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Who Can Tell

by Charles Lacey

It was my own fault, of course. But that didn't make it any easier. I stood there with the magistrates glaring at me. There were three of them: a small, plump man who looked as if he kept a grocer's shop, a thin woman who looked as if she was sucking a lemon and the chief one, a man with wispy white hair who looked like an upright crocodile. He opened his rat-trap jaws and spoke, his voice reedy and grating.

"Christopher Pacey, you were caught defacing public property. You are from an educated family and you attend an excellent school. There is no excuse for behaviour of this kind."

My guts clenched. Now it was coming.

"I am in hopes that this will be the last time we see you here. In that hope, and since this is your first offence, we are going to be lenient with you. If you commit another offence, you may expect condign punishment."

(I looked up 'condign' later that day. It meant 'well deserved'.)

"You will perform fifty hours of Community Service."

I breathed a heartfelt, if silent, sigh of relief. It could have been approved school for me. As it was, the Headmaster would both give me hell when I got back to school. But what did 'Community Service' actually mean? The Court Usher, seemingly the one kindly person in the whole place, told me that the Probation Service would contact me.

Well, as I said, it was my own fault. I'd gone out with some lads and a girl from Bracey Road Secondary Modern, and they'd set me a dare. I knew that if I refused it I'd just be another posh kid from St Augi's, as far as they were concerned, and so I armed myself with a paint-spray can and made a start.

I'd added a vertical stripe to several TO LET signs. OK… work it out. Totally puerile, I know, but it seemed funny at the time. Then round the back of the Town Hall. The then Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, was no more than a hole in the air, though he had a great big cheesy grin, not that it fooled anyone except die-hard Tories. So I'd intended a big graffito on the Town Hall's rear wall. The intention was to write


I'd done the first line and got as far as THE BL… when I felt the fingers in my collar. The other kids had buggered off, of course, the bastards, as soon as they saw the cop car draw up. So there was only me there.

Well, there wasn't much point in my trying to deny anything since I'd been caught, literally, red-handed, some of the spray paint having splashed back a bit. So I got a free ride in a Panda car (remember them?) and my parents were sent for.

Well, as you can imagine, Dad was furious. He was a lecturer in Pathology at the university; his specialization was worms. Not the kind you get in your garden, the kind you get in your gut. To be honest, I was far more afraid of what he might do than I was of the forces of law and order. Even in my mid teens he wasn't above taking his belt to me. But this time, seeing I was already going to be in serious trouble he let me off the walloping, though I got the rough edge of his tongue. When I eventually arrived at home, I got the more-in-sorrow-than-anger bit from Mum, starting with 'How could you let yourself down like that?' which was worse than Dad's wrath.

Anyway, a few days later Dad got a registered letter, saying that I was to appear before the Magistrates on such-and-such a date and time, herein fail not at my peril.

A couple of weeks later we had a telephone call from Steve Byrne, the Probation Officer. Actually, when I met him he was quite a decent bloke. Well, let's face it, a good many of his customers had done things like wallet snatching, shoplifting and mugging old ladies; a bit of defacing public property was no great shakes, as long as it didn't lead to worse things. So he didn't feel I'd gone too far wrong, and he totally understood about the Bracey Road mob.

"But," he said, "fifty hours of Community Service is fifty hours, and it's my job to get you doing it."

"What does Community Service involve, sir?" I asked him.

"Don't call me Sir; I'm not a teacher, thank God. Mr Byrne will do. It's usually things like litter picking, cleaning off graffiti, weeding in the parks, that kind of thing. But I'm going to put you onto something different. If I put you with one of the usual gangs you'll only make the sort of friends you can do without. No, you'll go on the visiting list."

"What do I have to do, Mr Byrne?"

"You'll be visiting old ladies in old folks' homes, talking to them, that kind of thing. Or possibly hospital visiting, chatting with people who've been in hospital for a long time and are lonely."

My heart sank. At least doing litter picking or something I might get to be with people my own age. The thought of spending fifty hours chatting to boring old ladies was not good. However, it was my own fault, despite having been dared into damn silly vandalism by my so-called mates. Mr Byrne went on.

