For a day and a night Love sang to us, played with us,
Folded us round from the dark and the light;
And our hearts were fulfilled with the music he made with us,
Made with our hands and our lips while he stayed with us,
Stayed in mid passage his pinions from flight
For a day and a night.
Algernon Charles Swinburne, At Parting
The boys met at Doncaster as planned. Both were a little diffident at picking up the threads. But Robert’s Mum, as she always did, had supplied Justin with a gargantuan packed lunch — small wonder Robert was overweight — which he now shared with Gavin, who had brought only a packet of crisps. For a time they talked churches — Durham and Selby, York and Beverley. Justin enthused about Beverley as a town, and the Carstairs’ hospitable home just inside Beverley Bar.
“What’s Beverley Bar?” asked Gavin. “Apart from the Minster, I don’t know the place. Beverley Bar sounds like a pub.”
“No, it’s the old North Gate of the town. Brick, medieval, and a bottleneck for traffic. Rather nice. And quite famous. There’s a local version of the Christmas carol.” Smiling apologetically, Justin sang it softly,
“We three kings of Orient are,
One in a taxi, one in a car,
One on a scooter tooting his hoo-ooter
Going to Beverley Bar.”
Gavin smiled back. When he smiled, Justin noticed, dimples appeared in his cheeks, just above the corners of his mouth. And once lunch had been demolished, Justin shared with him the gist of his conversations with Robert.
“I’m not trying to be rude,” Gavin said when he had finished. “But how much of that is Robert’s? Is any of it yours?”
“Most of it’s Robert’s,” Justin admitted, “though I can go along with it. But he prodded me to define — well, to describe — God, and I worked out that part on my own. Why? Doesn’t it make any sense to you?” He was nervous that Gavin might shoot him down.
“Oh, it does. I can go along with it too, without any trouble. It’s just interesting that Robert took you along a religious path, while I get to much the same point along a secular one.”
“Yes, you said last time that you weren’t religious. But then so did I. So what’s your secular path?”
“Right. This is going to be quite a sermon. OK?”
“OK. That’s the very word Robert used.”
“Well, I’m not religious in the ordinary sense. But I can see the value of religion. And Dad’s in the same boat. We’ve talked about this a lot. He isn’t a Christian, any more than I am. If anything, he calls himself a humanist.”
“What does humanism mean, exactly?”
“Well, it’s a way of looking at the world. A rational one, which rejects the supernatural, and puts human interests and the human mind first. But Dad admits that ordinary humanism is too narrow to account for the uplift one gets from poetry and art and architecture and music. And from nature. And even from just being alive. There’s something magical about all of those … mysterious … joyful. Psychology tries to explain the magic with gobbledygook. Standard Christianity tries to explain it with dull sermons and dry moral equations. Neither of them does anything like justice to the magic and joy. We know a lot about the brain, but there’s a heck of lot we don’t know and probably never can know. It looks as if there’s some other factor involved. Dad reckons there’s a case for religion of some sort in order to save the magic. Not to be saved from it.”
“What do you mean by religion of some sort?”
“Oh, nothing formal. Just a sense of wonder … of awe … at the monstrous mystery of life. Not just accepting that humans have a consciousness — a spirit, if you like — but being grateful for it. Rejoicing in it. Recognising how wonderful it is. Life can be tough — you know all about that — but it’s still a wonderful thing. Look at that rainbow. It’s nothing more than sunlight refracting from drops of water. But if that’s all you see it as, how boring. It isn’t surprising the Greeks saw the rainbow as a goddess, is it?”
Gavin’s face was not only framed by the rainbow but silhouetted against the window, and the back-light showed up the fine down on his lip and chin. Good grief — he hadn’t even started shaving yet. Justin forced his mind back to the discussion.
“But the Greeks didn’t know what causes rainbows,” he pointed out. “So they made up a mythical figure to explain them.”
“That’s right. The whole world cries out for myths to explain it. We’ve got a … sort of spiritual appetite for stories. And most cultures have supplied them — it’s raw human creativity. The stars are fires of the gods, if you like to see them that way. The world is the stories you make up from it, the magic and mystery you see in it. Take the Greek gods. They were made up to give a structure and a meaning to life … to the world. But they were a pretty dodgy bunch, and when they weren’t seen any longer as gods, they could easily have been seen as devils, and suppressed. But they’ve survived, thank goodness. As allegories, sort of. They’re literally marvellous. And magical. If we started believing in them again, they’d lose their magic.”
Justin reflected that he was sitting beside a Greek god in whom he did believe, and who was still marvellous and magical.
“And it’s the same with Christian myths?” was all he said.
