The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

When love with one another so
Interinanimates two souls,
The abler soul, which thence doth flow,
Defects of loneliness controls.

We then, who are this new soul, know
Of what we are composed and made,
For th’ atomies of which we grow
Are souls, whom no change can invade.

To our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love revealed may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But the body is his book.

John Donne (1572-1631), from The Extasie

The first part of  The Scholar’s Tale generated a flood of wholly positive feedback which, because it was my first tentative venture into this kind of writing, both astonished and gratified me. Although the story was meant to be complete in itself, many readers have demanded more. With some reluctance and considerable trepidation, because sequels so often prove a pale shadow of the originals, I therefore offer Part 2. It not only continues the tale of Leon and Andrew’s love, but explores the possible, and possibly surprising, reaction to gay pupils in a British public school of the late 1950s. It is set, to be exact, in 1957-58.

I am especially grateful to two readers, Mark and Chris, who responded to the first part. We three were so obviously on the same wavelength that I asked them to read a draft of Part 2, and their suggestions have improved it substantially. I am much in their debt.

You will find that Leon is now at the stage when he is fond, maybe insufferably over-fond, of quotations. This is a phase which, like acne, afflicts quite a number of youngsters, and usually they grow out of it. If you are desperate to know the sources, any decent dictionary of quotations should help.

19 March 2002

1. Analysis

Next morning, because the night had been active, Andrew and I woke late. We sat over our breakfast and looked at one another as if we could never see enough. Our hands, as soon as they had dealt with the toast and marmalade, met across the table. Small wonder I loved him. Pathetic specimen that I once had been, gauche and petrified, he had rescued me from despair, and by gentle encouragement and example had converted me into a passable imitation of an ordinary human being. He was the first person ever to give me kindness and friendship. Along with his parents, who were now on the point of taking me under their wing, he had transported me mentally and spiritually from rags to riches. What Andrew saw in me was not so easy to tell. The closest he had come to explaining it was a metaphor drawn from chemistry, which was one of his trades.

“Some chemicals,” he had said, “have no effect at all when they’re mixed together. Some become toxic or explosive. Some react by producing warmth and light. That’s us. Your chemical makes mine glow. Don’t ask me why. It just does.”

I could say exactly the same of him. We had now spent a fortnight reacting in this way, discovering each other, melding two souls into a single unchangeable soul, stronger and warmer and brighter than its components, at a level beyond sex and the senses. Our lonelinesses were banished. We took delight in simply being together. But the senses could not be ignored, for they were the message-carriers. We had fast been learning their language and their physics.

Sex was on one plane, a plane apart. On a different plane, but still a vital one, we had found out how the electricity of love was transmitted and received. The mouth was indeed one terminal, but kissing, however sensuous, demanded undivided attention, and remained an occasional treat. More flexible and more frequent contact was possible through the eyes and hands: looking, holding, touching. These had already become such second nature to us that sometimes we needed no words to communicate, and sometimes the intensity of our togetherness moved us to tears. Little did we realise, then, that scarcity of this contact was about to dominate our lives.

We had been living, however, in the present. Now we had to discuss the future, soon in consultation with Jack and Helen in Oxford, but first between ourselves. Over breakfast, therefore, I broached the subject.

“Andrew, love, I’ve never been happier in my life. But what happens next? We want to be ourselves, but we’ve got to adapt to new circumstances. Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.”

“Fresher and newer for you than me. I’ve got a lover now, but you’ve got a lover and new parents.”

“I like grazing on you, so you must be the pasture. They’re the woods, sheltering me. But seriously. Things’ll be straightforward in the holidays, won’t they? I mean, the new parents are on our side.”

“Oh yes, no problem there. They’ll lay down ground-rules for home, I’m sure, but fair enough. The real difficulty’s going to be school.”

“Aye, there’s the rub.” So we turned our minds to it, and put on a record of Boyce symphonies to enliven them. Our discussion rambled, as discussions do, and I have no intention of boring you by reporting every word. But the gist of it boiled down to this.

“Well,” I suggested to set the ball rolling, “it’s a matter of whittling down the choices, isn’t it? Let’s try to tackle them in some sort of logical order. For a start, sex between males is illegal. In theory, I suppose, we could keep our noses clean and stay off sex altogether, always. Any takers?”

“God, no. I might have bought that a couple of months ago. Just possibly. But after this last fortnight, no way.”

“Nor me. But it does mean breaking the law. Not just for a short time, like the last fortnight, but indefinitely. You’re happy with that?”

“Oh yes. I don’t mind breaking a bad law.”

“Agreed. Right, then, since there’s no problem about holidays, let’s focus on school. Sex is outlawed there, and anyone caught trying it is unceremoniously booted out. So either we stay at Yarborough and adapt to what’s possible there. Or we try to move to some day school in Oxford, where we’d have the nights and weekends to ourselves.”

“Mmm. I don’t want to leave Yarborough. I like it, a lot. We’re well established, and we’d be hard pushed to find anywhere better, or as good. I mean, it’s one thing to think about our immediate, um, pleasures, but we’ve got to bear our future in mind too. After all, you’re an academic high-flyer. You can’t afford to abandon all that.”

That was Andrew all over, always putting the other first. And there was an easy reply.

“And you’re a sporting high-flyer, and you’re no slouch at work either.”

“Well, OK. But the point is, I’m pretty sure there’s no day school in or near Oxford — state or independent — which would serve either of us nearly as well. Especially you. We’d have to check with Mum and Dad, but I doubt they’d let us leave Yarborough.”

“All right. So we stay at Yarborough. Well then, either we don’t have any sex during term time, or we do, and risk being discovered. But the risk’s pretty high, isn’t it? I mean, where is there that’s safe? Private? Nowhere in the house, nowhere I know of in the school buildings either. I suppose we could go out into the country. But is there anywhere safe even there? Remember that chap we saw in the wood?”

