“Who gave you that shiner?”
Again the boy checked for useful lies. Would ‘a father’ work in his favour? A boy’s father, or better a girl’s? He wasn’t sure, decided to play for time.
“Someone,” he said, layering on a little sulk. His instinct told him to look down, as if ashamed or lying.
“Someone you stole from?”
“No!” he spat, and glared at the man, suddeny certain how to play it. He forced himself to think of the man who had hit him, to pump for anger and disgust. “He stole from me. We had agreed…” He bit off the rest of the sentence, looked away again.
“He had agreed, to…” he muttered.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the man adjust his belt, then wipe his brow, and he was certain he had him. But to make sure he let the silence become uncomfortable.
“Well,” the man said. “You can carry my bag.”
A short while later, they arrived at the man’s cabin: a small windowless room, the confined space thick with the hum and thrum of the ferry’s engines. The tiny, attached moulded plastic bathroom smelled of disinfectant. The boy put the bag down. The man sat down on the bed, looked up at the boy, then took off his glasses and began to polish them on his sweater. When he had put them back on, he said:
“My name is Richard. How should I call you?” and he put his hand out, as if he had forgotten how to introduce himself without doing so.
The boy waited just long enough to make Richard remember, then shook it – his palms were unpleasantly greasy – and said: “Ariel. Ariel Storm.”
He let go, stuffed his hands into his back pockets and looked down at the toes of his scuffed boots. “Um. Friends.” He looked over to the little neon light glowing over the headboard of the bed. “Friends call me Arik.”
For a while, neither said anything. Then Richard cleared his throat.
“Are you hungry, Arik?”
The boy nodded and they went to the restaurant. Richard asked him if he wanted a burger and fries, and then ordered the Viking Burger with cheese and bacon for the boy, while he had the haddock with chips and peas himself. He insisted on apple tart for both of them for desert.
“Can I smoke on deck, please,” the boy asked afterwards. Richard lectured him about health risks, but the boy could see how it made Richard both uncomfortable and happy to have him behave like a prisoner. He got his cigarette, and they talked about the stars. The boy pointed out Cassiopeia, and Richard showed him how to find Pegasus from there.
“It looks more like a kite with a tail, than a horse,” the boy said.
“True.” Richard looked at it for a while and cocked his head. “But it can still fly, can’t it?”
Richard watched the boy finish his smoke. Then he put a hand on the boy’s back: “Back inside, now.”
The boy knew he should shake it off angrily, it would fit the character better, but he felt too tired. They went back to the cabin. Richard guided the boy inside, and then locked the door from the inside, pocketing the key after a moment’s hesitation.
His voice shook slightly when he said: “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be with you right away.” Then he went to the bathroom and closed the door behind him.
The boy stood uncertainly in the room. There was no sound from the bathroom. He sat down on the bed, opened his boots and kicked them off. Suddenly he felt embarrassment for the sour smell of sweat coming off him. Hastily he peeled off his socks, then his jeans, then his jacket and sweater. He bundled all of his clothes together and put them underneath his backpack in the corner by the door, farthest from the bed. Then he sat down on the bed, with his back against the wall, knees drawn up, blanket over the knees. And he closed his eyes and waited.
After a while he heard Richard flush and run the tap and then open the door.
Richard had undressed, too. He was wearing his unbuttoned shirt over a ribbed undershirt and grey retro boxers, and dark socks. He looked most naked without his glasses.
Richard came over to the bed in little steps, and sat down next to the boy. He put one hand onto the boy’s covered knee, looked at him. With his other hand he brushed the boy’s bruised cheek. Twice he wanted to say something, but failed. As if to release him, the boy let the blanket slide down, went to his knees and pulled his dirty white T-shirt over his head. Then he took Richard’s hand and placed it on his shoulder, as if to dance. He took the other one, but instead of placing it on his hip he tried to guide it between his legs.
Richard stood up.
“I am sorry…”
He disappeared again in the bathroom.
The boy waited for a while. Eventually he went over to his backpack, and got dressed. He took the dog eared copy of William Butler’s “The Butterfly Revolution” he had nicked from the Kirkwall hostel out of his pack, sat down with the back to the cabin door and started to read.
Eventually the bathroom door opened again.
Richard was dressed, too. The boy put his finger between the pages and dangled the book between his knees. Richard came over and sat down next to him.
“I am sorry.”
“It’s okay,” the boy said. “Do you want to try again?”
Richard shook his head, took off his glasses again and wiped them.
“I should never have even thought it. It was…”
“It’s really okay, Richard.”
“No,” Richard suddenly said fiercely. “It’s not.” And when the boy flinched, he added more quietly: “Not because…” He hesitated but then forced himself to say it. “Not because of the gay sex. But because you are a kid in trouble, and it was vile of me to even consider taking advantage of that.”
To his own astonishment the boy found himself smiling wanly, instead of bristling at the diminution. He patted Richard’s knee. I would deserve it, he thought. I would deserve so much worse. Why couldn’t you be a little bit less decent?
“So, what now? Want me to get out? I can make my way from here.”
Richard stared at the opposite wall for a while. Then he asked: “Do you play chess?”