I was tired. I'd got up before dawn, gone to the airport, taken the early flight to Brussels, spent all day in meetings and discussions that, for once, were productive and constructive, got the flight back to London City, and was walking back from the Canary Wharf railway station looking forward to a long hot shower, something to drink, and something to eat. At least the weather was nice as we were having one of those Indian Summers that fool us into thinking the winter has been postponed. That cheered me up and I was feeling quite content with life.
"Sir, can you spare some change?"
A small voice broke my daydream and looking around I saw a kid holding out a paper cup in front of me. Normally I walk straight past, but, what the hell, I was feeling good about life and this kid was pretty cute. He had a mop of brown hair, a light jacket over a lime green hoodie, khaki jeans and red canvas shoes with white rubber soles and white laces. I'm not good at guessing ages, but I thought he might be fifteen or so.
So I felt in my pocket, found the change from the train ticket which was a two-pound coin and a few smaller bits and pieces, and put them into his cup. His face lit up in a smile with nice white teeth.
"Thank you, sir, that's very kind!" he said in a very small voice.
And I walked of home without a second thought. When I got home I followed my normal routine whenever my partner Paul was away. I was greeted at the door by The Witch, my totally black cat who likes me and only me, probably because I'm the only one who feeds her, so I scratched her ears, went into the bedroom, stripped off, got in the shower and let the hot water wash away the grime of business and travel. Putting on some sweat pants and an old tee shirt, I got myself a glass of wine, opened the French doors onto my tiny terrace, and sat watching the last of the sun before it set behind St. Paul's and the City of London.
One advantage of being a senior member of a large international bank is that I can afford to live in a really nice place on the top floor of a modern apartment block that has views up the river towards the City and down to the twin towers of the Greenwich Naval College. I was lucky to get it before the building was completed so I got a discount, and before housing prices went through the roof, because there's no way I could afford it now. And I can walk to work, which is a real luxury.
The next day, Thursday, was pretty much the same except I didn't have to travel. Work is work and I don't need to describe that, except with everyone puzzling out what to do about Brexit it just makes more work and more headaches for all of us bankers. I managed to get out by six thirty and walked home thinking mostly about the Skype call I had planned for 11:00 pm. My partner Paul is a pilot, mostly on long haul flights to America and the Far East. This time he was going to Melbourne via Singapore, and as normal we planned to talk during his stopover in Singapore.
"Sir, can you spare some change?"
The same small voice broke my daydream and there was the same kid holding out his paper cup in front of me. He was dressed exactly the same as yesterday but somehow he looked a little different. His clothes weren't quite as tidy, and he looked a little tired and down on his luck.
So I felt in my pocket, but today there was no change. I mean, who uses money these days when there's plastic for everything. So I fished out my wallet and found a five-pound note and stuffed it in his cup. You'd think that it was Christmas and his birthday all at once.
"Wow, thank you, sir, that's very kind. Thank you, thank you"
"No problem, you're welcome"
And I walked on home and scratched The Witch's ears and had a drink and watched the sunset, and at 11:00 Paul called me on Skype and we talked for a while. It's not that his life is much more exciting than mine, really, all he has to do is sit up front and the plane just about flies itself except for take-off and landing, and they they go to a hotel and they sleep and then the next day they do the same thing all over again. He said that he had a couple of days lined up in Melbourne before starting the trip home, and said if everything went well he'd be home Wednesday morning.
By Friday the weather had broken, the clouds had come in, and by mid afternoon it was pouring. Rain was coming down in sheets, the temperature had dropped dramatically, and it the coldest day for months. I spent the day at work so I didn't care, and it was just a short walk home.
As normal, several of us from the bank stopped off for a Friday evening happy hour drink before heading off for whatever our weekends had in store for us. I didn't have much planned. I was going to watch the early football match on Saturday as my team was playing. For once they were playing well, with Mo Salah and Bobby Firmino and Sadio Mane destroying defenders and the goals were pouring in. And I had a new book that Paul had given me on "Landscapes in Renaissance Art" that had just arrived and I hadn't had a chance to read it yet. Paul is always trying to improve my mind and stop me from just being a boring old banker. I'm not sure his plan is working!
So I was thinking about all of that while battling through the downpour, getting pretty damp despite my umbrella because most of the rain seemed to be coming horizontally. I was trying to make sure my umbrella didn't turn inside out as I rounded the last corner and could see the entrance to my building beckoning to me through the deluge.
"Sir, help, please!"
There he was again but what a mess. He was completely soaked, his hair pasted to his head, his jacket and jeans soaking wet, his shoes waterlogged. But, worst of all, he was shivering uncontrollably. He was huddled up against the wall as if that was going to give him any protection.
I acted without thinking.
"Come here, let's get inside, you'll drown out there"
He seemed not to hear me. " Help me!"
So I grabbed his arm and more or less dragged him into the lobby. He looked halfway between the proverbial drowned rat and a scared rabbit in the headlights. Perhaps he was both.
I pushed the security buttons to get into the main lobby, pulled the kid with me into the elevator, and we went up to my penthouse. He was still dripping, with a pool of water starting to form on the elevator floor, and still shivering like he was being electrocuted. The elevator seemed to take for ages, but finally we got into my apartment.
"Stay right there. Don't move. Try to take off your jacket and stuff, and I'll be right back."
I rushed into the bathroom, grabbed a couple of towels and my prized terrycloth bathrobe, and rushed back to help get him dried off.
He'd made almost no progress. He has shaking so much he couldn't grip things properly. So I helped. I got off his jacket, and with some effort we got off his sodden hoodie. His tee shirt underneath was soaked as well. So I managed to get that off and wrap a towel around his shoulders while I tackled his jeans. I pulled off his worn out canvas shoes, which didn't look as if they would last much longer. They had a couple of holes and the soles were coming away from the canvas uppers. He just stood there shaking while I managed to get the top button and his zip done, but the jeans were so wet and fairly tight that it was impossible to get them off.
I made him sit on the floor and eventually managed to pull them off. He was left in his blue check boxers. He was pretty skinny, and suddenly looked a lot younger than I had originally thought. He had just smattering of hair on the inside of his calves, and a wisp of hair under each armpit, but otherwise he was completely hairless. He had dark circles under his eyes. And completely helpless, with a sort of blank look on his face as if he didn't know what was happening.
I thought he was maybe only thirteen or fourteen. John, what have you got yourself into now?
I got him into the bathrobe, wrapped it tightly around him, told him to lose the boxers because they were soaked as well, toweled off his hair, and led him into the living room, sat him on the floor, and turned on the fire.
"Stay as close to the fire as you can without burning yourself. I'm getting you something hot to drink. OK?"
He was still shivering but I did get a small nod. So I left him, foraged in the cabinets and found a container of tomato and basil soup, poured some in a cup, and nuked it in the microwave until it was hot but not scalding.
When I got back he was staring into the fire, still shivering but with a little more colour than before, and he had company. The Witch, who runs away as soon as strangers enter the place and hides under my bed until the danger is past, was rubbing against his legs and making little mewing noises.
I knelt down beside him and tried to hand him the cup of soup. But he was shaking too much to hold it steady enough to drink. So I ended up holding it up to his lips.
"Try to drink this. Take it slowly. Little sips."
He managed a start to sip from the cup. Some of it got spilled in the process, but he got most of it down.
"Well done. Are you feeling any better?"
I didn't get an answer but I got another small nod.
"You can have some more in a little while, but I'm guessing you haven't eaten much today, and if you eat too much at once you'll just throw it up. OK?"
I got another nod.
"I'm going to put your clothes in the washer and drier because you can't wear them while they're soaking wet. Stay there and keep getting warm."
I got a laundry basket, went into the hall, picked up the mound of sodden clothes, put his jacket on a hanger because I didn't think I could wash and dry that, left his shoes there for the time being, put detergent in the washing machine and turned it on.
When I got back he was still sitting in front of the fire, with The Witch cuddled up against him.
"Next, you're going to take a shower. You need to get warm outside as well as inside."
I helped him to his feet. He was still shaky but it wasn't as bad as before. I led him into the spare room which has it's own bathroom, turned on the shower until the water got warm but not too hot. Fortunately it's a walk-in shower so he wasn't going to have to clamber into a bathtub. The Witch had wandered in as well.
"Now, do you think you can manage this by yourself? I don't want you to fall over and break anything. Just stand in the water and let it warm you up. Once you get used to it, you can turn the knob like this and get it a little warmer. And there's soap and shampoo there. But don't turn the water too hot or you'll get burned. OK?"
He still looked like a rabbit in the headlights with his big brown eyes. But he nodded, stronger this time.
"I'm going to leave the door open. That way, if you need help, just yell and I'll come and sort you out. In the meantime, I'm going to make you something to eat. I guess you're starving, right? Is a chinese stir-fry OK?"
So I left him there and went in the kitchen and tried to think what I could feed him. I don't normally keep that much food in the house, and certainly nothing that small teenage boys are going to want. I started the rice first because that takes the longest, and then cut up some chicken breast I had planned for my dinner, some broccoli, a tin of water chestnuts, an onion, garlic and ginger, and started chopping.
After about ten minutes I heard the water in the shower stop. I waited a few more minutes, then went over to the bedroom door and called to him.
"Are you OK? Do you need any help?"
"OK, then. When you're dry put the bathrobe back on and when you're ready come back out into the kitchen."
So I went back into the kitchen and continued putting a basic meal together. I didn't hear anything else for a while and then The Witch started mewing again, and when I turned round there he stood in a bathrobe far too big for him, sleeves over his hands, and the rest reaching down to the floor. But at least he wasn't shaking and shivering any more, and he had colour back in his cheeks.
"Would you like another cup of soup until dinner is ready?"
So I heated some more soup, refilled his cup, got him to sit at the table, and watched while he managed to drink it by himself.
When everything was ready I made up two plates of rice with stir fry spooned over it, and put one in front of him.
"Go ahead. Eat slowly, don't inhale it like most teenagers because your stomach won't like it."
I watched as he took a spoon and fork and got the first mouthful in.
He sort of took my advice. He didn't inhale it, but it wasn't long before his plate was empty.
