Winter Holiday by Bruin Fisher – Day 4
I awoke very slowly, regaining consciousness bit by bit.
My first thought was that I'd slept a very long time. Then I became aware of a dull ache at several points down my side. And then I realised I couldn't move.
It took a while longer before I realised where I was and how I got there. I raised my head a little, wincing from the pain of a stiff neck. I looked through bleary eyes at two bright blue jewels looking back at me.
“You awake, then?”
“Yup, just about.”
“Okay, time to get up then.”
Between us we shifted around in the sleeping bag and sat up, shucking the bag off us and then shuffling it under our bums and then kicked the last of it down off our legs. We looked across at each other and grinned.
Gary had a fine growth of stubble over his chin. Like the rest of his hair it was fine and blond and he looked very kissable like that. His hair stuck up all over the place, a curl matted against his temple. I acted on impulse and reached across to brush it back for him – and stopped myself just in time. What was I thinking of? We'd established we were both gay but he'd given me no reason to assume I could take liberties with him. He didn't seem even to like me much of the time. I needed to wake up a bit more and get my normal reserve back in place properly.
Remembering something from the night before, I paused a moment, and waited to catch Gary's eye before saying quietly:
“About last night – about me being gay. You need to know.. I'm not 'out' at all. Not to anyone.”
Gary returned my look with a slight frown.
“Not even your family?”
“Not even my sister and she knows me better than anyone. I'm sorry, I must seem such a wuss, but I've not long been out to myself and I'm not ready to brave the big wide world. Are you out?”
“I'm 'the only gay in the village', and it doesn't seem to be much of a problem. I haven't made an announcement or anything but I'm pretty sure all the guys on the team have worked it out and they're cool.”
“Thanks. For telling me.”
“Thank you. Am I the first person you've come out to, then?
“I guess. Yes.”
I glanced across at Gary, and realised that I must have looked a sight and I was aware of how long ago I'd last showered. I felt a blush pass over my face and hoped he didn't notice it. I crawled out of the sheepfold into a bright sunlit morning. The snow had blown into deep drifts which gave everything the look of a weird moonscape. The trees on the slopes down below stood out as balls of black wire mesh against the the white. We were still high on the mountainside with a longish trek ahead of us so I imagined Gary would want to be away immediately. But to my surprise when I turned to see him he was sitting on my survival blanket rummaging in his rucksack. In short order he came up with a gas stove, a kettle of water and two foil packs of food, needing boiling water to prepare. Once he had the water heating over the stove, he was into his rucksack again, and calling base on the radio.
“Hi, Stephen, eight a.m. as promised. All's well here. The conditions are good, we're both fine and we'll be down by mid-morning. See you in the Poet?”
“Okay the Poet it is. Do you want me to let Candy out?”
“Thanks. Would you? She won't need feeding until I'm back but if you could give her a once around the green I'd be grateful. She'll have her legs crossed by now.”
“No problem. I'll take her for a walk.”
“You're a star, Stephen. Thanks a lot. See you in a couple of hours!”
Gary turned the radio off.
“Who's Candy?” I asked.
“My dog. Golden Retriever. She's old now but we've been together all her life and half mine. We keep each other company.”
“Do you live alone?”
“No I live with Candy. But otherwise, yes.”
“So, no partner then.”
I thought best to let the subject drop. Gary passed me a foil bag with steam rising from inside, and a plastic fork. I looked inside. Pot noodle, as far as I could tell. I stuck the fork in and began to eat. Suddenly I realised how hungry I was.
“So, what's with the weird pub name?”
“The Fallen Poet? Haven't you heard the story? It goes back centuries to the lakeland poets. Are you into poetry at all?”
I'd majored in English language and literature but somehow with a few exceptions poetry has passed me by.
“Not much. The First World War poets wrote some great stuff, but wandering lonely as a cloud isn't really my thing.”
“Don't say that too loudly around here – we live off the tourism that results from that field of daffodils! When Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey became very famous, lots of other would-be poets came here to try their luck. There was this one young guy – I think he was still in his teens – who walked up one of the fells in search of inspiration, alone with his faithful dog. He went missing and it was weeks later that his broken body, or rather his skeleton, was found at the bottom of a cliff where he'd fallen. His dog was still guarding the body and wouldn't let anyone near him. That's the end of the story that gets told to the tourists but the locals add that the dog was suspiciously fatter than it had been.”
