Thursday, September 17, 2015

Jackson High

Jackson High



June 1994


Flynn came in late to breakfast, leaving the door to the porch open on the freshness of the early morning sunshine on the yard outside. He nodded to Philip as he always did as he took his place, a mute and gruff but sincere acknowledgement of respect, and this morning an apology that he was late.

“Nefyn’s starting. Probably have the foal tonight.”

There was a murmur of approval around the table, and Philip smiled.

“Good, not past time.”

Paul leaned back to the stove to take out Flynn’s plate from the warming oven, passing it down to him and filling a cup with hot tea to put within his reach.

“Definitely not, poor girl. She’s been looking more and more uncomfortable.”

Riley passed the basket of rolls to Flynn, eagerly watching him as he split and butter one and dug in, clearly hungry and fresh from washing off at the outside tap judging by the redness and the coldness of his hands and bare forearms below his rolled up shirt.

“She’s ready? How can you see?”

“When your school work’s done I’ll show you.” Flynn said bluntly.

“Show me first, and then I’ll study.” Riley said back just as bluntly.

It was said without the slightest ill temper but with all the determination Riley was capable of, and Paul, knowing just what it meant, watched Flynn lower his fork and raise his eyebrow, slowly enough that Riley, who was watching his face more intently than he was pretending to, promptly made his tone a little more deferential.

“I’ll be able to concentrate more if we do the horse first? Oh come on, what’s wrong with it happening just once?”

“If you want to go near the horses, get your schoolwork done.”

“I’m just asking for a reasonable discussion, which is not arguing,” Riley began more loudly, banging his fork down. Instantly, Flynn laid his own fork down a lot more quietly, got up and took Riley’s arm, and Riley, brought to his feet and led across the kitchen to the corner, raised his voice still further although he was forced to follow the grip on his arm.

“Normal people get to talk about these things! I have an opinion and I have a right to discuss this-”

“Bull.” Flynn stood him facing the corner. Riley stomped one foot in exasperation, which in socks on a hard tiled kitchen floor had very little effect. He was aware that behind him, Flynn merely sat down and continued his breakfast, and that Jake, fair haired and serenely wolfing down muffins, Jasper quiet beside him and as dark as Jake was fair, Paul, Philip and Darcy sitting in his usual semi feline curl on his chair, were all equally unsurprised and undistracted from their breakfast.

“This is not fair!”

Arguing never made things any better. Even after just a few weeks in this household Riley was quite clear on that, but casting caution to the winds he said it loudly anyway. No one paid the slightest bit of attention. Stomach slightly knotted in spite of himself, Riley turned around and planted his hands on his hips, glaring at Flynn.

“It’s not! I can study in the evenings, I can study any time, you could just trust me to get it done-”

No one looked round. Flynn picked up his fork and plate, leaned on Jasper’s wide shoulder to get up, and brought his plate with him to collect Riley with one hand which had a grip on it that had no difficulty whatsoever in controlling a sixteen year old no matter how stroppy. Steered onto the porch and well out of sight of the kitchen, Riley dragged his feet as much as he was able to and Flynn planted him facing the wall of the house. From the sounds of it, he then leaned against the porch rail to go on eating his breakfast. He wasn’t mad. He wasn’t even mildly annoyed. He was ridiculously annoying though. Big, strong enough to not have the slightest difficulty with manhandling – having several times been physically put where Flynn wanted him when Riley declined to co operate with a verbal instruction, including hauled out of the corral last weekend, Riley had no doubt whatsoever about Flynn’s capacity to calmly win an argument with all the subtlety of a bulldozer – and he was absolutely immoveable. Stubborn, unreasonable and horribly, infuriatingly wonderful, and Riley could have kicked the wall with exasperation about it.

“This isn’t fair!”

“I’m going to add five minutes for every word.”

The thing was Flynn meant that. He actually fricking meant it. Very used all his life to fights with his father who made threats impulsively, born of exasperation and no real intent to stand behind any of them – and who was usually quickly driven to buckling if Riley pushed – the proper course of action here was sniping, a row, a few hours of sulking and avoidance on both their parts but Riley getting his way. But Flynn wouldn’t care if Riley knocked the total up to several hours; he would seriously make them both stand there. The man had proved more than once that he would calmly make a whole day battle out of the silliest of details if Riley pushed him, he didn’t give an inch.

Seething, but not in the least stupid, Riley shut his mouth fast and kept it shut.

In the kitchen, hearing the sounds of put-out teenager settle down, Philip finished his tea and unfolded his newspaper. Across the table, large and good natured, Jake caught his eye with a quick, private smile that included Paul. There was a certain enjoyment in hearing Flynn O’Sullivan getting something of a dose from Riley of what he’d dished out himself in plentiful amounts only a few years before. Jasper finished his breakfast and silently got up to put his dishes in the sink, although from Paul’s glance up and swift, warm response in his dark blue eyes, Jasper had communicated something with him that hadn’t been meant for the rest of them. He was trying hard, Jasper. For Riley’s sake he was quietly making himself a full part of mealtimes, to be there and a part of the group in the evening. He and Flynn were still night-owling. Jasper probably needed that time urgently, Flynn loved it no less than Jasper did, and they were still young. Not very much more than boys, either of them, still growing into their height and their strength, and they needed the space and the freedom and the wildness was still there in them both. Understanding it as well as Paul did, Philip heard them go out and come back softly in the early hours, and privately noted that they chose not to go until they were very sure Riley was asleep, and they were always back well before there was any risk of him waking. Wild but good boys, both of them.

And David would have approved of being out on their land in the darkest hours, he would have understood that without the slightest difficulty. It was one of the greatest regrets to Philip that David had not lived to meet Jasper. They would have recognised in each other something Philip knew he saw and partially grasped because David had taught him, but which David would have fully comprehended with his heart and his soul. He would have valued their untamed boy with the Cherokee bones and the secret eyes and the quiet tongue, and the long, sleek, dark hair bound in its usual thong at the nape of his neck, in the way he should be valued.

Jasper headed out in the direction of the corral, and Philip knew he’d prepare Flynn’s horse as well as his own. Darcy and Jake followed him with their own chores to do, and after a moment Riley, looking distinctly fed up, came in from the porch with Flynn’s empty plate which he put in the sink. Paul pulled out Riley’s chair and tapped it, unmoved by the scowl.

“Sit down and finish your breakfast hon, you’re a growing boy.”

“His lordship said he’ll do us the favour of hauling his big, square ass back here at lunchtime to take another look at Nefyn.” Riley dropped into his chair and slumped back in it. From behind his newspaper, Philip cleared his throat quietly but distinctly, and Riley straightened up, turning a bit pink.

“Sorry.”

“When you’re done eating, bring your schoolwork in here and do it with me, I’ve got baking to do.” Paul wrapped an arm around him, dropping a firm and consolatory kiss on his head as he collected dishes. “It’s only two hours. It’s not going to kill you any more than it did yesterday.”

Yes but there are horses out there!

It was clear in Riley’s face and the tension in his shoulders; his love of being around and learning with the horses was passionate, it was as rare as Riley’s talent with the horses and Philip thought it was only narrowly matched by his desire to be with Flynn and Jasper for as much of the time as he could possibly manage. And his energy and the sea of raging hormones that were inbuilt into any sixteen year old, and the fact this was a real home, and his overwhelming need to test them out over and over again to see if they really did mean what they said and they were capable of handling him, because feeling safe was so new to him. The way Riley felt right now, two hours to him might as well have been two years. Flynn understood the tension in him and handled him the same, purposeful way he’d handle a high tempered horse: working him hard with a steady hand to build trust, consistency, to re establish calm. He was gifted and he did it well. What Flynn was still too young to fully appreciate yet was that letting a little gentleness show sometimes would get you even further.

Philip folded his paper, laid it down on the table and held out a hand to Riley, and saw the response in Riley’s eyes. Comfort and affection was something James Hamilton hadn’t known much about giving to a teenaged boy, particularly one as sensitive as Riley, nor had he known very much else about what he was dealing with, and Riley accepted it gladly and freely from them with no more hesitation than he’d shown in deciding to stay with them. Riley came around the table to him with alacrity, stooped to wrap his arms around Philip’s neck and Philip drew Riley into his lap, holding him closely enough to feel some of the tension ease out of Riley’s body. Riley curled up on him quite unselfconsciously, turning his head into Philip’s shoulder.

This will be my last one.


There was no regret in the thought, only a rush of deeper warmth for the boy seeking comfort in his arms; and the person he thought it to would quite understand. There had been many such men in this house that they had known together and sat around this same wooden table with, and education had been a familiar sticking point with no few of them. 




1969


The slamming of the door upstairs shook the house.

Gerry was actually still on the landing and hadn’t gone into his room at all: Philip was perfectly well aware of it. Sometimes Gerry felt that the slam of a door was needed to properly emphasise shouts, such as the one that came down the stairs.

