Monday, 19 February 2018

Blasphemy: a novel by Roger N. Taber (Part 1)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._N._Taber

Blasphemy, the complete novel, is available on Google Play but a number of readers have asked me to repeat it here as they have been unable to access Google Play for various reasons; I have printed it out in two parts, the latter of which will appear later this week.
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NB. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval systems or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior (written) permission of the author.

CHAPTER ONE


My name is Laurence Fisher and this is my story. I will try and be as accurate and honest as memory will permit. I dare say I may find it hard to touch on my failings from time to time, but an autobiography is mean to expose warts ‘n’ all so I won’t attempt to pretend I have none. If the reader becomes irritated with me, it is unlikely to be any more so than I frequently become with myself. 
I belong to a generation made to feel that being gay is a cross one had to bear. Then I met Harry Cole, and discovered, for the first time, that sexuality need not matter. Two people love each other, end of story. Or, so I came to believe. Yet, every story has its ups and downs, twists and turns. Somehow, I lost sight of all that. I thought I was content, happy. A part of me was; the part that had waited so long to belong.
It was the same for Harry. During our early years together, we often talked about such things. Then, somewhere along the line, we stopped talking and began to live on assumptions.
Whenever I reflect on our time together, a warm glow spreads inside me. But it has taken a while to recover that glow. Our story ended abruptly, and I had to find myself, Harry too, all over again. How I succeeded remains a mystery to me, almost as much a mystery as the runaway course my life took during those months long ago, but might have been yesterday…
That Monday morning began much like any other. Harry was still asleep when I woke to brilliant sunshine forcing an entry through the thin curtains at our bedroom window. I went to the bathroom, washed and shaved. Then I returned to the bedroom and got dressed. By now, Harry was half-awake. He watched me with a lazy grin on his face. “You look good enough to eat,” he chuckled.
I frowned self-consciously. I always wore a suit to work; it went with the job. Harry found this hilarious and had teased me about it from the start. When we first met, I had been wearing 501s and a bright orange tee shirt.
“Why don’t you just shut up and get up,” I retorted. It was all part of a long established ritual. We bantered, tit-for-tat, all the way through breakfast. He saw me to the front door. When my hand was on the catch, he grabbed my arm, swung me round and kissed me fiercely on the mouth. As usual, I made a brief show of breaking away, protesting impatiently. “I have to get to work!”
“Why? Stay home and let’s make love.” He tugged at the knot of my tie.
“You’re impossible!”
 “Would you have me any other way?”
 “No,” I confessed ruefully. We kissed again. I put my arms around his neck and let my tongue play between his lips.
He pushed me away and gave me a long, old-fashioned look. “I love you, Laurence.”
“I love you, too.”
There were tears in his eyes, his normal high spirits subdued. But he had always been something of a drama queen and I thought nothing of it. He gave me a hug, rested his chin on my shoulder and I felt the dampness of his cheek against mine. I glanced at my watch. “I’ll miss my train!” I protested mildly.
“So? Be a devil, miss it!”
“I’ll be late!” I pointed out. Even so, I might have caught the next train if he had asked me again. He didn’t. Instead, we broke apart, shared an intimate grin and kissed for the last time. A few minutes later, I was pelting down the road towards the railway station.
 In the event, my train was late, very late. This put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day. At least I preferred to blame a shoddy rail network for my being testy to the point of rudeness with staff and clients alike. I couldn’t wait for five o’clock to arrive. Yet, when it did I was strangely reluctant to leave the office. I was still at the computer when Ivor, our cleaner, arrived at five-thirty.
“Going to be long, Mr Fisher?”
“No, Ivor, I’ll be finished in a jiffy.” I had finished ages ago.
“Don’t hurry on my account. I’ll make a start on the loos.” He disappeared. I hesitated for no reason, staring at spreadsheets and making nothing of them. Finally, I logged off and reached for my jacket.
I missed the five-thirty train and whiled away twenty minutes in the Flying Horse. Max and Mo who ran the pub were old friends. While I chatted to Mo, a colleague came up to me at the Lounge bar and perched on a stool.
“Hello, Laurence.”
“Hello, Nick.”
Nick Carter was one of our newest recruits and earmarked for a partnership if he continued to run true to his present form. I did not like him much. He was brash, aggressive, cocksure and self-opinionated—all virtues in marketing, of course. “Had a bad day?” He grinned wryly. Doubtless my bad temper has made itself felt throughout the building.
“Not good,” I admitted.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
I glanced at my watch. “Another time,” I murmured and beat a hasty retreat without even saying goodbye. On the journey home, I couldn’t settle. I abandoned my crossword, turned several pages of a paperback novel without taking in a word, then gazed out of the window, absorbing the colourless suburbia rushing past with precious little enthusiasm. When I finally arrived at the my front door, my key would not turn in the lock. I swore and rang the bell. While I waited for Harry, I observed, as I invariably did, that the old house could use a lick of paint.
No Harry.
I rang the bell again, glanced across instinctively and waved to May Finn, our next door neighbour. Net curtains twitched and fell back sharply. The widow Finn was neither a bad neighbour nor a particularly friendly one.
Still no Harry. I tried the key again. It resisted again. At last, it gave. I went inside and knew immediately that something was wrong. The house was too quiet. Nor was it merely a sense of emptiness. I could no more put my finger on it than explain the dragging restlessness that had oppressed me all day.
“Harry?” I called out. No reply. I went into the sitting room. No Harry. I tried the kitchen, again without success. I went upstairs. By this time, I was sweating profusely. I took off my jacket, loosened the knot of my tie.
The bedroom door was wide open. I could see Harry lying on the bed. He was fully dressed, wearing a tee shirt of mine. I knew right away that he was dead. I entered the room and coolly felt for a pulse, but found none. Incredibly, I did not panic. On the contrary, I carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary had taken place. It was bizarre. I changed my clothes, taking care to avoid looking at the bed. After hanging my suit in the big double wardrobe, I grabbed a pair of jeans and a tee shirt draped over a chair and pulled them on.
When my head emerged from the pale blue cotton, it was facing Harry. I more than half-expected him to open his eyes, stretch, grin and say, “Hello”. Instead, nothing happened at all except that I began to shiver. I grabbed a sweater and pulled it over my head. One arm could not find a sleeve. Now I began to panic. By the time I had managed to wriggle into the thing, I was in a cold sweat.
I went and sat on the edge of the bed, stared at Harry without seeing him and felt again for a pulse. Again, there was none. He was stone cold. I hadn’t taken in the coldness before. Now, it numbed me all over. An envelope caught my eye. It had fallen to the floor. My blurred vision cleared as if on cue. I recognized Harry’s spidery handwriting. It hit me between the eyes. I read my name between hazy lines, a crackling noise in my ears. For an instant, I thought I was watching TV and all I had to do was adjust the set to make everything okay. I even got up and went to the portable on a table at the end of the bed. Reaching for the controls, I checked myself.
Realization began to dawn.
I picked up the telephone and put it down again. Returning, I knelt and picked up the manila envelope. I was some time, though, before I opened it. My name flickered and flared before my eyes. Words, dancing crazily. Suddenly, the familiar scrawl settled down and allowed me to read:
My dearest Laurie…sorry…tried to tell you but couldn’t…no other way…can’t face it…should have told you…so sorry…it didn’t mean anything…a one-night stand ages ago…unlucky…wrote and told me…HIV+ …had a test…positive…such a coward, I know…please forgive me…love you so much…
Each word entered a different part of my body like a skewer. Soon, I was writhing in agony. My hands moved to lay the letter on the bed. But my fingers would not let go. In desperation, I scrambled up and ran downstairs, still clutching the flimsy piece of paper.
The next few hours passed as if in a nightmare; the police the doctor; the ambulance; so many questions, questions, and more questions; the police, again; the doctor, again; neighbours; good  words, bad words, kind words…all talking at me. Now high voices, low voices, strange voices freefalling into an abyss of bleak silences.
Where was Harry, I wanted to know? Harry was so much better at dealing with this kind of thing than me.
Hours stretched into days, days into weeks. Inquest adjourned; inquest proper; funeral (no flowers by request). “Man born of woman has but a short time to live…”Cause of death: an overdose of amphetamines. Verdict: suicide.
More than once, Harry had expressed a wish to be buried in the local churchyard. “Or somewhere just like this,” he would say each time we worshipped at the little church; “It’s so pretty and peaceful here.”
But the vicar was adamant. “Suicide, he insisted, “is a cardinal sin. God gave us life. To throw so precious a gift back in His face is a terrible blasphemy. I cannot, will not be seen to sanction it. I’m very sorry,” he added.
So Harry was cremated. His family came down from Edinburgh. Parents, two brothers and a sister booked into a local hotel and ignored me. None of my own family attended, only a few old friends and the widow Finn.
That travesty of a chapel was the loneliest place on earth for me that sunny afternoon. Sunlight streaming through windows of plain glass made the chaplain’s ruddy face glow, like a cosy fire. I longed to put my hands to it and warm myself. Instead, I sat or stood as the bland service dictated and silently watched, listened, froze.
Only the widow Finn came back to the house for a cup of tea. She did not stay long. We had hardly spoken before Harry’s death. But the next morning, she was back, asking if there was anything she could do.
“Thank you, but no,” I said and tried to sound grateful.
“I can make us both a cup of tea for a start,” she declared briskly, and before I could protest, marched into the kitchen and put the kettle on. The woman irritated me. I longed for her to go and leave me to my thoughts. Yet, as soon as she left, I missed her presence. As for my thoughts, they just gave me a splitting headache.
I saw to everything myself. I borrowed a book from the public library about what to do when someone dies, and carefully followed every procedure, step by step. It was just as well since Harry’s family kept their distance. They left immediately after the funeral, washing their hands of the whole gut-wrenching business except to communicate with Harry’s solicitor as and when appropriate. I imagine it came as a great disappointment to them that we had taken out a joint mortgage and I was the sole beneficiary mentioned in Harry’s will.
When I returned to work, everyone made sympathetic noises. They were also curious. The local freebie had run a story on Harry and me: ‘Gay lover with AIDS commits suicide.’ No one had known that Harry and I were lovers. They were dying to ask questions. Instead, numerous hints were dropped. Innuendoes buzzed around the office like flies and I made no effort to squash them. My failure to respond to what was, after all, probably nothing more than genuine concern for a colleague, caused my hackles to rise.
Whispers behind my back grew louder.
One day, someone asked me outright if I had AIDS. I was ready for it. The day before Harry’s funeral I had gone for an HIV test. The test proved negative. A balding man wearing a white coat and severe expression told me to come back in another three months. He demanded to know if Harry and I had practised safe sex. “We trusted each other!” I said angrily. It was then the awful truth finally struck home. Harry had betrayed me. It had been on my mind of course, haunted me day and night but only as an abstract thought. Now I was obliged to grasp the nettle. Oh, he loved me. I knew that. Nor would he have hurt me for the world, I knew that too. Yet he had gone with another man without a thought for his own safety or mine. Worse, he hadn’t even told me. “Why,” I asked baldy, “didn’t Harry tell me? We told each other everything. How come he felt the need to go with someone else anyway? Was it just sexual or…” Words failed me.
Baldy had no answers. He fiddled with a button on his coat, tapped with two fingers on his desk and poured over a leaflet, lips pursed. No help there. I rose to leave. I’d taken a few paces towards the door, looming so-invitingly on the edge of my blurred horizon, when he called me back sharply and thrust a leaflet at me. I pocketed it and left.
At work, things got steadily worse. On my birthday, I arrived a few minutes late to find a gift-wrapped package on my desk. I opened it. Inside, a cheeky card signed by everyone in the office was attached to...a vibrator. I tried to ignore the snickers and concentrate on my job. It wasn’t easy. I stuck it out until mid-day then pleaded a migraine and went home.
Incredibly, I was forty-two. It was also my first birthday without Harry for nearly twelve years. I had no plans to celebrate. I had forgiven Harry. Or so I kept telling myself. Forgiven his betrayal, that is. As for his leaving me to make a life of sorts without him, that was something else.
Another can of worms altogether was learning to forgive myself. Why, in God’s name, hadn’t I noticed Harry’s distress? How could I have become so self-centred, so utterly self-absorbed that my own partner found me unapproachable? Had I distanced myself so far from our love? Looking back, I saw that I had. We hadn’t even shared the same bed in ages until that last night. Now I knew why. It had nothing to do with those migraines he kept pleading. Even on that last night, we hadn’t made love, only kissed and cuddled. And Harry had insisted we undress in the dark. “Let’s be decadent and mysterious.” He’d laughed, and so had I. If only I hadn’t fallen for his ruse, I’d have seen the tell-tale lesions on his body.
They had been good years, happy years; so much so that I had taken them for granted, Harry too. I’d taken everything there was to be had, and loved every moment. Only, somewhere along the way it must all have become a habit or sorts…even love. How else to explain such depths of loneliness and despair that had led my lover to take his own life?
Poor Harry, I had failed him completely. He must have been terrified. No one should have to take on the threat of AIDS by themselves. But he wasn’t alone, I argued with my alter ego in growing desperation. We could have faced it together. With medication, people lived for years with the HIV virus these days. Had he so little faith in me, then, and in our love for each other? He knew how much I loved him, surely? How could he have shut me out so? I almost hated him for that.
On reflection, I realised that I had never actually told Harry just how much he meant to me, never sat down with him and spelt out the words he’d murmur often enough in my ear. It was too easy, I thought, to say, “I love you” and expect to be believed. I was glad I had said it one last time, glad too that we had kissed goodbye. But I should have sensed something was wrong, surely? Perhaps I had, and closed my mind to it? If that were true, what kind of a monster did that make me and how could I live with myself?
“Damn you, Harry! Damn, damn, damn!” I sobbed quietly.
And so it went on…
Much as I detested being at work, it was preferable to staying at home with my thoughts for I had few visitors. Harry and I enjoyed a good social life but chiefly in each other’s company.
We hadn’t set out to insulate our togetherness, it just happened that way. Neither Harry’s relatives nor mine could bring themselves to endorse our relationship by staying in touch. So, that was family out of the way. As for friends, laughingly sceptical at first, fewer and fewer bothered as the years passed, yet still we stayed together. In the beginning, we gave parties and people dropped by all the time. But other guys always flirted with Harry and he loved it. In spite of myself, I would get jealous. I’d tell myself how it must hurt, seeing Harry and me so happy together while they, poor sods, were having to settle for one-night stands and short-lived affairs. Compassion, however, was never one of my stronger points. One evening, I emptied a full glass of beer over a particularly good-looking acquaintance with whom Harry had been dancing cheek to cheek for a good half an hour. There was a dreadful scene. Eventually, I locked myself in the bedroom and cried myself to sleep. Harry moved into the spare room and we barely exchanged a civil word for days. Finally, in early hours, I was roughly awakened to discover him kneeling on the bed, a hand over my mouth. “Scream and I’ll make love to you till dawn,” he grimaced and removed his hand.
I screamed.
After that, we drifted away from the old crowd and they were never replaced. The telephone rang less and less. A flood of invitations to this ‘do’ and that became a trickle, eventually drying up altogether. It was a gradual process, nothing dramatic. If I ever had cause to reflect, it was not with undue concern. I had Harry. We had each other. It was enough.
I’d honestly believed that Harry was happy too. Not any more. How could he have been, to do what he did? Day after day, I was plagued by doubts as persistent as leeches; they clung to every part of me as if determined to drain away the last drop of my life blood.
One evening, I called in at The Flying Horse for the first time in months. Mo had turned up at Harry’s funeral. A nice gesture, I thought. Although I had every intention of writing to thank her, I hadn’t got around to it so decided to drop by instead. It was a shade self-consciously, therefore, that I caught her eye at the busy lounge bar.
“Laurence, how nice to see you!” she seemed genuinely pleased. My flagging spirits began to revive. It has been a typically hectic day at the office, not to mention the usual nasty remarks I wasn’t supposed to hear. Mo’s huge, welcoming smile was just the tonic I needed.
“I’ll have the usual, please, Mo.”
“It’s on the house.”
“Thanks. I should come here more often.” I even managed an appreciative grin.
“You should and it’s my pleasure. How have you been?”
We chatted briefly until she had to serve someone else. I took a swig and looked around. The place had been refurbished. The new decor was tasteful and easy on the eye, the furnishings an impressive mixture of polished mahogany, brass knobs and red velvet seating. The fluorescent lighting was subdued and pink. Everyone and everything had a rosy glow about them. I liked it. It crossed my mind that Harry, too, would have approved. He often met me here, especially if we were going to the cinema or theatre straight from work. Instinctively, I glanced at my watch and had to check myself for wondering when I could expect him to turn up. Harry was always late…
“Hello Laurence.” I recognized the voice and every muscle stiffened. I turned round, the smile on my face a purely reflex action. “Hello, Nick.” I kept my tone neutral, verging on downright rude.
True, Nick Carter had kept a low profile at the office, distancing himself from the constant stream of homophobic remarks to which I was daily subjected, albeit discreetly enough to leave my line manager unmoved. In my book, though, passive acceptance of the status quo was no defence.
There followed a long, awkward silence before, “Look, Laurence, I had nothing to do with that birthday fiasco!” He coloured. In the pinkie light, he looked apoplectic. I had to laugh. He misunderstood and visibly relaxed.
“You signed the card,” I said accusingly.
He shrugged. “How was I to know what the others were planning?”
“You could have made it your business to find out,” I snapped. “You surely didn’t imagine they had flowers or chocolates in mind?”
“I guess not,” Nick mumbled, looked sheepish and began to move away. He’d only taken a few steps when he paused and turned. “I’m really sorry about your boyfriend,” he blurted, “I mean, suicide…you must be devastated.”
I started. It was the first time anyone had said that to me. Oh, a few people had muttered vague condolences, at the same time plainly desperate to avoid any mention of sexuality, let alone suicide. No one had hinted at just what it might mean to me, acknowledged the intimacy of my relationship with Harry. Apart from the local rag and the subsequent cold-shouldering of various colleagues, everyone had contrived to keep their sympathy in the abstract, no one quite wanting to get real. “Thank you,” I said warily and found myself reluctantly warming to the man. He edged towards me again, slightly. I took in the closely cropped red hair, the hazel eyes and freckles. He had thin lips but a pleasant enough smile and a cute mole on his left cheek. A tall man, I knew him to be twenty-eight years old. A bright, ambitious chap, he’ll go far, I thought, and chuckled. People had said that about me once. I hadn’t done so badly, either. But nor had I scaled the heights of my profession that mentors at the London School of Economics intended for me. Not that it had ever mattered...until now.
It hurt to admit that I was jealous of Nick Carter. Nor was I only jealous of a promising future that surely lay ahead of him, but jealous too, especially perhaps of his youth. In a flash, I thought I understood what Oscar Wilde meant when he so ingenuously proclaimed himself a lover of youth from the witness box. I chuckled again. Poor, dear Oscar. It may not have been the most diplomatic declaration in the circumstances, but it was a great epitaph all the same. Harry, too, had adored the simplistic beauty of youth. He would eye up young men and weave romantic fictions around them. That was all. “Youth, Laurie,” he’d say, “...is a fairy tale. Enjoy it, by all means. Try and live by it and reality will soon have your guts for garters. Dear me, but yes.” I could almost hear him chuckling mischievously in my ear.
In my mind’s eye, I saw the tombstone that I would have liked for Harry but for the vicar of St Michael’s. A lease on a rose tree in a Garden of Remembrance seemed poor recompense. I would have liked a place to go, be with Harry, talk to him, try and understand. Several times I had tried to find the rose tree and failed.
“Can I get you another drink?” Nick Carter’s voice tugged at my thoughts like a child its mother’s sleeve.
“A pint of bitter please,” and then, “Do you mind if we sit down?” Without waiting for a reply, I made my way to a vacant table in the corner, suddenly anxious to take the weight off my feet. I also needed to get away from the crowded bar. I hated crowds. Harry, I recalled, loved them. Yet he had been content enough to spend most of his spare time with me, just the two of us. Or, had he? How can I be sure? Nothing was clear any more. I might as well have been groping my way through a fog.
Carter arrived with the drinks, sat down and apologized a second time for the general attitude of our colleagues. “They don’t understand,” he muttered.
“Do you? Somehow, I doubt it.” I took a long swig.
“I know what it’s like to lose someone you love, yes.” His voice was hoarse, his face and hair on fire. He had the look of a Guy Fawkes effigy as the bonfire takes hold. “My girlfriend, Chris, died two years ago. Cancer. She was beautiful, full of life. At the end, she was paralysed. Her face swelled up like a huge marrow, the features little more than pin-pricks.” His face contorted with pain. “I kept asking myself…why us, why me? I never did figure out an answer that made any sense.”
“I know the feeling,” I was moved to say, and watched with mixed emotions as he  drank sparkling mineral water with short, agitated gulps. His directness surprised me more than his bitterness. The latter, I could understand only too well. I found it hard to talk about Harry. Perhaps, I reflected dryly, because there was no one to listen. Apart from the widow Finn, that is. She did her best, bless her, but she preferred to talk about her late husband. Oh, I listened, some of the time anyway. It was the least I could do. I got to know Michael Finn quite well. All the while, though, Harry flitted in and out of my inner vision like a tiny bird among autumn leaves in a solitary tree. It was much the same as I listened to Nick Carter reminisce about his girlfriend, Chris. I only caught snatches. It’s her birthday. She would have been twenty-five. Suddenly, he asked me if I would like to go for a meal, his treat.
“I don’t want to spend the evening with friends or alone.”
I accepted the invitation, thinking how lucky he was to have a choice. Nor was it a bad evening. The meal was good, the wine pleasant. Nick did most of the talking, chiefly about himself, but sometimes about his family. Somewhere along the line, Chris faded out of the picture. Harry, too, slipped away.
Nick drove me home in a handsome Porsche. We parked outside my house and I asked him in for a coffee. He refused politely enough, but a shade too quickly. “You’re right to be wary,” I mocked, “It’s not as if I don’t have something of a reputation, after all.”
For a moment, he tensed and I thought he would get angry. Instead he burst out laughing. “Okay, you’re on.” It was after midnight when he left. At the front door, he smiled shyly and said, “I’ve enjoyed this evening Laurence, thanks.”
“We must do it again sometime,” I murmured vaguely.
 “I’d like that.” He smiled and held out a hand. I shook it. His grip was firm, the warmth of his palm against mine a trifle disconcerting. It was not that I fancied Nick Carter. Quite simply, I was lonely. He must have caught my change of mood. At any rate, he unclasped his hand, took the steps two at a time and was driving off before I had even closed the front door.
Nick was not at work the next day and I learned he had taken a fortnight’s leave. Irrationally, I felt both annoyed and hurt that he hadn’t mentioned it. When he returned, bronzed and relaxed, he barely acknowledged me. That same evening, at the Flying Horse, he apologized for not sending me a postcard. “I forgot your address,” he muttered, plainly embarrassed. I suspected this awkwardness owed more to his continuing collusion with our dear colleagues to make my life hell than any memory lapse. When I put this to him, he had the grace to blush.
“You know how it is, Laurence.”
“I should do, I’m the fall guy!” I retorted.
“It’s better this way.”
“Better for you, you mean. Oh, it’s okay. I understand. We can’t have the office grapevine putting it about that you like queers, can we? I dare say they’d have us paired off in no time. It wouldn’t exactly improve your chances of a partnership, would it? Not to mention your standing among the homophobic classes.” I turned my back on him, caught Mo’s eye and chatted across the bar to her about nothing in particular. Nick Carter continued to hover at my elbow but made no attempt to gatecrash our conversation, such as it was. As soon as Mo moved down the bar to serve another customer, Nick offered to buy me a beer. I said no, rudely. Then I went and grabbed the only empty chair at a crowded table. As if on cue, everyone got up and left minutes afterwards. Nick came and sat opposite me. We glowered at each other, neither trusting ourselves to speak. I could not disguise my contempt. He, for his part, looked tired and miserable. In his favour, he did not make things worse between us by making excuses. “I thought we were friends,” I said at last, when I could bear the deafening silence no longer.
“We are!” he protested, “Aren’t we?” he added on a more cautious note.
I took my time. “Look, Nick, we’re in the twenty-first century now. The twenty-first century, for crying out loud! They don’t burn witches any more and queers have equal rights with other animals. So what’s your problem?”
He neatly sidestepped the question. “How do you handle the bullshit they give you every day?”
I shrugged. “Just because it’s on the menu doesn’t mean you have to eat it.”
He laughed, and so did I. It helped. “That’s a sound philosophy,” he smiled, “but philosophy isn’t everything.”
“It beats bullshit,” I countered.
More laughter...
“For what it’s worth, I’m ashamed of myself.” He muttered barely loud enough for me to hear.
“It’s worth sod all,” I said angrily, “What does it matter what other people think? There’s a basic principle of humanity at stake here.”
 “Don’t be naïve, Laurence, it doesn’t suit you. You know damn well it matters. Bollocks to Equal Rights. It may get you halfway up the ladder if you’re lucky, maybe even nearly to the top. But nearly isn’t good enough and you know it.” It was his turn to be sharp, almost aggressive. “I’m going places, Laurence, and I’ll be damned if I’ll chance my arm for a bloody principle. As for humanity, I agree it’s pretty basic.” He made a dry, rasping noise that might have passed for a chuckle if it hadn’t sounded much as I’d expect to hear from a rattlesnake.
“So why are you condescending to drink with me? It’s very public, isn’t it? Like the restaurant we went to, that was pretty public too. What if someone from the office saw us? What if the Chairman of the whole damn House of Cards walked in with his good lady?”
“No one at Butler & Hawthorne would be seen dead in a dump like this. As for the restaurant, it was nice but average. Would you say the people we work with are nice or average?”
“It’s still a risk,” I persisted.
“A calculated one,” he agreed, “the kind I’m best at.”
“But…”
“But, nothing. Besides, I’m a devious bastard. You’ve seen the way I operate. If the worst happened, I’d find a way to come up smelling of roses.” He flung me a crooked smile that gave him an air of boyish mischief. For an instant, I was reminded of Harry. How deceptive, appearances, I thought. Even so, I relaxed and could not help smiling back.
Nick Carter and I began to see a lot of each other. One night we went into London to see the final part of Lord of the Rings in the West End. Nick went to get some cigarettes while I queued for tickets. As he was returning, I saw him waylaid by a colleague, Don, who stepped out of the queue in front of me. Two women joined them. I recognized Don’s wife but not the other, a tall blonde. I watched Nick shake hands with both women. All four were laughing a lot. They dived back into the queue as it began shuffling forwards again. Nick, too. I waited until I saw them disappear into the cinema. Suddenly, it was my turn at the ticket office window. I stared at the woman blankly. She glared impatiently. I fled and made for the nearest pub.
The next evening, I avoided the Flying Horse and went straight home after work.
It was late when the doorbell rang and I heard Nick’s voice at the entry-phone. We hadn’t spoken all day. “Go away,” I said and replaced the receiver. The bell rang again. I tried to ignore the shrill ring but this time he kept a finger on it. Wearily, I lifted the receiver…
He was only faintly apologetic. “You know the score, Laurence. What else could I do? Now, can I come up or do I have to stay here all night?”
A few minutes later found us perched embarrassedly on the edge of armchairs, eyeing each other with much the same wary speculation as lovers after a quarrel.
“Who was the blonde?” I asked. As if I care.
“Her name’s Clara. She’s fun.”
“Give you a good time, did she?”
 “As a matter of fact, yes, she did.”
“I bet!” I was angry. He reddened and looked increasingly uncomfortable. I wished he’d get up and leave. Instead, he asked for a brandy. I did not stop to ask myself why I was relieved but went to the cabinet and poured two large ones. We sipped and said nothing for several minutes.
“I lied to you, Laurence,” he blurted suddenly, his eyes fixed on a floral pattern in the carpet. What I told you about Chris…it wasn’t quite like that.”
“Oh?” I waited.
“Most of it was true…about the cancer and everything. We’d been living together for nearly a year before…” He paused and looked up at me. I saw that he was crying. “It was so hard, Laurence.”
“You must have loved her very much,” I said gently.
He nodded, fumbled for a handkerchief, wiped his eyes and blew his nose. “It hurts, Laurence,” he sobbed quietly.
“I know.” I wanted to put an arm around him and comfort him but would not risk a rebuff.
Nick sat there, toying with the handkerchief, for ages. I refilled our glasses. Finally, he took a deep breath. “Chris wasn’t my girlfriend,” he said in a strong, clear voice, “He was my boyfriend.” He pocketed the handkerchief and reverted to studying the carpet.
“You’re gay?” I was incredulous.
He nodded, appeared to reach a decision and looked me directly in the eye. “Yes, I’m gay. But that’s my business and if I want to stay in the damn closet, that’s my business, too. You can appreciate that, surely? You weren’t exactly forthcoming about being in a gay relationship yourself until…” he finished lamely.
I winced. “So why tell me now?” I was curious.
Nick licked his lips nervously, then, “I had to tell someone.” He took out the handkerchief again and blew his nose noisily. “I can trust you. Two of a kind and all that...”
“Huh!” was the only comment I trusted myself to make.
“They say it’s no big deal these days, but it is. I couldn’t handle what those creeps at the office put you through day after day. And my family would go ballistic, I just know they would.”
“But…?”
He shrugged. “I can’t help the way I am, can I? I can live with that. I just don’t see why I should let it screw up everything else for me. I’m no martyr, Laurence.”
“Meaning...?” I bristled.
“Day after day, they crucify you and you…”
“I what...?” I got up and all but leapt at him placing my hands on both arms of the chair, the heat of his breath on my face. “Let them? Do you think I enjoy it?”
“You could quit,” he mumbled, ‘ or ask for a transfer.’
“Why should I?” I was livid. “Besides, where would I go? At forty-something, you’re either a success or an also-ran.”
“Only if you’re gay...”
 “Bollocks! Get real, Nick. Maybe it doesn’t always help. But at the end of the day it’s only an excuse. The truth is, I don’t have what it takes to stay ahead in the rat race. And shall I tell you something else? I’m glad.”
“The rats wouldn’t let you win anyway.”
“Possibly, but a rat is a rat. Gay or straight, it makes no difference. If you have success written all over you any fart on the make will be only too happy to give you a blow job.”
“You’re so naïve.”
“So you keep telling me.”
Tears streamed down his face and his lips quivered, but he fell quiet and we stared into each other’s faces as if expecting to find answers to questions we hadn’t even asked of ourselves, let alone each other. I sighed, rose and returned to my glass. Without any warning, Nick jumped up like an animal freed from a trap and bolted for the door. “You don’t have to leave, Nick.” I said without thinking.
He paused in mid-stride and swung round. I honestly thought he was about to tell me to go to hell and braced myself.
“You mean I can stay?”
“It’s up to you.”
“No, Laurence, it’s up to you. If I stay, I stay the night.”
I stared, nonplussed. “You mean…?”
“You know perfectly well what I mean,” hesitating only a fraction, “I want to sleep with you. So how about it, are you up for that? We’re both lonely. And don’t you dare say you’re not because we both know better. I’m sick of being alone and I think you are, too.”
“Yes, but…”
“No buts. No strings. No complications.”
“I see, just sex.”
“Yes, just sex, and why not? It beats Prozac any day.” He relaxed slightly, even managed a wry grin in spite of a tension between us that could only be described as electric.
“And what about love...?” I demanded.
“Oh, that!” he scoffed, “I don’t plan to make that mistake again.”
“Chris was a mistake?”
“Chris is dead. So is Harry. I just need to be with someone, Laurence, and so do you.”
“Just like that...?”
“No, like this...” His embrace was firm and resolute. Although demanding, his kiss was surprisingly warm. I had always thought Nick had a hard mouth but the lips pressed against mine were gentle, his tongue moist and pleading as it forced an entry. Our moaning breaths sounded like a frenzied jazz beat in my ears.
Head and heart yelling “No!” in unison, my body gladly succumbed.
I paused on the stairs, lit only by the orange low of a street lamp that belonged to an outside world we had left behind. Nick darted ahead, slipping off his jacket as he did so. The yellow of his shirt was like a burst of flame in the gloom. I hesitated at my bedroom door. Again, Nick seized the initiative. He pushed it open and went inside. The curtains were wide open. A full moon and lots of stars blinked conspiratorially at us. I stayed by the door, willing my legs to move but they refused.
Nick removed his tie, draped it over a chair and began unbuttoning his shirt. I pushed the door shut without shifting my position. Nick took off his shirt. His smooth, muscular chest heaved in the moonlight. He dropped his trousers and clambered out of them. It struck me as faintly absurd that he was not wearing underpants. I found my feet and went to him. Almost reverently, I laid both hands on his bare shoulders. He started to undress me and I was happy enough to let him.
We regarded each other’s nakedness in total silence for a while, then, “Not bad for an old man of forty something,” he said with a chuckle that made my spine tingle.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” I commented dryly. We both laughed. The sound refreshed us, gave us its blessing. We embraced. We did not kiss but clung to each other, cheek to cheek, revelling in mutual comfort. Slowly, we sank to the bed. Over Nick’s shoulder, I swear the moon winked at me as we pulled the duvet over us and enjoyed a cuddle.
“I could fall in love with you,” I murmured, my mouth close to his.
“Don’t,” Nick Carter warned a split second before he kissed me, plunging us both into an oasis of passion. 