“Eugh, that's gross!”
“I'm not saying how much of it is true. But there are several famous paintings of the dead poet and his dog. One is on the wall in one of the rooms in Dove Cottage where Wordsworth lived. Have you been there?”
I had, several times.
“It's just across the road from the cottage where I'm staying.”
“Is that Molly Houghton's place?”
“No it belongs to my parents. It's the cottage on the corner where the road forks into the village.”
He looked at me wryly. “So you really are a grockle, then.”
“A grockle. Haven't you read Swallows and Amazons?”
“Er, no, actually. Should I?”
“You're not educated properly until you've read the Swallows and Amazons books. I thought everybody read Arthur Ransome at some point in their childhood. If you'd read the books you'd certainly know what a grockle is. It's what the locals call irritating tourists.”
“Thanks a bunch. Actually I may be a tourist but I've been coming here for years and I know my way around quite well. I'll try harder not to be irritating.”
He balled his fist and threw a play punch at my shoulder. “Only winding you up. How come I've never seen you around, then?”
“We've never come in the winter. Usually we're here in summer and the place is heaving with grockles so I expect we'd be lost in the crowds.”
“Just my family. My mother, Dad and my little sister Claire.”
“You still living at home?”
“Not full time. I'm doing a post-grad at Southampton University but my stuff is still at the family home near Guildford and I came up from there last Saturday.”
“So your family are with you?”
“Nope. They were, but they went home yesterday and I stayed on.”
We fell silent for a while, finishing our meal. Gary produced a poly bag and we dropped our empty foil containers and forks into it.
“Thanks.” I said. “That was... okay.”
Gary rocked with laughter. “Well said. That's about right – okay if you're hungry enough!”
I grinned back at him and our eyes met for a moment of shared enjoyment.
I folded the survival blanket, taking care to fold the underside in on itself so that the carpet of sheep droppings squashed against it wouldn't soil anything else in my rucksack. Another item for disposal once we got down the hill.
We set off down the mountain. I knew I was going to enjoy the walk down so much more than the trek up the previous evening in the storm. On a whim I reached for Gary's hand and held it, matching his pace and walking side by side with him.
“You did say you're not out, right?”
“Yes, but out here on our own I feel liberated. Do you mind?”
I pulled my hand away, suddenly unsure if I'd annoyed him. I didn't want him to think I was coming on to him, just a friendly gesture, really.
“It's fine by me, but we're not alone. There are probably a couple of telescopes in the village trained on us right now. You see, the team doesn't go off duty until the last man is down off the hill and that's us. So they'll be keeping a check on us until we return.”
I felt my face turn beetroot. I looked sideways at Gary and we both burst out laughing together. It was a good moment.
We reached the narrow lane where we'd parked the Land Rover, which was still there but covered in snow. From the back we took two shovels and cleared a path for the vehicle and then jumped in. It started immediately and Gary wound the heater up full as he set off towards the village. Talking was easier in the cab.
“What was it with the guys on the team last night? What were they so cross about?”
“Sorry, that was my fault. Don't worry – it was nothing to do with you.”
“Well it sure felt like it. If looks could kill I wouldn't have made it as far as the Land Rover.”
“Sorry about that. They're all good guys and good friends. I'm the team leader and spot decisions are mine to make. When I decided to take you as our sixth team member I was breaking the rules – you've had no training and we don't take untrained men on jobs like this. It seems that I was the only one in favour of that particular decision and the guys were just letting their view be known.”
“What the hell right did they have to judge me unfit? They didn't know zit about me. And you're making excuses for them!”
“No, no, it's not like that, really. No-one has anything against you I promise. Look, I think they all thought I invited you along just because I wanted to get into your trousers. Damn, I've said it now.”
I was staring at him and for the first time he couldn't meet my eye. I was noticing his long eyelashes and the way they fluttered a little in the breeze as he tried to look away without turning his back. He gave up and looked back at me and I laughed at him. A moment's shock showed on his face and then he joined me and we laughed together as we walked homewards.
