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Chapter 13: Conduct Unbecoming
One of the most memorable conversations I ever had with Joey was in the car when we were on the way back from vacation in Mexico. It wasn't the first time we had travelled together, but it was the first time we had driven such a vast distance. After the first two days the driving became interminable, and only served to demonstrate just how big our country really was. The pleasure of driving in a convertible sports car was certainly conducive when we were on the open road with the top down. We could appreciate the scenery and get the full panoramic effect of the landscape gliding by, although the rush of the wind in our ears and our hair flapping about did become somewhat tiresome after a while. Sometimes it was slightly too cold for open-air motoring, and at high speeds the wind-chill could be pretty bracing. At those times it felt like we had the top down purely out of sheer caprice. The monotony of the long stints of driving was broken only by the need to make isolated pit-stops for gas and toilet breaks at the ubiquitous rundown diners and truck stops along the way.
We had not long settled back into our journey, after another routine stop, and had resumed the drive home via the Interstate, having long ago left Mexico behind. There was nothing but miles and miles of two-lane highway with telephone poles lining the route and flat, open ground all around us, a barren landscape of rocky desert stretching from one horizon to the other. Suddenly, something small dashed across the road up ahead. It was so quick and so unexpected that I didn't have time to react. I ran over it, causing a loud thud from somewhere underneath the car. Being a sports car, it was pretty low slung, without much clearance, and it made the whole vehicle lurch wildly. I jammed my foot hard onto the brakes, causing the car to fishtail. I struggled with the steering wheel, narrowly avoiding a spin, and managed to slow the car down and pull it over to the side of the road some distance further on. I cut the engine and took a deep breath. It was over almost as quickly as it had begun, so we didn't really have time to assimilate what had happened. Joey looked at me from the passenger seat, his cobalt blue eyes sparkling with alarm and uncertainty. But apart from his fright, we were both unscathed. We got out of the car, slightly shaken, and both with the same objective: to find out what it was we had just run over. We walked back to the spot of the impact. Sure enough, it was a small coyote, lying there perfectly still in the center of the road. It was an almost perfect specimen too, with a glossy reddish-brown coat, and very little signs of any injury. It might just as well have been sleeping, except that it was obvious that a coyote wouldn't be asleep in the middle of the highway, and it appeared to have a tiny little thread of blood seeping from the corner of its mouth. It was quite clearly dead.
Joey and I stood there for a moment, just staring. Then Joey, already shaken by the car veering off the road, turned to me and burst into tears. He had never seen anything dead, and the shock of the impact was just too much for him. Poor boy. He let out a stifled little wail and shook with a deep, guttural sob. I stooped down to calm and console him. I embraced him, and turned him to face the other way. For those few moments, whilst he was overwhelmed by his childish anguish, I rubbed his back and stroked his hair and squeezed his tiny frame, and my heart nearly burst with compassion.
When Joey had cried himself out, he dried his eyes, the initial fright having passed, and he stood close to me, still clutching me, with his head against my chest. We turned back to the coyote that was still lying there, laid out in the road. The scene was a little surreal because we were the only people there. The road stretched into the distance in both directions and there were no other cars for miles.
"Poor thing," I said, dolefully.
"Yeah, poor thing," said Joey, echoing my sentiments.
"Wonder what it was doing out here," I mused, trying to find some explanation, "They usually travel in packs."
"It must have been lost," said Joey, looking for some rational explanation.
Then Joey twisted his head to look up at me, as though pleading for me to do something.
"Daddy, couldn't we do something for him?"
I wondered just what we could do for this poor animal. It was clearly dead. Actually, I wouldn't have chosen for Joey to see this. But then I thought I should do whatever my little boy would like to see his daddy do in a situation like this. I was mindful that this boy was going to take his lead from me in the future. So what should I teach him to do in this situation? The only appropriate course of action seemed pretty obvious to me.
"Yes Joey," I said, "Let's do something."
I went back to the car and rummaged in the tiny trunk, locating the little spade that I kept in there. It was a short-handled spade that was meant for digging the car out of the mud if it got stuck. There wasn't much clearance and the small wheels easily got bogged down in soft earth. I don't think I had made much use of that spade, but it certainly came in handy on this occasion. I carefully scooped up the limp carcass of the coyote and then we buried it, right there at the roadside. I dug it down a good couple of feet, then placed the coyote in, covering the makeshift grave with the dirt and tramping it down hard. I even got a few loose little boulders and piled them up on top to stop the other scavengers digging it up. Then afterwards, I put the tools back in the car and dusted off my hands.
