China Boat

Chapter 29


As Jack has said — I am sensitive.

I feel things, very much; too much, actually. The death of Mother; being taken away from Mrs. Kelliher … Even as simple a thing, as taking leave of Grandmother and Grandfather, at the courtyard of the School In The Sky, could reduce me to tears, and turn the whole world into a dark place, for me, for days at a time. My over-sensitivity has been a curse.

But in that first semester in America, in the Fall of 1934, it was a rare blessing.

As Jack and I fell in love with one another — I felt it, very much. I felt it, very strongly, and profoundly.

The experience changed my whole world.

Our School, for one, became a kind of sacred place to me; a shining, sacred place, whose very bricks were imbued with the essence of Jack … (and don't think, for a moment, that I don't know how rare it is, to see one's school in such a light! At least, until graduation and years have allowed memories to blur, and nostalgia to set in … )


Our School became a special, sacred space; and it has remained so, in my mind, for the last two years and more.


Certain places at School hold special memories for me, special memories of Jack and me together, the way the hidden compartments in a roll-top writing-desk hold forbidden love-letters.

There is the Library, of course; of course. Where, one rainy day in October, as we sat at one of the long, oak tables, reading side by side — he reached over, and stroked the back of my hand, very lightly, with his fingertips — 

And then, as I sat there, frozen, stunned — he reached over, and did it again. Very lightly; very shyly. His face down, and furiously blushing; not looking at me.

It was the single most thrilling moment of my life, up until then.

It was also, in its way, the single most erotic moment of my life, up until then; in spite of the experimentation with Emile in Switzerland, in spite of the rather rigidly-conventional shower-time masturbation sessions, which had already become our House's morning routine. No; Jack's touch was supremely erotic, transcendently erotic; because of the feelings which inspired it, because of the love which inspired it.

Of course I touched him back. Moments later; heart pounding so hard in the silence of the Library, that I couldn't believe it wasn't audible. I stroked the back of his hand, with my fingertips, as lightly and tentatively as he had stroked mine; my member was as erect as it had ever been.

The feeling of touching his skin, his hand — was indescribable.

Jack told me later, that the moments after he touched my hand were the hardest of his life; and, that, if I hadn't touched him in return, he would have burst apart and died on the spot.

As if I would have done anything other than return his caress. As if I could have done any different.

It was, of course, a watershed moment for us both. It was the start of an unspoken, escalating touching-contest between us; a contest which saw us touching each other's hands, gently touching our fingers to each other's cheeks — not in the Library, though — and, generally, communicating with our expressions, and our caresses, the love and desire we could not yet declare aloud.

But it was that first brush of the fingertips, which meant everything; which started, everything.

The Library, at School, is a sacred place.


There are many other Sacred Places at School. Naturally.


There is the stage in our Dining Hall, for one.


As I've said — plays and skits are very common occurrences at our School. There are typically two major plays presented by each House, each year … and then, there are skits. These tend to be short, and usually comic, and not-taken-very-seriously; and they are, for whatever reason, usually presented after Breakfast, in the Dining Hall.

One rather dim morning in November, we were presenting a skit — 

I remember it, well; it was called 'Telephone', and it was based on the old party-game. The one where, one person whispers a message in one person's ear; and that person whispers the message to the next person … and on and on, until the last person recites the message out loud, in all its garbled, nonsensical glory … 

In our skit, however, each person, upon receiving his whispered 'message', would blurt it out, astonished, in an aside to the audience; who were thus able to watch the message mutate, in amusing ways. The skit was written by Mister Hendricks, our English head; and it was actually quite funny.


 … a whisper, from Peters to Harris; and as arranged, Harris stamped his foot, and turned to the audience, in wide-eyed amazement.

"What? 'Ball games were played in passive protests' — ?!"

Harris turned to Jack, and — stooping quite a bit — whispered in Jack's ear, in turn. And Jack did his own, foot-stamping, amazed turn to the audience.

"What? 'Waltham is fading in indigo sunsets' — ?!"

Jack's look was quite comic; many boys in the audience chuckled.

Then, Jack turned to 'whisper' to me — 

It was November; I was just beginning to think in English — partly, at least — again; and, of course, I was still shy by nature. I'd stationed myself far back on the stage.

Rather than 'whisper' to me, as he was supposed to do — he kissed me, very gently, on the cheek; close to my ear. And because of where I'd placed myself, because of Jack's head in the way, because of the dim, November light — nobody else could see it … 

It was our first kiss, of any kind. Ever.

My line was to have been, 'What? 'Walruses are baking in Massachusetts' — ?!' Instead, I stood, gaping at him for a moment — he had a sparkling, astonished look on his face — 

And then, I remembered to stamp my foot, and swing, to face the audience — 

And I dried, completely. I was blushing, red as a beet; conflicted, between French and English; and not a word would come. Not a word.

