Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas

December 22nd, 2002
Peru



Jake had picked one of the poshest hotels in Cuzco.

Inured to Jake, Tom had started to notice quite early on with him that the poshest did not mean the flashiest or the largest hotel, Jake liked quiet good taste and discretion, and actually, although he wouldn’t have admitted it in public, so did Tom. The staff at the poshest hotels also never raised an eyebrow no matter how you looked when you walked in. They were both filthy with five weeks of jungle on them. Ragged and muddy t shirts, slacks that were even worse, neither of them shaven or washed as there was no way you could efficiently wash in the muddy streams they’d passed in the last few days, and they still got called ‘sir’ by the receptionist who booked them in without the faintest qualm and handed them both cups of steaming tea.

“We keep it for the tourists.” he explained as he led them across several little open air courtyards filled with green plants, and cool hallways filled with vases of cut flowers. “It helps with the acclimatisation, but I’d imagine gentlemen that you’re already well acclimatised?”

“We’ve been hiking for a few weeks.” Jake said easily. “We love this area, but it’s nice to check in with civilisation once in a while, just for the luxury of running water.”

Tom caught his eye and gave him a sardonic look as the man opened a door onto a large, stone floored and cool coloured room.

“This is your room, the bathroom’s adjoining and the courtyard beyond your doors there leads out onto the hotel gardens. Will you be eating in the restaurant tonight?”

“We’ll probably clean up and eat in here.” Jake said as if they were normal guests. “Thanks, this is perfect.”

“Please ring for anything you need.” The man gave them both a friendly smile and closed the door behind him as he left. Jake put his rucksack down and wandered over to the window, sipping tea and opening the door onto the courtyard. Mostly shaded from the sun, it was green and cool and not overlooked, and the smell of the plants and the more distinctive smell of Cuzco drifted into the room. This was one of their favourite towns and always had been. Tom started to strip, walking across to look with Jake at the courtyard.

“I’m going to shower.”

“Drink the tea.” Jake slid an arm around his waist, massaging where his hand rested, then followed Tom’s example by stripping to the skin, and a moment after Tom stepped under the unfamiliar luxury of the hot jets of the shower, Jake joined him with a groan of pleasure at the heat.

He was scratched to hell across his back. Tom turned him around and scrubbed him thoroughly, and Jake patiently set both hands against the tiles and leaned, stretching his shoulders while Tom cleaned grime off the six angry red and parallel gouges, the marks of some kind of sticking creeper that had coated an overhang three days away from the city.

“Anything infected?” Jake said conversationally.

“No. But you could use an anti inflammatory. You should have been more careful.” Tom let him go with a sharp swat across Jake’s muscular butt and Jake turned around to take the sponge from him.

“Could have happened to whoever climbed up there first, they’re only scratches.”

Tom muttered and let Jake turn him, shutting his eyes as Jake returned the favour in the harder to reach places. It took a good ten minutes for them both to remove the dirt, working from hair down to feet, and once they were clean Jake put an arm across the wide shower cubicle, bracing it on the tiles and fencing Tom under the water to kiss him.

It was the first time they’d been completely alone in several weeks, the first time in over a month that they’d been somewhere clean, private and at no risk of being disturbed, and they made the most of it. Jake was a man who liked to do things thoroughly and take his time over them, and the man was an athlete, body and soul. They made it out from under the hot water only after some time had passed, and then it was only to move to the bed, which was damp and very rumpled by the time they were done with it.

Jake dozed afterwards, face down and sprawled on the mattress. Tom, with the restlessness that came from physical exhaustion, pulled himself to his feet and padded to their rucksacks, digging until he found the antiseptic cream. Jake didn’t stir as Tom smoothed it into the gouges, and Tom left him to sleep and for the cream to soak in, instead standing for a long time in the doorway of the courtyard.

It was cool here, despite the fact that Peru was now well into its summer months. Early evening, the sun was gradually sinking over the city, and while the courtyard was quiet, the room spacious and dark – all the things that made it easier – Tom still stood by the door. Then he dug in his rucksack to the very bottom, to the least bedraggled of all his clothes, dressed silently, and slipped out through the garden to the city.

The market stalls were still trading at full force despite the hour. He paused at one, digging for coins in his pocket, and bought clean shirts and slacks, socks and underwear for both of them. What they were carrying in their packs would need throwing away. It was a familiar thing in their wardrobe; most clothes tended to have a short lifespan. He found a narrow and deserted alleyway and changed, welcoming the cleanness of the fresh clothes, and then wandered on to the Plaza de Armas.


It was one of the most renowned places in Cuzco, one of the most central squares, and although at this hour the tourists had mostly gone to the hotels to look for their dinner, the narrow, cobbled streets around it were crowded with locals. In the plaza the mighty fountain in the middle was no longer the focal point; in the growing dark, the whole plaza had been transformed into a Christmas pageant with large biblical animals covered in lights that glittered and drew children to gaze up at them. There were children everywhere. Not the usual local city children either; Tom, watching a group near him including a mother with a toddler on her back, recognised the traditional clothing. These were campesino people, who they most often saw in the mountains and the tiny villages. People from the far flung rural farms, come into the town for the Christmas festival. It rang a bell in Tom’s memory, and as he watched another large group of children clustered around the steps of a church with long queues of people behind them, he remembered about the chocolatadas. The annual Christmas giving by churches and patrons and businesses of hot chocolate, bread and a toy to children, and to the old. In a country where there was no such thing as social security, there were plenty of families willing to make the travel into the city for such an occasion. There was singing coming from the church; probably a cassette, sounding slightly scratchy but Tom recognised the tune.

          Venid, adoremos, con alegre canto;
          venid al pueblito de Belén.
          Hoy ha nacido el Rey del los ángeles.
          Venid y adoremos, venid y admoremos,
          venid y adoremos a Cristo Jesús.

Moved by the chattering children and the small, bright coloured toys in their hands, Tom spoke briefly to a woman handing out the cups of hot chocolate on the church steps and gathered up what cash he had on him, passing it to her. She smiled at his few brusque words of Spanish and blessed and thanked him, and as he walked away Tom caught sight of a grubby small boy accepting a new wooden toy, clutching it with more awe than a western child would ever know for something so simple. Many of the campesino people were sitting behind wares they were selling from blankets laid on the plaza. Moss. Bits of plants that were found only high up in the mountains, beyond the reach of many. Tom had seen the nativity scenes that were created by every Cuzco household; the hotel had one in its foyer, and families were buying the materials gladly. Also on the blankets were laid handmade nativity figures and figurines and icons of saints. The Plaza was transformed; usually a vast space, tonight there was barely room to walk.

Jake found him as he was looking over another blanket where the Nino Manuelito - the Andean baby Jesus – was evident among the figurines. Tom glanced up at the hand that brushed his shoulder and nodded at the plaza, unsurprised to see him. It never took Jake long to track him.

“I’d forgotten we heard about this.”

“The buying of the Saints. Yes.” Jake looked with interest at the blanket, and then the bundle Tom was carrying. “Clean clothes?”

“Yes.” Tom pushed them at him. “Find somewhere to change, you look like a tramp. Got any cash?”

Jake gave him a handful of centimos and took the clothes in search of a dark corner. Tom paused by a blanket and stooped, speaking in swift Spanish to the man there and exchanging coins for a medal he pocketed. He paused at a street vendor to buy empanadas, the oddly mixed sweet and savoury pockets of beef and cumin, sprinkled with sugar and lime juice. They were hot and spicy and Jake accepted one with pleasure as he reappeared, dressed in clean clothes and looking far more respectable.

They walked back through the crowds to the hotel while they ate.

In the courtyard garden – deserted and silent – Jake ignored the upright chairs and lay down full length on the stone, folding his hands behind his head. The sky was bright tonight. Tom sat down on the stones beside him, digging in his pocket for the item he had found on the stall. Jake glanced over at him as Tom stooped to fasten the silver chain around his neck, then lifted up the little medal hanging from it, looking at the little figure printed on it.


“Saint George.” Tom said abruptly. “Patron saint of boy scouts, I thought it was appropriate.”

Jake laughed, a rich sound that went with the dark and the stone and the plants and the stars overhead, and Tom went where he pulled, laying back on the stones beside him. Jake held onto his hand, lacing his fingers through Tom’s.


December 22nd, 2000
Boston


          Oh come all ye faithful
          Joyful and triumphant....


The carol was coming softly from the tv on in the corner where one of the delegates was watching the early morning news . The meeting had paused while several delegates removed to a private place to discuss the progress in the deal and re establish their positions with the corporates they represented, and was due to re start in half an hour, despite the fact it was a little past five am and the negotiations had been in progress for approaching ten hours now. Dale made his way past the tv set to the balcony and stepped out through the glass doors, looking out over the city laid out in the dark below the skyscraper as he dialled his phone. Despite the hour, and despite that he had been fully prepared to talk to one of the night shift staff, his personal assistant answered immediately.


“Good morning sir. I’m faxing across the updated figures now.”

“Thank you. Are there any messages?”

Marisa streamed them off while he paced, the phone to his ear, absorbing the state of play of several projects and information and requests from several clients, replying to what he could and making note of what he needed to divert his attention to when this negotiation concluded.

“The plane is booked for 11am,” Marisa went on, “arriving in Milan at 1pm local time. The meeting is scheduled to begin at three, an assistant and interpreter are prepared and will meet you at the hotel for briefing beforehand. Your current assistant contacted me an hour ago to say the negotiations had run overtime and he had arranged to pack on your behalf at the hotel and have your luggage checked in at the airport. I finished the initial breakdowns in the briefing pack and emailed it across to you, and I can send the remainder of the evidence as soon as I receive it from the legal team this morning.”

“Thank you.” Dale glanced at his watch and back at the tired and crumple-suited delegates helping themselves to coffee while they talked into the mobile phones at their ears. “Aren’t you going on leave today?”

“Tonight, sir, but I can defer if necessary. I sent you the details that Lawrence Harris will be covering for you while I’m away.”

Who was young, enthusiastic and rather sweet, and fairly competent even compared against Marisa’s standards.

“Yes, I remember and there’ll be no need to defer,” Dale said with conviction, “Enjoy your holiday and have a very merry Christmas.”

“Thank you, you too, sir.” Marisa’s tone took on the detached tone that Dale recognised, which usually referred to domestic detail, “The Milan hotel is booked to provide Christmas lunch in your suite on the 25th should you still be there, and I understand the leisure facilities are extremely good, they can provide you with private access at certain times. I would be glad to book theatre tickets or to look up local entertainments if you would like?”

“No thank you, if we conclude before the 25th I’ll take a couple of days to go across to the Cairo office and see what I can do with the Huxford project while things are quiet.”

“Would you like me to put a flight on standby and arrange a hotel reservation there sir?” Marisa sounded faintly resigned and Dale took little notice, seeing one of the key delegates re enter the suite with a slope to his shoulders that suggested his conversation with his corporate had admitted defeat. Which with luck meant they were on the home stretch of this meeting.

“I suppose so, thank you. Could you get an update on the Huxford situation, contact the team and ask them for the current data and send that across to me please.”

“Yes sir. I’ve received a card from your mother thanking you for the hamper and wishing you a good Christmas, and sending you a case of champagne. She apologises for the early delivery, apparently she’s out of the UK over Christmas.”

