The trees are cold today…. Or was it last July?
I went outside to play beneath a summer sky
Dreams in shades of green and gold…once upon a time became right now
Life is long and timeless, and the magic's just a door away.
After always… ours forever more
Come, I'll take you, I've been there before.
It’s a place filled with wonder, filled with surprises,
Wait 'til you see what I saw…..
Come with me, Let's walk through the door.
(Theme from Tom's Midnight Garden.)
I remember your face, screwed up like a fist. All red and wet looking, surrounding a gaping mouth that threatened to drag me in. Into that terrible noise, into the grasp of two clenched fists, two kicking legs. The strength of that noise and those movements were terrifying. I stared, frozen.
"Glyn?" Karen said several times.
She wanted so much from me, I could feel it tearing, breaking down the last shreds of strength I had. Money. Signatures. Papers. Words I read but couldn't decipher. I'd made a bad mistake and she was strangling me with it. She'd forced me here today by threats, somehow she was on the bed, red faced, sweaty haired, alien in every way and looking grimly triumphant like a warrior off the field, and there were YOU. Too much life. Too much WANT. A want so powerful I felt physically attacked by it. My stomach was clenching until I broke into a sweat and I had to fold my arms tight to stand upright.
"No." I said eventually, meaning it. "I can't."
"You don't get to make that choice!" Karen shouted after me when I fled, shaking, near to throwing up. "It's too late for that!"
I don't remember much of the months after that. I couldn't keep a job any more than I'd been able to stay in a school. I got kicked out in the same way and for much the same reason. I waited around the job centre in the next town, where Karen wouldn't come looking for me- or her parents, or her new boyfriend who I'd seen with her. After a while I stopped getting work, mostly because I'd tried and been sent back from every employer they had. Then I was sent out on a job one afternoon for a company directed by one man. An older man. It wasn't him I met at first- it was his area manager. Landscape gardening of all things, except by then I was desperate for anything that would earn cash. I spent the day picking up rubbish, mowing grass on some industrial estate, watching two other men plant trees. At the end of the afternoon the older man came in a quiet, expensive car, sweeping to a stop beside the truck. He was in his early forties I suppose. Well dressed, dark haired, brown eyes that swept the estate quickly and comfortably, picking up every detail of what was done and done well. They stopped on me.
"Glyn?" he said, when were introduced. "You're taking over this area?"
I looked at him, confused.
"Peter." He said gently, holding out a hand to me. "Peter Granger."
I wasn't in the habit of shaking hands. It took a minute before I gave him mine, rough and dirty from the work. He gripped it warmly, not just a gesture but a contact.
I suppose I lasted five days there without trouble. I came onto the site at mid day on the second week and the green car was there, with Peter leaning against it, wearing jeans, gloves and an old sweater. He nodded when he saw me, turning up his watch.
"What time is it?"
Peter turned his for me to see and waited. I was too surprised to react. I hadn't been spoken to in that tone since I was ten.
"One fifteen." I said eventually, wondering what he meant. Peter nodded.
"And what time do I pay you from, Glyn?"
Again he waited.
"I don't know." I said eventually. "Fuck knows."
"You've taken on employment and you have no idea at what time you start work?" Peter said gently.
I kicked at the gravel, tense and starting to lose my temper.
"I'm told you turn up late if you turn up at all." Peter's voice pushed quietly. "You don't finish work. You leave things undone and leave equipment behind. The site manager nearly had to come out and do your work as well as his before the estate owners complained."
"I don't have to keep this job!"
"No. As a matter of fact, you don't. And if you let me down this badly again, you will lose your job." Peter straightened up, looking directly at me, his face a little closer than most people stand and his eyes VERY direct.
"What time does work start?"
"So you're how many hours late?"
That voice cut straight through mine, not loud, not sharp, but very clear. Like those eyes, close to mine.
"Behave decently or get yourself off my site."
He waited. I didn't move, too shaken to go anywhere.
"How late are you?" he said eventually, those eyes still on mine.
"Five hours and seventeen minutes."
"That's not impressive, is it?"
He waited. Still looking. Straight at me. I looked away several times and every time I looked back at him, those eyes were still there.
"No." I muttered eventually. He nodded. And opened the back of his immaculate car, taking out tools.
"That bank needs cutting, then the borders weeding. I'll start at that end, you start at the other, let's sort this mess out."
He worked with me all afternoon, and he worked fast and well. And every time I stopped, every time I put something down, every weed I missed, he was there, that voice quiet, the instructions clear. About three pm I lost my temper and hurled the secateurs down into the grass.
"FUCK this! I didn't join up with this fucking job to listen to some fucking bastard in a suit tell me what to do when I'm already FUCKING doing it-"
"LOOK AT ME."
It was so clear, and yet so unaggressive that I did. People usually got angry. Sometimes they hit back. He looked nothing but controlled. And unsurprised.
"You have a job to do. When it's done, you can stop. Pick those clippers up."
It was as if he couldn't hear me. And yet I felt peculiarly calmed. He came closer and gave me a gentle- not push, but a move towards the clippers, a prompt that matched his words.
"Pick them up."
I picked them up. He pointed to the section where I'd stopped.
"There. To the end."
Twice he moved me back to re do a section, both times just taking my arm and gently pulling me back, pointing at the missed chunks. When I argued, when I swore, he just carried on pointing and looking at me.
The sun was setting when he took the clippers from me.
I looked at him, startled. He looked back at me for a while. Then said to me,
"What happened to that foul mouth?"
Foul mouth. I thought about that, confused. My teeth were clean. I hadn't eaten anything.
"Where did you hear that swearing?" Peter asked eventually.
"On a building site. And a factory floor." I thought about it. "And at a shopping centre-"
"That's what people say?"
"That's what they say when they're angry."
Peter nodded slowly.
"How about a drink, Glyn?"
Actually I was seriously thirsty. I often didn't notice things like that. They took me by surprise- I'd suddenly find myself aching with hunger and wonder why unlike some people I didn't just have that knowledge that it was time to eat.
