Tom wept that night, for joy. And next morning, from Kim’s eyes, he suspected that he had wept too.
They wrote to John and Mary, who instantly agreed to come up in three weeks’ time. Kim also wrote to his father about guardianship, but could not expect so rapid a reply. The public sensation let loose in the dorm did, as predicted, die down, and Tom’s standing did remain boosted. Graham even apologised for his insensitive comments. And in the showers Tom surreptitiously inspected the naked Kim; not, he told himself with wry amusement, for his smoothness, nor even for what he had to offer in front, but for the moles on his back. He had never noticed them before, but there they were: five little brown blobs in the shape of Cassiopeia. But he did not inspect for too long, because that would not be brotherly.
Elsewhere, however, being sort-of brothers was an excellent cover. A pattern evolved. Kim might drop in to Tom and Graham’s study for a quick word, but no more than that. More often he invited Tom to his own study or they went for a walk as brothers might do, and it was then that personal matters surfaced. Nobody saw anything amiss. Wally, indeed, rejoiced at the sight of them together. In most respects Adrian had not changed one jot. He was still his competent outgoing self. But the empty sombreness which had lurked in the background was now a thing of the past.
And Tom developed his photographs. The first school society he joined had been the Camera Club, which had a respectable darkroom. The results were pleasing, and Tom selected three. One picture of all four of them together had been taken with the timer delay and everyone was self-consciously aware of what was afoot, but it was a useful record of a momentous day. The others were much better, taken without the subjects knowing. He printed enlargements, one set for himself, one for Mum and Dad, and one which he presented to Kim.
“Gosh, Tom, these are good. You’ve caught your Mum and Dad to perfection.”
Yes, their faces exuded humanity. “They’re easy to take,” Tom said modestly. “Or rather I’ve taken them so often I’ve learnt how to take them best.”
“Well, I’m going to frame them and keep them on my desk.” Kim turned to the one of himself. “But do I really look like this? All mixed up?”
There was so much in that thoughtful face. The uneven eyebrows were saying different things. So were the eyes. So were the corners of the mobile mouth. There was deep seriousness there, and at the same time mischief. There was strength and a hint of vulnerability. There was authority and compassion. There was an overall aura of … how could one describe it? Purity?
“Yes, you do,” said Tom, feeling his way. “Not mixed up, not if you mean confused. It’s just that … there’s so much in you. But I don’t really know you well enough yet. And sometimes you seem to be wearing a mask.”
Kim gave him an approving glance. “Like ancient Greek ones? Comic or tragic? Maybe it’s because I dabble in drama and like to hide my real self.”
That led Tom off at a tangent. “Are you in a play this term?”
“No. I took the term off, in case captaining proved too laborious. But it hasn’t, so I’ve signed up for Hamlet next term.”
“Oh, smashing! I’m doing it in English Literature. Are you Hamlet?”
“Yes, for my sins. Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.”
“Nymph? That makes me Ophelia. Not sure I like that. She comes to a sticky end.”
Kim laughed. “And so does Hamlet too, don’t forget.” He returned to the subject. “Have you taken any photos of yourself? Self-portraits?”
“One or two. But they aren’t much good. You can’t see yourself properly, can you? Even in the mirror. It has to be through other people’s eyes.”
“Show me … Ah yes, I see what you mean. They’re good likenesses, technically. Of a very handsome young man. But he’s wearing a mask too, which hides what’s inside. Well, if I can use your camera one day let’s see if I can rip the mask off.”
Not long after that weekend of revelations, Kim bumped into Tom in the colonnade.
“Music lesson?” he asked, seeing the flute case Tom was carrying.
“That’s right. With Mr Midgley. He’s good. And great fun.”
“We’ll have you in the orchestra before long.” Kim looked round to make sure nobody was in earshot. “Tom, have you seen the papers?”
“Not in the last few days.”
“Well, keep an eye on them. You know Sir John Gielgud?”
“I saw him in that film last summer. Julius Caesar, with Marlon Brando. Smashing.”