Thank God for the P.A.s and the exec lists they kept of relevant dates and people which meant never having to think about things like family holidays or birthdays. These things happened on sterile autopilot without mess.

“Thank you for organising that, I’m sure you chose far better than I would have done.” Dale said dryly. “Do something with the champagne will you please? Hand it out or take it home, whatever you’d like.”

A concierge appeared at his elbow with a leather wallet containing the faxes and Dale accepted it with a nod of thanks.

“The faxes are through. Thank you Marisa, enjoy your leave.”

He snapped the phone shut and leaned against the balcony rail, scanning rapidly through the faxes and reeling away the information therein. The first signs of dawn were starting, the sky was beginning to lighten and the benefit of negotiations dragging on like this was that people became tired, careless, keen to end things. Which made things easier to steer.

Pausing by the coffee pot to pour a mug full, black, bitter and hot, Dale drank it straight down and went back into the board room.


*


Wyoming


It was shortly before five when the light came up far enough that Flynn slid his arm out from underneath Riley, pulled the covers closer over him and dropped a kiss on his chestnut hair, getting out of bed carefully enough to avoid disturbing him. He still heard a sleepy and rather bleak voice behind him as he found his clothes.

“You’re still going, aren’t you?”

There was no way to answer him. Riley understood him too well. Riley pushed the bedclothes back and knelt up on the mattress to hook his arms around Flynn’s neck, and Flynn hugged him tightly, holding him with his face against Riley’s hair. Then Riley let him go and reached for his own clothes.

“You’re going to need camping stuff.”

“I’ll be fine, go back to sleep.” Flynn gave him a hard kiss, a light swat to the seat of his shorts and pulled the covers up over him. “I’ll be back in a few days.”

“Does anyone else know?”

“I’ll be back in a few days.”

Flynn belted his jeans and picked up a sweater, heading softly out onto the landing. Riley lay where he was a moment more, listening to him head downstairs, then unable to help himself, slid out of bed and padded along the hall to Paul’s room. Paul was dozing; Riley knew the signs. This was the stage where he was more or less awake but gathering himself as he usually got up around half past five. He moved over as Riley sat on the edge of the bed, making room for Riley to slide under the covers and join him, but Riley sat where he was with his legs tucked under him and put a hand on Paul to make him open his eyes.

“Flynn’s clearing off, he says he’s going for a few days.”

Paul’s first response was an expression of marked anxiety, swiftly followed by resignation and Riley swatted at him through the bedclothes,

“You’re not even surprised!”

“The signs have been there for a few days.” Paul caught Riley’s hand and pulled until Riley lay down with him and let Paul get his arms around him. Paul’s voice was gentle but it was resigned and Riley knew what that meant. “We’re not going to stop him. You know that. All we can do is either make it easy, and that includes making it easy for him to come back, or we can make it hard and he’ll still go anyway and be miserable that he’s upset us and dread coming home. Which would you want?”

Riley avoided the question, nudging Paul with fading hope. “But he’ll stay if you make him.”

“No, he won’t.” Paul said frankly. “If I push, he might hang on another day or two, that’s all, and it won’t help. If he needs to go, he needs to go honey. You know how he works.”

“You wouldn’t let me go.”

“No, and you’re a very different kettle of fish.” Paul kissed him and rolled to his feet, picking up his clothes. “I can at least try to talk him into taking food and clothes for the weather.”

“This is about Philip, isn’t it?”

Paul gave him a sympathetic look, shouldering into a sweater.

“Yes, it is.”



The house was slightly cold this time of the morning, reflecting the snow outside on the ground. The fire in the family room had been raked out and re lit, and the kitchen was warm although Flynn, in boots and jacket, was dressed for outside weather. He was filling saddle bags rapidly with stores from the pantry and he glanced up at Paul without pausing, face expressionless.

“Take a thermos.” Paul said firmly, taking one out of a cupboard and adding it to the stash, and adding the thermal blanket and heavy sweater he’d brought downstairs with him. “And tea bags. It’s going to be damn cold out there.”

He took several pairs of socks and a towel from the laundry room, a dry pair of Flynn’s jeans and baled them up, wrapping them with years of practice in packing items to be carried on saddles by men who didn’t do packing or excess baggage, and found several unopened packets of matches and a pack of fire starters which he tucked into a saddle bag pocket. Through the window, Jasper was saddling up one of the shire horses whose height and bulk made them good mounts for bad weather. They had been Philip’s favourite choice to ride, he had loved their majesty and good temper and the beauty of their rarely noticed or appreciated skill under the saddle.


Flynn shoved the last items into the saddle bags and Paul pushed a bar of chocolate and a wrapped packet of cookies after them, knowing Flynn would have taken nothing but the bare essentials. There was no sense in telling him to be careful; he knew this terrain, he’d slept out on stock work most of his life in all weathers, and he wouldn’t care anyway. Instead Paul put a hand around his neck and kissed him, briefly enough that Flynn wouldn’t have to try not to flinch.

“Don’t come back with frost bite.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, just do what you need to do.” Paul handed him a scarf and watched him pull it on. “We’ll take care of Riley, don’t worry.”

Flynn didn’t answer but he stooped and kissed Paul again before he headed outside. Jasper was buckling a bag onto the saddle and it was starting to snow again in the yard. Flynn went to help him, strapping the saddle bags on, and Paul folded his arms, watching through the glass of the closed door. It had been four months ago, perhaps nine o clock in the morning, he had watched Flynn saddle up a horse like this, white and silent and radiating not wanting any of them near him. Jasper had gone to help him then too, saying nothing but silently working alongside him. It had been a warm, sunny morning, and Philip had died a little after five am, slipping away in his sleep with Flynn and the rest of them sitting with him.

Flynn had been with them for the first hour or two afterwards, mostly with Riley, although the peace in the house overwhelmed the grief. It was the end to several days of quiet sitting with Philip, the house was full of men who loved him and had come to be with him, and it was as orderly and as safe and comfortable an affair as any that Philip had ever led them in. Emmett visited shortly after seven to sign the certificate and Luath went with James into Jackson to complete the legal practicalities. It would be around noon, when they came back, that they would harness up the horses to the hay wagon, line it with hay and blankets, and they would walk with Philip for the last time through the home pasture to lay him where he’d years ago made arrangements to be when this day came: beside David, on their own land.

Flynn had sat with Philip almost round the clock for the last three days. There had always been several of them with him, day and night; they took it in turns and many of them wanted some time to be alone with him and to talk to him with no one but Philip to hear, even if to all appearances he was no longer able to respond. There were many quiet promises made to him in those visits, many men who remembered kindness or understanding or help given to them at a time when they most needed him and who sat with him to tell him things they could say in no one else’s hearing, but Flynn hardly ever left him. If he had spoken to Philip he had done it when there was no one else there, but hour by hour he was there, still on the window seat, silent and watching, and not even Paul or Luath could move him.

Riley was the only one Flynn had spoken to that morning, as if it was only Riley that could stir enough in him to give him the power of speech, and he’d said it so softly that Riley, past the first shock of tears, had understood enough to fiercely repel anyone else who looked like protesting or saying anything to Flynn themselves.

“I can’t do it, Halfpint. I can’t stand by and watch that man put in the ground.”

That was all he’d said but there had been the hardness in his face, the wildness to him that those who had known him when he first came to the ranch remembered, the unpredictability that had once made Gerry liken him to a storm cloud coming in, and Paul had closed ranks with Jasper and Riley around him and by nine, when the arrangements were made and he was no longer needed, he slipped away and rode out. It was five days before he came home again, quiet and still white but introverted rather than close to explosion, and it had been several weeks before he began to talk to them again. The wound was still raw, still too new, and Christmas was a time that Flynn, like several of them, had attached very strongly to Philip.

In the yard, Jasper strapped the last bag in place and Paul saw him duck under the shire’s neck and the two of them hug each other, silently but tightly. Riley came across the kitchen to stand with him and watch, and Paul put an arm around his waist as Flynn mounted up and turned the shire towards the tops. Riley said nothing at all, eyes steady until Flynn was out of sight, then he went into the family room and Paul went to the pantry to start breakfast for themselves and for the family that had already started gather with them for Christmas. Jasper and Riley today would head the party that went out to choose a tree. In the family room the record player crackled and Paul lowered his hands, listening to a familiar sound he’d heard every Christmas since he first came to this house. The English choir on what had been Philip’s favourite record, their voices soft.

          Oh come all ye faithful
          Joyful and triumphant....



December 19th, 1999
New York



“This is not going to take all day, we are not buying anything that involves me having to hide my head in a paper bag to avoid being seen with it, and we are doing the decent stores, not shopping at the five and dimes.” Darcy paused on the pavement outside their apartment block to flag down a cab, half an eye on Roger who was still putting his coat on despite the snow coming down. “What time is Luthe supposed to meet us?”

“Three.” Roger said calmly, struggling with an inside out sleeve. “If he gets out of his meeting. He said he’d text if he was late.”

“I don’t know why you two want to stand and gawp at Macys windows anyway, every year you do it like you’ve never seen them before – taxi!”

A yellow taxi pulled over to the kerb and Roger climbed in after Darcy.

“Because it’s tradition.”

“Don’t sing.”

Roger gave him a peaceable smile and Darcy leaned forward to say to the driver,

“Herald Square please. Man, it is cold out there.”

“Glad there’s no rivers to clear or riding to do today,” Roger agreed thoughtfully. “I don’t know how Riley handles it year in and year out. It’ll be even colder up there.”

“Ri likes that kind of thing, he has the same kind of masochistic streak Flynn has for waist deep snow.” Darcy, who was with Gerry on the creature comforts, shivered at the memory of the several years he’d spent doing it, when he’d been younger, living on the ranch, and minding less about the cold. “Are you two packed?”

“We packed last night, Luthe likes it done about four days before we leave.” Roger zipped his coat and dug his hands in his pockets as even in the cab it was chilly. “I don’t know why he worries, we keep enough stuff at the ranch that all we ever need to turn up with is clean underwear, but he likes it done properly.”

“What’s he working on? I thought he was finishing today?”

“He is, this is the last meeting, he’s tying up the loose ends.”

Which would give he and Roger several peaceful days in the apartment before they all flew out to Wyoming, doing what they liked best which was very little but read the morning papers, lounge around and enjoy the Christmas tree Darcy had joined them in decorating last weekend. They were home birds, Luath and Roger, liking the time to enjoy life slowly.


The cab nipped sharply through a gap left by another cab which caused an indignant honking of the horn, and Darcy leaned forward to pay the driver, following Roger onto the pavement. People were streaming in all directions, music was loud from the open doors of the shops and everyone in sight was carrying large bags and packages.

“Oh my God, Flynn would hate this.” Darcy said, surveying the chaos. “I have no idea what to get him and the others, I swear they’re the hardest of the bunch to shop for. I mean what do you give them? A horse? Paul’s not so bad, but the other three....?”

“We’re taking a ham as we usually do, at least it’s a practical contribution.” Roger dodged out of the way of a determined woman with a stroller and Darcy took his arm.

“We might as well stay with Macys, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere else and back again by three. What do you need?

“The book department, Luath mentioned he'd like a book on World War Two.”

Darcy’s head thunked down on Roger’s shoulder with a heavy snore as they walked into the tropical heating of the store, edging around the crowds. Roger took no notice, looking for signs to the right department.

