My dad doesn’t drive the van any more: I do that. So he spotted it before I did; I was watching the lights, because that junction at Markham Square is notorious for accidents. The cycle time on the traffic lights is very short and the filter on the turn into Lonsdale Street doesn’t come when you expect it. I don’t know how many accidents I’ve seen there.
And the latest accident was very nearly mine. Profanity from my father? From my father?
O.K., we’ll have a small flashback, here. I’ll fill you in on the family history. The van says ‘Derek Howard & Son, Builders’. Derek Howard is my dad, and I’m Jason Howard. Derek Howard is a pillar of the community and other such clichés. Derek Howard is a church elder. Treasurer of the community association. Chairman of the combined churches’ outreach group. Local representative for Neighbourhood Watch. Key-holder for the Town Hall, the church hall, the football club. You getting it? He’s 81 this year, and I’m 30.
See, my dad married when he was 22. He married Pamela Wilson and they had been married 25 years when she died. Complications following kidney disease, it was. Three years after that, he married my mum Katie Connolly. She’d taken over the paperwork for the business, she was running the whole office. After a while she was running Dad too, and it seemed more convenient to run him full time.
Now the significant point here is that Katie Connolly had been born Katie Lennox. She’d been married too until Tom Connolly had died in a car crash. She’d been married 18 years – and she had no children. She’d wanted them but they hadn’t come. Dad had wanted them too, and they hadn’t come for him either, and, well, I suppose they both just thought they weren’t an option. I’m not asking – there are things about your parents you just don’t want to know – but I suspect that the need for a contraceptive passed them by. Certainly, from what I’ve heard from round the family, my arrival was a big, big surprise. And I’m an only child. So that may be it, you see: Dad was an only child himself, and his parents weren’t young when they had him; some of his attitudes are on the old-fashioned side.
Such as the general undesirability of sparing the rod and thereby spoiling the child. I reckon I was the only one in my year at primary school who could still count on a spanking if I misbehaved. Once I went up to the secondary, it was Dad’s belt. Oh, not often. Don’t run away with the notion that I was an abused child, because I wasn’t: there were plenty of warnings when I pushed the boundaries, not that I would have told you so at the time. Over his knee and slippered when I was small; over the end of my bed and strapped when I was bigger. Six was his usual: he went to a dozen for particularly serious crimes, one of which was profanity. He has, even now, strong opinions on the subject of the Ten Commandments, and the taking of the Lord’s name in vain. I’m that rara avis (posh term, huh?), a builder who doesn’t swear. I lived at home until I was 21, and as far as Dad was concerned, that meant I lived in his house and by his rules, and if I had thought that the rules would be relaxed when I reached my majority, I learned differently. I got a smart dozen on the bare for bad language a week after my 21st birthday.
Come to that, I had thought that once I left home… I rented a room in Copper Street a month or so after that, and began to do the things you do when you fledge. I wasn’t wholly inexperienced even before that, but there are things you can do when you live at home, and things you can’t. I had enough sense to keep most of them to myself – neither Dad nor Mum were likely to take kindly to sexual experimentation on my part, and dear… me, I experimented. If it had a regular heartbeat, I… took it to bed. (See? Early conditioning. Fucked it. I fucked it. No, I can’t say it.) Male. Female. On one glorious occasion, both at once. I wasn’t fussy. I found myself with a preference for men – and whether that was just because they didn’t, as a rule, try to make me commit, I couldn’t tell you. Even now, I’ll turn and look after a pretty girl in the street, although I don’t any more try to get into her knickers, but that may be just part and parcel of being a builder. We have to wolf-whistle at every female between 15 and 45 who goes past, it’s the law. I think not doing it would probably trigger the Apocalypse.
But that wasn’t what got me into trouble. No, that was the ‘cash job’. You know the song, do you? ‘No income tax, no VAT, no money back, no guarantee.’ And according to my dad, no way. Absolutely no way. I don’t think he has ever in his entire life done a job that didn’t go through the books. Listen, if he takes a packet of screws from the stores for his own use, he pays for them, and not at cost either. He pays what the customer would pay. I was 24 and he caught me doing a cash job for a mate using materials and tools from the yard. The job got finished – Dad’s view was that I had said I would do it and if my word wasn’t my bond then it ought to be – and then I spent an hour and a half in the office, sitting on a nasty hard plastic chair, drawing up, by hand, a full set of costings and paperwork, inclusive of VAT. The VAT John hadn’t paid was deducted from my next pay cheque. That hurt; it hurt nearly as much as my backside. That’s the only time I ever got more than a dozen, but I ended up bent over the workbench with my jeans round my ankles, and Dad laid 25 smart ones across my arse with his belt. And I’m telling you, for a man in his 70s, he wasn’t half strong. I was yelling well before he was done, and like I said, that plastic chair… Well.
So you get my dad, O.K.? He’s a moral man and he’s tried to bring me up to be moral too, although it hasn’t been an unqualified success. He doesn’t swear, so whatever he’d seen in Markham Square was plainly a huge shock.
“Go round again, Jason, and stop at the Town Hall.”