“Well, apparently the police have a special squad who lurk in public conveniences pretending to be queers, and a few days ago they arrested him for importuning for sex. The court only fined him a tenner, and he’d have got away with nothing worse if the Evening Standard hadn’t cottoned on and exposed him. And now the whole press is pillorying him. It’s stirring up a regular witch-hunt against queers. The Home Secretary’s even called them a plague over England. Your Mum and Dad are right, Tom. It is dangerous.”
Tom had been wondering, these last six months, if this was the way he was made, or if he had chosen it, or if Slack had unwittingly pushed him into it. But now there was another possibility in the air, which led him to ponder the difference in age between Kim and himself. He was well aware that older boys often hankered after younger ones, and sometimes, like Neville, had it off with them. But that was lust, not love, and Kim was no Neville. He was Tom’s kindred spirit. At Tai Po, chance — or destiny — had thrown them together for years and with nobody else anywhere near their age. From that closeness had sprung their friendship. Had it also sown the seeds of a sexual love which had waited, unrecognised, to be germinated by the heat of puberty? Was that possible when he was only five, or less? At that age a four-year difference was huge. Ten years from now they would be in their twenties and it would be meaningless. But was it meaningless now?
Next time they were alone together he put the question.
“Surely an age difference only matters,” was Kim’s reply, “if you make it matter. Within reason, of course. If I were seventy, not seventeen, eyebrows really would go up, even among people who didn’t otherwise object to two blokes in love. They’d go up if I were seventeen and you were ten. But between seventeen and thirteen … doesn’t it depend how mature the younger one is? Mentally, I mean, not physically. Love should be give and take, and you’re plenty mature enough for that, thank God. And the older we get the less it’ll matter. At Tai Po, of course, I had to lead the way. It couldn’t be otherwise when you were one and I was five, or even when you were five and I was nine. It was inevitable then, but it isn’t inevitable now.”
“Yet when we were out on the Alvingham road you led the way again. I’d never have dared.”
“Oh, that was inevitable too. You held the captain of the school in some awe — new boys always do. All right, I don’t much like that, and from the start you’d had the nous not to hold me in too much awe, and we’d found we knew each other already. But even so, school hierarchy being what it is, I never expected you to lead the way. Not then. But now the ice is well and truly broken, do you really notice that you’re four years younger?”
“In some ways, yes.” Tom struggled to be honest. “I still can’t help looking up to you, for what you are. But I’ve grown up a lot this last week or so. It’s a bit like marriage, isn’t it? Mum and Dad always claim they’re equals. And they are, too. And that’s how I feel with you. You treat me as an equal, so I feel like an equal. Not an inferior.”
“Good. Because I look up to you too. So this age difference doesn’t really matter?”
“Not to me. So long as it doesn’t matter to you.”
“Which it doesn’t. Not in the least. And when the great day comes, Tom, you’ll have to lead the way. No doubt that magazine of yours hasn’t told you everything, but you’ll have a much better idea than me of what to do.”
“What did you get up to with the Petty Officer today?” Adrian asked the new boys in the dormitory next evening.
It was Thursday, which was Corps day when the school’s Combined Cadet Force spent the afternoon playing soldiers. But boys could not join the Corps until they were fourteen, after which there was no escaping it, provided they possessed two legs and two arms; although, as Adrian had been heard to remark seditiously, the army did not seem to insist on the ownership of a head. Those who were too young to play soldiers exercised instead under the eagle eye of the PE instructor, Petty Officer Shaw, a small and over-energetic man with a loud bark, a phenomenal chest measurement, and an inflated self-importance.
“Oh, the usual,” said someone. “Quick-marching everywhere. PE. Silly games of leap-frog and tig.” The Petty Officer was not popular. “I can’t wait to join the Corps.”
“Don’t get exaggerated ideas about the Corps,” Adrian warned, not entirely to the boys’ surprise. He was an Under-Officer, the highest rank he could hold, and might be expected to praise the military to the skies; but one of his many virtues, they had already learned, was honesty. “It’s useful, yes. It’ll stand you in good stead when you do your National Service. Or if, heaven forbid, there’s another war. But most of it’s repetitive slog. And the army’s remarkably good at being silly too. Positively bone-headed, sometimes.”
