Saturday, 15 August 2015

Different, Not Wrong - Tommy's Tale


I’d known Michael forever – we grew up in the same village, went to the same primary school, and then on to the same secondary school in town. I knew where he lived. Everyone knew where I lived – in the great big monster white house on the hill. My fathers had built it just before they adopted my sister and me, and most of the village was agreed that it was ghastly. It was certainly a contrast to the pretty, crumbling, Jacobaean manor house just further up the hill, but to my eye it was different, not wrong, and it was my home, and full of all the people and the creatures, and the things that I loved. I knew no other childhood home.

Michael grew up at the other end of the village. He was one of seven – I was one of four – but they were crammed in this tiny, weeny, (but very neat and clean) little house, and we were stretched out over what must have seemed to him like a palace. His mother had (possibly) married twice, so he had one full brother, and five half-siblings. He almost never referred to them, nor to his father, nor stepfather. I talked about my family all the time.

We must have done children’s parties together from primary school, and my fathers used to have an open day on the farm at the end of the summer each year, so all the village brats could come and poke around the aviaries and the paddocks and see how the other half lived, whilst scoffing sandwiches and trifle and whatever else they were in the mood to provide. The grown-ups got Prosecco and a barbecue. I suppose it was “Lady Bountiful” stuff, but Daddy had done his bit for the village – he’d saved the shop, and the pub, both of which were going to be sold for development, but he bought them himself and then handed them over to a Shelford Village Conservation Trust. Daddy liked conserving things. He rescued a parrot species from extinction once, and he had some mad story about doing the same for “the Soho frog”. Back then I didn’t know all this, but I also didn’t take all his stories at face value.

We were fifteen when Michael properly caught my eye. I’d seen him about – always very smart, very ironed, I guess you’d say he looked aspirational, as if one day the school blazer would be a pin-stripe suit. He was fair, and lean, but strong – a tennis player, like my elder brothers. I play croquet. He was playing tennis when he caught my eye. Or rather, he’d just stopped, and taken his shirt off. I had no illusions, nor fears, about my sexuality. I’d known I was gay for some time now. I hadn’t told anyone, but I’d not denied it either, and I was tall, and willowy, as people used to say, and I was in the drama club, and destined for the stage. I had a loud voice, too, which could at times be archly camp. But I hadn’t yet wanted anyone. I’d seen this boy or that boy who were pretty, or hunky, or attractive in some other way, and like everyone else, I’d used the internet, I knew the market, but there’d never been a real live human being in front of my eyes before who made me think “I want you”.

It wasn’t just the shirt thing. Michael had a great figure back then, I wouldn’t deny him that, but it was just as much how he covered up what was underneath. He was, and wanted to be, so utterly normal. He was smartly turned-out, and always did his homework, and never answered a question unless he was sure he was right (and he was smart that way too, so he usually was), and he had a target, he knew what he wanted from our schooling – he wanted to be an accountant. Now you’ll say to me “wasn’t that a total turn-off?”, but no, what I loved was the ordinariness of him. I had grown up with two very strange fathers. One had come to money and fame and even power in mid-life, mainly through writing. When Daddy told a story of the clever thing he’d said today, it was either at his club, or in the House of Lords. The other kids at school saw him on the telly – the few that watched serious programmes (he used to do one about death – how sick is that?!). My other father, Pae, was Brasilian, they were together for the hard times before the money came. He was tall and lean and stylish, could have been an actor, or a model, himself.

We lived in this huge house, with a parrot farm attached – I kid you not, my English father’s vanity – and in the house itself we had lovebirds, and cats, and dogs, and Daddy’s macaw, and orchids on every window sill, and outside we had hens and geese and peacocks, and donkeys. Daddy went to London two or three times a week – but not before making our meals for us, at 5 in the morning. Pae looked after us the rest of the time. He took us to London at weekends to spend huge amounts of money on clothes and takeaway food (of which Daddy disapproved), and fairs, and shows (which bored Daddy), and all sorts of mad things. We were NOT normal.

