A Time

7. Deliberation

Turning on their heels, they hurried back. Raindrops spattered in their faces, and ahead the clouds loomed dark. But soon there came a toot from behind, and as they moved on to the verge the car stopped beside them. In it was Wally.

“Hop in,” he said; and as Kim climbed into the front and Tom into the back, the rain began to lash down. “In the nick of time! I’m on my way home from lunch with my friend the vicar of Alvingham. What are you two doing out here so far from shelter?”

Kim explained there was nowhere in the house private enough for a long chinwag.

“Understood. Well, if your chinwag has been cut short, why not finish it in my study? I won’t need it until after evening Chapel, and you won’t be disturbed. By the way, Adrian, about Tuesday. Is your orchestra rehearsal going to clash with that lecture on the Paston letters?”

Tom made no attempt to listen. He sat back, pushing his wind-blown hair into some order, and watched this phenomenon called Kim. He felt shell-shocked. So much had happened, so fast and so loud. On Thursday his relatively placid world had been rocked by the bombshell of rediscovering Kim. Yesterday he had been battered by a barrage of revelations. Today the pair of them had climbed out of their trenches for hand-to-hand combat; far from hostile — the metaphor was breaking down — but just as intensive. And both had emerged victorious. That was the earthshaking result. The conference table came next. But the physical fruits of victory lay far in the future. It was so frustrating. Kim was sitting there in front of him, literally within reach, but untouchable. And he would remain untouchable for months. Touch being forbidden, all Tom could use was his eyes.

Kim’s face, as he turned to talk to Wally, was in profile, a tanned and smooth face which Tom studied in fascination. He knew Kim shaved — he had seen him at it — but there was none of that five o’clock shadow which so often bedevils the dark-haired. And he knew from the showers that Kim’s body hair, like his character, was modest. He was never going to be shaggy. Nor, for that matter, was Tom himself. He was still no great distance past the starting line, but in so many ways he took after Dad — who was not shaggy at all — that he probably wouldn’t be shaggy either. He was glad of that. Bristly doormats did not appeal. Smooth skin on smooth skin seemed so much gentler, so much less … well, abrasive. He conjured up the image of two smooth bodies intertwined and, as the car swung into the drive to MacNair’s, found himself going stiff. He had to disguise it as he got out.

Wally installed them in his study, the scruffy and untidy den appropriate to a lifelong bachelor, and even supplied them with cups of tea.

“I called this dangerous territory,” Kim said once they were alone, “and it’s going to be hellishly difficult picking a safe way through it. Not just in the big wide world — did you see Rupert Croft-Cooke the novelist was in court for having it off with some sailors? He got nine months. But hellishly difficult here at school too. At this stage, from all I’ve heard, we ought to be deep in each other’s arms, our tongues deep in each other’s mouth …”

Or our cocks, thought Tom, but that was too Grahamish to say.

“… but we just can’t do it. Not at Yarborough, anyway.” Kim noticed the bulge in Tom’s trousers, undisguised now that the need was past. “However much you tempt me with that erection of yours. We’ve got to stay chaste.” He fidgeted. “Damn it, there’s something sticking into my arse.”

He stood up to inspect his elderly armchair.

“Ugh, a broken spring. I’ll try the floor instead.”

He rearranged himself cross-legged on the carpet and Tom, to be on the same level, sat down in front of him. Kim’s turn-ups had ridden high above his socks, exposing shins which sported a very modest crop, little more than a dusting, of soft dark hair. Tom, who had never seen them this close up — or not since Tai Po, which was a different matter — found himself staring.

“What are you looking at?” asked Kim.

Tom blushed. “Your legs.”

Kim looked too. “What’s wrong with them?”

“Nothing. They’re nice. Like the rest of you. Not too hairy.”

“Oh. Don’t you like hair, then? Body hair?”

“Well, I don’t mind it in the obvious place. You know.” Tom had so far had no qualms about using what Kim charmingly called rude words, but now that their talk was becoming personal he felt suddenly bashful. “Not elsewhere.”