Joey watched me do all this and when we had finished he gave me a vague little smile, almost an acknowledgement that he was proud of me for what I did and pleased that we had given the poor coyote a good send off. But it was an uncertain, tentative little smile, because he was still sad for the dead coyote. But at least I knew he was proud of me, and I had done the right thing.
After we had buried the coyote, we got back in the car to continue our journey. Joey got into the car next to me looking solemn and saying nothing. He didn't say anything for a good long time. His little blond head was down, deep in thought and clearly moved by the death of the coyote. The wind tousled his hair, waving it around in the breeze, and there was nothing but the rush of the air in my ears and the whistling hum of the V6 up front.
A good twenty miles passed before Joey piped up again.
"Daddy, what do you think happens when you die?"
I glanced over at him from the driving seat, momentarily taking my eyes off the road.
"I like to think we all go to a wonderful place where there's no hunger, no illness, no war and no death. A place where there is no suffering, and where everyone can live in peace."
Joey's cobalt blue eyes looked at me slightly stunned, and something told me that my reply was somewhat more protracted than he'd bargained for.
"I think you get born again," he said, as though this was a matter in which he had already drawn his own conclusions.
I listened intently as I was driving.
"What, come back as someone else?" I asked, interested.
"Or an animal," he replied, sounding like he had it all worked out.
"Would you like that?"
"Yeh. I want to come back as a bird."
"I see," I said. "Any bird in particular?"
He put his finger to his lips and glanced skywards, as though he was as yet undecided.
"Well... I think I'd like to come back as a seagull."
"Yeh, I like seagulls. They're funny," and he chuckled as though remembering some amusing anecdote.
I frowned, much to his disapproval. Joey looked at me with his 'this is important' stare, and I knew he was about to give me some valued gem of Joey philosophy.
"Did you know they can dive faster than a falling object?"
"Yeh," he continued, widening his eyes and nodding emphatically to ram his point home, "And they can catch a falling peanut in their bill."
"How do you know?" I asked, intrigued.
He snickered guiltily.
"Because I tried it," he said, giggling, "When we were in Mexico, I took a pack of nuts from the minibar in the hotel room and fed them to the seagulls."
"So it was you!" I said, triumphantly.
He gave me one of his cute, little boy smiles and grinned cheekily, scrunching his little pixie nose. He knew exactly how to ameliorate any annoyance on my part.
"Yeh. I threw them out the window one by one and watched the seagulls diving after them."
I turned and gave him a little mock sock on the jaw and he chuckled. He was so cute when he chuckled playfully like that. That was one of the most adorable things I liked about Joey.
My life went into a strange kind of limbo when we moved to Sandra's place. We didn't know how long we were going to be there, which created a strange feeling of displacement, like Petey and I shouldn't get too comfortable in case we were moved again. It was like our lives were on hold because our mom was being investigated and everything depended on the outcome of that investigation and what the Department decided to do with us afterwards.
For her part, Sandra was very nice. She was just the sort of loving, giving, caring individual who was perfect for fostering. She was kind and patient and very unassuming. She treated Petey with a kind of motherly benevolence that I don't think our mom had ever shown either of us. She was surprisingly laid back and calm about everything. She wasn't critical or controlling, and she never bawled us out. Even if we were inattentive or had made a mess, she simply smiled insouciantly, almost as if she was vaguely amused by our antics. She was especially discreet around me because I think she kind of knew that I was gay and, just like Julian, was totally accepting of it.
The downside of staying with Sandra was that we stopped going to school regularly. She lived too far from the school for us to go every day, so she arranged for us to have work sent to us so we could work at home. The home schooling wasn't too bad - it was easy because we only spent about three or four hours of the day studying, and the rest of the time we did as we liked. But it was a little bit like being in exile because we didn't get to see our friends. For me, the worst thing was not being able to see Tony. I missed him, and I thought about him constantly. I knew that his departure for Hong Kong was imminent and I was afraid that I might not get to see him before he left.
