Colin took the hint when Mike suggested that it was time the two of them left and let Doug get settled in.
Over dinner, Doug and I talk about how the day had gone, and I report my conversation with Colin, which of course, he already knew.
“I hope you don’t think I am being too hard with the conditions I’ve set.”
“We didn’t like it at first,” Doug says, “but when we thought about it, we realised you were right. As it is sensible for him to continue living where he is until he has used his prepayment, it should not be too difficult to comply. It would have been different if he was living here.”
“Good. I’m glad you understand.”
I suggest we move to the more comfortable seats in the front room. When we are settled I continue. “I apologise for not having asked Colin to stay to dinner, but things have been a bit hectic this week as you know and I thought we needed the chance to talk alone. I might seem old fashioned, but if you are living under my roof I feel I have a certain responsibility towards you.”
Doug looks resigned as if he was expecting this conversation.
“I’m sorry to have to bring it up on your first evening here but I think we need to talk about why you had to leave home.”
“It’s all right,” he says, “I knew I would have to tell you at some point if I came to live with you. As I said the other day when you wanted me to confront Mike, it’s best to get it over with.”
He tells me how his father had been dismissive of him all his life, how he used to hit him and make him do things to demean him. Things had got worse, much worse, after he father had guessed Doug was gay. Eyes a little too long on a cute waiter and not long enough on the waitresses was all it had taken.
Some of what Doug told me made me feel ill and I had to ask him to stop a couple of times. Although he tried to be dispassionate about it, he broke down as he told me of his father’s last attack.
All I can do is move over to him and hold him as he cries himself out, crying with him at times.
When we have both recovered enough, I make us both a hot drink.
There is a question I have to ask.
“Do you have any evidence? Any photographs of your injuries?”
“I managed to take some selfies on my phone, but I took them hours later, when I had found somewhere I thought was safe. He could always claim they happened after I ran away from home.”
He shows them to me. They are horrific and would have been enough to convict if it wasn’t for the time gap and another fatal flaw: none of the pictures show his face, there is no way of knowing it is him.
I look at Doug. Something about his body language suggests he wants to say more.
“Pity about that time gap. Anything else?” I ask.
“There should be some video. I had my computer on at the time and managed to set the camera running when I heard him coming for me.”
“Just one snag,” I say, “you haven’t got access to your computer. I presume you had to leave it behind when you made a run for it.”
For the first time since we left the dining room Doug has a smile on his face.
“As I was packing what little stuff I thought I could carry I uploaded it to the cloud. Then I changed my machine password just in case he knew it and I shut everything down.”
“Are you telling me you have had this evidence and yet have done nothing with it for over a year?” I try hard to keep the frustration and disbelief out of my voice. Not well enough.
“Yes,” he snaps at me. “Nobody would believe me. A rough sleeper saying he is my father’s son? Nah. If I got that far they wouldn’t believe he would do the sort of thing he did to me. Never mind believe that I might have evidence. You are the first person I thought believed in me and now you say you don’t.”
I can see that this is another stay or run moment. Whatever I say next will make the decision for him. I hope I get this right. For his sake and mine. I would find it difficult to live with myself if he goes.
“Doug,” I say as gently as I can, “I do believe in you. I wouldn’t have invited you to live here if I didn’t. I do want to help you with this. Let me try, please.”
I pause trying to gauge his reaction. He seems to be calming down.
“Would you like to see if you can access the video? You can use my computer.”
I see him swallow and then nod. I offer a silent prayer to a god I am not sure I believe in.
“Yes.” His voice sounds very small.
We move into my study and when my computer has finally booted up, I open a browser window and move out of my chair so that Doug can sit down to use the keyboard.
He finds a URL he wants which brings up a login screen. He knows that I am standing behind him so that his head hides my view of most of the keyboard. I cannot watch his fingers and learn his username and password. He keys them in.
A message appears on screen — ‘Account Suspended ‘
“Damn. He must have found that one. I thought he might.”
Doug turns his head towards me.
“I hope he hasn’t found the other one. I will need to download some software to get into it. Is that all right?”
“Yes,” I say. I have to trust him. I am thankful I was disciplined enough to do a backup last night.
He soon has another login screen. Followed by another error message:
‘Password or Username Invalid ‘
He tries again.
‘Password or Username Invalid ‘
I can see Doug is getting worried
“I’ve only got one more go and then it will lock me out for twenty four hours and send me an email.” he says, “If Dad is watching my account he will pick it up and can lock me out of that one as well.”
He takes a few deep breaths to try and calm himself. He is about to try again.
“No! Stop!” I yell at him.
He takes his hands off the keyboard.
