THE KEEPER BY ALAN EDWARD
The following short story by Scottish writer Alan Edward was published in the ninth issue, November 1981, pp. 14-17, of Pan, a magazine about boy-love, published by Spartacus in Amsterdam.
The illustrations, apart from the magazine cover, appeared with the story.
In the interval between the first and seventh stroke of the Chapel clock Crispin had navigated across the rugger field, through the rhododendrons and the vegetable garden, over the wall, and all the way down the narrow, half-overgrown lane to its junction with the main road.
Collins never knew how it was done. He opened his nearside door and the boy got in, then the Rover moved off straight away; in the thinning traffic they would reach Aylesbury in thirty minutes, the cottage in perhaps another five.
“How long do you have?” Collins asked.
“Till nine tomorrow,” the boy said. “It's okay. I told them my mum was having people to dinner and I had to be there to play the piano — or stand on my head, or recite Gunga Din, or something.”
Halted at the junction, Collins took his first proper look at the boy since last Sunday. His foot slipped off the accelerator and the engine stalled; he re-started and they moved forward again. In the intervals between seeing Crispin he would begin to doubt whether the boy could possibly look like he did; the renewal of his belief always came as this brief delectable shock.
“Cheap petrol,” he said.
Mingled with elation, there was again the imperative need to find a form of words for conveying to Crispin what he knew could not be conveyed — that from now until nine tomorrow nothing else on the surface of the earth mattered, nor could possibly matter, that for him, Anthony W. Collins, nothing could be better than it was. He could try, but would in the end say something deflating, banal, and quite possibly inaccurate, such as that Crispin's hair needed cutting.
“Your hair needs cutting,” he said.
The boy pulled a face. “That’s not what you said about me before.”
“And you have brought a detectable proportion of the school shrubbery into my car.”
Still, St. Andrew's uniform did the boy proud, colour triumphantly imposing on texture and form in a manner that was, for a conscientious driver, unsettling. Blond hair just touching the scarlet blazer, pale brown legs against the tops of the matching socks.
“Your tie is crooked and your socks need pulling up,” he went on.
The boy made some token adjustments. “It's called radical chic, didn't you know? Anyway, next month I’ll be thirteen and moving up in the world — into long trousers for one thing. My legs grow longer, my trousers don’t, and the nights grow chilly.”
Against certain possibilities Collins had specified an automatic gearbox. This was one of them. With his left palm, unhurriedly, he massaged the boy’s smooth bare knees and thighs, up and down, over and under, to and fro.
“That's much better,” said Crispin several miles later.
“I’ll do all of you when we get home.”
Collins nodded and transferred his hand back to the wheel, preparing himself mentally for the boy’s next request.
“Let me drive.”
“Crispin, I’ve told you many times that in no circumstances….”
“Well, let me steer then. Please, Tony?”
The boy slid an arm around Collins' neck; Collins felt the boy’s chest, hip and thigh press tightly against his own. When Crispin did this Collins felt at once, as always, that two inches of space had materialised between his neck and the lower part of his skull, that his head was moving rapidly in a wide arc or circle, free of all roots and attachments.
“No, Crispin.” He kissed the boy with great firmness, then detached his hand from the wheel and turned slightly to lift his arm. Outside, it had been raining; the Rover half-spun and, at something over seventy miles an hour, went into the next bend within inches of the opposite grass verge.
* * *
He was still now and quiet, still after an eternity of drifting, and at last he was resting and there was no pain; soon he would be awake. From some deeply remote area of consciousness fugitive recollections spun and twisted past him, too distant for capture or scrutiny, leaving only the palest forms, the lightest impressions. Of pain, unendurable pain, blotted out in an instant, of moving endlessly through dark, of slowing, of moving again. Of passing lights like torches, of darkness like smoke, of mists and forms that took shape, reared and threatened, then retreated or fled as he neared them, turning, sinking, dissolving. Thus did the wide region empty; he was blissfully alone.
He had opened his eyes and he could see that he had lain where he did for a very long time, because the sky was lit again, evenly as if by dawn; pale light was spread from horizon to horizon like the sheen filtered by a warm early haze or thrown up by sheets of flat water, by lakes; he thought of Italy, of Como. Then it was if the remaining weights had at once lifted from his body, and he sat up, panic-stricken. What had happened? Where was the car? Where was Crispin?
He must have been thrown clear — a long way clear. He remembered the corner, the juggernaut, the swerve, but not any impact. A glancing blow, perhaps ... He sat on grass, or so it seemed; his eyes were still misted by sleep and he could scarcely see even his own limbs, but around him he could discern greenness — bushes, tall plants, trees possibly. It still didn’t make sense. Had he been thrown over a hedge? Then why had nobody found him? He thought he heard sounds, voices somewhere, not far away.
