Chapter 17 by Kizzykat

With the first approach of dawn after the blackness of the night, the charioteer lifts the reins and, at the well-remembered hand of command, the white horse and the black lift their heads as one. They shadow each other as they stretch forth their legs in step, forgetful of the past as the wheels of the chariot turn slowly in the dust. Dawn rustles past them as the charioteer urges their pace and their ears prick at the remembered voice of mastery. The iron-shod wheels spin in the first rays of the sun and, refreshed, the horses feel their strength and run.

"Why?" Ralph said, his eyes narrowed as though he were scanning the distant horizon for an enemy warship. "Why should you?"

Laurie said the first thing that came in to his head, believing it, and that Ralph deserved some declaration of intent from him. In the throes of remorse, he felt he owed it to Ralph.

"Because I cannot live without you."

The words echoed in Laurie's head and he cringed inwardly at the romanticism that had escaped from him without thought. He had cut too near the bone with such a declaration. It was not love but death, and the end of the road with Andrew, which were foremost in his mind. He would throw anything in Ralph's path to stop him disappearing down that dark road of death, even himself.

Ralph did not answer at once, and Laurie thought in panic, he despises me. He associates such statements with eye-shadow and pink bracelets, and the cheap theatrics of Sandy's brand of romanticism. But Ralph's eyes had widened and he continued to stare at Laurie as if from a great distance. A metallic sheen grew in his eyes as if he were staring unblinking into the wind.

"How did you guess?" he said, his voice hoarse. He blinked, and the firelight was refracted in the tears in his light blue eyes that he refused to acknowledge.

"Guess what?" Laurie said wildly. His numbed brain was too tired to take the initiative, and incoherently he thought Ralph must have guessed that he had read the letter on the desk.

"Never mind," Ralph said, turning away. Stepping to the writing desk, he laid the strip of postage stamps he was holding parallel to the letters lying there. Laurie was left with the indefinable sense that he had missed an opportunity for unambiguous communion.

With something approaching his usual brisk manner, Ralph turned back to Laurie as he stood beside the fireplace. "Are you staying?" It was more of a demand than a question.

"Yes." Laurie responded automatically to the note of command in Ralph's voice. "That is, if you will have me." He was unaware of it, but his tiredness had stripped him of all pretence and he stood defencelessly before the fire, the glow catching the copper tones in his hair and creating the illusion of a metal helmet. His emotions, compassion and anxiety, remorse and fear, stood naked and vulnerable on his face as though he were facing the end of the world.

Yet his only intent was to reclaim Ralph, to protect him from himself and his untimely sense of honour. "I said some dreadful things, Ralph. Can you forgive me?"

"Spud," Ralph said. He seemed to be having difficulty in controlling his voice, yet he stood, ramrod straight beside the writing desk. "Spud, there is nothing to forgive. You were right in everything you said, more right than you can possibly know. I might as well have gone to the boy and thrown the whole damned mess in his face. You have every right to loathe me, and the sort of people I've associated with. I've let you down very badly."

"No," Laurie began, moving a little closer to Ralph in anxiety, half-raising a hand but without touching Ralph. He felt a door was closing in Ralph somehow. It was his punishment; he was being shut out, not in unforgiveness, but in the confused sense of someone retreating to examine their pain in private.

"Spud, what if I didn't want you to come back? Not," he added hastily, as if correcting a mistaken assumption, "that I hold anything against you. But if it were for the best? If it were the only way to wipe the slate clean and start again, for both of us? If I were to let you go, you could hold onto your ideals and find someone without a past. Someone with the integrity to make a decent life together, where you wouldn't constantly be looking over your shoulder for a past indiscretion to show up."

"Ralph," Laurie said, a spark of anger igniting within him, "what on earth do you take me for? The honeymoon's done, so now you will just throw me over?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Spud. I'm not good enough for you. You will never really forgive me, never mind what you may say. A part of you will always see me as another Bunny or Bim. Hold on to your ideals, Spud, and let me go."

"So that's your answer, is it?" Anger flared in Laurie as he took a stiff step towards Ralph. "I had thought better of you, Ralph, but you're just going to give up without a fight, tell me to walk out that door, and end it all?"

"What do you mean?" Ralph's head came up, his chin squaring as if for a fight, the bruise on his cheek standing out lividly against the paleness of his face.

"I smelt the gun oil, Ralph!" Laurie waved his hand towards the wastepaper basket. Anger and frustration had made him reckless: he had rather naively expected Ralph to welcome him back and no more words to be necessary. In his tiredness he wanted an end to this and some peace and reconciliation. He would think about the ramifications later; all he wanted was Ralph safe.

