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Chapter 5: Connections
"You let the goddamn fire go out!" Ralph's voice boomed out, "There was a ship! They might have seen us! We might have gone home!"
All the best lines belonged to Ralph. And he had possession of all the most dramatic moments. That was the first really dramatic scene in the whole play: the point at which things really start to go wrong for the stranded schoolboys. The anger and energy in Tony's voice during this confrontation were so convincing that it left me breathless. He was not merely a boy playing a part. He really BECAME Ralph. He acted his role with such authenticity that it was difficult to believe he was only acting. His performance was quite brilliant. He easily outshone the rest of us. In fact, he was the only other cast member who was truly enthusiastic about his part, since it was clear that the others were just along for the ride.
We had started out by first reading our parts from the script sitting around in a circle in the middle of the classroom. Now, we had progressed to developing our characters and playing out whole scenes together. It was now a couple of weeks into the rehearsals and we had gone from rehearsing for a couple of hours after school each day to spending a whole afternoon at Mr Sheppard's house. It was a big step. For someone who had taken more than a passing interest in Mr Sheppard, it was all the more fascinating to find myself inside his home. Riding in his car had been one thing, but now I was actually being invited into the very heart of his own personal world. It was, therefore, an unbridled privilege for me to be there, and more especially in the company of Tony Slater. It was a wholly dramatic and unexpected turn of events and the thought of it instilled in me a feeling of great awe.
We had cleared a space in what Mr Sheppard called the drawing room, which comprised most of the downstairs part of the house, so we had quite a big area to work in. It was easily the biggest room in the house. It was all open-plan, so that you could see from one end of the house to the other. The front door opened directly onto a little lobby area, which had ceramic tiles on the floor. The rest of the room had a rich, deep carpet. A set of open stairs, leading to the next storey, appeared to be suspended from the ceiling. One whole side of the room was made up of full length windows and sliding doors that opened out onto a small terrace, and beyond that you could see a lush green lawn, bordered by well-tended shrubs and flowerbeds. At the back of the room was a breakfast bar and beyond that was a large adjoining kitchen with a central island and all manner of shiny gadgets and appliances. It was a nice house and I could see Mr Sheppard kept it in very good repair. It was neat, clean, spacious and airy. A far cry from the cluttered, grimy, shopworn and claustrophobic environment that I lived in.
But even this relatively modest setting, where we acted without costumes or props of any kind, was a long way away from Mr Sheppard's vision of the finished product. For the performance itself he showed us how he had envisaged a set made to look like a real tropical island and Mr Sheppard had secured the pledges of so many other boys that there was no shortage of 'extras' for some of the big scenes. The set was limited, so this in itself promised to be an accomplishment of the most painstaking choreography. But for the moment, we were content to build on the main roles and the informal circumstances were intended to help us to get to know each other.
For my part, I relished the opportunity to work so closely with Tony Slater. But even after two weeks I felt no nearer to getting to know him, nor learning anything more about him. Until today, Tony invariably turned up at rehearsals with at least a couple of friends in tow and, since two of his friends were playing the parts of Piggy and Roger, he was never out of their company. There were various others who always sat on the sidelines, watching with studious interest until rehearsals were over and they all slinked off home together. It appeared to me that Tony was indifferent about who he had to work with. His approach to the whole business of the school play was utterly professional. In all the time we had worked together, we had still not really spoken properly, except within the confines of the script. For someone like me, whose interest in the school play was largely due to my interest in Tony Slater - and who had only agreed to involve myself in it because I liked and respected Mr Sheppard - it was a period of the most extreme contrasts. There was the exquisite pleasure of having Tony's attention focused on me, especially during the confrontational scenes where Ralph and Jack argue, and eventually fight, but there was also the frustration of forever being near him and around him without ever getting to know him; without even the smallest acknowledgement from him.