The school was very good in arranging weekly batches of schoolwork for me, which convinced me that it probably wasn't the first time they had had students working from home. So Sandra took me into school at least one day a week, and that enabled me to hand in my completed work and pick up new assignments. As it turned out, my first day back after my protracted absence - firstly from being ill and secondly from moving to Sandra's - was something of a bittersweet experience.
On my first day back, I was delighted that it was Tony who sidled up to me on the way into school. I didn't see him run up behind me as I walked past the parking lot, and only knew it was him when he nudged me with his elbow as he drew level with me.
"Hey," he said simply, by way of greeting, and fell in with me as I walked.
"Hey!" I replied, pleased to see him.
He gave me a kind of sidelong smile as we walked, and reached out to give me a cursory slap on the shoulder. It was quite a subdued gesture for him, and I suspected that he had to restrain himself from greeting me in a more demonstrative way, mainly because there were too many people around.
"Want some company?" Tony asked, heading in my general direction and carrying a big pile of books under his arm.
"Sure," I replied.
So we walked shoulder to shoulder past the parking lot and cut across the small expanse of grass on our way to the main school building, passing the ball courts on the way. I couldn't help thinking how good Tony looked. He was wearing his leather biker's jacket, and his long, golden blond hair was half tumbling over his face, nestled against his tanned neck.
"It's good to see you," I said, which was something of an understatement. Actually, I was overjoyed to see him again.
"You too," he said, reciprocating, "Actually, I was hoping to run into you. There's something I wanted to tell you."
I stopped and turned towards him, wondering just what exactly he was pertaining to. He slowed, but carried on walking.
"Not here," he said, looking around uncomfortably, and moved off again.
We crossed the grass and then walked along the perimeter fence of the ball courts. On the other side of the high mesh fence there were impromptu soccer and basketball games in progress. Only then did Tony stop and turn to me, and spoke very quietly. He leaned towards me in a very confidential way, and for the first time in a long time I found myself staring straight into his pretty hazel eyes.
"I'll be leaving for Hong Kong next week," he began, tentatively.
"Oh, so soon?" I remarked, dismayed.
He nodded regretfully.
"Yeah, but I want us to stay in touch when I'm in Hong Kong. Okay?"
He looked straight at me as he was saying it, and his eyes glinted with sincerity.
"Of course," I said, smiling assuredly, "I'd like that very much."
He returned my smile. He seemed relieved, almost as though he was afraid I might give up on our friendship because of his impending departure.
"Remember when we were at the lake?" he went on, "when we said that we wished we were brothers?"
I nodded. I remembered that very well. It was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me. We had shared a lot that weekend. There had been many tender moments between us, and my secret love and affection for this boy had not only been consolidated by that weekend, but confirmed beyond any doubt.
"Well, I meant it," he said.
He fidgeted nervously, switching his pile of books to the opposite arm, and I could see that he was slightly apprehensive about what he had just conveyed.
"Me too," I confessed, "I still remember the first time we went up to your bedroom."
He nodded, with a sly little smile that told me he remembered that evening with some fondness - the night of the school play, when our friendship first began to take off, the night we had gone up to the roof deck and looked through his telescope and admired the night sky together.
And then there was a short silence, broken only by the echoed shouts and shrill screams of the boys playing basketball on the other side of the fence. I looked at Tony's lean figure standing there before me, and I took in his beauty, that long, wavy golden blond hair contrasting against the black leather of his jacket, and his school tie loosened rebelliously, with the top of his shirt open a tad too far, so that you could see the little V at the base of his neck. He looked good, and I was saddened at the prospect that soon I would not be able to admire him in such a way.
So, this was it. The momentousness of it finally hit me, and I was suddenly aware that this was the last time I was going to see him. I shuffled my feet around nervously on the grass. And yet, whilst I knew that this moment was inevitable, I realized just how unprepared I was to deal with it. There was still so much more I wanted to say, so much more that I wanted to share with him. My heart was beating fast and hard in my chest and my mouth was very dry.
"So, is this the last time we'll see each other?" I ventured.
He nodded with a regretful frown.
"For a while, I guess."
He seemed almost as overwhelmed by the significance of it as me.
"I'm gonna miss you," I muttered.
"I'm gonna miss you too," he said.
