Pink Steel by Noel King

I’m out. Leaving the high pressure of running my father’s family pub at night while being a teacher by day. My son, Jeaic, has given me a list of seventeen milestones in his life I’ve already missed: his sixth birthday, his eighth birthday, the piano exams (Grade I) recital, the Kerins O’Rahilly under 10s county final and so many more. My son is only eleven-and-a-half years old.

A year ago his mother and I split. That’s another reason. She doesn’t have a new man in her life yet, that I know of. But before she does I want to be in control. I take Jeaic to his school then head to mine. He goes to an after school club till I collect him at 4.05. The rest of the evening is just me and Jeaic: his homework first, then a bit of sport plus a swim at 'the complex’ perhaps, before dinner.

My biggest problem though is that I am seeing someone. And it’s not someone of the opposite sex. My lover, Derek, is pressurizing me to meet my son, to let him know what we are. I am very slow to do this. I couldn’t face the derision of my ex-wife’s family, let alone that of my school. Not yet anyway, not until Jeaic is older.

Tonight we are at his homework. I didn’t even know that there were only eighteen characters in the Irish alphabet. However, many of the consonants and each of the vowels may carry diacritical marks. Then, to change the subject, we discuss the fact that soon, after he makes his Confirmation and finishes primary school, he will be going to secondary in September, will be coming to my school. I will be teaching him Geography and History up to at least at his Junior Cert level. We discuss how that will be. We’ll both get used to it, we suppose.

He is getting his head around this when Derek phones. He tells me he has bought Behind the Candelabra on DVD, that he will open a nice bottle of wine and we will watch it together arm in arm. When will that be, he wants to know? I tell him I hope it will be soon. I need a babysitter to go anywhere, naturally enough; but I can go places with Derek the weekends Jeaic is with his mother, of course. I tell Derek that it can’t be this weekend. This weekend we are going to Dingle, we are going to see Fungie the dolphin before Jeaic is too old to do these things with me.
The school Jeaic and I will share is also the one I went to when I was his age. I only went there 1977 to 1982, but it could have been two centuries ago with the amount of changes that have taken place. It’s a space-age place now, science in our day was all Bunsen burners and experiments. Back then the school was years away from even having a computer. It’s such a scary thought… my son coming to my school, he doesn’t know I feel this way about it of course.

Jeaic asks if he could be allowed to watch Curb your Enthusiasm, that two of his acquaintances in school are allowed to watch it. “I don’t know, I say, “I’ll think about it, if two of your friends do, then I suppose…"
“No Dad," he says, “they are not my friends, they are my acquaintances."
“I didn’t even think you knew such big words, son?"
“There’s a big difference, I have friends there too of course. About five or six really good friends, then I’d have about ten or eleven mates, then the same number again of acquaintances and then the others."
“The others?" I ask.
“Yeah, well I wouldn’t call them enemies as such, they’re not like Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter, but they’re just, well they have no place really in my circle."
I let Jeaic use my laptop more or less when he wants, but I am careful to delete my own 'history’ first, don’t want him finding the gay sites I look at, although I look at them less these days as I’ve met Derek. Derek is the man of my dreams, almost.

***

Summer comes, he’s made his 'Confo’ and said goodbye to primary school, the weather gets good and we go to the beach. On the way we pass the old family pub, well it still is except someone else is leasing it now. I have no regrets leaving it for Jeaic’s sake. We get to the beach and child and I have a swim, re-apply our sun screen and play tennis. At the back of my mind I know there’s an area near the cliffs where gay men go to meet each other. When the lad wants to wander and go explore I decide it’s time to go home. Besides which, I’ve spotted a few of the gay lads I know heading in that direction. The last thing I want to have happen is for one of them to salute me, not call me by my real name, John but Robert, which is my alias for the gay sites and chat lines.
***

September comes, I’m not sure which of us is more nervous on the first day in school, at the first time I see my beloved son in front of me in the first Monday in History class and next morning in Geography. We get the first week over us. It’ll be plain sailing here-on-in I tell myself. On Friday night Derek phones: “he’s met others of your mates, hasn’t he?," Derek says impatiently, “so, what’s different about me? Can’t Jeaic just meet me in that same way?"
“No, it’s just that he’s too young to appreciate gayness and he’s just started going to MY SCHOOL for God sakes, where I TEACH!!! We must just wait, I’ll know when the time is right."