As for Mr Sheppard, I still remembered his diplomatic probing to ascertain the reasons for my eternal moodiness and I suspected even now that his incitement for me to participate in the play was at best a way of distracting me from whatever it was that was bothering me, or at worst a thinly veiled attempt to get me involved in something; anything that would bring me out of my shell; get me working with the other boys. If that had been Mr Sheppard's intention, then I was wise to it. But I still could not help wondering whether my involvement in the play - which I had only consented to as a favor to Mr Sheppard - instead of being a prime example of my inability to say no to anyone, was actually a decision of supreme inspiration which might, even now, promise to open up all sorts of new and exciting avenues.
The confrontation over the fire going out was the culminating scene in a very intense afternoon of rehearsing. Tony's rousing performance was almost wasted on the audience of Mr Sheppard and Marcus, for they were the only others present on this occasion. But they both afforded him a sparse round of applause.
"If you can play it like that on the night, you'll be a winner," said Mr Sheppard, clearly impressed.
I had simply stepped back and let Tony bask in Sheppard's approval. I felt positively out of my depth, like I was just a wannabe - a pretender that couldn't really act and didn't really deserve to be on the same stage as Tony. But I didn't begrudge Tony this. It was not the first scene Tony had stolen. Tony simply smiled modestly and stepped aside, not saying a word.
"You've all done very well," Mr Sheppard went on, "And on that note I think we should call it a day."
There was a brief murmur of agreement before we set about moving the furniture back. We had spent the whole afternoon in this room, in the intimacy of Mr Sheppard's home. Yet, I still could not ascertain much about his life. The room was fairly circumspect in terms of clues. All I could surmise thus far was that he probably lived alone. But it was still just pure guesswork on my part. Besides, the obligation to concentrate on rehearsing had not allowed much opportunity for anything else. I had hoped we might spend a few informal moments with Mr Sheppard, perhaps talk about other things and maybe even get to see a little more of the house. There were so many things I wanted to know. After all the time I had spent observing Mr Sheppard, I was here at last inside his home and yet unable to take full advantage of the opportunity because of the constraints that had brought it about. All we had done was rehearse the play, with little time for anything else except a few brief formalities.
Marcus was the first to leave, having participated in only a minor way in the afternoon's proceedings. He made some excuse about having to be somewhere and was soon gone. Mr Sheppard had gone out of the room for a moment and in this brief instant I found myself alone with Tony for the first time. We sat opposite each other at the table by the full length windows. Already Tony was gathering up his things and preparing to move off. I noticed that he had with him a leather biker's jacket, complete with stud fastenings and zip up pockets. I had never seen it before. Certainly Tony had never worn it to school. Peering through the slats of the Roman blinds into the back yard, Tony seemed distracted. He rummaged about in his jacket pockets and brought out his smartphone. I watched interestedly from across the table. Tony seemed intent to ignore me. He proceeded to text ever so dexterously with both nimble thumbs, pausing only to stare contemplatively out of the window. In the silence I observed Tony's profile; illuminated by the sunlight peeping through the blind, and I noticed how long and seductive his eyelashes were and the way they swept up and down every time he blinked. I had hoped for some opportunity for us to talk, but Tony was distant - almost haughty in his aloofness. I dared not speak unprompted. I merely gazed in wonder. My stare was rewarded with that famous flip of his head, once again flicking his long blond hair out of his warm hazel eyes. That was followed by a sideways glance; almost a flash of annoyance. In that instant I knew that Tony must have felt my gaze, and I cursed myself for having stared for quite so long.
A few moments later Mr Sheppard came back into the room. He merely carried on getting the room back the way it was; adjusting the sofa and the cushions. Just then, the sound of a car horn emanated from the street. Tony announced that it was his dad, who had come to pick him up. He quickly stuffed the phone back into his pocket and I watched him cross the room to the front door, bidding us both a joint farewell, trailing his leather biker's jacket behind him. Mr Sheppard followed him to the front door to see him out.
Mr Sheppard came back from seeing Tony out and, seeing that I was not ready to leave just yet, offered me a cup of tea. I accepted gratefully and said I would go to the toilet first. Mr Sheppard directed me to the top of the stairs and then disappeared into the depths of the kitchen, at the far end of the drawing room, to put the kettle on.