CHAPTER TWO


My relationship with Nick was a mixed blessing. I never quite got used to the cold shouldering by day and his heat in my blood most nights. It was a comfort of sorts and better than feeling so completely alone as I had since Harry died.   But I was confused. The more we talked, the less I felt I knew the real Nick Carter. At times, I actively disliked the man. In bed, I used to imagine that I was falling in love with him. Once I whispered, “I love you” between kisses. His whole body tensed against mine and his eyes took on a warning glitter.
“I told you, Laurence. None of that nonsense or we’re finished.”
“What have you got against love?” I was more intrigued than hurt.
“Nothing...for other people, not us.”
“Not you, you mean.”
“If you like.”
“So you only want me for my body,” I teased.
“What else?” He gave me a long, tongue-thrusting kiss and ran a searching hand along my thigh.
“Do you like me, Nick?” The question sounded pathetic even to my own ears, but I needed to know.
“Better than I like myself if you must know.”
The reply surprised me and it must have shown in my face. At any rate, he laughed and kissed me again, before drawing himself up while easing my legs apart with his knees. He had grown his red hair. It tumbled in glossy waves over his face and tickled my mine. It was my turn to laugh. “Why me, Nick?”
“Why not?” He shrugged. At the same time, his expression softened, and I felt mildly less like a drowning man clutching at straws. As I ran my fingers through his hair, he deftly manipulated a condom with the same boyish grin I had so quickly learned to both love and despise. Even so, the lion’s share of contempt I kept for myself as I draped my arms over his freckled shoulders and lifted my mouth to receive the heat of his breath, eager to let the silky wetness of his tongue coax my pleasure sufficiently to sustain a perverse faith in our togetherness.
Sometimes, Nick would leave almost immediately after making love. Often, he stayed all night. On occasions, he would turn over and go to sleep. At other times, he would lay his head on my chest and let me stroke his hair in a silence like the grave. I used to pray he wouldn’t turn up some evenings, only to feel an immense relief when I heard a key turn in my front door or get upset when it did not.
I missed Harry. I always knew where I was with Harry. At least, I had to keep reminding myself, I thought I did. One evening, I made a pilgrimage along one of our favourite walks. I strolled along the canal towpath, over the bridge, across the park and through a maze of narrow streets lined with houses and apartment blocks of all shapes, sizes and design. While some of the former had delightful front gardens, most had been sadly neglected. A good few of the latter boasted delightful window boxes although the majority ignored such homely pretensions, preferring to blank out the world and its passers-by who, for the most part, were likewise inclined to blank each other out.
I began to feel closer to Harry than I had since his death. Now and then, I almost passed a remark about this particularly eye-catching brickwork, flower display or row of washing on a line. I checked myself just in time, laughing aloud at the very idea of Harry’s ghost keeping me company. Ghost or not, though, Harry kept pace with me every step of the way. We ended up at the Pig and Whistle like we always did. As usual, it was my round.
It was late when I arrived home, by which time I’d downed more lonely beers than I intended. There was no sign of Nick. I made a cheese sandwich, treated myself to a large brandy and sprawled on the sofa to listen to Mozart. Harry adored Mozart. I preferred jazz myself, but not tonight. Tonight, it had to be Mozart. For once, I was genuinely glad when Nick failed to show or even telephone. It was good to spend some time with Harry. I seemed to hear his voice in the music, telling bad jokes or speculating about England’s chances of winning the World Cup, berating politicians for a being such a dead loss, sharing his dream of winning the National Lottery. We laughed together, cried together and carried on laughing and crying until the grandmother clock in the hall struck 2:00 am.
By the time I’d staggered up the stairs, clumsily undressed in the dark and dragged the duvet over my head...the magic was gone. Harry, too, was gone. I was alone again. Worse, I was cold and began to shiver. I wished Nick lay beside me. Much as I had enjoyed that evening with Harry, I hated sleeping with a ghost.
It was a long night. I dozed, only to wake from time to time in a cold sweat at the same point in a recurring nightmare. I am sitting in an open-top bus, like the ones that take tourists around the city. It is crowded. I am sitting next to Harry. A bridge looms. I rest my head against Harry’s shoulder. He takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. Then we pass under the bridge. A heavy shadow flutters over us like the wings of a huge bird. Now, blue sky and sunshine again. I snuggle against Harry, content to feel a warm breeze on my face, in my hair. Suddenly, an uncanny silence falls. Harry’s hand in mine has gone limp. I lift my head and look around. Everyone else in the bus is headless. I stare at Harry’s trunk swaying to and fro as the bus rattles on. I awoke, screaming.
Eventually, I went downstairs and made a cup of tea. I sat at the kitchen table for hours, watching the sun rise majestically above the trellis fence where japonica trailed and screened our back yard from the widow Finn’s.
I did not go into work that day. Instead, I went back to bed and slept until almost noon. I wasn’t hungry until I began idly nibbling at a biscuit. Suddenly, I was ravenous. I rushed out to buy fish and chips, but lost my appetite again as soon as I got them home. Later, I pottered half-heartedly in the garden, chatted with the Widow Finn, and accepted an invitation to join her for a cup of Earl Grey and a feast of buttered scones in her conservatory. The scones were homemade and delicious. I had already scoffed three before letting May Finn persuade me to demolish a fourth.
“You’re not eating properly,” she commented and frowned.
“I get by,” I lied.
“Getting by isn’t enough,” she scolded, and sighed as she poured more tea from an earthenware pot while I . I devoured my scone. She started to talk about her husband. “He loved my scones, my Michael…” I was content enough to sit back and half listen. Normally, her voice was deep, razor-edged; as she spoke about Michael Finn, though, it changed dramatically, rose an octave or two and assumed a sing-song lilt that was very easy on the ear. I was content to drift in and out of memories, hers and mine both, for a pleasant hour or so. “I miss him,” she murmured.
“I miss Harry,” I said.
“It’s hardly the same,” she almost snapped, “I mean, Michael and me, we were…” she became flustered, “well, married…in the sight of God.”
“Harry and I were together a long time,” I muttered defensively.
“It’s hardly the same,” she insisted. “Marriage is different, special, sacred. It’s a commitment. That’s what love is all about…being committed. Living together is all very well but it’s not the same. Oh, it may be fashionable. But, at the end of the day, it’s little more than self-indulgence and costs nothing. There’s no real…trust.” She savoured the word on her tongue and seemed to find it satisfactory. It cut me to the quick.
“I loved Harry,” I was stung to respond.
She shrugged. “He was a nice man, always cheerful and had time for a chat…” She began to reminisce. Suddenly, she drew in her breath sharply, pursed her lips and gave me a long, old-fashioned look. It dawned on me that she hadn’t realised Harry and I were lovers. Yet, I’d always assumed she must have guessed, even quietly accepted us during the years we had been neighbours.
“I loved him,” I repeated for good measure.
“I dare say,” was all she said. Her eyes, though, had much more to say. They widened in frank disbelief and then narrowed to slits that heaped a familiar aggression on me. Didn’t I run a gauntlet of it every day at work? I got up, a trifle unsteadily, politely thanked her for the tea and scones and left without another word passing between us.
That evening, Nick called and stayed the night. He didn’t ask why I hadn’t turned up for work. We talked for a bit about a new project of his, and then went to bed. We lay naked on the duvet for a while and watched shadows dancing on the ceiling. He finally moved closer, turned on his side, ran a finger down my nose, pausing at my lips before continuing its sensual passage to the nape of my neck where it tickled and made me laugh before moving on to prod my belly button and stroke my thighs, stirring up the hairs on my legs while lightly brushing the tips of my toes with his own. His profile was mostly in shadow. A trickle of moonlight through a chink in the curtains homed in on the mole on his cheek. It fascinated me, that mole. I wanted to touch it and did. He bent and kissed me. My head swam. I could feel his heart banging against my chest as if demanding to be let in. My alter ego shouted, No. This was pure farce. Again, No. But I so wanted to be held, needed to pretend I was loved. So I kissed Nick back with a fierce possessiveness that surprised us both. Sex became a wild, frantic affair. We barely paused until our bodies, drenched with sweat, burst into desperate orgasm. Exhausted, we lay in each other’s arms and slept. Nor did I have any nightmares.
A dim glow at the edge of my darkness might have been the beginning of the end of grief. Or it might have been guilt. Whatever, I was past caring.
Yet again, I could not face going into work the next day. Instead, I caught a train to Victoria, walked to the Houses of Parliament and wandered along Whitehall into Trafalgar Square. The fountains were dead, the lions looked bored and Nelson was covered in pigeon droppings. I sought comfort among the Pre-Raphaelites in the National Gallery. Later, I visited a nearby photographic exhibition. Its theme was the faces of war, famine and AIDS in Africa. The black and white images were stark and excruciatingly moving. Inevitably, I found my way to a gay bar that Harry and I had frequented during those early, heady days of getting to know each other. It was where we’d first met. After a few drinks, I’d asked him back to the flat I rented in Kentish Town.  He declined.  Abashed, I retreated to the toilet. By the time I returned, he’d left. I made a point of calling in every night after work for three whole weeks before I saw him again. He was with a friend, and I almost despaired until he spotted me and waved. I waved back. About ten minutes later, the friend left. Harry came over. This time, it was his turn to do the asking.
At Harry’s place, I’d lost my nerve. We drank coffee and chatted into the early hours. Finally, we went to bed. Nothing happened. We both fell asleep. When I woke, he was sitting up, elbow propped on a pillow, watching me….
“You’re beautiful when you’re asleep,” he murmured shyly.
“And when I’m awake?”
“Not bad,” he chuckled, “Not bad at all.” He kissed me then, and we made love. It was an infinitely tender experience.
Six months later, Harry and I began house hunting, eventually settling for a modest semi in a dreary suburb we called our Garden of Eden. “Promise me, no snakes!” I had joked. He gave his solemn promise, sealing it with a sloppy kiss.
A shrieking police siren returned me to the present day with a nasty jolt. Poor Harry. I could not help thinking how hard it must have been for him to keep that promise. How ironic, too, that the only snake in the Garden has AIDS.
I ordered a pint from a pretty youth who called me ‘Babe’ and looked around. The place had changed a lot. It was bigger, gaudier, and dominated by a huge television screen that was showing a gay movie with the sound turned down. The crowd hadn’t changed much although the faces were new. Younger, that was all; the same provocative mix of leather, denim, sweat-stained tee shirts, and partially unbuttoned shirtfronts. Nor were the expressions markedly different. Small groups were camping it up. Singles were trying to catch this eye or that.
A wave of nostalgia hit me, sucking me into a sea of drowning men whose dog-paddle gestures cried out for attention. Ah, yes, I remembered it well! An intense sadness washed over me. I turned to a young man propping up the bar next to me and remarked, “This place takes me back!”
He gave me a dirty look. “Where to, the ark?” he sneered and swaggered off, swinging his hips with such exaggeration that I had to laugh. A curly haired youth wearing a pink tee shirt and denim shorts darted forward and embraced him. The crowd surged around them; for a second or two, they surfed its crest, and  then vanished.
I drained my glass and ordered another beer. Suddenly, I felt old and out of place. I wanted to leave. At the same time, I reckoned I had as much right to be there as anyone and more than most. So I stayed and kept a stubborn vigil over my memories.
After a while, I got into conversation with a tall, leather bear of a man who wandered off after I expressed no appetite for sadomasochism. Shortly afterwards, I was approached by a sandy haired lad who did not look old enough to be knocking back a brandy and coke.
“Hi. My name’s Danny.”
“Laurence.” We shook hands.
“Will you buy me a drink?”
It could do no harm, I thought. I ordered us both drinks and the barman threw me a knowing wink as he handed over my change. My hackles danced a jig up and down my spine. I glared at Danny. “How old are you?”
“Old enough,” he chuckled. “Have you got anywhere to go?” he asked after staring wordlessly at me over the rim of his glass for several minutes. “For business, I mean.”
I knew what he meant. He was grinning from ear to ear as if he had cracked a joke. I was not amused. “I’m not interested,” I said sharply and edged away.
“Who are you kidding? You’re gagging for it!” He flung back his head and laughed. “I bet I’m the best offer you’ve had in a month of Sundays. “Am I right or am I right?”
I turned and elbowed my way to the other side of the bar.
“Your loss, you silly old fart!”
I caught his passing shot and winced. I had  barely turned forty, for heaven’s sake. A large whiskey went down well. Another, annoyingly, had little effect. Clearly, I was not meant to get rolling drunk. Indeed, the more I drank, the more home truths hit home than I cared to dwell on. I had been possessive of Harry, anxious to preserve our love, loath to let it take its natural course and let it change, grow if for no other reason than I was scared of change.
Harry’s death terrified me. So had I faced up to my fears? Not bloody likely. Instead, I’d chosen to let a man I did not love and who did not love me act as a proxy for Harry just so that I could half pretend things were much the same. It was pathetic. I’m pathetic. I glanced around morosely. This place, this whole scenario is…pathetic. I left.
Unable to face going home, I remembered an all-night café that Harry and I used to frequent during halcyon days (and nights) on the town. I staggered a few yards, reached a corner, couldn’t for the life of me recall whether to take a left or right turn, but made a wild guess and it proved correct. The café was still there, sandwiched between a sex shop and a tall building whose open front door revealed a flight of dimly lit stairs at the end of a small passage lit by a single, naked bulb.
I was about to enter the café when I heard a groan. I paused and pricked up my ears. Nothing. I pushed the door open and was greeted by a rush of noise and smoke that went straight to my stomach. I retreated. Again, I thought I heard something. I pulled the door shut and listened. Voices, very near. Not in the café. Somewhere else. Agitated voices. Now raised, now hushed. Silence. After a few seconds, a low whimpering stared up. Moans. Someone was hurt? Intuitively, I knew to keep well away. It was none of my business. All my basic instincts warned me not to get involved. Suddenly, a cry of pain cut through my indecisiveness like a knife. I was left with no choice.
My investigations did not take long and led me into a narrow alleyway next to the sex shop. I could just make out two figures. One sat on the ground, back to the wall, hugging its chest. The other hovered uncertainly. “Can I help?” I ventured. The figure on the floor swore, tried to get to its feet, collapsed in a heap and swore again. The other rounded on me, eyes blazing.
“What do you want? Clear off and leave us alone!” It was a girl.
“Can I help?” I repeated, feeling foolish. As my eyes became accustomed to the heavy gloom, I began to make out features. At first glance, the girl looked very young, barely sixteen. She was pretty enough but a hard edge to the voice put years on her even as I peered more closely. A thin face, in its frame of long, untidy hair looked careworn. Moreover, a tight mouth and furrowed brow signalled open hostility. Her companion moaned again. She knelt, ignoring me.
I watched comforting the figure on the ground and caught my breath as I gradually made out the pained expression of the rent boy, Danny, who had accosted me in the pub earlier. He looked a mess and was covered in blood.
“Well, what do you know? We meet again, sunshine!” He tried to laugh and coughed up a stream of blood.
“You need a hospital!” I was appalled. “I’ll go and call an ambulance.”
“No!” he tried to get up and failed miserably. “No ambulance. Not bloody likely! Here, Poppy, you got your mobile?”
“Nah, they took it.”
“Shit!”
“You need a doctor, Danny!” I tried to insist.
“You two know each other?” The girl wiped Danny’s mouth with a tissue.
“Sort of.” Danny managed a grin, “Couldn’t get your bottle up though, could you, eh?” He turned to the girl. “Don’t fret so, Poppy. We’ll go and see Ray. He’ll sort me out.”
“But Ray lives in Camden Town!” she wailed.
I wanted to turn my back on the pair of them and leave them to it. But how could I? They were streetwise kids, sure enough. But they were only kids, all the same. “Is this Ray a doctor?” I demanded.
“As good as,” muttered Danny, tried to get up and let out a yelp.
I made up my mind. “Alright, I’ll call a cab. Then we’ll see if this Ray can fix you up. If not, I’ll get you to a hospital if it kills me.”
“It’ll kill me first, you bet!” chuckled Danny, and nearly choked on another rush of blood.
I ran into the road and wasted precious minutes trying to flag down a taxi. As usual, no sign of one when needed. I had left my own mobile recharging at home so ran into the café, praying it still provided a pay phone. It did. There were numerous printed cards advertising mini cab firms as well as prostitutes pinned on the wall. I rang several numbers before speaking to someone who promised arrival within ten minutes.
It was nearer twenty minutes before the cab arrived and the driver was none too keen to take the injured Danny anywhere. “No way,” he kept saying, “The kid’s trouble and I want none of it,” he insisted. I promised him double the fare. He hesitated. I offered another ten pounds. “Okay,” he muttered ungraciously then fetched a blanket from the boot and spread it over the rear seat. “You mess up my cab and I’ll finish you off myself, so help me!” snarled the cabbie at the unfortunate Danny. Nor did he make any move to help as the girl, Poppy, and I half-dragged, half-carried the moaning youth and laid him gently down on the rear seat.
Ray turned out to be a failed medical student in his mid-thirties who operated a no-questions-asked ‘surgery’ from a studio flat on the fifteenth floor of a council block.
Danny passed out in the lift. I had to carry him like a babe in arms, afraid to sling the lad over my shoulder in case I made his injuries worse. Even so, I was concerned I might already have done more harm than good.
Poppy rang a doorbell. A small, slightly built man in a purple bathrobe eventually answered. He yawned, took one look at us and tried to shut the door. Poppy stuck her foot out. “Please Ray, you’ve got to help us. Danny’s hurt bad.”
Ray glared at me. “What’s it to you?”
“He’s paying,” said Poppy, losing patience, “so let us in, will you?” She pushed Ray aside. He stumbled. I took a chance and barged in before my arms gave way under Danny’s not inconsiderable weight.
As I laid the lad on a battered sofa, he opened his eyes. “Hello, guv,” he winked and grinned, “I charge extra for a cuddle, you know!” wincing as I settled his head on a cushion. “Sort me out, will you Ray?” In a mirror on the wall, I followed his gaze over my shoulder and saw Ray looking less than pleased.
Ray glared at me. “Is that right, you’re paying?”
What had I got myself into, I wondered? But it was too late for second thoughts. “Yes. Can you fix him up?”
Ray appeared to make up his mind on the spot, and was suddenly wide-awake. “Help me get his clothes off. Poppy, go and run a bath.” Poppy disappeared. Between us, Ray and I managed to remove Danny’s bloodstained clothing. Ray examined him. “It looks much worse than it is. He may need a few stitches though. After we’ve cleaned him up I’ll take a closer look at the damage. First things first, though…that right shoulder’s dislocated good and proper. Help him to sit up and hold something over his gob.” I stared, uncomprehending. “I have to set the joint, right? It will hurt. I can’t risk any yelling blue murder at this time of night.”
“I won’t make a sound, honest,” protested Danny weakly.
“Like hell you won’t!” Ray remained unconvinced.
“Will this do?” Poppy had reappeared and was holding out a folded headscarf.
“But…” I took it, in a daze.
“Get on with it!” snapped Ray. I held the scarf over Danny’s mouth. Wide-eyed, all three of us watched as Ray prepared to re-set the shoulder. “This will cost you,” he glared at me. I settled for a nod. He turned his attention back to Danny. “One of these days you’ll take a punter for a mug once too often…”
Danny made a gurgling sound and I would have protested. But it was over before I could open my mouth. Ray gave a jerk on the arm. Danny started and gave an almighty yelp in spite of my hand over his mouth. I only just managed to keep it in place or he’d have woken up the entire block.
After Danny had quietened down, Ray and Poppy bathed him then returned him to the sofa where Ray examined him again. “As far as I can tell, there’s no real damage done. The cuts and bruises are mostly superficial. You should get an X-ray though.”
“Fat chance!” snorted Danny.
“He was coughing up blood!” I was far from satisfied.
“It’s usual with broken teeth,” commented Ray dryly. He turned to Danny. “It’s a small miracle your jaw’s still intact.”
“They did their best,” muttered a white-faced Danny.
“Who did this to you?” I wanted to know. A tense silence descended. It coiled around me like a snake until I could hardly breathe. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked,” I was forced to concede. As soon as I admitted my gaff, the tension lifted.
Ray made a sling for Danny’s arm. “Rest it for a few days,” he advised in a tone that might have passed for professional if I hadn’t known better. “There’s some nasty bruising. But that goes for the rest of you, too, so take it easy. Try and stay out of trouble, if that’s not asking too much.”
“Huh!” I suspected Ray was asking just that.
“How much?” Poppy demanded.
Ray shrugged. “It’s late. You got me out of bed. Say, three hundred.”
“Three hundred pounds!” I was gobsmacked.
“You didn’t have to come to me. If you wanted a freebie, there’s always the good old NHS,” Ray pointed out with more than a touch of irony. “Have you got the cash?”
“Will you take a cheque?” I reached in my coat pocket.
“You must be joking! Have you got a bank card?” I nodded. “There’s a cash machine about half a mile down the road. And don’t take all night, I like my bed.”
“I’ll come with you,” Poppy yawned.
“I can find it on my own,” I snapped. I, too, was ready for my bed. The sooner I could put this whole sordid business behind me, the better.
“Go with him,” croaked Danny, “and make sure he comes back.”
“Good point,” agreed Ray.
Three pairs of raised eyebrows regarded me speculatively. I suspected that my
misgivings showed plainly in my face.
As we walked, Poppy opened up to me a little, although she made no mention of how Danny came to get beaten up. I had my own ideas about that. The lad was a rent boy, after all. She told me that they lived together in a bed-sit off the King’s Road in Chelsea.
“Live together?” I was sceptical.
Poppy giggled. “Not all rent boys are gay, you know. Not many, I’d say.” She flung me a smouldering glance. “We’re an item, Danny and me, have been for about a year now.” She shrugged. “We have to live somehow…”
“You’re a prostitute, too?” I should not have been surprised. But, even under the night sky’s unflattering clarity, she looked very young and vulnerable.
“It’s a job.” She paused. “Do you like your job much?”
“No,” I confessed.
“Well then…” she shrugged again as if that said it all. Perhaps it did, I wondered, and brooded on the situation all the way to the cash machine and back to Ray’s flat.
Much of Poppy’s stream of abuse aimed at men, parents, and social workers went in one ear and out the other. Once I spotted a black cab hurtling towards us and was sorely tempted to hail it, abandon Poppy and get home as quickly as possible. I wondered if Nick had called? Would he be worried about not finding me in? I doubted it. “Do you have a pimp?” I was curious.
“Me and Danny both. Fat Georgie, he’s called, the slob. He’s a real bastard. Nothing we can’t handle, mind.” She shut up suddenly as if aware she had already said too much. I saw she was shivering and lent her my leather jacket. She hesitated and I thought she might refuse. Then she took it, with an impish smile that made her look about twelve years old, and put it on. Some colour rushed to her cheeks, and I could have kicked myself for not realising the state she was in sooner. The poor kid was probably in shock. I wished Harry were here. He’d have tackled this bizarre situation so much better.
Back at Ray’s flat, I handed over the money, recovered my jacket from Poppy and made to leave.
“Where are you going?” Poppy demanded.
“Home,” I said flatly and made for the door.
She ran after me and caught my sleeve. “What about me and Danny?”
I fumbled for my wallet and pressed a bundle of notes into her small, grubby hand without counting them. “Call a cab.” I reached for the door handle.
“Not from here, you won’t!” exclaimed Ray.
“We haven’t anywhere to go and Danny needs to rest up for a bit.” She tugged at my hand before placing herself squarely between the door and me.
“You told me you share a bed-sit,” I reminded her.
“We can’t go back there,” she mumbled, “They’ll only do him over again.”
“Who?” I demanded, “Your pimp and his cronies?” It was a shot in the dark but found its mark. The sullen expression dissolved into one of sheer terror. Even so, I had a notion she was play-acting and didn’t trust the little minx one bit.
“What have you been saying?” Danny flung at her, “Have you been blabbing?”
“Of course not. I’m no grass, you know that.” Poppy looked from Danny to me, blinking back tears. “Clear off then, get lost!” But her voice was little more than a whisper,. Fear that struck me as not entirely contrived lingered in the wide, glaring eyes.
I grabbed the handle and yanked open the door. Poised to slam it behind me, my conscience gave a sickening lurch. Resentfully, I went back inside. “Can you walk?” I asked Danny.
 “Like where?” He regarded me with frank suspicion.
“We can pick up a cab or call one from the main road.”
“I told you, we’ve nowhere to go!” shouted Poppy.
“Keep the noise down,” snarled Ray.
I looked from Danny to Poppy and back again. “You can come home with me. I have a spare room. The pair of you can stay until you’re well enough to decide what you want to do.”
“Oh, yeah? Cosy. And what’s in it for you?” sneered Danny.
“Nothing but aggravation by the look of things so far!” My patience finally snapped. Danny seemed about to let fly with his tongue. He swung his legs to the floor and tried to get up from the sofa but sunk sank back with a grunt of pain between clenched teeth. “Yes or no,” I demanded. “Make up your minds fast because I’ve had just about enough of the pair of you for one night and I’m off home…with or without you.”
“We don’t need any favours,” Danny muttered, “especially from some old fart who doesn’t even know where to put it.”
“Danny!” Poppy wailed.
“Suit yourself.” I took several steps outside then couldn’t resist a parting shot, “I may be an old fart,” I snapped at Danny, “But it’s not exactly clever to get yourself beaten to a pulp either, is it?”
Poppy went to stand beside the fuming youth. But Danny’s surly expression suddenly broke into a disarming grin. “The man’s got a point, Poppy,” and then to me, “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Laurence Fisher.” I confess I was taken aback and leaned forward to accept the proffered hand in something of a daze.
“You know I’m Danny and you’ll have gathered this is Poppy.”
“Pleased to meet you, I’m sure,” Poppy muttered and did not offer to shake hands.
“That’s nice,” sneered Ray, “And now you’re bosom pals, you all can piss off and let me get some sleep!”
The cab cost me another arm and a leg. Even so, it was worth it just to get home and snuggle under my own duvet in my own bed within the hour. There was no sign of Nick. This was probably just as well. My unexpected guests had expressed delight at my spare room and settled in nicely although not before raiding my kitchen cupboards and devouring half the contents of my fridge. The injured Danny seemed to take on a whole new lease of life. What on earth would Harry have made of it all, I wondered?
Exhausted, I fell into an uneasy sleep, drifting in and out of that netherworld between semi-consciousness and dreams. Nick was there, looking none too happy. An unexpected visitor was my mother. I hadn’t seen her for years. She was smiling and held out her arms to me. I threw myself into them gladly. But my mother had gone. In her place, a huge brown bear. It grunted, as bemused as I, and put me down. Then it dropped on all fours and loped away into a blaze of white light. As I watched the dream bear go, the light faded to pitch black. I didn’t hesitate but took a running jump and dived into it. Deeper and deeper, I plunged…
Fast asleep, at last.
I slept late. Another day off, I decided, and felt considerably more elated than guilty. That is, until the events of the previous night swarmed into my head and set it buzzing madly with mixed feelings. What had I got myself into? I breakfasted alone, taking a tray from the kitchen to the sitting room and settling myself into a comfy armchair. Time enough, I thought, to confront my young guests and start facing up to new responsibilities. Munching on a slice of toast and marmalade, I gazed absently at a discoloured patch on the wall for several seconds before starting violently, spilling my tea. There should have been a painting there. I glanced around the room. Some ornaments were also missing. I dashed upstairs and flung open the door of the spare room. It came as no surprise to find the bed untidy and…empty.
I ran to my own room and searched the pockets of my leather jacket hanging on the door. In addition to my wallet and cheque book, every scrap of loose change had been taken. I dived into the dressing table drawer and rummaged among some boxer shorts. However, my relief at finding an old envelope addressed to Harry was short-lived. It was empty. Gone, my emergency fund of some five hundred pounds.
An image sprung to mind of grubby little hands among my clean underwear. A fit of hysterical laughter took hold of me, but quickly subsided into a distraught sobbing as the floodgates on unshed tears finally buckled and burst open. 

