Not a single tear has fallen from my eyes following the day I received the news of Michael's death, and that's because I wept so much on the day I got the news. After I replaced the receiver when Imaan was done telling me about things, I went down the back garden like a lone, desperate wolf, howling in the deepest pain at losing the brother I have loved all my life. It was worse than losing Dada. Far worse, as I recalled our life together, and what has happened.
Our life together. It's one of my earliest memories; holding Kiddo in my arms the day he was born. They say a baby can't see for a while after it's been born, but I swear they're wrong. He was placed on my knees in his swaddling clothes and he opened his eyes. Big brown ones they were and he looked right into me. Something happened that day with me. Folk will say I'm talking rubbish, but that was the exact moment when a bond was formed between us; the exact moment when, subconsciously, I became his guardian. I can't say I loved him then, but it was definitely the moment when that love was born. From that moment it grew into a love that few brothers have. Most brothers spend their lives falling out. Not me and kiddo, although we did have the odd occasion when we were like a couple of tomcats. Then we arrived at the time when our mother buggered off and left us. That's when I became his real guardian. That's when I had to grow up and become his protector.
Then Dada came home and eased the burden. That's when I had to assure Michael that Dada wasn't one of the enemy. It didn't take long. Dada loved his boys and he soon had Kiddo eating out of his hands. Then I was able to watch Kiddo become normal.
Normal. He was a bugger as a kid. Everybody called him `Jack Flash' because he was always on the go. He never walked anywhere. He was like a cat on hot bricks. Dada used to say he'd got Saint Vitus's Dance because he couldn't keep still for two seconds. And that smile he always carried around with him got him loads of compliments; and it got him out of trouble loads of times. He could disarm most folk with his smile and the fact that he was never self-conscious about his dress. We did have Sunday Best Clothes. But it wasn't the real Us.
The real Us. Well, the real Michael... my Kiddo. Most of the time when he was little he'd run around with holes in his trousers arse and he didn't give a damn. Until he went to that damned high school, that is. I still hate those bastards who treated him like shit because he was from a poor family and not well-dressed. They're the ones who started the rot. He was normal before they got their grubby hands on him. (Not all of them. Mr Bourne and a couple of others were brilliant to him.) They discovered the flaws in his character. Dada was right when he said you could only hurt Kiddo inside. They hurt him inside. Then along came Stuart and he helped cure him. Not completely. Even I could never do that. But Stuart was like a breath of fresh air to him. Once they'd got together then Michael didn't give a damn for the others. Stuart brought him back to what he used to be... that carefree kid who always had a smile on his face.
Then he went to university. That was a mistake. He should have gone to a local one. But he went to a posh one. But he was older then and instead of withdrawing into himself, he breathed fire and brimstone when he was talking about some of the shit guys there. He hated them with a passion that was the complete opposite of the person he was. Kiddo was a kind and gentle person. But when he left university and joined the army, he was as mad as a hatter. That was his real undoing. He should never have gone to that university.
Stuart was broken hearted when he joined the army. He came to see me and cried his eyes out because Kiddo wouldn't listen to him. My wonderful Bro was like a flawed gemstone, and those bastards at that university finally shattered the diamond he was. So Stuart made the best of a bad job. I don't lay any blame on him for what he's done; gone and found himself a wench to live with. Kiddo must have been off his rocker. He had the most wonderful partner anybody could have in the world and he blew it big style. What did he expect Stuart to do? The lad used to come and see me and tell me how sad he was that he hardly ever saw Michael. Four months in Borneo; six months in the Middle East; three months in Hong Kong; twelve months in Germany; and other places. Stuart became a force's wife. But the normal force's wives had something Stuart didn't have: they had kids to keep them happy. Stuart had work and letters and telephone calls.
There were good times. When Kiddo was on leave it was as if he'd never been away. Those two were back together and they were as happy as pigs in muck. Until it all went tits up and Stuart found that wench he's with. That's when the shit hit the fan. But even now I'm not sure it's what Stuart really wants. They've never got married. Apparently, she doesn't like the idea of marriage.
Then Kiddo found Hamzah. He's a fantastic little kid. I'm almost certain the relationship between Kiddo and Hamzah has never been sexual. That's for a couple of reasons. The first is that Kiddo told me that he looks on Hamzah as a son and nothing else. If he hadn't told me that, then I might have had misgivings because I'm pretty sure little Hamzah is at least a bit queer. I've seen the way he looks at my Alex and how he acts with him. At the very least he's got a crush on my boy, and it isn't just one way. That little sod of mine was always like a lovesick wench when Michael and Hamzah had buggered off after they'd paid a visit to see us. And then he'd always get excited when he knew they were coming again. And since Hamzah has been with us after Michael died, my lad is fussing round him like an old hen. I'll have to keep an eye on those pair of buggers. Having seen everything I have, nothing in life would surprise me anymore.