So, there we were, my son and I coming out of the cinema the following weekend, we were clinging to each other under an umbrella on the way to the carpark and there he was, Derek. He took in me and the boy all in one go. I gulped and I think I reddened in the face. Jeaic glanced quickly from one of us to the other and back again. Derek uttered a few syllables and then he was gone into his car and we into ours.
“That was one of the.., reps," I suggest, “who used come to the pub, pushing... product."

My son shrugs.
Later on Derek sends a text: So, that’s the famous Jeaic, chip off the old block, for sure.

Well this night I am in the shower and my son has Daft Punk on his player. We have had an argument because he’s had a big fight with one of his teachers. The teacher of course is my colleague, over twenty years now, and is my friend! See, I told you it wouldn’t be easy having Jeaic at my school. Anyway, I hear the doorbell but nothing of it, his friends from the estate and some of my friends are always calling. I am drying my balls when I realize I don’t hear any chitter-chatter. I put on a toweling robe and go downstairs. Derek is sitting there on the couch, his legs crossed, tellingly, at the ankle. My son is absorbed in the TV, remote in his hand.

“John, can we talk," Derek asks.
I use my left hand to indicate the kitchen.
“I’ve booked for us to go to Barcelona," he says.
“What?"
“Halloween, four nights, you’ve already said the lad will be at his mother’s for Halloween. And you’re on holidays from the teaching and…"
“Hold it a minute," I say in a loud whisper, “you’re making holiday plans for me without even discussing it first, since when have we…"
“You won’t talk yourself out of it this time. I’ve even got a bullfight booked."
“A bullfight! Huh?" I ask incredulously.
“Yes, the best seats in the house, the most expensive."
“Who the heck cares what the price of seats are at a fucking bullfight."
“In the shade," says Jeaic, I hadn’t noticed he’d walked into the kitchen and already returning from the fridge with a Mint Green Cornetto I didn’t even know was in there.
I stare at my son: “What?"
“Everyone knows," continues Jeaic nonchalantly, “the most expensive seats you can buy at a bullfight are the ones in the shade." And he goes back to the TV or whatever he’s at.

I start to feel under pressure. I haven’t smoked in just over five years but now I have the longing for a cigarette. I pour a glass of wine and take a few deep breaths. I decide to relent on Barcelona, for now.

“Okay, let’s go for it," I say flatly, “I haven’t been to Barcelona since I made up the number of adults on our school tour, oh years ago, ’twas even before the Barcelona Olympic Games. It’ll be interesting to see the infrastructure in the intervening years (I am playing for time here) and of course to see the Olympic stadium itself."

In a short time Derek has left the house and I am acting 'normal’. I tell Jeaic that I am going to Barcelona while he is with his mother for mid-term Halloween. The doorbell rings again and I nearly jump out of my skin. Jeaic looks weirdly at me. I open the door, it’s his friends this time and I leave them to it, get in my car, go to both of the cheap German supermarkets and do the weekly shop. My ex-wife would tell me that’s all inferior quality, she’s a snob, she goes to Marks & Sparks for most things. I get a balance of pizzas and nice things along with fresh veg and stuff. The milk I always buy is Lee Strand as that’s the local milk. I am at a checkout when my mobile goes. It’s Derek checking that my passport is in date. I assure him it is. He says that for some countries now the passport has to be valid for at least six months from the date of return.

“That’s a load of bollocks," I suggest, “and anyway mine won’t expire for, oh, four and a half or five years yet."

My wife doesn’t know I now leave Jeaic on his own, or with his friends, for short periods of course. He will be thirteen next birthday for flip sake, what are they going to do, burn the house down, watch porn. I do warn him not to answer the door if he doesn’t know who’s there. Some trickster might be on the doorstep trying to collect money for Irish Water or sell bibles or shove religion down our throats. Jeaic I’d say wouldn’t be a sucker for those things, but what if it was Derek that came to the door again?
Derek, it’s easy for him. He has never been married you see. Did have a daughter at eighteen with some girl in his badminton set. She’s an adult now, has known about her father’s orientation since quite young. She went to college to do International Business or something and now she has a job in a bank in Luxembourg.

***

Jeaic is bright, at the moment he is reading John McGahern’s, The Dark. That was banned when it came out first. McGahern was a teacher too. I am both pleased and a little bit terrified that my child is reading it. It’s funny, I let him read more or less whatever he wants but when it comes to films and TV I’m very selective. He has never seen an over-15 for example.