We pulled into the yard at the back of the Fallen Poet, parked up and then I helped Gary remove the snow chains from the wheels before we walked into the pub through the back door. Waiting for us was Stephen with a big grin and a thump on the back for Gary, and a warm handshake for me.
“Hi there, good to meet you again!”
“Hi, Stephen, I'm Joel.”
“Yes I know. We've met, haven't we? Get out of your wet things and come into the snug. Most of the lads are here. What'll you have?”
“Er, mine's a pint of best, thanks!”
“And I'll have my usual!” Gary chimed in.
We returned our kit to the lockers, gratefully took off our boots and padded into the pub in our socks and collapsed into either end of a big wooden settle on one side of the roaring fire around which the other guys were gathered. Our arrival brought them all buzzing around us with lots of handshakes and back slaps and greetings. No trace of animosity towards me, they all seemed to consider me one of the team and I felt a warm glow of belonging – something I haven't often experienced. Gradually they left us to recover and gravitated back to the fire and their drinks.
Gary and I happily sat silent together relaxing. I knew I wanted a hot bath and a bed pretty soon, but it could wait a while so I could enjoy the moment a little longer.
Stephen arrived with drinks and he drew up a stool close to us and the settle, moving the little table aside so he could scoot his stool really close. Leaning closer still, and with a wicked lopside grin he threw me into panic with
“So, when's the big day then?”
“The big day. Come on, I saw you two love-birds on the hill earlier. You're an item, right? So is it the real thing? Tell me!”
“Stephen shut up!” he forced through his teeth. “Who else was watching the hill?”
“Just little old me this time – we're short-handed, remember? Don't get your hair off, your secret's safe with me, though why I shouldn't shout it from the housetops escapes me. You've been miserable far too long and I think its fabulous news. What's so hush-hush?”
“You wouldn't understand. Look, we only just met, nothing happened, we're taking it slow. Joel's not out at home so you have to give him his privacy. Don't worry – if and when there's anything at all to tell, we'll tell you first. Just pipe down, and try not to look so excited. You'll pee your pants!”
... which seemed to work. Stephen gave us an exaggerated wink and moved off, tidying some empty glasses and then joining the increasingly noisy crowd around the fire.
I was speechless. I didn't know where to look and I was furious with Gary. It had taken all my courage to confess to him I'm gay and I'd only done it because I thought there was some kind of bond between us and that he'd respect my confidence. And now the moment we return to civilisation he casually announces to this .. gossip-monger .. that I'm 'not out at home'. So, I felt, that was it. My life was ruined. The life I'd built up for myself tumbled around my ears as I imagined so many people I cared for hearing from some gossip or other that Joel's gay. And I'd never be able to look them in the face again.
There are some people who I know and care for, I know could never be accepting of me being gay. Others of my friends and family have no particular problem with gay people, but I could never hold my head up in their company when they knew that I'd been lying to them for years. That's why once I finally got my own head straightened out a little while ago and accepted that I am gay and that's not going to change, I found I couldn't go any further and tell anyone else.
The more I thought about what Gary had just done the more angry I got. As if it wasn't bad enough being outed that way, he'd also casually claimed a relationship that wasn't there. We weren't 'taking it slow' – there was nothing going on between us. Just an acquaintance which might progress to something else, or might not.
I glanced in Gary's direction. Real distress showed on his face and he whispered
I fired a look as dirty as I could muster and spat “To go hell!” and walked out the front door into the snow.
I hadn't gone five yards across the car park when Gary caught up with me and, tugging my elbow, swung me round to face him.
“What? You think it's alright to broadcast other people's secrets? Who do you think you are? And what, exactly, are we 'taking slow'? Are you planning to let me know at some point? You're just full of shit, you know that?”
“I'm sorry, but it's not what you think. You've got to understand Stephen. Joel, won't you just listen to what I have to say?”
Perhaps, just perhaps, I'd over-reacted. I do that sometimes. So I breathed deep a moment.