And the second plate went the same way. I'd forgotten how teenagers can pack away the groceries when they're hungry.
By now it was pretty late, past nine thirty, and I had absolutely no idea what to do next. It was still pouring with rain, he had no dry clothes, and I bet he had nowhere to go.
"Do you have a dry place to stay tonight?"
A small shake of his head, and the beginnings of a tear.
"OK. I probably shouldn't do this, but I can't send you out in this weather with nowhere to go. So you'll have to stay here. You can use the spare room and you will be quite safe. Is that OK?"
I could sense that the warmth and the hot food were beginning to have the hoped for effect. His head began to fall, and I thought that within two minutes he'd be asleep at the table. So I helped him up, led him back to the spare bedroom, turned down the cover, got him on to the bed and pulled the duvet over him.
"I'm going to leave the door open a little bit so if you need any help with anything, just call me. The bathroom is all yours. I'll leave you to sleep as long as you want. Is that OK?"
Another nod, and the hint of a smile. And then in a very quiet whisper,
He closed his eyes, and I swear he was already fast asleep. I turned off the light, left the door open, and went back to the kitchen where I cleaned up the remains of dinner, loaded the dishwasher, poured myself a glass of nice malt whiskey and went to sit in front of the fire to think things over.
John, I thought, what have you done? You've picked up a street kid who is way under age, you've brought him home to your apartment, you've got him to take all his clothes off, and you've put him in your bed. Who's going to believe you when you say you never touched him? His word against yours. Oh shit. But I saved his life, didn't I? Is he going to see it that way? All you had to do was give him some money and walk away. How do you know he's not going to rob you in the middle of the night?
The debate in my head went on and on. On my way to my own bed I peeked in to see how he was. There was just a small amount of brown hair poking up under the duvet and, unfaithful little bitch that she is, The Witch was curled up on the bed with him.
Needless to say, I didn't sleep very well, but the kid and the cat seemed to.
Saturday morning is normally when I can sleep in a bit. But not today. I woke up early and immediately started worrying about what to do next.
To start with, I got his clothes out of the drier and folded them and tiptoed into his room and put them on the chair so he'd have something to wear when he woke up. If he woke up, that is, because I don't think he had moved since he got in to bed. Neither had The Witch, who looked at me and immediately snuggled up even tighter against him.
I made myself a big pot of coffee and tried to plan out some options. It was still pouring with rain. The weatherman said it would be like that all day but might clear up during the evening. So getting him dressed and pushing him out the door wasn't much of an option. But then nor was keeping him in the apartment. That would be like kidnapping.
So the only plan I could think of was to call my sister and get her advice.
You should know that my sister makes her living rescuing runaway kids and trying to get their lives back on track. She used to live and work in Bristol but a few years back she got married to this lawyer who lives in Oakbridge. If anyone could help me out of this mess it was going to be her. Her husband, Frank, gets treated a bit like me. She calls me 'Banker' because I don't deal with people very well, and she calls Frank 'Lawyer' when he's being stubborn.
But calling her at seven o'clock on a Saturday morning wasn't a smart thing to do, so I had to sit and wait until a more reasonable time. I decided nine o'clock would probably be acceptable. So I fussed around for a couple of hours, getting more nervous by the minute, wondering how I was going to explain everything to her so she wouldn't laugh at me, or rip me a new one for being so stupid as to bring home an underage runaway.
So at nine o'clock sharp I called her.
"Good Morning, Sis"
"Hi Banker, what do you want?"
"Well, we haven't talked for a while so I thought ….."
"Bullshit. You're calling because you're in a mess and you need my help. Why else would you call at this ungodly hour on a Saturday morning?"
She's always right.
"Guilty. I need your help, and you're just the person I need to help get things sorted."
"OK, spit it out. I've got things to do today."
So I explained how I'd rescued this teenage runaway from pneumonia or hypothermia or frostbite or whatever, and had warmed him up and fed him and put him in to bed, and didn't know what to do next.
"How bad was he when you took him in?"
"He was shivering uncontrollably, and he was kind of blue, and I don't think he knew much of what was going on."
"Then you did the right thing. If you had left him out there he might well have died."
"But it's so out of character for you to care about someone else, and then do all the right things to get him better. And anyway, when did you start to fancy teenagers. I thought you preferred older men. And where's Paul?"
"Paul's in Australia. He'll be back Wednesday. And no, I'm not in to small teenage boys. And contrary to public opinion, I do care about other people."
"Since when? Now, tell me the truth. Did you touch him or try to come on to him in any way, because if you did, you are in deep shit."
"No, I haven't touched him."
"Thank God. OK, let me think a minute about how to get you out of this mess."
There was a pause, and I waited nervously.
"So, if I get this right, you got yourself into this mess, you have a runaway teenage boy in your apartment, you don't know what to do, so you called your fairy Godmother of a sister, and expect her to drop everything and come to London and get you all sorted. Is that right?"
"More or less, yes."
"Well, I'm not going do that. Sorry."
"But, Sis, I ….."
"Shut up, I haven't finished. I can't come today. You remember Mike, the Lawyer's son, my stepson? Well, he's getting married today and I am not going to miss that for you or anyone else."
"But I thought Mike was gay?"
"Banker, you are the dumbest shit ever. Haven't you, my gay brother, ever heard of gay marriage? It happens, you know."
"But he's just a kid."
"No, he's not. He's twenty one, and he's marrying his high school sweetheart. It's all very romantic, and I'm not going to miss that for you or anyone else. Understood?"
"Yes, Sis, loud and clear. But what am I going to do?"
"What's the weather like?"
"Well, it's still pouring and there's a gale as well."
"Then I think you should do this. Ready to listen?"
"Do you think you can manage to look after your runaway for another day? I can come tomorrow morning. Lawyer says he has to do some work so he doesn't care if I come to town."
"I suppose so. We didn't exactly communicate much yesterday."
"Does this kid of yours have a name?"
"I don't know his name. He didn't say a word last night, just nodded and shook his head. As I said, he was pretty much out of it."
"OK, then if you can last another twenty four hours I'll be up about ten thirty tomorrow morning. I'll need lunch so make sure you have something decent to eat."
"OK, no problem."
"Before I come, try to sit down with the kid and see if you can find anything out about him, but don't push him or he'll just clam up completely. If you do get him to talk, try draw up a list of options about what to do next. Don't discard any option just because it sounds really stupid or impossible or unacceptable. But don't grill him. If he doesn't want to say anything, let it go. Don't tell him I'm coming tomorrow until he has thought about what choices he has. He will probably end up thinking he has no choice, and that will make him more receptive to listening to me when I come. Do you think you can manage all that, Banker?"
"I'll do my best. Thanks, Sis. I owe you."
"Yes, big time. The kid is probably scared out of his mind, and he's probably afraid you've kidnapped him and you're going to rape him. Put him at ease. Make sure he knows he's safe, well, as safe as anyone can be with you looking after him."
"Hey, I said I'll do my best."
"For what that's worth. He'll probably be dead before I come and save him. Now let me go get ready for my wedding. See you tomorrow."
"Love you, Sis."
And she hung up. Now I had to think about how the hell I was going to survive twenty four more hours with this kid I knew absolutely nothing about. I made some more coffee and sat watching the rain beat against the windows. Time passed.
I was deep in my own thoughts when I heard The Witch meowing. I looked over and there she was standing in the doorway of the spare bedroom. I walked over and peeked in. The kid was sitting on the bed staring into space. He had dressed in his tee shirt and his sand coloured jeans, and the circles under his eyes had pretty much disappeared. It's amazing what a good night's sleep can do for you.
I knocked on the door, and he turned and looked at me briefly with panic all over his face, and then stared down at his feet.
"Good morning. I hope you're feeling better."
I got a nod.
"Look I know you're probably totally confused about what's going on, but if you come out I'm not going to hurt you or anything. I brought you here yesterday because you were freezing to death, but you aren't a prisoner, you can leave any time you want, and I'm not interested in sex or anything like that."
There was no reaction.
"Look, you're free to leave whenever you want. But I think that before you make that decision you should have some breakfast. Are you hungry?"
He glanced up and nodded.
I got up and walked over to him and stuck out my hand. He tentatively took it, one of the weakest handshakes I've ever had.
"Good morning. I'm John."
He blushed a little, which made him look really cute.
"Come into the kitchen and sit down."
At first he didn't move, but then very slowly he stood up and walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table.
"Would you like some coffee?"
He scrunched up his face and shook his head. "No, yuk."
He nodded and very quietly said "Thanks."
I went over to the sink and filled up the kettle, found the teapot, and pulled out a tin of breakfast tea.
Another nod. We didn't seem to be making much progress on the conversation front. Twenty three hours to go before Sis came and rescued me. There was a long silence and then the kettle started to boil. I made the tea, put it on the counter, motioned for him to sit down, which he did, got out a mug and asked
Another nod. So I put milk and sugar and a spoon on the table, filled up his mug and pushed it over to him.
He put in milk and a couple of spoonfuls of sugar, sipped it, nodded, and stared at the table.
I finished my fourth cup of coffee and he finished his tea. Then he glanced at me.
"Umm…about last night….thanks"
"No problem. I'm glad I could help."
"OK. Now let's think about breakfast. Is scrambled eggs on toast and bacon OK?"
He looked at me and nodded. "Thanks."
So I got the eggs and bacon and bread and started cooking. He sat there watching me and sipping his tea.
He looked at me and then suddenly he burst into tears. Between sobs he managed to say something like this:
"Why are you being so nice to me, you don't know who I am, and I'm a total mess, and if you knew what I was like you'd kick me out right away."
And so on. You get the picture. Eventually he stopped crying, with tears and snot all over his face.
"I need the bathroom."
Off he went, with The Witch right behind him.
While he was in the bathroom, I continued making his breakfast. I had one eye on the clock as it was nearly noon and the game started at twelve thirty.
When he reemerged, looking clean again but a little sheepish, I sat him down at the table and watched as he demolished his breakfast. Another example of the great teenage eating machine in action.
He just shook his head.
"Umm….thanks…Umm….I think I better go now…"
"If that's what you really want do, I'm not going to stop you. But look out the window first."