“Why ever not?” Kim growled, beating his chest and pretending to be a gorilla. “Don’t shaggy virile types appeal to you?”

“No.” Memory took Tom four years back, to his prep school. “I was put off …”

“Tell me, Tom.”

In contrast to the cubicles which Yarborough considerately supplied, his dorm was open and offered no privacy at all. Its inmates, at that stage, were aged nine or ten, but they were ruled by a thirteen-year-old in his final year, whose name was Slack. He was big, brutish, and a bully. And he was precociously advanced in his sexual development. His young charges had only childish equipment and not a whisker on their bodies. Boys of his own age might, if they were lucky, have grown rather larger in that department and sprouted a modicum of hair. But Slack had a massive organ, a thick bush that climbed creeper-like up to his navel, forests in his armpits, and legs halfway to bearskins. Every morning he shaved his pimply face. He also claimed to have shagged a number of girls.

Of all this he was inordinately proud. He would describe in graphic detail how he had shagged them. He would show off packs of French letters in proof, so he said, that he really had shagged them. He would strut around the dormitory flaunting his naked body. He would wank publicly for the sake, as he put it, of the little boys’ education; and in between his groans he would tell them exactly what he was fantasising about.

“He was absolutely disgusting,” said Tom disgustedly. “Loathsome. Foul. Beastly. Everyone detested him.”

“What a pillock!” commented Kim. “As you say, power corrupts. Why didn’t you complain to the headmaster or someone?”

“You didn’t sneak, not at that school. There was a thing against it. A sort of code.”

Matters finally reached the point where Slack’s charges rose in mutiny. One night they pounced on him. Eight pinioned his arms and legs. Two stripped him of his pyjamas, lathered him, and with his own razor removed every whisker from his front. They then turned him over and dealt with the mat on the back of his thighs. He protested obscenely, but under his voice. Too loud, he knew, and authority would hear, investigate, and discover the misconduct which had earned him this punishment. By the time the youngsters had finished he resembled a plucked chicken and was in a flood of tears.

They had chosen their time well. Slack was captain of the rugby team, and next day was the annual match against their arch-rivals. When it was over, both teams piled, as they always did, into the huge communal bath. Slack, who usually led the rush, hung back until the master in charge ordered him in with the rest. With the utmost reluctance he stripped; and his own team, who detested him as deeply as anyone, erupted in howls of laughter. The visitors, puzzled, had to be told why, at which they howled as well. Slack was a broken man.

“He deserved it,” said Kim. “But wasn’t it going a bit far, humiliating him like that? He might have killed himself for shame.”

“I know. That’s what I thought when I heard.”

“What do you mean?”

“I wasn’t involved. I was in the sickroom with mumps. I only heard about it afterwards.”

“Oh. If you had been in the dorm, would you have joined in?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know. But the point is, I’ve got this … thing about hair. Slack put me off hairy bodies for life. I’m sure of it. And something else I’m wondering …” Tom was feeling his way.

“What are you wondering, Tom?” asked Kim, very gently.

“Well, Slack was into girls. He never touched boys. He never, um, interfered with us. But what he said about shagging girls was so repulsive that it put me off them for life. I’m sure of that as well …”

“So you’re wondering if he got you … if that got you … into boys?”

“That’s right. His wanking was repulsive too. But that didn’t put me off. In fact it made me try for myself. I’d never wanked before, and it felt so good that I kept going. For years I didn’t get any, um, fantasies — I was too young, I suppose — and when they did start, around last Easter, they weren’t about girls at all. Or about Slack, thank God. Sometimes they were about other boys in the dorm. But usually they were about you. It’s strange. I’d never done that sort of thing with you, of course. And I’d no hope of ever seeing you again. And I couldn’t even remember properly what you looked like. I sort of drew on my memories, imagining what you might be like now.” Tom eyed Kim aslant. “The picture I got wasn’t very accurate. One thing I did get right, though. That you weren’t hairy.” He laughed at his own obsession. “But what I’m getting at is that if Slack hadn’t been in our dorm, I doubt I’d have got into boys.”

