Ispeak to my son through a mouthful of dry toast. Crumbs drop onto the scrubbed pine table where I rest my elbows.
"I think you should do something practical, son. Don't make my mistake."
The leather patches on my sports jacket miss the table by an inch or two. They miss every horizontal surface I lean them on — just as what I say to my son somehow misses the point — and the cloth is stretched and thinning. Moira failed for once in her life. Moira, the last wife in this sceptred isle to sit down with her darning and Radio Four every night, did not put on the leather patches quite right. The jacket should really be put into a display cabinet and kept for posterity, the one flaw showing the human touch and improving on perfection. Just as Moira will, if there is any justice, be kept incorruptible in a glass case to attract charabancs and miracles.
I speak to my son. Michael spoons home half a Weetabix, his third, and gives me a look. The look, like the patch on my arms, misses its target. Too many such looks reach me on every working day, my elbows leaning their thin skin on the teacher's desk. I am as unmoved now as I am then. Meaningful looks all fall short, like blotting paper bullets oversaturated with ink.
"You can look at me all you want, but you know I'm right," I say, knowing that 1 don't know any such thing; knowing that my knowledge maybe shows.
"But I'm good at English, Dad!" He can do better than that. When did goodness ever have anything to do with it?
"You damned well ought to be. You had me for your teacher!"
"It's the only subject that I'm really passionate about!"
Shall I merely shrug or shall I assume piety? I should do neither, but do both. "Beware passion. Passion leads to St Jude's Comprehensive and St Jude's is, as I believe I have mentioned before on many occasions, a passion-killer. Now you say you're not sure that you want to teach. So don't take English, Michael. It leads you inexorably towards the classroom. English and teaching are as inevitable as Guinness and the call of nature. You're good at computer studies too. You may not be passionate about it, but you like it well enough. Can't you live with that? Take that. You can read literature at night to rekindle the passions."
Yes, that was quite good. A nice homely image inserted on the wing so to speak, to bring everything slurping along the narrow conduit of communication to his level. A newly-qualified Master of Five Pints like my son should get the point.
"An English degree doesn't necessarily mean teaching," my son says. "I remember when you were taking me for careers, you often said that employers of every description would be impressed by an English degree."
I nod. Of course I remember saying such things. I have said a lot of things in class that I do not mean. Every year, for instance, I tell my novice sixthformers that literature holds the key to life. I tell them that and then I give them a reading routine: a play of Shakespeare each week, a dip into poetry every night before retiring to keep the juices flowing. I've said that too. Year after year I've said it. It is time to come clean.
"Do you know what I remember from university?" I ask him, man to man.
"No, what?" Michael asks. He is leaning across to push two pieces of wholemeal toast into the slots of the toaster, his chair on one leg. I postpone the manto-man temporarily.
"Why can't you stand up and do that like a Christian? You're going to have an accident one day."
The look again. He is beyond my command. I don't know why I waste my breath.
I sigh, breathe deeply and waste my breath. "I have forgotten everything 1 learnt at university except what Dr Stone used to say when he watched the couples walking along outside his window hand in hand. The old bugger" — he was younger than I am now — "would gaze from the window at the quad and take in all the mini-skirted girls draped around their men "And vice-versa. What did he say?" asks Michael, interrupting as usual.
"Haven't I told you?" "Maybe, but if you have I've forgotten."
"He used to shake his head and say: 'they think it's love, but it's only lust'. I've always remembered that. As for the rest "Funny thing to remember." "Remarkably funny, I agree."
I nod and laugh into my raised cup, thinking other thoughts which add to the funniness, but not able to communicate them to my son.
"That's why I think it would be better to come away from university with the ability to make computers user-friendly and all that sort of thing. It's what civilisation is all about, isn't it?"
"It was a funny thing to say too," adds Michael, ignoring what I have said.
"It was power for the course. I think it all the time. It's a consoling thought."
"You'll find out."
"When you get to my age." We speak together, I realising too late that I have fallen into the trap yet again.
"Did Mum have Dr Stone too?"
"Yes," I reply, wondering if I should be smelling a rat, but enjoying too much the man-toman feeling to retreat.
"And do you think that is all she remembers from university?"