I climbed the stairs and found the toilet without any trouble, but on my way back out, about to descend the stairs, I was struck by the open door on the other side of the landing. It was the door to one of the bedrooms. There was a little ceramic nameplate on the door with a racing car motif. 'Joey's Room' it said. I thought that odd, since I was pretty sure that Sheppard didn't have any children. Should I chance just a quick browse? I could hear Mr Sheppard in the kitchen below - the sound of spoons and mugs - and decided I would take a quick look. Perhaps it was the last piece I needed to complete the picture.
I didn't go right in, feeling that that would be too much of an intrusion, but I pushed open the door and stood on the threshold and looked around. I didn't know who Joey was, but it was clearly a boy's bedroom. That was evident from the poster of a Formula One racing car on the wall, and the die-cast model of a 1950s Ford Thunderbird on the dresser. Even the bedspread had a Ferrari motif. There was definitely an automotive theme. There was an upended skateboard propped up against the bookcase. In the corner were other sports paraphernalia, like a basketball, a catcher's mitt and shin pads. There was a slightly out of date games console, a gaming chair on the floor and a plasma screen on the wall. An electronic keyboard mounted on its stand was pushed against one wall next to the workstation, on which there was a computer. It was notable that last year's calendar was attached to the little pinboard above the workstation, which seemed an odd oversight. Everything looked unused, like it hadn't been touched for a good long time, which would account for it being so neat and ever so slightly dated. It was then that I suffered the shocking realization that Sheppard must have had a son. Oh my god! Had he lost his son? Was that the reason he had been absent from school for such a long time all those months back? I was suddenly overcome with guilt for trespassing on what must have been a very personal space. It had not been my intention to violate it.
Moments later I was startled by a voice.
"What are you doing?"
It was Mr Sheppard's voice, emanating from beyond the threshold, coming from somewhere out in the hallway. But it was soft and enquiring, not angry.
I turned, not alarmed, but aware that I must have been in there longer than I realized. Sheppard was standing there regarding me through narrowed eyes. But there was no irritation in his expression. Without waiting for an answer, he approached me and came to stand beside me, gently putting a hand on my shoulder. I could feel the warmth and heaviness of his palm resting there, and for a few moments we stood in silence, both of us admiring the room together. And in those few anxious seconds, I felt a strange solidarity between us. Suddenly a lot of things made sense, and I felt a tremendous warmth and empathy for this man. I suddenly trusted him and felt his benevolence. It was an odd, but utterly pleasant sensation, like something inexplicably spiritual had just happened.
"Who was Joey?" I asked, sounding curious, but I hoped not too impertinent.
"He was my son," Mr Sheppard replied, still standing behind me, not at all fazed by my question.
"He died didn't he?"
"You must have really loved him."
And I don't really know why I said that. On reflection, it seemed an incongruous thing to say. Perhaps it was prompted by the sight of this marvelous room - the type of dream bedroom every boy would wish for, with all manner of wonderful things in it - all the wonderful things I had never had.
"Yes I did," said Mr Sheppard, "Very much. He was a very special boy."
"I knew that something terrible must have happened."
"What makes you say that?" Mr Sheppard asked softly, not resentful of my question, but clearly curious.
"It's obvious," I said, turning to look at him, "One day you weren't in school and all the kids were wondering what had happened to you. And when you came back months later, well, you were never quite the same."
Mr Sheppard smiled, clearly impressed by my surmising.
"You know, you're an extremely smart kid, Ben," he said.
"Everybody else just thinks I'm weird," I said.
Mr Sheppard looked down at me admiringly, still standing very close to me, smiling appreciatively. And as he watched me, taking in the way I was looking back at him, expecting an answer, it was as though we were suddenly connected. We were connected by a good natured solidarity, by the adverse circumstances of both our lives. Something was happening between us in a way that I could never have dreamed of that first afternoon when I had, so innocently and grudgingly, accepted a lift home in his car.