But Michael was. He was beautifully, exquisitely, ordinary. And I thought, even back then, when I’d no idea where my career would really go – if anywhere at all – “I need a guy like that to be at home, to come home to, to be my rock”. Well, I say “I thought”, it wasn’t so clear as that at the time. I just knew he had something different that I wanted, and needed.

So, I started playing the game. Michael came to school by bus, my sister and I (my elder brother had moved on by then) by car, with Pae. One day after we’d had no more than a short chat or two, I saw him head off for the school bus and said “why don’t you come home with us?” “I don’t like to impose, and I’ve got my ticket …” (see, the accountant?) but I said “come on, have a lift, it’s quite a nice car”. My sister Marie – pronounced the old London way, not the French way – sat in the front with Pae. I sat with my victim in the back. It was a big car – all six of us, and several dogs and a parrot could fit into it comfortably – but I contrived to make our knees touch, there, on the back seat. He didn’t flinch. We got home, having chatted about this and that and nothing in particular, and Pae said “Where shall I drop you, Michael?” “Oh just here is fine, I like to walk”. There was a to-and-fro. Michael won. But only on condition that he came by the next morning for a lift to school, instead of taking the bus. YES! Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, your parents work for you. And Michael’s mother thought he was still paying for the bus, and he pocketed the difference (Pae thought that was hilarious).

And so it went, and we spent more time with each other in school. I dropped the biggest possible hints about being gay, and he pretended not to hear, but he didn’t run away. Sometimes we’d touch by accident – do you know that electric feeling when that happens? Sometimes I tried to make it happen, but accidentally it was better. Sometimes he looked at me in a way that made me think “yes, this is the one, he’s going to come through”.

And then the summer term ended. Some of the others were having a jape round the town centre, but Marie needed her lift home, and Michael would miss his bus, so I said “come home with us, come for dinner!” He dithered. Weighing things up. He did that a lot. Then he said “OK”. Well, a little more gratitude would have been nice! And Pae arrived in the tank of a car, and we set off home to the countryside. “Can Michael stay for dinner, Pae?” “Of course he can, he’s always welcome”. “There you go – stay for dinner, and I can show you round the crazy place I live in!”. “I’ll have to check with my Mum.” “Well, ring her, and sort it!”.

I overheard bits of the conversation. “Tommy who? …. oh THAT Tommy … in the big house? …. is your shirt clean? Mind your Ps and Qs … are you SURE you were invited?” and so it went, and he was given permission.

But when we got home, he said “I really need to change out of the school stuff – I’ll be back in half an hour”. That wasn’t the plan at all. Before he could head off, though, the front door opened (we were in the courtyard, with the koi pond, into which I had wickedly released terrapins a few years before when I get fed up with cleaning out their tank), and there was Daddy, with Percy on his shoulder, saying hello, and welcome, and then “oh, surely you don’t need to go home – get Tommy to lend you something more comfortable, we’re very informal here, we only wear bowties at weekends – and if he’s the wrong size, as I suspect he may be, the skinny little number, he can raid his brothers’ wardrobes too”. “No really, I don’t want to be a trouble”, “it’s not trouble at all – just be comfortable, and come and have some fun, Tommy’s always talking about you, and now we have a chance to meet you properly – are you OK with fish pie?”. He was. Anything but his mother’s cooking would have done, I think.

My clothes, alas, would not, for the waists were far too small for him. I was a beanpole then – still am – and he was a proper manly shape. “Come on, we’ll raid Jos’s wardrobe”, I said, rushing nextdoor to my nearest brother’s room. He was only at university in the town, and he had his own lodgings there, but his room was sacrosanct. He’d give me a bollocking for invading his sanctuary, but it was worth it. Jos by this time was 20 and he’d been “away from home” two years, so actually what was left of his clothes weren’t a bad fit. He was a lot taller than Michael, but similar in build, but we only wanted shorts and T-shirts. So, then we returned to my room, for Michael to model them for me. I was shameless in my appreciation.

