"How would you, um, er would you know if you were, like, gay?"
That was not what I expected from my 15-year old Grandson. My first thought was that he must have rumbled me, then I realised that he was asking the question about himself. I also realised that to give him a proper answer I might have to let slip something about myself. So I delayed a little.
"Is this specific, or just a general question?"
There was a long long pause that was an answer in itself. Then very quietly he said "I think it is specific."
I had always taken the line with children and grand-children that proper questions demand proper answers. Sometimes a child's simple question has a massively complicated story that involves a lot of adult understanding and back ground to explain, but that is not a reason not to attempt an answer. This, oddly, was not one of those complicated questions.
"There's no rule or law that says you have to like someone, or not like them. You know when you meet someone new you can get a feeling that you want to go on talking to them, or perhaps that you don't want to do that. You probably can't explain why. You just know."
"So if you meet someone who's like you, like another boy, or another girl if you're a girl, what does that mean?"
"There's a big difference between liking someone, being friends, and being in love. Friendship is that nice feeling that you enjoy being with someone. Being in love is being so all over the place about them that you want to be with them all the time, almost become part of them. If you find someone like that you're very lucky, whether they're a boy or a girl doesn't matter. But it takes time to move from being friends to being in love. Lots of friendships stay just there, some move on. I don't think there is really anything like love at first sight – not deep love. There is lust, and just fancying someone, but that's quite different. I let a friendship get stuck when I wanted something more, but I did nothing. I lost him…"
There was a significant pause. "Grandpa, d'you mean you…?"
"Yes. I lost him because I didn't know what to do next so instead of doing something, I did nothing. It's not easy moving from being just friends".
There was another long pause. I let it run. After a decent interval I said "Is there a particular reason you're asking this?"
"You know I went in to town today on my own to explore? And I was sitting on a bench near the high street and this boy came and sat on the bench. And we got talking and I found he worked at a café nearby and was having a break. And I think I want to meet him again".
Another pause. "I know. I want to see him again". More pause. "What if I met him again and how would I find out if he was…."
I could feel his angst because I had been there. That terrible feeling that you might make the wrong move and what could have been a good friendship would be wrecked by a mistake. How could you know?
"Andrew, you've already met him. That's almost the most difficult bit out of the way. Now you want to meet him again. Do you think he would like to meet you again?"
"I think he would like to because we talked a lot and then he suddenly saw that he had stayed too long on his break and had to get back".
"So if you see him again, you would just be friends, and you could chat together? I think you should see him and just find out how it goes. After all it's not as if you're asking him to marry you. You have friends at school who are boys. This can start just like that".
Andrew and I have always been close, with some sort of special bond between us. If the family go for a walk he and I usually gravitate towards each other and talk about all sorts of things we have in common, so I felt sure enough to make a suggestion: "Let's go in to town tomorrow afternoon. We can go to the café where he works. I'll have a cup of tea and if your friend is there you can say hello to him. Then if you want I'll get out of the way." He seemed happy and relieved with the idea. He told me the café was called The Spinning Wheel and was really a tea-shop where his friend was working for his uncle to earn holiday money. The uncle owned the shop. The friend had a name, Ray.
When I was a young man and just starting to make my way in life, I did what so many others like me did: shared a house. One of the men I shared with was an acquaintance of mine who worked at the same company. When I joined the firm I saw an advertisement on a notice-board for someone to share accommodation. I called him on the internal phone system and we met for lunch. He seemed a pleasant personality, we had some interests in common, and sharing was going to be a lot nicer than living in the digs I inhabited a the time. I moved in with him that weekend.
It was a pleasure to give my landlady notice, even though I was going to forfeit a week's rent. The digs were quite cold (no heating in the bedrooms or you'll forget to turn it off and burn the house down); treat the house as your home (here is a list of do's and don'ts just to make you feel welcome): and my personal mail handed to me in the morning with a running commentary on who had written to me. Twenty-four hours notice was required to book a bath. No cooking in bedrooms, the list went on and on. As I say, it was a pleasure to buy my way out of this den.
At the old farmhouse that I moved to I had my own room and free run of the rest of the building. It was bliss. Obviously there were rotas for cooking washing up, shopping and the rest. That was expected along with sharing household expenses like electricity and the telephone. Dave, who invited me to move in, was looking for a third to join as well. Soon we found him. He was called Keith and like me he was moving out of digs.
Three men together might have been a recipe for mess, week-old mountains of washing-up and dirty floors. In fact it was really very civilised and worked quite smoothly. Most jobs got done, most rota duties were carried out, and the place generally looked quite decent.
