For the Time Being
by Fanny Adams
Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of the country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.
London Autumn 1962
"You don't really mind, do you love?"
Ray watched his mother pack her suitcase, and said nothing, making it clear that he was unhappy.
"Don't sulk." She threw an ecru slip into the bag, the one with the pink roses embroidered on the hem and a spray of pale lace across the bodice.
He held onto his silence. It was his only weapon. He could almost feel her faltering.
"Oh, fine!" She slammed the drawer she'd been emptying. "If it's that way with you, we'll forget the bloody 'oneymoon. We can do without the wedding as well. Will that make you happy?"
So close to victory, Ray felt guilty. "Just wanted you to take me along." He toyed with one of her sweaters that lay across his knee, worrying at a bit of loose wool.
"That'd be some 'oneymoon with a big boy like you along. How old are you now, love?"
It was like her to forget.
"Besides, Sid doesn't like kids much." She looked like a kid herself, he realized, with wispy red hair and a light spray of freckles across her nose. Only at the eyes did her age show in a fine network of lines.
"Where's that leave me if he doesn't like kids?"
She sat beside him. "It'll be different when we're married, honestly." She patted his knee absently.
He doubted it. Sid had never liked him, nor he Sid. There wouldn't be much peace in the house once the knot was tied. But there was a note in her voice that Ray had never heard before; it tasted of desperation and it frightened him. "Nah, it's all right," he lie . "Go get your man. I'll wait here like a good little boy." And if we can't make it work, he thought, then I'm out of here. It was nearly time anyway. He was almost sixteen after all.
She kissed the side of his head -- a great, sloppy, affectionate kiss -- and took the sweater from him. "This old thing is such a fright, but I'd better take it just in case. Ray, darling, I do wish you could come," she said. It might have been true. "I worry about you all alone here." When she remembered she had a son, she seemed fond of him.
"I just hope Sid's a good lay, is all," he muttered. "Well, it'd be a waste otherwise, wouldn't it?" His mother tried to look shocked.
"You're not supposed to know about things like that. You're too young."
"Not know about sex? At my age? Christ, I've half the girls on the block lining up for a bit of 'ow's yer father."
"Well, one or two at least," he said with a malicious grin. He played idly with one of the buttons on he coat; rabbit fur and a gift from Sid. It looked a bit worn, but she loved it. Ray wondered how many other women had loved it before her.
"Don't go mucking about with sex until you have to."
The voice of experience. Only thirty, she'd been pursued by men from age twelve. "Ray, let yourself be a little boy a while longer."
It was one of those moments he'd recall later, frozen in his memory. His mother in her faded apricot kimono, holding a handful of frilly knickers and begging him not to make the same mistakes she had.
'Too late,' he'd say to the memory. 'Too late for both of us.'
At the time he only laughed. "Hurry up then," he told her, "or Sid'll marry someone else."
"I've left some money to pay the bills and buy food."
"From my soon-to-be-Da, I suppose?" You had to hand it to the bloke, he was free with the cash. Maybe this arrangement would be for the best. If he could keep out of Sid's way, his mum would live well, and he'd profit from it too.
"We'll be back beginning of November," she promised. "Ray, do eat properly, and keep this place clean. I don't want to come back to a sink full of dishes and a fortnight's garbage lying all over the floor. And fasten me, will you? There's a good boy." Her dress was white, with a sprinkling of tiny blue flowers. She looked beautiful. She looked like a sixteen year old girl going to a dance.
"'ave a good wedding, love, and a great honeymoon." He rolled his eyes lasciviously and she laughed. He liked to make her laugh.
"I'm so happy," she whispered, and kissed him again.
He carried her bag out to the car and toosed it into the boot. Flash car, he thought. Maybe Sid'd let him drive it sometime. She hugged him and kissed him twice more, then climbed in beside Sid, eager as a young girl.
Ray nodded to the silent man behind the wheel. "Hullo, Sid." Under his breath he added, "you greasy ponce."
They drove off and Ray was alone. Wasn't the first time she'd gone off with a man, but Sid was the first one who'd offered to marry her. Even Ray's Da hadn't done that much.
He tidied the place a bit. Despite her orders to keep up on the cleaning, his mother wasn't one for housekeeping. Cigarette burns on the table, rings on the wood from damp glasses. He frowned. They could use some new furniture. And the drapes were bleached almost white from years of sunlight; they'd have to be replaced. In a purley practical sense, it was hard not to make plans for their life with Sid, hard not to accept that his presence in their lives might be a good thing. Ray was nothing if not pragmatic, and he smiled to himself as he thought of moving into a bungalow in a better part of town.
He washed the dishes and went down to the local fish and chips shop for tea.
They were frying cod that night and Sally, the counter girl, made sure he had as much as he wanted. He leaned against the wall and talked to her while she worked.
"Mum's getting married."
"Romantic. She going to 'ave a proper 'oneymoon?"
"Be gone a month."
Sal looked suitably impressed.
"House is empty," he offered.
"That a fact?" She dropped another basket of chips into the hot oil.
"Thought you might want to stop by for a drink after work." Man-of-the-world, Ray Doyle.
"A drink? Maybe."
'Oh, God,' he thought, 'she's going to go all coy.' "Make a nice change from doing it standing up in back," he told her. One or two of the waiting customers began to chuckle and she scowled at him. "I'm off. See you later?"
She hesitated a moment, then nodded.
It was growing cold. In the flats the lights glowed pale gold, and, unaccountably, it made him feel lonely. There was no one to go home to. He stopped to buy cigarettes and chatted with the woman behind the counter.
"Saw your mum go off with her new bloke," she informed him. "On 'oliday?"
"Go on, they never...did they?"
"Mmmm. Tied the knot today. I was the best man." It was almost true, anyway.
"You tell her I wish her all the best, when she gets back, that is."
He changed the sheets on his mother's bed, and dusted a bit. Then he sat down to watch the telly until Sal arrived, and promptly fell asleep.
When the bell ran it startled him. The flat was cold. He was groggy. He stumbled to the door and let Sally in.
"Nah." He rubbed his eyes. "A bit."
"Cor, but it's cold in 'ere. Don't you 'ave any heat?" She curled up on the couch, tucking her feet under her. "Bit of brandy might go down nicely."
He turned up the heat a bit and brought back a bottle of vodka he'd found in the pantry. "This is all there is," he told her as he poured two generous glasses.
"Nothing. Cupboard is bare. Thought I'd shop tomorrow." He touched his glass to hers.
"Cheers," she said and licked her lips.
With a bit of vodka in her, Sal was a real little cracker in bed. This was higher education, Ray decided. The sort that counted in the real world. Sometime after four he gave up entirely and went to sleep.
The next morning he woke to a plate of eggs, bacon, tomato and fried bread. He had a headache. "Where did you get this food?"
"Been out already, haven't I?" She dropped a pillow onto his lap and set the plate on it. "Go on, eat it."
"Wonderful," he said around a mouthful of bread. "Just like Darby and Joan."
"I have to go now. I've laundry to do. I'll stop by before work and fix some supper. Just leave the dishes in the sink and I'll do them." Then she was gone in a whirlwind of energy and Ray set the plate on the floor beside the bed. This was not what he'd expected. It was almost obscene that Sal had so much energy when Ray was still shagged out.
He lay there for an hour, not really sleepy, but unwilling to get up. Sal would come charging back to do the dishes and cook for him...He should have been grateful, shoudl have like the idea, but instead, he felt intruded on. He didn't want Sal in and out of here at all hours. It was nice that she wanted to spend the night; it was what he'd hoped for. And this domesticity didn't sit well. He'd invited her in for a bit of fun after work; he didn't want a wife, or a nanny.
Finally he got up and did the dishes himself. In the kitchen there was a note blu-tacked to the wall. "There's chicken in the fridge for your dinner." He tore it down and went out.
When he returned, there was another note. "Casserole in the oven. See you tonight, Love, Sallie." (Was _that_ how she spelled it?) She'd dotted the 'i's with little hearts.
Since there was nothing left to do around the house, he sat on the couch and stared at the television, chain-smoking and trying not to think of Sal or Sid. They depressed him. They had no place in the scheme of things: why did they keep trying to make one? He and his mum would be all right on their own.
He was still sitting there, numb, nearly hypnotized, when Sal arrived. She breezed in as if she owned the place, hanging her coat in the closet and carrying his empty glass out to the kitchen in one smooth maneuver. "Didn't you eat?"
Ray said nothing.
"I said, didn't you eat?" she demanded. She was standing in the door way holding the cold casserole. It was pretty bloody obvious that he hadn't eaten.
"You might have saved me the trouble," she snapped.
"You might have asked first; save yerself the trouble."
She went back into the kitchen, and he could hear her fussing about with the stove. "Are you still not hungry?"
"Fine, then I'll eat it myself."
"You do that."
More kitchen noises. His mother never made noises like that; bashing about all the time.
"Oh, Ray!" She sounded more grieved by the minute. "You didn't touch the chicken either."
This time she marched out and shoved the bird under his nose. "It's such a beautiful bird, too," she complained.
"Give it a rest, Sal. I wasn't hungry."
She felt his forehead. "You coming down with something?"
"Look, piss off, will you? I don't want the bloody food!"
She dropped the chicken into his lap. "Fine. Have it your own way. I'm off." She removed her coat from the closet and pulled it on. "Be seeing you."
This last brought Ray out of his funk. "You're going?"
"You heard me."
"I thought you were staying the night."
There was a moment of uneasy silence.
"I know you did," she said to him. "I did too."
"You figure it out." She left without another word.
What was there to figure? She was angry so there'd be no sex tonight. He'd have to make it up to her. Buy her something. Take her out somewhere. "Shit..."