"I'll take a look at the list when I get back to the office. Come there on Wednesday at ten o'clock and I'll give you your first assignment. And Chris, listen… keep your nose clean. You've been caught out for the first time. Make it the last time, too."

So on Wednesday I was at Mr Byrne's office – ironically, it was round the rear of the Town Hall, where I could see a couple of lads scraping off the spray paint I'd put there.

"Hello, Chris. Thank you for being on time. Here's your first assignment. Two hours on Saturday afternoon at the Hospital, talking to a Mr Rose. He's over eighty and has no family to visit him, so he'll really appreciate a visit."

"What do I talk about?"

"Anything you like, but especially anything he wants to talk about. Most people his age have had quite interesting lives and like to tell other people about them. Your job will be far more listening than talking."

So that was that.

Anyway, Saturday afternoon found me at the hospital, and a nurse took me up to the ward where Mr Rose was. Mr Byrne had been quite right, the old boy had had an interesting life, serving in the Navy during the war, then working as a builder. We discovered that he'd actually worked on the Mousecroft Estate, where I lived, so it was quite possible he'd actually built, or at least worked on, the house I lived in. He told me about the Naval battles he'd been in, some of the mates he'd had, and several quite funny stories about things that had happened on building sites.

He told me about his wife, Margaret, as well. She'd died about ten years before and he'd been on his own ever since. They'd had just the one child, a daughter, but she'd married a farmer and lived in Canada. Ernest – that was his Christian name - had had a bad heart attack and had been in hospital since, as there was no-one at home to look after him.

To my surprise, the two hours went really quickly for me. Although I had been sent there as a punishment, I'd actually enjoyed talking to him, which probably wasn't the idea, but I wasn't complaining. I said I'd be back next Saturday if I could, and shook his hand.

Next Saturday, I turned up at the hospital and reported for duty at the reception desk. The receptionist sent me straight up to the ward, but when I got there, someone else was in Mr Rose's bed. The ward sister came bustling over.

I'm so sorry, Chris," she said, "We didn't have any way to let you know. Mr Rose died two days ago. He had another massive heart attack and there was nothing more we could do. But he said how much he'd enjoyed your visit and I know he was looking forward to seeing you again."

So that was that. I was just turning to go when another nurse came over and spoke quietly to the ward sister, who beckoned me back.

"There's someone else you might like to visit. His name's Adam; he's about your age."

I didn't know how this would fit with Mr Byrne, but he'd already made it clear that as long as I co-operated with him and made an honest effort he would at least be reasonable. I could ring him on Monday when I got home from school and let him know what had happened. But visiting someone my own age sounded like a good idea.

"Yes," I said, "I'd like to do that."

"Alright," said the nurse, "I'll take you in to him shortly. But there are a couple of things you need to know. First, you'll have to wear protective clothes. Adam's immune system is badly compromised and even getting a cold could be very bad news for him. The other thing is, he is very sick. He has cancer. We are doing the very best we can for him, but the end is… well, it's far from certain. Can you cope with that?"

I agreed, though rather nervously, and the nurse dressed me up with a plastic overall, a mask over my nose and mouth, plastic covers over my shoes and even rubber gloves. I followed her to a small private room where a boy was sitting up in bed, wearing headphones that were plugged into a box on the wall. When he saw me he smiled and took off the headphones.

Well, the nurse had warned me, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. He must have been a very good looking boy, but all that remained of that was two enormous dark eyes. He was not so much thin as gaunt; I could see the bones of his skull under the skin. His fingers were like sticks and his skin was chalk-white. What seemed to me to be the worst of all was that there were a few wisps of chestnut hair coming from under a woollen hat that he was wearing, but, as I saw later on, he was otherwise bald. I had never seen anyone look so ill and God send I never see it again. It seemed to be a miracle that he was still alive. Tubes came from under a bandage on his wrist and went into a large and complicated looking piece of apparatus next to his bed.

"Hi!" he said in a very weak and husky voice, "It's good to have a visitor my own age. My parents and my sister can't come; they've all got colds. What's your name?"

