Growing up, being a member of the Orange Order didn’t seem like that big a thing. It was just what you did. My Dad was a member, my older brother was a member, my Uncle Ian was a member. It was just a laugh, a march with your friends and relations, bands, music, flags.
That all changed the summer I hit eighteen.
There were three of us in my circle of friends. I kinda saw us as the ‘Three Amigos’, with me being the Steve Martin type character. I saw everything as a laugh. Sammy was a big, loud and extroverted farmer’s son. He had a big heart even if he occasionally only opened his mouth to change feet. Billy, on the other hand, was the quiet one, the thinker of our group. Billy wanted to go to Art School but his Dad was set against it.
One evening, after band practice, as we packed away the drums, two girls from our school wandered into the hall. Heather was a cute little blonde with a turned-up nose and ice blue eyes while her friend Elizabeth was taller and, without wanting to sound harsh, a bit plain but she was a good laugh. The two girls were like a double act.
“What are youse doing?” Heather asked, more as a way of breaking the ice than a serious question, given that we had drum cases open and drums half loaded inside.
“Robbing a bank, what does it look like?” Sammy responded, his eyes sparkling as he checked Heather out.
I noticed Elizabeth staring at Billy, who immediately turned red. It was impressive, even the tips of his ears glowed as he fumbled over the clasps, desperately trying to avoid eye contact.
“Alright, Andy?” Heather inquired, turning her attention to me.
“Aye, I’m grand.” I smiled at Heather. We’d known each other for years. Our mams were best friends and she was more like my sister than my real sister who liked to pretend I was adopted.
“You know the fair’s coming next week. They’ve got a new ride.”
“Is that right?” I knew what was coming. I could see both Billy and Elizabeth standing awkwardly, trying not to look at each other as their friends tried to arrange a date without it looking like a date.
“Aye, maybe we’ll see you on it. I heard it’s wile scary.” Heather finished, one eyebrow raised conspiratorially.
“Come on, Liz, let’s go.” And with that, the two girls headed off.
Nothing was said as the three of us wandered up the road. The early summer sun was just beginning to disappear behind the trees as we said goodbye and watched Sammy heading up the lane to his house.
“I don’t fancy Elizabeth,” Billy stated as soon as we were alone.
I turned and looked at him. “You don’t ever fancy anyone, Billy.”
He blushed again.
“I do,” he stammered, “just.. “ he trailed off and stared at the ground. His trainer kicking a stone into the ditch.
“I’d better go,” he announced and turned and ran off up the road to his house.
I walked into the Orange lodge the next Thursday evening and heard a banging coming from the instrument storeroom. Suddenly the door opened and the Lodge Gand Master, Mr Wilson came out looking a bit flushed and rearranging his belt. He saw me and blushed.
“Ah Andy, good to see you. Was just checking the drums with Billy there. Want everything ready for the parade, don’t we?”
I nodded and walked into the storeroom. Billy was standing, leaning his head back against the wall. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve when he saw me.
“You OK?” I whispered. He nodded and turned and picked up the Lambeg drum case and carried it out into the room.
That night, as we walked home, I decided to ask him.
“What was that with you and Mr Wilson?”
“It was nothing, Andy. Leave it.”
“It didn’t look like nothing.”
“Andy, seriously, just fuck off and leave me alone.”
He turned and ran. I just stood there, dumbfounded.
I called round to his house the next afternoon. His mam just rolled her eyes and nodded her head to indicate Billy was upstairs and to go on up.
I opened the bedroom door and saw Billy packing some of his favourite possessions into a faded green army kit bag. He glanced up as I entered but carried on sorting through his books.
“Where are you going?” I asked as my brain tried to comprehend what was going on. “Are you leaving without even saying anything?”
“I was going to say goodbye,” he muttered as he picked up a battered paperback.
“The Metamorphosis of Mr Samsa, do you want to read it? It sums up this place.”
I shook my head and watched as he slid it into the bag.
“I’m going to London. I can’t stay here. This place, it’s stifling me.”
He dropped his hands to his sides and finally looked at me.
“I can’t live here, I can’t be who I am here. I can’t be with who I want to be here.”
