Nights and Days

9. A noose of light

Awake! for Morning in the bowl of Night
Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight:
And lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s turret in a noose of light.

Edward Fitzgerald, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Alone in the house which was now, for once, as silent as the grave, Justin sat and thought about his father speaking to him almost from the grave. He had been envious of Gavin and Robert for their Dads. He had always yearned for one of his own. Now that at last he had one, he realised just how much he had yearned. And, after all the conjecture, it turned out that he had a good one. No rapist, no womaniser, no self-centred layabout, but a victim of bad luck and circumstance. He was a good man, considerate and unselfish. He must be good, to have made that sacrifice. Jesus-like, almost.

And Justin did understand about Dad’s indiscretion — he was already thinking of him as Dad and nothing but Dad. After all, hadn’t he been in much the same position himself, in sheer lust, without even the excuse of drink? He might even now be in exactly the same position, if the Slut had been a girl. Yes, these things did happen. He couldn’t blame Dad at all.

And he couldn’t blame Mum very much. OK, she had hardly been fair in visiting the sins of the father upon the son. But she had found herself, little more than a girl it seemed — doubtless naïve and unworldly — in an even more intolerable situation than Dad. That was only marginally her fault. Now that he knew the circumstances, he thought he could understand her, and forgive her. One day, once he was clear of his clutches, he might even be able to forgive his stepfather too.

Because everyone had suffered from the resulting mess, hadn’t they? His stepfather had suffered from the presence in his household of an unwelcome bastard. Mum had suffered from shame and the ownership of an unwanted child. He himself had suffered from the absence of his Dad and from shortage of love. And Dad had suffered from guilt and from loneliness.

Dad … who had never set eyes on his son but who constantly had him in his thoughts … just as he himself had constantly dreamed about his anonymous father. His heart went out to him, exiled in the back of beyond — where exactly was this Pukekohe? And those names in Dad’s account — two rang a bell with him. One was still with them — Mr Hodgson, ironically, was his very own Honk. And although the Beast was no longer around, his malign memory lived on in house mythology, like an evil ogre in a fairy tale. But who were the others? They might be marginal to the story, but he needed to fill in the background.

He went to the house library. The atlas should show him Pukekohe. Yes, there it was, a bare thirty miles from Auckland. Hardly the back of beyond, then.

And the School Roll, the latest edition, should show him his Dad. Yes, there he was. “September 1952,” the index said. He turned back to the alphabetical list of boys who joined the school in that term. The very first entry read:

Appleyard, Gavin (West House), born April 1939, son of S. C. Appleyard, York. School prefect, house captain, left October 1956.

Then silence: no subsequent career, no address, such as almost every other entry included. That meant no more, surely, than that he had not supplied the information, that he had not kept in touch. Hardly surprising. But the dead give-away was the date he left. Nobody left in October, unless he was sacked. At least the authorities had not expunged his name entirely. And York! Only last summer he had been on Dad’s old stamping-ground.

Immediately after Dad came Miles Bailey, with a distinguished career at Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn. That surname too rang a bell, now that it had a first name attached. Justin had read about him in the papers as a brilliant barrister, much in demand for defending the indefensible. He’d done well for himself then, the bugger. The fucking bugger.

That left only his own namesake, this other Justin, this wonder-boy who had been a year below Dad. He turned forward to September 1953 and ran his finger down the list, searching behind the surnames for a Justin. There must be one, there must be one … ah, there it was, at the very end.

Oh my God!

Mistrusting his legs, he sat down heavily on the nearest chair and blinked hard before reading on.

Wyatt, Justin Heywood (West House), born June 1940, son of Dr M. P. Wyatt, Durham. Entrance scholar, house captain, captain of school, cricket XI (captain), rugby XV, left July 1958. Peterhouse Cambridge (scholar, 1st class Classical Tripos), University cricket XI (captain). BA 1961. Commonwealth Office — it listed various postings on his way up the ladder — High Commissioner to Cyprus. CMG 1980. Address, British High Commission, Alexander Pallis Street, Nicosia.

He sat motionless, mouth open, eyes glazed, trying to absorb it all, piecing it together, the half of the story from Dad, the half transmitted by Gavin, the entry in the School Roll that linked the two halves.