We had come across this boy enjoying a leisurely and solitary wank, so absorbed that he did not even hear us. Not wanting to spoil his fun, we had silently retreated. But it could just as easily be the other way round: Andrew and me, absorbed in one another, failing to hear someone approaching.

“Yes, you’re right, I’m afraid. We might get away with the occasional quickie. But not regularly. After all, we’ve still got four years to go, and the odds against getting away with it for that long would be astronomical. Anyway, we’d have to keep our eyes and ears open all the time, and when I make love to you, Leon, I want space and time. To get lost in you. Dammit, you know what I mean. I don’t like the idea of being furtive. I love you, and when we have sex I want to do it properly.”

“Agreed, again. And if we’re caught, as most likely we would be, we’ll be out on our ears, and our prospects of university and of decent careers go down the drain. When you look at it like that, it isn’t really worth the risk, is it?”

“So it means no sex during term, and making up for lost time in the holidays? God, that’s going to be tough.”

We looked at each other in dismay, mentally checking through the logic. But it still added up.

“But inevitable, I’m afraid, even if the reasons are negative. You know, might it actually be better if we were more disciplined?” I said slowly, looking for positive straws to clutch at. “I mean, this last fortnight has been super. We’ve done what we wanted when we wanted. But might we appreciate it still more if it was, well, rationed? I remember a bit in Mary Renault which says something like ‘There are certain phases of love which bring perfect happiness only in their pauses and intervals, as water grows clear when one’s progress has ceased to stir it.’”

He thought about it. “Well, I see the point. But I’ve no idea if it’s true, or would be true for us. I suppose it wouldn’t be wildly different if we were in different schools and only saw each other in the holidays. We’d have to be abstinent in term time then.”

“But is that a real parallel? In that case we couldn’t have sex. As it is, we’ll see each other every day, able to have sex, but having to say no. Keeping our love at arm’s length.”

“Yes. Yes. It’s disheartening, though. That we’ll have to pull in our horns.” I was so disheartened, too, that I didn’t even rib him for his choice of words.

Having reluctantly reached this broad decision, we began to plough through the small print. “Well, if sex is off the menu, what does that actually mean?” I asked. “Wanking doesn’t count — that’s a solo job, everybody does it, everybody knows that everybody does it. Even the staff, surely. Dammit, I mean even the staff must know. But what about kissing, hugging, holding hands — like we’re doing all the time, like now?”

“Well, in public, that would be suicide, wouldn’t it? Even in private it would still be risky, just like proper sex. Same reason — there’s no privacy. People burst into studies without knocking. And even if we kissed in the woods we couldn’t guarantee nobody would see. That wanker didn’t expect to be seen, but we saw him. Anyway, that’s different. Nobody would turn a hair at seeing somebody wanking. That’s natural, legitimate, almost. But if they saw us hugging or kissing, that would be news. It’d go round the school like wildfire. Oh God, Leon. We daren’t.”

“Doesn’t leave much to do, does it? I suppose we can still talk, as long as we talk in private. And look at one another, provided it isn’t too obvious. But, oh hell, I can’t help looking at you, Andrew, love. It’s going to hurt like hell. What chance have we got of surviving four years? Without raising suspicions?”

“We’ve just got to be strong-minded, haven’t we? Perhaps it’ll hurt less once we’re used to it. Look here, I promise not to tempt you deliberately. And I’ll do my damnedest not to be tempted by you.”

“Sounds easy, saying it like that. But yes, I promise too. And I’ll try not to be tempted.”


On this gloomy note we suspended discussions for a while. It was mid-afternoon by now, and we needed to blow away the cobwebs, so we walked down into town. Outside the Senate House we were stopped by a young woman, who told us she was lost and was looking for Sidney Street. When I had given her directions and she was clicking away on her high heels, I turned back to Andrew, only to find him bent almost double, quaking, crimson in the face. For a moment he had me really worried, until the penny dropped that he was in stitches with suppressed laughter.

“Hey, what’s the joke?”

He looked up, face streaming with tears, and spluttered, “Sh…she’s a h…h…harlot!”

“Uh? How d’you know?”

He couldn’t answer. I was grinning in a mystified way, as one does when confronted by someone who is paralytic with the giggles.

It was a while before he could try a hiccuping and staccato explanation.

“At prep school. Reading Shakespeare. Met the word harlot. Asked what it meant. Prat of a master …” He hooted again, and pulled himself together. “If he’d said it was an old word for a tart, we’d have known where we were. But he didn’t. He said … oh God! … he said ‘It means, er, a woman who’s lost her way.’ And now I’ve met a woman who’s lost her way … hoo, hoo…”

Off he went again, and by this time, of course, I had been infected and was helpless too. God, I loved him. For his humour, this time, for his sense of the ridiculous, on top of everything else, on top of his strength, his consideration, his stability, his intelligence. Barely a fortnight ago I had been in thrall to my parents, in a house where laughter was never heard, where I had been pushed into the pit of hell, before Andrew had helped me out of that black despair with friendship and with fun. Now, not for the first time nor the last, I found that love and tears go hand in hand. Oblivious to our surroundings, I put my arm round him. He sensed my change of mood immediately, and hugged me back.

“Leon, what’s up?”

“Happy. Oh, just happy.”

He smiled that oh-so-Andrew smile of warmth, and kissed me, in public, surrounded by tourists, on King’s Parade, in August. By now the cobwebs were convincingly dispelled, so we cut back through King’s. We had not planned to be there at evensong time, but when we saw a trickle of people heading for the chapel we exchanged a wordless glance and turned to join them. Neither of us was religious. As perhaps befitted the offspring of philosophers, we were agnostic; but we appreciated tradition and architecture and atmosphere. The choir school being on holiday, the music was relatively spartan, but after the service we stayed put, lost in our thoughts. I know of no better place for setting human problems in perspective than the fan-vaulted spaciousness of King’s College chapel, with the afternoon sunlight streaming through the huge windows, in contrast to the darker mystery of so many churches. The incomparable air of openness, almost of transparency, gave a new slant to my thoughts. At length we looked at each other again, and went out.