He drove not to a pub but to a house. Out of the town. High walls, a long and sweeping gravel drive and a Victorian, three storey house
"Rectory." I said, startled. He glanced at me, eyebrows raised.
"Yes. How did you know?"
I didn't have the words to explain, just pointed at the glass. "Windows."
"Yes. The latticed windows are very typical."
"Typical." I muttered.
"You're very observant."
That sounded good. He sounded approving. I watched his face and saw the smile, a warm smile of approval. I followed him, feeling better.
He led me through an immaculate hallway and into a room filled with overstuffed furniture that ended in double doors. Those he threw open, letting in a stream of late afternoon sunshine.
"Come and see the garden."
It stretched further than the eye could see. Pathways led between the neat little grottoes and lawns and a circular rose garden, out of sight behind the trees.
"Have a seat." Peter said gently.
I sat on the red brick steps. A while later he brought out juice in tall glasses and a plate of sandwiches. I ate, folding my arms against the ache in my stomach.
"Do you like gardens, Glyn?"
"Yes." I stopped there, words crowding and jangling at the back of my head. Peter however didn't seem to need an answer. Just sat back, closing his eyes against the sun on his face, a faint and contented smile on his face. He was a quiet person. His hands were quiet, his face was quiet, he moved- quietly. Without the rush and clatter some people did.
"Where's your family, Glyn?" Peter said when I'd eaten most of the sandwiches on the plate. He'd quietly gone inside to collect a packet of biscuits, and I was sitting, picking the chocolate chips out.
"At home. "
"Do you live with them?"
I shook my head.
"Where do you live?"
"25 Goswell Drive."
Sometimes my brother lived there too. When he was home. We'd both been in and out since my father died, leading separate lives that occasionally ran parallel.
"Don't you like chocolate?"
"Yes." I put the chips in a pile on the plate, sorting them from the biscuits. When the biscuits were gone, I ate the chips.
We sat outside until it started to get dark. Then we moved inside and Peter shut the windows. I stood, looking down at a huge and polished chess board.
"Do you play chess?" Peter asked. I nodded.
"My grandfather used to play chess with me."
Peter lit the lamps and pulled the board out. "How about a game?"
We played. I won. Twice. Peter smiled when he tipped his king over for the third time, and looked at me.
"Are you tired?"
I looked at him. He nodded.
He showed me a bed upstairs. I went into his room a few minutes later. He was undressing, the covers on his bed turned down.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
Sometimes people shouted. Sometimes they didn't say anything. I took his shirt out of his hands and he put my hands gently down.
"Because I don't know you and you don't know me. Go back to bed Glyn, it's allright."
"Do we know each other now?" I asked him months later when we were lying in his bed together. He smiled then.
"Yes. I think we know each other now."
The garden was an old one, one hundred and eighty years of cultivated management and the loving care of a full time gardener. Once, Peter said, there had been a head gardener and two boys employed here with nothing to do but keep the greens immaculate, the hedges trimmed and the vegetable beds that had fed the house and the household kept alive and productive. The vegetable beds were gone now, and so were the gardeners. Peter lived in the house and spent the vast amount of his semi retirement in the garden, patiently and happily keeping it in it's lines and sweeps of flowerbeds, the gravel paths through the well kept roses and the trees around the miniature lake. Large enough to get lost in within the frame of the eight foot walls that surrounded it.
"Should I keep off the grass?" I asked when I followed him for the first time down the four stone steps that led from the garden door of the house. Signs always said to keep off the grass. The size of the garden had shaken me. There was no end in sight- just avenues and archways that led in several different directions, and flashes of green beyond.
"No." Peter said reassuringly, "You can't do any harm. You can go anywhere you like, there's plenty of it to wander around
He loved his garden. He spent hours in it, working, knowing just what everything did and how it worked. While he worked, I wandered. I knew more about the technicalities of what he did now. I worked for him and at first, for some weeks, he came with me. After a while he talked to his site manager and the site manager worked with me, telling me quietly and clearly what to do in Peter's way of talking. After a while longer, he came twice a day and I worked on my own, and Peter came in the evenings sometimes to take me back to the Rectory. Eventually, he came every night.
I loved his quietness. His house was always peaceful, always calm, like Peter himself. Ordered and easy. From the dark red, leather furniture to the shelves full of leather bound books, to the open fireplace where logs crackled at night and Peter sprawled on the sofa while I lay on the floor and watched him. I loved his face. I loved the way it creased, and his mouth moved. I loved his voice. I loved how his hands moved, deft and co ordinated, sure in everything they did.
"Glyn, look at other things as well as me." He said once when we were standing in the bakers. I liked it in there: the fresh smell of bread mixed with the sweet smell of sugar. I looked at him for a moment, startled, then looked at the floor. And the window. Then back at him.
"That's right." He encouraged quietly in that sure tone that always reassured me I was getting the idea he wanted me to. "Its okay to do it at home, I like it as much as you do, but outside home we need to look at other things too."
"Because it's good manners to be private."
Okay. He was good at explaining things like that. Whenever the panic started to rise, his voice was always quiet and right behind me in a straight forward cue I could follow.
"When you shake hands, look at the eyes, smile and say 'pleased to meet you'."
"What if I'm not?" I asked him, confused. Peter smiled.
"That's just what you say."
It was the same, confusing, incomprehensible stuff that had always left me angry and feeling as if I didn't speak the language everyone else seemed to, but to Peter they were just things you did- verbal bones you tossed to the dogs that made them lie down and gnaw peacefully, leaving you alone. He said them until I could remember them myself and say them under my breath, reminding myself when I needed to.
"When you shake hands, look at the eyes, smile and say 'pleased to meet you'."
He made it easy. Always easy.
I saw a title on a book once. The Lord of Chaos. In the picture stood a man on a mountain, his finger outstretched, with a beard like Peter's.
"No." he said in the kitchen when I picked up a packet of the chocolate chip biscuits he always kept in the cupboard. "Dinner's ready, I'm just dishing up."
Dishing was a silly word. It just meant he put food on plates.
"I want these." I explained, unwrapping the packet. I was tired, it had been a long day and I liked sugar. Peter wiped his hands and held one out.
