Their new brat looked so young it was almost painful.
As a matter of fact, he was in his early thirties, but when you were just about left of sixty, suddenly everyone looked like kindergarteners. He and Riley were damp haired and fresh from the shower, sitting on the hearth-rug with Flynn and Jasper near the lower branches of the Christmas tree. Luath had the chair nearest them and was tuning in the World Service on the radio, a little in advance of the Christmas carol service from England that had been heard in this house every year since…
Well. No one knew truly since when. But James, Wade and Niall, the oldest of them, remembered it from their first Christmas here.
The family room was full, and so was the kitchen. When they were all here the ranch was stuffed with men in all directions, from early morning when the oldest members of the family, who slept the least and started their day the earliest, tended to gather around the kitchen table to talk. Late at night the middle to younger family Tops tended to linger the longest by the fire, ostensible and considerately to let their partners have freer access to the bathrooms, but Miguel was not alone in the suspicion that they just wouldn’t admit to enjoying having the peace to talk together.
The kitchen table, which had all the leaves out around a candle lit centrepiece of holly, was groaning with plates for the buffet they usually ate on Christmas Eve, and Paul was in his element with the catering, apparently without breaking the faintest sweat. He loved these times of year where he got to push his house keeper skills to their limit. His pleasure in it shone out of him, and as usual the family room was beautifully decorated which was also largely his touch and Jasper’s. Flynn would hang things if asked, but draping greenery and putting up cards was not in his nature. Paul still did it very much as Philip had always done; to eyes that had loved this house for some decades now it still looked like home. Darcy, wearing something glittery and extremely tight fitting, was curled up on the arm of the couch beside Gerry, his dark hair hanging loosely across his forehead and the both of them nursing plates. Gerry was chattering, one hand moving gracefully and expressively as he talked to Ash and the group gathered on the couches. Bear, the armchair nearly groaning under him, was chuckling at intervals with his deep voice underpinning the sounds of conversation through the room. Some of the older members of the family had gathered together in the chairs at the far end of the room where the conversation was a little quieter, and more of them were in the kitchen, stood with their plates or sitting around the table and chattering.
Miguel looked down at the plate being gently pushed at him and took it, moving over on the hearth stone to let Tazio sit down beside him. It was thoughtfully selected, if somewhat heavy on the salad and vegetable dishes. Taz had something of a thing about that; much like he insisted they walk together to and from the University on a daily basis so they both did something other than sit and stare at books. The food smelled wonderful, Paul was an excellent cook and his buffets were something special, but Miguel found his eyes wandering again to the newest member of the family.
He was dark haired, but he was fair skinned with it in the English way, and there were strong angles in his cheekbones and jaw. The eyes were grey, almost startlingly so. He was quiet, soft voiced and very much on the reserved side from what they’d seen of him so far, but he sat with his back straight, his eyes steady on whatever he watched, and he had a kind of a presence that could be felt, even with him sitting at Flynn’s feet.
“He’s permanent,” Gerry had said in his phone call in the summer, when a sudden call to a funeral for a friend of David’s on the ranch had come with too short notice to escape teaching commitments and come out from Rome. “The five of them actually came out of the house with rings on, so as far as any of us can work out there’s some kind of group marriage they seem to be declaring - not that any of them ever explain anything. They all of them look very happy with it though. Dale is rather lovely, once I persuaded him I wasn’t a complete PITA.”
“We all had to go through that stage Ger?” Miguel said with affection. Gerry laughed.
“I am a very nice PITA. I just don’t usually have to prove to anyone that I can brat properly. Riley adores him, they all do.”
That was easily apparent. Riley was always the weather vane for those four but there was a sparkle to him this year that was somehow brighter than Miguel remembered, and he and this new man seemed to do most things together. Paul and Jasper were always too elusive to let anything much show, but in Flynn there was a flat-out blaze, like a bonfire. He watched this boy with his eyes on fire.
“What?” Tazio said in his ear. Miguel felt Taz’s arm slide around his hips and squeeze. He pulled himself together and tried one of the pastries on the plate, which was still warm and spicy. There was a burst of static from the radio and an English voice said crisply from the radio,
“This is the World Service.”
The chatter in the room quietened down. They never put the main lights on at Christmas Eve; it was another habit of Philip and David’s that they had all inherited, so the only lights came from the tree and the candles around the room, and from the crackling fire in the hearth. The room smelled of faint wood smoke, cinnamon and spice from the buffet and the pine of the Christmas tree cut only this morning, and the dim light was inviting and comfortable. To Miguel it had been the essence to him for years of what Christmas felt like. These voices, these scents, the soft light and the comfort of a houseful of people who were happy to be together.
“How did he know?” he’d asked Gerry in that phone call, trying not to sound as hungry for the details as he suspected he did. “He was a client, wasn’t he?”
Gerry had no difficulty in knowing what he meant. There were some secrets only the family brats talked about among themselves. “Well, he thought he was, and they thought he was – I don’t think that lasted all that long from what Riley’s told me. It’s been the same for most of us, hasn’t it? I turned up for a few nights in the warm and a chance to nick whatever I could. You came for a few months study leave.”
“No, I got sent to Philip for a few good kicks up the backside.” Miguel corrected. He could hear Gerry’s smile.
“And stayed how many years? We all wandered in- or got reeled in or dragged in – and realised in our own good time. Happened to us all, Mig.”
Some faster than others. On the radio he could hear a single boy chorister begin Once in Royal David’s City.
Paul took a seat on Miguel’s other side with a plate in his hand, and passed him a letter.
“I thought you’d like to see this. It’s from Trent, they don’t have cards available where he is but he always writes at Christmas and he always sends his love to you.”
“Trent’s the hippie?” Tazio said, looking over Miguel’s shoulder as he unfolded the letter. Trent’s handwriting was still large and enthusiastic. It was hard to imagine Trent having aged. Miguel still imagined him as the happy, bare foot and often bare chested young man with the long curly hair whom he’d shared this house with.
“Well he was. He’s still out in Uganda with some aid agency. He’s perfect for the work, he’s a lovely guy.”
“Top or brat?”
“Neither.” Paul took a mouthful of sausage, dipping it in one of the several sauces on his plate. “Although Miguel knows better than me. Trent and I have been corresponding for years since I first started putting notes in with Philip’s Christmas cards, but I’ve never met him face to face. He’d left with the aid programme before I came here and he’s moved around with the same programme for going on thirty years now.”
“He was here when I first came,” Miguel said absently, reading the letter. “Working like a kind of really odd au pair. Things were very brat-heavy at the time and he was competent, he organised a lot of the household chores and kept an eye on the rest of us.”
“How on earth did Philip end up with a hippie in the house?” Taz demanded. “How hippie do you mean?”
“Oh all the way.” Paul confirmed. “I’ve heard the stories. He lived with a commune in New York for a few years in the golden age of it all going on in the parks until he got bored, and decided he was going to drive himself alone across the states. I think it was a find himself kind of a deal. He got as far as Jackson and found the ranch – or David found him, depending on how you look at it- and stayed about eighteen months.”
“Nope, I’m serious. David actually did kidnap him.”
The battered, rusting VW camper van was in the barn, covered in paintings of sunflowers and rainbows, Bob Dylan and several tarpaulins, and it was still lacking an exhaust pipe or a carburettor. Which rendered it undriveable, but then the heavy falling snow made it still more undriveable than usual. The snow was coming down purposefully; fast and hard, in a way that suggested by day break they were going to have a good few inches.
Up in his room, Miguel tore his eyes away from the window, the barn and the falling snow and looked at his watch. Then he marked his place in his book, closed it and collected up his papers, putting the pile of work that was an emerging PhD dissertation on the shelf designated for it. Above the fiction shelf, which was leisure only reading; Philip insisted on the separation of the two physically as well as mentally.
He jogged downstairs into the greater warmth of the family room where the fire was lit. In the kitchen, Gerry was working at the table on what looked like his geography paper. He was nearly a term into eleventh grade at Jackson High. From what Miguel understood it had taken him a long, slow slog to reach that point, mostly needing eighteen months or more to complete each grade, although he was tentatively proud that he’d completed last year in the same time as the rest of tenth grade. He looked up and gave Miguel a faintly harassed smile. Trent, bare chested and barefoot as he usually was in the house, was in the open doorway of the laundry room, patiently trying to teach Bear to fold laundry. His easy voice reached Miguel as he went to put the kettle on.