"You're not weird, Ben," said Mr Sheppard, "You're just an extraordinary human being."
Back down in the kitchen, Ben sat drinking his tea on one of the high stools by the central island, while I paced around the kitchen putting things away and wiping down the surfaces. After a short pause, Ben very tactfully started up again having taken only a cursory sip of the tea, which was steaming away on the counter, still a little too hot.
"Julian," I said.
Ben looked at me quizzically.
"In school I'm Mr Sheppard, but out of school you can call me Julian."
He nodded, and prepared to start again.
"Why did Joey die?"
I stopped and glared at him suspiciously, trying to work out why he wanted to know that. He was regarding me enquiringly, his pretty gray-green eyes glinting in the reflected sunlight from the kitchen window. I had always liked Ben's eyes. They were so noticeably almond-shaped as to be almost reminiscently oriental. But I did not resent his asking. In fact, his tone had been sympathetic; not merely inquisitive, but polite and unobtrusive; with due regard for my feelings. It was almost as though Ben could gauge the extent of my grief.
"He was sick, Ben. Very sick."
"It all happened very suddenly, didn't it?"
"Yes," I said, pulling up the stool opposite Ben and finally sitting down at the central island.
"Will you tell me about him?"
I shook my head. Suddenly, my grief was once again becoming tangible, so much that I could barely hold back the tears.
"It's not easy. I've never talked about him to anyone."
"I'd really like to know," Ben implored me.
That sounded incredibly mature, coming from a twelve-year-old boy. I looked about me searchingly, not sure if I wanted to go into it, but Ben's plaintive request, coupled with the fact that he knew so much already, was difficult to decline.
"Okay," I finally agreed, "What would you like to know?"
"Whatever you want to tell me," Ben replied.
I remember the first time Joey came home with me. It was only a weekend visit, as a precursor to him coming to live with me permanently. 'Fostering with a view to adoption' had already been agreed, and by some crazy twist of fortune, here I was a single male with virtually no experience of childrearing, about to be granted custody of the beautiful boy I had first encountered quite by chance at South Park. Of course my motivation was questioned, and might even have appeared somewhat suspect, but I had no doubt that my excellent credentials as a teacher was a big factor in determining whether I could be a fit parent, although Sandra's endorsement of me and her glowing character reference must have also played a big part.
Sandra helped me a lot during those weeks and months. She was instrumental in ensuring that the usual bureaucratic process of adoption didn't get bogged down in endless meetings and bundles of paperwork. She also managed to do some digging, using her resourcefulness and network of useful contacts, to try and get some background information on Joey. The day when I first saw Joey she had referred to him as an ongoing enigma and said that not much was known about him. Well, Sandra was not the type to leave questions unanswered. She carried on digging until she found out the truth about Joey. When I learned the truth about Joey, it was as squalid and unpalatable as I had feared. Yes, both his parents were drug addicts. Both had overdosed on heroin. Both were found dead in the living room, on the floor of their unfurnished apartment, in a pool of cold vomit, surrounded by bloodstained hypodermics and spent matches. Meanwhile, the dirty, emaciated little boy was found in his crib, severely malnourished, crawling with lice and smeared in his own excrement. That was the harsh reality of this little boy's introduction to the world - two deadbeat parents who were caught up in the sad and pernicious treadmill of heroin addiction, and a little boy whose existence was surplus to their needs.
As I soon discovered, it was babies and toddlers that were most in demand when it came to adoption. Generally, the younger the child the more chance there was of success. Of course for couples looking to adopt, it was usually the babies they were most interested in. For that reason, the older children were harder to place - and at eight-years-old Joey was already considered slightly too old and perhaps borderline for successful adoption. But for my part, he was the ideal age - not far off the age group of boys I was used to teaching and old enough to already have a fully-formed personality.