"I want these now." I said reasonably, not sure why he was prevaricating.
I looked at the plate of pasta. "No."
Things got a little confused after that. Peter took the packet out of my hands. I tried for several minutes to take them away from him but he held them behind his back. His voice muddled up with the confusion and the attempts I made to take the packet back. He wouldn't let me get to it. I kicked the door at some point. He wasn't talking by then: I was doing all the shouting. I was startled when he grabbed my shoulder and pushed me through the back door, grabbing his coat and mine on the way, leaving the biscuits and the pasta on the table.
I was too angry for some time to take my coat from him. Peter put his on and sat on the red brick wall, looking out over the garden. I walked away and stood on the lawn, shaking with fury.
It was drizzling slightly when the space and the quiet outside began to filter through. I walked for a while. Peter got up and held out my coat. I pulled it on and we walked in silence, down through the trees to the miniature lake.
"Dinner?" Peter said eventually.
I looked at him, aware he was as strong as I was and that it was getting cold out here.
"I'm not going to listen to some FUCKING bastard in some FUCKING suit-"
"Don't parrot, Glyn. Talk to me."
"Biscuits." I said, looking at him.
"Dinner first." Peter said, looking back.
The biscuits sat on the table while we ate. As soon as we finished, Peter handed me the packet.
"If you're going to take them apart, get a plate."
People usually left me alone when I got angry. Sometimes, at school, I'd been pulled out of fights and held down, until I was so angry someone got hurt. Sometimes it was me.
Peter wasn't angry. His voice wasn't angry. His rules could be incomprehensible, but he meant them. I got a plate.
He made lists.
He listened to me saying things in the mornings when we had breakfast. I listened to the news and then checked the headlines on the computer, looking for the stockmarket figures. I liked the figures.
"We're washing up, and then going to work in your car, and I'm doing the estate until twelve,."
"I'm eating cheese sandwiches-"
I looked up from the computer, mildly alarmed. It had taken a while to take his word that he would make them properly when it was his turn to make lunch. Once he cut them diagonally and another time he used orange instead of yellow cheese. I had to throw them away.
"Cheese sandwiches." Peter said comfortably.
"After twelve. And John's coming at one. We're going to work in YOUR car-"
"Why don't you write it down?" Peter suggested, choosing a tie. I swallowed, feeling faintly sick.
"Mrs Baker said to stop. Older than eleven you shouldn't need lists, you should remember."
Peter took a minute to process that. I used to think he hadn't heard me, but he explained that sometimes he needed time to think. It was another of his quirks, but it was a Peter quirk. They were ok.
"I make lists." He said, taking something out of his pocket. I looked at it.
"Chocolate chip biscuits." I reminded him.
"Write it down." I asked, feeling my stomach clench. Biscuits could mean anything. There were hundreds of sorts of biscuits, and we needed the chip ones.
Peter nodded and took a pen from his desk. Then handed it to me.
"Make yourself a list. I'll get you a notebook at the shops."
I looked at him. He took out his list again and wrote, under chocolate chip biscuits, 'notebook'.
We wrote things down a lot. When we had done them, we crossed them out. When we had more things than we expected, or things changed, we wrote them in the spaces between the items on the list. Sometimes I wrote a list for Peter and he kept it in his pocket all day, I could find it and change it if I needed to. On the broken cupboard door in the spare room, Peter taped a piece of paper with 'no' written on it and I finally stopped dropping the door on my foot every time I went in there. The mower broke in spring, and I couldn't start it again. Peter said the blades had detached. We tried for some time to reattach them. Finally Peter shook his head.
"It's broken. I think that's the end of it."
I looked at it, stomach clenching in the familiar way. "The blades should fit."
"They've bent honey, it's okay. We just need a new mower."
I went back twice to the shed, stomach still tight. It was okay that it was broken. We just needed a new mower.
Normal people didn't worry about things like this, I knew it. Once I started thinking about that, Peter and I tended to end up in the garden where I could shout. You shouted in the garden. That was what you did. Inside the house you talked. If you had to shout, you went outside.
I was biting my nails the third time I went outside, and Peter saw. He followed me outside and stood, looking with me at the mower.
"That's really bothering you, isn't it?"
I looked at him for help. He put an arm around me and gave me a hug.
"Things do break, you know that. It's okay."
"It's okay." I said in the same inflection he used, which sometimes helped. Peter tapped my pocket.
"Got your notebook?"
I handed it to him, puzzled. He tore a sheet out, drew a large OK on it and put it on the mower.
We put an OK on the pile of laundry in the kitchen when the water was off overnight. I discreetly wrote an OK in the dentist's surgery when the appointment was late and put it in my pocket, holding it while I waited. We went into the town to shop and a clown was in the street, with a bucket, jingling it for coins. The name of a charity was on the side and Peter absently dug coins out of his pocket and dropped them in.
The man inside the costume had shoes on that were far too big and a wig on his head. It gave me the familiar clenching feeling, I'd always had it. When I was little I used to cry when people in costume came close, which drove my family mad. I wrote a quick OK in the notebook, tore the sheet out and jogged back, putting it into the clown's hand.
Peter was laughing when I got back to him, but I liked it when he laughed.
"Nutty as a fruitcake." He told me, which was another phrase which had no meaning, and we carried on shopping.
Peter had a cleaner, who came twice a week. Terry.
"Say hello." Peter said when I first came in and saw him. He said that a lot. I never remembered.
Terry was about my age with close cropped hair and an earring in one ear.
"Hello." He said to me.
"Hello." I said, looking at the earring in his ear.
"What's your name then?"
I blinked, hearing the words but seeing the earring. Terry's voice got a little louder.
"What's your name then?"
He obviously expected an answer but I had no clue what it should be. They were waiting for me to say something. My stomach clenched.
"What's your name then?" I said quickly to fill the silence.
This made no sense at all. I looked at my watch and headed into the hall and from there into the kitchen.
"What's your name then?" I said in the kitchen. The words still didn't fit together.
"That's Glyn." Peter said from the hallway, sounding cross. "I did tell you."