And then we kind of smiled sheepishly at each other. It was a bit of a soppy moment.
"Give me some time to get settled," he proposed, as though he had it all worked out, "I'll have to get used to a new country, new house, new school - it's gonna be a big change for me. But I promise, as soon as things are sorted, I'll contact you."
"Okay," I said, not really convinced, but prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I believed that his intentions were genuine, but I knew there could be no guarantees. More than likely, once he got to Hong Kong and got into his new school, there would be new classmates, new friends, and he would have no need of me - especially as there wasn't really anything meaningful we could share at such a distance. Yes, we could call and email, or chat online - but that was no basis for an enduring relationship. What good was a long-range liaison when I was in love with this boy? It was no substitute for the things we could share if we were actually in each others company, because my affection for this boy meant I needed to be close to him, to be in his physical presence, to have the option of hugging and play-fighting if we wanted to. And then the thought of not having him in my life once again made me tearful. I feared that most probably this was the last I would ever see of him. As usual, Tony detected my melancholy, and leaned in to my shoulder.
"Don't be sad Ben," he murmured into my ear.
As if to consolidate that remark, Tony stepped up and put his one free arm around me and gave me a gentle squeeze, still clutching his pile of books in the other arm. He was always so tactile and demonstrative. It was a beautiful gesture, and so symptomatic of Tony. He was always so affectionate, and right now he smelled of leather because he was wearing his cool biker's jacket. And just then, he did the most unexpected thing. He tilted his head up slightly and kissed me softly on the cheek, still holding me close to him. I was stunned. My heart soared with joy. I felt like a scientist on the brink of some earth-shattering discovery. I couldn't believe he had just done that, and I had to take a few seconds for the significance to embed itself in my credulity.
Tony stepped back with a self-satisfied smirk. I stared back at him, slightly shocked, and touched my cheek gently where he had just kissed me, wondering what had prompted such intimacy. Sure, he had always been a demonstrative and tactile boy, but he had never done anything quite so affectionate towards me before.
"Why did you do that?" I asked, awestruck.
"Because you're a very special person, Ben."
"Do you really mean that?" I asked, seeking confirmation that this wasn't some kind of joke, my natural pessimism as usual prompting me to doubt him.
He nodded, slowly and assuredly, looking straight at me.
"Yeh, I think so," he affirmed, with a note of certainty, "I've been wanting to tell you that for a really long time."
"Oh... cool," I said, chuffed, because that was all I could think to say.
I was chuffed because he had just more or less told me that my affection for him was mutual. Was it possible that this was his way of telling me that he liked me too? Not just liked me, but liked me in the same way I liked him? How could that be? Tony was such a perfect specimen of boyhood, a real jock, an alpha male, and popular with girls. In many ways the very antithesis of me. Somehow it didn't quite fit. I wondered whether all the little clues I had picked up from him since I first got to know Tony had conspired perfectly to give rise to this moment, right back to that first time at rehearsals when he was sitting astride my midriff as we choreographed the fight scene, grinning complicitly at each other, as though we were privy to our own little secret; and at the performance when he had grabbed my hand during the curtain call - I had even asked him about that when we shared a tender moment later, when we were grappling playfully on his bed during our tickle fight. He admitted then, in a veiled kind of way, that he liked me. He said I wasn't like the other boys. Yes, it all made sense now.
Suddenly, our tender moment was curtailed by an unsolicited shout.
"Fags!" a voice called out.
It spoiled the moment, and prematurely cut short this, our final demonstration of mutual affection, interrupting our last few moments together.
Tony and I both turned, suddenly painfully aware that we were being observed. Sure enough, there was a small knot of boys a short distance away clearly having seen us. One of them was a boy called Danish. Danish was well known for being something of a loudmouth and a troublemaker, given to sarcasm and disparaging jibes. He liked to throw his weight around. He was a big boy, tall and robust, slightly on the fat side, with pudgy arms and close cropped hair that made his face appear all the more round. He was too big for his age, awkward and conspicuous, a mindless lunk, the type of boy who could never be popular and wielded his power only by subjugating and terrorizing the other boys, especially the smaller ones. He and a few of his usual accomplices were standing very close together in a loose little group, leering at us.
Tony had the presence of mind to put his pile of books down on the ground and stomped towards Danish angrily.
