I've never been afraid of the dark; not the dark on the outside, and I'd never really thought how it's so very different to the darkness on the inside. In fact, I'd never been aware there was a darkness on the inside; not until that day, the day of the accident. Not that it was technically an accident. The culmination of events wasn't accidental at all, although I'm pretty sure the rest of it was, and surely the ending was never meant to be like that.
It all started very simply and staggered on in a series of jerky, somewhat accidental steps towards the inevitable conclusion. It began with an innocent conversation with my father. It was the conversation in which I told him I'm gay. I'm sure a hundred people must have that conversation every day, all over the country; hell, all over the world. I really hope that, at least the majority of them, went as well as mine did.
My dad is possibly the best father in the world. He's always been very supportive of us and this time was no exception. Now, you may wonder why it took 18 years to tell him if I knew he was going to be cool with it? The answer is that until then I hadn't even known myself.
I've never been particularly turned on by boys, although I can't deny checking them out in the changing room now and again. Maybe I wouldn't have realised even then if it hadn't been for Jay.
Jay has been my best friend forever. We lived next door to each other and spent just about every minute of every day together. We swam naked in the river, hiked in the mountains, lay together under the stars and even slept together, I don't know how many times. In all that time I'd never looked at him as anything but a friend; except maybe as a brother. And I never noticed that he was looking at me in a different way, not until a few weeks before the conversation with my father.
We were camping out on the mountain behind our houses. Yes, it was winter and it was bloody cold but there was a night of shooting stars forecast and we wanted to see them free from light pollution, at least as free as possible on the edge of a busy town.
The sky was perfectly clear, which made it all the colder and the grass crunched under our feet as we set up camp under the protection of a grove of trees. We'd got our sleeping bags out and were lying together on the grass staring up at the stars. We were freezing but toughing it so as not to lose face with each other. Yeah well... we were 18; indestructible and very, very stupid.
The first stars streaked across the sky and we were both completely blown away. We'd never seen anything like it; anything so beautiful and suddenly the cold was worth it. We were breathless.
"Quick, Jay make a wish." I cried excitedly and he whispered.
"I already have."
At some point I realised he'd reached out his hand and laced his fingers with mine. I hadn't even noticed. I was too intent with what was going on in the sky over our heads. It went on for ages and by the time it ended my teeth were chattering.
I was surprised to find that Jay was still holding my hand but it didn't bother me. Nothing Jay did bothered me; we were that close. I turned my face to look at him and his eyes were brilliant, reflecting the dark sky and glittering stars.
I don't know what it was; maybe the way he was looking at me, but it suddenly struck me that they were beautiful. The thought surprised and puzzled me but it still didn't bother me. I remember wondering why it had never occurred to me before to notice he was beautiful.
I mean he isn't perfect, not by a long shot. Back then he was tall and gangly, although he had kind of grown into himself in the few months before. He had this wild, messy red hair, which he'd started paying more attention to so it hung to his shoulders in a shining sheet of copper. He'd a turned up nose, lots of freckles and twinkling green eyes which were large and deep and... Well you get the picture. Jay had been changing a lot and I hadn't noticed it; not until that night.
When we looked at each other, under the stars with our breath misting between us, the changes he'd been undergoing hit me like a ton of bricks and I was puzzled about why – why I hadn't noticed and why, at last, it bothered me.
Jay moved closer and raised himself on one elbow so he could look down at me. He had the strangest look on his face.
"What?" I asked somewhat sharply because I was disturbed by the way my mind had been working.
"What's wrong? You look...."
"I've been...." He shivered deeply and took a deep breath. "There's something I've been wanting to talk to you about for a long time; a really long time."
"But you can talk to me about anything Jay; any time. At least I thought you could." I frowned because there was something Jay couldn't talk to me about. Did it mean we were drifting apart? The fear of losing Jay's friendship was far greater than whatever it might be that was so bad he hadn't felt able to discuss it with me.
"Don't, Ash. Don't look at me like that, as if I've somehow let you down."
"But I wasn't. I know you'd never...."
