Outside, snow mounts on frozen sills, each window thickly underlined in white. Inside, Judy and I huddle in the kitchen’s warmth as teenagers swarm and disperse, soggy sockprints leaving animal trails across the quarry tiles. Their conversations roar through the open doors like runaway fires. Occasionally we catch a spark and fizzle in their orbit for a few seconds before the flame moves on and we settle back into calmer chatter.
As composed as her greying hair is tousled, Judy leans against the cool slate of the old counter, life’s contradictions rounded up for now like wayward ewes. She’s always been the axis that the vortex swirls around, the still eye of the cyclone. She’s no more ruffled by the world now than she was when we met thirty years ago, her serene amid the chaos of the art-school disco and me the anxious penny-plain craftsman in a sea of peacocks. “You look different,” she said. “Need a drink?” We’ve been friends ever since.
Around us, T-shirts and leggings hang on chair-backs, shucked snake skins left to desiccate in the heat of the wood-burning stove. On the windowsill, an old glass jar has slowly filled with the badges and lapel pins of forsaken bands and abandoned causes, forgotten grace notes in whatever tune the household dances to now. If a volcano struck tonight, future generations of anthropologists would uncover us with shrieks of glee.
Her phone throbs into life every few minutes in her cardigan pocket as the flock check in, sending updates with the vowels left out and casual kisses thrown in at the end. She stopped keeping tally of who was or wasn’t in the house when the eldest two left for college. Now three remain, dragging a random combination in on their tide: schoolfriends, neighbours, girl- or boyfriends. She leaves food in the larder, assumes that those who miss the meals she makes will somehow fend for themselves, teaches subtle lessons in self-sufficiency as she carves out time to audition stepfathers.
“Gary, you’re never going to make it up the hill in this. Why don’t you text Tony and let him know you’re staying over? I can easily find you blankets and a pillow, and you know you’re always welcome.”
I look out of the window as she rests a hand on my shoulder for a moment and fresh tea arrives unbidden in a huge blue mug. The snow is several inches deep now, blowing in horizontally on the wind. Porlock Hill will be closed soon if it’s not already, and we’re sealed in as tight as an Alpine village after an avalanche. Our own little Switzerland.
“Well, if you’re sure it’s OK, that’d be great.” And then I remember my manners. “If I’m not just passing through, do you know if Drew’s in or out? I’ve not seen his portfolio yet and I reckon that art-school place at Falmouth deserves some praise, yeah?”
“Probably still upstairs, investigating the contents of Zoe’s jumper. Still young enough for the mystery to be enchanting. But he could show his godfather some respect, eh? I’ll find him.”
Picking her way through cat bowls and discarded shoulder bags, she makes her way to the stairs, rubber clogs clacking across old floorboards. I hear her calling up to him.
“Drew? You still in, sweetheart? Gary’s going to stay over as he’s stuck in the snow. Why don’t you come and join us in the kitchen for a bit, maybe bring down your portfolio?”
Clandestine as a crocodile sliding into a river, she lowers the hint into the current. Barely a ripple, no call for alarm. Drew’s always been bashful. To look at him, you’d never guess at a talent for art. Tractor-driving, maybe, or bricklaying. He’s thickset and lumbering, wholesome and rustic as the Somerset burr that still clings to him like bum-fluff.
He’ll pick up on her suggestion, though. Nothing gets past him. Those green eyes have always moved faster than his tongue. He was the one who asked why I stopped being Uncle Gary a few years ago, became just Gary. And now that he’s old enough for the joke, sometimes his Fairy Godfather. Even if it’s mostly me cracking it.
He was the one who wondered why he was a godson, when his mother’s a Buddhist and the only time his father’s ever prayed is when he’s still three miles from the Dog and Duck ten minutes before closing. Tradition must have struck him as being as mad an answer as it did me, but Judy’s mother had insisted: baptisms and godparents. So between them, her brood have got me, a yoga teacher, a white witch, a Hindu and a Druid. Judy’s never said we were chosen to spite the matriarch, tweak the vulture’s beak a bit, but then I’ve never asked. We’ve known each other long enough not to dwell on the awkward stuff.
