“Had a good time with your parents?” asked Graham when Tom finally returned to their study.
“Yes.” Tom said it absently. He was conscious of being discourteous, but he simply could not spare proper attention for his study-mate. He had too much to think about: not only everything he had learned in Wally’s sitting room but, even more urgent, what had just taken place.
They had thanked Wally for dinner. Tom had of course hugged Mum and Dad. So too of course had Kim. Not at all of course, he had hugged Tom as well. On the way back to their studies he had put his hand on Tom’s arm to stop him. And he had said three things.
The first was, “Lord, what a day! Unforgettable, but I’m wrung dry and it’s hard to think straight.”
Tom sympathised. He felt drained himself. What must Kim feel like?
The second was, “Tom, please don’t tell people about my blinking medal. I’d still rather it was kept under wraps.”
Fair enough, much though Tom would have liked to blow his trumpet for him.
And the third thing he had said was even closer to the bone, but it was enigmatic. “And Tom. We mustn’t hug in public. We don’t want people to put two and two together, do we?”
He had looked at Tom to see if he understood. Tom had blushed, and Kim had seen that he blushed. But what exactly had Kim meant? If he had said, ‘We don’t want people to put two and two together and make five,’ it would mean ‘we don’t want them to draw the wrong conclusion.’ But he hadn’t said that. What he had actually said seemed to mean ‘we don’t want them to draw the right conclusion.’ If so, it was mind-blowing.
As he wrestled with it, he gazed out into the darkness. Kim’s study light was on. Silhouetted against it was Kim himself, half-raising a hand to him as if in reassurance. Or was it in blessing? The light went off.
Graham saw Tom looking out. “You didn’t miss anything at tea,” he said irritatingly. For the last two days he had lost no opportunity to tease him about his so-called crush. “Longley wasn’t there either.”
“I know,” replied Tom, miles away. “He was having dinner with us.”
Graham was still blinking when the bell rang for prayers and they had to run. Prayers were held in the house hall, which was also the boys’ dining room and at this end of the day exuded an unpleasing memory of stale cabbage. That was normal. What was not normal was that after the hymn, rather than reading a prayer from a book, Wally extemporised one.
“Lord, we thank you for our families, and for family togetherness. We thank you for the love of parents, and of brothers and sisters, and of our wider families.” He ruefully acknowledged to himself that this did not apply to all of his kneeling flock. “And we pray for those who have not had that love; that they may find it … and rejoice in it … and be healed and sustained by it.”
Tom’s ‘Amen’, which usually he only muttered, was so loud that Graham nudged him; and when they stood up, Tom thought he saw more tears on Kim’s cheeks.
On Saturdays, prayers were the last event of the day. When they were over it was straight up to the dormitories, which Tom was not looking forward to. As he brushed his teeth he had a breathing space, because Graham was at the other end of the row of washbasins. But as they went to their cubicles to undress he was thinking hard about how to deal with the questions which were inevitably coming his way. He wasn’t ready for them, not by a long chalk. How the heck was he to break the news about him and Kim?
At Yarborough, every boy had his own cubicle for sleeping, its open end closed by a curtain. The six new boys’ cubicles were all together at one end of a long dormitory. They always reminded him a bit of Tai Po, where the inmates had installed makeshift bamboo partitions to give a semblance of privacy. Here, Graham’s was next to Tom’s. While Tom postponed the evil hour by dawdling as he changed into his pyjamas, Graham changed in record time, flung back his curtain and demanded stridently, “Tom, why was Longley …”
He stopped dead. Kim himself was there, leaning, hands in pockets, against the wall. It was not in the least unusual. He was in charge of this dormitory, and he was always present for the half hour before lights out, working his way along it and joining in the chat. The only variable was which end he started at.
“Why was I what?” he asked. His voice, as always, was gentle and deep.
Tom heard it with a glow in his heart. Kim had known he would be in a predicament, and had come to help him out. He drew back his curtain as Graham stammered in confusion.
“Well, I didn’t … you know … I mean …” Finding no escape, and aware that Longley was never unreasonable, he took the bull by the horns. “Well, I was wondering why you were having dinner with Tom and his parents. If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Not in the least. In fact I’ve come to spread the good news. I’m sure you all know where Tom Wardle spent the war …”
Five heads swung towards Tom, and five were shaken.
“You don’t? Oh … Well, Tom and I have just discovered that we spent the war together. When it ended we lost touch, and after eight years we didn’t recognise each other. But we’d been as close as brothers, then. You see, I’d, um, lost my parents, and Tom’s Mum and Dad looked after me. I was only five when the war started, and Tom was only one …”
“But you’re not as old as that,” objected a lad with an agile brain. “Tom must’ve been born in 1940, same as me. But the war started in 1939.”
