son.

Very much the Officer in Charge of the Mess the Captain shook hands with Emily, who was looking very elegant, and gave her an approving glance. Why couldn't Prudence look like that? he asked himself, irritated.

Having been well primed by her son Emily shook hands with Prudence, who murmured something indistinguishable, then moved to Mark saying, "Mark, how nice to see you again. How are you?" just as if she hadn't seen him every day for weeks, and shook hands with him as well.

"I'm very well thank you, Mrs Doran," he replied, giving her a tiny smile. He had remembered just in time not to call her Emily.

"You're looking a little pale," she remarked. "We must see that you get some sun when you come away with us."

"As to that," the Captain declared in an overloud voice, "Unless he pulls his socks up and gets his nose to the grindstone he won't be going at all."

Mark who was shaking hands with Victor flinched.

Victor held onto his hand for a minute, mouthed silently, "Don't worry," then turned back to the Captain.

Peter came to stand in front of him, shielding him from the others. Mark looked as if he was about to cry. "Leave it to Em," he whispered softly, before going up to the Captain, feeling as if he should salute instead of shaking hands.

Having discovered what everyone wanted to drink, Mark, as the junior officer, was despatched to organise it while the rest of them sat down with the exception of the Captain who stood commandingly in front of the fireplace. Victor left him to Emily while he devoted himself to Prudence. He found it very hard going. She answered whatever he said, but initiated no conversation herself and was plainly longing to return to the kitchen. Peter helped Mark to hand the drinks around then they sat at opposite ends of the sofa with glasses of coke. Mark couldn't help contrasting this with what it was like at the Doran's. They would have been talking and joking and he and Peter would have been sitting much closer together.

The Captain allowed precisely ten minutes of rather one sided conversation before glancing at his watch and looking significantly at his wife. With a murmured excuse, Prudence left the room and the Captain turned to Mark saying in a brusque voice, "Move yourself boy and go and help your mother. You shouldn't need to be told."

Mark who had been just about to do so, coloured and left the room. Peter's cheerful offer of help was refused on the grounds that his wife and lazy son could manage well enough. All three Dorans could cheerfully have strangled him and were relieved when Mark returned and quietly asked them to come into the dining room.

The meal was neither comfortable nor pleasant. The Captain, at the head of the table, held forth to Emily while Victor continued his efforts to talk to Prudence with Mark putting in an occasional word. Peter was drawn into the conversation at the Captain's end of the table. Captain Gordon, with two seemingly appreciative listeners under his sway began to mellow. He had always had an eye for a pretty woman, he told himself and besides, the Doran boy was hanging on his every word. He could see who the lad had inherited both his looks and personality from and it certainly wasn't from his father, he decided, with a disparaging glance at Victor who was doing his best to draw a monosyllabic Mark into the conversation. He was just the type, the Captain concluded, his lip curling, to make a fuss of that weakling while ignoring the vastly superior claims of his own manly lad. He became more determined than ever to promote the boy's career and detach him from his father.

If Victor was finding Prudence and Mark hard going at least he didn't have to cope with the sort of heavy handed gallantry that Mark's father was displaying towards Emily. The Captain laughed indulgently at her feminine folly if she expressed an opinion at odds to his own implying that it was no more than he expected from one of her sex. It was clear that he didn't expect a woman to think for herself, that being the prerogative of her husband. He didn't go as far as say that a woman's place was in the home, but he didn't have to. It was implied in every remark he made. As an example of prejudiced male chauvinism it took Emily's breath away. The man wasn't just Victorian she concluded, he was antediluvian. Several times she had to look warningly at Peter when he was on the verge of intemperate speech. She could handle the man, and a discreet wink after one of the Captain's more bombastic pronouncements conveyed her sentiments exactly.

Although greatly enjoying his somewhat one sided conversation with Emily and Peter, the Captain kept a jaundiced eye on his son and goaded by the attention 'that man' was lavishing on him, barked at Mark to stir his idle stumps, make himself useful for once and get the plates cleared away. At the double! Turning to Emily he disclosed, though ashamed to admit it, that the boy was so shiftless that he would do nothing unless ordered to get on with it. Gritting her teeth in an effort to suppress an angry response she trod on Peter's foot to prevent him taking up cudgels on Mark's behalf, and to stop him offering to help. It would simply provoke the man and make matters worse.

Realising the sense of this Peter leant back and aimed a commiserating look at his friend but Mark had his head down and didn't see it. The struggle to keep his face expressionless, as he stood up to do as he'd been told, was absorbing all his concentration. He would deal with the ramifications of his father's offensive remarks when he was alone, and would not give him the satisfaction of seeing how humiliated he felt.

After watching him leave the room, there was a singularly unpleasant expression on Peter's face as he turned back to the man but the Captain had resumed his ponderous flirtation with his charming companion and was totally oblivious. Switching his gaze to Prudence, Peter thought that she looked upset as she followed Mark to the kitchen, but she said nothing, apart from excusing herself in an almost inaudible voice.

Mark put the plates he was carrying into the sink then leant against it wearily. Later he would be angry, at the moment he was just too tired. He was about to take two more of Peter's tablets when his mother came into the room.

"What are you doing? What are those?"

He ignored her, swallowed, then said quietly, "Aspirin. I'm getting another headache."

"You know that your father doesn't like you to take anything."

"I really don't care. Anyway, he's not going to know."

She sighed. "I wish you would try to understand your father better."

"Why should I? He doesn't try to understand me."

"He's your father," she stated, as if this settled the matter.