The process of preparing for adoption was not easy. There was a very high drop out rate in the training and assessment process. It was especially designed to favor only those with an unwavering commitment and dedication to becoming an adoptive parent and there were many factors that sometimes caused you to question your motivations and your suitability. The assessment itself was thorough and very intrusive, analyzing key aspects of your life and personality; your childhood, parenting, your relationships, employment, friends and family members, your health, even your finances - every facet of your existence. I soon discovered that all this to some degree reflected on your likely future performance as an adoptive parent and so was paramount in gaining final approval for adoption.
By the time the adoption was finalized, we were both ready for it. The many months of preparation and anticipation had taken a toll on my patience and psychology, and I think Joey's too. By that time, I had been visiting Joey at South Park on a regular basis. We had become quite good friends. There was definitely a connection there and I felt we had developed an excellent rapport. There had been times when we were able to go out for the day, when I had picked him up at South Park and taken him to the nearby park where there was a boating lake. We had also been on visits to the mall and the cinema and once on a day trip to a local theme park - all everyday activities designed to test the parameters of our relationship and Joey's ability to cope with life outside of an institution. Despite Joey's turbulent history of tantrums and the endless succession of foster placements that had allegedly broken down, I saw no evidence of bad behavior when he was with me. In fact, when he was with me he was for the most part very well behaved - polite, respectful and compliant. He was helpful and attentive and always bright, cheerful and engaging. He was prone to nagging sometimes, and would dwell on an issue if he failed to get his way, maybe complaining or sulking if I ever said no to him, or because things had not gone as he expected. His sulkiness was about the worst I could say about him, though no more than could be said about any child of his age. But even that did not come close to corroborating the accounts of his past behavior. I started to call into question his undeserving reputation for truculence, disobedience and violence which the written reports alluded to, and for which I myself had seen no evidence whatsoever.
So here we were, Joey's first weekend visit. It was a momentous event for us both. He had been to my house before, on daytime visits with his keyworker, but this was the first time I had been allowed to take him home unsupervised, and the first time he had been permitted to stay with me overnight. We were both anxious to make it work because it was the final test - the last definitive hurdle which could cement the adoption, or else cast it into doubt. I had been advised to keep it all as mundane as possible and not do anything too out of the ordinary, to treat it much as I would any routine weekend. So, on that first night, we simply had dinner together and then watched a little TV. Nothing too exciting. I was determined to keep everything low key. When bedtime approached, I asked Joey to go and get ready for bed. He did so without question, immediately going up to his room to get changed into his pajamas. His quiescence was very pleasing. Then a few minutes later, Joey appeared in the doorway of the living room, hovering there for a moment in his Ben 10 pajamas as though waiting for me to tell him what to do next. I smiled at him and patted the sofa next to me, inviting him to join me for one last stint of TV before bed.
"Five more minutes of TV," I said, " Then bedtime."
He nodded and came and sat down next to me on the sofa, drawing his legs up, curling up next to me like a little kitten. He was such an affectionate little boy. So we watched TV for a little while longer.
"Okay, Joey," I said finally, "Time's up. Time to get to bed."
"Aww, just five more minutes!" he pleaded, "Please Julian, five more minutes?"
I had been warned about the inevitable pleading and bargaining. It had been my intention all along to set firm boundaries, but this was still a honeymoon period for us, so I didn't want to spoil it by coming across as too dictatorial.
"Okay Joey," I conceded, "a few more minutes and then you really must get to bed. It's getting late."
He made no effort to prepare to move off, instead preferring to ensconce himself even deeper into our embrace. He leaned right up against me, so that I instinctively put an arm around him as he was curled up on the sofa next to me. I rubbed his arms and shoulders in a very fatherly way, as though to warm him up through the cotton of his pajama jacket. He didn't say anything, just snuggled against me, and we both focused on the TV. But I wasn't really watching it. I was just overawed at how tactile Joey was and how he seemed to welcome closeness, hugs and physical contact. Joey seemed to bring out all my natural fatherly instincts and I enjoyed his proximity very much.