"WHAT did you say?" Tony demanded, squaring up to Danish, who was at least a foot taller than him.
Undeterred, Danish looked at him with a hateful expression, his tiny eyes narrowed in contempt, his yellow teeth bared like a snarling dog.
"You're a bunch of fags!" Danish replied defiantly, openly taunting Tony and clearly unafraid.
"What's it to you?" Tony demanded, shrugging it off.
Danish looked him up and down with a belittling glare, his assertion perhaps vindicated since Tony had not attempted to deny it.
"Wassa matter? We interrupt your little love-in with your fag boyfriend?" Danish sneered.
His cohorts let up a little ripple of mocking laughter.
"Why? You jealous?" Tony shot back.
Danish scowled, all the more riled by Tony's defiance.
"Just keep away from me you fag!" he snapped, "If you ever try anything with me I'll finish you!"
He even glanced around briefly as he said it, searching for approval from his accomplices, who all laughed contemptuously. By now, other boys in the immediate vicinity who had heard the angry exchange were drawn towards us, no doubt curious to know what the shouting was about. We had an impromptu little audience surrounding us, forming a ragged little semicircle, hemming us in against the fence. The hush of the little gathering ratcheted up the tension all the more. Tony stood his ground and paused momentarily, taking his time, even looking away for a moment to gather his thoughts. Then he looked Danish straight in the eye and spoke very slowly and quietly, in a measured and even tone, which lent his response all the more gravitas.
"Look at the state of you," he exclaimed, with a tone of ridicule and a sweeping gesture of his arm, "Who would wanna try ANYTHING with YOU?"
A little snigger rippled through the onlookers, immediately handing Tony the baton of credibility. It was a surefire putdown. Danish was so unprepared for that rejoinder, not only because he didn't foresee anything quite so cutting, but because it was quick and clever and, with its much deeper connotations, switched all attention onto him. The sudden focus on his own physical appearance caused Danish to falter and he couldn't offer any immediate response. I could see by the look in his eyes that he wanted to hit Tony, because that was his usual way of dealing with everything, but he hesitated for a moment too long. His failure to trump Tony's remark cost him dearly and the little audience emitted an involuntary little laugh at his ineptitude. Danish quickly lost heart and turned to leave.
"You're still a fag," Danish called back, anxious to hit back.
But his threats were too late. They could have no substance to them now.
"Whatever," said Tony, unperturbed.
The little audience clearly approved of Tony's snub. They were a partisan crowd anyway, plainly on Tony's side. It wasn't surprising, given that Tony was one of the most popular boys in the school. Being labeled a 'fag' by Danish was unlikely to affect his reputation. But his coolness and quick-wittedness, and his clever retort, only elevated his standing even further. I was so proud of him.
Then Danish focused on me, even as he was backing away. I was still standing behind Tony, not having said a word.
"Your card is marked Dexter!" Danish bellowed at me, pointing an accusing finger, "Just you wait and see!"
And he hurried away in disgrace. I guess that last retort was a threat designed to focus on the fact that Tony would soon no longer be around to fight my corner.
When Danish and his cohorts had left, the little crowd quickly disbanded, the spectacle now over. A few of the bystanders congratulated Tony and slapped him on the back as they dispersed. Tony stooped to pick up his little pile of books from the grass where he had carefully placed them.
"You okay?" Tony asked me, as he straightened up.
I nodded, slightly spooked by Danish's threatening parting shot.
"Don't worry about that asshole," Tony reassured me, and he jerked his head towards the general direction of the departing Danish, "He's full of bullshit. Take no notice."
"What's his problem?" I asked, still rattled.
Tony looked straight at me and gave a little laugh.
"Nothin'. It just makes him feel better to put other people down," he replied.
Tony's reply was altogether more comprehensive than I had hoped for, answering my question on a much more intellectual level than I had intended. But it was a good answer, succinct and thoughtful, and very indicative of Tony.
Just then, the bell sounded for homeroom and our last moments together came to an end. Tony stood very close to me, and put his hand on my shoulder, looking very sincerely into my eyes. Then he flicked the hair out of his eyes with that famous little flip of his head, always his most memorable little affectation, and one of the things I had always loved most about him.
"Look after yourself," he said, squeezing my shoulder.
