We watched the airliner move off slowly, taxiing towards the holding point, its orientation lights flashing, and then it seemed to spin around almost 180 degrees so that its nose was lined up with the runway. A few moments of formality for clearance from the control tower, and then the wheels were turning again. The big aircraft moved off down the runway, hurtling along for what seemed like quite a long time before picking up sufficient speed. Then we could hear the unmistakable whistling roar of the engines throttling up to full blast. The wingtips flexed and the whole plane seemed to hover uncertainly, looking for a moment like it might be too heavy or even too slow to ever get off the ground. But it did. Eventually the nose lifted. It parted from the runway and the plane was suddenly launched skywards. It hung in the air, gaining height over the airport surroundings. The undercarriage retracted, it banked sharply, and the bright colors of its livery glinted in the evening sun as it turned, pointing its nose towards Pulkovo. And as it did so, we could see the shimmer of the heat haze from the engines as it flew directly into the sun. We watched it becoming smaller and smaller until eventually it was just a distant dot on the horizon. And I thought of my Yura, aboard that aircraft right now being carried to that momentous rendezvous, a rendezvous that was going to decide his future and potentially change the course of his entire life. Yura was finally on the way to visit his father in Saint Petersburg, accompanied by Elena. For the first time since that little boy came into my life, I was without him.
Vladik turned to me and gave me a sad look. His little buddy was aboard that plane, and I think he too had the same heaviness in his heart.
"C'mon little buddy," I said, "Let's go."
He seemed reluctant to move off, and grasped the railing of the viewing gallery even tighter. It was as if he was loath to sever this last connection by leaving the very place where we had seen Yura off.
"I hope he's going to be okay," said Vladik, still looking into the distance with a hand over his eyes to shield them from the glare of the evening sun.
I took his little hand and he let me lead him away, back to the car.
The drive back from the airport was sullen and mostly silent. Vladik was very thoughtful and introspective. We were both sad.
It was getting late by the time we got home from the airport, so we picked up something from the drive-thru on the way back. Anton had gone back to his apartment, with a heavy schedule of studying to get through. He had an early start the next morning. So for the first time ever I found myself alone in the house with Vladik. Silent and demoralized, we ate our spoils sat around the island in the kitchen.
I looked at Vladik, sat there across the corner of the island, just next to me, and he was nibbling on a chicken nugget. He didn't appear to be enjoying it very much. He had barely touched his fries. I had my elbow up on the counter, my fork dangling uncertainly from my fingertips. I looked down at my Caesar salad and decided I didn't really have the appetite for it.
Vladik stopped eating for a moment, looking up with the breaded nugget still between his fingers.
"You miss Yura don't you?" he said.
For some reason his question caught me unawares. Then I looked into his eyes and concluded that he could probably tell as much from my demeanor as I could his.
I nodded, looking a bit sheepish, almost afraid to admit it.
"So do I," he confessed, "It's not the same without him is it?"
"No," I said, shaking my head regretfully.
He put the chicken nugget down and wiped his fingers on one of the paper napkins from the pile. He pushed the remnants of his meal away, indicating that he was done, and gave the napkin a cursory pass over his mouth, just once. Then he got up solemnly.
"I'm not hungry," he said, in a very quiet voice.
Then he walked away, with his head hung down.
I watched him go, knowing that he was at this moment a very sad and mixed up little boy. I felt so sorry for him.
When I passed by Vladik's room a few minutes later, the door was ajar and I caught a glimpse of him sitting dejectedly on the edge of the bed, still fully clothed. He appeared lost in thought. All he had done was taken off his sneakers, one of which he was still holding absent-mindedly in his hands.
"What's the matter little buddy?" I asked solicitously, pushing the door open further.
He looked up. I went in and sat down, sinking onto the edge of the bed next to him. He looked up at me with a frightened look.
"I don't want Yura to go and live in Saint Petersburg," he said.
He looked genuinely pained at the prospect of it, almost tearful. I put an arm around his shoulders to comfort him, and he tilted his blond head against me.
"Neither do I," I confessed.
"All those months that we were apart, it was like I was just waiting to see him again," he said.