I sat where the nurse had told me to, about six feet from the bed. We couldn't shake hands or anything like that, but I did my best to chat with him. He was incredible. He'd had six operations, each one cutting out more of his inside. He could eat only tiny quantities of food, mostly soup, because if he ate any more it usually came back up. He must have been in dreadful pain all the time. And yet there was still fight left in him, and good humour. We had a certain amount in common. We liked some of the same books and movies, we both disliked football but enjoyed cricket and swimming, we liked a lot of the same music.

After an hour or so the nurse came back and said it was time for Adam to have his drips changed, and it would be better for me to come back another day as he was getting tired. Adam said, "Can Chris come again? I've enjoyed talking to him."

"Chris, can you come next week?" she asked me.

"Yes, I'd like to," I replied, with complete sincerity.

That night, I told my parents about my visit with Adam. He really was such a nice chap, and if he'd been in good health he would have been stunningly good looking. And here I'd better let you know my dark secret. I was what in those days was called Queer. I didn't have any interest in girls, though of course I had to pretend I did. But I really did like boys. Well, some boys.

On Monday I rang Mr Byrne and explained about the weekend. He said he'd contact the ward sister, but as far as he was concerned visiting Adam could count as part of my Community Service. Did the rest of that week go slowly, or what? But on Saturday I was back at the hospital. I was upset to see that Adam looked even worse than before. He told me that he had another internal obstruction, which meant that he couldn't eat anything as there was nowhere for it to go. He was being prepared for another operation on Monday.

Well, I made conversation as best I could for the half hour or so I was allowed to be there. God, he was amazing! He could still make jokes, though if he laughed it hurt him dreadfully, with all the operation scars on his belly. On the way out the ward sister took me into her office.

"Thank you for visiting Adam. It's meant a lot to him. Are you planning to come next week?"

"Yes," I replied, and explained about my Community Service.

"Oh," she replied. "Well, leave me your telephone number. The thing is… Adam may not be here next week."

"Is he being moved to another hospital? Or going home?"

"No, Chris. It's just that… Mr Potterton – that's Adam's surgeon – thinks he may be close to the end."

I looked at her, aghast.

"Do you mean… he might die?"

"Yes, Chris, it's quite possible. He is very ill. I'm sorry."

I gave her my home telephone number, and went on my way. That night at dinner, I was telling my parents about Adam, and it suddenly hit me. I broke down in floods of tears and in the end Dad took me to my bedroom and sat down with me. He asked me to tell him everything, which I did, including how Adam looked. He listened with great sympathy and then said, "Will you do something for me?"

"Yes… what is it?"

"If you get to see Adam next week, ask if he had a dog that died a year or two ago. Also, the name of his surgeon."

"I can tell you that," I replied, It's Mr Potterton.

"Ah," said Dad, and there was a world of meaning in that one sound.

Amazingly, there was no telephone call from the hospital, and on the Saturday I went in again to see Adam. He still looked desperately ill, but at least no worse than the previous week. As Dad had requested, I asked him whether he'd had a dog that had died. He looked at me in some surprise. "Yes," he replied. "How did you know? His name was Toby. He was quite young, but one day he came home, looking a bit draggled. He went to sleep in his bed and just died. We'd no idea why."

I reported that to Dad that evening, and he nodded as if it fitted into an idea he had. He asked me again about Adam's colour, and I said, "He's as white as a stick of chalk, except for a couple of spots of colour on his cheek bones."

"Are you sure, Chris? White, not yellow or brownish?"

"Yes, Dad. I noticed his skin was about the same colour as his sheets."

"Ah," said Dad again. "And you say his surgeon is Mr Potterton?"


"Well, well. He's a good man, as far as it goes, and a fine surgeon. But he took his FRCS before the war, and he's pretty old-fashioned."


"Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. It's the necessary qualification for consultant surgeons. Do you know who the ward sister is in Adam's ward?"

"Yes, it's Sister Murphy. Why do you want to know?"

"Oh, just an idea I have."

The following week was half term and I went in on the Wednesday to visit Adam. I thought he looked very slightly better.