“Andrew, I want to try out an idea. Let’s go down to the river.”

We sat on the manicured grass of the bank. The tourists had gone home for their tea, and only a few determined punters passed to break the solitude.

“Look, we don’t like hiding things, do we? We reckon honesty’s generally the best policy.” He nodded. “So what if we tell the simple truth to someone at school, someone on the staff? If we registered ourselves in advance, as it were, would it calm suspicions if we were reported for holding hands or whatever?”

“Mmm. It’s a thought. But who? I mean, we know that love’s not the same thing as sex, and we reckon ours can survive without it, though it’ll be painful. But will they understand love without sex, between boys? And allow it? Will they trust us enough? And even if we promised to be good boys in school, mightn’t they ask ‘Yes, but what about the holidays?’”

“Well, I think the answer to that one is that they’re in loco parentis — that they have parental responsibility — only in term time, and that what we do out of school is for parents to regulate, not them. On their attitude, that’s a difficult one. But they’re not fools, or not many of them. They know about boys. Most of them are married and parents. They must know what love means. They’re humans.”

“But Leon … I’ve got to say this. Your parents are humans too, but do they know what love is?”

“OK, point taken. I’ll rephrase that. The staff aren’t just humans, they’ve got humanity. Or most have. Look, Andrew, the school’s good, isn’t it? Good academically and in sports, well run, encouraging independence, generally a very happy place. Surely that means the people who run it are good. They run it with a light hand, with human understanding. If it were run by the likes of my parents, wouldn’t it be utterly different, and much, much worse?”

“Huh. It would.”

“Well, let’s look at who we might tell, if we told anyone. I reckon Wally’s got humanity. He might understand. And allow it, on those terms. But he’d be bound to consult the HM. He’s a bit of an unknown quantity. Strict. But I’ve never heard anyone call him unfair, have you? Or heavy-handed?”

“No, can’t say I have. But look, it doesn’t follow that he — they — will understand our dilemma. The only way to find out is by telling them. And if they came down like a ton of bricks, it would be too late — the cat would be out of the bag. It’d be a hell of a risk to take.”

“True. What we need is someone to ask who we know will be sympathetic. Who the heck … Hang on! Steve!”

“Steve Phillips?”

“Yes. He’s just the man. Your paths haven’t crossed, have they?”

Andrew shook his head. “Not really. I’ve heard him preach, of course. He’s good at that.”

“Right, let’s fill you in. Chaplain, junior classics master, my form-master. As you know. A Cambridge man — Father was his tutor. Can’t be much over thirty. Married, with kids. A Christian humanist.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, humanism holds that what’s all-important in life is human interests, the human mind, not religious claptrap. Christian humanism’s a brand of Christianity with a more than usually human face. Much more, in Steve’s case.”

“Right. Go on.”

“He’s friendly, kindly, yes, wise too. Damn good teacher. Knows me well, of course, and shows no sign of disliking me. In fact he seems to think I’m his star pupil. If we talked to him, whatever he thinks of queer love, he wouldn’t blow his top, I can guarantee that. I’m pretty sure he’d understand. He’d certainly keep it to himself. And give us advice. What do you think?”

His reply was typical of Andrew, who did not take big decisions lightly. “Yes, sounds possible. Let me brood on it. But good thinking, lad. You’re more than just a pretty face.”

“Idiot!” I swatted him, and he retaliated by leaning in and kissing me. “Hey, not here, not under the eyes of the Gibbs Building! Even if King’s is the most liberal of colleges. You’ve had your public ration for the day, after the harlot. Look, we missed out on lunch. Let’s go home and eat. I’m starving.”

So we went home and staved off starvation. Then, on the principle that music is the food of love, we put more music on, and kissed privately and properly as hors d’oeuvre to the main course of a different meal.


We spent most of Monday debating the same questions again, without any new ideas. But we had clarified our minds, and the next thing was to consult Helen and Jack, in detail. And Andrew, having brooded Andrew-fashion, was now happy to consult Steve as well. Not wanting, for some obscure reason, to leave a total tip for Mother and Father to return to, we did a bit of cleaning up. Andrew packed his own case, and together we bundled up my possessions. Not much: clothes, gramophone and records, and the books that were mine rather than my parents’. I even remembered to ferret through my father’s desk — something I would not have dared to do before — to find my birth certificate and National Health card. This simple act emphasised that I was cutting the final ties with this unpleasant house, the only home that featured in my memory. And, although they were absent, I was cutting the final ties with my unpleasant parents too. That night, as we lay side by side, I felt curiously inert. In neutral, as if I had been taken out of one gear but not yet put into another. Limp, in every sense. I tried to explain to Andrew.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m leaving my old life, and I haven’t started on my new one. I’m floundering in no-man’s-land. I do love you, but do you mind if we just hug tonight?”

“Of course, love. I understand.”

So we just hugged, and I slept fitfully. I got up in the morning much earlier than I needed, and mooched. At half past eight Andrew appeared, and we had some breakfast. I was now fretting over what to put in the note I was leaving for my parents to read when they arrived a few hours later. What could I say? Thanks for looking after me for fourteen years? I felt none. Thanks for releasing me from their clutches? That would be rubbing salt in everyone’s wounds. Best wishes for the future? As far as I was concerned, they belonged to the past. I could think of nothing personal: nothing that was heart-felt, nothing that might not be taken amiss. They were casting me off, and I was casting them off. In the end, my note was stark: ‘Professor Freeman called, and will ring again tomorrow. Milkman paid up to last Saturday. Change from housekeeping money in the drawer.’ It was the last communication with my parents that I ever had.