“He likes it. That was Wade’s war you know? It’s not like it doesn’t affect us?”

“Wade never talks about it and probably for a good reason.” Darcy followed him up the escalator. “Darling, are you seriously going to give Luath a book for Christmas?”

“What do you suggest?” Roger gave him an amused look. Darcy raised an eyebrow suggestively.

“I keep on suggesting. Racy underwear – there’s all sorts of things Luath would look-”

“He’d die first.” Roger pointed out. Darcy grinned but shook his head.

“You’ve got no sense of adventure, and I could tell you all the good designers, what do you think they pay me for?”

“I’d like to find a good jacket for him, possibly.” Roger stepped off the escalator. “But a book too.”

“You old married couples are boring.”

“And we like it that way.” Roger led the way into the book department, removing his glasses as they were misting up due to the heat. “I’ll be two minutes.”

“It better be, or I’m coming to get you.” Darcy warned. He leaned against the nearest stretch of bare wall, half an eye on his watch as in these crowds it would take them a lot of time to get anywhere and Luath did not like to be kept waiting. It was nearer ten minutes before Roger re emerged from the crowds with a bag in hand and gave him a smile far too calm for someone who’d just fought their way through the crowd at the till.

“All done.”

“Where are your glasses?” Darcy demanded, and winced as Roger’s smile turned to alarm. “Tell me you didn’t leave them? You check the bookshelves, I’ll check the tills.”

It took him several minutes to sweet talk his way to the counter ahead of waiting customers, and to his relief found the glasses by the till. It took him longer to locate Roger, and to hand the glasses to him with a severe look.

“There. Luthe isn’t spanking you nearly hard enough or often enough.”

“Don’t say that, we got all firm about what I kept forgetting on Monday night.” Roger gave him an expressive look and wiped off the glasses before he put them on. “Jackets. Show me jackets he might like, and then we probably ought to head down and wait.”

Darcy’s knowledge of designers was second to none, and while he, like Gerry, showed definite snobbery about gay chic, when it came to personal shopper type support with Roger or Luath he could show a taste for discreet and conservative that would probably horrify a lot of designers he worked with. It took perhaps half an hour to locate the right jacket, but Roger, as he paid for it, knew it was right and Darcy’s expert eye had assessed it perfectly. It would hang right, it was the right colour, the right shape, and would fit in with Luath’s wardrobe without effort.

“I’m labelling this as from you and me,” Roger told him as they headed downstairs. “He’ll know the minute he sees it, it’s only you that knows that well what suits him.”

“It’ll go with the tie I got him, he wears such tedious ties. I got one from Jean-Claud Parrier when he did the selection at the Christmas party last week-”

“That was the party with the sambuca?” Roger said with interest. Darcy shuddered.

“Yes. I have no idea how I got home. Don’t you dare mention that to Philip, he’ll kill me. But the ties were heavenly.” He paused by the entrance, wincing at the blast of cold air emanating from outside. “I’m still freezing. Go wait by the window and I’ll grab some coffees? It’ll be warmer outside with a drink.”

He located Roger a while later with two steaming cups in his hands and Roger took the offered one gratefully, burying himself in it.

“Ooh, gingerbread.”

“It’s the time of year for weird lattes.” Darcy said expansively. “I know you like the sweet ones. There he is!”

“Oh drat, he’s early.” Roger said conversationally, and waved. Luath was tall enough to be easy to see in the crowd and he smiled as he reached them, stooping to kiss Roger.

“Hey. Been waiting long?”

“Ten minutes. The crowds have been insane.”

“Hi Darcy.” Luath gave Darcy a quick hug and took the coffee from Roger’s hand, taking a sip. He raised his eyebrows at Roger, who gave him a calm shrug.

“Darcy bought it for me and I was freezing, it didn’t seem polite to say no.”

“You could have told him?” Luath pointed out. He returned the cup to Roger, gesturing politely between him and Darcy as he took Roger’s arm. “Would you like to explain?”

“I keep waking up with indigestion,” Roger said candidly to Darcy, who whacked his arm.

“You could have said?”

“At three am.” Luath supplied for further information. Roger nodded, unfazed by the whack.

“At three am, which wakes everybody up, and it’s probably syrupy coffee, so I’m supposed to be drinking plain coffee or tea.”

“Syrupy lattes having been a bit of a habit at the office lately.” Luath agreed. “We’ll talk about that later.”

Roger grimaced at him but didn’t argue. Luath surveyed the bags he was carrying.

"Want me to carry anything?"

"No, you'll open the bags and peek, I know you. Let's go check out the windows before the after work crowd gets here."

"Roger promised no singing," Darcy said, holding onto Roger's arm again as they turned and headed towards the first display window.

"Roger may have promised, but I didn't," Luath returned, winking at Darcy.

"You wouldn't dare!"

"Look," Roger said in wonder as the women with the big fur hats moved out of their way. "It's a Wyoming Christmas."

The three of them looked at the scene behind the glass, the first of several different windows showing Christmas across the country. There was a simple log cabin with a fireplace glowing red, with a single Christmas tree and a small family gathered around it in the family room. The cabin had a long front porch with three steps that descended into what was supposed to be several inches of snow. Out in the yard were the bare white aspens and a family of pronghorn deer nibbling at a patch of grass they'd unearthed from beneath the snow. In the background came the tinny voices of a children's choir singing "Oh come all ye faithful."

"Nope. Not our Wyoming Christmas. The porch isn't lit up enough to land the space shuttle."

Luath laughed as both Darcy and Roger dug him in the ribs.



*


Oregon

Two of their neighbours, Mrs Alsop and Mrs Bray, were both at their gates, talking about their daughters and drinking the tea from the tray Mrs Bray had brought out into the front garden. Despite the fact that technically it was dark, most of the street was brightly lit by the lights that an enormous figure was carefully winding through the trees and hedges along Mrs Bray’s front garden. Mrs Alsop’s garden, already festooned, glowed like an explosion in Macy’s.

Theo, turning off the main drag into the neighbourhood and humming along to the car radio which was playing Oh Come All Ye Faithful, got to their end of the street and his mouth dropped open, converting the song into

          Oh come let us- what?!

Bear waved to him from the ladder and Theo waved back, stunned as he parked the car on the drive. It was their only car. Bear did not drive, which solved some of the problem of finding a wheel he could fit behind; he much preferred the train to get to and from work with the stop that took him right into the heart of the zoo. He had changed out of his uniform into the denim coveralls he most often wore at home over a t shirt, in part through the difficulty of buying jeans that fit him, and his arms were bare as usual despite the fact it was late December.


You could have read by the light of the Christmas lights glowing all over their front garden and now over several gardens of their neighbours. Their garden dripping Christmas was not at all unusual- Bear loved the holidays and threw himself into them; the house and every inch of their land was plastered in decorations, but the neighbourhood joining in was something new. Mr de Marco was in his yard three doors down, also arranging lights around his cherry tree, and Theo gave him a slightly shaken wave as he walked from the car down to where Bear was continuing to wind the lights with great care since the lights looked like threads in his huge hands. This was one of the natural side effects of living on a street mostly occupied by retired people. Bear loved people the same way he did animals, he was as earnest as a five year old and there was almost no practical task he couldn’t turn a hand to; plumbing, basic electrical work, gardening, basic carpentry.... as a result on more or less a daily basis he went to at least one of their neighbours’ homes after work to do whatever he’d learned they needed. He knew them all by name. Everyone in the street also now knew them because they’d come without hesitation to Bear to ask for help when they wouldn’t ask anyone else. They also adored him. Most of them grandparents, faced with a giant with large brown eyes, they’d adopted him wholesale. The fridge was never empty of cheesecake or a batch of whatever one of the ladies had decided they needed feeding up on this week, being convinced that there was no way two men together could manage to put a meal together.

“Hi Mrs Alsop, Mrs Bray.” Theo said a little weakly as he joined them in the front garden. Mrs Bray gave him a warm smile.

“Hello Theo. Isn’t this lovely? Would you like some tea, dear?”

“Thank you, that would be great. It’s certainly bright out here.”

He went across to the foot of the ladder and Bear stooped down to kiss him, beaming at him with coils of lights still wrapped around his arm.

“Hey.”

“Hi. Warm enough?”

“It’s warm with the lights.”

Bear shifted the ladder a few feet along and climbed up again, continuing to wind. Theo watched him, looking from where Bear was working along the line of front hedges and yard to their own.

“How long have you been outside?”

“He’s been working like this since about four.” Mrs Bray said happily, bringing a mug to Theo. “Such a nice idea.”

Idea?

Theo sipped tea, keeping quiet and watching the several other couples lighting their gardens. No one was going to get any sleep until January with this amount of artificial daylight outside. The street could probably be seen from outer space.

“They’re all done, Mrs Bray.” Bear clambered down the ladder and picked it up, tucking it under one arm. Mrs Bray looked happily at her garden and patted Bear’s huge arm.

“Thank you dear, this is lovely.”

Bear gave her a very gentle hug as he often did instead of saying anything, picked up yet another rope of lights and went next door into the next garden. Mrs Bray, catching Theo’s eye, gave him a kindly smile and shook her head.

“Now don’t be cross with him, it does look really special this year.”

Theo, with nothing left to say that could be said in public, gratefully sipped his tea against the December chill, and watched the explosion of lights stretch still further on down the street. It took a while. Bear wound lights up trees, through branches and around hedges, humming to himself in a deep bass, and from the waves and the smiles of the neighbours, they were delighted to let him. Which was much of the problem. When the tea was finished and the current roll of lights nearing its end, Theo said goodnight to the two elderly ladies and went to stabilise the foot of the ladder Bear was standing on.

“Bear, you need to get inside and warm up.”

“There’s another roll to go yet.” Bear explained, still winding. “Mr and Mrs Quan wanted their house done too.”

“Another roll?” Theo said incredulously. “I wonder why the sudden interest in lights?”

Bear didn’t answer, which said a lot. Theo reached up the ladder to pat Bear’s thigh.

“Finish that one roll and that’s it for tonight. Can I help at all?”

He helped to string the last roll of lights, getting steadily colder as it moved from late afternoon to evening, and by the time they were done, the whole street glittered as if under snow. Bear paused on the sidewalk to look at it, smiling.

“It looks pretty. The whole street.”

“It looks exactly like what you and Gerry do to Philip’s front porch given half a chance.” Theo agreed. “Put the ladder away and come on in now, it’s too cold to be out here.”

He stood, shivering on their back door step while Bear returned the ladder to their carefully stocked and arranged garage, since he kept the tools immaculate and in their place in the slots on the shelves he’d made to hold them. Theo snapped the lights on, ran a hand down his arm and pointed him up the stairs.

“You’re cold. Go take a hot shower and I’ll get the fire going, and then we’re going to talk about turning the street into a gin palace.”

“You’re cross.” Bear paused on the stairs to look at him, his big face wrinkled with concern. The real beauty of Bear was that he was not a complicated man at all. Theo shook his head, as honest with him as he always was, since Bear dealt in straight forwards.

“No, I’m not cross, just confused. Why did Mrs. Alsop say it was a good idea?”

“I told her how nice the lights were.”

Theo nodded, considering.

“And she just decided to go out and clear Wal-Mart’s shelves along with several other neighbours?”