"Ash, please. Just – just let me speak. If I don't do it now I never will and it's been so hard. It hurts so much."
He really sounded as if he was in pain and I was alarmed. "Jay... Jay what's wrong? What's happened?" I was horrified by his choked voice and the tears in his eyes. I was scared something really bad had happened.
"Nothing's happened; at least, nothing new. It's just... just I can't keep it inside anymore. It's been there for such a long time; years. I've wanted to tell you so many times but I've been too scared." Now he'd started, the words tumbled over themselves and came pouring out. I don't think he could have stopped if he'd wanted to.
"I didn't want you to hate me. You're always so happy and sweet and bubbly and I didn't want to see that change. I didn't want you to be cold with me." I opened my mouth to speak, to tell him he was being stupid, that I'd never be cold to him but he pressed on before I could say a word.
"You've no idea what it's been like, being so close to you for so long. So close but... but not... not...." He took a deep breath, steadying himself. By now I was so stunned and shocked I didn't know what to think let alone say.
"Then tonight you were lying there; so close. You were excited and bubbly like you always are and the starlight was reflecting in your eyes and they were so beautiful. They are beautiful – and when I held your hand and you didn't...."
Suddenly, he seemed to collapse in on himself. "You've absolutely no idea what I'm talking about do you? I thought that when... when you didn't – but you don't know do you? Even now, after everything I've said, you've no idea what I'm talking about."
He was right there. I shook my head, completely mystified. All I knew was that my best friend was in pain and it seemed to have something to do with me; and that was killing me.
"I'm sorry, Jay. I don't know what I've done but whatever it is I'm sorry. I'm really sorry if I've hurt you."
"Sorry? You? Done? Ash you're so... You haven't done anything; nothing. You've always been so... always so.... You're perfect, Ash. You're bright and funny and sweet but sometimes you're so... oblivious."
"Oblivious to what?" He was glaring at me and I was starting to feel very uncomfortable. He was like a coiled spring and I was scared what would happen when it sprung. He sighed and shook his head. His eyes were locked with mine.
"Do you know what I wished for – on the star?" I was confused by the sudden changes of direction in this weird conversation and mesmerised by the strange tone in his voice that was so different to anything I'd ever heard before. He moved closer and I had to resist the temptation to move away. "You," he whispered and that just made me even more confused.
"Me? But – I don't understand."
"God, you can be so stupid sometimes," he spat out in frustration. "I love you, Ash. I have always loved you and I will always love you."
He was looking at me as if he was expecting me to say or do something. "I know you do." I said, somewhat uncertainly, half expecting it to be the wrong thing to say.
"No! You don't know. You don't know anything. Sometimes you're just not real."
And then he kissed me. To say I was shocked is a huge understatement. I was too shocked to react at all and, after a moment Jay pulled away with a strange cry.
"I'm sorry, Ash. I'm really sorry. I never meant it to be like this. I've tried. God knows I've tried but you're just so fucking beautiful and... I...." He looked devastated, destroyed, but I barely noticed.
"Oh God yes. And you've never been more beautiful than you are right now." He looked hopeful then, like a puppy half expecting to be kicked but so, so hoping for a pat.
"I um... I... I don't know what to...to say."
"I don't care, Ash. I don't care what you say or what you do only... only please don't hate me. Please don't hurt me; don't leave me."
"What are you talking about? You're my best friend and you always will be. I don't understand why you would think I'd hate you." And I didn't. I really, really didn't.
"I just told you I'm gay, Ash," he said lowering his head.
"You did? You are?" It was so unexpected. It kind of blindsided me and, yet again, I didn't know what to say. The dominant emotion, beneath the shock and confusion was relief that the 'awful thing' I'd been so worried about since the start of the conversation was only this.
He rolled his eyes and finally smiled. "Like I said, sometimes you're not real. I told you I love you Ash, and I kissed you. Didn't that give you a clue?"
And then a light went on and I was literally knocked off my feet. "You... You're... Oh... OH you meant...? Shit... you did: you are? Does that mean...?"
"Take a breath, Ash, you're not making sense."