About ten the bell rang. There were Jack and Helen, tanned and cheerful. They blinked when they set eyes on me, for they had not seen my new look before.

“Oh, Leon,” said Helen, hugging me, “do I remember someone insisting he wasn’t handsome? How wrong he was. Anyway, my dear, welcome. We’re now yours, and you’re ours. We’re so happy.”

“And so’m I. One day I may be able to say thank you properly.”

Andrew got his share of the welcome, and we both loaded up the car while Jack and Helen took a quick look round the dingy house. They had not seen it before, and emerged looking shaken.

I did a final check-round, closed the front door on my former home, locked it, put the key under the mat, and climbed into the car alongside Andrew. As Jack pulled out into Grange Road, I felt as if my mooring rope, the last link with my old port, had been cast off, and I was on the open sea. I let out a huge sigh, but did not look back. Helen reached round from the front seat to take one of my hands — Andrew was holding the other — and asked gently, “No regrets, Leon?”

“No, Helen, not a single pang. Just relief. And gratitude. All right, I’m sorry to be leaving Cambridge. I’ve no quarrel with Cambridge. Quite the reverse. But Oxford will serve me just as well.”

“We’ve said it before, Leon, and we say it again. You’re a brave man.”

“I don’t know about brave. At the moment, disorientated, halfway between one life and another. Help me find my bearings, please. Start by telling us about the conference.”

So they did, and it saw us to well beyond Bletchley. My parents, in those circumstances, would have launched into a critical — probably a highly critical — analysis of the papers that had been given. Helen and Jack, in contrast, talked about Athens as a place, and they talked particularly about the people they had met, the locals, the scholars from umpteen different countries, their characters and their quirks. I only half listened, I confess, to their witty and kindly portrait-painting.

“But that’s enough of our doings,” they ended. “Now tell us about yours. Censored, please, to suit our chaste ears.”

I left that to Andrew.

“Splendid,” they said when he had finished. “That fortnight together was exactly right for both of you, wasn’t it? And at just the right time. Leon, we feel it wouldn’t help if we passed on all the grisly details of our talks with your parents. It wasn’t pleasant. They’re blinkered and insensitive and dogmatic. They didn’t begin to understand that you’ve an independent mind and soul, that you’ve individual needs which are different from theirs. Are you content if we leave it at that?”

“Yes. I am. They’re in the past now.”

“Right. The only other point about them is this. They’ve cut you off so completely that we doubt they’ll contact you again. But it seems wrong to be totally out of touch. I’m sure we’ll see them occasionally ourselves, professionally. But if one of them fell seriously ill, for example, or even died, it might be some time before we heard on the grapevine. So we suggest asking Angus MacIntyre” — he was a philosophical colleague of Father’s at Selwyn — “to let us know if anything major like that happened. All right?”

“Yes, fine.”

I wasn’t much bothered, but I appreciated their concern. I was slowly acclimatising from the chill aridity of the Michaelson past to the warm humanity of the Goodhart future, and by the time we were rolling through Bicester tears were running down my cheeks.

“It’s all right, Andrew, love,” I managed to say — he was hugging me in concern — “It’s just my relief coming out. Happiness, pure happiness. Again. Still.”

And some miles further on, when I was back on an even keel, I broached a subject that was important to me.

“Helen, Jack. May I call you Mum and Dad now?” They exchanged a startled glance. “That’s how I see you. Honestly. There’ll be no room for confusion. My own parents have always been Mother and Father. They insisted on it. Stark and formal. I’ve never thought of them as anything else, and never will.”

“Yes, of course, Leon dear. If that’s what you’d like, we’re entirely happy. Indeed we’re honoured.”

“Thanks, Mum. Thanks, Dad. It helps me feel more like a Goodhart, less like a Michaelson.”

“Well, far be it from us to discourage you from identifying with the Goodharts,” said Jack, or Dad. “But don’t forget you are a Michaelson. For better or worse, it’s from your parents that you’ve inherited your intellect, and a powerful intellect it is. What you’ve missed out on, thank goodness, is their less endearing characteristics. Lord knows where the humanity in you came from. It was hardly by nurture, so it must be by nature. I don’t begin to understand this genetics stuff” — this was shortly after Crick and Watson had identified DNA, at Cambridge as it happened. “But you can still bear the name of Michaelson with pride, while sheltering under the Goodhart wing.”

“I suppose so, yes.” It reminded me of something else. “But I’ve burnt my boats at Cambridge. I’ll never be able to go back there as a classics undergraduate, to sit at my parents’ feet. If I’m going to go to an ancient university, it’ll have to be Oxford.”

“Maybe. But it’s early days yet. There’s still plenty of water to flow down the Cam — and the Isis — before you make a decision. Four years, isn’t it? By then, who knows, your parents might have succumbed to the lure of princely American salaries and emigrated to Harvard or Yale. And reopened the doors of Cambridge to you.”

Well, maybe.

“Look, boys,” said Mum, “to come down to more mundane matters, I’m afraid your welcome is very ill-prepared. We got in late last night, after the shops shut, and left this morning before they opened. The fridge is empty, and it’ll be lunchtime by the time we get back. Once we’ve unloaded, would you be very kind and do a bit of shopping? We’ve come back to a mountain of post that needs dealing with before we can give you our undivided attention and talk properly about the future, which is something we’ve got to do.”

“No problem, Mum,” said Andrew, “if you give us a list.”

“Right. I’ll concoct one now.”

“And would you like us to do the meal tonight? Give you a bit more time.”

“Well, if you don’t mind, boys, that would be a great help. You decide the menu. Keep it simple.”

We held a muttered conference. “Would baked potatoes and carrots and steak and kidney pie be all right?” I asked eventually. “And macaroni pudding? We could manage those. The pastry’s beyond me, but Andrew says he’s a dab hand at that.”

“He is, too,” Mum remarked. “I don’t know where he gets it from. Certainly not from me.”