“She likes lights too, and I got them for her. And for Mrs Brown, and Mr and Mrs Quan, and Mrs-”

“Did we buy them?”

“No? They did?”

“And they told you to purchase that many?”

“They said to get what they needed.”

Theo hung up his jacket.

“Did you mention that I told you yesterday we had more than enough lights in our yard and you weren’t to buy any more?”

Bear’s soft brown eyes got still larger and more upset. Theo nodded, understanding the look as much as the silence and that a shower was only delaying the inevitable.

“All right, come over here and sit down.”

Bear, sitting down, was not that far below Theo’s head height if Theo stood in front of him, and it put them eye to eye with Bear sitting bolt upright in apprehension. Theo spoke gently but firmly.

“Bear, did you tell any of our neighbours that you liked lights after I said we didn't need that many here?”

Bear’s eyes grew even wider in an increasingly anxious face, his deep voice apologetic.

“I just said I liked lights and they said they did too.”

Theo gave him a long, searching look, not at all immune to those eyes or that soft bass rumble despite well over a decade’s practice.

“I know you realise that those ladies love you. Did you say something to them about the lights because I said no?”

Bear shook his head. Theo held his gaze, nodding understanding.

“But by mentioning how much you like lights and sounding sad that we had enough, and knowing how much those ladies think of you, you could bet they’d want to go along with anything that made you happy? Bear, I said we had enough lights and you weren’t to buy any more. You do not get to get around it by organising the rest of the street!”

Bear was a simple man, but there was a good deal of difference between simple and stupid, and few people understood the difference without putting in the time and attention to getting to know Bear. It was something completely comprehended by most of the retired ladies living in their street, who fed him cookies like a kindergartener, yet confided in him things they probably wouldn’t communicate to any other man, and called unhesitatingly on him for help with the most complex plumbing or electrical problems with unquestioning certainty that Bear would not only understand it but gladly fix it for them.

In fact, their neighbours would know perfectly well that Bear had played them. Bear would have made it very clear and ensured that they knew they were being played as he always did, and if they went along with it, it was willingly, which made the whole thing a kind of complicated joke between them rather than any kind of intentional manipulation. It still didn’t change what was a creative avoidance of the word ‘no’. Theo folded his arms, giving him a firm nod towards the kitchen.

“I’ll have a spoon please.”

The look of horror he was getting now was perfectly sincere. Theo raised his eyebrows, giving Bear a steady look and averting panicked rebuttals.

“No means no; you know it, I know it, we’re not having any mistakes about it. Now, Bear.”

Very unhappily Bear got up and lumbered into the kitchen. They had a number of these Kool Aid spoons. In different colours, which went with the multiple bright colours of their kitchen and of pretty much everything in this house; Bear liked colour as much as he liked to cook and liked things in their proper places. The thing was dwarfed in Bear’s hand as he brought it back, for some reason he’d picked an orange one, and Theo took a seat in the centre of the large couch they’d picked as they picked all of their furniture; large enough for Bear to be comfortable on. A lap is theoretically always a comforting place, but by Bear’s expressed opinion, anyone who thought that had never been spanked by his husband. Bear, looking ready to cry, unsnapped his coveralls and slid them down, crawling over his lap on the couch which reared his wide and very well curved rear up in the air, and clenched his hands tightly on the leather couch. From experience, Theo knew he’d have screwed up his face equally tightly in apprehension. He worked on never looking; it had been known to make him laugh which really didn’t help at this kind of moment.

Bear produced one of his high squeaks as Theo pulled his shorts down and well clear, which took some time, baring a smooth and generously proportioned bottom, and he clenched tightly as Theo took an experienced grasp on his hip and addressed it firmly with the back of the spoon. It was infallibly better than breaking his hand: Bear had glutes like other people had concrete. It was also extremely effective, although Bear being spanked was one of the noisiest proceedings in Portland. The first firm splat of the spoon being snapped across one broad cheek, raised a shrill howl and Bear’s voice went higher still into falsetto as the spoon briskly worked up and down, leaving a sharp sting wherever it fell, until the dowager duchess wails tipped over into Bear bursting noisily into tears.

He was very red when Theo laid the spoon down and rested his hands on Bear’s back, Bear draped limply over his lap and streaming tears, his huge shoulders shaking. Theo rubbed for a moment, letting him get his breath.

“Are we clear now about what no means?”

It was sobbed and mournful but the deep bass voice was immediate. “Yes sir.”

Theo drew the shorts back up and helped Bear slide back far enough that his head was in Theo’s lap. It was amazing how a man as large as Bear could curl up, but he managed it, and Theo slid over on the couch to give him more room, stroking his gleaming, shaven scalp until he calmed down.

“You do realise all that is going to drain the national grid?” he said eventually when Bear was relaxed against him. Bear grunted.

“It’s pretty.”

That, to him, would be definitive. Bear’s unfailing ability to take joy in the simplest of things was something he’d taught Theo, and which Theo loved about him. Theo rubbed his bare arms and shoulders, chafing warmth into them.

“You’re cold. You can’t hang around outside for hours without a jacket, hon.”

“Don’t feel cold.”

“Go get in the shower.” Theo stooped to kiss the top of his head. “I’ll make a start on dinner.”

Bear got up reluctantly, still sniffing, picked his coveralls carefully up off the floor and the stairs creaked as he headed upstairs. Theo, opening the fridge and looking for inspiration, heard the shower start, and then a moment later a familiar sound; the deep chuckle that sounded exactly like “Hee hee hee...”

He’d found a mirror and he was looking at the happy faces.



December 18th, 1990
Texas



“Ah, these are they.” Philip leaned on the rail, looking with interest at the Texas Longhorns in the pen. Eight cows with their calves looked back at him with much less interest and went on eating from the feed trough. The racket of the livestock auction had made them immune to anything but direct contact.

“Thank you, they’re exactly what I wanted. Which shipment did they come with?”

“Truckloads from out by Guthrie. These were picked out for you.”

“By whom?”

Whoever it was clearly knew what he was doing. Trained by David and by years of finding ways to continue to make cattle ranching pay, Philip knew good stock when he saw it and these calves were sturdy, fit, a good weight, and their mothers were healthy.

The steward nodded at a group of men sitting around the gateway of an empty pen, perched on the rail, on straw bales and feed sacks, drinking coffee from polystyrene cups from the food trailer, most of them indistinguishable in their jackets and hats.

“Some Indian guy, Jason or something. Came up with the trucks and I told him what you wanted.”

“Is he hired by the ranch at Guthrie?”

“Maybe to get the cattle here, I doubt to go back. Wranglers only get needed when there’s cattle to wrangle.” The steward spat and scrawled a note on his clipboard. “Sign here. How are you shipping them out?”

“By train as far as Cheyenne. Which has not been easy, apparently stock cars are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.”

“Road’s better.”

“So I’m told, but my generation did trains.” Philip accepted the board and signed. “Thank you for your trouble.”

“You’re welcome.” The steward took the board and headed over to the next client by the next full pen. The tannoy was crackling with some Christmas CD put on as background music to the bawls and bellows of the cattle.

          Child, for us sinners
          Poor and in the manger,
          We would embrace thee, with love and awe;

          Who would not love thee,
          Loving us so dearly?

Philip, leaning on the bars beside his newest acquisitions, looked more carefully at the group of men gathered by the gate. There was no one among them of Native American heritage. Looking further afield around the crowded stock pens, Philip located a thin figure, in a thin cloth jacket, crouched with his back against the wheel of a heavy truck with a steaming cup between his hands. He was unmistakeable, and quite astoundingly beautiful in a rough sort of way, his bloodlines clear in his face, from the strength of his cheekbones to the dark of his eyes and the sleek black of his hair. He wore it tied back, the tail of it long on his collar, and despite being balanced on the toes of rough boots – and Philip thought probably ill fitting boots – he was perfectly balanced like a cat.

David would have been attracted straight to him on sight. Philip, intrigued by the boy’s beauty as much as his good eye for cattle, crossed the yard to join him and extended a hand, watching the man glance up and then rise slowly to his feet. It took his a minute more to accept and shake the offered hand, and he held it gently in his in the way that David’s Shoshone friends used to do, rather than the grasp and shake most men would offer.

“Philip Winthrop. How do you do,” Philip said genially, “I understand I have you to thank for the excellent choice of cattle over there. Are you one of the Guthrie wranglers?”

The man did not exactly answer and he did not exactly evade either. It was hard to tell what he did, but his quiet, dark eyes lifted briefly to Philip’s, reserved and self contained. Not so much a man. Although he was tall, Philip’s experienced eye took in the signs of a boy perhaps eighteen or nineteen, still growing. Thin, too thin for his height, and unsuitably dressed for the weather, probably in clothes he’d been given. The thin felt jacket fit him but the shirt and jeans were too large and were belted at the waist, and the work boots were incongruously large. He didn’t appear to feel the cold, he was perhaps the only man here today without his collar turned up. More and more interesting.

You’re hooked, David would have accused without rancour. Here come the here little fishy tactics, I know you...

Both he and David had always had an eye to young men in difficult straits; in part from living out in where they did, where there were hours of driving to reach a town, where families held strong together for a reason, the reason being it wasn’t easy to work or travel or do anything much alone, and where a young man in difficulties could be very vulnerable.

But there’s something else about it, isn’t there? David used to say. You spot it too. There’s a difference between one who just needs a good meal, or a lift, or a few dollars, or someone to talk to, and one that’s one of ours. There’s the shiver that goes down my back and I know, he’s one of ours.
It was what Darcy and Gerry, up on the fashionable gay scene in New York in ways that David would have been outraged by, referred to as ‘gaydar’, dismissing it that easily. To Philip, who understood precisely what David meant, it was a good deal more.

The self containment in this lad communicated a great deal and Philip acknowledged it, speaking more calmly, turning his body sideways on to stand a little more alongside instead of directly in front of, and discreetly stepping back a little way to respect the boy’s personal space.

“Are you in employment? If you are looking for work, I am looking for a wrangler to ride with the cattle to Wyoming. It would be well paid, it is quite a journey. Say, $300 cash in hand on arrival?”

The boy was good; almost nothing showed in his face, but to a man who Philip judged to have very little in the way of hard cash on him, that was likely to be a serious enticement. Minimum wage was what the wranglers were most often offered and that was well above rate. As if the boy had spoken, Philip gave him a smile and abruptly turned, walking away.

“Excellent. I’ll have the truck brought round, the train leaves in an hour.”

He deliberately did not look back, going directly to signal the waiting truck driver in the lot, but when he walked back with the truck, the boy was in the cattle pen, one hand guiding back a straying calf as he closed the gate, and an experience horseman all his life, Philip recognised the lightness and the strength in that touch. The boy knew precisely what he was doing. The cattle were calm, unmoving as he walked between them, waving the truck to back up to the gate, and there was something in the movement that triggered Philip’s radar again, and harder.

Oh even more interesting. David, you would love this one.


The stock car was old but warm, and the cattle responded stoically to another change of scene. Philip, settling himself in the dining car, left them in the boy’s charge and prepared for the long journey through the night that would bring them to Wyoming. He read the papers while he ate, and sat for several hours working at one of the tables, waiting until it was quite dark before he had a quiet word with one of the stewards in the dining car.