Oh, thanks. Lonsdale Street, Cleveland Street through the narrow bit and that vile roundabout at Pitman Causeway, and the snow from earlier in the day had turned to slush so that I was none too sure of the brakes. “What was it? What did you see?”
“I hope I’m wrong.” And that was all he would say.
He wasn’t wrong. When I turned onto the frontage at the Town Hall, I could see it too. The snow had started to melt, unevenly as it tends to do. Obviously nobody had come or gone by the front door since the snowfall earlier, because the lettering was still legible, although imperfect, with shapes running into each other and falling away. Nonetheless, there was no way it could have passed as a freak of nature. Freaks of nature don’t generally say, in snow-formed lettering:
WALRUS IS A WANKER
I’m not arguing with the sentiment. ‘Walrus’ is David Wallis, who is head of the local council, and it’s a perfectly fair description. Even my dad thinks so, although he would only express it as ‘he’s an irritating little man’. He is also one of those people with an overdone idea of his own importance and dignity, and a snow message about his personal habits laid out on the front of the Town Hall was unlikely to go unnoticed.
“That’s the Bryant boy,” said Dad, grimly. I nodded. We had re-laid the flagstones from the front door to the edge of the pavement not three months previously; Steve had measured up for it, I had costed the job, and Kes Bryant had been sent out to do it, the first job he had done on his own.
“It’ll have to be redone, and… I haven’t heard a weather forecast today. Can we leave it and go back to it?”
“No,” said Dad, heavily. “More snow forecast for the weekend. And I don’t see how we can fix it either. We can’t lay fresh mortar at this temperature, unless we put that antifreeze accelerator stuff in it, and that isn’t going to do us any good at all unless the temperature comes above freezing for several hours. And I think we should fix this tonight if we can think of a way to do it. If it freezes again tonight, that’s going to show for days.”
I stared at the flagstones. “If we lifted the middle ones, and just put them back on sand, we’d break up the pattern. We wouldn’t need to do them all. Then I could drop a note in to say that…” I hesitated. Dad wouldn’t allow a lie, but equally, I wasn’t keen on the council coming to hear the exact truth. Still, there are truths and truths.
“How about this? When we came past tonight, we noticed that the cold weather has had a bad effect on the flagging. No, better, we noticed a peculiarity which didn’t become evident until the cold weather. We’ve put down a temporary fix and I’ll relay the central eight flags as soon as the cold snap is over. It won’t actually be that big a job, but you’re right, we need to do the first part tonight.”
“Aye,” said Dad, wearily. “I don’t like it, but it’ll do our reputation no good to have the story out. Come on, then, back to the yard. I’ll call your mother and tell her I’ll be late.”
“Dad, there’s no need. I can lift and lay eight flagstones on my own. I’ll drop you at home and come back and do it.”
“No, it’ll be quicker with two.”
“Then I’ll pick up Kes Bryant and make him do it.”
“You’ll leave him out of it, for the moment. We’ll need to talk about him, Jason. I’m not stupid, you know. I know what’s going on between him and you.”
I didn’t really know what to say to that. Look, I reckon my dad’s a long way behind the times as far as social customs and values are concerned. He thinks homosexuality is plain morally wrong, and although I’ve never actually heard him on the subject of bisexuality, I can imagine criticisms along the lines of having your cake and eating it. I don’t – well, obviously! – agree with him, but he’s my dad and I love him. He can go as far as hating the sin and loving the sinner; I don’t feel any need to rub his nose in what I do, so I wasn’t aware that he knew that Kes Bryant shared my bed on a regular basis.
Time, probably, for another flashback. Kes Bryant.
Seasonal work, the building trade. I can’t begin to tell you how many men we employ at various stages of the year. Well, I could, actually – I could look it up, see how many P11s are on the payroll software.
What, you thought we’d be paying them cash? Haven’t you been listening? If they’ve got a CIS certificate from the tax people, then they’re subcontractors and I can pay them gross, by cheque, with full supporting paperwork. If they haven’t, then they go on the payroll. If they aren’t willing to go on the payroll, with details being sent to the taxman, Dad won’t take them on at all, and I may be a partner in the business now but don’t run away with the notion that he isn’t in charge. I do almost all the paperwork since Mum retired, so I do the payroll and that’s where I first encountered Kes.
Payroll has got difficult over the last few years. The regulations on self-employed subcontractors first, and then the rules on money laundering, and the EU employment directives and the rest. I take them on, I pay them off. Short term contracts, most of them – we can’t afford to keep on anyone who isn’t pulling his weight and we can’t carry passengers, and anyway, like I say, it’s seasonal. Where they’re from seems to come in waves too – a couple of years ago most of them were Polish (even now, if you want a plumber or an electrician, he’ll be Jerzy Something-ending-in-ski). Last summer they were all Serbs, for some reason. We do full paperwork, and Dad insists that we see proof of ID after the scene we had over the three men who all turned up to work under the same name. I’ve learned, the hard way, not to make any assumptions about people’s names or where they come from. Irek, whose surname I never learned either to pronounce or spell, was apparently third generation from Romford.
So I looked up at the young man with the dark curls and the incredibly blue eyes, and I asked him his name, and then I asked him to spell it for me, and then he offered me his driving licence and I checked one against the other.