"What's the matter with him?"
I'd heard THAT one before. My stomach clenched tighter. I got the coat down off the hook in the kitchen and put it on, straightening the cuffs and zipping it up before I vanished into the garden.
Terry was in the house on Wednesdays and on Fridays. I put that on Peter's list and mine.
"It's ok, he's just cleaning." Peter said every morning he came.
He moved the bed once and Peter came running upstairs, took my arms and made me come out in the garden with him. You shouted in the garden.
The idea of Terry being in the house with one earring always bothered me. He had two ears. I wondered if he'd lost one, and why didn't he get another one, or take that one out. I asked Peter, who explained it was the fashion.
In the end I slipped an 'ok' into Terry's pocket. That made me feel better.
The garden was my place to hide when Terry came. Peter worked out there in all seasons, and I went with him- wandering between the hedges and over the lawns, but my favourite places were the secret and the hidden ones. Especially when Terry was in the house. There was a bank of willows that curled over the grass, covering you from view when you sat beneath them. An oak with a divided trunk, making a natural cradle where you could lie, out of sight with nothing above you but the canopy of leaves and branches. In the afternoons while Peter worked quietly on the flowerbeds or the lawns, I found the hiding places. The places where the garden was silent except for the whisper of the wind through the leaves, where the herbs smelled sweet in the banks of shrubs, under the trees, by the sundial in the middle of the roses. There was no intrusion or even awareness of an outside here- the eight foot stone walls made it entirely safe, enclosed, keeping it's beauty and regularity a discreet secret. With Peter's placid presence out of sight but always near by, I found places in his garden world that he never saw and never felt and tasted and heard as I did. He built it. I lived in it.
It moved at his command- he was the Lord of Chaos. I came into the garden one afternoon and stopped short, confronted by rows of sheared, jagged green, knee high bushes instead of the sprawling, sweet scented roses that had hovered, chest high and rambling just yesterday evening. I couldn't tell him what was wrong when I found him trimming the shrubs along the back wall- just towed him in silent distress and shock to the site of the carnage. He stood, brushing peat off his hands, looking with me at the chopped bushes and what had been their beauty now wrapped in sacks, waiting disposal.
"It makes them grow honey. They'll grow back taller and stronger, and they'll produce a lot more flowers. Its what you have to do."
I didn't answer. Peter put a hand out and rubbed my back soothingly.
"You'll see. Next year they'll grow back even better."
For days afterwards I skirted the rose beds, giving them a wide berth. Peter knew the laws of the garden in ways I didn't. What needed to be moved. What needed changing. Cutting back. What was dead, dying, what was filled with life. Sometimes the boundaries of the garden changed and moved- a bed changing direction, a new bed cut or a new shape to the lawn- the changes rattled me, I didn't understand them, but Peter knew what must be done, and he did it.
When I found the cherry trees however, little saplings, being woven together by him into a low canopy over the grass, a low and discreet little cave of trees that would blossom in the spring and leaf in the summer- I knew who it was for.
"Glyn, it's ten past seven." Peter said, pulling the covers back for the third time. I rolled over, burying my face.
Peter paused, strapping his watch on. "Glyn. You need to be at work by eight, you have a job to do."
"I want to sleep."
"You have to work."
"I want to SLEEP."
"Up." Peter pulled me to my feet and his hand connected with my bottom in a firm slap. He was a lot stronger than he looked. "I've told you before. If the work isn't done, you won't be paid."
Yes. That was the way we dealt with things: first you did this and then you gained that. You simply judged whether the task was worth the reward, and took your preference. It was clear and easy and made perfect sense. This morning, bed and more sleep was definitely preferable. I explained so. Peter sat down on the edge of the bed, quiet for a moment.
He was strange about money. It made perfect sense to me. Figures were predictable, organised, manageable things. When you bought something you simply matched up the figures. If you didn't have the funds you simply didn't buy, it was very easy. I frequently did his accounts when he was working on the company books: it came quickly and easily to me, and I never did understand what worried him so much. We'd argued about this several times- I was quite happy that I earned what I wanted and spent accordingly - in the past I'd chosen between earning and doing other things I preferred. Eating was one of those choices: sometimes other things took precedence.
"Glyn," Peter said eventually, "You have a responsibility to work. You've taken the job, you have a duty to do that job as you promised."
"Its transaction." I explained to him. "The company pays for the work to be done. If the work is not done, the wages are not paid. They can be paid to someone else, it doesn't matter who the work is done by."
"And you lose your job."
"I can take another job."
"What happens when you can't find another job?"
"I get paid unemployment benefit."
"Glyn, you've entered into a contract with the company. A promise that you will do that work. I'm going to have that contract written out and I want you to sign it."
He did. I read through it's short list, ending with a sentence stating that I agreed to do all the things catalogued above. I signed it as Peter wanted me to. A few days later it was raining and cold outside and I told Peter while he was dressing that I wasn't going to work today. Peter showed me the contract and told me that I had given a written promise to keep it. I told him it did not anywhere state that I had to go to work when it was raining, and that I did not want to go.
"You told me that you would keep to the contract." Peter said patiently. I shook my head, starting to get irritable.
"I don't want to."
"You've lost how many jobs?"
"I don't WANT to!"
"You're breaking a promise to me."
"Sorry." I said nicely.
That was the proper word to stop all conflict. I knew that. I'd been taught that. Peter pulled me up out of bed and stood me in front of him, holding my hands.
"That is not a magic word and you DO understand that contract."
"I don't want to!" I said yet again.
"Sometimes you have to do things you don't want to. I don't like it when you break promises to me."
