Wind in the Willows


Nobody in his right mind would have wanted to be in England this particular April... Spring might have sprung, but the weather was enough to send a marauding Viking home to the bosom of his family. Just a few weeks earlier it had actually been snowing, and Cowley was having kittens over the memo sent up from the mechanics; most of the cares in the motor pool were showing their rust. Time to fix 'em or scrap 'em. The Scot in Cowley would make him reject the latter, we all knew; but even so, the cost of de-rusting a motor fleet as big as ours would be horrifying. It was about time the job was done, though, and HMG would simply have to understand... We may not qualify as James Bonds in CI5, but we're going to look pretty bloody silly running about in cars that have great holes gaping in 'em where the rust has eaten them away.

As I drove home it was starting to drizzle and I was running the demisters; I was in my favourite check-out, the silver Capri, and Ray's gold twin of it was parked at the kerb outside our building, nose-to-tail with the awful purple VW monstrosity owned by the anti-nuke protest group who inhabited the flat below ours. Ray had beaten me home by an hour or so; I'd been running errands, nothing special, and he had been wading his way through the kind of routine paper work that's enough to bore you to death. Contrary to popular opinion, most of the work in any of our Security Services is mundane, repetitive and much less than racy. The inclement weather seemed to have sent the criminal types scurrying home too -- nothing really strenuous had happened since the Christmas bombing spree, an old IRA tradition.

It was lunch time on a Friday, and we had the whole weekend before us. If the damned weather had been decent we'd planned to go horse riding in Kent, but I knew Ray would make scornful noises about the proposition, with the wind blasting off the North Sea and the weather men smilingly promising rain and more rain. Well, there were always alternatives. There's a lot to be said for a lazy weekend at home, eating too much and spending most of your time in bed! That freezing, awful April, we'd been lovers for just less than three and a half years. Is the 'novelty' supposed to wear off and the love affair grow cool? Well, maybe loving Ray was no longer a novelty by the spring of '84, but there was nothing 'cool' about our relationship, if 'cool' is meant to mean indifferent, complacent, or bored. I'd loved the beautiful, aggravating, mercurial little bugger for years before I was allowed to touch and kiss, and wanting him had become as natural as breathing.

So it was raining and cold, and we wouldn't be heading out into the country... So it was warm and cozy indoors, and we'd find plenty to do. No doubt about it. I banged the door shut, juggling a bag of groceries -- the kind of things I have to get in myself if I want them, because if I waited for Ray to buy chocolates and salted peanuts and salami I'd have a bloody long wait. Carob and sunflower seeds and nut cutlets are all very well, but I'm not a hamster. He seems to thrive on that stuff, but it's not for me. We've never been able to agree about food, but agreeing to disagree keeps the water smooth.

I'd made it home just in time; the rain was pelting down as I called out, "home, Ray!" and headed for the lounge to drape my jacket over the back of a chair and hold my hands to the gas heater. He was artfully draped all over one end of the couch, a glass of wine in one hand, the cassette recorder in his lap, a stack of tapes by his feet and a paperback on the arm of the couch beside him. He held out his free hand, as he always does, an invitation to come and kiss hello, and I bent to taste his mouth with pleasure. "Mm, what is that, cheese and pickles and port wine?"

"You must be clairvoyant," he said innocently, batting his eyelashes, then chuckled. "Yours is in the kitchen under a tea towel. There's a fruit cake, too, but I thought we'd save that and cut it with a cuppa later."

I smacked my lips. "Nice... What's with the recorder, love? And the book." I picked it up, recognising the cover from years and years before. Two animals in a rowing boat, a water rat and a mole, both dressed like British country gents circa 1900. "Wherever did you get this?" I demanded with a smile. It was not new by a long shot -- battered and lovingly repaired. It had been a favourite book of mine in childhood -- which I guess just about everyone would say!