Some moments passed, during which the TV was burbling away. We had the lights on low, as was my habit when bedtime approached - a strategy designed to induce a more subdued atmosphere before bed. But then, in the semi-darkness, I felt Joey fidgeting, and I could feel his little hand reach furtively between my legs and casually started to tug at my flies, fumbling for the button on my jeans. I didn't really know what he was doing at first. I looked down. He was scrutinizing my face, although I was distracted watching the TV. When I realized what he was doing, I pulled away suddenly and instinctively grabbed his little wrist.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" I exclaimed, rather louder than I intended, and quickly sat up.
He withdrew his little hands and wrapped his arms around himself protectively, digging each hand into the opposite armpit.
"Ah! Sorry!" he gasped, with a shocked expression.
He looked scared, momentarily panic-stricken by my adverse response, and his face contorted into a series of different expressions, first fear, then uncertainty caused by my overreaction, and then finally shame. His demeanor collapsed and he looked on the verge of tears. He jumped up off the sofa and burst into tears, running out of the room and up the stairs with a regretful wail.
I was left sitting on the sofa alone, our brief idyll prematurely curtailed, and I wondered what exactly had just happened. I realized I was tense and confused. I had to take a moment to reflect. This was all wrong. Joey had tried to undo my flies. There was no doubt about it, he was trying to open my pants. It shocked me because he had never done anything like that before. I hadn't expected him to do anything like that. I had certainly not knowingly invited it. Of course, it shouldn't have surprised me, given what Sandra had told me about what went on at South Park in the past. But it still scared the hell out of me nonetheless, mostly because it was so uncharacteristic of Joey, or so I had thought. Up to this point I had expected he was more or less unaffected by his sojourn at South Park. I was obviously wrong.
I sat on the sofa for a long, long time, considering all the implications. I would have to talk to him, but decided to allow a decent interval to let him calm down before following him. I knew I had scared him. In the end, when I felt ready, I decided that the best thing to do was to go to him, reassure him that everything was okay, and just carry on as before.
I sought Joey out in his bedroom. I expected to find him flumped across his bed, maybe sobbing into the pillow. But he wasn't. Instead I found him sitting on the end of his bed in the dark, his earlier tears all but forgotten. As though to reflect his hopelessness and dejectedness, he hadn't bothered to turn on the light. With night closing in, the room was enveloped in a bluish shadow, and his diminutive silhouette was posed there in silence, with his elbows on his knees and his chin resting on his palms, as though trying to emulate Rodin. I thought at first maybe he had taken my reaction a little bit to heart. But then I realized it was more serious than that. He was fully dressed, with his jacket and shoes and looked ready to go out. And by his feet, I noticed, his little overnight case was standing upright on the floor.
"What are you doing little buddy?" I asked, appearing on the threshold.
"I'm ready," he said resignedly.
"Ready?" I said quizzically, "For what?"
He looked up and tried to focus on me in the half-light.
"Ready to go," he said, with a tone that indicated I was supposed to know what he meant.
"Go where?" I asked, confused.
"Back to South Park," he said.
My heart melted. I could have cried for him.
I looked into his face, grayed out in the dimness of the room, and could just see the moistness on the surface of his eyes glisten ever so slightly. At that moment a thousand different thoughts jostled for position in my mind and I had to take a moment to decide which one was appropriate. The truth is, none of them were. I discarded the script and decided to play this by ear.
I sat down on the bed next to him, and put a comforting arm around him. Actually there were no words for this situation. I just squeezed his little shoulders and pulled him towards me. I tilted my head against his and just sat there for a few moments, reassuring him with my presence and my closeness, letting him know that I had no intention of sending him back. At the same time I was contending with the knowledge that this little boy had been rejected so unequivocally and hurt so profoundly, with a string of failed foster placements behind him, that he believed no one could ever want him. Inside my heart sorrowed.
After a bit, I leaned over and turned him towards me. He was stiff and unresponsive, still wary of me and still very much ill at ease in these new surroundings. I peeled off his jacket, pulling it back over his shoulders and threaded it down to his elbows. He sat there unmoved, with his arms tangled in the jacket. I got up, leaving him to take it off. I took his little overnight case from the floor and put it up on the dresser. Then I opened it and started putting his things back into the closet and the drawers. He watched me. This was my confirmation that he was going to stay for good. I wasn't going to return him to South Park like so many of those foster carers had done, as though returning faulty goods to the dealer. No, this little boy wasn't going anywhere.