“I'm not doing it! I'm not and I don't care what you say, I really don’t, you can take that idea and fuck right off.”

From the armchair by the fireplace where he was slouched and reading, one knee hooked over the arm of the chair towards the hearth, David didn’t look up from his book but commented,

“Which is far worse than just fucking off.”

“Enough.” Philip said with finality.

It had been a deep frustration to Gerry on arrival in this house that he was unable to shock them with his language. He’d certainly tried. But highly sensitive to their opinions no matter how hard he worked on not being, he had come to the uncomfortable realisation that in an all male household where several members of their extended family had experienced life in the army and the navy, in theatres where bad language was constant, harsh and reflective of serious things to swear about, his efforts merely made him look rather pathetically juvenile. David, one of those family members, had enthusiastically adopted any choice words Gerry threw at them and injected them liberally into every sentence he spoke in Gerry’s hearing until the word lost all power or meaning, and it had annoyed Gerry so much that he now generally tried hard not to hand David the ammunition. Unless he wanted to make the point that he was seriously upset with them. David turned a page.

“That might have been a no.”

“No kidding. I heard it as a ‘great, when do we start?’” Sprawled on his stomach on the rug near David’s feet, ‘Lito discarded a card and took another from the pile between himself and Colm. Colm caught his eye and mutely shook his head. ‘Lito grinned, which lit his dark eyes with a misleadingly wicked glint as there was no malice anywhere within ‘Lito, but he shut up. Philip leaned against the wall at the foot of the stairs and folded his arms.

“Gerry?”

Another, louder slam answered him. David turned another page.

“He’s going to have that door off its hinges.”

Philip started upstairs, well aware that Gerry was listening to every word they said. “Then he can spend a pleasant few days making the repairs in his spare time, and then repainting the landing so everything matches.”

“Be more to the point if you broke what’s left of it over his backside.”

“Thank you, I’ll take that under advisement.”

Gerry was sitting on the landing, his back braced against the door of the linen closet, the fury on his face mirrored in the rigidity of his body.  It was his Everybody hates me and don’t think I care stance. Philip paused at the top of the stairs, appreciating the real effort it involved. When Gerry first came to them he certainly wouldn’t have restricted himself to a few yells and slams when this upset. Noisy and crude though this sounded, he was trying hard with everything he had to let it get no worse. And for all David’s apparent disinterest and tough talking, he knew it as well as Philip did. If he’d thought for a moment that Gerry was in any real danger of trouble right now he would not have been sitting downstairs pretending to take no notice.

Gerry didn’t move or look at his outstretched hand. Philip calmly moved the few steps closer to him, understanding. “You know I’m not angry. Come with me, we’re going for a walk.”

It was a while before Gerry sullenly and without looking up, put his hand into Philip’s. It took a little more waiting before he got to his feet, and thankfully the others kindly pretended not to see them as they passed through the family room despite it being Gerry’s most viciously attention-provoking, high tart walk; the strut with head held high, hips wiggling, and the poise that had been known to make David demand irritably if he wanted a pair of high heels to go with it. Philip collected jackets and boots and closed the kitchen door behind them as they went out onto the porch. Gerry would have gladly turned the whole issue of dressing into a script for a much safer battle and prolonged it for as long as possible. Philip simply sat him down on the bench outside the door and put the boots on him with the same firmness with which he would have handled a difficult horse for a blacksmith, got the coat on him in much the same way and buttoned it, straightening the collar before he put a hand through Gerry’s arm and began to walk unhurriedly, heading the long way around the paddocks holding the shadowy shapes of grazing horses in the very last of the light. The sun had set, it was cool and grey and still, and the birds had quietened for the night. There was only the occasional sniff or harrumph of a horse as they walked along the fences, and several long and curious noses hanging over to watch them. Gerry didn’t exactly pull against him, and Philip took absolutely no notice of the catwalk strut being carried out with some difficulty in riding boots, but it meant slow progress, and they were level with the bunkhouse by the time he felt Gerry start to relax and move with him. Quiet, space and movement always helped. Philip led him on around the fence line until they reached the Shires, where he leaned on the fence to stroke the first great head that loomed out of the evening gloom to sniff his pockets. Gerry leaned on the fence beside him, watching him take out the bits of carrot and apple he habitually carried for his horses.

“What scares you the most about this?” Philip asked at length.

Gerry folded his arms more tightly on the fence rail.

“Nothing. I don’t do school. I won’t. I don’t care what you say, I don’t care what you do, I can’t.”

“How do you know?”

Gerry’s eyes met his, levelly, as cold as his voice. “I know. I’ll leave. I’ll go, I won’t do it.”

It was classic, all-or-nothing, panicked Gerry kind of thinking. There was no point in asking him why he’d consider leaving them or a place where he was safe and happy; you had to have trust in those kind of things for them to mean anything in a moment of stress. Escaping was the one strategy Gerry had to fall back on when panicked, based on years of hard experience that nothing good ever lasted anyway, and it was safer to run at the first sign of trouble. It was going to take years to prove themselves enough times for him to believe anything different. Aware of the fragility of the stare he was getting that was well hidden beneath the I don’t care and I’m not here iciness, Philip nodded slowly.

“Hmmm.”

Braced to attack ultimatums, threats, arguments or persuasion, a reflective hmm was not usually something Gerry had a quick response for. Philip stroked the nose of the shire chewing his jacket sleeve.

“Do you remember what you said when we first said we were going to teach you to ride?”

“........I said no.” Gerry admitted after a moment. Philip hid his smile in the gloom. David would be extremely acerbic about what that ‘no’ had involved when he shared this conversation later; it hadn’t been nearly so briefly or politely expressed at the time.

“What exactly did you say, Gerry?”

It took a moment and Gerry admitted it reluctantly. “..........I couldn't, I wasn't going to, and I suppose a whole lot of stuff like that.”

“And you're a good rider now. It's something you love to do.”

He took pleasure in the praise. Philip saw it; the change in his always expressive face that was quickly hidden again.

“If someone else comes here and hasn't ridden before, you'd love to show them how, wouldn't you? You’d want them to be able to do it too.”

The thought appealed to him. Gerry loved to perform; initially they’d seen a lot of manipulation in his acting abilities, a lot of drama, but when he’d started to let that go, behind it he had a real and very genuine flair for charm and comedy. The thought of being proficient enough in anything to be a teacher of it was probably also a shock to him; there was little Gerry felt he had to offer anyone much.

“Wouldn’t you want to share that?” Philip asked him when he didn’t answer. Gerry shrugged, eyes down, but his voice was softer.

“I suppose I might.”

“So do you see why I’d want to share an education with you?”

Gerry didn’t answer. Philip waited a minute and then said calmly,

“Do you remember what you said when I first told you that you needed to work through your past and get better? Be all the way a part of the family?”

Gerry sighed, heavily.

“..........ok, all right, point taken.”

“What did you say?”

“I know what I said.”

“Which was?”

Gerry glowered at him. “That it was too hard and I couldn’t do it.”

“And look at where you are now and the work you’ve done.” Philip told him mildly. “Do you know how proud I am of you for that? How proud David is of you?”

Gerry flushed a little, the glare slipping reluctantly and the ice with it.

“But it is hard. There are days it’s too hard and I mess up a whole lot, over and over again. Like right now.”

“Gerry.” Philip said gently, with the deep compassion that was never an effort for this particular and rather precious hurricane in their household. “Nothing, absolutely nothing in life that means anything is ever easy.  It's nothing more than the fact that you keep on trying that is bringing you the greatest rewards.”

Gerry didn’t answer him. Even after only months with them Philip knew Gerry was sure for himself that was true. This was a bright, acutely sensitive young man who had all the courage his survival skills had indicated and all the hope that came with a heart that defiantly refused to be squashed. And he tried with all he had, even when the thought of failure terrified him. It was one of the many and the multiple reasons they loved him and why David, no matter how exasperated Gerry could make him, would have done anything for him.

“School is something that I think is important.” Philip said quietly to him. “Every man I have here will finish school and be able to say he has an education. Every one of them. It has nothing to do with what I stand to gain by it.”

“I can do everything here you need me to do, I work hard,” Gerry said hotly.

“Yes, you do.”

“So why do I need a whole lot of algebra and physics?”

“You got to seventh grade.” Philip asked him. “Didn’t you?”

“....yeah.”

The tone of his voice said it all. Philip looked across at him, speaking very gently.

“Why should you be ashamed of it, Gerry? You’re intelligent, you’re perfectly capable of achieving this, it was not your fault you were in the situation you were in and you had no time or resources left to handle school. It was an achievement to get as far as you did in the circumstances you were in. Now you can take all the time you need and you can do it right here with us. You have us to help, to make sure you’re safe, you have the time and nothing to worry about.”