"You too," I said.
"We will see each other again, I promise," he said with a little smile, and turned to walk away, with his little pile of books under his arm.
Tony was always so confident, so upbeat, so optimistic. But his natural tendency to always see the bright side did not diminish my turmoil at his departure. Despite his reassurances, I still harbored reservations that once he was out in Hong Kong, thoroughly ensconced in his new regime, Tony would soon forget all about me. I figured once he was immersed into the new circumstances of his life and had become accustomed to a new routine in Hong Kong, where he was surrounded by his new friends, a great new school and the exotic delights of life in a former imperial colony, he would have no need to hang onto the vestiges of his former life here. Maybe he would even meet a new boy he could be friends with, a good looking boy, one who was perhaps more sporty and more outgoing than me. Indeed, I wondered what we ever had in common. I wasn't pretty. I didn't like sports, was a poor swimmer, and couldn't even ride a bicycle without crashing it. I even sucked at video games. Why would a boy of Tony's caliber even waste his time with me in the first place? More than likely I would never hear from him again. And as he hurried off, heading back towards the main school building, I wondered if that was really the last time I was ever going to see him. As I stood there, watching him walk away, I could already feel my heart breaking.
"Yes," said Perkins, "Pending further investigations."
"Investigations into what?"
"Into what actually happened that night," he explained.
Perkins was standing in his office, his imposing stature filling the frame of the small window that overlooked the schoolyard. Standing next to him was the now familiar figure of the schoolmarm social worker, the thin, gooselike woman with the horn-rimmed spectacles who had interviewed Ben. I should have known that I had not seen the last of her. They were standing very close together, and the schoolmarm was holding a cup and saucer, evidently finishing a cup of coffee. What struck me about that was not just that she had outrightly refused any coffee when she visited my house, but that they had clearly had plenty of time to discuss the matter privately before sending for me.
"I told you what happened," I replied, still standing by the door.
"Until we establish exactly what took place, I have no alternative but to suspend you," Perkins went on, "On full pay, of course."
"Nothing took place! Ben turned up at my door asking for my help. That's it."
The schoolmarm lowered her coffee cup and stepped forward, feeling that this was her cue to intervene.
"The fact is, whenever we receive a complaint," she pitched in, "we're obliged to investigate."
"A complaint? From who?"
"From the boy's mother."
"She doesn't even know me."
"She knows that you spent a lot of time with Ben," the schoolmarm replied.
"She's a wino and a child beater," I responded, "She's the one who needs investigating."
The schoolmarm seemed to concur.
"And she will be, but that's a separate issue. Right now I'm only concerned with what happened between you and Ben."
I took a deep breath, resigning myself to the realization that I had no choice but to cooperate. It was very intimidating being called into Perkins' office to be interrogated by these two. In fact it was very unpleasant, especially being asked questions about what had happened between Ben and I, having to explain things which I had up till now considered to be sacrosanct. But I was confident that I had done nothing wrong and that my actions would be vindicated. All I had to do was tell the truth.
"Okay," I nodded, steeling myself, "What do you want to know?"
"From what we have understood so far, you had one of your students alone in your home," Perkins put in calmly, curtly summarizing the fundamental facts.
"Yes, that's right," I conceded.
"And you undressed him," the schoolmarm added, phrasing it as a statement of fact.
I was taken aback by the starkness of that remark. How did they know about that?
"It sounds so sordid when you put it like that," I replied, playing it down.
"You stripped a twelve-year-old boy naked," she went on, using a quite flagrant phraseology and a tone that made it sound even more grave than it really was.
"But, it wasn't like that!" I pleaded.
"You deny that you took his clothes off?"
"Yes... I mean no... I mean he wasn't... He was soaked through!"
"How convenient for you," the schoolmarm glared, evidently unconvinced by my justification.
Her remark was couched in such a way as to imply that something untoward had taken place. I was starting to comprehend how easy it was for my actions to be misconstrued. I looked hopelessly at Perkins and the social worker, and back to Perkins again, at that moment feeling very much under siege. I took a deep breath.
"He came to me in distress. I helped him. What was I supposed to do, leave a vulnerable child out on the streets in the pouring rain?"
