Two boys who returned to school in September differed from those who had left in July. One of them was re-styled and much ribbed for it, though in a friendly way. Both of them were newly fulfilled and confident, but paradoxically awash with trepidation. Fortunately we were plunged straight into work. I was starting in on A-levels, Andrew on O-levels and, in addition, he was selected for the school under-sixteen rugger team. There was little time to draw breath, let alone to mope, until Sunday. Steve always preached in chapel on the first Sunday of the school year: not a sermon proper, more a pep-talk setting out the moral standards expected of the boys. I had heard it a year ago, and it promised to be much the same, so I listened with only half an ear. It followed a predictable pattern: work hard and play hard, loyalty and team-work, responsibility, honesty … then I was aware of something new.
“You’ll have heard,” he was saying, “of the recent Wolfenden Report on homosexuality, and that the Archbishop of Canterbury has given it his approval. It’s not yet law, and even if it does become law it’ll apply only to those over twenty one, not to you. Sexual activity, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is of course forbidden here. But let me make one thing clear. Sex is not the same as love. The one is physical, the other emotional. They don’t necessarily go together. Some few of you may find you’re in love. Love in its best form is one of the deepest, the most basic, of human emotions and there’s nothing wrong with it. On the contrary, it’s wholly good. We can’t discourage, let alone prevent, any of you from loving, provided it’s a chaste love.”
He moved on to the subject of bullying, and I stopped listening in order to think his words over. They were clearly intended both as a coded confirmation to us and as a public statement of his own philosophy, which could be taken, depending on the hearer, as referring to either sort of love, or both. My heart glowed.
A few minutes later it glowed still more. He pronounced the blessing and the organ launched into the great tune of Hyfrydol. But instead of the usual words, the number 437 listed on the hymn board turned out to be ‘Love divine, all loves excelling.’ Deliberately chosen, surely. And as I looked up from my book I found Steve’s gaze on me. I returned it for long enough to show that I understood. His eyes then sought out someone behind me: Andrew, surely. And after pausing there for a while, they focussed on somebody else again before returning to his book. The hymn drew to a close,
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise!
But a lump in my throat prevented me from singing. Those words were close to the bone. They reminded me that, four terms ago, I had found Andrew, and that in Andrew I had found love and life and heaven. But they also reminded me that my journey to Andrew and heaven had started, only a few weeks before we met, in the deepest pit of hell, and that it had almost not started at all. I had still not come to terms with what had happened, or nearly happened, on that dark day. I had not even told Andrew about it, or about the worst that my prep school had thrown at me. I did not want to seem to complain about them; but the wounds, though well on their way to healing, were still there. However, there was no time now to brood.
Sitting at the front, I was among the last to leave. Outside chapel I failed to spot Andrew, and went back to the house. There I found him in his study, staring at infinity.
“Great man, Steve,” he said. “I was too choked up to join in the last hymn.”
“Me too.” I started to put my arm round him, but remembered in time. “I was lost in wonder, love and praise. Of you … Andrew, shall we try to get Jim to come for a walk this afternoon. And tell him?”
“I was thinking the same. Let’s.”
As if on cue, there was a tap on the door and in walked Jim himself. He was a term above us, average in almost every way, neither good nor bad at work or games, of medium height and build, mousy haired. What redeemed him from ordinariness was a heart of gold and a huge and outspoken sense of humour. Some people — but not us — called him Chimp because his face, though in no ordinary sense beautiful, was simply a delight: a snub nose and a letterbox mouth. He was the sort of chap whose grin, like the Cheshire cat’s, hung around for some time after he had gone.
“Jim! Talk of the devil!” said Andrew. “We were just saying, we’ve something we want to tell you. Come for a walk this afternoon?”
“Well I’ll be buggered!”
“Relax, you won’t be.”
He grinned. “Clot! No, I mean, what a coincidence. I was going to ask you just the same thing. So yes.”
“You mean you’ve got something to tell us too?”
“Tit for tat, then.”
So after lunch we walked out, the three of us, along the Gresford road.
“Heard a funny one in the holidays,” said Jim, “about the vicar visiting the maiden lady and being shown round her garden. Well, while he was smelling her roses he pricked his finger on a thorn, and when they went back to the house he was clutching his hand, and she said, ‘Oh, vicar, is your prick throbbing?’”