“Sorry for shouting but I had to stop you. You’ve got the ‘caps lock’ on.” I can see the tell-tale light on the corner of the keyboard.
“Bollocks! No wonder it wouldn’t let me in.”
I think I would have said something stronger.
Doug calms himself and tries again.
This time he is in. There are several files and folders. He downloads the most recent file to a new folder on my computer.
“Have you a spare USB stick?” he asks. I find one and he downloads the file a second time onto the stick. Then he downloads everything else to my machine.
“Anything else I can put a copy on?”
“There’s my zip drive and there’s a box of DVDs that I have never used.”
He downloads all the files again onto my zip drive and tells me we can copy them onto DVD later.
“Now I want to check the files are working, and then I can delete them from the cloud. The system will have sent an email that I have logged in from a different IP address. That might alert Dad, but if he tries to contact the service provider he won’t know the answers to my security questions.”
My mind wanders briefly to question how Doug can still refer to his father as ‘dad’ after all the man has put him through.
Doug flicks through all the copies on the computer, opening the videos to see if they run properly for a few seconds, before moving to the next. Satisfied, he deletes the files from the cloud, changes his account password and logs out.
“Can you login to your email account and delete that system message?” I ask.
He tries and manages to get in and delete the message. There are also several failed login attempt messages from shortly after Doug left home which he leaves. To delete them would draw attention to his access to the email account.
“He must have tried to get in,” Doug says, “and failed. Nice to know the system administrators wouldn’t let him bypass security. He is bound to have contacted them.”
Although he must feel vindicated, Doug looks tired.
“Do you want to call it a day?” I ask.
He wants to press on and show me at least one. We agree that we will look at the most recent as he says that will be the worst. The others are earlier events that he managed to record.
It starts with Doug moving away from the computer and pushing his chair under the desk. He tells me that was so it looked as though he hadn’t been on the computer. The video date and time stamp are clearly visible on screen. Voices can be heard and a man I assume is Doug’s father is seen entering the room. The camera has a fixed field of vision and doesn’t show all the room and can’t follow the action. However the microphone has picked up everything. It is enough
Enough that I have to leave the room to bring up my dinner.
Doug has paused the video while I have been out of the room. Before he restarts it I ask him about something that has been bothering me.
“I thought I heard a third voice. Was there someone else in the room with you?”
“Do you know who it was?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Can he be seen in the video later on?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Doug replies, “That is why I need to watch it. To be sure who it is.”
He takes pity on me and fast-forwards to the places where there are figures in front of the camera. The father is clearly seen but the other man is indistinct in the few short seconds he is on screen.
I tell Doug that we have enough, especially if the other videos are useable as supporting evidence. Before he shuts down my machine he burns three copies of all the videos to DVD.
We turn out the downstairs lights and climb the stairs to the first floor landing. I stop Doug before he goes up to his room.
“I’ll say goodnight, but after this evening I expect we will both have nightmares. If you feel in need of company, you know where I’ll be.”
The mood at breakfast reflects that we have both had a bad night. I had difficulty getting to sleep, thinking about Doug and the man who is his father. I had left my door open and had, at times, seen the glow from the lights upstairs suggesting Doug had woken and needed the light to calm himself.
I make coffee. We both need the caffeine buzz.
“I have to go to Mother’s for lunch.” I say as I hand him his cup. “I’m sorry, I would have invited you too, but Mike will be there to talk about Sam.”
It is nice to see the trace of a smile on Doug’s face when I mention Mike.
“Don’t worry. Colin said he would be round at about eleven and we would go out for the day.”
“That’s good. I’m not sure you are ready to have my mother inflicted on you yet, and it will probably be easier for you if I get her used to the idea of me having a lodger before you meet her.”
“Was she the little old lady who was with you the day you bought the eggs?” Doug asks. “She seemed a sweet old girl.”
“You wait ‘til you meet her.”
I ask Doug if he wants more toast or coffee.
“I hate to mention it,” I say, “but we need to think about what you want to do about your father.”
“I was thinking about that last night when I couldn’t get back to sleep,” he replies. “How long do you think he would get if we turn this over to the police?”
“From what you read in the papers, about four years. I don’t really know. He would actually do about half of that. That’s assuming he is convicted. With a good lawyer and if the prosecution cock it up, he might get off.”
“That’s what I thought.”
I have finished my breakfast so I move my plates to the sink. I turn back to face Doug and lean back against the worktop.
“We are assuming the CPS treats it as a sexual offence,” I say. “They may decide the evidence isn’t strong enough to secure a conviction — the video doesn’t show everything happening — and go for GBH with a better chance of success. In that case I suspect he might only serve a few months.”
“I thought that too.” Doug looks up at me. “I want something more permanent.”