But today is Michael's funeral and today I have to be strong. Too many people are relying on me. I need to be a Johnson... the one others rely on... the ones gathered at the open grave now. They're all here... my own family of Carol and Alexander and Michael; Hamzah; Stuart and his wench; Mr Bourne and his wife; Archie and Alain; the strange posh French bloke named Roger who has spent most of his time comforting Stuart when I was too busy to do it; Stuart's parents; and Imaan from The Embassy. There are others here too... those from our younger days. Even Mrs Friar from the chip shop has managed to make it, and they've provided a chair for her to sit on by the graveside because she's flimsy on her frail old legs now. And despite Michael being away from his home town for so long, when the service was being held, the church was packed to the rafters with folk who remembered him and wanted to pay their respects, and never have I heard a rendition of Jerusalem as it was sung in the church. I've been to lots of funerals, and most of the hymns are mumbled by the congregation, but when Michael's favourite song was being sung, it was bellowed out with gusto and pride. He would have loved to have heard it. He loved that song.
I stand at the end of the open grave with an arm around Hamzah as he clings to me in his grief. My wife Carol is beside him, holding my two boys. The vicar is at the other end, and a host of mourners are behind him and us. My old sparring partner, The Lord Lieutenant of the County has been busy again. He's used his contacts to make this a military funeral. That's why, a few yards away and to our right, on the barked orders of the Regimental Sergeant Major, six members of Michael's Regiment dressed in Best Blues raise their rifles and fire off a single volley of blank shots. Then another six members of The Regiment with ribbons and medals decorating their Best Blues gently lower the solid-oak coffin with its gleaming brass handles into the ground... onto a thin layer of yew branches that have been placed over the few inches of soil that will separate Michael and Dada for all eternity. When the lowering tapes are withdrawn, a lone bugler plays the last post, and from the swivel coupling at his hip, the Regimental Flag Bearer lowers the Union Flag. The vicar says the committal prayer.
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, you have given us a sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life; in your keeping are all those who have departed in Christ. We here commit the body of our dear brother, Captain Michael Johnson, to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who died, and was buried, and rose again for us, and who shall change our mortal body that it might be like his glorious body. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
After we've thrown some soil onto the coffin, most of the mourners drift away. Carol goes with them and takes my boys with her. She understands how it is. There's just me and Hamzah left, and then Stuart comes to the side of me and waits for me to wrap an arm around his shoulders, which I do, and he leans into me and sobs madly, as does Hamzah. It's ironic. The three people who are still alive and who have loved Michael most in his life are now enjoined in grief. This is, undoubtedly, the worst day in our lives. But it is for someone else, too. Mr Bourne, unsteady in his gait because his hips are failing, comes back to the grave and throws a single red rose onto the coffin. Our eyes meet, and I see the pain and tears in his. I nod, and he nods. A moment of reflection of the memories he and I share. Of the good times.
The Working Men's Club has never seen such a motley crew as are gathered in the bars drinking and eating their food from a buffet. Unlike Dada's funeral when we had just sherry and fruit bread, they've got a right good thing going on. But things are different now. Back then we were skint, but there's more money in this club now than has ever been in here. My boss, Mr Begbie, is a millionaire, and from what I can gather, the posh French bloke named Roger isn't short of a bob or two. He's a French writer, or so Stuart told me. He's obviously queer, so he probably writes queer French stories. He seems a nice bloke. He was very polite and deferential when he came to me and said how sorry he was. He introduced himself as Monsieur Roger Peyrefitte... a friend of Michael and Stuart. When he left me to go back and join Stuart and his wench, something struck me right between the eyes. I know there are women here, but all Michael's close contacts are male. But it's always been like that. Not since our mother abandoned us has there been a woman in Michael's life. Why is that? Did her abandoning us create a psychological barrier in Michael that he couldn't like women after she did that to us? I was older, so I was able to put it in perspective. Perhaps Michael was unable to do that. She's still alive, but she's not here. Michael hated her, and it would have been a betrayal to contact her and tell her what's happened. Perhaps she knows. I don't really care. She has no right to be grieving at Michael's death. She gave up that right when she buggered off and left us to be put in a children's home.
After everybody has been to me and paid their respects, the `party' has broken up into groups, as they do at do's like this. The army bods are all at one table, having a right good laugh, and with them are a bunch of Michael's lorry-driver pals. As rough as bears' arses they are, but salt of the earth. I like that. Michael would have liked that. He often told me tales of how the drivers all helped each other out on those journeys to Arabia. No doubt they're reminiscing about old times. I've had a word with the one they call `Tailgate' who introduced himself right after the burial ceremony was over and he explained who they all were. Because I didn't think it was the right time to tell Hamzah the truth yet, I've asked him to carry on the pretence to Hamzah that Michael's death was the result of a road accident. He said he'd make sure nobody told him what really happened. I was pretty sure they would know what really happened. The jungle-telegraph between men is a more powerful instrument than a telephone line.
There's a group of pit men having a jolly. If it wasn't close-up and personal, I'd be with them. In fact, most of the folk in the room are treating it as a wake. But there's a group that can't be jolly, and they're all at the two long tables we're sitting at.
Carol has given me some room. She's taking care of our boys, who, although they loved their Uncle Michael, have not been affected like some of us. Hamzah won't leave my side. All this is alien to him. He doesn't know what to do. That's why he's like a lost soul and won't leave me. He's even got his bloody Raji Beads around his neck inside the new suit and overcoat we bought him to spruce him up for the funeral. He's always had them. Even Michael never found out what they mean to Hamzah. Michael said he's always had them ever since he found him in Turkey. Michael says they're his lucky charms and he won't go anywhere without them.