That was a very profound and revealing remark. It was significant because thus far, Vladik had not said anything about what happened to him. I had begun to expect he would never speak of his experiences, apart from perhaps with his therapist. It was also significant because it confirmed that his relationship with Yura was not merely a casual little boy liaison. Their relationship went well beyond their shared experiences - it was a lot more than that. These boys had a deep and genuine affection for each other that easily transcended a simple schoolboy assignation. I believe they had found a very real and enduring love - a love they both felt very keenly. I had seen it from the very first time I saw them together.
"All those months," he went on, "when those men were doing all those horrible things to me, thinking about Yura was the only thing that kept me going."
I looked at him pityingly.
"Was it really awful for you?" I asked him, aware that it was a woefully inadequate question.
He looked up with a doleful, almost apologetic expression and nodded slowly.
"I don't want to be away from him ever again," he said.
"It's only for a couple of days," I reassured him, "He'll be back soon enough."
There was a flicker of a smile. I smiled back encouragingly. That was better.
"C'mon little buddy," I said, patting his thigh, "Time to go to bed. It's been a long day."
I left him to get ready for bed. He was still sitting thoughtfully on the edge of the bed, the bed which he had up till then shared with Yura, and I headed to the door to go back to my room, but he called out.
I stopped and turned, just hovering on the threshold, and looked back at him, but he didn't reply. He dropped the sneaker he was holding, then got up and came straight over to me. Standing before me in his socked feet, he reached up and put his arms around my neck. He stood like that, very close to me, and looked up.
"I don't want to be alone," he said.
I put a hand gently against his cheek, and stared lovingly into both his pretty green eyes. I smiled and drew his body against me into a welcome hug. He melted into me, and wrapped his little arms around me tightly. His distress was almost tangible. It reminded me so much of the night that Yura and I were first alone together.
"Okay, I'll sit with you until you fall asleep," I suggested, "How about that?"
He nodded and let me go, immediately starting to undress for bed. I dimmed the lights and drew the bedclothes back. When Vladik was in his pajama bottoms, he got into bed. I kicked off my shoes and sat up next to him on top of the covers. When he was safely snuggled under the comforter he looked up at me, ready to resume the conversation.
"I don't want Yura to go away forever. He's been my best friend since we were six years old."
"You'll still be friends," I said, trying to reassure him, "I have a feeling you two will be friends for a very long time."
He smiled at that, but I wasn't sure he was altogether convinced. He was still looking up at me appealingly.
"He's got someone that loves him now," I said, "You wouldn't want to get in the way of that, would you?"
"I want Yura to be happy," he confessed, still looking up at me plaintively, "But who's going to love me?"
I remember thinking what a sad but revealing statement that was. Vladik was feeling excluded that his little buddy was on the cusp of acquiring a new family, having found his natural father, whilst Vladik was still for all intents an orphan; a non-entity that didn't belong anywhere; a lost, disenfranchised little boy that nobody wanted.
I leaned over towards him and whispered into his face, desperately wanting to reassure him.
"Well, I love you little buddy."
He smiled and squirmed under the comforter, clearly bolstered and humbled by my words.
"I know I'm not your dad," I said, "But I do love you."
He flipped back the edge of the comforter and shifted towards me, throwing his top half across me. He burrowed one arm into the small of my back, embracing me, and laid his head in my lap. I stroked his blond head and rubbed his back. His little body was already warm from the bedclothes. And that was how we stayed for a long few minutes, with Vladik curled up next to me, his lithe, half-naked little body thrown across me as I sat there propped up against the headboard. It was a wonderful little boymoment.
After a good long while had passed, during which a tender and affectionate silence had elapsed between us, Vladik twisted slightly and looked up at me, his head still in my lap, his pretty green eyes fixed on my face.
"Do you really love me?"
I smiled, humbled that this little boy should be so needy of my love, and that its confirmation was so important to him. God how I loved him. Too much, probably.
"More than you can imagine," I said.
Again he smiled. He had just wanted to hear me say it. He went on lying across me. It was slightly uncomfortable, but I bore it because he looked so adorable staring up at me at such close proximity. Then he turned his head, resting his cheek in my lap and closed his eyes, as if finally preparing to go to sleep.
"If Yura goes to live in Saint Petersburg," he murmured, his eyes still closed, "Then I want to stay here with you."