Overhead, I can hear Drew’s heavy tread and the scrape of cupboard doors. I can hear Zoe’s voice, too, although I can’t make out the words, just the abstracted tone of petulance at having her sleepy afternoon disturbed. After the bedroom door has creaked open and shut, I can hear the music grow louder as she finds another way to pass the time.
His younger sister, Ella, clatters into the kitchen like a steam train, sparking with a thirteen-year-old’s energy and an appetite for answers.
“Uncle Gary? How fast exactly does the earth spin?” she demands.
“Round here, Ella, or generally?”
I sip my tea and look up at her, glad I’ve remembered not to suggest asking her father. Beyond the lingering heritage of genes, there’s no trace of Jay now. A hundred miles east, he’ll be sounding off about media and representation theory at a room full of kids Drew’s age, earning as much attention from them as he ever got here and probably giving as much as he ever gave. The ties were always loose, and then the knot finally unravelled. Now he’s merely absent, like a tea chest they left behind during a house move. Anything that anyone needed has been quietly replaced, and the rest slowly forgotten.
Ella has already turned on her heel, ready to interrogate someone else.
“Boys,” she spits as she leaves. “Bloody useless, all of them.”
I’ll dare say she’ll find a use for some of us one day, even if she’s not sure quite what it might be just yet. For now, she’ll content herself with a gaggle of girlfriends in the living room, whispering and shrieking about whatever it is thirteen-year-old girls find so endlessly fascinating. Swapping film-star gossip and daydreams, I suppose, or tips on faking adulthood. I’m hardly the man to ask. But a girl who’s so set against the opposite sex would surely fasten one more button?
And then, without fanfare, the gelled straw-heap of Drew’s hair leans around the doorframe, his shy grin following a second later.
“Gary . . . Hi! I . . . er, I should have come to say hello. I was . . . er, I . . .”
“You were being seventeen, Drew. It’s OK. I mean, you are.”
Even though I’ve tried to make light, to be just an older friend, his freckles fade as a blush softens the contrasts of his face. I’m trying to picture him at art school, among all those radical hairstyles and statement clothes. The only thing his old checked shirt is saying is “I’m not very good at being spoken to. Please just look at the pictures.”
He’s always thought he’s slow and yet he’s straight into a Fine Art degree at seventeen. And a pretty girlfriend, too. I was nineteen before I got my hands up anybody’s jumper, and here he is with the world at his feet. Maybe that’s why he can barely look any of us in the face. I tell myself a better godfather would find some way to give him a thicker skin, one he can swagger in a little. Behind me, Judy wordlessly gathers armfuls of flotsam from the old oak table, making space for him to show me his work without actually mentioning the idea.
“Anyway,” he says, “I need to thank you.”
“What for? I’m just some old stonemason. What did I ever do? Chisel a load of old Latin cobblers into lumps of stone? I can’t even read it, let alone believe it.”
“Well,” he says, taking a breath like someone preparing to read a long list, “you gave me your old camera, the birdwatching binoculars. That set of really good French pastels . . .”
As he reels off presents I’ve given him, some of them years ago, his enormous hands unfasten the portfolio’s black ribbon ties with unexpected grace. Peering through the narrow opening, his long fingers riffle through its contents and pull one picture free.
“. . . and you inspired this. It’s what got me into Falmouth.”
If it was an image snatched on a phone, it would just be a happenstance – the kind of thing you’d text to a friend but never look at twice. It had been the day after Drew’s birthday, the year we gave him the pastels, a few months before Jay finally moved out. Tony and I had been sat on a floor cushion in the next room, watching a film about Frida Kahlo. Jay had talked the whole way through it and Tony had nodded off on my shoulder, one arm draped round me and the other across my chest.
I still remember how I tried to catch Judy’s eye, hoped my eyebrows could clearly signal “Is this OK? Us, I mean? In front of Drew?” How she brought us an old blanket and tucked it over us, whispered to me about the cute little hamster noises Tony makes when he’s asleep.
