I did not sleep well, the first night out.
I do not associate ocean travel with adventure, or with excitement; with vacations, or with pleasure trips. I associate ocean voyages with change, and with loss.
Change and loss are themes in my life, actually. They are recurrent themes; they are part of who I am, part of the person I have become.
* * *
When I was four years old, my mother died of an uncontrollable hemorrhage, giving birth to my baby sister Elizabeth.
My baby sister died as well.
I remember the time, at least in part.
I remember the mood of the house, before Mother and Father left for the hospital; a feeling of happiness, and excitement, mixed with — tension, I suppose. I'd been solemnly told that I was to have a new brother, or sister, and that I would have to be responsible, and grown-up, and a protector and role model for the little one … It was one of the first times Father ever spoke to me of responsibility; it was to be far from the last.
Mother was serene, as she kissed me goodbye. Mrs. Kelliher, my nurse, was — fluttery, really; excited, and in constant motion, and prone to hugging me at odd moments, for no apparent reason. I remember she took a great deal of time tucking me into bed that night, talking all the while about having a new baby to look after, of the new crib in the room next to mine …
When Mrs. Kelliher woke me the next morning, her face was swollen, with crying; and however she tried to deliver the news, her voice was so choked with tears, I couldn't understand the words.
But I understood the tears. And, without knowing or comprehending what had happened, I burst into tears, too. Realizing, only, in my four-year-old's way, that something horrible had taken place …
I remember Mother.
Or at least, I think I remember Mother; I remember glimpses of her, flashes, a few, vivid, specific memories of her in a certain green dress that she loved, of her in the garden —
I'm almost a little afraid, of calling up those memories. Memories, I think, can be like photographs, like old documents; they can crease, or fade, with age, and over-handling.
Already, I'm a little unsure, if my memories of her aren't — colored — by other influences. Like the seated portrait of her in the study of our house in Connecticut; or the photograph-albums in our flat in Manhattan, that I've been through far too many times, now —
Or my grandmother; her mother.
Sometimes, when I try to recall Mother's living face, it comes up as a version of Grandmother's; and I worry, that my memories of Mother are fading, are slipping away from me, and the idea fills me with dread …
I have a vivid, vivid memory of Mother's eyes; they were a clear, pale green … unlike Grandmother's, which are a darker blue.
I have green eyes, too.
Apparently I have Mother's eyes; at least, that's what I'm told. 'If you want to see your Mother's eyes, Rhys, dear, just look in the mirror … '
Of course, Mother was more than just an image to me, a memory-portrait; as important as the image is. No; she was so much more.
I remember Mother's love, warm like sunshine, washing over me. Mother loved me; fiercely, unconditionally, fully. That is the single, strongest, most unshakable memory I have of her; and that is a memory which will not fade.
Mother loved me; but she also spent a great deal of time with me; taking me to the park, playing simple games with me, listening to me — I was apparently quite a talker when I was very small; I was told I had the gift of gab, that I'd inherited it from Grandmother's Welsh ancestors —
But most of all, above all else, I remember Mother reading to me.
Mother read to me, every night; every night she was home, at any rate, any night that she could.
I remember those nights, in flashes; in bits and pieces.
Mrs. Kelliher would get me ready for bed, in my pyjamas, and bathrobe, and slippers … and then Mother would come upstairs and we would snuggle together, in the big armchair in the corner of my bedroom, under the electric lamp; and she would open whatever book she had, and she would read to me, her left arm around me, cuddling me …
I remember the warmth of Mother's body against mine. I remember the tone of her voice …
Sometimes they were children's books; but many times they were not. I know she read 'Ivanhoe' to me — and I concocted some odd mental images of what knights-in-armor looked like, then, which still color my mental images, to this day; even though I know perfectly well, that medieval knights did not wear galvanized buckets on their heads, when tilting …
But, Mother was also very fond of the works of Charles Dickens. I'm not sure which ones we read together — but it doesn't really matter, Dickens' novels are always dozens of stories rolled into one, with characters pulling every which way, and I was far too young to understand any of it, then, anyway —
I loved it, when she read Dickens.