It was not one of Jim’s best, but we laughed dutifully.
“Was that what you wanted to tell us?” asked Andrew in fake innocence.
“Don’t be a BF! Course not. There’s something much more interesting. Look, you know about me and Sally.” We did, a great deal, because Jim wore his heart on his sleeve and Sally had been his girlfriend at home ever since we had known him. “Look, keep this under your hats, won’t you? Promise? Well, I’m in love with her. Properly, I mean. All last term I was wondering if I dared go the whole hog, and funking it. No, I said funking. And just before the end of term I started a letter to her. Some bastard found it and took it to Wally, saying it was indecent. But it wasn’t. Well, it wasn’t, um, explicit. Only a bit suggestive. Anyway, Wally called me in. He wasn’t angry. In fact I got the feeling he was trying not to smile. He just said, could he keep it for a bit while deciding what to do. And later that day he called me in again, and hauled me off with him to see the HM and Steve. I nearly crapped in my pants. But they weren’t angry either. They said …”
I had caught Andrew’s eye and could not help butting in. “They said they’d only called you in to tell you in person that love was natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Nobody had any intention of slapping down on you. And what you did in the holidays was outside the school’s jurisdiction.”
Jim was gawping like a codfish. “How the hell do you know?”
“Oh, they told us.”
“What the … I mean … Christ!” He was gobbling, and Andrew and I were laughing so hard that we had to clutch each other to stay upright. That surely didn’t count as touching, within the meaning of the act.
“Calm down, Jim. It’s all right, your name wasn’t mentioned. Sorry about that, I couldn’t resist it. Look, that bit really belongs to what we want to tell you. Leave it for a minute. Finish your story first.”
Jim eyed us dubiously. “Well, OK. Well, getting that sort of encouragement sort of whetted my appetite. As soon as I got home I went to the barber and got some French letters — Christ, that was embarrassing. Then I got Sally by herself, and we had sex. She didn’t need much persuading. And several times after that, too. Last time only last week. God, chaps, you’ve no idea what sex can be like. Proper sex — I don’t mean just wanking. It’s out of this world.” His face was a study. Picture a chimpanzee in ultimate bliss. “For Christ’s sake don’t split on me, but I had to tell someone.”
We were grinning broadly. “Good for you, Jim,” said Andrew. “Thanks for telling us. We won’t split. But we do know.”
“What sex is like.”
“You’ve had sex? Crikey! I didn’t know you had girlfriends. I mean, you’ve never said …”
“Jim. We’ll keep your secret. Will you keep ours?”
“Not sex with girlfriends. Sex with each other. We’re in love.”
Jim stared, his mouth agape. We were at a crossroads, and he leaned against the signpost for support. Suddenly he burst into laughter, deep belly-laughter.
“Bloody hell! Look, chaps,” he leant forward and clapped us on the shoulders. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing with you. For you. At myself. Didn’t think anything could cap my story but, cripes, you have. Look, don’t worry about me. I’ve got no hang-up about homos. It doesn’t bother me a bit. In fact I’m glad for you. You’ve always seemed to belong to each other, somehow.” He paused reflectively. “You know, come to think of it, I suppose there were signs, but I didn’t mark them. Now, tell me more.”
We told him everything, in outline, including our talk with Steve. “God, that’s tough,” he said. “I mean, I pine for Sally, but there’s no way I can shag her from here, not without a cock a hundred miles long. But you’re within easy range of one another” — we were currently a modest few inches apart — “and you can’t even hold hands.” He was a sensitive soul, was Jim, sometimes, and a good friend.
“That’s just it, Jim,” I said. “We’ll be lucky to last the course. We’re only a few days into term, and we’ve managed so far. But there’s a hell of a long way to go. It’ll be damned hard to keep it up.”
“To keep it down, you mean.”
I laughed, but only half-heartedly. “Talk about minds in gutters. Point is, someone may see us. Nowhere’s private.” I glanced round, and sure enough there was a distant figure in school uniform coming towards us. “We’ll do our best, but will you tell us if we’re too obvious? And keep your ear to the ground, and if you hear any hint that somebody’s rumbled us or sounds suspicious, tip us the wink?”