It was a strangely familiar sentiment, so symptomatic of what Yura had said soon after he had first arrived. I stroked Vladik's clipped head, ruffling a swathe of his golden hair with my palm, and I thought to myself: if only things could be that simple.
I didn't know it then, but that was the only night I was destined to spend alone with Vladik. The next day the news came that a good foster family had been found for him. Elena visited the house to deliver the news personally, and to talk with Vladik about what was going to happen. Accompanying her was the social worker from Children's Services, the frigid schoolmarm with the horn-rimmed spectacles, who was the prime mover in this whole affair. Perhaps unfairly, but not surprisingly, I had developed an instant aversion to her. I neither liked her nor trusted her.
Elena and the schoolmarm spent about an hour with us, sitting on the sofa with Vladik, talking about the foster family he was going to be staying with. Apparently they were an experienced couple with two boys of their own of around Vladik's age. They were highly recommended, and had an impeccable record of successfully fostering troubled young boys. What's more, they had Russian origins and spoke fluent Russian. The match couldn't have been more perfect. The people from Children's Services had vetted and approved them, and they wanted to get Vladik there as soon as possible.
So if the match was so perfect, why did it feel so wrong? What right did they have to take Vladik away? That boy was happy with me. Oh, I wasn't a trained foster carer, but I knew how to take care of him. I didn't need the approval of any social worker to tell me whether I was fit to look after him. I remembered Anton's words that last day at Crystal Lake when he had said, "You've done more for those boys than anybody." Anton was right. His sentiments were frighteningly true, like so many of the things Anton said. I was the one who had wet-nursed those boys, assuaged their fears, and had patiently and diligently persevered against their hostility and truculence. I was the one who talked to them and listened to them; who took time to mentor them and understand them. I was the one who washed them down when they wet the bed and who dried their tears when they were in distress. I had fed them and comforted them, and bore their anger and their insults. And now that I had invested so much of my own energy and emotion into their welfare, they just wanted to take those boys away from me. They wanted to remove them with all the lofty ingratitude with which one might snatch eggs from a hen. What right had they?
By the time they left, I was seething with a profound sense of injustice. It felt not only wrong, but extremely undeserved. After all I had done for these boys, I was being cast aside as though my contribution had gone not only unrecognized, but deliberately overlooked. And yet, to minimize the distress for Vladik, I knew that there was no point in fighting it. I was powerless to do anything to stop it, and I knew that the best thing I could do was to put on a brave face, wrap it up with a positive spin, and try to get Vladik to subscribe to the whole thing willingly, if for nothing else to minimize the wrench of the proposed transition, and try to smooth it over as much as possible. That was going to be more difficult than it looked. Vladik was an intelligent boy. He would be wise to my soft-soaping, and he knew his own mind. I knew that no stiff, hard-nosed schoolmarm of a social worker was going to win him over quite so easily.
When Elena and the schoolmarm had gone, I walked back into the drawing room after seeing them out. Vladik was still sitting on the sofa, looking slightly shell-shocked. I could see he was trying to assimilate the idea of going to the foster home. Disappointingly, he didn't seem to be buying into it. In fact, he looked outraged and defiant.
"I don't want to go," he said, resolutely.
"You can't stay here."
Vladik looked alarmed and he stared at me with an almost frightened expression.
"But I don't want to go!"
"I know little buddy," I said, "But it's right that you should be with a proper foster family."
"Oh Mark!" he appealed plaintively, "Please don't make me go!"
He was close to tears. God, this was so hard.
"You must go little buddy, you have no choice."
"I don't want to stay with those people!" he screamed, "I want to stay with you!"
"You can't stay with me," I said firmly, "Those people will take care of you and love you."
He turned on me with a hurt look, the pitch in his voice rising with desperation.
"But YOU love me! You said so!"
How I wished I was not having this conversation with him. How I longed for things to be that simple. But life just wasn't like that. It could never be as black and white as he saw it. In his childish logic I had been there for him all along. I loved him. I had said so. And now it was almost as though I was turning my back on him. How could his eleven year old mind make sense of that?