Kessag Rosario Gabriel Xavier Bryant. No, he wasn’t taking the piss, that really was his name. How could anybody do that to a child? Made me feel a lot better about being called Jason, which I had always thought an incredibly naff name. British national, so the faint whisper of an Irish accent was only that. I’d never met a Kessag before – I’ve never met one since! – so I suppose that’s why I noticed him. Pretty boy, 21 or 22, full of himself. And, unless my sensors were way off, gay.
I know, I know. Gay porn is full of builders. Two types: big ugly muscular assertive types, and small stupid muscular cheeky boys. Oh yes, they exist. We’ve established, I think, that I’ve got ten years of not living like a hermit, and I’ve had my share of both types. And waiters. And hairdressers. And a professional darts player, believe it or not. And a computer analyst and an accountant. Once Dad promoted me to the office, I stopped chasing pretty builders. I started on the site, you see; Dad always intended that I should have the business if I wanted it, but he wasn’t giving it up to an idiot. Before I could take over the admin I had to work outdoors and for every part of the business I had to prove that I could do the job, competently at least, if not expertly, before he would allow me to give orders to anybody else doing it. It’s no bad thing, of course, means I can cover for whoever hasn’t come in today, although with the new rules about electrics, I have to get a qualified sparks to sign off for me. But I’m a capable chippie, brickie, plasterer. I can drive the lorry and the fork lift, I can dig foundations, and more to the point I can get sense from the Buildings Inspector.
Where was I? Oh yes, working with the men. I picked up a couple while I was doing that. Once I went into the office, I stopped, took to doing my hunting elsewhere. I wasn’t having trouble on the site because some pretty boy thought that sharing my bed gave him Rights.
Only it wasn’t ‘some pretty boy’. It was Kes. I laid down the law to him on that subject and then I laid Kessag Rosario Gabriel Xavier Bryant. I thought it would be a short term thing, a month or two. And then he wasn’t always going home afterwards, and then his landlord starting asking some scandalous rent and then he was ensconced in my spare room and, well, I wasn’t chasing professional darts players, I was going home with Kes.
Look, you needn’t tell anybody about it; I’m faintly embarrassed about the whole thing. Suddenly Jason wasn’t hot stuff any more, Jason was thoroughly hooked and come over all domesticated, playing house with Kes. And you know what was the why of that? Christmas. I had plans for Christmas. Christmas Eve with some mates, Christmas Day and Boxing Day with the parents, some fairly solid partying, New Year’s Eve at the Golden Lion to start with and Big Catz nightclub afterwards, New Year’s Day with Mum and Dad again. I asked Kes what he was going to do – look, I didn’t want to take him to Mum and Dad’s, but I’d have taken him all the other places if he wanted. He didn’t want, he said, he would go home and spend the holiday with his parents, come back on the 2nd.
He came back on Boxing Day. I came home just before midnight, having decided to sleep in my own bed, and found him curled up in it in a prodigious bad temper. He didn’t seem to know whether to rage or sulk.
“I wasn’t expecting you. Is something wrong at home that you didn’t stay?”
“You could say that,” he muttered viciously.
“They want me to see a shrink.”
I got a cold feeling at the back of my neck.
“My father thinks I need to see a shrink because I’m mad. And my uncle thinks I’m wicked.”
The cold feeling was spreading.
He gave me a look suggesting that I was a long way below average intelligence.
“Because of you. Because I’m gay. Dad would rather think me mad than bad; Uncle Walter is a priest. It… they asked if I was seeing anybody and I said yes. I didn’t tell them who you were or anything, but I let them know it was a man, and the whole family went apeshit. I mean, they knew! They knew before! But the first time it might be serious, the first time I’m saying it out loud and they can’t ignore it, then I must be either mad or immoral.”
I didn’t know what to say. Look, I know what Dad’s church thinks of me and my – proclivities. I knew the Catholic church wasn’t keen but…
“Is it still sinful to be gay?”
He made a face. “Not to be gay, but to do anything about it. It’s ‘you can’t help it but you mustn’t act on it’. Uncle Walter – he’s my great uncle actually and he still thinks that even the tendency is sinful and the practice is beyond anything. And Dad thinks I could be cured – well, I think he thinks that it’s like giving up smoking: that it’s just a matter of breaking the habit and I could if I really wanted to. And basically there’s only me now that they don’t speak to Mairead.”
“My sister. They don’t talk to her.”
“She had a baby. An abortion would have been worse but they don’t see that, just that she had a baby and didn’t marry the father.”
Right. 21st century generalised dysfunctionality. Not that unusual, I suppose but I was surprised by how angry I found myself. How could anybody… Silly question. People can do that to their children. They do. But I was surprised by how angry and… and protective I felt. How much I found myself thinking: well, if they don’t love him, I do.
“What does your mum say? Whose side is she on?”
He scowled. “Mum’s a dreep. She won’t ever stand up to Dad. She doesn’t have any opinion of her own, ever, she just cries if what one of us does causes upset. She cried all the time about Dad throwing Mairead out, but she wouldn’t say he was wrong and she wouldn’t say that Mairead could go home. She cries because Dad won’t let her see Mairead’s baby. She cried all yesterday about me. Happy Christmas, Kes.”