“Yes, course I will. You know, I’m fully cleared with Steve, but it sounds as if you’re not far off being cleared too. His sermon this morning. I thought he was talking just about me. But he was talking about you too, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, I’m sure he was. And Jim, during the last hymn, Love divine, did he catch your eye?”
“Yes, he did … Yours too?”
“Yes. It helps, doesn’t it?” We looked at each other in comradeship.
The distant figure was now closer, and resolved itself as Thorne, a term above Jim, a malignant weasel who last year had clashed with both Andrew and myself. None too bright, and not at all popular. Everyone in the house was on first-name terms with everyone else within a year or so above and below. Everyone except Thorne, who was never anything but Thorne. As he walked past us we nodded to him out of common politeness, but he did not even acknowledge us.
Jim watched his retreating back. “He’s the one you want to watch out for,” he said. “He’s the bastard who nicked my love letter, you know. Said he’d found it in the corridor. But he’d slunk into my study and rummaged. I’d left it in my writing pad.”
“Did you tell Wally that?”
“Oh yes. And he believed me. He said Thorne would be punished, but I don’t know how.”
“Well, thanks for the tip. Thorne’s got a grudge against us.”
“Then don’t trust him an inch. He’s quite capable of manufacturing evidence.”
“Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.”
“Eh? Look, I’m a bear of very little brain, and long words bother me. What’s that mean?”
“Oh. Right. Yes. Hey, it’s three o’clock. Let’s be getting back.”
“Thanks for telling us your news, Jim,” I said as we set off. “And thanks for taking our news like that. We’re glad you know. Someone once said that love ceases to be a pleasure when it ceases to be a secret. That’s codswallop, isn’t it?”
“What ass said that?”
“Never heard of him.”
“Not him. Her. Restoration dramatist.”
“Well, she was talking through her arse.” That was Andrew. “I’d like to tell everyone we’re in love. Broadcast it to the world.”
“Not a hope,” said Jim. “The BBC wouldn’t allow it. But I do agree You don’t want to keep it bottled up. Like me and Sally. I’m glad you know about that. You must meet her one day. She’s a sweetie. Well, she’s a sight more than that. Oh hell, I can’t describe her.”
“What about this?” I suggested.
“Of all the girls that are so smart,
There’s none like pretty Sally.
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in my alley.”
Jim pretended to groan. “Uh huh, Rentaquote at it again,” but he was grinning. “Blimey, Leon, you’ve always got a quote for everything. Why do you do it?”
“Oh, just to show off,” I replied glibly, taken aback and suddenly uncertain.
“Bollocks. You’re not a show-off.”
“Well, sign of an unoriginal mind, then. After all, who was quoting Winnie the Pooh just now?”
“Ooh, nasty! But bollocks again. Your mind’s not unoriginal, even if mine is.”
Andrew came to my rescue. Unexpectedly, as he rarely had a riposte to quotations. “We were doing Bacon in English yesterday. He said something like ‘Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.’ Leon’s all three. Especially a full man.”
Oh, the praise of a lover. I blushed. “To quote Jim this time, bollocks. I’m currently an empty man. Lunch wasn’t worth eating.”
“Lord, you’re a pair,” said Jim, laughing. “And it’s obviously right that you are a pair. Thanks a million for telling me about you. It’s great news. Hey, and I’ve survived!”
“Without being buggered, remember? A whole afternoon with a pair of queers, and I haven’t been buggered!”
We both punched his arms. “Nincompoop! We love each other, not you. Well, I suppose we do love you, but not that way.”
A fortnight into term, things were becoming desperate. We had started off as usual, seeing as much of each other as our commitments allowed. Yet there was now a barrier between us, transparent but unbreakable, created by our promise to one another. We had given our word not to show affection, not to tempt or to succumb, and we intended to keep it. But we were like people under strict doctor’s orders to eat nothing but yoghurt and muesli, yet constantly confronted with roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, lashings of gravy, jacket potatoes, and jam roly-poly. To see the forbidden fruit but not to taste it was sheer hell. We were so near but yet so far. It all generated an internal pressure which could not be released, which built up to positive pain.