The boy had settled himself on the straw with the cattle, his back against the compartment wall, his arms on his knees. A very battered paperback was in his hands and disappeared into his pocket at the sight of Philip. He had been reading by what little moonlight there was. Philip, handing him one of the torches he had requested from the steward, handed him a coffee in his other hand and took a seat a little way from him, sitting without concern on the straw. The boy’s eyes rested on the paper bag Philip set between them, ripping it open and extracting one of the donuts before he turned the bag to the boy.

“How are they doing?”

The boy’s gesture was silent but expressive that the cattle were doing perfectly well. They were settled and calm, one of the calves was nursing, and undisturbed by the movement or the noises of the car on the rails. Most wild things preferred the dark. Would trust more in the dark, especially if you were quiet, if you let them take their time and gave them time to get your scent and to get a feel for you.

After a moment, when Philip neither looked at nor commented on the paper bag between them, the boy picked up a donut.


*

New Zealand


When the punter went down for the fourth time, he had the sense not to get up again.

Stripped to the waist, Flynn only stepped back when the man refereeing shoved him in the chest, saying not without some respect,

“All right mate, you don’t have to kill him.”

The shed full of men was hot, smoky and noisy, the men were cheering and money was changing hands. Flynn spat blood on the earth floor and ran the back of his forearm over his mouth. Sweat was in his eyes, stinging them, and the bloke on the floor still hadn’t got up, although he was groaning. Several men were stooped over him, one prodding. Ribs gone maybe. Flynn watched, detached and embracing what these fights truly gave him: a time when he felt nothing. Nothing at all. Not rage, nor bitterness, no burning thoughts that went round and round and kept him awake at night; just for a time, a numbness that was a very welcome rest.

He picked up his shirt and shouldered into it. It promptly stuck to him; he was soaked in sweat and with summer here now it was late December, it would not be much cooler outside. The man who staged the fights gave him a nod that held the same kind of wary respect and pushed a wad of bills at him.

“Good. Good fight. Same time next Wednesday night, I’ve got another bloke for you coming up from town.”

Flynn nodded, pocketing the bills. He left the shed as soon as he could and untied the horse from where it was grazing, hearing the crackle of someone’s truck radio out on the dark street.

          Come and behold him, born the king of angels...



Passing grazing and sleeping sheep and no angels, Flynn took the long way across open land, the eight miles back to the station. At this time of year it was easier to avoid having to go home. It was easier to wash and dry clothes in the streams as you passed them. It was easier to find places to bivouac, although Flynn had managed in bad weather on no few occasions through the winter.

In the bag on his saddle lay the grade card, and several hours later, when he untacked and turned the horse loose and had a fire lit in the distant reaches of the station where he was shepherding, Flynn dug for it. It had taken more and more effort to escape long enough to get to school these past months. Conn, his eldest brother had started refusing to go to school back when he was fourteen and already as big as a man grown, and their father had stridently supported him and been holding him up as an example ever since. Flynn’s opinion was that the school had probably been glad to see the back of him. Shay, Flynn’s only younger brother, who at sixteen was now nearly as tall as him, had dropped out with relief a few months ago after a good deal of wagging it, and was gladly spending all his time on the station, involved in what got termed as ‘real work’. Flynn had been the only one of them for months who still occasionally took the school bus for the hours of travel into town, and because of Mr Martin, the English teacher who had met Flynn’s father once and understood, he was able to pick up and drop off assignments, borrow books, and do what studying he could in his own time. Which was largely at night or in the evenings in a bivouac alongside acres and acres of bloody sheep.

These are excellent grades, Flynn. I’d expect that on these forecasts you can plan on applying to any college you like. The town college here would be delighted to take you.

Not on your bloody life.

Flynn hadn’t said it to Mr Martin, who was kind and didn’t ask questions since he’d taught kids from out on the stations for 30 years, and often their fathers too, and whose help had always been practical.

There would be no way to study psychology while living on the station. No way to keep that a secret. And the fight it would take to get him to understand about the need for lectures, reading, essays, never mind the subject matter:

What the hell does any bloke need that for to raise bloody sheep? No son of mine’s doing some poncy, half brained trash like that when there’s work needing doing here that comes first. Do you want to eat? Want us to eat?

His brothers, who knew how to stay in with the old man, would jeer even worse, especially in front of him. In fact there were six of them working the station plus the hired hand, and it was plenty to keep the station going, things weren’t as dramatic as the old man said. No one would starve if one man left.

Through the steady season of fights he’d accumulated approaching three thousand dollars. Not bad for seven months’ work. No one at home knew about the fights – although actually if a neighbour mentioned to old O’Sullivan, hey, that kid of yours is socking the crap out of blokes twice his weight in Grady’s shearing shed at night, Grady’s making a fortune on him -- The old man would probably be happier than Flynn had ever made him in seventeen very long years on this station. Shifting to take weight off the sore places on his ribs, Flynn reflected again, fiercely, the mantra he’d been reciting for over a year.

I am going to get the hell out of this place or go mad. There has got to be better than this, I won’t shear bloody sheep all my life.

There was nothing either that he’d regret leaving for a minute. Not even her. What used to be rage on her behalf had become frustration and a kind of bitter pity. She wouldn’t stand up to the old man. She never stood up to him, not for any of them, no matter what he said or did. Not entirely her fault, she was too beaten down, exhausted. Like a good Catholic girl she’d had son after son and there wasn’t more than eighteen months between any of them, and nine months only between Conn and Mick, and it was only after Shay that she’d managed the bleed out that meant she was safe from having to produce any more O’Sullivans to feed and wash for without being called a piker for it.

Flynn put the grade card back in the saddle bag. Keeping it out of sight would be important, Conn and Mick, who had made bad grades a matter of pride at school and had probably never seen anything higher than a D on any paper, couldn’t resist making it clear what they thought of younger brothers who were sooks enough to produce grades like that, although they’d learned to be careful how close they stood when they said it and how far to push it with him, as while they were both larger and heavier than Flynn, Flynn had a reputation for being a bloody maniac who didn’t know when he was beaten and wouldn’t stop for much less than a mallet between the eyes. They were stupid enough too that it was the one thing they respected in him. He’d heard them brag about it.

Ah don’t mess with him, mate. He’s nuts, get him started and he won’t quit ‘til one of you’s dead.
He lay back on the grass, looking up at the sky overhead. The stars were bright tonight. The letter he had sent to Colorado and to the visa office had left last week, going to a country where snow was on the ground and winter meant cold instead of hot. Put into the post office by his own hand to ensure no one who knew the O’Sullivans would see what they were addressed to. No one else around here knew anything about visas, or work permits, or University scholarships, or anything else useful, but for a year Flynn had worked on researching this. The fight money was a start, he would have to find work once he got out there, but it would be an escape.

Somewhere better than this. It has to be.


November 20th, 1981
Maine



“Is that everything you’re taking?”

“I think so, yes.” Paul ran his dusty hands over his jeans and managed something close to a smile at the removal man. “I’m going to take one last look around and make sure before I lock up. You can take the truck now.”

The removal man, who had worked with Paul for three days now emptying this house, offered a sympathetic if slightly awkward hand.

“Good luck.”

“Thank you.”

The man’s boots creaked on the narrow wooden staircase and Paul went to the window to look down into the street below. There wasn’t too much room for the truck to park between the front step and the edge of the harbour, and it had been there for three days now being stuffed with the old furniture on its way to a house clearance auction. The van started up below and drove slowly up the street, and for the first time in Paul’s memory, the boarding house was completely silent.

He walked slowly from attic to cellar, checking the empty rooms and closets one last time before he closed each door. He’d cleaned as they cleared; trained from eighteen years of his grandmother running this house, who could stand neither dust nor disorder, despite the fact that her boarders were rough seamen and fishermen who did their best to bring both into the house. It had been a standing joke all of Paul’s life. The bathrooms shone, the carpets were dust free and showing only the marks of where furniture had stood, and downstairs the big kitchen was orderly with the massive baking tins and kettles hanging from their hooks where they had hung for decades. Paul had not been able to face sending those to auction and he couldn’t take them with him; the chances were extremely slim that he would ever again need to cook for so many people, or access to such a traditional kitchen. Possibly whoever bought the guesthouse might find use for them.

The tap at the kitchen door made him glance round and smile at the small, square man with the thick and greying beard who nodded at him.

“All set?”

“That’s everything thanks, Jim.” Paul picked up the several large bags in the hall and closed the kitchen door. “The agents will take it from here. How are you finding Mrs Parry’s house?”

The man shrugged. He and the other long term boarders had been very tactful in their finding of new lodgings, and there had been no shortage of pairs of hands to help with shifting furniture or anything else he’d needed doing in the past few weeks, but Jim had lived in this house for most of Paul’s life and in his mid seventies, it wasn’t easy for a man his age to adjust.

“When’s your bus?”

“In a few minutes. I’ll be in Massachusetts tomorrow, someone’ll meet me at the airport.”

“You’re sure you want to work for this man?”

Paul gave him a look of affection as Jim picked up the heavier of the bags, following him out into the street, and with a last look around, Paul locked the familiar back door and posted the keys through the letter box.

“Yes. I do. It’s only a three week job, he wants someone to act as housekeeper and run a Christmas party in a holiday home. It’ll be good fun and it’s a good place to start getting references and contacts for a good domestics agency.”

“What sort of people are you going to be dealing with if messing around with a holiday home?” Jim said darkly.

Paul, knowing that the entire household for the party would consist of gay men and would represent liberation previously unknown in a small Maine fishing town, resisted the urge to laugh.

“I’m sure they’ll be charming. I’m ready to do something different, Jim. A new challenge, somewhere fresh.”

“I can understand that, a lad of your age. At least they won’t be swearing, filthy and stinking of fish.” Jim led the way up the street, past the pub where light streamed out onto the pavement and a CD could be heard inside, a choir singing carols.

          Oh come let us adore him....

“It’s amazing you turned out as well as you did, considering. Although your gran was a lady and so was your mom, and I’ll deal with any man who says otherwise. Have you got money on you?”

“Yes Jim.”

“Enough?” Jim said shortly. Paul smiled at him, appreciating the concern, and took the bills from his pocket.

“Yes Jim. I’ll be fine, the plane ticket’s paid for.”

As Paul had run the boarding house almost entirely by himself for the last eighteen months when his grandmother was no longer able to, Jim could vouch for himself that he was capable. Keeping twelve or more men fed and the house kept had been a challenge he’d helped with all his life and it was work Paul had always enjoyed. For an eighteen year old, in the jeans and the colourful t shirts and jackets that belonged to fashions that hadn’t yet reached Maine’s more out of the way towns, he looked very unlike any of the other boarding house keepers and shared few of their interests, but he had considerably more poise than most of the lads in town his own age, most of whom were either crewing boats or looking for ways to escape to the cities.

There were several more men hanging around on the corner at the bus stop, all of them ex boarders, most of whom Paul had last seen gathered at his grandmother’s funeral several weeks ago. The small town church had been packed with people to see her off, it had warmed Paul to see how many and the old lady’s wake had been one that she would have very much enjoyed, with an atmosphere that celebrated a full life, well lived by someone who had been well loved in the town. Jim stuck out a hand to stop the bus as it rumbled around the corner and Paul put his bags down to shake several hands and hug several of the scruffy, jerseyed old men, finishing with Jim who gave him a crushing hug that risked several of his ribs while the other men lifted his bags onto the bus.