“And now – the tour!” And I led him down the corridor – my room was in what we slightly pretentiously called the West Wing, although Daddy called it the Slugabeds Wing because Jos and I were the late risers (the other two lived in the East Wing and got up with the lark) – and we went upstairs to the Playroom. Obviously, it had been years since it had really been that, and mostly it was where Daddy wrote when his library was in use as an office during the day. It covered the whole ground plan of the house, with the glass dome over the top, full of light – light which went down and down to the hall on the ground floor. And it afforded views in every direction. “That’s my house!” said Michael, looking out of a window to what I think was the south. His whole house, and most of two gardens, could have fitted in this one room of ours. Which made me think a little.

Then we trooped down the stairs and he stopped abruptly, “shit, what was that?” “Flying missile, Michael – you’ve been lovebombed!” “WHAT?” “The lovebirds, they fly loose and they shit everywhere. It’s kinda disgusting, but also kinda cute – it just brushes off …” He was not persuaded, although he did gingerly brush it off, and raised his eyebrows in surprise that what I’d said was true. “Well, it’s your brother’s shirt” he said.

We popped briefly into the Library, where my father’s PA was toiling away at keeping him rich and famous. She was called Valerie, and we all adored her, although she was a bit on the prim side. “This is Michael, my friend from school, I’m just showing him the sights”. “And I’m one of them?” “You’re the most glamorous”. “Welcome Michael, and be warned not to believe a word this young beast says to you”.
And then it was the Dungeon. When I said the word I could see Michael do a sort of double-take. I laughed at him. “It’s just a quiet room, soundproofed so that Daddy doesn’t need to hear our taste in music or films”. He looked in wonder, then he said “is it really soundproofed?” “Yes, once I shut this door, just feel the change”. And I did, and then he took my face in his hands and kissed me.
And we were inseparable for almost the whole summer. And one thing led to another, as it does with teenagers, and we decided we were in love, and told each other so, and the idea made us very happy.

But for me there was one nagging doubt. Not about Michael, I adored him, and he excited me wildly, and I had no doubt of his feelings at all, but about my father. They never made anything of it as I was growing up, but I had formed the impression that Daddy was quite an important man. He had money, yes, but also was in the House of Lords, was on this and that committee, head of an Oxford college and dean of a cathedral, had founded the Brasilian Wildlife Fund, and he was a patron of the Gay Parents Society. The other things I thought might be OK, but the latter maybe not. I’d heard him – seen the speeches on line – saying that “gay parents don’t make children gay”, and here I was, gay, a cuckoo in his nest. I didn’t think he’d disapprove of me or anything like it, but it gnawed at me that he might be embarrassed by me. That his rhetoric would be shown to be empty. It wasn’t, of course, he didn’t make me gay, nor Pae, I was just born that way that’s how it was, but I had seen once or twice before what the press had done to him, and how nimble he’d had to be to outwit them and stay on top. I resolved to tell him.

I told Michael. “I’m going to tell him”. We were sitting on top of straw bales in one of the barns. We had a lot of fun there. "Tell who what?” “Daddy, about us”. “Why?” “Because when we get back to school it will be all over everywhere, and I don’t want him learning about it from someone else. Or the papers”. “The papers???” “Yes, you know what they’re like”. “No, actually I don’t – my family doesn’t get in the newspapers”. “Well mine does, and I don’t want him hurt – it won’t change anything, Michael, it really won’t, he’ll be fine, but I really have to”. “Do you really think it will be a surprise to him?” “I don’t know. We’ve never talked about it.” “Have you never noticed your Pae looking at us in the mirror when we’re in the car? There aren’t going to be any surprises.” “Well, I don’t know that. Anyway, I’m telling him today, after lunch. I’ve decided”. “What if he throws me out?” “Then he can throw me out too!”

