Major Martin Ashley-Dwyer and his wife found out that their son Stephen was gay when he took them to dinner on their anniversary. He told them that he had a boyfriend. There was a slight pause, the Major looked sharply at Stephen, but Julie took it in her stride. Mainly because she was not quite sure what Stephen was on about.
Stephen was somewhat relieved and surprised. He’d not really expected them to be so open-minded about it. Adult, if you like. But thank God they didn’t ask any embarrassing questions.
The Major simply changed the subject. Back to rugby, the forthcoming Olympic Games, and what he’d heard on the army grapevine was happening in Afghanistan. And Iraq. And how both situations would have been sorted out long ago if it wasn’t for the likes of the BBC and The Guardian.
Stephen’s mother was soon back to rabbiting on about the forthcoming weekend trip to Florence she’d managed to talk the Major into. Where the Fortesques had had such a good time. Brimming with renaissance marvels, is what Mrs Fortesque had said. Florence was oh, so, so charming. Her son’s sexuality was out of sight and mind, because it had never really been in her field of vision. Or understanding.
But frankly, Major Ashley-Dwyer was just a little confused. Even though it was his job, in a way. Because he was one of those grey background army officers who’s job it was to develop guidelines. And although the subject had come up fairly often at meetings, the Major had always shied away from the issue. He’d done his best to avoid getting involved in any discussions on official policy regarding… well, that testy subject. He didn’t even like to use the word. And he’d trained himself never to think about that kind of soldier. As far as the Major was concerned they just didn’t exist. There was no such thing in the army. If there was, what would happen in a battle situation? With everyone under pressure. No, no, perish the thought. It was simply not on.
In order to protect and entrench his point of view, he never read newspaper articles on the subject, and he avoided books and films that covered the theme. And that event, that embarrassing memory that came back to haunt him from time to time, that flashback from so long ago, when he was still at school…? Well, in the end, nothing had really happened anyway, had it now? So the details of the event had long been expunged from his mind.
As far as the Major was concerned, it wasn’t an issue in the army. Nor was he going to let it become a matter of contention with his son.
Stephen’s mother was in the same boat. But for different reasons. She was hardly aware that the condition existed. She came from a religious family and she’d gone to a middle of the range private boarding school, where the subject of reproduction had never been discussed. Well, yes, certain bits and pieces of human anatomy and how they occasionally fitted together for breeding purposes had been covered in biology, but the teacher, red faced behind her text book, was always deliberately unspecific about human beings.
To be fair, her father hadn’t entirely avoided the subject. After all, he’d occasionally referred to the “birds and the bees”, and made evasive “you’ll find out about that one day” remarks from time to time. And of course Julie had learned to laugh at jokes about pansys, men who wore pink jumpers and liked the opera or the ballet, or kept King Charles spaniels, even though she never quite knew what was funny about them.
When Stephen came along, it was somewhat of a surprise to all concerned. But it only happened once. And that was it. So Stephen became an only child or a one family with one kid statistic.
But all this is not to say they were not a happy household. Screened from army life in an off-base house in a leafy green suburb, what Julie missed through having almost no friends and studiously avoiding the neighbours, was more than made up for by Stephen. He had no friends either, to speak of, not even at primary school. And they were both entirely relaxed with the situation.
Neither Julie nor Stephen knew what the Major did in the army. He very rarely wore his uniform, and they’d hardly have been aware of his role had it not been for the odd occasions when a staff car arrived to drive him away to some meeting or other.
But he did have a gun. Stephen had found it one day when the Major and Julie were both out and he was rooting about amongst their private things. It had quite frightened him, it’s smooth metallic feel, the lustrous sheen and unique smell. He quickly put it back in the holster and replaced it behind the piles of document boxes on the top shelf of a cupboard in the Major’s office.
The boarding school where Stephen was eventually sent on the insistance of the Major and against his mother’s and his own best instincts proved to be an ongoing nightmare. From the first day he concentrated on loathing, detesting and rejecting everyone, from the masters and the matron at the top of the insidious institution to the youngest new arrival. And he kept at it assidusuoly throughout his time in what he saw as pergatory.
He lived for the end of term and the joy of reunion with his mother was almost palpable when he came back home for his holidays, and if the Major was away, as he often was, Stephen saw this as a bonus.
When Stephen was away at school, Julie deliberately avoided the usual smart suburb ladies preoccupations. She didn’t play bridge or tennis, she didn’t go to tea or on walks with the other women in the rather charming street or around the blocks of ostentatious houses. No charity work either.
So how did she wile away the hours? Well, she read a lot. But she had a far from catholic taste. She found the classic English reads difficult. Jane Austin, Elliot and the Brontes were long, bland and, eventually, boring. So were most others of that ilk and era. And to be honest, she didn’t really understand what the female protagonists or heroines were on about.
Maughm was old fashioned and long winded, Green she thought always managed to look on the bleak side of every subject, and she decided that Evelyn Waugh was just a jumped up, right wing Colonial Blimp masquerading as an author.
She found Dickens far too long and equally depressing. And why did he always have to choose such seedy characters?
Shakespeare might as well have been written in a code she didn’t understand. The Bard was simply beyond her. She was convinced, in fact, that no one ever read either his poetry or the plays – or watched them on television for that matter. If they said they did, they were telling fibs, she told herself.
Modern writers like Mcartney, Coetzee and Amis were too violent and the dialogue too rude, even though she always skipped any pages that looked as if they were leading towards some kind of sexual liaison.