It was his turn to sigh. He'd heard that particular phrase often enough to know that it was a waste of time to argue with her. In some ways her views on marriage and children were as old fashioned her husband's. He returned to the dining room, collected the remaining plates, then handed round the next course. Just as if he was a waiter, Victor thought angrily.

Mark couldn't do anything right. In an effort to avoid a repetition of the previous complaint he got up to clear the plates as soon as everyone had finished, only to be told in a cold voice that it was rude to snatch people's plates the very second they stopped eating and where were his manners?

Stung by the injustice of this he looked as if he was going to reply but Peter, who had been holding this in reserve all evening, jumped in. Turning to Emily and Victor he told them that Captain Gordon had kindly offered to help him to find out more about joining the army. It distracted the man and restored his good humour, on the surface at any rate, and Mark was able to get on with it as the Captain extolled the virtues of the military as a way of making men out of boys. Not, as he graciously informed Emily, that her lad needed it, unlike his own son whose spineless and namby-pamby ways had always been a disappointment to him. Discipline was what he needed. A touch of that had never hurt anyone, he himself was living proof of it, but it would take rather more than a touch if his boy was to succeed in the armed forces. His disparaging tone implied that success of any sort was unlikely. He went on to reminisce about his own career and Emily had only to listen with apparent interest and boost his ego from time to time.

She was so successful that by the time coffee had been drunk and thankyous and goodbyes said, not only had she obtained his blessing on Mark's holiday but had secured permission for Mark to attend early Mass and spend the following day with them as well.

While she was working her magic Peter asked if he could wash his hands. Safely in Mark's bedroom he took him into his arms and cuddled him reassuringly. They could only manage a couple minutes but he was relieved to see Mark looking more himself by the end of them. Having made him promise to go to bed as soon as he could, and not to do any Amazingly Effective Energy Elixir production but to save it for the following day, he led the way downstairs. He was aware that Mark would spend at least an hour clearing up, but knew he could do nothing about it.

In one way it was fortunate that Mark was so tired. His father might have give way over the Bournemouth trip but he wasn't going to let his son feel it was due to weakness on his part. While Mark and his mother were doing the washing up he strode around the kitchen expressing his displeasure about the entire evening. It would have unnerved both of them under normal circumstances but Mark was feeling too drained to take much notice and his mother, now that she no longer had to keep up appearances, looked so unwell that when his father left the room he suggested that she go to bed and leave the rest to him.

"Thank you, Mark," she said in a dull tone. "I will if you think you can manage. I am rather tired." To his surprise, she kissed him on the forehead.

It took all his willpower to clean the kitchen after he had put the crockery away, then he trudged up the stairs, set his alarm clock and was asleep two seconds after his head touched the pillow.

He was woken twenty minutes later when his father stormed into the room demanding to know why he had been too lazy to switch off the lights. Ordered out of bed he had to apologise then stand at attention while being subjected to a lecture on his wasteful ways and the outrageous cost of electricity. When he was finally permitted to switch the light off and fall into bed again, he managed thirty seconds of resentment before he was fast asleep again.

"You see the sort of person he is. The way he spoke to Mark, I could have killed him," Peter said angrily while they were driving home.

"He doesn't seem to treat his wife much better," Victor reflected. "I felt sorry for her."

"Well she chose to marry him. Mark didn't have any choice," snapped Peter.

"We know that, Pete," said Emily soothingly, "And to tell the truth it doesn't make me feel any better. The problem is that I don't see what we can do to help, except to have Mark with us as often as we can."

She left it at that and directed her efforts towards calming him down, but once they were alone she turned to her husband and said forcefully, "I didn't want to say this in front of Pete, but we've got to get Mark away from that man. If what we saw this evening is the way his father usually treats him it's no wonder he gets so overwrought at times. It made my blood boil and I don't know how I stopped myself from saying something. And his mother never said a word. If you had talked to Pete like that, even in private, you'd have got the rough side of my tongue. Not that you would ever speak in that demeaning fashion."

He shook his head. "I would be far too afraid of you, Em. But seriously, my love, I felt as sorry for Mark as you did and I agree that the man, whether consciously or not I don't know, treats him abominably."

"Why does he do it? Can't he see the harm he's doing?"

"He's a bully and I suspect that Mark brings out the worst in him simply by being the sort of person he is. Not that I think it would make any difference if he were less diffident and stood up for himself more. I have the distinct impression that when he has tried it, even in unimportant things—remember his hair cut?—his father has come down on him like a ton of bricks."

"So what are we going to do? It took forever to calm Pete down and he's so edgy at the moment I'm afraid that he may lose his temper completely and tell the man exactly what he thinks of him."

"The first thing is to talk to James tomorrow. I'll suggest to Pete that he goes to church with Mark then takes him for a walk in the park. They need to talk and get it out of their systems, and while they're out the three of us can discuss the situation."

Peter had intended to accompany Mark to Mass anyway and approved of Victor's suggestion about the park. They did need to talk and there wouldn't be many people around when they got there. He collected some crusts and a handful of peanuts before they left the house. Mark would enjoy feeding the wildlife.

As planned Sir James arrived before the boys returned. Victor described the previous evening in detail and finished by saying that he thought there was a crisis brewing in the Gordon household. He had devoted most of the evening to Mark's mother and it hadn't escaped him that she looked far from well.

"Does Peter still feel the same way about Mark?" Sir James thought he knew the answer but it would do no harm to hear the views of those closest to him.

"More than ever," Emily replied.


Victor shook his head. "No. But it's inevitable sooner or later, we think."

Sir James sighed. "I did advise Peter when I spoke to him. It appears he hasn't taken my advice?"

"Definitely not," Emily affirmed.