“But what do you do in the Corps?”
“Oh Lord, it would take hours to describe, there’s so much variety. Basic training at first. Then after a couple of years you choose between the various sections — infantry, signals, engineers, gunners, and RAF. Each of them does its own thing.”
“Longley,” ventured Tom. He had to remind himself to use Kim’s surname in public. “We’ve never had a chance to see what you do. Would it be possible to give us a sort of preview, to see what’s coming our way?”
Adrian, who had been prowling, stopped in his tracks to look at him. “That’s an idea! That’s a very good idea! Yes, take you away from your silly games, a few at a time, and give you a conducted tour. A partial one, anyway — you couldn’t see the lot in one go. Would you like that?”
There was a chorus of “Yes!” Anything to escape the Petty Officer’s clutches.
“Right. I’ll see what Major Lydgate has to say, and everyone else involved.”
Next evening Adrian reported back. “That’s all settled. Nobody raised any objections. In fact Petty Officer Shaw seemed positively glad to have his numbers reduced. We’ve decided to do it in twelve sessions, one house at a time, starting with MacNair’s. So you lot meet me outside the Gym at two next Thursday. All right?”
“You’ve done me a good turn, Tom,” he confided next day, “as well as yourselves. It gave me the chance to offer my services as guide for the lot. Twelve weeks off square-bashing! Even when I’m in charge of the drilling I still have to march and stamp in best army fashion, and the poor old hoof doesn’t take kindly to it.”
So, the next Thursday, MacNair’s new boys witnessed much of the Corps in action. Not the RAF section which was gliding at a distant airfield, nor the sappers who were throwing a bridge across some rural brook; but the signallers uttering mystic words into their radios, the gunners practising on their 25-pounder, the infantry donning implausible camouflage, and the recruits learning tediously how to present arms or right wheel. The tour ended at the armoury, where the walls were lined with rack upon rack of rifles and a few of rather larger guns with folding feet.
“Bren guns, these,” said Adrian, waving at them. “Light machine guns. Beautifully versatile. But let’s concentrate on the rifles — you’ll be using them much more. Six hundred of them here, or there would be if some weren’t in use. All Lee-Enfields, the army’s trusty warhorse. Most of them are .303s — ordinary combat rifles — and most of them are ancient.” He took one out and found the date. “Yes, 1901. Boer War vintage, but still as good as the day they were made. A few are more modern, for shooting on the outdoor range. Some have been converted to .22s for the indoor range — we’ll be going there next. Even those have quite a kick, though not as bad as these .303s which can break your collar-bone if you’re not careful. Go on, take one each, and handle it. They’re not loaded, of course, but the golden rule is never to point a gun at anyone. Ever. Unless you’re thinking of killing him.”
They spent a few minutes hefting the rifles and looking down the sights before Adrian shepherded them to the indoor range behind the armoury. An intermittent rattle of gunfire had already been audible — the first, Tom realised, that he had heard since liberation day at Tai Po — and when the door was opened it became louder. Adrian, having attracted the attention of the middle-aged sergeant in charge and received permission to enter, told his boys to stand at the barrier behind the eight youngsters who lay splay-legged on the floor, each alongside a painted number.
“These’ll be members of the Recruit Company,” he explained quietly. “In their first term in the Corps — you can see none of them’s got any badges. And this’ll be their first time on the range. They have ten rounds each, in two batches of five. They’ve just fired the first batch, and Sergeant Standedge is winding back the targets.”
Eight cardboard targets clipped at intervals to a wire were crawling along the side wall towards them, and when they arrived the sergeant distributed them to their owners before talking to each boy in turn and writing figures in a book.
“He’s showing them where they’ve gone wrong and what to do about it, and recording their scores. Oh dear, there aren’t any bullet holes at all in No. 7’s target. And No. 5’s … hmmm.” Adrian stared hard at No. 5’s, but was evidently not going to interfere in the sergeant’s territory.
Then they were ready for the next batch. The sergeant clipped eight new targets to the wire and wound them along to the end. Forty more shots were fired, sporadically, and back the targets came. Again the sergeant noted the scores.