“You look after yourself, you hear? Anything goes wrong, anything you need, you come back here. You can always come back here.”

He meant it, and Paul kissed his cheek, which didn’t surprise Jim, who had known Paul long enough to know he was not your average teenaged lad.

“Thank you, but I promise you I’m going to be fine, Jim. I’m a big boy, I can look after myself.”

Jim, who had seen Paul for all his soft ways efficiently handle the hard bitten heavy drinkers both sober and drunk, break up fights in the boarding house, and keep a houseful of strong personalities and rough men in line, skills all learned from his grandmother who had equally had the power of making a room full of fishermen quieten down and look shamefaced when she had to, shook his head, not doubting it.

“God speed, boy.”



*



Virginia


There was snow in the woods, and the sound of a music recording came through the cold, fresh air, slightly distorted over the distance between the trees.

Jasper walked silently, careful not to snap twigs or to crunch in the snow as he slipped between the sap sticky and frosty pines, breathing the pine and snow scent and the smell of the river as he edged closer. It was a long way from their shelter, a little further than perhaps Grandfather knew he roamed, but it was a crisp, clear morning, a brace of fish already swung from his hand ready for breakfast, and he had a little time in hand to follow that strange sound.

He saw the car through the trees. The forestry commission had a small car lot here – just a little clearing enough for two or three cars for walkers, although it was rare for walkers or climbers to venture up here at this time of year. Edging a little closer, crouching down against a tree trunk to watch, Jasper saw the two men by the car, drinking something from a silver cylinder that steamed, and wearing the big, padded, brightly coloured jackets that all the walkers wore up here. There were rucksacks on the back seat of the car but small ones – day trippers then. Probably here to climb the trail to the viewing point marked out by the forestry commission trails. Jasper, who never went near the trails and who knew far better views, had never understood this fascination. The music came from their open car door, a man’s voice and strange instrument sounds,

          Sing choirs of angels, sing in exaltation...

He watched them drink and talk for a while, the two of them cheerful, then they shut up the car, shouldered their packs, and Jasper slipped silently away between the trees, taking a sharp angle as far away from their path as possible.

He knew how to disappear into this forest. They had wintered in and around this spot for the past three years and Jasper knew it well, its slopes and hills and clearings and springs, and the river. They always settled near the river, the most sacred place in the woods, and his grandfather would not choose a settlement that was not near to it. It was nearly a two mile walk into the thickest places, and once well away from the men, Jasper ran, skipping over the snow for the joy of running in it, crossing and re crossing his footprints in the trails he made and watching the few animals who raised their heads and stared in astonishment as he passed by.

The smell of wood smoke reached his nose as he came near to the river and ran straight now like an arrow, through the trees and up the steep banks to the rocky outcropping where their shelter stood. A sloping roof of hides made a shelter in the most protected parts of the rock, a second stretched roof stood open to the elements beside it, and the old man sat cross legged on the ground before the small fire, his long grey hair wet, his clothes damp, and his head bent over the sticks he was wrapping with twine. Two peeled and carven sticks, one for the moon and one for the sun, as he did every winter Solstice. He would have bathed first in the running water of the river, as he did before any action that had great meaning, breaking the ice at the water’s edge as Jasper had done an hour ago when he went to fish. Not disturbing him, Jasper staked the fish and dug the end of the stakes into the fire to let them cook, and knelt down to watch him. There would be these two sticks – the sun stick and the moon stick, the moon the lighter in colour – and then there would be a small row of others, most of whom represented ancestors that Jasper had never known but whom his grandfather would pray for. And one, who would be Ayashe, his grandfather’s daughter, the only ancestor Jasper was directly aware of other than his grandfather himself.

Once the sticks were set in the ground, for several days while the Solstice passed, Jasper knew his grandfather would waken him before sunrise, and they would go to a high place and watch together as the winter sun rose, and watch together at night as it set. It was important to watch at this time of the seasons, at the time of the last full moon of the year, the Long Nights moon. Once, when there were many of them, so his grandfather said, there had been dancing at sunrise; ceremonies and song, and everyone had sat around the shared fire that warmed bodies and hearts and which dispersed acrimony and disagreements from among them. They had sung together.

At night when the two of them sat close together by the fire to keep warm in the dark, Grandfather would tell the story of the Red Cedar as he did every winter solstice, and about the shortening days of winter, and of the darkness that settled like a cloak over the blue mountains in winter time, letting the earth and all things upon it rest. Not to be feared, but a time for people to draw together, where families and friends gathered together around the fire and told stories, sharing what they knew. Through repeating the old stories they remembered what they knew, they drew it strong around them, and the time spent together in peace drew the bonds more strongly between them and the earth and the spirit of the season.

The fish were blackening. Jasper turned the stakes in the fire, making sure all parts of them were cooked, and took the two carved wood plates from where they were kept in the shelter. They would eat with knives and fingers, the neat way that his grandfather had taught him, with the thumb flat along the blade of the knife, and when the fish were cooked, Jasper put his grandfather’s share on the plate and put it within his grandfather’s sight, sitting quietly to eat and to watch him. There was snow on the wind; the scent of it was strong and the clouds were lowering.

Grandfather dug the prayer stick into the ground at the foot of a trunk of a cedar tree, glanced back to him and his eyes smiled. He rose quite stiffly and took up the plate, taking a seat with his shoulder close to Jasper’s and in a way that shielded the wind from him.



December 19th, 1968
Wyoming


There were four of them gathered in the kitchen for breakfast, and no one flinched as the sounds of someone running downstairs heralded the arrival of the fifth. Philip, casting a look around the table to check before the hurricane struck, saw them all assume experienced and well practiced poker faces, although David caught his eye and very briefly rolled his own skywards in a personal message that said a great deal. Philip went on calmly brewing tea as David refused to begin a day without it, and leaned against the counter, deliberately making his body relaxed.

The yelling began half way across the family room – which actually was progress. It used to start at the moment of Gerry’s feet hitting the floor as he got out of bed. He burst into the kitchen half dressed, hair wild, in a full blown rage and blasting his wrath over the four in the kitchen, none of whom reacted.

“Someone took my jeans! Someone’s been into my room and taken my jeans, everyone messes with my stuff!”

“Good morning.” Philip gave him a warm smile that took no notice of the blast, and put a cup of tea at David’s elbow. “We do not yell at the tops of our voices, take a breath and try again.”

That predictably drew a scream and a stamp and informed him that in Gerry’s eyes, despite that he’d been awake less than ten minutes, today had already gone as far south as possible to the point where it was fruitless caring about making it any worse.

“It’s my stuff! Someone's messed with my stuff and they've stolen my jeans and-”

Philip interrupted the tirade calmly and without much attention, simply indicating a corner Gerry was very familiar with.

“Why?” Gerry demanded.

Philip put his own tea down on the table and gently took Gerry’s arm, guiding him across to the corner and leaving him standing there. Gerry stamped again as Philip sat down, although he didn’t turn around, and that too reflected a lot of patient progress.

“You don’t care! You never care!”

It wouldn’t help to engage with that rabbit trail. Philip picked up his knife and fork, giving ‘Lito a calm smile across the table.

“Do you think you might have time to clear the river bend above the crossing this morning?”

“I did it last night.” David said indistinctly with his mouth full. “There were cattle trying to walk across it, we were going to get a couple drowned if it wasn’t shifted.”

Philip inclined his head, holding his cup with both hands. “If you could explain that without choking, that would be lovely.”

David caught his eye and flashed a grin at him that was as unrepentant as it was amused.

“Someone made me mad,” Gerry said hotly from the corner, “Make them stand here, not me! Ask who took my stuff!”

“I’m going up to wire the stretch the bull tore through.” David said, taking no notice of this and getting up to take his plate to the sink. He stood at the sink, drinking the rest of his tea with his eyes on the corral. “We’re going to do well if it isn’t snowing again by noon, it’s getting deep up on the west pastures.”

“Take one of the clysdales.”

“Too slow.” David grinned and stooped to kiss him as he passed. “I’ll go through the woods, it’s lighter there.”

“Back by three.” Philip reminded him.

David snorted and pulled his coat down from the hook behind the door. He was the one member of the family who wore boots to breakfast, or wore boots in the house at all since he was not amenable to requests not to, and Philip sat back to watch him, tall and lean and ignoring the warmth a Stetson would have given him as he headed out of the door, calling back crisply,

“You lot mind the river bank this morning, it’s ice right up to the pasture.”

Which he would know, having headed out before dawn this morning to take a look. David was not entirely an indoor being.

Philip glanced at his watch and got up.

“I have a work call due in half an hour. Colm, would you see to the clearing up this morning please?”

He took Gerry’s hand as he passed the corner, without looking at or speaking to its occupant, and led Gerry with him into the family room and through to the study where he gently stood him in the corner by the bookcase. Gerry stamped again, making an abortive kick at the woodwork that didn’t quite make contact, and his hiss this time was nearer tears than rage. Philip put both hands on his shoulders, resting them there and standing with him, and in a moment or two he felt the shoulders drop slightly and Gerry’s head drooped forward.


“Good boy.” Philip said quietly, let him go and took a seat at the desk, opening the file he had been working on.

Gerry’s attention span was relatively short, but he had learned about patience through a lot of time in this corner. Philip let him stand a further fifteen minutes, an eye on the slight and untidy young man who stood in an unbuttoned shirt, underwear and socks and nothing more. He was not quite as thin as he had been four months ago when he first came to them, but there were still ribs showing under the shirt, the bare legs were slender, and in the mornings, always Gerry’s worst time of day, he still looked as though he’d spent the night in combat and then been dragged through a hedge backwards. At the end of fifteen minutes he replaced the pen he had been using, got up and once more took Gerry’s hand, walking with him rather than dragging him. It meant a very slow pace; Gerry would far rather have been dragged, but he unwillingly climbed the stairs with Philip and stood in the doorway of his room.

It looked as though a bomb had hit it. Gerry used untidiness like a shield. Even though Philip had some time ago insisted that Gerry kept his personal possessions in other places and kept this room only for sleeping, limiting him to only the bed and the bedclothes, he still managed to disorganise it as much as was possible. Philip let him go in the doorway, nodding at the bed.

“When you are ready, perhaps you would be kind enough to go ahead and make your bed and straighten out your room. Call me when you’re done.”

“I won’t do it.” Gerry warned. Philip gave him a friendly smile, guiding him back towards the landing.

“Very well, I’ll pay Colm to do it for you out of your allowance.”

“No!” Gerry said in alarm, “I’ll do it, I’ll do it now!”

“It’s no trouble, I’m sure Colm wouldn’t mind an extra dollar.”

Philip shut the door of the room firmly, keeping hold of Gerry’s reluctant hand as they walked towards the linen cupboard where Gerry currently kept his clothes to reduce the clutter in his room.

Money was one of the few things that seriously meant something to Gerry; Philip thought in the security of having some in his possession, even if only a few dollars, as much as he enjoyed spending it on their occasional visits to Jackson. The small weekly allowance Philip had arranged with him very early on really mattered to him, and it was a strong incentive to him to avoid being fined for breakages- it had been some months since anything had been intentionally damaged – and to avoid seeing the others in the household paid out of his allowance to cover his responsibilities. Philip kept an accurate tab of any fines or payments accrued over the week and Gerry received the remainder of the amount at the weekend. It was rare now for him to end the week in debt, or to receive only the few dimes he had at first; once or twice recently he had achieved the full amount. It was usually a strong incentive to him to think before he spoke, knowing Philip did not give second chances.