I can recollect how Drew had been crouched in the corner, sketching away in silence, keeping quiet to avoid getting sent to bed. How he’d finally relented of his own accord, tiptoeing off upstairs with his pad clutched to the front of his jumper. Fifteen and furtive.
And now I see what he’d been hiding. In front of me is the same evening replayed, lamp-lit and nocturnal. The iron stove’s soft glow in a warm room, late on an autumn evening after too much Rioja. Just looking at it, I can almost smell the wood smoke and the brie ripening by the fire.
“I know it’s my best piece,” he tells me, bold as I’ve ever heard him. “School wouldn’t have liked it if I’d handed in something called ‘My Godfather and his Husband’, so I kept it back. You know, wow them at art school with it. Show them I can do more than just the set pieces.”
My camera bag is hooked over my chair, but he stops me as I reach for it to capture the image, promises me a proper digital print for our anniversary. I try not to blink in shock that he remembers the date. Before he can close the folder and scuttle back upstairs, I ask him to show me more.
His tongue might not be the swiftest, but the folder shows a photographer’s eye. A paparazzo’s shutter finger too. There are photos of osprey chicks taken with long lenses from distant hides, caught in the days before their first flight, of otters playing on the banks at Watersmeet. Charcoals of the cliffs at Hurlstone Point and coloured pencil drawings of the wild flowers on Lundy, places where he’s captured the beauty and the silence. There are flashes of memories of the places we’ve taken him when we’ve been passing through: the abbey ruins at Glastonbury, a gargoyle at Wells Cathedral that reminded him of his grandfather. Snatches of my world through his more observant, more detached eyes.
But Tony and I are the only people. Are we the only ones who stayed still long enough for him to capture? The only ones he wanted to? Or maybe just the only ones he was brave enough to draw. I wonder if he’ll find the courage to venture more. Eyes as clear as his would make for probing portraits if someone could encourage him to make them.
“Have you ever tried to draw Zoe?” I ask him. “I’m sure she’d be flattered.”
He hesitates, and then shows me an incomplete pencil sketch. Just a few lines, like Chinese brushwork, more a suggestion than a presence, but beautiful nonetheless.
“She won’t sit still,” he mumbles, diffident about discussing her.
I lean across and whisper like a conspirator. “Wait till she’s asleep.” His blush rises again, fingers scrabbling at the sheets in the folder to find a new subject.
“So did you have a good godfather too?” he asks me suddenly. “I mean, you must have had lessons, right?”
“You mean Danny?”
I’m asking myself the question as much as Drew is. I can picture Danny already: my dad’s brother, dapper and suave. Drier than an old-school Martini but always the first with the latest gadgets and the newest fashions. The diplomat, we called him. “Trust me, I’m a diplomat from the future,” he’d told Mum once, dropping hints about how she should modernise her kitchen. After that, it just stuck.
“He was just kind of there, really. Always came for Sunday lunch. He was always really classy, I guess – a masterclass in just being yourself. And very kind, too – insisted on it. Unless there was a really bitchy quip that was funnier.”
Even with his head down as he looks back through his artwork, I see Drew raise an eyebrow.
“Oh, yeah. Danny was gay too. I mean no one ever actually said so. We just . . . well, knew. He was just . . . hell, he was just Danny.”
“Just Danny?” As the eyebrow lowers, the eye looks more sombre. “Never anyone else?”
“Oh no, there were boyfriends too. Partners.”
I try to picture some of the men Danny arrived with over the years. Always well-groomed and on their best behaviour, being introduced. Not that there were that many. Dimitri, the handsome Greek. Saif, the nervously grinning Lebanese guy. And Australian Mike, who always brought me presents. Mike was my favourite. Danny’s too, I think. We didn’t see him for a long time after Mike was killed in a car crash. I was too young to ask questions back then. Too young to know what to ask.
“He sounds great. I’m glad he wasn’t lonely,” Drew says. And then, more seriously, “So why did he never mention it, then?”