Ray leafed through a few pages; they were yellowed with age but the line drawings were still crisp. "Borrowed it from Christine," he smiled. "Trust her to still have it! I got it as a birthday present when I was about six, treasured it and lost it... Got too interested in football and such as I grew up. Never knew what happened to it -- never even gave it a thought for years and years. Damn me, she had it all the time!" He closed the book and smiled at the cover. "Funny, the things that take you back, isn't it?"

"Hilarious," I agreed, and kissed him soundly for the sentiment. Ray can be such a tough, prickly little bastard -- and usually is with the rest of the world; it's only with me that he softens up, lets that sentimental center show; as if he knows he can relax with me, let the 'act' drop. God knows, I've been bedding with him since he got out of hospital after the shooting back in 1980, so he's right. If he couldn't relax and let the tough guy act go with me, who could he relax with? And it's desperately important to be able to kick your shoes off and be yourself some of the time. I often wonder what Cowley does, who he has to relax with. No one, as far as I know, and how he lives like that, so alone, is beyond me. Loneliness had been snapping at my heels like a rabid terrier for ages before Ray invited me into his life and his bed... Love is an absurd emotion; you can get watery-eyed over the silliest things, like ancient snapshots of your mate at the age of four, a skinny waif on the beach at Bognor... Or your lover smiling nostalgically at the cover of a battered old paperback which had been his sixth birthday present.

I took myself off to the kitchen hastily, not wanting to admit how much he can move me; he has no idea how much he has me 'in his power,' and if he had, he'd be embarrassed as hell, I'm sure. He still sees an ex-merc, ex-Paras sergeant, when he looks at me, and although he knows full well how much of a softie I am at heart, he still has to learn how bloody squishy I am when it comes to him. I'm not sure I want him to know, either -- I still have my dignity, and all that! He'd cut a great plate full of sandwiches, which was good, as I was starving, and 'met me half way.' Half of them were on white bread, the other half on wholemeal. I ripped the cap off a beer and returned to the lounge, balancing glass and plate on the arm of a chair. "So, what's this with the tapes?" I asked through a mouth full of cheese and pickles.

"Oh, it's for Joey," he said absently, as if that explained everything.

There are so many Doyles that even now I have to literally keep files, but it didn't take long to track down the elusive infant. Joey was his brother Frank's daughter, just on six, a gorgeous little kid with honey blonde hair and big mauve eyes the same shape as Ray's. But Joey's blind, has been since birth, and although she's learning to read with her fingers it's still much nicer for a kid if someone reads to her... Companionship or whatever. "You're going to read the book onto the tapes," I concluded, and settled back into the chair. This was going to be a treat.

He gave me a hard look. "You settlin' in for the afternoon?"

"Going to listen," I said innocently. "Used to be my favourite, once, about thirty years ago. "Oh, go on. Don't mind an audience, do you?"

"Not unless you make a racket," he said sternly. "We can do without glib remarks on the tapes. She's six, she takes this stuff seriously."

"Glib remarks?" I demanded, highly affronted. "I resent that."

"Do you?" He smiled, expression softening, and winked. "Okay, stay put and belt up."

"We're all sitting comfortably," I assured him, stuffing another sandwich into my mouth and trying to drink the beer silently.

That voice of Ray's is hypnotic. I've known that a long time, but Joey was in for a treat. After being read to by this particular uncle, none of the others would do, I guessed, and was wondering if she liked Treasure Island. That's another of my childhood favourites, and I wouldn't say no if she asked me to read that for her. I watched Ray put a cassette in the machine, open the book and turn the recorder on. He was using the directional mic, so I didn't have to be absolutely silent.

" his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing..."