I don't believe in God, but at that moment a huge gust of wind shook the building and rain lashed against the French windows blotting out my view over the City.
"Oh shit….umm…sorry…umm…maybe I could wait a few more minutes"
"That's more like. You shouldn't be going outside in weather like this. You don't have proper clothes for weather like this. Stay as long as you need to."
Then he stood up and picked up his plate and mug and took it over and put in in the sink.
"Hey, thanks! Do you like football?"
He shook his head. "Umm…not really."
"Too bad. I'm going to watch the game that's starting in five minutes. You can watch, or you can sit down over there and find something to read or something. Then, when the game is over, maybe you and I could sit down and work out what we should do to try to help you get out of whatever mess you're in. Is that OK?"
"I guess. Whatever."
And so that's what happened. I watched the game hoping that by just being there and not asking questions or anything would help him feel a little more at ease. At half time I looked over to make sure he was OK. He'd picked up my book on "Landscapes in Renaissance Art" and seemed completely absorbed in that. So I didn't interrupt him, leaving him sitting there with the book with The Witch perched on his lap. He looked very peaceful.
When the game was over, with another goal fest for Liverpool, I moved over and sat in the chair next to him. He was still reading the book.
"You like that book?"
"Umm..it's neat…I like it."
"I just got it and I haven't had a chance to look at it. What's it about?"
"Umm…it's interesting. He explains how the artists gradually evolved from drawing flat backgrounds to having some understanding of perspective and how it worked for some artists while others didn't seem to grasp it all. And then there's a really interesting section on what they included and didn't include in landscapes, and how it tells of rural life back then, and he tries to explain art in terms of what the church would accept and what it wouldn't."
I was gobsmacked. This kid had hardly spoken and suddenly I got a lecture on mediaeval art?
"Umm..sorry, I didn't mean to sound such a nerd. It's just that I really like this stuff. Art's my best subject at school."
"Hey, don't apologize. It's great to find someone your age who likes something other than videogames and Facebook."
He blushed again. God, he is so cute when he blushes.
"OK. Look, it's still pouring with rain so I don't think you should go for a while longer. Actually, the weatherman thinks it's going to last into the night. Do you mind waiting a bit longer?"
He looked at the window and shrugged again.
"Umm…I guess not. It looks horrible out there."
OK, I thought to myself, now it's time to get down to business, and I'm scared I'm going to screw this up, but let me try and do my best so that Sis can work her magic tomorrow. So I took a deep breath and plunged in.
"Look, I don't know anything about you or what's happened to you or why you were at Death's door last night, and I don't want to grill you about any of that. That's history. What I want to do is try to see some way forward for you that makes sense to you, other than just pushing you back on to the street. Is that OK?"
"I guess…I don't know."
"Then let me start by telling you what I see. If I'm completely wrong or off the wall, try to let me know, OK?"
"Well, what I see is a young man who for one reason or another has had to leave home in a hurry. You weren't prepared for whatever happened, you've only got one set of clothes and they're not going to keep you warm now it's got so cold, you don't have any money, you don't seem have a place to live, you don't know anyone on the streets and you're scared shit. Am I correct so far?"
"I also think this is very recent. You don't seem to have much in the way of street smarts, and you're feeling very vulnerable and lost."
"And you're probably frightened that some dirty old man like me is going to kidnap you and have sex with you or sell you to slave traders or whatever. And you don't want to do that so you're terrified."
"Well, you're safe with me. I may be gay but I have a long-term partner and I don't have any interest in having sex with boys your age."
He looked up at me.
"Yes. Is that a problem?"
"Umm….no. But I thought all gay men…."
"There's no such thing as 'all gay men'. We're all different, some are nice and some are awful, just like straight people."
There was a pause. Then he looked at me. "Where's your partner. I haven't seen him."
"No, he's in Australia. He's a pilot. He'll be back in a few days."
Then there was another silence.
So I tried again. "It sounds to me that we need to find some way to help you pretty quickly, because I don't think you're going to last long on the streets. Either you're going to get soaked again and die of cold, or you're going to fall in with some bad guys who will exploit you. There aren't that many street kids who are as cute as you, so you're very vulnerable."
"So let's try to think of a few options, and you can tell me if you think they are even remotely possible. OK?"
He sighed and nodded a little.
"Whatever. It's all so fucking hopeless."
"I understand, but let's try. First, is going home an option?"
"NO! NO! He'll kill me!"
"OK. That's your father, right?"
"Umm…..stepfather. He's a total bastard."
"Do you have a mother? Can she help?"
"No, she's completely under his control. If she tries to help, he'll beat her up."
"I mean she and I are OK, but ever since she met him he has hated me."
"OK, enough of that option for the time being. Any relatives, aunts, uncles, cousins, people like that?"
"I've one older uncle but he lives in Scotland and he doesn't seem to like kids, and even if I could go there my stepfather would know and he'd still try to make my life miserable."
"A best friend? Anyone your age you could stay with?"
He looked up and tears started streaming down his face. I moved over and he gave me this great bear hug and just cried and cried on my shoulder.
I didn't know what to do. I remember Sis saying once you just had to let people cry it out. So I kept patting him on the back while he cried his eyes out.
This went on for ages. Eventually his sobs became weaker, and then he let go of me and just stared down at his feet, sniffling and still crying.
I got up and found a towel and some tissues and started to clean him up. And some water as well for him to drink.
He looked up at me with red eyes still brimming with tears. I tried to calm him down as best I could.
"Hey, it's OK to cry. Don't be embarrassed. Even grown men like me cry."
He just sobbed some more, but it was clear he was pretty much cried out. Also, it seemed to me we had gotten close to a major breakthrough, and I didn't want to let the moment pass.
"So, let me guess, your horrible stepfather caught you and your best friend doing something he didn't like and he threw you out of the house. Right?"
There was the tiniest of little nods.
"And I'm going to guess your best friend is a boy, right?"
Another tiny nod.
"And you can't go to his house because your homophobic stepfather will know and he'll make everyone's life miserable, right?"
A big nod.
"And you haven't been able to get in touch with your boyfriend because you have no phone, and he's probably going crazy not knowing what's happened, and he'll be really worried and scared you're in real trouble."
Another big nod. Then some more tears started.
"Let's take a break. Do you like chocolate?"
A big nod.
So I went and found the box of Belgian chocolates I'd bought in Brussels last Wednesday that I'd planned to give to Paul because we always got each other something from wherever we went on our travels.
"Help yourself. They're very good."
And he did. And then he helped himself again. And again.
But despite the chocolate he looked tired and frustrated. And it was hard to blame him. But I felt we had to keep going a little bit longer.
"You know what I think I'm supposed to have done when I found you half-dead on the street was to call the police or the ambulance."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because I don't trust them. If you get involved with police or the hospital the first thing they would so is try to find out who you are and contact your parents, and I didn't want to risk that if you had got away from a really difficult situation. And anyway, it was quicker to warm you up here than wait for someone else to come and pick you up."
I got a nod.
"And if they couldn't contact your parents, or if you convinced them not to, then they would hand you over to Child Services and then they would have probably dumped you in some home where you would be thrown together with a bunch of kids you don't know and wouldn't trust."
Another nod. "I hear those homes really suck, and smaller kids like me get picked on or worse."
"Another option for you is to call one of those Teen Help lines and see what they have to offer. But I don't have the slightest idea what they can do for you. Do you want to try that?"
He kept looking at his feet.
"It's so fucking unfair. I didn't ask to be gay and now look what's happening. It's hopeless. I've got no family left, I've lost all my friends, I'm broke, I've got nowhere to go, and….."
He burst back into tears, sobbing even worse than last time. I tried to hug him and console him, but he fought and wriggled and resisted everything I tried to do. Well done, John, you've really screwed things up.
It took ages to calm him down but eventually he stopped crying. It was painful to look at someone so completely defeated with an empty stare and tears and snot all over his face.
After he got cleaned up again, and after he had raided the chocolates again, I thought it was time to play my last card.
"OK, I've got one last thing we can try if you're willing."
"My sister specializes in helping abandoned teenagers. She makes sure they're safe, and she finds opportunities for them to start their lives over again. She's very good at what she does. Actually, she works miracles. I told her about you and she said that if you were willing, but only if, then she's happy to come here tomorrow morning and talk to you and see what we can do to help."
"Hey, look at me"
He gave a quick shrug, glanced at me, and went back to studying his feet. Now I was getting pissed off.
"Look, I've never had to do anything like this before. I don't know what to do either, and I'm just as frustrated and helpless as you, and so I turned to the only person I know who might be able to help. That's all I can do. OK? And if you say 'no' then you can bugger off and get out of my nice warm place and go out into the cold and rain, and then you're on your own, kid."
So I stood up, went to the hall closet, got out his jacket and his still damp ratty canvas shoes, and threw them at him.
"It's your choice."
There was a long silence. Then he looked up at me, eyes full of tears again.
"Umm….sorry. I know you're trying to help but I'm so scared and I don't know what to do."
"That makes two of us, so let's do this. You stay here one more night, we'll watch a movie, get some pizza, and my sister will come tomorrow morning, and maybe she can help. Are you willing to try?"
"Umm….I guess. I don't have much choice, do I?"
"No, not really. I'm sorry your life is so shitty. But trust me, if you help, it can get better. I got bullied as a kid because I was gay but it's turned out OK for me."
But in the end he started to come round. I made him take a shower and get cleaned up and that seemed to help. Then he said he was getting hungry again so I looked up a local pizza joint on line and got their menu up for him to choose from. He chose a meatlovers and I chose pear, gorgonzola and walnut, and he said that wasn't real pizza, that's 'pretend pizza' for yuppies, and he asked for coke, and I ordered.
While we waited I risked one more question.
"You've been here almost twenty four hours, and I don't even know your name. Are you willing to tell me?"
He looked at me and thought for a while.
"OK, Ryan, we've done enough talking for one day. See if you can find a movie you want to watch. Here's the remote. Do you know how to use it?"
"Duh, I'm a teenager. We know these things."
And that's what we did. When the pizza came we sat in the living room and ate our pizzas and watched 'Hugo' which was his choice.