“Oh, he almost admitted it once. What was it he said? ‘Don’t mention the g-word, Claude, people will clutch their pearls.’ But it was like knowing the Queen’s posh. It didn’t need spelling out. And no one ever behaved as if it mattered anyway. Hey, it’s not like I’ve ever actually told you, is it?”
Drew was still half smiling, half smirking from the joke when the question pulled him up straight.
“Yeah, but it’s like you know that I know. I’ve known since I was old enough to realise there was anything to know. And pretty soon after that, I figured it wasn’t actually important. You’re just Gary and Tony, aren’t you? What’s not to like?”
He’s smiling up at me now, while I silently realise that something can go from unspeakable to insignificant in the space of a generation. From a gasp to a shrug. The world always spins faster than we notice.
“So, what did you mean to him?”
The question catches me unawares, leaves me playing with a teaspoon and stroking my chin. I can see Judy watching me too, intrigued. How can I know? Even if I’d asked him, he’d never have been so indiscreet as to actually answer. Maybe Drew just wants to know that godsons matter to somebody.
“Someone to spoil, maybe, or to encourage. Someone you could treat without needing to have a reason. Without them having to do anything special. That’s a nice feeling, you know?”
I’ve not meant to, but I’ve embarrassed him now. Like a cat that’s had too much attention and needs to stir, he’s carefully shuffling his work back into order and shifting to his feet, asking Judy if he can make Zoe more tea. I let him go, retreat upstairs to recover from the unexpected flattery.
Before dinner arrives, I text Tony and grab a few things from the car, high-stepping through the snowdrifts like a disgruntled dog being walked through puddles. He rings me back, sends love to everyone and commiserations. “There are worst places to be stranded,” he tells me. “Remember West Virginia?”
How could I forget? A metre of snow in a few hours, and we slept under gaudy plaster Jesuses in separate freezing motel rooms, too scared to ask the owner if we could share. No, this was definitely better, even if Tony wasn’t here. And at least he knows how fast we’re all spinning. 1,038 miles per hour at the equator, he tells me, my little know-all. Even faster than Ella’s tongue, he says. I hope she’ll be impressed.
The dinner table is crowded, ten of us altogether, everyone talking and reaching across each other without apology. Ella and her friends are lost in their own conversations, arguments cresting and crashing like surf. The rotational speed of the planet has their attention for a few seconds before I’m ignored again. Too old, too male. Too alien. At the far end, Drew’s older sister Gemma ignores us all. Swathed in black jersey, her attention fixed on a textbook about probate law, she’s absorbed in rehearsals for a thousand funerals, a vulture perched on a wheel-backed chair. “Very much her grandmother’s girl,” Judy whispers to me.
Drew and Zoe are squeezed together on one end of a bench, looking shy to be eating together with us but glad to be there, accepted. She asks me where I get the inspiration for the gargoyles, and giggles when I name a few actors and politicians. I tell her that she really means grotesques, that we carve the ogres and the ugly faces for entertainment more than anything else.
I explain how gargoyles are practical things, part of the guttering. There to protect more than scare, to stop the rainwater damaging the stonework. That even masons don’t think they’re all beautiful.
As the plates are cleared and the coffee mugs handed along, she leans across the table.
“Drew and I can sleep in the attic, so you can have his bed if you like? You’d be more comfortable. And” – her blushes are almost as deep as his – “he wants to finish a picture of me he’s started.”
I half expect Judy to protest, but she simply smiles and thanks Zoe for being so thoughtful.
The scented candle that Zoe’s lit for me flutters in the draught from the old sash window and I pull the blankets up to my nose. The drifting sandalwood smoke merges with something earthier, the whole room pungent with late adolescence – hair gels, skin creams, other smells it would feel intrusive to contemplate. Judy taps at the door, brings me a mulled-wine nightcap and lingers for a moment.
“Thanks for today, my love. It’s been hard for Drew without Jay. Poor lamb’s drowning in girls, and he doesn’t get a lot of encouragement. I can’t any more – I’m his mum, aren’t I? I’m just an embarrassment at his age.”
