When Darren said to me "Bernie, I've got to tell you something. You won't like it, but I must. This is the last time I can see you," I was first shocked, then devastated. I pleaded in vain for him to reconsider but he was firm : it was making things difficult for him at home, his wife was suspicious and he found he couldn't go on inventing convincing lies every time he came to meet me. If he was caught, he said, he would lose his kids as well as his wife, and he couldn't bear that.
I understood, but it was a terrible feeling to lose him. I was fond of him and we had been well attuned sexually. I agreed reluctantly not to try to phone him and the sight of him driving away for the last time down the lane we had met in filled me with grief. I had never spoken to him about the stress of being a single parent with a business to run, a home to look after, plus seeing to the needs of my son, who by this time was employed but of an age when he still expected a parent to do most things for him. I still kept in touch with my wife from time to time. Neither of us had made any move to divorce the other, even though more than four years had elapsed since she had left, and it was always my hope, for the sake of our children as much as myself, that she would return home. I knew that she felt guilty about leaving her family; and I knew too that her partner was much older than her and that he had been ill. She told me as much on one of her rare visits to check up on our son - and, of course, to check up on me. Though I was often in despair, even when I had the comfort of a visit from Darren to look forward to, I never entirely despaired that she would return one day. But after Darren said farewell I really did sink into a pit of black despair. Looking back on that period of my life I find it mostly a blank. I know that I did very little wanking and it was not for another six months, and with the arrival of spring, that I felt ready to consider starting again with a fresh ad in the Men Seeking Men columns of the local paper. Even fifty-year-olds get rising sap when spring replaces winter !
I advertised as before, not disguising my age, with a brief announcement in the personal columns and followed it up with a recorded message for the allotted Voicebox. I gave my Christian name and made it clear I could not accommodate (this was because my son was still at home in the evenings) but that because I was self-employed I could travel mornings or afternoons. I said that I hoped any one responding would tell me a little about themselves, give the area where they lived (so that I could judge how far I might have to travel) and promised to return any calls made to my Voicebox if they would give their telephone number.
A week after the ad had been placed there were only three replies, which contrasted with about fifteen when I had advertised five years before. The first two were disappointing and the third was bizarre. The first was from a masseur who worked 30 miles across the other side of town. As a sixty mile round trip was not possible and I reckoned that a masseur would have a far greater choice of clients than just myself, I ruled that one out. I spoke to him on the phone, as I had promised, and he didn't seem to mind. Like me, he was married, but his wife lived with him and he had hoped I could visit him at his place of work.
The second reply was from a much older man, also living a long way away, who said he was retired and that his pleasure would lie in giving me pleasure. I didn't like the way he spoke and such a message put me off. I wanted any one I had sex with to have pleasure on his own account too. I decided not to phone him back, despite my promise.
But the third was extraordinary. The recording started with the sound of coins being dropped into a public phone box and then the voice came, hoarse, rough, uncultured and with a strong Yorkshire accent. "This is Billy" he said, then sounded as if unsure how to go on. "I'm in a public phone box. I don't 'ave no phone at 'ome. Ring me on this number" (and he gave me the number of the phone box he was ringing from) "on Tuesday at two o'clock. I'll be there." Then the line - and with it the recording - went dead.
As I had missed his Tuesday deadline by one day, I was amused (and touched by his evident sincerity) and thought no more about it, but when I checked my voicebox the following weekend there was a new message from him. "You didn't ring" he said in his thick accent. "I'll be at the same number at the same time this Tuesday. Make sure you phone me." And that was it.
This time I couldn't resist trying to talk with him and I rang the number he had given me at the right time. I was amazed when a woman answered but I asked if "Billy" was there and she said "Yes, I'll go and get him." He came on the line almost at once.
"Is that Bernard ?" he said.
"Yes" I replied "I'm phoning as you asked."
"Eeh, I'm glad" he said "I were 'oping you would."
"Where are you speaking from ?" I enquired, and he told me he was by the post office in a village about fifteen miles away in the Pennine hills. He'd been waiting for my call but a woman he knew, hearing the phone ring, had got in first.
