Extract from The Boy I Love
Hiding in Adam’s pantry, Paul remembered how he was once forced to eat marmalade at school, a whole pot of marmalade, Jenkins twisting his arms up his back as Nichols held his nose and clattered the spoon past his teeth. He stared at the jar on Adam’s shelf. Its contents were all but finished, only a dark orange residue speckled with toast crumbs and marbled with butter remained. He unscrewed the lid, wondering if marmalade could taste as bad as he remembered. The scent of bitter oranges assaulted him as outside the pantry door his father’s voice rose a little, as close to anger as he ever came.
‘He’s not well enough to be out on his own.’
‘Doctor Harris, I swear I didn’t even know he was home.’
‘He writes to you.’
‘He wrote occasionally.’
Paul placed the marmalade back on the shelf, listening more carefully. That pinch of truth would help the lie down, that occasionally held the right note of disappointment. His father might almost believe his letters to Adam were infrequent.
George sighed. ‘If you do see him…’
‘I’ll bring him straight home.’
Paul listened as Adam showed George out, waiting until he felt sure his father had gone before pushing the pantry door open. In a stage whisper he asked, ‘All clear?’
Adam sat down at the kitchen table. Taking off his glasses he pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes.
‘Jesus, Paul. He knew you were in the pantry. He bloody knew.’ He looked up at him. ‘He didn’t speak to me. He spoke to the bloody pantry door.’
Sitting opposite him Paul reached across the table and took his hand. ‘At least you didn’t give us away.’
Adam drew his hand away. ‘He could smell your cigarette smoke.’
‘Maybe he thought you’d taken up smoking. Maybe you should.’ Paul shoved his cigarette case towards him. ‘Calm your nerves.’
‘You know I hate it.’
Lighting up Paul blew smoke down his nose. ‘Hate what? Lying, smoking or having a one-eyed lunatic hiding in your cupboards?’
‘Smoking.’ Adam sighed. ‘No point hating the rest of it, is there?’
Adam polished his glasses on the corner of his shirt. Hooking the wire frames over his ears he smiled at him. ‘Cup of tea?’
‘I should go. He’s had enough worry, lately.’
‘Haven’t we all.’
‘I’d better go.’
‘Yes. Of course. Better go.’
Neither moved. Paul’s bare toes curled against the cold lino. The kitchen of Adam’s terrace house was always cold, always smelt of yesterday’s frying, always made him want to take boiling, soapy water and a scrubbing brush to the sink and stove and floor. He thought of the stale-biscuit smell in the pantry, the damp in the corners, the nagging suggestion of mice. He shuddered and wiped imaginary marmalade stickiness from his fingers.
That morning he had turned up on Adam’s doorstep, leaving his father to his breakfast, using up another lie about needing fresh air. He had seen Adam only yesterday, his first day home, and all he could think about was seeing him again, of lying down in his bed and breathing in the fug of sweat and come and cigarettes as he slept. Adam would work downstairs, marking his piles of ink-smudged essays. Later he would slip under the covers beside him, warming himself against his body. As the room darkened they would make love whilst in the street children called to one another and dogs barked and church bells closed the day. There would be none of yesterday’s fast, furious fucking, the sex that came from relief and awkwardness and lust. Adam would make love to him and he would be loose-limbed and lazy.
Afterwards he would sleep again. He would sleep all night in Adam’s bed, Adam’s legs entwined with his, Adam’s breath warm on his face. He had wanted this day and night for years.
Adam, however, had wanted to feed him – eggs and bacon and thick slices of bread, cups of sweet tea, a rice pudding he’d made especially for him. He was an invalid to be fattened; he was too thin by far, a bag of neglected bones. Quick with embarrassment Adam had fussed between sink and stove and table. Later they had fucked routinely and he had left his eye patch on although he had planned to take it off. Taking off the patch would have been a kind of unveiling. Such theatrics had seemed inappropriate after the ordinariness of rice pudding.
Paul stubbed his cigarette out, crushing it into a saucer so that it all but disintegrated and Adam ducked his head to smile into his face.
‘Paul? You’ve gone silent again.’
‘I’m fine.’ He smiled back at him. Like George, Adam needed constant reassurance. ‘I’ve left my shoes and socks upstairs.’
Adam laughed. ‘You know, I half expected to see you in uniform. I almost didn’t recognise you, standing there in civilian clothes.'
‘No, of course not.’
‘You said once I suited the uniform.’
‘Did I? You suited the cap, I think.'
‘I’ll keep it. Wear it in bed.’
‘I’m glad you’re back.’ He laughed again. ‘Glad. Christ, what kind of word is that, eh? Glad. Bloody glad.’
‘I’m glad to be back.’ He stood up. ‘I’ll go and get my shoes.’
As he went past him Adam caught his hand. ‘I love you.’
‘I know. I love you too.’
Paul took a shortcut home through the park that separated Thorp’s long rows of back-to-back terraces, its steel works and factories from the small, middle-class ghetto of Victorian gothic villas where his father lived. He sat down on the graveyard wall opposite his house and lit a cigarette, imagining his father in the kitchen toasting cheese, his usual supper. Cheese on toast then cake made by a grateful patient, then tea, strong, just a little milk, no sugar. George was a man of habit. Paul looked at his watch; it was later than he’d thought – the tea would be drunk, the cup and saucer and plate washed and dried and put away. His father would be reading the Telegraph in front of the kitchen fire. In France, and later during his months in St Steven’s, he had remember his father’s rituals and almost wept with homesickness. Now, as the cold from the wall seeped into his bones, he wanted to walk away from the smallness of them, back to one of the pubs he had passed along the back streets. At the Stag’s Head or the Crown & Anchor he would order beer and share a joke with the hard men of Thorp. Paul smiled to himself. He would get his head beaten in along a dark alley, called a fucking little queer as boots smashed his ribs. He only had to look at one of them in the wrong way. Best if the fucking little queer went home and faced his father’s disappointment. Tossing the half-smoked cigarette down, he crossed the road towards the unlit windows and locked door of his father’s house.