Shades of Gray: A tale of the 1950’s
Going to Scouts on a Friday evening, playing with the other scouts behind the scout hut afterwards, then a shared bath and a shared bed worked wonderfully well. Gray’s mother had been brilliant when she thought of it for us, as a solution to the need for us to meet away from school. How and why she thought of that solution we couldn’t guess, nor could we guess why things like fresh tissues and jars of cold-cream appeared regularly on his bed-side dresser.
We couldn’t believe that she knew what we did, or that if she did that she approved.
I mean… does any mother of a thirteen year old boy actually approve of them sharing a bed once a week and shagging the arse off their best friend?… we couldn’t believe it… but we had no other explanation.
Gray’s dad continued to be a shadowy figure that for one reason or another never seemed to be about when I was.
It was later in the following year…
Russia had launched Sputnik, and the Chinese had launched Asian Flu… a nasty little beast… Morning assembly had been half-empty on Friday with most of the missing ones laid up in bed with a headache and chills, while a few just took advantage of the confusion.
I got it early on… it was nasty while it lasted, but it didn’t last long.
On the Friday there was no slim neck with blond curls to sigh over. Gray was missing.
In those days to have a telephone was rare, so the only way to find out what had happened to him was to continue the routine of going to Scouts and just turn up at his home after school. So that was what I did.
“Oh, hello Jeffery, it’s nice to see you, I expect you guessed that Graham has caught it!”
“Guessed as much… is he bad?”
“Not too bad, it’s knocked him out… he’s asleep at the moment. Come on in and keep me company. His dad’s turned in… earlies again today.”
I went up to look round the door, and as advertised he was spark out. Very flushed and breathing heavily. I nearly told his mum that I’d seen him look like that, but never asleep… and then I thought better of it!
“Come down to the kitchen, the kettle’s on.”
We sat with cups of tea and chatted. I don’t know how or why I had the courage to raise the subject but I told her how grateful I was that she had gone to so much trouble for us, for me. She looked sad for a moment and then brightened and said she was pleased to help, that she seemed to have been doing it for most of her life.
Now that was an odd thing to say, but I let it pass.
The doctor came and went, as did time to leave for Scouts. I sat on with his mum, keeping her company while she waited for Gray to wake.
We cuddled for comfort, she put her arm around me and I snuggled… I might be 14 but my best friend was upstairs and really not very well.
I said… “It’s frightening having him unwell.”
“Yes, and when you’ve seen so many good boys go in the war…”
Then she started to cry, and I couldn’t get her to stop!
“Oh, Jeffery it’s so frightening to see you two so happy together!”
“Why frightening? It’s not that, it’s wonderful, and Gray will be better in a day or two!”
“No, its not that… it’s…” and she tailed off again.
“Is it why you are so good at guessing what Gray and I need, and stuff?”
“I suppose so….” then…
“Did you know Gray had two uncles who died in the war?”
“No, he never said, even when we went to war films.”
“No, he wouldn’t… we don’t talk about it… Please don’t say… it still hurts.”
“Was it your brother?” I asked gently.
“Yes, my twin… we were very close… shared everything.”
Then she seemed to come to a decision…
“Jeff, if I tell you the whole story, can you promise to never discuss it with Gray?”
“If he knew he would be so upset for his mum and dad, but it may help for you to know why you can always trust me… as long as you never hurt Graham.”
“I’d never hurt Gray, and if what you tell me would hurt him, or you, then I couldn’t tell him,” and I said it very fiercely!
“When my brother was 14 we all started dating, I had boyfriends and he had one or two girls but they never seemed to last long…
“It all came to a head at someone’s birthday party.
“I had paired up with a nice boy, it was the boy I eventually married… Graham’s dad.
“He had a brother, the spitting image of him. They turned out to be twins too!
“My brother took an immediate shine to the brother and they went off into the garden to chat…
“When they came back they were very excited, not only were the four of us twins, but twins with the same birthday!
“After that they were inseparable. No more mention of girlfriends, they just went about together like a pair of twins!”
“Like Graham and me!”
That didn’t seem to be the right thing to have said, she started to cry again. I cuddled her until she stopped.
“One day my brother came to me and said that he was being teased at school about their friendship. It had become impossible for them to meet on their own and as his mate lived across the valley, where you live, there was no chance after school. So they were drifting apart, and he was heart-broken about it.
“It took me a while to realise the answer…”
“You got them to join the Scouts so he could stay over!” I leapt in…
“Yes… simple really” and she smiled wistfully.
“Eventually he told me that they were more than friends, that they were in love.”
“Of course I was shocked… I couldn’t picture my brother like that, but he was so serious about it, and how scared he was that they would be spotted together at weekends that I had my next idea… I went everywhere with them.
“Lots of people thought we were a couple with my brother tagging along.
“When we went down to Cardiff I would meet them much later… I think they went into the woods in the castle-grounds and along by Sofia Gardens. Whatever, they were happier afterwards, recharged somehow. In the summer we went for walks up on the mountain, places like Scouts Hollow. I always took a book and they would wander off. Once or twice at the beginning I followed them and saw what boys in love did.”
That led to a long pause… I think she had wandered into a thicket that she didn’t intend to share with her son’s fourteen year old friend!
“Anyway, now I knew why they needed to be alone…and I knew why he pinched my cold-cream, so I made sure there was always a good supply.”
She grinned naughtily.
“It was me who suggested they share the bath, but it was our mam who had suggested the sardine bed.”
I hugged her!
“Eventually we grew up. We were 17 when the war started and at eighteen the pair of them joined up together. They joined the RAF, my brother became a navigator and his love became a rear-gunner. I married Gray’s dad and we would have them home here on leave together as much as we could. Behind closed doors they could become themselves again. Gray’s dad hated the way they held hands and so on, but he loved his brother and put up with it.”
Another long pause… then…
“They wangled it so that they flew together, a Lancaster over Germany… we held our breath, the rate of losses was frightening… Then in 1944 it happened… Graham was just a baby. He lost both uncles on the same night, shot down over Frankfurt in the same plane.
“They’re buried in a War Cemetery in Germany, side by side, adjacent graves.”
“That’s awful… it’s so sad… I understand why you don’t talk about it much… but… why mustn’t I say anything to Gray, why would he be hurt?”
She didn’t say anything but went into her handbag and came back with a small packet of photographs, sorted through them and found the one she wanted. She put it down in front of me.
It was of a pair of white headstones, the ones everyone knows from War Graves of that time.
The stones carried the same “Per Ardua Ad Astra” RAF motto…
The same date of death 8 August 1944…
The same date of birth Feb 14th 1925, they were just 19!
But I suddenly realised why Gray would be hurt by the secret that his mother carried on his behalf…
The names on the headstones;
Graham and Jeffery
Lying together side by side.
Just as they had in the narrow bed where Gray was lying now.
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