The night has a thousand eyes,
And the day but one;
Yet the light of the bright world dies
With the dying sun.
The mind has a thousand eyes,
And the heart but one;
Yet the light of a whole life dies
When love is done.
Francis William Bourdillon, Light
Ramariru, Waipira RD, Pukehohe, New Zealand
(09) 789 1234
3rd April 1982
My dear Justin,
For years I have been looking forward to writing to you; but now that the time has come, it has proved unbelievably difficult. What you are reading is a fair copy of a draft riddled with insertions and crossings-out. I have tried hard to keep emotion out of it. The time for that has not yet come, although I hope it will.
This letter is to introduce myself as your father. You will know, by deduction if not from your mother, that you were born out of wedlock. You will probably have guessed that you were unintended. This letter is also to explain how that came about, and I will accept whatever blame you think is due to me. It will further explain why Ihave not unmasked myself to you long since, and Iwill accept whatever blame is due for that. And it will explain why I am unmasking myself now.
The relevant part of the story begins at Hambledon. Yes, I was there too. It was not, in those days, the best of schools. The headmaster and many of the staff were ancient stick-in-the-muds, and the regime was dictatorial. As a direct result, discontent and dissent were rife. So too — another result, I’m sure — was furtive sex between boys, much more than there would have been in a liberal and open atmosphere; and offenders were frequently caught and expelled.
I was gay — not that we knew that word then — and I fell for a boy a year below me. It was not the usual case of mere opportunist lust, to be satisfied on an ad hoc basis. Both of us were gay by nature, and we knew it. It was a case of real love. The two of us agreed that the sexual aspect of our love would be demeaned by the squalid, five-minute, hole-in-the-corner activity which was the norm — indeed the only possibility — at school. So we confined our love-making to the holidays when we had plenty of time, and to his home where we had plenty of space and freedom. Whereas I came from a strict family, he came from a liberal one.
All was well until the autumn term of 1956, when an event took place which was the catalyst of everything that followed. Immediately afterwards I wrote an account of what had happened; it is a bit mannered, perhaps, but I cannot do better than copy it here.
“You wanted to see me, sir? I’ve only just got in.”
As house captain, I was often summoned to the presence. I had no inkling that this occasion was anything but routine, until I spotted on his desk a paperback copy of Othello, the owner’s name visible. My name. I smelt trouble ahead.
“Sit down, Gavin.” The Beast was even more ponderous than usual. “A very serious offence has been committed, all the more serious if committed by a boy in a responsible position. The finger of suspicion points at you.”
My forebodings multiplied.
“A quarter of an hour ago Mr Hodgson was passing the window of the pavilion storeroom when he noticed two figures inside, engaged in — urrm — the ultimate form of sexual activity. He went round to the door, but they must have heard him approach, for they ran off, knocking him headlong. He was unable to identify them in the twilight and, by the time he had recovered his breath and his spectacles, pursuit was hopeless. He therefore searched the storeroom for evidence, and on a pile of cricket nets he found this book, with your name in it. He brought it to me immediately. I have just telephoned the groundsman, who assures me that it was not there half an hour ago. Now, what have you to say?”
For the moment, nothing. It had come like a punch in the solar plexus. It raised problems far too complex to solve off the cuff. That I had not instantly pleaded innocence was tantamount to a confession of guilt. Ineeded time, time to recover and to think.
“Well? I am waiting.”
“Would you give me a minute to consider my reply, sir?”
His eyebrows rose.
“Does it require thought to conjure up the truth? Very well. Think.”
I put my head in my hands, and tried. I could indeed tell the truth, both halves of the truth. The first half was my alibi. It was rock-solid. I had been at the church, talking to the vicar about bell-ringing. No problem there. It was the other half which would deliver Justin straight to execution.
Justin. A year below me. The school’s white hope at cricket, a potential county — even an England — player. A superb scholar, with shining academic prospects, tipped for a First at university. Godlike in body as in mind. And we were lovers. Or rather we had been lovers, until he had fallen for this casual copulation. Small wonder I was winded. Small wonder everything seemed lost.
But hold on. Hold on. Surely not everything? All right, his love for me must be in smithereens. But mine for him was merely battered, not beyond repair. And older loyalties were intact. He was still Justin, my friend of years. Flawed and fickle, I now knew, but still my beautiful, brilliant Justin, too precious to destroy. He might have betrayed our love, but I could not retaliate. I could not betray our friendship and wreck his career. I simply could not disclose the second half of the truth:that he had borrowed my Othello, which he had now so carelessly lost. No, the truth — the whole truth — was a non-starter.