“See? You take the shirt and fold it lengthwise like this so the sleeves match. Now you try.”
Bear, also visible in the doorway, was watching with wide eyes and his mouth slightly open, looking somewhere between bewildered and alarmed. The shirt was dwarfed in his hands, he mostly wore vest t shirts and overalls whatever the weather.
“Sleeves first?” Trent prompted patiently.
Bear held it, still staring at him. Miguel mutely rolled his eyes at Gerry, unsurprised. Trent’s patience was inexhaustible, particularly for Bear, and Bear therefore couldn’t resist winding him up at every possible opportunity.
“Fold it in half,” Trent reminded him. “Like this. You do the other one. Bear? Just try it out. Find a sleeve-”
Gerry put his pencil down and got up. “Oh good grief I can’t stand it. I’ll do the shirts. Bear, roll the socks before I’m forced to make you eat them.”
“He needs to learn at some point, and it doesn’t hurt you to let him.” Trent pointed out.
“Oh it does, it’s agonising.” Gerry assured him, taking the shirt out of Bear’s hands. “And do you know what? He can learn on a day when I’m a really, really long way away, and just think how fun that will be for all of us.”
Bear crouched his big frame over the laundry basket, obediently matching and rolling socks. He glanced up at Miguel, catching his eye, and Miguel caught the very swift but unmistakeable wink from one soft, brown eye which made him have to swallow a laugh, fast. Trent rolled a pair of socks too, kneeling on the floor beside him.
“Hey Mig. How’s it coming? You look tired, are you ok?”
He noticed that kind of thing, and there was genuine care in it.
“Just fed up. I think I crossed out more than I wrote today.” Miguel confessed, getting the jug of milk out of the pantry. “I’m making tea, who wants some?”
“David and Rog are in the yard; they will. It’s freezing out there.” Trent threw another rolled up pair of socks into the basket. “I took Philip one an hour ago, but he might be ready for a re fill.”
Miguel left the kettle to boil and went through the family room to tap quietly at the half open door of the study. Philip’s answer was immediate and cheerful.
He was writing something at his desk but he laid his pen down, looked up and smiled as he saw Miguel, as if he welcomed the interruption. “Good afternoon. You’ve finished in good time.”
Which was something Miguel had learned after his first few weeks here of Philip very firmly putting the boundaries around his study time that Miguel had been unable to do for himself when studying alone. Starting anything had been a problem; procrastination had been something he excelled at, and then putting the work down to do things like eat, sleep, change clothes and turn work in on time – that had been another problem. Not so in this house. Philip had been clear at the start about the set times Miguel had for study- and he was generous with that time - the times Miguel needed to spend on the ranch work and helping with chores, and the time he needed to take off altogether to relax and socialise with the rest of them. As he backed that up with a paddle and no qualms whatsoever about using it very efficiently indeed, Miguel had got it together quite quickly. Roger, who was an extremely sweet man whom to Miguel’s eyes was an utter disaster area, said he had come to the ranch for similar reasons, the main one being as he explained to Miguel, a habit of reading most of the night and being oblivious to time as a moving force, which had made it difficult to stay on any University course without failing, or to hold down a job. He wasn’t joking about his being oblivious to time. Philip had absolute zero tolerance for Roger not organising himself to have all his responsibilities honoured; he was significantly tougher with Roger than Miguel knew he had ever needed, but he saw it work for Roger too much the same way it worked for him.
“I ended up watching the snow more than writing anything worth reading.” he said wryly. “I’m making tea, did you want some?”
“Yes please.” Philip capped his pen and got up, following him into the kitchen. The laundry patrol was still in action with three of them around the basket, although Bear’s rolling of socks speeded up considerably as he saw Philip. Roger wandered in, snow dusting his jeans and coat, and went to check the now gently steaming kettle.
“Hey. Ger, how’s the essay going?”
“Slow.” Gerry said without enthusiasm. David opened the kitchen door and leaned through it, sounding irate.
“Rog, get your backside back out here now unless you want me to bury you in a bloody snow drift. Bear, I need you.”
Bear left the laundry with alacrity, grabbing a heavy coat from the rack and pulling boots on. He never had the faintest trouble understanding instructions to be outside, or with the stock, which was the work he much preferred to anything indoors. Miguel had a suspicion too that outside, when he was alone with David, he spoke. It wasn’t something he’d ever seen, but there was something in the way that Bear interacted with David that made him wonder, and the two of them spent a lot of time working together outside since Bear’s strength and his skill with the stock made him a highly efficient ranch hand.
“Would you like any help?” Philip inquired. David waited impatiently for Roger.
“No. Stay in and stay warm, I can see a storm coming in. We’re going to have a white-out in about forty minutes from now.”
“A blizzard?” Gerry demanded. David shook his head, his voice softening.
“It’s just a passing storm, don’t flap. It’ll be nothing like last year.”
“We had a major blizzard last Christmas,” Gerry told Miguel as Roger, Bear and David disappeared into the heavy snow outside. “We had no power for a week, and it was five days before the snow ploughs got out here to clear the road.”
“We were fine,” Philip reminded him. “We had plenty of candles, oil lamps and fuel, and plenty of food. We can always heat our own water and keep the house warm. We’d be fine for weeks if necessary. Everyone out here is used to it.” he added to Miguel just as reassuringly which was faintly annoying as Miguel didn’t think he looked worried. “We keep plenty of stores, although it’s rare we get snowed in. The road clearance here is extremely good, and we have horses and tractors, there’s no difficulty in ploughing our own paths and tracks down to the road.”
A childhood spent in the rural districts of Tuscany where the average winter low was about 4 degrees didn’t prepare you for heavy snow. Miguel’s family had moved to New York when he was fourteen, and the winters had come as quite a shock, albeit an exciting shock to a boy who had never seen deep snow. In the University – which David referred to with some justification as Ivory Towers – so long as the path between his room, the canteen and the library stayed clear he didn’t notice much else. It was a bit different here when weather was something you were out working cattle in on a daily basis.
Philip paused by Gerry’s essay open on the table, glancing through it. Gerry got up rather sharply from the laundry basket, going to hover near him. Philip always checked all of Gerry’s school work. Miguel wasn’t exactly sure why and had never liked to ask. It wasn’t like Gerry to look this concerned about it though.
“It’s probably not very good,” he was saying lightly, “First draft kind of a thing, I’ll work on it again when I have all the rough ideas down-“
Philip didn’t look round, but he put an arm around Gerry, rubbing his back as he read.
“I can show you when it’s done,” Gerry suggested even more brightly, trying to ease the pages out from under Philip’s eye. Philip put a hand on them, not letting Gerry take them away. Gerry tugged, sounding pleading.
“Corner.” Philip said gently, not looking up from the pages.
Gerry made a sound somewhere between pleading and frustrated, but after a moment where Philip still didn’t look up, sighed and went to the kitchen corner, standing facing it. It was not an unusual sight in this household; it was somewhere Gerry and Roger in particular spent a lot of time. Miguel still quietly watched as he took the whistling kettle off the stove. Gerry wasn’t supposed to get wound up about his school work; Philip always interrupted any hint he saw of it. Trent finished the laundry and put the basket upstairs. Miguel put the tea pot on the table to brew. Philip put Gerry’s pages together, giving Miguel one of his quick, warm smile that seemed to reach out to you and stop time, as if for that second you were the only thing in Philip’s world.
“Is there anything I may help you with regarding your work today?”
“Thanks.” Miguel took down cups. “It’s more a case of figuring out the argument I’m trying to make.”
“You appear to be having a harder time with this section.”
“I guess I need to put more reading in.”
“Are you feeling as if that’s your primary problem?”
Miguel stirred the pot the several times David always demanded, since he’d been known to call weak tea names that got him stood where Gerry was currently standing. “It must be. Everything else has come together up to this chapter. I’ll take tomorrow off drafting and go back to reading around it, maybe that’ll clarify-”
“- If we’ve got the amount of snow tomorrow it’s looking like, we’re going to be digging out the yard and the cattle, not writing anything.” David herded Roger and Bear ahead of him to get the kitchen door shut as fast as possible and reduce the icy blast of air that came with them. All of them were heavily dusted with snow and Roger’s cheekbones were bright red from the wind as he and David had been out in the cold for several hours. They stripped off coats and boots leaving rapidly melting flakes of snow everywhere. Philip poured a mug of the tea and handed it to David, pouring another one for Bear.