Like the author himself doing a public reading, as I realize now, she would perform Dickens; she would put on accents, raise or lower her voice, growl like a dog, or declaim pompously, like the Beadle in 'Oliver Twist'; and I would giggle and laugh, and she would stop to tickle me, and I'd squeal and laugh and squirm, and she'd hug me, and pick up the book again, and I'd snuggle back into her side …
Bedtime was the happiest part of my day.
And, remarkably enough — out of it all, I learned how to read.
Oh, I didn't necessarily understand the words, or what they meant, all strung together in complex sentences; far from it. But, from Mother showing me the words on the pages, and having me repeat them back to her; from listening to her voice telling out the story, as I followed the words on the page — I could read. I learned to read.
I don't clearly remember a time when I couldn't read.
And I don't know which gift is the greater; the time we spent together, cuddling, following stories, loving one another, so very much; or the gift of reading, of words, of access to all the world's books and libraries, from such a young age …
All I really know is — I miss my mother. Greatly. To this day.
I took my mother's death, very hard.
Perhaps it affected me a little more than it should have, a little more than was healthy … Jack was right, when he'd said in his letter that I am sensitive, that I feel things deeply.
I cried a great deal, at the time; and I was ashamed of crying so much, but I could not help it. And so, I cried all the more.
Looking back, my grandparents tried very hard, I think, to fill the void left by my mother's passing. They were very good, to both Father and me; holidays, such as Christmas, and Easter, and Thanksgiving, were always at their house in Long Island, and these were lavish, in food, and decorations, and, when appropriate, in rooms-full of guests.
Grandfather and Grandmother were in turn frequent visitors to our house, and our flat; and each visit somehow seemed to involve the three of us — or the four of us, if Father wasn't working — taking wonderful trips, together; to Central Park, to the Museum of Natural History, with the dioramas and the dinosaur skeletons — and very frequently, to toy stores, and to bookstores.
And I believe it was made very clear to Father, that I was more than welcome to summer with them in Newport. This I was happy to do; Newport is where I learned how to swim, and sail, and row, and I grew to love the place; although their house in Newport was, and is, intimidatingly large, and ornate …
I grew to love my grandparents, too. Very, very much. Very, very deeply.
In spite of my grandparents' efforts — and in spite of my father's efforts, he tried very hard, too — our house in Connecticut always seemed somewhat empty to me, in the years after Mother's passing.
Perhaps it's only natural; it is a lovely old, large house, with deep porches and steeply-peaked roofs, and quite a few rooms —
I think Father wanted a large family. He only has one surviving sister, my Aunt Lydia, and she lives in Ceylon, with her British husband, and they are childless; and I think Father felt the lack, of more close siblings, of having more children in the family …
But it is not a subject I can raise with him, directly. I could never ask him. The idea is unthinkable.
Somehow, Mother had managed to make our house seem cozy. Lived-in.
There were only the four of us, after Mother's passing; Father, myself, Mrs. Kelliher, and our cook, Mrs. Madsen. The spare bedrooms were kept as guest-rooms.
Father, of course, worked very hard; he stayed over in our Manhattan flat some nights, and he could not avoid traveling for business, at times, although he tried. But, Father spent whatever time with me that he could.
I grew very close to Mrs. Kelliher and Mrs. Madsen. Particularly, my nurse, Mrs. Kelliher.
Mrs. Kelliher had been taking care of me all along, of course; dressing me, bathing me when I was young, seeing after me at meals …
She herself was a widow, with grown children; and with Mother's passing, I believe she took me to her heart. Even more than she had, before.
She was very good to me.
I remember being hugged, by her; she was — and is — a rather large person; and being enveloped in her arms was to be simply enveloped in warmth. She meant her hugs, quite sincerely.