I'll need to talk with Hamzah later. Me and Carol have decided to ask him if he wants to live with us permanently. He's a lovely kid, and my boys like him, especially Alex who fusses over him like an old woman. I've even spoken to Mr Begbie about him and he says he'll find Hamzah a job in the company if he wants one when he's old enough. But Hamzah has been non-committal ever since he flew back to England with me when he was discharged from the hospital in Iran. That's where Michael died... in the hospital in Iran. They took him to the hospital, but he died within three hours of getting there. Imaan has told me what happened. Hamzah couldn't tell me because he can't remember anything after they left Istanbul on the way down. I've told him that Michael died in a road accident. But I'll have to tell him soon about what really happened. The doctors say he will probably get parts of his memory back, so I'll have to do it.
Stuart is on the other side of me. I'm worried about him, too. Even though his wench is with him and she's pregnant, I know where his heart is now. Even when the kids have been with him – and he adores my kids – he's hardly ever smiled. He's like a lost soul. But if I'm honest, he's in good company. Out of everybody at our two tables, he's the only one who really understood our Michael. I remember the little boy who was crying and came and gave Michael a hug at Dada's funeral. That was the precise moment when I knew for certain my brother was different, and my intuition told me that the beautiful little boy was about to play a big part in Michael's life. And he was a beautiful boy. He's a handsome man now, but back then he was beautiful... especially when he'd got nothing on. That day just after Dada's funeral and he came to the house and he was soaked to the skin, when I undressed him, I was struck at how beautiful he was. If he'd been born a girl and not a boy, this lot might not be happening now, because if he was a girl Michael would have married him and that would have been that. They were made for each other, and I reckon it wouldn't have mattered if Stuart had been a girl. Michael would have loved her, and she would have been Michael's way out from what our mother did to him. But maybe I'm wrong and Kiddo loved Stuart because he was a boy and he wouldn't have bothered with him if he was a girl. I dunno. Whatever, it wasn't to be, and now we have to pick up the pieces some way.
But maybe Stuart will be okay. His wench has never stopped fussing over him all the time he's been here. But I'm getting the wrong vibes about her for some reason. That's strange. She seems to be a nice lass... so maybe it's because I'm seeing her and Stuart together that's doing it to me. They've been in town almost a week now. They're staying with his mother and father.
Stuart asked if he could have a few moments with Michael alone at the Chapel of Rest after we both went to pay our last respects yesterday. When he came out, he was as white as a sheet and sobbing like a girl, and I had to hug him for ages before we could continue with whatever. He wasn't the only one who was upset. I had to fight like crazy to hold back my emotions when we were together and I fondled Michael's forehead and stroked back his hair. But Kiddo looked lovely and peaceful. Harry the Undertaker had a word with me before we went. He'd dressed Kiddo in his Captain's dress uniform and wrapped a white silk scarf around his neck to hide the damage where the bullet had entered the side of his throat and lodged in his brain. That's what killed him. The other three bullets that hit him went right through his left lung. He could have survived that like Dada had before him, but not the one that went into his brain and caused the haemorrhage.
When we got back into the car, Stuart asked me to take him a ride up to their old school and a run down the hill where he used to walk with Michael when school was over. After we'd done that, he asked me to take him to our old house. He knew it had been knocked down and there was a new Co-op in its place. But I did take him, and when we went round the back of the place he was in tears when he saw that the base of the garage we built was still there. I thought it was the right moment to give him back his gold chain that Michael never took off and which was given to me by Harry the Undertaker, who had done all the work of getting Michael's body back home. I'd got the chain in my pocket, and when we were sitting in the car I gave it to him and explained that the small, heart shaped gold locket that I'd attached to it was one Carol gave me to put a lock of Michael's hair in. (I've got a few locks of Michael's hair as well. They're safely tucked away in the back of Dada's pocket watch I inherited, together with a couple of locks of Dada's grey hair.) Stuart kissed the locket and the gold chain and I helped him put it round his neck. Then he banged his head on the dashboard and I had to hug him for ages before he was well enough to take back to my house. Yes, Stuart is hurting, and I'm worried about him.
I'm desperately trying to hold myself together... but it's difficult. I've been like a zombie since I received the telephone call from Alex that Michael was dead. My Michael... dead!? How can it be? It doesn't bother me that he found Hamzah... he was always my Michael. Whatever has gone on, I've never stopped loving him, and I know for certain that he never stopped loving me. You can't stop the kind of love we had. We were never two souls; we were one from the moment we met. The only person who understands how I feel is Roger.
After I'd taken the call from Alex about Michael's death, I knew who I had to go to.
