The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

3. Crisis

Next weekend, on our Sunday walk, we headed for Alvingham, a small village some distance away, whose former importance was proclaimed by a large and isolated church. There were said to be some interesting graves there. We found the church was close to the road, and behind it the graveyard bordered with venerable trees, and started investigating the lichen-covered headstones.

Before long we heard the vestry door close, and a gentle voice saying “Good afternoon. May I be of assistance?” It was a small and ancient clergyman, presumably the vicar.

“Oh, thank you, sir,” I said. “We were looking for your famous tombstone. The army officer.”

The vicar chuckled. “Of course. Though infamous might be a better description. It is over here. But personally I find the humbler stones more to my taste. As Gray has it,

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”

Wonderfully apt, and I could not resist quoting another verse back at him:

“Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.”

“Ah! A scholar, I see! Then this stone might claim your interest.” He pointed to a limestone slab, bearing the date 1682 and the simple inscription:

Here lies John Beaver, that honest man
Which stood up for the Common of Alvingham.

“Common?” I asked. “Common people, or common land?”

“Nobody knows, though I suspect the latter, with the good Mr Beaver defending it against enclosure.”

“Oh, I see.

Some village Hampden that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood.”


“Well, sir, I suppose he’s lucky to be remembered at all. After all, some there be that have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been.”

“Does it matter? Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore. Even if known only to God. But here is the stone you were seeking.”

We squatted down to read it, and laughed.

Sacred to the memory of
Major James Brush,
who was killed by the
accidental discharge of
a pistol by his orderly,
14th April 1831.
Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

“Amusing, yes. But I feel that John Beaver rates higher in the scheme of things, do you not? Now, I wonder, having two strapping young fellows at hand, if I might beg a favour?”

He led the way to a headstone which had toppled across the path.

“Would you be so kind as to lift it out of the way, against the time when the sexton can replace it?”

It was very dirty, and we removed our jackets for the job. It was also surprisingly heavy, but with much grunting we lifted it and laid it on the grass by the nave wall.

“I am deeply indebted to you,” said the vicar. “You are clearly from Yarborough. From which house, pray?”

“Mr MacNair’s, sir.”

“Ah! I have the pleasure of his acquaintance. Please give him my regards. My name is Venables. Thank you, dear boys. I must be home now. I have still to write my sermon for evensong. Good day!”

And off he toddled along the footpath to the village. We grinned at each other and made our way round the west end of the church, pulling on our jackets as we went and wiping our hands on the grass.

“What a lovely man,” said Andrew. “Bumping into him was a bit of good luck. I enjoyed that.”

Back home, because we had been out for much more than the statutory hour, there was little time before evening chapel, which was immediately followed by tea. As we left the dining hall Jim, who sat at a different table, steered us urgently into my study.

“The cat’s out of the bag, chaps. That worm Thorne’s just been telling half our table that you’re queer and that he found you having sex this afternoon.”

Christ!” said Andrew. “He didn’t. We didn’t. That’s a load of balls. But how the hell does he know we’re queer?”

“Trouble is,” I added, sick with worry, “if the cat’s out of the bag, there’s no way of getting it in again.”

We were interrupted by a knock, and Thorne himself looked in, smirking.

“Wally wants to see you both. With me.” He led the way importantly to the private side, pursued by venomous looks from Jim. “Here they are, sir,” he announced.

“Ah! Leon and Andrew,” said Wally cautiously, as if mindful of past difficulties with Thorne. “Robert tells me has an accusation to lay against you” — it took a moment to sink in that Robert was Thorne — “and it seems only fair that you should hear it from his lips. Carry on, Robert.”

“Well, sir. Knowing that they were queers, I suspec …”

Wally contrived to look astonished and wary at the same time. “What makes you think that?” he interrupted.

Thorne had evidently expected Wally to know about it, and was caught on the wrong foot. “Well, er, everyone must know it, sir. I mean, um, all the masters.” He had the air of someone being pushed into a corner.

“But who did you hear it from?”

“Um, well, er, Mr Phillips, sir.”

Wally was clearly nonplussed, and played for time. “Very well. We’ll come back to that later. And knowing what you thought you knew, what then?”

“Well, sir, I thought, if that’s the case — and I wasn’t surprised — I’ve noticed they usually go on Sunday walks together — I thought they were probably, um, you know, having sex out in the country somewhere. So this afternoon I trailed them. They went to Alvingham, and disappeared behind the church. I heard them laughing, and then grunting as if they were, er, um, you know. After a while they came out again, putting their clothes on and, er, cleaning themselves up. And I heard Goodhart talking about — I’m sorry, sir, it’s what he said — a good fuck and that he’d enjoyed it.” Thorne was looking very pleased with himself again.

“That’s all?”

“Yes, sir. There wasn’t time to tell you before chapel.”

“Andrew and Leon?”

