THEN WE WERE SIX (6)
The people we were going to see lived in a small Edwardian house a hundred yards off Lygon St, near the university, only a few stops down the Lygon Street tram line from my house. We caught the tram, which mysteriously happened to wait for us as we approached the tram stop. As a breed, Melbourne tram drivers usually don’t wait if you are just ten yards from the stop. In fact, they accelerate away, emitting eldritch-like shrieks, or laughing demonically. Muhaha, muhaha is commonly only heard in real life in trams, and you know when you hear it that some poor sod has missed the tram by the skin of his teeth. So, when Ken gave a satisfied smile as we caught the suspiciously waiting tram, which he thought I didn’t see, I said, “You made that happen, didn’t you?”
“What?” he asked, innocently.
“You made the tram wait for us.”
“The perks of power,” he grinned. “Do you disapprove?”
“Well, no, not really,” I admitted. “Actually, it’s rather fun, and very useful,” I reluctantly conceded.
“See,” he said, “already you are being corrupted. Soon you will be little better than a Darkelf.”
“Never say that!” said Tiltheus, anguished. “Never! They are evil creatures, and their pleasures are foul. Do not joke about them! Steven is a being of light, a man good and noble.”
We both turned to look at him. He was remarkably upset. A being of light, huh? Good and noble?
Dr Wang bowed, right there in the middle of the tram, his face solemn and serious.
“You are quite right, Tiltheus. It was a crass and dangerous thing to say.” He turned to me. “I do not for one minute doubt that you will know right from wrong, and will never sink to their deadly perversions. I believe that you will always choose the path of the light, no matter how hard.” Ah, if we had but known how misplaced this confidence and trust was. There were hard and bitter lessons to learn, deep and dark desires to be satisfied, and terrible loss to be endured. I would give anything to go back to that moment, when we were together, whole and innocent, laughing on a Melbourne tram as it clacked and rumbled towards the city.
Before we knocked at the door, it was opened, by a man who in his own way was as beautiful as Tiltheus. He had hair the colour of beaten copper, creamy Celtic skin, and glimmering dark blue eyes, and a face that stopped just this side of being pretty. I wondered worriedly to myself if I was turning gay – suddenly noticing and appreciating male beauty. Of course, I reassured myself that I didn’t want to sleep with these guys, I was merely admiring them, just as I would a work of art or a beautiful house or view.
The redhead gave me a slightly knowing grin just as if he knew exactly what I was thinking, and I felt myself colour. If he was one of Ken’s friends, he was probably another wizard, or a werewolf, or something like that, and could read minds, the slimy bugger. I would never have guessed what he actually was, until I was told.
“Hello Ken,” he said, clearly pleased to see the old bully.
“G’day, Samuel. Sam, this is Tiltheus, Steven, and Damian.” He gestured in an off-hand way at each of us in sequence.
“Pleased to meet you, Sam,” I said, stepping forward to shake his hand. It was cool and smooth. As I touched him, I felt a shiver of something go through his skin, or mine, I wasn’t sure. Tiltheus copied my actions and what I’d said, but his eyes were almost black with some emotion – which looked strangely like fear, perhaps even a superstitious horror. I was puzzled – he’d not been fazed by anything else he’d encountered so far. Damian shook hands looking slightly out of his depth, and very uneasy. Cooties, I thought, amused.
Sam ushered us into the house. There was the sound of singing from the kitchen, and then the singing stopped and a voice said, “What do you fancy for supper, love?”
“We have visitors,” said Sam. A man came out of the kitchen, drying his hands on a dishtowel. Damo looked even more uneasy. I shot him a warning glance.
“Hi,” the man said, “I’m Jack.” Jack was in his forties, with slightly receding dark brown hair, a muscular but slightly chubby body, and warm intelligent brown eyes. He looked at Sam, and for an instant there was an almost palpable erotic blast between them. Oho! I thought. Then I stopped thinking, because I couldn’t think of anything else clever. It seemed that I was going to have to get used to many things I had not really known about before. It was scary. But jeez, it was fun, too! I hadn’t felt so alive for months and months. If you let go of your preconceptions and fears, you open yourself to different things. Sometimes, they may even be good things. And it amused me to be more open-minded about these things than Damian, who was looking everywhere but at the two lovers.