“Better than the last lot, I suppose,” he said, addressing them all. “But still not much good. Squeeze the trigger smoothly, I said, don’t jerk it. But I’ve obviously been wasting my breath. Right, that’s it. Bolts open so I can see you haven’t got a round up the spout. Then into the armoury, clean your rifles like you’ve been taught, and when I’ve cleared up here I’ll check that at least you’ve done that right.”
The eight climbed to their feet, some rubbing their shoulders.
“Please, sergeant,” Adrian requested, “may I have a word with No. 5 before he leaves? I think I can see what he’s doing wrong.”
“Go ahead, Mr Longley, but I’ve got to lock up here soon.”
Adrian went to No. 5. “Mind if I have a dekko at your targets? Thanks. Ah, yes! Look, your shots are beautifully clustered, but they’re in the wrong place, aren’t they? Way down by the bottom right-hand edge. All five very close together on this one, four on this — no, all five again, one’s just clipped the edge. Ever fired a rifle before?”
“You centre the foresight in the backsight notch, don’t you? Well, I’ve got a feeling you’re centring the left foresight guard, not the foresight itself.” He drew a quick sketch on the back of a target. “See what I mean? If I’m right, you could be a damn fine shot.” Adrian turned to the sergeant, who was listening with ill-disguised impatience. “Please, could you give him another ten rounds? I’ve a hunch it’ll be worth it.”
Tom thought Sergeant Standedge was going to refuse. But Adrian, however slight and youthful in appearance, carried an authority and a charm which would melt stone. The sergeant grudgingly reopened the ammunition safe while Adrian himself wound a single new target into position.
“Try again, then,” said Adrian. “Five at a time, and remember about that foresight. What’s your name?”
“Heptonstall. School House.”
Deliberately but without waste of time Heptonstall fired five times. Adrian wound the target back and took it to him with a grin. Precisely in the centre were five holes in a tight clump. Heptonstall goggled; but he proceeded to give the second target exactly the same treatment.
“Maximum possible score, eh, sergeant?” said Adrian. “Heptonstall, you’re a natural! Not just a first class shot but a marksman. Well done!”
The sergeant’s impatience had evaporated, and he was writing in his book again. “Well done it is! Go and clean your rifle, young man, and I’ll dig out a badge.”
“Like Mr Longley’s got.” He pointed to the brass crossed rifles on Adrian’s sleeve. “Marksman’s badge.”
“Gosh!” said Heptonstall. “Thanks, Longley!”
“A pleasure. May I borrow these targets for a day or two? I’ll get them back to you.”
“Good bit of work, Mr Longley,” the sergeant remarked when the elated new marksman had gone. “Very good bit of work. Sorry I was doubtful. Wouldn’t have believed it possible.”
As Adrian herded his new boys out, Tom was very proud of him. And next day, after morning school, he saw him in the colonnade showing two pieces of cardboard to the captain of the Shooting VIII.
Mary and John, as before, arrived after lunch on the Saturday, and they met up in the lounge of the Red Lion.
“We thought it unfair,” Mary explained when the greetings were over, “to inflict ourselves on Mr MacNair again so soon, and we suspect that the important things you have to discuss are not for his housemasterly ears. Are we right?”
Kim and Tom grinned at each other.
“What’s so funny?”
“We thought you’d guess what it’s about,” Tom said, unwilling to be specific in so public a place. “And we were right. And we expected you’d bring Part III with you.”
He cocked an eyebrow at them, and they understood at once and smiled back.
“Yes,” said John. “We have. Where shall we go? It’s too private and personal” — he looked round the lounge — “to discuss here. And it’s pretty cold and damp outside. What about our room?”
Their room was pleasant, with a double bed and two easy chairs. Mary and John took the chairs while Kim and Tom sat side by side, cross-legged on the bed facing them. This time Kim shouldered the responsibility. Equality or not, he was after all the older, and the situation smacked faintly of the old-fashioned suitor asking prospective in-laws for the hand of their child; not that that was an analogy to press too far.
