For winter’s rains and ruins are over,
all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.
Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon
There was a knock on his door, and Justin looked up from his writing. It was Robert, back from school and wearing an expression of profound relief. How could he know? Oh, of course. Beethoven’s Ninth was at full blast. He’d have heard it from the other end of the corridor and made his own deductions. Dear, kind Robert. Justin was almost in tears again.
“He’s a saint, Robert!” he said hoarsely. “Maybe he’s a sinner too, but aren’t we all? And he’s …” His voice gave way, and he thrust Dad’s letter into Robert’s hands. “Read it,” he croaked.
Robert sat down and read, glancing from time to time at Justin, who was biting his lip while he watched him. When he had finished, Justin wordlessly handed him the School Roll, pointing first to Dad’s entry and then to Justin Wyatt’s. Robert goggled.
“Oh my God! Talk about fact being stranger than fiction! And the two Gavins! Does that mean …?”
“Yes. It does.” Justin was smiling now, with quiet content. “And I’ve talked to Dad. And he’s great.”
Before school, Robert had put an arm round his shoulder. Now he gave him a full-blown hug. They talked until lunch, and the loose ends had to be postponed until the evening. Then Justin summed things up.
“You know, a year ago I was floundering, wasn’t I? There were three things I desperately needed. A love, a father, and a sense of purpose. And now I’ve found them all. You couldn’t lay on the love and the father, Robert, but you did supply the purpose. And you’ve been behind me all along. You’ve no idea how much that’s meant.”
“You supplied the purpose yourself. And the rest is what any friend would do.”
Trite words maybe, but they resonated. And they put something else into Justin’s mind.
“There’s another thing I’ve learned, Robert. Two other things. That there are good people in the world. More than I’d imagined. And that the not-so-good people aren’t as bad as I thought. I’ve learned how to forgive. Or I’m learning. Things aren’t as black and white as I’d thought.”
Next day, the letter posted and Robert bidden a tearful farewell, a new Justin left Hambledon, and a new Justin arrived home. Mum’s mood was subdued and William’s eye sardonic. Because minds could still change, Justin kept his passport and tickets and money secreted in an inside pocket. He went to the copy shop to copy Dad’s letter. He assembled and packed his luggage for Cyprus. He gave the churchyard grass its first mow of the season and, for all he cared, its last. It was not until after supper and his stepfather was out of the house that he could get Mum by herself.
He told her then, as gently as he could, that he had heard from Dad, that he understood about him, and sympathised. He told her that he understood about her, and did not blame her. She listened in stony silence. He told her — he did not ask, but told her — that he was going to New Zealand in the summer.
At that she lifted her eyes to him. “Abandoning your boyfriend, then?”
He tried to keep his voice level. “No. He’s going too, I hope. So is his father, I hope. Who was Dad’s, um, best friend at Hambledon.”
She began to weep, and he put his arm round her. She threw it off and stormed out with a bitter cry that sounded like ‘perverts!’
Through his bleak devastation he thought, once again, that he understood. He had unwittingly taken her back to York sixteen years and nine months ago, and reminded her of her shame. Although forgiven, she could not forgive. She could not forgive herself for what she had done. She could not forgive Dad for what he had done. She could not forgive Justin for being the result. She could not forgive either of them for being what they were.
He had his own shame, for his own lustings. But that shame had been over-ridden by forgiveness from Robert, from Honk, from Gavin, yes, even from God — or did he mean from himself? It had been over-ridden by love from Gavin, by love for Gavin. But it seemed that her shame had not been over-ridden. Had his stepfather not given her enough love? Had he not forgiven her? Or did she simply not want to be forgiven?
That night was a dark one. He endured it in the knowledge that day would bring light of compensating brilliance.
Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light.
He got up long before he needed to, before the household was awake, and once out of the vicarage, like a dog shaking its wet coat, he shook off his past ready to confront his future.
All the way across London, the first and humdrum part of his journey, his mind remained in neutral, but Heathrow threw him into gear. He had never been abroad before, nor flown, nor plumbed the mysteries of an airport, let alone one seething with travellers off for an Easter break. But common sense and observation saw him through. At last he found himself on the plane for Larnaka, in a window seat, all his senses at full alert, determined to make the best of every minute of the flight.