“But he was, Tom, and you have. You’ll never know exactly why. Does it matter? Does it do any good to agonise about it?”

“Oh, I don’t agonise. I don’t lose any sleep over it. I’d just like to know if I’m made that way, or if I got that way. Actually I’m glad I am into boys. Otherwise we wouldn’t have met up, you and me. Well, we’d have met up, but not in the way we have.”

“Thank God for that, then. Thank Slack, even. Though I’m grateful that nobody like him has ever crossed my path.”

“Except Hashimoto … And if anything he’d have put you off sex completely, wouldn’t he? Kim, why are you into boys? You said it might be your background. But might it be that you’re just made that way?”

“In other words, is it my destiny? Yes, it could be. But I’m not sure I am into boys. Only into Tom Wardle. I’m just like you, except that I was older when all this hit me. It wasn’t till I was already here at Yarborough that I got hair and all that, and fantasies began. And they were always about you, though your face was fuzzy in my mind as well. Just like you, I imagined what you looked like now. It was pretty inaccurate too. And do you know what?” Kim laughed in self-deprecation. “When you swam over the horizon and I fell for you, I felt guilty as hell at ditching the old Tom for the new one. That’s ironic, isn’t it? So our journeys have been much the same. But not quite the same — I don’t care tuppence if you grow as shaggy as Slack. I’ll take you as you come.”

Tom’s face split in a grin.

“God!” cried Kim. “You’re as filthy-minded as Slack. Or Holmfirth.” He peered. “And you’re still hard!”

Tom did not need to peer, because it was obvious. “So are you.”

“Oh, I can’t believe it,” Kim groaned. “This is unreal. Sitting in our housemaster’s study, at his invitation, drinking his tea, talking sex, and both of us hard as iron.”

“What would he say if he knew? What would he do? Sack us?”

Kim turned serious. “I doubt he’d do anything at all, or even say anything. It isn’t a crime to be hard, or to talk about sex. The school doesn’t forbid it — there’s no way it can. Some members of staff might read us a sermon on purity of body and of mind, but not Wally, or the HM. They understand us, and I’ve got a huge respect for both of them. It might be a different matter if they knew we were in love. That isn’t a crime either, not even between blokes — it’s only a crime to have carnal knowledge or whatever the wonderful phrase is. They might of course argue that one thing leads to another, and hoof us out before we took the next step. But I doubt they would. More likely they’d understand, and trust us.”

Kim finished his tea, and pulled a face on finding it was now cold.

“They trust us already, Tom. You see, everything here hinges on trust. The whole system’s built on trust. Of course they lay down rules. Of course there are things they forbid us to do, like sex. Fair enough — they have to, because sex between males is illegal. And virtually no sex does go on here, as far as I can see. But the real point is, they trust me to uphold their rules. It’s my responsibility to uphold them. It’s my job. It’s my duty. If I had sex here I’d be breaking their trust, and I could never contemplate it myself. And if I found other people having sex I’d have to report it. Reluctantly, but it’s my duty.

“And as far as we’re concerned the same goes for hugging, and holding hands, and kissing, which are usually sexual too. All right, we’re sort-of brothers and might claim our hugs were brotherly hugs. They didn’t object to us hugging the other day, when we’d just rediscovered each other. But there are plenty of real brothers here, and how often do you see them hugging? Never.” He paused. “I’m sorry, Tom. It’s unpalatable. But that’s the way it is. It’s one penalty of being at a boarding school, of being under school rules twenty-four hours a day.”

“Yes, I see that. I know that. But you’re sure there’s nothing against talking?”

“Absolutely sure. They can regulate what we do, but they can’t regulate what we think, or what we talk about in private. Nobody can, short of Big Brother and 1984. Just as nobody has the right to tell us who we can or can’t love. Not the school, not the state, not any individual. Not even the church. So on that score I don’t have any qualms.”