“Roger, get straight under the shower please. You have ten minutes to dinner, get yourself warmed through.”
He took a warm towel from the stove rail, giving Bear’s face, scalp and hands a thorough rub down. “David, go and use our shower.”
“I’ll have a bath later.” David said dismissively.
“I shall look forward to that.” Philip took David’s hat off his head, reaching up to kiss him. “In the mean time you feel frozen, and I’d like you to shower.”
He ran the towel over David’s face, wiping off the worst of the wet, and his hand lingered slightly longer than necessary. David gave him a half growl and half the glinting, blazing smile that Miguel often saw him flash Philip’s way and took the towel, briskly scrubbing off his wet hair as he went upstairs.
“Is Mildred warm enough?” Philip said to Bear. Bear never answered; he’d never spoken at all in Miguel’s hearing or to Miguel’s knowledge in anyone else’s, but Philip and David both always spoke to him as if he took part in the conversation. Bear nodded, pointing Philip at the yard. Miguel moved far enough to see through the glass with Philip. The stable and cowshed doors were both closed and a tarpaulin hung over the cowshed door, covering the cracks to prevent snow drifting into Mildred the cow’s little sanctuary. There were tractor tracks in the new snow in the yard; if Miguel had to guess, David and Bear had just done a quick run to put several new bales of hay in the pasture for the cattle who were stoically gathering together to weather a cold night. Philip went into the laundry room to find a large sweater, one of the several of the very large ones Philip had managed to acquire for Bear, and helped him into it since any clothing that Bear had to pull over his head and therefore blocked his vision tended to make him unsteady on his feet.
“Set the table please, you two.”
“What are we having?” Miguel asked, since whatever was in the oven smelled good. Trent came back with the empty laundry basket and put it in the laundry room.
“Beef casserole and dumplings, which Philip made. Although you’re more than welcome to share my bean casserole and rice if you want?”
“Thanks for that.” Miguel said dryly. Trent put an arm around his waist, giving him a hug and a grin as he passed, never offended.
“It’s healthy. I respect my body.”
The effects were certainly nice to look at. Miguel cast a look at Trent’s carved abs and biceps with covert appreciation.
“Miguel, this was in amongst the post David brought up from the road.” Philip said, putting a hand to the inner pocket of his jacket to withdraw an envelope.
“Thanks.” Miguel took it, recognising the writing on the front. It had been redirected from the university; his family had no clue he was currently hanging out on a ranch in Wyoming. The questions about that would be a little…. tough to answer. His mother always wrote in Italian and her looping handwriting covered several pages. Miguel scanned through them, trying not to wince.
“Everyone well?” Trent asked, starting to dish up vegetables. Miguel nodded, giving one last glance to the final paragraph, then folded it and pocketed it.
“Yeah, they’re all fine thanks. Just my mom sending me the updated family news of who’s not talking to who and why, which will have changed by next week. It’s all high drama most of the time.”
“You don’t sound very worried about it?”
“I’m not, there’s no real bad feeling involved, it’s just what they’re all like.”
All the time. It was exhausting and it always escalated around Christmas. Philip had gone to Gerry in the corner and Miguel tried not to look at the hands he had on Gerry’s shoulder or the quiet conversation they were having that wasn’t reaching anyone else’s ears. He did see Gerry turn around and give Philip a hug before they came to the table. David jogged downstairs, his hair wet from the shower and one of his worn, threadbare sweaters on that were going at the elbows but he always wore at home as comfortable, and helped Bear and Miguel shift dishes to the table before he took a seat. The casserole smelled wonderful; both Philip and David were good cooks. Miguel took the dish of baked cauliflower passed to him, and spooned some on to his plate. Trent, perfectly happy with his dish of brown rice and another of beans and vegetables, settled at the other end of the table and passed Gerry the bread.
“We shall make a trip to Jackson on Thursday,” Philip said, putting horseradish sauce on the side of his plate. “Miguel, Roger and I will go for haircuts while we’re there, would you like one?”
“Not this time thanks.”
“I shall assume you prefer to enjoy continuing as you until you disappear from view?” Philip said to David who snorted at him, digging into casserole.
“In this cold, yes. And when I want to cut my hair, there’s scissors here.”
Philip smiled but didn’t argue, simply continuing; “Lito and Colm are planning to arrive on Friday and I will expect most of the others to arrive on Saturday, so we will need to stock the pantry and freezer. If there is any Christmas shopping you would like to do we will need to do it then.”
“So I only have until Thursday to finish my essay?” Gerry demanded in horror.
“The school won’t be open past Thursday anyway?” David reminded him. “You knew that?”
“If necessary I will ask for an extension for you as I have done plenty of times before,” Philip said calmly. “You only need to let me know that it is necessary.”
Who seriously needed two days to complete a mostly done 500 word essay? Miguel swallowed the question since no one else seemed surprised. Gerry shook his head, looking very subdued.
“No sir, it’s not necessary.”
“I asked John to put a couple of hams aside for us,” David said to Philip, “I’ll take Gerry across to the school and pick those up. Bear and I stocked up the woodshed this morning, there’s plenty of wood drying, and I’ll get more paraffin in town. And light bulbs, the stock’s low. Ger stop looking so dramatic. You don’t need to go full Lady MacBeth about it. Write the damn essay or don’t, it doesn’t matter.”
“You never understand anything,” Gerry flared, his voice rising. Philip put a hand out to cover his, clearing his throat quietly but distinctly. David cast a glare at Gerry but stopped. Roger emerged from the shower, still pulling his shirt on and looking surprised at the sight of the meal half eaten. Philip kept hold of Gerry’s hand, giving Roger a tranquil look that took in his state of undress.
“How nice of you to take the time to join us Roger. Would you be kind enough to wait in the study please? Thank you.”
Roger tapped at Miguel’s door where Miguel was sprawled, reading on his bed.
“Philip says to come and read downstairs with us, he’s forgetting what you look like.”
Miguel closed his book with a sigh. Roger waited for him in the doorway, his usual easy going self, albeit slightly red around the eyes.
“Ok?” Miguel asked him discreetly. Roger shrugged, not looking particularly upset.
No surprises there. Philip tended not to discuss Roger’s time keeping; he merely got out the paddle and used it. And if you wanted to eat with everyone else, you turned up on time and behaved pleasantly or you ate sandwiches later under Philip’s supervision. Miguel had seen a number of them fall foul of that one. Not him. His sole fault was being incompetent about organising his study time; he wasn’t one of the ‘brats’ as Gerry, Roger and Bear termed it.
“Aren’t you tired of sandwiches?” Miguel asked as they headed downstairs together. “The casserole was good.”
“It smelled good. The time got away from me.” Roger said with mild regret. Miguel resisted the urge to shake his head, unsure how anyone lost track of time in a shower. The record player was on downstairs, playing one of David’s favourites, Miguel knew it well.
Skipper’s in the wardrobe drinking gin
I don’t mind knocking but I ain’t going in
Jimmy’s laughing like a drain
Been looking at the comic cuts again
Hi ho chicken on a raft, Hey ho chicken on a raft, Hi ho chicken on a raft
Sitting there picking at a chicken on a raft
Bear was sprawled comfortably on one of the couches. Philip was occupying one end of the other couch and Roger collapsed down beside him. Gerry was laying on the floor flicking through a magazine. There was no sign of Trent who often preferred some time alone in the evening to do yoga or meditation in his room, but David was sitting with his back against the hearth stone as he often sat in the evening, his whittling knife busy with a ridiculously delicate and tiny little boat no longer than his thumb, but still complete with mast and sails. The mantel above the hearth was decorated with greenery and candles, and held some of the fifty or more Christmas cards currently around the room. They arrived in handfuls every time the postman visited. Miguel sat on the hearthstone beside him, unable not to take a closer look at the boat in David’s hands.