I left him to calm down for a bit, until he was ready to accept the fact that I wasn't about to send him back to South Park. So, when he was changed and once again ready for bed, I went back into his room. He was in his Ben 10 pajamas, sitting up in bed, with a big mass of pillows propping him up. I sat down on the side of the bed and looked at him. He knew what was coming, but he didn't look away or try to avert.
"Why did you do that?" I asked him, straight out.
"Try to open my pants?"
He looked directly at me, staring at me with a defiant, almost hostile expression and he uttered the most extraordinary phrase I had ever heard issue from his lips.
"Because that's what worthless little cocksuckers are for," he said.
I was so taken aback I must have visibly blinked with surprise.
"WHAT did you say?" I exclaimed, not sure if I was hearing correctly.
I knew straight away that those were not his own words. They couldn't be.
"That's what worthless little cocksuckers are for," he said again, ignorant of the sheer impropriety of such ugly words emanating from such a young and pretty mouth.
I stared at him, for the moment struck dumb, unable to reconcile the sight of this tiny boy - this mere child, this white-haired little waif, sat up in bed in his little kiddie pajamas - uttering such crude phraseology, totally unperturbed. His words echoed in my ears like gunshots.
"What?" I demanded again, incredulous, "Who told you that?"
"The Housefathers," he said.
"The Housefathers? At South Park?"
"Yeh, they said dirty little cocksuckers like me are only good for..."
"Yeah, okay Joey," I said firmly, curtailing his torrent of abusive terms, recited though it was.
He stopped, looking almost hurt that I had not allowed him to finish, surprised even, perhaps not understanding why such terminology - familiar to him for so long - should be suddenly unacceptable to me.
"That's enough," I said, "I get the picture."
I was shocked by the ease and familiarity with which those words tripped off his tongue, and all the more repulsed that he had clearly had these things repeated to him so many times, he knew the exact terminology by heart. And what unpalatable phraseology for a little eight-year-old boy to acquire. As a teacher of boys, especially near-adolescent and sometimes pubescent boys, I heard swearing and trash-talk all the time. It was endemic in the regime. But when it came from such a pretty and innocent looking specimen such as Joey, it was merely squalid and ugly.
When my initial incredulity had passed, I paused and addressed him with a more benevolent look and a low, kindly tone.
"Look Joey, you must forget all that stuff. You're not worthless. You're not a..."
"Dirty little cocksucker," he said, pitching in with the correct terminology.
"No you're not!" I said with a note of irritation, "You're not a dirty..." and I had to stop and take a deep breath because now it was me saying those words.
I leaned over and put a hand on his shoulder, regarding him with what I hoped was an affectionate demeanor, and started again.
"You're not any of those things," I began again, slowly, "You're just a normal boy who has been told those things by people who didn't care about you."
He stared up at me with an almost blank expression, clearly not aware of the implications of the language he had been used to hearing.
I thought that was the end of it, but then, after a few moments silence, he piped up again and volunteered some information on his own.
"It always worked at South Park," he said.
"Blowjobs," he said curtly, totally unselfconsciously and boldly, "That's what they liked."
"The Housefathers?" I asked again.
Joey nodded, looking almost apologetic.
"Yeh," he went on, "That's all we had to do if we ever wanted extra privileges."
"I see," I said, nodding assuredly, only just starting to understand just exactly what kind of place South Park was.
"I thought that's what you wanted," he added.
I almost laughed, since nothing could have been further from my mind, and I shook my head emphatically. What struck me as perhaps even more scornful was that a blowjob could ever be considered fair bargaining for five more minutes of TV.
"I thought that was what all men wanted," he went on, sadly.
"No Joey, that wouldn't be right."
