Author note: Ted ponders his time with Ralph.
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Disclaimer: I bow down to Arthur Matthews, Graeme Linehan, Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson.
How can this be wrong? This one feeling on which I have founded my life all these years is the obsession of perverts and child-abusers, the lowest form of criminals.
I'm in love with a child.
I don't know how long I've felt like this.
When he was very small, Ralph used to run out into the meadow and watch me at work, usually lending a hand as best he could. He was always withdrawn and shy on these occasions; sometimes I even thought they pained him, but his parents were self-indulgent and neglected him, so he must have needed the company. Often enough he could be seen in the care of a nanny, but he was also alone more than can be good for a small child. The Lord and Lady instructed him firmly not to play with children from the village and really he had no friends at all for many years. Eventually he began to mutter to himself (which became a life-long habit), or to a little fire-engine which he treated as humanely as girls treat dolls.
I knew back then that he was a beautiful child. He stirred old feelings in me, as when I was at school looking through my illustrated Bible at the cherubs and seraphs, wondering how some humans could be as beautiful as they, and I could be so plain. With golden hair and deep blue eyes, he could have come from the very pages of that book.
One day, late in the afternoon, I was cleaning out the stables when I heard a terrible wail a few yards behind me. I turned to see the little boy running across the cobbles with tears streaming down his face, where a lump was swelling over his left eye. He ran straight into my arms, where I welcomed him bemusedly, letting him gush out his grief into my shoulder. I never did get a word out of him that day, or learn where he got that gash (though I have a pretty good idea), but one thing stands out in my mind. When his tears had subsided and his breathing slowed, he relaxed his grip on me and brushed his soft little cheek against mine.
My heart fluttered.
I knew then that he would never want anything from me except a mimic of a father, but I had glimpsed what I would come to want from him.
As the years passed, my own children led me into shame and disappointment. My daughter grew up spoiled and vain, always demanding things on a whim and coming to despise her parents when we couldn't provide. My son was always stubborn and wayward – stayed out until the morning drinking or in gangs, and almost broke his poor mother's heart when he left home at fifteen. He got up to his neck in debt and blames us. I still love them in my heart, remembering them as babies when they were truly my children, but now, when I look at them, I can only see strangers.
It might have been this apathy of affection that ignited my interest in Ralph. Working in the grounds I saw him almost every day. It was easy to see myself as an intrinsic part of his growing-up when I was able to always know what he was wearing, what was his favourite toy, what routines he kept and above all, to watch him growing. My heart still warms to think of all the changes in him that passed before my eyes: I saw him take his first walk in the outdoors, ride his first bike, and go on his first hunt. He cried all the way through it.
When he was 11, the nanny was sent away and Ralph was sent off to boarding school. His absence left a much greater dent in my life than I could have guessed. Work really was just work now – the then Lord was a ruthless bastard who berated you for standing in his way, once even driving his car right at me when I was carrying a bail of hay across the driveway. I liked to tell people I didn't know why I went on working there; but of course, I did.
In the summer, a train brought home the child I had secretly taken on as my own. He was as beautiful as ever, having become quite tall, and his nature was even more affirmed in kindness and shyness than it had ever been. But something was wrong. His time at school had strengthened that streak of aristocracy inside him – not by his own fault, but he came back with knowledge of people, books and operas I had never heard of, and was being groomed to be, to all intents and purposes, a replica of his father. I knew that would never happen. Ralph is, at core, a good person, and you can't make a good person bad with seven years of etiquette lessons. However, I realised crushingly at that point, that Ralph was far from being my son and had excelled far beyond anything I could ever have given him.
I started to freeze up in his presence, conscious of the spiralling differences between us, conscious of his father's mark scalded upon him.
Throughout the holidays, I watched him closely. I ached inside for him to come skipping across the lawn and speak to me, or even for the chance to catch a smile from him. I don't know how, but suddenly he seemed harder to pin down. He seldom left the confines of the house and surrounding garden; never without one parent or the other.
Finally, one evening before he left for school again, I met him leaning on the iron gates on the entrance to the estate. His eyes turned to me, giving me a warm smile, but I could hardly look at him. My insides burned to hear some note of affection from him, but I knew if he gave me any I wouldn't be able to return it. My little boy had been taken away, but the man left in his place awed and frightened me. He murmured some lines about how he enjoyed being home, then when I couldn't reply, walked quickly into the house. That was when it happened. The yearning for a gentle loving child had turned into a yearning for a man. My hands throbbed to feel his flesh beneath them, to caress the inches of his body, to tug his thick tawny hair. It was an image that haunted my dreams.
Night after night, year after year, I lay beside my wife, dreaming of the boy I craved. My wife is a good woman, a very good woman. It sickened me to think how quickly I would drop her for one minute in that child's arms, but I couldn't stop myself. My fantasies about him escalated as I was starved of his day-to-day company, causing me to be impatient and restless with my wife. She accepted it: said I was turning into a grumpy old man. It was the most generous response I could have expected, but in another way it made me resent her even more. Middle-age was passing quickly, while every Christmas, every summer, Ralph would return more fully in the prime of youth than ever.
I've never been vain… I've never had anything to be vain about. But I began to feel depressingly aware of the lines on my face, the fading colour of my hair and the gnarling of my features. I wondered if Ralph noticed. I went as far as to start turning my face to the floor when he passed me.
Eventually, Ralph went on to university. He had told me cheerily that he would be studying cinematography, a week before the Lord announced firmly that he would be taking a course in agriculture.
More time passed. It was all droll. I had vague enjoyment in drinking at the pubs with other workers from the estate, but truth be told, there was nothing at all exciting in my life.
Then one day, the news came. And it was suspiciously droll. Ralph had the flu. The entire staff of the Mayhew estate was gathered in the hall to be told this. Lord and Lady Mayhew looked around us, daring us to challenge them. I could have tried, but I hadn't fully realised what was happening.
I went to visit him in the hospital; he was in a room on his own, with his hands strapped to the bed, smiling feverishly at all around him.
"My poor darling," I said, sitting down beside him. He didn't seem to hear. He was clearly very ill – white and shaking with an unpleasant dark look around his eyes. He was unfed and unwashed. My blood boiled. But beyond that, he muttered and fidgeted and whined nonsensically. He was completely insane. At first I felt ready to burst with anger: he would never have gotten like this if his parents had cared for him, allowed him to have friends, see that there was hope in the world, or allow him to live his life. He knew he was bound to the aristocracy like an animal bound for slaughter. Having watched him for a moment though, I felt hollow. Some aspect of his vulnerability cried out to me – cried out for calm and understanding and kindness. I tried to fight it, but the revelation came to me that he lay before me strapped to the bed, completely helpless and unlikely to remember anything. The bed was covered only in a thin duvet, and Ralph lay with his mouth open and twitching.
I didn't touch him. It was true love, I understood. No amount of lust could lead me to hurt him. There has always been something very precious in his purity. Something worth preserving.
I spoke to him gently, about the estate, the local news and other such things I imagined would be a comfort to him.
Two months have passed, and Ralph is home again. It's clear he will never return to university, and will always be affected by his dismal past.
But he is spectacular.
I see him every day now; he is taller and more filled out with his face having formed adult features and a grace of manner that stirs my admiration even more.
He is twenty. And still, he is only a child. How can he move on from a childhood like that? How can I ever sever my adult desires from the child I loved as my son? How can I ever say I love him?
I don't think I can. But I will never let go.
Author note: Sorry, it was very serious, but I really really hope you liked it. Please leave a review!