Staring into space, above his head, I wasn't listening anymore. My mind was not miles but years away, here in this flat, another spring, with all that divine discontent stirring outside, while inside my lover committed himself to a paroxysm of spring- cleaning. Paint everywhere, snow in his hair, his jeans spattered and, although he was innocent of it, lovingly imprinted with my hand prints, one on each buttock. Dust trapped in the hair on his chest, I remembered fondly, surrendering to the memory of him sitting on the floor, rubbing his foot after he had fallen over the vacuum cleaner. I'd left it in the middle of the room like a landmine while I went to fetch a fortifying drink, and I heard the yell as disaster struck... 'Kiss it better?' I offered, pushing a gin and tonic at him, and he waved the foot under my nose to collect the offered kiss. So I kissed it. And him. We drank the gin lying in a tangle with the vacuum cleaner... Love's absurd, as I was saying. If the paint hadn't been drying in the roller tray we'd have made love happily among the rumpled drip-sheets. Well -- it was Spring, when a young man's fancy turns to the other thing, and all that. I smiled at the memory, my eyes coming back into focus as I tuned his voice back in.

"..Mole was meeting Ratty while I finished my lunch, and the two animals packed the picnic and set out in the rowing boat... helped the still awkward Mole safely ashore, and swung out the luncheon basket. The Mole begged, as a favour to be allowed to unpack it all by himself; and the Rat was very pleased to indulge him, and to sprawl at full length on the grass and rest, while his excited friend shook out the tablecloth and spread it out, took out all the mysterious packets one by one and arranged their contents in due order..."

I was focused on midair again, and quite unable to hear the words, although that husky voice was still present in my thinking mind... I was miles away, literally. Last summer, the gorgeous summer of '83... Two men have to be careful when they go out for the day; loving behind the closed doors of home is quite legal in these enlightened times, but if you want to revel in the unspeakable pleasures of open air and sunshine, you have to think first and palpitate second. Palpitate? That's an understatement. We'd found a wood -- beech trees and briar thickets, far away from the road, with a little stream and deep, soft moss, sunlight filtered through the green canopy. We had a picnic basket and a red checkered table cloth to put down on the moss; we saw off the picnic in minutes. After a long drive we were ravenous and thirsty. Then we bowled the refuse back into the box and, like Ratty, sprawled out, full length in the grass, and -- unlike Ratty and Mole (I assume), made a meal of each other. While Ray was reading, I was smiling dreamily; perhaps he thought I was reliving my childhood, but I was reliving our afternoon. He belongs in a wood, pagan and free; and naked in a wood he's even more at home. Soft and warm and furry, writhing under me, laughing and panting, before he turned over and made me the offer of his body. He's a ready lover, generous and giving, and I never make the mistake of complacency. Raymond Doyle is a man, sometimes violent, sometimes hard, often, with me, kittenish and beguiling. I laughed with him, that afternoon, awash with pure delight and loving him very much. It was very gentle, very affectionate, punctuated by sighed endearments and laughter.

The gorgeous daydream had to come to an end, like all good things, and as I began to hear the words again, Ray was up to the end of Ratty's first day out with Mole. Mole had met Otter, fallen in the river, made an ass of himself and been taken home to the Rat's house. Ray was exploiting that hypnotic voice without realising consciously what he was doing. Joey was going to listen her little ears off, and I began to envy her the tape. Wonder if I could keep a copy? I thought -- what was I saying about love being a bloody absurdity?

"..When they got home, the Rat made a bright fire in the parlour, and planted the Mole in an arm-chair in front of it, having fetched down a dressing gown and slippers for him, and told him river stories till supper time. Very thrilling stories they were too, to an earth- dwelling animal like Mole..."