"Hi, Chris," he said. "They're trying a new treatment on me. I've got to take these pills, four times a day, and drink this disgusting medicine twice a day. It's certainly doing something; it makes me want to crap all the time, and that hasn't happened for a while." He went on to explain that as he couldn't get to the toilet he was wearing something like a baby's nappy, and each time he crapped the nurse had to come and change it. "But," he added, "it's certainly clearing something out, as I've been able to eat a little bit each day and keep it down." He actually laughed about it! Every time I saw Adam I admired him even more.

We talked for a bit, until he suddenly changed colour and called for the nurse. I took it that he'd crapped himself, so as I didn't want to embarrass him I said goodbye and took myself off. I went in again on the Saturday and he seemed just a little better again, though he grumbled about the evil tasting medicine he was taking. He also told me that he was no longer under Mr Potterton. Apparently something had happened that he – Mr Potterton, that is – hadn't liked, and he was now under Dr Headley, who was much younger. But I was encouraged, as I could see an empty dish by his bedside and he told me that they'd let him have some ice cream to eat.

That night, I talked to Dad again.

"Oh, yes," said Dad. "I'm afraid that was me. I had the devil's own job to get hold of Potterton, and an even worse time persuading him that he might want another opinion. You see, Chris, what you told me about Adam didn't really add up. If he'd had what Potterton thought it was, an intestinal cancer, it would almost certainly have spread to his liver and he'd have been yellow as a canary. And when I heard about the dog, I was fairly sure. So I used my University credentials and nobbled Sister Murphy, I'm afraid, and got her to send a stool sample from his incontinence pad to the lab. Once I got it under the microscope I could see that it wasn't cancerous."

I looked at him, puzzlement clearly visible in my face.

"No, it was an infestation of a microscopic intestinal worm. It's called Toxicara, and it sometimes gets into dogs, especially if they get their exercise in fields where other animals have been. If a dog gets it, the eggs are excreted in the dog's faeces, and if a person handles the dog, the eggs can get onto their hands, and then onto food and into the person's digestive system. The worms breed there, and can get so numerous that they actually block the intestine, and it can look very like a cancer."

"So did you tell Mr Potterton about that?"

"I did, and very angry he was with me. He accused me of being unprofessional, meddling where I had no business. He was very rude – in fact, he called me a little pipsqueak! But I told him I'd examined a sample under the microscope, and offered to show him the slides. In the end I threatened to go to the Hospital Secretary if he didn't accept my findings. So then he said he would transfer Adam to another doctor, and rang off in a great huff."

"What did you do next, Dad?"

"I got onto the ward sister – Sister Murphy – and found out who had taken over Adam's treatment. I managed to track him down, and he listened. I got him to send me over more samples, and there were unmistakeable Toxicara in all of them. So Adam went onto new treatment, which is antihelminthic drugs four times a day – that's one that kills the worms – and strong purgatives, to flush out the digestive tract. The usual drugs are Mebendazole, which is a pretty new one - it came out last year – and Gentian Violet, which has been around a long time and proved pretty effective against most intestinal worms. I just hope they remembered to warn him about its side-effects."

"Which are?"

"It turns your stools – your faeces – purple. It's a bit alarming, but not as much as one or two drugs that colour the urine red."

I looked at Dad in amazement. I knew he was pretty high-powered in his own field, but I'd no idea that he had such good connections in the hospital, or that his name could carry so much weight.

Next Saturday I went to see Adam again, and ten minutes after my arrival he asked me to help him.

"I hope you don't mind," he said, "but I need a crap. Can you give me a hand out of bed, and down to the bog?"

I did as he asked – he was still stick-thin, and as light as a feather - and waited outside the lavatory until I heard him call, and then helped him back into bed. What he did next surprised me. He pressed the call button, and when the nurse appeared, he asked for something to eat and drink.

While he waited for the nurse to fetch his food, he said, "It's a very strange thing. I don't know what happened, but old Potterton said he wasn't going to be in charge of my treatment any more, and I was transferred to Dr Headley. He's much nicer, anyway, and a lot younger. He said that someone had been in touch with him and suggested that it might be some kind of weird worm that I caught off poor old Toby, so I now have these horrible medicines that make me crap all the time, but it does seem to be working. I eat four or five times a day – just small meals, but solid food – and I haven't been sick for several days."