“In Europe, yes. In 1941, in the Far East.”
“You were in the Far East?” Exotic images swam before the lad’s eyes. “In China?”
“Well, Hong Kong.”
“But Hong Kong,” another boy interjected, “was captured by the Japs. A friend of my Dad’s was in the army there and got taken prisoner. He spent four years in a camp.”
“Just like us, then,” said Kim. “Except that we were in a civilian internment camp. But still prisoners.”
Awe spread over the youngsters’ faces. None of them knew anyone, apart from that solitary friend of Dad’s, who had ever been a prisoner of any sort. Questions came thick and fast, mundane and unsophisticated questions, all of which Kim left to Tom. And Tom did not mind. Kim was clearly knackered, and there was no difficulty, now that the ice had been broken, in answering them without any bragging on his own behalf or even on Kim’s. But Kim, rather than wandering off to chat elsewhere as he normally did, stayed with them for the whole half hour. Tom had the impression that he was monitoring his performance, and approving of it.
Eventually Kim turned to Graham. “Anyway, that’s why I had dinner with Tom and his parents … with my sort-of brother and my sort-of parents. It was a reunion, and a very happy one.” He looked at his watch. “Time to pack it in, chaps. Good night!”
That was the signal to get into bed, and a minute later the lights went out. But it was long before Tom dropped off. For months he had been struggling out of the cocoon of childhood. Now he felt ready to fly. Independence lay ahead, or something akin to it; and with independence, responsibility.
Over breakfast the news spread fast, and Tom found his standing had improved; although the reason, he felt, was artificial and not much to his taste. It being Sunday, Wally took Mary and John to Chapel and afterwards surrendered them to Tom. Adrian joined them, and together they spent a quiet few hours strolling around the school and lunching at the Red Lion; but their conversation, while eminently pleasant, was low-key compared to the emotions of the day before. Tom, whose hobby was photography, took a number of pictures of them together. And then the Wardles had to leave. The boys, after a farewell which was not entirely tear-free, watched them drive off down the High Street.
“God! What a twenty-four hours!” Kim said. “Thank you, Tom. And thank you for your parents.”
To which Tom found no answer.
“What now?” asked Kim. “Can you spare an hour or two? We need to get to know each other again. There are umpteen things to talk about.”
Yes, we do, Tom thought. And yes, there are: crucial things, make-or-break things. In a tingling mix of trepidation and eagerness he agreed.
“Right then,” said Kim. “Where? If we go to my study we’ll be constantly interrupted by people wanting jobs done and questions answered. If we go to yours, young Holmfirth will no doubt be in attendance, and we don’t want that. If we go up to the dorm, people might get the wrong idea. Are you game for a walk?” He cocked an eye at the sky. The weather had turned cold and blustery. “We’ll have to risk it raining.”
Having dumped Tom’s photographic gear in MacNair’s, they walked briskly out of town along the Alvingham road, jackets buttoned and collars turned up against the wind.
“I was surprised last night,” Kim observed, “that you hadn’t told anyone about Tai Po. I’d imagined that all of your year would know. Ordinary boys would’ve gone on and on about being a prisoner, and no doubt exaggerated the hardships for good measure. It would be to their credit, in most people’s eyes. It’d boost their standing no end. Well, I know you’re not an ordinary boy, but why did you keep it quiet?”
Tom’s heart leapt so hard at the compliment that he could not work out an instant and satisfactory answer. He threw the question back.
“You haven’t told anyone either, as far as I know. And definitely not about Kirkby. Why did you keep it all quiet?”
“Because it might smack of boasting. I didn’t go to Tai Po deliberately. It was outside my control, and I can’t take credit for something outside my control.”
“Just now” — however crucial the occasion might be, Tom could not help being mischievous — “you thanked me for my parents. All right, they might with luck take credit for me. But I can’t take credit for them. They’re outside my control.”
Kim laughed out loud. “Got me there!”
“And everything you did at Tai Po,” Tom went on. “The gulls, the sulpha-whatsit, killing Hashimoto. And what you did at Kirkby. They weren’t outside your control. You chose to do them. Aren’t they something to be proud of?”
“Well, only in the sense that I’m relieved I managed to do them. Except Kirkby, where I failed miserably. But I can’t take credit for them. I want to be judged by what I am, not by what I may have done in the past. Anyway, did I choose to do them? They were simply pushed my way and I had to do them. Anyone would have done the same, if they’d been in my shoes. You would, wouldn’t you?”
Would I? wondered Tom. Could I have dared?