I had to smile, and was thinking back to odd long winter evenings as I finished the last, flat drop of beer... Television and films were far, far less fascinating than each other. How many evenings had we curled up on the couch, telling stories? He had coaxed and wormed the stories out of me, getting me to speak about things I once swore I would never tell. Good times, bad times, Africa, Ireland. Mercenary stories, bloody and exotic, hurting me as I recalled them, choking him up as he heard them. There are times in my life I would rather forget, but I told the stories anyway, duped or cajoled into telling them, and often Ray would cuddle me, kiss me, afterward; trying to make up for the bad times? Maybe. Cuddles and kisses never go to waste! He had his own stories to tell, too, and some of them curled my hair. They must chuck the young coppers in at the deep end to weed the men from the boys or something. They sent him out on cases of child abuse; ugly scenes, seven year olds raped by their parents, three year olds stuffed into bins. I wondered how the hell he had ever got through it, but he had. Ray's tough -- he's had to be. He's done jobs I wouldn't like to have tackled. A copper's lot is far, far from being a walk in the park. One boy, a young London lad called Alan, still wrote to him occasionally, twelve years after Ray had picked him up off the ground in an alley in Limehouse, bleeding, raped within an inch of his life. Two days later, Ray had been mauled by the 'pack brats,' Alan's peer group, a bunch of little punk good-for-nothings who had gang banged the kid. Ray came out of that with three arrests and twelve stitches in his head. That was the encounter where he had collected the little scar about an inch from his balls. Some bright young spark aimed a kick at him, and I shudder to think what could have happened. Oh, very thrilling they were, too, and I think we learned more about each other on those long winter evenings than we had ever learned before. He made me open up and talk... It was a little like being set free.

I was listening to the words again a few minutes later and couldn't help a guffaw as he read of the Duck's Ditty -- ducks. Rubber or otherwise, Christ...

"...a-ddabbling, up tails all!" As I guffawed he shut off the recorder and gave me a stern look. "Silence, you twit. How's Joey supposed to get the joke? Not," he reminded me, "that there is a joke!"

"Sorry," I said in mock contrition. "Go on, go on. I'm enjoying this, honest."

I was, too. The next bit was about Toad of Toad Hall, and his encounter with the gypsy cart, and the motor car... "There was the silly creature, sitting in the middle of the road murmuring 'Poop poop! after the departing car...."

And my willful mind was wandering again. I've never cared much for vintage cars, always considered them a bit off-putting, since they're open to the elements and like to break down all the time. But in the autumn of '82 we had a marvellous day out in Devon. There was a fair -- a traction engine fair, of all things, and I ran into an old Army mate who was there, taking part in a vintage car competition. His pride and joy was a Spiker -- God alone knows why; and he was up to the elbows in oil and grease, trying to get the bloody thing going. I should have known better than to let Ray anywhere near the thing, knowing what he's like. He and Malone were like long lost brothers ten minutes after they met, oily and rapt, heads under the bonnet, tinkering. Ray and oil go together like bacon and eggs. I was sick of looking at traction engines and bored to tears in an hour, and I grabbed him under the covering noise of a passing 1908 Ford. 'How d'you like me to bugger off and chat up the tea girl?' I threatened vindictively. He blinked at me and for one awful minute I thought he was going to kiss me and get us both arrested. Instead, he cleaned up, bought me an icecream and shepherded me along to the amusement stalls, where he used that ruddy master marksman's skill of his to win me a teddy bear. A pink one. 'Ah, lovely bear,' I cooed, 'he looks just like you. Raymond Bear. Hm. I like my Raymond bare, too...' For that he stood on my foot, and I chased him behind the hot dog stand and into the lee of a hedge, where I took my life in my hands and planted a smacking kiss right on his mouth. I'd expected him to be outraged, but he kissed back. With gusto. Don't know if he expected me to lug my huge pink Raymond about all day, but if he did he was disappointed, because I took him back to the car and left him there. 'Very fond of that bear,' I said solemnly that night; Ray guffawed, playing the game until I wickedly stuck the silly stuffed animal in bed between us... Then he yanked it out of bed and tossed it at the dressing table, where, alas, poor pink Raymond Bear landed on his head... My Raymond exacted all kinds of sweet, sweet revenge... One suffers with good graces, I thought ruefully, half an hour later as I tried to get my legs back together, sore and exhausted and happy, and all because a 1904 Spiker had broken down at the fair. Poop poop, indeed!