CHAPTER THREE


I did not call the police, an inaction I dare say the streetwise pair anticipated. Besides being made to look a complete idiot, I could use a fresh splurge of publicity like a hole in the head. I could well imagine what the local rag would make of my involvement with a known rent boy. Nor did I envisage the police accepting without question that my motives were purely altruistic.
On much the same grounds, I said nothing to Nick. I felt badly let down, used, abused. Our relationship, such as it was, inevitably took the strain. I finally got around to asking my boss, Ferndale, for a transfer to the company’s branch in Manchester. He promised, not very convincingly, to think about it. I told Nick that evening as we lay in bed, mulling over the parody of lovemaking we had just performed.
“I’ll miss you,” he murmured to a damp patch on the ceiling.
“Not me, “I retorted, “you won’t miss me. The sex perhaps, but you’re young, good looking, intelligent.
The likes of you never go short.” I could hardly believe I sounded so bitter.
“I did until I met you,” he said quietly.
I sniffed, in no mood to be humoured. “I bet you’ve had your share of closet one night stands,” I retorted, and then relented, “and why not? I suppose I should feel flattered.”
Nick turned on his side and looked me straight in the eye. “After Chris died, I didn’t want anyone. You’re the first.”
“Aren’t I the lucky one?” I scoffed even though I was close to tears, I felt so miserable.
“No, I am.” He spoke slowly, softly, without a flicker of a sneer or any of the usual aggression in his hazel eyes. He smiled. I started. It was like watching the sun emerge from a blanket of cloud. The image was perfect. But it didn’t suit the Nick Carter whom I though I knew. It threw me completely. So much so that when he leaned forward and kissed me, it was a full minute before I pushed him roughly away.
“You don’t fool me, Nick!” I accused him, “You don’t give a toss about me. All you care about is your precious career.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“And where will you be tomorrow when the jokes are doing their daily rounds at my expense? Joining in, I shouldn’t wonder!”
“That’s not fair. I don’t get involved in all that and you know it.”
“Big deal. And your not getting involved lets you off the hook, does it? So long as your conscience is clear we can sleep with each other, no problem. And if all’s not quite well with the world, that doesn’t matter much either because Nick Carter’s career prospects aren’t affected.”
“You know the score, Laurence. I’ve always been straight with you. I’ve never pretended to be anything but what I am.”
“A selfish bastard.”
“It takes one to know one,” he said evenly.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” My defences were up. But I did not discover what Nick meant that evening. The doorbell rang. I snatched my watch from where it lay by the telephone. It was nearly midnight. I swore loudly. Another ring. This time the caller did not let up.
“Ignore it,” cautioned Nick, “It sounds like trouble.”
I had a gut feeling he was right. Only when I could stand the persistent din no longer did I turn on the light and shuffle downstairs to the entry-phone by the sitting room door. “Who is it?” I yawned.
Silence. Then, “It’s Danny!” Another pause, “Please, let me in. You’ve got to help me. It’s Poppy, she’s…” the muffled voice broke but quickly rallied, “Please, let me in!”
“You’ve got a bloody nerve!” I bristled, “Get lost!” I slammed down the receiver. Nick padded through, stark naked, wearing only an expression of mixed incredulity and irritation. A shrill ringing started up once more. My instincts warned me that Danny was not about to get fed-up and go away. I picked up the receiver again. “Wait there and if you ring that bell once more you’ll wait all bloody night!” I fumed, banged it down and returned to the bedroom to grab a dressing gown.
“Who is it? What’s going on Laurence?”
“I wish I knew!” I muttered. “Go back to bed Nick. Stay out of it, okay?”
“But…”
“Mind your own damn business and go back to bed!” I thundered and went to answer the door.
“But who is it?” Nick persisted.
“Who knows?” I flung over my shoulder at him. “Maybe it’s our boss come to confirm my transfer. Best keep your head down, golden boy!” Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed his flushed face in a mirror and saw it turn a puce colour. He looked hurt, confused. It was with relief that I watched him turn on his heels and flounce back into the bedroom. The last thing I wanted was for Nick to stick his oar in and get to know how Danny and his girlfriend had taken me for a ride. He hadn’t even asked about the missing items. Even so, I was taking no chances and made out I’d given a whole lot of stuff to Oxfam.
I certainly had no intention of allowing the rent boy back into my home.
Danny stood on my doorstep, a slightly built youth with a bulldog expression, dripping wet with rain
mingling with a street lamp’s anaemic glow.
“Can I come in?”
“Not bloody likely. What do you want? If you’ve come to return the things you stole, just hand them over and piss off.”
“Sorry about that,” he muttered, “But you’ve got to help me. It’s Poppy, she’s in big trouble. I wouldn’t have come for myself,” he added.
“You’ve got a nerve! I helped you once before, remember? I was stupid enough to feel sorry for you both and what happened? You stole from me, you little bastard!”
“We needed the bread,” he protested lamely.
“You could have asked.”
“I suppose so,” he conceded grudgingly, “But never mind that now, we’ve got to help Poppy.”
“You can do what you damn well like, I’m going back to bed!” I started to close the door but he stuck out his foot. “Please guv, this is serious.”
“So is stealing, especially from a friend!” I pushed on the door but the foot, wearing one of my socks, I couldn’t help but notice, did not budge.
“Friends are supposed to help each other, right?”
“I did. And look where it got me. Now, clear off or do I have to call the police?”
“Poppy’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Danny blurted and tears welled in his eyes, “I can’t let her down, I just…can’t.”
“You should have thought of that before,” I snapped, all the more so because I could feel my iron resolve weakening by the minute. “Whatever mess you’ve got yourselves into, I’m sure it’s no more than the pair of you deserve.”
“You don’t understand. Fat Georgie and his scumbag mates, they’ve got her.”
“Your pimp?”
Danny nodded and started crying. “He thinks we crossed him but we never did and now…” He broke off, tears coursing down the pinched, wan cheeks under an unruly mop of sandy hair.
“You’d better come in,” I said tersely.
As I stood aside to let Danny pass, I heard a coughing sound. I looked up to see Nick standing at the top of the stairs. He had thrown on a pair of briefs but that was all. Danny followed my gaze, grinned and gave an appreciative whistle. Nick grimaced and disappeared. I ushered Danny into the sitting room with mixed feelings, all of which I could well have done without. Nick soon reappeared. He was barefoot and wore a tee
shirt and jeans. I noticed that he was also carrying a shirt of mine and other items of clothing over one arm. A bath towel was draped across the other. All these, he tossed to Danny who looked merely looked bemusedly from one to the other of us.
“Get out of those wet clothes, dry yourself and put these on,” said Nick with such an air of authority that Danny promptly began to strip without argument. Nick glared at me. “You don’t want the poor sod to catch pneumonia, do you? I’ll go and put the kettle on. When I get back, you can put me in the picture if that’s not too much to ask.”
“You won’t like it,” muttered Danny emerging from the neck of my favourite check shirt, “I’d go back to bed if I were you, mate.”
“I dare say,” rejoined Nick placidly, “And I’m not your mate, sonny. The name’s Nick.”
“I’m Danny,” abandoning the jeans that were several sizes too big. As it was, my shirt nearly reached his knees, “Pleased to meet you, Nick.” He held out a hand. Nick ignored it and went into the kitchen. Danny shrugged before proceeding to wipe his face and hair again with the towel before sinking into an armchair. I flung him a warning glance before following Nick into the kitchen to brief him on my association with the youth so far. But Danny had shut his eyes and was panting with sheer exhaustion. A rush of sympathy for the lad did nothing to alleviate misgivings assailing me from all sides, not the least of which was Nick’s likely reaction.
In the event, I needn’t have worried about Nick. More than a shade incredulous and even more than a shade disapproving, he remained calm and thoughtful while I related the bare bones of my previous encounter with Danny and the ominously-absent Poppy. His manner, I could not help thinking, was reminiscent of Harry’s imperturbability in a crisis.
Danny was almost asleep after drinking coffee generously laced with good whisky between tucking into a plateful of sandwiches. Nick suggested we all turn in and Danny tell us about Poppy in the morning. “Not that it isn’t already morning!” he groaned, “It’s past two o’clock, for heaven’s sake!” But Danny insisted. Nick and I were almost asleep on our feet, but not for long. We listened in appalled silence, loath to interrupt as Danny’s tale unfolded.
It appeared that Danny and Poppy had sneaked back to their bed-sit to recover some personal belongings. It must have been under close surveillance for, within minutes of their arrival, there were demands for them to open the door accompanied by unveiled threats. The pair promptly climbed out of a side window and shinned ? down a drainpipe only to find that it, too, was being watched from the road. A yell went up and the chase was on. They fled through a maze of back streets and alleyways, their pursuers gaining fast. In desperation, Danny dived into a canal and swam, mostly underwater, to the other side. “I told her to jump in after me,” he sobbed. “I thought she had, guv, honestly I did.” He turned to me, eyes pleading. For what, I wondered…absolution? I could only nod and smile encouragingly. He seemed to take heart and would have pressed on but Nick got in first.
“You should see a doctor. I bet that water was filthy. At the very least, have a shower or bath before you turn in.”
“It was pretty disgusting,” Danny agreed. “I could use a shower. But some other time, yeah?” Nick was poised to argue, but Danny ploughed on. “I thought Poppy was right behind me, honestly I did,” he repeated. “When I hit the water I thought I heard another splash or I’d never have gone ahead. But she’s a strong swimmer like me so I wasn’t too worried. Apart from being shit-scared that is,” he added ruefully. He paused to digest this home truth, plainly wishing he could spit it out. His young face was etched with such self-reproach that I wanted to give him a reassuring hug. I resisted, however, sensing that any such impulse would meet with a poor reception.
Danny collected himself quickly enough and continued with mounting agitation. “When I looked for her, there she was, still on the other side. And there they were, too, shouting and sticking up two fingers at me. One of them had Poppy in an arm lock. She was screaming blue murder, I’ll say! They bundled her into a van and all I could do was stand there like a lemon and watch!” Tears filled his eyes again but did not spill over. He visibly resisted them and wiped a finger across his nose several times, sniffing. “Anyway,” he went on, “I hid out at a mate’s place, didn’t I? Well, more than one to be on the safe side. I found out they took Poppy to a house in Battersea, one they keep for pervs.”
“Pervs?” Nick pursed his lips.
“Perverts, head cases. They’ve got rooms there with special equipment for punters who can’t get turned on without they’re beating hell out of somebody or vice versa. That or worse,” he added with shocking matter-of-factness.
“Worse?” echoed Nick hoarsely.
Danny shrugged. “Where do you think they make sick videos, at the BBC?”
 “You seem to know all about it,” I commented acidly.
“Sure, I’ve been there. But only the once and never again, no bloody fear!” He shivered. “I thought it would be easy money. Easy money, bollocks!” He made as if to spit, glanced at me and thought better of it. “Believe me, the capers they get up to would make any halfway decent person throw up for a week. They go for young trade, see, served up good and ready, speciality of the house. That means drugged up to the eyeballs and so spaced out they haven’t got a clue, and that’s if they’re lucky. Even if they can still tell their arse from their elbow, it’s Hobson’s choice or star in a snuff movie.” His hands began trembling. Self-consciously, he clenched his fists until the knuckles turned white. “And they’ve taken Poppy there, the bastards!” For the umpteenth time, he made a gallant effort to stem further floods of tears.
“We must call the police,” I declared.
“No!” Danny started violently, “They’ll just ask questions and tie themselves and everybody else up in the usual red tape. We ain’t got time for all that bullshit. Poppy needs help fas. We can’t wait for Santa Claus.”
“There’s not a lot we can do at two o’clock in the morning,” Nick observed dryly.
“True,” agreed Danny, “But we can’t hang around either, we’ve got to get her out of there before…” He wrung his hands.
“So what do you suggest?” I asked against my better judgment. “That we go and ask for our ball back?”
“Something like that,” Danny mumbled without looking directly at either Nick or me.
“Something like what, exactly?” Nick demanded.
Danny appeared to come to a decision and looked me in the eye. “You could say you’re a punter, right? You offer a price they can’t refuse, then you and Poppy just climb out of the window and up the fire escape.”
“Up?” echoed Nick?
“The perv room’s in the basement. It’s a bit of a haul back to street level.” Danny explained.
“What…?” I spluttered.
“And you expect Laurence to go in and get this Poppy out, just like that?” Nick shook his head in disbelief.
“Why not?” Danny glared at both of us but his stubborn, frightened gaze settled on me. “I’ll tell you what to say and anything else you need to know. I know these bastards. Like I said, I’ve been there. You can do it, I know you can, if you’ve got the bottle,” he added.
“Never mind the bottle,” I retorted, “Why the hell should I?”
“How do we know these people will keep her in the same room you seem to know so much about?” Nick asked coolly.
Danny shrugged. “It’s always the same room for that kind of caper. It’s a sort of dungeon. They’ve got all kinds of gear there; cuffs, ropes, a rack, even a St Andrew’s.”
“A St Andrew’s?” Nick was curious.
“A cross. They nail you to it or maybe just tie you if you’re lucky. Then they…”
“I don’t want to know!” I exploded and went to the toilet. By the time I returned, Nick and Danny were sipping my best malt whiskey and a third glass stood waiting for me on the coffee table. I picked it up and drained the lot. “I’m going to bed. I’d rather you weren’t still here in the morning, Danny,” I muttered and left the room.
Danny was going nowhere, and we all knew it. Nick commented as much when he came to bed shortly afterwards, having deposited Danny in the spare room. “You won’t do it, will you Laurence? It would be madness. These people are way out of our league.”
“Madness,” I agreed and would have appreciated a cuddle but he just yawned, turned over and was soon snoring softly. It was some time before I fell into a sleep plagued by bad dreams, my only fitful dozes under the watchful eye of a big brown bear.
It was early evening of the following day when we arrived at the house in Battersea. Nick parked in a side street while Danny ran through his earlier briefings with me. I was nervous, to say the least. Even now, I could not believe this was happening. It was a totally bizarre scenario, like a bad movie. Certainly, it had precious little to do with ordinary people like me. Yet this was real life and here I was, preparing to play the hero. It was too absurd for words. But there was no backing out now. I could only switch on my autopilot and hope for the best.
“Be careful, Laurence.” Nick squeezed my arm as I climbed out of the sleek Porsche. “Too right,” Danny piped up from the back seat, “Don’t go and balls it up, guv, or I hate to think what might happen.”
I preferred not to speculate but had no difficulty finding the house, which was exactly as Danny had described. My hand shook as I pressed the entry-phone.
“Yes?” a deep male voice demanded.
“Fat Georgie sent me,” I tried to sound confident as I spoke into the grill.
There was a long pause, and  then, “What do you want?”
“I want Poppy,” I said clearly.
An even longer pause followed before, “There’s no Poppy here.”
Fighting off panic, I persevered. “I can pay. Fat Georgie says she’s worth it. He says you have all the gear.”
“Okay,” gruffly. “Push the door.”
I entered. A tall, burly man in a dinner suit came out of a room opposite. I caught a glimpse of a chandelier before he closed the door behind him. “Turn around and put your hands up,” he barked. I did so, fervently wishing that I was safe at home watching my favourite soap opera. The big man searched me with brisk expertise then bade me follow him down several flights of stairs into a gloomy basement. “Wait here,” he growled and left me to my thoughts. I looked around. There were no chairs or furnishings of any kind. I paced the concrete floor with growing agitation.
Suddenly, a disembodied female voice came at me out of nowhere. “The fee is five hundred pounds. If you have it in cash, say so. If not, explain why.”
“I have it.” I took a small jiffy envelope from the inside pocket of my blazer.
“Good. In the far corner to your right you will see a green button and a red one. Press the red one.”
I did as I was told and part of the wall swung open to reveal a long passage. I entered. The door swung shut behind me. I took a few steps forward. The voice followed me. “Take the first turning on your right and push the second door to the left.” I followed the instructions. They led me to a box room, also completely bare. “Put the envelope on the table.” I did so. “Welcome. Our pleasure is yours.” Then…nothing. I waited expectantly for several minutes. Still…nothing. Finally, I approached a door in the corner, pushed it open and found myself confronted by a circular stone staircase. I descended, sweating profusely. At the bottom I saw that one of several doors was ajar. I headed for it and went in without closing the door but it slammed shut behind me anyway. A single blue light bulb lit what appeared to be a sumptuously furnished bedroom. There was no paper or paint on the walls but steel rings all around, crying out to be pulled to reveal…whatever. But all I could think of was…where was the damn window?
Then I saw her. Poppy lay, spread-eagled, on the bed. Her wrists were tied to its metal frame behind her head, her mouth gagged with sticky tape. I had barely taken in that she was dressed in a schoolgirl’s uniform when her eyes flew open and the terror in them turned my legs to jelly. I leaned against the door for support. The wide-eyed gaze on me began to lose some of its histrionic pleading as recognition dawned. “I’ve come to help you,” I mouthed. She understood and tears streamed down both cheeks.
I found my nerve, went to her and would have removed the gag but she shook her head and lifted her eyes pointedly to the ceiling. I looked up and saw only the naked bulb. I looked back at Poppy, who nodded. I made a gesture as if removing the bulb and she nodded again, excitedly. I took a handkerchief from my pocket and had to stretch to remove the bulb from its socket. As I did so, I spotted the cause for Poppy’s concern. A tiny spy camera had been strategically placed adjacent to the socket. I draped my handkerchief over the lens. Next, I released Poppy.
For a few seconds, Poppy clung to me in tears. It was she, though, who broke away and immediately took charge of the situation. “Come on,” she urged and grabbed my hand.
At the rear of the room, barely within a fingertip’s reach, was a blacked-out window that I would never have noticed. Poppy grabbed the only chair in the room. I climbed on it and heaved at the window but it wouldn’t budge. By now, I was petrified in case we were caught. I took off my blazer and smashed the glass. The noise was ear shattering. I stuck my head outside and could just make out the fire escape Danny had described. He had not, however, mentioned that it merely comprised well-spaced rungs attached to the wall nor that they looked likely to come away at the slightest touch. Moreover, the sheer climb to pavement level was much higher than I had imagined.
I froze.
Poppy took one look at my expression, let go of my hand, scrambled through the window and promptly seized it again. “Come on,” she pleaded, “You’ll be fine. Just follow me and don’t look down.” But I could not move. “Come on,” she begged, “If they catch us we’re dead and I ain’t ready for a coffin just yet, even if you are!”
That old stand-by, life instinct, got the better of my panic and I tentatively reached for her hand. The next thing I knew, I was climbing. I was doing fine, although I had to stretch to reach most of the rungs above me. Poppy made several little leaps and I could only admire her pluck. Suddenly, a hand groping for the next rung found...nothing.
“There’s a rung missing. You’ll have to jump for it,” Poppy’s voice floated down to me as if from a great height although we had to be less than ten feet below pavement level by now. “Come on, you can do it!” My eyes sought and spotted the next rung, some five or six feet above. “Hurry, or we’re dead meat!” I saw that she had reached safety and was craning over a low fence or wall. “What are you waiting for, Christmas? Jump, you stupid bugger!”
Heart in mouth, I leapt. How I found that rung, I will never know. My left hand didn’t and I almost plummeted into the well below but my right had found its mark and I clung on for dear life. Slowly, painfully, I hauled myself up. All I had to do now was swing myself across to the pavement. This I managed without incident. Scarcely had I found my second wind when I heard raised voices from below. Our escape had been discovered.
“Come on, we gotta run for it!” Poppy was already in full flight.
I turned and saw the reason for her haste. Three men, gesticulating wildly and gibbering indistinguishable threats were pounding towards me. I ran after Poppy, came to a junction, made a wild guess as to which way to turn and soon realised my mistake. There was no sign of Poppy. Nor did I recognize a single element of my surroundings from an earlier reconnaissance in the Porsche.
Voices again, yelling. Footsteps running.
I sensed their direction and lumbered off in another. My ribs hurt and my lungs felt ready to burst. It was not, I reflected bitterly, like this in the movies. Sadly, I was no Harrison Ford. In spite of everything, I permitted myself a wry smile.
They were gaining on me, mean voices and pounding feet alike. Sweat was pouring down my face. Where is  the bloody car? Frankly, I had no idea. Would they kill me, I wondered?
All at once, a curious dreamlike detachment took hold of me. I kept running. That is to say my straining limbs continued to make wild, thrashing movements, but I had a sense of Fate taking a hand. I just wished that, if I was going to be caught and…whatever…it could all be over and done with sooner rather than later.
A car screeched to a halt beside me. A door flew open. A voice ordered me to “Jump in!” I ran on. The vehicle kept pace with me, the voice too, its authoritative gutturals like fistfuls of gravel in my face. “Get in, damn you!” I stumbled to a halt, bent and looked directly at the driver for the first time. Absurdly, I could only think that he had a nice face. My pursuers were closing in. What choice do I have? I decided to take a chance, and lurched into the passenger seat. The driver swore, leaned across me and pulled the door shut before slamming his foot on the accelerator.
“Who the hell are you?” I panted.
“See to your safety belt,” was the curt response as we roared away. I complied, clumsily. Manoeuvre completed, I glanced at the wing mirror in time to see the foremost of my pursuers, a stocky man with a mop of black curls and a misshapen nose, slew to a halt, waving a fist and mouthing what I supposed were obscenities. Then we took a corner at breakneck speed.
I lay back and thankfully closed my eyes.
When I opened my eyes again, it was to find myself lying on a bed in a room I did not recognize, a complete stranger wiping me down with a damp cloth. I gulped as it dawned on me that I was stark naked. “You passed out,” said the stranger without pausing in his ministrations, “and you were burning up. Feeling better now?”
“Not particularly,” I had to confess, even as I dimly recalled the face as belonging to the driver who had rescued me. As it was, I only vaguely heard the sound of my own voice as I felt myself drifting off again, powerless to resist but not really caring because the hands massaging me with such tenderness and expertise could only belong to a
friend. The next time I woke, my first sensation was one of immense weariness. It eased considerably, though, as I let myself float on a gentle swell of regular breathing. It was some minutes before I realised that it was not my own and became aware of someone lying next to me.
A rush of recent, ghastly experiences came at me like an express train. Poppy’s escape, that awful climb, being chased almost till I dropped only to be plucked from the jaws of…whatever…in the nick of time. Now, here I was in a strange bed, nude, my timely rescuer asleep beside me, his bare buttocks pressed lightly against mine.
I sat bolt upright. “Where are my clothes?” I demanded of the head poking out of a flowery duvet.
The head stirred, made yawning noises and finally turned to stare up at me wide-eyed and amused. “On the chair beside you,” it said, yawning again. “Why, leaving already, are you?” peering at the luminous dial of a gold wristwatch, “It’s three o’clock in the morning!”
It was my turn to stare. My companion sat up, stretched, sighed a few times and grinned broadly. “You were all done in. At a guess, I’d say you haven’t had much sleep lately, right?” He held out a hand without waiting for a reply, “The name is Philip Adams, by the way. And in case you’re wondering, I’m one of the good guys.”
We shook hands. Unable to prevent a series of hot flushes attacking my face and neck in quick succession, I found my voice. “Laurence Fisher,” I mumbled.
“Do you fancy an early breakfast, Laurence? Or maybe you’ll sleep better now that we’ve been properly introduced?”
“I’m wide-awake now.”
“Me, too. A fry-up okay or are you one of the health conscious brigade?”
“Sounds good to me.” Suddenly, I was ravenous.
“Bacon, eggs and fried bread it is then, with lots of toast, lashings of butter and oceans of fresh coffee.”
Philip was as good as his word. Breakfast never tasted so good. I telephoned home before we ate, thinking that the others would be worried sick. There was no reply.
“What’s wrong?” Philip seemed genuinely concerned. My expression must have said it all. I explained.
 “Maybe I should go straight home…”
“I’ll drive you later. First things first, though, so tuck in.” I did so, with relish while Philip told me how he had literally bumped into Poppy as she turned a corner only seconds after he had parked his car. She had screamed at him, “Help him! They’ll kill him if they catch him!” before running off. .
“Naturally, I investigated,” he said cheerfully and continued between mouthfuls. “I cruised around for a bit, heard a commotion, spotted you about to go down with the hounds and, well, you know the rest.”
“You brought me here, washed me down and put me to bed.” I found myself blushing again.
“Oh, do you remember that?” with a huge grin, “I had to do something, you were in a bad way.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled and concentrated on capturing an elusive piece of fried bread on my fork.
“My pleasure.” Mission accomplished, I looked up and raised an answering grin. He had dark, searching eyes that smiled all the time even when his mouth frowned as it did now. “It looked nasty. Want to talk about it? Or you can just tell me to mind my own damn business, I won’t be offended.” He waited patiently while I ate and wondered how far I dare confide in my new friend.
I told Philip everything, even touched on my relationship with Nick. It could do no harm, I thought, to let him know I was gay.
I had never made a big issue of being gay and always considered my sexuality a very personal thing; in other words, no one else’s damn business. Harry had held a different view entirely and we’d often drifted into heated arguments. “If you don’t let people know you’re gay, how can you expect them to accept you as a gay man?” he’d say. I disagreed. Somehow, it was altogether different with Philip. He was comfortable to be with, easy to talk to. That is, part of me was thinking along those lines. Another part of me was drawn to Philip Adams in a way that could only be described as fancying him like mad.
Philip listened without interruption, merely shaking his head from time to time.
Finally, “It’s a bad business,” he murmured pensively. “These bastards give the rest of us a bad name.”
“Us?” My heart leapt.
“Good guys like you and me,” the twinkle in his eyes brighter than ever. He poured us both more coffee and we finished breakfast in companionable silence.
I called home again. This time Nick answered. His voice, snapping and crackling in my ear, sounded like burning twigs. “Where the devil are you? I’ve been worried sick and imagining all sorts!”
“A friend helped me out.” I glanced at Philip who smiled lazily at me over his coffee.
“I’m okay. I’ll tell you all about it later. Is Poppy with you?”
“No, I’m on my own here.”
“Where’s Danny?”
“We spotted Poppy running in the wrong direction. Danny went haring after her. I tried to follow in the car but they ducked into an alley and I lost them.”
 “Were they followed?”
“By wolves foaming at the mouth.”
I groaned. “I’ll be right there.”  I groaned again, thankful that it was Saturday and neither of us had to go into work.
Philip drove me home. We sat outside the house and chatted for a bit. I suggested, half-heartedly, that he might like to come inside and meet Nick. His response, in turn, was lukewarm. “We should tell the police about that house,” I said, uneasy but anxious to square my conscience. Like most gay men, I distrusted the police. True, we now had Equal Opportunities and Gay Rights. There were even gay cops, if the Public Relations boys could be believed. Even so, I belonged to a generation that had been set up and sent down too many times by institutionally homophobic police forces nationwide. I wasn’t convinced they were doing any more in the twenty-first century than paying lip service for the sake of their public image.
“They probably already know,” said Philip.
“So why don’t they do something about it?”
He shrugged. “The Met moves in a mysterious way,” he parodied grimly. “But I’ll tip them off if it will make you feel better. Anonymously, of course.”
I thanked him and stuck out my hand. He took it, a smile playing on the full, sensual lips. I suspected that we were both remembering the last time we shook hands. at three in the morning...in bed. He took a printed card from the breast pocket of his shirt and tucked it in my own, his free hand still holding mine. “Call me.”
“I will,” I promised, “and thanks again, for everything.”
As I started to get out of the car, he caught my arm. “Call me soon.” Was it only wishful thinking or did the tip of one forefinger stroke the hairs on my wrist briefly, suggestively? Could it be that Philip Adams was flirting with me or, more likely, my imagination was running in overdrive? Our eyes locked in a long, lingering look that gave me goose pimples. I was fumbling with my key in the front door when he drove off, had no time to turn my head even and watch him go. But my heart skipped a beat or two when I heard the car leap smoothly into life.
Nick was in a bad mood, more relieved than glad to see me. “So who’s your friend?” he asked, a sarcastic edge to his voice that gave my hackles a field day. Somehow I managed to relate the events surrounding Poppy’s rescue without alluding to the fact that Philip Adams was possibly gay. “Well, I guess that’s that then.” He gave my knee a nondescript squeeze. We were sitting on the sofa in my sitting room and he seemed much calmer, almost amicable. “I was frightened for you, Laurence. People like that, they’re…well…something else.”
“What do you mean, that’s that?” I wanted to know. “We don’t even have any idea whether Danny and Poppy got away from those monsters! Anything might have happened to them…” I shuddered. The memory of Poppy tied and gagged in that school uniform would haunt me for years. “Philip is going to tip off the police. Anonymously, of course.”
“I should think so too!” Nick exclaimed with feeling, “Maybe things can get back to normal now.”
 “But what about those kids?” I insisted angrily.
“Forget about them, Laurence, they’re none of our concern. We’ve already done more than enough for them. Besides, you saw for yourself, they’re streetwise enough to take care of themselves.”
“You didn’t see what I saw,” I muttered and treated him to a graphic description. “Heaven only knows what else I’d have found if I’d had time to explore. Those rings on the walls weren’t ornamental, Nick. You could smell the evil in that room.”
“Very prettily put,” said Nick dryly. “And all the more reason to steer well clear. You’ve done your bit and rescued the girl. No more Boys Own nonsense, okay?”
“Hardly Boys Own!” I protested, “More like Marquis De Sade…”
Nick squeezed my knee again. I watched his long, slender fingers insinuate themselves against the dark blue of my trousers like a milk stain, spreading. I got up and went to sprawl in an armchair. Nick took offence and left the house soon afterwards. I dozed off, only to be rudely awakened by the telephone’s shrill burr. I grabbed the receiver. “Danny?” I had to be dreaming, I thought, as my mother’s voice sobbed on the line.
“Laurie, is that you dear?”
“Mum?” We hadn’t spoken for years.
“It’s your dad, son, he’s gone.”
“Gone?”
“He passed away last night.” She rambled on in a choked whisper. I only caught dribs and drabs of what she was saying. “He had bowel cancer…been ill for months…wanted to tell you…wanted to see you…but he said, no…all the family saying you wouldn’t come, but I knew you would…been so long, Laurie…love you, son, your dad did, too…no one understood that except me…missed you…will miss him…funeral on Tuesday…you will come, won’t you...?”
Gently but firmly, I replaced the receiver. 