He managed to avoid her for the better part of the week. He had a notion that she'd be happier to see him if she thought he wasn't coming 'round any longer.
Here too, she surprised him. His reception at the chips shop was cool; the portion smaller than normal. "Look, you still cheesed-off?" he demanded.
"You do know how to flatter a girl," she said with unusual acerbity.
"You know what I mean. You still angry about that bloody chicken?"
"I can't believe it. I never thought you were so dim." She wrapped several portions of hake and a mound of chips, and handed it to an old woman who said: "you can do better than 'im, love." and stalked off.
"Stupid old cow," Ray grumbled.
"She's right. I can do better than you. You're a stupid kid, Ray. You don't know how to treat a girl, and I'm not going to be the one to teach you. If you think this was about chicken..." She sighed.
"Well, the casserole, then. I'm sorry."
"Not good enough."
"Buy you supper," he wheedled, sure this was what she was holding out for.
"Ray Doyle, I'm going to hit you with this fry-basket. Now get out of here. Scarper!"
She meant business. There was murder in her eyes. Ray slipped out of the shop as quickly as dignity allowed, and stood outside for a few minutes wondering what had just happened. Then he stuffed his hands into his pockets and walked home through the darkening streets.
The first of the month came and went. Ray paid the rent, but let the other bills go. It wasn't the first time his mother had forgotten him, and he wanted to be sure he had enought money to eat. He hadn't seen Sallie since the night he'd tried to win her back to his bed, and the whole incident had left a bitter taste. Women didn't look quite as appealing to him as they had before his mother left. He avoided them entirely, spending his days watching television or walking around London. There were a lot of places he'd never been before -- British Museum, art galleries -- and he took pleasure in just walking through the more expensive parts of town, looking at the houses and wondering what it would be like to live in one of them.
By the second week in November he was worried. It wasn't like his mother to stay away so long without even a word. He made up his mind to call the police if she hadn't contacted him by mid-month.
On the tenth, the doorbell rang, and Ray thought for a moment it might be her, back at last and ready to move -- lock, stock and teenage son -- into a new house in some nice neighborhood. He'd spent a lot of time thinking about how it would be if they just had a chance at a better life. Sid could do that for them, at least.
It was the police.
"Is this the residence of..." The first copper consulted his notebook. "A Miss Vivian Doyle?"
Ray felt queays suddenly, as if something inside him had gone terribly wrong. "Yes."
"You a relation?"
"There's been an accident. Will you come with us, Sir?"
"Is she dead?" he asked, knowing the answer in his heart.
"Will you come with us?" The officer repeated.
"Let me get a jacket." He shut the door and moved like a sleepwalker around the house. He took all the money there was, including the pitifully small nest egg his mother had hidden in her closet. He grabbed a sweater and his jacket and left the flat with the two policement. He had a feeling he'd never be coming back to this place.
They took him to a hospital where he was turned over to a man in a white coat. "Are you related to the deceased?"
So she was dead. "Vivian Doyle you mean? Yes. Her brother." The lie came easily to him. It seemed almost more true than the truth.
The man took him into a little room with a table. There was something lying on the table, covered with a white sheet. The man pulled the sheet back so Ray could see her face.
"That's her," he said. "What happened?"
"She appears to have taken some pills; pills and alcohol. Most unfortunate."
Is that what you said when people died? Most unfortunate? "Where's her husband?"
"The man she's married to...Christ!"
"She was alone in the hotel room."
So. Sid had had the honeymoon and decided to skip the wedding. Ray wanted to kill him.
"Most unfortunate," the man said again.
Ray stood beside the table and stared down at his mother's face, thinking how strangely peaceful she seemed. He'd thought death would be less kind somehow. But perhaps his mother had charmed Mr. Death the way she charmed every other man she met. He noticed that she looked different, and he couldn't put his finger on it. Then he realized that what he was seeing was something that seemed to be a copy of his mother, a bad copy. Something was missing. He frowned and stared harder. He'd seen her asleep before, and the difference between that and this was like day and night. What was it that had changed her so without leaving a trace?
"I realize that this is probably the last thing you want to discuss, but we have to know how you wish to dispose of the body. Is there someone else we should contact?"
"No. Just me. I don't have any money..." Why did you do this to me? he asked her, silently.
"I see. I think it might be best if you spoke to one of our people. She can help you make arrangements for your sister." The man patted Ray's shoulder in a gesture that was meant to be comforting. "Look here, are you old enought to be on your own?"
He wanted to believe it. "Good, good. I'll send someone to speak with you."
It was hard to be alone with her. Ray touched her face, straightened a stray lock of hair. "Bloody hell, was he worth it?" he demanded, thinking back to how happy she'd looke last time he saw her. Then it occurred to him that this was like a suit of clothes with nobody inside. His mother's body just lay there, looking as if she'd just shed it for a moment. It retained the look of her, but the essential personality was long gone.
There was a knock at the door and a kind looking middle-aged woman entered. "Mr. Doyle? I'm Phyllis Andrews. My condolences."
"I can't 'ardly believe it. Look, would you mind if I went off to the lav? I'd like to be alone for a bit; 'ave a little weep."
"Would you rather I left you alone here?"
"Nah. I'll be two ticks. Take care of her, will you Missus? 's hard to be in here with her just now."
She nodded gravely and patted his shoulder. Clearly there was no manifestation of grief for which she was not prepared. And if Ray had intended to stay at all, he would have been grateful that it was she he would have to deal with and not the 'most unfortunate' man. As it was, he was out the front door in less than a minute. He had no clear destination; he only knew that he had to get away before they realized who he was and how old he was. He wouldn't let them put a leash on or farm him out to some old god-botherer who neede a free servant. He was his own man now. "Don't be angry with me, Mum," he begged her memory.
That first night he spent in one of the all-night cafs frequented by lorry drivers. He drank a lot of tea and tried not to think about his mother lying alone in that hospital, or about what they'd do with her body when they found out that there was no money and no family.
In the morning he walked across town. He spent the day in the British Museum; a strangely comforting place. In a hall devoted to Jurassic fossils he found an empty bench and sat down. It was warm and quiet. The late afternoon sun was slanting down onto the bench in such a delicious way...and Ray fell asleep.
He woke with a start. There was someone watching him. He sat up and his shoulder gave him a twinge. "Crikey!"
"You've spoiled it." The man was tall, heavily built, and bearded. His dark hair was rumpled and he was holding a ratty-looking sketchbook, though he looked more like a boxer or wrestler than an artist. "Portrait of a sleeping cherub."
"Sod off," was the only reply Ray was up to.
"Tsk. You're a sight less angelic when you're awake."
"Anyone ever tell you it's rude to stare at people?"
"Not when you're an artist. And how often is one treated to the sight of a fallen angel sound asleep next to the remains of a stegosaurus?"
"Why thank you." The man closed his sketch book and sat down beside Ray. "You a runaway?"
"Nah. Just tired."
"Mmm. It's almost closing time. Perhaps you should be on your way home. Need a ride?"
Ray shook his head. "I live around here."
"I somehow doubt that," the man murmured. "Have it your way." He stood up and Ray realized that he was passing up a good chance at cadging a bit of money.
"Wait. I lied."
"I know you did."
"I am a runaway. Can't go back there. Da...he's been drinking a lot lately, and he takes it out on me."
"Is that a fact?" the man asked with a solemn expression that belied the twinkle in his eyes.
"Yeh, and then Mum isn't much help bein' gone with her boyfriend most of the time." He was warming to the exercise. "And Da's y'know...handicapped-like."
Ray was proud of that embellishment. "Oh yeh."
"How? Umm...Only 'as one arm. Lost t'other in the war. Yeh, that's right. So you see, 'e can't 'elp the drinking." To hell with logic.
"How very sad. So he wallops you with the arm he has left?"
"Yeh, that's right. Lost an eye as well."
"In the war?"
"Lorry accident. Few years ago."
"That's quite a story. The invention alone deserves a reward." He took out a fiver and handed it to Ray. "You are an appalling little liar."
"Give me a fiver, didn't ya?"
"Cheeky. What's your name?"
"Ray. What's yours?"
"Eddie. You need a place to stay, Ray?"
"You 'ave a suggestion?"
"You could come home with me."
"Nah, your old lady'd be fussed."
"I live alone."
It was a surprise. Ray hadn't figured him to like boys. "I'm not that sort," he said with a touch of frost, as he thought of the blokes at the cinema who tried it on with him in the lav.
The man blinked, then grinned; his teeth a white slash in the black bush of his beard. "You think I'm lusting after your scrawny body, do you? There's one born every minute."
Ray sniffed, vaguely offended. "What am I supposed to think, then?"
"Look up the word 'samaritan' in the dictionary. I assume you can read?"
"Piss off," Ray grumbled.
"Have it your way. Don't get locked in with the dinosaurs." He sauntered off, leaving Ray alone on the bench. It was very dark in the hall. He stared at the fiver, then stuffed it in his pocket. He'd have to improve on the story if he was going to survive on the street.
Ray learned a lot about surviving in the fortnight that followed. More, perhaps, than he ever wanted to know. He learned that he could frequently sleep undisturbed during the day, particularly if he had enough money for the bus or cinema. But at night it paid to be awake and moving. He developed a more plausible story about why he needed money, and it usually brought him a few bob and a sympathetic look. Once, a middle-aged woman bought him a meal and a ticket to Liverpool which he cashed in as soon as she was out of sight. He slept at a B&B that night.
He thought about Eddie a lot in that fortnight. Mostly he regretted not having gone with the man. No matter what he wanted of Ray, it couldn't have been worse than sleeping in a train station or being propositioned by strangers in a public lav.
And then fate gave him a second chance. Ray had bluffed his way into a gallery opening, and was inhaling the hors d'oeuvres as he inspected the show. After his fifth trip to the buffet tables, the gallery manager approached and asked to see his invitation.