“What? You want to be with Mr Wilson?” I asked incredulously.
“No.” He stammered and went red. “That's not what I want."
“Well I was a bit surprised about you and Wilson yesterday. I never realised.”
I stared at the boy I’d known my whole life and felt something stirring inside me. Without thinking, my body took over, I stepped across the room as if I was stepping across the Rubicon. I took Billy’s face in my hands and kissed him.
It was the first time I’d ever kissed a boy. My fingers caressed his cheeks, feeling the stubble as our mouths opened and our tongues swirled, entwined together, fighting.
I broke the kiss and stepped back, my chest heaving, emotions flooding my senses, my heart palpitating. I gazed into his eyes. His pupils were large, dilated and it was like drowning in two black pools.
This time, he took the lead. His hand wrapped around my head, feeling my short bristly blond fuzz as he pushed my face to his. We kissed again, our mouths moving in unison as I felt myself harden, pressed against his thigh.
A creak on the stair forced us quickly apart and I took two steps back and ran my hand over my mouth just in time as the door opened and his wee sister Julia came in.
“Mam wants to know if you are staying for tea, Andy?” she asked as she looked around Billy’s room.
“Can I’ve your room when you go. When are you going anyway? Are you still going to be here for the 12th?”
Billy stood, staring at her. “Eh, I dunno.” He looked at me. “Do you want to stay for tea?”
I felt flustered, I wanted to talk to Billy but not here.
“Naw, I’d better be getting home. Dad will be looking for a hand with the evening milking and he’ll be giving out hell if I’m not there.”
“Talk to you later, yeah?” My eyes implored Billy to agree and he nodded.
Everyone seemed slower than ever that evening putting away the drums. I’d kept stealing surreptitious glances at Billy whilst we beat out the rhythm as the flutes played ‘The Sash’. He would glance over, catch my eye and grin.
Finally, there was just the two of us left. After we heaved the big Lambeg drum up onto the shelf, we turned and faced each other. Within seconds we were in each other’s arms and kissing. It felt so good I wondered why I'd waited so long.
“You dirty wee feckers!”
We stopped and turned. Standing watching us were Mr Wilson and two other men. We’d forgotten they were in the room next door planning next week’s march.
“So, we’ve got a couple of fucking shirt lifters, have we, boys? I don’t think we care much for that in the Order, do we?”
“No, Mervyn, you’re right there.”
The men looked red and angry as they approached us. We backed against the wall. I glanced at Billy. He was pale, his fists clenched.
“And what would you two wee fuckers be up to?” Wilson’s face was distorted, snarling as he approached. I knew he’d deny what he’d been up to with Billy but the hypocrisy stank. I had a bad feeling about this. Billy felt the same. We quickly glanced at each other and as he nodded, we charged the men, hoping for the element of surprise.
Billy burst through, knocking Luther Lennon over as he ducked the grabbing hand and burst through, not looking back as he ran for the door. I wasn’t so lucky. I feigned a dive to the left then skipped to the right but Mr Wilson, despite his age had read the signs and as I ran past, he neatly clipped my ankle with his foot and sent me crashing to the floor.
Billy stopped at the doorway and looked back.
“Get out to fuck, Billy! Run!” I screamed at him as the men reached down and pulled me to my feet.
Luther Lennon and another burly farmer, Angus Donaldson held me tightly as Mr Wilson stood in front of me.
“What would your Grandad say, Andrew? It would break his heart to find out you were a wee fucking queer.”
Wilson shook his head almost sadly before slamming his fist into my guts. My mind went blank as all the breath was expelled from my body. I tried to double over in pain but the other two were holding me up.
“Your Grandad was a pillar of the community, Andrew. You share his name. How can you sullen his memory like this?”
I thought I was prepared for the punch this time but when it came, the pain was even worse. I could feel myself trying to retch as the men held me.
“I want you to promise me something, Andrew.”
He stepped closer now, holding my face up by my hair as he pushed his snarling face into mine. I could see the flecks of spittle flying from his lips as he snarled his order.
“I want you to have nothing to do with that dirty wee fucking queer ever again. Billy Robinson is scum. He should never have been allowed in the lodge.”