"That's great news," I said. "I'm so happy for you." Quite suddenly, tears came to my eyes. Perhaps Adam wasn't going to die after all. Perhaps he would get better.

"What's wrong?" Adam asked, noticing my eyes.

"Nothing. It's just that makes me so happy, if you are going to get better."

"Listen, Chris," said Adam, "Can I trust you? You've been great, coming to visit me. There's something I'd like to tell you, but I have to trust you not to tell anyone else, not even your parents."

"You can trust me. I promise."

"It's this. When I was so ill, and thought I was going to die, I just had one real regret. I've never had any real relationships with anyone – except my family, of course, but that's different…"

"You mean you've never had a girl friend?"

"No, Chris. I've never had a boy-friend."

To say that I was staggered is an understatement. I looked at him, straight into those big brown eyes, and then I held out my hand, and grasped his, and said, "Adam, when you get out of here I'm going to take you out. Anywhere you'd like to go. The pictures, a meal, a concert, anything."

"I'd like that," replied Adam, with the biggest grin ever. "You've given me a reason to keep taking those damn pills, even if they do make me crap bright purple about twenty times a day."

"Adam, you've trusted me with your secret. I'm going to trust you with mine. The thing is, it's the same one."

"Oh! You mean…"

"Yes, I do mean."

Poor lad, he was still so weak he could barely sit up in bed, but he held out his arms, and I put my arms around him, feeling every bone he had under the skin, already knowing deep down that whether we ever got as far as having a sexual affair or not, we'd always be friends, probably best friends.

I popped in again on the Saturday, and he looked just a little bit better again, with the beginnings of some colour in his cheeks. This time we started with a hug, and again I could feel that he was starting to put on just a tiny bit of weight. Again I had to help him to the toilet a couple of times. The second time… I'm sure it wasn't intentional, but because he was so thin his pyjamas were very loose and they flapped open, giving me a good view of his bits. His cock looked huge, though this was partly because in most people its base is hidden away in a layer of muscle and fatty tissue which Adam just didn't have. But he realised what was happening and put it away, apparently quite unembarrassed.

We chatted away about all sorts of things, and decided that when he left hospital we'd go to the pictures together. Just before I got up to go, he suddenly said, "Chris, your surname is Pacey, isn't it?"

I agreed.

"Well, that's a funny thing, because it's quite an unusual name..."

I agreed again.

"… and Dr Headley told me that the person who thought I might have these worms inside me was also a Dr Pacey."

I looked at the floor.

"Chris, you know something about this, don't you."

I could feel myself blushing red hot. I nodded.

"Yes. Dr Pacey is my Dad."

"Well," said Adam, "Please say thank you to him from me." And he held out his arms again.

Adam was the first boy I'd ever embraced, and every time it was wonderful. It was even more wonderful knowing that he wasn't going to die, that he would get better and eventually be able to leave hospital and lead a normal life. Because I'd discovered that I loved him. I'd loved him when all there was of him was a skeleton covered in skin, a pair of huge brown eyes and a fighting spirit that just wouldn't give up. And now that he was getting better I loved him just as much.

Of course, I still had a good few hours of Community Service to do, and Mr Byrne eventually put me with a litter picking gang, going round the town getting rid of rubbish. But I'd told him about Adam, and he'd said that all the time I'd spent at the hospital would count as part of my Community Service. Now that Adam and I had each other I couldn't have cared less what the Bracey Street gang, or anyone else for that matter, thought about me.