Yet Ralph's face was shuttered in affront. "I have been cleaning my service revolver. I had nothing better to do."

"Don't lie to me, Ralph! I …" Laurie stopped, he had been about to incriminate himself by saying he had read the letter. "I know you, Ralph," he said, lowering his voice. "I know what you are capable of. I know you are capable of absolutes, of seeing the world in black and white, and of acting in the certainty of being right. But it is a coward's way out. Don't you see that? It says there is no hope for redemption, no second chance, no power of forgiveness."

His face still stony, shutting Laurie out without any egress for his own remorse, Ralph said, "Are you getting religious on me, Spud? What about your own double-dealing? You have been living a lie, leading me on while still harbouring fantasies of leading a Platonic life of spiritual love with that boy. And now he has found out the facts of life, you should wash your hands of me, forget my sordid pleasures ever existed. You had made up your mind to it once before, and I persuaded you out of it. You should have listened to yourself, Spud, but you were too generous. I took that for love, but perhaps it was just weakness. Or what I wanted."

Laurie felt as if he had been hit in the stomach. Though Ralph's words had an undertone of accusation, he spoke them in a flat, factual way as if stating the irrefutably obvious. He was right: Laurie had undeniably muddled the pleasures and needs of physical love with the pure love of the soul. He had sought the rewards of love without being willing to abandon the higher planes of unselfish love that sought no recompense, only the benefit of the beloved. Now he was suffering the pangs of guilt for abandoning his ideals and, to some degree, was attempting to shift the blame onto Ralph.

"Ralph, I knew what I was doing," he said, slowly, carefully. "And so did you. You deliberately seduced me, even though you knew my heart was engaged elsewhere. You played upon my foolish ideals: and you knew what I wanted. I don't blame you in the slightest for that. You have proven to me that we are two of a kind: neither of us is perfect, however much we want to be. Of how many of your friends can you say that? We belong together, Ralph."

Ralph looked remote, untouchable, and for a moment Laurie thought he would simply throw him out. There was something steely and unbending in him and, Laurie feared, unyielding as if he had crossed a line from which there was no retreat.

"You're being kind, Spud," he said coldly. "Too kind, in fact. You've let me walk all over you. But that is my biggest fault. It always has been, and I see it now. I will never change, and I do not like myself for that fact."

"Ralph, for God's sake, I love you."

Ralph, whose head had dropped almost as if in defeat, came up again. His stared unflinchingly at Laurie, his chin jutting as if angry, his face hard, impassive as if made of marble, as it once had been on a moonlit night. There had been a small death that night, and Laurie felt he stood on the brink of a greater one.

Ralph's voice was hard and distant. "If you love me, you will let me do this. You will let me expunge the guilt and the grime. Wipe out the pollution and the dishonour."

"Ralph! You are not some ancient Roman falling on your sword!"

"It is a question of honour, Spud. I have besmirched my own honour, and I cannot live with that failure. But I don't expect you to understand that. It is far too pagan a notion for your new-found religious scruples."

"Oh, don't be so melodramatic!" Laurie cried in utter exasperation. "What, you expected me to take my own life after finding you dead? Oh, that would make a wonderful newspaper headline! Hysterical queers blow their brains out after lovers' tiff!"

"For God's sake, Spud! Lower your voice!" Ralph stared at him as if the gunshot were echoing around the room, his eyes blazing with pinpoints of anger, for an instant the commanding officer who could make ratings' knees turn to water.

Baffled, Laurie stared back at Ralph. He turned away and sat in the armchair by the fire, his elbows on his knees as he raked his hands through his hair. "I'm sorry," he said, although without any contrition, his voice muffled. "But that's the way it is. Your grand gesture is no different from Sandy's antics, Ralph, and that's the way most people would see it." Laurie did not realise it, but he was physically very tired, and mentally close to exhaustion. It stripped away the remnants of civility and made him cruel. "It's nothing more than a child screaming because it can't have it's own way."

He heard the frozen silence in the room, and held his breath, waiting for an explosion, or Ralph to tell him to get out and never come back. Then he heard Ralph move. He was in such a state of mental confusion that he was vaguely surprised to find Ralph had walked to the fireplace and not away from him. Ralph stood in front of the fire and Laurie found himself staring down at Ralph's black shoes, so highly polished that he could see the distorted reflection of Ralph's face and fair hair flickering in the light from the flames.