When it was over he looked at me. "Did you like the movie?"
"Yes, I did. Thanks, good choice!"
"You really think your sister can help?"
"I do. She's the best."
"OK. I think I'm going to go to bed now. Is that OK?"
"Yes. Sleep well, Ryan. If you need anything, just yell, but otherwise I'm not coming in, so don't worry."
And he went into the spare bedroom and closed the door, but not before The Witch had sneaked in there was well.
I was mentally exhausted. I've never had to do anything like that, and the whole day was really stressful. But I felt that I'd done OK. I texted Sis and said it was a go and we'd made some progress and he was willing to talk to her. A little later she called back and I briefed her as best I could, and she promised to be there in the morning but right now she had some more champagne to drink.
Then I waited for my normal Skype call from Paul who should have reached Melbourne. He said I looked tired. I did, and I was. He asked if everything was OK and I told him things were normal, nothing to worry about, and that I hadn't slept well because I missed him. Of course he didn't believe me. I told him nothing was wrong, and I just needed a good night's sleep, and that I missed him and couldn't wait for him to get back, and to make sure he got a really fast plane so he could get here earlier. And then I got myself a drink and I went to bed and slept pretty well.
I got up early and had my coffee and sat and looked at the city below me. The rain had finally stopped but it was still grey and windy.
I heard the bedroom door open.
"Hi, Ryan, did you sleep OK?"
"Pretty much. I woke in the middle of the night in a panic but I got back to sleep OK."
"Umm…about yesterday…I'm sorry I gave you such a hard time. You've been very nice to me. Thanks."
"No problem. That's what adults do."
"Not all of them."
"No, unfortunately that's true. Now, let's talk about breakfast. Does that sound like a plan to you?"
"Yes, I'm starving."
"What, after all that pizza?"
"I didn't eat that much!"
"You had five slices!"
"Well, it was more of a snack than a meal!"
"I don't have much to offer this morning because I didn't expect a houseguest all weekend. I can do the same as yesterday, eggs, toast, bacon?"
"Or I could finish off the pizza."
So that's what he did. And so did I, and I found that pear, gorgonzola and walnut pizza made a pretty good breakfast.
"Umm…when your sister supposed to come?"
"About ten thirty."
He cleared up the breakfast dishes, put them in the dishwasher, then he walked over to the window and looked out at the view.
"This is really neat. You can see everything from here. I wish I had my camera, I like the way the clouds are breaking up and you've got shafts of sunlight breaking through."
So I opened my iPad and opened up the camera App and gave it to him, and he opened the door to the terrace and took lots of pictures, and then came back inside.
"Wow, it's cold out there. Thanks again. I don't know if any of these pictures will be any good. It's not the same as with my real camera."
So I left him looking at the photos he'd taken and I got ready for the arrival of my sister. I brewed a fresh pot of my favorite Sumatran coffee in anticipation of her arrival.
And at ten thirty on the dot the doorbell sounded and I buzzed her into the lobby. Shortly afterwards there was a knock on my door.
"Hi, Sis, you are you?"
"Hi Banker. Where's the coffee?"
"And good morning to you as well."
"Whatever. I hate getting up so early on a Sunday, so you're going to pay for it."
"Thanks for coming."
I took her coat and she walked into the living room. It was flooded with light as the sun had finally come out.
"Still living in this dingy attic, are you, Banker? One day you'll be able to get something better. Hi, you must be Ryan. I'm Liz. You look pretty well seeing you've been eating his cooking for two days. No food poisoning, stomach ache, nothing like that? Good. He thinks he can cook but he's useless, just throws everything into a pot and boils it do death. Yuk. I'm amazed you're still alive. Banker, where's my coffee"
I put it down in front of her.
"He doesn't like coffee."
"So, give him something else. Is that the way you treat your guests. No wonder you're in such a mess, Ryan, if you get treated like that. Banker, why aren't there any biscuits to eat? Jeez, the service round here is dreadful. I think I'm going to leave. Well, let me have my coffee first, I suppose it's that normal instant Nescafe that you like so much. Banker, go downstairs to the convenience store and get some biscuits, are chocolate chips cookies OK for you Ryan? Good, get some of those and something exotic for me, and something for this poor boy to drink, like coke or Gatorade or something, and make sure we have ice cream for dessert, and we're going to have lunch at one, and it better be good. Banker, do as you're told and leave us alone. Vamoose."
I've seen her put on this show before. Ryan was giving her a little smile, the first I'd seen since I dragged him out of the rain two days ago. Maybe there was hope for him after all.
So I went down to the convenience store and took as much time as possible to buy some fancy biscuits and chocolate chip cookies, soft drinks and sodas, and some cream and extra milk and eggs and some more bread and a few other things, and came upstairs, and they were huddled together and Ryan was talking to her and she was listening, so I put some biscuits on a plate and gave Sis another cup of freshly ground Sumatran coffee and gave Ryan a Gatorade and I went to the kitchen and left them alone.
Two hours later, at exactly five to one, Sis stood up.
"OK, Banker, lunch better be ready. I'm going use the bathroom first."
So she went into my bathroom, and Ryan went into his, and when they came back we ate the Tuscan bean soup I'd made, and then we had some tagliatelle with an alfredo sauce, and shrimps and capers. And a green salad with a little raspberry vinaigrette, and then we had ice cream and the remaining chocolate chip cookies. And everyone had seconds and we all ended up stuffed.
And we didn't talk about Ryan's situation at all. Liz was able to keep up a conversation that involved all three of us, and it was about photography and art and stories about a vacation she'd had with her husband, and a long description of the gay wedding she'd been to yesterday, and the plans I had to go with Paul to Florida after Christmas, and stuff like that. And Ryan smiled a lot and giggled a couple of times, and I began to wonder if there was a God after all.
Then, after we had all eaten as much lunch as we could, and Liz had complained about how bad the food was and she only had second helpings because she had missed breakfast, and we should really have gone to McDonalds instead, and how she said she couldn't wait to get home where she might be able to eat again, she summoned us to the living room.
"OK, this is what Ryan and I have agreed we're going to do. I'm going to stay here for a couple of days. I'm going to take your room, and Ryan can stay where he is, and you can have the couch."
"Just joking. Ryan says he'll sleep on the couch so I'll take his room and then we're all going to be really busy tomorrow."
"Quiet. This isn't about you right now. This is about Ryan. First, he needs to get some stuff from his house. He doesn't have clean clothes, he doesn't have his iPad, he wants his camera and he needs some proper shoes and a few other important things. So, Banker, you are going to help him break into his house and get those things."
"I can't do that. I have to work."
"No you don't. You're going to do what I say. You're going to call your miserable bank and tell them that they'll have to get someone else to count the money tomorrow because you have a family crisis and you're taking the day off. Then you and Ryan are going to get into that broken down heap of a car of yours and you're going to wait near his house until his stepfather has gone to work and his mother has left the house to walk his little sister to school. Then he's going to get the spare key from its hiding place and go into the house and get the stuff he needs. He's got about seven minutes to get everything he needs because his mother will get back in about ten minutes. Ryan says that's enough time to get essentials. OK?"
"I suppose. Then what?"
"Then you're going to the supermarket to buy enough food for all of us for a couple of days and then you're coming back here and Ryan can do some homework and you can prepare something for dinner and the two of you are going to wait for me. And make sure you buy food that Ryan likes not just your normal yuppie stuff. OK?"
"Yes, Sis, anything you say, Sis! And what are you going to do?"
"Well, I have to get some paperwork from Child Services. I can take responsibility for Ryan on a temporary basis but I need to get London Services to give me that responsibility because he's in their jurisdiction. And then I'm going to talk to his next door neighbour who was a witness to his stepfather chasing him out of the house and threatening him with a big stick and telling him that if he ever showed his little faggot face there again he's going to knock his fucking head off, or words to that effect. I need a witness to show he is 'at risk' from his stepfather so he can't go home. Then I'm going to his school and I'm going to talk to his Headmaster and make sure that he is able to do his homework even though he's missed some deadlines, and I'm going to try to meet his boyfriend Alec and get Alec to email him all the new homework assignments he's missed. And then I'm going to talk to a couple of people who might be able to help find a longer term solution of somewhere to stay for Ryan. And then I'm coming home and I'm going to have a large glass of wine, and then you're going to feed us. OK?"
She and Ryan had worked all that out in a couple of hours, and it had taken two days for me to find out his name? Maybe that's why I'm a banker after all.
"OK. Anything else?"
"When you call your bank tell them you need at least two days off. I don't know what we'll do Tuesday but it will be busy. Better make it three."
"That's going to be difficult. I've got lots of meetings on Tuesday."
"Look, if you want to be a Gringott, and if you think counting money in your bank is more important than getting this young man back on his feet so he can live a normal life then you and I have going to have the biggest fucking fight ever. So just do it."
Ryan was laughing hysterically. I glared at him.
"What's wrong with you?"
"She called you a Gringott, that's hilarious!"
"What's a Gringott?"
Ryan and Sis looked at each other looked at each other, rolled their eyes, and burst out laughing. Eventually Ryan looked at me with this big mischievous look on his face.
"They're the goblin bankers in the Harry Potter books and they take banking very seriously, and they spend their time checking the money in the vaults, and nobody has even stolen anything from them, and they have no sense of humour. All they think about is banking. It's the perfect name for you."
Sis was laughing. "Right, no more 'Banker', from now on its 'Gringott'". She and Ryan high-fived each other. Two against one. I knew I'd lost this battle, No point in fighting anymore.
"One last thing. Dinner tonight. You're taking us out. I like that French restaurant just down the block. We all need to get out of this miserable apartment for a while."
And that's pretty much what happened. She and Ryan spent more time talking about all sorts of things, and then we all went for dinner, and when we came home Ryan ended up sleeping on the couch with The Witch.
Next morning we had a quick breakfast and then I took Ryan down to the parking garage. When he saw my car his eyes lit up.
"Wow, that's yours? Cool? Does it go really fast?"
We got in the Porsche and I negotiated my way to his address. Thank God for GPS systems.