He turned me around and pulled me down so I lay over his lap, then his hand took the waistband of the shorts I slept in and pulled them down to my knees. I squirmed and struggled but Peter is bigger and stronger and I couldn't move. He slapped my bottom, hard, and I yelped at the smart, trying in earnest to get free. Peter didn't let me move an inch. He held me still and his hard hand rained smack after smack until the smart was an unbearable burning and my eyes were watering and my breath tearing in my throat. By this time the squirming was entirely to try and avoid his hand, but he didn't stop. I was too shocked and too surprised to say anything at first and without enough breath to speak after a moment or two. I had no control over when he stopped. Just that his hand finally stopped falling and he pulled my shorts back up, helping me to my feet. I stared at him through very blurry eyes, putting my hands back to rub very gently at my throbbing, blazing bottom. He looked calm and firm, the sort of expression he had when I was shouting at him and he took me into the garden, when he'd say to me calmly and firmly that he wouldn't talk to me until I talked quietly. He took my arm and walked me with him across to the corner of the bedroom, standing me with my face to the wall.
He didn't say anything, but I was very glad of the silence and of the privacy and shelter of the blank wall. Although I can't say I was confused. Oddly, it made perfect sense. When Peter said no, he meant it. He often controlled the circumstances I chose, translating them from incomprehensible chaos to clear and easy decisions- dinner before sugar, and we didn't eat at all until I accepted that. Housework was done before the tv went on- and he'd stand in front of the tv if I tried to turn it on. I knew there was no point in trying to move him. He was the safest person I knew. And I just accepted, instinctively, that he knew what to do and that he was the adjudicator. He was Peter.
Peter made the bed and left me alone for a while. I needed quiet sometimes. The noise in my head faded away and the burning of my backside faded slightly, although I was surprised at how sore it remained. I prodded once or twice, experimenting, but the sensation didn't ease.
"Work time." Peter said softly from the doorway. I turned around, eyes still red. He put his arms around me as I reached him and he gave me a strong hug, kissing my forehead.
I hugged him back, wanting comfort, but quite ready to work.
After that we had no more of these confusing debates: Peter explained things to me, and where they made no sense he made it simpler- I must do this or face his consequences. That I understood. Things fell into clear patterns around Peter, the confusion and anxiety just dropped away.
The second autumn I lived with him, he sat watching me do his accounts, organising his tangled handwriting into neat and ordered columns.
"How did you get out of school without A levels?"
"Through the door?" I said, confused. Peter nodded.
"Why didn't you do A levels at school?"
"I was expelled." I explained. "Twice."
Peter sounded a bit surprised. I thought about it, keeping track of the column I was working on. With Peter's level of education, he should have been taught better handwriting.
"Fights. I had a lot of fights. And sometimes I didn't go. And there were things I didn't want to do. Lot of things I couldn't do."
"English. A lot of that was silly."
"How was it silly?"
I sat back, trying to think how to explain. Peter never harassed me about words. He just waited, like I waited for him when he was going to talk, and I never worried about trying to explain things o him. He never said he didn't understand or that I didn't make sense.
"They'd read a story. A story by someone. And they'd ask why did someone in the story do this, or why were they thinking that. It’s a BOOK. Not real people. And history. Hours talking about where things were and what happened, when there's nothing left of the building and all the people are dead anyway."
"What about maths? Science?"
"I didn't like school."
"I bet you didn't." Peter said gently.
It was his idea. We talked about it for a long time, how if I could learn enough to pass exams there were other jobs I could do. Things I could do for him and his company. I liked accounts better than mowing.
"If we're going to enter you and make this work," he said when he helped me fill in the forms, "We're going to have to tell them what you need from them."
I looked up at him, confused. Peter sat down beside me.
"We need to tell them that I'm going to help you. But they also need to know what you find hard to understand and how you need to work."
My stomach automatically clenched.
"No what, Glyn?" Peter leaned on the table, waiting. I got up, dropping the pen.
"What?" Peter sat back and took my hand, drawing me back to him. I pulled sharply away and he held his hands up.
"Ok. I won't touch you, you don't have to be touched. Tell me."
He wasn't looking at me. Most people stared at me when I was upset, their eyes trying to get into mine until I couldn't stand being near them. Peter never looked at me when I was upset. His face was slightly turned away, but he was still and listening. I tried to stand still and to find the words to go with the feelings.
"Special needs. Unit."
Horrible words. There had been a lot of shouting about that, at home and in the head teacher's office at school on several occasions.
"Glyn you don't need to be scared." Peter said calmly. "Its allright. Did they say at school you had special needs?"
I nodded, relieved. Peter nodded.
"What were they?"
The confusion was instantly back. I had no idea what he meant. Peter took my notebook out of my pocket and opened it, writing the words down. Special needs.
I stood closer, watching the pen move.
'Special' means right for a person. 'Needs' mean what helps you to learn.
That was not right. That was not how people said it, or what it meant.
Peter carried on writing, which was unfair as he KNEW I couldn't stand not reading what was written.
Glyn doesn't like:
people to stand too close or touch
people to talk too much
Things written down
Lists"Special needs." Peter said, tapping the list he'd just written. "You have to tell people. Otherwise they won't know what you want."
He said that to me sometimes when he made me go into the garden to calm down.
"Glyn, when you're shouting I don't know what you want. You need to tell me."
The clenching in my stomach was getting so bad I was holding my breath to stop the shouts bursting out. Peter followed me into the kitchen, took his coat when I took mine, and came with me into the garden. He sat on the wall and let me alone. A long time later I went and sat beside him and he put an arm around me, pulled my head against his shoulder and stroked my hair. That felt good. Sometimes I wanted him to do it for hours.
He came with me into the college classroom and sat beside me for the first few weeks. When I got distracted, he tapped my knee or my hand, reminding me to listen. He wouldn't let me fidget or hum or lose attention, and he wouldn't let me leave the classroom. The once or twice I got really angry, he took me out into the corridor with him and made me go back with him when I calmed down. When things didn't make sense he made me write things down, ask and at times he actively translated for me, turning gibberish into sentences I understood. The tutor got a lot better at talking. By Christmas, I was attending on my own with a list in my pocket of exactly what I had to do and when. When things got difficult, when I had to walk past flashing lights that hurt my eyes and ears, or trees that played tinny carols, or hallways that looked completely different to the way they should, I had a list to check that meant I didn't lose track of what was happening.
I liked the maths.