He watched my face searchingly, looking for signs of amelioration in my expression. But it was out of my hands. When I did not respond, his face collapsed. He threw himself down on the sofa and I could see his little shoulders shuddering. He sniffed and his whole body shook, and I knew he was crying.
"Oh Mark!" he sobbed, with a little howl of disappointment in his voice, "You don't love me anymore!"
He buried his face into his hands and was crying real tears of hurt. He was lying on the sofa facing the backrest, so that he was huddled away from me and he was almost trembling with grief. My heart was welling up in sympathy, and I wanted so much to show him that that simply wasn't true. I wanted to hug him, to hold him and reassure him, and show him how much I actually did love him.
I touched him on the shoulder. He violently shrugged me off.
"You said you loved me! You lied to me!"
I tried again to comfort him, stroking his arm, but he threw my hand off.
"Leave me alone!" he hissed, "You're a liar! I hate you!"
His harsh words cut into my heart like the swish of a thin cane. His childish utterance truly hurt, yet his phraseology was strangely familiar. It was almost as if he was lapsing back into that same hostile language with which he had started out. Vladik had not spoken like that for a long time. His eleven year old anger momentarily stunned me and it was all the more painful to feel the full depth of fury he felt at this moment, especially as his accusation simply wasn't true. I loved him more than he would ever know. I had to remind myself that he was just a kid. I was an adult. I was supposed to know better. But it did nothing to assuage the tears that his cruel words had elicited from deep within me, and I could hardly fight back my own emotions as I turned silently and left the room. I knew that the best thing I could do was leave him alone, so I left him crying on the sofa and, whilst I struggled with my own emotions, my love for him made me painfully aware of the fact that he was still a very sensitive, fragile little boy who at this moment was feeling bitter and resentful. He thought I had abandoned him. And although he was hateful and rejected me, my heart was still filled with compassion and love for him. My love for him was so deep, so pure, so complete, that even when he hated me I loved him.
It was a little way across town that I had to deliver Vladik to the foster carers. He was very brave and stoical on the way there. He didn't cry, and said nothing in the car. He had done all his crying already. He had protested and pleaded, but now seemed sadly resigned to his fate, finally defeated, recognizing that he was powerless to determine any of the circumstances of his life. I knew he was scared and apprehensive. My heart was filled with sympathy for him and I feared he would feel lonely and abandoned at the foster home. But there was nothing I could do.
The foster carers lived in a very suburban neighborhood in one of the more salubrious parts of town. It had plenty of green fields and open space. Ideal for some kids. But Vladik didn't seem impressed. He was essentially an inner city boy. When we arrived, the foster carers were at their porch waiting. They seemed like nice people. We didn't have time for anything more than a cursory discussion, and it was probably best that I didn't hang around. I gave Vladik a big hug and reassured him that I would still be seeing him regularly, and that he would be reunited with Yura as soon as he returned from Saint Petersburg. Vladik was very quiet and held himself well, and I could detect that he was trying to retain his composure in front of these people whom he had never met. Having said our farewells, they took him inside and closed the door, and as I walked back up the drive towards the car, I heard the loud plaintive wail of Vladik bursting into tears. I could hear the foster carers reassuring him and trying to comfort him, probably hugging him and holding him close in much the same way as I would have done. I knew they would look after him, but hearing Vladik's plaintive cry, even as I was walking away from him, made me feel that I had betrayed him. My own sense of injustice told me that I had just done this poor little boy a great disservice. He probably felt I had abandoned him. It damn near broke my heart.
On the drive home I thought of how lonely I was going to be. Yura was in Saint Petersburg. Vladik was no longer with me. Even Anton was busy with his studies. I had called him to let him know that Vladik was going to the foster home, but Anton was concentrating on finishing an imminent assignment. So when I returned from the foster home, I found myself alone in the house for the first time in a very long while. That was something of a revelation to me. I didn't know what to do with myself. My evenings would usually be taken up in cooking for the boys, feeding them, making sure they got ready for bed, maybe playing with them on the games console for a bit, or just sitting and watching TV with them. Now I had nothing to do. It almost felt like my assignment had ended and that my unit had no further use for me. I was redundant and useless. I wondered how it would be for Vladik, lying in a strange bed in a strange house with new people and unfamiliar surroundings. I questioned why circumstances dictated that there should be this cruel and unnecessary distance between us. I only hoped that Vladik wasn't lying awake at this precise moment, tearful and with his heart hurting because he missed me so much.