I found a place to park on his street here we could get a good view of all the comings and goings from his house. At eight thirty sharp his stepfather drove his car out of his carport and went off down the road, just like Ryan had said he would. Ryan ducked down until he had fully disappeared.
Then we had a long wait. At nine-fifteen his mother and a girl about six years old with a pink backpack came out of the front door, walked away from us and rounded the corner. As soon as they were out of sight, Ryan opened the car door, sprinted into the front garden, bent down, waved a key at me, and went into the house.
The next few minutes were the longest of my life. The clock on the dashboard seemed to have stopped. When five minutes were up I started to get concerned. When seven minutes were up I was really worried. Nine minutes had passed when finally the door opened and Ryan came out with a large sports bag and a large backpack and a shopping bag, tears streaming down his face. I leaned over, and held the door open and he threw everything into the back seat, slammed the door and I drove off. Ryan hunkered down as much as possible, crying his eyes out. The timing was perfect. We drove right past his mother as she turned the corner. She never looked at us.
"That was close. What took you so long?"
Ryan just cried and cried. I found a place to park and turned to give him a hug. What's happened?"
Eventually he managed to get hold of himself, and in between sobs and sniffles he said
"That fucking bastard smashed everything, phone, iPad, Play Station. All my stuff was thrown all over the place. I'm going to kill that bastard."
"What did you manage to get?"
"Some clothes and shoes and a jacket, and some school stuff, and, oh yes, my camera, he must have missed that cos it was in the back of the wardrobe. But the fucking bastard smashed all my photos and everything.
I texted Sis and explained what had happened. She called me back, told us to go home, get Ryan cleaned up, go shopping, and then wait for her. She added that I should make sure Ryan didn't try to contact his boyfriend or anyone else. If people knew where he was and his stepfather found out, then Ryan wouldn't be safe. It was best to just let him disappear.
After we got home, and Ryan took a shower and changed his clothes and had a soda, we went to the supermarket. I don't know if you have gone grocery shopping with a teenager recently, especially one who can't cook. My advice is don't even try. Their idea of nutrition and good food is different to mine, like we come from different planets. Eventually we managed to compromise so I had enough decent food to make proper meals and he had enough junk food to keep him quiet between meals.
We stopped for lunch on the way home because he said that if he didn't have a burger soon he would probably die. I thought I would die if I ate the burger he ordered. Fortunately the place had some salads so I settled for one of those while Ryan consumed another few thousand calories. When I was looking disapprovingly at him and his mouth was completely full, he said
"Hey, Gringott, all I had for breakfast was a tiny piece of toast. You can't expect that to last all day."
After lunch, back in apartment, Ryan looked totally lost. He was holding a broken picture frame that had a photo of him and a very good looking boy his age laughing and hugging each other.
"Is that your boyfriend?"
"Yeah, that's Alec."
"Wow, he's handsome! Do you have a copy?"
"No, it's the only one…no, wait, I think I saved it to the Cloud. I try to back things up when I remember."
"OK, let's do this."
So I got out my iPad, and I had to install some Apps that a teenager would use but not a fifty odd year old banker, and eventually Ryan managed to remember the correct passwords, and after a while he found a file of the photo. I got him to email it to me and from my laptop a put it on a flash drive.
"OK, Ryan, come with me. Get your jacket on, it's still cold outside."
We went downstairs and across the street to the Copy Centre and they were able to make a high quality copy of the picture, and I bought a frame for it, and gave it to Ryan.
"Thanks, Gringott! That's nice of you."
"You're welcome. Now, remember what Sis said about homework? Can you do any of it on my iPad?"
"Yeah, some, anyway. Is it OK to do my homework on the kitchen table?"
I nodded. Ryan got out his backpack, extracted a mutilated textbook and a very loved bear and put that on the table next to the iPad.
"What's with the bear?"
"He's my good luck charm for homework, especially Maths. I've had him since I was small. My real dad gave it to me. It's the only thing I've got left to remember him by."
And so he sat at the kitchen table doing homework and I pottered about the kitchen getting some things prepared for dinner. The Witch sat on the chair next to Ryan. She never does that with me.
"Hey, Gringott, do you know anything about Maths?"
"I'm supposed to do these stupid simultaneous equations and I don't understand them. Our Maths teacher sucks. I always have to get Alec to explain it to me afterwards."
And I helped him understand how they worked and soon he solved a couple of problems without my help. And he managed to get most of the homework finished when my phone rang. It was Sis.
"Hey, Gringott, how's it going."
"Fine. Ryan's doing homework."
"Good. Let me talk to him.
I handed the phone over.
I pointed to the spare bedroom and he went in and closed the door because it was private and I didn't want to hear two lovebirds cooing at each other.
Actually, he wasn't in the room for very long. He came out looking radiantly happy and held out the phone.
"Liz wants to talk to you."
Sis was just checking up that everything had gone well. She said she'd made progress and hoped to be home by six. I told her it went well from our end. When she hung up, I looked at Ryan. He gave me a little smile.
"Gringott, Alec said to say thank you to you for saving my life. He can't wait to meet you. And I can't tell you how happy I am to have talked to him and know he's OK and that Liz is trying so hard to help me, and everything you've done, so thank you, thank you, thank you."
"Seeing you smiling like that makes it all worthwhile."
I gave him a high five. Then he went back to Maths and I went back to cooking. Then he put his books away and got out his camera which was a fancy digital one and he went out on the terrace and took a whole lot of pictures, and then spent the rest of the time downloading them to my iPad and picking out the ones he liked.
Just after six Sis called from downstairs and I buzzed her in, and Ryan flung himself into her arms before she had a chance to move.
"Now that's the type of greeting I like when I get home. Gringott, why don't you greet me like that?"
"Probably because you're my sister, that's why."
"Where's my drink? The service round here just stinks."
I got a bottle of wine and poured her a glass, and Ryan grabbed it and took it over to her.
"Finally there's someone in this house who knows how to treat a lady properly. When's dinner?"
"About forty five minutes."
"Good. Let's talk business."
So I explained what Ryan and I had done.
"Excellent, you guys did great. Are you OK, Ryan? Did you get enough stuff to keep you going?"
"Yeah, I got most everything I needed and which wasn't smashed by that arsehole - clothes, school books, and my camera. I even did some homework like you said. Gringott helped me."
"Good. So here's what I did today."
And Sis went on to explain how she had started with London Child Services and after a long discussion and lots of going back and forth they had finally agreed to let her take temporary responsibility for Ryan, but only on the condition that she had to report progress to them and reserve the right to talk to Ryan at any time and take back responsibility if they weren't satisfied.
"Is that going to happen?"
"No, Ryan, I don't think so. They've got so much work these days they're secretly quite happy to have someone take some work away. But they're worried that it sets a precedent for other people to muscle in on their territory. So the first thing I need is for you to sign a paper, Ryan, where you agree to having me take over your case from them, and Gringott, you need to sign as a witness."
We all signed as requested.
"Next, I got permission for you, Ryan, to stay with Gringott on a temporary basis. I can do that because I approved this apartment as suitable. Even though it's a really dingy and falling down attic only suitable for rats and stray cats, I told them it was adequate, and that you had your own room which is a specific requirement."
"Don't I get a say as to whether Ryan stays here?"
"Yes and no. If you refuse then I'm obliged to hand Ryan over to Child Services immediately because I can't guarantee his safety. So it's up to you, Gringott."
"That's blackmail, Sis! But despite that, Ryan, you're welcome to stay here until things work out."
"Thanks, Gringott! I really like it here."
"Well, don't too get comfortable. Gringotts are really bad tempered when their space is threatened. Sis, how long do you think temporary is? Paul comes back on Wednesday."
"I haven't the slightest idea. I'll know better tomorrow. We have to deal with it on a day to day basis. That's the best I can do. Sorry." She got out some more papers. "Gringott, you have to sign another document agreeing to be a temporary foster parent for Ryan until otherwise notified. It's only good for seventy two hours, but it can be renewed if needed."
I signed. Ryan grinned. I sighed. "So, Sis, is that it?"
"No, there's lot's more. I went and talked to Ryan's next door neighbor. Jeez, what a nosy old crone. Stop laughing, Ryan! But she gave me a very detailed description of Ryan's stepfather chasing him down the street yelling obscenities at him and brandishing some form of large stick. It's a good thing you can run fast, Ryan! Then I went to the school and talked to the Headmaster, and he's happy to let Ryan submit homework by email and keep up as best as I can. And he dragged Ryan's boyfriend Alec out of class and he called you, and he's getting your homework ready for you. I like Alec, he's really good looking! You've got good taste in boys, Ryan! Hey stop grinning, you're going to be busy, young man, so don't think you're on holiday. Alec said your stepfather had been over twice threatening his parents because he thought you were hiding there and they were sheltering you. There doesn't seem to be much love lost between Alec's parents and your stepfather. Gringott, more wine!"
I obeyed. No point in antagonizing Sis when she's in full business mode.
Ryan piped up. "Alec's parents think my stepfather's a complete jerk."
"Do Alec's parents know about you two?"
"Yes, and they're OK with it. Alec's been out to them quite a while, and they know me and him are best friends."
"Best friends and more?"
Ryan blushed. "Umm…yeah."
"Hey that's OK. Fourteen year olds are supposed to be horny all the time."
Ryan blushed even deeper but kept his mouth shut. I returned with Sis's wine and some soda for Ryan.
"Finally, I went to the magistrates court and I managed to get a restraining order against Ryan's stepfather."
Ryan looked puzzled.
"Well, a restraining order tells him that he must leave you alone, he mustn't threaten you in any way, and he mustn't threaten anyone who knows where you are. If he continues to threaten you or anybody else, then the police are supposed to warn him and, if necessary, take him into custody. This order specifically names Ryan, his mother, Alec and his family, so if he turns up again at their house they'll be able to call the police. And he has to stay at least 500 yards away from you if he knows where you are."
"Does it work?"
"Yes, by and large. Some people just accept the order and leave the victim alone, while others ignore it. But eventually they get into trouble. It's tough on the victims and it's not foolproof, but it's a start."
"Does he know about this order thingy?"