"Give it to the bloke at the door, didn't I?" Ray snapped.
"I don't think so. I'm afraid I must ask you to leave."
Ray was wondering if he should admit defeat or make a scene, when a familiar voice cut through the conversation. "Ray, for god's sake, I told you to eat before you came. Hullo, Max. Is Ray making a pest of himself at the buffet table?"
"He's a friend of yours?" The manager was clearly horrified.
Eddie nodded. "He's modeled for me. Nice kid. Hollow legs."
"I like that," Ray muttered, picking up the cue. "I keep telling you I'm a growing boy." The manager was looking at him in a new way; a way that made Ray uncomfortable.
"In that case...Of course he's welcome if he's a friend of your." The emphasis on 'friend' turned it into a euphemism. Ray bared his teeth and the man retreated.
"I was right about you, wasn't I?" Ray asked Eddie as he filled his plate with tiny eggrolls and something made of bits of liver and bacon and something that looked like raw potato, but tasted a bit better.
"You look tired but otherwise unscathed. I guess I was wrong to worry about you."
"You worried about me?" He added a handful of cheese puffs to the mound of food.
"I didn't lose sleep, if that's what you mean, but I did think about you all alone at the mercy of a city like London." He steered Ray down a corridor and into a room hung with watercolors. "I hate the thought of anyone being alone and homeless with the holidays coming on."
"Yeh. Me too. These yours?" he asked as he gave the paintings a cursory examination.
"What, these? I'm not that good."
"You bin watchin' me. Knew I was 'ere, didn't ya?" He sighed. "Should 'ave taken you up on it." He noticed a strange look on Eddie's face. "You 'ave another bloke at home, now?"
"You're relentless, aren't you? How old are you?"
"What difference does it make?"
"If I was interested in bedding you, it might make a big difference." He picked a cheese puff off Ray's plate and took a bite out of it.
"I'll buy you supper."
"Really? What do I have to do for it?"
"What a determined boy you are. Would you mind terribly if I turned out not to be depraved?"
"Queer, you mean? I saw the way that poncy bastard was looking at us. He thinks you've 'ad me already, doesn't he? And he knows you better than I do. Anyway, I pay my own way in this world when I can. It's business or nothing."
Eddie gaped, then he chuckled with pure delight. "That tells me, doesn't it? I suppose by tomorrow it'll be all over the art world that I arrived at this opening with my newest child-catamite in tow. Might as well enjoy myself. Why don't we go have some supper. You look charmingly emaciated."
Eddie took him to a Japanese restaurant where Ray's lack of familiarity with both the cuisine and the culture made him feel awkward. He allowed Eddie to order for him. "Only no raw fish," he warned.
Eddie ordered in Japanese, then turned to Ray. "You know, there is something I'd like in return for this meal."
Here it comes, Ray thought. "Yeh? What?"
"I'd like to hear the unembellished story of why you're living on the street."
"Think of it as a courtesy."
Ray shrugged. "My mum died. I don't have no other family. Didn't want the state to put me in a home." It was about as unembellished as it could be and it made Ray feel unaccountably sad. It wasn't nearly as bad as some of the stories he'd made up, but it was his story.
"I'm sorry. How old are you, really?"
"I'll be sixteen next month. How old are you?"
"You're never! Really? I would 'ave said about thirty. The beard makes you look older, I think. So I don't have to be all respectful-like."
Ray rewarded him with his cheekiest grin. "Me."
He rather liked the meal Eddie'd chosen for him, and even tried some of what Eddie had ordered for himself. "You speak the lingo, eat the food. Bet you've been there."
"Right. Lived near Tokyo for five years."
"Why? I mean did you work there or what?"
"My parents did. They're journalists. I nearly became a Buddhist monk; a bonze."
"Did. I was only a kid."
"Oh, this was recently?"
Ray was beginning to like him quite a lot. Bed might not be so bad with Eddie; not like those blokes in the bog.
The restaurant wasn't far from Eddie's house; and it was a proper house too, not a flat or a bed-sit. Ray was impressed. "You must 'ave a bit."
"A bit," Eddie agreed.
They were met at the door by an army of cats, and a small dog of obscure ancestry. "This is my family. At least, the only family I have here in London." He greeted each of them, listened to their conversation, and led the whole group out to the kitchen to feed them. "They like to tell me about their day. It's not their fault I understand so little."
"Then how do you know they're telling you about their day and not yowling 'cause they're hungry?"
"It's what I'd do. Besides, it sounds different from a simple 'Time to feed me.' You'll learn."
"Had a cat once," Ray recalled. "She ran away." He watched as Eddie put down bowls of food, and refilled the water dishes. "So," he said. "I guess it's that time."
Eddie shook his head. "All right, come on." He led Ray upstairs and into a small bedroom. "This is yours. Sleep well." He turned to go, but Ray caught his arm.
"I know. Goodnight."
He was too tired to pursue it. The bed looked inviting. He stripped and climbed between the sheets, and was asleep as soon as his head touched the pillows.
When he woke the next morning, the sun was flooding the room with light and warmth. He lay in bed relishing the feeling and inspecting this room which Eddie had given him (conditionally, he supposed, but that wasn't important just then.) The walls were white, and on the one opposite the bed there was a watercolor of deep blue irises. There was a wardrobe, a night table, desk and chair. The bed was lacquered iron, and the rag rug was pale green like the iris leaves in the painting. The room made Ray feel peaceful.
Finally he got up and explored. There was a bath next to the door. He showered and washed his hair and thought about what had happened the night before; or rather, what hadn't happened. He was surprised, but he wasn't sure if he was pleased or not. And he wasn't sure why.
He found a robe in the wardrobe, so he wore it downstairs.
"Can I wash these?" he asked, displaying his dirty clothes. "They reek."
"I was hoping you would. There's a machine downstairs. Fancy some breakfast?"
While Eddie cooked, Ray had time to explore the house. The walls were lines with photographs and drawings. "You do all these?" he asked as he made his way down the hallway that doubled as a gallery.
"Many of them. My family has more than its share of artistic pretensions."
Beside a photo of a picnic - all very British with champagne and strawberries - was a drawing of a woman standing naked in front of a fire. There were snakes wound around her forearms. She was very beautiful. There were dozens of people Ray didn't know, but he managed to find one of Eddie looking very serious and very young. He was wearing saffron robes and standing beside a young Japanese man with a shaved head and a huge grin. "This is you, isn't it?"
Eddie came into the hallway and peered at the photo. "Mmm. I was sixteen. That's Toshi and me in my almost-monk stage." He shook his head. "Was I ever that thin or that serious?" Then he laughed. "That's what living on one bowl of rice a day will do to you. Toshi, on the other hand, had a wonderful sense of humor."
"You been all over the world?"
"Not quite. I've never been to New York," he said with the air of someone who had just discovered something strange and a little bewildering. "I wonder why. Well, I'm not an old man yet, am I? There's still time. Sit down and eat your breakfast."
"Were you and Toshi lovers?"
"Why do you ask?"
"You know what that did to the cat."
"You telling me to mind my own business?" Ray asked as he tool half the eggs and all the toast. He was painfully hungry.
"Not at all, but circumspection is a valuable trait for a cat, don't you think? Do you know what circumspection means?"
"I'm not a fool," Ray snapped, making a mental note to look the word up at first opportunity. "And I did know what samaritan meant."
Eddie poured himself some coffee. "I can make some water for tea if you'd rather."
"Coffee's fine. So, about last night..."
Eddie rolled his eyes. "Relentless."
"Yeah, but I meant what I said about business or nothing."
"I do remember. You made a stirring speech. Several people applauded. I never seriously intended to bring you home to share my bed."
"For one thing, you're too young. Oh, god, you're looking offended. Look, I didn't say I hadn't considered the idea; I just said I wasn't going to do it. It's a fine point but an important one."
"You queer or not?"
"Can he be human?" Eddie asked no one in particular.
"Do you sleep with other blokes or not?"
"Then you're queer."
Suddenly there was an uncomfortable quality about Eddie's smile. "Tell me, Oh Wise One, in your mania for labels, have you one to describe a man who sleeps with both men and women?"
Ray narrowed his eyes. "No such thing," he pronounced. "You're queer or you're not." He wanted to add 'so there', but decided against it, being not entirely sure he'd scored his points.
Eddie considered this. "You'd be a great hit at conservative dinner parties. Eat your eggs."
Ray sighed. "I don't suppose I should bother trying to understand everything you say?"
"By no means. Do pick and choose."
Ray admitted defeat, at least a temporary one, and concentrated on his breakfast. He was so hungry he went through half a dozen eggs and as many rashers of bacon before he was satisfied.
"Protein starved," was Eddie's assessment. "What have you been living on?"
"Tea and candy bars, mostly. Oh, don't make faces. I know it wasn't healthy, but it was cheap." It was strange how at-home he felt in Eddie's company, as though they'd known each other for years. In some ways, Eddie was more comfortable than Ray's mother had been. It didn't occur to Ray to wonder why that was; not just then anyway.
"Why don't you do the washing up?"
"Sure." Ray was pleased. At least there was one thing he could do for Eddie, and do well.
"And when you're finished, I'll show you how to work the washer. If you really want to earn your keep around here, I have dozens of things which need doing. You don't have to peddle your arse to stay alive."
"It's a nice arse, though, innit?"
"There's a word for people like you, Raymond." His smile was gentle. Ray wanted to hug him; very nearly did.
Between the chores Eddie gave him, and his exploration of the house, Ray barely noticed the passage of time. About dusk he wandered into Eddie's office and curled up on the couch. "What're you writing?"
"Article on my last trip to Kabul."