She’s not heartbroken, just wondering how to still be helpful, trying to be useful. I laugh, not so much to agree as to show her that I understand, allow her to josh with me.
“And hey, stonemasons are good for one thing, aren’t they?” she teases.
“They are?” I’m not getting the reference, missing the joke.
“Oh yes. Patiently chipping away,” she says with a cheeky grin before she closes the door behind her.
I sip the hot wine and think about Danny, try to imagine what I meant to him. He was always a blessing to me. All those sly lessons in life that went a little beyond my parents’ curriculum. Nothing boldly labelled, just left for me to absorb. Little nuggets of wisdom along with the gifts and the treats, tucked in pockets ready for when their time came.
They say seeing is believing, but it’s not the same as understanding. Sometimes it’s just seeing. And there he was, Sunday lunchtimes. Uncle Danny, bold as brass and brassy with it, pouring gravy over his roast potatoes and a different kind of sauce into the conversation. No one said it was unusual, so it wasn’t. Just my godfather and a handsome man giggling along to Round the Horne and teasing Mum as she tried to get everything on the table on time so we’d finish eating before Dad’s football started on the telly.
There he was, as far back as I can remember, casually dispensing a cocktail of hard spirits and blithe remarks. Sometimes holding hands under the tablecloth with Dimitri or Raoul or Graham or Mike. It stands out in hindsight, but at the time it was just what happened on Sundays. An education supplied in jigsaw pieces, one by one. That was the first lesson, I guess. Style over substance isn’t a victory, just an overlay. A neatly embroidered surface with all the stitchwork hidden underneath.
There was never a big reveal, a clear view of the picture on the puzzle-box lid. A steady stream of evidence, but no actual crime. Dad had known him all his life, Mum half of hers: Danny had been acquitted from the start. Not that anyone would quite have chosen the word innocent. Not even him. He’d have just glided round the whole issue like an ice-skater coming to a sharp bend.
Maybe that was what drew him back. Godless and childless, more secular angel than plaster saint, and adored all the more for it. We were a safe republic, well-ordered and neutral, no visa required. No interrogation on arrival, no contemptuous rummage through personal baggage. Just a comfortable vantage point above the fray. His own little Switzerland.
Did I ever get a clue what I meant to him in all that? Maybe, right at the end. When I’d have been about six, Mike and him had brought me a toy koala from Australia, soft and tactile with velvety fur. When I was older, we’d joke about the way Dad had said how beautiful he was and asked Danny where he found him. Mike had misunderstood and started to say, “Well, I was in this waterfront bar in Sydney . . .” before Danny kicked him under the table and rescued the story. Everyone kept that laugh in for thirty years. And at the time I’d been unaware, hugging the bear and singing a hit song of the day.
You’re there every night when I whisper my prayers,
My pillow share, my teddy bear;
When I brush my fingers through your fur
Whatever I hope for, you concur.
Though others may think I’m a curious fish,
I just close my eyes and make my wish . . .
On summer days over the next couple of years, apparently I always sang it when Danny and Mike took me out for day trips, bought me all the sweets Mum disapproved of.
Danny stopped visiting when he got ill, when all those elegantly smoked cigarettes caught up with him. I was in my thirties by then, long since moved away, but I knew somehow. The postcards from exotic cities stopped coming, their absence like a sign. Mum told me he was in hospital and refusing visitors. Undeterred, I made up a tape of his favourite songs and found an old spare Walkman, went to visit him. I told myself I could leave them with the nurses if he wouldn’t see me.
He’d been asleep when I got there, resplendent in his silk pyjamas in a private room. The bedside table was covered with vases of flowers from men whose names I didn’t recognise. I slipped the headphones gently over his ears, and played the first song very softly.
You’re there every night when I whisper my prayers . . .
He opened his eyes groggily and I waited till he could focus. He just smiled and took my hand in his.
“You remembered,” he said. “How lovely.”