This became so acute that we reached a stage we had never contemplated in our worst dreams. We started to avoid each other. Not in public: that was impossible, as our cubicles adjoined in the dormitory and we sat opposite at the dining table. But I deliberately stopped dropping in to Andrew’s study, and he to mine, in an attempt to reduce the pressure. That simply swung the pendulum the other way. When alone, even though Andrew was constantly in my mind, a huge vacuum appeared in my heart. An essential ingredient of life was missing. Music could usually anaesthetise me, but not now. The pain was not even relieved at night. We were a couple, but our beds were solitary and separated by a wooden partition. Couples take their pleasure together, not alone. I never wanked once, the whole term, and was not even tempted to. Andrew felt the same. He told me so one morning before school when he finally did venture to my study. He was looking haggard. His rugger was slipping and he was in danger of being thrown out of the team.
“Leon, what do we do?” he asked despairingly.
“I reckon we need help. Remember Steve said that if things became difficult, see him? I think we’ve reached that point.”
“Yes. Yes, you’re right. Will you arrange it?”
As it happened, Steve got in first. My work had been affected, badly affected. I was well aware of it, and ashamed. Steve was equally aware of it, and worried. That morning, as he handed back my Latin prose with a beta treble-minus, he said, “A word with you afterwards, please, Leon.” Several times during the lesson I noticed him looking at me consideringly.
When everyone else had gone, he shut the door. “It’s not working, is it, Leon? You’re losing your grip, on everything.”
“No, sir, it’s not working. I was about to tell you.” I explained the problem. “It’s not giving up sex, it’s giving up hugging, kissing, holding hands.” It seemed grotesque to be saying this sort of thing to a master. “Are we abnormal? Is it going to get better, or worse?”
“I thought that might be it. No, you’re not abnormal. And I think I can help. Not right this minute — I must have a word with my wife first. Are you free after games this afternoon?”
“And is Andrew, do you think?”
“As far as I know.”
“Well, come round together to my house at, say, five?”
I arranged it with Andrew. We were still depressed, but intrigued — why on earth did Steve have to consult his wife? We expected nothing more than advice. What we actually got bowled us over.
When we presented ourselves at his front door, he took us into the kitchen. His wife was there, and he introduced us. Her name, it transpired, was Alice. She shook hands and looked at us carefully.
“Right, I’ve got them in my head,” she said. “Andrew and Leon.”
“That’s just to make sure Alice will recognise you. Now come outside with me.”
He led the way out of the back door into a yard flanked by a six-foot wall on one side and a short row of outbuildings on the other. He ushered us into one of them, a scruffy room some eight feet square with boxes piled against one wall and a small sofa against another. There was a frosted-glass window and a small electric fire.
“Here you are. Not very fancy, I’m afraid — it’s just a junk-room — but I doubt you’ll mind. It’s now yours. Your love-nest, if I dare call it that. You can be affectionate in private here, without risk of being seen. So long as there’s no sex. I have to trust you on that. Don’t disturb us — here’s a key. And we won’t disturb you — our kids are away at prep school. But so that we don’t come barging in, use this.” It was a square of plywood, red on one side and white on the other, hanging on a string from a nail on the window frame. “Red facing out means ‘keep out.’ Right? Now for the rest of the geography.” He led us outside again. A few yards along the garden wall was a full-height door, which he opened. “Do you see where you are?”
We poked our heads out. The door opened onto a narrow passageway which in other regions might be called a snicket or a ginnel or a twitten. In these parts it was a jitty, and we recognised it. Steve’s house fronted onto the High Street and its garden extended back to Green Lane behind. The jitty ran alongside the property and linked the two streets. It was little frequented because there was a proper street running parallel only a few yards away, but it was a legitimate short cut, and using it would raise no eyebrows.
“You only need to be careful when arriving and leaving. To avoid raising any suspicions I suggest you arrive separately, one from each end of the jitty, and leave likewise. And don’t come here too often or too regularly. No more than twice a week, say.” He took us back to the room. “Well, will it do?”
We looked at each other, our hearts full. “It’s incredible, sir,” muttered Andrew. “Sir, why are you doing this?”