Roger was waiting for me at his apartment. I hadn't told him why I needed to see him. I just said it was important that we meet. He told me to go to his place. Roger knew the moment he let me into the apartment that something was terribly wrong. Thank God for Roger. I don't know what I would have done had it not been for him. He also shed tears while I was crying; no doubt the depth of my grief reminding him of how it had been when he lost his Alexandre. I even stayed at his place with him that night. All we did was hug each other and talk, but I needed hugs and talk from someone who really understood how I was feeling. We talked and talked about our two loves until the dawn, drawing solace from each other because we were sharing a mutual kind of grief. For the first time ever he showed me photographs of his beautiful Alexandre, and he told me I was the only person apart from himself and Alaine-Phillipe Malagnac - who he met when the lad was twelve years old when they were making the film Les Amitiés Particulières, and who is still his special friend to this day even though Malagnac married - who had ever seen them.
And Roger is here now... with me every step of the way. He hasn't come to the funeral just to pay his respects to Captain Marvel; he's come because of me. He insisted he come, saying that his presence would be important to me. It is. Only Roger really understands how I feel. Isabelle has been fantastic, but I can't share this grief with her like I can with Roger. And as much as Alex is comforting me, and even though he and I share my most precious memories of Michael, and even though I know his grief is as deep as mine, it's a different sort of grieving that is happening. He's grieving for the brother he loved with every bone in his body, and I am grieving for the one true love of my life. It's different, and only those who have known a love like ours can truly understand the affliction that is turning my soul to stone. That's why Roger is here. He knows. But as he's said, I have to get through these difficult times. But when I look at Roger, I also see something else. I discovered it when I stayed the night with him. Despite it being almost sixty years since he lost Alexandre, at times the pain of his loss is still just as deep and hurtful as when he lost his precious friend. And that's what's frightening me. I know without doubt that I will have to carry this pain with me all my life.
I couldn't sleep last night. That's why I was up at five o'clock. I went downstairs and made myself a coffee, and after I'd drunk it, I put on an overcoat and went for a walk. The streets were quiet and dark. I just walked. About two miles from my parents' home is an old pit slag heap that's grassed over. People take their dogs for a walk on it and kids sledge on it in winter time. I went right to the top and sat on a bench and stared over the lights of the city where I once lived and where I first met Michael. The city lies in a long valley and I could see right along it to roughly where Michael used to live. The dawn came and there were patches of white mist in the lowest parts. Then I could really see where Michael used to live and where we went to school together. I kissed the gold chain that I'd given to Michael and which he would never take off unless in the military he was required to do so. It's got a gold locket attached to it now. Alex's Carol put it on the chain. There's a lock of Michael's hair in it. I took it out and kissed it and held it to my cheek for a long time. Then I put it back around my neck and kissed `our gold chain' and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed until I thought my heart might break.
Might break? It is broken. I'll carry on with life because I can do nothing else unless I end it all. But I can't do that. I'll be having a child soon and that child will need me. That's the problem with life... it never belongs to us. It always belongs to somebody else. So I'll get on with it whatever happens, but I'll never be really happy again because How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?
I'm in a strange world... surrounded by people who care for me... but I'm now almost as lonely as when I was a lone waif of the road. I loved Michael, and we became lovers, but what Michael really was, was a real friend and a bridge between two existences. And now that bridge has been destroyed, I'm not sure which side of the bridge I want to be... this side in my grief or that side with my Michael and my beautiful, wonderful Raji Khan. Perhaps I may go there. We can all be together then, and we can sleep together and love each other as we did before.
I've been staying with Alex and Carol since we flew home together from Iran. They've done everything they can to make me feel one of the family. They've told me I can go to the same school as Alexander when I feel well enough to go to school, but I've put them off going yet. Not only was Michael my friend and lover, he was also my teacher, and he said I was at least two years more advanced than English boys my age. That's because when we were travelling, each night when we stopped and during most of the day, he was teaching me everything he knew. Michael said I was well above average intelligence, and the reason I did so well was because I love learning about everything.
Although I'm in the midst of the hustle and bustle of those who have attended Michael's funeral, I feel lonely. Now my wonderful friend is gone, I need something to cling to... something to make me not feel lonely. There is one small chink of light in the blackness of my grief: Michael's nephew Alexander. We're both the same age, and I really like him a lot.
But there's someone else here who I would trust with my life. Tailgate has come all the way from Sweden to pay his respects. He's also come to see me. That's why I have to go to him now. He's with the other Bogs to Wogs guys, so when I feel I'm able to do it; I leave Alex and go across to them. They're sitting with Michael's army pals. I can't help the tears that come, and it's Tailgate who gets out of his chair and hugs me. Then he takes me to his seat and makes me sit on his knees while he hugs me. It's strange. I feel more at home with these guys than I do almost anywhere else, and being hugged by the giant Tailgate is almost as comfortable as when I was with Michael. I stay with them for a while, but when I say I have to be getting back to `the family', Tailgate takes me to one side and gives me a piece of paper. He holds my chin and looks into my eyes when he says, "There's all the information you need on that paper to get in touch with me. You need something; anything; you come to Tailgate. There's a home in Sweden for you if ever you need it."
All I can do is give him a massive hug and tell him I will definitely keep in touch.