Gerry’s clothes were folded on two shelves just inside the door, and Philip rapidly extracted three pairs of jeans.

“Were any of these the ones you wanted?”

“No, I wanted the dark ones and someone took them!” Gerry’s voice rose still more sharply. “Someone always takes my stuff! They come in my room and they-”

Philip replaced the jeans, taking no notice of this or pointing out that no clothes were kept in Gerry’s room. Instead he took Gerry with him to the bathroom and opened the laundry hamper, crouching to sort through it. Gerry looked at him with bitterness as he extracted the dark jeans.

“Here they are. You put them in to be washed.”

“Those are David’s!”

As David stood over a foot taller than Gerry and only one member of their household was this skinny, Philip did not trouble to answer. Gerry knew perfectly well whose jeans they were; it would be a pointless battle to force him to admit it, or to force an admission of false accusations, or to try to establish whether he had forgotten he had put the jeans in to be washed or had known perfectly well where they were all the time. It could easily be either, and this was not about the jeans.

Leaving the jeans in the hamper, Philip took Gerry back with him to the study just as the phone on the desk began to ring, and guided Gerry to sit on the floor beside the desk, cross legged, facing the plain wooden panel. It was a position Gerry knew well enough to settle to quietly.

The call was a complex one and lasted well over half an hour. With half an eye on the young man beside the desk, Philip listened and advised, and after a while put a hand down to run over the bent head near his knee. Gerry’s head ducked further, not pulling away from him but not coming any closer either. When the call ended, Philip replaced the receiver, made a few notes, and laid the pen down, holding out a hand to Gerry. Gerry didn’t look up or move towards him. Philip slid his chair back and ran a hand through Gerry’s wild hair, combing it back towards order.

“What were you thinking about that got you out of bed this morning in such a panic?”

“I wasn’t panicking.” Gerry hunched his shoulders, wincing away from his hand, and when Philip didn’t take the hint, he rolled to his feet and darted for the door onto the porch, unlocking it and disappearing out into the snow. It had been a while since a gesture of affection was enough to cause a stomp out.

Philip paused to stoop over the desk and open the bottom drawer, removing the slender wooden paddle before he took the long way around into the kitchen to pick up his jacket, hat and boots, and follow him. If the horses in the corral were surprised by a small figure in an open shirt, underwear and socks, storming up and down the snow dusted porch with its hands over its ears, they didn’t show it. Gerry was a wellspring of variegated insanity when he was upset enough, including making sure you got a clear sight of him wandering around in the snow in clothes suitable for a Florida beach. The hands over the ears indicated clearly that Gerry would like someone to shout orders or to try to reason with him, both of which he would then be able to vigorously resist. Philip brushed off the swing, took a seat, laid the paddle down in clear view beside him, and took a book from his jacket pocket, unhurriedly searching it until he found his place.

It was freezing, even through his jackets and boots and more than twenty years experience of Wyoming winters. Within a minute or two the cold of the snow drove Gerry nearer and from his peripheral vision Philip saw Gerry pause at the top of the steps and look at him, and then at the paddle. There was only a dusting of snow on the boards of the porch but the best part of a foot of snow in the yard.

“Step down into that,” Philip said without looking up, “And I will come and get you.”

Gerry clapped his hands over his ears again and turned his back on Philip, stomping up and down the porch. With less stamping involved, you might have called it pacing. Philip went back to reading, keeping his eyes on the book and his body calm. Sometimes at this point Gerry could rein it in. Sometimes when he didn’t get the responses he wanted he simply upped the ante, and it was only a moment today before Philip saw him storm past and walk down the steps into the snow that came nearly to his knees.

Laying his book aside, Philip took up the paddle and walked unhurriedly down the steps and across the yard towards him. Gerry, shivering hard and floundering in socked feet which he probably couldn’t feel any more, looked up at him in sheer panic, his voice rising an octave,

“Why are you being so mean to me! I didn’t do anything!”

Philip took his arm to stabilise him and cracked the paddle briskly and firmly across the by now arched away seat of his shorts. The howl it elicited was dramatic even by Gerry’s standards. He fled back to the porch, and once there between shivering, hopping and rubbing at the seat of his shorts, he looked like an out of breath and hyperactive squirrel. Philip opened the kitchen door, herded him firmly through it, and closed it behind them, taking off his jacket and laying the paddle in clear sight on the table. Gerry was making whimpering sounds between the shivering, unable to stand still, and Philip passed him to shut the internal kitchen door, penning Gerry in with him before he took a towel out of the laundry room.

“Take those socks off and dry yourself.”

Gerry took off the drenched socks and Philip watched him dry himself and rub at his freezing feet while he poured milk into a saucepan and sweetened it. By the time it was steaming, Gerry had calmed down enough to have wrapped the towel around his shoulders and Philip pulled out the kitchen chairs directly in front of the range, putting two mugs of the hot milk on the table in front of them.

He took a seat in front of one of the mugs without comment to Gerry, and picked it up, settling back in his chair. Gerry stood for a moment, looking at the second mug waiting on the table. Eventually he edged the waiting chair further away from Philip and cautiously sat down, reaching for the mug. The heat helped. Within a few sips, Gerry was hooked; on the warmth spreading through his hands and his stomach, and on the sweetness. His shoulders gradually relaxed down from their tight hunch, the shivering died away and the quick in and out movements of his chest slowed. Philip let him drink in peace and take the comfort. It was very easy with Gerry to misread days like this as defiance and not caring. That was actually how Gerry much preferred you to read it. He would far rather you walked away in disgust or got angry with him than saw through the apparent lunacy and understood it was miserable and uncertain. After an event like the one in the yard Gerry was usually at his most fragile too, and it would be easy to cause another explosion by moving in too fast or too close. Instead Philip was quiet, still and simply relaxed as he would be around a spooked horse, and it was only when Gerry reluctantly took the last mouthful of milk from his mug that Philip leaned over to take the saucepan from the stove and fill it again for him. That earned him a quick and grateful look from Gerry’s surprisingly soft eyes when he actually looked at you, but he didn’t say anything. Just ducked his head and went on sipping.

“This is a hard day, isn’t it?” Philip said very gently after a while.

Gerry didn’t answer at first, and then slowly he nodded. Philip didn’t miss the lightning fast glance at his face, looking for condemnation.

“I know the jeans aren't the issue here,” Philip said in the same very quiet tone which made Gerry have to still to listen to him, “You're stressed and upset about what’s going to happen in the next few days.”

He saw Gerry’s half flinch, one shoulder raised in negation or as if he could ward the question off, but he answered. Very softly, with his head down, almost whispering as though confiding some awful secret.

“...... it’s Christmas.”

Philip nodded slowly, absorbing that. “Mhm.”

“A big holiday.” Gerry said in the same whisper. “....People and food and presents and trees and decorations and.... all that.

Unsurprised, Philip nodded again, watching his face and focusing his attention on listening.

“What don't you like about it?”

Another of those unwilling, miserable shrugs.

“......I'm here.”

The inflection was unmistakeable. It was the ‘I’ he was referring to as the problem, not the place.

“You’re worried you’re going to get upset or lose your temper in front of people visiting.” Philip said with gentle understanding. “And that you’re going to spoil the day, that you’ll have to spoil the day, and that’s going to be terrible.”

And he was guilty and ashamed, and sincerely frightened because he knew he couldn’t trust himself. They’d talked a lot in the past few days about what was coming, with the aim of starting to prepare him for it – Gerry didn’t cope well with change or high emotion and this was going to elicit probably more high emotion than anything he’d experienced in the four months he’d been here. Gerry knew very well how things could go when he was like in the grip of high emotion, and while he’d pretend to the death that he didn’t care, he’d be ashamed and humiliated afterwards. It made him dread strangers.

There was a long, long silence while Gerry fidgeted, staring into his mug, then said almost inaudibly, “I'll mess it up. In front of everyone, I always do.”

It was a risk, but Philip took it, putting a slow hand out to cover Gerry’s smaller one and hold it.

“Listen to me. You are a good person.”

Gerry was already shaking his head and Philip spoke gently but very firmly,

“You are. You’re sweet and funny, everyone in this house likes to be with you. You're interesting to talk to and a pleasure to be around,”

Tears were starting to run and Philip went on talking, knowing he wasn’t believed yet but that it was going to take hearing it over and over again over time before it could become an accepted part of Gerry’s reality.

“You are wanted and you are loved here, and we are going to handle Christmas. We'll help you cope with what's different and people visiting, I know it’s hard and I won't let it get more than you can handle. And you do deserve good things, it's ok to relax and enjoy them. It is ok to have fun.”

There was quite a long silence. Gerry wiped his face on the sleeve of his shirt, averting his face from Philip’s but his voice was much softer.

“......do you like Christmas?”

“Yes.” Philip said definitely. “I enjoy having the people I love to visit, I enjoy doing the special family events together. I like the peace and the same things we do every year. What is Christmas usually like for you?”

He was aware as he said it that Gerry was not likely to want to tell him, and he had a fair idea of what it was that Gerry didn’t want to explain. His suspicion that Christmas, for Gerry, was attached to a lot of bad memories and bleakness was confirmed by a sniff and a faint shrug.

“I.....I remember one Christmas the church came in. I got a bike that year. I had it two weeks before... it's just another day. That's all its been.”

Philip put a hand up slowly to touch and smooth his hair, stroking it out as it was drying in the warmth of the kitchen.

“You are here with us and I promise you, this year is going to be different.”

It took a while before Gerry answered, sounding scared and hopeful at the same time.

“How do you know?”

“Because David and I are going to be right here with you.” Philip told him calmly. “You’ll have us and ‘Lito and Colm right here all the time. If things get hard, we’ll help you, but this is not going to be just another day and you are not going to be on your own.”

Gerry nodded, afraid to look at him and risk believing it too much. Philip put a hand under his chin, gently drawing it up to catch Gerry’s eye.

“We are going to be here. Do you know one of my favourite Christmas traditions?”

Gerry shook his head a little and Philip got up, holding out a hand to him. Gerry took it willingly and Philip walked with him into the family room to the record player, turned it on and found a record in a red sleeve which he turned to show Gerry.

“David gave me this. It’s a cathedral choir from England, these are the carols he knows best and grew up with.”


Gerry stood and watched him delicately set the record and lift the needle across, and the first sound was a hush, the hush of a cathedral, followed by a chorister’s clear voice, unaccompanied and echoing in the cathedral vaults.

          Oh come all ye faithful
          Joyful and triumphant...


Philip sat down on the couch and Gerry sat beside him, pulling the blanket from the back of the couch down over him for warmth. Philip put an arm around him, shaking the blanket out to cover his still bare feet, and Gerry shut his eyes, listening to the slightly crackly English voices from a cathedral far away, pressed close to him and feeling safe and warm, and for the first time today, settled.