“Well, as you’ve guessed, we’re in love, and we’re hoping for your blessing on that. Tom’s passed on what you told him last summer, after the Neville episode. To avoid sex at Yarborough. That if he took this road he wouldn’t meet disapproval from you, but that you would be concerned because it’s a dangerous road. That everything would depend on him keeping a level head and on what sort of person he fell for. That it wouldn’t be easy, but that if he kept you in the picture you’d be happy to help …
“Well, we can only thank you for your lack of disapproval. We understand your concern about the dangers, and we share it. Tom has kept a level head, I can assure you. Whether the person he’s fallen for is up to scratch isn’t for me to say. And we know it won’t be easy. We know we can’t have sex at Yarborough, or show any sign of being in love, even in private. If we did, I’d be betraying the trust the school puts in me. We’ve already discovered how hard it is, being in love but not being able to show it. But we hope the holidays will be a different matter. And that’s where we’re asking for your help, on top of your blessing.”
“And I,” said Tom, “go along with every word of that.”
Mary and John looked at each other and nodded. “Thank you, Kim,” said John, “thank you, Tom, for being so open with us. The first thing is to assure you, Tom, that the person you’ve fallen for does indeed come up to scratch, in every way. We could never have imagined anyone better, not even in our wildest dreams.” Kim blushed. “As for sex at Yarborough, of course we trust you implicitly, just as the school does. As for the holidays, well, there are two things I remember telling Tom last summer. One is that he is young. Thirteen does seem a very tender age to venture on this road. If I had to pull a figure out of the air, I’d have said fourteen at the youngest.”
“But Dad,” said Tom. “This won’t arise at Christmas. Kim’s already booked for Belize for the whole holidays. He might be able to get some time with us at Easter. And by then I’ll be fourteen.”
“Hadn’t thought of that,” John admitted. “All right, fourteen it is. But the other thing’s more important, in a way. It’s illegal. Not only for you, but for us in permitting it. What do you say to that?”
“How’s anybody to know,” countered Tom, “what we get up to?
We’d only do it at home. We’re not going to tell anyone. Nor are you. And who are
we harming? Nobody. Not ourselves, or you, or anyone else. We know it’s dangerous, and we
know it’s against the law. But we can live with that. We hope you can too. And you said
yourself that the likes of us are penalised for being our natural selves, which doesn’t
“And you’re both happy with your natural self? You’re comfortable in your skin?”
“For myself, yes, I am,” said Kim. “Comfortable in my own skin. Not comfortable in the clothes I have to wear outside my skin to hide what society dislikes. But that’s a different matter.”
“Same here,” Tom confirmed. He wondered again about raising the question of whether he was being his natural self, but decided against it. Natural or not, it was the way he was.
There was a pause. “How long,” asked Mary suddenly, “have you been in love?”
“That’s a difficult one,” Kim replied. “There’s love and there’s love, isn’t there? It all came out three weeks ago, as soon as you’d left. We went for a walk and discovered how the land lay. But it turned out we’d fallen for each other virtually the moment Tom appeared here in September. Without saying so, and of course without recognising each other. But at root it seems to go back all the way to Tai Po. Needless to say, it wasn’t in the least sexual then, but it was the deepest of companionships. Speaking for myself, I never forgot him, and I never found a friend to replace him. My memory of his face grew blurred, and there was no hope of ever seeing him again. Yet somehow I knew that we belonged to each other. The way I see it, it was destiny — God, if you like — that brought us together at Tai Po. And what God hath joined together let no man put asunder. I first read that in my great-aunt’s bible at Slough, and somehow I felt it applied to us. Even then, even though I was only nine.”
“And except for the bible bit,” said Tom, “it’s exactly the same with me.”
There was a long silence.
“Then who are we,” asked John at last, “to challenge the ways of God? Or
of destiny?” His eyes conferred again with Mary’s, and found her approval.
“All right, boys. You’ve made your case. We accept it. You have our blessing and
love and support. From Easter onwards, then, and only at home. Meanwhile, though you hardly
need telling, be careful. And look after each other.”
“Thank you. We will. Rely on us.”
They talked on, but nothing of new significance emerged; except that Kim asked how they had guessed what this urgent matter was.