"Are you goin' to come an' see me then ?" he said, after a pause.
"OK - when would best suit you ?"
"Any time, so long as it's in the mornin'. You see, she goes out at nine and gets back after lunch at about two o'clock."
"Who's that ?" I enquired.
"Me sister" he said.
"Your sister ?" I said, surprised because I had not anticipated that.
"Yep - she's an invalid and gets taken to the Day Care Centre five days a week, Monday to Friday. I'm on me own then. The cottage is on its own too, no-one will see you come."
This was intriguing. "You live in a cottage in the countryside then, do you ?"
"Yep - me nearest neighbour's a mile away. I 'ave to walk across the fields to reach the village. Teks me 'bout an hour to get 'ere. I were very disappointed when you didn't phone last week."
I could see his point. He evidently had neither phone nor car. "What do you do all day, then ?" I asked.
"I was a farm-'and, but I broke me leg an' 'ip in a tractor accident some years ago. I live on me disability pension. Mostly I does gardening an' such-like at me cottage. An' of course I look after me sister when she's 'ome."
"So why did you phone my voicebox then ?"
He experienced some difficulty in answering this but finally he said "I liked the sound of your voice - an' you sounded 'onest." And then "I 'aven't much experience y'know, but I knows what I want."
It wasn't the time to enquire into what it was he wanted : I would find that out if I met him. As I had to make a decision there and then I thought it would be interesting to meet him, so I asked him if Friday would suit, what would be the best time and what directions he could give me for finding his cottage. "Any time, so long as you're away by two" he said and went on to give me directions. They were quite complicated so I noted them down as he went along, noting too that he was speaking less nervously, more fluently now, though still with the same strong "country" accent.
To be honest I didn't expect too much to come of this encounter when I set out to see him on the Friday. It was a lovely day in May and the hedgerows and trees were in new leaf as I turned into the rutted lane which led up to his isolated cottage. I drove past to check that I had come to the right place and turned my car so that I was facing away from the cottage. I saw a downstairs curtain twitch before I got out of the car and as I mounted the steps to the front door it was opened and Billy stood before me.
It's a picture I carry around in my head. The cottage, called "Cragside", was small and built back into the hillside. On either side of the steps up to the front door was a neat flower garden full of spring bulbs, purple aubretia and sweet-smelling polyanthus. There were two small windows on either side of the door and a single dormer window upstairs. Behind the cottage I could see a large stone-built shed and a smaller building which looked like an outside loo. A raised vegetable garden, with steps up to it, stretched behind the cottage on a level with the first floor. The slates were in good order and a fire was lit inside because the chimney was smoking. It made a charming picture.
The first thing I noticed about Billy was that he had a lot of grey hair; and as he stood back to let me in through the door I noticed that he limped, carrying himself unevenly, mainly on his left leg. I thought he had been determined, if he walked like that, to undertake the two mile trip to the village to phone me twice and return for a third time.
I shook his hand. He hadn't been expecting this, but what do you do when someone puts their hand out ? "I'm Bernard" I said, "And I hope you're Billy."
"Yep" he said "I'm Billy."
There was a silence between us and I wasn't sure how to go on.
"And your sister's gone to the Day Care Centre then ?"
"Yep - Dorothy's there aw-reet."
"Tell me about her ?" I asked.
"Well, she's much older than me," he said. "You see, like, she were born just before the War so she's sixty four - fourteen years older than me. Dunno 'xactly what's wrong with 'er 'cept she can't go upstairs no more an' she's too weak to do any cookin'. That's 'er bed over there, in t' corner."
I looked round the small living room into which the front door opened. It was clean and neat but fairly basic. There was a television with a couple of armchairs near it, a door leading to a backroom, which I took to be the kitchen, and a door which gave on to the staircase. Dorothy's bed took up most of the rest of the space.
"I'd like to see your garden at the back" I said, interested by the kind of life he led with his sister and wondering why he had gone to so much trouble to answer my ad. "Do you grow all your own vegetables ?"
"Done it all me life" he said gruffly. "Come - I'll show you."