I found myself falling asleep in front of the TV. I was so low that I could only think of going to bed. Perhaps all I needed was to tuck myself up in bed early. It was the only way to staunch the misery of the day.
No sooner had that thought crossed my mind, the doorbell chimed. It was a little way past nine o'clock and a worrying hour for anybody to be calling around unannounced. I only hoped it wasn't something unwelcome. Curious, and more than a little apprehensive, I went to the front door bracing myself for something unexpected.
I needn't have worried. It was unexpected, but a welcome surprise. It was Anton! He was standing there with a grin of mock sadness, his head tilted to one side and in his hand he was clutching a bottle of wine by its neck. It was probably the nicest surprise I could have hoped for, and one of the most welcome sights I had ever set eyes on.
Anton broke into a smile.
"Hi!" I said, genuinely pleased to see him.
I stood there holding the door open, still a little taken aback. Anton held up the bottle of wine.
"I was going to have a drink to celebrate finishing my assignment," he said, "but then I realized I didn't have a corkscrew."
I held out my arms and he stepped into them. He hugged me tightly, still holding the bottle of wine behind my back. His long hair was brushing against my face. The frames of his wire-rimmed spectacles were pressing coldly into the side of my head. I held him for a few moments longer than usual, clinging to him in a welcome embrace and almost saying a silent prayer of thanks. I think he realized that I was thankful for this, and he didn't question it or even try to prize himself loose. He just waited until I was ready to let him go.
Eventually we stepped apart and he flashed me that affectionate smile again.
"So do you have one?" he asked.
"You know I have," I said, with a mocking tone, "There's a full cocktail bar downstairs, don't you remember?"
So we went in. I got two wine glasses, and we shared the wine, talking intimately in the drawing room for a good long time. We sipped the wine and we chatted about Vladik and Yura and shared our thoughts on how much we both loved those boys. We laughed about the things they said and their funny little ways.
Then Anton started asking me about Boyscape and why I had given it up to become a police officer. Of course he knew all about Boyscape and John's role in setting it up. Anton knew pretty much everything about me.
"I guess it wasn't very well paid," I said, with a laugh, "But after John died, I lost the enthusiasm for it."
"Would you ever think about doing something like that again?"
"Why?" I asked, with suspicion.
"I think you'd be good at it, that's all."
"So would you," I said, returning the compliment.
"I know," he replied, with a touch of arrogance, "That's why I think we should do it together."
"What, start up another Boyscape?" I said, almost laughing it off.
He looked at me slightly hurt.
"You want to?" I asked.
He nodded emphatically.
"I've been thinking about it for a while now," he said, "Getting to know Yura and Vladik again just confirmed it."
"I don't know," I said, with deep misgivings, "It's a lot of work and emotionally very demanding."
"But worth it," he said, with utter conviction in his voice.
I looked at him sitting across from me on the sofa and I was suddenly full of admiration for this young man. It struck me that he was at about the same age I was when John decided to set up Boyscape all those years ago. In fact, the age difference between us was almost exactly the same as that between John and I. Coupled with the fact that I saw a lot of myself in Anton, as well as many things that reminded me of John, the similarities and parallels were uncanny.
"Maybe," I said, not willing to commit myself at this stage, "Let's see how things work out with Yura and Vladik and then we'll talk about it some more."
He didn't reply. He watched me for a moment, then probably decided that was as much as I was prepared to concede at this stage. But he knew he had definitely done enough to sow the seeds of the idea in my mind. He seemed satisfied with that.
We carried on chatting idly for the rest of the evening. It was good talking to Anton. He sat there on the big sofa, giggling flatteringly at my little witticisms, and sipping his wine very slowly, smiling and nodding and cocking his head with interest. I talked a lot more than he did. I chatted away and probably drank more wine than he did. I didn't usually drink wine. It went straight to my head. It got late. By then I was tipsy and drowsy. Anton agreed to stay the night and before I knew it, he was putting me to bed. What a wonderful friend he was. The last thing I remember was Anton turning out the light and walking out. And as he closed the bedroom door behind him, I wondered just how it had come to be that on this, one of the lowest nights of my life, this wonderful young man had appeared unbidden, bearing a token of companionship to share with me, to cheer me up and save me from my loneliness. I closed my eyes and snuggled under the comforter totally in awe of this boy. I had the utmost respect and affection for this wonderful young man, and I felt the stirrings of something deep and profound towards him.