Mary chuckled. “There was something in the way you two interacted, three weeks ago. We discussed it on the way home, and agreed. We thought that Mr MacNair had spotted it too, but put a different interpretation on it. Maybe the Headmaster as well. Even if they interpreted it aright, we think they’re too wise and too human to object. But in the circumstances, there’s no need to put that to the test.”
“I’m sure,” Kim said, “we’re not the first at Yarborough to be in this position, and I’m sure we won’t be the last. But you’re right. There’s no need for them to know.”
They went down to dinner, and over the meal Kim told them he had just heard from his father who had, as requested, added the codicil to his will. The executors remained his aunt and his solicitor, but the Wardles were to be Kim’s guardians and trustees.
“Yes,” said John. “He wrote to me too. An odd letter. Abrupt, but perfectly plain.”
“And we’ve something else to report,” Mary said when the implications of the letter had been dealt with. “Last Saturday, Kim, we went on a pilgrimage in search of your roots. Let’s take our coffee up to our room.”
Battersea Church Road proved to be a quiet street close to the river, and No. 7, near the church, proved to be a modest semi. As they were taking a photograph the vicar passed by. When accosted, he said that he was a newcomer himself, but they were welcome to look at the baptismal register. And there was the entry: 1 February 1936, Adrian George, son of Edmund and Erica Longley.
“If you want to find out more,” he suggested, “try Mrs Dobroyd at No. 5. She’s been there for donkey’s years, and she’s bound to know something about your people.”
She did. “The Longleys? Oh yes! Excuse my asking, but why do you want to know?”
Mary introduced John and herself and succinctly explained Adrian’s situation.
“Oh, the poor lamb! Come on in!”
They drank Mrs Dobroyd’s tea and listened to her kindly chatter. The Longleys had come to No. 7 as newly-weds. They were the same age and had been friends ever since babyhood because they’d lived next door to each other, wasn’t that romantic? Where? Oh, in Dulwich, and that’s where they were married. Mr Longley was just starting as a sort of diplomat, wasn’t he? Quite a serious man but ever so charming, while Mrs Longley was full of fun and laughter and very beautiful. Come to think of it, Mrs Wardle, she looked rather like you. Then Adrian arrived — what a nice little boy! — and he used to play with Mrs Dobroyd’s Lillian who was a couple of years older. But after a few years Mr Longley was posted to Hong Kong and they all left. Mrs Dobroyd often wondered what had happened to them. He’s dying of cancer, you say? And she was murdered by the Japs? And Adrian’s lost his early memories? Oh, that wretched war!
Did she have a photo of them? Yes, she thought she had. She shuffled through the contents of a bursting envelope. “Yes, here we are! All of us in Battersea Park. Not my husband because he took the picture. But Lillian and me and the Longleys. That must have been just before they left.”
She handed over a small print. There was a younger Mrs Dobroyd. There was a curly-haired girl of maybe five, holding hands with a boy of about three who had straight dark hair and uneven eyebrows. Behind was a handsome dark-haired man, pipe in mouth, and a very attractive dark-haired woman. Everyone was smiling.
As John and Mary pored over it, the front door banged. “Lillian!” called Mrs Dobroyd, and in came an elegant young lady. “Lillian, these are friends of Adrian who used to live next door. Do you remember him?”
“Of course I do! I was passionately in love with him. And I was going to marry him, even though he was only three. But I was all of five.” She glanced at the photograph. “That’s why we’re holding hands! Then they went away, and my heart was broken. For at least a day.”
Mary and John laughed. “Mrs Dobroyd, Adrian’s never seen a picture of his mother. Please, would you allow us to borrow this and have it copied?”
“Oh no, keep it. Please do. I’d like Adrian to have it.”
Mary passed the snapshot to Kim, who bent over it. Tom looked over his shoulder. The faces were very small. But they were alive, and they were Longleys. Tom put his arm round Kim as he absorbed his first sight of his mother; and as he did so he reflected that Kim had clearly been a charmer even at the age of three.