I did what I could to comfort him, but it was precious little – still, after that, there was no doubt that Kes and Jason were an item and the usual worries about office romances could just go hang.
He did try it on at work, just once, and I snubbed him comprehensively – we picked up a contract in Lincoln and he tried to tell me that he didn’t want to go. Wanted to stay at home with me; couldn’t Tadeusz go? Damnable brat had got used to working a nine-to-five day, no weekends, no evenings, that was what was at the bottom of that. Well, tough. This isn’t a nine-to-five job, and you find out at half past four that there’s overtime to work tonight, no argument. I sent him to Lincoln with a flea in his ear; through the main season it may well be that I see almost nothing of my squeeze because I’m on site at first light and there until dusk and coming home exhausted with the paperwork still to do – and if he’s in the trade he’ll be doing the same thing. Romance or not, we have to live in the real world, with contracts and deadlines and the rest. He wasn’t stupid enough to try it again, just grasped that at home it was Jase and Kes and hearts and flowers, and on site it was Mr Howard and Bryant and doing as he was bloody told. Well, not literally. I won’t be Mr Howard until Dad stops coming in, and probably not even then, but I could and did insist on Jason, not Jase.
So, you get Kes too, right? Nice, affectionate young man, perhaps a little unreliable in his temper.
And either none too bright, or disgracefully short on background information about his job.
Anyway, Dad and I went back to the yard, and while he phoned Mum, I loaded flagstones and sand and safety barriers into the back of the van, and then we went back to the Town Hall. It had started to snow again, which didn’t, in my opinion, add anything to the mix. I set the barrier up round the area and Dad took a brush to run across the middle: the lettering was reforming and the fewer people who saw it, the better pleased I would be.
“Son? Give me your phone.”
I thought… I don’t actually know what I thought; I knew he had called Mum already, but I suppose I thought he meant to call her again. He didn’t; mine’s a camera phone and he took a picture. I didn’t ask why, just took hold of the spade and started to lever up a flagstone. I’d actually hoped that we would get them up unbroken, because it was one thing putting in some extra hours and losing a sack of sand, but those Yorkstone flags are the Victorian reclaimed ones, and even at trade prices they’re £50 a square metre plus delivery and VAT, thank you very much. Oh, I was going to kill that boy, I really was! I was damn careful and I still broke three of them. I had a brief argument with Dad on the subject of lifting new ones out of the van – look, strong or not, I don’t think a man in his 80s should be heaving flagstones about – but I couldn’t stop him laying the sand. I suppose, on the bright side, he’s very, very experienced so he was bloody quick about it, but by the time we were done he was wet through from the snow, and so was I. We got back into the van and he looked at me.
“That Bryant boy, does he actually live at yours now? Will he be there?”
“Right. Back to your house, then. He’s going to have a piece of my mind. And I think tomorrow he can have a written warning too, on his record. Damfool boy.”
“Dad, leave it until the morning. Let me take you home now, you’re soaked and you’re cold. You can bust him in the morning, I won’t say a word against it.”
“Yes? And you’re going home tonight? So what are you going to tell him about where you’ve been?”
“Aye. Just so. Now I’m inclined to think that this was probably just mischief or thoughtlessness, and I’ll hear what he has to say about it. But I’m warning you, Jason, if I think he knew what it would do, that he did it on purpose, then tomorrow he gets his cards and he goes, and I’ll hear nothing about him being your… about you and him.”
Well, there wasn’t much I could say about it. Bottom line, he was right. I was sure it was either that he hadn’t known or he didn’t think, nothing worse, but, well, if one of the others had done it on purpose, I would have fired him without waiting to ask Dad about it. Kes – ought to know that I wouldn’t let him away with something like that.
He was bloody surprised when Dad turned up on the doorstep with me. All right, so I had been a bit dim, not to pick up that Dad had known he was there all along. Later I worked it out – that Dad had got into the habit of phoning first, not just dropping in on me, because he knew that Kes would be there. He backed up into the sitting room, plainly wondering how to get out – and Dad pointed an accusing finger at him.
He sat, like a well trained retriever.
“Jason, get this picture for me.” He still had my phone. He’s a silver surfer, my dad. Very technologically competent. I downloaded the picture onto the computer in the corner and beckoned for Kes to come and see. He looked blankly at it for a moment and then – it was like something from a sitcom, the double take, the recognition, the slow wash of embarrassment.
“Did you do that?” I felt I had to ask but it was a largely superfluous question. Patently he had.
“I… suppose I must have done.”
“You suppose?” asked Dad, sternly.
“Well, I don’t see how…”
“When you laid the flags,” I spelled out slowly, “you wrote a message with the mortar and then you laid the flags over the top, yes?”
He nodded, mortified.
“Why did you write” I thought about repeating it, glanced at Dad and thought better of it “a rude remark about Mr Wallis on his front step?”