"You would know of course. Tell me, Emily, if you had come across Mark without Peter's involvement and knew what we know now of his background, would you have suggested that we intervene?"

After a pause for thought she said slowly, "That's a very difficult question to answer, James, because Pete is involved and it's hard to be detached. But under the circumstances, even if he was just a friend of Pete's and there was no deeper relationship, I think that I would have suggested it. The boy is extremely talented and unless he's encouraged that talent could be stifled and possibly lost altogether. He's at the age when he needs to consolidate his technique and he can't afford to waste any time. So yes, I think I would have said that we should do something."


"I don't have the knowledge to judge his talent as accurately as Em, though I know enough to feel that it would be an appalling waste if he were not to develop it further. But there is something else that we should take into account which I feel is just as important. His father is not just harming him. In my opinion, he's actually damaging him. From what Pete has told us, he takes every opportunity to undermine whatever self confidence Mark acquires, and does it deliberately. It would be inexcusable, even in private, to speak to Mark in such a demeaning fashion, but to do so in front of strangers is unforgivable. I don't say that the boy wouldn't survive, but I believe that if he didn't have Pete's, and to a lesser extent Em's and my love and support, he might be driven to do something desperate. And that, whatever form it took, would be a real tragedy."

"It seems then that we are agreed. I have had some reports on Captain Gordon and they don't make pleasant reading. He would have faced litigation if his superiors hadn't retired him when they did which gives us some leverage. I take it that you would like me to set things in train?"

Emily looked at Victor, who nodded. "Yes please, James. Vic and I know Peter better than anyone else and we have never seen him like this in all the time he's been with us."

When Mark and Peter returned Sir James was taken aback. Recalling the glowing boys at Emily's concert he found it hard to believe how much Mark, in particular, had altered. He had expected Peter's health to have deteriorated but the change in the younger boy was dismaying. He face was very pale, with dark circles under the eyes, and he looked as if he might have lost weight—something he definitely couldn't afford in view of his slim build. Like most boys his age his rapid metabolism guaranteed that there wasn't an ounce of fat on him, so any loss of weight meant a reduction of flesh and muscle. He greeted them quietly without his small smile.

Both boys looked tense, even the normally boisterous Peter was subdued, and only joined in the conversation with an effort. They sat close to each other, not quite touching, and their talk in the park didn't seem to have done either of them much good.

In spite of how tired he'd been, or maybe because of it, Mark hadn't slept well after he had gone back to sleep the previous night. It seemed that he was woken by bad dreams every ten minutes or so. While that was certainly an exaggeration his sleep had been sufficiently broken to leave him weary and depressed. Eventually, as it was beginning to get light, he gave up trying to sleep, picked up a book and read until it was time to get up. He resolutely refused to think about the previous evening. It was bad enough that Peter knew how his father treated him, but to be shown up like that in front of Emily and Victor was intolerable.

He didn't want any breakfast but defiantly drank a cup of coffee before leaving for Mass. For two pins he would have skipped that as well but he'd arranged to meet Peter at the church. The sight of the familiar figure waiting outside the gate raised his spirits a little, Pete hadn't mentioned that he would walk with him.

Peter hadn't slept well either. Emily had done her best but he was still seething when he went to bed and had spent much of the night plotting how to get Mark away from his father and living with him for the rest of his life. He was mature enough to know that most of his schemes were wildly impractical but they had helped to ease his anger a little. He had reached the reluctant conclusion that he would have to plead with Sir James when he finally dropped off.

The sight of Mark's woebegone face lighting up when they met helped him endure the boredom of what was fortunately a fairly short service. He manoeuvred Mark out of the building the minute it was over and walked him briskly through the warm sunshine to the park. Both of them derived some comfort from encouraging the ducklings, now very tame and verging on adolescence, to feed from their hands, and he managed to raise a smile by telling Mark in a soft whisper that they were about to be mugged by a squirrel and forced to hand over all their nuts.

The small animal, to Mark's delight, had little fear of humans and allowed itself to be coaxed onto the arm of the bench to take the peanuts he held out. It wouldn't stay there to eat them but hopped down to the grass where it scattered the discarded shells with gay abandon, before swarming up the bench again for seconds, thirds, and fourths. Noting that even so slight a contact with nature calmed his friend, Peter resolved that they would come here frequently from now on.

There were few people about except for a group of joggers pursuing their avocation with a sort of grim determination that made them oblivious to anything else, so they were able to hold hands as they talked, once the appetites of the local wildlife had been satisfied. Although he wasn't feeling particularly well himself, Peter concentrated on cheering Mark up by dwelling on the half term holiday.

"If I'm allowed to go," Mark told him in a depressed voice.

"You're coming even if I have to kidnap you and drag you there kicking and screaming."

Mark looked at him wistfully in a way that caught at his heart. "Would you?"

"Yes, so don't think you're going to get out of it. You'll be with me for nine whole days and by the time I've finished with you, you're going to be so worn out you'll be like an undead. I'll be able to exhibit you in a cage as the world's only living zombie and make tons of money."

Mark managed a small smile. "I like the first part, but I'm not so sure about the cage."

"Well I would only do that if you tried to escape. Normally I would just have you on a collar and lead."

"Do you think I'm a goddamn dog, or a bear giving performances or something?"

Peter smiled. "I think you're the most beautiful, gorgeous, and wonderful thing I've ever seen in my life. And as for performances, you give them already and I love every one of them."

"What performances?" demanded Mark suspiciously.

"Sexual performances. You're pretty spectacular you know," he went on when Mark didn't reply. "That's why you need to be chained up so no-one can get you away from me."