CHAPTER FOUR


Harry and I had been living together for nearly a year before we decided to buy a house. On our last evening at the flat, we shared an intimate Chinese meal from the local take-away and exchanged eternity rings. We also discussed our respective families, a subject we mostly avoided.
Harry’s father died when he was very young. His mother remarried a few years later and took on a second family, two boys and a girl. According to Harry, they all resented him and did nothing to make him feel part of the family circle. At sixteen, Harry had his first gay affair with a school friend. It only lasted a few weeks. The friend then began avoiding Harry and even found himself a girlfriend. Harry sent the youth, Martin, a letter. In it, he not only declared his undying love but also made numerous explicit references to the sexual nature of their relationship. Martin’s mother opened and read the letter. When confronted, the frightened lad panicked and claimed Harry had been pestering him. Both parents marched round to Harry’s home that same evening and made a big fuss, threatening poor Harry with involving the police.
Harry’s stepfather, Jonathan, managed to convince everyone that it was in no one’s interest to call the police and suggested that much of the letter’s contents were probably teenage fantasy. He swore to make certain that Harry stayed away from their son in future. Moreover, he promised he would take Harry to see a doctor first thing in the morning.
As soon as the police left, Jonathan Bowles had sent Harry packing and warned him never to return or he would have him arrested. “If I had my way, they’d lock up queers like you and throw away the key. But that wouldn’t be fair on your mother.”
The threat alone gave Harry nightmares for years.
His mother had wrung her hands and sobbed, but precious little else. She gave the distraught lad some money, that was all; she made no attempt to stand up for her son. Nor would she give him the hug and kiss he craved as he stood at the front door, hurt and angry, carrying a few clothes and personal belongings hastily bundled into a sports bag.
Harry told me more the once how he had walked for hours that night, finally bedding down under a hedge in a field. The next day, he caught a train to London.
He never talked about those early years in the city. “They were tough,” was all he would say. Finally, though, he got a job as a postman and never looked back.
My own family were more closely knit. At least, we were once. Harry assured me that he didn’t mind in the least if I preferred to keep our relationship a secret. But we were making an important commitment to each other. I felt I owed it to Harry as well as myself to prove my love. I also wanted him to feel part of the family, especially since, to all intents and purposes, he had none of his own.
At that time, my sister Mary and husband Ian had arranged to have their first child, Thomas, christened in a few weeks. The whole family would be together, an ideal opportunity to tell them about Harry or so I thought. Harry seemed pleased at the suggestion, but nervous. “Are you sure, Laurence?” he kept asking and refused point-blank to accompany me to the christening. “Let them get used to the idea first,” he said, “Time enough to bring the boyfriend home when they’ve had time to adjust.”
“But if you’re with me, they’ll take one look and be happy for us,” I argued naively. “Otherwise, they won’t know what to expect and you know how people always think the worst!” But Harry would not be persuaded.
The christening took place on a Sunday morning. My mother had invited the whole family back to lunch. My younger brother, Marc, and I put two tables together in the long, through dining room and we all crowded round for a turkey feast. My father carved and dourly presided while my mother fussed and enjoyed herself. My sister and her husband were guests of honour, of course, and various toasts were drunk to them and the new baby. My brother, Stuart, was also there with his wife and two children, also my brother, Alan, who brought a girlfriend, a pretty redhead.
Of my siblings, I was the oldest at twenty-nine. Marc was the youngest, and only thirteen.
I was feeling edgy and it must have showed. Alan, younger than me by two years and never one to beat about the bush, was sitting on my immediate right and tackled me directly. “What’s up, Laurie, got ants in your pants?” he chuckled, “You’ve been fidgeting ever since you sat down.”
Everyone heard and ripples of good-humoured laughter ran its course around the table. I felt everyone’s eyes on me and took a deep breath. “I’m in love,” I announced, and a raucous cheer went up. My mother, looking as pleased as punch, burst into tears. Everyone laughed again, and she laughed too.
“About time,” declared my father gruffly.
“We’ve bought a house,” I continued and prattled on for a bit about the semi and how it needed a lot doing to it. “But that’ half the fun of getting a home together,” I insisted and everyone nodded.
“The other half is making sure you can afford it,” commented my sister. Everyone laughed again and the atmosphere was so relaxed and convivial that I began to let myself feel over confident.  .
“Never mind the house,” interrupted my mother excitedly, “Tell us about the girl. What’s her name? What does she look like? Why haven’t you ever brought her to meet us?” The hurt in her voice cut me to the quick. “Have you a photo? What does she do? Really, Laurence, I do think you might have brought her with you.”
“He’s ashamed of us, right, brother mine?” Marc teased. I flung him an angry glare, but he just grinned.
“Of course not!” I protested, “It’s just that…” an awful premonition laid an icy hand on my tummy, “it’s not a girl…” I could feel myself blushing scarlet, “It’s a man. His name is Harry. I’m gay,” I finished lamely.
The silence seemed to last for ages.
“What’s gay, mummy?” My brother Stuart’s eldest, Samantha, piped up. Her mother promptly rose from the table, seized the child’s hands and dragged her, protesting shrilly, from the room. Stuart glanced warily at the toddler on his lap, gathered him up and followed them.
“Not in front of the children, of course,” murmured Alan’s girlfriend, in such a way that I sensed I had an ally and flung her a grateful look.
“Go to your room, Marc,” said my father.
“I’m not a child!” my kid brother retorted. “I know about queers.” The word erupted around us, sweeping me up in a rush of white heat and choking dust. There was a lot of coughing, mopping of brows, loosening of shirt buttons.
“Harry and I...” I began hoarsely.
“That’s enough!” My father had risen from his seat and towered over us, a great bear of a man. “I think you had better leave,” he told me quietly, his soft brown eyes blazing an unspeakable fury.
“Let’s hear what he has to say for himself first, shall we?” said Stuart who had just re-entered the room. He approached the table but did not sit down. Instead, he leaned on the back of his chair, nailing me to mine with a baleful look.
“I don’t have to justify myself to anyone!” I got angry or I would have burst into tears. “Harry and I are happy. Why can’t you be happy for us, too?”
“It’s sick, for a start!” yelled Marc, also on his feet.
“Go to your room, Marc!” yelled my father who so rarely raised his voice that everyone jumped.
“Do as your father says, Marc.” My mother had found her voice at last. Marc glowered from one to the other of us, his lower lip curling scornfully as his eyes rested on me. He turned to leave. At the door, he paused to fling a final insulting glance at me before running out of the room. We all heard his footsteps pounding the stairs, followed by the slamming shut of his bedroom door.
“Well?” insisted Stuart, “What have you got to say for yourself?” I had never seen him so visibly upset.
“Spare us the details,” my father barked. “I think we’ve heard quite enough already.”
“Laurence, how could you?” my mother sobbed.
“He’s gay, that’s all. So what? It’s not like he’s committed the crime of the century, for heaven’s sake,” commented the pretty redhead.
“Angie!” Alan exclaimed in horror.
The girl stood up, a petite thing, and regarded the sea of hostile faces with undisguised contempt. “We’re living in the twentieth century, for crying out loud!” she said scathingly, “I’m amazed Laurence and his boyfriend want anything to do with this family because I certainly don’t.” She stormed out of the room, Alan close on her heels exhorting her to be reasonable.
The baby started to cry. “Hush, Thomas, hush,” my sister crooned and looked across the table at me. There was no trace of hostility in her expression, only an infinite pity that was much harder to bear.
“Couldn’t you have waited?” snapped my brother-in-law, Ian, between clenched teeth. “Did you have to go and spoil things for everyone, today of all days?”
I couldn’t believe it was happening, the whole family turning against me like this. But I wasn’t angry any more. Instead, I felt wretched and guilty. I had blown it. Ian was right, Harry too for that matter. I should have waited. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled miserably.
“Sorry?” my father shouted, “”I’ll give you ‘sorry,’ you little pervert!”
“Rex, no!” my mother sobbed. My father ignored her and flung out a hand towards the door. “Leave this house, Laurence, and don’t bother coming back until you’ve come to your senses.”
Being called a pervert was the last straw. I got angry again. “Don’t worry,” I yelled, “I’ve just come to my senses!” I left the house at once, remembering only as I yanked open the front door, in a cold fury by now, to take a package from my backpack and leave it on the hall table for baby Thomas.
No followed me to the door. I had never felt so abandoned and alone in my whole life. I resisted an impulse to look back but listened for a voice calling my name all the way down the street.
Nothing.
I turned a corner and stumbled into a lamppost, weeping.
I telephoned my mother once a week after Harry and I moved into the semi. But she never called me and would always hang up as soon as anyone came within earshot. Sometimes my father answered, only to slam the receiver down the instant I spoke. After a while, I stopped calling.
Twelve years passed. Harry and I were happy enough and this more than compensated for any lingering hurt our families had caused us. For weeks after Harry died, I longed to call home. But I was in no fit state to handle a rebuff. I wrote to my mother but received no reply.
Dragging my mind back to the present, I could scarcely  take in that my father, too, was dead. Listening to my mother sobbing as she broke the news, I felt only a growing sense of outrage that she should expect me to care. If I hadn’t hung up when I did, my bitterness would have burst its banks. I sprawled in a chair, dazed. When the phone rang again minutes later, I ignored it. It kept ringing. Suddenly I remembered Poppy and Danny and leapt to answer it.
“Laurie?” I did not recognize the voice, “It’s Marc.” The last time I had exchanged words with my kid brother was on that Sunday years ago. His voice hadn’t yet broken then. In my mind’s eye, I could easily picture a fresh-faced youngster with bright eyes and a cheeky grin. Nor had I forgotten the abuse he hurled at me that day. Now, though, it was a stranger’s voice, deep and strong, in my ear.
“Hello, Marc,” I said, feeling awkward. I almost hung up but my curiosity got the better of me. “How are you?”
He hesitated. “Mum’s very upset that you hung up on her,” he said tersely.
“I know the feeling,” I said.
“Look, Laurence, I know we’ve treated you badly and you must hate us for it. Mum’s always felt terrible about making you an outcast and all that. But dad put his foot down, and you know how things were between them. She’d never stand up to him about anything.”
“Not even her own son,” I agreed.
“She wants to see you, Laurie, we all do. She needs you.”
“I know the feeling,” I repeated, re-living my devastation at discovering Harry’s body; the funeral; the inquest; verdict, suicide.
Marc was right; I thought bitterly, I did hate my family.
I hung up abruptly. It dissolved, most of the hate, the instant I slammed down the receiver. I spent the next half an hour or so wallowing in self-pity. I kept telling myself that if only one member of my family had cared enough to keep in touch, maybe things might have turned out differently. In time, my father would have got used to having a gay son. Eventually, my mother would have found the courage to stand up for me. But not on her own, she wasn’t a strong woman. Not that I blamed her for that. We are as we are, each and every one of us. I sighed. Who was I kidding?
The phone rang again. I ignored it this time. Anyone I wanted to speak to would try the mobile; that included Poppy and Danny to whom I had rashly given the number. If it were them, so what? Nick was right, that pair could take care of themselves. I had served a purpose, end of story. I sighed again. It was about all I was good for, serving a purpose, or so it seemed to me. My relationship with Nick Carter amounted to precious little else. As for my mother, I dare say she only wanted to square her conscience. “Oh, Harry, why?” I wailed aloud. But the room had no answer for my loneliness.
For the umpteenth time, my thoughts turned to Harry’s suicide. A blasphemy, the vicar had called it, sinning against God. I no longer believed in a God and had stopped going to church. And what of sinning against me? Had our times together counted for so little that Harry had to throw them back in my face? Twelve years…gone, and…nothing left…all those wonderful memories obscured by the image of him sprawled, dead across the bed we had shared, the contours of his face horribly distorted as if he had taken his last breath in agony.
I cringed, tearfully admitting to a fly on the wall that the greatest pleasure I took from having sex with Nick was a feeling of revenge. Even the release of orgasm was an explosion of pure spite. It wasn’t Nick’s body that excited me to passion, that was only a trigger, locking me into heated argument with Harry, providing a means to remonstrate with his ghost for deserting me.
I shook my head in mute protest, my unsavoury thoughts spilling on the carpet and making an ugly stain. I stared at a patch of grey. A pattern of leaves became tentacles, flailing towards me. It was more than I could bear. Sick at heart, I trudged off to do the weekly shop at a local supermarket.
That evening, I prepared a meal for Nick and myself, resentful that it was always me who did the cooking. True, he sometimes offered. True, I always insisted to the contrary. This particular evening, though, he didn’t even offer and I was feeling very hard done by. Later, we watched a movie on TV. This, plus two bottles of wine, a packet of cheesy biscuits, and a chunk of Brie provided a welcome substitute for conversation.
The doorbell rang just as the action reached what might have been a gripping climax, had I been in the least bit interested. Even so, I rose grudgingly and kept my eyes on the screen like a man hypnotised while I went to the entry-phone. It was Danny.
“Can I come in?”
“No,” I said irritably, “Is Poppy with you?”
“Yes.”
“Is she all right?”
“Sort of…”
“What do you mean, sort of?”
“Les us in, guv, please,” the small voice pleaded.
I told Nick, who merely shrugged. “Play the good fairy if you must,” he told me scathingly, “but don’t blame me if you get your wings clipped again.”
“Aren’t you curious to know what they want, if they’re okay, where the hell they’ve been?”
“Nope. Once bitten, twice shy, that’s me, you, too, if you’ve any sense. Leave well alone. Laurence,. They’ll only take you for a joyride, that sort are all the same. Give ’em an inch and, like as not, they’ll take a mile. Show ’em a kindness and you can rely on a kick in the teeth, and that’s only if you’re lucky.”
“They’re only kids,” I protested.
“They’re on the streets, for crying out loud. There aren’t any kids out there, Laurence. They have to grow up fast. Most would sell their own grandmothers for the price of a fix. Believe me, they’re scum.”
“So why did you help us?” I countered sulkily.
“Because I’m not quite the heartless sod you take me for,” he flashed with such vehemence that I dropped the receiver; it swung against the wall and I could hear Danny swearing at the other end.
Nick’s expression incensed me. He had no right to accuse me, none at all. “If the cap fits,” I tossed back at him and couldn’t resist adding, “As for taking people for a ride, you should know…”
I grabbed the receiver, replaced it and left the room to answer the front door myself. While glad of any excuse to turn my back on Nick, by the time I reached the front door I was in something of a quandary. Even as I flung open the door, I was undecided about what to do next. As it transpired, this hardly mattered. The youngsters were already at the front gate and too busy arguing to notice me. Leaving the gate wide open, they stomped off down the road. Out of the corner of one eye, I saw the widow Finn’s curtains twitch. I opened my mouth to call them back but the words stuck in my throat. Nick’s words rang true at the back of my mind. Scum, he had called them. Probably he was right. Me, I preferred to believe they were simply young and vulnerable. “Hey!” I yelled and expected to feel virtuous. But as they stopped, turned and hared towards me, grinning, I experienced only a nagging regret. For what, exactly, I couldn’t be sure. It was as if a belligerent posse of thoughts bore down on me, preventing me from slamming the door in their grubby faces.
Common sense, however, continued to warn me, long after I had let the pair inside, that I should have done just that.
Danny greeted Nick warily as he and Poppy got comfortable on my sofa. Nick muttered something unintelligible and leant forward, chin in cupped hands, making it clear that he wanted to watch the movie.
“Any grub going?” was Poppy’s immediate response after I had introduced Nick with a cursory gesture.
Nick got up, went to the television and turned it off. To everyone’s surprise, he then volunteered to make some tea and sandwiches and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Are you alright?” I asked the girl anxiously.
“I suppose so,” she shrugged, “But we’ve nowhere to go. We slept rough last night.” She shrugged again. “But it ain’t safe on the streets any more. Fat Georgie will have put the word about by now. Wherever we go, someone will grass, you can bet on it.”
“So what happened to honour among thieves?” I was curious.
“You tell me,” she sniffed, and wiped her nose on the sleeve of a faded denim shirt.
“Anyway, Fat Georgie’s a pimp, and worse. Honour? Don’t make me laugh. A flea on a turd knows better.”
“Don’t believe all you hear, guv,” said Danny. “Nobody plays fair on the streets. It’s dog eats dog. No favours asked, none given. If you think we’re all one big happy family, you should try it sometime.” His grey-green eyes glittered and I felt reprimanded. At the same time, I was reminded, inconsequentially, of broken glass among pebbles on a sunny beach. “Mind you,” Danny was saying, “if you keep your eyes open, your arse covered, and your mouth shut…you’ve got it made.” He managed a lopsided smile that was closer to a sneer and made my flesh creep. Thankfully, Nick chose that moment to reappear with sandwiches and four mugs of steaming tea on a tray.
The pair tucked in as if they hadn’t eaten for a week. Nick and I regarded each other uncertainly. “I think I had better go,” he muttered. I was tired, confused and anxious. I hadn’t told him about my father’s death or that I had spoken to my mother and brother. I wanted, needed to tell someone. Damn it, I was near bursting to let rip with mixed emotions. But I hadn’t been able to get a word out. Quite simply, I couldn’t talk to the man, certainly in nothing like the easy, comfortable way I had been able to talk to Harry.
At the door, Nick paused. “Don’t get involved, Laurence. You’ve done more than enough for those little toe rags already. Send them on their way and get your locks changed, that’s my advice.”
“Which I don’t recall asking for,” I snapped unnecessarily.
Nick winced, turned on his heels and headed for the parked Porsche with brisk, quickening steps. It was typical of the man that he drove a Porsche, I fumed, again for no reason. Who did he think he was anyway? I did not wait to wave him off as I usually did but returned to my young guests with a sinking heart.
Against my better judgement, I let them stay. “One night only,” I cautioned, “and if you dare steal from me again, Fat Georgie will be the least of your worries.” Both hung their heads and had the good grace to look shamefaced. I was not convinced, however, and despatched them to the spare room before I changed my mind.
Poppy glanced imploringly from me to the blank TV screen. Danny grabbed her hand and led her, unresisting, from the room. A few seconds later, I heard raised voices, nor did these cease until the door of my spare room had banged open and shut several times.
I sprawled on the sofa, put on a Mozart CD and dozed. When I woke, it was two in the morning. I was stiff and cold. My head ached and my mouth was dry. It was not until I had helped myself to a large brandy that I began to feel human again. Philip Adams’ card was burning a hole in my pocket. I took it out, read it, replaced it and repeated the exercise several times. I glanced at my watch, hesitated, picked up the landline receiver and started to dial. Three times, I lost my nerve. Finally, I hit the last digit and let the ringing tone persist in my ear.
“Hello?” a grumpy voice growled.
“Philip?”
“Who’s that?”
“Laurence Fisher.”
“Who?”
I put the phone down and replenished my glass. Almost immediately, it rang. Nervously, I answered. “Philip?”
“Laurence, what’s wrong? Sorry, I didn’t realize it was you. I’m tired. I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have called at this ungodly hour. It just needed to hear afriendly voice.” I knew I must sound pathetic.
“And you got me!” He laughed, “Sorry!” and then, “I’m glad you called.”
“Really?”
“Really,” he assured me, “As a mater of fact, it’s quite a coincidence.”
“Oh?”
“I’ve been dreaming about you.” Absurdly, I felt suddenly shy and altogether tongue tied.
“I hope you don’t mind?” he laughed again, “It was pretty hot stuff,” he added mischievously.
But I wasn’t ready for this. “Goodnight, Philip,” I murmured in a happy daze. Later, in bed, I mulled over my feelings for Philip Adams and found, not surprisingly, that they were very mixed. He lounged, relaxed and smiling in my mind’s eye, as if in a video frame, against a background of trees and distant hills for which I had no explanation. He wore a check, lumberjack-style shirt, open and flapping in a breeze to reveal a hairy chest. His jeans and boots were dusty. Beads of sweat covered a strong, friendly face. He looked so solid and dependable, a man I could trust. But could I love him?
The picture changed. Philip was splashing towards me out of a vivid, blue sea, laughing. He was naked, muscles rippling, limbs combining agility and grace. He reached the sandy shore where I stood, watching and admiring, like a man enchanted. Suddenly, the sand gave way beneath his feet, swallowed him up and covered all traces of him in an instant. One minute he was there, larger than life. The next, he was gone.
Even in my dream state, I became confused, frightened. The picture changed yet again. This time it was Harry who was laughing and shaking a playful fist at me. There was no scene or setting, just Harry. He held out his arms to me and, thankfully, I fell into them. It was all I wanted. But when I looked up, it was Nick Carter’s unsmiling face I saw. The arms that held me went slack and let me fall.
I woke, exhausted, the sun in my eyes since I had forgotten to close the curtains. I blinked furiously, stretched and yawned. It was a few moments before a ringing sound beside my bed finally penetrated and I groped for the receiver. For my pains, a loud click exploded in my ear. I wondered if it had been Philip Adams, was surprised and not a little disappointed to discover that I hoped not and wasn’t tempted to dial 1471 to find out.
It was too late to think about breakfast so I settled for several cups of tea and started to prepare lunch. There was neither sign nor sound from my young guests. A cursory investigation seemed to indicate nothing was missing. I looked in on them a little later, however, to reassure myself that all was well. Both were fast asleep, snug in each other’s arms. They looked so sweet and innocent, it brought a lump to my throat. I hadn’t the heart to disturb them. Time enough, I thought, to get real.
By the time I roused the pair and they had shared a shower, with much giggling and yelling, lunch was ready. I had just finished dishing up when they wandered into the kitchen in high spirits.
It was a very agreeable meal. A bottle of wine went down with my companions as well as if not better than the cottage pie and vegetables. Danny was quiet but not unfriendly while Poppy chatted cheerfully about everything and nothing in particular.
Poppy tucked into apple pie and lashings of cream with relish, Danny less enthusiastically.
“Don’t you like apple pie?” I asked him.
“Love it,” he said flatly, scooping up another mouthful with his spoon.
“So what’s wrong?”
“What do you think?” he shrugged, “We haven’t sat around a table for a meal in ages, have we Pops?” He pulled a face. “And probably won’t again for another month of Sundays.”
“Couldn’t we stay here, just for a bit?” Poppy wanted to know. “We won’t be any trouble, honest.”
Two pairs of eyes gazed imploringly at me above half-open mouths smeared with cream. “No,” I told them bluntly, having foreseen this and already made up my mind. For a start, how could I trust them?
I expected argument, repeated pleas to reconsider. Instead, they carried on eating as if nothing had been said. Even so, the way each of us started in our seats when the doorbell rang was no small measure of rising tension. I went to the entry-phone, glad of an excuse to leave the table. I did not recognize the man’s voice and could not make out the name over a crackle of interference. Not for the first time, I wondered why I bothered with the damn thing at all.
Minutes later, I opened the door to a tall, blond young man I put in his mid-twenties. He looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t place him at once. There was something about this stranger, though, a certain nervousness that instantly put me on my guard. His smile displayed a perfect set of white teeth but conveyed nothing. His manner was neither friendly nor unfriendly. He fidgeted and shuffled from one foot to the other, both hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans.
“Laurence?”
“Marc?” I don’t know how I suddenly knew my brother, I just did. We regarded each other with frank curiosity.
“Can I come in?” He tensed as I stood aside to let him pass, closed the door and showed him into the sitting room.
“Excuse me a moment, I have guests,” I muttered and headed for the kitchen. To my astonishment, Poppy and Danny were morosely but effectively engaged in the task of washing up. I explained that I had a visitor and would appreciate some privacy. Their faces fell.
“Do you mean you want us to go right away?” demanded Danny aggressively.
“I mean I don’t want to be disturbed,” I said. “Finish what your doing, and then go and watch the TV in your bedroom or something, anything, just keep out of mischief, do you understand? We’ll talk later.”
“About what?” Poppy demanded.
“We’ll see,” I muttered vaguely, and hastily withdrew, less confident than ever that I would soon be rid of these two. Consequently, I returned to my brother in something of a temper.
Marc was sitting on the edge of an armchair and leapt to his feet as soon as I re-entered  the room. “It’s been a long time, Laurie,” he said more loudly than he needed, and stuck out his hand. I ignored it. The family diminution of my name stuck in my craw and triggered a surge of indignation. Not trusting myself to speak, I sank into a chair opposite. Marc let his hand fall to his side, blushing. He then perched on the chair’s edge again, and we each waited for the other to say something.
There was so much I wanted to ask.  Instead, I gave full rein to a stubborn streak and said nothing.
“I had to come,” he murmured at last, “I thought it would help. Obviously I was mistaken.”
“You said it,” I felt inclined to agree.
He got resolutely to his feet. “I’m sorry for troubling you, it won’t happen again.” He spoke so precisely and with such formality that I half expected him to perform a little bow. I felt the corners of my mouth twitch and my lips spread into a reluctant smile.
He hesitated. “May I use your toilet?”
I laughed aloud and he looked miffed. “It’s the door facing you at the top of the stairs,” I coolly informed him, “Can I get you a cup of tea, coffee, a sandwich? It’s a long way home.”
“Don’t go to any trouble on my account,” he said stiffly and went upstairs.
I returned to the kitchen and was hit by an aroma of freshly ground coffee. Poppy and Danny, having discovered the weird and wonderful ways of my percolator, were sitting at the table and staring into space over their respective mugs.
“What are you doing?” Poppy asked as I took a couple of mugs from a cupboard and searched the fridge for some cheese.
“My brother has a long journey,” I explained without quite knowing why since it was no business of hers. “The least I can do is make him some sandwiches and a cup of coffee.”
“I’ll do that.” She jumped down from the table. “I’ll bring them into you. It won’t take a jiffy.”
I was about to protest, but the wide eyes and tremulous smile exuded an anxiety to please that I couldn’t ignore. I left her to it and met my brother at the bottom of the stairs. He glared at me without pausing and headed straight for the front door.
“Don’t go,” I said.
He paused. “Why should I stay?”
“For one thing, there’s coffee and sandwiches on the way and, for another, I’d like you to stay.”
“Why?”
I smiled inwardly. Marc had much of our father’s direct manner about him; much, too, of his defensiveness. “We have a lot of catching up to do,” I pointed out. He shrugged and returned to the armchair without a word.
He did not sit down but waited until I had closed the door and offered his hand a second time. “Can we start again?” His eyes did not leave my face nor did the intensity of his look waver or his extended arm falter.
We shook hands. His grip was warm and firm and so like our father’s it was uncanny. He grinned. For an instant, I glimpsed something of the cheeky schoolboy I remembered. The sharp eyes assumed a gentler expression, not wholly confident but quietly self-assured. I was reminded of a photograph of my dad as a young man that used to sit on our sideboard at home.
We chatted politely at first.  Gradually, though, the tension between us began to ease. He filled me in about the family. By the time he got around to relating the circumstances of our father’s death, he was relaxed and almost friendly. His demeanour, though still a shade earnest, had shed much of its earlier starchiness and the gravel voice sounded easier on the ear.
I found myself warming to this stranger, my kid brother. 