“Good. But anyway, none of this applies to the holidays.”

“True. But that throws up two more problems, doesn’t it? One is that I don’t have that sort of holidays. My father expects me to spend them with him. He’s already sent my tickets for Christmas, and I’m leaving the day school breaks up and coming back the day it starts again. So the Christmas holidays are out. I suppose I might negotiate for the Easter holidays. But he is ill.”

“But when he … if he …” Tom searched for a tactful phrase.

“When he falls off his perch,” Kim made no bones about it, “that problem disappears? Yes, it does. But the other problem kicks in. I’ll be living with you then, which will be wonderful. But …”

“Mum and Dad?”

“Exactly,” said Kim heavily. “Under their roof, we’d never do anything they disapproved of, would we? We both love them too much. We have a duty to them. We wouldn’t even do it anywhere else, would we?”

“No,” said Tom. “We wouldn’t. But you’re assuming they would disapprove.”

“Well, that’s the burning question. Would they? You know them better than I do.”

Tom sat back, mentally retracing the ground. His erection had long since lost interest.

“No, they wouldn’t disapprove,” he said confidently. “At least not in principle. There’s something you ought to know. It happened last summer holidays.”

Tom’s sixteen-year-old cousin Neville was staying with the Wardles in Blackheath for a couple of days. Tom was glad they rarely met, for he did not much like him. On the second day, when Mum and Dad were at work, they were alone together. Bored with kicking a ball around on the Heath, they returned to the house.

“I’ve got something you’ll like,” Neville announced. “Come up to my room.”

He rummaged in his suitcase and brought out a magazine which he handed over.

“I’ve got masses of these. Given me by a bloke who picked me up. He was great. Did me several times, till I found I preferred being on top.”

Tom looked … and looked … and looked. He could not help himself. He was fascinated. Over the past months, the detail of his fantasies as he wanked had been untutored, born of his own native wit. But here was the guide … no words, only pictures, but surely the definitive guide … to what boys and young men could do, in twos or threes or fours, in every orifice and permutation imaginable.

As Tom turned the pages, Neville gave a running commentary. “Bet that tastes good!” … “He’s squirting like a bloody hosepipe!” … “That boy’s got a whopper up his arse. Ever had anything like that up yours?”

Tom dazedly shook his head.

“Mine’s a whopper too, and I’ve had it up eight boys, all of them youngsters like you. They loved it. No, not eight — I was forgetting Dave. Nine.”

He put an arm round Tom’s body and slid a hand up his shorts.

“Like to be the tenth?”

In turmoil of mind, Tom dropped the magazine, punched Neville on the nose, and ran out of the house.

“Quite right too,” observed Kim. “A budding Hashimoto. But Neville’s repulsiveness didn’t put you off boys in the way that what’s-his-name’s — Slack’s — repulsiveness put you off girls.”

“No, it didn’t. Probably because I was sort of fixed by then. All right, I was disgusted. Not by his magazine — it was an eye-opener. And not even by what he wanted to do — I’d like to do it, with the right boy. What got me was why he wanted to do it. Just to add another notch to his score. Just for his own pleasure. Surely it ought to be two-way.”

“Ah, I see. Yes, it ought. What happened next?”

The evening meal was subdued. The boys hardly uttered a word, and Neville’s nose was swollen.

“How on earth did you do that, Neville?” Mum asked.

“Oh, I went and bumped into a door.”

She said no more, but afterwards got Tom by himself. “Had a disagreement with Neville, dear?”

“Yes. And I’m glad he’s not sleeping in my room.”

“Want to tell me?”

“Maybe. I’m still deciding.”

“I trust you.”

After breakfast next morning, which was Saturday, Neville called down the stairs, “I’m all packed, Auntie Mary. Shall I strip my bed?”

“Thanks, Neville, but there isn’t time. Leave it to me — I’ve got to change the other beds too. Just bring your case down and hop in the car.”