“Why do women,” Dad asked plaintively, “always assume that the culinary art are only passed down through the female line? I may not know much about genetics, but I do know that these skills can be transmitted by males. He inherited them from me, of course.”

“Jack, may you be forgiven! Don’t you remember that gooseberry pie you made when the Perkinses came for a meal? It was a catastrophe!”

“Well, even Homer had his off days.”

“It’s not inheritance at all,” Andrew butted in. “What little Dad knows about pastry making he’s learnt from me. It’s not an art, it’s a science. Repeatable, like all proper science. And I picked it up from my chemistry, d’you remember? I wanted to see if you could treat recipes like you do the experiments in a chemistry textbook. And you can. It’s just the same as creating any lethal compound.”

“Arsenic instead of sugar, eh?” asked Mum. “We’ll have to watch out. But I admit it’s part and parcel of your insatiable curiosity. Have you told Leon about your famous question to Aunty Joyce?”

“Of course I haven’t, seeing that I never asked it!”

“Indeed you did. You’ll be meeting Joyce one day, Leon, and can check with her. Anyway, when Andrew was at the mature old age of ten, or was it nine, he took it into his head to ask her what was the difference between a popsy and a floozie. I haven’t a clue where he’d heard the words, and why he asked Joyce — she’s a somewhat prim spinster — rather than his worldly-wise parents. But to our amazement she came up trumps. ‘Well, dear,’ she said. ‘I’m not entirely sure, but I think one’s an amateur and the other’s a professional.’ And he was satisfied. Though I’ve no idea if he understood what they were amateur or professional at.”

“Well, I don’t remember a thing about it,” protested Andrew. “I reckon you made it up.” But he was grinning.

On this note we entered Oxford, and turned into Park Town. By now I was glowing, not only with anticipation, but with delight at this domestic banter. Ordinary enough for most people, no doubt, but unfamiliar to me. We unloaded our clobber, and Andrew and I went a-marketing. That duty done, we had a quick bread-and-cheese lunch, and set about dealing with our bedroom. Our bedroom, now, which previously had been just Andrew’s. We reorganised his cupboard and drawers to accommodate my clothes. When I had stayed here at Christmas I had slept in the spare room, which had a double bed. So we manhandled Andrew’s single bed in there, and the double bed into our room. And made it up, and sat on it, and kissed. And one thing led to another. Some time later we cleaned up, went down, and prepared the meal, which was a great success. Dad even complimented Andrew on the pastry.

“Right,” he said, when we had finished. “We’ve cleared our desks enough to call a council of war. Well, that’s the wrong phrase, because there’s no conflict around, we hope. Look, boys. You may still be some way off adulthood, but you’re sensible and you’re responsible, and we’ve no intention of treating you as children. You’re already in a relationship which many people, of whichever gender, don’t reach until they’re much older, if ever. Your love is very clear to us. Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. The Bard speaks for us. You have our support and our trust. But remember that our attitude isn’t typical.

“Before we get down to detail, one general point first. What you’re doing is strictly illegal. I saw in the paper that last year there were over two thousand prosecutions for indecency between males. In a sense, that shouldn’t worry you too much, because the great majority involved adults, and what’s called misbehaviour between boys is generally left to parents to deal with, not the courts. But you must never forget it. For chaps like you, it’s a dangerous and hostile world out there. You must always be discreet. If you kiss or hold hands in public, I don’t think the law has any objection, but fingers will point and tongues will wag. And that might be enough to trigger an investigation into what you do in private. Understood?”

“Understood,” we said in unison. “We’ve already talked about that,” added Andrew, “and we agree. We know we’re breaking the law. With our eyes open.”

“Good. In fact that cloud may even have a bit of a silver lining. Have you heard of the committee under Sir John Wolfenden that’s been investigating the law relating to homosexual offences? It’s been sitting for three years, and its report’s due to be published on Thursday. We’ll get a copy. It’s rumoured that it’ll recommend decriminalising homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private. Even if it does, and it does reach the statute book, it won’t affect you for quite a few years. I hope it’s a sign that the wind’s changing. But that doesn’t mean you can lower your guard. Not for a long time to come.

“Now, next point. Under this roof, it’s a different matter. You may do what you like, within reason, so long as you respect our sensibilities. We don’t in the least mind you holding hands in our presence, or hugging, or even modest kissing. As we do ourselves. But above a certain level of passion, keep it out of our sight, and out of our hearing. We know that you’ll be clean and considerate and careful with one another.” He smiled at Mum, acknowledging our conversation of two months ago. “And we don’t expect to see you, any more than you’d expect to see us, prancing starkers around the house. You need your privacy, and we’ll respect it. We won’t come into your bedroom without knocking and being invited to enter, any more than you’d come into ours. That all clear enough?”

We nodded. “Yes, Dad, we’re more than happy with that.”

“Right then. That leaves the line you take at school. Here we can only advise, not lay down the law. Have you thought about it yet?”

Andrew looked at me. “You take this one, Leon. You’ll explain it more clearly.”

“Right. Yes. We’ve thought about it a lot. And come to a number of conclusions, most of them unpalatable.” I spelled them out, step by step, together with the reasoning behind them, and the questions that needed answers. It boiled down, assuming we stayed at Yarborough, to no sex in term time and no overt signs of affection. What we did in the holidays, we felt, was not the school’s business. As a safeguard, we were wondering about telling Steve Phillips of our love.

“He’d keep it under his hat,” I ended. “If we tell anyone else, and they say they can’t countenance love between boys, we can’t stay there. There’s no way we can just kill off our love.”

They listened carefully without interrupting, though Dad jotted down an occasional note.

“My word,” he said finally, “you have gone into it thoroughly. Sensibly too. I can see why you call the results unpalatable. It’s self-denial on a grand scale. But I’m afraid you’re right — even public affectionate is just as undesirable at school as in the wider world. And you’re right that as far as we know there’s no real alternative to Yarborough. And you’re also right that what you do out of term time is our responsibility, not the school’s.