Last year there during the Easter holidays they were making this film locally, The Lobster, it was called. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz were the leading actors. For the craic, myself and Jeaic signed on as extras. He got to do a schoolroom scene and I got to do some stuff wearing an anorak out in the forest. What I am coming to is when The Lobster comes out next week I will go to the cinema to see it. Maybe I will have some of my friends there, or maybe Derek, but I can’t bring Jeaic as he won’t get in “ it’s an over-18 movie. Maybe when the DVD comes out I can just show him the clips that he himself is in. I remember hearing about Anna Paquin who won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for The Piano. She was only nine when she filmed that extraordinary film, but she wasn’t ever allowed watch it until she was, I don’t know, sixteen or something.
****

Halloween passes, the trip to Barcelona goes fine. My son’s week with his mother seems to have left him relatively unscathed. We are doing the Wild Atlantic Annual Charity Cycle. We are committed to doing it and there could be no excuse under the sun by which I could get out of doing the full thing. Jeaic can only come and watch, because legally you are not allowed do such a strenuous round until you are eighteen. He goes in one of the cars that accompanies the race. Derek will be doing it too, in case you haven’t guessed.
I think one or two people in the cycling club may suspect that Derek and I are an item. I don’t know what evidence we might have given them; well at least what evidence Derek might have given them as I myself am the ultimate in discretion.

As I’ve said I’m worried about it getting out (excusing the pun) before I’m ready. The wife’s family would have a 'field day’ telling her they 'knew it all along’ and 'how did she not spot it beforehand’ sort of thing. I can’t even begin to imagine the field day the teenage boys in school would have, my son’s school, mine and my son’s school. My head is wrecked from these thoughts and I try to think of what my late grandfather said about not wasting time worrying about what people think of you.
We meet this elderly chap, Mick, on the cycle, and when we stop for burgers he orders a vegetarian burger but the waitress doesn’t hear him properly and gets him a regular one. Then Mick tells us he hasn’t eaten meat since 1950.
“1950!" one of the lads asks incredulously.
“Yep, I was eleven and something we did in school..."
“Allright, I’m thinking I don’t need to know the whole story. Just wondering what age you are, if you chose to give up eating meat sixty-eight years ago."

Another one of the cyclists says he was part of The Combined Universities and everyone whistles in reverence. Jeaic asks me what The Combined Universities means and I tell him they were the first Irish XV rugby team to beat the South Africans. Then my son is almost whistling softly himself.
The entire cycle over-nights in Kenmare, a nice hotel, and my son and I are sharing a room, naturally enough, I go to the bar to have a few pints with Derek and the rest of the lads. His mother wouldn’t approve of me leaving Jeaic alone in the bedroom. And I would say what the heck was she worried about. Did she think someone was going to break into the room and snatch him. I’d hate to see anyone try, as he’d 'lamp’ them, would my Jeaic. There are two other sons of cyclers here, one aged a year older than Jeaic, another a year older again. I am pleased that the three have become friends, even though their fathers are rivals. We get the drift from them that they are fierce competitive among each other on behalf of their fathers. We find that amusing, but we are touched and proud as well. Two out of the three young lads are the 'victims’ of what my mother would call 'a broken home’. Well my home isn’t broken “ thank you very much “ it’s just my wife doesn’t live with us no more.
Some of the women in the group have nick-named the three lads, The Three Musketeers and my lad is called Aramis, if you don’t mind. I’m fierce proud of that too. We can all relax more or less when they are together as they are sensible out really, I don’t think any of them smoke or would take a drink or that, you know.

I leave my pint and go for a piss. Derek comes into the gents after me. He pisses a torrent so he does. He says he misses me, that his roommate is going home to the wife tonight and will I come to him? I tell him I can’t, how would I explain my absence to my son, but suggest in a humourous way: “You know what they say about sex the night before an important sporting activity?"
“Aw fuck," he says, “look I’m sick of it now, so I am. I think maybe it’s time we call it a day."
“Listen man, just give me a bit of time, ok, it will all sort itself out. He’s in my school, in FIRST YEAR for flip sake…"
Someone else comes into the gents and we have to break off the conversation. Later I send Derek a text: Christmas. We’ll bring it out into the open at Christmas. 1st term down for Jeaic. When I get to the room Jeaic asks: “Can I have a sleepover with the other musketeers? One of them has a tent, down by the lake."
“I suppose you can," says I. “Will ye wake in time for breakfast though."
“Ah we will," Jeaic says. “It means you can invite Derek, here, to our room," my son says to me as he is opening and closing the door.

The Linnet's Wings is an Irish Bases Literature and Art Magazine