Thankfully, I can see in his face that he does not mean what his words appear to imply.
As he outlines what he has in mind, I start preparing the food I will take with me to Mother’s and some things for us during the week. I am pleased when Doug starts to help. It brings a reference point of domestic normality to our deliberations.
There are times in our discussion when I have to remind myself that Doug’s interests must be paramount. It’s what he wants to achieve that matters, not what I might want to happen to his father.
By the time Colin, arrives Doug has made a decision about his goals and we have the outline of a plan to achieve them. I am uncertain of some aspects but he assures me they will be all right.
“I expect we will be back from Mother’s around five thirty,’ I say to Doug. “I can’t give you any keys because the spare set is at Mother’s. I will bring them back and get another set for you cut tomorrow.”
I had better get two sets cut if Colin is also going to be living here.
The two boys are looking at each other.
“We?” they say in unison.
“Mike will probably want to come back here for a post-mortem.” Why am I blushing? I would have been better not to try and justify my Freudian slip.
I walk with them to the door.
“Go on. Have a good time,” I say and I give them both a gentle swat on the backside as they leave.
“Nice to see you again, dear,” Mother says cheerily to Mike when we get to the flat. She proffers him a cheek and he takes the hint. Has she decided he is family already?
By contrast, all I get by way of greeting is a flat, “Come in, dear.”
I am apprehensive about telling Mother I have a lodger. Taking a lesson from Doug, I tackle it once I have put the meal on to cook and settled Mother with her sherry.
“Mother, I’ve taken in a lodger. His name is Doug and I have given him the rooms on the top floor.”
“That’s nice, dear,” she says. She sounds so dismissive I wonder if she has actually heard.
“So you will have to stay here,” I say, “It wouldn’t be right for you with him there.”
“No, dear. What makes you think I wanted to move back to be with you?”
I wonder where the nearest brick wall is to bang my head against. Mike must have guessed my thought as there is a glint in his eye when I look across at him.
“Anyway, dear,” she continues, “There wouldn’t be room for me. Not after Mike and his son Sam move in.”
Mike and I have puzzled looks on our faces. She notices.
“Well, dear,” she turns to face Mike, “your little studio flat is no place to bring up a child. You can move in with Patrick. There is plenty of room in the old house for him to run around, and it has a garden for him to play in.”
“That is true,” I say, bowing to Mother’s logic. Like her, I have ignored that Mike does not yet have custody.
“And I’m sure you two will enjoy each other’s company, living together.” She is looking at us both, a smile playing in her eyes.
The kitchen timer rings, but I am not saved by the bell.
“Close your mouth, dear. You’ll catch a fly.”
The conversation during the meal is inconsequential. For something to say, Mike asks if she has been playing any more bridge.
“Yes, dear, I played on Tuesday and Thursday. I was very pleased, we won both times.”
Maybe that was why we never heard anything about meeting Sam: she didn’t go, being too busy playing bridge.
“Did you have Diana making up the four?” I ask, knowing that Maggie and Brenda would be the other two.
“No, dear. Not Diana, her name is Doris. I don’t know anyone called Diana.”
How like Mother. I had guessed it would not be long before Diana was replaced and promptly forgotten about. Brenda had told me last week that Mother had only mentioned Mavis once since the funeral and she had played bridge with them for years.
I clear the meal away and make the coffee. We move from the table to more comfortable chairs.
“Now, dear,” Mother is looking at Mike again, “I had better tell you what you are dying to know but too polite to ask.
“On Thursday, I managed to meet young Sam on his way home from the holiday club and asked him to help me across the road. I could tell he thought I should be capable of doing it on my own, but since I appeared to be going the same way as him he played along. I walked with him as far as his house. He told me he lived with his parents, where he went to school, what day term starts and some other unimportant stuff. That day he seemed happy enough. His shorts and sweater are a bit scruffy, but he is probably due to grow out of them. He looks well enough fed, if a little skinny, so I asked him what he thought he would be having for tea. His face took on a bored look — ‘burger and beans again, I suppose’ was his reply. Obviously not much of a cook, his mother.”
Mike is enthralled by Mother’s report. I am imagining the scene: Mother playing the little old lady by being herself, carefully teasing information out of the child. Forty years on I can remember how she used to do it to me. I am still not immune to her interrogations.
“I met him again on Friday,” Mother goes on, “he didn’t seem as cheerful and I noticed a bruise on his thigh peeking out from the leg of his shorts. So when we had crossed the road I suggested he deserved an ice cream for his trouble and took him to the shop I had noticed the previous day.
“ ‘That’s a nasty bruise,’ I said as we were eating our treat. ‘How did you get that?’ He told me it happened in the playground. I had to do the ‘young man’ speech, you remember the one, don’t you, Patrick?”