“Most of the boats in the harbour I grew up on looked like this.” David paused, blowing softly to clear dust and shavings from a sail. “I was going out on them from the time I was five, old enough to help pull a net.”
“With your parents?” Miguel asked him. David never spoke much about his family. David shook his head.
“Most of the fishermen on the boats knew me and would put up with a kid trailing them around.”
Taking a five year old deep sea fishing seemed a little more than letting them hang around.
“Why in the world is this man singing about a chicken on a raft?” Gerry demanded before Miguel could ask any more. David turned the boat around, beginning work on another sail.
“It means fried egg on toast. Naval slang, it’s complaining about the ship’s breakfast. When I was working out of Dover, the Jimmy was the first lieutenant and the comic cuts were the divisional orders.”
“Did you grow up in Dover?” Miguel asked him. David shook his head. His hair was bright white, as bright as his eyes, and the firelight threw all kinds of colours into it.
“No. Further along the coast in Sussex. Fishing town called Rye-”
“Let’s play something.” Gerry interrupted, going to search the bookcase where the games were stacked.
“Anything but Monopoly.” Roger pleaded. “Or Clue. You freak out and Bear can’t play.”
“I like Clue.”
“You hate Clue.” David blew more wood shavings off. “Which is the point, isn’t it? You’re looking to start a row.”
“Fine, if you think I’m that much of a witch we don’t have to play anything.” Gerry snapped back at him. Philip interrupted quietly, his voice level.
“I’ll have the Dickens compendium on the second shelf behind my desk please Gerry. You and David have always liked that one and I’m sure Bear hasn’t heard it.”
Gerry scowled but stalked past David towards the study.
“Flounce properly if you’re going to do it.” David said irritably without looking up. “Or put on a pair of heels, I don’t care which.”
Gerry whirled, outraged. Philip snagged his wrist, pulling until Gerry, willing or not, found himself on Philip’s lap. “David, I think we’re about ready for some cocoa.” Philip said serenely, wrapping his arms around Gerry to stop him squirming. “Perhaps you would see to that? And Miguel, would you mind getting the book please?”
David grimaced but put his carving down and went. Miguel searched for the book. It was one of Philip’s leather bound ones, elderly and if Miguel had to guess, had belonged to several generations before him. Gerry was looking furious but was sitting quietly on Philip’s lap, his legs curled under him. As lightly built as Gerry was he wasn’t much weight. Philip took the book with his free hand and laid it on Gerry’s knee, turning the pages until he found what he wanted.
“Marley was dead: to begin with.”
Miguel smiled faintly, taking a seat on the hearth again. The fire was crackling quietly, its warmth against his back. Bear was listening with interest. Roger clearly knew the text as well as Miguel did. Gerry did not look happy but he leaned back against Philip, his arms folded over Philip’s arm around him.
“There is no doubt whatever about that.” Philip read on in a calm tone. “The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
Thursday 22nd December 1977
“We’ll wait, get a bloody move on.”
David pulled the truck up on the kerb by Jackson High School. They had dropped Roger and Philip at the barbers on their way and Trent had gone with them, although for shopping rather than a haircut as he liked his long and shaggy curls. Another quick detour had led to two large hams, wrapped and currently occupying the chest in the back of the truck. That left Gerry, Miguel and Bear in the truck, and Gerry took his envelope with the completed essay from the front seat where Philip had left it. Philip had seemed for some reason to have expected it to get lost if it was left in Gerry’s hands and had packed and brought it himself.
“If you’re going to stuff it somewhere and work on getting into trouble for an incomplete I’d shove it in one of those bushes,” David added, nodding at several on the front lawn. “Or the boiler room furnace?”
“You’re not funny.” Gerry told him sourly. He jogged up the path, envelope in hand. The semester had officially finished on Tuesday, but there were a lot of kids being dropped off and coming and going; Jackson High met the needs of plenty of kids from distant ranches and small settlements, who studied from home and dropped and picked up work when they could, especially during the winter. The essay was apparently done. Gerry had not found it easy; there had been tears and more time spent in the corner yesterday, after which Philip had confiscated the essay as complete and put it away. Gerry was always a volatile person in their house, as vivacious as he could be temperamental at times, but this kind of stress and almost kamikaze looking for trouble wasn’t something Miguel had seen him do before.
“Why would he want to hide it?” Miguel said on impulse. There was only Bear listening who being non verbal was about the most discreet of everyone in the household.
“Because he’s wound up so tight about Christmas he’s twanging.” David said succinctly. He glanced back at Miguel in the back seat and his eyes softened slightly. “He tries not to. This is nothing like he used to find it, but Christmas is hard for him.”
Why? Miguel didn’t ask it. Philip and David valued privacy and respect for each other. It was people’s right to tell you themselves what they chose to entrust you with. But Gerry seemed to want to get himself into as much trouble as he could, and that wasn’t easy to understand. Being in trouble with Philip was something Miguel hated and avoided as much as he possibly could; it was a great motivator to make himself do what he needed to do. He couldn’t imagine wanting to seek that trouble out on purpose.
Gerry reappeared in the doorway with a new envelope in his hand, surrounded by several other kids from eleventh grade; three boys and two girls. Gerry was actually in his mid twenties, but he didn’t look it and stood amongst the other kids he passed easily for seventeen. He looked very at home, laughing at something one of them was saying, one hip tipped as he stood, his hand brushing his hair back out of his eyes. David abruptly swung out of the driver’s seat and stood in plain sight, leaning against the car and watching with grim eyes. It was one of the expressions in his repertoire that made him look like a particularly bad tempered bandit, and the effect was intimidating. He worried for Gerry. Miguel had seen it before and understood why. In their house, none of them looked twice at Gerry being himself. It had been a freedom that had whacked Miguel around the head in his first few days in the house, having lived in a world where you didn’t let it slip, you never let it show, and the men who didn’t easily pass for straight were at best the objects of sideways looks and disgust. Gerry’s expressive hands and eyes, his tricks of speech, his natural way of walking and talking did not scream straight or butch at all. But the other kids were chattering with him, Gerry looked very much himself with them, and as one of the boys glanced at David with distinct apprehension, Gerry looked too, grinned, and took his leave of the group, waving as he ran down the path to the truck.
“David, you really don’t need to stand there looking like you’re going to eat them. They’re perfectly nice people.”
“Good.” David still waited until Gerry was in the truck with the door shut before he got back in to the driver’s seat. “Picked up your holiday assignments?”
Gerry gave the kids another wave as he pulled out, turning back towards town. “Vacation. Christmas is a holiday, in the school vacation.”
“Vacation.” Gerry said, grinning. With the essay gone, he seemed considerably more cheerful. “Vacation vacation vacation-”
“Holiday. Did you?”
“Yes. The school secretary has two boxes on her desk, assignments in and assignments out, she’s exchanging for most of the kids over our way. Can we split up in town and do some shopping?”
“Have you got any cash?” David turned into the main street, looking for parking. It was busy today, the streets were full of shoppers.
“I pleaded with Philip after breakfast and got an advance on my allowance,” Gerry said cheerfully. David grunted.
“Great. You owe me six dollars and Roger about half the national debt.”
“Which I’ll repay after Christmas.”
“I won’t hold my breath.” David parked the truck neatly in a small space. “Bear, come with me, he’ll spend hours hanging around looking at glittery tat. Mig, coming with us or heading out on your own?”
Miguel considered, and David stepped past him, waving to a man packing a van.
“Lyle! I’ll take whatever you’ve got for us.”
It was their postman. Miguel recognised him as he looked up and gladly dug for a bag. “Great, that saves me twenty minutes. What are the roads like up your way?”
“Fine with care, the ploughs have been through regularly.”
“There you go.” The postman handed David an armful of envelopes and parcels. “I’ll try and get down again on Wednesday.”
“Thanks.” David put the parcels in the car and had a quick skim through the envelopes. He picked out a couple to hand to Miguel. “Two for you. Nothing registered; maybe New York’ll leave Philip alone for a week.”
It was an aunt’s writing on one and a sister’s writing on the other. Super. Miguel pocketed the envelope, not letting anything show on his face.
“I’ll come with you.”
“Ger, don’t make me come and find you.” David ordered. “Antler arch in an hour.”
“Of course.” Gerry paused as David caught his arm, glanced at what David pushed into his hand and gave David a swift hug. “Thank you!”