“Now. Do you tell anyone at school of your love, in the hope that they’ll understand it? That’s a tricky one. Yes, the staff, for the most part, are intelligent and human people. We’ve a high opinion of Wally. And of the headmaster too. He’s good at his job and, to be that, he has to understand human nature, especially in boys. And like most headmasters he cultivates a façade which doesn’t reflect the man inside. They’ll know what love means. But whether they’ll tolerate it is quite a different matter. They might very well see it as the thin end of the wedge. But this Steve Phillips sounds a possibility. Tell us more about him.”

I did so.

“He sounds like a good ally. Yes, tell him. Be prepared to spill all the beans, in confidence of course. And ask if he thinks it wise to tell anyone else. Now, term’s only two weeks away. See if you can call on him soon. We’ll drive you up and back. Would it be useful if we sat in on the interview? Not to take part, but to see fair play and be appealed to if need be?”

So I phoned Steve in the morning. He was surprised to hear from me, but when I asked if I might call in, with a friend and our parents, for his advice, he readily agreed to see us the next day.

“Which hat do I put on?” he asked. “Chaplain’s or form-master’s?”

“Both, please, sir. And your human being’s hat as well.”


On Thursday morning we stopped at Blackwell’s and Mum nipped in to buy a copy of the Wolfenden Report. As we drove she skimmed through it and read passages out loud. As rumour foretold, it recommended that sex between consenting adults in private be decriminalised; but, as Dad foretold, it held no immediate consolation for us, other than that the climate was perhaps beginning to change. Indeed Dad feared that it would take a long time before it became law.

We arrived at Steve’s house in the early afternoon. He was tall, thin, bespectacled, ascetic in appearance, with an unruly shock of wiry dark hair and a penetrating eye. After he had goggled at my new look, I made the introductions.

“I’ve not had the pleasure of teaching you,” he said to Andrew, “but I do follow school cricket, and I know all about you in that department. Professor and Dr Goodhart, I know all about you by repute, of course. How good to meet you. And, Leon, I thought you said you were bringing your own parents.”

“I have, sir. Well, Helen and Jack are now my guardians. My parents have disowned me.”

“Good Lord! Why?”

At this point Mrs Phillips brought in coffee and disappeared again. Having sorted out the cups, Steve turned back to me.

“So they’ve disowned you, Leon. I take it that’s connected with what you want to talk about?”

“Yes, sir, partly. I was an unwanted child. Unloved. The Goodharts took pity on me, and offered to take me under their wing. The final straw … Please, sir, will you keep all this confidential?”

“Of course I will. Nothing will go outside these walls without your permission.”

“Thanks. Well, the final straw was when my parents heard I was queer. That I was in love with Andrew. They transferred custody of me last Monday. Jack and Helen have no problem with us both being homosexual.”

Steve, bless him, did not bat an eyelid, but merely looked questioningly at the Goodharts.

“That’s right,” said Dad. “We see it as a natural state, not a perversion or a disease. But we’re here only as observers. We’ll just sit in the background, if we may, unless and until you have any questions for us. The boys are quite capable of being their own advocates.”

“Fine by me. Well, Leon, I confess I’m not entirely surprised to hear about your parents. Marvellous scholars, but humanity isn’t their strong point. You know your father was my tutor, don’t you? As a budding young humanist I had many a clash with him. When you first joined my form I wondered if I’d find you were a chip off the old block. Well, in one sense you are, but in this realm you most definitely are not. As a rule I deplore family break-ups, but in your case I can see that it’s for the best, especially as you’ve got the Goodharts instead.

“Now, on the other matter you raise, that you’re queer, that you love each other, can you expand on that a bit? Don’t worry, I’m not in the least shocked. But how do you know you’re queer? How long have you known? Are you just after physical gratification, or is it more than that? Andrew, your turn.”

“Well, sir.” He was red with embarrassment, but bent on honesty. “I’ve never been attracted by girls, and for several years I’ve been attracted by boys. Not seriously enough to do anything about it, till I met Leon. At first I … well, I’m afraid I just pitied him for the wretched life he’d led, and tried to help him. Then I found he was helping me too. And soon it turned into friendship, a good friendship, and as far as I was concerned it began to harden into love last winter. Just began. I’m a slow blighter in making big decisions, and I wasn’t totally sure until the end of last term. I’d never liked the idea of, um, casual, er, sex, and Leon and I talked about it a few months ago. Not about us. About the difference between love and sex. He introduced me to the Symposium, which made it very clear. After that, the more I thought about it, the more I saw that Leon was my other half. And it was less than three weeks ago that Leon told me he loved me back. That was when we first, um, had sex.” He was now redder still. “We belong together, sir. We’re the two halves of a single whole. And I can’t stand the thought of us ever being separated.”

“Thank you, Andrew. It took courage to tell me that. Leon?”

“Just the same, sir. Before I came here I was desperately lonely. I got to know myself pretty well, then. Gnōthi seauton really did apply to me” — this was one of the Delphic mottoes, ‘Know yourself,’ on permanent display in Steve’s classroom. “Nobody loved me, in any sense. And I loved nobody. If I was going to break out of my rut, I had to find someone to love, someone to be loved by. Well, I found Andrew. I found I loved him. But I wasn’t sure what he felt about me until — do you remember I made a fool of myself the last day of last term, sir? I’d picked up his diary by mistake, and it said that he did love me. After that it was plain sailing, apart from my parents’ reaction. Now we might fall out of love. I hope not. But nobody else can make us fall out. And we know we have to steer clear of sex here, so it’s our love we want to talk about, not that.”

“Yes, I do remember that incident, Leon. I thought it might be something of that kind. OK, boys, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a crush, just puppy love. You’ve convinced me. And all right, we’ll leave sex out of the equation. So long as it’s not sex at school, it’s a matter for you and your parents alone, not for us. Let’s concentrate on love. Now, Leon, you asked me to wear three hats today.