“We did indeed go to Alvingham, sir,” I said. “But if he’d followed us behind the church he’d have found us talking to the vicar, who sent you his regards, by the way. We were talking about graves and epitaphs, and swapping quotations from Gray’s Elegy and Ecclesiasticus. We were grunting as we moved a fallen tombstone for Mr Venables. For which we’d removed our jackets, and which made us dirty. And as we left Andrew remarked on our good luck in meeting the vicar.”

“I see,” said Wally. Thorne’s face was losing its confidence.

“But that’s not the end of it, sir. We hear that at tea just now Thorne was telling all and sundry that we were queer and were having sex.”

Wally cast a withering look at Thorne. “Robert, wait in the sitting room next door, please, while I have a word with Andrew and Leon.”

“I’m all at sea,” he admitted as the door closed. “I must speak with Mr Venables first.” He checked a number, dialled, and had a brief conversation, while we looked at each other and agreed, without words, that we had to tell the truth. “Well, that part’s all right,” said Wally, putting down the receiver. “Mr Venables entirely confirms your story. You made a very favourable impression on him. But what’s this about Mr Phillips saying you’re qu… homosexuals? I’ve heard nothing of that.”

“That part’s true, sir,” said Andrew. “We do love each other. Our parents know, and approve. But we do not have sex. And we’ve taken very great care that nobody should find out about us. There’s only one boy who knows. Jim Bates. We told him, and we trust him. I’m quite sure he won’t have passed it on. And only one master — Mr Phillips. We told him last September, in confidence, and he’d hardly have broken that.”

“More likely,” I added, “Thorne’s found out in some underhand way, just as he stole Jim’s letter last year.”

Wally ran his hands through his thinning hair. He looked suddenly weary. “Wait a minute.” He picked up the phone again, and we heard him asking Steve questions. “Could I trouble you to come round here, straight away? Many thanks.” He turned back to us. “I fear you’re right. Mr Phillips has told nobody. Would you please go to the sitting room and wait there, and after a minute send Thorne to me.” As we left he picked up the phone again.

Thorne, as we gave the message, was visibly wilting. “Oh Lord,” sighed Andrew when, after a minute, we had sent him on. “What a spiteful, vindictive, small-time crook. I wonder what Wally will do with him.”

“And what Wally will do about our secret that’s no longer a secret. He’s bound to tell the HM. Oh God.”

We agonised helplessly. We heard two people arrive and go to the study. Twenty minutes later we were called in again. Thorne had gone. Instead, Wally had the HM and Steve there. All three looked harassed.

“Sit down, Andrew, Leon. That …” — he seemed on the point of saying something highly unschoolmasterly — “Thorne has stirred up a hornet’s nest, and you have the right to know what’s happening. It wasn’t your fault that your secret got out.”

“It was mine, I’m afraid, if it was anyone’s,” Steve broke in. “Thorne came to see me this morning after chapel, on a totally different matter. I’d been writing a letter to your parents — you can guess the reason for it — and while I was looking something up for him he read it on my desk. He admits it, when pressed. Just the first few words on top of this sheet.” He passed it over, and we read ‘Andrew and Leon’s love for one another has reached such a point …’ “I’m sorry about this.”

“Hence Thorne’s subsequent actions,” Wally resumed. “He’s a malicious and unsatisfactory character, I’m afraid, and his intelligence wouldn’t incommode a beetle.”

“He was getting his own back on us, sir. Last year Andrew paid him back for bullying me. Then I found him bullying a new boy, and sent him off with a flea in his ear. He doesn’t like us.”

“I didn’t know that. The immediate problem, of course, is the story he’s circulated, half of it true, half of it false. I’m afraid it’ll be all round this house by now. If we can stop it spreading further, the damage will be less, but I’m not optimistic.” There was a knock at the door. “Yes, what is it?” A boy looked in to report that he was back from violin practice. “Right, Simon. Oh, wait, before you go, did you hear a rumour that was circulating this evening about Leon and Andrew here?”

Simon was looking wonderingly at the HM and at us. “Yes, sir.”

“And did you pass it on to other boys in the violin class? No blame if you did.”

“Well, yes, I did, sir.”

“Right, thank you, Simon.” Simon disappeared.

“Too late. It’ll be round the whole school tomorrow.” They all sighed.

“In that case, Mr MacNair,” said the HM, “you tell your boys tonight that the core of the rumour is untrue. And instruct your prefects to help scotch it.” He looked at his watch. “I must get back to School House for prayers. I will inform the other housemasters tonight, and make a statement at Assembly tomorrow.” He turned to us. “The other problem is what to do about you and Thorne. But that will have to wait until the morning.” He swept out.

Steve stayed only to say, “Andrew, Leon. Last September you told me things in confidence which ought now to come out, for your sake. Do I have your permission to disclose them? Not everything. Only what’s relevant. Will you trust me on that?”

“Yes, sir. Of course.” He too left.

“I’ve already taken Thorne out of circulation,” said Wally, “and I’m afraid you’ll have to go into quarantine too, at least temporarily. I must go to prayers now, and lay down the party line to the prefects. Wait here till I come back.”

