This battle fares like to the morning’s war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
William Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 3
The evening of the very next day, Justin was back with Robert, closeted in his study and reporting how the great adventure had gone.
“So that’s the story. None of it left to your imagination, because none of it needs to be. OK, I made a fool of myself and very nearly wrecked everything. But not quite, and Gavin understands what the problem is, bless him. I’m still learning the lesson, and it’ll be a different matter next time we meet.” He was upbeat about it, now. “Even that doesn’t shock you?”
“No. I’m happy for you, and mightily impressed by your Gavin and what he’s doing for you. It wouldn’t have been right for me, even if Gavin had been a girl. But it was right for you, and it will be right. We’re different, Justin. Our needs are different, but equally valid. And Gavin’s giving you what you need.”
“Yes.” Justin was still glowing. “Or part of it. Pity he can’t give me the rest.”
“What do you mean? Oh, I see. A father. Yes, that’s another matter altogether.”
“That’s right. And that reminds me.” Justin pulled a face. “There’s a down side too. Last night I was summoned to the study. And on my stepfather’s desk was the concert programme from Carmina Burana. This one.” He dug it out from a pile of books. “Mum had found it on my bedroom floor. I must have dropped it. And they grilled me. Oh God!”
He could remember the inquisition almost word for word.
“They rabbited on as you might expect. Had I been at this concert? Hadn’t I been to Beverley at all?
“Yes I had, I said, but I left a day early — I’d met this boy on the train and he invited me for the night.
“So I’d stayed with a stranger, had I, without asking them or even telling them?
“Not a stranger by then, I said — I came down with him from Doncaster too. Anyway, Ihad permission to be away. A night in London rather than Beverley — what’s the difference?
“A very large one, they said. Robert seems to be steady and trustworthy — I pass that on just to make you blush. But an unknown boy who might be anything … oh dear!
“And that’s where it began to get interesting. They started looking at the programme and said, ‘This sounds remarkably like pornography.’
“I was gobsmacked. ‘Pornography?’ I said. ‘But it’s medieval. Or the words are, from a manuscript in a German monastery. And the concert was in a church. St James’s Piccadilly. Look at the front. It says so’.” Justin jabbed his finger at the programme.
“‘But look at what it says inside,’ they said, and they read a bit out. This bit — ‘a bawdy, sensuous celebration of love and spring composed by disgraced monks … sung by boys bursting with pubescent anticipatory joy.’ Actually that’s rather nicely put, isn’t it? Then they spotted that I’d underlined Oh oh oh, totus floreo, and their little minds got even busier. ‘You haven’t been with a girl, have you, Justin?’
“‘No. I said, it was a boy.’
“‘Presumably his parents were there?’
“‘No. We were by ourselves.’
“I could see their minds changing gear.
“‘Justin, what are your relations with this boy?’
“‘Good friends. Surely you don’t begrudge me a friend — you know how few I have.’
“‘What do you mean exactly by good friends?’
“‘Just that. Good friends.’ I was really pissed off by now and said, ‘We didn’t have sex, if that’s what you’re getting at.’
“Well, they bridled, but I could see they didn’t believe me, even though it was true. They couldn’t prove anything. But they said they were minded to forbid me to see him again. They’re thinking about it.”
“Hmmm,” said Robert, prodding his jowl. “So you didn’t vouch for your dodgy pal by parading his respectable parentage or his swanky address?”
“Why should I? How could I? After all, in friendships, fathers don’t come into the picture, do they? Out of your own mouth, Robert.”
Robert had the grace to blush.
“Look, Robert. I love Gavin, no matter who his father is. So how can I use his father as a tool to vouch for him? Anyway, respectability’s no guarantee. Good parents can produce lousy children. Out of your own mouth again … But Robert … I feel like Jonathan, forbidden to see my David. My stepfather’s like Saul, suspicious as hell. God knows where we go from here.”
“Well, at least your career isn’t likely to end quite like Jonathan’s. Mind you, I can easily see you dying bravely in battle against the Philistines. But there’s no way I can see you fighting alongside your stepfather and dying with him … Which reminds me. There was something interesting in the paper yesterday. I cut it out. An interview with Mervyn Stockwood. Blackheath’s in Southwark diocese, isn’t it? And he used to be your bishop?”