Which left the odd feel-good movie, a few mindless TV sitcoms and a multitude of magazines which she devoured insatiably. And from them she gleaned everything there was to know about film, TV and pop stars, sports celebrities, royal families and what the latest fad was to cure memory loss, how to stop ageing and suicide, and how to prevent many different kinds of cancer with weird and wonderful concoctions or mind over matter. Magazines were her life.
Julie didn’t know much about computers either. Although she did send the occasional email, she always managed to forget to ever look in her inbox for replies.
Stephen eventually moved on to a well known university where his social horizons seemed to expand and he moved in a circle of, Julie thought, rather well brought up young people. So, although she was seeing less and less of her son, she was pleased with this development.
During one of his holidays, Stephen decided and then insisted she should try getting used to the computer. ‘I’m not suggesting you write a book, or anything like that, but what about gardening? Or cooking? Or genioligy? Why not try and find out all about your parents parents, and their parents before them?’
‘Oh, darling, that sounds very nice, but you know I’m a dinosaur with technology.’
‘Nonsence Mum. I’ll show you.’
He did and they spent hours in the Major’s office using the desktop. But all to no avail. Julie and computers were simply not compatible and she soon gave up trying.
Throughout his life the Major had been irritated by bleeding heart journalists who used every oportunity, usually at the smart end of the magazine market, to include in their articles that tired, old, hackneyed joke, that ‘military intelligence is an oxymoron’. He’d looked the word up and used it from time to time. Because he felt there were some very intelligent officers in the army. Obstructed by red tape, perhaps. Or sometimes prevented from instituting ideas that would bring about beneficial reforms. And stifled by senoriority from establishing ideas that would save money and streamline policies. But intelligent just the same.
In a rare altercation with Stephen, the Major was surprised to discover that he knew what it meant. They’d been arguing about the quality of army leadership, when the Major was stunned to hear his own son agree with the concept behind the word he’d recently looked up.
‘Look, dad, if truth be told, none of your peers is capable of being the chairman of MENSA - or president of the Crossword Solving Society either. Not many Top Brass are. That’s why they’re in the army and not running some huge multilateral corporation or removing carcinogenic cyst from a patient’s pons, or designing cutting edge electron microscopes.’ High grade debate was not a feature of either side of the argument, and after a while, the Major just left the room, telling himself that it was a pity that so much taxpayers money was wasted on propagating such stupid left-wing ideas amongst undergraduates.
When he was on an overseas mission, the Major always phoned Julie every few days. ‘Oh yes, we’re fine, the weather’s quite good, and everything’s OK at this end.’
She listened to the Major for a while. ‘Yes, he’s here, well, not right now, he’s gone out tonight with some of his university friends.’
She paused while the Major was talking. ‘Yes, I did meet them. They came in for him. A very nice group they seemed. A boy and two girls. The boy has his driving liscence.’
She stopped to allow the Major to say something. ‘Well, I must say darling, I don’t know why you worry about it. And I don’t really know what all this gay business is, but whatever it means, maybe he’s decided not to be it.’
They spoke for a while longer and the Major said he’d phone again in a few days time.
Julie went into the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea. She had decided she was going to get to the bottom of this. She took her cup into the Major's office and turned on the computer.
She thought about what Stephen had told her and followed his point by point instructions. Getting onto the internet was as easy as she remembered. Now, as he said, it's very important to ask the right question. Keywords that’s it. She remembered the examples he'd given. Quite humerous really.
”Mum, just type in what you think is logical. Like if you want to find out something about gardening, don't just put in gardening. That's far too broad. You must narrow your search. Try something like ‘When do I prune climbing roses?’ or ‘How to make icecream for Stephen,’ or whatever you’re looking for.”
Julie looked out of the window. She thought about what she wanted to ask for quite a while. And then, 'Yes, that should do,' she said out loud.
Although she wasn’t aware of it she was on the edge of a precipice. For people like herself, protected from the real world and mainstream by the isolated world of army wife and wealthy lifestyle, she’d arrived at a dark and dangerous place. And she was about to make a fatal mistake. One that would affect their lives forever.
She hesitated for a moment and then she typed the word ‘gay’ into the box. She looked at the emotive word on her screen. She thought for a while and then she added ‘boys’.
Julie was not aware that Stephen had long ago deactivated the safe search filter on what he thought of as his computer. When he read the warning, ‘Many users prefer not to have adult content included in their search results,’ he’d thought it offensive. ‘Petty censorship forced on us by do-gooders.’ So he set the machine’s preferences to not block anything. Even if it thought the material was not safe for adults to view.
The two words stood together into the search box like naked twins. Julie hit the return key and was confronted with a list of hundreds of thousands of websites to choose from.
As the first page of the first site opened on her screen she saw several brilliantly lit and graphically explicit photographs. When she realized what the subjects in the pictures were doing, her mind went numb. Then Julie’s world fell off the edge into a gaping black abyss. There was only one way out from this deep dark place.
A neighbour phoned the emergency line early the next morning. She told the operator, rather diffidently, that she thought she’d heard an unusual sound coming from next door. A loud bang in the night. No, she couldn’t be absolutely sure, she said.
But the woman was right. She had heard a noise. As soon as they got into the room, the paramedics both noticed the colourful and intricate pattern on the wall behind Julie’s head. With her mind numb with shock from the searing effect of the photographs she’d seen on the internet, Julie had found the Major’s service revolver.
She leaned against the study wall. She moved the slide mechanism which eased a cartridge into the firing chamber. She placed the barrel in her mouth. She pushed the metal up against her soft palette. She pulled the trigger. The explosion shot the projectile up through her skull and blew a hole in the back of her head making a gaping exit wound and taking most of her brain with it to make that gaudy design on the Major’s study wall.