“Why does it matter to you?” Gerry said rather more painfully. Philip leaned on the rail beside him, taking the time to think about it.

“Because I think it’s a responsibility for every man to make the best use he can of the opportunity we have in this country. He can educate himself and know about the world for himself, and rather like voting it’s a privilege every free man should respect and value. And to me, personally, I want to know that you know you can have any job you want, you can be anything you want.”

“I want to be here.”

“We’re not letting you go, and you never have to take a job off the ranch as long as you live, Gerry.” Philip said definitely. “If you just own a school certificate with your name on it and keep it in a box somewhere, I’ll be happy. And then you can know you’re the equal of any other intelligent man anywhere.”

“I’m not, there isn’t much point in lying to me about it.”

And therein lay the real crux.

“I know you feel that way. And you know I don’t agree.” Philip said simply. “But I believe you are worth it, and that is all right. I’ll go on believing it for you until you can.”

Gerry’s eyes were anywhere but on his, and Philip, a long time player with this particular game, took his arms and lifted him onto the top fence rail. It was still pathetically easy. Even after months of trying to feed him up he was skinny to the point that David had been known to comment that when working with Gerry in high winds on the tops he often wanted to rope Gerry to him for safety. It raised an expression in Gerry that Philip knew as he leaned on the fence, a hand on either side of him to prevent him sliding off again. It was somewhere between frustration and a reluctant smile: emotionally or physically, this was a man who adored being chased until he was caught.

“Philiiiiiip..... let me down.”

“Can't do it. I need to hear it.”

“I don’t want toooooo.....”

“Oh come ooooonnnnnn.”

That raised a slight but definite giggle and gained him eye contact, Gerry could rarely resist it if you whined back at him.

“Now?” Philip said with exaggerated excitement. “Now? Now?”

That raised a real laugh and Gerry stooped to put his arms around Philip’s neck, hugging him rather tightly.

“You get really silly sometimes.”

Philip held him closely and just as tightly, dropping a very firm kiss on his forehead. “Are you going to let me hear it? Because you know I’m not going to let anything happen to you. I promise you, we can do it and it will be all right.”

“.......I am worth it.”

It was said very softly, mostly into his collar, but he heard it.  


*




It was when James crossed the family room floor for the third time, casting a shadow across the study doorway, that Philip laid his pen down.

They had arrived on the previous evening. Niall, who nearly two decades ago had refreshed his studies and his nerve briefly at Jackson high school before taking the LSAT to study law at Harvard, had made no small donation to the school last year when the new building was being built, and had accepted an invitation to visit and to speak to their graduating class. And it had been apparent to Philip, always sensitive to these two of the oldest and the first members of their household,  that both James and Niall were vibrating silently with tension like over-strung piano wires.

Like Wade, who had formed a part of their close and three way argument and comedy act in the years when they had lived in this house together, they were none of them men who easily showed you the deeper parts of what they were thinking or feeling unless you knew them very well. In Niall it showed in chatter and vivacity that held a very faint note of strain. He’d been only too happy to go out early this morning with David and the others and lose himself in the hard work he always sought when he was troubled. In James it was even more subtle. James was extremely good at privacy. An authoritative and self dependent man no matter what was actually going on within, James always held the appearance of unmoving strength, and this should have been a pleasant visit. A pleasant occasion, a celebration. But his eyes were somewhere else and there was a bleakness to him that Philip thought touched his face when he thought no one was looking. To Philip’s mind, and to David’s as David had informed him quietly last night as soon as they were alone together, it reminded them both unpleasantly of the first summer that James had come to them.

David would have his eye closely on Niall this morning, and Niall was more likely to confide in him while they were alone. That left no one else in the house but them, and Philip got up and came through the family room, not looking at James as he went into the kitchen.

“I feel in need of coffee.”

James made a polite sound of comprehension that understood the necessity for coffee. Philip felt the temperature of the pot he kept on the warming plate of the stove and took down two cups.

“Perhaps you’d like to join me. This is after all, a much better room for pacing in.”

James didn’t answer, but Philip heard his footfall pause. Then move more quietly until without turning, Philip knew James was standing in the open kitchen doorway onto the porch. There was no glimpse of the others, they were miles away by this time, but James was still watching the horizon as if he could find them. Philip poured coffee, brought a cup of it to James and went past him out onto the porch to take a seat.

After a moment, James followed and sat down on the chair beside him, stiffly upright as always, cupping his mug in both hands and looking down into it. A staid, reserved man, who always needed time to gather his thoughts and to confide anything much, but so many of them talked more freely out here in front of this view of open land. As if there was the space out here to let things loose. Philip waited, watching the familiar and hard, level lines of his brow beneath neatly and shortly cut dark hair that went with the footballer shoulders; what Wade had been referring to for years as the Mom and Apple Pie look when he felt James’ dignity was getting over the top and needed puncturing. The tense movement of his throat above the open neck of his shirt was familiar too although Philip hadn’t seen it in some years. Eventually James cleared his throat.

“Has he told you about the award?”

“Yes, he took me aside last night. I was a little surprised that he wanted to tell me alone. And why he preferred the others not to know, and doesn’t intend to incorporate it into his speech at the school tomorrow. It’s certainly an inspiration Gerry could use.”

James did not respond to the gentle prod for information. Philip went on surveying him, adding calmly, “It’s quite an honour for him to have received such a recognition. You must be very proud of him.”

“I am.” James said it abruptly, with a fierceness that penetrated through his usual tone of considered courtesy.

Philip nodded comprehension. James looked down at his mug as though he’d forgotten it was there, then quite deliberately sipped coffee. It was some minutes more before he said with care, very stiffly,

“The offers..... are starting to be made. This last court case has built his public profile even further. He’s had the contacts for years, he is a part of that network, his reputation – his work with the state senate- the state award and the recognition has brought him even further into the public eye. Eventually this is going to lead to the obvious conclusion.”

“He will be offered judicial appointment.” Philip said mildly.

James didn’t move. He was still watching the horizon, the lines of his face set like granite.

“He’s threatening to resign from everything en masse and return to back street practice, and to demand that we move somewhere he is unknown. Since he is as aware as I am that at this point, the rational and most loyal thing that I could do is to leave him.”

Philip didn’t reply, sitting instead in silent attention, and eventually James cleared his throat again and went on.

“We’ve always known since he started being anything more than a basic attorney. You know it too... the biggest danger to his career is anyone even suspecting about us. We’ve always been ridiculously careful. Even the rumour would be enough; he’d be torn to pieces through the press. He blames himself for letting his career get to the point where this is a problem. It’s the ‘done’ thing isn’t it? For men like us. Be successful but not too successful because if you’re noticed, if you get above the safety of the crowd someone is going to get curious.... I detest hearing him say that. He’s always been above the crowd, for as long as I’ve known him. He has no part in that crowd.”

Philip waited, listening, and James frowned at his coffee a moment more.

“....I’ve tried hard not to be bitter, not to let him hear me worry about any of this, but the award....... if things continue to move at the pace they are now moving, if he goes on with this career path as he should, the ‘sharing a house with a friend and a housekeeper’ arrangement is going to begin to look suspicious and people will question it. It’s one thing for a young attorney, but not.... He will need to entertain regularly on a much larger scale and I can’t be involved in that. I cannot present that risk to him.”

“What does Niall think about that risk?” Philip asked quietly. James’s brow knit as he looked down into his coffee again.

“As I explained. He is threatening to simply abandon his career.”

“I suspect that has rather more to do with the risk of your leaving him for what you believe is his own good. Do you seriously see Niall tolerating that?” Philip watched him, speaking gently but firmly. “James, I love you both. I’m concerned for what is in both of your best interests. Not just Niall’s, and I will most definitely support his right to be heard and have an equal part in this-”

“Consensual same sex activity is only just being decriminalised for God’s sake, it’s only just been repealed in our state and that’s being regarded as extreme tolerance.” James said it more sharply and with more distress than Philip had ever heard him display out loud.

As if he was shocked by his own vehemence, James rose to his feet and went to stand at the porch rail, his back stiff. Even in jeans and a shirt, he still looked as if he was wearing uniform, as he had on the day when he and Wade, aided and abetted by David, crossed the states together to locate Niall in a navy yard and bring him here. Exhausted and also in uniform, one far less pressed and clean than James’s, knowing things that only James and Wade, and David who had seen firsthand service himself in the first war in Europe, could truly understand. Just as James, when he first came to the ranch, had found in Wade someone else who spoke the very private language of things civilian men could not imagine in their worst dreams, alongside the familiar, vivid culture and companionship of military life they both so acutely missed. They had confided in each other things that perhaps they would say to no one else, they had helped each other, and they had known a good part of what Niall had needed most in those first months home. 