So … So …

Here, in this very house, twenty-five years ago, his own Dad had loved Gavin’s Dad, and had sacrificed himself for him. And even though Justin senior had thought, and evidently still thought, that Gavin senior was guilty as charged, their mutual love had never been extinguished. Far from it. Justin mused on the implications.

Dad, finding no replacement for his lover, had remained, apart from his indiscretion, totally celibate. Justin could understand that too; and he wholly approved, for if some disaster robbed him of his own love, could he contemplate accepting a proxy, let alone leaping into a casual bed? No way.

Gavin had called him an idealist. If he was, he was proud to be one. Dad was clearly another. And so, equally clearly, was Justin Wyatt — he too, according to Gavin, had remained celibate and still pined for his lost love. And the proof lay in the heart-tearing outcome: although neither father knew that he was still in the other’s thoughts, each of them had named his only son after the other.

What was more, both fathers were entirely happy that their sons were gay. But Gavin senior did not know that Gavin junior existed. Justin senior knew of Justin junior merely as Justin Newby, and had no reason to make the connection. Of the four of them, only he himself, Justin junior, had the full story. Only he knew that history was repeating itself; or rather that, hopefully, only the happier part of history was repeating itself. The other three must be told.

And the summer. Oh God, he had to go to his Dad. He had to. But, oh God, his summer was already committed to Gavin, to his Gavin. He had to be with him. How the hell did he choose? But hang on. Could they be combined? Well, possibly.

But that lay in the future. The first step was to tell the other three. He would be seeing Gavin — and Gavin’s Dad — in two days’ time. A letter posted now would arrive after he did. He could hardly use Honk’s phone to call his boyfriend. Still less could he use the vicarage phone tomorrow. No, breaking the news to them would have to wait until he got to Cyprus.

Meanwhile, thanks to Honk, he could talk to Dad. And he must. What was the time? Eleven. Twelve hours difference, presumably, so eleven at night there. Cattle farmers probably got up early and went to bed early, but what the hell. This was more important than anyone’s beauty sleep.

Without even consulting his store of courage, he went to Honk’s study, discovered from the directory how to make an international call, and picked up the receiver. It took a while to get through, and the phone rang for a while. At last a deep voice spoke, a reassuring voice.

“Gavin Appleyard here.”

Justin found his tongue paralysed and his throat clamped tight.

“Hullo?” The voice grew irritated. “Hullo?”

With a superhuman effort, Justin forced out a single word.


There was a gasp from half a world away.


“Dad … Dad … sorry, I’m blubbing.”

“And so am I … Oh, Justin! Do you … do you forgive me, then?”

“Forgive?” That jolted Justin into relative coherence. “Dad, what is there to forgive? I’m just sorry … about what happened to you. What shouldn’t have happened. And till you told me, I didn’t know …”

“Of course not. How could you?”

“I mean … something I didn’t know, which I’ve only just found out, which you don’t know either.”

That was hardly clear. Conscious that he had news quite as important to Dad as Dad’s was to him, Justin dragged himself back into full control.

“There’s so much you don’t know but you’ve got to know. Oh Dad, I’m gay too — Mum’s right about that — and I’ve got a boyfriend …”

“Then I’m happy for you, Justin.”

“Thanks, Dad. But that’s not the point. I mean, of course it matters that you approve. But you don’t know the half of it. Listen. His name — my boyfriend’s name — is Gavin too. And he’s the result of — um — of an indiscretion too. His mother’s long dead. But his father — this is the point, Dad, this is the point — his father is your Justin.”

There was a gobbling noise from the other end.

“Yes, Dad, your Justin. He thought he’d lost you. But he still loved you. He called his son Gavin, after you. Just like you called me Justin, after him. That’s what you’ve got to hoist in.”

There followed a long silence from Pukekohe as it was hoisted in, a silence which turned into a subdued sobbing.

“Dad,” Justin went on gently, compassionately, consciously trying to help him through the shock. “Gavin’s told me a lot about his father. Your Justin. He’s still gay, at heart. He knows that Gavin’s gay too, and supports him all the way. And the only gay affair that your Justin’s ever had was at school. With you. Though of course I didn’t know it was you, until today.