“First, as a human being, I have no difficulty with homosexuality in general. Like the Goodharts, I see it as a natural state. True, I might be worried about your age. You’re what? Fifteen? Some boys of that age are little more than children, mentally. If that applied to you, I wouldn’t encourage you. But it doesn’t. You’re plenty mature enough to understand the issues, and handle them. That’s what’s crucial.

“Next, as a minister of the church, you may be surprised to hear, I’ve no difficulty either. I believe God created homosexuals just as he did heterosexuals. I’ve got good friends who’re queer — yes, even inside the Church — and as far as I can tell there’s nothing in their love to deprive them of God’s blessing. Only remember that many — in fact most — of my calling see it differently.

“But the final hat I wear, as a master here, gives a rather different message and makes me sound a strong note of caution. You didn’t come here, I’m sure, simply to tell me you’re in love. You said on the phone you wanted advice. I imagine that’s in connection with school?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “It is. We can avoid showing our love — holding hands and suchlike. Μēden agan, in fact” — another of the Delphic mottoes, ‘Nothing in excess.’ — “Or rather we can try to avoid it. But it’ll be hard. Someone said, ‘there’s no disguise which can hide love for long.’ So we want to be as honest as possible, without being suicidal. That’s why we’ve told you. And what we want your advice on, please, is this. Should we tell Mr MacNair and the headmaster that we’re in love, but undertake not to display it publicly, and of course not to have sex? I mean, if they were likely to say, ‘There’s no room for that sort of thing here. Either drop it, or go,’ then we wouldn’t tell them. We want to stay, but we can’t drop it. Or might they agree that love is love, even between boys, and can’t be suppressed, and that they won’t object, provided we don’t flaunt it? What we do — or what we don’t do — will be the same whether they know or not.”

“I follow you. Oh, where do I start? The HM’s no ogre, you know. Nor’s Mr MacNair, nor most of the rest of the staff. They have got human feelings, they do understand boys. I know, because I’m consulted as chaplain whenever moral questions crop up. But my position often authorises me to act as devil’s advocate. As a result, our views by no means always coincide: mine as a humanist, sympathetic to human nature, theirs as disciplinarians first and foremost, who have to play things cautiously and ensure that the school runs smoothly. I’m pretty sure I know what their view would be in this case, and that it would prevail over mine. Let me try to explain it fully, because you’re intelligent boys, and you need to understand. I’m afraid it’s going to be quite a sermon.

“The background, of course, is that homosexuality is commonly regarded as unnatural. Like me, quite a lot of my colleagues, including Mr MacNair and the HM, don’t subscribe to that view. But of course they can’t tolerate the physical side of homosexuality, let alone encourage it, for several reasons. In the first place, it’s against the law. Whether the law is good or bad is immaterial. You’ll have heard of the Wolfenden Report. Even if it becomes law, it won’t affect any pupils here. Secondly, one of the virtues the school tries to instil is self-discipline. Abstinence, chastity if you prefer, is good training for that. Thirdly, many people, though I’m not one of them, believe that homosexuality is contrary to the Christian values we claim to impart. Finally, and possibly the most important, the school survives, to put it bluntly, by selling its services. It can’t afford a reputation as a place where sexual activity is tolerated. Its customers, the parents, wouldn’t send their sons here, because few of them hold views so liberal as yours” — he bowed to the Goodharts. “That’s why the school forbids homosexual acts, and punishes them when they’re discovered.

“But it’s love that’s at issue, not sexual activity, and you’re well aware of the distinction. Whereas sex is a somewhat bizarre physical act, love resides in the soul. It’s an emotion, in its best form a noble emotion, and between a male and a female a socially acceptable emotion. As a step on the way to the real issue, let’s look for a moment just at heterosexual love. I doubt if any master here would want to suppress that, or feel they have the right to. Not even adolescent love — why should anyone be allowed to love at eighteen, say, but not at fifteen? Only last term a housemaster consulted the HM and myself about a boy of your age who, he’d found, was in love with a girl. There was nothing to reprimand the boy for. We told him it was natural and nothing to be ashamed of. There was no question of sexual activity on the premises. Whether it took place in the holidays I don’t know, and it wasn’t our business to ask, for outside our jurisdiction we can’t enforce the chastity which we preach. But the point is that we can’t condemn heterosexual love as such.

“This brings us at last to your problem. Provided there’s no sex involved, at least in term time, why should homosexual love be condemned if heterosexual love isn’t? It’s a question that hasn’t arisen in my time. To my mind, both are equally natural, and personally I couldn’t in conscience forbid either, or even deplore either. But I’m quite sure the HM’s answer would be different.

“Mind you, he wouldn’t say that homosexuality is unnatural and therefore wrong, as they would in most other schools. No, he’d say that the great majority of boys think of love and sex as synonymous, or at least think that love leads inexorably to sex, and they’d therefore assume in their simple way that if we permitted love we also permitted sex. Personally I can’t see much force in that argument. We’re here to teach, and we ought to teach that love and sex are not the same thing. But he’d also argue that if word got out to the big wide world — to parents and to others — that Yarborough tolerated love between boys, it would be misinterpreted to mean that we tolerated sex between boys. And that’s the real crunch. The HM is the HM. The buck stops with him. He wouldn’t dare risk it.

“So my advice must be, keep your love to yourself. Don’t be guided by ‘Honesty is the best policy.’ Not in this case. Remember, some rise by vice, and some by virtue fall. Self-preservation ranks higher. I applaud your wish to be open, and I’m grateful that you’ve come to me. But that’s what I’m here for. No, your motto should be ‘Discretion is the better part of valour.’