I shut my mouth; lay flat on my back and stared up at the stars. How did I feel? What was I thinking? I have no idea. So many things were flying through my mind there was no room for feelings. I was dizzy.
"What are you thinking?" His voice was anxious and I couldn't look at him; I just couldn't.
"I... don't know. Shocked, I suppose. I never thought...."
"You don't hate me do you?"
I turned to look at him and laughed. "Of course I don't hate you. Why the hell would I hate you? You're my best friend."
"Still?" He was anxious, even though I thought I'd made myself perfectly clear. It didn't occur to me then, not until much later, the risk he'd taken in telling me like that. It seemed so natural; so unimportant to 'us' that it came as a huge shock when I later found out that it didn't always happen like this, that sometimes even good friends walk away. Even if things hadn't progressed as they did I would never have turned my back on Jay; not for that.
"So... what...? Where does this leave us? Should we pretend that nothing happened; just carry on as if nothing's changed?"
"Changed? Of course it's changed. Everything's changed." He looked scared.
"I don't know. I need to think, Jay. I don't know how to feel; what to do. I need to think."
"Fair enough. Do you want to go home?"
I thought about it and nodded. "Yes."
We dismantled the camp in silence and trudged back down the mountain. I knew Jay was sneaking glances at me but I couldn't look at him. I don't know why. I didn't realise at the time that he might have thought it was because I had a problem with him; with him being gay. I was stupid and thoughtless but that's the way I am. It's wasn't deliberate. That's not the way it was; not at all.
Neither of us slept that night. My parents thought I'd come back because it was so cold and I wasn't about to disillusion them; not right then. I lay in bed, warm and tired but unable to sleep. My mind roved back and forth over the previous years and I began to slot all sorts of pieces into place. I laughed out loud. I cried almost hysterically. I was scared, uncertain, confused and even angry, but not with Jay. I tossed and turned. I got feverish, almost delirious, but by morning I knew.
The conclusion of my hours of torment came with the dawn and finally brought me peace and rest.
I awoke late and stood in the window, stretching and yawning, soaking up the cold winter sun. Something caught my eye and I noticed Jay in his garden, sitting with his back to the tree, hugging his drawn up knees. He looked so – sad.
I dressed quickly and grabbed a piece of toast before saying I was going out with Jay and ran from the house. I didn't bother knocking, I never have. Letting myself in at the side gate I ran around the back.
Jay looked up when I came striding across the grass. I don't know what he saw on my face because he looked scared, really scared. But I was on a mission and I wasn't going to let something like fear get in the way.
When I got to him I yanked him to his feet without a word and towed him by the hand out of his back gate, along the bank of the river, through the hedge and into our special hiding place. We'd been going there ever since we were children. It was our place; the place where no one else came, where no one bothered us or threatened us— where we were safe. But Jay wasn't feeling safe; I could feel it and I didn't care.
As soon as we got there, still without saying a word, I backed him against a tree, quite roughly; in fact I hadn't been gentle since the first moment; and demanded. "Did you mean it?"
"What?" He looked scared to death, as if he thought I was going to hit him.
"Last night; those things you said. Did you mean them?"
"Yes," he whispered, looking away.
"You love me? I mean really love me... like... in love with me?"
"Yes," he whispered again and I could almost taste the fear in his voice. I pulled his face up and made him look at me.
"And you really think I'm beautiful?" I asked quietly.
At the change in the tone of my voice his eyes widened and his voice was filled with a kind of desperate hope. "Yes."
"You have shit in your eyes, Redwood," I laughed, and then I kissed him.
And that was that. From that moment on we were together; an item. I had a boyfriend and it was Jay and life was great.
We talked about telling people and decided it was a bad idea. We needed time to get used to it ourselves first. There were only a couple of weeks of term left and then it would be Xmas and we would have time to talk and think. Our exams were coming up and then we would be done with school forever. Would it really be so hard to wait?"
We told Jay's parents of course because they were uber cool and had pretty much known that Jay was in love with me forever. They were so happy that it had finally happened and it was good to have a place to go where we could be free; be ourselves. We also told a couple of very good friends.