"The truth is, you could have seen it as an opportunity to take advantage of him," the schoolmarm went on, "There was a needy young boy, in a moment of crisis, looking to someone for help, and there were you, a figure of authority, his teacher, a man he looks up to."
"Ben and I have a good rapport," I explained, "I'm not surprised he came to me for help. He's one of my best students, and he respects me a great deal."
"You knew that he had absconded, yet you didn't inform anybody until the next day," said Perkins, "You didn't attempt to call anyone. You didn't even offer to drive him home. Come on Julian, you know better than that."
"First of all, he didn't abscond - his mom threw him out. I was hardly going to take him right back to the place where he had just been abused. Secondly, I didn't offer to drive him home because I'd been drinking! I was in no fit state to drive anywhere."
"That's right, you'd been drinking," Perkins echoed, almost glibly, "Which is another question mark against your character."
"Yes, you had it all worked out, didn't you?" the schoolmarm added.
"No, not at all!"
"But you can see how this looks, Julian," said Perkins, appealing to me to see if from their point of view.
"No. Tell me," I countered, challenging him, "How does it look?"
"Apparently, Ben had been to your house before," the schoolmarm put in, gradually revealing the full extent of what they knew.
"So did all the boys who were involved in the school play," I said, fending her off.
"So why did you continue seeing him after the play had ended? When there was no further reason for you to see him outside of school?"
"He always seemed so troubled and neglected."
"So you took it upon yourself to take him out to lunch?" said Perkins, slotting back in, almost smug in demonstrating the extent of their knowledge of what had transpired between us.
"How do you know about that?" I demanded, resentful that they should know these personal things.
"The boy told us," Perkins admitted, indicating that I should not try to deny it, "Apparently it was all your idea. You arranged to meet him outside school. Why did you do that?"
"He was lonely. He was insecure. I wanted to do something to cheer him up."
"Cheer him up or bribe him?" the schoolmarm added, with a note of skepticism.
I glared at her, very much resenting the implication of that remark.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"He was a perfect candidate for exploitation," the schoolmarm replied, smugly.
"I was concerned about him. That's all."
"So concerned that when he turned up at your door unexpectedly it didn't occur to you to contact Children's Services right away?" she asked.
"I thought about it, yes. Sure I did. But it was late."
"And you'd been drinking?" she reiterated, as though to labor the point.
I took another deep breath, if only to stop myself from saying something rash. Clearly this social worker didn't recognize the negative implications of getting DCF involved.
"I hesitated because I needed time to think."
At this point the schoolmarm put her coffee cup down on the edge of Perkins' desk and turned towards me, peering condescendingly over the top of her horn-rimmed spectacles. She suddenly became hostile and antagonistic, which indicated to me beyond doubt that she was not at all convinced by my account. But then, why should she? She didn't know me like Perkins did.
"Think about what? Contacting Children's Services should have been your first priority."
"It isn't always the best solution," I contended, "More often than not they do more harm than good."
"That isn't for you to decide!" she rebuffed, angrily.
"Sometimes families like that develop coping strategies," I postulated, preparing to go into convoluted explanations, "That's when..."
"You don't have to lecture me about coping strategies," she interrupted, making it clear that she wasn't interested in my opinion, "I know my job."
Do you? I thought to myself. You know rules and regulations, but have no appreciation of the human aspect.
"You were duty bound to report it immediately, Julian," said Perkins, "Why didn't you? For all your years of teaching, you seem to have learned nothing about safeguarding children and doing all in your power to protect them."
"Safeguarding?" I huffed, dismissively, "So taking him off the street wasn't safeguarding?"
"You should have reported it right away," the social worker insisted, "Unless you didn't want DCF involved. Did you have something to hide, Mr Sheppard?"
"Don't be ridiculous," I retorted.
"He said you kissed him," the schoolmarm shot back self-righteously, introducing yet another twist.
My mouth opened in protest, but no words came out. The sheer misinterpretation of that gesture was almost an affront, and so way off the mark that there was nothing adequate I could have offered. What was even more frustrating was that I was sure that particular piece of information was furnished by Ben in complete good faith, without any rancor or resentment on his part, unconditionally and completely devoid of any ulterior motives, in the way that only an innocent child could have, and yet it was being twisted into something sordid and perverse.