As did I, when I hugged her back.
Over time, I found other ways to express my affection to her. I would pick wildflowers — and some not-so-wild flowers — and bring them to her, in honest love. I would draw pictures, sometimes as part of my home tutoring, sometimes on my own initiative, and give them to her —
And she would scold me for it, of course. She would say it wasn't proper, and I really shouldn't … But it touched her, and pleased her, I knew; so I did it anyway.
But I came to be careful, in the giving.
Somehow, I knew — somehow, I picked up — that she was right; that other people would not approve of even such a simple thing, as me giving flowers to my nurse. Who was, after all, part of the household staff …
I persisted. And if my drawings tapered off, as I grew a little older, the bouquets of flowers became more elaborate; and the hugs did not cease, far from it. But I was careful not to be too demonstrative in front of Mrs. Madsen. Or Father.
And then, my world changed. Rather suddenly.
One summer evening in August, shortly before my seventh birthday, Father came home, and summoned me into his study.
He had, he'd told me, been promoted to a very senior position within his Bank. He had been tasked with going to Switzerland, the banking capital of the world, to oversee relations with the most important banking houses in Europe; he would be dividing his time between Geneva, and Basel, and Zurich.
I was to go with him.
I was to be enrolled in a prestigious boarding school, in the Swiss Alps, overlooking Geneva.
And so it was, that I found myself ten days later on the eastbound Cunard liner Aquitania; sharing a cabin with my temporary nurse, Mrs. McConnaught. Missing Mrs. Kelliher, and my grandparents, horribly; feeling lost, and lonely, and bereft, and trying to cry only at night, in bed, silently —
* * *
That had been ten years before; in 1927.
I was feeling much the same, now, in 1937.
This first morning of this new voyage, I was sitting in a deck-chair on the Promenade Deck, thoroughly wrapped up in steamer-rugs; feeling the familiar pitch and roll, the familiar rush of cold ocean air, the familiar light on the water —
It even looked like the North Atlantic, right then. The sun was overhead, glittering on the choppy water; but banks of fog surrounded us, and the ship's foghorn was sounding mournfully, every minute or so.
I shivered, and settled into my blankets more closely.
It's only a trip, I told myself; again. It's only a trip; and I'll be back, soon.
Under the circumstances, Jack's second letter was a comfort beyond price. And after a few more minutes of watching the water, and listening to the foghorn, I pulled it out, again; and I began to re-read it.
Monday, April 5th, 1937
The ______ School
Well, old man, I'm back at school, after seeing you off at Grand Central Station.
It's just after dinner-time here, so I've got at least an hour for writing; and I can already tell, this is going to be my Writing Time, going forward. Woe Be Unto Him, who tries to interrupt! I just hope you don't get tired of my constant scribbles, without any interesting travel tales to recount …
I had to blink a few times, at that, and swallow.
As if I could. As if I ever would.
I also hope I didn't embarrass you, at the station; in front of your father, and your grandparents, I mean. But I was glad I came; seeing you off in person meant everything, to me.
As will welcoming you back, when that happens. Which will be soon. I know it.
He hadn't embarrassed me. He'd been a source of strength, and courage, for me; as he'd known he would be, of course. We know each other, better than anyone else.
He had hugged me goodbye on the platform; but Jack comes from a demonstrative family, I've seen him, his brothers and his father, hug on more than one occasion.
I'd hugged him back, unashamed.
And then, startlingly enough — Grandfather had hugged me goodbye, in his turn, after Grandmother; and I'm almost lost my composure, then, I don't know how I avoided it.
I have to admit, Rhys, that I'm in a little bit of a funk right now, and not just because of you-know-why. Well, mostly it's because of you-know-why; of course. But there's more.
We didn't get a chance to talk, at the station — (and isn't that just a running joke in our lives, not getting a chance to talk! That will change, someday, I promise) — but I've been summoned home this weekend, rather peremptorily. I expect it's because of my big push to go along with you; the parents probably want to see if their son is merely colossally stupid, or actually in need of a straitjacket and a room with rubber walls.