"I'd like to see them try!"

"That's what I'm afraid of, that they will try. The minute they see you. I'd better lock you up in my deepest dungeon."

"Only if you lock yourself in with me and throw the key away."

"What else did you expect?"

"It would be great wouldn't it. Just you and me all alone with no one seeing us or caring what we did. No one interfering or telling us what to do."

"It will happen one day," Peter told him gently. "Maybe not quite like that, but it will happen."

"It had better be soon. I don't think I can take much more."

Peter spent some time reassuring him before glancing at his watch and saying that they had better go. In fact the park had been getting steadily more populated and they been forced to move a little apart. As they walked home Peter cut short Mark's enquiries about his health, saying that he would be fine after their holiday and he was not to worry any more. Mark wasn't satisfied but allowed the subject to drop.

After lunch the three Dorans left the room to do the washing up, firmly refusing Mark's offer of help on the grounds that today he was a guest and they would leave him to entertain Sir James. Mark was dubious. He didn't think of himself as very entertaining at the best of times, and to be left alone with the man, particularly in his present frame of mind, was daunting. But Sir James, with a wealth of experience behind him, soon put him at his ease and he found himself talking quite naturally as they strolled into the garden to admire the rockery and pond. In his enthusiasm for the work they had done, Mark lost some of his depression as he described their plans for the rest of the garden.

Sir James found himself unaccountably touched. The boy has a special quality he mused as he tactfully steered the conversation into the areas he wished to explore, and if I can recognise it on so slight an acquaintance it's no wonder that Peter is so smitten.

However he came up against a barrier when he attempted to get Mark to speak of his family. Loyal too he thought, as he skilfully set about persuading him to talk. Mark was no match for him, although in time he might become so, and once the floodgates opened his resentment and humiliation came pouring out. Reading between the lines Sir James came to the conclusion that Victor's analysis of the situation had been correct and what had happened the previous evening was just the tip of the iceberg. As he probed more deeply, revealing thoughts and feelings that Mark had never admitted to anyone—not even to Peter—he found himself agreeing that the boy's personality was being harmed in ways that could affect him for the rest of his life.

He was not particularly surprised by what he discovered. His years had provided him with many instances of parental abuse. What did jolt him was his reaction in this particular case, due to the fragile but appealing nature of Mark himself.

He was able to calm the boy down and without precisely saying so—he never showed his hand in advance—conveyed the impression that he would look into and take care of things. Perhaps because he was so much older this carried more weight than Peter's reassurances had done. Mark trusted Peter implicitly but Sir James was an adult and he had been brought up to believe that adults always knew best. If that conviction had been somewhat undermined recently Sir James had not, so far, given him any reason to doubt his integrity. In addition to that, the obvious liking and respect that Peter had for him was a major point in his favour. So when Sir James presented his card and told to call if he was ever in trouble, he could only look up at him gratefully.

"That number will accept reversed charge calls so you can call me from a public callbox even if you don't have any change. It is simply a precaution. Naturally you will turn to Peter, Emily and Victor first, but should there be anything that you feel they can't help you with, or something that you feel you cannot discuss with them, that will be the time to speak to me." He looked down at the small face and went on, "You must not ever feel that you are alone, Mark."

Mark's mind was in something of a turmoil. It was true that until Peter had come into his life he had been on his own except, to some extent, for Miss Herold. But he had never considered discussing his problems with her, let alone asking for help that he knew very well she couldn't provide. Yet, out of the blue, he was being offered a lifeline by someone he barely knew. It had to be because of Peter—no one had ever bothered about him on his own account. But did Sir James know about them, and if not, and he ever found out, what would he do? He felt that he had to know otherwise it would be something else to worry about. But it wasn't an easy thing to ask. He might be throwing something away at the precise moment it had been offered. In his customary fashion, when faced with something he was afraid of, he nerved himself to go ahead before he lost what little courage he possessed.

"Do you know that I love Pete and that we have, I mean that we, er do things?" He broke off, miserably aware that he hadn't really explained anything and in his wish to be certain, had divulged Peter's secret. In an attempt to retrieve the situation he mumbled, "It's my fault. I, I started it and made him do them."

He has courage just as Peter told me, Sir James reflected, and as Mark was staring at his feet and wouldn't see it, permitted himself a smile at his youth and inexperience. Does he really believe it isn't obvious to me?

"My dear Mark, I am aware that you love Peter and that he loves you. I'm also aware of your sexual relationship. If you are wondering what I feel about it, I must tell you that it is only my business in as far as it is part of the whole situation. I neither approve nor disapprove of such liaisons in general, or of your relationship with Peter in particular. This may be because I was born in an age that was a little more tolerant than the present one, but I like to think that I would have felt the same way whatever period I was born into. The fact that you love each other seems far more important to me than how you express that love. However, it is frowned on by the judiciary as well as by ninety percent of the population, and the law totally forbids any sexual relationship between you until you are both twenty one. It is my opinion that this law is both unfair and discriminatory, but there is little likelihood of change in the foreseeable future so you will have to be cautious where a heterosexual couple would have nothing to worry about. Never flaunt what you are—your relationship is private and must remain so. But should something happen, and either or both of you are in trouble because of it, call me at once and I will deal with it. On the same subject, I would like you to remind Peter of the need for discretion when you're in public because although he is older, you are far more level-headed and it would distress Emily and Victor greatly if anything untoward were to happen. I'm sure that I can rely on you for that. For the rest, leave things in my hands. Are we agreed?"

Mark looked at him wide eyed, feeling very much better. "I'm not going to cry," he said in as determined a voice as he could manage.