All this is strange to me. Although Plymouth is a city, it's not like this place. Earthy! That's the only way I can describe it. But being here has enlightened me. Michael was always a mystery to me. I never loved him, but he was a fascinating person. Now I understand why he was so fascinating. He was a mirror image of this environment. In those precious moments that are now indelibly stamped into my psyche; when he was deep within me, he was industrious. It's a strange way to describe someone who drove me to the most depraved moments of my perverted lust, but without that industrious attitude, our coupling would have been like any other. I cannot describe our coupling as rape, but there was always a fine line between being ravaged and raped. Only my desire to be taken any way Michael needed me distorted the liaison to mutuality. This city is a paradox, just as Michael was. It was founded on the rough clays within the earth, and yet its produce is wondrous. The world rejoices and fawns at its creations, but the finished product is founded on sweat and tears and blood. Being an artist in the genre of this city, I, probably more than most can appreciate the beauty of the finished product. But I may be almost unique, for I have tasted the sweat and tears and blood from whence the beauty is created.
No, I have never loved Michael as some here do and have done, yet I will miss him just as much as they. But my craving for his being is entirely different than theirs. Whenever I knew I was going to be with him, I was a bundle of nervous expectations and carnal desires; the kind that can make one helpless to the inevitability of sinfulness. I basked in our `sins' and `wrongdoing'. That is why I always made the most of possessing Michael while I could. One `dose' of Michael was enough to keep me going for a while. Afterwards, I was always content at being `ordinary'. Afterwards, I could play silly games with Gerald Prosser, and never would I wish for Michael to be back when I was in the company of the man I love more than anything on earth: my Archie. Well, not until I knew Michael and I would be meeting again. Then it would all start again... the nervous expectations and carnal desires; the kind that can make one helpless to the inevitability of sinfulness. I'm not sure which I will miss most... the expectations... or the act. Both drove me crazy. But strangely, although I will never again have either, I am content at having experienced Michael, which cannot be said of those around me. Thank God I am not in their shoes. Thank God my Archie is alive and well and here for me to love him.
Stuart is the worst affected. I've been watching him. He is almost like the walking dead. I have been trying to put myself in his shoes. If I lost Archie, would I be like him? Very probably I would. The love of a boy for his man is unique. There is no other love like it on earth. Even Archie's love for me cannot compare with that I have for him. He loves me as his boy, but Archie is much more than that to me... he is my everything: my lover, my protector; my tutor; my crutch of life. If my Archie died, I would destroy everything I've made and go and be a whore on the Champs Elysées. My final act upon this earth would be to paint Archie's name in big red letters upon the Arc de Triomphe before throwing myself into the dark, black waters of the Seine.
So is that how Stuart is feeling now? If he is, then I pity him enormously.
These terrible thoughts are hurting. Archie is sitting by my side. I link his arm tightly and lay my head upon his shoulder. He kisses my hair, and asks, "Are you alright?"
I grip him even tighter when I shake my head, and mumble, "Non. Je t'aime."
He doesn't say anything. Instead, he puts an arm around my shoulder and hugs me tightly because he knows what I have been thinking.
When I hug Alain, I get that wonderful feeling I always get when I'm close to my young man and I know he needs my presence, and I still get butterflies in my tummy each time I lay eyes on him whenever I haven't seen him for a few hours and he presents himself with his lovely smile outside the Art School. Every time I see him I count my lucky stars that providence brought us together. Alain is one of those rare creatures whose beauty magnifies with age. I still look at young boys, and in the past I've wondered how I would feel about Alain as he grew older. But at seventeen, if anything, I find him even more attractive than when he was a nipper. He's not grown tall and big in stature, but his wonderful body has filled out in all the right places. His torso is still curvy and sensuous; his thighs are more amorphous, and his bottom is still as cute as it ever was. As for that which provides him with great pleasure, it has grown in keeping with the rest of him, and I absolutely adore making love to it while he basks in my caresses. As for his looks, he is just the most handsome young man on the planet to me.
I'm wondering what's going through his mind now. I saw him looking at Stuart, and the reason he's come close to me is because he can see how much hurt Michael's lover is suffering. I felt him shiver, and because I know everything about the boy I have loved now for four years, I have a sixth sense at what affects him and what doesn't. But what will he be like now Michael is gone?
I could always tell when he'd been with Michael. Alain changed completely. Visits to Michael were like pouring oil over rough waters... Michael was the oil, and Alain was the waters. He never hinted that he'd even seen Michael, but I always knew when he had. For about a week afterwards, Alain lost that wild magnificence of his raging passions, and he became the most loving person in the world. It was as if Michael had released Alain's demons. I could never do it, and I know why that is. I love him too much. Michael didn't love my boy... and my boy didn't love Michael. Goodness knows what perversions they got up to, but whatever it was, it was enough for my boy to become different towards me. Gone were the insatiable, sexual urges I was used to, and in its place was the most tender loving from the boy I adore. For those few days afterwards, Alain would make love gently; even forgoing his own pleasures in that department while he basked in being naked with me. He would actually shed tears as he lay on top of me, kissing my face whilst murmuring many times those words I never tire of hearing: `Je t'aime, Archie. Je t'aime.' And I knew his words were not generated by feelings of guilt. Alain doesn't have those. Not with me he doesn't. He knows I accept him... warts and all. That's why we're special together. We've learned to separate sex from love, and I only care about one thing; that Alain loves me. And I know he does that more than anything in the world.