“He’s High Commissioner to Cyprus now, did you know? I haven’t met him yet. But if he’s anything like Gavin, he’s brilliant. And the day after tomorrow I’m going out to stay with them … Dad, may I tell them what you’ve told me? Show them your letter? They ought to know. Both of them. As soon as possible. Oughtn’t they?”

Dad had by now had time to compose himself.

“Hold on. It does take some hoisting in, doesn’t it? Oh God, what a night!” He gave a shaky little laugh. “This is the night that either makes me or fordoes me quite. Do you recognise that, Justin?”

Othello, isn’t it?”

“That’s right. That same ill-fated Othello. But I think this night is going to make me.”

“Things look brighter still by day, Dad. It’s day here, remember, and your letter’s made me. Made my day. No argument.”

A big sigh came down the line.

“Thank you, Justin. Oh God, I’m proud at having my son back after ignoring him all his life. I’m proud that he’s so forgiving, and so considerate, and so like-minded. And I’m … overwhelmed by what you say about Justin and his son. Oh yes, you were asking about them. Yes, you’re right, they must know. Tell them everything.”

“OK, Dad. And I’ve any amount of stuff to tell you. I’ll write to you today. A long letter — Honk’s given me the day off. But I can’t talk too long now — I’m on Honk’s phone.”

Honk? Not Honk Hodgson? Who found the book?”

“Yes. Him. He’s a housemaster now. Mine. He took over from the Beast.”

“Good grief. And he’s given you the day off and let you use his phone? Because of my … disclosures?”

“That’s right. But all he knows is that I’ve just found you. Not who you are. Shall I tell him too? He’s OK, you know. Really good. He understands people. Shall I tell him the truth about your …”

“Why not? Yes, remember me to him, and tell him. Tell the world, for that matter. But not everything. Not what Justin and I had been up to. Nor who the real culprit was.”

“Miles Bailey. I’ve just looked him up in the School Roll. He’s a high-powered barrister.”

“Is he now?” Dad laughed. “Right, why tarnish his reputation?”

“And Dad. New Zealand in the summer. Yes please. I’d love to come, like a shot. But there is a problem. I’d promised to spend most of the holidays with Gavin. My Gavin. Would it be …”

“Would it be possible for him to come too? Yes, of course it would. On me, again. He’ll be as welcome as you. And so will his father, needless to say. If he can make it.”

“Oh God, brilliant. Thanks, Dad. I’ll put it to them. And Dad.” Justin found he was going husky again. “I know who you are now. And I couldn’t ask for better. But I’m wondering what you look like. Could you send a photo? To me in Nicosia” — he gave the address, which he had by heart — “because they’ll want to know, as well.”

“I will.” Dad too was husky. “Provided you send me one of you. And of course I’ll write to Justin. My Justin, as you put it, even though you’re both mine. Oh my word, Justin. You’ve made this the best day — yes, day — of my life.”

“And you’ve made it the best day of mine, Dad. Alongside my time with Gavin. My Gavin … And Dad … All these years, there’s been only one thing I’ve known about you. That you paid for me here. I’ve always been grateful for that, Dad. And still am. For exactly the reason you said.”

It was time to wind the conversation up. Everything urgent had been covered.

“Thanks, Dad,” Justin repeated as firmly as his uncertain voice allowed, “for everything. I love you. Bye.”

“And thanks to you, son. I love you too. Bye.”

Justin put the phone down. Tears began to well again as he stared through the wall and across the miles to Pukekohe where he knew that tears were also flowing free. If only he could be worthy of his father, as Gavin was of his. As Telemachus had been of Odysseus.

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.

Justin laid his arms on the desk, and his head on his arms, and wept.

There Honk, returning home, found him still.

“Tears of joy, I hope,” he remarked, contemplating the wet face that was lifted to him.

“Yes, sir.” Justin pulled himself together and dug out his handkerchief. “Very great joy.” And he found himself half-singing, he hardly knew why, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium.”

Most unlike Justin, thought Honk. “So you’re pleased with the father you’ve found?”

