If you have ever helped to raise a family then you will know the feeling: you were there from birth through to their flying the nest and it feels as though family life was a continuum. Yet the reality is that your loved ones do not see each other all the time every day. What with their activities and clubs and going to school, and you and your partner going out to work and pursuing your own interests you actually see your children through a series of snapshots. Recollecting their growing up is like paging through an album of memories. You see individual events but not the thread that connects them. Did you ever really wear a cardigan like that? Did your partner ever have hair like that? When did your daughter look so cute, and at what point did your son suddenly become a youth, and then a young man? And how is it that you were so busy that you never noticed them developing?
One of these memory snapshots was of Hugo announcing that he was going to get a tattoo. He was just fourteen at the time and we said he was much too young. He also wanted an ear-stud and we said he was too young for that as well. Cue major family row. My wife, Sheila, offered a compromise in that he could have a henna tattoo if he wanted. She offered him one of her clip-on earrings. He declined. We never discovered whether he went ahead with the henna. If he did he certainly never showed it to us.
Earlier than that, shortly after Hugo got his own phone, he wanted to show me some pictures he had taken. Excitedly he scrolled through them and on one swipe I saw a picture of him taken as a selfie in the full-length mirror in our bedroom. He is thirteen, and completely naked. I pretended I had not seen it and he hastily scrolled on. We never talked about it. I had heard of sexting but I knew so little of it as a youth phenomenon that I felt it was better to keep out.
Another of those snapshots was of Hugo after he broke his arm falling off a playground slide. He was eleven at the time. He came home with a very impressive plaster cast. A few days later he was back at school. When he came home that afternoon we saw that he'd got one of his friends to write The Losers' Club in felt marker pen on the plaster. 'Loser' had been changed to 'Lover' with a large red 'V' over the 's'. This was a homage to the film It which he had recently seen.
Hugo, my son, was now fifteen and had been invited along with rest of his class to a party at a friend's house. At that sensitive age you cannot bear to admit to your peers that you actually have parents let alone that they are so boring and crass. So you give strict instructions on where and how to be dropped off (of course they are still useful for transport) and how and when and where you are to be picked up to go back home.
I was told that I was only to approach the venue from the road up the hill from the south. I was not to drive past the house. I was to park in a particular side road and wait until he came to me. I was not to draw attention to myself. I said 'yes' to all of the above if only because I could recall that terrible sense of growing up and changing and feeling that everyone is looking at you and you may be becoming some sort of freak and please let me act all grown-up even if I don't know how to do it. So I drove him to the party, we agreed the pickup point and an approximate meeting time, and then I drove home.
So far, so good. But when I made the return journey for the 11:30 collection the hill was blocked for emergency repairs to a leaking gas main and the only way to get to the meeting point was to pass the front of the house I did so and I could not help glancing to my right. What I saw knocked me sideways. In the front porch, right under a light, two boys were kissing passionately. It was definitely two boys and they were definitely passionate. I drove on to the side road and was preparing to park when I realised that Hugo was already standing by the kerb. I had been expecting to wait for anything up to half an hour and I'd come prepared with a puzzle book to pass the time.
I pulled up and he yanked the door open, leapt in, and pulled it shut with a bang. I had not even come to a complete stop. Something was badly wrong and here was going to be a complete teenage angst meltdown. I asked what was wrong and got a shaky "just drive" in reply. I just drove.
He started snuffling and it became more pronounced and I sensed him shaking. I quickly pulled over into a dark space between two street lamps and switched off the engine. I grabbed a handful of the tissues from the box behind the passenger seat and pressed them in to his hand. He took them and his distress became worse until it was full-scale sobs wracking his frame. I got my phone out and sent a quick text to Sheila: 'Back late. Stay up. Love'.
I put a hand on his arm and just waited for his sobbing to cease. At some point he tried to speak but only a wet noise came out. This could be a long night.
It must have been at least twenty minutes after I parked that he finally calmed down to just quiet crying with the occasional shudder. Whatever it was being released was like a demon being exorcised. I sat still and waited.
When it felt safe to break the silence I squeezed his arm a little and said "Do you want to tell me about it?". He half turned towards me, not looking at my face and said "Dad it was horrible". What was it? Had he been assaulted, in a fight? What terrible thing had happened?
It felt as though he was not going to open up unless I prompted. "Did someone do something to you?"
"I was going to meet someone there. We were going to tell all the others about us". He fell silent again. What others, and tell them what? It seemed best to act as if I knew what he was talking about and simply wait for more.