His face was so innocent, so totally unaware as he was uttering this crude adult terminology, words which were ordinarily taboo for such a juvenile mentality. I wondered just what exactly I was taking on with this little boy, and whether this was an indication of the struggle that lay ahead for me, and whether I was ever going to get him to understand how inappropriate those words were and how skewed and distorted and na?ve his view of the world really was.
"Sometimes they took the boys away for weekends," he explained, "They went to stay with the Housefathers or with the Trustees and Benefactors. They said it was to see if they could be adopted. The boys went, hoping it was going to mean they would get a proper family. But all that happened was they got used by the men and their friends. They had sex parties and got drunk. Sometimes the boys got beaten. But they still went. They went because they really wanted to get adopted and get to go home with a real family. But they never did. In all the time I was there, no boy ever got adopted."
His words trailed off, and I remember feeling desperately sad at that story. It touched me very deeply. That these poor boys were duped and betrayed in such a way was a tragedy. And I looked at Joey, and saw how beautiful he was, what an exquisite little specimen of a boy he was, and wondered how anyone could ever harm such a wonderful creature. What he must have gone through - what all those boys must have suffered... it was just too awful to contemplate.
Nevertheless, I was softened and warmed by this information he had shared, and it was significant that he felt comfortable enough to share it with me. That was a good sign, I thought. I smiled and turned towards him, still sat with one leg folded up on the bed.
"I promise I will never make you do anything you don't want to," I said.
He smiled a crooked, mischievous little smile.
"Okay," he said, wholly in agreement, "Does that mean I don't have to go to school?"
I stared at him, for a moment not sure how to reply to that, and took a deep breath, preparing to have to backtrack and clarify. But he broke into a little giggle and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. He was only joking.
Joey squirmed with a little high-pitched laugh, and I smiled back, giving him a little playful sock on the jaw. It was a welcome reprieve. His spontaneous humor helped to dispel the gravity of the conversation. In many ways, that was actually quite typical of Joey. As I was soon to learn, Joey had a very quick and keen sense of humor.
My words faded, the last few syllables almost choked by the rising emotion in my chest and throat, and the memory of Joey caused a single silent tear to slip from the corner of my eye and drip ever so forlornly onto the counter. Ben saw that, and without saying a word, he got up from his stool and came around to where I was sitting, on the opposite side of the central island, and touched me softly on the arm. At that moment, his solicitude warmed my heart and comforted me in a way I could never have thought possible of a twelve-year-old. Yes, I thought, Ben really was an extraordinary human being. When our moment of tenderness had passed, I gathered up my feelings and swiftly moved on into another, more composed, frame of mind.
"You shouldn't have gone into Joey's room," I said, pressing my fingertips into my eyes to expel the remaining tears.
Ben looked down guiltily, still hovering beside me.
"I know," and he shot a glance at me which just begged forgiveness, "I'm sorry. I guess my curiosity got the better of me."
I smiled and got up from the counter.
"No harm done," I said, to ease his guilt and to show him that there were no hard feelings.
"Thanks," he said.
Such a polite, well-mannered boy.
"No, thank YOU," I said.
Ben looked quizzical.
"I think that's the first time I've ever talked openly about Joey," I explained, "Thank you for letting me share it with you."
He gave me a resigned expression, as if to say he hadn't intended it and that it was no effort at all.
I smiled back at the boy, looking down at this lean, diminutive figure, admiring his pretty features; the ruffled, spiky hair and pale, almond-eyed complexion. In the light of the afternoon's revelations, still touched by the boy's tenderness of a moment ago, I knew then that Ben was not only a kind, sensitive and intelligent boy, but one which I now realized, for one reason or another, was slowly worming his way into my affections. It was the first time I had ever shared anything meaningful about Joey, at any rate the first time I had done so with anybody close to me. That was something of a watershed. Ben now knew the most intimate circumstances of my life, and I felt that constituted the establishment of an ongoing relationship. We were now connected, and for the first time in ages I felt like I was in the company of a true friend. I wanted him to know that he was now very special to me.