I'm not sure I can blame them. I should have listened to you, old man; as usual. (And how many times have I said that, before?)
Still; don't worry. Father will fuss at me, in his usual way; then it will all blow over, the way it always does. And it will be good to see the family, and home; especially now, with my spirits so low.
I was not particularly worried about Jack's parents; they dote on him. Who wouldn't?
But it broke my heart to be here, so far away from him, while he was down. Jack is a naturally cheerful and upbeat person; and when he gets low, he gets very low.
I hated being unable to comfort him; unable to touch him.
Dinner tonight was a little bit odd, without you; Charles made it a point to sit next to me, which I appreciated.
I imagined you, in the dining car of the famous Twentieth Century Limited, having a wonderful meal; at least I hope that you had a wonderful meal. Of course, by the time you read this, our dinners will both be days in the past. It's a little bit depressing, communicating like this, isn't it?
I winced, at the bleak mood.
The one piece of good news was about Charles being attentive to him. Charles is — well, one might almost say, he's like a younger brother to us; he's a fourth-former, shy, awkward, and in appearance, not conventionally beautiful. Jack and I had befriended him, in the way that Jack has, of taking special care of those boys who are in need; and now he is our particular friend, indeed. And he is beautiful, in all the ways that count.
I had taken Charles aside, before leaving, and made him vow to take good care of Jack; and he'd given me his solemn word, that he would.
I'm sorry, old man, I shouldn't be dwelling on the negative.
Actually, I should be celebrating a victory! When I got back to school this afternoon, Coe, the little weasel, had tried to call dibs on your comforter; as if you were gone for good. I gently disabused him of the notion.
Well, to be more accurate, I gently threatened him. But then I went all soft, and gave him my own comforter, instead; his really was in sad shape, it looked as though some animal had nested in it, over Christmas vacation. (I do not want to think, how it got that way.)
So the upshot is, I've rescued your comforter from a dire fate; you'll have it back, next term; and in the meantime, it will be keeping me warm, at night. I'll do my best not to get any disgusting stains on it …
I looked up, blinking, for a moment, at the sunlight glittering on the water, and the blue-gray walls of fog.
I was moved, of course. Of course. The idea of my down comforter keeping Jack warm and safe, made me glad. Happy beyond words, in a deep, and intimate, way, actually.
But I did not like this news about Coe. Coe — his Christian name is Simon — is a sly and rather slippery fourth-former, who sees and notices far too much; and likes to advertise the fact with an occasional knowing smirk. His actions in this case, I guessed, were about far more than my bedding; they were instead a way of putting Jack on notice, that he knew something about our true relationship.
In our odd and rather tribal boys'-school society, Coe was something of a threat.
Still. I did not think Coe would risk crossing Jack, not seriously; Jack will be a prefect next year, he is a natural leader, and everybody knows it, even if he himself does not, the glorious dunce. And, one simply does not get on a prefect's bad side; not willingly, not deliberately.
And oddly enough, I didn't think Coe would risk crossing me, either. Since our mathematics instructor's dismissal last year, I'd discovered that I have an enhanced reputation, of sorts. At the very least, I'm accorded a distinct degree of careful respect. The incident is still much talked-about.
Still. I wished, again, I were there.
Well, that's about it for this letter, Rhys. Lights out in a few minutes.
I have no idea if this will reach you, before you sail; maybe it will chase you across the Pacific, all the way to Shanghai. My next scribble will be our first glorious experiment in Airmail; I've already bought lots of colorful stamps, and those special envelopes. Know that, if there are any gaps in my series of letters, it'll be because of a storm, or something, somewhere, keeping a ship grounded?
I wish I were with you.
I'll give your best to Mother and Father, and to Elliott; he'll be home, too.
You, of course, already have all my best.