"Well," Ralph said after a moment. His voice struggled after its usual efficient tone, but it failed to reach those peaks of self-mastery and it crumbled. "You don't have a very high opinion of me, Spud, do you?"

"Ralph," Laurie began helplessly, looking up at him, his hair tousled from his fingers' action.

Ralph, staring straight ahead, did not return his look but, raising his good hand, he began picking at the edge of the high mantelpiece with his thumbnail. "An overgrown child, in fact. No doubt you're right."

A spurt of resentment ignited in Laurie. "Then we're about on a par, aren't we? You still see me as a gauche fifth-former, Ralph."

Startled, Ralph looked down at Laurie over his navy serge-clad shoulder. Some of the fog of pain and confusion seemed to have cleared from his eyes. He was not a man given overly much to introspection, Laurie knew. His intelligence gave him a fairly clear view of his own opinions, but his pride tended to cloud his view of his motives. Yet once revealed to him, his honesty generally did not let him ignore them. He was in essence a straightforward soul, without any half-measures that allowed for subterfuge.

"Have we both," he said, "been guilty of seeing what we wanted to see in each other, Spud?"

Laurie looked up at him, Ralph's voice washing him free of anger or resentment, his hurt and confusion feeling the first touches of balm. "Isn't that what love is about?" he asked gently.

"Spud," Ralph said quietly. He knelt down in front of Laurie. "What fools we are. I should be welcoming you with open arms, and here we are bickering like a pair of old women."

"Can you forgive me?"

"What's to forgive? A few home truths never hurt anyone. The question is, can you ever forgive me for ruining your life?"

Something like a smile touched Laurie's face. "There you go, overstating the case again."

In a rare moment of self-deprecation, Ralph gave a half-smile. "Well, you know what we queers are like: hysteria's our middle name." He reached out a hand, resting it on the arm of the chair, bringing himself closer to Laurie.

Laurie smiled back at him. Tenderness filled his heart. When we are close to losing something we cherish, to have it returned to us brings a deep gratitude and an accompanying nostalgia for the happy memories it brings. So Laurie felt now and it made him generous, forgetful of the pain of loss.

"Spud," Ralph said softly after a long moment. "You look terrible. Can you stay? How long have we got?"

"All night," Laurie said. He felt light and brittle with relief and he could hear the edge in his voice. "Alec fixed it. Apparently I have a widowed sister who's been taken seriously ill."

Ralph's eyes narrowed slightly. "Did he? I shall have to thank him next time I see him."

Laurie's defences were down, to the extent that truths tend to creep out, as if their present honesty meant no holds were barred. "He still cares for you."

"Does he?" Ralph said, non-committally as though he did not want to continue the subject.

"Did you leave him, or did he leave you?" Laurie suddenly wanted to hear that it had been Ralph who had walked away, that Alec hadn't measured up.

"It was more of a mutual agreement," Ralph said, but then in a deepening of honesty, he added, "but he was the one to make the final break."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."

"It's alright. You see, I'm not usually the one to let go. Perhaps I don't know when to. I'm not very good at relationships, and probably an even worse judge of character."

Pity stirred in Laurie's heart. "Ralph, I've been in love with you for years. Ever since I was an over-awed first-year and you were a veritable god in the upper school."

Ralph almost smiled. "Part of you is still that innocent schoolboy, Spud. It's part of your attraction. With you I feel like I can wash away the last seven years and begin again."

A little flicker of worry washed through Laurie. He thought of Hazell, and wondered if there had been any other boys. He suddenly suspected that there had been.

"Are you on duty tonight?" he asked casually.

"No. Nor tomorrow, so we have a whole night and day. That is, if you have nothing else planned?" A small twinge of anxiety passed over Ralph's face, as if he had presumed too much.

"No, nothing. The landlady didn't hear me, did she?"

"I doubt it," Ralph said, a slight eagerness entering his voice at something needing resolving which was within his grasp. "She has the wireless up quite loud, but I'll just run down and shut the front door so that if she heard anything, she'll think you've gone."

He stood up, turned and took a compact step away, then hesitated. He turned and laid his hand on Laurie's shoulder. "Spud," he said, his straight brows contracting. "Are you sure?"

Laurie laid his hand over Ralph's and tightened his grasp on it reassuringly. "Silly," he said affectionately. "I'm here, aren't I?"

Ralph smiled, but the smile did not quite disperse the misgiving in his eyes, as if he feared Laurie was not being totally honest with himself. He said no more though, but turned his hand within Laurie's and returned the pressure. He disengaged his fingers and a moment later Laurie heard his footsteps on the landing receding through the closed door.