"Afghanistan. Ever been there?" Eddie asked with a a straight face.
"Oh yeh. last week it was. Lovely this time of year, innit?" They grinned at each other. "Have any 'oliday snaps?"
"Tons. I'll bore you with them someday."
"You travel a lot?" If Eddie was the sort to pack up at a moment's notice, Ray might find himself without a home again before long.
"I used to. Then I inherited this house."
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"This house was built by my great-grandfather and passed to his elder daughter - my mother's aunt - on his death. Aunt Charlotte didn't hold with all this travelling - she maintained that a lady should come out, have the grand tour, then devote her life to marriage and family. She refused to leave the house to my mother. She felt that mother would sell it to finance a jaunt to Fiji or something. I expect she was right," he admitted. "So she left it to me, more or less in trust. I'm a caretaker. I can come and go as I please, so long as I keep the house up."
"That why you take in stray people?" Ray asked.
"Partly, I expect. With someone I trust here, I can go away for a fortnight and not have to worry about the house or the animals."
"And who will you leave it to?"
Eddie shrugged. "Haven't thought about it very much. My brother has a daughter. Perhaps she'll be interested. I'll leave it outside the family if I find someone who loves it the way aunt Charlotte did."
Ray looked around the room. Like most of the other rooms in the house, the walls were loaded with photos and artwork. "What's this one?" he asked, pointing to an old photo of a cathedral. It was a view down a long corridor of high, vaulted arches, down to a stained-glass window which flooded the end of the corridor with sunlight. Even in black and white it took Ray's breath away. "This one of yours?"
"I didn't take it, if that's what you mean. It's Westminster Abbey"
"You mean the one right 'ere?" he asked. Not possible. There was nothing like this in London Ray knew.
"Your actual London landmark, yes. You've never been there?"
"Never 'ad the time." Sometimes Eddie made him feel stupid despite his kindness.
"We'll have to go. And anywhere else you've never been. Within reason," he amended quickly.
Eddie thought about it. "I think I am. Can you cook, or shall I?"
"Ahhmmmm.... I make a terrific slap-up spaghetti, but that's about it unless you want bangers."
"So, did your mum take that snap, or what?" Ray asked on the way to the kitchen.
"What? The Abbey? No. It's a photot by a man named Evans. He's a favorite of my father's."
'Your dad still alive?"
"Dunno. Never met 'im." Ray set the table, taking a long time over placement of the flatware. "This right?"
"Just checking. Your mum still alive as well?"
"Haven't heard otherwise. They're still drifting around Africa."
"Crikey, like gypsies!"
Eddie sliced some ham and cheese and set out jars of pickles, mustard, olives and plates of lettuce and tomato. Ray made the tea and toasted the bread. "You didn't cook," he observed, after they'd eaten.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You didn't cook. I did all the cooking there was to do."
"The curse of a literal mind. Tell me about yourself," he suggested as he put the food back in the refrigerator.
He began to talk about things that seemed mundane, unimportant, but as he went on he found that he was telling Eddie things he'd never told anyone else. The words came faster and faster until they were spilling out in a torrent of emotion that might have frightened Ray if he'd even been aware of it. As it was, it happened too quickly for him to comprehend. And then, he told Eddie about his mother's death.
In the month since it had happened, he'd barely allowed himself to think of it. He never thought of her lying in the hospital, draped in a sheet, never thought of how she'd looked the day she'd left home for the last time. And he'd never shed a tear for her. But suddenly, with the words came the grief, and Ray began to cry, not only for her, but for himself. He was alone, he was angry and he was afraid.
Eddie sat down on the floor and held him.
"Why did she do it?" he kept asking. "Why did she leave me alone?" In his heart, he was afraid she'd left him for the same reason all those men had left her - not good enough. "I hate her!" he sobbed.
"Feels like it, I expect." Eddie wiped his face with a damp towel.
"I would have taken care of her. She didn't need those bastards."
"Maybe she needed something a son couldn't give." Eddie's voice was gentle, sympathetic. He understood.
"Do you think she loved me?"
"Very much. But love isn't always the way we think it ought to be. Love doesn't keep bad things from happening, Ray. Just makes them easier to bear."
"You mean she might 'ave thought I didn't love her?" he asked, horrified.
"Not at all. Don't hurt yourself any more. Let it be over."
Ray put his arms around Eddie's neck and buried his face in the shaggy dark hair. It had been a long time since he'd been able to be a child.
Finally, the little black cat Eddie called 'Furball' stepped on to Ray's leg and miaowed at them, as if to say 'are you quite done?' and Ray began to laugh.
"They're wonderful for restoring your perspective, aren't they?"
"I don't always understand what you say," Ray admitted, scrubbing at his face with the towel. "Didn't know about cir-circumwhatsis either."
Eddie explained and told Ray he shouldn't ever hesitate to ask questions. "It's how we learn, after all. I suppose I shouldn't broach the subject of school?"
"I'm not keen on it," Ray admitted. "Didn't go much, and anyway, I'd have left it in a few months."
"You stay here and I'll educate you," Eddie threatened. "What did you like to do?"
"Draw things." He felt shy admitting this to someone he thought of as an artist. "Cars mostly, and aeroplanes. They said I was talented, but I don't know. I drew a picture once of one of my teachers. It wasn't meant to be nice, but she thought it was faaaabulous!" He grinned up at Eddie. "The silly cow took it to the headmaster who said 'ooh, what a talented lad' and all that, and they hung it in the library with a lot of other stuff. It was dead ugly, really, like that bloke with the picture in his attic."
"That's the one. I read that once."
"Yeh. It was pretty good. I do like to read."
"There's plenty to read here."
Ray felt so much better that this time he gave into the impulse to hug Eddie. Then he kissed his cheek. "Thanks," he said.
"You're quite welcome." Eddie patted his hip.
Ray kissed him again. Eddie smelt good. He was clean and he had nice skin. Ray kissed him a third time.
"What was that in aid of?" Eddie asked. His voice sounded the tiniest bit strained.
"Just wanted to." Ray moved Eddie's head so that their lips touched. "You smell wonderful. What's it called?"
"Eau de Eddie. My leg's falling asleep," he remarked.
Ray kissed Eddie on the mouth. He'd never done that with a man before. It was nice. "Aren't you going to kiss me back?" he inquired.
"I don't think so. Ray..."
Another kiss, and this time Ray darted his tongue out to tease Eddie's lower lip. Eddie shuddered, his lips parted and Ray slid his tongue between them. He could feel Eddie's arms tighten around him. It was amazing to Ray; they were both enjoying this kiss.
Suddenly Eddie pulled away. "Ray, that's enough!"
"Not 'ardly," Ray told him. He pressed his mouth against the older man's and kissed him as thoroughly as one could kiss someone who wasn't cooperating any longer. In the middle of it, Eddie pushed him onto the floor.
"I said it was enough, Ray, and I meant it." He got to his feet. "I told you that wasn't why I brought you here." He hauled Ray to his feet and pointed him at the table. "Bring me those dishes and I'll wash them."
But Ray stood in the center of the kitchen and stared at Eddie, and wondered what to do next. Eddie had admitted that he liked boys. He'd given the man his best kiss. It should have worked. "I don't understand," he said at last. "You told me to tell you - I don't understand."
For a moment he was afraid that Eddie was very angry. The silence was heavy between them, and Eddie's face was stormy.
"Ray, there is nothing I'd like more. You're too goddamned young. They could put me in prison for what almost just happened."
"I'd never tell anyone," Ray promised. He was desperate for human contact that night. For this contact.
"It's not right."
"If we both want it..."
"Doesn't make it right. Please try to understand," Eddie begged. "I can't." He left Ray standing in the kitchen.
While Ray was wiping the dishes, Eddie came in and stood in the doorway. "I think you should leave here tomorrow. I have a friend who will be happy to give you work and a place to live. It's better this way."
It was like a knife-wound. It hurt so desperately that Ray couldn't even cry. He just kept on wiping the dishes and putting them in the cabinet. He was too young for all these endings.
He was still wiping dishes when Eddie came back to the kitchen. "You all right?" he asked gently. "You've been out here for an hour.
Time didn't seem to mean much. "I'm a little numb," he admitted. He put the last dish into the cabinet and hung up the towel.
"I didn't expect it to be so hard on you."
"I'll be lonely without you, I think." He bit his lip. "What a stupid world. I'm tired, Eddie. You mind if I go to bed now?"
Eddie stepped aside and let him pass. He said nothing, and Ray was uninclined to pursue what he felt was a closed issue.
He went up to his room and lay down on the bed. No more reaching out, his mind said. Human contact was too risky.
Then he thought of Sal, and the way he'd treated her, and the tears began to roll out of his eyes and down onto the pillow. This was his payment.
Eddie knocked at the door. "Ray?"
"Wot?" His voice was shaky. He cursed himself for that.
"You all right?"
The door opened. "Your light was still on...Are you crying?"
"No! Yes. I was thinking about this girl I knew." He scrubbed at his face with the back of his hand. "I wasn't very nice to her. Doesn't pay, does it?"
"Gettin' mixed up with people. If you don't hurt them, they hurt you. All those books mum used to read about true love...look where it got her. I don't want none of it in my life." He felt hard, angry. "You're gonna tell me I don't mean it, aren't you? Just like mum used to. Go ahead."
"No," Eddie said, in a voice so soft Ray could barely hear him. "I believe you mean it. I wish you didn't. You're awfully young to make up your mind about love. You're still mixing it up with other things."
"Sex, you mean. I know the difference," he insisted.
"Comfort. You wanted to be close to someone tonight. You don't have to sell yourself for that."
"You weren't buying anyway. Why'd you come up here?" he demanded, warming to the thought of a decent fight. It was somthing familiar, at least.
