It’s difficult for me to explain just how much I despise William McCaffrey.
We met when we were both studying English Literature together at Brighton university. I wanted to be a teacher and him, a novelist. I saw him first. Scribbling away in his little notebook, looking up to nod at someone offering him a beer with his straight black hair hanging over slightly glazed-over eyes. He always seemed a little bit distant like his mind was elsewhere, which I guess it was. Even when we were arguing about which Bronte sister was the most talented or whether Charles Dickens would actually be published in modern times, there was something distinctly aloof about him.
I was foolish and young enough to think that was sexy.
The sex, as it happens, was good. It made up somewhat for his melancholy broodiness and long bouts of silence, which he insisted were nothing to do with me. He was capable of twisting my stomach in knots with a passing look or the absence of one. I watched him retreat into himself more and more over the years as he stayed at home, earning a few pounds here and there, writing his god-forsaken novels whilst I did the real work to pay our bills.
Sometimes, I wanted to scream at him. What are you doing? What are you thinking? Do you love me? Hell, do you like me?
He assured me he did love me. Earnestly. Poetically. A surprise weekend away in a cottage surrounded by verdant fields, haystacks and fuzzy white sheep. Beautiful hand-picked flowers delivered to my school on our anniversary. Embarrassing me, but in a good way. Little hints that he might propose combined with sudden proclamations about how much he loved children left me whirling in precious hope.
His steadfast refusal to go swimming irked me more and more. Not because he was afraid, but because he wouldn’t tell me why… and I knew there was a reason.
“If we’re going to have children, you’ll need to learn to swim,” I’d chided.
“I do know how to swim,” he’d said, through gritted teeth, “I just don’t like to.”
I should thank my lucky stars I never did have kids with him. What would my life be like now if I had? I shudder to think.
And I did scream at him. The kind of screaming that sent spittle flying across the room like a rabid bloodhound when he came staggering home, blind drunk for the fifth night in as many days. He was celebrating the release of his debut novel Where the rose petals fall; a melodic ode to a childhood sweetheart, which in itself was insulting.
He told me he was leaving because he loved me. I was too good for him or some such bollocks.
If anything, that girl, that “Diana”, sounded like a total shameless hussy. I bet he sees her when he goes home to visit his parents in their quaint little suburban town. The parents that I was never allowed to meet. I bet she blushes at his book that he wrote about her and laughs at the girlfriend he used to have who didn’t understand anything.
I hope she learns about the dark, festering soul that lies beneath his lyrical words and enigmatic gaze.
And I hope he loves her enough to smash her heart too.
I think I had a crush on William McCaffrey before I really understood what that meant. We shared a fence and our parents got along, which made us friends, of course.
Once, when I was around fourteen, he climbed over the fence into our garden, chasing his football and landed in Mother’s rosebush. His long black hair and deep, dark eyes had mesmerised me like never before, stirring something in my pubescent mind that I didn’t fully understand. I still remember my mother shouting over my laughter as he scampered away, his muddy football under one arm, gifting me with one last shooting look over his shoulder as pink rose petals fell, marking his passage.
My crush was a simmering saucepan, the bubbles beginning to form and rise to the surface whatever I did to ignore it.
Unfortunately, I was his friend. His friend who was a girl, with all the unspoken, blush-worthy implications. Confused and hopeful ripples shimmered upon my surface, only hinting at the turmoil beneath as he invited me into his bedroom one day when his parents were out. A good thing too; his father was one of those domineering father-figures whose shadow seemed to loom at you from unnatural angles.
William’s bedroom had that strong smell that only teenage boys manage to produce, it made my nostrils flare as I perched upon the corner of his plain black bedcover. His room was smaller than mine, or maybe it just seemed smaller because we were both in it.
Everywhere, there were books. The shelves were full of neatly aligned spines revealing an interest in fantasy and science fiction. I’d heard of The Hobbit, but none of the others. Small stacks upon his desk were labelled with barcodes from the local library. Larger, well-thumbed stacks in the corners. They seemed very thick to me.
“You must like reading then,” I’d said stupidly.
“Yes,” he said, “It’s great. You can be anyone and go anywhere.”
I leant back on one arm in what I’d hoped was an attractive pose. “Where do you want to go?”
“Anywhere.” He sighed dramatically and flopped backwards onto his bed, making me bounce. “Anywhere, but here.”
Realisation only took him a few seconds. He sat up and shuffled towards me. “No offence. I didn’t mean… you’re great, you know.”
He was so close, closer than he’d ever been. I could really see his eyes; they were actually a deep, deep brown flecked with gold around the irises. His sleek cheekbones and strong jaw hinting at the handsome man he would become once he lost the awkward skinniness of youth.