“He is likely to become a judge; there will be no tolerance for him.” James said stiffly after a while. “None. It would mean living with deception on a breadth and scale I find hard to countenance for either of us, and perhaps that is weakness on my part too because there is deception now, there always has been, and I’m merely balking at degree.”

“It’s extremely difficult.” Philip said with regret and all too much understanding. “Hard, and extremely difficult. But this is the reality many of us live with and there are ways.”

“We won’t even be able to share a damn house.” It came out sharply enough for Philip to hear in it the greatest pain. “Even that will be too much of a risk.”

“There are ways.” Philip said again, quietly. “And many have used them before you. Perhaps adjoining houses. Privately connected. Adjoining apartments. A house he may use as a front, while you hold home somewhere else he can be seen to come to as a friend.”

The word was bitter. In the isolated privacy of the ranch, where there were no prying eyes and in a state where it was normality for single men to live in groups to work the ranches that were scattered at wide distances across this land below the Tetons, it was a good deal easier than in the cities. They had the luxury of being accustomed to a freedom here that made it hard for James and Niall to feel they really understood the harsher reality they faced every day.

“With all of the things,” Philip said slowly, choosing his words with care, “That you and Niall have seen, all of the things you have done, this is not beyond you. Niall is not an innocent, no matter how much you wish he was.”

“Do you think I ever forget that?” James took one last look into his mug before he drained it. “When the war ended he saw and heard the very worst of it. He listened to those people talk and he translated it. I saw some of it – I saw him do some of it – and he was over there for months longer than I was. You have no idea what he had to put into briefs for months before we were stationed in Nuremberg, the people he had to interview.”

As a matter of fact, Philip to some depth, did. It was not something anyone else but David was aware of, but he possessed the contacts to have had access to people with direct involvement at the time, people who would share private conversations in those years where the military was so vast and so many men from all walks of life were involved that it infiltrated society at every level. He had read papers and records at the time that few civilians outside of the press would know were available to be read or see the purpose in reading, and as much as it had been his professional business to comprehend the financial relations between the United States and the mayhem that had been Europe at the time, to be able to predict and anticipate the ramifications of the American industries and supply to an international market in desperate need, and to advise on that fact..... far more he had sought the information on a deeply personal level to know what these men who belonged to him and to David had seen and been a part of, and to be able to share in at least some of that burden of responsibility with them. To make this house a place where these things could be spoken of and be a recognised part of them so they could wholly belong. Even merely reading had cost Philip nights of sleep. More than once he and David had sat together through the night on this porch because of those papers; it gave them some connection, no matter how tenuous, to the reality.

“That was more than twenty years ago.” he said gently. “What brings that to mind now?”

“Because God knows he deserves state appointment.” James said bleakly and the fierceness was back in his voice. “Exactly because of what he’s seen and what he did at that time. I know what it did to him and what he believes in because of it, and how deeply he believes it. I watched it happen to him.  Good has to win for him, there isn’t an option, it’s a duty. It’s a passion, it drives him, you know it does. Justice has to be truly and impartially available to everyone no matter who, no matter what. He has more right to understand that and more passion for it than any other candidate in the state. If we don’t as a country make the best use we can of what men like Niall learned over there, then what the hell was it all for, Philip? No one is more qualified, no one could do it better. I won’t stand in the way. I don’t have that right.”

“I see. May I ask who does all this nobility actually serve?” Philip sat back in his chair, watching the stiff line of James’s shoulders. “Think it through. What are you expecting of him? A little regret and then a whole hearted embracing of his career alone? This is Niall we’re talking of; you know very well this is ridiculous, James. Or are you trying to save him from the risk, or the pain of having to choose by steeling yourself that if there must be a choice you will take it for him? I don’t seem to remember any considerations weighing with you for a moment when you went to Washington to fetch him.”

“That was different, we were younger, things were different then.”

“No, on the contrary. You are both still exactly the same people. The question for me is why at this moment you feel so deep in despair that you want to give up.” Philip waited a moment, giving James a chance to hear that and consider it before he said more gently, “However much you feel he’s seen enough, however much you want to save him from any more ugliness, this is not a way you can protect him. You did your duty to the army and your conscience, and you stood by and watched him work in Europe without interfering; I can very well understand you can’t bear the thought of doing it again. But if Niall is seeing that the weight of this is too great for you... that you’re considering solutions as desperate as this, if the deceit is more than you can bear, if it is destroying you- then I can’t blame him for thinking that it is past time for you both to get out. He’s the only one qualified to know.”

“I won’t be the reason he cannot do this.”

“My dear James, if you believe he has it in him to do this job and do it well, then it will be with you and because of you, or it will be not at all.” Philip said quite bluntly. “Have either of you spoken to Wade about this? Or David? I thought not. What are you afraid you will hear, James? That Niall is right?”

Wade and David would do very little to sugar coat their opinions. And as their closest friends, that Niall had not sought their support said a very great deal about how protective Niall felt of James, and how difficult things had become at home. Niall, who knew and understood James best of all of them, would be acutely aware of how painful it was to see this correct, reserved man so entirely undone by the thought of separation.


“The decision is quite simply,” Philip went on a little more gently, “Do the two of you choose together to plan for the complexities of Niall’s career if you are both committed to pursuing it, because it will be something you do together because you both believe in it – or do you agree that it is time now to seek out a private and more secure life? There is no shame in either option, James. No one could argue that the two of you have not already fully done your duty, or blame you for putting Niall first this time.”




*



Seventh grade. Eighth grade. Initially Gerry progressed painfully slowly, because he failed as thoroughly and creatively as he could, starting with sitting, staring at the table apparently in suspended animation until his allocated study time was done. It drove David and ‘Lito insane and for their sake Philip ensured they were occupied miles away from the ranch before he sat Gerry down at David’s desk in his study and worked at his own with his pocket watch open on the desk top, doing nothing more than calmly mark the time. The time Gerry spent on strike was then doubled and spent in writing lines in the evening, something Gerry hated, particularly as Philip’s lines were rarely reproachful and far more often a statement of something more positive than Gerry wanted to look at in writing. There were a few flat refusals to write the lines, and a few attempts at using up the evening in tantrums or tears, both of which Philip dealt with calmly and briskly enough that Gerry soon gave up. In a few days more, Gerry reached the conclusion that Philip had no problem with him writing lines every evening for the rest of his life, and that studying was preferable.

Having established that he would actually read the books and write the papers, Gerry then moved on to the next step of working hard on them for hours at a time, and failing them spectacularly badly in great detail.  They made for quite entertaining reading, not least because Gerry lacked the guile to show any consistency in the rules he failed to apply and the facts he apparent had no memory of and the calculations which were so deliberately wrong that it made one want to bang one’s head on the desk. If he had not fully understood the work he would not have been able to so comprehensively mess it up. Philip failed to get excited about it, to show any sign of minding or to discuss a paper beyond warm praise for completing it. Colm, occasionally beguiled into trying to explain something in his work that Gerry claimed was baffling him, had more than once reached the point of total frustration, which delighted Gerry at the time, and then afterwards led to blackly miserable moods from him and guilt from Colm. Winning was not truly what Gerry wanted to do, and they all knew it. Philip simply accepted each completed paper with a smile, read them in private and without comment presented each outstandingly failed one to be done again on the following day.

This went on for a while. Ever after, Philip kept a collection of six different versions of the same paper on Charles Darwin’s origin of species, each of which contained wilder and wilder nonsense and made for highly enjoyable reading. And, Philip took the long view, each involved Gerry developing his writing skills and putting across intentionally planned arguments with a carefully reasoned lack of reasoning. They were all good practice.

“You know you could put him across your knee and end this nonsense in one evening?” Colm pointed out having read one of Gerry’s madder efforts over Philip’s shoulder one night after Gerry had gone to bed. David snorted expressively. Philip filed the paper away with the others.

“Yes, I could. I suspect Gerry would much prefer me to. And if I did, then this would be forever something he did for me, or because I pushed him through it. Getting the work correctly completed is the least important part.”

Which meant when Gerry finally ran out of creative ways not to know anything about Charles Darwin on paper and for the first time wrote a serious try at answering the question properly, Philip had to work extremely hard on not reacting any differently to his usual thorough praise for completing the paper, knowing very well that to show pleasure in Gerry succeeding would immediately make Gerry feel compelled to show he was not succeeding at all and didn’t want to.

And bit by bit, the loopier papers began to be occasional instead of constant to express that co operation was still entirely on Gerry’s terms. And then to be rare demonstrations usually seen when Gerry was unsettled or unhappy about something else, or when success was starting to look too uncomfortably consistent to fit with his self image as it fluctuated day to day.

Ninth grade. Tenth grade. Very slowly but surely over the years – and it took him years - he moved through the work and the progress in his studying was integrated into the gradually building confidence and self that Gerry was developing in every other part of his life with them.