His neighbour turned out to be a boy of his own age, and a chatty one. He was going back to Cyprus for the holidays. His father, he announced importantly, worked at the High Commission. He and his mates couldn’t wait to get busy with their girlfriends and paint the bars and clubs of Nicosia red, and for good measure paint Limassol beach red as well, all of which was stupidly difficult to do in England. In fact several of his mates were on this very plane — he pointed out those who were visible — because all the diplomats’ kids went to school in England — he was at Eton himself — except for one oddball who snootily chose to go to some dreadful local school, he couldn’t imagine why.
Justin turned abruptly away from him. The plane was taxiing out to the runway, and he glued himself to the window. Back-shoving acceleration, stomach-lurching take-off. Industrial estates below, then suburbia, receding. It was a perfect day and microscopic detail stood out. Tiny roads and houses, woods and farmland bright with spring, suddenly giving way to an indefinite expanse of sparkling ripples, ploughed by little vee-shaped wakes of white.
This precious stone set in a silver sea.
He gazed down, fascinated. A map, but better than a map. His sense of geography was good, but to see things like this from on high … Thus might a god look down.
“What’s so interesting?” his neighbour enquired.
“Uh? Let’s have a look.”
Without so much as a by-your-leave the boy leaned across him, and although Justin sat as far back as he could, their faces almost touched. This was a handsome lad, and a year ago — less than a year — Justin would have lusted madly. Now, not a spark was struck.
“Nothing but sea and ships. What’s so interesting about that?”
“It’s the busiest shipping lane in the world.”
“Oh. How boring.” Dismissing Justin as a dead loss, he sat back to bury his nose in a magazine full of girls clad in little or nothing. Justin returned to his vista. A second coastline, followed by endless farmland, a peepshow on the wide plains of France, framed in the little window. His mind was in overdrive, and another quotation sprang to mind, so apposite that he smiled at his own wit.
“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?”
“What was that?”
Justin realised he had said it aloud. His halting explanation was a flop. To his neighbour, Tudor theatres and Henry V were as boring as shipping lanes. Back to the window.
Plain eventually gave way to upland and thence to white and stirring peaks.
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise; but this time he said it to himself.
After the unwelcome interruption of a plastic meal, a long haul down the Adriatic, paralleling the mountains of Yugoslavia and Albania.
And what should I do in Illyria? My brother, he is in Elysium.
Across the tough brown backbone of Greece.
The mountains look on Marathon, and Marathon looks on the sea.
He became conscious of the beating of his heart.
An azure Aegean.
The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece, where burning Sappho loved and sung.
Not so far now to where burning Gavin loved. Not so far.
A big island near a mainland, which must be Rhodes.
He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.
Cloud appeared beneath, wispy at first, then a billowing carpet of cotton wool. It set Justin musing about immensity. Hitherto, looking at the tiny fields and roads and villages as they crawled by thirty thousand feet below (so the captain said on the intercom), he had indeed felt an immensity, but it was coupled with a possessiveness. Except over the Alps, there had always been human handiwork visible; even when over the sea there were ships in sight; and he had somehow felt arrogantly and quite deplorably superior, sustained in mid-air by near-magical technology as he gazed down at earth-bound human endeavour. He had felt, almost, godlike.
But flying over clouds was a different matter altogether. Here, while there was no old God in a nightie, there was no humanity either. Nor was there was any scale. He had no notion how far below him the cotton wool lay, how many miles away that odd-shaped billow might be. He then felt very small and feeble, knowing (because the captain said so) that it was minus fifty centigrade outside, knowing that he was held up only by those frail little wings (better not think of Icarus), knowing that the boy in the next seat didn’t give a damn. This immensity was not unlike the immensity of music or of poetry, not unlike Keats’s reaction when he first looked into Chapman’s Homer …
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken.