We went through the kitchen (also neat and tidy but basic) and out through the back door. He climbed the steps to the vegetable garden and the shed one at a time and I wanted to ask him if it hurt to walk like that but didn't want to risk a rebuff so I kept quiet. "We don't 'ave much money - just our pensions," he volunteered. "We inherited this cottage from me mam and I've bin doin' the garden ever since I were a lad. That's the loo there an' this shed's fixed up for a shower an' things."
He opened the door and there I saw some of the more modern appurtenances of modern-day life - a washing machine, a sink, a small chest freezer and an old bicycle as well as a shower cubicle and a hot water cylinder. Onions hung from nails in the joists that supported the roof and there were gardening tools, fertiliser, seed packets and seed compost stacked on shelves or tidied away in one corner. Looking outside onto the vegetable patch I could see a small greenhouse with the sunlight illuminating rows of seed trays standing on home-made shelving.
Back in the living room I accepted his offer of a cup of tea and asked him about his mother.
"She died" he said simply. "She were nearly forty when she 'ad me."
Gradually by question and answer I pieced together his history and as I did so I came to feel respect for this man. He was not much to look at - medium height, thick, unkempt hair - but his body was wiry, he had strong forearms and his mind was active. It looked as if he had shaved, perhaps specially, that morning because his weathered face was shiny and there was a small cut on his chin. I put his slow speech, delivered in a deep bass voice, down to lack of practice (he told me he was often lonely) and the more we talked, the more his level of self-disclosure - low at first - went up. He told me how he had never had a father, or rather, that his mother had never told him who he was. Dorothy, who was fourteen when he was born, occasionally dropped dark hints about some man her mother was "seeing" at the time but she knew nothing definite. He had been brought up in the cottage where his mother, who had a war widow's pension, "kept 'erself to 'erself," tilled the garden and looked after her children. She had loved him and after a young man Dorothy was fond of had jilted her, she continued to let Dorothy live in the house so that Billy and his sister had lived there all their lives. "Mam" had died in the same bed downstairs that Dorothy was now occupying, and brother and sister, after the war pension had stopped, had survived on his meagre earnings as a farm hand and her social security hand-outs. He was used to not having much money as he had always given his wages to his mam. Now that he had had to give up work as a result of his injury they were dependent on his disability pension and Dorothy's small state pension. It didn't amount to much.
I asked him about shopping, given the remoteness of the cottage, and he said he went every Tuesday afternoon on foot to the village Post Office to collect his pension and did whatever shopping was necessary there in the village store. When he needed a haircut or things he couldn't get at the store he caught the bus to town. It only ran on a Wednesday. It didn't hurt his leg to walk the two miles to the village and the two miles back again, but it took longer than it used to. If it rained, he was used to working outside and it didn't bother him. He said that they knew him well in the village and that usually, to spare him having to carry what he had bought back with him, they would arrange to deliver it when they had someone else's delivery to make so that it was free of charge.
He said ruefully that things cost more in the village than they did in the town but he had no choice and he wasn't complaining. He laughed when he said that it had cost him "a tidy sum" to phone my voicebox and that he had worked it out that he could only afford to phone one advert. I asked him why he had chosen mine and he said I was the right age and as he couldn't travel and was only available during the morning it had suited him. When he listened to my recorded message he had wanted to meet me. He had been disappointed when I didn't phone the first time.
We went on to talk about his life as a farmhand. He had left school at 15 without any qualifications, he said, and started work immediately at the farm a mile away up the road. He was still there thirty years later when he had his tractor accident. He didn't want to talk about that but he had enjoyed farm work. It was long hours with poor pay and he had never gone out "socialising" (as he put it). I asked him if he had any relations other than his mam and his sister and he said he had an aunt, his mam's younger sister, who lived somewhere "up north". He'd only met her once, at his mam's funeral. As to his ever having had a girlfriend, he shook his head, saying "Nah - never 'ad the time, the cash - nor the inclination," and left it at that.
There was a pause after he said "nor the inclination" and he looked up at me to ensure that I was taking in its significance. I took the cue. "Tell me about your sex life, Billy."