Indeed I do: ‘Young man, I wasn’t born yesterday. That isn’t how it happened is it?’
“Then I said to him ‘That bruise is the wrong colour for it to have been done today, and too big for one of your playmates to have done it’.”
Mother clearly hasn’t lost any of her forensic skills.
“That broke the dam. I got tears I’m afraid. It’s not his father he lives with, it’s his mother’s live-in boyfriend and he had hit him the night before. He isn’t allowed to see his real father because the two he lives with say his real father is a ‘fairy’. I asked him if he believed that. His reply was a bit crude, ‘I don’t believe in bloody fairies so how can it be true.’ Mike, you will have to do something about his language.”
Mike blushes. Maybe some of the bad language was in place before he had to move out.
“Does he remember me?” he asks.
“Of course, dear,” Mother is back in her flow. “I think he would be happy to live with you. ‘Couldn’t be worse than living with those two,’ he said when I asked, ‘they’re always fighting’. I dried his tears and walked home with him. I thought I should explain why he was late getting home. His mother didn’t seem worried by him being late. She was more interested in accusing me of being a social worker. Huh, me being thought of as a social worker? Oh no, dear. That would never do.”
I smile at the thought. Mother would probably have made a good social worker, caring enough to help, sharp enough to see through attempts to pull the wool over her eyes.
“Why did she accuse you of being a social worker?” I ask.
“Apparently they had rung from the school to ask about the bruise on his leg. She said she told them he had fallen in the garden and she thought they had reported her to the authorities.
“Sam’s mother had some nasty bruises on her as well. I think you are better off without her, dear,” she says once again looking at Mike, “She is a bit common.”
On second thoughts maybe Mother would not have made a good social worker: too judgemental. Perhaps prejudiced would be a better word.
I am amazed at how much information she has got from Sam. I know that if I had tried to speak to him, I would have been accused of grooming, especially if I gave him an ice cream.
“Have you written all this down?” I ask, hoping she hasn’t forgotten anything significant already.
“No, dear, I haven’t.”
I look at her in astonishment. When I see her little grin I know I have been caught.
“Better than that, dear,” she says, “I recorded it all on my mobile. Brenda showed me how. She has copied it off onto a disc and written up a transcript. I even got a photo of his bruise. She says I did very well. I was very careful not to pose any leading questions to Sam and put ideas into his head.”
Mother looks at the clock.
“Don’t be late going home, dear,” she says, “I think you two need to get the room ready for Sam. He can have the room your father and I used to use. I know you have never been able to bring yourself to move in there. I’m sure you will find room for Mike as well.”
The Oracle has spoken.
When the boys return from their day out they find us at work emptying the cupboards and getting the furniture swapped around in the room Mother and Dad used to use. I explain that Mother seems to think that Sam will be with us much sooner than any of us anticipated and we have taken her warning to heart. The boys help by cleaning the bits we missed yesterday. The job is soon done. The room could do with decorating, but that can wait until Sam is here to choose what he wants.
After a quick snack, Mike and Colin leave, saying they would see us at work tomorrow.
“May I use the computer,” Doug asks. “I want to do some of the work we talked about this morning.”
“Of course,” I reply, “I’ll boot it up for you.”
“I might need you at some point. There are some spreadsheets in among those files that you might find interesting.”
“Will they still be valid?” I ask. “Surely if your father knows you have them he will have altered things around in the time since you left. He will know you have them from the cloud storage site that he found.”
“These weren’t on the other site. I guessed he might find that one; in fact, I wanted him to find the videos there so he would think he was covered by deleting them. The second site is much more secure. I don’t think he knows I have the spreadsheets.”
I sit at the side table in my study to make some notes of my own, the old fashioned way: pen and paper.
Doug is engrossed in what he is doing, so I keep us supplied with hot drinks. One time when I am in the kitchen I ring Mike and ask him to suggest a spec for a computer for Doug. I can see he is going to need his own machine.
“Leave it with me,” he says, “I’ll go on-line and see what I can find that is suitable and available on ‘click-and-collect’. I‘ll order it and pick it up tomorrow. Colin can get it set up for him. I can probably find a spare router and a network switch in the office in case we need either of those to get you both on line.”
“I don’t expect you to pay for it,” I protest.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to put it on my business card and invoice it back out if I need to.”
I keep forgetting that Mike’s IT department is actually his own business.
“Have a good-night hug from me,” Mike says, “and give a hug to Doug for me, please.”
Although it is late when we finish, we have achieved more than we could have expected. I tell him about ordering the computer and Mike sending a hug, which we share.
When I turn my light out I realise that I have forgotten to ask Doug about his afternoon with Colin.