It put him in his place. The further he looked across the clouds into the unscalable distance, the more he saw of himself, his little self, his empty self. He was not godlike. Rather he was in the hands of God. Not of a God out there, physically holding him up, but of a God inside him, sustaining him spiritually. His guide, his conscience, his encouragement … his inner Robert … his inner Gavin … his own private God. That was what people called this … presence. But was it a supernatural God? Or was it the natural voice of his own self at last awakened? The voice of his own little human spirit, singing in harmony with Robert’s, in unison with Gavin’s, yet unique to him? Or were God and human spirit one and the same?
Best, perhaps, not to ask too many questions. Whatever it was, it was there. Just recognise it, and accept it.
His little self remained little. But his empty self was not so empty now. If the dregs of the vicarage were draining out, the tide of Dad was pouring in. There was a whole flood of reviving images of Gavin. There was the prospect of togetherness again. There was the anticipation of what they would — yes, would — do tonight. There was the happy cargo of the news he was carrying. The awareness of each of them was so intense that it hurt. A year ago he had been on the point of sinking. Since then he had wept more than he had wept in his whole life, and almost all his tears had been for joy. Now he was poised to soar. Sic itur ad astra.
And all this flowed from that magical chance encounter on the train. It had not only brought Gavin to him. It had put ideas into Mum’s head, and her report of his gayness had brought Dad to him. And Dad’s letter had brought out all the rest of the revelations. Chance encounter? It seemed one that was meant to happen. He had thanked God for it, but he still did not believe that God could bring such awe-inspiring things about. Was it destiny, then, playing with his life, playing with their four lives, like chessmen on a board? But if there was such a thing as destiny, was it not the same as God?
Shaking his head, he turned away from the window. His neighbour, bored even with boobs and bums, began to chatter once more. Was he going to Cyprus on holiday? To Nicosia? Which hotel? Oh, to stay with friends? Where did they live? In the High Commission? The British High Commission? Actually in it? Yes, said Justin, smiling to himself, for he knew from Gavin that there was only one apartment in the building. The neighbour blushed and shut up.
Justin’s ears popped. The plane was descending through the cloud, and abruptly broke through.
Ahead, land. Beneath, a sea brilliant with sunshine.
The hidden sun that rings black Cyprus with a lake of fire.
His heart, as they landed, was thumping. By the time he impatiently reached the arrival gates it was in his mouth. His way was blocked by a cohort of diplomats’ sons falling on the necks of a giggling gaggle of girls dressed to the nines. Huh.
To see and to be seen, in heaps they run, some to undo, and some to be undone.
Stuff you, he thought, you haven’t a clue. But that was ungracious. We’re just different, you and me, and you’ve a right to be different. He dodged round them.
And there was Gavin, grinning from ear to ear, almost dancing with excitement, abubble with welcome. But he started with the sedatest of hugs.
“Oh, Justin my love!” he said in his ear. “Sorry, got to keep this short.” He broke it off. “All very well for them,” he explained under his breath, nodding at the nearby youngsters in passionate clinches, “but it would look odd if we hugged properly. And we daren’t hold hands till we’re alone. Not here.”
Justin, noticing his neighbour from the plane eying them speculatively, could only agree.
“How was the flight, then?” Gavin went on out loud. “You hadn’t flown before, had you? Let me carry your bag. I’ve only just got out of school. Dad’s sorry he can’t be here — he’s tied up in some meeting, but he’ll escape as soon as he can and with luck he’ll be home the same time as us. Let’s find a taxi. The official car would have been much more private, but Dad’s strict about not using it for personal things. Anyway, it only takes about half an hour. The taxi rank’s out here.”
In the back of the taxi, with a chance to get a word in, Justin could unwind a bit.
“Happy birthday, Gavin.” He squeezed his hand, taking care the driver could not see. “Here’s a little present for you.”
He handed over a package, which Gavin tore open there and then.
“A book! On English cathedrals! Wow! Thanks, Justin. But you needn’t have done this —
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.
And now that you’ve come I didn’t need anything more.”
Emotion was undermining Justin’s control, as Gavin suddenly noticed through his excitement.