“I’m Steven, and these are my friends Tiltheus and Damian,” I said, shaking his hand. This time, the hand was warm and strong. Tiltheus’s eyes had gone back to blue, almost, and he shook Jack’s hand without any visible emotion. I still wanted to know why he’d found Sam so disturbing. Damian was obviously still terribly ill at ease, but he shook Jack’s hand without flinching. He would get used to much worse things later on, though neither of us knew it then.
Without waiting to see what we wanted, Jack went to a dresser in the corner, and opened it and took out a bottle of red – an expensive bottle, the kind I could never afford. Humming quietly to himself, he took out six glasses, opened the bottle, and poured us all a glass. “There’s plenty more where that came from,” he said, with a smile that immediately made me feel at ease. I stopped worrying about being sexually assaulted, and worse, possibly taking pleasure in it, and began to enjoy myself.
I noticed a sax in the corner, and a guitar case in another, with two music stands.
“Which of you is the saxophonist?” I asked.
“I am,” said Sam. “Jack’s the guitarist and vocalist. We’re members of a band, ‘Fluid Exchange’.” He caught Jack’s eye, and his mouth quirked up at the corners. I’m sure you are, I thought, dryly. Well, if you could have a band called ‘Machine Gun Fellatio’, why not? This was after all Melbourne, not the US Bible Belt.
“Steve’s a bard.” Dr Wang threw this very quietly into the conversation, but everyone heard, and there was a stunned silence. Damian was looking at me with a speculative air about him. I was surprising Damie-babe. I wondered if he liked that, or found it worrying.
Both Jack and Sam looked at me very thoughtfully. Jack asked, “What instrument do you play?”
I was suddenly shy, almost tongue-tied. I was in the presence of real musicians, who played for a band. I wasn’t sure whether Jack had asked the question because he was interested, or whether he’d asked just to fill the sudden silence caused by that bastard Dr Wang’s announcement. “The clarinet. And I sing a little.” I was crimson with humiliation.
We talked a while about music and singing and Sam put on a CD of their band. Their music reminded me of ‘Powderfinger’ and a couple of other Melbourne bands. They were pretty good. Tiltheus was fascinated by the CDs and the CD-player, and I had to try and explain the technology. In the end, I gave up, and said – “Just think of it as magic!” He grinned at me, warming my heart. There was a wholesomeness and goodness about him that was enchanting and lightened your soul.
“So,” said Sam casually, “why do you think Steve’s a bard, and why is a bard needed and why are you here?” He was looking at me when he asked, but he was talking to Ken. Cynical guy, and he’d looked so nice.
Ken started to explain. And the way he told it sounded like a different story to the one I’d experienced.
“There’s an open portal,” he began. “All the usual stuff – the One, who is a bard,” – I shifted uncomfortably – “and the friend,” – Damian preened himself – “from ‘across’.” Damian looked crestfallen, like a sick cockatoo. Tiltheus ignored the comment and Damo’s reaction. Sam and Jack both looked at me and then at Tiltheus. I blushed and shifted embarrassedly. I remembered Ken’s comments about the ‘um, best friend’. Did I need this? Sam’s eyes on me were kind, but also knowing. I moved a couple of inches away from Til, who was sitting next to me on the sofa. Really, this was all getting beyond uncomfortable. Then Ken explained about the cupboard, the doorway, Til, and that Til was on an errand and was a servant of the light.
“And we come in where?” asked Sam, dryly.
“Money.” Replied Dr Wang, succinctly.
There was a long silence.
“I need to know a bit more,” said Sam, slowly. “Tiltheus, tell us about your errand.”
“I do not want to talk about it,” he said. “It’s not safe, and I am forsworn.” Pompous git.
“If we are to come with you, then we must know what we face. Is that not fair?”
“You are coming with me?” Mixed emotions, of surprise, gratitude, suspicion, wonder moved across Tiltheus’s face.
Sam reached out touched Til’s shoulder. “We can’t let you do this on your own.”
“You don’t know me,” said Til stubbornly, his eyes abruptly dark with some emotion.
“Ah, but we do know the good Dr Wang,” said Jack, speaking for the first time. “And of course he will be going with you. And if he’s going, Sam’ll go, and if Sam goes, I go.”