He brought his knee up hard into me. I felt my testicles crushed into my pelvis as he slammed his knee between my legs. The other two dropped me and I crashed to the floor, curled up in the foetal position. I tried to scream, tried to say ‘Stop’, but nothing came out. I felt the boots kicking me as they circled around me, hard dull thumps landing everywhere until finally, I heard Wilson say, “That’s enough, lads.”
He crouched down beside me and lifted my head off the floor by my hair.
“Now, Andy, why don’t you run on home before I change my mind about letting you off with a warning, you fucking wee poof.”
With that, the three men turned and walked out of the room, turning the lights off as they left.
I tried to stand but the connections between my brain and my legs didn’t seem to be quite working. I thought I’d just lie there a while and wait and see what happened.
After a while, god knows how long, I heard the door creak open. My heart sank, thinking they were coming back to give me another hiding or had told others about what they had seen.
“Andy, are you there?”
I signed with relief. It was Billy. I heard him come running towards me, dropping to his knees as he reached me.
“Jesus fuck, I thought they were going to kill you. I’m so sorry.”
“Not your fault,” I managed to croak. “They’d have killed you if you’d stayed.”
Slowly, he helped me up and somehow we managed to stumble out of the hall and he half-carried, half-guided me down the road.
He took me to his house as it was closer. We managed to sneak into his room without his Mam spotting us. I sat on his bed while he disappeared and came back with a first-aid kit.
As he carefully, tenderly cleaned me up, we talked.
“You can see why I can’t stay here can’t you?” he asked as I winched in pain as he swabbed disinfectant on my cuts. I nodded.
“How long have you and Wilson been doing…” I paused.
“Sucking his cock? About two months.”
I felt my blood boiling.
“That fucker kicked the shit out of me for kissing you while all this time he’s been getting you to give him blowjobs. JESUS FUCK!” I howled as he swabbed a particularly tender spot.
“Yeah, nothing says ‘you fucking hypocrite’ quite like that,” Billy giggled.
“I’d better get home,” I groaned as I slowly got to my feet.
“Be careful,” Billy cautioned me.
“You too,” I replied.
“Talk tomorrow, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
As I lay in bed the next morning, scared to move as I knew the pain would be worse, I thought about Billy and Mervyn Wilson. Billy was leaving and I could see why. I didn't want to stay either. But I didn't want to slink off in the night and Wilson shouldn't get away with what he'd done.
I always thought there was a twisted irony in orange being the colour of healing and friendship in the rainbow flag. We were taught at school about LGBTQ rights but here, in this God-forsaken wee country, orange was the colour of bigotry and sectarianism.
And then it came to me... Orange Pride.
I slowly crawled out of bed and got dressed, trying not to look at the bruises as I pulled on my top. I swallowed a couple of Neurofen and slowly made my way into the kitchen.
My mam was washing the breakfast dishes. I decided to get it all over with in one go, kinda like ripping a plaster off.
"I'm going to go to London for the summer. Billy is heading over and I thought I'd go with him."
"Is that right. Thick as thieves you two."
I swallowed and stepped closer, this was it.
"There's something else." I hesitated.
"Aye, well there usually is." My mam was looking at the sink, avoiding eye contact.
"I think I'm gay."
The rush as I said it made me feel lightheaded. I waited for a reaction.
She stared into the sink for what seemed like an eternity.
"Well, I suppose London's as good a place as any to be gay."
She turned and smiled at me before wrapping her soap bubble covered hands around me.
"Best not tell your father just yet." She patted my back. "I'm sure he'll find out soon enough."
The thought of Wilson and the others telling him sent a shiver through me.
“When are you going?”
“After the 12th. I’d like to stay for one last parade.”
“Fair enough.” She released me and turned to finish washing the dishes.
"Well, I'd better go pack." I sidled my way out of the room. I needed to talk to Billy fast.
“You can not be serious. They’ll fucking kill you, they’ll kill us.”
Needless to say, Billy wasn’t overly enamoured with my plan.
“They won’t, there’ll be too many people there.”
“You’re nuts, you know that?” Billy allowed a smile to tentatively cross his face.
I grinned, knowing he would do it.
“We’ll need help though. That’s a lot of sewing.”