When the bell rang for lunch I was feeling buoyant. I’m afraid it showed. “You seem in a very jovial mood, Tommy” said my father; “have your been drinking already”, said my Grandad. I told them not to be silly. We tucked in. Lunch was never a private affair – apart from my grandparents, and whatever siblings were around, there were four full-time staff, Valerie, the PA, Joe the gardener and Jackie the housekeeper, who were husband and wife, and Giles the Bird Man, and quite often someone from the little retreat house Daddy had built in the grounds. “What for?” asked Michael, incredulous; “for nuns” I replied. We had one today – Sister Cynthia. Michael queued behind her politely at the counter, and watched in amazement at how much she piled on her plate. I caught his eye. We started giggling. Daddy saw it and gave me a look. When we sat down, I said a word to Michael, and we both started again. Gran said “share it, or keep it, Tommy, you’re at table”. She was like that. Mainly because she wanted to be in with the jokes, not because she was stern and prim. Also, Grandad was a bit deaf, and she didn’t want him to think people were laughing at him.

After luncheon I caught Valerie’s arm and said “would you mind if I have a private word with Daddy in the library?” She was accommodating as ever, and said she’d beaver away downstairs. Then I tackled him. “I’d like a word, Daddy, upstairs”. “Upstairs, eh? Best bring another bottle, then!” And he quite literally went to the fridge and got another bottle of Champagne for me, and topped up his gin glass. And up we went. His hips were not so good that summer, and it was a bit of a climb, with me feeling something of a spare part as I held the tray with our booze on it, whilst bursting with my news.

Eventually we were there. He sorted out our drinks, settling himself deeply in his leather armchair and said “well then, Son of Mine, what are the news?”

“Well, it’s like this … I’m …. We’re …. I didn’t want you to find out from someone else … that I’m gay and in love with Michael”. He took a swig from his glass and said, “Good, about time too! You two are gorgeous together, even your Gran has noticed it”. “Gran???” “Oh she’s a canny old bird, she doesn’t remember everything these days, but she doesn’t miss much”. “Aren’t you shocked?” “Not remotely, I knew years ago – well not about Michael, obviously, but you’ve made a very nice choice”. “I was worried it would be embarrassing for you”. “Why on earth would it be? I’ve only ever been proud of my children!” “The whole “Gay Parents” thing – I mean, you’re not meant to have a gay son, I disprove the rule”. “Did we make you gay, Tommy?” “Well, no”. “Then the rule holds”. “But they can be so horrid – the press, and media, and internet.” “Fuck ‘em. I’m old now, very rich, in the House of Lords, and can do just whatever I please. They have nothing that I want, and therefore nothing they can withhold from me – and more importantly, the happiness of my children is my only consideration now, so, if I am to be happy, you must be happy, or at least have every chance of happiness – and if Michael makes you happy, then that is absolutely fine by me, and both of us”. “Did Pae tell you already?” “Many times, over the years, but you know what he’s like, always jumping to conclusions and making up stories; I knew you’d tell me when it was right, and now it seems to be”. “And you really won’t get into trouble?” “Tommy, I CAN’T get into trouble!”

And I was walking on air for most of the rest of the summer, until two things happened. The first was our family holiday to Italy. Daddy had bought a house in the seaside village, south of Naples, where his great-grannie was born, and we often went to stay there. He said “you MUST bring Michael” but he adamantly refused. “I can’t afford it” “I’ll pay” “You can’t afford it” “Daddy can” “I’m not taking charity”. And so it went. And so did we, without him. Michael spent the time with his family, in Shelford, hating every moment, and I spent it on the internet talking to him. He could be very silly, and very stubborn, at times.

When we got back, there was a big party planned. It was just before we went back to school. Daddy had been given some gong or other and this party was to celebrate with local friends. I wanted Michael to come. “I don’t even have a suit” he wailed. “Then we’ll get one, go to a charity shop, hire one, whatever – Daddy doesn’t care what you wear, so long as you’re there – and it would suit me fine if you came in your boxers. Or less.” And so we fought about this and eventually he used his savings to hire a dinner jacket in Oxford. “There isn’t a man alive who doesn’t look a million dollars more in a black tie” I said to him, and then we spent an hour trying to teach him how to tie one. He was sweating, and on the verge of tears, when I said “OK, I give up, try this” and took a ready-made bowtie from my chest-of-drawers. “You bastard! Why did you put me through all this?” And it was hard to know how to reply, because if I’d said “I hoped you’d learn to do it properly” he would think he was second rate, and if I said it was just a joke, he’d think I was teasing him, so I said “you look fantastic”.