I didn't much like Christmas. Everything looked different wherever you went, everything changed. Peter took me to buy a tree and we put it up in the living room and decorated it. No flashing lights. Candles we put everywhere. I liked candles. After a few days I got used to it, and it was nice to sit in the living room in the evenings with the candles and the fire lit. Peter didn't play tinny carols. He and I bought a new stereo together, listening to each one in turn in the shop until we found the right one. I liked it on very softly, but the depth and quality of the sound moved inside me. We listened to choirs singing softly and Peter sang with them. I cooked while he sat in the kitchen on Christmas morning and read. He loved reading. He could cook well, but he forgot things, dropped things; to me it was as logical as connecting a row of figures. A series of sequences and causes with effects. It made me feel calm and the kitchen looked much better when I was finished with it, things clean and ordered.
On boxing day we walked through the park. By the children's playground a woman with a pushchair stopped, and then called out.
Peter stopped me with a hand on my elbow.
"Hello." I said, wondering who on earth it was. The woman brought the pushchair over. A small child in a red coat was asleep in it.
"Glyn? It's Karen."
Oh. Her face had changed, her hair was different. Her clothes were different.
"I'm Peter." Peter said, shaking hands. "Peter Granger. Who's this?"
"Shaun." Karen leaned over the pushchair, straightening the blanket over the child. "He's changed a bit since you last saw him, Glyn."
"Do you know him?" Peter asked me. I shook my head, baffled.
"He is Glyn's." Karen said bluntly.
Gradually the garden got to be somewhere I went to be free- to use time after the steady pattern of work, classes, homework, eating, sleeping. The energy stored all day when I sat and listened and wrote came out in the garden. I climbed the old trees, following them up into the heavy branches where the marks showed where a children's treehouse had once stood. I jogged through the maze, working out the nine separate solutions to it and running it in increasing speeds. The garden was always a good place to be alone in. In wind, in rain, in snow, Peter didn't argue when I took my coat down and went outside. He didn't need to come with me; his presence was in every inch of earth.
Peter took me with him to a company party and I followed him from group to group, watching him. His easy stance. The way he looked at and spoke to people. I followed his lead, recording his cues. You held your glass loosely. You smiled at people when you were told who they were. Questions you asked that started people talking to you. Nodding, making mm noises when they paused. Questions you asked to start them talking again when they stopped. I stored and experimented, and the tricks worked well. People stood comfortably, warm and chatting easily when I was acting Peter. I kept my mind on what they said, resisting the urge to focus on the shine from their watch or the timbre of their voice, and the evening was easy and relaxed.
"He's your son." Peter said. "You have a responsibility towards him."
There was no getting around that. When Peter talked about responsibilities it meant he told me what I needed to do; and once I knew, I had a choice. Do it or be spanked. I had no idea what you did with a child.
"Karen does it all." I pointed out. Peter shook his head.
"Karen shouldn't have to raise him on her own. You're his father. He needs to HAVE a father."
"To do what?" I asked, totally confused.
We talked about that a lot. Peter rang Karen and talked to her on and off for days. Finally they came to an agreement and the Saturday afternoons began. We picked up the small child at two and then we took him with us while we shopped, while we walked in the park, while we watched strange tv programmes of bright colours and noise and he played with the toys Peter said we should buy.
To begin with I had nothing to do with it. Peter wouldn't let me go away but he was the one who talked to, handled and occupied the child. He babbled to it happily, sang, rolled balls, built bricks. He seemed to have this knowledge of what to do. It moved around, wandering and touching everything: to begin with I was willing to do anything to prevent it coming into the house. And it was noisy- it sang, shouted, laughed, screamed and occasionally howled until I had to press my ears closed to bear it. Peter was unmoved when it did that, merely picking it up and holding it until the screeching stopped. I argued, pleaded, periodically refused, but whether or not I arrived at Karen's house with him, red eyed and sore or clear eyed and comfortable at least physically, I was there. When it left, I got into Peter's lap- something I didn't do often- but the image of him holding and smiling at this child wasn't something that sat well with me.
A few months after we first began this chore, Peter went to answer the phone and the child, staggering across the floor after some toy, tripped and landed hard. It got up, mouth open, dripping fluid and making that appalling noise. It went on and on making this noise, mixed in with a word repeated over and over again.
I'd seen Peter deal with this. Steeling myself, I tried to remember how he'd stood, the expression on his face, the tone of his voice. I deepened my voice to sound more like his and picked the child up. My hands nearly spanned its ribcage. Once in the air, I gingerly brought the child up against my chest and wrapped my arms around it, jogging it gently, acting out Peter's gestures.
"Allright honey… okay…. That's a boy, you're okay…."
That was the script as far as I remembered. I imitated Peter's next step in this process and kissed the blond head under my chin. There was a particular scent of shampoo and something else- something specific, not at all unpleasant. The shrieking was becoming far less painful.
I drew breath and carried on, following the pitch Peter sang in.
"Old McDonald had a farm…"
The child stopped screeching. I jumped when it moved, but its voice thankfully was a lot less dischordant when it was singing.
There was a season of high winds, swirling leaves, and the boundaries of the garden that were secure in summer became -
I drove Peter mad that Autumn. I climbed very often onto the high walls that surrounded the garden, and sat there for hours, looking at the town beyond. The high church spire in the distance, the silver wind of the river through the fields. I climbed one of the trellises that separated the neat, ordered rose garden from the wildflower beds, trying to reach the broad bough of the oak. I carved my name into the trunk and sat there when I was done, looking at the imprint. Those letters meant me. My name. My mark on this living thing that would preserve this moment in time for longer than I would live. On my way down to the ground, the trellis broke and I fell.
I limped into the kitchen with a swelling wrist and a split lip, and Peter drove me to casualty. He still spanked me that evening, hard, despite the bandage on my sprained wrist.
"I will not climb in the garden, it is dangerous." I wrote again and again on varying occasions.
"There's no reason for this." I tried repeatedly to explain to Peter. "I only need to write it once in my notebook, you already know it, when I finish writing it you tear it up-"
"Just write it, Glyn."