"Because I was wrong. I shouldn't have pushed you away. I should have been able to show you the difference. I let my own needs get in the way," he confessed, "and I'm sorry. You can come sleep with me tonight if you want to. Just sleep," he added quickly. "No charge."
Ray was speechless.
"If you need it," Eddie said, and walked down the hall to his own bedroom.
Ray listened to him prepare for bed, heard the drawers open and close, water running, the click of the lightswitch and creak of the old brass bed. In the silence that followed, he found that he'd stopped breathing.
He got up and walked down the hall. Without a word, he crawled into the bed beside Eddie, and threw an arm over the broad chest. "Thanks," he whispered.
A crack of thunder woke him early. The room was still dark, but in the shadows Ray could see cats sitting on the floor, and the dresser, paws tucked neathly beneath them. The dog was asleep at the foot of the bed. Eddie was asleep too, blithely unaware of either the storm or the menagerie. That he was aware of Ray's movement, even in sleep, was apparent by the way he shifted slightly as Ray did. He was a man who was used to sharing a bed.
Ray couldn't remember when he'd felt this comfortable or secure. It was as if Eddie, simply by the force of his personality, could make the world go away.
He must have fallen asleep again. When he woke, Eddie was gone. "Eddie!" Ray was panicked. "Eddie!"
"Here. I'm here. What's wrong? Bad dream?"
"You were gone," was all Ray could tell him because it was all he knew. He felt foolish, childish.
Eddie sat on the edge of the bed. "You all right?"
"I don't know. When you weren't here I thought you'd gone away, I guess. I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it." He ruffled Ray's curls. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Cross my heart, Raymondo. Well, just to the loo."
Ray grinned. "What time is it?"
"Early." Eddie turned out the light in the bath and climbed back into bed. Furball leaped on his leg and bit the covers.
"She's such a little savage. Come and have a cuddle. You look as thought you could use one."
Ray was grateful for the gesture. Humantouch was something he'd not had much of in his life. "May I ask you a question?"
"So long as I don't have to answer if it's too embarassing."
"Do I still have to leave?"
"No. Wouldn't serve." He sighed. "And here I was hoping for a nice quiet life."
"Not with me," Ray observed, his good humor restored.
"It can be a little disconcerting...you know the word?"
"I understand what you mean. Would you do me a favor?"
"Ray bit his lip, not knowing how to broach the subject. "Would you tell me about it? I mean, what it's like with another bloke?"
Eddie seemed nonplussed. "I'm not sure...you mean as opposed to with women?" He tilted his head and gave Ray a hard look. "Do you want details, is that it?"
Ray was glad the room was still dark so Eddie wouldn't see him blush. "I've been trying to work out what you must do," he admitted, "but I can only imagine so much."
"Raymondo, I am not up to that just now. Why don't you try going back to sleep?" He rolled over onto his side and closed his eyes, and Ray was left to ponder the mysteries of homosexuality by himself.
He thought about doing with Eddie all the things (save one) he'd done with Sal, or rather, that Sal had done to him; and once he got past the initial strangeness of two male bodies together, he found the fantasies more arousing than the ones he'd had of Sal recently. It was sort of exciting, really, in a wicked sort of way. He thought about how it felt to kiss Eddie, since he had already done that much. Then he thought about Eddie sucking his cock. And then, he thought about him sucking Eddie's cock, and his mind went blank. He couldn't imagine it at all.
He lay there in a quandry for nearly half an hour. The bedroom was lighter now, and he could see quite well. Eddie was sound asleep; sleeping hard. He'd never notice...
Oh so carefully, Ray lifted the duvet and peered into the darkness beneath. 'Damn,' he breathed as he realized that he couldn't see anything under the cover. Very gently, he peeled the duvet back until it was at Eddie's knees. He sat up and stared at the dark cock resting on Eddie's thigh. It was as long as his own, but thicker. He looked at his own then back at Eddie's. Alike but not. Curious. He'd done his share of comparing at school when the opportunity had presented itself, but he'd discovered women, and they him, at such an early age, that he'd never had time for the boys-only experimentation that went on. He'd never actually seen a grown man naked before.
He studied the heavy muscles and smooth skin. He wondered if his own body was going to be as smooth. Eddie had a neat thatch of dark hair at the groin that tapered up to his navel and disappeared. All that smooth skin had its allure. He almost touched it, but decided not at the last moment. Didn't want to wake Eddie.
Eddie had arms that looked as if they could crush the life out of you, and legs like stone pillars. Ray found that he was fascinated by Eddie's thighs; fascinated by their musculature and the strength it implied. This time he did touch him and while Eddie didn't wake, his cock twitched slightly. Fascinated, he tried brushing his fingertips upwards from thigh to belly, and this time the response was more marked. So it felt good to Eddie. He smiled to himself, and wondered how much he could do before Eddie woke up.
With each caress attempted and undetected, Ray grew bolder. He found he could stroke the length of Eddie's now-erect cock with the tip of his finger, without waking him. He was entranced by the response of his own body, and pressed his erection against a hard-muscled thigh. And when he looked up, he found Eddie staring at him. Eddie's face was unreadable; he might have been angry, might have been glad. It was impossible for Ray to know. He turned Eddie's face towards himself and kissed the older man.
Without a word of reproach or of welcome, Eddie responded to the kiss, by gathering Ray into his arms and transforming a tentative contact into unambiguous desire. His hands, more practiced than Ray's, taught the boy nuances of human touch that Ray had never even guessed at. It was like being a virgin again, Ray realized with a start of surprise. And this time, as he had the first time, he responded with enthusiasm, now touched with wonder. He had never suspected that a body so like his own - so unlike the bodies he had always fancied - could arouse him so powerfully. Nor had he ever allowed himself to imagine that his sexual technique was less than perfect. Again, he found himself mistaken.
And because it was achieved in silence, words seemed out of place afterwards; so they lay together in the rumpled sheets and wondered what had just happened between them.
Eddie was the first to speak. "So much for good intentions," he murmured.
"Are you angry?"
"No. Disappointed in myself, though."
It made Ray unaccountably sad. "Don't. It was nice." Such an inadequate word.
"It was that. I don't know what to do about it, though."
A tiny seed of fear began to grow in Ray, and it made him pettish. "Well, for god's sake let's not talk it to death." He wriggled away from Eddie and went to the lav. "If he says I have to go now," he thought as he sponged off the stickiness of sweat and sex, "I'll pitch a fit." He went back to the bedroom ready for a fight, but got none from Eddie.
"Want to go out for breakfast?" he asked Ray who was quick to accept.
At first he thought they were celebrating. Eddie took him to a posh place that served crepes and fancy egg dishes with French names, and they had coffee that tasted of cinnamon, and glasses of champagne and orange juice. But as the meal wore on Ray began to realize that Eddie had wanted to come out simply to avoid discussing what had happened between them. In such a public place they were almost strangers again.
A pattern developed between them. During the day, they were friends. They worked at their own tasks, shared thoughts and ideas, and remained carefully neutral on the subject of sex. But at night Ray would slip into Eddie's bed and they became lovers again while it was dark. It didn't count in the dark.
Just after Christmas, Eddie told Ray that the Art Department of his school was hiring models for the life classes. "I thought you might be interested in picking up some cash."
"Sometimes. More often not. Interested?"
Ray shrugged. "Might be."
Eddie gave him the name and number of Professor Schneider who was in charge of the classroom models. "Call him soon if you want the job."
"Him? So, do I have to audition for him?" He leered and winked, and fully expected Eddie to be amused. But Eddie just looked at him, and in his eyes was something like disappointment.
He called the next morning; the lure of money for exhibitionism appealed to Ray. He liked showing off his body. Schneider gave him a schedule, and told him that if he couldn't make any of the classes, he was to call in right away.
The first class was an advanced one, and there were only a few students there. They were all talking and laughing when he arrived, and none of them seemed to notice him. When their teacher arrived, they settled down to work with a minimum of fuss. The instructor showed Ray how to pose, and left the room. Despite the fact that they were all drawing him, they still seemed not to have noticed him.
After two or three minutes by the classroom clock (and which seemed like an hour), Ray shifted slightly to relieve a cramping muscle, and half a dozen voices rose in protest.
"The pose isn't up yet!" one of the boys complained just as the instructor returned.
"All right, what's the fuss?"
"He keeps moving," one of the girls told him.
"I do not. Just had a cramp is all."
"It is imperative that you hold the pose the full five minutes, Mister Doyle. However as you are new to this, why don't we try something less strenuous?" He brought a chair and posed Ray more casually. "How does that feel?"
"I think I can manage it for five minutes."
"Good, that means I can finish my cigarette."
It was all a lot harder than Ray had imagined. Holding a pose for even two or three minutes was difficult when muscles and tendons were shifted into unfamiliar positions. Five minutes became agony and ten, damnation. But Ray was determined to be a success at this. If they didn't notice and admire his body, at least they'd notice and admire his professionalism.
Eddie taught him how to put himself into a light trance so that most poses became easy even when they had to be held for as long as half an hour. Eventually the instructors began to ask for him by name and his workload increased.
One of the beginners' classes was taught by a pretty graduate student named Amanda Harper, and she took a fancy to Ray and asked for him all the time.
"Old Schneider tells me I have to use someone else once in a while or my students won't learn anything about body types, but I told him that we're doing an in-depth study of your body and that my students are learning a lot about anatomy this way. It's a crock, of course. They couldn't learn anatomy if you shoved a skeleton up their asses, but it sounds good."
He grinned at her and wondered if any of the students had heard. She hadn't bothered to lower her voice much.
She shrugged. "He isn't buying it, I guess. He's promised you to Holger tomorrow and I shan't see you for a week or more." She pouted prettily and Ray realized that she wanted more from him than class time.