“Get off. Don’t bring sparkly tat home.” David dug his hands in his pockets and walked with Bear and Miguel up the street. The Christmas decorations in the shop windows were bright, the overhead Christmas lights were on over the street and the sound of the Christmas music came out of the shops. Miguel recognised one of them, a distinctive guitar riff and an English voice singing a hit from last year he’d heard plenty of times from rooms around the University halls.
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas, they said there’ll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining, a vale of tears for the virgin birth
I remember one Christmas morning, a winter’s light and the distance choir
The peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell, and eyes full of tinsel and fire
The melancholic tone just about suited Miguel this morning. There were posters everywhere of storm troopers, Darth Vader and Mark Hamill with a light sabre; they were still pasted up around the cinema. Miguel hadn’t seen it, but apparently Gerry and Roger had seen in when it came out in May, and then two further times, dragging Philip with them.
“We don’t get gifts for each other much,” David said seeing him looking in the windows. “Too many of us and not necessary. Everyone coming to stay will bring something for everyone to share in over Christmas. Food. A game. Something like that if you want to spend money.”
Miguel, used to the gifting chaos of a very large family, found that quite restful to think about. Bear’s large eyes were on the lights strung over the street and the brightly lit windows. He came to a halt in front of one of them, and Miguel paused to look with him, aware that Bear, who rarely showed much focused attention on anything that didn’t go neigh, woof or moo, was looking at the twinkling strands of light with his angelic face enchanted. Spellbound like a kid; there was real magic in this for him. It was lovely to see when you felt like a cynical bastard yourself.
It was a bark in an unfamiliar voice, and it made Miguel glance round. A youngish man in a Sheriff’s deputy uniform was making his way rapidly down the street, his hand on his gun.
“You! What’s your name?”
It was Bear he was speaking to. Miguel realised it at the same moment as Bear looked up from the lights. His eyes went wide with apprehension and he froze on the pavement.
“Name,” the deputy demanded. He’d lifted a hand and would have poked Bear in the chest, except David stepped sharply between them and kept on walking so the deputy ended up being barged several feet backwards.
“What?” David said grimly. The deputy pointed at Bear around him.
“I’ve seen a description at the station that sounds like him, a car jacker-”
“Bollocks, he doesn’t drive.”
“What’s your name?” the deputy demanded, louder.
“He doesn’t talk either,” Miguel tried to put in.
“He will when I get through with him,” The deputy began, pulling out handcuffs. Bear’s eyes went wider still. What happened next was too fast to see, but the handcuffs were abruptly in David’s hand and the deputy was rubbing his wrist and looking outraged.
“I’m arresting you-”
“No, you’re not.” David said flatly. “I’d like to see you move Bear an inch if he doesn’t want to go, and that’s if you can get past me. Where’s George?”
“I’ll talk to the organ grinder and not the bloody monkey.” David sounded as furious as he looked, and he took the radio from the man’s belt, clicking it on despite the man’s yelp of protest.
“George, who’s this prat on the high street wearing your uniform? George.”
There was a buzz of static and then a man’s voice, sounding shocked.
“David, get off the freaking radio channel! Where are you?”
“On the high street dealing with some idiot in a deputy suit. He thinks he’s going to arrest me.”
“Stand there, do not move.” The man ordered, sounding less authoritative than worried. “Dennis can you hear me?”
“Yes sir.” The deputy said unwillingly.
“Don’t touch him, don’t touch anyone.” The voice from the radio ordered. “Just wait right there.”
“Waiting.” David handed the radio back and folded his arms. Tall and radiating irritation, he took up quite a lot of the sidewalk and people were giving them a wide berth as they passed. The deputy certainly didn’t try. Bear was still frozen to the spot, eyes large and looking terrified. Miguel put a hand on his back, rubbing gently. The thought of Bear car jacking anything was so ridiculous as to be funny. There weren’t many cars around he could comfortably get in the drivers’ seat of for a start.
George appeared to be the Sheriff, who appeared a moment later moving at speed down the sidewalk towards them. David didn’t move, arms folded, eyes still thoughtfully focused on the deputy who was looking more and more uncomfortable.
“What are you doing?” the Sheriff demanded of David as he reached them.
“Who is this twat?” David asked him, not answering and still looking at the deputy.
“Very young and new to the area, so calm down.” The Sheriff put a hand on David’s arm.
“Impeding me in the course of my duties-” the deputy began. “That man there looks like the car jacker we had the description on-”
“If you lay a hand on him,” David warned, “you’re going to have me in the cells tonight.”
From his expression, the thought of that was clearly not one that the Sheriff found appealing.
“Bear’s lived over on the Falls Chance ranch since September, he doesn’t drive.” He said to his deputy. “I can vouch for him, I’ve had dinner with him more than once there, and he doesn’t have a licence or anything else, I did a background check on him myself trying to find information for him. And there’s nothing in the description of the car jacker about him being six foot five and built like a barn. That’s kind of distinctive.”
“That one took my cuffs off me and used my radio!” The deputy protested. The Sheriff looked harassed but he held out a hand to David.
“Give me the cuffs. David, don’t make me take them.”
There was more please to it than a threat.
“Why are you pandering to this?” The deputy said, sounding somewhere between furious and bewildered. The Sheriff gave him an exasperated look.
“Because a week from now when you want people to make road blocks at an hour’s notice at the back of freaking beyond, or to stake out a ranch where there’s rustling going on, or search for a kid that’s gone missing, or help with a fire, you’re going to need him. Trust me on this. If you knew how many times he’s helped us out you’d be more careful about flashing your badge at ranchers you urgently need the good will of when you work a patch like this. I’ll handle it, go get on with your day.”
“Yes Sir.” The deputy said sourly, turned on his heel and stalked away. David handed the cuffs to the Sheriff who gave him an exasperated look.
“And you can be more patient with wet behind the ears kids I’m still trying to house train. Bear, sorry about that. Are you ok?”
Bear, who had relaxed as soon as the Sheriff arrived, gave him his usual, easy going smile. The Sheriff returned it, nodding at him.
“Good. Merry Christmas to you.” He clapped David’s shoulder as he walked away, a gesture between friends that was half a goodbye and half a frustrated cuff. “You’re not helping,” he added over his shoulder. Miguel glanced back to see who he was talking to and found Philip standing behind him with Roger, relaxed as if he’d been there a while. Philip gave the Sheriff a pleasant smile.
“David appeared to have it perfectly well in hand. Merry Christmas George.”
George disappeared after his deputy. David dug his hands into his pockets, turning to Philip – and looked past him, swearing quietly but with an extensiveness Miguel hadn’t heard him use before. Miguel turned too and saw Gerry on the doorstep of the music shop up the street, and his face was white and frozen in a way that was horrible to look at. David started down the street towards him, and within a few strides he broke into a straight sprint as Gerry took off up the street away from them. He outdistanced Gerry and captured his collar a few shops further down the street, in much the same efficient, purposeful way he roped a bolting steer. To Miguel’s shock, Gerry lashed out at him. David didn’t seem surprised. He just yanked, wrapping his long arms around Gerry and holding him too tightly to be able to struggle. His face was still grim but not in the least angry. He was completely ignoring stares from passers-by, and Miguel could see him saying something quiet but intent to Gerry. Philip waited a moment more until he appeared sure that David had Gerry, then gave Miguel a calm smile.
“I think we’ll eat in the barbecue place. Why don’t you get a table, gentlemen? We’ll join you in a minute.”
He walked down the street towards David and Gerry.
Miguel was never that sure how old David was. The shock of white hair didn’t go with his fitness at all; Miguel had often worked alongside him and it wasn’t David who tired first, the man could walk or ride hard all day and still be active at the end of it. He didn’t do a whole lot of sitting still at the best of times; to sit with them in the evening he needed something to do with his hands and he’d sprinted up the street to Gerry without difficulty and outpaced him.