The next chapter was my favourite -- 'The Wild Wood.' The first time I read the book I found it scarey -- and the way Ray read it, playing it for everything that could be got out of it. I expect it impressed the six year old Doyle in much the same way. Mole wanted so badly to meet the elusive, mysterious Badger, who lived in the very middle of the Wild Wood. But Ratty wouldn't be persuaded to take him visiting... It was winter and the water rat was sleeping a lot. So Mole decided to go by himself... "It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead when he slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him..." Ray was speaking huskily, a little low, a little menacing. Joey would buy it hook, line and stinker, and I decided to try to be there when she listened to this, to see the look in those blind eyes. Doyle-shaped, huge and misty mauve... Mole enters the wood... Ray dropped his tone again... "..stumps resembled caricatures, and startled him for the moment by their likenesses to something familiar and far away; but it was all familiar and exciting. It led him on, and he penetrated to where the light was less, and trees crouched nearer and nearer, and the holes made ugly mouths at him on either side. Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water. Then the faces began. It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he saw the first face; a little evil wedge-shaped face --"

Joey would be on the edge of her seat; I was miles away again. Cowley had sent us up to Scotland, and it was early winter, just the year before. There was an illegal arms market up there, and we were looking for the helicopter pad, or air strip, or whatever way the weapons were getting shipped out of the country. We knew there were guards in the woods, and we knew we had precious little daylight left, and we knew we were out of R/T range. We were quite literally on our own. But we'd stumbled across the snippet of info we needed, and if we didn't grab the head man, a hard boy called Hanlon, that night -- then he'd be away out of England and we'd never get him. So we took a chance, went out into the dusk and the cold, armed to the teeth... Ray took a fall, snagged his foot in a root mass and went down hard, knocking his knee up. That left me two marvellous choices. Stay with him and let Hanlon escape; or leave him to his own devices and go after the arms dealer. Ray told me to get moving, that he'd be all right, and since he was well armed and backed up into the bole of a tree, out of the wind, I decided to do as he said. Dusk fell fast -- it does, in the north; and God, was it dark. I was lost in half a second, didn't reckon much to my chances of finding the air strip, and couldn't find my way back to Ray. I stumbled about in the black out for about an hour -- and, oh yes, you see faces. Not the weasles Mole was seeing, but the kind of maniacal faces that have haunted my dreams since I got out of Angola. Except that these were real. I was shooting at shadows, and they got up behind me, it me with something -- rifle butt, maybe. I came to about midnight, stiff and sore and cold, except for the warm patch where someone was holding me... They'd caught him too, after he ran himself out of 9mm ammo; they'd had his wrists wired together, but he had managed to untwist it, and by the time I came to he had learned to live with a swollen knee and had a plan. Some plan. Wait for them to feed us and jump them. Beat their brains to a pulp, and make a dive for the shortwave set he had seen when they brought him in... Fair enough; it was the best we could do, and we had the advantage of surprise, since they thought he were tied up, and in fact we were not. It was a freezing night; we kept each other warm, locked in what seemed to be a shed, pressed together and talking in whispers. They would come to sort us out early, we guessed, and there was every chance we'd buy it... If it hadn't been so bloody cold I'd have made love to him, quickly but thoroughly, a warrior's farewell. As it was, it was too cold to even consider it, and we just kissed instead, long and deeply, stubbly chins and all, and told each other how much love we're hiding under these brash exteriors.

We got out of there -- obviously, or I wouldn't have been sitting there that inclement April day, listening to him reading the book for Joey. They came for us just before dawn and we flattened them; the shortwave was a big, powerful set, and we got a patch to CI5 Central, to Cowley, with the data. Mission completed. Ray got a fortnight on the sick out of it, and it became one more shared experience, the kind that weld us closer together. Neither of us have ever forgotten the words we whispered in the shed that morning. We said it all, and never regretted it, and sometimes we remember that morning, safe in bed with the world locked out and a cocoon of security spun about us. It's a fragile security, not much more than an illusion, but we've got luck on our side...