Bon Voyage, old man. Try to have some fun! And, let me know how things are going, with you?
P.S. — I'm still thinking about O.C. More than ever, actually.
I closed my eyes, for a few moments; feeling the pitch and roll of the ship, listening as the foghorn bellowed another, 'HHMMMMMMM!!!' overhead. The breeze of our passage, even on the semi-enclosed deck, was fresh and chill.
It was such a comfort, this letter from Jack; as I said. Even though parts of it were — discomforting.
I hoped, so much, that things had gone well, with his parents.
I hoped even more that his mood had improved, by now; I couldn't stand the thought of him, unhappy. I just couldn't.
Still. One bit of knowledge gave me extra comfort, just at that moment; it was knowing how many postcards — however garish, and tasteless — I'd sent him, on the trip across the country; I'd bombarded him with postcards. And then, of course, there were the letters. And, finally, the telegram. If nothing else, Jack knew by now, this very minute, how much I'd been thinking about him, each and every day.
It was comfort; it was real comfort.
I began my careful envelope-check, just in case there might be another surprise enclosure; but I found none. I hadn't expected one; he'd hardly seemed in the mood. Then, just in case, I examined the pages of the letter, more closely —
I found it on the back of the last page.
It was an extra message, written in faint pencil and tiny letters; and it ran down one long side of the page, rather than cross-ways. It was a brief message, and far too faint to be noticed through the thickness of the paper, from the front;
Do you remember the time we built that little fire, in the woods? Do you remember what I wrote, then, that got you so flustered? It's still true.
I felt myself turning bright red; and I was immediately transported back to that cool day, the previous October …
* * *
It had been a slow Saturday before Halloween; and Jack and I had taken ourselves off into the birch-woods near the lake — completely out-of-bounds, of course — just to get away; just to be alone, together.
The birch leaves carpeted the ground, and we were bundled up; there had been a cold snap, and our breaths smoked in the fragrant air. We'd brought along a bottle of strictly-forbidden wine, which Jack had smuggled from home; and we'd built a little fire, of twigs and small branches, more for the comfort of seeing the flame, than for any hope of keeping warm.
We'd wound up playing a game. A daring one.
I'd had with me a little, spiral-bound notepad, the kind whose cover flips up; I always have writing materials in my book-bag.
The game was, to take turns writing things down, in my notebook; things that we would never, ever risk putting on paper, anywhere else …
That's where the fire came in; although we hadn't planned it out, in advance.
It was an extraordinary thrill. There is a power, an honesty, in actual written words; and just seeing such words, such thoughts, actually written down on paper — !
The first things we wrote down were predictable. And deeply thrilling. And scary.
John J. P. B. Van Doern loves Rhys L. Williamson
He'd handed the notepad back to me, with a little smirk on his face, as he watched me read the words.
As I said, written words have power; we'd said it, whispered it, to each other, often enough, but seeing it —
"I — "
"Shhhh," from him; he'd leaned over, and put a fingertip on my lips, very gently. His expression was luminous.
I'd understood, then. This was to be silent; words on paper, only.
I'd taken out my own pen, after a moment, and written out, underneath his line:
Rhys L. Williamson loves John J. P. B. Van Doern
I'd just looked at the two lines, together, for a moment, marveling at them, shivering a little; then I'd handed the notepad back to him, and had the satisfaction of seeing him flush, like me, in the cool October air.
And then, he'd gently torn the page from the notepad; and, grinning, he'd held an edge out to me. And then, with a motion of his head, of his eyes, we'd dropped the page into our little fire …
I'd understood at once, of course. This was our chance to be daring, to write out anything we wanted to write; without fear of discovery.
Even messages of love; which, if they'd been found by a teacher, would have resulted in us being sent down, separated, disgraced … perhaps even hospitalized. It had happened at our school, before.
Jack had taken out his pen, again.
I love the soft way you kiss me, on the lips. You're very good at it!