Gerry was rigidly quiet in the restaurant when he, David and Philip arrived together. He wouldn’t answer Miguel’s discreet inquiry if he was all right, and Philip ordered for him when he wouldn’t reply to the waiter who took their order, which seemed to Miguel appallingly rude. He wouldn’t look at any of them, barely ate, and sat in the corner of the booth, fenced in between the wall and Philip. Roger was equally quiet, went to the bathroom and was gone for nearly fifteen minutes until Philip went to get him and discovered that he’d slipped out onto the street to look at the bookshop next door. Bear never said anything anyway but his sense of humour and his sense of timing was lousy, since he spent the meal entertaining himself by failing to recognise a restaurant knife and fork while Trent reassured, showed him how and did his best to encourage him. None of which had much effect. Philip ignored this, which Miguel did not blame him for. Strangling Bear in a public place was probably a bad idea, particularly with Gerry this upset. Instead Philip chatted amicably with David, and Miguel tried to eat, tried to join in the conversation and most of all tried to ignore the very uncomfortable atmosphere. They all three of them appeared to have lost their minds. It was worse when they got into the truck, and Miguel braced himself for a miserable two hour ride home in more stilted silence, longing to get home where he could get away from the lot of them. Except David, who had got into the driver’s seat as he usually did, glanced at Philip, and just out of town and into the woods he turned off the road, bumping the truck along a track that rapidly petered out altogether.
Roger, who had pulled a book out of his pocket and buried himself in it, looked up with alarm, and Gerry who had been sitting with his arms folded in sullen silence jerked upright, looking horrified.
“No! Philip please, I’m sorry, I’ll stop! I swear I’ll stop!”
“Book away,” Roger added, stuffing it hurriedly under a car seat. “I’m sorry I went out of the restaurant-”
Miguel glanced at Bear who no longer looked incomprehending but did look thoroughly apprehensive, and Trent, who didn’t look surprised. Philip didn’t let anything much drag on in Miguel’s experience, in fact he tended to respond calmly and very firmly to the first hint of trouble, but this seemed a little drastic. David turned off the truck engine and turned around to find Miguel.
“Mig, how about some air?”
How about us not watching Gerry, Rog and Bear getting spanked?
Yeah, that’s a plan.
Keen to escape the other three who deserved all they got this afternoon, and escape a sight that was not going to be pleasant viewing, Miguel got out with alacrity which led to the clamouring of sincerity and apology in the car rising even higher. David dug his hands in his pockets and walked up between the trees over a bank of snow. Miguel followed him, rather unkindly hoping Philip left the lot of them unable to sit until Christmas.
In the car Trent, used to them, took out a book and started to read as Philip turned around in his seat to look at two openly distraught brats and one that looked highly consternated. Urgent attempts to explain and apologise died away as he waited. When it was quiet in the car he said calmly,
“Out please. Coats.”
Trent ignored them, apparently lost in his book as Roger, Gerry and Bear unwillingly got out of the car, shouldering into jackets. Philip pulled his own on and shut the car door, coming round the hood to join the small crowd of now very subdued looking brats. Where he put an arm around Gerry, drew him over and hugged him, looking over his head to Roger and Bear.
“Yes, you’re quite right. That really was a lousy morning, wasn’t it?”
It smelled cleanly of pine here as Miguel followed David between the trees. The snow crunched under their boots and showered lightly from the laden branches overhead, and the air was crisp and bitingly cold to breathe. David walked unhurriedly until they came to several felled logs where the forestry commission had been taking down dead wood, and sat down astride one, looking up at Miguel.
“We’ve probably got ten minutes or so while he peels that lot off the ceiling. Want to read your letters?”
“They can wait.” Miguel sat beside him. They were far enough away that they were unlikely to hear any sounds from the car, but he still wished they could keep walking. And walking. And walking.
I am not one of them. I shouldn’t be here.
David surveyed him.
“Want to tell me what’s in them that’s making you this miserable? What’s gone wrong at home?”
You weren’t supposed to notice.
Miguel picked at frosty bark under his gloved hand, trying to find a nice way to say none of your business, since it was sincerely meant. He couldn’t think of anything. His throat seemed to have closed up. David looked up at the grey sky between the trees.
“My mother was in the same profession as Gerry’s, but in a different time and place.”
Miguel looked up at him, startled.
“There was one sergeant and three police constables in our town.” David went on conversationally, elbows on his knees so he leaned towards Miguel, long and angular. “The constable whose beat was on our street knew everyone by name including hers and mine, and he grew up in the town so like George, he knew how things worked. I got a clipped ear if he found me doing something stupid, but he used to slip me money for food or rent if he knew things were short. I helped him out a few times when a kid could climb places or watch things he couldn’t. But he never harassed my mother. I never had to watch her dragged out and put in handcuffs, or see her driven off with no idea where she was being taken. I never had a good reason to be afraid of police.”
Oh God. Miguel looked down at the snow at the boots as he realised what David meant, shocked and upset.
“I wouldn’t tell you this if I didn’t know it was safe to.” David said quietly. “But I think you do feel like you’re one of us. More than you’re happy with sometimes.”
Ouch. Miguel swallowed, shocked.
“I agree with you.” David went on. “I know you are. You don’t let yourself as much as you want to, but you are. And I don’t want you to think Gerry’s any more nuts than the rest of us, or start worrying about what the hell you’ve got yourself into.”
“Of course I don’t think he’s nuts.” Miguel said shortly, with sympathy. And winced as he realised.
“Ok, there were a few hours this morning when that occurred to me. And Roger. And Bear.”
David gave him a wry grin that held a lot of comprehension. “Don’t they drive you mad sometimes? We all have to deal with the stuff we brought with us. Just some days it gets further away from us than others.”
Yes. On impulse, somewhat ashamed of himself, Miguel pulled the two unopened letters out of his pocket. “This is my stuff, right here. This one’s from my aunt- so will be Catholic guilt on crack – and this is from my sister, who’ll go for emotional blackmail as her speciality. My mom has already done the blame and shame in her letter last week. They do this every year when I don’t go home for Christmas. I haven’t gone the last two years.”
“Not enough cash to travel?” David asked bluntly. Miguel shook his head.
“No. It’s not that. I’ve told them the dissertation isn’t going well, got work to do, the usual excuses… I love my family. I do. But it’s huge. I have four sisters, two brothers, eleven nieces and nephews so far and another on the way, there’s aunts, uncles, cousins, the apartment will be heaving the entire time. And there’ll be the endless questions. When are you going to bring a nice Catholic girl home to meet us? When are you going to give up on this study silliness and settle down? Where do you go to meet people? Here, meet the daughter of someone we invited along to blind date with. Here’s another friend of a friend’s daughter, sit together through dinner and we’ll expect to hear about the engagement over dessert.”
David’s vivid eyes were comprehending and sympathetic. Being able to say this to another gay man, particularly this one who never gave a damn what anyone thought and did not suffer fools gladly if at all, was so releasing that Miguel found himself running his fingers through his hair, throat aching, eyes near to stinging.
“I can’t do the endless acting straight. Being careful all the time about what I say, lying about where I am and what I’m doing, fending off all the well intentioned crap - I hate it.”
And living in a household where you never had to think twice or be cautious at all, and it was normal and everywhere…. And where there was calm – usually - and other guys the same way, and safety of a kind he still didn’t fully understand but made him feel stable and wanted- that made him hate the thought of it even more. Once you knew there was a normal life where you didn’t have to carry that stress and guilt and sense of alienation all the time, it was so much harder to face going back.
“I want to be here. I want to spend Christmas here.” Miguel admitted. “Which makes me feel evil. A good son would suck it up, wouldn’t he? Go home and accept they’re people who love me, who are good people, who mean well, and deserve more than I give them. It isn’t their fault.”
There was nothing David could say to that; what could anyone say? But he put a rough arm around Miguel’s neck, pulled him over into an equally rough and very warm hug, and that was the best answer Miguel had ever seen anyone come up with.
The ride home ended up being a quiet one. Whatever had happened back at the car while Miguel and David were away, everyone seemed very calm about it and no one showed the hallmarks Miguel was now very familiar with, of ‘recently spanked’. Gerry was mostly wrapped around Philip who switched to the back seat to sit with him, but everyone else seemed much more normal. When they reached the ranch David commandeered Miguel to help with the yard chores and to check on the snow bound cattle and they left the others unpacking the car while Miguel loaded the tractor with a new bale of hay and drove it down to the pasture. He was cold and it was already starting to move towards twilight an hour later when he put the tractor away and David sent him inside.