"I'm willing to do private lessons," he said.
"Are you? In-depth private lessons?"
"Well, then, I won't worry so much about this room full of twits." She winked at him and made the rounds, offering comments and criticisms.
Ray was pleased and excited. It had been a long time since Sallie, and he'd fancied Amanda since he met her. Eddie wouldn't mind. He'd be pleased that Ray was seeing a girl; after all, Ray had never pretended that sex with Eddie was anything but a stopgap. And they could still sleep together when Ray wasn't with Amanda.
Only, Ray wasn't quite ready to tell Eddie about it. Not just then.
Because of Amanda's schedule - she worked in the afternoon and went to school at night - the only time they had together was in the morning. Ray told Eddie that he'd been scheduled for early classes, he would meet Amanda at her loft by nine and they'd make love for most of the morning.
"I'm losing money like this," he mourned, not really caring.
"You can be making a lot more, you know. Ever think about dealing?"
"Drugs, darling. Pot, acid... nothing hard. I'd do it, but I'm afraid I'll lose my financial aid if I get caught."
He didn't like the idea much and said so.
"I never thought you were such a puritan. You don't fuck like a puritan." She slapped his backside rather hard. "You smoke sometimes, so what's wrong with selling it?"
"I just don't want to get involved with that. Using it is different from selling it."
"If you say so." She got up and pulled on a faded tee shirt. "Oh, look, Ray... I hate to have to say this, but you might want to see a doctor. I think I have a little dose."
For just a moment he prayed he'd heard wrong. "Clap?"
"Umm. Nothing serious. Only, this boy I was with last week has it."
He didn't hear the rest, didn't even care about the other boy. How the hell was he going to tell Eddie? Her definition of 'nothing serious' was vastly different from his own.
"You're not upset, are you?"
"Jesus, Mandy, how am I supposed to tell Eddie?"
"The guy you live with? Why bother, it's not casually contagious..." Comprehension dawned. "Unless you sleep with him. Do you sleep with this guy?"
"Sometimes." The disgust in her voice made him uneasy. "Once in a while. Rent; you know."
"God, I didn't think you were into that. You do it with a guy to pay your rent? Christ, you can't be that badly off. Why don't you move in here with me? I mean, if you're going to sell yourself for a place to sleep, why don't you make the most of the sale?"
Ray shrugged. "It's not that bad."
"Ugh, turns my stomach."
For just a moment, he hated her and her attitudes. Who was she to criticize him? "Maybe I should go before you throw up," he snapped.
"Oh fine. You don't have to come back if you feel that way."
He stopped at the school clinic on the way to his first class, and explained the situation. They took a blood sample, and the doctor examined him. "So the girl who gave it to you knows she has it and is being treated for it?"
"I see. And have you had any other sexual partners recently?"
"Why would I lie?"
"I don't know. However, I'd venture to say that three-quarters of the students who come to us with VD lie about their sexual habits. If you are lying, I'd suggest that you contact the others and tell them to get themselves to a doctor immediately. Bend over."
Ray was hard pressed to say what was the most humiliating part of the day. And the worst was yet to come.
That night he told Eddie that he couldn't sleep with him.
"That's all right, Ray."
"No, it's not that I don't want to. I can't. Doctor told me not to." He didnt like the look on Eddie's face.
"I beg your pardon? The doctor?"
"Have the clap, don't I?" Despite his resolve to be sophisticated, he hung his head.
"Which means I have it. Thanks for telling me." The sarcasm in his voice made Ray cringe.
"You'd better tell whoever else you've been with," Ray began, but then he realized that he'd made an even bigger mistake.
"It's not necessary, thank you for your concern."
"Look, I was only trying to help!"
"Then I shudder to think what you'd do if you were trying to hurt. Do you think I like hearing this, or that I like the idea of going to my doctor and telling him I got syphillis from some kid I picked up at the British Museum?"
"How do you think I felt when the doctor asked me about who I'd been sleeping with?" Ray yelled. "I wouldn't have had to tell you at all If we hadn't slept together. I mean, it isn't as if..."
"As if we ever pretended to be lovers or anything. You knew how I felt from the beginning."
"Yes, as I recall, you've always been dead set against it. I suppose I have no one but myself to blame? I thought as much."
"Well, that's why I'm leaving here." He could hardly believe he'd said it. "I'm going to live with Amanda."
"I hope you don't expect a wedding present."
"Why don't you just get fucked!"
"Not for a while I'm afraid," Eddie said with deceptive mildness. Ray had never seen him angry before, and it frightened him a little. He decided that the sooner he was out of the house the better.
"I'll leave tomorrow morning."
"What if I told you to leave now?"
Ray was stunned at the vindictiveness which was so unlike Eddie. "Then I'd go," he said softly. "Do you want it that way?"
Eddie scowled at him. "I don't know why I should feel guilty when you're the one who's been running around catching tacky diseases... I'm sorry. I didn't intend to be mean. You can go whenever you want." And without another word he went upstairs to bed.
When Ray saw Amanda again, she was all smiles. "You still want me to move in with you?" he asked.
"What? Oh, if you really want to."
Her indifference startled him. It was as if she'd forgotten their conversation. "I have my clothes with me. They're all I own." Most of them bought by Eddie, but he ignored that fact.
"Don't you travel light. I wish I could, but I just seem to be a packrat." She produced a key. "Go drop your things at the flat, love. I have a class to teach in half an hour."
Though he'd never imagined that they shared a great passion, he had expected a little enthusiasm from her. How strange people were, he thought as he walked over to her flat. If you want them, they can't recall your name. If they want you... He thought of Eddie and dropped that line of contemplation.
Still, life with Amanda was undemanding. Whatever he did was all the same to her, and if she occasionally brought other boys home, he was just as happy to spend a few hours at the pictures. The only thing that made him uncomfortable was her drug use. Though he occasionally took them himself, he had never understood why some people used them regularly. Amanda was always swallowing pills, rolling joints, tripping. She had bags of drugs stashed all around the house, and the very public way she used them made Ray extremely uneasy. He hated the parties she threw because everyone arrived high, got higher, and left to get more drugs.
Occasionally he would encounter Eddie at the school. Eddie used the art department's darkroom from time to time, so meetings were inevitable. And while Ray dreaded them, he had to admit that Eddie was never anything less than pleasant, if a little cool. Ray missed him sometimes, missed the warmth and the friendship. Ray and Amanda had never been friends.
Summer arrived, and with it the long vac. Amanda asked him if he was planning to get another job for the summer.
"Hadn't thought about it. Why don't we go on holiday?"
"Because I'm tired of supporting you, that's why."
The sheer unfairness of it floored Ray. He'd been contributing all of his earnings to the household while most of what Amanda earned by teaching went to buy drugs. It was just another reason why Ray resented her use.
"Mark wants to take me to Spain anyway."
Mark? The rich boy, the one with no chin. "You going?"
She shrugged. "I told him yes. I suppose I could tell him no. I don't know. He wants me to come and live with him. I might do it."
Strangely, Ray felt only relief. He hadn't realized until that moment, how tired he'd become of Amanda. "If he's the rich bloke you brought home a few times, I think you should do it."
She seemed affronted. "You'd know about rich blokes, wouldn't you? Which reminds me; if I do go to live with Mark, you'll need someone else to take care of you. Malcolm was asking if you might be interested. He has more money than Mark does, but he's not interested in girls. I'll give you his number."
In the end, she did go to Spain with Mark.
Left on his own, Ray didn't go to Malcolm, but to someone else he'd met through Amanda. Richard Halliwell was a drug dealer, but he had a number of other business interests, and one of them was furnishing 'escorts' to people who had neither the time nor the inclination to find partners for themselves. He had approached Ray several times with business proposals, but Ray hadn't been interested then. Now he began to think that it was exactly the line of work he should be in. He'd been trading off his body since his mother had died, longer really. Why not be honest about it?
Halliwell taught him how to dress, how to make small talk and which fork to use when confronted with a row of them. He explained how important discretion was in a job like this, and hinted that the retribution for blackmail would be... disagreeable. Then he introduced him to some potential customers at a party. Several of the guests were taken with Ray and the requests came in almost immediately.
Sometimes he was just an escort. He would show up dressed impeccably, and accompany some woman to an affair. Frequently he escorted the mistresses of the men who were guests of honor. Other times he was paid for sex. Either way it didn't much matter to him. He had accepted that his abilities lay in this direction, and was determined to make the most of it. By sixteen, Ray Doyle was an accomplished concubine.
Not that it made him happy. Not in the least. He did his job, and was paid well for his work, but where he once had actively pursued sexual contact, he now accepted it as part of his routine. It no longer comforted him when he was lonely and depressed, and in fact, it seemed to deepen the aloneness.
At first he didn't understand, and redoubled his efforts, moving from bed to bed, his hunger for human contact almost insatiable. But finally Ray made a few discoveries about the facts of life; he realized that the only time he'd ever found the depth of contact he craved was with Eddie. A year older and wiser, he realized too that admitting that he loved the man didn't change him in any way; it didn't make him less of a man.
Sometimes he thought it might have made him more of one.
But he also had to face the fact that Eddie was gone from his life. Sometimes, when he was alone, he'd play out scenes in his head: he'd imagine all the ways that they could get together again. As the months flew by, he played the scenes over less and less. It hurt too much to think of what he'd thrown away.
In spring of his seventeenth year, he accompanied Halliwell to a gallery opening. "I have a few clients who want someone who can talk about cultural things. You're one of the few who has the mind for it," he explained to Ray. From Halliwell it was less a compliment than an assessment.