Finally, I whispered 'Zut!' just loudly enough to be heard — it got one of the bigger laughs, of the skit; most of the boys, knowing all of us, assumed it was a comic throw-away line, inserted just for me — and then, I moved upstage a space, to 'whisper' to Ralston, and in my awkward confusion I very nearly lurched into him, and kissed him, by accident — 

In the end, of course, no-one minded, or remembered. For the last line of the skit, the punch-line, was the pronouncement that the day was to be an impromptu holiday, free of classes or study. Such occasional, impromptu holidays are a much-cherished tradition at our School, and their announcement is always greeted with loud cheers. As was the case, then; by the very nature of the skit, all of the boys could see it coming a mile away … 

The stage in our Dining Hall is very much a sacred place, to me.

* * *

But of all the places, at School or out of School, which have been sanctified by our love — one stands out. Of course. It is Oakley Commons, where we first confessed our love for one another, one freezing night in February, 1935 … 

In an odd, and rather perverse way, we have Mister Campbell, our wretchedly sadistic Math teacher, to thank for it.


It has started with a problem in Euclidian geometry — a mathematical proof — earlier that afternoon.

Jack was at the blackboard, writing down his version of his proof; and as usual, he was doing it blazingly fast, as we all waited in silence, the chalk making 'tick-tick-tick' sounds on the slate — 

I liked Geometry, and I liked proofs- I thought they were easy, and elegant, and I liked the logic they expressed. But I could not see what Jack was writing; his body was in the way.

The first hint of disaster was Mister Campbell's expression; the corners of his mouth lifted upwards, in anticipation. He could see the board, where I could not.

Oh, no, I thought to myself.

The 'tick-tick-tick' sounds continued, until Jack finished the last stroke with a flourish, and stood aside, turning to the rest of us, his face bright, ready to explain his proof — 

"Well, well," from Mister Campbell; with lazy relish. "And what do we have here, Mister Van Doern — ?"

I watched the first shadow darken Jack's beautiful face.

"Why — yes, yes; it's true!" from Mister Campbell, in mock surprise. "Examine this proof, class; we have the first instance in recorded history, wherein the sum of the angles in the vertices of a triangle, adds up to more than one-hundred-and-eighty degrees! Yes, yes; sixty, sixty, and ninety — that's three-hundred-and-ten! Why, this is historic; well done, sir — !"

Jack's eyes met mine. It was an anguished look; it was a look that said a great deal; and it was also a look meant solely, and exclusively, for me.

We both knew what was coming.

"No, no — don't erase it; don't change a thing!"

In his haste, Jack had written down 'B' twice, in Step 3 of his proof, instead of 'A' and 'B'. It was a simple thing to correct; but Mister Campbell was enjoying his mockery too much. He was an unattractive, pear-shaped man, with a peculiarly pear-shaped head, and he seemed to genuinely detest his students. How someone like him ever became a teacher, I'll never understand.

I gave Jack a look in return, one filled with as much support, and reassurance, and — yes — love, as I could — 

And I came to a sudden decision.

I felt quite light-headed, for a moment, actually. It came on me like a thunder-clap.

"We have all heard of the Asses' Proof. I propose that we name this the Van Doern Proof; why, this can make you famous, young man — ! … "


It went on like this — worse, actually — for some time. It was, in no sense, meant to be humorous, or entertaining; it was meant to demean, and belittle, and hurt. We had all seen it from Mister Campbell, before.

Jack, for his part, took it stoically; face closed, and expressionless, as he stood there. I had myself flushed angrily, at first; nothing could have prevented that.

After that, I'd practiced at looking looking ostentatiously bored. I believe I succeeded.


In the free hour after dinner, that same day, we went for a walk.

It had snowed, in the morning; but the clouds had moved on, and the sky was crystal clear. The stars practically blazed in the sky; there was no moon, but the stars were so bright, that they cast real shadows. The night was completely still, and bitterly cold.


Jack was very low.


We said nothing, as we made our way to Oakley Commons; our boots crunching in the snow. We were heavily dressed, and muffled; our breaths frosted in the air. Enough traffic had passed on the pathways since morning, to enable us to see where we were going.

Jack kept his head down. I kept glancing up, at the exaltation of stars, overhead; my heart was hammering, at the thought of what I was about to do. What his anguished look at me, in class, had made me decide to do.

"You know," I said at last, breaking the winter silence; "It was a simple mistake. You just wrote down a letter wrong. We could all see it."

It was as if we'd been discussing the matter all along. That's how it is, between us.

"Yes. It was a mistake. And that's the trouble; I keep making them. I keep making mistakes … "

His voice was — soft. Weak, even. I'd never heard that tone from him, before.