December 24th, 1943
England


The radio in the mess hall, the one place they could all gather together and be warm, kept playing it and some fool had bought the record of it, and all anyone heard anywhere on the base was Bing Crosby crooning I’ll be home for Christmas, interspersed with the whirs and roars of the planes in the background, the whine of the mechanics’ tools, the telephones and the slamming of the doors as people came in and out and often cursed and threw things at the radio. It was about the least helpful thing anyone could possibly be playing on Christmas Eve when you were in the wrong damn country and going home was not something likely to happen to many of them.

There was a kind of party going on in the mess hall tonight. The dusty wooden hall had been decked out with paper chains and balloons, and despite the black outs, inside was brightly lit and a large local jazz band was belting out songs and tunes for people to dance to. They’d had one try at ‘I’ll be home’ until a roar of disapproval had shouted them down and they’d gone back to the noisy, fast ones that could be danced to. Most of the village had turned out, girls from several local villages were there in their dresses and best lipstick, and almost everyone from the base had gone down to join in, wearing their best uniforms, drinking the rather watery beer being served and jiving. The Lambeth Walk was pounding out of the hall at the moment, dominating much of the base.

The tarmac pathways between the sheds and huts of the base led out to the dark expanse of field where the planes stood in rows, massive black shadows poised on the wet, cold grass. The chances – thank God – of being sent out for 48 hours was very slim, the Christmas ceasefire. Many were taking advantage of this by getting rolling drunk.

Going off base without permission, strictly speaking, was an offense that could get you into a lot of trouble, but tonight with the dance and so many civilians coming and going and trucks rolling in and out, the gate post was too busy and no one was paying too much attention. Wade edged out alongside a rumbling truck leaving without raising a second glance, and hands in his pockets, walked, numbly.

It was perhaps two miles to the village. There was nothing there when you got there; a cluster of houses, a little school, an even littler post office where some dame with spectacles and a moustache glared at you if you went inside, and there was nothing in the post office nor the little shop to buy that couldn’t be bought better on the base. At least with the supplies shipped over from the states, they still had access to better food and drink than the poor bastards living here. They had nothing now that wasn’t on ration, and the local kiddies who hung on the fence and watched the planes with fascinated eyes, looked at you like you could walk on water if you gave them a bit of chocolate.

They said the guy in the infirmary had it worse than the ones left on the plane.

He was wrapped in bandages, head to foot the rumours went, semi-roasted in the blast. If he lived at all – and there was a book being run on it – opinion generally was that he’d look like Frankenstein’s monster, and since someone had seen his fingers when he was being loaded into the ambulance, it was thought unlikely that more essential appendages had survived intact. The wretched callousness of it all was part and parcel of the atmosphere on the base. The same men who would be jiving now, chatting up the girls in the mess hall, were placing bets on the desperate sufferings of a man who until five am this morning, had been fully intending to be jiving and chatting up along with them. The other five crew from the plane had made it direct into the mortuary before breakfast, several apparently with the aid of shovels according to the ground crew. If you didn’t detach yourself from all this you’d go insane.

The most dangerous parts of any flight were takeoff and landing. The crashes and burns were something they’d all seen, it was like seeing planes shot down – sooner or later you saw it, there was no shortage of it to see. But this one had been a takeoff bitch-up. They said it was to do with high winds and probably pilot error, but from where Wade had been standing shortly before dawn, it had been the sound of one engine, then another engine failing, the plane’s shadow in the sky turning as the pilot desperately tried to bring it around and attempt a landing, and then a slide, wing first into the ground like a kid’s toy being thrown down, and the bright flash of explosion. Donny had been the front gunner, and he was one of the group in the mortuary.

He had been a nice guy. Kind to a green newcomer, not above chatting if you met with him in the mess or if he was lying on his bed and reading in the hut at night. He had a wife back home, in Tennessee. She was a year younger than him, just twenty, living with his parents. They’d married only weeks before he joined up and he’d worried sometimes what difference eighteen months in another country was making to her, but she wrote often and sometimes he’d shared the letters. It was impossible to think of him gone, associated with the bright explosion in the dark this morning. You couldn’t explain to a man why you sought his company out, or why you cared about hearing his wife’s letters. You could call him a friend to yourself, and know you’d never tell him anything different; a good, straight man who’d never think twice about you and never had to know. But the thought of him being gone was like being ripped in half.

The church was open. It was a little stone church, cold inside – Wade had only looked through the door once, comparing it to the churches back home and the Sunday morning church parades on the base – and while the windows were blacked out, voices came from inside. Wade walked through the lychgate and kept to the muddy and cobbled little path, following it into the church yard. He sat on the low stone wall at the back of it, shivering under the yew tree over grown with mistletoe, and looked dully at the crumbling, lichen covered stones on the graves in front of him. Stupid dates were written on them. 1693. 1742. Too far back to imagine, but apparently the church yard had been here, just like this, since at least 1693. It gave a peculiar sense of permanency.


He could walk away now and just keep walking. Until the MPs caught up with him, whereupon he’d end up doing hard labour for several years. Arguably that was the softer option. Or he could take the pistol that currently was under his hand in his pocket, put the end in his mouth and fire. That was in part what he’d come here to do. Surrounded by graves, somewhere they’d barely have to trouble to dig another one to roll him in. If they buried suicide deserters in English graves. It was an alternative to the longer route to suicide of carrying on flying missions while your luck ran out and the roulette ball rolled. An arm. A leg. A body full of burns. A shovel that would take you back to the mortuary.

The voices from inside the church reached him with the rather breathy sound of the church organ, a carol he knew from home.

See how the shepherds, summoned to his cradle
Leaving their flocks draw nigh to gaze...


Reminded, Wade dug for his watch and realised with a physical shock that this was midnight mass. It was ten minutes past midnight, which made it Christmas Day.

For a moment, with his head cleared by the shock, he breathed the intense night cold and felt it sting his face, and lifted his head to look up at the sky. It was a clear night and stars were visible overhead, bright dots. There was something otherworldly about it. There could be nothing more divorced from right now than what he’d always known of Christmas – of being home, the kid excitement over Santa, the tree – it was unreal like a bad dream, something that didn’t belong here. But the white light of the stars did, and the cold of the night did, and those words went into him and drew forth something. A calm, a sense of something he’d lost months ago. Wonder. The wonder of men abandoning their duty on this night nearly two thousand years ago, knowing nothing whatever of Wellington bombers, on a night when angels filled the sky and a baby lay in a stable. Nothing more than a vulnerable hope. And choirs, in this church, singing like this on this night for centuries in that hope. Centuries. Man after man stood on this spot in this place, believing and worshipping. Praising like this in hope.

Breathless, feeling his eyes starting to sting and fill, Wade let go of the gun in his pocket and instead clasped his hands together where he sat on the wall, and did something he had not done by himself for many years. He prayed.


*

Wyoming


It was an out of the way train station alongside one of the dying little towns that could be found all along the Oregon trail. A turning wheel indicated a coal mine, probably pressed back into full use as part of the war effort, and heaps of coal were being shovelled into waiting rail trucks. Like many other passengers, Philip leaned out of the window as the delay went on – and on - and finally, picking up his overcoat, he climbed down onto the platform and walked towards the engine.

The driver and the fireman were perhaps a hundred yards further on, where the track disappeared entirely under snow, and the snow was above their knees as they waded back towards the engine. Many of the passengers, no few of them servicemen in their army uniforms, hung out of the windows, watching.

“Impassable?” Philip inquired as the two wading men reached the platform, out of breath. The driver nodded.

“Even with the plough on the front, we’re not getting through that, or climbing that hill. They might send a plough through from Idaho way, but we’re stopping here overnight.”

“I see, thank you.” Philip said with some sympathy, and the driver, perhaps encouraged by good manners when many of the passengers he was about to share the news with would curse and complain and panic, said gruffly,

“There’s a hotel in the main street over there, and a saloon. If I were you I’d book a bed for the night.”

“Thank you.”

So much for a business meeting he was already six hours late for, although with the snow this thick, Philip doubted that many other delegates had successfully reached Boise. His chances of a return to home to Boston were equally slim, although that was of little matter. Apparently Christmas this year would be spent in this little pioneer town.

It must have been a bustling place once. As Philip retrieved his suitcase from the carriage and walked through the shovelled paths in the snow across the platform to the main street, he could see the shadows in the twilight of a steep street lined with houses, and to the east and west of the street, the smaller roofs of a little shanty town. Few of the chimneys had smoke rising from them. Only the hotel and the saloon, and as Philip reached the main street it was apparent that little had changed on this street in fifty years. It was neither nostalgic nor neglected; the broken windows were patched, the street was well swept and the faded signs over what had once been stores, were clean. There was a kind of patched guts to it that drew Philip’s respect.

He was making his way towards the hotel door when it was flung open, and two men emerged, very fast, backwards. They both landed on their butts in the snow, and a third man emerged headfirst after them, flying through the doorway to land heavily on the porch. Bing Crosby’s voice could be heard in the distance, crooning about being home for Christmas; the song was currently playing all over America.

“Please,” a man’s voice said, sounding very harassed, and three men lurched into the doorway together, two of them trying to restrain the third. A tall, lean man, with a wild shock of dark chestnut hair, a colour somewhere between thick dark brown and a copper red, and an old and very battered dark overcoat that hung to his jeaned knees. He was roughly shaven and his very bright, crackling eyes went with the cheerful smile and the battered but homely little street and the taking no notice whatever of the two harassed men clinging to his arms with obvious apprehension.

“Get out and stay out, just like Harry told you.”

His accent was surprisingly strongly British.

“It’s not worth a fight,” one of the men attached to his arms said pleadingly. He was wearing a bar apron. The other man, looking still more concerned, said with some semblance of authority and a warning jingle of the heavy keys at his belt,

“David I’m serious. Start any trouble tonight and Christmas Eve or no Christmas Eve, I will lock you-”

“Oh bollocks, Fred.”

The wild haired man caught the keys out of his hand in one clean swipe and flung them straight towards the roof of the hotel, which drew a cry of alarm from the man Philip strongly suspected of being the Sheriff. Philip swung his walking stick straight up with years of trained polo reflexes and there was a slight jingle as the end caught the keys and broke their flight. Philip picked them up, walking slowly up the steps past the three men picking themselves painfully up out of the snow, and looked directly at the man in the long coat with the intensely blue eyes, unable to swallow back the involuntary smile that broke out across his face in response to those enthralling eyes flashing up to meet his, and then the white teethed grin back at him that held both appreciation of his catch, and a good deal of humour. In the hotel behind him, the record had changed to a choir, a crackling and old recording.

          Sing choirs of angels, sing in exaltation...

It was difficult to spare attention to look at the Sheriff or the barman, and Philip had to clear his throat before he could speak.

“How do you do, gentlemen? May I be of any assistance?”

Merry Christmas

Copyright Rolf and Ranger

6 comments:

northernveil said...

What a lovely collectino of Christmas stories!

Ranger said...

Thank you! we're glad you enjoyed them :)

Swetz said...

I tried not to spill even a single letter when I was reading this series..I love it so much! This chapter is wonderful..the depth, feelings..I enjoyed it immensely!

Ranger said...

Thank you Swetz it's lovely to hear you enjoyed it!

jayanx said...

I really enjoyed these, Gerry's in particluar gave me so much insight into his character, and his motivations without going into a lot of detail.

Ranger said...

Thank you Jayanx, we really enjoyed getting a little time with each character in their own particular time and space.