"No, I do not. And don't you dare tell her what I said." No, I don't think that. Not for a
minute. I can see her looking at her copy of Persuasion as Dr
Stone made the remark. There was no visible reaction. The Devil's Advocate will not be able to catch Moira there — unless of course silence in the face of a tasteless remark is grounds for calling a halt to the process of canonisation. I can also see Jean looking at me and winking, her long legs crossed, the mini-skirt a crimson cincture around her groin ... but let us draw a veil over Jean.
"So, what would you say if I said I was determined?" What will I say? "I would say that if you are absolutely determined to make a rumpled bed for yourself, if you really only want the comfy chair in the corner of a staffroom to look forward to as the pinnacle of achievement, if you want to be undervalued and pushed into cynicism, then on your own head be it."
I know what he will reply. I also know what I would have replied to Dr Stone if I had had the guts. I know what I'd tell the old buffer now if 1 got the chance: Only lust? It seems like a very precious commodity to me! If they've got it, let them savour it! Yes, that's what I'd say. No, I wouldn't.
"It doesn't have to be like that. I mean, even if I do decide to teach, I don't have to become cynical."
"Meaning that I am, I suppose."
"Meaning that you are painting a cynical picture." "You'd have to be strong." "You've taught me to be strong."
"Have I?" Have I?
"Yes, you have." His knife full of butter is poised over his toast, but he looks at me and
that beautiful face makes me go weak. Where did he come from? Stop it! Let it go! He is right. It need not be the same for him. "You've always told me that honesty is the best policy."
I nod. I cannot deny it. My weighty cliches breathed through chalk dust and over the steam that rises from sodden tea-bags.
"I have something to tell you," he says.
I do not think that I can bear it. The face draws out tears like whacks from a strap, like kids at a crib.
"Don't tell me: 'I am going to take English at University.' I think I already know."
"No, something else." "What?"
God, it must be something serious. He is playing with his food. A bad sign.
"Dad, I'm gay."
It is now my turn to play with my food. What in thunder does he mean? My son! The son who has brought home girlfriends to disturb my calm on more occasions than I care to think about? Nonsense! What about those pictures I found under his mattress, not to mention the state of the mattress itself. How should I react? Well, I won't rise to it. That's probably what he's after. But I won't.
"Oh, yes?" I ask.
"Yes," he says, staring at the toast on my plate. I see that I have crumbled it to powder. Now what? What did I say to Peter Mahon — who was. Poor Peter Mahon! Every boy and member of staff knew about him from the moment his. mum brought him to school at age I 1. Tearful little Molly Mahon, who ran the other way when a rugby ball even hinted that it might be coming in his direction, whose voice failed to break, whose wrists resolutely refused to stay firm, whose prose style was florid, whose tastes were sentimental, who ran messages for rough boys ... what did I say to Mahon?
"Have you prayed about it?" That's what I said to Mahon, though we could all see that there was bugger-all point in Mahon praying about it. Mahon was Mahon. Christ had cursed the weeping-willow for weeping and bending over the river, commanded the babbling brook to cease flowing, to return whence it had come.
"Of course I've prayed about it, Dad!"
Did I say that to my son? I must have. That was the wrong thing to say.
"You're having me on."
Worse. Much worse.
"No, don't get up. Don't go, son. I'm sorry. It's just a bit of a shock. I don't know what to say. But what about all those girls? What about Tracey and Sarah and Julie? I caught you in the dark by the shed with Julie, didn't I?" "That didn't mean anything. I was just trying. I thought if I tried then I'd change. I've been praying since I was 12 Dad. I've been confessing my so called impure thoughts since then too. It hasn't made a bit of difference."
'So-called' indeed. Beyond my command.
"What did the priest say?" "Different things. Do you really want to know?"
I nod. I do actually. It might give me a lead.
"Fr McNally said he didn't know anything about it but assured me that if I didn't control my passions my passions would control me."
Sounds sound. He's said that to me before now. "And what did you say?"
"A decade of the rosary, I think."
"Did you ever confide in the Jesuits?"
"Yes. The consensus there was that it was, a: a stage; or b: my particular cross."
"And what do you think?"
"I think being gay is just me. It is something I have accepted about myself and I want to give you the chance to know and accept me too."
Well, I can't. Hard cheese young man. Not a chance. "It's a lot to take in."
"I've tried lots of times to sidle up on the subject, Dad. I'm sorry to have had to put it so badly, but there really is no other way."
"Now let me see.." I am leaning on the thin material again, ruminating. "Gay means homosexual, doesn't it?"