“Joel, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, but I was as surprised as you that Stephen saw us – I guess he must have seen us holding hands on the hill. He's excitable and he knows I'm out and he's pleased for us so he was all ready to tell everyone. He had kept quiet until speaking to us first, but he wasn't expecting there would be a problem and I had to stop him quickly. I had no time to think but I know Stephen. He loves a good romance and I knew if he smelled one he wouldn't give up until he found it, so I gave him just enough to shut him up. I'm sorry, perhaps I could have handled it better, but I panicked. I was only trying to protect you. If I hadn't said something Stephen would have told all the team we're going out together. You didn't want that did you?”
“How do you know he still won't?”
“Stephen's not like that, really. I know he's a bit over the top but he's not a gossip. You'll see that when you get to know him better. Now he knows it's not public he won't mention it even to his pillow. He's been a good friend to me and he wouldn't do anything to compromise my happiness. You heard what he said – he's happy for us. I want you to be happy for us too – can you do that?”
The anxious, haunted look in those eyes of his melted my resolve and I knew I'd blown up over nothing again. So I apologised.
“I'm sorry. It's my fault, I should have trusted you. There's no harm done if Stephen can keep quiet. He does seem like a nice lad. It's just.. I'm pioneering here. So much has happened in the last 24 hours that's never happened to me. It's a little frightening that another human being knows my innermost secret – I'm laid bare to someone else's gaze. And now there's two of you. It'll take some getting used to. I'm sorry I freaked out. I've calmed down now. Thanks for chasing after me. Can you give me a lift home?”
“I'll do better than that.”
“I'll give you a lift to my home.”
“Are you kidnapping me?”
“Would you like me to?”
“Hmm, I think so. Does it hurt?”
“Not unless you want it to.”
“Give me a moment to make a phone call and we'll go.”
We walked back together to the pub, gingerly in our socks, and through the public bar to the locker room at the back. Gary picked up the phone on the table in the corner, and I went to the locker and began lacing my boots back on my aching feet. I stood up and picked my camera rucksack out of the locker and swung it over one shoulder and turned to wait for Gary, who was talking into the phone.
“Thanks, Uncle Terry. It's just we've only just got off the mountain and I'm whacked. I could do with a lie in tomorrow. I'll make it up to you. Love to all. G'bye!”
Gary put the phone down. Looking across to me, he explained
“Just clearing it to have tomorrow off work.”
“You're a shepherd, aren't you?”
“I just fill in for my uncle. I do the early patrol up over the hill to check on his flocks most days. It keeps me fit.”
“I've seen you. I've got a photo of you up there!”
Gary looked a question at me and I got a strong impression that if we'd still been in the bar he would have asked me about it. But we were striding out through the door and he said nothing.
I climbed wearily into the front passenger seat of the battered old Land Rover and Gary heaved himself in on the driver's side. As we headed a short distance up the valley head and pulled up outside a big house with a sweeping drive and a view down towards the lake I became aware that I ached all over.
Gary slid out of the vehicle and went to a separate two storey garage block with doors for four cars, and unlocked the end door then swung it up and over to reveal the dark empty space inside. While he manoeuvred the big 4 x 4 into the garage I looked around. The house was vast, almost a mansion. It must have had about ten bedrooms. This enormous property wasn't at all what I was expecting. I looked a question to Gary, who shook his head and said:
“That? No, that's not mine I live here!”
He slammed the garage door and pointed to a small doorway on the side of the garage block. He opened the door with a key and swung it open, gesturing to me to go inside. Excited barking came from above and a ball of golden fur cannoned into me as I crossed the doorway.
“Don't mind her, that's Candy my flatmate. Go on, Candy, go stretch your legs!”
The dog bounded off down the drive and I wondered if she'd be safe near the road.
Gary noticed my look of concern. “She won't go outside the grounds”.
The door led directly to a flight of stairs and after removing our boots we made our way up them. Upstairs was a neatly appointed but small coach house flat. There was a large living room with windows at one end and big skylights at the other end, and a small kitchen on one side by the stairs, and a bedroom and bathroom on the other side.
The rooms were clean, amazingly tidy for a bachelor residence and comfortably furnished. In one corner of the living room stood an artist's easel and behind it a stack of half a dozen canvasses leant with their faces against the wall.
“You're an artist too?” I asked.