I'd gaped at it. Feeling the shock, of it.
Well, there was only one answer, to a challenging statement like that. I had leaned over, and kissed him, on the lips … it went on, for some moments. And then, when I'd pulled back a little, he'd chased me with his own lips, and that kiss had lasted, too …
I like watching you do homework, sometimes, when you don't know I'm looking at you. You are very beautiful.
The rosy flush on his pale cheeks had deepened a little, as he read then words; and then, he'd darted a glance at me, and his mischievous grin had bloomed, as he wrote:
I love watching you in the showers, seeing you all wet, and nude. You are very beautiful!
I'd exhaled sharply, at that; just seeing the words written out, improbably … He'd just smiled at me, smirking, self-satisfied at my reaction, so of course when we'd burned that page, and he'd handed me the notepad, I had to try to top him …
I love seeing you nude, and erect. Your cock is unusually beautiful, and I love its color; the head is wonderfully plump. I love your cock, quite a bit …
And so it had gone.
We'd even remembered to stop and sip from the wine bottle, from time to time; which made us feel all the more like desperate outlaws, though we actually drank very little of it.
We'd learned quite a bit about each other, as we wrote.
It wasn't just the act of putting words on paper, that make the afternoon so daring. No; it was really about what we wrote; things we'd never told one another, verbally, before. Things one just doesn't say aloud. Most of it was about us, about our feelings for one another … but much of it was daringly explicit, daringly erotic.
It was Jack, of course, who had the last word.
The afternoon was darkening; the breeze was picking up, and our little fire was shining brighter. Both of us were shivering, with cold, now.
Jack had handed me the note-pad, obviously trying very hard to keep a straight face.
I love the slippery feel of your semen in my bottom, after we've made love. Do you remember that afternoon on the rock by the lake, last month?
I'd gasped, out loud; and I'd felt a hot flush of blood rushing to my face, and to other parts of me —
I did remember that day. Vividly.
We'd been swimming in the lake, away from the others; and we'd ended up making love on a smooth, flat, sun-warmed rock, that jutted out from shore … it was our usual, and favorite location, for the act.
And after, we'd cuddled; Jack in my arms, leaning back on my chest; me, leaning back against another smooth slab of rock —
And as he'd turned his head to collect another kiss, I'd been struck by his expression. There'd been something about it; something a little sleepy, maybe; content, too, I'd thought; and — perhaps, a little smug — ?
Yes; definitely smug.
And, at that moment in the cold afternoon by the fire, I'd finally understood why, all at once; and I'd flushed bright red, I knew, and I was instantly erect, as painfully-hard as I'd ever been, just thinking about it; at the concept, of Jack, particularly enjoying having my semen inside him — !
And Jack, back beside the fire, had seen all this play out on my face; of course. He'd burst out laughing, rocking back and forth, hands on his knees, breaking the spell of silence —
"It's true! It's absolutely true! Oh, I wish you could see the expression on your face! But, it's so true, I swear it — !" And I remember I'd looked over at him, my mouth gaping, and then he'd reached over and —
"Hi, what are you reading?"
I jumped so badly, I almost threw Jack's letter up in the air. I managed to keep the pages from blowing away.
"I'm sorry — " from the voice.
"No, no, it's all right, I'm sorry — " I looked up, still fumbling with the pages of Jack's letter —
The voice belonged to a boy, one a little younger than me, I guessed; he was standing a little off from the foot of my deck-chair, half-turned, looking absolutely petrified, and ready to bolt.
'HMMMMMMMMM — !' from the ship's foghorn; almost making me drop Jack's letter, again.
I did not feel like talking to anyone, right then, not even remotely; but I knew that expression, that posture, very intimately. It was a New Boy At School face; and its bearer was usually feeling lost, lonely, scared, and in the odd way of young boys, irresistibly compelled to reach out and try to make friends, or acquaintances, at the moment of crisis.