He shrugged, still scarlet. “He’d been in and out all morning telling me how to do my job. Barking at me that the price was exorbitant and that he hoped the flags would match the ones up the side of the building, as if we hadn’t included that in the quote. He wanted to know why you weren’t there yourselves, both of you, instead of sending me. He wound me up. I didn’t say anything, I didn’t answer him back or anything, but when he went away, I wrote that in the mortar. I had the flags down before anybody came out again: he didn’t see it.”
And that was the truth because if he had seen it nobody would ever have heard the end of it. He glanced back at the screen and added, resentfully, “I still don’t see why it’s showing up now.”
“That,” said Dad, sternly, “is because you don’t know enough about your materials. The mortar underneath the paving slab conducts heat from the ground underneath. If you don’t spread the mortar evenly, the snow will melt above the places where the mortar is. If there’s air under the slab, it acts as an insulator and the snow will lie longer there. So if you write a rude message in mortar and lay flagstones across the top, the snow will melt in the shape of your rude message. Which it did.”
The poor boy – well, man, but in Dad’s eyes anybody under about 45 is a boy, and he knows how to make you feel like one – couldn’t have been any redder. “Oh,” he said, in a very small voice.
“Did you know it would do that?” Well, not one of my better questions, anybody could have seen that he didn’t. He shook his head.
“Good,” said Dad, sharply. “Because if you had known, and done it anyway, you’d be in tomorrow to collect your cards. As it is, you can take a written warning for misconduct, standard conditions.” And while Kes was still looking a bit stunned by that, Dad followed it up with a formal and extremely well worded reprimand, which must have had his ears burning, although he didn’t argue.
“Have you got anything to say?”
I hoped he wouldn’t have; I could tell him from bitter experience that backchat wouldn’t add anything to the mixture. Fortunately he seemed to have worked it out for himself; he shook his head mutely.
“Good. Jason, take me home, please.”
When I came back, Kes was curled up in the corner of the sofa, knees under his chin, still looking vaguely stunned. I sat down beside him and pulled him over for a hug.
I felt his head move under my chin, and then he twisted to be able to look at me, his legs lolling over the arm of the sofa and his back in my lap.
“Jase? What are the standard conditions for a written warning?”
“They’re in your contract. Once you went on a permanent contract, you got a copy of the disciplinary procedure, didn’t you? Two pages, pale green?”
“Oh, that? I don’t think I read it. What does it mean, though, written warning?”
I sighed. “Do you make a habit of signing things you haven’t read? All right, don’t answer that, standard small print, you didn’t think there would be anything in it. Tomorrow I’ll type up a report of what you did and why we object to it. I’ll sign it and so will Dad, and you’ll get a chance to say if there’s anything you think isn’t true or isn’t fair. Then we’ll say how long it will stand, which is six months, probably, and what will happen if you piss us off again. It’s not likely because this is a one off, it’s not like we’re getting you for persistent lateness or absenteeism. The report goes in your personnel file and if you screw up again in the six months then we can add up the two offences and decide if we want to keep you. If you keep your nose clean, then in six months we’ll bin it and it’s history.”
He thought about it. “It’s a suspended sentence and if I don’t piss anybody off, then in 6 months it’s a spent conviction.”
He grunted, and after a while I saw the tips of his ears go pink again and he said, “Sorry. I didn’t know. I’ll go and redo the flags when it’s warm enough. In my own time.”
I gave him a hug and we let it go.
He was subdued the next morning, countersigned his report form without comment, apologised to Dad again, and went silently about his work. It was a bit odd – he was a bit odd. Desperately subdued and… and something else, I wasn’t sure what. Chastened? Might have been. Hardly surprising, I suppose, if he’d never had an official reprimand or anything. Anxious to please. I thought that would last two days, to tell the truth. I mean, let’s face it, it wasn’t that serious. He hadn’t known, he had held his tongue when it mattered and taken out his bad temper on something which under other circumstances would have done no harm. In fact, I had kept the picture – it made me smile. I had it as a background screen on my phone. But Kes was… what was he? Passive? Muted? Not quite either of those. I had no fault to find with his work, although after two days, I hadn’t really got time to worry about him. I had more important things on my mind.
Mum rang the yard; it took them some time to find me, because I’d been dealing with a delivery, and when I rang home she wasn’t there, and of course when I rang her mobile it was turned off. I insisted on her having a mobile a few years ago: she walks a good couple of miles every day with the dog, and I worry about her turning her ankle and not being able to get home, but she never has the damn thing turned on. It was half an hour before she rang again.
“Jason? I’m at the hospital. Your dad… I called the doctor out this morning and he got your dad admitted. He… can you come down?”
I hate hospitals. I’ve spent more than enough time in them – look, construction’s a dangerous industry, no matter how careful you are. I’ve spent many an afternoon sitting in Casualty waiting for the man who’s dropped the mallet on his foot or fallen off the scaffolding. Hate hospitals. Hate the echoing corridors and the smell – particularly the smell.
“Mum? What’s happened?”
“He was wheezy again all yesterday, and it got worse and worse overnight so I rang Dr Grainger this morning. Pneumonia. They want to keep him in.”
Hardly surprising. They take pneumonia seriously in a man his age.
“Can I see him?”