CHAPTER FIVE


Both Danny and Poppy took to Marc. I was miffed for no other reason than it made me look and feel so much older. The age difference between them was barely ten years and showed even less while I could have been the pair’s father. As it was, I felt more like an uncle to Marc than an older brother.
Tea and food were duly provided, Danny carrying a tray of doorstep sandwiches and Poppy another on which four mugs plus a sugar bowl and a half full bottle of milk were neatly laid out. “I couldn’t find the bloody milk jig,” she explained apologetically.
I made the introductions and hinted that Marc and I would appreciate being left alone. The pair, however, had other ideas. Danny sprawled on the sofa while Poppy handed out mugs of tea before handing round a plate of sandwiches. Moreover, she did so without a trace of self-consciousness, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. We might have been a family group instead of relative strangers. She soon tired of playing hostess, however, and flopped on the sofa beside Danny, all smiles.
“Poppy and Danny are staying with me for a bit,” I told Marc by way of an explanation of sorts. I glared at them both. “Marc brings bad news, I’m afraid. My father has just died.”
“He’s well out of it then, ain’t he?” was Poppy’s unconcerned response.
Danny was marginally more sympathetic. “It ain’t good, is it, when someone dies? It makes you realize how it could be you next.” He looked up over the rim of saucer swimming in tea and caught me observing him. His shoulders were hunched, his neck as if squashed between them. His expression was sullen, eyes full of dark secrets bursting to be told. Everything about him exuded aggression and mistrust. Then he lifted his chin and grinned. It was a precocious expression. I was reminded of Marc, years ago, and couldn’t help comparing my impish schoolboy brother with this ageless cretin.
I looked at Marc who was gravely contemplating a stain on the carpet. No sign of an imp there now. He, too, sat hunched as if weighed down by dark secrets of his own.
Only Poppy appeared unaffected by the oppressive atmosphere. “My old man spent so much time in the nick, he’d be better off dead,” she announced cheerfully.
“I was close to my father,” Marc commented to no one in particular.
“Aren’t you the lucky one?” Poppy retorted.
“Too right,” I agreed and three pairs of eyes bored into my head, probing. “Excuse me,” I muttered and made an unnecessary dash for the loo. By the time I returned, all three were engaged in an animated if not heated argument about UFOs. Poppy was claiming to have seen “lots” while Danny was quick to ridicule the very idea. Marc, to my surprise, promptly launched into a lively diatribe on the sheer vanity of the human race to suppose it was the only intelligent form of life in the universe.
After a while, Danny got bored and left the room. Minutes later, the television started blaring out above our heads. Poppy rushed off too, while Marc was in mid-sentence. “Tell him to turn it down!” I yelled after her but she neither replied nor gave any sign that she’d heard.
“Nice kids,” said Marc with a wry grin.
“I’m sort of looking after them,” I explained, “That’s why I can’t come to Dad’s funeral. I can hardly leave them here on their own.”
“They’re old enough to take care of themselves surely?”
“Themselves, yes. It’s the house I’m worried about.” My mind began to play tricks. I could already picture myself wandering from bare room to bare room, my home stripped of everything but the paintwork.
“Couldn’t a neighbour keep an eye on them? It would only be for a few days.”
“A few days?”
“The family would expect it.”
“Oh, would they?” I was incandescent with rage, “Well, the family can stuff it!” I got up, went to the window and looked out into the street. A boy on a bicycle rode past, veering left suddenly to join some kids loitering outside the Copper Kettle, a pub on the corner.
“Please, Laurie. It would mean a lot to mum, to all of us.”
I rounded on him. “All?”
Marc rose and confronted me squarely. “Alright, maybe not all,” he admitted, “but Mum and Mary want to see you and the others are bound to come round if you’ll only stay over a few days and give them time to get used to the idea.”
“Get used to what Idea?” I fumed, “that I’m gay? They’ve had plenty of time, for crying out loud. Do you really think a funeral is going to change anything? It won’t change me, for a start. I’m not ashamed of being gay, Marc, and I’m certainly not about to beg re-admittance to the family circle under any pretence of shared grief. Yes, pretence, Marc. I don’t give a damn the old man’s dead. Why should I? He made it very clear what he thought of me. As for the rest of you, no one wanted to share anything with me while dad was alive. Well, did they? No. So what’s changed? Damn all, that’s what. I’m still the family pouf. So go ahead and bury him but don’t expect me to come along and shed any crocodile tears.”
“I can understand you’re feeling bitter…”
“Like hell you can. You don’t know the half of it, not the half of it!”
“No one understood…”
“And they do now? I doubt that very much.”
“You’ll never know if you won’t give them a chance,” he pointed out with a cool logic that infuriated me all the more.
“Like they gave me a chance?”
“People change, attitudes change…”
“Oh? So have you changed? Has your attitude changed?”
“I was only a kid,” he protested. “I’m older and wiser now. I met gays at university. Some of them became good friends. It’s a different world now. Surely you must realize that? The whole gay issue…”
“Is still an issue,” I said angrily.
“But much less of one.”
“So I’m told. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, Marc, not the bloody promotion ads.”
“A lot of people out there think the same as me, that a person’s sex life is his or her own affair.”
“How liberal of them,” I sneered involuntarily, hating myself for it.
Marc flared. “At least we try to meet people halfway, Laurie, we don’t just write them off. How can you write off your own family as if you don’t care? Because you do care, Laurie, it shows in your face. Okay, so we treated you badly. But that was twelve years ago. Is it really asking too much for a chance to make amends? It will be okay, I promise.”
“Promises, promises,” I muttered. My sarcasm was heartfelt but we both knew he had won me over. I turned and stared out of the window again. The street was empty, the corner deserted. A movement at the window next door caught my eye. On impulse, I poked out my tongue at the widow Finn without even glimpsing a face or part of one. Instantly, I relented and gave a little wave.
I turned to face my brother. “Okay,” I said, “you win.” His face lit up. The strangest feeling washed over me as of tempting fate with no real thought or care for the outcome. Call it bravado, resignation, whatever. In a like mind, I later informed an ecstatic Danny and Poppy that they could stay and keep an eye on things while I was away. “If you need anything, ask Mrs Finn next door. I’ll have a word with her before I leave. And be warned, any monkey business and she’ll have your guts for garters, and so will I,” I cautioned the bright-eyed pair.
“We’ll do you proud, guv,” said Danny.
“See that you do,” I said as my heart began to sink. “I must be mad,” I told myself. Nor was I the only one to think so. Marc was keen to set off. First, though, I telephoned Nick who did not mince his words and told me I deserved to be certified insane. He agreed, however, to look in on Danny and Poppy in my absence and also noted down my mother’s address and phone number in case of an emergency. He refused point blank to clear things for me at work but advised I should call in and explain about my father’s funeral. On the pretext he was running a bath, he abruptly rang off.
We left for Reading half an hour later, Marc at the wheel of an old banger of which he was plainly proud. I had nearly called Philip Adams on the mobile, while I was alone in my bedroom packing, but thought better of it. Instead, I let Marc and the others bundle me out of the house, gripping a holdall as if for dear life. By now I was having grave doubts about leaving Poppy and Danny on their own and was anxious to leave before these took root. It would, after all, have been a sound excuse to stay.
Danny disappeared inside but Poppy waved us off until we turned the corner by the Copper Kettle. In the rear view mirror, I could see the widow Finn standing at her own front door saying something to Poppy with much gesticulating and wagging of a finger. I relaxed slightly and even managed a grin. May Finn was more than a match even for those two, I kept telling myself.
Marc kept up a steady stream of small talk for the first half an hour, got precious little response and lapsed into a sullen silence. I resolved to play safe and pretended to doze, a ploy that worked better than I had dared hope since, in no time at all, I fell asleep.
I woke to feel myself being roughly shaken and a voice light years away calling my name. I came to with a start. “We’re here,” muttered Marc edgily and a flash of intuition told me that he, too, had misgivings.
An awful suspicion grabbed me by the balls. “They do know I’m coming?”
My brother’s silence spoke volumes.
“Bloody hell, Marc!” I was torn between a pleasurable sense of serve-them-right and blind panic. “But you told mum…”
“I didn’t think you’d come,” he protested, “I didn’t want to get her hopes up.”
It was the weirdest feeling entering that house again, as if I was blundering into a time warp. It was getting late and I made instinctively for the kitchen, Marc at my elbow. Why was it, I wondered absently, that the kitchen invariably acted as a magnet for most crimes?
My mother and sister were seated at the same gate-leg table I remembered, only now it had been painted a garish green instead of white. A tense silence greeted us and seemed to go on for ages. Then my mother got up, hugged me and started crying. Over her grey-white head, my sister Mary strained to give me a reassuring smile.
“Any chance of a cuppa?” enquired Marc with a cheerfulness that fooled no one and soon we were all making a stab at conversation.
No one mentioned Harry. Nor did anyone refer to my father by name, except in passing, as if he were asleep upstairs. I might have been a neighbour dropping in for a chat. I sighed heavily. Twelve years would not be bridged lightly, even over endless cups of tea. I was already I was wishing I hadn’t come.
After a while, Mary left us and Marc followed shortly afterwards. My sister gave me a peck on the cheek and whispered in my hear, “It’s lovely to see you again, Laurie.” Her eyes filled with tears. I wondered if they were for me? Somehow, I doubted it. She turned to my mother. “Laurie might as well have his old room. I’ll make the bed up, shall I?”
“Don’t go to any trouble on my account,” I growled, “I can easily bunk down on the sofa.”
My mother and sister exchanged knowing looks and past experience tapped me on the shoulder to remind me I was wasting my breath.
The second Mary and Marc left us to our own devices, my mother insisted on making a fresh pot of tea. I watched her with growing apprehension. Not uncharacteristically, she was a bundle of nerves, and much as I had often pictured her even down to the violet jersey wool dress, her favourite colour and material. Fatter and slower than I remembered, she was still a handsome woman for all her sixty plus years.
“I’m sorry I hung up on you, mum,” I apologized for the sake of something to say.
“I dare say I deserved it,” was all she said and the massive shoulders heaved. “I haven’t exactly been a good mother to you, have I?” She pushed a cup and saucer in front of me and sat down to examine her own.
“I’m sorry about dad,” I mumbled awkwardly, “I wish things could have been different between us.”
“So did he,” she said without emotion. “So did he,” she repeated and began to cry again.
My defences started to crumble. “He never got in touch,” I pointed out. “None of you did.”
“Your dad thought it was for the best,” she sobbed and reached for a box of tissues on the dresser. “He was worried about Marc.”
“Marc?”
“He was only thirteen, Laurence. It’s a sensitive age. We didn’t want him to…”
“Pick up any bad habits?” I snapped. She stuck out an ample chin but made no reply.
“Couldn’t have big brother setting a bad example, could we?” I seethed, “Did you think I’d corrupt him? Is that what you honestly thought? Bloody hellfire, I must have been mad to come back here.” I leapt to my feet.
“We didn’t know what to think.” She started crying again. “It came as such a shock that you were, well, you know…” her voice tailing off miserably.
“Gay, mum. The word you want is gay. I’m gay.”
By now my self-defence mechanisms were well intact again. I longed to give my mother a big hug, but her inability to accept me for myself still, my father yet to be buried, upset and appalled me. Inwardly, I cursed Marc for his interference. He would have done better to let sleeping dogs lie. But it had been my choice to come. Like it or not, there was no going back until after the funeral.
I kissed my mother goodnight although it was precious little more than a token gesture to which she responded in kind. It wasn’t so much that our hearts were not in it as they simply refused to be drawn, flying as we both were in the face of mixed feelings.
During the next forty-eight hours in the bosom of my family, I never once felt truly at ease. Mary, her husband Ian, and three children were staying at the house. My brother Stuart arrived the next day with his wife and toddler son, Shaun. The wife was not, I was sorry to see, the pretty redhead I remembered but a petite blond who, rather than look me in the eye on the few occasions we couldn’t avoid conversation, would cock her head to one side and address the nearest item of furniture to hand. My brother Alan and his family lived nearby but I saw nothing of them until the funeral. I met no open hostility to speak of, just layers of unbearable tension. Nor had this anything to do with its being a difficult time for everyone anyway. I felt as though I lay trussed by invisible cords in a bed with too may blankets piled on top of me, unable to kick them off or even contrive to toss and turn. I sweated buckets, so much so that I had to keep changing my shirts and was eventually forced to beg a clean shirt from Marc while Mary put the rest through the washing machine along with some of the children’s clothes.
I got on well with Mary’s children, especially Thomas, the day of whose christening I was never likely to forget. He and I sat and watched the clothes tossed about behind the glass door. A little younger than Marc had been then, he was a bright, mature lad for his age. He was frankly curious about me and repeatedly plied me with leading questions and speculation about my long absence. “Have you been in prison?” the boy asked excitedly and kept shooting from the hip. “Hospital? Abroad? Were you arrested in Thailand for drug smuggling? That happened to the brother of one of our teachers at school…”
“Why does it have to be something bad?” I laughed.
“Family is family,” he said solemnly, “No one stays away twelve years for a good reason.”
“Well, maybe I’ve been abroad…”
He considered this prospect for all of ten seconds. “No stamps,” he declared, “People always send postcards when they go abroad and everyone knows I collect stamps.” I attempted in vain to steer the conversation in the direction of his stamp collection. This ruse worked for about five minutes as he related with glowing pride how he had set up a flourishing swap-or-sell shop among fellow collectors. Then he went quiet for a while and I prayed for an interruption. The kitchen had resembled a railway station all day but not a soul had passed through for at least twenty minutes. “Are you gay?” The question caught me off guard and I felt my jaw drop. “It doesn’t matter if you are, I don’t mind,” young Thomas persisted doggedly. “Old Bones, our woodwork teacher, he says gays are an oppressed minority who deserve better. What’s an oppressed minority?”
“Children who should be seen but not heard,” came a voice from the doorway and I looked up to see my sister looking both determined and flustered.
“I only asked,” protested Thomas. At the same time, he treated his mother to a disarming smile, displaying all the subtlety and charm of an old stager. I had to laugh. The lad threw me a look of mock despair. His mother ordered him to go upstairs and get ready for bed. Thomas complied without a murmur.
“You can’t blame the boy for asking,” I said after Mary had firmly closed the door behind him.
“I don’t,” she said, “but I want him to hear it from me and Ian. Do you mind?”
“You do intend to tell him then?” Even as I expressed surprise, a rush of colour to my face betrayed my delight.
She shrugged. “He has to know sometime. You’re family, he has a right to know. Besides…” She hesitated, “…there are too many dinosaurs in this family already. I don’t want my kids growing up like that.”
“Kids love dinosaurs,” I remarked without thinking.
“Do you?” she flung at me pointedly.
“Not the homophobic kind,” I admitted with a grin, “but I loved Horace.” Horace was a knitted toy dinosaur from which, as a child, I could not bear to be parted for long and never at bedtime.
We both laughed.
“Thomas adores Horace but don’t you dare tell him I told you or he’ll never speak to me again. It I’ve had to sit and stuff him once, I must have stuffed him twenty times!”
“Who, Thomas?” I feigned horror.
“No, Horace, you idiot.”
We collapsed in stitches. It was just like old times. Then the door opened and my mother entered, my brother Stuart and his wife close behind. The temperature fell dramatically, only to shoot up again as soon as I opened my mouth. “We were talking about Horace,” I told my mother.
Her face went blank for a moment then beamed. “My goodness, is that old thing still around? It was only ever fit for the bin years ago.”
“Who’s Horace?” my sister-in-law demanded, clearly aggrieved at not being party to the joke. She gave a regal snort once Mary had enlightened her. “I don’t approve of soft toys, they spread germs and pick up all sorts of nasty things.”
“You can say that again,” said my brother looking directly at me. I got up and left the room.
Marc was alone in the sitting room and saw I was in a temper. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” I lied. He waited. I told him.
“Take no notice of Stuart, I never do. As for our Babs, well, she’s harmless enough. She’s as thick as two planks but likes to think MENSA would welcome her with open arms.” I laughed and felt better. “Fancy a pint down the Red Lion?”
“It hardly seems appropriate with Dad not in his grave yet,” I felt bound to say.
“Stuff appropriate. I could murder a pint.”
We trotted off down the pub is high spirits. It was a good evening and I enjoyed the company. I had begun to feel more alone in that house than in my own.
The funeral was a depressing affair, especially as we gathered at the graveside in pouring rain. No one offered to share an umbrella with me and I got progressively more soaked until it scarcely mattered any more. My brother Alan and his family ignored me completely. My mother had insisted I join my brothers as a pallbearer but that was the only show of family unity that day. There was a conspicuous absence of grief. Everyone looked smart and spoke in whispers. But no one wept. Even my mother looked weary of it all. She clung to Alan’s arm most of the time, exchanging it for his wife’s while he acted as pallbearer. Alan, I reflected grimly, had always been my mother’s favourite; not Marc, the youngest, as one might have expected. I stood close to Mary for moral support but it was Thomas who slipped his hand in mine during the church service and grinned encouragingly at me as I attempted to sing a hymn and finally gave up altogether.
Afterwards, we all went back to the house for a spread with which the women had taken great pains. I wasn’t hungry but ate anyway if only because it saved me having to talk to anyone. Later, I grabbed a hot shower then rested on my bed for a while before packing. For the first time since Harry’s death I was anxious to be in my own home. At the back of my mind, too, a nagging suspicion assumed an aspect of shadow play in which Danny and Poppy took leading roles. A knock on the door was almost welcome. “Come in!”
It was my mother. She had exchanged her black dress for one of silver grey that suited her better. “Must you go?”
“I’ll keep in touch,” I promised and zipped up the holdall. “Stay a while longer, Laurence, please. It will be easier when they’ve all gone and we’re on our own. We can talk then. We used to talk a lot, remember?”
I remembered only too well. But it hurt. I brushed the memory aside along with countless others. She sat on the bed, regarding me with such sorrow and love that I sank beside her. Each on the same impulse, we moved into a soulful hug of the kind we had avoided since my arrival.
For a long time, neither of us spoke.
“Your dad and I have never stopped loving you, Laurence,” she sobbed quietly, “We want you back, both of us. Oh, I know your dad’s gone. But he’ll always be a part of this family and so will you.” I have her hand a tight squeeze, too choked to speak. “When we heard that your friend had died, we wanted to help, be there for you. But your dad said it was too soon and you would need time to get over all that before you were ready to come home. Now…”
“Now?” I stiffened.
“Now we can get back to the way we were. It’s what your dad wanted. It’s what I want. It’s what we all want; just to be one big happy family again.
“Time to get over all that?” I repeated and could only hope I had misunderstood,
“Get over all what?”
“Your friend of course. I’m sure he was a very nice man. But now you can put that sort of thing behind you and get on with the rest of your life. You’re only forty-two. Goodness, that’s no age at all. I’ll help you, we all will. That’s all we’ve ever wanted, your dad and me, to help you. But you wouldn’t let us and we didn’t know what to do for the best or where to turn.” It was her turn to squeeze my hand. “You can be as stubborn as a mule when you like, Laurence Fisher, just like your dad.”
She means well, I kept telling myself. She means well. How I kept my temper, I will never know. I tried to explain, quite simply and straightforwardly, what it meant to be gay. I could feel the muscles in her hand stiffening all the while I talked until it was like a claw digging into my flesh. “It’s the way I am, mum, I can’t change that even if I wanted to, and I don’t,” I added.
“You don’t mean that,” she wailed.
I got angry then. “Not even if I wanted to, and I don’t,” I repeated. “I’m happy the way I am. Why can’t you just accept that instead of wanting me to be someone else? I’m your son, for crying out loud.” But I might as well have been talking to a brick wall. “I’m sorry, Mum, but if you can’t be happy for me, that’s your problem, not mine.”
“How dare you speak to me like that,” she was beside herself. “And your poor father only buried this very day, God rest his soul. It’s what he wanted, Laurie. He loved you. Have you no respect for the dead? If you won’t do it for me, do it for him,” she cried, in a toe of voic that somehow managed to sound pleading and demanding at the same time
I saw red. “I’m gay, mum, G-A-Y, homosexual. If that isn’t good enough for this family, the whole damn lot of you can go to hell!”
“Laurence!” The door flew open and Mary stood there, a crude mixture of pain, horror and disgust written all over her homely features. I followed her shocked gaze to the huddle beside me on the bed, head in both hands, sobbing uncontrollably. But I would not, could not apologize or retract a single word. Much as I loved my mother, I was determined not to give in to emotional blackmail. Instead, I grabbed my bag and would have stormed out of the room had not another figure appeared and elbowed his way past Mary.
My brother Alan looked from me to my mother and back again. I had no warning before he punched me in the stomach and sent me flying. Soon we were wrestling on the floor and he had no difficulty keeping the upper hand. By the time Marc arrived and forced us apart, my face was a mess, my nose dripping blood everywhere.
“You bastard!” yelled Alan, “You dirty, perverted little toe rag!”
“Alan, oh, Alan,” my mother moaned softly. The only blood on his face was mine but she wasted no time wiping it with a handkerchief still damp with her tears.
I grabbed my bag, determined to get out of that house no matter what or who got in my way this time. Mary caught hold of my hand, started to say something, changed her mind and went to comfort my mother. I was glad. I did not want to row with Mary nor did I begrudge my mother a crumb of comfort. Once in the street, I headed straight for the railway station, only dimly conscious of the stares of passers-by. I heard a horn bleeping, half-turned and could just make out Marc at the wheel of his old Ford. I increased my stride. Marc drew level and coasted alongside. “Don’t be an ass, Laurie. Let me drive you home.”
I stopped and rounded on him in a fury. “My name is Laurence,” I told him, wagging a finger just as the widow Finn might have done, “and I don’t need any help from you or anyone else.”
Marc braked. “Okay, Laurence, get in.”
“Bloody family,” I raged. “You’re all the bloody same!”
“And you’re a bloody mess,” he retorted, “You don’t honestly think they’ll let you on a train looking like that do you? You’ll ruin the seats.”
“I’ll manage,” I muttered, and then my head started swimming. I felt faint. I took a few steps and stumbled, staggered another few steps and stumbled again. I only had a vague notion of Marc getting out of the car, forcing me into the passenger seat and fastening my seat belt. He was a big man, like our father, so my half-hearted attempts to break free of him were quite futile. Minutes later, the road was rushing up at me and it was a relief to lay back and rest my head. Marc thrust a handkerchief at me and ordered me in no uncertain terms to hold my nose and be sure not to drip blood on the upholstery...or else. I did as I was told. At the same time, the situation struck me as hilarious and I burst out laughing. Almost at once, though, my laughter dissolved into tears and I was glad of the handkerchief.
The bleeding stopped from my nose and mouth soon enough, as did the tears. But I ached all over, felt wretched during the entire journey and for some time afterwards.
It was dark by the time we pulled up outside the house in Roger Street.
“I’m sorry, Laurence,” Marc blurted, “I should never have asked you to come home. I never dreamed that’s how it would be.” He looked flushed, the handsome profile creased with self-reproach. “I’m sorry,” he repeated miserably.
I shrugged, and the gesture sent a charge of pain across my shoulder blades. “It’s not your fault,” I tried to reassure him. You didn’t twist my arm. I make my own decisions. Besides, I had to go. We both know that. Sometimes you need to do a thing if only to find out you should have left well alone.”
“But you’re family!” he exclaimed with such passion that I was genuinely moved even if I thought the sentiment naïve.
“There’s family and family,” I murmured, “Harry and me, we were family.” Playfully, I punched Marc on the arm, “We can still be family too, you and me, given half a chance.”
He smiled with genuine pleasure. “I’d like that.”
“Me too,” I said and meant it. I liked this brother of mine.
My front door was suddenly thrown open. It was the widow Finn of all people who stood there, hands on hips, looking for al the world like a prophet of doom. “Oh, no, what now?” I groaned.
Half an hour later, Marc and I remained pretty much a captive audience in my sitting room being subjected, staccato fashion, to a relentless fusillade of sordid details. Danny and Poppy, it appeared, had thrown a party. “I’ve cleaned and tidied up as best I could,” May Finn told us. If she sounded apologetic, there was no need. I could tell at a glance the place was spotlessly clean and everything in its place. “I never saw such a mess in all my life. And the noise! Well, someone must have called the police. It wasn’t me,” she hastened to assure us, “although I have to say I was sorely tempted. After midnight, it was, and not a soul in the street able to get a wink of sleep. I warned them and so did old Mr Pearson across the road. Did they take any notice? Not a scrap.”
“Where are they now?” I sighed, reflecting that I really should have known better.
“Presumably the girl is still being held at the police station, charged with assaulting a police officer, I shouldn’t wonder,” she added forcefully, “I wouldn’t know about the boy. He ran off with some others.”
“And left Poppy?” I expressed surprise.
“He’s better off without her if you ask me,” grumbled May Finn, “It’s my opinion that little madam was behind the whole fracas. You should have seen her kicking and screaming. And the language! Well, I’ve never heard anything like it. What on earth possessed you to take them in, Mr Fisher, let alone leave them on their own like that? It was madness, madness. Your friend agrees with me. A nice young man, I thought, a very nice young man.” I presumed she meant Nick and wondered why neither he nor the widow had telephoned to let me know what was going on. May Finn must have read my mind. “We thought it best not to bother you in the circumstances. A funeral involves stress enough without adding to it. So tragic, losing a parent.” She paused and gave me a piercing look. “I dare say you weren’t yourself. Having to dash off like that too…” she muttered, “How were you to know what those little devils would get up to?”
“They had nowhere else to go,” I murmured weakly.
“I’m sure.” She gave a loud, disapproving snort. “A life on the streets is too good for those two. Mark my
words, there’s only one place where rubbish like that will end up and that’s prison. For the better, if you ask me. Maybe that would teach them a lesson or two.”
“Since when did locking people up in prisons solve anything?” said Marc, “They don’t call them universities of crime for nothing,” he added quietly.
The widow Finn glared at him, plainly annoyed at being contradicted. My brother, though, was not intimidated. He returned a charming smile and proceeded to bombard her with youthful charm.
“Yes, well, I dare say you might have a point,” she finally conceded. She turned to me. “I’d best be off now. You’ll be wanting to see to things, Mr Fisher…”
“What? Oh, yes. And thank you again, Mrs Finn,” reflecting wryly on how many years we had been neighbours and never addressed each other by our first names.
“I dare say you weren’t yourself,” she said again, still shaking her head and muttering as I shut the front door after her.
“Do you want a lift to the police station?” asked Marc as soon as I re-entered the sitting room.
“Certainly not,” I snapped, “I’ve done more than enough for that young lady already. Let her stew.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“I certainly do,” I said with feeling, “I could murder a drink. How about you? If there’s a drop left of course…”
“Whatever.”
As it transpired, it was Hobson’s choice. My search produced a few teaspoonfuls of instant coffee thinly spread at the bottom of a brand new jar. Some cans of beer in the fridge were gone and the wine cabinet was bare. Nor was there a single tea bag left. There was no milk in the fridge, either but, thankfully, enough milk powder remained in the packet to make one reasonably tasting cup of coffee. “Do you take milk?” I asked Marc.
“No.”
“Just as well,” I murmured dryly since there was none. I made the coffee and did not waste my time looking in the biscuit tin. We were sipping and wondering what to say next when my mobile rang. I glanced at the tiny screen, saw that it was Philip Adams calling and experienced a rush of welcome pleasure. “Excuse me,” I said to Marc and dived back into the kitchen.
“Are you okay, Laurence?” Philip sounded full of concern. “I was sorry to hear about your father. Are you still with your family?”
“No, I’ve just arrived home,” I told him and tried to adopt a neutral tone. I needn’t have bothered.
“Oh, shit!” was his immediate response. “You could certainly have done without all that! I hope the old bat next door wasn’t too hard on you? When I dropped by, she was all for having you tarred and feathered for letting the whole street down. Mind you, that’s nothing to what she had in mind for your houseguests.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle, the glowing character reference the widow Finn had given him earlier ringing in my ears. I should have realized at once that it was beneath Nick’s dignity to tickle the old girl’s fancy. “It’s nice to hear your voice,” was all I said.
“Ditto.” I felt a high voltage intimacy pass between us that hit me squarely between the legs and I had to sit down.
“I have someone with me who would like a word.”
It eased my mind a fraction to know that Philip had someone with him so he could not speak freely. I scarcely had time to marshal my thoughts and become curious, however, when a familiar voice came on the line. “Hallo, guv,” said Danny.
“Danny? How on earth…?”
“Have you seen Poppy?” His tone was fraught with worry.
Philip spoke again. “There’s no time for explanations, Laurence, I’ll fill you in later. Do you know where the girl is? Has she contacted you at all?”
“According to the old bat…” I chuckled, “…Poppy was last seen raising merry hell and being carted off to the local nick. I’ll go down there now and see what I can do.” I was already having second thoughts about turning down Marc’s offer. While baffled as to how or why Philip Adams had become involved with Danny and Poppy, I was too distracted by my own feelings for the man himself to much care. I tried to tell myself I was being silly but it changed nothing. I did have feelings for Philip, strong feelings.
“Okay,” he said slowly as if chewing on his words, “Why don’t I come over right away and we can drive there together?” I explained about Marc. “I need to see you, Laurence,” he murmured in a husky voice that made my mouth go dry.
“Ditto,” I managed to say.
“In that case, expect me in about twenty minutes. Oh, and Laurence…”
“Yes?”
“If the police should ask about Danny, you haven’t a clue where he is.”
“But aren’t they bound to ask?”
“Trust me, Laurence, it’s important. Leave the police to me.”
“If you say so,” I agreed. Even so, I was puzzled and becoming increasingly alarmed by the way in which our conversation had taken such a peculiar turn.
“Good man. See you soon.” Philip rang off.
For several seconds I could only stare at the phone in my hand, soaking up, sponge-like, its ominous silence. I became very uneasy, not least about Danny but regarding Philip Adams, too. The man was a veritable jack-in-the-box, popping up whenever a situation called for it. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not, but idle speculation I could do without. I brushed it aside, if only on the grounds that I couldn’t handle any further distractions.
I rejoined Marc and relayed the substance of Philip’s call. He expressed polite pleasure that Danny was okay while I groaned inwardly, convinced my life could only take a turn for the worse again once the pair were back under my roof. Why I should feel in the least bit responsible for them would always remain a mystery to me, but I did, so that was that, and I was stuck with it.