“Justin! You’re very quiet.” He looked more closely. “You’re crying! Justin! What’s wrong?”
“It’s OK, Gavin … Nothing’s wrong … Everything’s right … Everything’s gloriously right … So right it makes me cry … Just being with you … and there’s something else as well … I’ve got another present for you, you see, and especially for your Dad. I’ll tell you later. Not now. Not till we’re all together.”
Gavin, still concerned and still watching him carefully, had to be content.
“OK. Till then. Togetherness is what I’ve been waiting for all winter. It’s been tough, hasn’t it? I thought I couldn’t love you more than I did. But I reckon that absence does make the heart grow fonder.”
He smiled apologetically and broke into quiet song.
“Oh,oh,oh, totus floreo!
Iam amore virginali totus ardeo.”
That had the effect of setting Justin laughing. He joined in the chorus, and sang the next verse solo.
“Novus, novus, novus amor est quo pereo.
Tempore brumali vir patiens,
Animo vernali lasciviens.”
Another joint chorus, loud this time:
“Novus, novus, novus amor est quo pereo.”
No doubt the taxi driver thought this pair of young foreigners totally mad, but that hardly mattered. And he would hardly understand Latin — how many taxi drivers in Cyprus did? He dropped them outside the High Commission, Gavin paid, and with a nod and a smile from the security guard they marched inside.
“Is my Dad back yet, Maria?” Gavin asked the girl at the reception desk.
“Yes, five minutes ago.”
“Oh good. Thanks. Let’s go up, Justin. We’re on the top floor.”
The lift, having given them the opportunity for a second brief hug en route, disgorged them into a dim hallway.
“Dad!” Gavin called, “We’re here!”
For all that Gavin’s arm was on his shoulder, Justin’s legs were trembling. A door opened, and out came a tall sinewy man in a dark suit. The light from the lift, before it was shut off, momentarily picked out his features, smiling, handsome, flaxen-haired, tanned, patently father of his son.
“Justin! Welcome! Welcome indeed!” He shook hands.
“How do you do, sir.” It was all Justin could manage.
“Oh, not sir, please. You can’t possibly call me sir. Call me Justin too. But come in!”
He led the way and, as the dark of the hall gave way to the light of the living room, he turned to inspect his guest more closely. And stared in growing astonishment.
“Forgive me … You remind me so much of someone I used to know.”
It was no longer Justin’s legs that were trembling, but his lips.
“Do … do I really?”
All his inhibitions melted. He had never set eyes on this man before. He had hardly hugged anyone in his life. But now he flung his arms round Gavin’s Dad. Because he was Gavin’s Dad. Because he was Dad’s Justin. Because he was his namesake. Because he felt he knew him. Because … because it was right. Gavin’s Dad, bewildered, perforce hugged him back. And Gavin looked on open-mouthed.
“Then I know who I remind you of …” Justin was openly sobbing now. “I remind you of my Dad … And … my Dad is … Gavin Appleyard …”
Justin senior, thunderstruck, held him out at arm’s length to search his face.
“… and he named me after you … Just as you named Gavin after my Dad … Even though you thought he’d let you down … but he hadn’t … he hadn’t let you down … He was trying to protect you.”
Gavin’s Dad was gaping. “Oh God!” he muttered. “Oh God!” He pulled Justin back into an embrace of wordless acceptance.
“Tell me,” he said shakily after a while. “Tell me everything. But wait a mo.”
He went to the phone and could be heard instructing his secretary that he was on no account to be disturbed. Meanwhile Gavin took over the hug.
“Wow! I think I’m catching up. Your Dad was my Dad’s lover at Hambledon? Your Dad’s got in touch at last, then?”
Justin nodded dumbly.
“And he’s all you hoped for?”
Justin nodded again.
“Oh God! I’m so happy for you!”
But Gavin’s Dad had finished on the phone, and Justin gently disengaged himself.
“Justin …” he said tentatively, uncomfortable at using the name. “Did … did Gavin tell you I didn’t know who my father was?”
“Yes. He did.”