I know it’s a cliché, but people shrink in hospital beds. Maybe it’s the kit all round them, but there was a little old man on the drip and with the oxygen thing, and my dad’s a big man.
His eyes rolled towards me, but he didn’t try to speak. I sat with him for nearly an hour, before a couple of green-clothed men came to take him to X-ray and a briskly kind nurse chased me away. “Take your mother home, Mr Howard. We’ll call you if there’s any change.”
I called Kes from my parents’ house.
“Can you start putting together a bag for me? Sponge bag and razor and a couple of changes of clothes? Just enough for three days. I need to be here with Mum at night, I think.”
“Sure. I could drive your car over, if you liked, and bring the van back? Is… what’s the news?”
He still sounded subdued, but that was hardly surprising. You keep things serious when you’re talking to people under these sorts of circumstances. He was very restrained when he came to the house; he spoke to Mum with shy politeness but there was something else underneath it. I hadn’t time to think about it much, though. I didn’t think about it for a week until I went back home and found Kes still subdued.
By then things were picking up and I was able to pay some attention. “What’s wrong with you, then? You’re about as dismal as a wet Monday. What have you been doing all week without me?”
He smiled faintly at me, and launched into a history of nothing. Hadn’t been anywhere, hadn’t done anything except go to work. Even that, I think, he would have kept from me, because when things had been slack midweek and the forecast was good, he had been to the Town Hall and re-laid eight paving slabs.
“Good. I’m glad that’s done.”
“Only…” His tone was piteous.
“Only it’s my fault your dad’s ill, isn’t it?”
I stared at him, my jaw dropping.
“How d’you work that one out?”
“You said he got wet and chilled while you were doing the temporary repair, and then…”
“Hello? Wake up, Kes. You don’t get pneumonia from getting cold and wet. Hell, you don’t even catch cold from getting cold and wet, that’s an old wives’ tale. You can go outside without your coat on and you might get hypothermia, but you won’t get pneumonia. Or flu. Or anything else. It’s nonsense. He’s got bacterial pneumonia: they’re treating it with antibiotics. He has it one winter in three and has done for years, and it takes him badly because he’s worked all his life in construction trades and they weren’t always as careful about air filters and dust masks as they are now, and because he smoked for 30 years. I don’t see that you can be held responsible for his health.”
He wasn’t convinced. “Well, but…”
“But nothing. In any event, even if it didn’t do him any good getting cold, it was hardly your fault. I told him I could cope without him and he wouldn’t let it go, so… He’s not incompetent, Kes. He’s old, but he’s not stupid; he makes his own choices.”
He came to me and I opened my arms; I could see he wasn’t happy. “Honestly? It wasn’t what I did?”
“Sweetheart, you don’t get ill because you got wet or cold. You don’t give yourself eyestrain by reading after bedtime by the landing light. And you don’t go blind if you wank.”
That last one was just to make him laugh and it succeeded. “Are you sure?”
I pretended to think about it. “Well, I didn’t think you could, but on the other hand, David Wallis wears those bottle end spectacles; I’ll tell you what, let’s leave that one as a ‘maybe’.”
“Or maybe a practical experiment?” He was laughing now, reassured, pulling me towards the stairs. And later, “Jase? It is true. I can’t see!”
“That would be because I’ve turned off the light.”
I wondered if that was what he’d been worrying about and I think it was, but he was more cheerful the next day; I think he may be one of those people who gets all nervy and hyper about stuff until he puts it into words and gets it into perspective. Anyway, he was better, and frankly I was glad because I hadn’t time to run round after him. I was worried about Dad, and I was running the yard on my own, and I simply didn’t have either the time or the energy to hold him up too. Not that he seemed to be looking for that from me; he’s not – what would be the word? Needy? I mean, he wants as much from me as you might expect. He wants his lover, his partner; he wants, or needs, perhaps a little more from me than somebody else might because there’s no backup coming from his family. Still, I could devote my time to Dad and to the business, and not worry about Kes. He was incredibly supportive – there were meals put in front of me when I came in, and nothing said when I got up after eating and went straight out again, and didn’t come home until all hours. There was no complaint when I brought in all the yard paperwork and spent the whole evening sorting through it because I’d spent the afternoon at the hospital. Kes was remarkably unselfish, and I loved him for it.
It passed as these things always do, one way or another. Dad came out of hospital; Mum laid down the law about him only coming into the office two half days a week; I took on a 17 year old to make my coffee and do my filing and run my errands. And Kes fell out of his tree.
Not all at once. He seemed to have something on his mind, and he went all subdued again, alternating it with periods of hyperactive enthusiasm. I asked a couple of times what was wrong and got no sort of sensible answer; either he was all up in the air, or he was vague and ditzy – oh, not at work. At work he was sharp and professional, almost to extremes. No, this was at home, and he was at 20 degrees to reality – making a pot of tea and forgetting it, filling the washing machine and not turning it on, losing things. I didn’t get it. I went on not getting it for ten days, until he knocked on the door of the office one morning when Dad was there, hovering in the doorway, clutching a lever arch file.
“Kes? Is there a problem?” I prompted, when it was obvious that he had stalled.