At around the eleventh grade stage, it became helpful to Gerry to go into the school every couple of weeks to drop in work, pick up more, to use the library and to attend a few classes with the teachers who set and marked his work. No few of those teachers were distinctly protective of Gerry; he still looked very much the age of the students in those classes and Philip had ensured the school knew enough of Gerry’s background to be sympathetic. David held a few privately expressed but strong concerns about what Gerry might encounter from the other students who noticed the hard to miss aspects of his speech and body language that wouldn’t fit the standards of teenaged masculine norms, and kept a very close eye on his visits at first. There were no few kids who gave apprehensive glances towards the tall, scowling man often seen leaning against a pickup truck, waiting on the street outside with piercing eyes and his arms folded at the end of the school day.  But Gerry had an acid tongue, a quick mind and no difficulty at all in defending himself, and moreover he had sweetness and a warmth to him that was more than charm, it was a gift for entertaining people and a genuine interest in them that made him easily liked.

In many ways those two grades gave him back the opportunity and the experience he should have been entitled to at sixteen, and for the first time he studied at the same speed as those other kids through those two years. The climax of all his work and his struggling to reach this point was that he finally got to get to be and to feel like a normal, happy kid in school like anyone else; he had gained for himself the skills to go and do it. The difference it made to his confidence was immeasurable and to Philip those two final grades were Gerry’s greatest victory of all.



*


1977


Trent was making breakfast.

It was one of those things that Philip appreciated in some ways; Trent certainly did everything he could to support the smooth running of the household and that included enthusiasm to take his turn with cooking, but the enthusiasm for the rest of the household for bean-burgers, rice and vegetarian casseroles was limited, and Philip was grateful for the sake of peace and harmony that the stores in Jackson were conservative, run mostly for the supply of the locals and therefore did not stock exotics such as bean sprouts, lentils or many other things Trent spoke with fondness for. He was barefoot as he usually was in the house, his curling hair long on his shoulders and his shirt buttoned but hanging loose over his jeans with the frayed cuffs at the ankles and the coloured stencil patterns on the hips, and he was singing under his breath as he made what looked suspiciously like oatmeal. Peacefully content. They had not yet found anything with the power to ruffle Trent’s temper.

Certainly not their newest visitor, the well over six foot and massively built young black man that Philip led gently by the hand around the table to a vacant chair between David and Gerry. Trent greeted him with a warm smile that the man Gerry had cheerfully nicknamed ‘Bear’ looked at with wondering eyes, and he sat where Philip indicated, perching gently on a chair as though he was used to them breaking under him. It was rather like having a statue come to life and move around the ranch. The boy was spectacularly beautiful from the muscles so defined they might have been carved, to the height and the build so powerful you could have given this boy a shield and sword and he could have passed on the spot as any kind of classical warrior hero. He should have been intimidating. But the large, soft eyes that looked as though they came straight out of a renaissance painting were entirely trusting. So far he’d neither spoken nor shown any sign of understanding one word of what was said to him, or made any kind of intentional communication in the forty eight hours that they’d known him, other than placidly trailing whichever of them led him, and co operatively copying any physical chore demonstrated to him. Taken to food, he ate. Taken to water, he washed; given clothes, he dressed himself; taken to livestock of any kind, he shovelled and carried water unhurriedly but efficiently with those effortless muscles. From the circumstances in which David found him and the inquiries Philip had made, no one else had apparently ever seen more from him. No one knew for sure what he heard or if he had hearing at all, or if he was what David’s ancestors might have discreetly referred to as ‘an innocent’, except as David had recognised within minutes of meeting, the direction of the man’s eyes and where they lingered, made it extremely apparent to those who recognised such things that he was gay. His gleaming scalp was as hairless as his face and chest; Philip thought he was somewhere between his late teens and his early twenties. It wasn’t easy to tell.

A newspaper lay beside Philip’s plate at the table as it did every morning, a sign of David’s early start to the day and his walk down to the gate where the mail and the papers were shoved by the passing truck from Jackson on a daily basis. Philip gave David a quick and private smile of appreciation as he took his place, and Roger, late as usual, joined them at the table and sat down, just as Trent put a bowl of oatmeal at his place. Roger looked down at it from behind his glasses and quite involuntarily said out loud: “Oh dear...”

“Plenty of cinnamon in it, good for the blood.” Trent reassured him, unmoved, going back to the stove.

Roger, still looking at the grey and stiff substance in the bowl before him, managed a fairly tactful, “Er. Yes.” And got up to head to the fridge in search of juice.

Gerry, who had considerably less time for diplomacy, watched Trent set down the last bowls and said frankly, “I hate this stuff.”

“Fair trade, and good for the heart, oats are one of the best foods there are.” Trent took his own seat, beginning on his own oatmeal with every sign of enjoyment.

“You won’t even sweeten it.”

“Do you know the harm sugar does? Or what sugar cane growers go through?”

“Must we go through all this again?” Roger asked plaintively. Bear, whose attitude to food appeared to largely just be grateful, dug in without complaint.

“I can grill bacon if anyone would like it?” Gerry offered.

Steeling himself to pick up his spoon and be polite, as someone had to defend both Trent’s good intentions and his feelings, Philip said calmly to them,

“We all have a good and a very definitely healthy breakfast in front of us. Trent has kindly seen to that.”

Roger caught his eye and Philip saw him manfully swallow the laugh. David abruptly got up, went into the pantry and re emerged with a handful of bacon cut directly from the large smoked leg of pork kept hanging from the hook in there, in typical David fashion more hacked than sliced, which he dropped on the counter as he pulled out a skillet. Philip swallowed oatmeal, carefully keeping his voice level.

“David......”

“I’m not starting the day on damn rabbit food.” David dropped the skillet on the stove top, and added the bacon with utter finality, enough of it to be quite clear that it was not just his own interests he was defending. “The grownups get bacon.”

In his own home, it was his undoubted right to eat what he wanted, and David did not suffer fools or vegan diets gladly. Philip, having studied from the beginning the delicate art of picking his battles with the man he loved, took no further notice and smiled at Bear.

“How do you like oatmeal?”

Bear didn’t respond, but he was eating with every sign of peaceful lack of any kind of feeling or expression. Trent, quite used to David, very fond of him and never offended, continued to eat without paying attention to the frying of bacon. The chair next to him was empty, and with everyone now sitting and eating and breakfast clearly underway, Philip glanced towards the kitchen doorway, aware of the lack of sounds of anyone coming downstairs to join them.

“Where is Miguel?”

Gerry and Roger promptly avoided his eye, which said a great deal of what Philip needed to know. Trent swallowed oatmeal, saying smoothly which gave the rest of the game away,

“I think he had something to finish in the study.”

Ah.

“Do I take it that he declined breakfast?” Philip asked delicately. David snorted from the stove where he was flipping bacon.

“I reminded him as I came past, he said he’d be here in a minute.” Trent said calmly. Philip suspected he’d skimmed over a precise paraphrase of what he had said, or how long ago it had been; Trent rarely left any of their brats to get themselves into trouble if he could avoid it.

He got up from the table and left them eating. Miguel, small and dark and surrounded by books, was sat with his head down over his work at David’s desk, and didn’t notice Philip in the doorway until Philip quietly and pointedly cleared his throat. At which point without looking up, Miguel said vaguely,

“Just be a sec.”

“........ I beg your pardon?”

There was something about a very quiet, very polite tone of voice that never failed to make a guilty brat jump. Miguel glanced up as if he’d been shot, with frank alarm on his face.

“Oh! Sorry, just coming, I was just-”

He abandoned the books, getting up fast, and Philip stood aside for him, quite aware that Miguel’s backside tucked itself as far in as possible as it passed him. Miguel, hurriedly seating himself in the kitchen, buried himself in oatmeal without a word of protest. David banged a dish of bacon down on the table within easy reach of Gerry and Roger, took several rashers and made himself a bacon sandwich as Philip sat down.

Ignoring his senior misbehaving brat, Philip continued with his own breakfast, mercifully keeping his eyes off his other brats but quite aware that Gerry, with an apologetic look at him, grabbed several rashers and followed David’s example, and so did Roger.

“Trent, do you have plans today?”

“I was going to help David move the cattle down to the next pastures.”

“Will you two need any help with that?”

“At least two more pairs of hands.” David swallowed bacon sandwich before he continued, quite shamelessly plonking several more pieces of bacon onto Bear’s plate. “We're moving the whole herd south of the home pastures, it’ll take all day.”

“Then take Miguel and Roger please. Gerry, can you take care of the yard work and Bear this morning?”

Gerry glanced over to Bear who had shown no sign of either hearing or comprehending this, giving him a quick smile. “Yes, I’d be glad to.”

“Show him how to help you. That was a good breakfast, thank you Trent.” 

“You're welcome, there's plenty more.”