Then he was standing up, looking for the road, for the car, but nothing was familiar. A very long distance beyond the hedges there was a glimpse of low hills, of tree-clad mountains, of falling water. A brightly-coloured bird rose, wheeled in the light warm wind, then dropped out of view again. He still heard the voices, a shout, laughter, and he followed the sounds along a path between thick foliage that clustered on either side to form an avenue. Where the sound was clearest two immeasurably tall pillars stood; between them hung a heavy studded gate, partly closing the path. Beyond it he could see nothing. Half lost in shadow at the foot of each pillar great dark shapes like black dogs stirred as he came nearer, then were quite still. Now light flooding through the gap, faintly golden as if at last the sun was rising, and then it came to him, though perhaps he had known all along. This was it. The juggernaut hadn’t missed, hadn’t struck a glancing blow; on the narrow bend there hadn’t been space and there hadn’t been a chance. But even now there was no pain of body or of mind. He was calm, no more than mildly interested, politely curious. This was it, then. The gate yielded easily when he pushed; he stood completely, then, quite suddenly, laughed.
It was a familiar country after all. The usual dream, or one of them, — Arcadian Type Two, he would say. Everything was there as before. Boys, mainly. Dozens, scores of them, playing on the grass, in the water and among trees as far as he could see. All, of course, unbelievably beautiful, with their floating blond locks and those brief Classical see-through nighties or whatever they were — except for the usual number who had, by accident or design, lost everything but a daisy-chain or two.
He felt, there was no denying it, overwhelming relief. Too much Glenmorangie, the bang on the head perhaps. Next one of the innocenti would toss him a ball; he would catch it, and so on.
“Well, come in, then,” said a voice from somewhere. “I have to keep it at least tolerably warm in here — I mean, just look at them. I can’t keep the door open all day, you know.”
Collins looked around. He could see nothing; a shape, maybe. For the second time, he mentally revised his position. “Who are you?” he asked. “And where are we?”
“The answers to both question would, I should have thought, be quite evident to a man of education,” said the Voice with slight impatience. “Questions, questions. All this and they’re still not satisfied, I don’t know. Have some nectar.”
A naked little boy ran across the grass with it, his golden locks bouncing as if he had just tried the newest telly-ad hair conditioner. Collins sipped; it was sweetish, but nicely chilled.
“They’re all yours, you know,” said the Voice. “Your rewards; it’s the system, as you are probably aware. We’ve known about every single one down below, of course — over the years, the orphans, the kids without dads or without love; we know what you’ve given them all. So we thought you’d like this. There, now!”
Collins still hesitated, and the Voice said tetchily, “Something still the matter? Aren’t they pretty enough for you, then?”
“Oh, yes,” said Collins, “oh, yes, but — well, I was just looking for somebody, one in particular.”
It was as if a sheet of paper rustled, somewhere.
Collins said hesitantly, “Sort of blond hair, not very well combed, needs cutting, a rhododendron leaf in it when last seen. Distinctly grubby hands and dubious neck. Leaf-mould both knees, inclined to be cheeky or make bad puns, some —“
“Please” The features were still not clear, but Collins glimpsed growing distaste. “Nobody of that description here. Really — grubby hands, dubious neck, leaf-mould…. I'm surprised at you.
“Or — anywhere else around here?” asked Collins, uncertain about how to put it.
“No — nobody of that description came though at all today. I have the records here, and I know.” Something snapped shut.
“In that case,” said Collins firmly, “I must ask you to excuse me.” He stepped backwards very quickly, as if to take the Voice unaware.
This time there was no mistaking the expression. Rage, incredulous rage. “Excuse you?” said the Voice, ‘Excuse you? Stop him!”
The boys came shrieking from the grass and the river, scores of hands clutched at him, but he managed to keep moving backwards, and again further backwards…. The blue sky vanished and it became dark; there was a noise like thunder and some warm drops began to fall, wetting his nose, cheeks and forehead.
* * *
Lights had come on again; one was coloured and spun and flashed. Someone shouted and nearer a child was sobbing hysterically, “No, Tony, please. Please don’t ...”
He could move his arms a little, though it hurt. With a tremendous effort he raised them, touched neat flannel, then tender wet flesh and around and above it uncut hair, grubby ears, a dubious neck ... The warm drops ceased; it was lighter and he half opened his eyes. They were in an enclosed space, a vehicle; the walls and fittings were white — an ambulance perhaps, but Crispin was busily hugging him, agreeably restricting his view.
A door slammed and someone in light blue uniform leant over — the driver, he imagined.
“We thought you would never come to,” he told Collins. “Delirious you were, talking no end of nonsense.”
“I was miles away — in another place, you might say,” said Collins, smiling faintly.
“The wrong place, by the sound of it,” the driver said briskly.
“Now, then, let’s get going. You can sit where you are, nipper. Keep an eye on him for me, won’t you?”
Crispin grinned up at him. “You’re very nice. What’s your name?”
The driver smiled back at him, then picked up the bunch of keys he had been holding in his lap and gently dangled them in front of the boy. They were larger than average and caught the light unexpectedly, making tiny yellow specks flicker up and down the walls; Crispin screwed up his eyes a little. The driver put the keys down again, and his blue sleeve covered them.
“Guess,” he said.
They began to move.
“I’ll look after you now,” he said. “Both of you.”