"Certainly not."

"I always do when people are kind to me," he confided naively, to his companion's amusement. "Thank you, and thank you for giving me your card. I'll try not to use it."

Sir James smiled. "It is always best to be prepared and it is there if you need it. Now that is enough serious talk. Would you be so kind as to play for us? It is something I have been looking forward to very much since the last time we met."

In spite of what he had resolved Mark felt as if this final kindness was the straw that broke the camel's back of his self control. By clenching his teeth hard, he managed to prevent more than a couple of tears running down his cheeks as he fumbled in his pocket for the usual non-existent tissue. Sir James, who had learnt with some amusement of this habit from Peter, produced an immaculate white handkerchief. Mark swallowed, wiped his eyes, then blew his nose before he realised what he'd done.

"You may keep it, Mark. I have many more."

"Thank you, sir. Not just for this, but for, for everything."

He found it hard to believe. Sir James didn't mind about him and Pete, and had asked him to play for him as if he, Mark, would be doing him a favour. It was all very confusing. And then he had to go and blow his nose on Sir James' handkerchief. Why on earth couldn't he remember to put a tissue in his pocket? For heaven's sake, there was a whole box of them on his bedside table.

Watching them anxiously from inside the house Peter managed to stop himself from rushing out when he saw the handkerchief. He knew what it meant. Something Sir James had said had made Mark cry. So much for his idea of pleading with him. It was only when they were turned and he could make out Mark's expression that he was able to relax. The boy was looking at Sir James with something close to hero worship. Whatever had been said, it couldn't have been too bad. It wasn't easy caring about Mark, he told himself for the nth time as he sighed with relief.

Just outside the French windows, Mark came to a sudden stop. "Sir James," he said tentatively, "Do you know what is wrong with Pete?"

"Yes, I do. It is worrying you?"

"Very much. He's different to the way he was. They're even beginning to notice it at school. Is, is there anything I can do to help him?"

"Why do you ask?"

Mark hesitated but decided to go on. "I just feel sometimes that there's something I could do, something he would like me to do, but he won't tell me what it is. Nobody will."

"You are right of course, but it is something private between the two of you and something that only the two of you can work out."

"Why won't he tell me then? He knows I'd do anything for him."

"Yes, he does know that, but have you considered that it might be dangerous to you, that you could be put at risk because of it?"

"Dangerous? But what…" His heart went cold. Did Sir James mean, could Peter have…? He went white and would have staggered if Sir James hadn't grasped his arm and held him up.

"No! It is not what you are thinking, and Peter will tell you about it in his own good time. At the moment all he is trying to do is to protect you in a way that you don't understand. You are important to him. You are important to all of us."

Mark didn't hear the last part. He was trying desperately to hold on to, and believe, what Sir James had said first. He almost achieved it, but not quite. Underneath, there was that tiny doubt. It would explain so many things if it were true.

"Does he think I would mind?" he asked numbly. "Doesn't he understand I want to be exactly like him?"

Sir James was annoyed with himself. He seldom made mistakes in his handling of people, in fact he couldn't remember the last time he had done so. But he had made a serious misjudgement this time. It was the fault of all the publicity and hysteria whipped up by an irresponsible media, he mused. He hadn't taken into account how much of an effect it would have on an impressionable youth. He gripped Mark firmly and made him face him.

"Mark, I have never lied to anyone in my life, and I am not lying to you now. Peter does not have AIDS or any related disease if that is what you are thinking. It is something else entirely that he suffers from. A very, very, rare type of blood disorder. Occasionally his body stops producing enough red cells. It makes him feel tired and affects him in all sorts of ways. You will have seen how pale he is at the moment. When his body adjusts he will recover and be exactly as he used to be. But it takes time, and there is no permanent cure for it."

"Isn't there something he could take, drugs or something?"

"There is something, but it is quite drastic and only to be used as a last resort. For the moment he is alright and managing well. You can help by being with him and being patient with him. That will do him more good than anything else."

"Why wouldn't he tell me?"

Sir James thought rapidly. The boy was very bright and any explanation would have to be convincing. It was obvious he had no conception of the true situation. Peter had obeyed the rules. But it would be cruel to leave him with the suspicion that Peter had contracted one of the most frightening medical scourges of modern times.

"You think you know Peter well, don't you, Mark?"

Mark nodded, then changed his mind. "I know a lot about him, but not everything. He often seems to know what I'm thinking, but I don't always know what he thinks."

"Unlike most people he has a great deal of empathy and of course he loves you which makes him sensitive to your thoughts. But you need to understand that he is a very masculine young man, and with all a young man's pride in that and in his abilities. He is normally so fit and energetic that it is hard for him to admit to being unwell and unable to do the things he usually does. That and the fact that his blood is not carrying enough oxygen makes him feel uncomfortable, impatient and even bad tempered, which is very unusual for him as you know. This is where you come in. What you did for him in your mathematics class was exactly right. He has been careful not to put you in the position of needing to repeat it?"

Mark nodded.

"It was courageous of you, Mark, and exactly what was needed."

Mark shook his head. "I wasn't brave at all, I was shaking in my shoes," he admitted awkwardly.

Sir James laughed, making him feel a little better. "You have a strange idea of bravery, my dear boy. But whatever your feelings at the time, you handled the situation extremely well and that is what I hope you will continue to do. It is how you can help him best and I trust you to look after him. Things will get better I assure you. Look after him, for all our sakes, and leave the worrying to Emily, Victor and myself. Can you do that?"

"I'll try. You have been very kind," he added shyly. "Thank you."