He started to speak, choked, started again, swallowed and went to lay the file on Dad’s desk.
“It wasn’t true. It wasn’t a deliberate lie, I had forgotten, I had forgotten all about it, but it wasn’t true. So it was my fault, well, I never said it wasn’t, only I thought I didn’t know, but I did, I had just forgotten.”
I looked at Dad; he looked at me. Clear as mud, that lot was. Dad reached for the file. “And this is…?”
“It’s my BTEC notes from college,” muttered Kes. “I was looking something up and I found – well, see.”
I got up and went over to look. Kes leafed through a section of the folder contents, and looked up at me imploringly. There were several pages of handwritten notes and three or four printed sheets. One of them had a picture of a frosted patio, with a neat honeycomb pattern of snow, and underneath it, in Kes’s sprawling script, a description of the five-spot method of mortaring for flagstones and the effect it could have in cold weather.
“I don’t even remember the lecture but it’s there, it’s in my notes, so I’d been told. So it was my fault, and when I told you I didn’t know, well, I ought to have known.”
He looked beseechingly at me again, but my mouth was hanging open so I don’t suppose he got much good of it. Dad was absolutely blank-faced; Kes winced when he turned his gaze that way.
“Aye,” said Dad, eventually. “I see. Well, goes to show what I’ve said all along, an ounce of experience is worth any amount of book-learning. You’ll not make that mistake again, Bryant. Thank you. Now, shouldn’t you be loading up for the Hampshire contract?”
Kes’s head turned towards me, bewildered. “Yes, get on with that,” I said hoarsely. “Mrs Hampshire’s expecting you no later than noon.”
I didn’t know what to say when he’d gone; I went on not knowing what to say when Dad got up and went very deliberately to the filing cabinet with the personnel records in it, removed the pink slip which was Kes’s written warning, and ran it through the shredder.
“You going to marry that boy?”
I overturned my coffee cup onto the supplier statements; luckily it was empty.
“Am I going to what?”
He waved a hand impatiently. “Marry him. Enter into a civil partnership. Whatever they call it.”
“I know. I know. I don’t like it, Jason, and your mother won’t either. I don’t think it’s right, and your mother wants grandchildren. I’m not happy about it. But if it’s how it is, I’m not happy about you living in sin, either. If you’re serious about that boy, you can put a ring on his finger or whatever you do instead.”
We sat in silence for a month or two, or possibly two minutes. “He was worried that it was his fault you were in hospital,” I said, eventually. “He thought you’d got ill staying out in the cold with me.”
He grunted. “Did you tell him about the rose garden?”
I laughed. “No. Do you think I should?”
“Aye, I do. And you might tell him the consequence of it too.”
I was surprised. “Why?”
He made a face at me. “Because his conscience is obviously a lot more tender than yours.”
“That’s a good Catholic upbringing, I expect. It’ll be a mixed marriage, you realise?”
His turn to be surprised. “What sort of people are they? Have you met them?”
“No; they put him out. Apparently there’s no place in their family for a gay boy; they’ve cut him off.”
“Poor lad. And poor people too; it’s hard when your religion comes up against your child.”
I shuffled my costings. “You would never have put me out,” I said, with conviction. “No matter what your church said.” He grunted again. Not a touchy-feely man, my Dad, but he patted my shoulder when he got up to go home at lunchtime.
Kes was still jumpy when we went home; he went on being jumpy all through the evening, until eventually I decided that Dad was right.
“Have you ever been to the rose garden in Bramwell Park?”
He considered for a moment. “I don’t think so. That’s the one with the war memorial? The Polish Air Force one?”
“That’s it. The rose garden was a joint project between the RAF Association and the Polish equivalent for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, only you know how these things are, they start in good time and then the money runs out and it took a couple of years to get all the funding they’d been promised. The roses went in but eventually when they wound up the fund, they decided there was enough money to pave round them, make wheelchair access and so on. We got the contract. And dad said I could do the paving.” I had been 17, just out of school, and I thought I knew it all.
“If you went up there in cold weather, you would see that the snow lies in wavy lines all across the paving. People have commented on it.”
His mouth fell open a little. “You didn’t know either?”
“What did your dad say?”
“Quite a lot, starting with ‘Idiot boy!’ and going on from there.”
“But he didn’t make you take it up again?”
“No, because it was just wavy lines, but he wasn’t pleased. See, it wasn’t just that I hadn’t known: that was a genuine mistake. It was that he had told me to put down a full bed of mortar and I didn’t. I’d had a specific instruction and I disobeyed it. So six months after I did the job, the fact that I’d done it badly came out, and Dad did his nut. I go up there every year now, a week or so before Remembrance Sunday, and check the flagstones, jump up and down on them, because I know damn well that if even one of them so much as moves, even, what, 13 years on, Dad’ll make me put them right.” I hesitated for a moment, and then thought: yes, go on, tell him all of it.
“And Dad bent me over the saw-horse and took his belt to my backside for disobedience.”
His mouth fell all the way open this time, and he gaped at me for a moment; then he coloured up and looked away.
“Better that than written warning on your file.”
“There’s nothing on your file,” I said gently. “Dad tore it up.”
His head came back up in surprise. “Why?”