“Obvious, isn’t it? You’re showing classic withdrawal symptoms. As a master, I have to prevent your academic standards slipping. As chaplain, I’m committed to helping souls in torment. As a human being, I’d hate to be in your present shoes. No, I’m serious. But once again, this isn’t an official provision, just a bit of private enterprise.” The unspoken message seemed to be that, if it came to the point, we should not split on him. “Right, I’ll leave you now. Oh, by the way, there’s an alarm clock there” — he pointed — “It’s old, but it works. It might be worth setting to remind you when it’s time to go, in case you get, ah, absorbed. Good luck!” He went out, but stuck his head in again. “Don’t forget to turn the light out when you go. And lock up.” This time the door shut.
In the blink of an eye we were on the sofa and in each other’s arms. The power cut was over. The switch had been thrown, and the current again flowed freely between the terminals. We felt ourselves being revitalised on the spot. Next, we made up for lost time with mouth and tongue. Only then could we sit back, still in contact, arms round the other’s waist, and look at one another uninterruptedly. The healing process was already under way, and our cheeks were wet.
“Oh God, aren’t some people good,” was all I could say. And “Oh God, you’re good.”
As we got back to our house (Steve was right — the alarm clock was essential) we met Jim.
“Hullo!” he said, looking carefully at our faces. “You’ve been looking like wet Wednesdays in Wigan, but you’ve suddenly changed into sunny Sundays at Skegness. Something’s up, isn’t it?” We told him quietly, without the details. “Oh, smashing! I was getting worried. That’ll be your salvation.”
He was right. Half the pain, more than half, was banished at a stroke. We were whisked back to where we had been when practising at Oxford. Of course it was not ideal. But now that the safety valve could be released every few days, the pressure remained tolerable, and our work and our games returned to normal.
We soon got into a routine. Not a regular one: rarely more than twice a week, sometimes only for five minutes at a time, sometimes for an hour or more. We were cautious in coming and going. A couple of times we saw Mrs Phillips hanging out her washing, and she merely smiled at us. We agreed not to refer to our hideout as ‘Steve’s place’ in case we were overheard. Instead we would use a code-name. We debated the pros and cons of ‘the back passage,’ but though it tickled our sense of humour it invited serious misinterpretation. So we plumped for ‘the buttery,’ because the real one lay in the same direction and the jitty was a not unreasonable way of getting there. One evening I bumped into Andrew in Green Lane as he was jogging back to the house from rugger practice, still in full gear and shiny with sweat, and we decided there and then on a quick one at the buttery. As he hugged me damply and niffily I could not help murmuring,
“What slender youth bedewed with liquid odours
Courts me on roses in some pleasant cave?”
It kept him giggling for a whole day, and complaining about the absence of the roses.
The rest of the term passed as smoothly as circumstances allowed. We tended to save serious talking for our Sunday walks, and one day I introduced him to the Phaedrus, which after the Symposium was Plato’s most serious discussion of love. In this case, I explained, the soul in pursuit of its beloved is likened to a chariot with a pair of horses. One is white, the heavenly horse of the emotions, obedient, well-bred, full of pure ideals. The other is black, broken down and unruly, representing the baser appetites, always wanting to go his own way. The charioteer himself is Reason, trying to balance their opposing instincts and avoid being upset or pulled off course.
“I think it fits us,” I said. “We can let the white horse dominate in term time and, thanks to Steve, let the black one have the occasional little frisk. But he’d upset the whole apple cart if we didn’t give him free rein in the holidays.”
“Roll on the day,” remarked Andrew with feeling.
At last it did. We made our way home to Park Town in Oxford and to a great welcome. None the less, after dinner we went up early to our bedroom, as we had an urgent appointment.
“Come to my arms, my beamish boy!” I cried when we got there. We stripped off. Revelled, after far too long an abstinence, in our naked bodies, skin on skin, flesh on flesh, cock on cock. Felt, stroked, explored, kissed, writhed, and culminated. Recovering, we lay side by side, tight against each other, with silly grins on our faces, until we dropped off.
It was still dark when a full bladder woke me and, as I crept back into bed after attending to it, Andrew stirred.
“Who’s that?” he mumbled.
“Who do you think? It’s a gentleman’s first duty to remember in the morning who it was he took to bed with him.”