The very next day Yura arrived back from Saint Petersburg. It was late when his flight landed. I couldn't understand why the flights from Moscow always landed early in the morning, but from Saint Petersburg they were always late at night. My unit had sent a car to collect Yura and Elena from the airport. It seemed that even my role as a chauffeur had been usurped. The car brought Yura back to the house, then took Elena home. By the time he arrived from the airport it was getting so late that there was no time to do anything with Yura other than feed him and get him to bed.
We sat by the central island in the kitchen and I watched Yura eagerly shoveling big spoonfuls of steaming tomato soup into his mouth, holding his spoon in a little fist in that inimitable way that children have. As he did so, he was yammering away eagerly. Yura was hyper and excitable after returning from his trip, and I knew it was going to be a challenge to calm him down.
"It's wonderful Mark!" he enthused, "The best news ever!"
"We're going to be brothers!" he announced.
I frowned. I didn't know what he was talking about.
"My dad is going to adopt Vladik!" he proclaimed, happily.
He nodded, bobbing his head rapidly and widening his eyes in sheer euphoria at the news, his announcement interrupted by another big spoonful of soup. He swallowed it, then he blurted out an almost incomprehensible effusion of words in one breath that came out so fast they nearly merged into each other.
"I told my dad all about Vladik because Vladik's got nowhere to go and we've been friends since we were six years old and I don't want Vladik to be all alone and he said it wasn't fair so he's going to adopt Vladik and we're going to be brothers and be together forever!"
I blinked, almost taken aback by his barrage of words, but also assimilating the meaning of what he had just postulated.
Yura nodded enthusiastically once again.
"Isn't it wonderful?"
"Of course," I said, a little overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all.
"Can I phone Vladik and tell him? Please Mark huh?"
I looked at my watch. It was gone eleven.
"No," I said, "It's late. He'll be asleep."
Yura was disappointed.
"Oh Mark, I want to talk to him!"
"Not now," I reiterated, "Phone him in the morning."
Yura was crestfallen, but to my relief he didn't insist. Reluctantly, he seemed to accept it. Then, almost immediately he brightened up again, apparently with something else he had just remembered to tell me.
"Oh, guess what?"
"I've got a new name!" said Yura.
"How come?" I asked him.
"My dad asked me what I would like to be called by my new family," Yura explained, "And I decided to have a new name."
He seemed very resolute. Not a hint of doubt or hesitation.
"So from now on I want to be called Ivan," he said.
"Yes. I want to forget about my old life. I want to start again, with a new name and a new family."
What a brave and mature statement.
"Goodbye Yura," he said, prophetically.
"Hello Ivan," I said, with a dip of my chin, acknowledging his new identity, and admiring the way he was so positive and optimistic about it.
For my part, I was sorry he had decided to adopt his alias. Of course, his reasoning was sound, but I couldn't help thinking that in discarding his old name, he was also discarding the persona of the boy I had grown to love. It was as though the boy I loved had now somehow transmogrified into this new boy. No longer the damaged, dejected and needy boy who had cried in my arms the first night he arrived, and who suffered from nightmares and wet the bed. That boy was no more. Now he was Ivan, the boy who had overcome his adversities and was reborn as a confident, well-adjusted and happy boy, the boy who was no longer a victim but was in control of his own destiny; a boy who was no longer forgotten and abandoned, but who was now valued and loved and was someone else's brother and son.
"So I take it the trip was a success?" I said.
He nodded vigorously with a satisfied smile.
"We're all going to live together and it's going to be wonderful," he concluded.
It seemed that wonderful was his favorite superlative this evening.
"Is it what you really want?" I asked him, with a serious tone, "Tell me the truth little buddy. Do you want to go and live with your new family?"