“Yes. I think it is. The bible’s full of poetry and fantasy. That isn’t there to whet our spiritual appetite. It’s there to feed the appetite we’ve already got. Whoever wrote the creation stories in Genesis didn’t believe them. They wrote them as deliberate fiction to explain the inexplicable … rather like Golding wrote The Spire to explore a mystery. It’s much the same with the gospels. They’re based on a historical figure, but they’re written up in an improving way. The idea of Christ sacrificing himself to save man isn’t unique — look at Codrus the king of Athens, who sacrificed himself to save his city. You get similar myths all over the world. Uplifting stories. After all, even if people do turn to the church out of a sense of guilt, they turn to it above all because its myths speak to them. Not as historical truth — though some people take them as that — but because they need what myth can give them.”
“And what can it give?”
“Oh, all sorts of things. A myth’s got weight behind it, the weight of hundreds or thousands of years. It helps to keep the social system going … the common rules of right and wrong … of what’s proper and what isn’t … which society depends on. That’s one thing the Christian myth does for us. And it provides a model. It isn’t easy to go through life without a model to give you an idea of the direction to go, and how to deal with problems and opportunities that crop up. You can apply any myths to your life, if they’ve been put into you. But it’s a good thing to hang on to the myths that were put in when you were young, because they’re there whether you want them or not. Which for us means the Greek myths, to some extent, but especially the Christian ones.”
That made every sense to Justin. Wasn’t that the part of the message of the bible and prayer book that did appeal to him?
“But how do you square myth with science?”
“They’re both ways of arriving at truth, and I think both of them are valid. Reason ― logic ― is the practical day-to-day approach, which corresponds to reality. Nowadays we call it science. But myth caters for the puzzling parts of life … the elusive bits, where science and reason can’t help. Myth doesn’t help you produce efficient technology. But if you become a refugee or witness some terrible catastrophe, you don’t just want a logical explanation. You need myth to show you how to manage your grief. If you’ve lost your family in an earthquake, say. Or like the Jews exiled in Babylon, after Jerusalem had been captured, writing the early books of the bible to give themselves hope. Hope’s a big factor. Think of Cinderella. Think of Arthur and the sword in the stone … Think of Odysseus,” Gavin added gently, “coming home after twenty years. He’d never even seen Telemachus. But he soon discovered what a splendid son he’d fathered.”
Justin felt tears in his eyes. Please God he could live up to that.
“Myth’s a simple kind of psychology, really,” Gavin said, “without the psychobabble. It helps you come to terms with yourself. The trouble is that the word’s got discredited. Often all it means nowadays is something which isn’t fact.”
“But plenty of people read religious myths as if they were fact. The fundamentalists, who’re so dogmatic and intolerant they hate anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Robert and I were talking about sectarian hatred, in Northern Ireland. You’ve got problems like that in Cyprus too, haven’t you?”
Gavin pulled a face. “Yes. Orthodox Christianity versus Islam. Like in Northern Ireland, it’s a matter of history. In the middle ages Cyprus started off Byzantine ― Orthodox, of course ― and then it became French and Venetian in turn, and played a big part in the crusades. Then it was conquered by the Turks. Then it became British, until independence. But now the northern part of it’s been taken over by the Turks again. Yes, I suppose at root it’s a religious divide. But in practical terms it’s really a matter of ethnic origin and politics ― Greek nationalism against Turkish nationalism. It’s so pointlessly divisive. The Green Line, the frontier, runs right through the middle of Nicosia, and nobody’s allowed to cross it.”
They were rolling into Peterborough, and Gavin looked over at the cathedral.
“And it’s a shame from our point of view as well. The original cathedral in Nicosia was Ayia Sophia, a lovely big thirteenth-century one, in full-blown French style. The rulers then were French, the Lusignans, who’d brought in a veneer of Catholicism. But in 1570 the Turks turned it into a mosque, and so it’s stayed. I’ve never even seen it, except at a distance across the frontier. Anyway, in the end, a century later, a replacement Orthodox cathedral got built. Ayios Ioannis. It’s more Italian in style, late Gothic. But it’s pretty small, and honestly it’s not very exciting.”
That swung their talk, for a while, back to cathedrals, and again they looked out for Ely. As before, their seats were facing north, and again Justin leant across, very deliberately but this time for much longer than he needed to. It was too misty to see far, but they reaped the same reward, and they smiled broadly at each other. But, there and then, there was nothing they could do about it. Justin tore himself back to more theoretical matters, for myth was still on his mind.
“Gavin, is myth dead? I mean, the myths we’ve been talking about are all ancient ones. They’re not being made any more, are they?”