Halliwell approached art, as he approached everything else, as a business proposition. To that end, he did his homework beforehand, and spent the evening attempting to put the square pegs of art into the round holes of financial assets. On the other hand, Ray found himself remembering how Eddie had taught him to look at art, and felt at peace with himself for the first time in almost eighteen months. He moved from room to room, painter to sculptor, with a sense of wonder and gratitude. He forgot Halliwell, and the reasons for being there, and just let himself enjoy the evening.
Halliwell found him standing in front of a photography of Westminster Abbey; contemporary, and yet conveying the same timelessness as the one he'd seen at Eddie's.
"The photos aren't as important as the other things. You did look at the sculpture, didn't you? Here, I've made some notes for you."
Ray looked down at the notebook and handed it back to Halliwell. "Richard, I'm finished."
"We only have two more artists, Ray. Drawings, nothing special."
He turned to Halliwell. "No. I mean, I can't do this anymore. It's eating me up. I'm giving you notice."
"Don't be an idiot, Ray. Let's go look at the drawings and then we can go to supper."
"No. Richard, I'm sorry, but no."
Halliwell was clearly in a quandry. He could hardly start a scene there. "We have to talk about this."
"I know. Let's go back to my flat."
Once there, Halliwell told him exactly what he thought of Ray's defection. "You are the most ungrateful little bastard I've ever met," he asserted. "What do you think you're going to do once you leave me?"
"I don't know. I hadn't given it any thought."
"Then you're stupid into the bargain."
"I only just decided tonight. I'm unhappy."
"What is it you want?" he demanded, "hearts and flowers?"
Ray shook his head. "I'm not that stupid, no matter what you think. But what I really want is to stop feeling so alone. Maybe you've never felt it..."
"Everyone feels it. Why the hell do you think you make such good money? You help people."
"You make it sound like a service to humanity. All the same, I'm though with it."
"What will you do?"
"Don't know, do I? But I'll sweep up before I whore for you again."
He packed all the things he owned and turned the key to the flat over to Halliwell. "This makes us quits."
"Save any money while you worked for me?"
"Just wondering how long it'll be before you come back."
He found a bed-sit, then went back to the school and asked Professor Schneider if there was any employment available. He said he'd prefer not to model again, except occasionally.
"As it happens, um..." he sorted through a stack of papers. "You know where the storeroom is? Well, there's been no one looking after it for several years now, and it's in a mess. We've been talking about hiring someone to get it back into shape. Of course, we'd intended to hire a student for this position. You're not a student, are you?"
"Ah. Were you planning on becoming one?"
Ray made a helpless geture. "I suppose. How?"
Schneider looked stumped. "I don't know, precisely. Let me look into it for you. Until then, you can work without being enrolled. Can you start... um, today?"
"I guess so."
"Fine, fine. Here are the keys. You'll need to arrange everything, order new stock. You'll get the idea."
When Ray saw the storeroom, he began to think he'd been had. The place wasn't simply a mess, it was a disaster. The dust was an inch thick in some places, and in others, tubes and cans of paint lay about uncapped, the paint dried to rock-like consistency. Bugs had eaten much of the glue and unprotected paper. Ray wondered if anyone had even bothered to change the lightbulbs once they'd burned out.
He tried to find more bulbs, and when he couldn't, he stole an armload from enpty classrooms. He spent most of the afternoon throwing anything broken or damaged into bins, though he kept careful account of everything in case they called on him to account for what he'd disposed of. He worked well into the night without noticing the passage of time, and when he did finally leave for home, he felt a sense of satisfaction he hadn't felt in a long time. He'd done good work.
The next day was more of the same, but by late afternoon, he began to see a difference. He found a cupboard of photographic chemicals and carried them down to the darkroom to find out if they were still good. He was also hoping to see Eddie there, though he knew it was unlikely. Part of him still hoped for a reconciliation.
There was only one student in the lab, and he couldn't say for sure if the things Ray had brought were worth saving. "Why don't I ask someone and have them get back to you?"
"Fair enough. Remember, though, I have to account for everything."
He stayed late again, and was surprised to hear a rap at the door about nine. It was Eddie.
"David told me you'd brought some things down to the lab to find out if they were still good. Most of them weren't. May I come in?" He stepped into the storeroom. "I made a list of what we threw out and what we kept. We'll use it up immediately," he assured Ray. "And here's a list of what we need to stock in the future. You're going to be ordering?"
"I think so. I don't even know if I'm really employed yet."
"What d'you mean?"
"They want a student. I'm not a student. I might not even get paid for this." He scanned the lists. "How do you tell if something has gone off?"
"Did Karl Schneider not officially hire you?" Eddie looked annoyed.
"He gave me the keys to the storeroom; I suppose he thought that was official enough. Will they let me take classes here just to keep the job?"
"I'll speak to Karl. Stop by the lab tomorrow around one and I'll teach you everything you need to know about our supplies. I'm glad you're back." It was said in the same, cool, detatched way in which he offered information, and for a moment, Ray thought he'd misheard.
"Glad to be back."
He kept telling himself it was stupid, that fretting about his meeting with Eddie was useless since it was business, not personal. But at the same time, he was excited to think that they'd be working together even peripherally. He told himself not to anticipate anything, but all the same he hoped.
He arrived at one exactly. Eddie was looking at some slides. "Oh, good. Ray. Let's see, I have a list of things I want to talk to you about. I spoke to Karl and you are offically in charge of the storeroom. If you work out, the job will be yours, student or not, for as long as you want."
"Christ, that's a relief."
"I asked the rest of the staff to compile a list of suppliers for you and lists of the things they need, so you can begin ordering as soon as you have things in order. They'll be dropping them off at the storeroom. I have a list here, for photographic supplies."
"I'd better find myself a desk. Tell me about the supplies. If I know what I'm ordering, I'll do a better job."
Eddie talked to him for about half an hour, then observed that it was past time for lunch, and wondered if Ray wanted to continue the discussion in the employees' canteen. For Ray, it was almost like an invitation to some posh restaurant. He agreed almost immediately, perhaps too quickly, he thought; he didn't want to appear too eager. Not as eager as he really was.
"Have you been all right?" Eddie asked over a lunch he insisted on paying for. "I've thought of you often."
"Been doing odd jobs."
Eddie thought it was a joke; he grinned. "Just like you. But you've been well?"
"Fine. Not always on top of the world, but then who is?"
"You still living with that girl?"
Ray shook his head. "Not since last June."
"Yeah. What about you? Have a new boyfriend?" He held his breath.
I'm seeing someon."
God, but it hurt. He tried not to let it show in his face, but he couldn't have been too successful, not the way he felt just then. "Good for you," he managed as he pushed his stew around his plate.
"Oh... still up and down. The last few months have been tough. Sometimes I still think about them and, well, I get a little depressed."
Eddie looked concerned. "Why so?"
"So much of my life seems to have passed without my noticing. Can I tell you something?"
"You can tell me anything."
"I've been whoring for a living."
"Jesus, Ray! Why didn't you come to me first?"
"Hold it, hold it. I didn't have to do it. I mean, I could have found something, worked a barrow, anything. I did it because I thought I wanted to. I thought I was real smart. But it ate me up inside. The others didn't seem to mind."
"Perhaps they did and you didn't see it."
It made sense. It also made Ray feel worse to think that it might have been true, and he'd been so self-absorbed he'd never noticed. "Yeah, maybe. Forget it. I quit that."
"I'm relieved. But look..." he leaned forward. "If you ever do need a place to stay, or money or anything, please don't go back to it. Come to me."
Ray felt unaccountably unhappy just then, but he didn't know why. "Eddie, I'm not really hungry. Would you mind if I went back to work?" Without waiting for a reply, he left the table.
There were a couple of supply lists waiting for him when he got back to the storeroom, and a few names for suppliers. One he recognized from an old catalog he'd unearthed. He called each of the suppliers and requested new catalogs before he went back to his cleaning. Things were looking brighter on this front. He'd disposed of the last of the useless material, and cleaned the dirt off what was left. Now he began to inventory what he had. The job was so tedious that by tea time he thought he'd go mad if he didn't take a few minutes off. He went down to maintenance and shared a pot of tea with Kelly, the old duffer who kept the whole school running.
"Couldn't 'ardly believe some of the stuff you tossed," he confided. "Think this school is made of money, they do, the way they treat things. And the perfessers is as bad as the rest. Careless. Never 'ad to worry about where it was coming from, did they?"
"That's the truth," Ray agreed. "Real sty, it was, when I walked in there. Not even a lightbulb."
"So you're the one who took those bulbs!"
Ray nodded. "Sorry. I didn't know where to go for more."
"You just come down here when you need something like that. You need anything else just now?"
"Well, I could use a desk and chair. And I think there's a phone line for the room, but no phone."
"Cummon." The old man led him down a corridor to a locked room. "You pick yerself a desk an' chair." he said as he unlocked the door. "I'll find you a telephone."
"The room was filled with furniture in various states of repair. Ray hunted until he found a small desk that suited him. It was a dark wood and a bit scuffed, but it had a friendly feel to it. With a little care it would be lovely. He chose an old, comfortable chair, and added a filing cabinet to the group. If he was going to run the storeroom, he had to have an office.
"Good choices," Kell said, with a nod of approval. "They'll serve. I'll 'elp you get 'em down to the storeroom." He brought two dollys, and they managed the whole load in one trip. Then he gave Ray some wood soap and polish. "Clean 'em good before you shine 'em. Get all the dirt off."
Ray spent the rest of the evening washing the new furniture, and applying a coat of polish. It was late by the time he finished, but they looked so beautiful that he didn't regret a moment of the job. He was beginning to feel in charge of the situation; it no longer frightened him to think that everyone in the school would be depending on him for their supplies. "I'll end up like Kelly," he thought. "They won't be able to do anything without the old man in the storeroom."
There were worse ways to grow old. This was, at least, peaceful.