Crunching sounds, as we made our way along the pathway, under the night sky.

"It was a simple mistake," I went on. "And if it hadn't been you, it would have been someone else. He wasn't going to be happy until he humiliated someone today, and you know it. You know him."

I felt Jack glance sideways at me, briefly.

"I don't care what Campbell says, in class … "

I did not entirely believe him. Jack had been savagely ridiculed in front of his peers, for minutes on end. Mister Campbell had brought more than one boy to tears, before; we'd seen it.

" … it's, just, that I keep on making mistakes." A silent pause; the crunching of our boots. "I mean — I knew I had the proof right; I had it in my head, in a flash, and I couldn't wait to write it all out, on the board … but."

He trailed off.

Another moment of silence. Before us, the main meadow of Oakley Commons loomed up, white snow in the starlight.

"But — ?"

"But I got it wrong. Don't you see — ? I was impatient; and I made a mistake. I got it wrong. I keep doing that."

His voice had thickened. I thought I could hear tears, at the edge of his words.

Another pause. Another handful of heartbeats; our breathing loud, in the cold, still air.

"I want to fly," he went on, at last. Softly. "I want to be a pilot; more than anything. It's all I really want to do … and a pilot can't make mistakes; not the way I make them. The way I keep making them. He'll kill himself." A quick, sideways-glance, at me. "And maybe someone else … " He looked back down.

More silence; followed by a sniff, from Jack.

We had already talked about going up, together, someday. I'd promised to let him take me up, flying. Someday.

"Jack … "

I stopped. We both stopped. I looked around, a little wildly, at the white snow; at the dark, beautiful bare branches of the trees; at the sky, alight with more stars than I'd ever seen before, just brilliantly alight.

I took two, deep breaths; and then, feeling lightheaded, I plunged ahead.

"Jack … " I slipped my right glove off, and I touched his cheek, with my bare fingers.

His face came up, and he looked at me.

"I have faith in you … you'll be a pilot. You'll be a great pilot. You won't make mistakes, when it matters."

And then I leaned in, slowly, a feeling of unreality growing within me; and I kissed him, softly and gently, on the lips. It was a thing we'd only done once, before.

He went very still, for a split second; and then his lips moved, gently, answering mine.

Another moment of silence; until our lips parted. But we stayed close. Breathing, together. Close.

My heart was pounding, in my chest.

"Jack … je t'aime. Je t'aime."

The silence of a winter night. My heart went on, pounding. I could hear Jack's breathing; heavy, now, almost as if we'd been running, together.

I'd used the French word, very deliberately. It was a slippery word; it could mean, 'I like you', or it could mean, 'I love you'.

I'd wanted to give him an out, a way to laugh it off, a way to deny it … if he wanted to. If he needed to.

I looked at him, from up close. His face was shadowed, framed by a backdrop of stars.

"Je t'aime aussi. Vraiment."

I like — love — you too. Really.

I took another deep breath; and then, I took the final, fatal plunge. In a world which calls us criminals and perverts, it was a desperate thing to do. It was like jumping off a cliff in the dark.

"I mean it, Jack. I love you. Remember the ancient Greeks we talked about, the Athenians and the Thebans and the Spartans? Remember the Emperor Hadrian and Antinous? I love you like that. I love you, Jack. I always will … "

It was my turn, for my voice to get thick; to break.

Jack stood still, frozen in the starlight for a span of heartbeats; and then his gloved hands came up to cradle my face, and then he swore, and pulled his gloves off and threw them away into the snow, and then his hands were cradling my face again, warm against my skin.

"Do you mean it — ? Do you really mean it — ? Do you mean it — ?"

I could just barely see his eyes, now, wide, and glinting in the starlight. I'd never seen him so urgent, so shaken.

"Yes. I love you!"

And all at once his arms were around me, hugging me, squeezing me more tightly than I'd ever been squeezed before. His smooth cheek pressed against mine; and then he actually lifted me off the ground, and spun me around, before setting me down.

"Woooo — ! Woooo-oooop!!" he called out, exuberantly. He lifted me again, and began raining kisses on my cheeks. "Oh, Rhys — ! Oh, my God. Oh, Rhys — ! I love you too, Rhys, I really, really do; I've loved you for months, now — !"

More kisses rained on my cheeks. I managed to get my arms free, and around him; I squeezed him back. I felt drunken, delirious. Tears came. The starry night was magic.

"Whoooo-oooop!" from Jack, again, into the stillness. More kisses, delivered on my cheeks, both of them. His grip, if anything, got tighter.

"I love you, Rhys! Oh, God, I love you! I really do! And I don't ever want to let you go! I don't ever want to let you go — !"

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