And it was time, and we went downstairs early, because Pae had said he wanted some help with the catering. Pae used to do catering for a living, he liked to get things right. On occasions like this, my fathers hired in boys and girls from the village to help, and they liked their children to be on hand just to keep an eye. It was a liberal regime – they could eat as much as they wanted, drink within reason, and even ask for autographs, politely. Some took advantage, obviously, but most just enjoyed it. And the money was very good. So, Michael and I took a tray of canapes each, and started to trail about.
Some people I recognised, a few recognised me. My grandparents were sitting in the hall – my Gran wasn’t so good at standing up for long times, but she loved the food. You could feed her slivers of smoked salmon all evening. She puzzled at the man at my side, and said “And you’re … you’re … Tommy’s friend – you weren’t able to go to Italy – have I got that right?” she looked a little helplessly at my Grandad, and then at me, but Tommy said “I’m Michael, and you’re right, it would have been lovely to go Italy, but I heard they all had a great time, and now we have a party.” And I thought, what a smoothie. “I can’t remember what the party’s for, though. So many parties in this house, you lose track!” “Daddy got the CH, Gran”. “Oh, goodness yes, he did say about that. I thought we had a party about that in London after the Palace?” “This is for his country friends”. “Well, aren’t we grand! Best have another tiny little glass of that nice Champagne”, and Michael was onto it like a shot. On his return, glass in hand, “how kind, what a sweet boy – you must look after him, Tommy”. “I promise I will, Gran”.

And then my father appeared, and checked on his mother’s drinking habits (which was pretty rich coming from him, but he wasn’t 85 yet), asked if my Grandad had fallen out with anyone yet (that was a joke, he never fought with anyone, he just listened, and kept his own counsel until he wanted to win an argument), and said to Michael “you look most smart, and it’s very kind of you to help like this – the work will stop soon, and you can just eat and drink and be merry like everyone else – oh bugger”. There was a noise overhead, enough to reverberate through the dome and the other tall windows of the house. “He’s come in his fucking helicopter. I was told they’d let me know first. Bugger. Come on boys, action stations”. And, so saying, he took me and Michael by the hand – we were 15 - and dragged us out, through the verandah, onto the croquet lawn, where a helicopter was indeed about to land. “He’s going to smash the hoops! OOOOHHHH”. Daddy didn’t generally get much crosser than that.

The doors opened, and out climbed the King of England, handing down his Queen straight after him. Daddy was instant charm, and thanked them for their visit, assured them they’d missed nothing, and did they perhaps know …
“Oh this is your son, I’ve met him before. But which one? Don’t prompt me. The acting one …. Tommy!” And Michael’s eyes stood out on stalks.
“And this is his friend Michael, who’s staying with us” and Michael shook hands with the king and queen, and each time made a noise which was very like “glub”. The Queen then said, “perhaps you two chaps would do us the little favour of finding the drink your father just offered us? Yes, Champagne’s just the thing, but mine’s a double!” And off we went.

Michael was too shocked to shake off my hand as we headed for the dining room, which is where all the booze was laid out for parties. “But that was the king”, he said. “Uh-uh.” “And the queen”. “Uh-uh”. “Oh bugger. What the hell are they doing here?” “They often come to Daddy’s parties – he wrote rather a nice book about their family a few years ago, so he’s the bees’ knees with them – that’s why he’s got this daft gong. Anyway, wine, and a large glass for the lady!” When we got back I made Michael give the king his glass – “Thank you, Michael” he said. Glub.

And so the party span on, but Michael disappeared. I had hoped he was enjoying it, maybe chatting to some of the famous types that Daddy interviewed and invited to these things, but nothing doing. He wasn’t even talking to my grandparents. I went upstairs, and found his suit, and the bowtie, on my bed. His own clothes were gone, presumably with the rest of him.