Mole got out of his stew, too. Stumbled his way to Badger's in the snow and had a rare old time, especially when Ratty showed up there too. Full of lunch and lulled by his voice I was becoming drowsy; he'd been reading for an hour and a half and was getting a little husky, even by his standards. He was up to the chapter where, on their way back from Badger's, the two companions stumble on Mole's old home. Dulce Domum. On the point of drowsing, I had to smile... Going home, for me was always a terrible experience. I never had a family to speak of, which is one of the reasons I ran for it, as a kid. The prospects of enduring a two up and two down rat hole for the rest of my life were too much to take. If I'd known what I was letting myself in for, I might not have run away to sea, but when you've grown up in a port city like Liverpool, bumming your way onto a ship is the first thing that leaps into your mind. I was moderately mauled on the ship -- the Sarah Dee out of Glasgow; but I also got a wealth of experience. They taught me what it meant to be afraid, really, mortally terrified; they taught me what submission was all about, and how good gentleness could be. Later, in the bush and in prison, I needed all that education; it kept me alive, and I had cause more than once to thank the shipmates who had, candidly, used me. I was a pretty kid, ripe for picking. At home again, in England, I forgot all about it, never even looked at another man that way --

Till I met him. Then I looked. And looked. And that was all I was allowed to do, because Ray was never bent... Technically, I wouldn't say he's bent now, because he never so much as looks at another bloke -- still collects photos of actresses from years ago, but not actors. Bent? Ray? If he didn't sleep with me and love me half to death, the idea would be laughable. But he does, so judgement will have to be suspended. As he puts it, he loves me. End of story.

Somewhere along the line, I dropped off to sleep, and he let me sleep until half past three. I woke to the smell of port and the feel of a kiss on my forehead, and blinked up at him. He was waving a wine glass under my nose and smiling, sitting on the arm of the chair. "Ullo, love," I muttered, trying to wake up. "Damn, I must have missed chapters!"

"Only one," Ray chuckled. "I read up to the part where 'Toad, gay and irresponsible' --" he paused to let loose a wicked guffaw "-- got locked up 'in the remotest dungeon of the best guarded keep of the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England." He stooped to kiss me. "Gay and irresponsible, you understand."

"In which case they probably did right to lock him up," I said solemnly. "Can't have gay toads wandering around the place... Feel a bit irresponsible myself, though."

"Do you?" His eyes darkened while I watched, something I love to see. Pupils expand. Go velvety and soft, means he's definitely turn-onable. I took the wine glass from him and put my hand on his thigh. "How irresponsible?" He asked throatily as I slid my hand up to his groin, felt him give an answering throb.

"Oh, how irresponsible d'you fancy?" I asked solicitously.

"Wouldn't like to chuck me on the hearth rug, and, um..."

"And, um," I echoed, finishing the wine and putting the glass down. "You read half the book; you must be bone dry."

"I made a cuppa ages ago." He stretched and scratched his ribs, taking off his tee shirt. "Tell you what, I'll chuck myself on the hearth rug, and you can start from there."

"Randy twerp," I said accusingly, but the lure of his bare chest was more than enough to make me equally as randy. Soft pelt of fur just waiting for your fingers -- mine always itch to comb through it, can't resist it. I remember going to see him in hospital after the shooting and having a mild heart attack; they'd shaved his chest until it was as smooth as mine. Smoother. Nice, so soft, but -- not Ray. Ray's -- well, Ray. I followed him down onto the rug and made short work of the rest of his clothes; then I actually remembered to knock the phone off the hook and shut down the R/Ts before I cast my own clothes on the floor on the floor like so much confetti. We weren't supposed to disconnect ourselves, but there is nothing in this life even half as frustrating as getting half way through a session of heavy breathing only to be called away to the job -- and it can be bloody dangerous. Going out to a shooting match with your balls in knots could get you killed. I rendered up this argument as a rationalisation for doing away with the phone and R/T a long time ago, and after a minute's serious deliberation Ray agreed whole heartedly. It wouldn't do anyone any good to get us shot for sheer frustration, so, unless we've been officially put on standby, the ruddy phone gets accidentally-on-purpose seen to...