“While you’re here, keep your love chaste — we agree on that — and, equally important, private. Unless you’re absolutely sure nobody will see, don’t hold hands, as you’ve been itching to do while I’ve been droning on. Don’t ogle each other. Don’t talk about your love with anyone else. One false move on your part, and people will put two and two together and make five — boys are past masters at that — thinking that if you’re so obviously in love you must be having sex. If that happens, you’ll have let a mischief-making genie out of the bottle, and your position here may well become untenable.

“I’m sure you don’t like what I’ve been saying. I don’t like saying it either. I’d be saying it yet more negatively if I didn’t know you were mature and responsible and trustworthy. I wouldn’t be saying even this much if you didn’t have the support of your parents. And remember I’m saying it only as a sympathetic individual, not laying down the school’s official line. Life’s going to be a challenge for you. I’d hate to be fettered by restrictions like that, even at my advanced age, let alone at yours. But you want to stay at Yarborough, I want you to stay and, as I see it, that’s the only way you can stay. But if you find the going too difficult, don’t suffer in silence. Come back to me and we’ll talk it over.

“Now, what have you to say to all that? I’m sorry it’s taken so long, and been so negative.”

“Well, thanks, first of all, sir,” said Andrew. “We didn’t really expect any more. We’d have had to keep our love under wraps even if we hadn’t told you. But I’m glad we did. I feel reassured, somehow.”

“Good. And I’m glad you told me. Anything else?”

Andrew and I looked at each other. “Friends?” he mouthed.

“Sir. Are you saying we shouldn’t tell even our closest friends?”

Steve pulled at his lip. “Mmm. The more who know, the more likely the secret will out.”

“They could be very useful in warning us if we were being obvious, sir. And on top of that, ‘it’s more shameful to distrust one’s friends than to be deceived by them.’”

He laughed. “Fair point. But are they reliable? Do I know them?”

Andrew and I consulted in whispers. Jim was our closest friend. We felt he’d suffice, at least for a start. And he would be supportive.

“We reckon only Jim Bates, sir, for the time being. Do you know him?”

Steve gave us an unfathomable look. “Yes, it so happens I do. A sound lad. Yes, you should be in safe hands there. Yes, tell him, but under oath of secrecy. No more queries? Right. Well, Professor and Dr Goodhart, you’re here to see fair play. Does it pass muster?”

“It does, Mr Phillips. Nothing could be fairer. We see now why Leon was singing your praises.”

“Compliments! In return, let me salute a courageous and honest pair of young men, and wish you both well.”

We piled into the car for the long drive home. “Thanks, Mum and Dad. Thanks for bringing us, and thanks for supporting us.” I yawned prodigiously, and while they talked quietly in the front, Andrew and I, exhausted by the expenditure of nervous energy, fell asleep in the back.


The remainder of the holidays passed slowly and by no means painlessly. The morning after our visit to Yarborough, Mum cornered us.

“Look, boys,” she said, “we were impressed by Steve’s attitude. There’s no doubt, he is a good man. But there’s no doubt either that you’re going to be plagued by temptations. Don’t give way. Please. It’s just not worth it, if it’s likely to leave your careers in tatters. And to help you resist, I suggest you get into training. No, I don’t suggest, I order. Spend whole days — and nights — without touching one another at all. No sex. No holding hands, like you are now. No hugging or kissing. No making sheep’s eyes, either.”

“Oh, Mum!”

“Don’t ‘Oh, Mum’ me. If you think about it, you’ll see it makes sense.”

We thought, and it did.

“Right, you do see. And with practice it shouldn’t be as hard as you imagine. Madeleine de Scudéry — she was a French novelist — knew something about that. ‘Love is a flighty creature,’ she said, ‘which desires everything and can be contented with almost nothing.’ So what about a regime that breaks you in gently? Let’s see.” She got down the calendar. “From the time you get up tomorrow, no touching for twenty four hours. Of any sort. One of you sleeps in the spare room. The day after, as normal. Then two days off touching. One day on. Three days off. One day on. Three days off. One day on. That’ll take you to the beginning of term. Nicely prepared.”

We groaned, but we obeyed, as far as we could. The first day off was horrible. We managed not to touch, but found ourselves gazing mournfully at each other like soppy spaniels, until Mum caught us at it, and found useful jobs to keep us out of mischief. The night was even worse. It was barely three weeks since I last had slept alone, but I had already grown addicted to the contact of skin on skin, and its lack kept me awake. I had expected to be beating the hell out of my cock but, strangely, found no desire for solitary pleasures. In the morning I made my way to Andrew’s room and blearily asked him how he had got on. Exactly the same, he said — much waking, no wanking. We made up for it over the next twenty four hours.

“Mum, it’s difficult,” said Andrew. “It may get easier, but we want to know about you and Dad. I mean, you’re like us, you often hold hands and kiss. Well, peck, anyway, if it’s in public. But how easy is it if one of you is away?”

“Well, we miss it, of course, but we don’t go into a terminal decline. In the early days, immediately after we were married, Dad was away in the army for months on end. For a whole year, once. Yes, that was agony at first. But it was different from your situation. We were apart, not together. And, of course, after a while I had you to love as well. But since the war I don’t think we’ve ever been apart for more than a week at a time. At the end of the week, yes, we’re over the moon to be together again, but we haven’t been in extremis in the meantime. But I think that’s a question of long service — you mellow into love, you know. It stays just as good, but it changes from the sharp to the ripe, like fruit.”

Not much comfort for the short term, then. But the two following days were slightly easier. The ache of self-denial was less and sleep was better, though we lived for the return of contact, and more than contact. So it continued. Mum’s draconian regime was justified by a gradual improvement; but only up to a point, beyond which the pain reduced no further. We came to realise that practice runs were one thing — we knew exactly when normal service would be resumed — but that the reality of almost indefinite abstinence would be quite another. We made a special occasion of our last night together, savouring the electricity to the full before it was switched off. The honeymoon was now ending.