"It is we who should thank you. Now I think we should go in. Oh, Mark, there is one more thing. I think you should drop my title, which is an honorary one in any case, and call me James."

Mark looked at him, his mouth slightly open. "I, I don't think I could," he stammered. "Not even Pete calls you that."

"Well that can be remedied," Sir James replied, and walked him into the house.

Tea was a much more festive occasion than lunch had been. Peter who was hovering near the door when they came in was astonished to receive a hug from Mark and looked over his shoulder at Sir James in surprise and gratitude. If Mark wasn't quite the glowing youth he had been previously, he was certainly looking very much better after their long talk. His own spirits raised by the improvement in the boy he loved, he became the life and soul of the party and kept them all in a ripple of laughter. No one looking at the smiling younger boy would have known that underneath it, the suspicion that Peter was suffering from something much worse than he had been told, was still lingering faintly.

When he sat down at the piano, with apologies because he had not done as much practice as he would have liked recently, he soon found himself totally immersed in the music. Even the moment of panic he usually felt before starting was not as bad this time because Peter was sitting next to him on the piano stool. As always, he played for Peter, but this time his love for Peter's family as well as his intense admiration for Sir James was also mixed up in it, and to three of his listeners at least, his playing seemed to have taken another step forward. That his technique was not quite up to his musicianship was obvious but that would come, Sir James thought. Nevertheless it was a pleasure to listen to him and his potential seemed limitless. And this posed a further problem for them all, but especially for Peter.

While they were talking he had not asked Mark if he had planned to make a career as a concert pianist. If that was the case, and things went the way he thought they would, that career would never come about because Mark would have to choose between it, and Peter. Sir James was fairly certain what his choice would be at the moment but he might regret the decision later if his talent continued to develop. He didn't think that Mark needed, or even wanted, the sort of adulation that the world lavished rather too rarely on classical musicians, but he might come to feel that he had wasted his talent if it was confined to a comparatively small circle of people. Well, they would cross that bridge when they came to it. He might not even have the potential for a musical career. Obviously the first step was to get him professionally assessed and he was going over in his mind who would be best qualified to do that as Mark finished.

His request that Mark play something else was received with pleasure by the flushed boy who was slowly beginning to accept that when he was asked to play it was because people wanted to hear him. The thought inspired him, and as he played one of the Brahms Intermezzi, he coaxed sounds out of the Ibach that brought a hint of moisture to Emily's eyes. She had played the piece herself, but never with the beauty that Mark gave it, and his delicate accenting of the notes that brought out another strand of melody woven into the fabric of the piece amazed her. How could she have missed something so obvious now he had pointed it out? Glancing at her husband and Sir James, she realised that they had heard it as well. If this is what he can do when he's only fifteen she thought, what will he be like when he's older?

The three of them discussed it while Peter walked Mark home.

"Are we right to put him in the position that he might never develop fully?" she asked worriedly.

"I don't think that we have any choice, Em," Victor replied. "That is between him and Peter, once he understands the implications. If it actually comes to that."

"Maybe it won't."

"I wouldn't count on it, my dear. What do you think, James?"

"I agree with you. From the talk I had with him this afternoon I would say it is inevitable, the only question is when. I understand what you feel Emily, his interpretation of the Brahms gave it a new meaning for me and I feel privileged to have heard it."

"He has such talent. Who would have thought that a fifteen year old could find something new in such a well known piece?"

"Well not new perhaps, but certainly an interpretation not heard for many years and not, I think, ever recorded. I have heard something similar, though never done with such delicacy. He has an extraordinary touch which I'm convinced Brahms himself would have appreciated, perhaps even envied. It makes one wonder if that strand of melody was deliberately written into the work or whether Mark simply found something that was there by accident. A fascinating thought. I incline to the latter view."

"Really, James? I imagine that you of all people would know."

Sir James accepted this with a slight smile. "We should keep in mind that this may just be a one off, as the modern phrase has it. I don't think we should see genius just yet. And bear in mind that there will still be outlets for him. There are many of us who will be delighted to hear him, people who are far more understanding and appreciative than the general run of the mill audience for classical music. There is no reason why private recordings couldn't be made as well. After all, we do similar things in other areas."

"I understand that, but I still feel that we don't have the right to do this to him."

"What would you suggest, Emily? That we separate him from Peter just when he is enjoying acceptance for the first time in his life?"

"Maybe it would be better for him."

"No Em! You're wrong!" exclaimed Victor forcibly. "You are only seeing the possible, and I stress possible, suppression of a career. We don't know whether he would make it professionally even with our backing, and what sort of life would it be for him anyway? No, I agree with James. Even if he got over being separated from Pete, and I have serious doubts that he would, do you think that becoming a concert pianist would be sufficient compensation given his personality and needs? He needs Pete and to a lesser extent he needs you and I, and he needs us now. Don't forget that it would be five or ten years before he got on to the concert circuit, if he ever did, and for all that time he would be alone.

"And what about Pete? Where do his feelings fit into your equation? If he decides that Mark needs to do without him it will be very, very hard, but at least it will have been his decision. On the other hand, how would he feel about us if we were to send Mark away without his agreement? Do you imagine he would concede that what we did was for the best? You know him better than that. All the love and trust that we have built up over the years would fly out of the window and he would almost certainly try to go it alone with Mark, with heaven alone knows what consequences for them both."

Emily looked at him. "Do you think I haven't considered that? I'm not saying we should separate them, I just feel that we should keep it in mind. Don't you think that Mark might thank us in the end?"