I shrugged. “I told you, it would stay on file for six months max. Dad obviously thought that it had been there long enough.”
His mouth twisted and he picked at a loose thread on his cuff. I don’t know where what I said next came from, except maybe what Dad had said about him having a tender conscience, and a faint recollection of how I had felt as a child when I’d cleared off my petty sins and I knew I was right with everybody.
“It was enough for him; it’s enough for me. If it’s not enough for you, you can go over my knee and pay off the rest of it.”
He could have passed it off as a joke if he had wanted, but he hesitated just a little too long. Just long enough for us both to see that it wasn’t enough for him. Eventually he looked up at me, imploringly, not quite able to find the words to take him to where he thought he needed to be. I held out my hand to him. If he ignored it, or if he came and implied that he only wanted a cuddle, we could both pretend that I hadn’t been serious.
He came to me, though, stood submissively in front of me – that was what I had been seeing before, I suddenly thought, submission, and if I could have spared him from having to say it aloud, I would have done, but I couldn’t afford for there to be any doubt between us about who was driving this. This was what he wanted, what he thought he ought to have.
“Well? Do you deserve a spanking?”
“Yes, Jason.” It was hardly more than a breath.
“Take your jeans down, then.”
He fumbled with the button, his nerves getting the better of him, and pushed the faded denim down. Not, mind you, that he probably needed to unfasten anything – he’s a builder, his jeans hang so low on his hips that he’s barely decent: one good tug would have had them round his ankles. I reached for him, slid his briefs down after his jeans and guided him across my lap. “Have you done this before?” The dark curls trembled as he shook his head. I wasn’t exactly experienced myself, not from this side of the deal, not in the way of punishment. The computer analyst had enjoyed the occasional erotic spanking, both given and taken, and I had been willing enough to play along in a mild way. “Not even when you were small?”
“No.” He gagged on that; he was deadly scared. I wrapped a comforting arm across his back and round his ribs, steadying him. Not holding him down; he could have got up if he’d really wanted, only enough to help him compose himself. Just get on with it, I thought, feeling the muscles twitch in his thighs, and brought my hand down on the pale curve in front of me.
He jumped, and made a breathy sound of surprise, and I could see all the muscles in his back go rigid, but he didn’t move otherwise. I brought my palm down a second time, and felt his hand close around my ankle. Yes, Jase, he is serious, get on with it!
It wasn’t much of a spanking, you know. Take what Dad used to give me when I was ten and gross it up for a man in his early twenties. It wouldn’t bruise, the marks wouldn’t last more than an hour or so, I didn’t make him cry. I was thorough rather than severe – I reddened his bottom comprehensively, hard enough that he squirmed and the sharply indrawn breaths carried the hint of squeaks. There were three or four smart smacks low down which made him buck, but he’ll have been hot rather than really sore. I don’t feel any guilt over it; I gave him what he thought he needed and the moment he went limp and stopped resisting me (and even then, the resistance didn’t take him as far as trying to get up) I stopped, rubbed his rump comfortingly, and let him go.
He snatched at his clothes, turned on me a scarlet face with suspiciously bright eyes, and snarled “I hate you, Jason Howard!” in a voice with a break in it, and stormed out, slamming the door behind him. I heard his feet on the stairs, running, and then the slam, not of our bedroom door, but of the spare room. Not what I had been expecting, but when I thought about it, I could remember stamping away from Dad, mortally offended, dying to rub my smarting bottom and absolutely damned if I would do it where anyone could see, desperate to get to the privacy of my room for a small cry and a big sulk. I’d done that aged ten; I’d done it aged 16; I expected Kes would do it even now. I left him alone. It’s a dreadfully undignified punishment: he was entitled to huff a bit. I wouldn’t expect him to be gracious about it; that’s too much for anybody, I reckon. Accepting, well, he’d been that. He didn’t have to smile and thank me.
He was gone an hour, in which I grew increasingly uneasy; maybe I’d misjudged the whole thing? Ought I to go after him, to try to comfort him? I wouldn’t have thanked anybody who had tried to cuddle me after I’d been tanned, I always just wanted to pretend that nobody else knew what had happened, until the burn in my backside had subsided enough for me to be able to feel the relief of a clear conscience, but maybe he was different? I was just making up my mind to go upstairs and knock when the living room door opened and he sidled in. He still looked sulky, but when I stretched out a hand without getting up, he came over to the sofa and eased himself down beside me.
I didn’t say anything, but he caught my eye and flushed with embarrassment. “It isn’t sore, but I’m sort of expecting it to be,” he said, defensively.
“Mmm,” I agreed, non-committally, working an arm round his shoulder. He could cuddle if he – oh, it seemed he did like. He wanted to snuggle. I wondered, vaguely, if this would be something we would repeat. I wondered if we needed a structure, a method, in case we were going to repeat it. I wondered how he felt about civil partnerships. I wondered how to broach any of those subjects.
“Just don’t say anything, Jase, O.K.?”
O.K. For the moment. For the moment he was relaxed and relieved and warm in the curve of my arm. Sometimes, the moment is enough. All the other things would wait – for the moment.
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© , 2006