To his shame, Laurie was overwhelmed with relief. He lowered his head and with a hand that shook slightly, ran his fingers through his hair to smooth it. He did not remove his hand, but sat there with bent head in the firelight, trying to gather himself together. He had not realised he had been under such strain in dealing with Ralph. He knew it was nonsense to imagine such a scenario, but he felt he had been grappling with Ralph for possession of the invisible gun.

Like a runner gaining his second wind, Laurie raised his head. He did not know where Ralph's gun was, and he could not in all conscience leave him alone and spend the night fearing the worst. He had an obligation here, and if it meant the giving and receiving of love in charity, he could not live with himself without doing it. Tomorrow was another day and regrets, if any, could come later.

Hearing Ralph's soft step at the door, he straightened and was able to greet him with a smile. "All clear?" he whispered.

Ralph came across the room. "Yes. I think she might have been listening though, so I made a bit of noise with the door." His gaze softened as he looked down at Laurie. "Spud, I don't deserve you. You are too good to me."

"Nonsense. We get what we deserve, and we both know this is what we have wanted for years. Ever since that day at school."

"You will make something of me yet, Spud," Ralph said quietly. He extended his hand and pulled Laurie to his feet. "You look exhausted. Let's get you to bed."

Later, Laurie lay on his side, staring over the white expanse of sheet and pillowcase across the darkened room at the fading embers of the fire. His body was tense with a heavy lethargy that all Ralph's ministrations had not been able to dispel, his mind dull and bruised with hurts as yet unknown. He longed for sleep, but his mind was not at peace.

"Regrets?" Ralph asked in a low voice from behind his shoulder. Laurie had known he too was still awake.

"No," he breathed. "You?"

Ralph was silent for long enough that Laurie considered turning round. "I feel I forced your hand tonight, Spud."

Laurie did not have the strength to deal with this again. He stared silently and with an unconsciously rigid shoulder at the coals still burning feebly on the underside, waiting for the blows to rain on his mind. "I can make my own decisions, Ralph."

"I know, Spud," Ralph's voice came quietly out of the darkness, "but let me have my say. I know how you feel, caught in a no-man's land between something you can't have and something anyone can have. You have a compassionate heart, Spud, and I know part of the reason you stayed with me tonight was pity. I'll take that, Spud, if that's all you have left for me, because I don't think I can manage alone anymore. I don't think I can carry on without you."

Laurie had turned his head and was staring over his shoulder at Ralph, not quite able to make out Ralph's expression in the darkened corner of the room as he lay staring up at the ceiling. Respect for Ralph's privacy kept him still and quiet, his breathing hushed in the darkness of the confessional.

"Ever since Dunkirk," Ralph continued in a low steady voice, "I've been feeling pretty down. Ever since." He held up his maimed hand, a grotesque shadow in the darkness. "But, of course, Spud, you know all about that: how it damages one's self-respect, limits one's horizons, and makes one feel less of a man. I was, dreadful as it sounds, happy before Dunkirk. Fulfilled, I suppose, would be a better description. I had a purpose, something bigger than my own petty troubles. I could forget to feel different, feel part of the common tide of humanity with a foe to defeat, a way of life to preserve, not matter how peripheral I was to it.

"At first, once the shock had worn off, I felt totally useless. Being active had become a release for me, a way of maintaining my sanity. Stop me if this is old news to you, Spud, but I suspect that being more of an intellectual than I am, it hasn't hit you so hard. Or perhaps the shock hasn't really hit home yet. Until you showed up, I had seriously begun to wonder what was the point of carrying on."

Ralph turned his head on the pillow, the faint light touching the movement of his eyes as he gazed at Laurie as if seeking his permission to continue.

"Yes," Laurie breathed, moving slowly onto his back.

"Spud, I can't promise I'll be faithful, but I'm yours for the rest of my life – if you'll have me," Ralph said. He sounded so utterly defeated that it took Laurie's breath away. "Faith is a habit," he continued at Laurie's lack of immediate reaction, his voice carrying a half a note of apology, "that I've rather lost over the last few years."

Laurie lay with his shoulder pressed against Ralph's, watching his unseen face in the near darkness, Ralph's fair hair gleaming faintly like white gold. Laurie had a presentiment that he was speaking from beyond the grave and it robbed him of speech. At his continued silence, Ralph, said in a tight voice, "I never lost faith in you, Spud. Teach me to believe in myself again. And then," he paused, drawing a breath, "you can walk away if you wish. Just give me a little of your time."