I'd been a New Boy At School myself, twice; I knew how it felt. Jack and I tried to look out for the needier New Boys at our own school, to the extent that we could. I couldn't just send this one away.
"My name is Jack — I mean, Rhys," I said, still flustered, still halfways-back, at that day by the fire.
"I'm Tom," said the boy; his eyes were still big, and he still looked petrified, and needy. "Tom Fletcher."
"Rhys Williamson," I said.
There was an awkward pause, for a moment. I should have stood up, to shake hands; but I was far too engorged and erect, from the letter, and the memories; it would have been instantly apparent. "Sit down, please? I'm all tangled up in these rugs."
He maneuvered himself, cautiously, into the deck chair next to me — it was the one assigned to Father; but Father wouldn't be using it any time soon — and I held my hand out to him. "Pleased to meet you," I went on.
"Pleased to meet you," he replied, shaking my hand a little formally; he still looked scared. He had, I could see, brown eyes, and hair; he was wearing a gray wool suit, and a gray cap. "I didn't mean to interrupt you — "
"No, that's all right," I said, again; I began folding the pages of Jack's letter, and looking for the envelope. "I was just reading a letter, from my friend Jack. My best friend, Jack."
It was oddly comforting, to say his name out loud. To hear it spoken. But at the same time, I couldn't help thinking how Jack would have been laughing, uproariously, at my embarrassing predicament …
"Oh," from Tom.
Silence, for just a few seconds; and I breathed out, and then I began the familiar routine, of setting the New Boy at ease.
"So, where are you from — ?"
"We're from Council Bluffs, Iowa," he said; looking out at the water, and the fog-banks. He sounded, momentarily, more lost than ever. "My dad works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture." This, with a little echo of pride.
"Really?!" from me. I was impressed; at my school, and among our friends, public service is highly regarded; government duty is a recurring theme in our coursework, and at Chapel.
The boy looked pleased.
"Yeah," he said, after a second. "Dad's an expert on soil conservation; he's helped a lot of farmers, where we live. He used to teach at the University, in Omaha. And now, they're sending him to China … he's going to be teaching Chinese farmers, there … "
This last was delivered with considerably less self-assurance.
"Really?" from me, again; I made sure to sound bright and cheerful. "That's wonderful! You know, my father and I are going to China, too; we're going to Shanghai."
"You are?" He turned to face me, and his expression was bright. "So are we!"
I held out my hand, again, and we shook again, solemnly.
"We're going to be staying at the American Consulate," Tom went on, in a little bit of a rush. "Well, Mom and my little brother and I will be; Dad will be traveling a lot, that's what he says. We'll be there for two years … What about you — ?"
"I'm accompanying my father on a business trip," I said, simply. "He's in banking … We're from New York, by the way. We're to be in Shanghai for some weeks, but he's not sure for how long." I thought, for a moment; then I went on. "I'm acting as his Confidential Secretary, at least part of that time."
I couldn't see the harm in adding the detail; Father had already introduced me as such, to the Purser, and to our cabin steward. And, looking ahead, it would give me a graceful excuse to get away by myself, when needed. New Boys At School, I knew from experience, can be demanding of one's time, if allowed.
Tom was looking chagrined.
"Oh, gosh … How old are you — ? I'm fourteen — "
"I'm sixteen. Well, I'll be seventeen, in August."
A little of the petrified-expression was back on his face, and he looked like he wanted to bolt, again. "Oh, gosh. I thought you were closer to my age — !"
"That's okay." I turned my head more, and smiled at him, a little wryly. "No offense taken. I know I look young, for my age."
"You do!" he said, studying my face; then he blushed, looking down. "Oh — I'm sorry … "
"That's all right," I said again, trying not to laugh. "Honestly." A thought struck me. "I'm still in school, by the way. I'm in the Fifth Form. That's what we call it, anyway; I think it's — Eleventh Grade — ?"