We all had our own ideas of time off. One we all enjoyed was the visit to the pub on Wednesday evenings. We got involved with the local darts team, and at the back of the pub was an old-fashioned skittle alley which also got a fair share of our attention. At most weekends Dave usually went away and stayed with friends: we never enquired where. Keith had no immediate family, and mine lived over a hundred miles away, so the two of us generally mucked around together. We often went out exploring locally. We decided to clear up the grounds around the farm and worked hard to reclaim an old orchard, cutting back years of hedging around it, pruning the trees and having massive bonfires which often became the focus of barbecues.
One routine we both enjoyed was sitting together on a Sunday morning and doing complicated cryptic crosswords in the Sunday papers. There was something very special for me in sitting close to him and working on these common problems. I think it was then that I started to develop feelings for him that surprised and alarmed me. Surprise because I came from a very macho background where men definitely did not develop tender feelings for each other; alarmed because I was well aware of the consequences of being found out. Understand that this was a time when to be seen to be gay could result in persecution, prosecution and even imprisonment. Anyway I did not even know if I was gay, I just knew how I felt about him.
One Saturday we went off on an expedition to walk the local hills. We took a picnic lunch with us. We had a wonderful and exhilarating time and found a place high up with a panoramic view to sit and eat. After lunch we lay back in the grass under a hot sun and dozed and chatted. I could so easily have reached over and touched him; teased him with a wisp of grass, done something to go beyond just being there. But I was paralysed by indecision and I had no understanding of what I might be getting in to. So I did nothing.
Often at night I would fantasise about loving him. I had all the opportunities to actually do it, but nothing happened. Did he have any feelings for me? I like to think so but I never found out. About eighteen months after I moved in he announced that he was leaving to move in with a friend of whom I had never heard. I don't know where or how they met, he was very discreet. He shyly referred to him as his boyfriend. I was devastated, regretting all the lost chances that had been presented to me.
As I have said, it was an age when homosexuality was more than frowned on, it spelled big trouble. Even saying the word was like uttering a sin. There were expectations from my family that girlfriends, marriage and grand-children were expected. So in due course I found a girlfriend. It did not work out, but after a succession of relationships of various sorts I found a girl who was prepared to take me on. I sensed that she was not anticipating any great bedroom activity from me. Her gamine figure and short hair suggested that she knew she appealed to a certain type of man who was attracted to the boyish.
We were very happy together and like any couple negotiated a style of life that worked for us. She was not over-bothered if she found a copy of one of the new male porno magazines that were just beginning to appear, and I did not make any particular attempt to hide them from her. We had two children, a boy, and two years later, a girl. They grew up to be reasonably well-balanced and talented people of whom we were very proud.
Grand-children came along. My son had two, and my daughter three. I loved playing with them and, as they grew up, getting involved in their interests and activities. We started a family tradition of hiring a large house somewhere for a family holiday. It had to be large to take six adults and five children.
Then my wife died, after nearly thirty years of marriage. My life went on hold for three years, the greyness punctuated by the business of clearing up an estate, trying not to think about clearing out her possessions, and learning how to live on my own again. I stopped going on the family holidays because there were too many painful memories. Then my son suggested very tactfully that it was time to let go of the past and enjoy the present with the grandchildren. In the greyness I had quite forgotten that while I had lost a wife, they had lost a grandmother. I resolved to pull myself together, and agreed to go on a family holiday. My daughter did all the research and found us an old farmhouse in the East Anglia, near a large town.
Before my wife died I had explored some websites that carried stories contributed by followers. Two of these sites in particular appealed and one was especially interesting. It covered mostly stories about the relationships between teenage boys, and between young men, the very age when I began my journey of self-identity. Through reading many of these stories I started to understand my younger self. Some of my own experiences resonated with stories that I found and I saw that I could create tales of my own as a way of exploring my feelings. So I began writing, and was pleased to find that my work was good enough to be accepted and published. I would attach my stories to emails when I submitted them and gradually I felt a rapport developing with the Webmaster. We appeared to have a lot of experiences and understandings in common. Some of his comments were reflections on my work, some even suggested story lines that could be developed.
The Webmaster was evidently a man and had some connection with East Anglia, so the suggestion of a family holiday there gave me the silly idea that, who knows, I might even meet him. Of course we would not know each other and could pass in the street and never be aware of each other.
And that is how on a Wednesday afternoon after lunch Andrew and I were on a bus heading for town. He was nervous. He had taken a lot of care with his clothes, and showered and washed his hair. He looked as though, in his mind at least, he was going on a date.