He looked at me with a regretful, almost apologetic expression. Suddenly, his little boy exuberance dissolved. His childish yammering relented and he appeared to take on a more thoughtful, more mature demeanor.
"Mark? Don't be angry with me..."
"I'm not angry little buddy. I only want you to be happy. Tell me honestly. Do you want to go and live with them?"
He sighed regretfully and nodded his head slowly, biting his lip.
"Yes," he said, "It's what I've always wanted."
"I think that's what your dad wants too," I replied.
He smiled, almost relieved that I was not bitter and was able to accept his wishes without rancor. He was grateful for that. But then another, deeper thought seemed to strike him, and he looked puzzled for a moment.
"But what will happen to you?" he asked, looking up.
"I'll be okay," I said with a reassuring laugh, "I'll find some other boy who needs looking after."
He smiled and let out a little giggle. But no sooner had the words left my mouth, I could hardly stop myself from tearing up a little. For the first time I actually elicited a little tear and let myself cry in front of him. He saw that and put down his spoon, smearing tomato soup all over the counter, and he got up. He came over to where I was sat on my stool and leaned in between my knees. He put his arms around me comfortingly, laying his head against my chest. It was a tender and well-meaning gesture. He seemed to understand that these momentous and decisive events meant that our time together was soon coming to an end.
Despite his revelation, it was good to feel Yura in my arms again. He was warm and substantial in my embrace, and I was glad to have him back safely. But even as I held him there, his beautiful head pressed against my chest, I knew that something had changed. There was something different about Yura - something in his spirit, his demeanor that was not the same. It was something very subtle, almost subliminal, but it was definitely there.
For his part, after visiting his father, Yura was so full of anticipation of his new life that he was yammering away almost incessantly. I sat and watched him whilst he finished the remainder of his soup. He was still overawed from his trip to Saint Petersburg. He was chattering away all the time he was getting ready for bed. I didn't usually help him get ready, but tonight I wanted to. I felt I should. I was not only pleased to have him back, but he was also distracted and I had to prompt him on what to do. So, while I was busy taking care of what needed to be done, he was absently talking away in wonderment at the exhaustively exciting trip he had just returned from. He talked about his dad's big house which had a big yard and how he rode his new bike all over the lawn, the bike his dad had bought him as a belated birthday gift. He talked about his 'new brother' Nikita, and told me how funny he was, and how much fun they had playing video games together, how they had swum in the pool and shot basketball hoops on the back porch. Then he told me about his 'new mom' Natalya, who had made boortsog for them, apparently a type of deep fried Mongolian sweet. And as he was talking, I listened and humored him, gave him a few encouraging and positive murmurs of approval, and let him yammer away. At the same time I toweled off his hair after his shower, and held his pajama bottoms out for him to step into, and I nodded positively as he carried on talking, intermittently taking the odd sip of his hot chocolate. When he was dry and warmed by the milky drink, I rolled back the bedclothes for him to get into bed. Finally he was under the comforter, snuggled up with only his head above the covers, and he was quiet. I tousled his thick black hair and gave him a reassuring grin. He closed his eyes ready for sleep, with a contented smile on his face, and I knew he was going to go to sleep dreaming about his new life. Meanwhile, I bade him goodnight, turned out the light and gently closed the door.
I slipped forlornly down to the drawing room and sat down on the sofa alone, thinking about the changes I detected in Yura. The primary focus in his life had shifted. He had new distractions now. His new life was what he had always wanted. And the most difficult thing to have to come to terms with was that I knew it was right. It was right for him. His new life had no role for me in it. There was nothing more I could contribute. Other people would take care of him now. I had listened to him talking about them all evening. They represented his future. I knew that I had already started to lose him, and there was nothing I could do about it. I thought about how Yura's new life was now such a reality for him, that it felt almost like he no longer cared for me. That was when I finally worked out what it was that was different about him. The childish affection he once had for me, was starting to wane. The innocent love light which used to shine so brightly in those beautiful cobalt eyes of his, had now dimmed. He had changed beyond redress. That was when I huddled up on the sofa. I drew my legs up as tightly as I could and lowered my head to my knees, as though trying to shield myself from the awful truth. Secretly and painfully, I knew that our little liaison had already entered its endgame and that these were now the last precious days we would ever spend together.