I pieced together the story from the disjointed fragments that he gave me. He met his special friend and the party got off to a good start. They enjoyed themselves and being with their friends, But someone had smuggled in a bottle of vodka and shared it around. Some of it was put in Hugo's glass and he was about to drink it when he noticed that there was the remnant of some sort of tablet in the bottom of the glass. Realising that his drink had been spiked he took it to the kitchen in order to chuck it down the sink. He went to relieve himself (everyone was using the hedge outside the back door for the purpose) and then went back to the party. As he re-entered the room he saw his friend was not there. He asked where he was and was told that he and another boy had gone upstairs hand-in-hand. Hugo knew what going upstairs meant and he followed them. He found them all right, locked in an embrace. Both boys.
At this point in the tale a lot began to make sense, but I had to recalibrate my mind to the shock of understanding that we were talking about only boys here. Hugo was telling me he was gay. Had I ever known? Perhaps there had been inkling in the back of my mind, never properly noticed and dealt with. Now I was having to do it all at once and from scratch.
But there was more. Instead of Hugo and his boyfriend happily revealing their status to the group as they had planned, now he just wanted to get out of the house as quickly as possible. He scrabbled around trying to find his jacket which was buried under a pile of others. People tried to detain him and get him to stay. He was pushed around. By the time he found his things the new couple had come downstairs and pushed past him in the hall to get to the front door. So when Hugo left the house he had to push past them in turn as they stood in the porch. This was the couple I had seen kissing. It was no wonder he was so upset.
Clearly the whole thing had been set up by his 'friends'. They had betrayed him, hung him out to dry, and for what?
I now had to suddenly learn to know my son who until a few minutes ago was a person I knew and now was a complete stranger with a set of wants and needs that I knew nothing at all about. I wondered how and when I should have detected what was going on. Had I been like this with my parents? Things were a bit different then with no mobiles, one landline in the house to a very public phone in the hall. And yet I had a crush on a boy, and they never knew. But then neither did he. It was a grand passion that took place entirely in my own head, although I thought he was reading my signs. Such naivety.
Hugo stirred. It felt as though something was coming. "Dad, do you hate me?"
"God, no. You're still my lovely boy. You haven't changed. I've just learned a lot of new things about you. It's a lot to take in, to deal with".
"I've got to tell Mum, haven't I?"
"Yes, she'll be waiting up for us, she'll need to know. I think it is best if you just tell her. Don't put it off. I'll be with you. And don't think Mum will be angry. I'll think she'll be a bit confused, like I am, but give her time and be honest. Much better that way".
I was on the verge of going through the whole ' I'll always love you whatever you are or do' routine that you get in the films, but actually it felt as though the best way to say that was simply to be supportive.
"Dad, I feel so gross. He cheated on me."
"Actually I do know how you feel". I was silent for a few moments. "Long before I met Mum, I shared a house with two other men. One of them was very special to me. We never did anything sexual together but we liked very much being in each other's company. I was very uncertain about my own sexuality (Hugo winced at the word) and I was planning to tell him somehow. Then he came home from work one day and said that he was leaving to move in with another man he'd met, who I had never even heard of. My world just crashed."
"You mean you might have…."
"Yes Hugo. I really do know how you feel. And I've never told anyone else about it. Not even your Mother."
When Hugo felt ready I started the engine. I put the radio on, found some quiet music on ClassicFM , and drove off. I was acutely aware that driving did not have my full attention so I drove very slowly and carefully. We got in to the drive without hitting anything. I switched off the engine and we sat in the dark for a few moments.
"Come on then. Let's go and see Mum. She'll be worried about how upset you've been, but this is not going to be a bad as you think. Really I don't think it will be bad at all". I did fervently pray I was right.
It was not bad at all. Sheila was much more concerned about Hugo than about why he was upset. That might come later when she and I talked privately. She saw that now was the time to concentrate on Hugo.
"Mum, I've got something to tell you. Dad already knows". Good boy, strong beginning.
And as he talked some of those pages from the album of memories came to mind. "The losers' / lovers' club" suddenly made sense. He'd actually meant it. The nude selfie was for his boyfriend so even then they were very much an item, yet we never ever heard the beloved's name mentioned, not once. Why had he dumped Hugo, or been persuaded to dump him, after all those years? We would probably never know that either. And the ear-stud and tattoo? They were each going to have the others' name tattooed on the inside of their left wrists as an everlasting memory.
Sheila did all the right motherly things and then suddenly asked Hugo if he had eaten anything that night. He had told us before that there would be food, but he'd eaten nothing because he was too nervous about what he hoped would happen. Sheila, while continuing to hold him made food-shaped signals to me behind his back.
Which is why at a quarter to one in the morning I was now making a toasted cheese sandwich and whisking up scrambled egg for a son I hardly knew.
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