Tiltheus bowed his head to the inevitable. “I’m carrying this,” he said, and held out his arm, pulling back the sleeve of my shirt he was wearing. Around his arm was a gold and silver bracelet, about an inch and a half wide, scored with minute letters. Funnily enough, I’d never noticed it before, and I wondered why. “It is a powerful magical . . . .” he paused, searching for the right word, “ concentrator, or conductor. Anyone with mage-powers can use it, and its intrinsic power will be made available to the mage. With this, our Queen, the servant of the Goddess and her consort and follower of the light, will be able to better defend our kingdom from the dark. It was made by the elves of the Falloth Mountains, who are also followers of the light, though they are a different people to us. But it had to be brought from the mountains where the minerals and jewels used in its manufacture are found to the capital where the Queen lives. If the Queen had gone to fetch it, there would have been the risk that she might be attacked before she could take up this arm-ring, and if it had been sent to her with an armed escort, again, the Darklings might have guessed that something was afoot. So I was chosen to take it. I am the son of the Queen, and I am a servant of the light.”
He stopped, thinking. “I must let you see a little of my real form.” He began to grow, and a soft, ethereal light permeated his being, while behind him snow-white, brilliantly glowing wings grew and spread until they brushed the ceiling. Only Ken didn’t look surprised.
I could not believe that this guy, whom I’d gotten drunk with, who was frightened by riding on Graziella, who giggled at my silly jokes, was an angel, and a fucking prince. And to think I’d even had the presumption to think that I might sleep with him! Not that I would, because I’m straight. He caught my thought – was my face so open? – and smiled at me.
“You are attracted to the light,” he said. “I knew that as soon as I saw you.”
Yes, I thought, that’s what it is. It’s got nothing to do with sex. So why did I have the beginnings of a hard-on? He turned to Sam. “I apologise for doubting you,” he said. “In my world, your kind are often evil, or allied, if not with the Darklings, with unscrupulous warlords who do more harm than good, and often serve the cause of the Darklings, even if they do not worship them.” Your kind? What the effing hell was going on? Who the hell were all these people? It seemed to me that only Damo was ordinary. All the others in the room were weirdoes, creatures of myth and fantasy.
“Since we’re all playing ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’, you’d better tell them, Samuel.” Ken’s voice was matter-of-fact, even dry.
Sam sighed. You could see that he hated this, that every time he’d had to tell whatever it was he needed to disclose, he was afraid that the disclosure would lead to loss of friends or discomfort or danger. “I’m a vampire,” he said, expressionlessly. I couldn’t even think ‘oho!’ any more. I couldn’t think. This was way beyond anything. But I’d seen the look of trepidation on Sam’s face, and I wasn’t going to let him feel that we were narrow-minded cretins unable to accept different things.
“Hey, that’s so cool!” I said. “I’ve never met a vampire before. You’re not as I imagined that you would be.”
“What did you imagine?” he asked dryly.
“Oh, something like that thirties film Rudolf Valentino was in. All dark and mysterious. Instead, a – ” I had been about to say ‘beautiful’ – “ Celt, all ivory complexion and red hair and indigo eyes.”
Sam grinned, already more at ease, his eyes once again slightly mocking. The bugger knew exactly what I’d been going to say.
“Meanwhile, I’m the dark mysterious one,” said Jack with a teasing smile. He turned sideways and lay down with his head on Sam’s lap, and smiled up at him. I wish, I thought inconsequentially, that someone would look at me like that. There was love and affection and trust and – undeniably – desire in that look. And it was obvious that Jack had done it deliberately, to make it clear to Sam and to us where his loyalties lay. I suddenly felt that I could trust him – trust them both – with my life, and certainly my virtue, and I felt ridiculously happy and content. Two days ago I’d been bitter and unhappy, knowing that I was a failure and an idiot, and once again alone in the world. Now I had this motley crew of people, who might become friends, whom I liked immensely (even Ken was actually likable, if you got past the earnest Scandinavian wizard persona). And all because of an op-shop cupboard.
“Well, that’s settled then,” said Ken crisply. “Can I open another bottle?”
Jack waved him to the sideboard. The wizard opened a second bottle of red. Outside it was getting dark and Jack got up off the sofa to draw the curtains. The room had been starting to get chilly, so he turned on the heating. He went back to the sofa, and lay down again, his head on Sam’s lap. They looked at each other tenderly for a moment. It was so soppy, you’ve no idea. Even Ken had an idiotic grin on his face. Damo was looking totally confused. Tiltheus was also smiling indulgently.