"I comforted a young boy in distress. It was instinctive," I explained, and no sooner had I said it, I realized that it didn't actually sound as innocuous as it should have.
"And that was all?" the schoolmarm asked, as though expecting something more salacious.
I flashed her a hostile glare, very much resenting the question, and somewhat dismayed to think that - to her at least - I was being cast as a potential child molester. She was just the kind of official - so deeply entrenched in her rules and regulations - that she was almost militant in her stance, and if you showed any glimmer of interest in young boys, no matter how well-meaning, your motives were automatically seen as unnatural and highly suspect. At best you were a latent boy-lover who secretly lusted after little boys, or at worst a lecherous child-groper with a surreptitious penchant for underage porn.
"I never touched the boy!" I asserted, vehemently.
"That remains to be established," said Perkins, still skeptical.
"Ask him!" I demanded, "He'll tell you the truth."
"Oh we already did," said Perkins.
"There you are then!" I rebuffed, ramming home, "I say nothing happened. HE says nothing happened. What more do you want?"
Perkins raised his hand as if to stop me there.
"It's not as simple as that," he interjected, "He might be lying."
I was so incredulous I could barely get my words out. The very idea was crazy. This was almost turning Kafkaesque.
"Children who have been abused have a tendency to lie," the schoolmarm came in again, calmly explaining their ongoing concerns, "they are prone to covering up for their abusers, either because they have been threatened or because they genuinely want to protect them."
"You think I threatened him?"
"No, I think he genuinely likes you," Perkins conceded, "Which makes the matter all the more insidious."
"Did it ever occur to you that he might just be telling the truth?" I replied, with a note of sarcasm, trying to restore some rationality.
"It is clear that this particular boy has some affection for you. He even wrote you a story," said Perkins.
They even knew about that?
"A simple gesture of kindness," I said, explaining it away.
"From a boy who is already confused about his sexuality," Perkins added, "I'd say that makes him particularly vulnerable."
They had certainly been thorough in extracting every little detail from Ben. Poor boy. I felt so sorry for him, especially if they had compelled him to furnish such personal information. It had taken him so much courage just to confide in me.
"There's no confusion," I said, dismissively, "He knows his sexuality. He told me."
"That's right, he confided in you," said Perkins, "You could easily have used that as a means of getting close to him."
"Or to blackmail him," the schoolmarm added.
"Is that what you think?" I asked, horrified.
That these people could suspect me of such treachery was exasperating and unjust. That they even thought me capable of seeking sexual intimacy with a child was physically nauseating. The very idea that I could ever even contemplate doing something indecent to Ben, was repulsive to me. To add insult to injury, they were even accusing me of having duped and betrayed him.
I turned and appealed to Perkins.
"Robert please! YOU know I couldn't possibly do anything like that. How many years have you known me?"
"You haven't made things easy for yourself Julian," said Perkins, making it clear that he was going to take the side of the law here, and I knew then that he would not support me whilst there was a question mark on my character, "You've raised suspicions. You knowingly put yourself in the firing line. These actions are conduct unbecoming for a teacher of your experience."
I could see the intransigence in Perkins' eyes as he said it. At this point I slumped into the chair that was by his desk, the full horror of this predicament finally crystallizing in my mind, and the realization looming that I was up against the faceless steamroller of the law and could so easily be overwhelmed by it.
"So, what happens now?" I asked, finally defeated, resigned to let them do as they felt necessary.
"Ben will undergo a medical examination..."
"No, you can't do that to him!" I protested.
Perkins held up a hand to silence me, unwilling to countenance any dissent.
"He will undergo a medical examination," Perkins said again, "You will also be interviewed by the Department in due course. In the meantime you can have no contact with the boy. You must make no attempt to communicate with him in any way. That includes passing messages through third parties."
"Robert, please! He needs me!" I appealed to him.
Perkins merely glared at me, my appeal all the more suspect in his eyes.
"Really? Or is it you that needs him?"
I didn't reply to that. Any attempt to justify my position would have further entrenched their suspicion. I figured the best course of action was to say no more. They would never understand my motivation, and to try to validate my unwarranted affection for Ben would have been foolish. It was in any case not something I could have adequately conveyed in words. There was a profound ring of truth to that statement. Maybe I did need Ben, but not in any way that they would have been able to comprehend.