When school started he could hardly bear to speak to me. I was heartbroken. I cornered him one breaktime and all he could say was “I need to write it down”. I started to think he might be ill. But no, the letter duly arrived, in the post, at home. It said he’d had a blissful summer, and loved me deeply, but that we could never really have anything in common, as my world terrified him, and he knew how much it meant to me. And that was it. Like the old song “it was too hot not to cool down”, and boy did it cool down. We hardly looked at each other in school after that, and at the end of the year he left, to start his accountancy training alongside his A-levels at another place. I saw him sometimes in the village, but before long I was at acting school in London, and now the genie was out of the bottle, well, I was enjoying the side of life he and I had introduced one another to.

That might have been the end of it, but life takes strange turns, and a decade or so later, I was back at First and Last in June, because Pae had died. He had been ill for a long time – his endless smoking had caught up with him at last. We even did the Victorian deathbed scene, with just about everyone paying their respects. He wasn’t old, but he was unrepentant; and Daddy was smashed to pieces. It got worse. During the summer, Grandad died – Gran had died some time before – at nearly 100, and that knocked Daddy sideways once more. Then in October Daddy had a stroke. He was 75. My niece – who lived with them – found him on the floor of the playroom. He’d lost the use of most of one side, and some of his speech. For a little girl of six she had the wits of an astronaut, and she got the ambulance, and I think she’s to thank that he didn’t get worse, and more importantly, that he got better.

I had a really good show lined up for December on Broadway, and I was all set to cancel it, but suddenly everyone joined together to say that Daddy’s own show would go on. He wouldn’t hear of me cancelling a career-changing run. His friend and neighbour Lucy crossed the fields at five in the morning to get him out of bed and back into his old regime. It was quite something. My sister tantalised him with information from the Financial Times, my brother-in-law read him reviews of history books, and gossip about the university, and my second brother dragged him – bodily at times, but he was strong enough to do it – round the farm to look at his creatures, his fauna and flora, and to reconnect.

But it was hard work, and that one night, early on, I couldn’t bear the mausoleum of the house any longer, and I slunk away to the village pub. I just wanted to be somewhere that wasn’t reeking of illness and death for a couple of hours, and I was all set to read a book. But no, as I walked in, there at the bar, was Michael. I want to say he was unchanged, but mainly because I want to say I was unchanged. I knew there were slivers of silver in my hair already, at 25, and they told me my posture had changed for the better since drama school, but with Michael it was something else. His figure was perhaps a little more solid than before – maybe not so much time to play tennis – and his fair hair was beginning to thin – but much more than those things he had about him a confidence that he’d only shown glimpses of during our brief affair a decade before. He locked eyes without hesitation, and with them invited me to join him. “What are you having?” “G & T in a bucket”. “Fair enough!” He ordered a treble, then said “I heard about your Pae, he was in the local newspapers, it must be a terrible time for you.” “And the rest” and then I told him the rest.

“You must go to New York, it’s what both your fathers would want most for you – it’s what you want!” “You make me sound selfish”. “No, that you’re even considering not doing it shows you’re not, but they knew there comes a time – remember at school? – “there comes a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to”, can’t remember, but, well, good things anyway! “I hate to leave him”. “He’s in very good hands by the sound of it”. And so I mulled this, as I asked him about his life.

Of course, he had become an accountant, Michael always did what he said he’d do. He was a junior partner in a firm in Oxford, and had a mortgage on his own house. I was impressed. He’d come back to visit his mother, and give her money, and that had made him, like me, seek refuge somewhere outside. “And do you have anyone?” “No. Tried a couple of times, but was too busy, or keen but not keen enough”. “Like first time?” “No, first time I was spoilt with more than I could handle”, he replied, looking right into my eyes. “I’m sorry”. “I’m not. I’m only sorry I ran away”.

“This joint is going to close in a few minutes - do you reckon you could face First and Last again, for a night-time snifter?”

“I reckon I could”.
“Don’t you need to know who’s there?”

“I could even cope with a king”.

And we walked out of the door and up the hill. I was a bit of a star on Broadway that Christmas, and four years later, Michael and I were married, and stayed that way for 56 years. And the next time we met the king, he remembered Michael’s name. And Michael didn’t go “glub”, he smiled like a cat.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2015

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