"No I don't. I think that that is exactly what people say when they make decisions about people, particularly children, who are under their control, and it strikes me as the worst type of arrogance. A prime example of the 'I know what is best for you' attitude that is all too prevalent. We see it all the time, children dragged from foster homes where they love and are loved on the grounds that somewhere else will be better for them in the long run. And those who make the decisions don't have to live with the misery they cause. They sit back in their righteousness, secure in the belief that they have made the right decision in the child's best interests. That it hurts the child they dismiss as something that will pass. But it doesn't, Em, some children never get over it. Even as adults they don't get over it. Believe me, I know. It happened to me, remember?" he finished more gently.

Emily reached over and took his hand. "I'm sorry, Vic, you're right. I was just so overwhelmed by his playing today."

"Emily, we are not going to suppress his talent, just develop it in a different direction. There will be compensations."

"I know that's true, James, it's just that…" she sighed. "What do you want us to do?"

"To carry on as you are for the present. You will take him on holiday as planned, which gives us a breathing space, and in the meantime I will contact Emilio and arrange for him to come over from France to hear him play. I think it would be better if it is done informally, so could arrange another of your musical evenings, say in about six weeks time? That should give him enough time to prepare something as I don't imagine he would want to repeat the Chopin so soon. I will contact Miss Herold, explain the situation and get her agreement, and look into the situation of his father. The one person I am unsure of is his mother. You have both met her, have you any idea how she will react?"

"You spoke to her more than I did last night, what do you think, Vic?"

"It's very difficult to say. She has such a negative personality it's almost impossible to pin her down. I would say that she is fond of Mark and would probably be relieved if he was away from his father. As a matter of interest, from something she let slip, I suspect that it is she who pays for his music lessons."

"That would make sense," Emily remarked. "If it is the case she may have some money of her own."

"It would be as well to find out. Could you discover her maiden name? It would save time."

"I'll get Pete to ask Mark. He can do it more naturally than we can."

Sir James nodded and put away the diary and silver pencil he had been using to make notes. He had no need for those aids to memory but had always found it best to be methodical. "Well I think that is all we can do for the present," he said, getting to his feet. "I take it that you will be happy to have him living with you, or would you like me to make other arrangements? They will not be able to live on their own for some years."

"Of course we will have him," Emily said after glancing at her husband.

"I want you to be completely sure, Emily. It would be very disruptive for them both if you were to change your mind."

"I'm already sure, James. He's a loveable and loving person, and it will be a pleasure to have him."

"Do bear in mind that there is a difference between having him as a guest, however frequently, and him having him as a permanent part of the household."

"We will have to make adjustments of course, but we'll be as happy to make them for Mark as we were for Peter," Victor replied for them both.

Sir James smiled as he shook hands. "That seems to be settled then except that I will need to speak to Peter at some stage. From what I have seen today there is no need to get the agreement of either he or Mark, so I think that we will keep our plans to ourselves for the time being. Fond as I am of Peter, he can be a trifle indiscreet at times."

They laughed as they escorted him to his car. Peter could indeed be indiscreet, as they knew only too well.

In point of fact, Peter was being indiscreet at that very moment. Having checked that there was no car in the garage and that the house was deserted, he had marched Mark up to his bedroom, wedged a chair under the door handle just in case, picked him up and tossed him onto the bed.

"If you think I'm going home without wanking you silly, you're mistaken. I know what you need when you've been stressed and you're going to get it whether you want it or not. Besides," he added, sitting on Mark's thighs while undoing the buttons of his shirt, "I haven't touched you for at least a day and I need to."

"What happens if he comes home?"

"We'll worry about that when it happens. Anyway, he won't."

"How do you know?"

"I just do, so shut up and enjoy. What do you want me to do to you?"

"Everything," was the comprehensive reply as Mark struggled to pull Peter's shirt out of his jeans. "Just hurry. Kneel up for a minute."

Peter did what he was told but refused to take his jeans off completely, just raised himself sufficiently for Mark to extract what he wanted. Neither was in the mood for a long session and the sight of Mark tensing, gasping, and squirting, was enough to detonate his own explosion in spite of the broken rhythm of Mark's hand.

They waited for their racing hearts to slow down then cleaned up, being careful not to get anything on their clothes. Then they lay on the bed talking and caressing each other until they were ready again. The second time was slower and more gentle but just as satisfying, although Peter felt more drained afterwards than he had ever felt after a session with Mark. Wisely he insisted that they get dressed before lying down again and it was not long afterwards that they heard the Captain's car pulling into the garage.

Reluctantly he brushed Mark's hair and checked that there were no tell tale signs before going downstairs. To his relief the Captain was in a better mood but it seemed to him that Mrs Gordon was looking even more grey and strained than usual. However, he wasn't given time to consider the matter as the Captain whisked him off to his study to show him some maps of a campaign in which he was not the least bit interested.

Mark had not been invited to join them and was talking to his mother when she surprised him by asking if he was happy.

Taken aback he stared at her for a moment and noticed that she looked far from well. He was wondering whether he should say something about it when she said, "I asked you a question, Mark."

"I'm sorry, mother, I didn't mean to be rude." He thought for a moment then said honestly, "Most of the time I'm happy, and sometimes I'm very happy. But there are times when I'm not, when he's shouting at me."

"You like Peter and his parents, don't you?"

"Yes, very much," he answered with a smile. "They are always so kind to me. I don't know," he had been going to say, 'what I would do without them', but felt that it would be unkind, and changed it to, "when I've met nicer people."

She looked at him rather closely. "But you're especially fond of Peter?"

Mark flushed a little, wondering if she suspected anything. "Yes I am. He's become my best friend." He didn't mention that Peter was his only friend. She had to know that.