CHAPTER SIX


Nick turned up while Marc and I were waiting for Philip to arrive. He let himself in and greeted me coolly. For my part, I was too self-conscious of my brother’s slightly bemused glance from one to the other of us to much care. He brightened perceptibly when I introduced Marc. The two men appeared to take each other’s measure on the spot and find the result to their liking. Ruefully, I reflected that they were about the same age. So you’re in the forty-something bracket now, Laurence Fisher, so what? I asked myself, but was careful to treat it as a rhetorical question and gave myself a mental ticking off for becoming dangerously preoccupied with my age.
Having a much older lover didn’t seem to worry Nick, so why should it bother me? Some men prefer older, after all. A dry chuckle stuck in my throat. Who am I kidding? Fate had thrown Nick and me together for one reason and one reason only. We were two lonely people as likely to clutch at straws as any drowning man. Men like myself were, I suspected, fair game in the eyes of closet Nick Carters everywhere. We were romantics, certainly. But we also enjoyed sex too much to allow even the absence of love to encroach upon our pleasure, whatever the ground rules. In Nick’s case these were easily defined; love my body, my ambition, my good looks...but don’t love me. In return, there was precious little more to be had than a coupling of androids.
While Nick and Marc chatted amicably, I had to endure this self-flagellation of home truths. What prompted this, I had no idea, although I suspected my feelings for Philip Adams had something to do with it. I should have been upset, but I wasn’t. I had taken worse beatings in my stride before I met Harry. It was a price I had gladly paid for countless one-night stands and meaningless affairs that could only end in tears. It was, I supposed, only to be expected that I should revert to form now Harry was dead. Now, though, it wouldn’t be so easy to keep picking myself up and starting all over again.
I sighed, then almost laughed aloud. Was I really in such a panic about this age thing?
“A penny for them, Laurie,” said Marc.
“Not bloody likely,. I grinned and selected that moment to inform both men of Philip’s intention to accompany me to the police station.
Mac looked crestfallen, but said nothing, merely stuck out a stubborn chin. I’ll hang around for a bit and see how things turn out. Do you mind if I stay over?”
“My sofa bed is yours,” I told him.
“They’re nice enough kids, if a bit wild. I’d like to be sure they are ok.”
“We’re only going to pick up Poppy,” I reminded him.
He shrugged. “I dare say the police will have caught up with Danny by now, don’t you?”
I nodded rather than lie outright.
“Nice kids?” Nick scoffed, “You must be joking. I bet they said that about the Hitler Youth mob.”
“They deserve a break,” Marc insisted.
“They deserve a good thrashing,” said Nick.
“Oh, and what good would that do, apart from making them hate more and act worse? If you ask me, it’s high time morons like you learned to shut up and face facts.”
“We will,” responded Nick without rancour, “just as soon as certain self-righteous do-gooders stop interpreting the facts to suit themselves. It’s not hate that drives the little buggers, it’s contempt. And can you blame them? They only have to whistle and your lot are playing their tune. Spare the rod, my parents used to beat up my teddy when I was little and it’s left me brain damaged...whatever. Find me somewhere to live, I’m having a kid, and that’s the State’s responsibility, not mine. Don’t send me to prison, it will upset my grandma; that’s if the old dear can think straight after they’ve beaten her up and nicked  her pension.” Nick paused and treated us both to a crooked grin that did nothing to take the sting out of his words. “There’s deprived and there’s depraved,” he declared by way of summing up.
It was not so much the sentiment expressed but the emotive force behind it that intrigued me. Nick had never struck me as an emotional person. Even in the climactic throes of sex, he always kept his innermost feelings tightly under wraps. Nor did I believe it would have made a scarp of difference had we loved each other.
Nick and Marc appeared oblivious to my presence, locked as they were in an unspoken understanding that they must agree to differ while, at the same time, grudgingly respecting each other’s point of view.
I, for my part, strained at the proverbial bit. They were shutting me out and I resented it. I was tired of being made to feel like an outsider; first by my family, now these two and in my own home too. Not that it had felt much like home any more. Harry had seen to that. I continued to fret. Hadn’t Harry, too, shut me out in the end?
The doorbell rang. It was Philip. He had Danny in tow. The boy and I merely nodded to each other. He avoided looking me in the eye. I introduced Philip first to Marc then Nick. Philip, though, was plainly in no mood for exchanging pleasantries. Nor was I for that matter. Mutely blaming an attack of stomach cramp on rising tension, I had to sit down.
Marc was his usual friendly self with Philip and gave Danny a big smile, to which the lad responded briefly, but remained subdued. Nick was surly to the extent of being downright rude. “Why did you have to poke your nose in?” he demanded of Philip. “If you want to play mums and dads, do it on your own doorstep and leave us alone.”
“Be fair, Nick,” I protested, “but for Philip anything might have happened. I doubt whether I’d have been flavour of the month if those hoodlums had caught up with me.”
“They probably will in the end by the time we’re through with this one!”  Nick retorted, jerking an accusing thumb at Danny. The youth stiffened. Anger flared in the cold eyes. Or was it hate, contempt even? It crossed my mind that Nick’s earlier comments may not have been so wide of the mark after all. I shifted my feet uncomfortably. My cramp, which had all but disappeared, now returned with a vengeance. No one spoke but four pairs of eyes regarded me with growing impatience. I sensed that Nick couldn’t wait to see Philip and myself on our way and vaguely wondered why he did not leave himself. Breathing became difficult. I struggled to my feet and declared, unconvincingly, that I needed to go to the loo.
When I returned, the others were just as I had left them. Marc was making a brave attempt at conversation with Philip. Nick sat stock still, wearing a sullen expression.Danny merely looked as though he was thoroughly bored.
“Shall we go?” I said to Philip who looked relieved.
We left almost immediately. Danny slid morosely into the back seat of the car while I sat next to Philip and went through the usual ham fisted motions with my seatbelt. I heard Danny snicker and perk up a little. Philip grinned and accelerated before I had quite secured the damn thing.
On the way, I learned how the two of them had met up.
After calling at my house and getting no reply, Philip had sounded out the widow Finn. My neighbour had not only taken it upon herself to reveal the reason for my absence but also lamented the previous night’s disturbance in graphic detail; all this, over a cup of tea.
“You were honoured,” I commented, “I’ve only set foot inside that house a couple of times in twelve years.”
“I was virtually press-ganged into it.”  He chuckled and went on to relate how he had noticed a figure lurking at the back of my house after clambering over a fence. He said nothing to the widow but made his excuses to leave at the first opportunity. He’d then driven off, parked in the next street and doubled back on foot. “I managed to sneak up on the little blighter just as he was about to smash a brick through your kitchen window.”
“Not that it was any of your damn business,” Danny grumbled.
“Shut up, you,” said Philip sharply, and to my astonishment the lad went dead quiet. We parked just around a corner from the police station. Philip told Danny bluntly to stay put while we were gone. I expected a howl of protest. Instead, I barely heard the surly “If you say so, guv.” He promptly sprawled full length on the seat and settled down for a doze.
I had no love for the police and was nervous upon entering the station. During the 1980s, before I met Harry, I made eye contact with a guy on Hampstead Heath and followed him into some trees. Seconds later, he flashed a warrant card at me. I might have been tempted to make a run for it had I not spotted one of his colleagues squatting  in the bushes like a some old biddy taken short. In the event, I was done for gross indecency and importuning, fined what amounted to a whole month’s salary and so pilloried by the local rag that I felt obliged to move away. This form of police entrapment was fairly commonplace in those days.
Putting my resentment aside with some difficulty, I dragged myself back to the present The Desk Sergeant was a handsome man with a ready, toothpaste smile. He looked more than a trifle harassed, however, and his tie was askew, revealing a button missing on the crisp white shirt. He insisted he knew nothing about Poppy.
I was having none of it. “As I understand it, officer, your lot came to my house late last night and arrested some kids for making a racket. Apparently, there was a party going on and the neighbours complained.” I gave him my address.
“And where were you, sir?” He raised an eyebrow, my status as a responsible adult plainly under review.
“Away,” I muttered.
“Could you possibly check, officer? We’d be very grateful. We’re worried about the girl,” said Philip smoothly.
The sergeant thumbed through a book on the desk then disappeared for several minutes. When he returned, he had straightened his tie and looked grim. “We have no record of any officer from this station being called out to a disturbance at that address.” He sat down again and fixed us with a searching glare behind the glass screen. “Kids, you say?”
“Teenagers, I imagine. I wasn’t there,” I replied with mounting irritation. “Poppy and Danny are about sixteen.”
“Danny?”
“Her boyfriend...” I was about to elaborate, but Philip gave my jacket a warning tug.
“And is he supposed to have been arrested as well?” the Desk Sergeant demanded.
“I don’t know,” I muttered, thoroughly confused. “I don’t think so. According to a neighbour some of the kids ran away. She assumed the others were brought here.”
“Ah, she assumed,” he sighed, “I fancy your neighbour has made a number of misplaced assumptions, sir. But, if you like, I can send someone to have a chat with her if you’ll just give me the lady’s name and address…” He grabbed a note pad, retrieved a pencil from behind his left ear and was poised to write.
“There’s no need,” said Philip quickly. “There’s obviously been some sort of misunderstanding, officer,” giving my jacket another discreet yank. “We’ll check again and get back to you. Thanks for your help.” He grabbed my arm and propelled me towards the exit.
“You do that, sir,” a peeved voice called after us. I heard a “Can I help you, madam?” relayed in much the same tone seconds after a fat women wearing a leopard skin coat with an enormous fur collar pushed past me. “It’s Godfrey, officer, my cat. Someone has stolen my cat!” Her voice rose hysterically and followed us almost to the car. I paid scant attention as I mulled over this unexpected turn of events. If Poppy was not under arrest, where the devil was she? More to the point, who had carried her off and why? Kicking and screaming, the widow Finn had said.
My stomach heaved. Two words leapt to mind and made my head spin. “Fat Georgie,” I muttered under my breath. No one was meant to hear but Philip tossed me a look as if confirm that his mind, too, was working along those same lines.
We drove in silence. At first I welcomed it, loath to put my suspicions into words. Then it began to dawn on me that Danny, too, was unnaturally quiet. He hadn’t said a word. He must have questions, surely?
“You knew!” I stared at Philip, “You knew she wouldn’t be there.”
“We had to make sure, guv,” Danny mumbled. I wriggled in my seat and looked over at him. He was sitting up, head in hands. I suspected he was crying. As he lifted his face to me, he slid further down into the seat until it was in deep shadow. “I was in the loo when they called at your house. I hear Poppy yell for everyone to scarper, nothing about the Old Bill. I had a gut feeling about it or I’d never have run off and left her like that...” His voice tailed off to a near sob. “I climbed out the window into the yard, hopped over a few fences and hid behind a shed till I thought they’d be well clear.
Philip swung the Peugeot nearly into a side road and parked by a lamppost. “Danny, tell Laurence exactly what you told me. Oh, and you might as well start from the beginning. I’m curious to know how you and Poppy got together in the first place.”
“Wasn’t it curiosity what killed that cat?” came the lad’s surly retort.
As I settled down to listen to Danny’s version of events, a young couple paused in the lamplight. The woman was attractive. Her hair, like a shimmering veil, hid their faces as they moved in on each other for a long kiss. He was tall and she had to balance on tiptoes. His arms tightening around her told their own story.
The lovers walked on, oblivious of our presence.
Danny took a deep breath, and made several false starts. He’d rowed with his parents, he told Philip and me, clearly unwilling to dwell on that so took us directly to his arrival at King’s Cross one cold, wet evening in May. He spent part of that first night in a hostel. “It was horrible,” he sniffed, “We all got a lecture about Jesus before we ate. Then someone pinched half my stuff and another creep threatened to do me over in the middle of the night if I didn’t let him f**k me.”
“What did you do?” I was appalled.
The youth merely shrugged. “Kicked him in the balls, yelled blue murder and made a run for it, “but I might as well have stayed put for all the good it done me.” From the hostel, Danny had made his way to a nearby church and slept in its portico, already packed with other dossers. “I was that dead beat, I could have slept anywhere. When I woke up, I was on me own. The rest of my gear was gone, my wallet too. All I had was the clothes I stood up in, a sleeping bag, and a few pence in me pocket.”
Danny went on to describe how he had spent his first day in London. He spent most of his first day sitting on a bench in Trafalgar Square, envying the pigeons. “They could do as they liked, no sweat. I hadn’t a bleeding clue what to do next. All I knew for sure was that I wasn’t going home, no way. Then I got chatting to Poppy. She sat next to me and started feeding the pigeons with stale bread. I said how I could use some of that and she gave me the whole lot. Then she took me to her flat. A nice place, it was. She said how she had to go out but I was welcome to stay for as long as I wanted. She even lent me a fiver. I swore I’d pay her back just as soon as I found a decent job. She got the giggles and promised to fix me up with one. She did too, the next day. Only, it wasn’t anything decent.”
Poppy has taken Danny to see Fat Georgie.
“The fat bastard was knocking back scotch and stuffing himself stupid with olives.” Danny grimaced. “But he didn’t hang about. Got straight to the point, he did, said he how he’d look after me and see me right. All I had to do was go rent and hand over half of what I earned. You must be joking, I told him. Got any better ideas, he said. I told him to get lost. His door was always open, he said. Poppy and me, we went back to the flat and chewed it over. She said how it wasn’t half so bad once you got used to it. Only, you never do…”
Danny’s voice trailed off miserably. Philip and I exchanged meaningful glances and waited.
According to Danny, he held out for two days. On the third day, Poppy took Danny to see Fat Georgie again. The pimp gave the lad a wad of notes to buy some clothes. That evening, he showed Danny to a pitch opposite a sex shop and left him to it.
“I scored dead easy. Some geezers were okay; others were real pervs. After a while, Fat Georgie took me off the streets and started feeding me to punters who wanted above the odds stuff. Well above the odds, “he added contemptuously.
“At the house in Battersea?” I interrupted, appalled.
Danny scowled. “Nah, that came later. I only went there the once. Screwed me up good and proper, it did. But Poppy was game because it meant all the more in the piggy bank. She was saving up, you see. We both were. We wanted out...and how! One night, she came back from Battersea in a real bad way. Couldn’t work for a month, could she? Wouldn’t see a proper doctor either. Had a word with that arsehole, Ray, didn’t she? Not till the pain got so bad she couldn’t stand it any longer, mind. Ray fixed her up, sort of.”
I had a vivid recollection of the failed medical student and shuddered.
For nearly a year, the pair had taken each day as it came. Each one, Danny left us in no doubt, as bad or worse than the day before. “Now and then, Georgie would slip us a bunch of twenties and tell us to rest up, take it easy, enjoy ourselves. We did, too. We saw the Tower of London and Madame Tussaud’s, took in some movies and treated ourselves to slap up meals in fancy restaurants. Or we’d smoke joints all day then go to a club and dance all night.”
Danny sighed wistfully. “There’s one club in particular we liked cos there was sod all chance of being
pestered by punters. But Poppy recognized a geezer one night. A f**king Lord, she reckoned he was too. Best leave well alone, I said. But she’s got a mind of her own, has our Poppy. She only went and danced with the slime-ball, didn’t she? He’ll recognize you, I said. No way, she said and she was right. So she picks his pocket, doesn’t she? Beautiful wallet, he had. Soft leather, it was and fatter than Fat Georgie’s backside.” He gave a dry laugh. “There was a cloakroom ticket in the wallet, right?” Danny went on, “So what does Poppy do? Checks it out as bold as brass, she does. The drip behind the desk fetches a briefcase and gives Poppy a funny look. She tells him how it belongs to her sugar daddy and the prat hands it over. We should have dumped it!”
“But you didn’t, right?” Philip prompted the distracted youth after a longer than usual pause.
“Nah, worse luck,” exclaimed Danny bitterly, “If we had, we would never have got our hands on the video and Poppy wouldn’t have tried to flog it so we could live a life of Riley!”
“Video?” It was my turn to prompt as Danny lapsed into yet another brooding silence. Danny took his time.
The video, it transpired, was “hot stuff” and was not only hard porn but also showed well-known faces participating in ritualistic sex with a boy and girl who were “as sure as hell drugged up to the eyeballs” for the duration. Moreover, it gave a fleeting but distinguishable glimpse of Fat Georgie himself, gorging himself on the spectacle.
“I get the picture,” I said, “Fat Georgie wants his video back and the pair of you as well.”
“Too right, he does!” Danny spluttered, showing the back of my neck with spittle.
“So what was that business in Battersea all about?” I was confused.
“Poppy’s popular with the punters, and why not? She’s pretty, blonde, got big blue eyes and can look much younger or older, take your pick, depending how the punter likes ’em. Fat Georgie ain’t about to kill off a golden goose, is he?”
“Not until he has to,” commented Philip.
“Too f**king right!” ejaculated a distressed Danny, more spit splashing my collar.
“So it wasn’t very clever of you to throw a party and let him know just where to find you,” Philip pointed out. “You must have realized the word would get out,surely?”
“I warned her,” protested Danny, “but it’s like I said, she’s got a mind of her own. The joke is, she don’t always use it. Do first and think later, that’s Poppy’s trouble. Women! I ask you...?”
I had to laugh in spite of the earnestness of the situation. “How old are you and Poppy?” I demanded.
“What’s it to you?”
“Just answer the question,” snapped Philip.
“Sixteen, the both of us,” Danny muttered.
I had raised the taboo subject of age with each of them on more than one occasion, but their response always the same. They would cheerfully ignore me. I could have wished for Philip’s air of authority. It struck me then that Philip had never mentioned his job. I wondered if he mightn’t be a schoolteacher. Right now, though, there were more pressing matters to consider. I stared at Philip. “Sixteen and they’ve been up to their necks in this shit for a whole year!” I was shocked and sickened.
“Poppy and me, we’re survivors,” Danny piped up.
“More by luck than good judgement,” retorted Philip Adams.
“And for how much longer?” I asked of the windscreen. A heavy silence spread over us like a pile of woollen blankets. When I could bear it no longer, I wound a window down and let in some air. An icy draught had the instant effect of emptying a bucket of water over our heads. My companions swore. I ignored them. “What happened to the damn video?” I wanted to know.
“We hid in the flat,” Danny confessed a shade sheepishly, “That’s why we had to go back after I got beaten up. Fat Georgie only gave us until ten o’clock the next morning to hand it over. We thought it would be okay because they’d already ransacked the place looking for it. His Lordship complained we were putting the black on him, you see.”
“Blackmail,” Philip explained.
“I’d worked that one out for myself,” I snapped.
“And why not?” Danny was defensive. “I’ve seen that video, and you haven’t. Poppy and me, we deserve a break. Hanging’s too good for that bastard. Anyway,” he went on, “we nearly messed up good ‘n’ proper didn’t we? But they only got Poppy, not the video. I had it. I knew she’d be safe enough all the while they were in a cold sweat about it. Even so…” his voice tailed off again.
“Safe?” I exclaimed. “She certainly wasn’t safe when I found her!” In my mind’s eye I saw a pathetic figure, bound and gagged, obscenely dressed in a school uniform.
“That was business,” said Danny so matter-of-factly that I wanted to hit him.
“So where is the video now?”
“I’ve no idea, guv, and that’s God’s honest truth, so help me.”
“Huh!” Philip snorted, “You wouldn’t know the truth if it kicked you in the teeth. As for God, it’s my guess He gave up on the likes of you a long time ago.”
Another strained silence followed. It crossed my mind that Philip was starting to sound too much like Nick Carter for my liking.
“It’s under the mattress,” Danny declared out of the blue.
“What mattress, where?” Philip demanded.
“In the bedroom, where do you think?”
“Whose bedroom?” I was confused again.
“Yours.”
“Mine?” I yelped.
“We thought you might have a nosy around in the spare room. It was only meant to be till we got sorted. Not very original, I grant you that. But neither of us could come up with a better idea at the time.”
“So it’s still there?” I fumed, but could not suppress a wry smile. A hot video under my mattress, indeed! It would have been hilarious had it not been so scary.
Philip started. “Your neighbour, Mrs Finn, she said the place was a wreck when she went in to check it out.”
“You mean they searched my house?” I was furious.
“What do you think?” Danny leaned forward. “Are you stupid or what?”
My hackles went into overdrive. “How dare you dare speak to me like that?”
“Apologize and shut up,” said Philip and gripped the wheel tightly with both hands.
“Sorry guv,” Danny mumbled.
I glanced at Philip in frank admiration. He stared straight ahead. His face looked drawn and jaundiced in the lamplight. Without a word of warning, he switched on the ignition, slammed his foot on the accelerator and we were off. I didn’t need to ask where.
When we arrived at my house, Philip warned us to say nothing of the video to the others. Nick, though, had already left. Marc lay sound asleep on the sofa and I hadn’t the heart to wake him. The three of us tiptoed upstairs to my bedroom. I nodded to Danny who promptly went to the bed, seized one corner of the mattress and began groping underneath. In no time at all, however, an expression of anticipation on his face changed dramatically to one of sheer panic. He heaved at the mattress with both hands and dived head first across the bed’s pine base, making ludicrous dog-paddle gestures. Philip and I joined in, tossing mattress, sheets and duvet to the floor.
We found nothing.
For a while we sat on the bed glumly. No one spoke. “What now?” I finally got around to asking the long faces in my dressing table mirror. “Oh, get out, both of you!” I said wearily. “I’m going to clear up this little mess and go to bed. Just…f**k off!” I yelled without a thought for my brother sleeping downstairs.
“Are you alright, guv?” Danny sounded genuinely concerned.
“No, I’m not alright! I’m not up to all this bullshit. I have enough problems of my own without taking on anyone else’s.” I rounded on Danny. “You have no right to barge into my life like this, you ungrateful, good-for-nothing little toe rag!” The boy opened his mouth and shut it again. The dusty mirror gave his face a hangdog look but I refused to feel guilty. “Get out, both of you,” I repeated irritably. Philip put a hand on my shoulder and pressed lightly. In other circumstances I may well have flung my arms around him and taken comfort from his body heat. We might even have made love. But I felt as though I had been doing battle with the world and its mother all day. I needed time and space to get my head together, reflect on events and lick my wounds.
Scrambling up, I pointed to the door. “Get out!” I screamed.
“Come on, Danny.” Philip put an arm around the sullen youth’s bony shoulders and steered him firmly out of the room. I half expected to see Danny to shrug off the arm and storm off on his own account. Instead, he seemed resigned, defeated even, and almost grateful for the paternal gesture; his olive-skinned features wore an uncharacteristically docile expression.
I wasted no time locking the door after them. For a moment or two I contemplated the untidy bed with dismay. It took several deep breaths before I was ready to get stuck in. By the time I lay safe and snug under the duvet, I was too exhausted even to go to the bathroom and clean my teeth. Eventually, I slept. But not before I had debated with my alter ego at great length about my feelings. These assumed familiar masks and paraded across walls and ceiling like pieces of an unfinished jigsaw. Why oh why, I groaned, can’t I count sheep like any normal person? I could put a name to the face behind every mask he family, all of them, including my dad as well as Nick, Philip, Danny, Poppy. Even the gorilla in evening dress that had opened the door to me at the Battersea house loomed up at me, large and fierce, at the very edge of sleep. Harry was conspicuous by his absence. I fretted. Had my long-time companion abandoned me yet again? Must death be so absolute? What is  it about me that people must always hurt me? “Don’t I have enough love in me, is that it?” I asked a moth pinned to the curtains by a thin shaft of moonlight.
No answer.
Eventually, I dozed but kept waking up and finding myself caught up in some hideous primeval masque. Suddenly, a big brown bear came out of nowhere and chased everyone away. I never saw if the beast came back for me, but slept well after that.
On waking, my first thought was to indulge in a long, hot bath. I also took my time towelling and getting dressed. Downstairs I found Philip and Danny in the kitchen. They had not only visited the local supermarket and replenished my cupboards and fridge but were also in the act of preparing a fry-up brunch that smelled delicious. Marc, Philip informed me, had already left. He excused himself while Danny fussed over the sizzling contents of several frying pans.
“Look, Danny…” I began, but the little speech I had prepared in the bath went clean out of my head. “I’m sorry I was so rude to you last night. I was tired and upset.”
“That’s okay, guv,” he said cheerfully as he grabbed a spatula and proceeded to flick over some rashers of bacon.
“No hard feelings?”
He turned his face and looked me in the eye with a grin. “Does that mean I can stay on for a bit?”
“For a bit,” I cautiously agreed, “At least until we have Poppy back with us safe and sound.”
“Thanks, guv.” He gave me a thumbs-up, returned to his culinary efforts and soon announced, “Grub up!” He glanced over his shoulder at me. “You were dead wrong about one thing last night.”
“Oh?”
“I may be a toe rag but I ain’t an ungrateful one. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for Poppy and me. Let’s face it, there’s no reason why you should lift a finger but you’ve been great, bloody great!” He toyed embarrassedly with the spatula. Sensing that he hadn’t finished, I waited. “I’m really sorry we nicked your wallet and stuff, the party too. It was stupid and we let you down. But we ain’t neither of us had a party before. Not a proper party in our own house. This ain’t our house, I know, but you can pretend sometimes, can’t you?” He blushed and looked away. Almost at once he glared back at me, shoulders straight, eyes unnaturally bright. “Poppy and me, we don’t have an easy life, you know,” he blurted. “Sure, we get by. But getting by ain’t like having a proper home, family ‘n’ all that….” I was moved by what must surely have been a difficult monologue for the likes of Danny and his macho principles. Words seemed inadequate so I just smiled encouragingly. He laid the table and dropped his voice to a barely audible whisper. “You’ll help us then, even though we’ve landed you in it?”
“I have a choice?” I put to him none too good-humouredly. I was immediately contrite, however, as I watched him bite on his lower lip and draw blood. “After all, we’re mates aren’t we?” I felt obliged to add. The transformation from withdrawal to recovery was instantaneous. Still gripping the spatula with one hand, Danny gave my arm a friendly punch with the other, cheeky grin firmly in place and broader than ever.
Philip returned and looked relieved to find the pair of us on amicable terms. “I’m starving!” he declared, “Let’s eat.”
A patch of damp on the ceiling caught my eye, but I shifted my glance in time to see Philip give the flushed youth a barely perceptible nod of approval. Had he put Danny up to this, I wondered?
Danny insisted on dishing up whereupon we discussed tactics while tucking in with gusto. “We should tell the police,” I proposed tentatively.
“And tell them what?” queried Philip, “That a crowd of noisy kids were dealt with by a pack of heavies the neighbours assumed were policeman?”
“What about the video?”
“What about it? It’s not as if we have it to show anyone. We only have Danny’s word for it that the damn thing exists.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” Danny protested.
“No, but the Old Bill might,” Philip pointed out. Danny relaxed and continued to munch noisily on a slice of fried bread.
“What about the house in Battersea?” I persisted. “Surely the police should be alerted to what’s going on there.”
“As if they don’t already know,” commented Danny between mouthfuls.
“It’s probably as clean as a whistle by now anyway, thanks to your little caper,” Phillip said, glaring first at me, then at Danny.
My hackles rose as they invariably did when I felt hard done by. Philip poked the pink tip of his tongue at me, very suggestively, I thought, between slightly pouting lips. Thankfully, Danny did not appear to notice. Philip and I might have been alone. I grinned, my indignation forgotten. Then the telephone rang in the hall, shattering our brief moment of intimacy and sending it flying across the kitchen in all directions. I went to answer the damn thing. Absently, I picked up the receiver, continuing to savour what precious little lingered of a pleasant daze. 
A snarling male voice hurled unspeakable insults and threats at me down the line that left me speechless. Suddenly, the verbal onslaught ceased. During a brief pause, I could hear scuffling noises. Now it was Poppy whimpering in my ear. “Danny!” I yelled, “It’s Poppy. She wants to speak to you.” Danny needed no second telling. Seconds later, I handed the phone to the excited youth, careful to avoid Philip’s quizzical stare over the boy’s shoulder.
A worried, “Are you okay, Pops?” was followed almost at once by an edgy, “Yeah, what about it?” and much scratching of the head before he finally banged down the receiver. “She hung up,” he told us, “Poppy would never do that. The bastards!” He was close to tears.
“Well?” demanded Philip and I in unison.
“Fat Georgie says I have to deliver the video personally, on my own, by Wednesday. He’ll let me know exactly when and where. If I don’t turn up, certain mates of mine will get taken out of circulation; one for each day he’s kept waiting,” he told us, white faced, looking directly at me, “and you’re first in line, guv.”
I stifled a cry only by rubbing my jaw as if giving the matter some thought. “So where is the bloody thing?” I managed to croak.
“That’s what I don’t understand. According to Poppy, some bird called Virginia’s looking after it.”
“So who the devil is Virginia?”
“I’m hanged if I know guv.”
I felt faint, and was glad of Philip’s steadying hand on my arm.