Love on a hearthrug is hard on your knees, but if you're on the bottom it makes it easier to respond -- in bed, or on it, you tend to get sunk into the mattress and just about squashed -- still nice, but much more passive than doing it on the floor. Ray was anything but passive, even though he wanted to be on the bottom this time, and my poor knees took a pasting. Half way through, I grabbed him in a bearhug around the hips and let him writhe away to his heart's content since he was so energetic. Poetry in motion... Somehow I managed to hold back long enough, till he filled my right fist with wet heat, and I streamed into him in response. Then I conceded defeat and collapsed, flat out on the floor. I appealed to the ceiling for advice... "What I'm still trying to figure out is how the hell you manage to maul me, and I'm the one on top!"

"Talent," he said glibly, still panting for breath. "Was terrific, love. Your knees okay?"

"What knees?" I demanded. "I haven't got any knees left! It was a bit hard, wasn't it? You're not too sore, are you?"

"Just a bit." He yawned and cuddled up, the gas heater roasting his rump. "Got a cake to cut, if you want a cup of tea."

"Only if you go'n put the kettle on, mate. I'm too near knackered yet."

"Makes two of us," he admitted, pillowing his head on my chest and bringing to my lips fingertips that were sticky with his seed. I licked... He tastes wonderful. A yawn blasted across my chest and he wriggled, getting comfortable.

"You going to sleep?"

"Thought had occurred to me," he chuckled. "You slept your way through the afternoon while I was reading the bloody book, remember."

"Half the bloody book," I corrected. "And incidentally, I enjoyed it."

A hand cupped about my groin and squeezed affectionately. "So did I."

"The book, you randy animal! Mole and Ratty and Badger and Otter..." I chuckled. "Takes me back to when I was a kid."

"Me too," Ray admitted. "Sometimes I think adults get more out of children's books than the kids do, because you can escape for a little while, get away from the horrors of being an adult."

"Being an adult's got its good points, though," I argued. "I mean, at six I used to go to bed and cuddle a teddy bear and read, right? So now I get to cuddle you, and who the hell cares about reading for Christ's sake --"

"When you can be getting laid silly," he finished.

"Crudely put, Raymond, but accurately," I sighed, and kissed the top of his head. "Feel like a shower before we cut the fruit cake and put the kettle on?"

"Mm, sounds nice," he yawned, and I watched him get to his feet, lithe as a big tawny cat. He gave me his hands and pulled me up after him, hugging me tightly, the kind of display of affection I've come to crave. "Love you," he whispered, then drew away to gather his clothes, which I'd chucked in all directions.

I smiled after him; being a kid was all very well -- if you've still got enough of your innocence left to take Toad and Badger and Ratty seriously, you're one of the luckier souls on this planet! But growing up isn't all bad. It has its little compensations. I rubbed at my knees, which were cherry-red with the abuse, imprinted with the pattern of the rug, and indulged in a chuckle as I heard the water begin to run in the bathroom. Each to his own, I suppose. For Joey, a bunch of cassettes with The Wind In The Willows rendered up by a husky baritone... For me, the husky baritone himself, maneuvered onto a riverbank beneath some wind-blown willow, wriggling and giggling in the sun. Joey would grow up, sad to say, and forget the book for years and years; then, one day I hope she'll stumble over the cassettes in a box of discarded childish junk, and care enough to play them again. And stare into space, daydreaming about her lover, while Uncle Ray tell her all about a bunch of animals whose exploits are utterly wasted on kids.

Perhaps I envy Joey the future; certainly I hope she's even half as fortunate as I've been. She has it all to do; all the mistakes to make, the broken dreams and loves gone wrong, the despair, and I as I gathered my clothes and headed for the bathroom I hoped the kid would find her way 'home' without the fear and pain that seem to beset the rest of us. 'Home' isn't a place, it's an attitude of mind, an opening-up of the heart, a love that can't and won't be denied. I stood at the bathroom door, smiling at Ray as he basked under the hot water, pink and glowing, and he winked at me, perhaps guessing that I was in one of my more sentimental moods. I stepped under the water and grabbed him... Oh yes, kid stuff if terrific, but we grown ups have a few things going for us too.

-- THE END --


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