He took longer than expected, and, when Mum returned from putting him on the train, Tom offered her a hand with the beds. First they dealt with Mum and Dad’s. Then with Neville’s. In pulling off his sheets, Mum wrinkled her nose at the stains on them. Their origin was very obvious. Finally with Tom’s own bed. No stains. She raised an approving eyebrow, and smiled. Tom did not know quite how he stood with her on this, but was moved to honesty.

“I use an old handkerchief, Mum.”

“Much more considerate!”

She lifted Tom’s pillow. Underneath it was something garish, which she picked up. Her eyebrow rose again, questioningly this time. It was the magazine.

Tom was appalled. “The rotter!” he gasped. “He must’ve planted it just now, knowing you’d find it!”

He explained exactly what had happened.

“So I punched him on the nose.”

Mum had been listening noncommittally “As you say, the rotter. Don’t worry, Tom. I’d have done the same. Do you mind if we show this to Dad?”

They called him in from his gardening, and all three sat down at the kitchen table, where Tom explained again. Dad leafed through the magazine and exchanged a glance with Mum.

“Your head’s well screwed on, Tom. You did exactly right. Were you tempted?”

Once again Tom was totally honest. “Tempted by this sort of thing, yes, very much.” He tapped the picture on the magazine’s cover, which left nothing to the imagination. “Not in the least tempted by Neville. I’ve never much liked him, and even less now. He wanted to treat me like a tart! Add me to his collection, like sticking a new stamp in his album!”

“He did. Look, Tom, we’ve talked about sex before — the mechanics of sex — and about love. That was last Easter, wasn’t it, when you started into puberty. And it was quite basic. Part I, as it were. Now you’ve moved on and come to a turning point. Every youngster does, sooner or later. So it’s time for Part II.

“As we said last time, there’s nothing wrong with sex as such, so long as it isn’t thrown indiscriminately around. Like everything else in life, it needs to be used with care and consideration. It’s pleasurable for yourself, and it’s one of the most precious things you have to give. The Nevilles of this world cheapen it. He’s only after his own gratification, and his method sounds halfway to rape. That’s a very good reason to turn him down and even to punch him on the nose. Like all precious things, sex oughtn’t to be squandered. Keep it for someone you respect, someone you love.”

This was music to Tom’s ear.

“There are problems, of course,” Dad went on. “There always are, especially when you’re young. You’re physically old enough for sex, and we think you’re mentally old enough too. But you are still young. Sex with a girl is illegal until you’re both sixteen. The law has to draw the line somewhere, and it draws it where it protects the weak. Which means the stronger are forbidden to do what they could responsibly do. They’re penalised for being mature, which doesn’t seem fair, especially if you’re the one who’s penalised. So don’t be in a hurry. Wait until you’re in love, and wait until you’re sure. But which gender you love, and which individual you love, is entirely up to you. Nobody can dictate either of those to you, or even make suggestions. You have to work them out for yourself, and work them out very carefully.”

Dad too tapped the magazine.

“Now if you find your inclination really does lie in this direction, it raises further problems, because it’s illegal for anybody. It’s generally regarded as a disease that’s curable or a crime that’s punishable. I can’t see any justification for calling it a crime — people rarely choose to be homosexuals. Nor as a doctor can I see any justification for calling it an illness — it’s the way they’re made, like being red-haired or left-handed. So they’re penalised for being their natural selves, and that doesn’t seem fair either.”

Not fair, no, thought Tom. But I’m not sure about the natural self. Is this the way I’m made? Or have I chosen it? Or did Slack’s repulsiveness force me into it?

“But public opinion’s against it, or at least the press is. Do you remember that MP who had to resign a few months ago for being a homosexual? And last year Alan Turing the mathematician was prosecuted for immorality. And a couple of years back a diplomat defected to Russia — Guy Burgess — and when the press revealed that he was a homosexual as well as a traitor the outcry grew even louder. A prime example of giving a dog a bad name. And those are only the well-known blokes. Lord knows how many ordinary types are had up, but we don’t hear about them. Homosexuality may be natural, but it’s dangerous.”