He giggled sleepily. “Might be any of my harem. Can’t see which.” He explored my nether regions with his hand. “Ah yes. Recognise you now. Must be Leon.” He woke up still more. “Yes, you do belong to me. You know, it sounds daft, but whenever I saw you at school, maybe in the changing room, even the other side of the quad, I’d say ‘Look at him! He’s mine! Isn’t he great! Aren’t I lucky!’ Say to myself, of course. But somehow it helped keep me going.”
“Now there’s an odd thing. I’ve felt exactly the same about you. Proprietorial. Great minds again.”
“Maybe. Certainly great lovers.” And he returned to the matter in hand.
Next day, as an early present, I gave him a translation of Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, of which the underlying theme is the Phaedrus and the white and black horses. He read it there and then, and it left him thoughtful. Otherwise Christmas proceeded its cheerful way. After tea on Christmas Day we opened the small gifts from the tree. Ours included a razor and a tube of Colgate shaving cream apiece.
“I don’t think you need them quite yet, Leon,” explained Mum. Which was true, though things were advancing steadily and I would within the year. “But it’s high time Andrew started.”
He had a fair crop of thistle-down fluff by now, undeniably ready for harvesting, but it was sensuous to stroke, and I liked it. I also liked teasing him about it.
“What a pity,” I complained. “I like them fluffy.
Not huffy or stuffy, nor tiny or tall,
But fluffy, just fluffy, with no brains at all.”
“Right, you. I’ll get you properly for that later. Meanwhile …”
He launched himself at me, pinned me to the floor — I had no hope of out-wrestling him — and tickled my ribs, my weakest spot (well, almost my weakest, but we were in company), until I squealed for mercy. After all, we were still boys. Sometimes.
“A word of advice, if you’ve quite finished,” said Dad, laughing. “When you stagger into the bathroom in the morning with your eyelids gummed together, don’t put the shaving cream on your toothbrush. It’s foul. Even more important, don’t spread toothpaste over your face, specially if it’s spearmint. Hurts like hell. Believe me, I know.”
“Didn’t know you got hangovers, Dad.”
“Haven’t had one for years. But in my giddy youth, well, enough said.”
That night, on the way to bed, we experimented with the razor. Or rather Andrew did, while I gave useless advice. The result, by emphasising the shape of his jaw, made him look older and, oh God, even more desirable. As we slid between the sheets I was randy as hell, and made it plain.
“One-tracked mind,” he said. “Can’t think of anything else.” He measured my cock with his fingers, and felt all round my balls. “Yes, I thought so.
Both niffy and stiffy, and tiny, not tall,
And fluffy, bum-fluffy, with his brains in his ball.”
Retaliation was called for. I echoed his words. “Right, you,” and proceeded to try something out on him that I’d never tried before.
Andrew responded with startled delight. “Good God!” he said when it was all over. “That was incredible. Wherever did you learn that? At your prep school?”
“Good grief, no, not there. You can’t expect a boy to be depraved until he’s been to a good school. Yarborough teaches us to think for ourselves. That was the product of my own brain, wherever I may keep it.”
He chuckled. “You know, Leon, if there was an A-level course in practical love-making you’d get full marks.”
And over the next few days we drew up a complete syllabus for it. The black horse had a good run for his money, that holiday.
The Lent term picked up the routine once more. With discipline and some pain, the charioteer still kept the demands of his horses in tolerable equilibrium. On a Sunday walk late last term a new idea had germinated, but Andrew had, as usual, taken time to think it over. Now that he had accepted it, it began to bear fruit. We had thought, last August, that we were having our honeymoon. But it was not really a honeymoon. So far we had only declared our love in the most informal, private, way and we were still, in a manner of speaking, only engaged. Now we felt the need to get married. Our love had been tested in trying circumstances, and had emerged not weakened, but confirmed and strengthened. We were ready — inspired, even — to make a more formal commitment, in front of witnesses: just Mum, Dad and Jim, provided they were all in sympathy. It could only be a symbol, but the more we talked about it the more important it seemed. We wanted not a pastiche of a wedding, but the simplest of ceremonies, at home. We would merely exchange promises adapted from the Book of Common Prayer, shorn of religious connotations, but preserving the incomparable language.