But what now? Who will exorcise those demons within my boy? I can't. So Michael's death is a loss to both of us. That's why I'm worried about Alain. That's why I hug him very tightly.
I am missing nothing. I have always studied people. It's an art form - studying people. It's how I make my living... watching people, researching their background; then praising them or condemning them. I am liked by many, but hated by more. But those who like me or hate me don't really know me. Only one person upon this earth has an insight to the Real Me, and that is only because this death has brought Stuart and I close enough for me to reveal what makes Roger Peyrefitte tick.
I didn't go to Alexandre's funeral. When he was buried, I was still in hospital and ill. But if I had been there, I would have been just like Stuart is now. Perhaps not being there has helped me in some way. Unlike Stuart, I didn't really see the end... the mourning and the pain of others who loved my boy. I did my mourning and suffered my pain in a solitary way, and consecrated our love in the chapel... alone. It was then that Alexandre joined with me... when two souls became one, and the insightful thoughts I'm experiencing regarding Stuart's plight come from the boy I love; the boy inside me who has never grown old and who can empathise with Stuart. Alexandre is revealing to me how Stuart is feeling.
The love of a boy for his older partner is unique. We elders look down on them and wrap them in our love, but they feel far more than that. We are their strength when they are tired; their boudoir when they need a place to make love. Michael was so insightful when he told me how Alexandre was feeling when he took his own life; going naked into the river; preparing himself to join with me in Heaven... in our boudoir in Heaven. I recall the conversation Alexandre and I had at St. Benoit. He asked if I knew of the things which we should not know about. I told him I did. He asked me if I was interested in them. Because I was unsure myself, I could not answer him truthfully, so I replied that I was not. I recall his very words to this day when we spoke the day after about it. `I was almost afraid that you were.' Almost! That single word meant nothing to me until Michael pressed my shoulder after the confession in Italy and he told me what was in Alexandre's mind when he walked naked into the river. He came to me prepared and without ambiguity. But that's what boys do. They are the real masters of our mutual destiny. Or otherwise. Stuart knows this. That's why he is hurting. Stuart was the one who broke off the relationship, which eventually led to Michael's demise in some God forsaken place.
But Alexandre and I have made a pact between us: we will always be there for Stuart if he needs us. And he will need us. This burden of his lost special love will weigh heavily upon him all his life! When his child is born, his joy will be stifled because he cannot share the joy with Michael; just as other special events in his life, which should be blissful, will be tainted by sadness. When Michael died, so, too, did a part of Stuart, just as a part of me died all those years ago when I lost my own one true love. Even though I am now two souls, I have never since been a complete person. And that is what will happen to Stuart. I pity him.
And what will happen to Alain? He will need another Michael. I may be able to help him out there. I know quite a few (what did Captain Marvel call them, `Bastards') who would love to ravage him without regard to his feelings.
Stuart is really hurting. But he would hurt more if he knew the truth. I will have to be more careful now than I was before. I am in child. He is the father of that child, but, unless it's a boy, the child will never belong to him. If it's a girl then the child will belong to Sabine and I.
Sabine. She is twelve years older than me, and we have been lovers since I was eleven years old and she became my nanny.
I remember clearly the first time I saw her; the day she arrived to take care of me while mama and papa were at work. She had an aura about her; a mixture of beautiful femininity and masculinity, and she was wearing a perfume that thrilled my senses. I was not a woman then, but those feelings were strong in my mind, and I was already aware that those feelings were stimulated more by the thoughts of beautiful girls than boys. But it was only in the presence of Sabine that I truly discovered myself. During the early months, our intimate moments were tutorial in nature... a nanny teaching her protégé the rudimentary aspects of sexuality... hygiene; propriety; approaching womanhood, and the necessary steps I would need to keep myself without child if I ever did venture into an illicit liaison with a man. But Sabine soon sensed my disposition, and it wasn't long before hugs changed into touches, and touches changed into what we both desired... the most sensual love in the world... that between two women. And before womanhood at the age of thirteen, I was fully experienced in the fine arts of woman to woman love. But it was more than sex. It always had been. Sabine admitted that she took the job because she was smitten with me, and I admitted that I had loved her from the off. Sabine expected me to grow out of my infatuation, but I am as madly in love with her now as I was when we first made love properly in my bed and she took me to heights and sensations that I never knew existed. And everything that has followed has been to consecrate our togetherness. Even the child we both so desperately want.
Stuart was planned; meticulously; by us both. I knew the moment I saw him in Maxims that I could live with him, and when I discussed it with Sabine, we moved Heaven and Earth to find out more about him. Each revelatory snippet we discovered had us drooling over his suitability. He came from wealthy parents; he was sweet and charming, but the most droolable snippet was that he'd had a homosexual relationship with a man for as long as anybody could remember. In fact, he was still in that relationship, which, in all probability, would mean that he would not be seeking out other women. Sabine and I are cunning. We've had to be to protect our association. I knew Stuart was enamoured by me, and because his relationship with Michael was terribly intermittent, it wasn't too difficult to persuade him that he should become my lover. I never felt guilty about it. C'est la vie. I had higher goals to achieve. I needed a baby for Sabine and I, and in early October, all being well, we will have our child. And our child will need a nanny. Fait accompli? Almost. We both want a girl and not a boy. We do not want a boy!