The fire was crackling in the family room. The kitchen was deserted as Miguel pulled his coat and hat off, but through the door he could see Philip reading in the family room. Bear was standing in one corner by the hearth, Roger was in another, and Gerry was sitting on the floor at Philip’s feet. Apparently they hadn’t got off scot free.
“Miguel?” Philip looked up from his book.
“Yes, it’s me.” Miguel took his boots off and came to the door of the kitchen, blowing on his hands. “David’s just coming in. Everything’s freezing solid out there.”
“Get yourself warm.”
Yes, urging to do that was not necessary. Grateful for the blast of warmth coming across the kitchen from the stove, Miguel hung up his coat and went into the bathroom to get under a hot shower. He spent a while under the water, soaking and defrosting his numbed feet. When he felt heated through he padded naked into the laundry room and found clothes in amongst the piles of clean laundry, dressed and scrubbed the last of the water off his hair. What he wanted to do right now was head upstairs, bury himself in editing his dissertation and not think or feel again preferably until New Year. Although the chances of Philip agreeing were slim; he had clear ideas about times and about being a part of the family as he put it. He was the same with Roger.
He walked into the kitchen, intending to put the kettle on, and found David leaning against the counter and Philip sitting in his usual seat at the head of the table. A steaming mug of tea was in David’s hands, another was on the table, and Philip held out a hand to Miguel. His usual, gentle, come here gesture. For a man with a paddle, that should have been alarming, but Philip never was alarming.
Miguel went to him, and froze, startled as Philip took it and drew him gently but firmly down into his lap. He’d seen Philip do it with Gerry and Roger plenty of times – Bear tended to perch on the arm of his chair since crush injury would probably be involved otherwise – and with David too, but that was how they were. It was the natural way they touched and the natural way they were with each other. It was lovely to see, but he was boarding here to study, that was what Philip helped him with. It was different to the way it was with the others. But Philip still wasn’t letting him up.
“I hear you’ve had a rough few days,” Philip said mildly, wrapping an arm around his waist. “Which explains what you’ve been looking so unhappy about.”
Shocked, Miguel looked at David who gave him a straight look right back over his mug.
“Of course I bloody told him. Think we’d let you be miserable about this on your own?”
“Factually if ungracefully put.” Philip agreed. “Miguel, have you read those letters?”
They’re my letters! This is none of your business. I just came here to study –
It was what he should have said. Instead Miguel found something in his stomach starting to grow and take him over, and his hands starting to shake. Philip’s arm lifted to wrap around his shoulders, turning him around until Miguel found his face against Philip’s shoulder and after that he couldn’t keep himself from folding his arms around his neck and clinging, shaking in earnest. He hadn’t held onto another man like this since he was about ten years old.
“Of course we noticed.” Philip said in his ear, rubbing his back. “You might be the easiest one in the house to have around, but that does not mean we forget about you. You can tell us about this kind of thing Miguel.”
“There isn’t anything you can do.”
“We can listen.” David told him.
Miguel pulled himself together slightly, making himself let go of Philip although he couldn’t make himself get up. “That doesn’t achieve much, does it?” he said as lightly as he could. “Not really. It’s about being man enough to live with it.”
“You’d be surprised.” Philip drew the mug of tea across the table to him. “Have you read those letters?”
Miguel shook his head. Philip rubbed his back again, watching him drink.
“Would you like to? You can bring them into the study and read them there, I’ll wait with you.”
“If you’re going to read something distressing then yes, I am going to be there.” Philip said definitely. “Would you like to read them?”
The kindness in it was overwhelming. Swallowing emotion, Miguel gave it a moment’s fair thought and shook his head. “No. I know what’ll be in them.”
“All right. Then bring them to me and I’ll put them in my desk until you do want them.”
Philip told him. “I’d prefer them not to weigh on your mind, or fill your room all night.”
It was deeply comforting to just hand the whole problem over. Miguel went to his coat, found the letters and handed them to Philip, who got up, taking Miguel’s hand. Gerry was curled up under a blanket on the couch by the fire, where from the look of it he was supposed to be resting. He looked pale but he gave Miguel a faint smile. In the study, Philip took a key from his pocket and unlocked the top drawer where he kept the confidential work information he received from whichever corporate was currently seeking his advice. He put the letters on top and locked the drawer. Private from the rest of the family, and somewhere he couldn’t read on some awful impulse at 2am.
They had a short, peaceful early evening listening to Philip read the rest of A Christmas Carol Ostensibly he read this to Gerry, who was much more his usual self but quiet and distinctly clingy to Philip, but all of them were listening. And then as he occasionally did, Philip organised a swift and light meal that tonight happened to be ham and scrambled eggs on toast, quickly made and quickly eaten, after which, despite it being only seven pm, he sent Bear, Gerry, Roger, and to Miguel’s surprise Miguel too, up to bed. The once or twice he’d done this before since Miguel came, he had merely asked if Miguel minded reading in his room that evening, but tonight it was a friendly but definitely firm and explicit instruction exactly the same he gave as the others. He never engaged with arguments, and no one, not even Gerry, put up much of a fight. Trent helped David out with the washing up and peacefully took a book up to his own room; Miguel heard him walk past on the landing. Philip tapped at the half open door just as Miguel was getting into bed, and came to sit on the edge of the bed beside him.
“Do you think you’ll sleep better tonight?”
He knew. Miguel had no idea how; he hadn’t made a sound the past few nights he’d lay awake thinking about his mother’s letter. Tonight already felt a lot better. The letters being under lock and key helped immeasurably. They were available to him any time he wanted, but having to go through Philip meant it would be a planned decision, and it made it possible to let worrying about their contents go.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Good. You’re welcome to read if you want to, but I want the light out by nine. You look as if you could do with the rest.” Philip got up, straightening the covers over him. “I’m very glad you trusted us with sharing this matter Miguel. You don’t have to suffer any of these things alone. Sleep well.”
He stooped to cup a hand around Miguel’s head, and Miguel lifted his face to kiss Philip’s cheek. Something a few months ago he never would have considered, this so simple gesture of affection to another man.
He heard Philip visit Roger’s room and then the sound of him going downstairs. It had seemed natural enough the first time he saw Philip have them all upstairs early, that occasionally he and David required a night off. It was natural that a couple who freely shared so much of their time, their home and themselves with others needed occasionally to have a few hours of peace to recharge. Several months on and knowing them better, Miguel saw it in more depth; that there were occasions, particularly when the brats living in the household had an especially demanding kind of day, where Philip cleared the time and the space for his own brat to have his undivided attention. Gerry sometimes, wryly and affectionately, referred to David and Philip as ‘the grown ups’; and Miguel understood it. There was a peculiar kind of security to knowing they were downstairs together.
Miguel fell asleep reading, long before nine pm. He woke briefly a few hours later to discover someone had turned his light out, marked his place in his book and put it to one side, and turned over to fall instantly asleep again. It was still dark outside when a hand grasped his shoulder and Philip’s voice said quietly, “Miguel? I have had an emergency phone call and I need to make a short business trip, coming back this evening. A plane is on its way to the landing strip and will be there in about half an hour. I wondered if you might like to accompany us?”
Philip made these trips a few times a year; they tended to be short, and David usually accompanied him, the thought of which had always baffled Miguel who couldn’t imagine David in a city. As an opportunity to take a short trip usually to a major city and to enjoy the travelling, the offer to go with them was usually welcomed by Roger, Bear or Gerry. Miguel was both touched and startled that Philip should ask him.
“Yes please,” he started to say, and paused as Philip sat down beside him.
“The trip is to New York. So if you’d like, you will be able to drop in on your family, although I’m afraid it will only be for an hour or two?”
An hour or two. Without warning, so no time to assemble meals, huge family gatherings, guests, potential girlfriends…….. just to see them and to be there. It was perfect. Miguel found himself on his feet and grabbing for his clothes with so much relief that he was near tears.
“Yes. Yes please.”
He was never sure afterwards if that trip had been purely fortuitous, or quite how much Philip and David had nudged circumstances to fall a certain way. There could be no possibility that they would go to this much trouble without Philip’s work requiring it, but the kindness behind inviting him to go with them and make that home visit was something Miguel never forgot.