And that brings us right back to telling my dad.
He was, of course, absolutely fine with it once I'd explained that I'd only just worked it out myself and hadn't been keeping it secret... as such.
That wasn't the problem. Neither was the fact that he told my mother the next day. My mum is way cool too; not a vicious, bigoted, homophobic bone in her body.
No. The problem was that the conversation in which he told her was overheard by my brother who, unfortunately has quite a lot of vicious, bigoted and homophobic bones in his body. Even that wouldn't have been too much of a problem if he hadn't gone out and told his equally vicious, bigoted and homophobic friends.
Although over a year younger than me, Michael was already bigger and hung out with a group of thugs; some his age and some mine. How any of them made it into the 6th form I will never know.
Anyway... right up to that point everything was still pretty much accidental. Even Michael was doing nothing but sounding off to his friends and didn't actually expect any of them to do anything about it. They wouldn't have been stupid enough to suggest to him that they do anything about it. Maybe we weren't close but we were family and family matters.
On the big day we had lunch early. We didn't often eat in the school dining room as we generally brought something in to the common room or slouched off down to town; especially if we didn't have lessons after lunch.
I can't honestly remember why it was different that day. There must have been a reason but it really doesn't matter now.
We were having a great time as usual. We were all fairly popular and well known and our table was always the liveliest, usually including a large number of younger kids who seemed to like us. A couple of my friends had younger brothers or sisters and I think that's how it started but by that day there were usually a crowd of about 20 mixed ages who sat together and had a laugh. Maybe that's why we stopped using the dining room very often. It was a lot to handle every day.
I was on fire. Me, Jay and two others (Suzie and Jeff) were throwing one liners back and forth and bouncing things off one another that had the rest in stitches. Most of them had no idea about Jay and me and we played them outrageously. I was so happy; with Jay there right next to me and all my friends around me. I remember thinking that life was awesome and just couldn't get any better. I was right of course. What I didn't realise was that it could get a lot worse.
We were just about finished and ready to move on to whatever we were going to do... Oh yeah, I think it might have been some kind of music practice for the school play. My, Jay and a couple of others were in a band and we were going to play. Anyway, I needed the loo and I went on ahead while the others cleaned up and got their things together. I'd just walked out of the dining room when I was hit by a truck.
Not literally of course. It was actually Tommy Ray, one of Michael's gang, and some of his mates. I found that out later because at the time I had no idea who or what hit me. They must have been watching and waiting. They came at me from behind – bloody cowards, and the first thing I knew anything was happening was finding myself on the floor.
I was dizzy from the start because I must have hit my head, and suddenly everything was muted and far away. It was as if it was all happening to someone else. I just lay there while they kicked me. They were shouting something but it didn't really register. It didn't occur to me to wonder why they were doing that to me. It didn't occur to me to wonder anything. I wasn't really there and anyway, it was all so fast. I heard something snap but didn't really feel any pain. I suppose it was shock or adrenaline or something.
And then it stopped and everything was quiet. There was a buzzing in my ears, or my head, which made it difficult to hear anything. I'd been lying on my side but someone rolled me over onto my back, and I still didn't feel any pain.
I found myself staring up at a ring of faces, searching for one in particular. When I found it I smiled.
Jay was saying something to me; probably something like 'Oh my God Ash, are you alright?' but all I heard was his voice making a jumble of sounds through the buzz. I stared at him, as his face got closer. He tried to help me up but I had neither the strength nor the volition to move.
It wasn't that it hurt, although the pain was starting to kick in by then. It was just that my body didn't seem able to understand what was going on any better than my brain and decided that staying put was the best idea.
That was when I first felt the darkness. I wasn't scared of it then because I had no idea what it was. I was feeling very tired and it was just darkness, creeping in over the edges of my mind. For a short time my hearing kicked back in but all I heard was a jumble of noises. Someone screaming; someone crying; a teacher's voice issuing commands. I briefly wondered if I was going to get into trouble for lying on the floor, but I didn't care, not even when the headmaster's face appeared. He looked less sure and more kindly than I've ever seen him.