We first tried out the idea on Jim, and he proved enthusiastic, as well as envious in that it would be years before he could do the same with his Sally. On their visit in February, Mum and Dad invited him to a meal at the Red Lion. They knew that we owed him much, and they got on famously with him. As the five of us sat digesting our lunch we broached the subject of marriage.
“We know it’ll have no legal force whatever. Or religious. We just want to make a personal commitment.”
But they understood. They also suggested it would be courteous to tell Steve, not that he would be likely to object. And they asked if we would be exchanging rings.
“We’ve wondered about that,” replied Andrew, “but we couldn’t wear them, not in public, until we were, well, at university, if then. Anyway, we couldn’t afford proper ones.”
“But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t exchange them as tokens of your promise, and then put them away,” said Dad. “And when you’re at home get them out and gloat over them when you’re feeling romantic. And we’d be more than happy to make them our contribution to the occasion.”
Bless them. We opted for plain gold ones, identical, and by experimenting with Mum and Dad’s wedding rings discovered the right size, allowing a bit of leeway for our fingers to expand. We agreed that Jim should come home with us straight from school — he was happy about that as Sally was being dragged off to visit relatives — and spend a few days in Oxford. The ceremony itself would be on the third of April. It was only when the date had been fixed and everyone had written it in their diaries that I realised why it was resonating unrecognised in my mind.
Although I had hardly thought about it since ‘Love divine’ had been the hymn in chapel, 3rd April 1956 was engraved on my heart as the blackest day of my young life. It was the day, nearly two years ago, when I had finally left my prep school, that hell on earth which I knew all too well. I was soon to be launched into the great unknown that was Yarborough. I had been there briefly for the scholarship exam, but had met only a few rather forbidding masters and no boys. In my ignorance and my pessimism I had fully expected it to be as bad as my present school, or worse. Better the hell you know …
As a result, over the last few weeks of term, fear of the future had spread its icy fingers over my mind, and frozen it. My marks had wavered, dipped, and crashed. Not a soul offered help or advice; nothing but scorn. My only asset, as far as I was aware, was my brain. But my brain had now ceased to function.
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless.
On my last night my dormitory companions, by way of a leaving present, had tossed me in a blanket and deliberately dropped me, several times. I had arrived home at Cambridge with a black eye, bruised face, and broken glasses, only to be berated for getting into a fight. When I produced my dismal school report I was reviled for slacking. I was given a bucket and brush and made to scrub ten weeks’ worth of greasy grime from the kitchen floor.
I had tried to strike a spark of independence, of resistance, of revolt, from my numbed brain. To no avail. Lodged with me useless.
In a few weeks’ time I would be at Yarborough, the top scholar of the year, all eyes upon me, expected to shine. But how could I possibly shine with my mind switched off? Lodged with me useless.
Before me loomed that last black gateway, its lintel inscribed All hope abandon, ye who enter here, and I passed through it. I ran a hot bath to help the blood to flow. I sat in the water, wrist outstretched, one of Father’s razor blades poised, my head empty and thumping. Lodged with me useless.
I came round to a hammering on the door as Mother demanded to know what I was up to. My body was slumped forward, forehead and hair under water. Luckily the water was not deep — deep baths were not allowed — and it was now cold. And there was no blood in it. Nor on my wrist. I croaked some reply, and found myself working out what had happened. Found myself thinking, with my brain. No longer lodged with me useless.
It told me, unbidden, that I did not know that Yarborough would be hell. There was at least the faintest of hopes that it might not be. So I would not use the razor blade now. I would take it with me and use it when I was certain, absolutely certain, that there really was no hope. For weeks I had been too numb to cry, but I cried that night. I now had a hint of light to follow, a glimmer which, through the rest of the holidays, guided my footsteps up the rocky path. Little did I know it then, but only just beyond, still unseen, lay the splendour of heaven, of redemption, of love. The love which moves the sun and the other stars.
Was my despair on that dark day a good or a bad omen for what was about to happen now, two years on? Shaken by the morbid virulence of my memory, I was not sure. Better play safe, don’t mention it.
“You’re very quiet, Leon. Not cold feet, I hope.”
“Quite the reverse. Hot feet.” Fatuous answer. Downright evasion.