There was another pause and I got the impression he had never spoken to anyone else about this before. Finally he said "I play wi meself ….. I've allas played wi' meself."
"Did you never "play" with anyone else, Billy ?" I asked.
He thought for a moment and then said "There were another farm'and. We was ploughing a field near some woods one day. Job 'ad to be done quick so we 'ad two tractors. We only took a few minutes to 'ave our lunch out there. One thing led to another, well, we was only young, and we 'ad a bet on to see 'oo could shoot the farthest, so we went into the wood and pulled our willies out."
"Who won ?"
"I did !" he said, smiling at the recollection.
"And after that ?"
"We didn't do it much 'cos we was so rarely together-like. It were just one of them opportunities that crop up. I don't say we never did it, but it weren't often." He hesitated. Then "The next time I did it wi' anyone was when t' farm manager stopped me one day and asked me if I would like to earn some pocket money by 'elping 'im wi' a job at 'is 'ouse."
He stopped and I had to encourage him to go on.
"I might as well tell thee" he said and he launched into the story that, all those years ago, was probably instrumental in his replying to my ad. He told me how "the job" had turned out to be holding the wooden ridge of a new roof which the farm manager was putting up over a shed while the spars were nailed in place. How, after the ridge was firmly in place, he had invited Billy, who was about 20 at the time, into his house for a drink and plied him with whisky - something Billy had never drunk before - "an' not a lot after, an' all." He was unsuspicious because he knew the farm manager, who was in his thirties, was married. He and his wife had no kids and she worked in the evenings in the local pub. So they were alone in his house, sitting together on his settee. The manager (" 'e never told me 'is name") fished in his pocket and gave Billy £1 for his help, then said he could earn more, if he liked. When he asked how, the man unzipped the fly of his trousers "an' took 'is pecker out." Billy had been amazed by its size and excited when the man took his hand and wrapped it round his willy. It was too late to stop now "'Cos I was allus playin' wi' meself at 'ome and soon we was both wankin' the other."
"It's a funny thing" he said, "When me mam first caught me wanking she were outraged. "Niver do that again, Billy, do ye 'ear ? It'll make yer go blind if yer not careful." Well I 'adn't seen no blind people about so I continued to do it but took care not to be caught out, like. No mess on t' sheets, no noise. But it were news to me that married men did it too."
Another pause. "Problem was - I enjoyed it."
"How long did they go on for - these meetings with your farm manager ?"
"'Bout five years. It stopped when 'e wanted to go further than I …." He hesitated. "I'm not in to that sort thing."
I understood what he meant. "Nor am I, Billy," I said. He looked relieved and I went on to ask him if he had met anyone else in the intervening years.
No, he said, he'd never had the chance. The manager was fired soon after and a year or two later his mam fell ill and he had to help Dorothy nurse her and look after the house, the garden and the cooking. After she died they had less money and he had to work all the hours he could to make ends meet. He looked up at me suddenly. "This is the first time for me for a long time. I done a lot of wankin' in that time, but this is the first with another fella. Ar't up to it then ?" and he nodded his head towards the door at the foot of the stairs.
I got to my feet. He did the same, rather more slowly, and preceded me up the steep stairs. "Mind thee 'ead and shut door be'ind thee" he said, "It keeps draught out."
The stairs led directly into the back bedroom with a view from its low window over the vegetable garden. A doorway led into the front bedroom, which he said had been Dorothy's bedroom before she became too weak to climb the stairs. There was a single bed in the room and bare floor boards with a rug by the bedside and some rudimentary furniture. I noticed a chamber pot under the bed but it was all clean and tidy, like everywhere else in the house. He sat heavily on the bed next to the pillow and motioned for me to join him. As yet I felt no stir of excitement and I still didn't when he pulled off his trousers to display grey underwear with an ample pubic bulge. What most caught my attention were the scars running up his right leg and thigh. There was a long, thin scar, made by the surgeon's knife but there was scar tissue everywhere. It must have been a terrible accident.
I leaned forward and touched the scarred tissue. "Can you feel that ?" I asked.