Now that he was out of danger, Adam's nurses let me go in to see him most days after school. I took him in books, and a Walkman (remember those?) with spare batteries and lots of tapes. He liked some, at least, of the contemporary pop bands, but he also liked classical music, especially Mozart and Haydn, and several other composers I'd never heard of. Each time I saw him he was a little bit less gaunt, and although he had to spend a good bit of time in the toilet at least he was getting rid of diseased matter, making space for healthy flesh. And he ate; they gave him lots of high calorie foods, and as he gained weight they added more fats and protein. We always said hello and goodbye with a hug, and if the nurse wasn't there we usually had a kiss as well. Neither of us had ever kissed a boy before, and it was a real journey of exploration. And then one day I was in there, and we had a hug and a kiss, and then Adam, unusually for him, blushed. I looked at him, wondering what he had to blush about.

"Chris," he said, with more of an air of pride than I expected, "something happened yesterday that hasn't happened for a long time."

I thought I knew what he was going to tell me, and I wasn't wrong.

"I got an erection, and managed to get myself off. My first orgasm in months."

"Congratulations!" I responded. And then I realised what this meant to him; not just the routine, everyday pleasure that all boys need, but a real sign that he was leaving his illness behind.

"That's great. One day we'll do it together."

Adam looked at me with a great big mischievous grin. "We sure will. What's wrong with now?"

His hand was already moving beneath the bedclothes. Thank God the nurses didn't come in. Looking back, I suspect that he'd asked them to leave us in privacy.

We got ourselves hard; in my case it took about five seconds. And then we swapped hands and rubbed each other. I was the first to come, and when he saw me shooting he came too. Fortunately there was a box of tissues on the bedside locker. When we'd put our cocks away – in Adam's case it was just a matter of pulling up the sheet – we sat holding hands for a while, until eventually I had to leave to get home for dinner.

Before long Adam was recovered enough to be allowed home, and we visited each other pretty well every day. Sometimes he came to our house, sometimes I went to his, sometimes we met in town and went somewhere together. I kept my promise of taking him to the pictures, and we sat in the rear seats holding hands.

Adam's parents, of course, were incredibly grateful to Dad. Well, you would be, wouldn't you, if someone saves your son's life? And some of that gratitude rubbed off onto me. They'd known about Adam's orientation for a while, and though at first they were unsure about him getting together with someone who had a criminal record, they accepted that I knew I'd done wrong but was determined never to do so again. Mum and Dad told me they'd known I was gay long before I had, and they liked Adam.

If we were at one or the other's house and everyone else was out, we took the opportunity to explore each other's bodies as well as our minds. We went to a Gym together once or twice a week as soon as Adam was well enough, to build up the muscle mass he'd lost while he was in hospital. I never got over seeing the scars on his belly, where he'd had all those unnecessary operations. It was already clear to both of us that this wasn't just a passing infatuation, but was going to be a lifelong love and commitment. We began with snogging and mutual masturbation, moved on to oral sex and eventually the full Monty. The first time I topped him, Adam said, "Hope your dick doesn't come out purple when you've finished," and I laughed so much that I lost my hard-on.

Well, that was quite a few years ago now. Dad died, sadly, a couple of years ago. My sister Winnie married a thoroughly nice chap called Peter Parker; they live quite close by and have several children. I'm godfather to one of the boys and Adam is godfather to another one. We sold the family home and bought a little flat for Mum; by agreement with all the family Adam and I got the bulk of what was left which went towards our own house.

When Adam left hospital, he had a private tutor for a while to help him catch up, and then joined me in the Sixth Form at St Augi's. We went through University together, and then Adam, who'd become very friendly with Dad, became a pathologist, while I went into business. We're still together, though now coming close to retirement age.

One thing I was right about, from the very beginning. Adam was, and still is, stunningly good looking. He still has those big soft brown eyes. His hair grew back and was a wonderful deep chestnut colour with a natural wave. The wave is still there, though the colour is now more silver than anything else. He's threatened to dye it, but I think the silveriness makes him look distinguished.

Dad and Dr Headley co-wrote a paper about Adam's illness which was published in the British Medical Journal. I'm sure that has saved many more lives as more doctors came to know about an unusual and confusing disease.

And every day I think about Dad, whose specialist knowledge, and whose persistence, saved my beloved's life and thus allowed us to spend our lives together. And yet… if it hadn't been for those pratts from Bracey Road, and what followed on from that damn silly dare, we might never have met, and Adam might have died. Who can tell?

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