“Like I think I mentioned, I'm in the business of fleecing the grockles, and that's one of the better ways.”
“Can I see?”
“No!” he said a little too quickly. Wondering, I decided to ignore him, and tipped the first canvas forward and peered over to see it. I was just deciding it was a rather well-executed view of Grasmere from the viewpoint at the south end known as the terrace, when Gary shot between me and the picture, forcing me to step back a little, releasing the picture to settle back against its neighbour.
“Please?” he looked anxious and I didn't want to press the point. I thought the picture I'd seen was rather good but if he didn't want me to see it that was okay. I don't like people seeing my photos if they're not the ones I'm happiest with. “Sorry.” I said.
His face relaxed and he smiled. I was lost.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“Actually no, thanks.” I smiled at him. I couldn't help it. “But I would love a bath. Is such a thing possible?”
“Hmm, sorry, no. Don't have one of those. But there's a serviceable shower in the bathroom. I'll get you fresh towels and you can use all my stuff.”
In the bathroom I pulled my clothes off letting them drop to the floor and then stepped into the shower. It had a control panel on the wall and I struggled with it for a moment before I got the water to a useful temperature. I found shower gel and lathered myself all over, enjoying the clean, fresh smell of soapy skin. Then I just stood under the shower head and felt the water beating on my face and chest. Wonderful.
I became vaguely aware of a draught around the ankles which was unexpected, but I didn't turn around until I heard movement close by. I cleared the water from my eyes with one hand and reflexively moved my other to cover my privates when I saw that Gary was in the room, dressed in a robe, gathering my clothes from the floor.
“You don't mind, do you? I'm putting a batch in the wash and I thought you might like me to do yours while I'm at it.”
Gary didn't seem to find it odd to be discussing laundry with a naked and dripping man, but I found myself painfully self-conscious. I hadn't showered in the presence of another man since I was 18 and finished boarding school and since then I had grown to value my privacy at such times. So I was blushing furiously. But Gary wasn't retreating.
“Turn around a minute.” he commanded and because of the matter-of-fact way he said it, to my own amazement I just turned around.
I felt his hand gently stroke my buttock. I jumped and spun around angrily. He stopped me by putting both hands on my shoulders and turning me back around firmly, and rather nervously I stood in the shower with the water playing over my stomach and genitals while my bum pointed directly at Gary who stroked my buttock again, moving on down the outside of my thigh. Very sexy, except that those particular parts of me were aching quite badly.
“You're quite badly bruised there. How did that happen?”
I'm not sure, if I'm strictly honest, if I was relieved to find his actions had no lascivious intent but I hope I was. I didn't know for sure how I got the bruises but twisting around I could see they were big, blue and angry. Probably from lying on stones in the sheepfold last night, and I said as much.
“I've got some ointment for that, when you come out I'll put some on for you. I'm not sure if it's any good but it won't hurt.”
A few minutes later I was lying face down on the living room couch and Gary was smoothing some evil-smelling goo over my bum and my leg. He was touching me gently but firmly, following the curves of my body with his hand as he spread the ointment which felt cool and soothing. I felt little shivers running across my skin at his touch. This was a completely new experience for me - I'd never felt so intensely aware of tactile sensations. Finished, he slapped my bottom and headed for the bathroom himself. Just as well he left the room because I couldn't have turned over in front of him without embarrassing myself.
“Get dressed – you'll have to borrow my clothes. Just take anything you find in the bedroom.” I heard him call from the bathroom.
Candy was back in the flat and padded around at my feet as I made my way to the bedroom. I found the drawers and wardrobe in his room well stocked with clothes in more-or-less my size or just one size too large since Gary had about an inch on me in height and I think slightly broader shoulders. I soon found underwear, jeans, a button-down check shirt and a jersey that fitted me well enough and by the time Gary appeared out of the shower wearing a towel I was fully dressed. Candy came and sniffed at me, perhaps confused at the mix of familiar and foreign smells. She nuzzled my knee and I stroked at the fur at the back of her head.