But I am not such a vixen that I am heartless. Stuart is hurting badly that he has lost the man he loved far more than he loves me, and my sweet and charming man needs the comforts only a woman can give to him, so when I see him look upwards because I know he is trying to hide the pain he's feeling, I take his hand and lead him out of the melee that is this terrible place. I hate it here. It even smells of the under-classes... an acrid, earthy aroma that pervades one's senses. That's why I never liked Michael Johnson. Despite his education and military position, he was never one of us. He had no class. But I cannot reveal my true feelings to Stuart. It would destroy everything. That's why I link his arm firmly as we stroll along the street, and when I lay my head against his shoulder, I say, "I know how much you're hurting, but we have to look forward. I'm here for you whenever you want me, and it won't be long before you will have a child to love. Michael would want you to look forward; to the future."
Stuart takes a deep breath. "You're right. Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. But if it's a boy, we will name him Alexandre Michael Gatti-Begbie. You don't mind us doing that, do you?"
Again I hug his arm tightly. "No. That's super. But if it's a girl, I want to name her Michelle Sabine Gatti-Begbie. Is that alright with you?"
Stuart looks down at me. "Sabine. She means a lot to you, doesn't she?"
I smile at him. "Yes. She was a wonderful nanny to me. And she will be a wonderful nanny to our child."
Stuart smiles. "You've got it all worked out."
I return his smile. "Yes. I'm looking forward to living life forwards whilst understanding it backwards."
When I get home after the funeral, I sit in my chair and stare at the black and white photograph in the embossed silver frame that I took of Michael and Stuart back in 1956, during their first summer together. It was taken in Stuart's garden after one of our dinners at The Begbies. I've looked at it hundreds of times and know every nuance of their pose. It's a photograph of true love. Michael, being a head taller than Stuart, is holding the youngster in front of him, both arms wrapped around his boy. Stuart is gripping Michael's hands as he leans back into the embrace, and both boys are smiling beautifully. And now here we are... fifteen years on, and life will never be the same for one of them. In all my years as a schoolteacher I've seen many love affairs between boys, but none was ever as precious as this one.
I look up, and as flickering flames from the blazing coal fire send shadows dancing around the semi-darkness of my living room in the failing light of this April day, I feel the warmth of a hand brush the back of my head. I turn to see if my wife has stolen silently into the room, but I am alone. And yet, with a feeling of great relief, I know I am not alone. I have just experienced one of those moments in life that are inexplicable, and I know for certain that the boy I have loved for much of my life has come to me. So, very softly, I whisper into the shadows, "Take care of your boy, Michael. He will need you." Then I add, "And thank you for coming. I'll be fine now."
A few minutes later my wife comes into the room, stands behind me, and puts her arms around my shoulders while I'm weeping. She kisses my hair, and asks, "Are you alright?"
I look up and gently kiss her wet lips. "Yes. I am now. Michael has just paid me a visit."
Tears are falling from her eyes when she says, "Yes... I know he has. I felt his presence while I was making tea. I think he kissed my cheek on his way past me to see you."
I chuckle. "He probably had a crush on you."
My wife smiles and kisses me again. "Not as big as the one you had on him."
I smile back at her, and pull her head firmly against my own. "It was never that. Those are transient. He was my boy, and I loved him like a son."
And she hugs me very tightly.
It's over and everybody has gone back home or to wherever they're staying and I'm with my family, watching TV. The awful reality... the finality of the day is hitting me hard. Today I buried my brother... the last link with what we were. Everything we went through has come to a conclusion. Michael and me both built new lives, but what we were has always been a major part of our psyche. That five-year-old little boy who clung to me like a leech when they took us away from our home and put us in care... I can see him now. I hated the world, not for what they'd done to me, but because they'd hurt my little bro. He couldn't comprehend the horror of what had happened to us. They said they were going to part us and put us with different foster parents, so we ran away. We slept all night under a canal bridge. Then we went and sat on the doorstep of our old home. They came for us and took us back to the care home. We ran away again, and again they took us back to the children's home. They even tanned my arse with a stick because they said I was to blame for us running away. Then, thank God, Dada came home and we moved into Granddad's old house.
Dada. Because he was away in the army while Michael was growing up, my bro hardly knew him. I was ten years old when Dada came home, but I knew him, and all the time we were in the children's home I kept Michael's spirits up by telling him everything would be alright when Dada came home. That was Michael's lifeline, and I remember how Michael, once he'd put behind him the strangeness of meeting his father for the first time in his living memory, cried and cried when Dada hugged him and told him his Dada was home now and everything would be alright.
That first evening together. Uncle Tom and Uncle Sam had arranged that the house was ready for us, and there was big blazing fire in the grate when they brought us home to be with Dada. We had fish and chips and mushy peas for tea. Then Michael sat on Dada's knees while he hugged him and I sat on the hearth rug leaning on Dada's one leg that was warm and we listened to the wireless. I can recall it all vividly as if it was only yesterday. Then Dada told us that it was time for bed, and me and Michael were together in bed. He clung to me and cried himself to sleep.