“That’s right. He retired last year. An excellent man. I wish there were more like him.”
“Did you ever meet him?”
“Yes. He came to St Michael’s to preach a couple of years ago, and a very good sermon it was. And afterwards he came home for lunch, with Mum and my stepfather fawning over him.” Justin smiled reminiscently. “We weren’t allowed to eat with them — us kids, Imean — but I’d been appointed waiter. And when I handed him something, he noticed that my knuckles were bleeding and asked how I’d done it. So I told him I’d barked them on a gravestone while I was mowing the grass in the churchyard before matins. And he frowned and asked if that had been for his benefit.
“‘Sort of,’ I said. ‘I normally do it on Sunday afternoons.’ Then he asked what I’d be doing that afternoon instead. Stuffing the parish magazine into letterboxes, I said. And he gave my stepfather a pretty dirty look.” Justin chuckled.
Robert chuckled too. “Yes,” he said, turning to his cutting. “That fits. He says in this interview that 85 per cent of Anglican clergy are marvellous people doing a tremendous job, but — quote — ‘I reckon 5 per cent of ministers are mad, 5 per cent are bad, and 5 per cent are both. I’ve always taken the view that while there’s death there’s hope for the church.’ That’s rather neat, isn’t it?” Robert sighed. “One does try to be charitable, but it isn’t always easy. Which 5 per cent does your stepfather belong to?”
Honk, while he did not snoop into his boys’ private lives, did keep his eyes open. Small details often told a large story. One such detail was the post, which was delivered to the private side and which, having separated out his own letters and his wife’s, he handed over to the boys’ side for distribution. He did not pry. But he could not help remarking the frequent arrival of missives addressed in a youthfully feminine hand to this boy, or of starkly official bank envelopes to that one. Thus he knew that Justin, apart from the occasional note from home, received virtually no mail at all. But in September a regular flow of letters began to arrive for him, all of them bearing gaudy Cyprus stamps. Honk could not fail to observe that the handwriting seemed young and masculine. Nothing wrong with that. He simply noted the fact.
And he was still in a position to keep an eye on Justin in school as well as in the house. With the new school year, Lower V a had, almost to a boy, been upgraded to become Upper V a and their English literature classes continued where they had left off in July. Honk was glad about that.
For his part, Justin’s sense of peace was strong, but paradoxically it was a disturbed peace. If life was no longer hell, it was not yet perfect heaven. His term passed in a complex weather pattern of sunshine, cloud and impending thunderstorm; of elation, frustration and dampening worry.
Gavin maintained a flow of cheerful letters and occasional gifts, such as a tape of Carmina Burana, and Justin cheerfully kept up his end of the correspondence. Thinking and writing at leisure can reveal more of one’s self than talking face to face, and their love grew the mellower for it.
And by dint of hard work such as he had applied last term to his puritanical streak, Justin gradually brought his fiend under control. He would visualise himself with Gavin, and let his imagination rip. At first, in fantasy as in reality, his instincts ran away with him, and he mentally punished himself for their excesses. He was like a trainer, patiently taming a tiger or breaking in an unruly horse. After a month or so the fiend had become obedient and, even if he gave it free rein, showed no sign of misbehaving. In theory, at least; and he was confident that practice would made perfect.
But there was the conflict between the joy generated by his love and the pain of his love being two thousand miles away. This was something he never managed to resolve.
And there was the nagging question of how he could meet up with Gavin again.
As the end of term approached, the threatened ban had still not materialised. He therefore screwed up courage and wrote home asking if he could go to Cyprus at Easter. No, came the blunt reply. They had no intention of paying the fare, and how could he possibly pay it himself? Much more important, they could not allow him to travel unaccompanied to notoriously dissolute lands to stay with a boy who, for all they knew, was utterly disreputable.
Although he had expected no more, he was bitterly disappointed. He reported it to Gavin, who replied by return of post. He had talked it over with his Dad, and his Dad would pay the fare as a joint birthday present to them both. At that, Justin glowed. As for the disreputability, Gavin’s Dad would write direct to Justin’s Mum and stepfather and try to quell their qualms. At that, hope began to return.