CHAPTER SEVEN


“Think, lad, think!” Philip urged Danny for the umpteenth time.
“I am thinking!”
For my part, I had lapsed into a soporific calm, blanking out all speculative thoughts likely to provoke panic. “Why don’t you go for a walk?” I suggested, “It might clear your head.”
“And jog your memory,” growled Philip.
“A walk?” Danny considered the prospect with growing distaste.
“If you turn left outside the door, take the first turning on the right and keep straight on, you’ll come to a park,” I told him, “It’s nothing spectacular but pleasant enough at this time of year. It has a pretty rose garden.”
“Do I have to?”
“Yes,” said Philip in a tone that brooked no argument, “unless you can come up with someone called Virginia in ten seconds flat.”
Danny sighed. “Might as well give it a go, I suppose,” he muttered then turned to me, “I am trying, guv, honest.”
“I’m sure you are,” I smiled encouragingly, deftly circumventing visions of a sticky end for all of us. After he’d gone, I had a moment of panic. Suppose he doesn’t come back? When I expressed this fear to Philip, he merely shrugged. “You heard him,” I wailed, “I’m first in line…”
“In which case, I’m probably second.”
I felt suddenly emboldened. “Than maybe we had better make the most of the time we have.”
He looked right at me. “Are you trying to seduce me?”
“As if….” I grinned, but could feel myself blushing.
We both burst out laughing. Philip came and sat next to me on the sofa, put his arms around me, and kissed me. The instant his mouth pressed against mine, his wet, searching tongue sliding between my lips, everything else paled into insignificance.
I kissed him back. “Let’s go to bed,” I murmured feverishly. “It’s a long way upstairs,” he complained. We tumbled in a heap on the carpet, laughing, our arms still wrapped around each other, legs in a tangle.
“Ouch!” I giggled. He shifted his position and sat astride me, forefinger on my lips.
“Hush,” he teased, “Walls have ears and we don’t want to disturb the widow Finn, do we?”
“Heaven forbid,” I giggled again, He lowered his mouth to mine. We kissed long and passionately while rolling about on the carpet, tugging frenziedly at each other’s clothes between frantic, deep throat kisses. Finally, we lay nude and panting in a sweaty embrace. For a few seconds, we lay quite still, each eager to savour the other’s nakedness. I shut my eyes, rested my cheek against the silky matting of Philip’s chest and felt wonderfully at ease and safe.
I felt his body shift away, his heat desert me. I was afraid to open my eyes in case this appalling loneliness was for real but I could still hear the sounds of his irregular breathing. When I did dare open them, he was slipping on a condom with nonchalant expertise. I watched, mildly amused, fascinated by a throbbing blue vein in his straining cock.
Our lovemaking was like nothing I had experienced before. Philip introduced me to physical expressions of desire I had only read about, sceptically, in the soft porn magazines that Harry sometimes brought home. We had never experimented ourselves, Harry and I. Sex between us was always good but never imaginative. Now, Philip took me on an adventure, an emotional safari that left me gasping for more with each rise and plunge of twinned flesh and spirit. Scene after scene of sheer erotic drama we played out on my carpet with all the spine tingling tension of a heady thriller careering unchecked towards its explosive climax. I thrilled to a raw, pulsating lust, moreover with neither reticence nor shame. It was a glorious experience, beyond my wildest dreams. Time and space ceased to exist. As one, we were thrust, heaving and breathless, into a paroxysm of reciprocal desire. A desperate, primeval need took us to the very heart of an exquisite madness. I was overwhelmed, first by a child-like passion to love and be loved that, for me, had always been a dominant feature of sex, then by a frank, genuine response to the heartfelt cry of someone else’s inner self.
“Don’t look so surprised,” he chuckled on my ear, “People do this all the time. The heterosexual majority don’t have a monopoly on foreplay.”
I made a supreme effort to match Philip’ escalating bursts of psyche into me. Yet, a haunting sensation of holding back passed between us, as if the very intensity of our coming together was fuelled by a far deeper motivation, one that neither of us were quite ready to share. I thought of Harry and wished I hadn’t. But I was happier than I had been in ages, in my whole life perhaps. Certainly, I was reluctant to prick my beautiful bubble with vague, inarticulate doubts.
“Wow!” Philip sighed, as we lay spent in each other’s arms. That said it all. I buried my face in the soft, dark waves of his hair. We sprawled there like Siamese twins, simultaneously loath and anxious to separate, neither willing to make the sacrifice.
It was Philip who first made a move. He rose and towered over me. I could not help but run my eyes from strands of hair glued to his forehead to the very tips of his toes, lingering a while on that part which had all too briefly and incredibly bonded us. His sex, not yet limp, stirred and I was content to let my gaze pay wry homage.
“I love you,” I wanted to tell Philip but didn’t. I dare not. For the love in me, if love it was, and I was feeling too light headed to be sure of anything, had a far stronger pull on me than any mixed bag of emotions I had ever experienced. It was a beautiful feeling, yet alien too. It scared me. Oh, I had loved Harry, always been very attracted to him and felt secure in our relationship. But this, this surging conflagration of need and desire…this was something else. I felt anything but secure. Like a man adrift on a vast ocean, in brilliant sunshine, I watched Philip’s sex vanish into a pair of sky blue briefs.
From the peak of exhilaration, I plummeted free-fall into despair. As I began to see it, Harry’s betrayal of our love was nothing compared to mine. No one-night stand could be anywhere near as fulfilling as the experience I had just shared with Philip Adams and already longed, desperately, to repeat. Nor had Harry’s suicide ever stung my conscience more.
Buttoning his shirt with one hand, Philip offered the other to me. I grabbed it. He hauled me to my feet, playfully lifting a knee between my bare legs. Nor did he hesitate but answered my soft moan with an infinitely tender kiss on my trembling lips; they parted to receive his tongue and I could feel my cock start to throb and swell. Philip’s own re-awakening sex tickled the inside wall of my thigh until he broke away, laughing.
The intensity of my disappointment forced me back on all fours while I searched morosely for my boxer shorts. He smacked my backside and sent me sprawling. A fire roared inside me all the while I gradually renewed contact with the rest of my clothes.
It was still smouldering, the fire, when Danny returned in a jubilant mood. He had remembered a girl called Ginny Sharp with whom Poppy had been friendly when he first knew her. “Her pimp took on a patch over Clapham way. She was at the party. I forgot ’cos she’s always called Ginny. That’s short for Virginia, right?” The fierce bluegaze simultaneously sought approval and demanded affirmation.
“Do you know where she lives?” Philip interrupted.
Danny glared. “I think I can find it again, yeah.”
“Good. Let’s go,” Philip leapt to his feet.
“We’ve got time for a cup of tea though?” muttered Danny and proceeded to the kitchen.
“Okay, and while you’re drinking it you might give some thought to what Fat Georgie will do just as soon as he works out who Virginia is….”
Danny glared again. but relinquished his hold on the kettle.
“Why couldn’t Poppy come straight out with it instead of playing silly beggars? I was on edge and confused.
“Ginny’s a good looking cow,” murmured Danny.
“Let’s hope she still is,” was Philip’s acid comment, the pair of them already heading towards the front door while I carried out what had, for years, been a ritual search for my house keys.
The street in Clapham where we pulled up nearly an hour later was tree-lined and would have been very pleasant but for rubbish piled high in topless dustbins, assorted plastic bags and a huge skip crammed almost to overflowing.
Ginny Sharp, as far as Danny could recall, shared a flat in a detached house that bore all the hallmarks of current innovation, including a mish-mash of scaffolding and ladders from its basement well to the flat roof. There were no workmen in sight. Philip rang every doorbell and got no reply. The communal front door was wide open so we entered, cautiously, and climbed the shabby stairs unchallenged. At the door of Flat ‘C’ we stopped short. It, too, was open but only ajar. Again, it was Philip who rapped on the door; again, no response. I nudged Danny, “Call her.”
“Ginny? It’s me, Danny!” He brushed past Philip, pushed open the door and went inside. “Bloody hell!”
I followed Philip into the flat. The place was a shambles, every room the same. We picked our way with care into a bedroom that looked as if a bulldozer had passed through it. “Bloody hell!” Danny swore again and wandered back into the main room. Philip went after him while I, absently, retrieved some items of clothing from the floor and cleared a space for them on a mattress heaped with drawers and their various contents. Then I heard it, a muffled banging noise. I cocked an ear and realised it came from a huge wardrobe. I went and put my ear to its heavily scratched double doors.
“Philip, Danny! I yelled, only to stumble backwards as I realized someone was trapped inside.
“Ginny?” Danny shouted and was already tugging at the wardrobe doors before I could stop him or Philip reappeared. It did not give an inch. Danny hesitated, flinging me and especially Philip a wary glance before producing a knife from an inside pocket of his denim jacket and flicking open an evil-looking blade. It took him less than ten seconds to force open the wardrobe lock. He dragged open the creaking doors and we could only gape open-mouthed at the sight that greeted us.
Two figures sat hunched, back-to-back, gagged and bound with blood oozing from vicious cuts on their bodies. One was a girl who didn’t look much older than Poppy, the other a thin faced, balding man with a goatee beard whom I took to be about my own age. They regarded us wide-eyed and tearful.
“Ginny!” Danny found his voice and Philip leapt into action. The girl recognized Danny and relaxed slightly. Her companion shook with terror all the while Philip and Danny wrestled with various knots to untie them. I removed the tape from their mouths. The girl let rip with a stream of obscenities while the man whimpered and made agitated gurgling noises at the back of his throat.
As soon as she was freed, Ginny flew at Danny, taking the rent boy completely by surprise. Both went sprawling in a heap of strewn clothes and bedding. “You bastard!”she kept shouting, “So what’s all this about a video, you stupid little bleeder?” She was astride Danny now. Her knees had him pinioned to the floor. Her hands around his throat continued to tighten so that his customary pale complexion was fast turning purple.
While Philip was helping me drag her off Danny, Ginny’s companion in the wardrobe bolted. “Let him go,” she told Philip when he made a move to chase after him, “He doesn’t know anything. The poor old sod, he thought he was in for a good screw and all he got was a good hiding!” She glared at Danny. He was now on his feet, spluttering, ruefully massaging his throat. “He didn’t even have time to get his wallet out. So you owe me, Danny Boy.”
“It ain’t my fault,” protested Danny weakly.
“You and Poppy, there’s sweet Fanny Adams to choose between you,” she yelled, “So give, Danny. What the f**k is going on?”
“Later,” said Philip, “First things first. Are you hurt?”
“Ginny shook her head. “I’ve taken worse. It looks worse than it is. You’ll see. Once I’ve cleaned myself up, I’ll look as good as new.”
“Then I suggest you go and do just that while we clear up some of this mess. Then, we’ll have a chat. I’m Philip, by the way, and this is Laurence.” He gestured towards me. The girl’s face lit up with a flash of recognition. “It was your house where we had the party, right? I saw your photo on the sideboard, you and some fat geezer with a cigar stuck in his gob.” I nodded, wincing at this unflattering description of Harry. True, he had put on weight in later years but I had never thought of him as being fat.
Ginny disappeared into the bathroom and we tidied up as best we could. Danny discovered a half full bottle of cognac. By the time we were all sat around drinking it from plastic cups, the flat was showing a marked improvement. For the first time, I began to appreciate just how much I was in the widow Finn’s debt. Fat Georgie and his cronies must have wreaked similar havoc at my house. The poor woman must have slaved like a Trojan to repair the damage. To my chagrin, I realized I’d shown precious little gratitude and made a mental note to buy her a huge bunch of flowers at the first opportunity.
Ginny soon confirmed Fat Georgie’s personal involvement. By now, she and Danny had called an uneasy truce although the youth was careful to position himself between Philip and me.
“Are you saying you haven’t got this video?” said Danny in plain disbelief.
“Are you calling me a liar?”
I caught Philip’s eye. Clearly we could not expect this truce, such as it was, to last for much longer.
“What kind of fool do you take me for, Danny? Do you really think I’ve have held out to save your rotten necks? No one short-changes Fat Georgie. You should know that as well as anyone. As it is, I reckon I got off lightly.”
“You should go and see Ray, let him check you out.”
“I don’t need that wanker to tell me I’ve got a couple of broken ribs and more bloody cuts ‘n’ bruises than I care to count. Sod Ray and sod you too, Danny Boy.” She rose painfully to her feet and pointed to the door. “Clear off, the lot of you. Go on, clear off!”she yelled, and then suddenly broke down in floods of tears.
“Ginny…” Danny’s tone was as pleasing as it was placatory. “If you know where it is, you’ve got to tell us. They’ve got Poppy. Anything might happen to her if I don’t get that video back.”
Ginny flared, still sobbing, “I told you, I know f**k all about any video. Now, push off before I do something I may live to regret, like wringing your scrawny neck good and proper.” She snatched up the now empty bottle and made as if to hurl it at Danny who promptly scrambled to his feet and fled. Philip and I were not far behind as she swung it purposefully in our direction.
“She’s lying, the cow, she’s got to be!” Danny kept repeating on the return journey.
No one answered him. For my own part, I preferred not to dwell on the implications of our visit regarding the likelihood of my reaching a ripe old age. Instead, I sought refuge in pondering a floral tribute to the widow Finn. I knew she had a passion for lilies. Lilies, then, it would have to be.
Philip concentrated on the road ahead and kept his thoughts to himself.
Back at the house, no one was in the mood for tea. Danny and I resorted to more cognac to steady our nerves. Philip suddenly announced that he had better things to do than sit around doing nothing. Ignoring my half hearted offer to accompany him, he left the house in a temper. I stood at the bay window until the car was out of sight. Behind me, I vaguely, dimly heard Danny’s voice taunting me.
“How can you fancy an android like that?”
I rounded on the boy angrily. “What do you mean?” But Danny merely smirked. I could feel myself blushing. I hated to think I could be so easily read and felt only marginally self-conscious after reminding myself that this was no average teenager but a streetwise kid who rented out his body to other men. I poured more cognac into my glass. At the same time, I took smug pleasure in forbidding Danny more of the same.
“You’ve had enough. Besides, you’re too young,” I jeered derisively.
“Like hell I am. Gimmee the bottle!” His speech was already slurred, eyes glazed. He began to dribble, the full lips pouting with youthful indignation.
“Like hell I will!” I stood my ground and tightened my grip on the bottle.
Unexpectedly, Danny burst out laughing. “Touché, guv!” He sank back into the cushions he had painstakingly arranged on the sofa. Seconds later, he was crying. Tears rolled down his face and short, choking sounds jerked furiously at his entire body.
“Here, take it,” I relented and handed him my own glass. But Danny kept shaking his head as he struggled, without much success, to pull himself together. I went and sat next to him, put an arm around him and gave him a paternal hug. “It will be okay, you’ll see,” I muttered helplessly. At once every muscle in his body stiffened, then slowly relaxed. I could feel his shoulder blades vibrating and felt nothing but compassion for the lad. I hadn’t realized that naturally slight build hid a pitiful thinness. I reached into my pocket for a handkerchief. “Wipe your eyes and blow your nose,” I said gruffly.
“I’m no cry-baby,” he sobbed, inching away from me. He heaved himself to a sitting position. “I’m okay,” he mumbled, glaring daggers as if defying me to contradict him.
“We all have to cry sometimes,” I pushed the handkerchief into his hand, “or we’d crack up. It’s nature’s way of telling us to go easy on ourselves.”
“Fat chance!” he sniffed but wiped his eyes and blew his nose noisily all the same.
“Better?”
“A bit,” he conceded grudgingly, toyed with my handkerchief and stared morosely at the carpet.
I had an idea. “What exactly did Poppy say to you about the video when you spoke to her on the phone?”
Danny shrugged. “Not a lot, just that Ginny had it.”
“Virginia,” I corrected him thoughtfully.
“So?”
“So why Virginia when you say no one ever calls Ginny that?”
“She didn’t want to give too much away. I tell you, guv, that Ginny’s lying, she’s gotta be.”
We sat quietly for a while, the ticking of a clock on the mantel like a drumming in my ears. “What else did Poppy say?” I insisted gently. Danny said nothing. The drumming got louder. I watched him tie several knots in the handkerchief.
Finally, “She just said that she was okay, how I wasn’t to be afraid, that the vid was with Ginny...er, Virginia, and how I should trust you to look after me.”
“Do you trust me?” I was curious.
“Ain’t got much choice, have I?” He looked up, tight-lipped and bristling defensively. Suddenly, he grinned. I had the sense of a very fragile rapport between us. Then he looked away and blew his nose again.
I was struck with a thundering inspiration. “Did Poppy actually use the word ‘afraid’?” I demanded with growing excitement.
“Yeah, I think so. Yeah, she did. I remember because I got a bit huffy with her. I don’t scare easily, me.” He was on the defensive again.
“Virginia!” I exclaimed, “Afraid…don’t you see? Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? My God, that’s clever. Who’d have thought it? Imagine, a kid like Poppy dreaming that one up! Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” I repeated.
“Suppose you tell me, guv?” said Danny with the queerest expression on his face, “And Poppy’s no kid, either,” he added belligerently.
I rushed to the cabinet where I stored my videos and rifled among them until I found the one I wanted. It had a picture of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the box cover in a scene from the movie. I opened it and considered the video inside. The corners of the title label were slightly upturned, as if someone had carefully removed it then stuck it back on. I rammed the cassette into the video player and hit the play button. After only a few seconds, it became apparent that we were not about to sit through Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
“Wicked!” Danny rubbed his hands with glee, “Good ole Poppy. Clever? I’ll say!”
“Considerably more subtle than I’d have given her credit for,” I had to agree.
“It’s her mum’s favourite movie. She told me that once. But I forgot. I mean, who the f**k remembers something like that?” his voice tailing off as the already explicit action on screen assumed a graphically more sordid dimension.
The doorbell rang. I hit the stop button on the remote control and swore aloud. But I welcomed the interruption; the video was disgusting. At the same time, I felt excruciatingly frustrated, anxious as I was to see for myself whose evil faces it would identify. I went to the entry-phone, expecting to hear Philip’s voice. Instead, it was my sister pleading to be let in.
“Go and have a shower or something,” I told Danny after I’d made the necessary introductions.
“I could murder a cheese sandwich.”
“Whatever…” I was past caring, now we had recovered the wretched video and, to all intents and purposes, I could look forward to a reasonable lifespan.
“A boyfriend?” Mary asked primly once Danny had left the room.
I went to close the door after him. “For heaven’s sake, Mary, he’s only sixteen! Danny’s staying here while he sorts a few things out, that’s all.” It was all she needed to know, I reflected grimly and say down again.
“I’m sorry. I just assumed….”
“Wrongly,” I reiterated.
“I said I’m sorry!” She pursed her lips and seemed about to say more but clearly thought better of it and subsided into a moody silence.
“If you’ve come to drag me back to the fold, I’m afraid you’re wasting your time,” I told her, “It will never work out, sis, we both know that. Believe it or not,” I added ruefully, “I did try.”
“No you didn’t, none of us did,” she contradicted, “But it’s not about you I’ve come. Where’s Marc?”
“Marc?” I was nonplussed, “He drove back on Monday morning.”
“Back where?”
“Home, of course. At least, I assumed….”
“Wrongly,” she interrupted with the flicker of a smile. It was enough, at any rate, to reassure me that we were still friends.
We regarded each other warily. After a few minutes, she he got up, came over to me and kissed me warmly on the cheek. “I’m sorry, Laurence, I should have done that when I arrived.”
“So why didn’t you?”
Mary paced the room. I waited. She sat down again, crossed and uncrossed her legs several times and flexed her fingers, a childhood habit that resurrected some happy memories. “What did Marc say?” she asked at last.
“About what?”
“About anything. Did he tell you much about himself, for example?”
“Like what?”
She hesitated. “Like he’s gay.”
I felt my jaw drop. “You’re kidding!” She glared at me reprovingly but said nothing while I grappled with this extraordinary revelation that my kid brother, too, counted himself among Friends of Dorothy worldwide. Why, I kept asking myself, hadn’t I spotted the usual telltale signs? It troubled me a good deal more, though, that he hadn’t seen fit to confide in me. “Does the whole family know?”
“Only mum and me,” she sighed, “and Ian, of course, although he won’t acknowledge it. She sighed again, wearily, at the mention of her husband’s name.
“Poor you.” My heart went out to her. This time, it was me who got up and went to sit beside her. I sat on the arm of her armchair and gave her a hug. “How did mum take it?”
“Very well, considering….”
“Considering that first the eldest now the youngest had defected to the other side?” I managed a short laugh. “It can’t have been easy for her.”
“Marc wanted to tell dad but mum wouldn’t let him.” A tear trickled down her cheek. “By then they probably already knew he was dying. It was ages before they told anyone.”
I could think of nothing to say but gave her shoulders a squeeze.
She went on, “Mum and I thought it might help if the two of you got to know one another; moral support and all that for when Marc breaks the news to the rest of the family. He wants to. He says he’s only hung fire so far out of respect for dad’s memory. It seems only fair.”
“Hardly fair to Marc though,” I pointed out more aggressively than I meant, “What about respect for him and his own self-respect, not to mention mine? Is it really so terrible to be gay in the twenty-first century?”
“You know how it is. Family values and all that,” she murmured.
“Now you sound like a prime minister! Besides, since when did hate become a family value?”
“Come off it, Laurie,” she protested, “That’s a bit strong, even for you.” I did not trust myself to speak. “So where is he, Laurie? Where’s Marc? He must have said something. Mum’s worried sick he’ll…”
“Turn his back on the lot of you? Serves you damn well right.” I was livid. “Haven’t you learned anything, any of you, since dad gave me the old heave-ho? We’re supposed to be living in a civilised society, for crying out loud, ,mutual respect and all that….”
“Mum and I…”
“Will see to it Marc isn’t ostracised by the rest of the family as much as I was, I’m sure. Big deal. And just how do you propose to bring Alan and Stuart nicely to heel? Don’t tell me, let me guess. I dare say a decent slice of dad’s life insurance will do a lot to boost their tolerance levels.” I was in no mood to hide my bitterness.
“Talking to you was always a waste of time,” she flung at me, flung off my arm and got to her feet. “If he gets in touch, will you let me know?”
“Of course. But why should he get in touch with me? He’s seen firsthand what a mess I make of everything. He probably thinks I’d only let him down the way I let myself and everyone else down. What’s more, he’d be right.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she managed to smile.
Danny chose that moment to reappear, cheerfully bearing a tray of tea and sandwiches. I couldn’t help but recall how he and Poppy had greeted Marc in much the same way. On that occasion, the gesture had been calculated to win me over. I was cautiously touched, therefore, by this unexpected thoughtfulness on Danny’s part. Mary, to her credit, not only sat down again but also visibly rallied and made a determined effort to shine. Indeed, she held her own far better than I could while Danny dazzled us with his knowledge of and passion for soccer. If his mounting enthusiasm was anything to go by, my sister had scored an even bigger hit with Danny than my brother. I had never seen him so animated
It was late when Mary left, and Philip had not returned. I was adamant that Danny and I would not continue watching the video, so it was with some ill grace as well as my Walkman that he slouched off to the spare room.
I tried to call Philip on the mobile. A droll voice-mail message dealt me a mule kick in the stomach and I hung up abruptly without leaving any message. On impulse, I called Nick. I told myself that I should put him in the picture. The truth was, I needed someone, anyone, to talk to. My head was spinning. I felt trapped in a random crossfire of niggling fears and anxieties. Whenever a thought began to take shape, another salvo blew holes in it. My senses were so hyperactive as to be practically impotent, like fresh corpses piling up inside my head.
I felt lonely and frightened.
The ringing tone dragged on. At last, a human voice. My relief, however, was short lived. I hung up. Later, I told myself. Later I would apply myself to the fact that it was Marc who had answered.

  
CHAPTER EIGHT


I passed a long, disturbed night, much of it fretting about Marc and wondering if he and Nick were sleeping together. I also kept reminding myself over and over that it was none of my damn business. It wasn’t as if Nick and I had any real claim on each other in that department.
I got angry with myself for being angry. Nick and Marc were, after all, young and hot-blooded. It was not so long ago that I couldn’t recall, vividly, how fickle a gay lifestyle could be. But it hadn’t been my intention since Harry died to turn the damn clock back.
I didn’t love Nick any more than he loved me. We suited each other; that was all.
My thoughts turned to Philip Adams. What of my feelings there? He was nearer my own age but a lot younger all the same. I was past forty, for heaven’s sake. How could I make a relationship work with a thirty-something? What am I saying? What the devil does age matter in a a relationship anyway? Relationship? Did I want a relationship with Philip Adams? Oh, I liked him a lot and sex between us had been terrific. But did I want Philip or just someone, anyone, to fill the gaping hole Harry had left? More to the point, I mused unhappily, does Philip want me or had I merely been in the right place at the right time?
Maybe, it had always been there, the hole. If true, I reflected dryly, that would make me little more than a selfish bastard, content to stand by and let others give my life meaning. I did not want to go down this path but other home truths began to fling themselves at me before I had time to sidestep them. Hadn’t my family only failed me by falling a long way short of my demands? Consequently, hadn’t I rejected them as cold-bloodedly as they had turned their backs on me? Tears welled in my eyes. This was scary.
By way of diversionary tactics, I turned my attention to Danny. The rent boy was digging such a hole for himself that it may well turn out to be his own grave. Nor was life treating young Poppy any better and this apart from any threat posed by Fat Georgie. Yet who am I to judge? Do I, with my posturing respectability and semi-detached, have so much more to show for a life spent on the so-called right side of the tracks?
A storm broke directly overhead. There were numerous flashes of lightning and bursts of thunder like a bombardment of cannon before I heard any rain. It raged at my windows and roof, the deluge, with such ferocity that I hastily ran through my building insurance policy in my head.
The door opened. Danny came in and sat on the edge of my bed. “What do you want?” It was not an intrusion I welcomed. He hesitated before lifting up the duvet and sliding under it without a word. “What do you think you’re doing?” I demanded, shocked and not a little confused.
“Earning my keep, what do you think?” he muttered.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean? You’ve been good to me. Now it’s my turn. We can do whatever you like, it’s on the house.”
I was speechless. A prolonged flash lit up the room and I saw his face clearly, pale and pinched. He snuggled closer. The warmth of his body did nothing to assuage my fury. “Get out,” I said, “You disgust me. Go on, clear off and we’ll pretend this never happened.”
“I thought you liked me?”
“I do. That doesn’t mean I want sex with you.”
“How about a cuddle then?”
I lost patience. “Get out of my bed, damn you!” I yelled. But my voice was drowned by a crash of thunder louder than any previously. Danny sat bolt upright. In the weird glow that followed seconds later, I could see the lad was terrified. It took only another almighty crash above our heads before he was shaking uncontrollably. His teeth were chattering. His white tee shirt looked grey against the ghastly pallor of his profile. I relented and put an arm around him. “Why didn’t you just say you hate storms?” I gently mocked and gave him a reassuring hug. “Lots of people get frightened, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I always have been,” he stammered, “Stupid, ain’t it?”
“If it is, there are an awful lot of stupid people in the world,” I murmured with feeling.
“I guess.” He forced a laugh. More lightning, thunder. I tightened my grip on his trembling shoulders. He began to relax, slowly.
Silence.
“I’m sorry. I’ll get out of your hair,” he said in a rush and started to pull away from me. A flash, another resounding crash, and he was clinging to me again. His arms curled around my neck and he started crying. I held him close and let his tears soak the jacket of my pyjamas. I sank back on the pillows and he laid his head against my chest, stroking his hair and giving him a hug every time the thunder rolled over us until his terror-stricken jerks grew measurably less.
“Do you know what?” he murmured drowsily.
“What?”
“I wish you were my dad.”
I was both amused and flattered. “Go to sleep,” I murmured gruffly, “Nothing will hurt you, I promise.”
By the time the storm had moved on, Danny was fast asleep. It was a long time, though, before I closed my eyes. When I finally slept, I felt remarkably at peace and did not dream.
There was no sign of Danny when I woke. However, it wasn’t long before the delicious aroma of fresh coffee and unmistakable smell of a cooked breakfast lured me downstairs. I wandered into the kitchen and was surprised to find Philip Adams doing the honours. Danny, he explained, had let him in and mumbled something about going for a walk to clear his head.
“Did he tell you we found the video?” I asked casually and could tell from Philip’s expression that he hadn’t.
“Why didn’t you let me know, for crying out loud?”
The force of Philip’s reaction took me aback and left me feeling more than slightly put out. “I tried to ring you,” I muttered.
“You could have left a message.”
“I suppose,” I agreed with a disgruntled nod.
“So where is it?”
All thoughts of breakfast put on hold, we went into the sitting room. I put him in the picture briefly before playing the video. I soon wished I hadn’t. One particularly explicit scene involved two men, one I judged to be in his twenties and the other much older than myself and obese. They were abusing a freckle-faced lad with ginger hair who looked years younger than Danny and so spaced-out he must have been drugged. They were being egged on by raucous laughter from a semicircle of sweaty, leering faces. I felt sick.
Philip hit the pause button. “We’ve got the bastards, Laurie, we’ve got ’em!” He hadn’t called me Laurie before, but my pleasure was short-lived as I mulled over the implications of what he was saying. “Are we talking blackmail here or Old Bill?” I asked coolly.
“Blackmail?” He stared at me. “What sort of person do you take me for?”
“You tell me.” Bit between my teeth, I voiced an ugly suspicion had been niggling away at the back of my mind since we first met.  . “Was it coincidence that you just happened to be in Battersea that time or were you about to pay a visit on our sick friends?”
 “I can’t believe I’m hearing this bullshit!” He jumped to his feet.
I felt wretched. But the devil was at my elbow and together we pressed on regardless. “I suppose it was also just coincidence that you happened to spot Danny at my place and took him under your wing? Fancy him, do you?” I could tell from Philip’s smouldering expression that I had gone too far, but refused to back down. I waited in vain for a response, and lashed out again with my spiteful tongue. “Prefer them young, do you? What was I, a blip on the landscape?”
He turned and left. I stormed back into the kitchen, expecting to hear the front door slam but barely heard it close. I soon saw the reason for this. Danny sauntered into the kitchen and his eyes lit up at the sight of food. “Help yourself,” I muttered ungraciously, and took a mug of coffee into the sitting room.
I was mortified by my behaviour towards Philip Adams. Certainly, I could hardly blame him if he never wanted to see me again. On the other hand, it consoled me somewhat that he would be back for the video. I was making a poor job of convincing myself that I didn’t give a damn when the land line rang in the hall. I ignored it but Danny picked up the extension in the kitchen. A few minutes later, Danny slumped into a chair opposite me and looked in just about every direction but at me. “That was Fat Georgie. He wants me to take the video to Ray’s place at one o’clock this afternoon. I told him we’d be there.”
“We?”
“You don’t expect me to go on my own, do you?”
“Why not?” I growled, “You got yourself into this mess, it’s no business of mine.”
“I thought we were mates.”
“Well, you know what thought did,” I scoffed. “Followed a dustcart and thought it was a wedding!”
“Suit yourself. I should have known,” he looked straight at me now eyes blazing, “You’re just another bleeding poser. I was even getting to like you ‘n’ all. I must have been out of my skull! I don’t take to people easily,” he added as an afterthought. “It’s usually a waste of time. When push comes to shove, people always let you down. I really thought you were different. More fool me, eh? And there was I, thinking you were the nearest thing to a dad I’ve ever had.”
“Huh!” I retorted and instantly regretted it. Danny was close to tears. Instead, he glared savagely at me before releasing the video from the machine and stuffing it in a pocket. “Sorry to have bothered you, guv, I’m sure!” He dashed off. I listened to his stomping up the stairs then banging around in the spare room for another five minutes or so. Sounds of further heavy stomping were followed by a long pause. Finally, the front door slammed resoundingly shut.
For a while, I wallowed in obscure self-pity. Guilt and an awful premonition eventually got the upper hand. There was nothing for it, I had no choice but to pay the self-appointed “doctor” Ray another visit. I called a cab, and fretted all the way.
It did not take long to get there but I went to the wrong flat three times before I struck lucky. I remembered the block and the level but the flat number had gone clean out of my head. In no time at all, though, good old-fashioned trial and error came up trumps. This was just as well since none of Ray’s neighbours demonstrated any willingness to point me in the right direction. One of them, a scantily dressed woman old enough to be my mother, muttered something unintelligible before a long haired male companion wearing only Y-fronts appeared and dragged her back inside, kicking the door shut in my face as he did so. Another became abusive at the mention of Ray’s name. A little girl with an angelic face treated me to a string of expletives before an older child yanked her back inside and slammed the door without so much as a glance in my direction.
It was Ray himself who answered. He recognized me at once and seemed neither pleased nor surprised to see me. “Oh, it’s you. What can I do for you?”
“Is Danny here?”
“What’s it to you?”
“I want to see him.”
“Tough, he’s not here.”
The door jammed on my foot. “I know he was told to bring the video here,” I said. After a long pause, he opened the door and motioned me inside. As I head the door click shut behind me, I experienced a moment’s panic. This whole scenario had a sense of the surreal about it. I was, after all, just an ordinary bloke with no experience, until recently, of the seedier side of life. Unless you include cruising for sex in the early hours on Hampstead Heath, I told myself with a grim smile. But that was years ago. I dismissed the thought. Even so, it served as a timely reminder that I was no pushover, even if it had already crossed my mind that I might well be out of my depth on this occasion.
Danny seemed none too pleased to see me either. “What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded, glowering.
“Making sure you’re okay,” I retorted.
“I can look after myself!”
“He certainly can, Mr Fisher.” A deep, resonant yet curiously feminine voice emerged from a darkened corner of the room by the window. Although the curtains were closed, I could easily make out an enormous bulk and a pair of cat-like eyes. This, I could only presume, had to be Fat Georgie.
“Where’s Poppy?” I looked around but saw no sign of Danny’s soulmate.
“She’s okay.” What’s it to you anyway?” Danny glared at me and I had a clear sense of being warned off. “Why don’t you do us all a favour and just piss off and mind your own business?”
“That’s sound advice, Fisher,” purred the giant cat, shifting slightly in its corner, “I’d take it if I were you.”
“You’re never going to let him walk out of here just like that? You must be mad!” Ray blurted.
 “Shut up!” Georgie snarled. His voice instantly softened. “Mr Fisher is perfectly free to come and go as he pleases, and why not? I have the video back. He has nothing on me, nothing at all, do you Mr Fisher?”
“Where is Poppy,” I insisted.
“Sod off, Laurence,” Danny came up to me, “Poppy and me are fine. Georgie takes good care of us. He’s even let us have the flat back so we can carry on as before, no sweat.”
“Pimping for him, you mean?”
Danny shrugged.
“Believe me, Mr Fisher, it’s what the boy does best. True, he doesn’t quite have Poppy’s talent for it, but then he doesn’t have quite the same attributes either,” Georgie added with a girlish giggle. “So you can leave with a clear conscience. Show the gentleman out, Ray.”
“Not until I’ve seen Poppy.” I sat down, no invitation to do so apparently forthcoming.
“Very well,” Georgie murmured, an edge to his voice that sent alarm bells ringing in my head, “She’s in the bedroom. Show him, Ray.”
“No!” Danny recoiled, yelling, “Clear off, guv, while you still can!”
For a big man, Fat Georgie moved with lightning speed. In seconds, he had Danny in an arm lock. I turned towards the door but a third man whom I hadn’t even noticed blocked my path. Danny opened his mouth to shout something. Before he could utter a sound, a fat paw clamped over it and he could only wriggle, helpless, eyes wide and frightened.
“Let him go!” I cried. I even took a faltering step towards Danny but it was a purely reflex action, I had no thought for the consequences. I caught a glimpse of something, someone, out of the corner of one eye and half turned. Ray swung at my head and I dropped to the floor like a stone.
My first sensation on coming round was a vicious throbbing at the back of my head. The second was an awareness of movement. Next, as I tried to moan and stretch, I realized that I lay trussed up and gagged in the back of a moving vehicle. At a guess, it was a small transit van. For several interminable minutes, I worked up a cold sweat by tugging at my bonds, frantic with terror. It was a pointless exercise. Slowly, I managed to will myself into a state of near calm. I lay as still as the constant lurching of the van would allow and concentrated on getting used to breathing through my nose with some success. I heaved myself painfully into a sitting position. It was very gloomy and I could see nothing at first. There were no windows in the van and the driver’s seat was blocked off. I could be anywhere, going any place. Would Danny find a way to raise the alarm, I wondered? It was a forlorn hope, shattered before it had time to take root by a muffled groan. I peered until I could make out Danny, bound and gagged like myself, turning huge sorrowful eyes on me.
Suddenly, the van swung violently and rattled to a screeching halt. I heard a sound of doors slamming and raised voices although it was impossible to make out what they were saying, and then, nothing.
We lay there, almost suffocating in the intense heat, for what seemed an eternity. Danny managed to drag himself to a sitting position next to me, and for a while at any rate we tugged at each other’s bonds. But our wrists were knotted together so tightly that our fingers became numb. In the end, we simply leaned against each other and took small comfort from that.
Danny began shaking and making pitiful whining noises. I could only rub my shoulder gently against his and hope it might give some reassurance that at least he was not alone.
After a long time, Danny went quiet and still except for occasional spasmodic jerking movements. By now we were slumped against the side of the van like glove puppets in a suitcase trying to empty our minds rather than contemplate a grim fate. We drifted in and out of consciousness as the heat and stuffiness became unbearable. When the rear doors of the vehicle were finally flung open, I was only aware of a welcome rush of fresh air. It took longer before I registered a deepening twilight or that our captors carried handguns.
Danny and I were roughly manhandled into a courtyard, our legs untied although we could scarcely use them, and were half dragged, half carried into first a shabby vestibule, and then a lift. Once inside a flat on the fourteenth floor, our wrists were untied and gags removed.
A woman brought us a jug of water and paper cups. We drank thirstily. The plain tap water tasted like nectar and we drained several cupfuls.
“This is my flat!” Danny gasped between mouthfuls, “Why have you brought us here?” Neither man nor woman answered. Both were grinning from ear to ear. Then the woman produced a knife. I recognized it at once, so did Danny. It was the same one Danny had used to force open Ginny Sharp’s wardrobe. She pulled a coloured rag from a pocket and leisurely proceeded to wipe the blade. “More water?” We both nodded. The woman burst out laughing, her companion, too.
I felt dizzy and there was a biter taste in my mouth. Danny seemed about to say something, but keeled over instead. Dear God, I thought, we’ve been drugged! Or poisoned? I struggled to keep a hold of sorts on my reeling senses. “What the hell…?” I heard myself croak.
“You wouldn’t be the first punter to expect more that he’ll pay for. Nor would our Danny be the first rent to get greedy and pull a knife. Did he tell you he’s got form for using one? A nasty piece of work, our Danny….” the woman’s voice drifted in and out of my consciousness, “The cops won’t look too closely. Let’s face it; they’ve got their hands full, what with crime figures on the up. It will be a while before they get around to you two, though, I reckon. People around here like to keep themselves to themselves. Pity you never did that, Fisher….”
A pity, indeed, found time to reflect as I fought to keep my eyes open. But it was all
I could do to focus on the woman’s face, let alone the harsh gutturals being flung at me
from all sides. The room was swimming wildly as well as lurching this way and that. Why me? I kept asking myself.
It was all so bloody unfair. I had done nothing to deserve this. Ridiculously, I couldn’t get it out of my head that people would always think the worst of me for being found dead beside a rent boy. An all-consuming hostility towards Danny dragged me into a kaleidoscopic hole.
“I can manage Fisher, you strip the boy,” I dimly heard the woman say. As if in a dream, I saw her spread the rag on a chair and lay the knife on it. She came and knelt beside me, leaned forward and started yanking at my arms, pulling off my jacket. I tried to resist, but was as helpless as a babe in arms. When do they intend to kill us, I wondered?
“Have to make it look good, don’t we?” the woman was chatting to me as if expecting a response, “Can’t leave anyone in any doubt about what you and Danny were up to, can we? You dirty old man….” She laughed loudly, spat on the floor and began tugging at my shirt buttons. Her breath was hot on my face and reeked of gin. I managed to turn my head slightly and found myself watching the man remove Danny’s tee shirt, jeans, trainers, socks with about as much interest as he might peel a banana. Similarly, rough hands continued to expose my body to their clammy touch. I wanted to scream. In my nightmarish state I felt as though I was being prepared for burial.
I had always believed that people saw their life and loved ones pass before their inner vision as they lay dying. It was certainly not so in my case. My only thought was for myself; for the sheer indignity of being found murdered, reputation in tatters. I pictured the widow Finn, hands on hips, wearing an expression of rank disgust.
From a place light years away, I heard a hammering sound and voices.
“Open up, police!” Through a swirling mist I saw my would-be assassins gawp at one another panic stricken. Now they were checking their guns, and the woman snatched up Danny’s knife.
All at once, the door was kicked wide open and cartoon-like figures burst into the room, some wearing flack jackets and carrying weapons. Instantly, the man and woman dropped their weapons, raised their hands, and were instantly overpowered.
One of my rescuers kneeled beside me and studied my face. He had a Mickey Mouse look about him and I tried to laugh but could only make gurgling sound. “This one’s alive!” he shouted.
I experienced a surge of immense relief tempered with disappointment. It had all happened so fast, I felt oddly cheated, as I might after paying good money to see a much-hyped movie, its finale such an anti-climax that I was left thinking I had been conned. In this case, of course, the final could easily have been Danny’s deaths and mine.
The sheer absurdity of this line of thought, let alone the analogy, triggered off a mounting hysteria in me. I would gladly have drowned in my own laughter. Only, I couldn’t hear a sound.
Suddenly, I became vaguely aware of someone slapping my face and calling my name over and over. My vision cleared just long enough to make out Philip Adams’ worried expression. I tried to speak but couldn’t.
“The lad’s alive sir,” I heard someone say and saw Philip turn his head in the speaker’s direction. At the back of my mind a thought half formed but had no time to develop before I was lifted up and flung into a bottomless pit. Indeed, I might have been witnessing my own death, after all, as I stepped outside of myself and watched, fascinated, but not in the least afraid while my naked body spiralled rapidly downwards, making ever-decreasing circles of watery light.
I recovered consciousness in a bed with curtains drawn around it, opening my eyes to a fluorescent glare of starch whiteness. and promptly closing them again. I could smell disinfectant. That could only mean I was in hospital.
A mixture of surprise and relief at finding myself in the land of the living was tempered only by a morbid curiosity as to how and why I had spared a wooden box...this time. Nor did I have to wait long for some answers. The curtains parted and Philip Adams came and sat on my bed. I couldn’t decide whether he was smiling or frowning. Whatever, it was good to see him.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like I’ve been put through a wringer and hung out to dry,” I groaned, “Otherwise, I feel fine.” I tried to raise myself and my head swam. He plumped up my pillows, put an arm around me and helped me to a more comfortable sitting position. I managed a weak grin. “Jump in, I could use some company.”
“Business before pleasure,” he laughed then reddened.
“Business?”
He hesitated. “They would have killed you, Laurie, you and Danny both.” He placed one hand in mine and squeezed gently.
“I know,” I said and involuntarily closed my eyes. In spite of  haunting images crowding me, I began to relax and enjoy the simple intimacy of our being together.
When he took his hand away, I felt bereft, even more so as his voice assumed a flat, almost impersonal tone. “You will have to make a statement of course. But there’s no hurry. As soon as you’re feeling up to it….”
I started. “Danny…and Poppy….”
“They’re fine. Danny’s in the next bed.”
“And Poppy?”
Philip pursed his lips. “At the moment she’s…”
“Let me guess. Helping the police with their enquiries, right?” I tried to laugh, but it hurt.
Philip nodded. “I dare say she’ll be released without charge once she’s finished naming a few names.”
“Was she hurt?”
“Not her. She was discovered in our friend Ray’s flat in between the sheets with a client.”
I took a while to digest this information. “Do you mean she was there all that time Danny and I were being…”
“Got ready for disposal? Yep. To be fair, though, she probably didn’t have the faintest idea just what was going on….”
“That bastard Fat Georgie must have made her, the poor kid.”
“I don’t think so, Laurie. Not all prostitutes are victims, you know. Poppy had her eye on the main chance and she blew it. Her best bet was to prove to Fat Georgie that she could still be a nice little earner for him. Danny, on the other hand, was always expendable. Worse, he was a risk, something the likes of our Georgie never take lightly.”
I reflected on this, wondered how far I was prepared to give Poppy the benefit of the doubt, and couldn’t decide. “She’s only sixteen,” I mused aloud.
“Going on thirty, I’d say,” was Philip’s unsympathetic response.
I studied him carefully. He looked very tired, I thought. I reached for his hand but he snatched it away as the curtain was pulled aside again and a nurse came to check my pulse rate and blood pressure.
“How are we feeling?” she enquired with an irritating chirpiness.
“Tired.” I yawned.
“Quite so.” She darted an accusing glance at Philip. “He needs rest and plenty of it.”
“I have to ask him a few questions,” said Philip in this new business-like tone of his that I didn’t much care for.
“That’s a few too many, I’m afraid. Come back in a good twelve hours and I guarantee Mr Fisher will be looking and feeling as fresh as a daisy.”
“Nurse, I must insist,” Philip growled uncompromisingly.
“I’m sorry, Detective Sergeant, but so must I,” she returned in a brisk no-nonsense tone“
Detective…Sergeant?” I repeated dazedly. Suddenly, I had a flash of memory. I was back at the flat and someone was calling out, “The lad’s alive, sir.” Alive…sir. And Philip, yes Philip, turning his head...
Bile rose in my throat. I swallowed it with difficulty. “You’re a copper!” I gasped. Philip, grim-faced, reached inside the jacket of his suit and produced a warrant card. “Detective Sergeant Philip Adams,” I read and would not let my eyes dwell on the accompanying photograph. The words leapt out of my blurred vision, their bold letters performing a wildly erotic dance before my very eyes. Another surge in my throat, only this time it was vomit and I was helpless to stem its spontaneous eruption.
“Not to worry,” chirruped the nurse, “We’ll soon get you cleaned up. Now, if you don’t mind, Sergeant…” She dismissed Philip with an authoritative wave.
“Laurie….” he began.
“Get out of my sight, “ I panted, “You’ll get your damn statement when I’m good and
ready.”
“And not before,” added the nurse briskly, “Now, Sergeant, I really must insist…”
I fainted. 