Well then, what about a half-truth? What about presenting my alibi, but professing ignorance of who had my book? Oh shit, no. That was a lost cause. Why, the Beast would ask, had so simple a statement required so much thought? No answer was possible. And the book’s history would be investigated. For weeks it had been on Justin’s desk, its eye-catching cover in full view. Plenty of people had seen it there, and they would say so, blissfully unaware that they were signing his death warrant. No, no future in this half-truth either.
That left a different half-truth to tell. I sighed as I pondered. Like Othello, I had loved not wisely but too well. No way were we equals. I was Watson to his Holmes, Sam to his Frodo. No high flyer, just a plodding, humble, devoted side-kick. No question which of us had most to offer the world. Which deserved to win, which to lose. I sighed again. Ah, well. So be it.
“Yes, sir, it was me in the storeroom.”
“I am bitterly disappointed, Gavin. As you are well aware, the penalty can only be expulsion. And who was the other boy?”
“I can’t tell you that, sir.”
That was the true half. I could not tell, for I did not know. My ears stayed deaf to his demands. It was stalemate. The thumbscrew being out of fashion, I had nothing more to lose. And now that the book was accounted for, he had no more clues to follow. Only Justin and his nameless paramour knew the truth, and there was nothing else to implicate them. Frustrated, he put me in quarantine, to avoid infecting others.
A few shocked friends were admitted for a brief farewell. There was no sign of Justin. I could hardly expect it, could I? So next morning, en route home to York, I wrote to him:
I’m desperately sorry about yesterday, and to have lost your love. But I stand by you as a friend. I won’t see you again, though, which perhaps is just as well. The best of luck, and thanks for everything.
End of story? Not quite. The very next day, a letter arrived from him. It had crossed mine in the post.
There’s only one sacking offence, so I know what you’ve done. I’m heart-broken to have lost out. But thanks for your love, while it lasted, and good luck. We probably won’t meet again. No doubt that’s the way you want it.
But I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye. I would have done if I’d been around. But perhaps you haven’t heard that I was in hospital last night, having broken my leg at rugger.
P.S. I meant to return your Othello. But I’d lent it to Bailey for an essay, and now the bugger’s lost it.
Bailey? The bugger. The fucking bugger.
What was it Tennyson said?
’Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
Yes, I suppose it is. But it’s tough. Extra tough when you needn’t have lost at all.
That, then, is what happened.
Why did I not go back to the Beast and explain the whole ridiculous misunderstanding? Because he would ask why I had shielded Justin, and the truth would still condemn us. Besides, I could not in conscience deliver Bailey to retribution for something that I did myself. In any event, Bailey knew that Justin and I were lovers. Were I to incriminate him, he would no doubt incriminate us.
Why did I not explain everything to Justin? Because I knew him too well. He would not bring himself to incriminate Bailey either. But, as a crusader against injustice, he would be outraged by my undeserved expulsion. While he himself could not, with his broken leg, be suspected of the crime, he was the knight-errant type who would find some other form of self-sacrifice in order to balance the books. And, as I said, I could not contemplate his prospects being sacrificed.
On top of all that, I was mentally shattered. If I was ashamed of having doubted Justin, I was devastated that he doubted me. My love for him still warmed my heart. But he thought me guilty, and his love for me, which was the light of my life, must therefore have died. So be it, I said.
The final reason why I did nothing was that my mother — my father was dead — was shocked to the core by what I had supposedly done. Luckily she never knew that I had done it, with Justin. There was a rapid exchange of telegrams, and two days after the event I was packed off in disgrace to New Zealand, to work for a cattle farmer whom she knew. It seemed best all round, from the other end of the world, to let sleeping dogs lie. In time everyone would forget about it.
The trouble was that I could not forget, and Justin was never far from my thoughts. Ihave never loved since, nor even bedded another man. You may find that strange, especially in this less strait-laced and more promiscuous age. Truth is, I have never met anyone who, in my eyes, even approached Justin’s standard. I would rather live with the intangible memory of my ideal than with a tangible but inferior substitute.
But, whatever my emotional loneliness, I did well on the farm here. Its owner came to trust me and, as he grew older and began to think of selling up, he offered me first refusal if I could find the money. Soon afterwards, by chance, I could. In the summer of 1965 my mother died and I inherited the whole of my parents’ quite substantial estate. My boss and I negotiated a very good price, and agreed that, before taking over, Ishould spend some time in England to clear my mother’s house in York ready for sale and to wind up the legalities.