Among the Christmas cards that landed on the vicarage doormat, the day after Justin returned home for the holidays, was the promised letter from Nicosia. His stepfather being out, Mum opened it. Justin watched her read. It made her jaw visibly drop, and she actually deigned to show it to him.
It was formally typed on thick cream-laid paper, imposingly embossed with the royal coat of arms in red. The content was a cordial but respectful request that they would allow Justin to visit Gavin and himself in Cyprus in April, all expenses paid, to help celebrate Gavin’s birthday. All Justin needed was a passport. It also asked, looking further ahead, if Justin might stay with them at their Albany flat in the summer.
Under the bold flourish of an illegible signature was the typed identifier, “His Excellency J. H. Wyatt C.M.G., High Commissioner.” What title could be more appropriate? His Excellency indeed.
Albany, he saw Mum mouthing … High Commissioner … Why hadn’t he told them, she demanded, who this boy’s father was? And where his flat was? Because, he replied in all honesty, it hadn’t seemed relevant. But he now realised that in this household it was highly relevant. Status counted here, authority, even wealth. This was a re-run, almost, of last summer and the headmaster’s letter. He could see Mum rapidly revising her viewpoint, and a deep-seated snobbery surfacing. A chance encounter with some unknown brat, an unsupervised overnight stay with him, and she had feared the worst. But an invitation from a high-ranking diplomat with a base in Piccadilly was another matter altogether, and above suspicion. Justin could have pointed out the flaws in her unspoken reasoning, but he did not.
Mum took his stepfather, when he came back, into the study to confer. Hope surged higher when she emerged to ask if Justin ought to buy a dinner jacket, and if so who was going to pay. It was hard to persuade her that this visit was as informal as to Robert in Beverley, and that he was not expected or expecting to adorn any formal function. Ten minutes later she came out again to report that they agreed; although, from the sound of it, there had still been some resistance. Rejoicing, Justin immediately applied for a passport.
Christmas dragged by. Justin irritated his family less than usual, and was irritated less. They were different, he could now admit, with different views and ways and needs, to all of which they were entitled. On Christmas afternoon, between lunch and unctuous evensong, he took himself out of the house. When questioned on his return, he told them he had been at the Quaker meeting. Eyebrows contracted. He wasn’t being seduced, was he, by the least conforming of nonconformists, who spurned the proper liturgy and the sacraments? In fact, although he was wise enough to keep it to himself, he found the lack of liturgy far more strengthening than the ceremony of St Michael’s. The familiar Anglican words still spoke to him, but the Quaker silence gave a better sense of affinity and compassion. There was room for both approaches.
Before the holidays were over his passport arrived. So did a letter from Gavin enclosing a ten-pound note to see him to Heathrow, and his tickets from Heathrow to Larnaka. That was the nearest airport, Gavin explained, Nicosia airport being on the Turkish side of the frontier.
Back at school, Justin reported all this to Robert, and also an item of stop-press news.
“I was just leaving the house this morning, Robert, literally on the doorstep, when William appeared. He doesn’t normally bother to say goodbye. But today he did.
“He said, ‘Have a good term dreaming about your boyfriend.’
“God help me, I didn’t twig. I was miles away. I was dreaming of Gavin.
“So I said, ‘Thanks, I will.’
“Then the little twat said, ‘But don’t … you know … too much over him.’ And he was making a wanking motion with his hand. My face must have gone red as a beetroot. And Mum was behind him. She heard everything. And saw it. The look on her face …”
Robert pursed his lips. “That’s not so good. How did William find out?”
“No idea. Maybe he found Gavin’s letters and read them. I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“Do you think they might stop you going?”
“I’m not sure they can. I’ve brought my tickets and passport with me, thank God. If the worst comes to the worst I needn’t go home at all at the end of term. I can go straight to Heathrow from here.”
In the event, there were no repercussions, but even less communication from home than usual. And Justin did dream of Gavin, more than ever, and his right hand was not unexercised; no longer as a means of escape, but as a private expression of his love. And as time passed he knew ever more certainly that lust would not carry him away again.