CHAPTER NINE


Danny and I were discharged from hospital two days later, by which time our temperatures had reverted to normal. It appeared we had each been given an excessive dose of a mild sedative by our captors. I couldn’t help thinking how it could so easily have been much worse.
A uniformed WPC took down some details from us at the hospital and we were instructed to call in at the local nick to make a full statement within forty-eight hours. Much to my relief, we were told to ask for an inspector Faraday, not a certain Sergeant Adams. I was livid and upset. Plainly, Philip had used Danny and myself as bait to catch bigger fish. It would appear the ruse had paid off. WPC Riley confirmed that Fat Georgie and a number of others had been arrested in connection with charges ranging from living off immoral earnings to paedophilia and murder. I imagined Philip would be congratulating himself on a job well done. Even so, I could not prevent a rush of colour to my face as I recalled our romp on my sitting room carpet. I wondered if Philip’s colleagues knew he was gay, even toyed with the notion of passing on that information to Faraday. I kept telling myself that such vindictiveness was beneath me but, oh, I was tempted!
Danny volunteered to make me a cup of tea. (He himself was invariably happy enough to swig cola from a can and crave doorstep sandwiches with generous slices of cheddar.) “All’s well that ends well, eh, guv?”
“I suppose,” I muttered.
“So what’s up?”
“Nothing,” I lied and lapsed into a sullen silence. Suddenly, I wanted to be alone and went to my bedroom. Once there, I paced to and fro and realized I did not want to be alone after all. Returning to the kitchen, I rejoined Danny at the gate leg table and devoured several sandwiches.
“Are you planning to get it together with Phil?” Danny wanted to know, “like, be an item?”
I frowned. I’d never thought of Philip as a Phil. “Mind your own business,” I said crossly.
“Have you two fallen out?” Danny was not easily discouraged.
“Sort of,” I grunted noncommittally. To my relief, Danny went quiet, but not for long.
“Is it to do with him being a copper?”
I stared, spluttering tea all over the place. “You knew?”
“Didn’t you?” he sounded genuinely surprised.
“No, I damn well didn’t!”
Danny’s expression changed from one of frank incredulity to grudging sympathy. “Sorry, guv, I assumed you knew. I mean, you only have to look at the guy and you know he’s a copper. It’s the eyes, they always give the game away, f**king everywhere they are. But you struck me as being on the level so I reckoned he must be okay. Mind you, he’s not a bad bloke for a copper….” He hesitated. “I didn’t mean to grass. I honestly thought you knew.”
“Well, I didn’t,” I growled, furious with Danny, Philip, everyone, even the widow Finn. Worse, I felt a complete prat.
“I ain’t no grass,” Danny repeated, “There’s some things you just don’t do, right? Take that video. It’s sick and it’s only the tip of a bleeding iceberg, believe you me. I hate that sort of thing. If you really want to know, I hate the whole stinking business. Poppy reckons I’m not cut out for rent. She’s right, too. But it’s like Fat Georgie says, it’s what I do best.” He glared fiercely at his sandwich for some time before seizing another bite. “I suppose you want me to push off now?” he asked casually.
“You had better hang around until the police are quite finished with us,” I told him without thinking.
“Fat chance!” he muttered, “Do you think we’ll have to go to court, give evidence ‘n’ all? I couldn’t do that.” He shook his sandy head determinedly, “I couldn’t grass.”
“You’re guess is as good as mine,” I snapped in no mood to speculate, “I dare say we’ll find out soon enough.”
“Well I ain’t hanging around too long, that’s for sure. Once the word gets around I crossed Fat Georgie, my life won’t be worth much. You should be okay, though, with any luck. I mean, it’s not like you was ever one of us, is it?” I could only stare, uncomprehending. Danny read my expression to a fault. “Fat Georgie’s got a lot of mates. You don’t think they’re going take this lying down, do you? Why do you think the Old Bill are watching this place right now?” When I expressed disbelief, Danny grabbed my arm and hauled me to a bay window alcove in the sitting room. “There, see?” he exclaimed with an air of triumph and pointed to a maroon estate car parked opposite.
“It could be anyone,” I protested.
“Those two plonkers have been sitting there for hours. I ask you, who do they think they’re kidding? Talk about bleeding obvious!”
“Even so…” I mumbled, but didn’t feel in the least inclined to argue. Instead, I went and soaked my battered limbs in a long, hot bath. It was sheer bliss, my enjoyment marred only by a blaring cacophony from the radio downstairs. “Turn it down!” I yelled. Danny obliged. The result was only marginally more bearable. By the time I had changed my clothes and was about to go downstairs, he had retreated to the spare room, and the din was louder than ever. I stormed in without bothering to knock.
Danny was sprawled on the bed, jerking off. He had neither the grace to blush nor even attempted to cover himself but merely poked out his tongue and carried on regardless. “Ever heard of knocking?”
“Keep the noise down,” I said curtly and beat a thoroughly flummoxed retreat. At the bottom of the stairs, I saw a shadow against the frosted glass of the front door. I went and yanked it open, poised to give some hapless salesperson an unsavoury piece of my mind.
It was Nick. I stood aside to let him pass and have to say I was spoiling for a fight. Half expecting Marc to appear out of nowhere and join us, I hesitated at the door. No Marc. I shut it. Nick was already in the sitting room but still on his feet and plainly ill at ease. “How’s Marc?” I asked coolly.
“So it was you who rang the other night. We guessed as much.”
“So why didn’t you call back?”
“I imagine, for the same reason you hung up.” I crossed to the window. The maroon estate was still there. “Marc has been in touch with your sister.” Nick sighed, and sat down on the edge of the sofa.
“So she knows I know he’s gay,” I said evenly and concentrated on a fly crawling up the glass.
“He’s upset.”
I swung round, livid. “Upset, about what, being gay or making a fool out of me?”
“No one’s made a fool out of anyone.”
“Oh, not even you?”
He stood up and we confronted each other tight-lipped. “No, not even me,” he said quietly. “He wanted to tell you, Laurence. He tried. But, well, you’re not exactly the most approachable of people.”
“Hark who’s talking!” I fumed.
“At least I know when to listen. You, you’re always so bloody self-absorbed, self-opinionated and so damn self-righteous nobody can get a look in. Unless it happens to suit you at the time,” he added for good measure.
“It’s never bothered you before!” I shouted. Nevertheless, I recoiled. I was hurt, upset, confused and angry. Nor did this unexpected character assassination help matters or improve my temper.
Nick shrugged. “Who am I to complain? Let’s face it, we’re much the same, you and me. We’re both inclined to make the best of things...on whatever terms available. Only, that’s never enough, is it? It certainly wasn’t where the two of us were concerned. You knew that as well as I did. Fair enough, I didn’t mind if you didn’t. But things have changed….”
“You’ve had a better offer, is that it?” My sarcasm didn’t make me feel any better. “My brother’s terms suit you better than mine, I take it….”
“As a matter of fact, they do,” he replied sharply, and then in a more placatory tone. “He’s a great guy, Laurence. I could love someone like Marc and I honestly believe he could love me.”
“Honesty?” I sneered, “What use is a closet creep to anyone?”
“You were glad enough of and quick enough to find one,” he returned scathingly.
I turned back to the street scene in time to observe a man wearing a loud check sports jacket climb out of the maroon estate’s passenger seat and stroll towards the grocer’s store next to the Copper Kettle. He went in. In my head, I heard the bell that always sounds to alert the elderly owners. It struck me that my exchange with Nick had been cruel, on both sides. But I was in no mood to relent or offer an apology.
“I’ve always been scared of being gay, and so has Marc,” Nick was saying, “That’s why he needs you. He needs both of us, I guess. Yes, I need him too, Laurence, so much it hurts.”
But I was only half-listening. I swung round, barely able to contain myself. “You don’t need anyone,” I sneered, “All you care about is your precious career, as if there’s much chance of a career with the buggers we work for!.”
“So what’s wrong with wanting a career? It’s something real, something I can rationalise and keep a firm grip on. It matters to me, a lot, of course it does. But even I can see there’s more to life, like having someone to share it. I’ve been alone too long, Laurence. Even with Chris, I felt alone. I thought I loved him, I really did, but we were only going through the motions. I see that now. Somehow we managed to be together and separate at the same time. It’s not like that with Marc. When I’m with him I feel…complete…like we’re two parts of the same whole. I’ve been so lonely, Laurence, and too scared to let go of the one thing in my life that has always meant something positive, something I could focus on and be proud of. But what’s the point if I can’t be proud of myself?”
The question hung in the air. The fly flew off.
“I can be myself with Marc. We love each other. Try and understand Laurence, please, for all our sakes.”
I wanted to understand. I did understand. But I wasn’t ready to admit that yet, nor forgive so easily. I rounded on Nick. “So how was it for you, being with me, having to make do with what was on offer? Better than jerking yourself off, I suppose. Even As for you and Marc...You’re  in love, you say. Huh! Don’t make me laugh. you haven’t known each other five minutes although I dare say it makes a nice change. It can’t have been much fun for being stuck with a selfish bastard like me under the sheets,” I fumed.
“I didn’t mean that….” We glared at each other across a barren no-man’s land. “Can’t you see? This isn’t just about sex. Why must you always trivialize everything?”
“Me?”
“Yes, you. I used to think you really cared about people, and I envied you for that. But you don’t give a toss about anything or anyone except poor, hard-done-by Laurence Fisher. No wonder your precious Harry went back to cruising. A one-night stand probably did more for the poor sod’s ego than anything you had to offer.”
“It did,” I replied chokingly, “It killed him.”
Nick was immediately contrite. “I’m sorry, I had no right to say that.” He stared at the carpet, and then back at me, “I don’t have any rights at all where you’re concerned, do I? I guess I never did.”
“You said it.”
“Fine. So let’s forget about me. What about Marc? He desperately wants to get to know you, be your friend. You can’t turn your back on your own brother just because he….”
“Sleeps with my boyfriend?”
“I was never that, Laurence, and you know it. I’m not even sure we were even friends.”
“So where is Marc? Why isn’t he here? Why send you, of all people, to plead his case, such as it is?”
“Because he’s shit scared you won’t listen, just like you’ve not listened to a bloody word I’ve been saying. I’ve told him how things were with you and me, but he’s got it into his head you’ll never forgive him for going behind your back….”
“Yes, with my lover.”
“Lover, boyfriend, whatever tag you like put on our relationship, Laurence, none will stick because none are true. We were two lonely, pathetic people doing what we do best, playing at make-believe rather than admit we can’t cope with real life. Well, I’m admitting it now, Laurence so why can’t you?”
I looked away again rather than let Nick see his words had scored a direct hit. I recalled Fat Georgie’s summing up of Danny’s career as a rent boy. It’s what he does best. Across the road I glimpsed a head ducking back into the maroon estate. I thought about Danny jerking off upstairs.  Oh, yes, and what’s Detective Sergeant Philip Adams up to right now, I wonder? Why, he’s  probably treating his cock to a dose of the same for a job well done, I reflected bitterly. Maybe, though, it was no better than I deserved. If Nick was to be believed, I was expendable. Hadn’t I made Harry, too, so unhappy he was glad to be rid of me in the end?
The unforgettable melody of an old Beatles track began playing in my head, one line repeating itself over and over. All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
“At least say you’ll see him, Laurence, talk to him, try and meet him halfway. He’s waiting in the car. Shall I go and fetch him?”
My wandering senses soaked up Nick’s voice like a sponge. In turn, my beleaguered nerves squeezed so tightly that his words formed a puddle at my feet. I kicked out with churlish abandon and the resulting splash stung my eyes. “I don’t want to see anyone!” I shouted, “Do you hear me? Not anyone! So you can just piss off the pair of you and LEAVE ME ALONE.”
Nick opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it and beat a hasty retreat. Seconds later, I heard the front door slam and watched him amble thoughtfully down the path and through the gate. Marc came to meet him. Nick shook his head. Marc stood quite still, full profile turned towards the house. Even from a distance, he looked tired and pale. I saw Nick drape a friendly arm around my brother’s shoulders and the pair chatted as they moved up the road. I winced. No prizes for guessing the subject of their conversation.
Twice Marc cast an anxious glance in my direction.
I contemplated the maroon estate with growing apprehension. My unease, however, was only marginally related to any possibility of further threat from Fat Georgie’s pals. For hadn’t I just rejected my own brother? Had I learned nothing from my sweet, caring Harry? “Harry,” I groaned audibly. Harry, I was in no doubt, would have given me a sound ticking off, made me promise to make my peace with Marc before the sun went down, and then embraced me in a bear hug. I could have sworn I heard his voice whispering urgently in my ear, and urging caution. “Tolerance, Laurie,” the familiar voice was saying, “has never been one of your strong points. Oh, yes, you have some, but tolerance isn’t one of them. Just because gays are a minority group and minority groups are flavour of the month these days, that doesn’t entitle us to scream blue murder every time we don’t get our own way. Gay, straight, black, white, male, female…we’re all human beings and, as such, entitled to our own opinions.”
I smiled if wryly. Hadn’t I used to feel like a naughty schoolboy getting a dressing down by the Head on these occasions? Harry would frown and try to look solemn although never quite able to snuff out a twinkle in each eye. “We can’t expect to educate the heterosexual world into a broader perspective overnight, Laurie,” he’d rebuke me gently, “There will always be homophobes, just as there will always be religious bigots and fundamentalists. All we can do is try to show by example that we are neither. People can take us or leave us. Whatever, it won’t be for want of our trying to make the world a kinder place to live in.”
Dear Harry, how he so loved to pontificate.
Was I intolerant, I asked myself? How could I, one of so many victims of an intolerant
society, conceivably plead guilty to the same charge? I sighed, sick at heart enough for being put on trial for my sexuality without having my humanity called to account. Philip Adams’ remarks about Poppy leapt unbidden and unwelcome to mind. Some of us are too quick to shout ‘victim’ if you ask me.
It was all too much.
I ran upstairs, barged into the spare room and was only vaguely relieved to discover Danny fully dressed and wearing my headphones. He was sprawled on the bed, listening to a CD and reading one of Harry’s sex magazines. He looked up and removed the headphones. His frightened expression stopped me in my tracks. “I’m going away for a bit,” I told him and struggled to regain a semblance of composure. “Here,” I tossed a wad of notes on the bed, “Keep an eye on the place for me and don’t you dare let me down.”
“What’s up, guv? Where are you going?”
“That’s none of your business, and if the police should want to know, it’s none of theirs either.” I dashed into my bedroom, rummaged in a few drawers and crammed some clothes into my holdall. I went with the adrenalin, allowing myself precious little time, if any, to question what I was doing.  Soon, I had caught a bus and arrived at the local railway station without properly formulating a plan. Not until the ticket office clerk asked my destination did I admit to myself that I needed to see my family.
My mother, needless to say, became flustered upon opening the front door to me. “Laurence, how nice!” she stammered. “But why didn’t you telephone and let us know you were coming? I’d have got in something special for supper.”
“Can I come in?” I was already exasperated. She was my mother. I was her son. What need to make an appointment for heaven’s sake? Besides, I knew full well that, had I telephoned, she would have dipped into an ever-ready supply of plausible excuses to prevent my arrival on the doorstep.
“Of course!” she exclaimed with visibly mixed feelings. I made straight for the kitchen, casually dropping my bag in the hallway as I passed through. “Will you be staying long, dear?” I had to laugh. She might have been an hotelier mindful of other bookings.
“Is that an invitation?”
“Oh, well, I just assumed…your bag….”
“I could murder a cup of tea, Mum,” I sank into a chair while she, on home territory now, fussed at the hob.
After a delicious impromptu meal that would have fed a small army, we retired to the lounge and watched a television programme about The Royals that Mum loved and through which I dozed intermittently. Each time, a persistent ringing of the telephone rudely awakened me. Left to her own devices, and being more than a little deaf, she probably wouldn’t have heard. As it was, I had to listen to my mother chatting animatedly to and about friends and family without ever looking away from the screen. Not once did I hear my own name mentioned.
“How are you, Mum?” I ventured to ask between calls. At this, she would merely become tearful and settle back in what had been my father’s favourite armchair, the better to lap up the pomp and circumstance of our nation’s leading House.
Much later and only half-awake, I declined the offer of a mug of hot milk to help me sleep. “Can we talk now?”
“In the morning, dear. You look tired. But you’ll see...things won’t seem half so bad after a good night’s sleep.”
As it turned out, I might as well have tried the hot milk for all the sleep I got that night. After tossing and turning for hours in my old bed in my old room, I sat through a noisy dawn chorus at the kitchen table, pondering my place among life’s endless cups of tea. Whatever happened to the  high-spirited youth I’d once been? I sighed and felt old. Come off it, Laurence,  you’re only just the wrong side of forty. Even so, I wasn’t a young man any more.  So where do I go from here?
My befuddled brain would not let up, but tossed one leading question after another at me. Among them, what, if anything, did I feel for Philip Adams? Alternately, I loathed the man for his deception and longed to feel his arms around me. I could certainly have used a hug.
Outside, birds sang and the sun rose as they always had and always would. What did they care that, inside, I was falling apart? If only, I began, and tried to stop myself but might as well have tried to stop the birds singing ands the sun rising. If only…Philip wasn’t a copper. If only…Harry had confided in me, hadn’t strayed, died alone, left me. If only…I was a different, better person. If only…I was straight?
I started. I hadn’t asked myself that last question in years, not since my teens when I had a girlfriend. Her name was Sue and I’d liked her a lot. We were good mates. One night we’d had too much to drink at a friend’s party and got undressed in an upstairs bedroom. She had beautiful skin. I loved to stroke it. Then she spread her legs for me. Suddenly, I felt sick and it had nothing to do with being drunk. I panicked and fled the room, the house too. We rarely spoke again. I had nightmares about that triangle of golden hair for years.
“Is there any more tea in the pot?” My mother entered and sat down. Gingerly, she lifted the lid and sniffed. “Huh, stewed!” she declared, “I’ll make a fresh pot.” Neither of us spoke, content to let the din outside keep a lid on our thoughts for as long as possible.
“Is Marc all right?” she asked abruptly. “I worry about that boy.”
Well she might, I mused uncharitably. It was the first time she had asked after Marc since my arrival, my fault as much as hers since I hadn’t given her an opening. Even so, I debated inwardly, why did she need me, of all people, after her own son? His name had hung between us like a rope bridge in a high wind all the previous evening, we at opposite ends. Now, here we were again, still desperately postponing the need to cross.
I sighed. Would my mother and I manage to meet halfway? If so, what then? I sighed again for I thought I knew the answer. We would merely pass one another, and still end up on opposite sides.
“He’s fine,” I grunted, “He’s staying with a friend of mine.” It seemed as good an explanation as any.
“Not with you?” she made disapproving clicking sounds with her tongue.
“He has more in common with Nick,” I said peevishly.
“Don’t be silly,” she protested, “you’re brothers, not to mention….” Her voice tailed off.
“Being gay?” I asked, more out of spite than anything else, “Oops, sorry, I wasn’t supposed to mention that, was I?”
“Now you’re being childish.”
“Childish? Perish the thought!” I counted the scratches on my side of the table while my mother refilled the kettle from a tap that coughed and spluttered like a wheezy old man. I thought about my dad, a forty-cigarettes-a-day man. How I wished I could have seen him, talked to him just one more time before he died.
“I don’t blame you, Laurence.”  Mum sat down again. “It’s our fault, your dad’s and mine. I dare say we expected too much, what with you being the eldest and Marc the youngest. But we only wanted what was best for you both, we never meant any harm.” She reached a scrawny hand across the table and took mine. “You mustn’t blame yourself, son. Your dad and me, we don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean we blame you. Your dad loved you every bit as much as I do. You have to believe that, Laurie, because it’s true. He was so hurt, we both were, when you went….”
“Gay?”
“When you went away.”
“You gave me no choice, any of you….”
“Oh, and what choice did you give us?” Did you stay and fight your corner, help us to understand? No, you sloped off to join your friend and put us out of your mind.”
I snatched my hand away. “Stay and fight my corner? That’s Dad talking, a load of rubbish as usual. Why should I have to fight anyone? I’m family, for crying out loud. And I didn’t slope off. I was given my marching orders, remember?” She started to cry but I refused to be intimidated. “And for the record, my friend had a name. It was Harry.” She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “Marc’s friend has a name too. It’s Nick.” By now I was on my feet, more than a mite ashamed of my outburst but regretting none of it.
“I hear you, Laurie, and I love Marc, you know I do. I love you both. But don’t ask me to understand because I can’t.”
“Okay, don’t. Don’t even try. Just accept us for who and what we are.”
“I do, of course I do. You’re my sons.” She dabbed at her eyes again.
“Yes, your sons, and we love you too. We don’t love you any less because we’re gay. If the rest of the family don’t like it, that’s their problem.”
My mother gave me a long old-fashioned look. “I shouldn’t say it but you were always your dad’s favourite, just as Marc has always been mine. Your dad thought it was a judgement on him, your turning out the way you have. I thought I understood, but I didn’t. Oh, I do now, since I’ve known about Marc. It broke my heart, son, just as you broke your dad’s.”
“What can I say? I can’t and won’t say I’m sorry because that would be tantamount to apologizing for being born! We’re just ordinary people, Mum, Marc, me, like millions of others like us across the whole damn world. We’re not monsters or aliens. We have feelings, too, just like anyone else. And I’ll tell you this for nothing. It’s bloody awful, feeling rejected, especially by your own family, people you love. A person’s sex life is his or her own business, for heaven’s sake. People get up to all sorts in bed. Who cares, so long as they’re not hurting anyone and they’re decent people…?”
“You make it sound so simple, so easy,” she murmured, watery eyes full of reproach.
“I can’t bear it, mum!”
“Nor can I, son, nor can I.” She got up, came round to my side of the table and gave me a big  hug, stroked my hair, told me not to worry and how bad times had a way of coming good when we lest expect it.
I returned the hug with interest. It was a start. Probably, she would never understand or give up hoping that Marc and I would one day settle down with a nice girl and give her more grandchildren. Even so, yes, it was a start. My mother was right about one thing. Love was never simple, never easy. Poor Harry, with his good intentions and dirty magazines, I hadn’t loved him half as much as he deserved. How he must have loved me to stay with me all those years! Love, I began to understand, was as complicated as life itself. You didn’t have to understand someone to love them, just try.
I gave my mother another hug. Mum, Dad, the whole family...I love them. They are a part of me, no matter what.  I, too, needed to learn about tolerance and understanding. In that moment, though, it was to my brother Marc that I felt closer than to anyone in my whole life. I gave my mother yet another hug and kissed her on the cheek. “If I bring Marc back with me, can we have a family powwow without anyone slinging mud?”
“Mary has been working on it,” she forced a laugh, “I’m sure everything will be fine, just don’t expect too much too soon.”
I stayed for several days. Mum and I jogged along nicely together. I avoided the family except Mary. She told me a tribal powwow had been set up for a week on Sunday. It could not be sooner because Stuart was away on business.
“It won’t work,” I muttered irritably.
“Not if you keep avoiding everyone,” she retorted, but not unkindly.
“They know where I am.”
“Yes, and they’re as nervous as you are.”
“Nervous?”
“You’d think we were French aristocrats on our way to the guillotine instead of a family getting together for Sunday lunch.”
“It’s not lunch I’m worried about,” I managed a short laugh.
“Well, stop worrying. Everyone adores Marc. That hasn’t changed just because he’s gay.”
“It’s a pity they didn’t adore me too then,” I said dryly.
“I do,” she reassured me with a mischievous little chuckle.“But, seriously, stop worrying, just don’t expect miracles. People hate change, they need time to get used to it, some more than others….”
“You can say that again!”
“Don’t be bitter, Laurie, you’ll only hurt yourself far more than anyone can.
I looked at my sister in mock astonishment. “Is this a philosopher I see before me?” I cried. We both burst out laughing. Even so, I saw my sister in an entirely different light after that.
“You can stop sulking too,” she chided me gently. “Honestly, Laurie, you’re worse than Thomas when I’m trying to convince him he’ll give himself a better chance in life by doing his homework than messing about with video games!”
Videos. My thoughts flew to how my life in London had changed, but for a job I cared less about with each passing day; Nick Carter, Danny, Poppy, Fat Georgie...and, last but not least,  Detective Sergeant Philip Adams. I brushed them all aside. They belonged to another world, for now at least. For now, I was content enough to get used to being home again.
It was as if I had spent some time on another planet and just returned to earth. I did the usual rounds of old haunts and looked up some old friends who seemed pleased to see me until we ran out of conversation, invariably within ten minutes or so. Most of them were married with kids. One, Tim, got my name wrong and kept calling me Johnny. Another, Dave Somebody, moodily agreed to join me for a pint that evening. He turned up late, and proceeded to talk non-stop the whole evening about how happily married he’d been until his wife left him for his son’s Maths teacher. “We were happy enough,” he kept repeating, “until that creep came along. What is it about teachers, eh? Turned my Sally’s head, he did, with his smart-arse way of talking. We were happy enough….”
I got to thinking about being happy, how it takes two, but…How do you know when enough is really enough?
The next day I caught a fast train back to London. As I turned into the familiar street, the same young-old faces hanging around outside The Copper Kettle, I looked in vain for the maroon estate. At the house, I paused and regarded its shabby exterior with none of my old affection for the place. I fumbled for my key. But the door opened before I even had time to insert it in the lock. My heart skipped a beat. For it was not young Danny standing there. Instead, I found myself staring at a grim faced Philip Adams.
“What the devil…?” I began.
“Come in and shut up, Laurence, I have something to tell you.”
“Trouble?”
“You could say that.”
“Danny?”
“Probably.”
“What do you mean, probably? What’s he done now?” We were in the sitting room and I glanced around for evidence of damage or anything missing. I saw nothing of the kind but experienced only a marginal sense of relief as I sank into an armchair and hoped I didn’t look as flustered as I felt. Seeing Philip again had come as more of a shock than I could have anticipated. Nor had I imagined my emotions would go into roller coaster mode. I hated this man. Well, didn’t I? “So why are you here, Philip? I can’t believe it’s to apologize for leading me up the garden path?”
“I didn’t. Not the way you mean, anyway.” His expression softened fleetingly but quickly hardened again. “But I’m here now as a policeman, not just a friend.”
“Friend?” I retorted, “Don’t flatter yourself.”
“I haven’t time for this, Laurence,” he snapped, and then, “I’m sorry, this isn’t easy for me…”
“So spit it out and be done with it,” I glared, but even as I did so his expression changed yet again and I knew something was wrong, very wrong. “Has something happened to Danny?”
“Not as far as I know. But Poppy…”
“What about Poppy?” I sighed in sheer exasperation. What had the little minx done now?
“She’s dead, Laurence. Murdered.”


to be continued