I'd been frightened of the walls once, shying well away from them and keeping to the hidden recesses of the garden. They'd been safety for a long time. Now I couldn't resist standing on them, looking over them, occupying them despite Peter's exasperation. I climbed. He spanked. I climbed. And wrote. And climbed. And was called down, told to sit on the steps under Peter's watch.
He didn't get angry. But he didn't let me push either. It was another transaction. I climbed, he punished. There were no limits set. No record of how many times I could do it before he lost patience or admitted defeat, no record of how many times I could be spanked before I put the want NOT to be spanked ahead of the want to be on that wall. Nothing actually changed. I made no decision, Peter did nothing different. Just gradually over time, the desire to do it faded away.
Peter mended the trellis. At first the break in the wood looked raw and the join was easy to see, a clear reminder to both of us as to what had happened that was seen every time we passed that spot. Over time, the weather faded the wood and it wore so that the join became fainter and the break was no longer raw, until only Peter and I knew where it was and it was just something that belonged to the garden- a landmark that made it ours.
Shaun was six.
I watched him by the hour. I'd heard him learn to talk, wondering at the way words materialised in his mouth and moved from words to rapid strings of words and thoughts and expressions. The speed at which new skills manifested. The swiftness with which he understood. Peter and I went with him to museum after museum. Canals, space centres, steam trains which I loved and dragged Peter to over and over again after the first time Shaun demanded to see them, Viking centres, Roman forts, castles- Shaun ate knowledge, his round green eyes intent under a sandy wave of hair. He had his routines which were easy to understand. Where ever we went, whatever we saw, we found a café and sat there to drink the tea, coke and water we always ordered between us. He had tapes of music which were played while we drove, and he and Peter sang to them, periodically getting the words wrong.
Sometimes he jabbered at me, his eyes bright, his face moving constantly, his voice covering so much range I couldn't hear the words.
"Talk slower." Peter said to him when I retreated, "Say Glyn's name and ask him one thing at a time."
"So he can hear you."
I could always hear Peter. I asked him about that and he laughed.
"Maybe you're more used to me."
I didn't agree. I couldn't remember a time when I couldn't hear Peter.
"Why don't you take him into the garden?" Peter suggested once when Shaun was still very small.
I could never really explain my reaction to that. Except the thought of Shaun in the garden was horrible. Awful. Peter grabbed our coats and we stood in the garden a long long time after he suggested that. Finally I went to the foot of the wall and looked for handholds.
"Glyn, no climbing." Peter said firmly.
"I know." I said, pulling myself up onto the top of the wall. I could see for miles up here.
Miles and miles of life and people, and yet Peter and I were safe in here.
Shaun knew he wasn't allowed out of the back door. Sometimes we went to the park, but he never tried to go into the garden.
I sat the exams. They were easy. The atmosphere of the rest of the class as the exams grew close nearly drove me out of the room. Peter came twice to get me from college and eventually went with me to see my tutor, after which I worked at home.
"They're just nervous." Peter explained the first time when I was outside the college. Several people kept looking at me. You went outside to shout.
"It's okay, nothing's wrong. They're just worried they won't pass the exams."
"Then they take the exams again."
That made no sense. I was much happier at home, at the desk in the living room. Peter took to making me have an alarm clock and lock the books away at night when it sounded. Sometimes, when temptation was high, he took the key and put it in his pocket. Sometimes I had to check it was still there, but once he had it, it was allright.
When I had the qualification, I worked sometimes at home and sometimes at Peter's office. Some days after breakfast Peter would put out the heavy gardening gloves and I'd dress in the coveralls and work on the estate. Other days he'd put out a tie and I'd work at the desk on the figures. Over time, I spent more and more time at the office and he only put the gloves out when my stomach was particularly clenched.
Karen came over and said the man she lived with was looking after Shaun. Peter led her into the living room and I reluctantly put down the books, aware that that was what you did when people came.
Karen gave me a few nervous looks and folded her arms. Peter sat down on the sofa, waiting.
"Shaun's asking some questions." She said eventually. "I thought I should talk to you about how we answer them."
I looked to Peter for help. Peter nodded slowly.
"What's wrong with Glyn."
My stomach clenched hard. Peter's voice didn't change at all.
"That's easy, there's nothing wrong with Glyn."
"Come on Peter, I dated him too."
"For two weeks. Glyn and I have been together for eight years."
"And you've parented him pretty much as I have Shaun."
"That isn't at all true." Peter said firmly. Karen sighed.
"Look. I know you've taken good care of Shaun and I know he loves you, but he wants to know why his dad isn't like his friends' dads, and I don't know what to say to him. And I think we should all be telling him the same thing."
"Have you explained that we're gay?"
"Peter he's known that since he was two, that's a non issue."
"This is too."
"It's not. I'm sorry Peter, Shaun has to live with this. He's seen Glyn making patterns with books on the carpet, he's seen him sitting flicking pencils when you and he are watching tv… he needs to understand it and he needs to have a word for it."
I looked at Peter, anxiously. He never minded me making patterns or fiddling with things- it was what I chose to do. If I was feeling clenched then it helped a lot. I liked to do it.
"Try 'Glyn'." Peter suggested. His voice was sharpening and it was such an unfamiliar sound I got up in a hurry.
He put a hand up and took mine, still glaring at Karen. "It's okay love."
"Out." I said, hustling him to his feet. I pushed him into the kitchen, put his coat into his hands and followed him outside. I'd never heard him shout but I'd never seen that expression on his face before either. Peter stood on the patio and took a few deep breaths, then turned around and held his arms out to me.
Sometimes he needed a hug when I didn't. I hugged him tightly, and felt his head tuck into my shoulder.
"It's allright." I said in the same tone he used to me. "Breathe. It's okay."
Peter smiled but I felt the tension in his back go away.
"What IS wrong with me?" I asked him. Peter didn't move for a minute, then lifted his head and looked straight at me.
"You know. You knew about lists. I can hear what you're saying. You've always known."
Peter sighed. "Labels are useless things Glyn. People have all kinds of set expectations, they generalise, often those labels aren't true."
"If you don't label, you can't find anything." I said, thinking of the tins in the pantry.