The tiny bubbles multiplied a thousand-fold, growing larger, foaming, spreading, until the saucepan boiled over. Adolescent angst burnt my spine and forced me to lean forwards into his surprised face.
It wasn’t what I’d expected. I hadn’t liked our teeth clattering together like that and once I’d turned the corner into my house, I wiped my mouth on my coat sleeve. However, I was still elated beyond reason and eager to try it again.
But I never did get to try it again, not with William. The invitation never came. I told myself he didn’t have another opportunity, but I knew that was a lie. We both knew it when we crossed paths on the pavement outside, awkwardly raising one hand in salute, neither wanting to wade through the thick, heavy fog hovering between us.
Then, something happened at the fishing lake.
I heard from my mother that he almost drowned. I heard at school that he did drown and had to be resuscitated. Either way, he was off sick for two weeks. I went round to see him, but his mother sent me away with a shaky hand and red-raw eye sockets. I didn’t see his father for a while either. Rumours circulated. Apparently, his father had been with William in the lake when it happened. Most said William had some kind of panic attack or seizure and his father rescued him.
Some swore they saw his father push William’s head beneath the water and hold it there.
Shortly afterwards, William went to university and never returned. I had butterflies in my stomach at his parent’s 30th wedding anniversary, but he never showed and his mother waved away my questions as she would an overeager wasp. Apparently, he was too busy.
I was happy to hear that he had met a nice Welsh girl called Kassidy and moved to Cardiff. I wasn’t jealous, well, maybe a little.
I guess the girl-next-door doesn’t always get the guy.
People say that when you meet the one, you just know. Well, I always thought that was a load of rubbish, until I met William. It wasn’t an instantaneous, earth-shattering moment like some idealists claim, but I definitely felt like this person was important and that I should pay attention.
I was doing just that, as it happens, because he was paying me.
“So, tell me about yourself,” I said.
We were both sitting in the shallow end of the swimming pool before the centre opened. I was in the water which reached my belly button and he was perched on the edge with just the soles of his feet touching the surface. He had nice feet, I noticed.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, it’s partly about trust,” I said, “I can’t help someone over their fear of water if they don’t trust me, to a certain degree of course. I’m not asking you to tell me where you buried the bodies or anything like that.” That earnt me a good-natured snort. “And it’s partly about me wanting to get to know you a bit. It helps.”
He’d nodded, seeing the logic and told me a little about his work. He had a book published, another one being edited and was brainstorming a third. Sounded like that part of his life was going well.
“Do you read?” he’d asked.
“I mostly read trade magazines, you know, about psychology and therapy. New theories, experiments and discoveries in neuroscience. It’s all related and I have to keep up to date with what’s going on in my field.”
“So, you don’t read any fiction, at all?”
“Of course, I do,” I’d said, sensing that this was crucial territory, “I like a good James Patterson novel when I’m on holiday. Those are fast and easy to read.”
The subsequent eye-roll almost knocked me back into the water.
“Alright, so you’re not a fan,” I said, hiding my excitement as he moved one foot lower into the water, “What are your books about?”
“My childhood and friendship,” he said, absently studying his submerged foot, “Loss.”
Those few words conveyed such emotion I felt myself wishing I did read more books and that I’d read his.
It was on the fifth session that he told me about his father.
I waited until he was standing with both feet in the water. The surface lapping gently against his shins and him starting to get that panicked look in his soft, brown eyes.
“I read your book,” I said.
“What?” he said, blissfully distracted, “Really? W-What did you think?”
“Sad,” I said, “Beautiful. Some of it was a bit too poetic for me, but I still liked it.”
His smile was sheepish.
“Why isn’t your father in it?”
He stiffened, “My father?”
“Yes. It’s all about your childhood, your mother, your friend, Diana. What about your father? I know you have a father, because you’ve mentioned him in our sessions before. You said you don’t go home for Christmas, even though your mother asks you every year, because your father will be there.”
“We don’t get along.”
“So, you omitted him from your semi-autobiographical novel? Bit weird, isn’t it?”
The dark stare he gave made me swallow, but I knew I'd found it. “What happened?”
“No. Something happened. I can tell and you need to get it off your chest.”
“What? Right now?”
“Yes. Right now.”
I could feel it, roiling beneath… if I could just grasp it somehow.
“Coward,” I spat.
“You heard me. Won’t even go home at Christmas to visit your poor mother. What did she ever do to deserve that? I bet she cries into her pillow at the thought that she’ll never see her only son again.”
“How DARE YOU!”
His face was all jagged edges and white-hot steel, but I ploughed onwards.
“And your father. Your father did something to you and you have let him get away with it. You’ve done nothing to face him. You. Are. A. Coward.”