"No, it hasn't been served yet and that's OK because what I'm going to do tomorrow is to go and talk to your mother and explain it all to her and make sure she's on board. I need to make sure she knows what this is all about, and that Ryan's in real danger from your stepfather. That's why I'm not going to tell her where you are, just in case she tells him. And I'm hoping to meet Alec's parents and explain it to them because they're involved whether they like it or not, and what to do if your stepfather turns up again. And then I'm going to continue to work on a long term solution for you, Ryan."
"I'm never going to live with that stupid arsehole again."
"Hey, watch your language!"
"Sorry! Well, sort of."
"OK, OK, I understand. There's no way anyone will expect you to go back if there is the slightest chance of you being hurt, physically or mentally. When I go and see your mother do you have any message for her?"
Ryan thought for quite a while.
"Look, can you tell her I'm sorry I ran away without telling her but I didn't have a choice. And can you tell her that it's not fair I have to suffer because he is such a bastard."
"OK, I'll pass that on as best I can, but maybe I won't use bad language. I agree it's not fair and she has to recognize that, and accept it, and agree that's why you left. That's why I'm here to help as best I can."
I thought we'd all had enough and that it was time to eat.
"So, let's wrap this up and I'll put dinner on the table. But first you have to tell me what are Ryan and I supposed to do tomorrow?"
"Well, it's up to you. Ryan, Alec said he'd email me your homework assignments this evening because your stuff is all broken, and you need to do that homework because that proves to Child Services that you are being looked after properly and that you are being responsible and not just roaming the streets. Is that OK, Ryan?"
"Gringott, you're going to be babysitter tomorrow. Make sure Ryan does at least some of his homework, feed him at regular intervals, and wait for me to phone. If things go well I may need to take Ryan somewhere in the afternoon, but that's still up in the air."
I guess I must have looked uncomfortable.
"Look, Gringott, I know you want to go to work, I'm sorry, but we can't leave Ryan alone. Child Services would take him away immediately. I'm sure you can find some way to work remotely and I'm sure all the money will still be there in the vaults for you to count when you go back to work. It's just possible, but highly improbable, that Child Services will want to come and look at your miserable attic and see if it's suitable for Ryan to stay here. Oh, and you're going to have to take Wednesday off as well."
"If you insist."
"I do. Ryan, you must do your homework. Get up to date as much as possible. And could I ask you not to try to contact Alec? He's just as concerned about you as you are about him, but I want to get things as clear as possible so you two don't start speculating on what or what might not happen to you both. And if he doesn't know where you are, then your stepfather can't force him or his parents to tell him. Can you do that for me?"
Ryan looked very sad, but he nodded agreement, and then we had dinner and talked about nothing remotely related to Ryan's situation, and after dinner Sis got an email with all Ryan's assignments but Sis told him not to talk to Alec yet but he'd probably be able to do so tomorrow. And I told Sis I was exhausted and anyway was waiting for a Skype from Paul who was back in Singapore, and she said she would also go to bed fairly early, leaving Ryan in the living room and the couch. The Witch joined him.
When Paul Skyped I warned him that when he got back on Wednesday there might be a houseguest or two, but I'd be home as well. Of course, then I had to give him a brief summary of what was going on. He wasn't exactly thrilled but he said he thought we could manage for a little while like that.
It was odd to stay home on a weekday morning, and find a fourteen year old boy fast asleep on the couch with The Witch curled up next to him.
Sis was up fairly early, so I gave her coffee and juice, and she very quietly told me that she hoped a lot of things would get resolved today. She also said that she thought I had done far better than she would have expected from someone who had next to zero experience with kids. She felt Ryan liked me and had begun to trust me. Given that his stepfather had never liked him and been critical of everything he'd done, and because Ryan felt that his mother took his stepfather's side on everything and didn't stand up for him, he didn't have too much trust for his parents, or for other adults in general.
I told her that I hoped things would be resolved soon. While I liked Ryan there wasn't any way that he could stay more than a few days. She told me not to let Ryan know that because for him this was his safe place and he would be threatened if he felt I was rejecting him. She also said that it was one thing to rescue him physically, that was the easy part, but rescuing him psychologically was much more complicated.
"Stay here, look after him, get him up soon, make him do homework, and I'll be in touch as soon as I can. OK?"
A quick hug and she was off. I waited a few minutes and then started the process of waking Ryan and getting him moving. Actually it wasn't too difficult. He'd slept OK and he needed the bathroom, so he went off to pee and take a shower and get dressed. Breakfast was basic, and it wasn't too long before he was at the kitchen table doing some homework. I sat at the other end and did as much work as I could remotely.
We had a mid-morning break, and he showed me some of his photos on his iPad that he had downloaded from the Cloud, together with the ones he took yesterday. I thought the one's he took yesterday were nice, but he wasn't satisfied. He said he needed his Photoshop in order to improve things and make them 'works of art' and not just 'snapshots'. He asked if I had Photoshop on my laptop and I said no, and he said something about Gringotts having no sense of imagination because all they thought of was money. So I made him do some more homework just to show him how mean Gringotts really are. I got a dirty look but he didn't fight it.
Then we had lunch. He got to eat some of the junk food he'd conned me into buying, and then wolfed down a large ham and cheese sandwich and a soda. I made myself a salad and drank water. It's great being in your fifties, isn't it!
Things really dragged after lunch. We didn't hear anything from Sis, and Ryan was getting bored and restless. Kids need other kids, they can't survive with only adults for company. I couldn't get any work done because he was bothering me and I asked him to go away for a while and find something to do. He didn't like that, so he went off and sat in a corner with The Witch in attendance and sulked for a while, and then he got bored doing that, and he wandered round looking at my pictures.
"Gringott, did you choose all these pictures?"
"Well, when I bought this place I had an interior decorator come and he helped me chose some pictures at some art gallery. Do you like them?"
"Well, I like one of them but the others are so so."
"Which one do you like, then?"
He pointed at a very minimalist picture that was of a few tiny figures on a beach flying kites against a dark and brooding sky. There wasn't much colour in the picture except the beige of the sand, four or five specks of colour for the figures, and the tiny triangles of white for the kites. The sky was mostly grey, getting darker the higher you looked.
"Why do you like it?"
"Well, it's really clever the way the painter uses almost no colour at all but it's those few dots of colour that give the picture depth and meaning. If you took the people and the kites away, the rest of the picture would be just abstract and not very interesting. But when you include those tiny specks you really get a sense of space and open air and you can almost feel the wind blowing."
Well, of course I'd never have thought of any of that. When we looked at it, the decorator thought the dark greys would suit my place because it was in contrast to the rest of the place that is so light and airy, but neither of us had really thought of it as 'art', only as decoration. But maybe that's what makes me a Gringott, and why a fourteen year old kid can understand things a lot better than me.
"Ryan, you amaze me. You're just a kid and yet you seem to have a sense of art that belongs to someone much older. You must have a great Art teacher."
"He's OK, I guess. He wants us to be expressive and do whatever we want. But he's pretty critical and he doesn't like much of what I do. I wish I could go to a school where they specialize in Art and especially Photography. I wanted to go to St. Dunstan's where they have a fantastic program but my bastard stepfather wouldn't let me transfer. He wants me to be an engineer but I don't."
"It doesn't sound like you're going to grow up to be a Gringott!"
"No way. I mean, as Gringotts go, you're really nice but that type of life isn't for me."
"What about Alec, what does he like?"
"He's more into nature and stuff. He likes plants and animals. He's good at Maths though. He hates Art. He want's to do Environmental Science or something like that. We're quite different really, so maybe that's why we like each other because we complement each other, and not duplicate. Are you and Paul like that?"
"A bit. He has to be very organized and methodical like me otherwise you can't be a pilot or a banker. But he likes travelling and meeting people from different countries and being outdoors when he can. He's much better with people than me. We both sort of do our own thing. We both travel for business quite a bit, but when we're together we make a lot of time for each other."
"Does he know about me? You said he's coming home tomorrow? Will I have to leave when he comes?"
"Yes, he knows you and Sis are here. Yes, he'll be home late morning tomorrow. No, you don't have to leave. Yes, it will be a bit crowded but we'll manage at least for a little while, and anyway he'll want to sleep quite a bit when he gets home because the Australian trip always wears him out."
Then it was time for another snack and soda for Ryan. Neither of us could do much after that. Ryan watched TV for a while, joined of course by The Witch, and I was glad I could let him use my headphones so I didn't have to listen to Ryan's cartoons and crappy music. I tried to read my art book but couldn't concentrate. Both of us were looking at the phone as if it was a bomb waiting to explode.
The phone finally exploded about five o'clock.
"Hello, Gringott. I'm still doing stuff and I'm going to be late so don't wait dinner for me. I'll see you when I get home, maybe about eight."
"How's it going?"
"It's going. It's hard work trying to find something suitable at such short notice, but it's beginning to look promising but I'm not going to say more until I've met a couple more people. OK?"
"We're dying of boredom here, and Ryan is getting really antsy, and the waiting is killing us."
"Go out. Have dinner out. Get some fresh air."
So we did. We got our jackets and we walked to the River Bus and took the boat down to Greenwich and found a restaurant that suited both of us and then we walked back though the tunnel under the Thames and took the Dockland Railway back to my apartment. We both benefitted from a little exercise and getting away from Ryan's situation.
We got home at about seven thirty. I decided to act on something I'd thought about during out walk.
"Ryan, can I use my iPad for a couple of minutes?"
"Why? You've got your laptop."
"Because I want to give you something."
"It's a surprise!"
So rather reluctantly he have me my iPad and he went off to the bathroom. When he came back I handed the iPad back to him.
"Here you go!"
"What did you do? No, wait…Oh My God, Gringott, thank you, thank you, thank you! That's fantastic!"
He came over and hugged me, and immediately started working on his new Photoshop Pro for iPad.
Not long after that Sis got home.
"Gringott, wine, now!"
I obliged and Sis sat on the couch, put her feet on the table, and let out a huge breath. Ryan was milling around impatiently.
"What's going on? Do you have any news? When can I talk to Alec?"
Sis drank some of her wine, and then looked at him.