"I'm glad. It always worried me that you were alone so much. I am going to go upstairs to lie down for a little. I'm rather tired."

"Are you alright?" he asked, concerned.

"I'm fine, just a little tired."

"Shall I bring you a cup of tea?"

"That's very thoughtful of you, dear. I would like that. Thank you."

He watched as she left the room thinking that she looked ill rather than tired, then went to the kitchen. He was not surprised to find her in bed when he went upstairs, after his offer of tea had been spurned by his father who had already poured himself a large whiskey. Peter had accepted with a smile, although he didn't really like tea and seldom drank it.

Her hands felt cold so he filled a hot water bottle and took it up when he went back to fetch the empty cup. They both knew what the Captain felt about dirty crockery left around the house. She accepted the hot water bottle gratefully, murmuring that she felt a little cold, then sent him downstairs with instructions not to worry about her. She would come down in time for supper.

Peter eventually escaped from the study but was unable to talk to Mark because the Captain officiously escorted him to the front door, a signal honour of which he was totally unappreciative. It went against the grain to leave Mark on his own with the man but he had no choice. All he could do was tell him that he would see him in the morning, by which he meant that he would be waiting on the road out of view of the house.

The Captain shut the door remarking that young Doran was a very manly lad, nothing girlish about him! The sneer went right over Mark's head as he agreed totally, and when he remembered which particular part of Peter's manliness he'd been holding not so long ago, found it difficult not to laugh out loud.

Querying the whereabouts of his wife the Captain snorted impatiently when told she was not well and informed him that he was on kp. Then he returned to his study and only emerged to eat the cold supper that his son had put together. Needless to say he found fault with it although it didn't stop him from eating everything put in front of him.

Mark, armoured by his talk with Sir James and the passionate session with Peter in his bedroom, was completely untouched by his father's complaints until he realised that his inattention was beginning to provoke his parent. Recalled to himself he assumed his usual nervous demeanour and it didn't strike him until later that he'd been acting the part. A few weeks previously he would have been genuinely afraid.

The next four days passed agonisingly slowly. Peter had told him that Emily was arranging another of her regular musical evenings and hoped that Mark would play something but had decided not to tell him that one of the foremost, though virtually unknown, pianists of the century would be there to listen to him. All three Dorans trusted his talent enough by now not to worry that he might let them down, but Peter did become a rather harder task master as he was going to miss a week of practice.

Mark was pleased to see that he was in better spirits, though he still looked pale and his lack of energy was becoming more and more apparent. Fortunately there were no important matches in the offing so apart from shaking his head over him, the football coach, who had put it down to the usual adolescent girl troubles, left him alone in the hopes that he would have regained his form after the mid term break.

To Mark the time seemed to crawl, but even the slowest of hours pass eventually and at lunch time on Friday, Peter accompanied him to the music room to do their homework, then sat beside him while he did an hour of such concentrated work that it left him covered in a light sheen of perspiration. They walked to the gate where Emily and Victor were to pick them up having arranged for them to leave school early. It was then that Mark remembered something.

"Pete," he said worriedly, "I forgot something."

Peter gave a mock sigh and delved into his pocket. "Here," he said in a long suffering voice as he produced a tissue. "Don't tell me you're getting a cold."

Mark took it automatically. "It's not that," he confessed. "I forgot my swimming costume."

Peter chuckled. "I bought one for you. What else did you forget?"

Mark gaped at him. "How did you know?"

"Because I know you," he said in a loving voice after glancing around to make sure they were alone. "Besides, if your costume is anything like the rest of your clothes it's probably awful."

Calling the garment to mind Mark had to admit that he was right. It was also embarrassingly too large. The only time he'd worn it he'd taken care not to dive into the water in case it came off. The thought made him cringe.

"What's wrong?" Peter asked, then his smile broadened into a wicked grin when Mark explained. "I'd love to have been there if it happened. I can just imagine your cute little bum bobbing up out of the water, to say nothing of what's on the other side of it making everyone jealous."

Mark gasped, flushed, and punched him in the ribs. "You're such a pig, Pete. I'd have died of shame."

"Oink!" His reply made Mark giggle. "Anyway it's good to be a pig. You know what pigs do, don't you?"

"What?" asked Mark innocently.

"They ride each other. All the time."

"Ride?" said Mark in a puzzled voice before the penny dropped. "You don't mean that they, they, well, you know."

"No. Tell me," invited Peter.

Mark hit him again. "You do know what I mean, you pig."

Pretending to be doubled up in agony, Peter groaned. "Stop hitting me. And I don't know what you mean."

"Jeeze Pete, you do really. Stop teasing me."

"No I don't. You'll have to tell me."

"Oh hell. Do they, do they, well, er, screw each other all the time?" he managed to get out.

"Yes, little boy, they do screw each other all the time. They haven't got hands so that's all they can do for fun"

"I don't believe you," Mark said, showing a delicately flushed face. The things Peter made him say were almost as bad as the things that Pete said to him. And about him, come to think of it.

"Since when were you such an expert on the sex lives of pigs? How many pigs do you know?"

"Only one—you!" Mark exclaimed, triumphantly.

"Well just be thankful that this pig does have hands."

Mark blushed again. "Pete," he said, suddenly serious, "If you didn't have hands, would you want to…?"

There was a pause as they stared at each other then, perhaps fortunately, Emily and Victor pulled up next to them.

In the flurry of greetings and climbing into the loaded car, Mark forgot the subject. But Peter, who had been thinking about it more and more, did not. However he was able to suppress his feelings in his pleasure at seeing Mark look so happy.

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