It turned out Gary had some bruises too, some up his side that I could see clearly above his towel so I got to do the thing with the ointment. And for the first time I got to see Gary without his clothes. It was as much as I could do to spread the ointment in roughly the right areas, my hands were shaking so much. The way his shoulders were defined by muscles that flexed each time he shifted his position on the couch. The way the short hairs on the back of his head gradually turned to soft fur as the line of his hair ran down his neck to his back. The way his tanned back curved down to his waist and then back up to his buttocks, small, pale lobes of perfect form and symmetry, with a tiny dimple just above them either side of the base of his spine. I wanted to kiss each little feature of his form but instead I spread smelly goo onto it with shaky fingers. He had a nasty bruise on the outside of his thigh just above the knee so I got to focus on his legs a little. He had long, shapely legs with an even coating of blond fur which showed up against the tan on his calves but almost disappeared on his upper thighs which were not so tanned. His feet had long elegant toes, each with a little topknot of blond hair on the top. I wanted to take him to bed like a teddy bear. He was lying there accepting my ministrations and looking 100% huggable. My self-control was taking a beating and I wasn't sure how long it could hold out.
Perhaps unwittingly Gary came to my rescue by asking:
“What would you like to do for a meal?”
I came back to earth to consider the matter. We hadn't eaten since the emergency rations on Helvellyn early in the morning and I was pretty hungry. But with the snow still thick on the ground outside I wasn't sure how many eating places would be open and I didn't really want to go back to the Fallen Poet again, I preferred the idea of eating somewhere with Gary alone.
“Can we eat here?”
“Sure, if you're prepared to brave my cooking. I'm sure I've got something I could rustle up.”
“Chez Gary it is, then. Shall I lay the table or shall we put a DVD in and eat on our laps?”
“You see what you can find in the video rack and I'll start the meal.”
I was looking through his collection of old films when he called out:
“Would spaghetti do? I know we had noodles this morning but I don't seem to have much else in at the moment. I'll have to do a shop run tomorrow.”
“Fine” I said. I was really hungry and I wasn't going to be fussy about what I ate.
So we watched Casablanca together on the sofa and ate an excellent spaghetti carbonara. When we'd both finished and slid our trays to one side on the floor, I complimented the chef who admitted he'd got the sauce from a jar but claimed the Chardonnay we opened to go with it was made from grapes trodden by his own bare feet. Lucky grapes, I thought, but I didn't say so. Instead I just called him a liar. He grinned and swung a cushion at my head. I ducked and brought both arms up to ward off the blow – which never came. Gary followed through his swing, launching his whole body forwards. I caught him in my arms. We kissed.
It wasn't an epic kiss, slightly awkward actually, but the touch of his lips on mine ran an electric charge through me. I pulled back and looked into his eyes, his beautiful eyes, quizzically and hesitated a little before I touched my lips to his once more, then pressed a little harder, pulling him to me with my hand behind his head, as he pulled me to him with both his arms around my back.
This time he pulled back.
“Will you stay, at least tonight?”
I had to fight back a moment's panic. But I knew what I wanted to do.
“I'd like to.”
“Good. That's great. Really great.” He beamed his pleasure. “There's a problem though.”
“Yes. There's only one bed and this couch is impossible to sleep on. I've tried it and it can't be done.”
“Okay. Well, look, I've seen the bed and it's a good-sized double. Why can't we just share that?”
Gary went silent for a moment looking at his feet. Then he looked up at me shyly under those blond eyebrows.
“I don't want to scare you off. The last thing I want is for you to think I'm trying to push the agenda here. I don't want the guys on the team to be right about us.”
I'd forgotten. “You don't want them to be right about what?”
“That I'm only trying to get into your trousers!”
I had a mental image involving bruises and ointment. “Isn't it a little late to be worrying about that?”
“You know what I mean. I really do think we should take things slowly. I find I really do like you, a lot, and I want to get to know you better, much better. So I don't want you to think I'm in a rush to leap into bed with you.”
“Okay, point taken. So shall we just share a bed, on the understanding that there's to be no activity beyond sleep?”
“Would that be okay with you?”
“Absolutely. After all it won't be our first shared bed, will it? And tonight we'll have much more space and comfort. And the cuddle will be an optional extra instead of an essential!”
We both giggled like schoolboys.
But we shared Gary's bed and just lay there talking for an hour until our conversation began to lag and sleep overtook us.