“Oh, they are. We talk about ancient myths because they’re the ones most deeply embedded in us. But they’re timeless, and they’re being recycled all the time. The same stories of exile and homecomings. Love, loss, struggle. Fertility and death and renewal. Retribution. And sacrifice. They’re being retold over and over again, in novels and plays and films. Think of Harry Potter. Or Narnia, which is blatantly Christian. Or Lord of the Rings, which is just as much about good and evil but isn’t Christian at all. And in that form, people lap them up, don’t they?”
Yes. Looked at like that, the myths were there all the time, all the way from Homer and Hesiod via Beowulf and Shakespeare to Tolkien and Golding. And what Gavin said was not incompatible with what Robert had said. Robert’s universal ideas were much the same as Gavin’s myths. They were merely seen from a different viewpoint. Except perhaps for this business of God …
“Gavin, Robert sees God talking to us through our spirituality. You don’t, do you?”
“Well, it’s a matter of names, isn’t it? As I said, I come from a secular starting point. I see spirituality as giving us that sense of wonder and magic and joy. An out-of-this-world sense, which you can call religion of a sort. If you want to call it God, fine.”
“But Robert thinks that God gives us strength and peace and hope and love.”
“Don’t those follow on from the package of wonder and magic and joy? If you’ve got that package on board, it’ll lead on to strength and peace and the rest. Soyes. Iagree.”
Justin thought back to their encounter on the train last week. That had seemed wonderful, magical and joyful. And it had brought him strength and peace and hope and love. So yes, he could agree too, with both Robert and Gavin. As for what you called the inspiration … well, that was a question which could happily remain open.
“Gavin,” he said, feeling contentedly mischievous. “Everything you’ve been saying. How much of it is your Dad’s? Is any of it yours?”
“Most of it’s Dad’s,” Gavin admitted, “though I can agree with it. But bits of it are mine.”
They grinned at each other.
From King’s Cross they took the tube to Piccadilly Circus and walked westwards along Piccadilly. On the left, set back from the street, was St James’s church, and outside it was a poster advertising a concert. Carl Orff, Carmina Burana, tonight at 7:30.
“Look at that!” cried Gavin. “I’ve heard of it often enough, but I’ve never heard it. Have you?”
“Would you like to go, then?”
“Well, I’d love to, but I don’t think I can …” Knowing he had no notes in his wallet, Justin dug in his trouser pocket. “Sorry, that’s all I’ve got left.” On his palm was one fifty pence, one five pence and two tuppences. “Barely enough to get me to London Bridge tomorrow.”
“Put that away. Don’t be silly ― you’re my guest.”
“Are you sure? Well, thanks very much. OK then.”
“Great. Let’s dump our stuff in the flat. We’d better find somewhere to eat about half past six. That’s on me too. No argument, please.”
They had stopped abreast of a down-and-out sitting against the wall. He was not actively begging, but his filthy hat was on the pavement beside him and a few coppers were in it. At the clink of coins he had raised a hopeful head. Gavin dug in his own pocket and dropped a fifty pence into the hat.
Justin felt torn. He looked the beggar in the eye. “Sorry, I’m as broke as you.”
“’S all right, mate. Good luck to you.”
They turned right into a courtyard. Beggary to opulence, in a few yards. Ahead lay a large Georgian block, its dignified doorway guarded by a porter wearing a frock coat.
“Afternoon, Mr Wyatt, sir.” He touched his gold-braided top hat to them. “Afternoon, sir.”
Hmmm. Standards unfamiliar to Justin, and unaccustomed treatment. Robert had been right. They went up to the flat. It was small, as Gavin had said. Small lounge, small kitchen, small bathroom, and two bedrooms with double beds.
“If we have guests, I double up with Dad.”
Justin would willingly have doubled up with Gavin there and then, but Gavin had other ideas.
“It’s nice and sunny now. Shall we go and sit in the park until it’s time to eat?”
Thwarted, Justin could only agree. They went down the Duke of York’s steps, crossed Pall Mall and the Mall, and in St James’s Park they found a bench in the sun.
“Look, Justin, we’ve only known each other a few hours. I’d like to find out more about you. Do you mind?”
Gavin began gently to quiz him about life at the vicarage. Having wrung him thoroughly dry, he looked at him in wonder, his head tilted sideways.
“How on earth have you survived all that crap? If I’d been in your shoes I’d long ago have turned to crime and drugs, or gone round the bend, or done myself in. You must be incredibly strong.”
“Strong? God, no. You’ve no idea. I’ve almost gone under. Often.”
“Almost? That’s the point. You have stayed afloat, if only just. You must be strong to have done that. You’ve kept your balance. Your individuality. You’ve put up with what you had to, but you’ve rebelled where you could, pulling out of this nonsense and that. Look, Justin. Iknow you cry, but you cry for the right reason. From emotion when you’re moved, not from self-pity. And you can still laugh. You’ve hung on to your values. And your self-control.”