It was in the course of clearing out that I lit on an old newspaper lining a drawer. It was dated July 1961 — I have it still — and it carried an interview with Justin, the captain of the Cambridge XI, who had just landed not only a First but the offer of a place in the Surrey team. There was a photograph of him, as beautiful and debonair as ever. No doubt I was tired, certainly I was emotionally stretched. Memories were painfully reinforced, and were coupled maybe with envy. I went to the pub to drown my sorrows.
This had, of course, the reverse effect. I was already moderately tight and even more sorry for myself when there was some shouting and a man stormed out of the bar, leaving a young woman in tears. I went over to see if I could help. She was none too sober either, but I made out that the man had just jilted her. I tried to comfort her, which meant more drink, and when we were thrown out at closing time we were both pretty plastered. Without her man, she had nowhere to go, so I offered her a bed at my mother’s. Believe me, I had no designs on her. But she had latched on to me as her companion in misery and, her judgment being clouded, she begged to sleep in my room for company. My judgment being clouded, I agreed. And you can guess what happened.
In the cold light of morning, with dreadful hangovers, we took stock. We had taken no precautions and a baby was likely. I suggested abortion. No. She was adamant. She came from a religious background — her father was a clergyman — and would not contemplate abortion. Have the child adopted, then. No. She had allowed herself, against her lifelong principles, to be seduced by alcohol. She had sinned grievously, she was penitent, and an illegitimate baby would be her penance. Marriage, then? No. She did not love me. Marriage without love was not on. I could only agree. I could not love her — to be honest, her sanctimoniousness repelled me — and I told her of my gayness. That horrified her.
And it made up her mind. The child would be her personal penance, and she could not let it be corrupted by another brand of sinner. I was to keep clear.
That put me in my place. All I could do was insist on supporting the child, and we bargained over what it should be called. She wanted to give it her surname, so I chose the first name. Justine if a girl, Justin if a boy, in memory of the only love of my life. The young woman’s name, as you will long since have deduced, was Geraldine Newby.
I was back in New Zealand when a telegram came, saying that she was pregnant. At the beginning of April 1966 came another, saying that it was a boy.
Justin, everyone surely hopes that they were conceived in love. You were conceived in drink. In lust? Maybe, depending how you define it. In any event, Justin, I am sorry.
I made you the beneficiary of my will, and arranged regular payment to your mother for your education until you should find employment. I asked her to send you to a good prep school and, when the time came, to Hambledon and to West House.
In view of my experiences there, why Hambledon? There were three reasons. In York I had met a young man who had recently left the school and who told me that since my day it had greatly improved. The old headmaster and his antediluvian senior staff, the Beast included, had gone. In their place was a more enlightened regime, and a much happier atmosphere. Beyond that, I had this odd desire, seeing that my own career there had been cut short, to allow at least one Appleyard to make his mark on the place. And thirdly I had the suspicion that, if you should (as I selfishly hoped) turn out anything like me, you might not see entirely eye to eye with your mother. Boarding school would help keep you out of each other’s hair. But that is by the way.
I asked her to write briefly once a year, on or about your birthday, to assure me that all was well. And, thinking to save her embarrassment, I asked her not to tell you how you came into this world. I would take that task on myself when you were old enough to understand. Until that time, stuck on my farm at the other end of the earth, I would remain totally detached.
So it has worked out. We have both kept our sides of the bargain. I have stayed clear, though yearning all the time to be involved. It has not been easy. And she has reported briefly on your progress. I know of course that she married and had more children, and from reading between the lines I deduce that, as I feared, your home life is not entirely to your taste. I am sorry about that, and sorry to have played no part in your upbringing. At least you now know why.
I was already considering unmasking myself to you when you turned sixteen, for that was the age when I myself began to love. What decides me is your mother’s latest letter, in which she tells me that she suspects you are gay. Her tone is one of severe disapproval, not only of you but also of me for having somehow infected you.
If you are gay, Justin, no disapproval from me. Of course not. Concern yes, because it can still be dangerous and because gay activity is still, at your age, illegal. But whether you are gay or not, I hope you now understand how you came about. I hope you can forgive me for bringing you into this world in, shall we say, so underhand a way. Please don’t think too hard of your mother, or of me. These things happen. No doubt they shouldn’t, but they do.
And I hope we can now communicate.
Justin, as a first step in getting to know each other, would you consider flying out to New Zealand for your summer holidays, at my expense? Please do. I live a solitary — yes, a lonely — life here. The company of my own son would transform it.
Such letters as this are traditionally signed “Your affectionate father.” Old-fashioned, you will say. Yes, I probably am old-fashioned. Affectionate? Yes, I am affectionate. Although I know almost nothing about what sort of person you are, any more than you know about me, you are always in my thoughts. I have always been concerned for you, and always will be.
With all my love, therefore,
Your affectionate father,