“Yes, sir. Very.”

“Then I’m happy for you.”

“Thank you, sir. And he … asked to be remembered to you.”

“I know him, then? Good Lord! He was at Hambledon? I don’t recall another Newby.”

“Not Newby, sir. That’s my mother’s maiden name. Dad’s name is Gavin Appleyard.”

“Ah … Yes … Appleyard.” A shutter seemed to come down over Honk’s face. “But do you know that I was instrumental in his, ah, departure?”

“So I’ve just heard, sir. You found his Othello in the pavilion. But it wasn’t Dad who left it there. It was somebody else, who had borrowed it.”

“Oh? … Oh, I see! So your father sacrificed himself, covering up for that somebody?” The shutter lifted. “Well, I must say that agrees with his character. He always was the most modest and considerate of boys. A thinker. And I most certainly will not ask who that somebody was. Nor will anyone else. Much too ancient history. But I hope your father doesn’t bear any grudges.”

“None, sir. He knew the score then, and he knows it now.”

“And you don’t bear any grudges either?”

“No, sir.” A thought occurred to Justin. “If … that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here. Either in the school or in the world. And right now I like being in both.”

He grinned at Honk. Grins and Justin so rarely went together that Honk could not help smiling back. He now had the answer to that sense of déjà vu which had occasionally niggled him. Now that he had the clue, he could easily see the resemblance to the boy to whom he had taught Othello twenty-five years ago.

“Thanks for the use of your phone, sir.” Justin became businesslike for a moment. “I’m afraid we were talking for, oh, a good quarter of an hour. If you put it on my bill, I’ll try to square it with my Mum.”

“No need for that. Your father may have brought it on himself, but the school did deal out a measure of injustice. I think it can afford some slight recompense, and I’m sure the headmaster would agree with me.”

These were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.

Justin suddenly wanted to hug his housemaster. Had Honk been in charge twenty-five years ago, maybe Dad would not have been expelled. But then he himself would not be around today. What if, what if?

“What are you doing with yourself over the holidays?” Honk asked. “The usual?”

Justin lit up yet more. “No, sir. I’m going to Cyprus, to stay with a friend.”

Honk regarded the young face, normally darkly filtered with quiet melancholy, now aglow with anticipation. He had long known that something was afoot; but, as he had long suspected, it was afoot in the holidays and outside his jurisdiction. If afoot at school, even in this more progressive age, it would still earn the same punishment as had fallen on Appleyard’s innocent shoulders. But he had no reason, apart from the intangible evidence of Sonnet 129, to suspect that Justin had strayed from the straight and narrow at Hambledon. Anyway, that episode reflected, as he read it, an impulsive surrender to lust which had been instantly repented.

This present affair, as evidenced by all those letters, by Sonnet 43, and by the current elation, smacked of an established and considered love which was gloried in. A very different matter. Irregular, maybe, for a boy of Justin’s age, but hardly, surely, a sin at all. Twenty-five years ago, Honk could never have admitted that. Now, in the evening of his career, mellowed by age and responsibility and changes in society’s attitude, he found that he could, quite easily.

“I hope the sun will shine on you, then.”

Justin saw two meanings in that remark. He had grown, over the past year, into reading Honk just as Honk read him, and his smile of appreciation and gratitude showed it.

No flies on Justin, Honk recognised.

“And you’d still like the rest of the day off?”

“Yes, sir. Please. I’ve got to write to Dad. The next stage is getting to know each other. It’ll have to be a long letter, covering the whole of my life. A hard one.”

Honk also recognised the growing maturity, the ripening responsibility. No great pusher, Justin, but modest and considerate and a thinker. Like father, like son. Material here to be made a prefect of, before very long.

“Harder to write, I’d say, than the hardest Shakespeare essay.”

Or had Justin meant that his life had been hard? If so, equally true.

“Good luck to it, anyway.”

“Thank you, sir. Very much. But first I must tell Robert. And listen to some music.”

“Any music in particular?”

“Beethoven’s Ninth, sir. It has to be. The Ode to Joy.”

“Ah yes. Of course.”

Haloed with splendour, Justin went back to the boys’ side.

Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.