Then things got better. Bit by bit they got better, and then Dada gave Michael his little dog Judy for Christmas. I can see him now... the little pup wrapped in his arms and Michael crying with joy and I remember seeing Dada with a tear running down his cheek. And then things began to get really better. Yes, times were hard, but the love in our house was so great that all the hardships were nothing. We learned how to look after Dada and there was nothing we wouldn't do for him.
But that's all gone now. Just the memories. Beautiful, wonderful memories.
Michael is sitting on the floor between Carol's legs now. She's fondling his hair. I know exactly how he feels. He'll be taking it for granted, but that fondling of his hair is Carol telling him how much she loves him.
Alex and Hamzah are together on the little sofa. Alex has taken on the role of Hamzah's protector. They're almost the same size, but Alex is the one who's doing the caring role. It could almost be me and Michael back in the old days.
They're sleeping together. We bought a new single bed and moved Michael into Alex's room when I brought Hamzah home so Hamzah could have his own room. But he was having nightmares night after night, so I asked Alex if he minded if we moved Hamzah in with him and moved Michael back to his own room. Alex reckoned it was a brilliant idea and set up his bedroom by pushing his three-quarter bed and Hamzah's single bed together so he could be there to help Hamzah when he had his nightmares. It seems to be working. Hamzah still gets his nightmares, but the moment he gets them, Alex does the comforting bit and he settles down again. Me and Carol don't have to go to him now. They do their own thing and as long as Hamzah is okay with it, then let it be. But I'm not daft. I know part of what's going on is because I reckon they've got a crush on each other. Daft young buggers!
The doctors have explained to me what part of the problem is with Hamzah. Apparently, the soldiers who went and rescued Michael and Hamzah had to give the little boy a drug when they arrived and the doctor says the after effects will take a while before he gets right again. He will still have to take pills for a while to keep him stable. Poor boy! What a terrible life the little man has had. I suppose a lot of the kids where he comes from are in a worse situation. They won't have a boy their own age with an arm around their shoulders like Hamzah has got now. They're like a couple of lovers on the little sofa. I catch Alex's eyes and nod at him, and then I say, "Hey you two, bugger off to bed! You're both falling asleep! Up those wooden hills to Bedford!"
Alex nods at me and stirs Hamzah. They both get up and go out of the room after they've said Goodnight. I wait twenty minutes and then clip Michael around the ears. "And you! Bed time! Hop it! Switch the TV off before you go!" Michael gets up, switches off the TV and gives Carol a kiss, and then we do a fist and he goes to bed. Carol moves closer and links my arm. It's not long before the house is quiet, and I lean right back into the sofa and grit my teeth. But I can't stop the pain and Carol wraps me in her arms while the grief flows from my eyes as I think about my little bro. But part of the grieving is knowing that I still have many responsibilities, and the burden of loving and caring for people can be more than even I can carry when moments like this arrive.
Just for today I've brought a photograph of me and Kiddo down from the bedroom where I keep it on our dressing table and put it on the mantelpiece where everybody can see it. I remember when it was taken.
Dada had a bit of money given to him. It was off the British Legion. Then there was a jumble-sale up the road... at the posh end of where we live. Dada took us both there and he picked some posh clothes for us. We thought they were for our Sunday Best. But Dada had other ideas. So not long after, he scrubbed us both as clean as new pins, dressed us up in our new finery, Brylcreemed and brushed our hair so we looked like film stars, and then he took us to a professional photographers and paid to have our photos taken with the money he'd had from the British Legion.
I get up and pick up the photograph and take it back to the sofa me and Carol are sitting on. She folds into my arms and hugs me tightly as we both look at it. That's when the tears come. I've managed to hold them in all day, but no way can I stop them now. Yes, even Alex Johnson needs an arm around him sometimes. No man is an island. I wish Dada was here now to help me out. But he's not. Just me left out of us three. The original Three Musketeers that Stuart used to call us. The worst part is knowing that I'll never see or speak to my brother again. Well, not in this lifetime, but one day we will meet again. Yes Kiddo, one day I'll see You Again.
It's time for bed. I get up and pull Carol up from the sofa. She kisses my cheek and goes to the back door to lock it. Then I get a whiff of something. Something very familiar. It's the smell of our old house where me and Kiddo were brought up, and the smell of a wet dog. Then I feel something strange. It's like an arm around my shoulder. It's so real that I even feel to see what it is. There's nothing there. Then Carol comes back and I almost tell her what's happened. But because I don't believe in hokey-pokey stuff, I don't. Then she says, "Phew! It smells as if a wet dog has been in here, and it smells as if that chimney wants sweeping!"
I pull a face at her. "I've just farted. Too much ale. Let's go to bed."
She stares at me and asks, "Why have you got that daft grin on your face?"
I shrug my shoulders. "God knows. Time for bed. We've got a new lodger to care for."
She nods. "Poor Hamzah."
When we're walking up the stairs, I don't tell her that I wasn't referring to Hamzah.
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