A quick, blank look from him; then —
"Oh. You're a Junior." He still looked a little scared, talking to such an exalted upper-classman; age differences matter the more, the younger one is. "I'm a Freshman … well, I was, until they withdrew me … "
"I know how that feels," I said, quietly.
Silence then, for a few moments; we watched the glittering water, and the towering, dark fog-banks, and listened to the rushing sounds as the ship pushed its way through the swells.
'HMMMMMMMM — !' from the fog-horn, over our heads.
"So," I said at last; continuing with my duty. "Have you traveled before — ?"
I thought I could guess the answer.
"We go to Mackinac Island every summer; I really love it there," he said, not turning his head. "Have you ever been there?"
"Umm — no," I said.
"Oh … Well, I've been there, and Omaha, of course — it's right across the river from us. And when I was twelve, before my brother was born, we went to Chicago for a week. I'll never forget that … " He paused, for a moment, diffidently. "Have you traveled, much?"
It was the question I'd been expecting; naturally.
"Well — yes, actually." I paused, for just a second. "When I was seven, my father was transferred to Switzerland, and I went with him. We lived there for seven years; but the best part was, in the summer, and over school holidays, I got to go with him, on some of his business trips. We got to see quite a bit of Europe, along the way." I paused for a moment, looking out over the water. "But I've never been to Asia, before; I'm looking forward to seeing Shanghai."
The intended message, of course, was that living abroad could be an adventure; rather than a terrifying ordeal.
I didn't add, that I'd been terrified myself, on my way to Switzerland. Nor did I add, that my experiences, once there, hadn't all been universally pleasant; certainly, not at first.
I felt Tom looking sideways at me, in awe.
"Oh, wow . . . You lived in Europe?! In Switzerland?"
"What was it like? Where did you live, in Switzerland — ? Was it up in the Alps — ?"
"Well, it was, actually. I lived at a boarding school, most of the year, — "
Another mute expression of shock, from him; his eyes were wide, and his mouth was a little open. Very few American boys, I knew, attended boarding school —
" — which was in the mountains, above Geneva. It's called 'The School in the Sky', although that also translates to 'Heavenly School' — "
It hadn't been at all heavenly, at first; although it had improved, over time.
" — and the setting was actually very beautiful; we had a wonderful view of Mont Blanc from the front windows … "
"I've seen pictures of that — !" The awe was still on his face.
"It's a beautiful part of the world," I agreed. "And, I was lucky to have lived there, for awhile. Living somewhere is really the only way to get to know it, well; I think." I glanced over at him. "You're really going to live in China for two years — ?"
"Uh-huh." Doubt, and uncertainty, were back on his face, now.
"Well, I think it will be a great experience, for you." I said it, firmly. "You'll get to see so much, and you'll get to really know China … much better than I will."
Unless Father proposes that we stay in China for as long as Tom, I thought. And, then, for some reason, my plans to make my own way home, fail.
I shook my head, to dispel the dark idea.
"Do you really think so?" The expression on his face was priceless; clearly, it was something he wanted to believe.
"Absolutely." And in fact, I did think so.
Silence, then, for a stretch. From the corner of my eye, I could see him gazing out over the water; I thought it was barely possible, that he seemed a little — comforted.
'HMMMMMM — !" from the foghorn, far over our heads.
"So … Tom. Have you had a chance to explore the ship, yet?" I looked, to the right and the left; apart from one far-off figure, we were the only ones on our side of the Promenade Deck.
"A little … not very much, actually. Not really." His expression was hilarious; he was obviously trying not to look hopeful.
"Well, this is going to be our home, for the next three weeks, and I've barely seen any of it … We have a few hours before luncheon — um, lunch, I mean. Would you like to come exploring, with me?"
The look of pleasure on his face was so pronounced, that I felt a little guilty, for having manipulated the whole conversation. I resolved to do what I could, for the rest of the voyage, to be a good and supportive friend to him. He deserved no less.
"Okay," he said; his whole face lighting up. "Sure!"
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