‘The Slut introduced me,’ he wrote to Gavin, ‘to Ben Dover and Phil McAvity. They were probably the only friends he had. I reckon they’re OK, as long as they’re secondary friends and don’t misbehave. And they won’t get in the way of our love. Not now.’
But with the advancing months, the pain of absence grew stronger and threatened to disrupt his work. Robert was worried.
“Justin, it doesn’t do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
“I know. But I can’t help it. I’ve got two things to dream about now, and one of them’s within my grasp.”
Half-way through term, Justin’s turn came round once more to present a poem in the English literature class.
“Shakespeare again, sir. Sonnet 43.”
This time Honk was well prepared, and indeed looking forward to it. He had the feeling that a feeling of his was about to be confirmed.
“It’s another one that’s full of oppositions, sir. Seeing and not seeing, day and night, shadow and form, dark and bright, dead and living.
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow's form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.”
There was no bitterness this time in Justin’s voice, rather a slow and dreamy longing that welled up from his depths. Honk’s theory was proving correct.
“It’s not about lust this time, sir. It’s about love. It’s one of the sonnets addressed to the Fair Youth. And he’s absent. Shakespeare’s lonely, and disturbed by the dark brightness his love casts on his soul. There’s a lot about shadows and form and dreams, like in Plato's image of the cave, where the real world can’t be seen — only shadows of people outside cast on the wall. We interpret them as if they were real. But real form, real substance, can only be seen by the eyes of the mind. In this poem, the shadows are flickering, and we end up in a dream world which seems as real as the world of absence we’re trying to escape. Days become nights and nights days, and the natural order of things is turned upside down. It’s all a contrast between shadow and substance. Between body and soul.
“There are one or two other things that need explaining. The ‘wink’ in the first line — itdidn’t mean quite the same then as now. It meant to shut your eyes, like in ‘I didn’t sleep a wink.’ And ‘wink at’ of course means ‘pretend not to see.’ And a bit further on, they didn’t understand vision in those days — they thought that eyes see by emitting beams. And the middle section’s pretty intricate and has to be paraphrased. But what it’s all saying is this.
“My eyes see best when they are most shut. All day I look at things I do not value, but when I sleep my eyes are looking at you, shining secretly and sending bright beams out into the darkness. Your shadow alone is enough to brighten the shadowy form of others; so what a welcome sight the substance of your shadow — that is, the real you — would create in broad daylight. The shadow of you which my closed eyes see shines brightly already; how much more brilliant would be the real you. How would my eyes be blessed to look on you in the living day, compared to the imperfect dream-image which my sleep-closed eyes receive in the dead of night. Until I see you, all days seem to be nights, and nights are bright days when dreams show you to me.”
“Thank you, Newby. That was as clearly interpreted as so elusively allusive a poem can be.” He smiled apologetically at his own choice of words. “Why do you think it is so allusive?”
Justin, chin on hands and eyes unfocussed, gave it serious thought. “Well, sir … When you’re separated from your loved one, his absence tears you apart. It really hurts … And because you can’t see his reality, you dream about his image. Shakespeare’s dead right there — you do … And dreaming, well, dulls the edges. So dream language fits … So does the language of shadows and forms, which is used so, um, exuberantly that it helps blunt the pain of absence.”
His, his, his. Honk’s theory was fully confirmed. And this time, he could see, the whole class had realised that Justin was speaking from personal experience, and that his love was for a male. To that, Honk could not give public blessing. Nor could he give public condemnation, provided they understood that the loved one was not a member of the school.
“And that only applies if the loved one is not present in the flesh?”
“Oh yes, sir. If he’s within reach, there’s … something to get hold of. The substance takes over from the shadow. And then there’s no pain to need blunting.”
That would have to do. It should be clear enough that Justin’s boyfriend was far away. Honk dismissed the class, which filed out chattering busily and casting curious looks. Justin seemed not to notice. Could he be unaware that he had spilled his own beans? Possibly, quite possibly. He was in a dream state. With him went Robert, very much aware and wholly unsurprised. Not Justin’s conscience this time, but his bodyguard. His minder.