“She was very like you, Mary,” said Kim at last. He summoned up a smile for Tom. “But I’ve no more recollection of Lillian than I have of anyone else at that stage. Whether I loved her equally passionately I’ve no idea.”
The Wardles, tearing themselves away from Mrs Dobroyd, had a bite at the Lyons Corner House in Battersea High Street before making their way to Dulwich. Here too the obvious starting point seemed to be the vicar, whom they found at home writing his Sunday sermon. He had been in the parish for years, and when asked about victims of flying bombs he proved eminently helpful.
“For some unfathomable reason,” he said, “one of the German aiming points for doodlebugs was North Dulwich station. No doubt they spread out a bit on the way, but we still got forty-two of them, far more than our fair share. At least you could hear them coming and had a chance of taking shelter. But with V2s you hadn’t a hope — the first thing you heard was the explosion. Mercifully we only got three of those. What names are you after? The Longleys and Todds! Yes indeed, I knew them well. They lived next door to each other on Friern Road, at the Lordship Lane end, and our very first V2 got them. 1 November ’44, it was. Twenty-four people killed and twenty-three houses flattened — it’s all burned deep into my memory. I buried them myself. And I’d married their youngsters myself, a few years before the war. A splendid young couple. What happened to them?”
They told him, and the vicar sighed for the tribulations of humankind. But he gave the Wardles the run of his parish registers and directed them to the Longley and Todd graves in the cemetery. “It was lucky they found anything to bury,” he remarked. “Those V2s didn’t leave much behind.”
“So your roots are growing deeper,” said Mary. “We’ve got your grandparents’ names, and quite a lot of dates. Here, we’ve written them out for you. I’m sure there’s plenty more to find, but it’s a start. And here are the photos we took of where you were born, and your grandparents’ graves, and the site of their homes. It’s still a wilderness of rubble and weeds.”
A week later the papers reported that Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and two of his friends had been arrested for impropriety with some boy scouts.
Ten days after that there came a letter from John and Mary, who had been to a play. “It was at the Haymarket,” they reported, “the opening night of A Day by the Sea, Chekovian and quite good. But we really went because it was Gielgud’s first London performance since that unpleasantness. And it was astonishing. The moment he appeared on stage the audience gave him a standing ovation. It lasted for several minutes. The press seems to be out of tune with the public.”
“Does killing Hashimoto still bother you?” Tom asked warily one day when they were out in the country. It was afternoon, but the land was still spangled with frost.
“Not really. It did at first, but I managed to reason my way out of it.”
“I don’t like killing anything. I didn’t like killing those gulls and rats, even if it was to keep people alive. And every instinct tells us not to kill people. At least it does me — not even enemies. But instinct also told me, that day at Tai Po, that I had to kill Hashimoto. If I didn’t, he would blow up the dormitory. I had to fight him until he was dead, or I was. Well, once it was over, my first reaction was numbness. But as soon as that had worn off I began to agonise. The two instincts clashed. If I’d still been with your Mum and Dad, they’d have made it much easier. But I was all by myself, frightened and lonely, and it was a while before I came to terms with it.”
“Couldn’t you talk it over with your father?”
“He was a stranger.” Kim’s mouth went down. “And he simply didn’t want to know. He probably wouldn’t have believed me anyway.”
“Then why not Mr Cracoe?”
“Oh, by the time I got to Kirkby I’d worked it out. By reading my great-aunt’s bible, believe it or not. The sixth commandment says straight out, ‘Thou shalt not kill’.”
Kim gazed across the rolling landscape with its sheen of sparkling white.
“But the wonderful old preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes,” he went on, “allows for circumstances. His whole message is that life’s full of injustice and risk and uncertainty. And that therefore there’s a time for everything. That’s what gave me my justification. ‘A time to kill …’ Do you know that bit? It’s been engraved on my heart ever since.
“To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.”
Tom thought about it, punching his hands together for warmth. He was relieved that the subject of Hashimoto was not taboo, and that Kim carried no burden of guilt. The old preacher made every sense. Not only a time to kill, but a time to love, and a time to refrain from embracing. Which in their own case meant a time to let rip and a time for self-denial.