"I suppose so."
"Tell me how you feel."
"That's a tough one, Dad. You can only feel how you feel. Still, if you insist. The basis of sexual attraction is desire, lust if you like. Well, you are attracted by women: their breasts, their curves, their hair, their ... their parts."
The lad speaks true. Tracey, Sarah and Julie had me seeking out the deaf canon at St Edmund Campion's. All in the heart.
"Well," my son continues, "I am turned on by men: by their faces, their muscles, their smell. Everything."
Istand up, almost upsetting the chair, and flee to the counter. There I look for something to do and push the plug into the backside of the electric kettle. It begins to sigh. I switch off the current. I see my face-flesh hanging down, reflected in the mirror surface, Moira-massaged. A tear falls. I switch on the kettle again. I play for time.
"Sorry, Dad," he says. "I just want to tell you that I burn. I am on fire."
I turn and let him see my tears. I want him to know what he is doing to me. Perhaps my weeping will quench the fire. "It all comes down to what makes you jump." he says.
I think about that. What wretched piece of Rap gave him that idea?
"But what about love? What about children?"
"What about them?"
"Now who's cynical?" I ask. triumphant. I turn back to the kettle and pull out the plug before the spout can spill steam all over the windows and blot out the view with tears.
"I'm not cynical. I know I'll never be a father to children. That saddens me. But I do hope to be somebody's lover, perhaps a good uncle too."
"And AIDS? What about that?"
"Irrelevant, is it?" I am angry now.
"I do not plan to catch it. I hope that when I fall in love it will be forever."
"Or I'll never fall in love!" I sing, though I never could hold a tune.
"1 was going to say: `Just like Mum and you."
"Leave your mother out of this!"
He says nothing. I have pulled out my last card. Does he know something I don't? As a teacher I am forbidden under clause 28 of the Education Act to promote the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship. My son, however, seems quite capable of handling all his own promotion. Bent on pretending. The way the world is it would probably be helpful for me as a teacher to stand up and promote homosexuality constantly. That would be sure to drive the perverse younger generation straight into the arms of good persons of the most extreme opposite gender. Was it ever thus?
"Look, Dad, my
homosexuality is a fact. I could easily have not told you; I might have gone about furtively pretending I was straight, and having bits on the side in toilets and parks. Is that what you want? Would that have made you happier? I could even marry, I suppose, but I would be sentencing myself and the woman I married to a life of lies."
I look at him. A life of lies. I could say something about that. What does he want, the dizziness of lust and the tenderness of love in one red-hot tortilla his whole life long? On yer bike. Like the lady in the cuckoo clock shop in Zurich who, when I cOmplimented her on keeping all the clocks at exactly the same time, said: "It is something that we must do." It is too. That's about the only thing I remember about that trip to Switzerland. It really is funny what you remember. It is not at all funny what gets forgotten. I turn away sad.
"No, don't do that! That's what people have been doing to us for too damned long! You must do better than that! Look at me! I am not talking about a choice of lifestyles. St Paul said — on a bad day perhaps — that it is better to marry than to burn. He wasn't talking to me. No one talks to me, except to try flogging crosses of impossible weight. You're supposed to be the wise ones, yet you offer no practical help or guidance! In your eyes there's no difference morally between the promiscuous gay who flits about from man to man, and the man who tries to stay faithful to one. We're all tarred with the same brush! Do not for one minute think that your reaction will change the fact of my lust! My lust is as strong as yours was and demands expression! By speaking to you about it I am hoping to chasten my desires, to combine them with love. Whether you accept me or not, I shall try. But I need your support, Dad. I can't play Russian Roulette. But neither can I stifle what is at my centre. Maybe some of us are swirling round in a cesspit, but it is not our creation. It is the creation of those who will neither accept nor assist."
I have to hand it to him. My son can speak. A rare product of St Jude's. "But you've got one of your own! How can you desire a mirror image?"
He pouts impatiently. Suddenly I see in him the mannerisms of Mahon.
"What are the four sins crying to heaven for vengeance?" I ask him in my teacher's voice. I do not know why I ask him. It is part joke, part last resort.
"The four sins crying to heaven for vengeance are: I: Wilful murder; 2: Oppression of the poor; 3: Depriving labourers of their wages; 4: Any combination of the above ... even when carried out under the cont'd on page 7