“Well, I got a letter from him, the day before yesterday. It made me look up the School Roll, and put two and two together. And then I phoned him. There wasn’t time to write to you. But I’ve brought the letter, and copies for both of you. It explains everything.”
“Come on, let’s sit down.”
Justin pulled the photocopies from his jacket pocket — too precious to entrust to his luggage — and gave them a set apiece. Gavin’s Dad sat down in the middle of the long sofa, a boy on either side, each with an arm round him. When Justin senior reached the end, he hugged them both hard, and sat for a long while with his head bent. At last he gave a great sigh.
“Thank you, Justin. Gavin’s been singing your praises, did you know? I was fully prepared to like you — yes, to love you — as my son’s boyfriend. And so I do. But little did I know that I’d love you for another reason. A totally different one. You’ve got a new light in your own life — oh yes, Gavin’s told me about your darkness. And he’s told you about my darkness, so you know that you’ve brought me a new light as well. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York … if not quite in the sense that Shakespeare intended …
“Justin … you say you phoned him. May I ask what you talked about?”
“Oh God.” Justin relived the phone call and tried to summarise it. “It was incredible, just talking to each other. Saying hullo. That I didn’t blame him. Nothing new, really … I mean nothing I didn’t know already, from his letter. But I had plenty to tell him, to put him in the picture. About Gavin. And everything Gavin had told me about you. Dad … well, he broke down. So did I … And I said that I’d go to him in New Zealand in the summer if you could come too, Gavin. And you can, if you’re game.” Gavin nodded emphatically. “And you too, Justin, of course … What else? Oh, I asked him to send a photo.”
“Good thinking.” Justin senior’s arms were still round both boys. “But can’t we do better than a photo? Why not get Gavin himself here? Now? For Easter?” — Justin’s heart leapt back into his mouth — “Do you think he can leave his cattle?”
“No idea. I don’t know what staff he’s got.”
“We can but try. I must phone him anyway. He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. Oh heck, what’s the time in New Zealand?”
Justin looked at the clock on the bureau. Half past seven. Twelve minus two hours difference.
“Half past five in the morning.”
“Did you phone him in the middle of the night? His night?”
“Yes. I reckoned it was more important than his beauty sleep.”
Justin senior laughed and clapped him on the back.
“And I agree. Right, no time like the present, then. But do you mind if I do this by myself? I mean, after twenty-five years …” He half-choked. “But he’ll want to talk to you again, Justin, and maybe to Gavin too. I’ll whistle you up when I’m done. All right?”
He went into the next room and shut the door, leaving Justin and Gavin to look at each other, and to close up the gap on the sofa.
“Gavin, I’m sorry. Your birthday … It ought to have been your day, but it’s turned into your Dad’s.”
“If it’s his, it’s mine. And it’s yours too, isn’t it? And your Dad’s” — he nodded at the closed door. “I didn’t understand what you were getting at in the taxi. But you’re right. It’s all so gloriously right.”
“And I’ve been thinking, Gavin. It’s the right time of year too. Easter. It’s named after a pagan festival, did you know? Anglo-Saxon — Eostre, the goddess of the dawn, of the East. At the equinox, roughly, when light triumphs over dark. Like Beltane in Ireland, when they lit great fires to celebrate. Like the Christian festival — resurrection, grief turned to joy. We needn’t believe the detail. But the myths are right. The symbolism. Life revived. Spring after winter. Day after night.”
Eight evenings later, the courtyard of Ayios Ioannis cathedral, lighted only by the background urban glow, was packed for the Orthodox Easter vigil. At midnight, out from the bible-black within, came a procession bearing the holy flame. Candles were lit, first from the flame and then from one another, and across the court there spread a pool of light. Then bells pealed, fireworks banged, a bonfire flared, floodlights blazed … and night became day.
“Christos anesti!” everyone cried, Christ is risen!
“Alithōs anesti!” everyone replied, he is risen indeed!
Unremarked in the fringe of the crowd, they stood in a close circle, two men, two boys, with eyes for each other alone; and four wet faces reflected the four flames that trembled at the tight centre of their private joy.
The Lord make his face shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon thee and give thee peace, this day and for ever more.