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “You see, I’ve never done anything I could boast about. Not at Tai Po or anywhere else. Not like you have.”
“So why haven’t you told anyone about Tai Po?”
This conversation was bolstering Tom’s confidence as well as adding, he felt, several years to his age. And his mind was clearer now. That business of having to do things was irrelevant. But he understood Kim’s basic reasoning, and agreed with it.
“Exactly the same as you. I did tell them at prep school, and it did boost my standing. People sort of admired me for having been a prisoner. I didn’t like that at all, because I knew I didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t something I’d actually done. It had just happened. So when I came to Yarborough I decided to keep totally quiet about Tai Po, at least till I found someone who’d take it the right way. Someone I respected enough. Someone I felt close enough to.”
Kim’s whole attention seemed to be fixed on a crow which was battling valiantly into the wind but making little progress.
“But you told me,” he said tonelessly.
Tom drew a deep mental breath. “Yes. That’s why.”
Kim gave him a long look, and for a hundred yards he said nothing.
“It created quite a sensation last night in the dorm,” he remarked at last. “I thought you dealt very well with all those questions. Just the right level. All right, your standing was boosted, and it’ll stay up whether you like it or not. But the public sensation will only last a few days. Then it’ll die down. Things like that always do.”
He stopped in the middle of the road. As the wind buffeted them and dead leaves skittered past, he took Tom by the shoulders and turned him so that they were face to face.
“But then there’s this private matter, Tom, between you and me. That won’t die down. At least I hope it won’t. Look, Tom … we’ve been feeling our way, haven’t we? Very cautiously, both of us. We’re in dangerous territory, where we’re not supposed to be. I’ve never been here before, and I doubt you have either. But we are here, unless I’m making a total fool of myself … You do understand what I’m going on about, don’t you? We are here, aren’t we?”
Tom, while relishing the pressure of Kim’s hands, felt as if he had not taken a breath for five minutes. “Yes, Kim, I do understand. And yes, we are here.”
“Thank God for that! We are singing from the same hymn sheet, so let’s stop beating about the bush and put all our cards on the table.” He laughed delightedly, all of a sudden as cheerful as Tom had ever seen him. “There’s a glorious mishmash of clichés for you! And how long,” he asked, sobering down, “have you known you’re here?”
“Oh, for a month. Ever since I arrived and you first talked to me. I knew then that I was, um, here. But I could only hope that you were too. Until last night, that is, when you said something about not hugging because people would put two and two together. That made me fairly sure.”
Tom wanted them to hug again, and kiss, and more. Here and now, even in this gale, even in the middle of the Alvingham road. But they couldn’t. He knew they couldn’t. As if to emphasise that they couldn’t, Kim dropped his hands from Tom’s shoulders and started walking again. When alone with Tom he did not bother to hide his limp.
“Good. I thought you’d picked that up,” he said. “It’s the same with me. I’ve known just as long, but could only hope that you knew. Until we met in the quad and hugged. Your first hug was a long-lost brother’s hug. But your second had rather more to it.” He chuckled. “I could feel it. And I felt it too when I was tickling you.”
“And I was hoping you hadn’t noticed!” cried Tom, aghast. “And then hoping the HM and Wally hadn’t noticed!”
Kim chuckled again. “They can’t have done. They weren’t in contact with you. But I was, and that made me pretty certain. But the next couple of days I hardly spoke to you. I’m sorry about that. Trouble was, there was so much to think about. Rediscovering Tom from Tai Po and the prospect of meeting Mary and John again — that was plenty enough by itself. Then discovering into the bargain that Tom from MacNair’s seemed to be like-minded. It all churned me up so much I didn’t dare talk to you.”
And that’s the Kim, thought Tom, who had risked a bullet from Hashimoto, the Kim who had braved the flood at Kirkby. And he didn’t dare talk to me.
“Why me?” he asked after a pause, humbly but in anticipation. “You’ve met plenty of others. What’s special about me?”
“Ah, that’s the great mystery, isn’t it? I can shed a bit of light on it, but only a bit. The moment you appeared at Yarborough you stood out among the other new boys — among people like Holmfirth, say, who’s only a child and hardly over-burdened with intelligence. But you were as bright as they come. Much older than your actual age. Quick on the uptake. Full of insights. Considerate. Sharing all the same values as me. It showed up whenever we chatted. I try to chat with everybody, now I’m at the top. It’s always friendly, I hope, but it’s usually shallow. But with you it was deep from the start. I don’t mean always profound, but it showed there were real depths there. And on top of all that you’re a stunner to look at.” He grinned disarmingly at him. “That doesn’t matter — I’d feel just the same if you looked like the back end of a bus. But it’s a bonus.”