“And a time to pee,” announced Kim, breaking the spell. “Which is now.” He unbuttoned and unashamedly let fly. Frost melted and steam arose. “I’ve heard,” he said, “that if you pee in the arctic, it freezes instantly as it hits the ground and a yellow icicle climbs up towards your willy. What worries me about that is the prospect of frostbite. Which I’ve almost got already.”
He shook off the drops and buttoned up, sighing with double relief. Tom was laughing. This was one of the many things he loved about Kim, that his humour was never smutty and Grahamish. Down-to-earth, yes. But clean. He said so.
“All I do,” replied Kim demurely, “is follow Polonius’s advice in Hamlet. ‘Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar’.”
“Polonius!” Tom giggled. “He came to a sticky end, didn’t he? Just like Hashimoto. Stabbed in the arras.”
Kim broke into an ear-to-ear grin. “There is also a time,” he hissed, “for tickling.” Once again his fingers got busy on Tom’s ribs, and once again Tom collapsed in five-year-old squeals.
“And after that,” Tom announced breathlessly when he had been released, “it’s time for me to pee as well.”
He too unbuttoned and let fly. Kim, by now familiar with Tom’s camera which he was
carrying round his neck, took a surreptitious photograph; not of Tom peeing, but of Tom unaware
that he was being snapped. The result, when developed and printed, was pleasing beyond measure.
Tom was in profile, head and shoulders only, gazing ahead into infinity, wearing a small smile
of amusement and loving joy, haloed behind by a cloud of his steaming breath. It joined the
collection in Kim’s study.
For weeks Tom badgered Kim to show him his George Cross, and eventually Kim gave way. He searched in his desk, brought out a large envelope, and from it took a black leather box. Tom opened it. It was lined with cream velvet on which rested a silver cross attached to a plain blue ribbon. It was simple, chunky, and very beautiful. The roundel at the centre showed St George and the dragon surrounded by the words ‘For Gallantry’. Engraved on the back was ‘Adrian George Longley, 21st July 1947’.
“But you said it was in March.”
“The flood, yes. That’s the date the award was gazetted.”
“Published in the London Gazette. This thing.”
From the envelope Kim pulled a folded newspaper.
“Never even heard of it,” said Tom, opening it up and looking curiously at the small format and dense print.
“It’s the government newspaper. Nothing but official announcements. Not very exciting.”
But it was exciting enough to Tom. On the front page was the item in question.
The King has been pleased to award the George Cross to Adrian George Longley in recognition of his gallantry in the following circumstances …
And there followed a paragraph describing what Kim had done.
Kim also pulled from the envelope a photograph of himself outside the Palace, diminutive and incongruous in morning dress, bashfully holding up his new cross. Tom gazed long at the image. From it, taken only two years after their ways had parted, he was able to refurbish his blurred memory of Kim at Tai Po.
Then there was a knock at the door and Tom had to hide the evidence while someone reported an emergency. A bog was blocked and the lav floor awash.
Kim groaned. “The houseman’s knocked off. Every plumber in the town will be in the pub. It isn’t Wally’s cup of tea. How about it, Tom? Shall we roll up our sleeves?”
They rolled them up, and wallowed with a plunger among sodden paper and turds, and finally mopped up the floor.
“Floods!” said Kim resignedly as they surveyed their handiwork. “At Kirkby, the elemental power of nature. Here, the fundamental power of humanity.”
“A time to rend, and a time to sew,” said Kim on another occasion. He was busy with a needle, mending a split seam on a shirt. “Tom, how do you see the future? Our future, I mean. Long-term.”
Tom had never looked that far ahead. While his fantasies had included living with Kim in almost wedded bliss, once again they had not included the where or the how. But this was an area, he now saw, in which the difference in their ages really would matter.
“You’re leaving in July,” he said dolefully. “I’ll still have four years here. What are you doing then?”
“Two years’ National Service, when meeting up for any reasonable length of time will be impossible. Then Cambridge.” Kim found his scissors and snipped off the thread. “But one’s allowed to do them the other way round. So if I went to university first we could be together for the vacations. For three years. Assuming of course that my father’s gone by then.”