“But I haven’t!” Justin exclaimed in anguish. “Not always. And I’m frightened about … what we might do tonight. I want to. Desperately. But I’m not sure I can trust myself. You see …”
A stream of confession came pouring out. How jerking off, despite the self-disgust, had been his standard safety valve. How last April it had failed to relieve the pressure and had driven him to the Slut. How that experience had blown the safety valve clean out of the boiler. About the waste of shame, the dirt, the guilt. About the lonesome road and the frightful fiend.
“I’m not strong,” he muttered. “I’m weak.”
Gavin’s arm was now round him, instilling comfort. “Thank you for telling me that, Justin. I understand better now. See how you feel after the concert — it’s for you to decide.”
“But can you want me if I’m so … dangerous?”
“Don’t bash yourself, Justin. If you’re dangerous, you’ve given me fair warning. And why be so ashamed at just one … let’s call it lapse, after fifteen years of torment? Call it a weakness if you must. But it’s peanuts compared to your strength. And you’re a bit of a puritan, aren’t you?”
“That’s what Robert said,” admitted Justin, calming down. “And I think he’s right. Or was right. Chances are it seeped into me willy-nilly at home. Mum’s bitterly ashamed of her indiscretion, I reckon, and she’s as puritanical as they come. She probably passed it on to me. But I worked through it last term, and I don’t see sex as dirty any more. With the likes of the Slut, yes. But not with … well, you.”
“Why are you frightened about tonight, then?”
“I’m not sure if the fiend is still around. The loss of self-control.”
“Well, we’ll deal with that if we have to. Anyway, you say that you’re finding peace and hope at last. So now you can start putting the crap behind you and building on your dreams. You’re an idealist, you know. And you haven’t lost your ideals.”
“If I’ve got them, I don’t know where they came from. Hardly from home.”
“Inherited from your Dad? But wherever they come from, you have got them. That’s what matters. They’re part of your strength. They’ll see you through. Listen to this.” Gavin smiled. “It’s something my Latin teacher quoted at me once ― Macte nova virtute, puer, sic itur ad astra.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Well done, lad, for your young spirit. That’s the way to the stars.”
Justin wept again, for sheer emotion. Gavin’s arm was still round him.
He satisfieth the empty soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.
After a while, purged, they set off back to Piccadilly. There was a light-controlled pedestrian crossing on the Mall, and clattering up the road towards them, barracks-bound from sentry duty at Horse Guards, was a troop of Household Cavalry, the sun sparkling off its burnished breastplates. Gavin, giving Justin a glance of pure evil, pressed the button. He timed it to perfection. The lights turned red against the troop, which skidded to a halt, hooves striking sparks from the tarmac. The pedestrian light turned green and, as the horses stared haughtily down their patrician noses and the riders squinted superciliously under their white-plumed helmets, the boys scuttled across. Once the troop had clattered away, they collapsed in laughter.
Having pulled themselves together, they went on across Pall Mall. “Who’s that?” asked Justin as they climbed the steps, nodding at the statue atop the tall column.
“Why, the Grand Old Duke of York, who had ten thousand men.”
“Oh. Him. Fancy being remembered for nothing better than marching up and down a hill!”
Over a meal at a Piccadilly pizzeria, talk revolved around music and books. They shared similar tastes, they found; but Gavin’s knowledge of music was wider than Justin’s, whose experience was limited to school concerts, the little radio he could listen to, and the few tapes, mostly on a religious theme, given him by his Mum and stepfather.
And they shared a similar response to the concert. St James’s was splendidly baroque and was built, they learned, by Sir Christopher Wren ― and was reputedly his favourite among all his London churches ― and its woodwork was carved by Grinling Gibbons. Justin, following the text of Carmina Burana in the programme which gave both the original and a translation, was aroused by the sensuous words and lusty rhythms. Gavin beside him was on the edge of his seat. At the end, they discovered with surprise but no embarrassment that they were holding hands. The applause over, Justin got busy with his ballpoint on the programme.
“What are you underlining?”
Justin showed him, the last number but three.
Oh,oh,oh, totus floreo!
Iam amore virginali totus ardeo.
Novus, novus, novus amor est quo pereo.
Tempore brumali vir patiens,
Animo vernali lasciviens.
Novus, novus, novus amor est quo pereo.
Oh, oh, oh, I burst all over.
With virgin love I now burn all over.
New, new, new is the love for which I die.
In winter time, man is patient.
In spring breezes, he desires.
New, new, new is the love for which I die.
Gavin looked at him inscrutably. “Let’s get back to the flat.”