We got off at the bus-station. I suggested that we find a bench where we could sit and calm down. Andrew led me, as I thought he might, to 'his' bench. I had privately done some research the night before so I knew that The Spinning Wheel was just around the corner, but I played dumb and let Andrew lead me there. It was his expedition, I was just there as back-up.
The tea-room was a pleasant place, a typical country shop. There was an actual spinning-wheel in one window. When Andrew opened the door there was the old-fashioned tinkle of a bell. I was about to go to a table in one corner when a young man appeared from the direction of the kitchen. This was Ray. He looked surprised and pleased when he saw Andrew, who just looked relieved. I sat at the table, keeping in the background as the little tableau was played out. Ray brought us our order and was introduced to me. He called me 'Sir' (years since that had happened, and a nice change from the ubiquitous 'You guys') and shook my hand. The place was not very busy so he and Andrew were able to talk together quite a lot. I kept out of it, my job here was done.
I had need of the toilet, which was at the back of the shop. Afterwards as I walked back to the table the door-bell rang and a man came in. Ray waved to him. I looked at him silhouetted against the window and suddenly there was a catch in my throat. I stumbled towards him.
"Keith? Is it you?"
"Good God, Paul!"
It was Keith. Older, obviously, and the years had dealt better with him than with me, but unmistakeably Keith. We threw our arms around each other. Andrew and Ray came over and Ray came out with the classic one-liner: "So you two know each other?" Oh yes.
Keith owned The Spinning Wheel. Ray was his nephew. Ray's parents were on some posting abroad and the boy was staying with his uncle while he finished his schooling.
It was hard to know where or how to begin untangling the past decades. Keith came and sat at the table. We were still holding hands after our hug and I don't think either of us was interested in letting go. Anyway there was something about the tea-room that seemed to suggest that such behaviour between men was not that uncommon here. Keith broke off for a moment to call Ray and Andrew over. He said "I don't really need you this afternoon, we're not that busy, so the two of you clear off and do something. Back here at 5:30 for locking up. Take this". He gave the boys a £20 note.
Keith and I talked and talked. Customers came and went and were dealt with by another member of staff. It was an afternoon of exploration and revelation. Suddenly it was 5:30, the boys appeared and it was evident that they had a good time together. At one point Andrew gave me a very discreet wink and thumbs-up. Keith invited us back to his house for supper. I accepted the invitation, but then I would have said 'yes' if he had invited me to walk on burning coals. I texted my daughter: Met a friend from years back. Having supper with him. All well, love Dad .
The Keith I remembered was always a great cook who seemed able to magic up a meal from almost nothing. He had not lost his touch and we had a superb meal. Ray was used to this and so, from memory, was I. The meal was quite alcoholic. We let Ray and Andrew have a small glass of wine each and they listened in silent amazement to us talking. We held nothing back from them. If Andrew had any questions he was going to leave them for another day. I think he found we were providing the answers to his questions of the day before.
Keith had moved in with his boyfriend but it only lasted a couple of years. By the time it broke up I had moved away. In the pre-internet pre-social media days it could be very difficult to trace someone, and so with no forwarding contact details he was not able to get back in touch.
"Did you want to?" I asked. He said "Oh yes, very much".
Back in the days at the farmhouse Keith had wanted to reach out to me but was afraid of scaring me off, just as I was going through the same agonies.
Something of his description of the break-up of his first relationship and his subsequent life with various other partners rang the very faintest of bells in the back of my mind. I told him of the website and of how reading and then creating stories had helped me to understand my earlier self.
Keith got out his phone and started fiddling with it. I hate this because it signals that whatever is on the screen is more interesting than the person you are talking to. But to my surprise he handed the phone to me. He pointed to the screen and said quietly "Is that you?". There was the email I had sent off a few day earlier with my latest story attached.
Keith was the Webmaster. It was small wonder that we had found so much understanding in common.
When we had finished crying on each other, he asked Andrew and me to stay the night. I, for one, was mentally and physically wrung out, it had been quite a day, so I had no hesitation in saying yes. I fired off another text to my daughter. Keith looked over at the boys who were now sitting together with silly grins on their faces as they watched the oldies wind back the years. He said "You two buzz off and do whatever you want. Sort out your own sleeping arrangements". They were quick to disappear. I was sure that Andrew would be in safe hands for the night. I hoped I would be as well.
And I think that for the first time I understood by the saying 'what goes around comes around'.
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