“No problem, I know just who to ask.” I slipped out the door and headed to Heather’s house.
Thankfully she was in when I called.
“I’ve something to ask you and something to tell you,” I took a deep breath, it felt easier doing it the second time.
“No shit, Sherlock. Like you’ve only worked that out?” Her grinning face confused me.
“What do you mean?”
“Andy, I’ve always known you were gay. I was just waiting for you to realise it.”
She wrapped her arms around me and hugged me, a deep caring sisterly hug.
“Is it you and Billy?” she whispered in my ear.
“Ah, for fucks sake, I suppose you always knew he was gay too?”
“Not knew, but suspected. Poor Liz will be devastated but she’ll get over it.” She paused for breath. “Anyway, what is the thing you have to ask me?”
I sat there and told her everything, from Wilson coming out of the storeroom with Billy to us kissing and the kicking I received. I lifted my shirt to show her the bruises. Her face was pale and she sat, silent as I finished.
“So, we need your help with a bit of sewing. You up for it?”
“Too fucking right I’m up for it. I’ll be round to Billy’s at eight o’clock tonight. See you then.”
She gave me one last hug at the door. “Thanks for telling me.”
By 10 o’clock on the 11th night, we were ready.
The bonfire was burning merrily outside and no one was looking in our direction. We fastened our tightly furled banner across the spar of the banner for the 112th Loyal Orange Lodge. If things went to plan, Killy Billy would be getting a makeover.
“Are you sure they’ll let you carry the banner after what happened?” Heather asked as we crept into the Lodge.
“Even if they don’t, we only need to reach up and tug the rope. It just means we have to hope no one notices.”
Next morning, I hugged my mother goodbye. I’d told her that I was leaving for London that afternoon and my bag was already stowed in the boot of Heather’s Volkswagen Polo. I looked at my father, carefully brushing an imaginary piece of dust from his bowler hat. His orange sash already draped around his neck.
“I’ll explain to him later,” my mam whispered to me. “No point in spoiling his day.”
I couldn’t help grinning at the thought that he’d know soon enough.
I stood in the line with Billy beside me. Wilson hadn’t raised any objections when I stood holding one pole that supported the banner. The slash of orange around my neck making me indistinguishable from the hordes of other Orangemen around me. Billy moved around and told Derek Andrews, the man holding the other pole that there’d been a change of plan and Billy was to hold the pole. Derek wasn’t the brightest and merely grunted and handed Billy the pole.
As the drums beat out the time, we began our march to celebrate the victory of a Dutch king over a Scottish king on Irish soil over 300 years ago. The fact the Dutch protestant King had been sent by the Pope to defeat the Catholic Scottish King was an irony lost on most of those around me. As the fife and drums played and we marched down the road, I glanced at Billy and nodded.
With a tug of the rope, our homemade banner fluttered down in front of the crowds of onlookers and the BBC TV cameras. The rest of the Orangemen marching couldn’t see our banner and the shouts, cheers and jeers from the onlookers didn’t cause them any concern.
I glanced up to admire our slogan hand-stitched over the rainbow flag
“Some Orangemen are gay.. Get over it... Even Mervyn Wilson!”
I grinned at Billy as we marched along. We pulled our new rainbow sashes from our jacket pockets and draped them over our Orange sashes. As we passed the news cameras, we both gave a thumbs-up sign and leant together and kissed.
It was at this point that the other marchers around us noticed something was up so we quickly handed the poles to the men beside us and ducked out of the parade and pushed our way through the crowd.
Heather was waiting for us, parked around the corner. We dived into the car and Heather gunned the accelerator and we were off, heading for the airport.
There’s an old saying “May you be in heaven twenty minutes before the devil knows you’re dead.” In our case, the plan was to be in the air and on our way to London before the angry mob caught up with us.
As the plane gained altitude and I glanced out the window, staring down at Lough Neagh and the Glens of Antrim, not knowing if I’d ever be back, I felt Billy’s fingers gripping my hand and I turned to look at him.
“None,” I whispered back as I leant in to kiss him.
It was only after we landed in London and saw our kiss and protest banner on the evening news that we realised our protest might have got a bit more notice than we intended.
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with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.