Dad drew a deep breath.

“Nearly finished, Tom. You’re mature enough now to be interested in sex. When you get to Yarborough you’ll meet plenty of better candidates than Neville, and you may even fall for one. There’s no way we can forbid you to love. But one thing we do ask: don’t go in for sex at school. Please don’t, with anyone except yourself. If you were caught you’d be expelled, and it just isn’t worth it. Especially if it’s casual sex, though on yesterday’s showing you’re wise enough to avoid that. So if you do go down this road,” he tapped the magazine again, “you won’t meet any blanket disapproval from us. But you will meet concern, because it’s the most dangerous road of all. It demands special care. We don’t want you hurt, because we love you. Everything will depend on you keeping a level head, and on what sort of person you fall for. Pretty certainly it won’t be easy. But if you feel like keeping us in the picture, we’ll be only too happy to help. With Part III, so to speak.”

Dad looked at Mum as if asking whether he had missed anything out. She smiled at him, and at Tom.

“That didn’t all come pat off the top of Dad’s head, Tom,” she said. “We’ve been talking about this for a while, so as to be ready when the time came. Now that it has, does it make sense?”

Tom heaved a sigh. He felt immensely strengthened. “Yes, it does. It’s a heck of a lot to take in, though. But I will keep you in the picture. Thanks, Mum. Thanks, Dad.”

He hugged them both, and glanced at the magazine again in slightly wistful farewell. “You know, that is the road I’m on. I’m sure of it.”

Dad pushed it towards him.

Tom was astonished. “You mean I can keep it?”

“If you want. Up to you. You may find it useful. But leave all your options open, Tom. We’ll help as best we can, but it’s up to you to lead the way. It can’t be otherwise.”

“I’ve still got it,” Tom finished. “Not here. At home. I wank to it. Or I did. I won’t need it any more.”

“Oh my God!” was Kim’s elated reaction. “What wonderful people! I might have guessed they’d take that line! They’re right about the dangers, of course. But you have waited until you’re in love. And they won’t disapprove of you loving a boy.”

“Especially you. They think the world of you. They trust you.”

“They trust you too,” said Kim. “We all trust each other. And look … it’s just struck me why we’ve got so much in common, you and me. We both got our values — and everything else — from your Mum and Dad. Obviously you did. So did I.”

“Yes. But I got mine from you as well. And didn’t you get yours from your parents?”

Kim pondered. “Some, maybe. I just don’t know. My father can’t always have been like he is now.”

“Are you going to tell him about us? Or ask him?”

“No. I haven’t the faintest idea what line he’d take. More important, I don’t think it would be kind. He likes to feel that he’s the only person I care about. He might see you as a sort of rival. And if I told him about you at Tai Po it would take him back to Hong Kong, where he doesn’t want to go. But with John and Mary we’re in the clear, aren’t we?”

“I hope so. But they did say I’m still young. If I were seventeen like you, there probably wouldn’t be any problem. But thirteen?”

“Well, this won’t arise till Easter at the earliest, when you’ll be fourteen. That makes it sound a bit better.”

“Kim …” said Tom, and paused. Even Easter was a frustratingly long way ahead. But he took the first adult decision of his life. “Kim, I can wait. For as long as it takes. Until you’re free. Until they reckon it’s all right. It’s worth waiting for.”

Kim smiled at him. “Yes. It is. It won’t be easy, mind you, being so close but yet so far apart.”

“But I would like to know when. How long there’ll be to wait.”

“Well, we’ll just have to ask them.”

Tom’s eyes strayed to the phone on Wally’s desk.

“No, Tom, it’s too important for that. Or for a letter. We’ve got to talk face to face. Let’s write jointly and ask them if they can possibly come up for another weekend. Say that it’s very important, but not why.”

“Knowing them, they’ll guess. And bring Part III with them.”