“How kind. But I’m quite full thank you.” Philip got up with polite alacrity, nodding across the table to Gerry. “Would you and Bear clean up from breakfast, please? Miguel, when you’ve finished your breakfast may I have a word before you head out?”

Miguel, who had been keeping his head down up until this point, looked up with acute apprehension all over his face. Philip paused to drop a kiss on David’s head on his way past.

“Have a good day, gentlemen.”

It was a while before Miguel came to the door of the study. Philip continued to write, not needing to look to sense the young man hovering there, looking at the neat pile of books now stacked at the corner of the desk.

“Come in, Miguel. Shut the door please.”

The study was a small island of quiet in the house: Philip heard the heavy door close softly, shutting out the distant sound of voices and the clatter of breakfast being cleared, and the room took on its customary hush. It was a moment more before he was aware of Miguel fidgeting in front of his desk. Philip capped his pen, laid it down, closed the folder he was working on and sat back in his chair to look at him. Miguel swallowed rather hard.

“...I know I shouldn't have been in here before breakfast. I thought of something when I woke up and wanted to get it down before I forgot it and before I knew it I was late for breakfast.”

Philip surveyed him a moment more, watching his colour slowly turn from pink to distinctly pinker.

“Not just ‘late’, was it?”

“Sir?”

“I believe Trent tried to help you.”

“He did say it was breakfast, I was working.......”

“So you chose to ignore him?” Philip asked with gentle curiosity. Miguel flushed still further.

“....... I have been trying........”

He trailed off, and Philip understood. It was a rather reflexive phrase on Miguel’s part, one they heard a lot and which Philip suspected had been a useful one thus far in his life, but since he had been here and around Roger and Gerry and other members of their family and had started to understand what ‘try’ meant in real terms, he almost immediately stopped himself with some embarrassment when it popped out because Miguel was well aware that he did not. Not really.

He had been muddling along on the very brink of being thrown out of his part time job in the library and the PhD he’d been working on in fits and starts for over a year in an ivy league college, with all the academic skill and love of literature he needed and had got him this far, combined with difficulties around self discipline and commitment that had been presenting themselves all his adult life. It had been the dean, who was a part of the very circumspect and close old boys’ network Philip had been attached to for years, who saw a little more than just a rather isolated young man with difficulty motivating himself, and quietly suggested that a few months in Wyoming would improve his study skills, and had left Miguel to discover for himself the other powerful benefits he knew Miguel would find there. And most of it was very, very much to Miguel’s liking. To be a part of a household entirely, safely, openly and frequently noisily gay was as wonderful to him as how welcome they made him. He was delighted by the beauty of the place, the freedom of it, and the amount and the quality of work he was producing under Philip’s firm guidance; Miguel knew very well for the first time in his life he was achieving his actual and full potential and he loved it. Save for moments like this, when Philip was looking at him like this, and no amount of excuses or placation were going to work.  

Do you feel this morning fits your definition of trying?” Philip asked mildly. Miguel shook his head, aware his mouth was dry.

“......no sir.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that, because I expect a lot more from you. We have rules about what responsibilities are attended to when in this household, the self discipline of keeping to a schedule and keeping those responsibilities in their proper proportion is what I expect you to focus on. This morning was about those rules losing their priority in your mind, and I know exactly how to help young men with sharpening up their memories.” Philip reached down to open the bottom drawer of his desk, withdrawing the wooden paddle that lay there and laying it on the desk top. “Come here.”

Miguel swallowed even harder. Real and immediate consequences were still something very new to him, they had not performed this dance more than a couple of times since he arrived although he’d witnessed it no few times with the others, and while the concept of real accountability that lived in this house had a very real and powerful appeal to him in theory, in practice it was not at all easy.  

“I won't let it happen again sir, really?”

“I fully expect that you won't.” Philip held out a hand to him, sliding his chair back from the desk to make room, putting a deeper and a crisper authority into his tone that rarely failed. “Miguel. Here at once.”

Miguel moved quickly, not daring to defy him, and underwent again the undramatic but extremely intense experience of being turned over a veteran knee and having a paddle briefly but very briskly applied to his bare backside. He was still hanging there, limp and crying freely, when Philip paused and waited for some minutes for him to settle. Miguel ran a hand over his face, pushing hot tears away with a closer view of the rug than was comfortable, his rump smarting fiercely and hotly behind him, and felt Philip’s hand pat where it rested on his back.

“When do you study?”

“In the allotted time, sir.”

“You’re extremely intelligent, Miguel.”

And it was warmly said, firmly genuine praise that was always hard to hear in this position when it was impossible to deflect.

“That excellent mind of yours is very able to scribble a quick note in your room while you dress or at breakfast, so you can keep track of something important without one stray thought accidentally taking over your day.  This is something you can do. And when I ask you to do something, I expect to be obeyed, without needing to repeat myself.  It is disrespectful behaviour and won't be tolerated whether I ask you to keep to your schedule, or to step forward for a spanking that is well deserved.  Is that understood?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good.” Philip laid the paddle down on the desk and helped him to his feet. “Go and wash your face, I will keep your books until your study time this afternoon. David and the others will be waiting for you.”

And riding this morning would be perfectly possible; well practiced in handling a novice Philip worked on making a strong emotional impression on Miguel rather than a physical one. He would be tender rather than sore, but a few hours in the saddle would ensure their conversation stayed well at the forefront of his mind most of the day: a good deal longer than Miguel was used to.

Seeing Miguel as far as the stairs, time enough to ensure he was calm and able to continue with his day, Philip left him to head upstairs and wash and went into the kitchen. Gerry was washing up and Bear was drying dishes carefully in his huge hands, Roger was pulling his boots on and David filling several water bottles.

“Trent?” Philip inquired. David nodded at the yard. Philip went far enough into the doorway to see what he expected; what he often saw in early morning sunshine or at twilight when Trent had a spare twenty minutes since Trent truly loved the openness of the land around them. Still barefoot in the home pasture, up to his knees in the long, green grass, he was serenely engaged in the slow, graceful moves of tai-chi with his eyes on the distant mountains, one of the many habits he’d brought with him when he left the commune in New York.  Not disturbing him, Philip came back into the kitchen, giving the men gathered there a friendly smile.


“You four may handle dinner and cleanup this evening, and I shall expect one of Trent's favourite dishes. Would you like to venture a guess as to why?”


*

It was the third pencil Bear had snapped.

“Why are we even trying this, when we have no idea what he understands? We don’t even know if he can talk.” Miguel had inquired under his breath more than once, but well out of David’s earshot since you did not even hint at criticising Philip in front of David if you had a brain, and Gerry was much the same.

“All we really know is he hasn’t wanted to yet.” Trent said to Bear with a definitely reproving look at Miguel. “And with you talking like that in front of him, I don’t blame him.”

“Does he look ready to read and write to you?” Miguel asked wryly.

Roger, who didn’t get wound up about anything much, simply shrugged good naturedly.

“You know Philip has his thing about education.”

Patiently Trent picked up the pencil fragments. On the paper in front of him was a letter B. There had been some anxiety about teaching Bear to write the nickname Gerry had given him, particularly on Trent’s part who was a vigorous defender of social justice and had serious concerns about belittling or patronising this man. But David had pointed out with very little patience for fussing about it that Bear wasn’t telling them any different, and that Bear’s liking for Gerry was patently obvious; even Trent couldn’t discern any signs that Bear wasn’t perfectly happy to be so named.

“Here. Like this.” Trying to use the largest fragment of pencil, Trent again tried gently to wrap the large, powerful fingers around it while the large and soft brown eyes watched him in bafflement, and again as soon as Bear grasped it with the same grip he’d take up a hammer or a shovel with, the pencil snapped in his powerful hand.

“I don’t think we have any more pencils.”

From his desk in the study Philip heard Roger say it apologetically, and got up, coming to the door of the study to watch. They didn’t notice him. Trent got up from the couch and went into the kitchen, coming back a moment later with a cup of flour and a large plate, and he sat down beside Bear, putting the plate in front of him and dusting it lightly with the flour to cover the surface. Philip had to admire both his inventiveness and his patience; both typical of Trent, and Trent was nothing more than warmly inviting as he turned to Bear again and held up one forefinger.

“Look.”

Slowly, he drew the B in the flour, leaving a clear print. Then he looked back at Bear.

“You try.”

Gerry, kneeling on the floor on the other side of the table, nodded at Bear encouragingly. Roger had his book lowered to watch. Trent waited, and when Bear didn’t respond, gently took Bear’s massive hand in both of his, folding down all the fingers but his large forefinger.

“You try.”

Bear looked down at the flour in bewilderment. A second later he sneezed, hard, and the flour sprayed everywhere, mostly over Gerry who burst out laughing.

“Trent, you’re wasting your time, I don’t think he’s going to get it.”