Tom was embarrassed, if not as embarrassed as he expected. “But that’s only this term’s new boys. You’ve been here four years. You’ve met plenty of others.”
“Oh, the same with them. A few have been a cut above the ordinary, boys like Alan Gregory, say — in his case several cuts above the ordinary. But none of them’s clicked like you. That’s where the mystery lies. And there’s another important thing. Remember when we rediscovered each other and I said you rang a bell? It’s obvious it was an unrecognised memory of you at Tai Po. You had a lovely nature even then. And I’ve a feeling that this, um, friendship of ours … oh damn it! …”
Kim paused as if making up his mind. “Look, Tom. We’ve been carefully sidestepping the proper word. Why not use it? Love, Tom. We’re in love, aren’t we?” His lopsided eyebrows twisted still more. “At least I am.”
“And so am I.” It gave Tom a thrill to say it.
“Whew! That’s a relief!” Kim gave him another broad grin. “Where were we? Oh yes. I’ve a feeling that our love really goes back to Tai Po. Not in its present form, of course …”
He paused once more. “Damn it, again! There’s another word we’ve been prudishly skirting around. Sex. Why not use that too? Our love wasn’t sexual then, obviously. But it has a sexual angle now. At least I assume yours does, from what I felt behind your trousers the other day.”
“Whew, again! Though it raises a huge and tricky question we’ve got to face up to. But let’s park that on the shelf for the moment. Does it make sense that our love really goes back to Tai Po?”
“Yes, it does. You rang the same sort of bell with me. And” — Tom found he could offer an insight of his own — “you’ve been short of friends ever since, haven’t you? Ever since you left us at liberation. You’ve been lonely.”
Even above the wind he could hear Kim’s indrawn breath.
“I know,” Tom went on slowly, “or I can guess. Because I’ve been lonely too. Nothing like as lonely as you, because I’ve got Mum and Dad. But apart from them, I’m only just realising how lonely I’ve been, ever since Tai Po. How short of proper friends. I was always thinking of you, and nobody filled the gap you left. It was the same with you, wasn’t it?”
Kim had stopped walking again, and was smiling wryly at him.
“Tom, you read me like a book. Yes, it was exactly the same with me. I was always thinking of you, and nobody filled the gap you left. But as time went by, my memory of you became … what’s the word? Idealised? No, not quite that … I remembered well enough what we did, but my image of what you looked like drifted away from reality. Which must be why you rang a bell, but I couldn’t pin your face down.”
“But Kim … sorry, give me a moment.”
The immensity of what was happening was proving too much to absorb all at once. Tom needed time to catch up. For minutes he stood, rocked by the wind and staring at the ground, while Kim waited understandingly. At last he felt ready to go on.
“But why us, Kim? I mean, we were great friends at Tai Po. We loved each other, in a sort of a way. But not in that way, that sexual way. We were much too young. So why do you love me now? In that way? Me, a boy? Rather than a girl?”
“God knows. That’s another of the mysteries. Of course there simply weren’t any girls at Tai Po, and I’ve hardly met any since — precious little opportunity at boys’ schools in term time and my father’s quarters in the holidays. And what little I have seen of them doesn’t attract me in the slightest. So maybe it’s my background …” he grinned again, possibly feeling that Tom was in need of yet more breathing space “… that made me fall for Tom Wardle rather than Gloria Ramsbottom.”
Tom did need relief. He giggled. “There can’t be anyone called Gloria Ramsbottom!”
“Oh, but there is. In Belize. The younger daughter of the Attorney General, no less. She spotted me last summer and spent weeks chasing me.”
“Reminds me of home, when Mum or Dad’s upstairs and I’m down and they call me. I say I’ll be up in half a shake of a ram’s bottom.”
“Up?” Kim queried. “Not me. I’ve never met anything less sexually enticing than Gloria Ramsbottom.”
“Just think.” Tom was still giggling. “If she’d been a boy she should’ve been called Glorius Ramsbottom.”
“You wouldn’t call her bottom glorious. Not unless you’re turned on by sheer size. It’s elephantine, and it wobbles. Give me yours any day.” Kim eyed Tom’s trim shape with appreciation. “Anyway, I spent weeks hiding from her. Not just because of her name. Or her bum. What about you and girls?”
“I haven’t met many either. A few at Blackheath … at home. Neighbours, and daughters of Mum and Dad’s colleagues. But they’ve never chased me, thank God. And never interested me either. But then I’m younger than you. This sort of thing — you know, sexy thoughts — only really kicked in about six months ago. Not all that long after I’d first, um, come. About the same time that my voice broke.”