Laurie drew a deep breath as if steadying himself for the road ahead. "I have lived with the image of you as my ideal of what a lover should be for so long, Ralph, that it would be like throwing a part of myself away if I never saw you again. But," he added quietly, "don't expect too much from me."

A vanquished warrior, Laurie thought, needs time to adjust to being a prisoner, however magnificent the conqueror.

Ralph's eyes moved in the darkness.

"You said it yourself," Laurie said, forestalling Ralph's words. "I'm new to all this. I need time to adjust to being in love, Ralph." The sceptre of Andrew hung unacknowledged in the air between them. To banish it, Laurie said, "It's all happened so quickly, Ralph, I just feel like I need a breathing space."

Ralph moved abruptly and reached blindly in the darkness for his cigarettes and matches on the bedside cabinet. "What a crashing bore you must think me, Spud," he said brusquely. The match flared and showed his face momentarily, the caverns and hollows showing skeletally as, eyes squeezed closed against the glare, he drew feverishly on his cigarette as though it were the only source of comfort in the world. "Here I am, baring my soul to you, asking the earth of you, and you've barely had time to forgive me for ruining everything with that boy."

Laurie had moved onto his shoulder, the better to see Ralph. He slid his hand around Ralph's bicep beneath the covers and squeezed gently. If only, Laurie thought longingly, one could speak from the heart and not end up sounding like a cheap romantic novel of the sort one saw for sale in railway station kiosks.

"My heart is not my own, Ralph," he said very quietly. "When it is, I will give it back to you." Unspoken, he heard himself say – if I can. Love makes liars of us all, he reflected, whether to protect the lover or to protect ourselves.

Ralph raised his left hand and, with his remaining fingertip, wiped at a speck of cigarette ash in the corner of his eye.

"I will be going up to Oxford in a couple of days, anyway," Laurie continued, "and that will give us both time to think. Just so long as I know you're safe."

"Safe? Who's safe in the middle of a war?" Ralph asked, his voice harsh.

Laurie was hurt by Ralph's flippancy and turned onto his back, staring at the darkness that had gathered against the ceiling.

After a moment, Ralph's voice reached him. "Still friends, Spud?"

"Still friends, Ralph."

"Good," Ralph said, his voice so low, Laurie barely heard it. "Even if we don't make it together, Spud, knowing I had a friend like you would make a world of difference. A friend I could depend upon."

Laurie turned his head towards Ralph. "At the very least, Ralph, I hope we can always be friends."

"I'm not a very likeable person, Spud," Ralph said suddenly, his voice rough. "Too many sharp edges. I cut people too much when they come close."

"You're too hard on yourself."

How easy it is, Laurie discovered, to criticise oneself instead of admitting defeat. If one fails to achieve what one wants, it must be one's fault and not that it is unattainable, or that someone else will not give it to you. It argued a certain self-blindness, that Ralph could not recognise the right of another to chose for themselves if it did not coincide with his choice. It must be his fault that he could not persuade them to his choice. Self-knowledge was like reading a book: some people found it too hard, some would give up, and some would receive a shock on turning the page, or be disappointed at the ending.

"Someone has to be hard on me. I'd be the most ridiculous puddle of neuroses if I didn't show a bit of self-discipline."

"Who wouldn't?" Laurie said, hearing tiredness dragging at his voice. He slid further down into the warmth of the bed.

He could sleep now, he thought, having discovered that loving and liking a person were two very different things. Liking someone was not as easy as loving them. Love was instinct, an attraction of similarities that went to the head like wine and intoxicated the lover. Liking the lover was the daily bread of life, ground from the grist of trivialities, and without it the soul would starve.

"Try and sleep, Spud," Ralph said kindly. "It's been a hard-fought day for both of us."

"Don't call me 'Spud'," Laurie said sleepily, without intending to.

Ralph, his cigarette held in mid-air, the lit end glowing like an evil eye, stilled. "Don't you like it?" he said quietly, looking down in concentration at Laurie.

"No," Laurie said simply. "It's like you're not really seeing me. Call me by my name." He raised his eyes to the dim ghost of Ralph's face.

"Yes," Ralph said quietly. "A fresh start, on equal terms. You have an innocence I would do anything to preserve, even go through hell for, Laurie. Laurie. It's a nice name."

His voice sounded at peace for the first time and, with a smile, Laurie closed his eyes at the prospect of Ralph smoking silently in the darkness, on guard, it seemed, against the mundane aspects of life that could intrude upon them and force them apart.