Peter didn't answer for a minute. Then said, "I used to work with a man who had a son with Aspergers syndrome. He used to bring his son to work with us sometimes, and I spent quite a lot of time with him when he was growing up. You see a lot of things the same way he did."
I looked blank at him, confused at how someone could see the same way as me. I just- saw. With my eyes. Everyone did, didn't they? Peter touched my face, pushing my hair off my forehead.
"A communication difficulty. A kind of autism."
There was a word for it.
I thought about that with a mild kind of relief. And a growing interest.
"Some people have it worse than others." Peter said gently. "I don't think you have an extreme version. But you do have the problems with language- with the anxiety, knowing what's happening next- the literal speech- the social misunderstandings. There's nothing WRONG with you- you just have difficulties with particular communication skills."
"Why did Karen want to have sex with me then?" I asked reasonably. I'd wondered on and off about that for years.
Peter grunted ruefully. "That's easy. Look in a mirror love. You're gorgeous."
That made no sense.
"Tell Shaun." I told him. Peter took another deep breath and stepped back, holding my hands.
"There's something else we should think about. People aren't going to understand our relationship. Karen thinks- and Shaun may think- I take advantage of you."
That meant nothing. I frowned, trying to think of what he meant by advantage. I kept seeing tennis matches. Peter sighed again.
"Sorry. They might think I tell you what to do too much and that I shouldn't do that. They might think it's wrong that I spank you sometimes. They might say because you don't always understand things that it isn't fair and I shouldn't be allowed to do it."
I thought about that for a while. Then started to laugh.
Peter held on to my hands. He looked white and he wasn't smiling.
"Glyn, what on earth is funny?"
"That's silly!" I said when I stopped laughing.
"I know," Peter said, "But we might have to listen to people say it-"
"They don't live with us!"
"Glyn. People won't always understand how MUCH you understand. Because sometimes it comes out wrong, or they don't understand the way you think, they might think it sounds childish- or that you don't know what's happening."
"They DON'T live with us!" I said again.
Peter finally smiled. It had taken me years to know really what that smile meant. People smiled all the time and it never meant one thing. Sometimes they smiled when they said something and then expected you to understand they didn't mean what they said. Sometimes they smiled when they were angry. Sometimes they smiled because they thought you were funny, and sometimes because they thought you were stupid. I'd hated people smiling before I met Peter, but with him it was always a good expression. Peter's smile was always good.
"I know. I know what you mean, and you're right."
"Yes." I took his hand, towing him towards the house. I wanted the computer. Peter had taught me how to find information.
"I love you, you know that?" Peter asked as I dragged him through the kitchen.
I looked back at him, confused. "Yes, you said so this morning."
Peter laughed, hanging onto the door frame. "Ok, I want a kiss!"
Fine. That made sense.
Peter and I planned the garden all through the winter, drawing map after map of it, making detailed plans of each bed, reading through reference books marked with endless slips of paper while we worked out what went where, what should be bought, where it should be put. I ruthlessly pointed out to him which beds were sunny, which were shaded, which plants could not be put into which area, and we plotted out the charts we worked on making reality through the spring and the summer. We dug a pond by the cherry trees, surrounded it with boulders it took us weeks to find and eventually meant driving to Wales to buy, but when we were done we had sun hot rocks around the water where Peter loved to read and I loved to lie, watching the fountain run and run and run over the rocks, sparkling in the sunlight. The feeling it gave me was indescribable.
We worked together on each inch, mowing, trimming, weeding, spraying, replanting- we put up a far larger and more complex greenhouse and Peter began to grow many of the plants we later planted out into the garden. He also began to grow fruit trees, which I loved the smell of and couldn't keep my hands from.
Shaun was twelve in September. Karen held a party for him and Peter and I went to their house, decorated so it was impossible to recognise rooms and find my way around, and filled with noisy, excited boys.
Shaun smiled when he unwrapped the computer programmes I'd given him; the same smile he'd had when he saw Peter's stack of books. Like us, he liked information- unlike me he liked to act on it. He increasingly dragged us to watch him do things once he'd found out about them. His current fascination was with rock climbing. Peter and I escaped to their garden when the house got too overwhelming, and walked around it, examining their plants and their combinations. Shaun came out to us when the crowd of children were gone, ran at Peter and Peter grabbed him, tousling his hair before he hugged him.
"Eaten yourself sick yet?"
"This was just the polite party, I've got some friends coming back later to stay the night." Shaun said happily. "Mum's letting us camp out in the garage."
"Brave Mum." Peter said wryly. "We ought to be making a move anyway. Happy birthday tyke."
"Thanks." Shaun grinned at him and came more slowly to me.
"Glyn, thanks for coming. I know you don't like this sort of thing."
"Happy Birthday." I told him, registering the way his hair grew at the moment, the height he was, the exact colour of his eyes. I had a hundred mental photos of him. He was hard work- social, chattery, lively, noisy, unpredictable and severely normal. I found him difficult sometimes but we got by. Shaun hesitated a moment, then gave me one of his tentative hugs. He hurled himself at Peter without a second thought; with me he was always more cautious. I put my arms around him and squeezed, knowing what to do, and a moment later he pulled away, slightly red faced, and rushed ahead of us to open the gate.
You came to us on Saturday afternoon, as you had done since you were two; leaning your bike against the garage wall and letting yourself in at the front door.
"In here!" Peter called back. We were sitting on the patio, the lounge doors open into the garden and the sunshine. You came into the lounge and waited for us to come inside, as we always did, shutting the door on the garden. Peter got up, ready to go inside and join you. I don't know why I didn't move. I'd been thinking about this for a long time and although my stomach was tight, I knew what I wanted to do.
I jerked my head awkwardly at the greenery beyond me and Peter.
"Come and look."
You hesitated on the doorstep and looked at Peter, who smiled at you.
"Come on, it's okay."
I waited on the steps for you. Peter sat down again, smiling faintly with his eyes closed at the sun on his face. Long legged and nearly as tall as me you came to stand beside me and I walked with you, out into the garden.