The four hour flight was clearly difficult for David who disliked being confined anywhere without something definite to do, like drive. However a private plane allowed him to pace and move around, and it was rather nice to have the time alone with him and Philip. Philip spent a while discussing the current section of his thesis with him, with a surprising depth of knowledge of the subject, and still more surprisingly it was something David seemed aware of too. It made Miguel wonder which of them read to whom, and what they shared in their time together; these weren’t subjects he would have expected David to be interested in.
They landed at JFK shortly before half past seven am New York time, where Miguel left Philip and David to take a cab into Manhattan, and took his own cab to make the half hour trip out to Brooklyn and the familiar streets of Cobble Hill. His mother opened the door just after 8am, took one look at him and burst into tears.
At 11am, full of a very large family breakfast, two hours of high speed, heated Italian while the family arrived, swapped hugs and news, and a visit that for once had been an undivided pleasure, Miguel got out of the cab at the address of the white pillared building on Wall Street and introduced himself at the front desk as Philip had instructed. His mother, overwhelmingly grateful to the ‘professor’ who had needed to make a quick trip to the city and offered him a ride, had pressed on him a large box of homemade cookies and a panforte which smelled spicy, fantastic and very much to Miguel of Christmas at home. Philip appeared a few minutes later, walking with two young men around Miguel’s own age. One was an extremely good looking, tall and wide shouldered black man who was wearing an immaculate suit and writing notes rapidly as Philip spoke which saved Miguel the embarrassment of being caught staring. The other was an equally smartly dressed but smaller white guy with chestnut coloured hair and a friendly grin as he saw Miguel waiting.
“This is your friend, Philip?”
“Yes, this is Miguel.” Philip greeted Miguel with a smile. “Miguel, this is Luath McDaniel and this is James Hamilton, associates of mine. Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure to see you. Do enjoy your Christmas.”
“I’m planning to take a few days off and sleep.” James said dryly. “Since the baby doesn’t. Sarah and I haven’t had a whole night since February.”
“Screaming?” Miguel said with sympathy, having lived most of his childhood in a household with numerous sibling and cousin infants. James laughed.
“No. That’s one blessing, he’s not a screamer. But babbling to himself, singing, wriggling around, throwing toys, escaping out from under the covers – that he can keep up for hours. I spend the day reasoning with the board, and half the night leaning on the side of the crib reasoning with a ten month old.”
“Is there much difference?” Luath asked in his deep voice. James laughed.
“Probably less than you’d think. Merry Christmas Philip. Nice to meet you Miguel.”
“I’ll have the report sent out to you as soon as the market closes tonight,” Luath said to Philip, shaking his hand. There was something in it, some tiny warmth in the way they did it that told Miguel this man was a friend, and that he too was gay; some flash of radar that no one else would have seen. It was also there in the quick smile Luath sent in Miguel’s direction. Philip held the door open for Miguel, following him out onto the frosty street. “How did your visit go?”
“Very well.” The city was so familiar. From the smell of waffles and coffee to the sheer number of people which was a little overwhelming after the ranch. And yet there was no regret to be leaving it now. No sadness. Philip glanced at his watch.
“We’ll go this way and meet David. He enjoys looking around the seaport whenever we’re here. It was an area my father always liked walking around.”
“Your father?” Miguel asked, intrigued.
“Yes. He took me around the ports and ships here a number of times when I was a child. He was a financier, he invested in a number of ships and ship yards and always liked to have as much hands on knowledge as he could glean.” Philip pulled his gloves on and walked with Miguel down the street. “He and David would have liked each other very much, I’m sorry they had no opportunity to meet. I often think how many interests they had in common.”
It was thirty years ago today. The first time he had sat in this room on Christmas Eve, listening to the carol service among friends. Miguel took another look at the newest brat of their family sitting on the hearthrug by Flynn’s feet, and gave Taz a quick, apologetic smile.
“Be right back.”
He slipped into the kitchen as though going to the bathroom. The kitchen was crowded and busy, and no one took much notice of him putting boots on, grabbing a jacket and going out onto the porch, closing the kitchen door quietly behind him.
The evening they came back from New York, David had played a record most of the evening; something Charlie and Wade had picked up following a concert they heard in Canada on vacation and bought for him. A young bearlike man by the name of Stan Rogers, whose first album came out last year and was doing rather well, and whose shanty like sounds were very much like the songs David knew and sang himself. This one was fast and rhythmic, a group of men singing acapella with the words rattling out like gunfire.
I was told we’d cruise the seas for American gold,
We’d fire no guns, shed no tears…
Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s privateers
They’d listened while Miguel, Bear, Gerry and Roger had wrapped every string of Christmas lights the ranch possessed around every inch of the porch – and several more strings of lights that Miguel had acquired in New York with Bear in mind – until Wade and Charlie who were helping them, swore they’d be getting phone calls from NASA.
Miguel leaned on the twinkling rail, breathing the freezing cold air with snow crunching softly under his boots. There was an occasional low from one of the cattle in the home pasture just beyond the gate, in easy reach through the hard weather, and the horses in the corral were stood close together for warmth.
The kitchen door closed softly. Gerry pulled a jacket on, coming to join him at the rail.
“It’s freezing out here.”
Gerry looked with him at the pasture, smiling faintly. “Yes, it is. We get a whole lot of rain in Seattle, not so much of this. I do miss it.”
Bear came out to join them, again causing a swell of light and voices and the distant sound of music to swell behind them as the door opened, and then it faded and stopped as the door closed. Bear crunched across the frosted snow to join them, leaning with them on the rail.
Thirty years ago today there had been four of them out here with these lights, where now there were three. And a new brat in the family that neither Philip, nor David, nor Roger had ever met. Miguel leaned on the rail, determinedly not wiping at his eyes and keeping his voice steady.
“Is Luath planning to hold any kind of ceremony?”
“I don’t know.” Gerry said honestly. “He and Darce aren’t sure yet, they need time to think about it. They were just so relieved they found him and we know for sure. I’m sorry you couldn’t be here for Thanksgiving; that was mostly when we had the chance to talk about it together.”
“Europe doesn’t stop mid semester for a holiday around then.”
“I know.” Gerry put an arm around him, leaning his head against Miguel’s shoulder. “But if you will go working in far flung exotic places….”
“You did not say that the last time you stayed in Rome with us.”
“Darling, I am not complaining, believe me. Someone in the family seriously needs to move to Orlando, so I have an excuse to drag Ash on vacation there too.”
Bear chuckled. Miguel looked across at him with affection. He hadn’t changed much. A little taller than he’d been that first year here, broader and a whole lot more talkative, but still exactly Bear with his soft, shining eyes and his angelic face and his deep laugh and his wicked sense of humour that still at times made him go too far. And Gerry, who had grown into the glimmers of that confidence Miguel had seen in him on the lawn at Jackson High thirty years ago, confident and no longer waif like. No longer given to freak outs at Christmas, although according to the rest of the brats freaking out was still something Gerry excelled at.
“How is your mom?” Bear asked him. Miguel smiled.
“Excited. We’re heading to Brooklyn the day before New Year’s Eve.”
He and Tazio together. It had been Roger, Darcy and Luath who had been lurking on the street fifteen years ago when Miguel took a very deep breath and led Tazio up to his mother’s apartment for the first time to introduce them. It had been one of the most frightening things he had ever done in his life. Now she sent recipes and cards to Taz on a regular basis and the two of them were welcomed together in among the mayhem of the family.
“My father and David would have liked each other very much. I often think how many interests they had in common,” Philip had said, and it had never quite left Miguel’s memory.
The carol service was drawing to a close when they went back inside. Miguel snagged another sausage roll from the table as he passed, heading back to his seat beside Taz. It meant stepping over Jasper and the others; it was getting crowded around the fire although no one minded, and he paused by the newest family brat, stooping to offer a hand.
“Hello. Dale isn’t it?”
“Yes.” The brat grasped his hand, looking up with those curiously steady grey eyes. So young. And coping amazingly well when this had to be a bit of a baptism of fire for him. The poor kid wasn’t even American.
“It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” Miguel found himself saying gently. “It’s ok. The crazy is going to be very much worth it, I promise. We’re very pleased you’re here. I’m Miguel.”
Merry Christmas and all best wishes for a wonderful 2017
Ranger and Rolf