All the while, I edged further and further into the pool, letting him storm after me as his anger annihilated his fear. The water was waist-high and William couldn’t care less! My elation at this breakthrough shrouded my judgement for a pivotal moment. I realised that I had gone too far when he lashed out and managed to get hold of me. He was stronger than he looked, or maybe the long-suppressed anger I’d released had given him a boost.
“You don’t know anything!”
“William!” I shouted, struggling within his slippery grasp, “Stop! Look! Look at where we are!”
“You piece of shit!” he said, “I’m never coming here aga—”
He looked down at the bobbing water lapping just below his collarbone, at his blurred body underneath. Tension left my body as his hands released their grip and hovered just above the surface, the fingers still and calm. As enraptured as a child stepping into Narnia for the first time, he gazed about the gently undulating pool.
“I’m not afraid,” he said.
I let the silence draw out before choosing my moment. “What happened, William? Why were you afraid?”
“I almost drowned,” he said, his eyes far-away, “My father suspected, you know, and asked me straight out. I told him I was… and he went berserk. I don’t think he’d really considered the possibility that I’d say yes. He pushed my head under the water and… he stopped, but he should have stopped sooner.”
“He shouldn’t have done it at all!”
William shrugged. “It was a long time ago.”
“You can’t just shrug this off! The man tried to kill you!”
“No, he didn’t. Not really. He stopped, pulled me out and gave me mouth to mouth. He saved me.”
“I can’t believe you’re excusing this!”
“He lost something that day too. A son.”
I couldn’t help it. Suddenly, everything turned a deep shade of red: the steel ladder to the diving board, the hard edges of the pool, the soft lapping water. “HE ALMOST KILLED YOU!”
William flinched, but didn’t raise his voice to match mine. “I don’t blame him. Not anymore… He’s sent me letters, you know. Over the years. Apologising. In some of them, he begs.” His voice took on a distinct edge of regret. “I never replied.”
Stunned by his ability to forgive, my anger abated, carrying with it a slight feeling of guilt and shame. I didn’t think I would have it in me to forgive such an act, like this man before me.
“Maybe,” I said, “It’s time to talk to him about it?”
His gaze took my breath away. “It is time,” he said.
It was a few months after our sessions ended that he called me to meet up for a coffee or a beer or some other innocuous rendezvous. I knew it was a date, but I wasn’t sure if he did.
Afternoon glided into evening and we found ourselves in some mood-lit lounge sipping cocktails. I was certain he knew by this point, the plastic umbrella in his pina colada was making eyes at me.
“So,” I began, the alcohol giving me courage, “Did you ever have a girlfriend?”
“Yes,” he said, “I did a few years ago, but we broke up.”
“Did you tell her?”
I took a large sip from the straw, finding a pocket of rum at the bottom of my glass. “Did you tell her it was because you’re gay?”
He choked, put his drink down on the marble tabletop and beat his fist against his chest. I raised an eyebrow and watched as the colour rushed to his face, his neck turning an adorable shade of pink.
“No.” He let out a short laugh that was a little too loud in the sultry lounge. “I told her it wasn’t working and left it at that. I thought it might upset her more, you know, if I said that I was… we’d been together eight years and… anyway, she didn’t deserve that.”
“How very gallant of you.”
“I’m not sure she sees it that way.”
I nodded. I’d had a similar experience when I was a teenager. I’d realised a lot earlier than him though. It pained me to know that he had spent so many years hiding from himself. The longer you leave it tucked away, I think, the harder it is. And for what?
In less than a year I’d seen William shed his melancholy shell and open up like glorious springtide blossoms (maybe I’ve been reading too much of his work). Now, he’s a borderline extrovert.
He called me after all.
I let my hand come to rest on the soft leather of the seat between us and after a few long minutes, his hand touched mine.
I managed to finish Where the Rose Petals Fall in time for the McCaffrey’s 40th wedding anniversary; apparently William was attending.
Having our childhood friendship and awkward adolescence put down in words for everyone and anyone to read wasn’t as embarrassing as I’d expected. It was beautiful, heart-breaking and true for many more people than us.
I told him so when I saw him in his garden, one hand intertwined with his partner Jonathon’s, the other tucking a strand of loose hair gently behind his mother’s ear. She looked beyond radiant with joyful tear marks upon her rosy cheeks.
His father loomed (as always) from behind the BBQ, seemingly using it as some kind of homosexual shield. Until, later on in the evening, he approached William and Jonathon with a visible shake to his step.
Their exchange began tense, but quickly fizzled out as William’s father took Jonathon’s hand into his own and clasped it so hard it made the younger man jump.
“I now have two sons.” I heard him say.