"Ryan, this all takes time but I think things are going well. First, I talked to your mother. She feels terrible about what has happened, and she wants to see you so she can say sorry to you in person. She realizes she hasn't been very supportive but she never expected your stepfather to be so violent. She fully supports the restraining order. She realizes that you can't come home any time in the near future because she doesn't know how your stepfather will react, and she's miserable about that. And she says your little sister misses you lots as well."
Ryan just looked at her, his eyes getting a little teary, but he held it in.
"If he just went and fucked off somewhere else then it would all be OK."
"Sorry, Ryan, that's not going to happen. He's part of your family whether you like it or not, and he's the father of your sister and that gives him some rights. But at the same time, I was pretty tough on your mother, Ryan. I told her that unless things changed she could lose you for ever."
"That's for sure."
"I ended up spending a lot of time with her, Ryan. She agrees that your stepfather needs help in his attitude towards you, and dealing with the fact that you are gay and have a boyfriend and having sex and that there's nothing he can do that will change that."
"I'm not going back."
"No, I agree. It's not an option. Sometimes, in cases like this, and no, Ryan, you're not the only kid who has ended up like this, the parents end up splitting up but I don't think that's going to happen because your stepfather is entitled to be with his daughter, your sister, and he hasn't done anything bad to her. So we can't expect your parents to split up unless your stepfather ends up making life miserable for your mother and sister."
"So what other options are there? Are you going to stuff me into some home where I'm going to get beaten up or worse?"
"STOP! Stop feeling sorry for yourself and listen. Gringott, more wine!"
Ryan was looking like he was going to implode, and he sniffed a bit but he managed to hold back his tears.
"After I finished with your mother, then I went to see Alec's mother. I wanted to do that when Alec wasn't there and his dad was at work. She said that they were pretty shocked when your stepfather came round, more than once, and accused them of hiding you and threatening them, and getting pretty abusive. She's really happy about the restraining order. She's says that really helps them because they can call for help if your stepfather goes there again. Ryan, they really like you, they don't mind that you and Alec are boyfriends, all they want is the best for you."
"Why can't I just go and live with them? That would solve all the problems!"
"Yes, and you wouldn't do homework because you and Alec would be making out all the time! I know what horny fourteen year olds are like, they can't keep their dicks in their pants. That's all they think about. Sex. And pizza."
Ryan went bright red and kept his mouth shut. Smart kid.
"And, more important, if you went to stay with Alec's family and your stepfather knows and starts threatening everyone that's not going to help anyone. But you need to know that Alec's family supports you one hundred percent. So some people still love you, so you're not alone in the world."
Ryan went over and sat next to Sis and then he buried his face in her shoulder and started crying.
"Hey, cheer up, Ryan, I haven't finished telling you everything yet."
I got the box of tissues and gradually Ryan stopped crying.
"After I finished with Alec's mother I went and did some more lobbying with Child Services, and we got a policeman and we went to see your stepfather at his work, and the policeman served him with the restraining order. At first I thought he was going to explode with anger, and he got out of his chair and started towards me very menacingly. But the policeman made it absolutely clear that he could be arrested at any time if he physically or verbally abused me, or anyone from Child Services, or anyone else connected to you in any way. That includes Alec's family and your own family. And, most important, you."
"Then what happened?"
"I told him we were looking to find suitable accommodation for you, and that he absolutely must not go near you wherever you were at any time unless accompanied by someone from Child Services. He told me I had to send you home right away because he was your father, and I said that when he chased you out of the house and then smashed up all your staff, he just lost any rights he had as a parent. I told him the courts were getting tougher and tougher on child abuse and domestic violence, and that if he ignored the restraining order it would have an immediate impact on him, his job, his family, and his life in general."
"I bet he didn't like that!"
"No, he didn't. But you know what? When people stand up to bullies, and that's what your stepfather is as far as you're concerned, they normally back off. Have you ever seen that at school, when a kid who's being bullied fights back and even if he loses the fight, the bully leaves him alone afterwards, and goes after someone else?"
Ryan nodded. "Yeah. But it's hard to stand up to bigger kids."
"That's true, but sometimes you just have to. So I told him that we were trying very hard to find somewhere for you to live that would disrupt your life and your friends and your schooling as little as possible, and let you be close enough to see your mother and your sister. And that he was not going to be consulted on this, but had to let us do what we thought best for you. He looked at me, and I looked at him. If looks could kill, we'd both be dead. Then he backed off and said 'we could do whatever the fuck we wanted because he didn't care a shit and he was glad to see the back of that little faggot' or words to that effect."
"The feeling's mutual."
"Whatever. I thought the policeman was going to arrest him there and then but he didn't. Good thing, probably. So we left your stepfather with a strong warning about leaving you alone because if he didn't all hell would break loose."
"Do you think I'm safe? I don't trust him one bit."
"I don't blame you. But I think you're safe for the time being. And if we can get him to agree to counseling, that might help a bit. So then I went back to see your mother. I told her what had happened with your stepfather. And she worried whether you would be safe even with a restraining order, and I said it was the best we could do legally, and that's why we weren't telling anyone where you where. We talked for a long time, and in the end she said she thought that while it would be really difficult to get your stepfather to agree to counseling, she felt he had needed it and if he made no effort at all she would have to think very hard about her own personal situation."
"What do you mean?"
"I think she is willing to tell your stepfather that if he doesn't change his attitude to you, then she might think about leaving him and taking his daughter as well."
"And that's about as far as I got today. I've got a couple of things I need to do tomorrow, but I'm beginning to feel confident that we're going to find a solution."
Ryan looked soulfully at her.
"Umm…thanks. I love you."
"No you don't, you love Alec! You're just grateful. Right?"
Ryan nodded. Finally I decided to butt in.
"So what happens tomorrow?"
"Well, Gringott, you are going to babysit Ryan again. And Paul is coming sometime before lunch. So I suggest that you guys spend the morning doing homework, and say 'Hi' to Paul when he arrives, and then you two should leave Paul to sleep and go off and do something together, and then I'll be home by late afternoon, I hope, and we'll regroup. OK?"
Ryan and I both nodded. I thought for a moment.
"Ryan, if you do your homework in the morning like Sis says, would you like to go to Tate Modern after Paul gets here? We could have lunch there and you can teach me about Art."
"Great, I haven't been there for a while. Sounds like a plan!"
So I made a light dinner for Sis, who looked completely drained. Who wouldn't, dealing with people all the time. Counting money is much more relaxing.
After dinner Ryan worked on his iPad a bit. Then he looked at me.
"Gringott, would you like to look at these? I did some Photoshop on a couple of my pictures."
I walked over and looked over his shoulder. He showed me a picture taken from my terrace showing a view up the Thames towards the City of London. I thought it looked very nice, with some blue sky and fluffy clouds and everything looking nice after the rain.
"Hey, that's pretty good, Ryan. It looks nice. What do you think, Sis?"
She came and looked at it.
"Hmm. Picture postcard type of stuff. Very pretty."
"I knew you two would like it. Now, how about this one?"
He swiped the screen. I gasped. It was basically the same view but taken when the rain was just finishing and the sun was trying to come out from the clouds. He'd adjusted the colours of the sunshine on the river so that the water looked like a stream of pure gold flowing between the dark silhouettes of the buildings, and above it all were grey clouds with patches of gold where the sun was trying to break through.
"That's incredible! You did that? Just like that!"
"Yup! It's easy when you know how! What do you think?"
He handed the iPad to Sis who looked at it a long time.
"Kid, you're wasted where you are. That looks like it was done by a true professional, not some spotty little runaway!"
"I'm not spotty!"
"You know what I mean. You'd really benefit from a good Art program, it's incredible."
Ryan looked at me. "You see, Gringott, that's the difference between a photo and art. Get it?"
I nodded. "Yes, master, I understand!"
Sis looked at me. "Email me those two pictures, Gringott"
None of us stayed up late. Sis gave me a quick thumbs up when Ryan wasn't watching and when I said goodnight to her she whispered that she thought it was all sorted but she wouldn't be sure until tomorrow. She and I went to our separate bedrooms, while Ryan got The Witch and the couch again.
Wednesday went pretty much as we had planned. Sis went off early. She wouldn't tell us where she was going. Ryan eventually woke up and, reluctantly, did some homework, and I did some work by remote connection.
At about eleven the door opened and Paul walked in, looking resplendent as ever in his Captain's uniform. I went and gave him a huge hug and told him I had never been happier to see him. Then he looked over at Ryan who was sitting at the kitchen table, with The Witch on the next chair.
"You must be Ryan. I'm Paul. I'm glad we could give you a safe place. I'm sorry to hear what happened."
"Thanks, Mr. Paul. It's nice to meet you."
"No 'Mr.', just Paul, OK? You don't call him 'Mr. John' do you?"
Ryan got a wicked smile on his face.
"No, I call him the Gringott!"
Paul turned and looked at me, and then he burst out laughing.
"But that's perfect! How come I didn't think of that!"
Oh God, now it's three against one.
Paul was still chuckling.
"OK, Gringott, what's happening today? I'm knackered. Australia is a long way away."
"Well, Ryan and I are going to leave you alone to shower and sleep, and we're going to Tate Modern because Ryan knows more about Art than you and me put together and he's going to teach me, and then we'll be home about five, and Sis plans to be back about then, and hope she has found some filthy dark dungeon full of rats and a modern day Fagin to enslave him so we can get rid of this nasty scruffy urchin."
"Watch it, Gringott!" Ryan said, but he was laughing as well.
"Just kidding, spotty brat!"
The Tate Modern was really interesting and I didn't get tired of Ryan explaining what he saw in all the different pictures and sculptures. Of course, I didn't agree with him all of the time but then Gringotts don't have that type of brain.
When we got back Paul had woken up and was nearly back in the real world. I don't know how he does it because when I've gone on long trips I really suffer from jet lag for days and days.
Then Sis came back. She hugged and kissed Paul. I think she likes him better than me but then he is more of a people person than I am.
"OK. Gringott, wine!"
"I love that name! It's so much better than 'Banker'. Sorry, John, but that name's going to stick!"
You win some and you lose some. I've lost this one.
So I got wine for Sis and Paul and me, and soda for Ryan and we all sat round waiting to hear her news.