Philip, watching Trent start to contain and sort out the mess, and Gerry and Roger laughing, took a long look at Bear’s beautiful, placidly expressionless face, and the large, liquid eyes.... and he saw it. Something you would have to know very well indeed to recognise. A lightning bolt glimpse of something in those innocent eyes that he’d seen glimmer in the eyes of no few other unique individuals, all of them men who would define themselves as brats. A glint of pure enjoyment and intense mischief and Philip saw it with delight as much as with exasperation because suddenly their six foot plus mighty mystery showed a spark, just for an instant, but it was a bright and very vital lighting up of someone in there, someone real and strong, and it was wonderful to see him. And now he made a good deal more sense.

Yes. There you are, young man.



Trent tried the follow day’s writing lesson at the kitchen table while the others cleaned up from dinner. Philip leaned discreetly in the doorway just beyond their view, watching Trent dust flour on the table in front of Bear, sit and patiently model the letter B again, take Bear’s hand and guide it, and all the time those soft eyes were in that so innocently bewildered face with a virtuousness that now Philip both saw and understood with deep amusement..... and right on cue, there it came. A hard sneeze, just coincidentally right above the flour, which blasted it everywhere.

You little devil.

Trent jerked back just a little too late and was sprayed. David, drying dishes at the sink, caught Philip’s eye with a quiet and very definite nod. Philip unfolded his arms, put Roger gently out of his way and went to take Bear’s arm, guiding him to his feet. He came placidly; Bear moved wherever you put him as if his job was to just go along with you, and Philip calmly turned him by one arm and swatted him hard across the broad seat of his coveralls.

It was like swatting a table, and it got about the same reaction. Every inch of Bear was bulging hard muscle and his backside was no exception. There was not the slightest give and the painful jarring of Philip’s shoulder and the almighty smart of his hand gave Philip every bit as much information as the brief flicker of extreme surprise in Bear’s eyes, followed a second later by dancing amusement that suggested he realised very well that entirely the wrong one of them was thinking ‘ow’. Perfectly intentional, mature enjoyment, although it never reached that angelically blank face. And judging by David’s expression, he was enjoying this every bit as much as Bear was. If Philip had sustained any lingering doubts, they ended right there.

“I see.” Philip said aloud, resisting the urge to rub his hand. Aware of the frozen shock in the other faces in the kitchen apart from David’s, he moved around Bear to open the kitchen drawer and withdraw a wooden spoon. He closed the drawer, and said calmly, coming back to Bear, “Shall we try that again?”

Bear’s large eyes widened in response to the spoon in his hand, Philip turned him again and snapped the spoon very smartly against the seat of his coveralls and this time Bear jumped with more energy than they’d ever yet seem from him, his entire face came to life with shock and he squirmed away, clapped his hands over his bottom and the shrill, loud howl was definite proof that this man indeed had a voice. It was an unbelievably high and extremely camp shriek for such an imposing man; Gerry, who’s mouth had been open to protest, stopped in mid breath and Philip saw him near to bursting out laughing. 

“Contact.” Philip said dryly. “I know sheer cheek when I see it my boy, you’re trying this game on the wrong household. Sit down and do as Trent asked you.”

David caught his eye with a distinctly ironic expression. Watching Bear, Philip clearly saw the few seconds of severely conflicted brat; Bear looking with definite respect at him and the spoon- and it was respect that contained both surprise and interest, not fear, just as he’d seen several of the others in this household get into trouble without the faintest reaction or sign of concern crossing his face – and an uncertainty that said he knew full well what he would give away to them the moment he showed any sign of understanding a verbal instruction. Philip nodded calm comprehension, took his arm and turned him again.

“Move your hands.”

“Philip....” Trent began, looking from Philip to David, and Philip was well aware that Trent had realised David was watching this quite calmly without the slightest hint that he felt the need to intervene. Bear didn’t protest out loud but he screwed up his face and jived urgently on his toes, his hands still clutched tightly over his bottom in an attempt to defend it, but it was of a size that it was not difficult to still find uncovered places to swat, and Philip landed four firm spanks with the spoon, each one eliciting lively hopping and a repeat of that dramatic soprano wail.

Hands.”

Bear snatched his hands away and Philip landed another and sounder spank, turning Bear back to face him. There was no question of Bear being serenely detached now; he was dancing on the spot with extreme sincerity and vigour that was incongruous in such a large man, and he had an extremely expressive face when it came to life. One that looked both younger and a good deal more alive.

“Enough with the nonsense.” Philip told him very firmly from a little below mid chest height, looking up in to that face which was giving him undivided attention. “Sit down and do as you’re asked, immediately, or I will take those coveralls down and put you over my knee.”

He had no doubt at all that Bear both understood him and believed him. Bear sat, very promptly indeed, and put out a forefinger with no difficulty whatever, touching it to the flour covered table. There he hesitated, a far more genuine hesitation, and Philip rested a hand on his shoulder, putting a hand down to draw in the flour alongside him.

“Have a try. Down. Round. And round.”

Bear copied the down stroke immediately, found his way back to the top of the line and the first circle was unsteady and the wrong way around, but it was attempted. Philip moved his hand back to the other side of the line, guiding the circle the right way.

“There and there. And again.”

This one was extremely wobbly and unevenly drawn, but it was a recognisable B. Philip leaned down and dropped a brisk kiss on the top of his head alongside a firm pat to the very large backside perched on the chair.

“Good. Very good. Trent, carry on. Bear, I’m listening.”

He left the spoon in clear sight on the table.



*



1982


“Philip, I’m honestly not sure this is going to work.”

With his customary neatness in the now always immaculate kitchen, Paul stacked the small pile of books on the corner of the kitchen table, the several very simple school readers that Philip had ordered in hope that the large text and the simplified language might finally break the barrier that no other book in the house seemed able to do. The top one, with a rather psychedelic cover and the legend ‘Zip! Pop! Go!’ above a flying hippopotamus had a book mark in it.

“I can see he’s doing his best and I really don’t think he minds in the least about the books, he’d be willing to give anything a go, but I agree with Gerry and Roger, it just doesn’t seem to connect. Even with all this time and it’s been what – four years since you all started this with him? Five? He still can’t easily match written letters to sounds. Even writing phonetically is hard for him.”

The notepad on the table with the pencil still laid on it displayed a line of unevenly drawn letters that weren’t quite grouped into words, no few of which were the wrong way round. Philip turned it around to read through the shopping list Bear had been transcribing for Paul with patient help, which apparently included the need for fla and joz.

“Did David suggest you tried charming me over this if it was worrying you?” Philip inquired. Paul gave him an all right smart arse look, and Philip gave him a wry one in return.

“I thought as much. Tell me what’s on your mind, Paul.”

“From what I can see, even after all the effort he’s put in, Bear wouldn’t pass first grade,” Paul ran a hand over his face, pushing dark hair back out of his eyes and coming to sit at the end of the table and look with him at the notebook, wrapping one slender, jeaned leg around the chair. “I know what he’s like with plugs and electrics, plumbing, pipes, carpentry, medication with the cattle, give him something real he can look at and handle and it’s all there in terms of actual physical doing no matter how complex it gets – but translating it in and out of written text.... it’s like there’s a wall in his way. From what Gerry’s been telling me if it hadn’t been for Trent, I’d don’t think he would have gotten this far and we don’t have Trent’s teaching skills. I can’t imagine how frustrating this has to be for him.”

Paul would notice and think of that. Bear’s patience was something that Philip was deeply grateful for. Gerry, or ‘Lito, or even the usually gentle Roger would have been forced to the brink of hurling things by now. They had years since ceased to try studying with him nightly, aware of how painfully slow his progress was, but Bear continued to placidly take out the readers once or twice a week when he had nothing else to do in the evening, and whenever he did one of them gladly sat with him and tried to help him figure out word by word. Even at the point where they were so familiar he should have been able to say them from memory alone and everyone else in the house could, they were still a sealed secret to Bear. David, who had grown up and lived among generations of highly skilled men who couldn’t write their own names but could build and sail ships, hunt and farm, construct their own homes and raise their families, had no patience for worrying over any of this and simply demanded to know where was the sense in persisting if it wasn’t working. For Philip it was harder to let go, and harder to help David see or care that the world beyond the ranch had changed.

“Could we ask Trent about it?” Paul suggested, taking a seat at the end of the table. “Where is he now? Would he have any more ideas?”

“My last address for him was in Uganda,” Philip said absently. “He’s with an aid team out there. I suspect he has more than enough to deal with where he is.”

“Ah.” Rapidly becoming used to the numbers and the diverse spread of locations of members of this household after some weeks of living with them, Paul accepted that without difficulty. “Bear doesn’t really get money either, does he? Or number beyond basic counting. Philip, you don’t have to tell me there’s nothing wrong with Bear’s intelligence –  and I know what his sense of humour is like and how outstandingly he can play dumb when he wants to opt out of something, he’s caught me several times – but this isn’t playing. I’m very happy to keep reading with him for as long as Bear wants me to, but there may be a point at which we have to accept he just isn’t meant for this.”