On All Fools’ Day Justin celebrated his sixteenth birthday; or rather he quietly marked it, in Robert’s company, as another milestone along the road. They never gave each other presents; just as well because, long before Robert’s own birthday a month before, Justin had spent more than he could really afford on a present for Gavin. And if the pain of absence grew stronger as the months advanced, so did anticipation as they dwindled towards the 9th of April.
On the 7th, the last full day of term, Justin was in his study after breakfast putting the final touches to his prep, and with him was Robert deep in a book, when someone yelled out the names of those for whom mail had arrived. Justin’s was one. Not expecting anything from Gavin, he ambled incuriously to the post table, prominent on which was a thick envelope with an airmail sticker. From Gavin after all, he thought, and his heart lightened. He looked first at the stamp, which was unfamiliar. Huh, hardly surprising it was unfamiliar — it was a New Zealand one. Not his, then. But then he looked at the address, and it was for him. Yet the writing rang no bells at all. Puzzled, he picked the letter up and turned it over. There was nothing on the back. Who on earth?
The answer came out of the blue, and knocked the wind out of him.
So … So …
He had just turned sixteen. He was now deemed old enough to know the worst. Or was it the best? He stood there without breathing, frozen into immobility, until someone pushed past him with an ‘Excuse me, Justin.’ Only then did he stir himself. Holding the envelope at arms’ length as if it contained a bomb, he carried it gingerly back to his study and laid it on the desk.
“Gavin, eh?” asked Robert, glancing idly up from his book.
“Not Gavin.” Justin’s voice was toneless. “My father. It must be.”
Robert shot from abstraction to attention.
“Oho! At last! Would you rather I went?”
“No. Stay, Robert. Please. I need … someone to hold my hand.”
He sat turning the envelope over and over, summoning courage, while Robert watched with sympathy. Good old Robert. He understood something of what was at stake. Gavin understood yet more and, even though he was two thousand miles away, his support was just as tangible. Anyway, it might not be from his father after all …
Come on, you wimp, he told himself, you can’t look at it all day. Abruptly he grabbed his scissors, slit the envelope neatly open, and pulled out a folded sheaf of paper. Another pause to build up more courage, and he unfolded the sheaf.
He started very cautiously. The top sheet bore a businesslike printed heading with an address and phone number. Then the date, four days before. Then, in firm blue handwriting,
“My dear Justin,
For years I have been looking forward to writing to you …”
The hairs stood up on the back of his neck. His courage faltering again, he stopped reading. The cushiest option now was to turn to the last page. The ending read,
“With all my love, therefore,
Your affectionate father,
His ration of courage had, for the time being, run completely out. Lips trembling, he looked helplessly across at Robert.
“Yes,” he whispered. “It is.”
Robert took charge. “It’s only ten minutes till Assembly. You can’t possibly go into school in this state. You’re going to Honk to ask for the day off. Now. This moment. And I’m going with you.”
He almost frogmarched Justin to the private side, where they found Honk already in the hall, putting on his gown. Justin pulled himself together.
“Sir, may I have the day off school? Please. I’ve just had a letter from my father. The first in my life. I’d never even known who he was.”
Honk looked at him carefully, not wholly surprised. He himself had noted that the letter was not from the boyfriend — all right, the supposed boyfriend — in Cyprus. He was fully aware by now of the unhappiness of Justin’s home life. He recognised mental turmoil when he saw it. And Robert’s presence validated the request.
“Yes, Justin, of course you may. Which masters should I inform?”
Justin listed them.
“Right. Now I’m not trying to probe, but is it a case of phoning your new-found father?”
“I’m not sure, sir. I haven’t read his letter yet. But it would cost a mint. He’s in New Zealand.”
Honk almost said, “I know,” but caught himself in time. “What does that matter? He’s still your father. If you want to, or you ought to, feel free to use the phone in my study.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Robert shepherded Justin back to the boys’ side.
“I must go. But I’ll be thinking of you. Whether your father’s a saint or a sinner, Justin, you’re a good man in your own right. That’s what matters. Remember that, and be brave.”
He put an arm briefly round Justin’s shoulders, something he had never done before, and went out, shutting the door behind him.
Oblivious of the clatter as the house emptied itself, hugely fortified by Robert’s and Honk’s support, close to tears but suddenly confident of the best, Justin sat down to discover his father.
As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.