By the time the catalogs arrived, Ray had the storeroom cleaned and organized. He filled some orders with things already available, and this caused amazement among the staff who had sworn for years that there was nothing in the storeroom worth looking for.
Since unearthing the records of his predecessor from a box on the top of an otherwise empty shelf unit, he'd studied them carefully whenever he had a chance. He began to learn how to place orders, and what terms were expected. He found out how to submit bills for payment, and how long it took. Finally he was ready to take on the suppliers.
The lists he'd been given were fairly similar. It seemed that most of the instructors patronized the same few suppliers, and to Ray's mind, this was not always the most economical way to do business. He'd gone through the telephone book and ordered catalogs from any supplier, no matter how large or small, who carried the items that were being requested.
He studied the requests, and compared prices in the catalogs he'd ordered, then began calling each supplier. He asked bluntly for better prices for volume buying, and promised regular sales if his terms were met. Many of them were happy to accomodate him, and he found that he could meet and in some cases undercut the prices on the invoices of five to seven years before. He began to order, and he insisted on quick delivery, and in almost every case, the suppliers were able to comply. By the end of his first month on the job, the storeroom was completely restocked with good quality merchandise at sensible prices. And the bursar, used to signing expense chits, noticed the difference. Ray was a clever, frugal employee. His tenure was virtually assured.
It became something of a joke around the school, that if there was something Ray didn't have in stock on Monday afternoon, you could bet he'd have it for you by Tuesday morning.
There was something about this job that was satisfying in a way no other job had ever been. He was proving something, perhaps more to himself than to anyone else, but proving it nontheless. And if he went home to an empty room, well, it wasn't forever, he told himself. One day there'd be someone to share his life. And when that person came along, Ray promised himself, he wouldn't be as stupid as he'd been with Eddie. Eddie was a constant regret.
Ray had been working in the storeroom for several months when Eddie decided to pay another call. He poked his head around the door. "Hello."
"Hi, Eddie." He turned down the radio. "Need something?"
"Actually, I came to talk."
"Oh. Sure, sit down." He'd scrounged another chair from Kelly and occasionally instructors and even students stopped by for a cuppa and some gossip. Like Kelly, Ray seemed to know everything that was going on in school, but he was friendlier.
"I wanted to apologize," Eddie told him. I think I must have said something to offend you last time we were together, though I'm not sure what it was. Either way, I'm sorry if it's so."
"Oh, no! You didn't say anything wrong. It was me. I was feeling low. Look, you didn't think that all this time, did you?"
"You left so abruptly, I couldn't help but wonder."
"Jeez, I'm sorry. God, I've done it again. Someday I'll be able to say just what I mean... maybe. I'm sorry you always seem to get the worst of it."
This last seemed to surprise and confuse the other man. "What're you on about? I? Get the worst of it?"
"The night I left... the things I said." He bit his lip, knowing that this would be hard, but it was past time to have said it. "I said all those things because I was confused and angry... and just plain stupid. But what I should have said to you was that I'd never met anyone who cared about me before, and that I was grateful. I should have told you that Amanda was fun to sleep with, but that I didn't really care for her; and I should have said I was sorry about the clap. I wanted to stay Eddie, but I didn't know how to ask for that. I spent a year fucking up my life, and I couldn't come back to you while I was in such a mess. But things are better now, in here." He tapped his forehead. "And maybe someday you and I can... you know." Here he paused and grinned. "Be more fun this time. Anyway, I know you're involved now, and I guess that's part of the reason why I was so depressed at lunch that day, but I can wait. What I'd really like to ask is if you'd be interested in getting back together if you and you... if this relationship doesn't work out for you." He paused and watched Eddie for some response. "I'm almost eighteen," he added as yet another incentive.
"What a strange boy you are," Eddie observed, his face unreadable. "And I'll consider your offer. In the meantime, if you'd like to come back to live at my place, I'd be happy to have you there."
"Involved with, not living with. She won't mind."
"She?" Ray was genuinely surprised.
"You never did believe me, did you?" He looked amused. "Teach you not to doubt your elders."
"You're a bundle of surprises, Eddie. I'd like to come back. I'm lonely," he admitted. "Very lonely."
"I know," Eddie replied, and Ray had the oddest feeling that he truly did know how it felt to be lonely. "So then it's settled." Eddie stood up and rubbed his hands together. "When do you want to move back?"
Ray was startled by the speed at which his life seemed to be moving now Eddie was a factor in it. But Eddie always did seem to have enough energy for two. "Any time."
"Wonderful. This weekend?"
"Fine, I guess."
"I'll stop by on Friday after my last class." Then he was gone, and Ray, who had been holding his breath, exhaled with a 'woosh' and slumped in his chair.
"That was easy," he remarked to no one in particular.
And, in fact, it was easy. Eddie came by the storeroom about five, they drove over to Ray's flat and cleared it out in about an hour (what little there was Ray had packed the night before.) Then they moved it into Eddie's spare room in about the same time. By nine they were sitting down to supper together.
"It feels like I never left," Ray admitted.
"It does rather."
Eddie shrugged. "Nice to have you back."
He settled in nicely, but was curious about the woman Eddie was seeing. He refused at first to admit to admit that he was jealous: and once he did, he didn't know what to do about it. Ethical considerations had never figured prominently in Ray's life up to this point; he saw no real reason to allow them to do so now. He wanted Eddie back, but how?
First he set about sizing up the competition. He'd thought that it was the doctor next door, and he spent a lot of time watching her and Eddie when they were together. But they didn't act like lovers; didn't even sound like lovers and Ray eliminated her from the running.
Trouble was, Eddie never talked about the woman (The Woman, as Ray had come to think of her.) Ray knew that sometimes they went out together, and on those nights, Eddie would come home very late, if at all. He was cat-quiet about it all; very private. So finally Ray asked him outright. "Who is it? Anyone I know?"
Eddie was clearly startled, and was uninclined to answer. "One of the staff," he said at last, and Ray began to sort furiously through his mental file of instructors.
"Is it Laura Franklin?"
"I'd rather not say." Eddie sat down and unfolded his newspaper.
"Well, is it Sinead? She's a stunner."
"I just want to know." He jumped onto the couch and grabbed the paper away from Eddie. "Is it Sinead?"
"No. Now leave me alone." He grabbed back the paper, Ray refused to relinquish it and it ripped in half. "Goddamn!"
"Is it Laura Franklin, then? She's not bad."
"Ray, will you mind your own bloody business?" He tried for a few moments to concentrate on the bits of the paper he clutched, then crumpled them and threw them across the room. "What on earth is going on with you?"
"I want to know."
"Because I do."
Eddie rolled his eyes.
"I'm sizing up the competition, if you must know. Here." He shoved the rest of the paper at Eddie, curled up at the other end of the couch and began to pout. "I don't think it's very nice of you."
"You know." Designed to make Eddie crazy, it was working.
"What are you on about?"
Ray inched closer. "I just want to know what I'm up against, is all. That's not much to ask, is it?" Too coy for Ray's taste, but effective.
A pause, then, "I can't make heads or talks out of this conversation." And with that, Eddie got up and went out to the kitchen.
Advantage Ray. Eddie was running away from him, pretending he didn't know what Ray was getting at, when only a moron could mistake his meaning. Ray licked his lips and took up the pursuit.
"No, really. I am. It was a stupid thing to ask. Making cocoa?" He followed Eddie around, ostensibly trying to help, but generally getting in the way; and Eddie, who was now attuned to Ray's body, grew more agitated by the minute. He's been wanting me too, Ray thought, and he allowed himself a little smile.
When the cocoa was made, they carried it back out to the couch. Eddie sat, Ray sat beside him. A little unsubtle, but Ray was beyond subtlety by this point. "Is she important? I mean, do you love her?"
He was prepared for one of those long, involved explanations that Eddie was so good at, about the different sorts of love and affection, and all the reasons people come together; and he had every intention of making his move spang in the middle of it. But Eddie turned and stared at Ray, and there was something in his eyes that seemed wary, even a little amused.
"I suppose you're going to say that you love me, and doesn't that count for something. Am I close?"
Ray was stunned. In a moment Eddie had laid bare all the self-centered hypocrisy a sixteen year old boy was capable of, and Ray shrank from it. It took him a moment to catch his breath. "I was going to, yes." It was a moment of pure revelation, and Ray suddenly found he needed to be alone for a few minutes to think about it. "I was going to say just that," he admitted again, feeling like a prize fool. "I think I'll just go up to bed and think this one over. 'night."
He lay in the dark and stared up, out of sightless eyes, truly understanding for the first time in his life that other people had needs and desires independent of his own, that they had lives, that they existed outside of his experience. Somehow that, more than all that had gone before, marked the end of his childhood. That he knew it added a bittersweet taste to the moment. He couldn't have stopped the tears coming, even if he'd wanted to.
It was hours later that he woke to find Eddie sitting on the edge of his bed. "I'm sorry," Eddie whispered. "Truly."
Ray held out his arms and Eddie gathered him up and hugged him. "It's so hard to grow up at all," Ray whispered. "And I'm not even graceful about it."
"You're doing fine. I keep forgetting how young you are."
There was something in this moment that touched a chord in Ray. He found himself thinking of his mother; of all the times she had forgiven him his rages and his lies, and all the scrapes, small and large.
"I'm not a child," he whispered, more to himself than to Eddie. The moment was to be savored. And rued. Childhood had come to an end for him, and he'd only just noticed it. He wished his mother had been there to see it; to help him through. "She did love me, My mother," he added, as he noticed Eddie's confusion. "Nothing lasts forever, does it?"
"Feelings do, sometimes. I guess the best we can hope for is that the good things last for the time being."
"Yes. Like us. We'll last for the time being, Ray."
He knew it was enough.
-- THE END --