"OK, Ryan, this is all about you. Paul, you and Gringott can stay and listen if you want, but no interruptions. Otherwise I'll exile you to your bedroom. Understood?"
Paul and I both nodded.
"Right. Ryan, I've got good news and bad news for you. I think I've found somewhere for you to live where I think you'll be happy. But it's going to be up to you. Your prospective foster parents are coming round at eight o'clock to meet you, and you'll get some sense of whether it's going to work out or not. Understood?"
Ryan nodded. He looked really scared.
"Do you think they'll like me?"
"I think so, I wouldn't palm you off on just anyone."
"Who are they? What if I don't like them?"
"Look, it's your decision, and yours only. I don't want to bias you one way or the other by giving my opinion of them. If you don't like them, you don't and there's nothing I can do about that. So you're going to have to be patient for another couple of hours, and then you'll be able to see and make your own decision."
"That's unfair. I hate you! Tell me about them!"
"No. That's final. Now here's some bad news. Ready?"
Ryan nodded. He looked terrified.
"I think whatever happens, you going to have to move to a new school."
"NO! I WON'T! I'll lose all my friends and I'll never see Alec again! YOU'RE HORRID!"
"Sit down and shut up! It's not all bad!"
"Why not? My life stinks! It's all your fault! I wish I'd never met you!"
He got up and started to head for the front door.
"Fine, then I'll cancel your enrolment at St. Dunstan's!"
Ryan stopped dead. He turned and said
"St. Dunstan's? You mean St. Dunstan's in Hackney? The one I wanted to go to but the arsehole wouldn't let me?"
"Yes, that St. Dunstan's!"
"Wow. How the hell did you manage that? That's where I've always wanted to go."
Then he looked puzzled.
"How can you do that if you don't know where I'm going to live?"
"I'm so confident you'll like your new foster parents so I went and begged St. Dunstan's for a provisional place for you. I showed them a couple of your pictures and they want you as a student. And, anyway, even if you don't like this couple, you'd be able to commute there from where you finally end up."
Ryan sat down. He looked a little shellshocked.
Sis stood up. "I'm starving and I want to go out for dinner and we need to go now because these people are coming at eight o'clock and we need to be home before that. Let's go!"
And we did, and we ate dinner, and Ryan was very quiet and for once he didn't eat that much. And as soon as we got home he went took a shower and changed into the best clothes he had. He looked really nice when he came out. No foster parents in their right mind would turn him down.
The next few minutes were excruciating. Paul tried to tell about some places he gone to see in Melbourne, but really nobody was listening. Then, at exactly eight o'clock the buzzer went and I buzzed them in. A couple of minutes later, there was a knock on the door.
Sis looked at Ryan, who looked completely panicked.
"Ryan, go and let them in!"
Sis nodded. "It's OK! Trust me!"
Ryan got up, glanced nervously over his shoulder, went to the door, and opened it.
"ALEC! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE!"
They fell into this giant hug. The couple behind them laughed and asked
"Do you mind if we come in?"
I got to my feet.
"No, please come in. I'm John, this is Paul, and I suppose you know Sis."
"Yes, we do. We're Alec's parents. We've come to see if Ryan wants to come live with us."
"WHAT! YOU'RE JOKING! IS THAT TRUE? OH MY GOD!"
Ryan was dancing around the living room shouting
"YES! YES! YES! I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! OH, LIZ! I LOVE YOU!"
And so on and so forth. Eventually he calmed down and he and Alec sat in a chair together and there wasn't much space between them. The Witch took one look and stalked off into my bedroom. Another jilted lover.
Sis started to take control of the situation.
"Ryan, now you've had a chance to meet your prospective foster parents I have to ask you if you are willing to give them a chance."
"Good. But there are going to be some rules. You're not just having a sleepover as friends and the rules are quite clear. You have to have your own room. That's a requirement. You have to keep up with schoolwork because that's a requirement as well. And you will get visited by a Social Worker from time to time, by yourself, and you have to report to them about how you're being treated."
"OKAY! That's easy!"
"And we're going to put an electronic lock on your bedroom door so you'll sleep by yourself every night. No visitors! Not even Alec!"
"NO, that's not fair! You can't do that!"
"Yes, I can and I will, at least on school nights. And also at weekends if your grades start going down. This isn't an invitation for a permanent love fest between you two, this is to help you get back on your feet after everything that's happened this week."
Jesus, I thought, it's only a week? It feels like ten years.
"Ryan, listen carefully. Letting you go and live with Alec and his parents is a big risk for everyone. It's a risk for me because we don't normally put kids up with their boyfriends or girlfriends, it's risk for Alec's parents because what happens if you and Alec fall out and aren't friends any more, and it's also a risk for them if your stepfather decides to go and harass them again, and it's a risk for Alec because he has to keep his schoolwork up as well, and it's a risk for you for the same reasons, and worse, if it doesn't work out then you'll have to be moved somewhere else, and this time it will be Child Services you deal with you, not me. I've done all I can, I've overstayed my welcome with Child Services in London so I can't do this over again."
There was a long silence all round. Then Ryan looked at Sis with tears in his eyes, and he managed to separate himself from Alec and went and gave her this huge hug, and then he burst into tears. And so did everyone else.
And then we all had drinks and got to know each a bit.
Eventually it was time for Alec and his parents to go. "Can I go home with Alec tonight, Liz?"
"Sorry, no. One, it's a school night. Alec can't have friends over. He has to go to school tomorrow. Two, it's a school night for you as well. I'm taking you to St. Dunstan's tomorrow to get things finalized. Three, London Child Services have to make a formal inspection of your new home to make sure it meets all of their requirements. They won't take my word for it, it's a legal requirement and they aren't going to risk approving everything until they've done an inspection. And four, it's your bedtime. So, sorry, no, not tonight. If Child Services does the inspection and if the paperwork gets signed off then maybe tomorrow, but it's more likely to be Friday. And Friday isn't a school night so there won't be an electronic lock on your door. Yet."
Ryan and Alec looked at each other. You could see the stream of hormones going backwards and forwards. Eventually Alec and his parents left. It took a long time to separate Ryan and Alec. Nobody tried to separate Paul and I.
It was strange to go back to work. Paul stayed home and caught up on sleep. Sis took Ryan off to see his new school and meet his Art teacher. They came back in the afternoon without the paperwork needed to legally allow Ryan to be fostered by Alec's family but with the promise it would be done as a priority on Friday morning.
Sis and Paul and Ryan and I went out for dinner. Ryan was cheerful and funny and upbeat and wouldn't stop talking for the whole evening. And he had the good grace to offer us a toast at dinner.
"Gringott, you saved my life when I was dying on the street. Liz, you've given me a new life and a new family. I can't thank you both enough."
We drank to the toast.
"Ryan, I'm going to miss you. I know I'm not very good with people, and definitely not with kids, but I like you and it's been fun having you, and I'm glad I rescued you. But I've got one question for you. When it was pouring with rain you stayed outside. Why didn't you go down into the subways and shopping arcade where it was dry?"
"Because I'd been out on the street for three days and you were the only person who had given me any money, and I was broke and hungry and I didn't want to miss you, so I stayed out in the rain waiting for you. And you didn't let me down."
I was too choked up to say anything. Soon we all went home, and everyone was so tired we all went to bed pretty quickly.
Paul and I saw Ryan and Alec a few times in the run up to Christmas. They came down to my apartment about every other weekend, and we managed to keep abreast of what they were doing. Ryan was looking forward to Christmas because his mother and sister were going to Alec's house for Christmas dinner. His stepfather, who did agree to go into counseling with Ryan's mother, was going to make a brief appearance but promised he wouldn't stay for dinner.
Paul and I decided to have a little reunion just before Christmas. We asked Sis and her husband Frank to come, and Alec and his parents, and Ryan's mother and sister. We couldn't do it over Christmas itself because Paul had arranged to fly to Beijing over the holidays and we could take a longer holiday after Christmas to compensate. He and I had decided we'd try Key West and southern Florida this year. It's nice having access to cheap tickets because your boyfriend is a pilot!
By arrangement beforehand, we agreed that the only presents allowed would be one from Ryan to me and Sis, and one from me to Ryan. My present to Ryan was only a secret to him and Alec because everyone else knew.
So after we'd all had drinks and something to eat, Ryan and Alec and I sat on the couch while everyone else watched as we got to the presents.
"Ryan, I've met your family and Alec's family but you haven't met any of my family other than Sis. So you're going to meet some of my family."
He looked at me very dubiously as I handed him a thick and very fancy looking envelope with a crest on the back.
"Open it and see!"
So he opened the envelope and read the beautifully calligraphed invitation
"Huh? What is this? There's no such thing as Gringott's Bank. I don't understand."
"Then open this."
And I gave him a rather fat envelope. He tore it open and took out a piece of paper and his eyes lit as he read it and he screamed.
"YEEEESSS!!!! Alec, we're going to Harry Potter World in Orlando. OH MY GOD! Gringott, I love you!!"
And there were two tickets, and two passports, and reservations for a fancy hotel room, and unlimited entry to Harry Potter World of Wizardry. And that was my present to Ryan and Alec, with more than a little help from Paul in getting seats for them both, plus his mother and sister. Paul and I would fly with them to Orlando and spend a couple of days with them at Harry Potter World and then Paul and I were going to head to Key West while the others went to as many amusement parks as they could for the rest of the week.
Then Ryan stood up and came back with two large flat packages, about three foot by two foot. He gave one to me and one to Sis.
"Gringott, this is for you, and Liz, you have your own, and they're the same and you have to open them at the same time."
Sis and I looked at each other, and nodded, and we opened them. Inside was a black and white photo of a pair of ratty canvas shoes standing in a puddle of water with a reflection of a figure in the puddle, but no body in the shoes. And it was beautifully framed and matted, and mine was numbered 1 out of 2, and titled 'Before I met the Gringott' and it was signed 'Ryan Robertson, Christmas 2017'.
"Gringott, turn it over!"
So I did, and I read the dedication. And then I burst into tears.
This story is part of the 2018 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Empty Shoes". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 24 August to 14 September 2018 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.
The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:
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