“We can travel as a band of musicians,” suggested Jack. “The people in your world, Tiltheus, might think we are terribly creative when all we do is play them old pop songs and bits of Benny Goodman.” Sam began to whistle ‘In the Mood’ until Jack jabbed him in the solar plexus.
“Oof!” exclaimed Sam. “What was that for?”
“This is serious stuff here. Stop enjoying yourself. Anyway, I prefer the original.”
“Well, put in on then!”
So Jack got up and took off the ‘Fluid Exchange’ CD which had stopped playing anyway, and put on a Benny Goodman compendium.
Grandpa had loved jazz and swing, and he’d had lots of old 78s which we used to play on his wind-up record player until it broke down. There was a time when I despised that music, because it was the music of another generation, but strangely enough the generation gap that I might have had with my parents never really occurred with grandpa. He seemed to be young, to me, even as his body aged and his hair greyed. There seemed no point in rebelling against his taste. He tolerated everything except cruelty, and accepted most things. He was a wonderful man, and I still miss him every day. After he’d died, I took the small legacy he’d left me and bought a decent CD-player and some CDs of the bands he liked best. I found sheet music too, though I found that I could get the cadences and feel of the greats more easily by copying them, rather than by trying to read scripts.
In a moment, my feet were tapping, and I was humming along. It’s such happy music, the antidote to the terrible sufferings of the great depression. You might be unemployed or starving, but walking along the street you could hear this music spilling from open windows and doorways, with a beat that made you want to dance, and tunes that were happy (except for the blues, of course) and those incredible chord progressions. If I hadn’t known better, I would have said that the clarinet had been invented in the thirties, specifically to play jazz and swing. Though I loved the classical repertoire of the clarinet, it was jazz that drew me in. Even now, when I play jazz, I remember evenings with grandpa and his glass of whisky (his one real indulgence) and me with a glass of orange juice and the wind-up gramophone, and the warm sweet scent of cut grass and wisteria coming through the open windows. It always seemed to be summer when I was young.
Something of this must have shown on my face because Sam asked, his face concerned and kind, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, really. My grandfather loved this music, and I was thinking of him. He would have enjoyed being here.”
“Would you like us to turn it off?” he asked.
“Oh, no! It’s among my favourite music, too. I play a lot of these pieces, not as well as Goodman does, obviously, but I try!”
“There we are!” he said. “A jazz band. Bring along your clarinet, and I’ll bring my sax, and Jack’ll bring along his guitar.”
“But it’s electric,” I pointed out.
“I play classical as well,” said Jack.
“I can’t sing,” said Tiltheus, wistfully.
“Nor can I.” Damo looked gratefully at Tiltheus. He was clearly thinking – at last, I have something in common with someone.
By this time, we were onto our third bottle. We had a party. The fellowship of the bracelet. The sixsome. Later on, Jack got out his classical guitar and played a whole lot of busker favourites, and we even taught the words of ‘The Falling Leaves’ to Tiltheus. By the end of the evening were we all singing drunkenly, our arms round each other, and then it was too late to go home – the last tram had gone, and anyway, it all seemed too much trouble to call a taxi. Damo had fallen asleep on the mat in front of the empty fireplace, so Sam just threw a blanket over him, and I, taking pity on him, gave him a sofa-cushion to put his head on. He muttered but didn’t rouse. Jack took Ken through to the smaller spare room, and set him up there, and Sam took Tiltheus and me to the other spare room, where there was a double bed.
“Is it OK?” Sam asked, looking at me, though he was ostensibly asking both of us. He really was concerned. He might be gay, but he wasn’t out to recruit me to the team. But there wasn’t another bed, and I didn’t fancy sleeping on the floor, even though I was drunk. It didn’t occur to me to make Tiltheus sleep on the floor – he was an angel, and a prince. And I was a nothing.
“Yes, it’s fine,” I said. “Just because I’m sleeping with him doesn’t mean I’m sleeping with him.” This seemed terribly funny to all of us, and after stripping to our boxers, Tiltheus and I slipped into the bed and went straight to sleep.
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