And Paul was by far the most patient of all of them, and only put his foot down like this when he thought it necessary. Growing used to Paul’s customary tact and the delicacy by which he managed most of the men in this household, Philip was well aware that for Paul to speak this unequivocally reflected strong feeling.

“I suspect you have a good idea of this, because you don’t push the literacy business at him but I see you reading to him every chance you get.” Paul went on with his usual acuity. “And you and David take him with you everywhere you can and you talk to him all the time, both of you – he was looking in your encyclopaedias the other day for pictures of volcanoes from something he said you told him about.”

“Unfortunately his general knowledge and his technical skills won’t gain him a high school diploma.” Philip said regretfully. “If it discouraged him, I would have stopped a long, long time ago, but it seems a good deal worse to give up. I live in hope of one of us finding something that helps and perhaps it is just a matter of patience and persistence.”  

They were some years away at this point from their large, gruff and to-the-point New Zealander who would meet Bear for the first time, spend time with him with a good deal more gentleness than he wasted on any of the rest of them at that point, and then corral Philip in the study and growl at him about issues of abstract thought and left brain development. And a couple of years more before Bear approached Flynn and Philip for a quiet and private conversation and he and Theo stayed for some days on the ranch, ending in an assessment report and some shared investigation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

They were only weeks however from the day when at breakfast Gerry looked for some time at an envelope with shaking hands and finally pushed it towards Philip. Philip held out a hand to him, pulled him over to stand beside him and held on to him while he opened the envelope. David, watching with an elbow propped on the table, took the letter when Gerry crumpled up into Philip’s arms and Philip passed it over, and Bear leaned over his arm to peer.

“... Th...this... d...”

“Diploma.” David supplied.

“... is....a... a....”

“Awarded to,”

Bear clearly recognised the name that followed those words, since at that point he erupted out his chair, knocking it and David sideways, and grabbed Gerry in a bear hug that yanked him off his feet.



 *



June 1994


And this will be my last one.

Paul went on doing the dishes, humming to himself, and Riley finally stirred in Philip’s arms, turning his head on Philip’s shoulder to speak.

“Why does he have to be so stubborn? Why can't I go out and see the horses, then come back and study one day? I’m not asking for it every day.”

He knew why; he knew it very well and Philip said it with affection. “You're very honest, Riley. Would that work for you?”

He heard the reluctance in Riley’s voice, but this was Riley and he confessed it frankly. “..........no.”

“I don't think you'd find that easy.” Philip agreed without criticism. “And if you could re negotiate one day..........?”

Riley kicked his feet gently, not wanting to answer. Philip waited, in no hurry, and finally Riley sighed.

“I know, I’d want more. I’d try again tomorrow. And with other stuff.”

“I think you want to know you can't push us around.” Philip said mildly.

The fact he didn’t argue said a great deal. Philip leaned back a little way to see his face.

“Don’t you?”

Riley nodded slowly, still reluctant, but he wasn’t upset by the thought. None of them ever were for hearing a definite line being drawn, it was often pulling out something intensely private and even more intensely important to them to know.

“And we had an agreement,” Philip went on quietly, “Which I expect you to do well with all parts of, including working those colts this afternoon and helping with the foaling tonight.”

I can help?” Riley demanded. Philip gave him an amused look.

“You didn’t stop growling at Flynn long enough to ask him? You not only can, Riley; you will. I want you involved with as many foalings as possible, you'll only learn from experience, and the shires do not foal very often. You’d better be prepared to be up a lot of the night.”

Then I better get started.” Gears changed in a second, Riley pulled directly from his lap, grabbed his dishes to take to Paul and jogged towards the study to collect his school books. He paused in the doorway to make a sharp detour back to the table and flung his arms around him to give him a hug as sincere as it was impulsive.

“Thank you.”

“My pleasure, Riley. I have every intention of making the best use of your talents.” Philip let him go with a gentle swat, watching him bound out of the room with the speed and the noise of the very young.


            Late morning, leaving his letters and files neatly on the study desk, Philip walked again across to the paddock where Nefyn was shifting her weight and pacing a little uneasily, while the other Shire mare Penny grazed peacefully a few paces away from her. When he climbed the fence Nefyn came to him and stood fidgeting as she nosed at his shoulder for comfort, and Philip stroked her nose as he looked her over, talking soft nonsense to her under his breath. The foal was even further dropped than it had been when he checked on her two hours ago, Flynn was quite right; it would most likely be tonight, and it looked like being a big foal.

He heard the soft swish of boots on the grass and glanced up to smile at Riley who leaned on the fence, sensitive enough to come no closer to an already unhappy mare.

“How is she?”

“Not comfortable, but she’s very near.” Philip watched Nefyn go back to pacing and went to join Riley, climbing to sit on the top fence rail.

“Best thing we can do for a while is let her get on with it, she’ll probably wait until it’s dark and quiet.”

“This must be kind of a special foal for you.”

He was a delightfully perceptive lad, Riley. He noticed things, he liked people, he listened to what you told him and he was eager to hear any stories that went with this household, especially with the horses. It made him a pleasure to talk to and good company at a time in his life where Philip found more and more that he wanted to share these thoughts with someone else and to speak those memories aloud again.

“Yes.  Nefyn’s the granddaughter of Llanvair.”

“And Llanvair was the Shire mare David bought you, you showed me her pages in the stud book. The one shipped out from England?”

“That’s the one. Born and bred in Shropshire. She was a lovely girl, came out here when she was just eighteen months old and she lived to twenty six.”

“And all her line had Welsh castle names.”

“Yes, she came from the Welsh border shires. Emlyn. Brecon. Chester.” Philip paused, reflecting with some warmth on the memories that went with those names. “Now he was a real beauty, nearly nineteen hands, the biggest we ever had here.”

“But Nefyn’s one of the Clyres isn’t she?” Riley asked with interest. “Or Shysdales depending on how you put it – it’s both lines, isn’t it? You mixed the breeding lines, Clysdale and Shire?”

Philip smiled, watching Nefyn pace in another slow circle. “Yes. I’d only ever known Clysdales when I met David, we bred and raised Clydies at home when I was growing up and I had three brought out here. David always called them Shires. I explained they weren’t, but that was the name he knew draft horses by in England and he wasn’t bothered by horse technicalities, so it wasn’t worth arguing. That was why he had Llanvair brought out for me. Gave me one of his English Shires to add to the bloodlines.”    

Mixing and widening the lines was something that seemed to happen easily on this land. It was something else David had deeply understood and communicated at gut level although it was harder to get him to put it into words.

“Study done?” Philip asked mildly. Riley gave him a cheerful nod.

“All of it. Even the math.”

“Good. Then take one of your colts and exercise them out on the home pasture. You’ve plenty of time before lunch; if you head down to the crossing place you should meet Flynn.”

Riley didn’t need asking twice. Philip stood for a while, watching him tack up and head out, the sun bright on chestnut hair that reminded Philip of David. Riley was light in the saddle and light on the reins with their babies. For just sixteen he had excellent hands, and he absorbed teaching like a sponge when it came to the horses; in a few weeks with them, riding and handling multiple good horses every day, the difference in his skill was apparent.

When he had the yard to himself, Philip unhurriedly took a saddle and tack from the stables and walked slowly to the end paddock where Monty, at seventeen hands Llanvair’s last foal was grazing peacefully. He had been Philip’s favourite riding horse for some years, and he came directly to the gate at the sight of the tack.

Philip took him past the bunkhouse, where it stood alone in the deeper grass beyond the end of the paddocks, near to the edge of the aspen woods, and walked him across the pasture towards the river. Well down in the home pasture, in open green land by the natural, sand banked lake that stood not so far from the river bank, a large rock of rose quartz marked the spot. Monty huffed softly, standing still as Philip slid down from his saddle and tied up his reins, and paced across to his familiar place to graze and drink at the lakeside as he did every day.

There were letters in his pocket. He always preferred to read them here; it was still in some form sharing. One from Gerry, settled and happy in Seattle with a good man who knew Gerry the way they did and loved him the way they did. One from a state judge, apparently being driven insane by his partner’s determination that their lawn needed re sowing. One was a letter from a bouncer in Portland, written by his partner as he dictated: Bear still sometimes sent tapes rather than letters and Philip kept a tape player in his study to hear his voice.

He sat down on the warm grass, stretching his legs in front of him, his back against the rose quartz rock and the mountains in front of him. Their land. Their home. And there was never a need here to put anything more into words, for this was a place where he could simply be, and be happy, with the man who had taught him how.



~ The End ~



Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015 




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