“Same with me. It seems it’s only at puberty that sex rears its ugly head.”
Tom saw two things there to query, and one was potentially serious.
“Ugly?” he asked dubiously.
Kim laughed. “Oh, don’t worry. That’s only a phrase.”
But Tom had to make sure, chary though he was of raising a problematic subject. “Um, Hashimoto didn’t put you off sex, did he?”
“Oh no. It certainly was ugly with him, and apart from him I’ve never experienced it. But I don’t see why it can’t be beautiful. With the right person. With you.”
Tom was hugely reassured. “But it can kick in before puberty, can’t it?” he asked, raising his second query. “Graham’s nowhere near puberty, yet he’s got a filthy mind. He’s always talking about sex. Crude talk.”
“But it is only talk, isn’t it?”
“Well, he wanks. Or says he does.”
“Who doesn’t? Even younger boys than him, just for the pleasure of it. But I’d guess that talking dirty makes him feel grown-up. The question is, is he mature enough to love? To love me, for example, in the sort of way that you do?”
“Oh no!” The mere thought of Graham in love with Kim was grotesque. “Nowhere near … I shifted my desk, you know” — Tom was a trifle shamefaced at confessing it — “so that I could look across the yard to you in your study. And when Graham cottoned on he called it a crush, damn him. That’s the highest he can see.”
“Oh!” Kim was enlightened. “So that’s why I could suddenly see you in your study! But to throw your question back at you, why me?”
“Oh, all sorts of reasons. Some of them the same as yours — you were friendly and interesting and modest. You thought the same way. You even talked the same way. And I’d heard at my prep school that most prefects at public schools were tyrants. But you weren’t, you were just the opposite. Don’t they say that power corrupts? That’s bollocks, in your case. You’ve got more power than anyone at Yarborough. More, in a way, even than the HM or Wally. But you use it properly, and everyone loves you for it. Damn it! I mean I love you for it, and everyone else admires you for it. If they knew what you’d done at Tai Po and Kirkby they’d admire you even more. Specially if they knew about your George Cross.”
And they’d admire you yet more again, he reflected, if they knew you were in line for another medal.
“That smells of hero-worship,” said Kim. “I wouldn’t like that. I’m an ordinary bloke, not a hero. I don’t live on a pedestal.”
“But that’s the point, Kim. You very well could live on a pedestal, but you don’t. You’re not in the least ordinary, but you pretend you are. Listen. Until a few days ago I loved you for what I saw, for what you are now. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? But now I love you still more. Partly because it turns out you’re even more modest than I thought. And partly because it turns out you’re Kim from Tai Po. Where you were my best friend. My only friend.”
Kim was silent for a while. “We always seem to come back to Tai Po, don’t we?”
“Because you must be right,” said Tom. “That’s where everything really started. Thank goodness you happened to bump into us on that ferry.”
“I didn’t happen to bump into you. It wasn’t chance, the way I see it. It was destiny. Which set the ball rolling. Both our balls.”
“Don’t you mean all four?” Tom ventured.
Kim laughed exuberantly. “Hah! Good one! And that’s the fifth time!”
“That you’ve made a rude joke or used a rude word.”
Tom laughed back. “Been keeping count, then?”
“What were the others?”
“Arse. Come. Wank. Bollocks.”
“Oh, they’re nothing. If you want really dirty talk, go to Graham. His can be foul. And, you know, out of place.”
“Whereas yours, naturally, is always appropriate and restrained.” Kim was still light-hearted. “Even when it is rude.”
“Well, I’d never go as far as Graham. But I’d never call testicles anything but balls. Well, with people like you. Do you mind?”
“Not in the least. I like it. There are too many po-faced prudes around. And I like you playing with words.”
“I hope,” Tom ventured another step, at the same time hoping it was not too Grahamish, “you’ll like me playing with balls too.”
Kim laughed again. “God, I can’t wait for that. But …” He pulled a long face.
“It’s going to be a long wait, Tom. There are any number of difficulties.”
That had not yet crossed Tom’s mind. No sex at school, yes, he knew that. No hugging in public, yes, he understood. But why not hugging in private? Even kissing? In his fantasies he had always tumbled straight into Kim’s bed without considering the when and the where. Now that he thought about it, he began to see the difficulties. There was nowhere private enough, not even on the Alvingham road. Several cars had passed them.
“Look, Tom,” said Kim. “We parked this business of sex on the shelf. Let’s take it down and try to deal with it now … Oh hell!” He stopped of a sudden, felt his hair, and looked behind him. “Not now — it’s starting to rain. If we don’t get home fast we’re going to be drenched.”