Mentally battered, we sat and listened to the distant sound of a hymn. After a while Wally returned, accompanied this time by Jim.

“You’ll be sleeping in a spare room tonight, and you won’t be going into school tomorrow, at least for the morning, but you can put in a bit of work by yourselves. Tell Jim what books and notes you need, and he’ll bring them, together with your night things. I must go and see about Thorne.”

He went, and we brought Jim up to date, to his disgust. He told us in return that after prayers Wally had looked round his fifty or so boys and said, simply and firmly, ‘A malicious tale has been spread that two boys in this house have been found engaging in sexual acts. It is totally untrue. They are blameless. For their own sakes, they will be spending the night on the private side. So will the boy responsible for the lie. The headmaster will be addressing the whole school on the matter at Assembly tomorrow. Goodnight.’ He had signed to the prefects to stay behind, and the rest of the boys had trooped out amid a buzz of gossip and speculation.

“So far so good,” said Jim. “But Thorne made it clear that he’d found out you were queer before he discovered your supposed romp. Well, Wally’s disposed of the romp — nobody’ll believe that now — but he didn’t deny you were queer. People will remember that.” He sighed. “I’d better go and get your things. What do you need?”

Ten minutes later he was back with them, and left us to brood and speculate. Only two outcomes seemed possible. They might, with an effort, accept our love and put a gloss on it for public consumption. Or they might wash their hands of us and boot us out. Humiliation was very much on the cards.

“Andrew, my love. At the worst, we’ll be kicked out. But it won’t be the end of the world. We’ve still got each other. We’ve still got Mum and Dad. It could be worse.”

“Leon, my heart, so long as I don’t lose you I can face anything.” Brave words, and they helped.

At that point Wally reappeared and showed us our room, a not unpleasant one with two single beds. “The bathroom’s next door. I’ve taken Thorne … elsewhere, so you won’t clash with him.”

“Sir, what’s going to happen tomorrow?”

“Talk. If you’d done what Thorne said you’d done, you’d be on your way home first thing. You didn’t. But you’re self-confessed homosexuals, and the headmaster has to decide what to do about that. He’ll be consulting a lot of people, I’m sure. Maybe asking you questions too. What the upshot will be, I just don’t know. But don’t despair — things could be a lot worse, and there’s plenty of room for hope. Goodnight.”

As he left, we exchanged a questioning look, and silently agreed. We were alone in a private room, ostensibly free to do whatever we wanted. But we could only look at one another, could only use our eyes to calm our jangling nerves, to transmit and receive strength. We dared do no more, for Wally might be back to see if we were behaving. Sure enough, after a quarter of an hour, there was the briefest of knocks and he stuck his head in. He seemed relieved to see us sitting on our beds exactly as he had left us.

“I forgot to say that I’ll have breakfast brought up to you. Goodnight again.”

We got ready for bed and turned the light out. We risked a quick kiss, climbed into bed and lay staring across at each other in the dim reflected moonlight, still desperately in need of the reassurance of physical love, of sexual release. But even if it had been safe to try, we were still bound by our self-imposed undertaking. Eventually I heard the church clock strike midnight.

“Andrew, my love,” I whispered. “Hold out your hand.” It just met mine across the gap between the beds. “I haven’t wanked since last summer. I haven’t wanted any sex without you. But now we’re together, sort of. We can’t do anything more. But shall we wank? Holding hands?”

He said nothing, but squeezed my hand. So we wanked, gently, awkwardly in my case as I was using my left hand, while the electricity flowed between us. He almost crushed my fingers when he came. It helped greatly, being able to demonstrate our love, even if indirectly. We shared a handkerchief to clean up with, and fell asleep.

Wally himself brought us our breakfast, and told us to stay put and do some work. “Did Jim tell you what I said at prayers last night? Well, the headmaster will be saying much the same at Assembly. Then he’ll be talking with Mr Phillips and myself and doubtless others. And he’s called an emergency staff meeting at lunchtime. I’ll do my best to keep you up to date, but I can’t guarantee when I’ll see you next. Don’t spend your time worrying unduly. I’ve been thinking over my position, and I’ll be pleading on your behalf.” He bustled off.

We tried to work, but the morning passed slowly. At least Wally had been considerate enough to leave us together, in the comfort of companionship, exchanging strength, rather than separate us to agonise in solitude. And at least we had Andrew’s portable radio which Jim had brought over the night before. We listened to a superb Third Programme recital of Purcell songs by the countertenor Alfred Deller, which did more to soothe our troubled minds. Our lunch was brought by none other than Alan Gregory the house captain, a firm but friendly chap who was much liked. As he put down the tray he cocked an ear to the Mozart horn concerto the radio was now playing.

“Dennis Brain, surely? Nobody like him. And the London Symphony Orchestra. Which is good. I have to say that,” he smiled cheerily at us, “because my parents play in it. How are you getting on, then?”

“Worried, like any innocents on trial,” I ventured. He was the sort who would probably understand. “Gregory, what are people saying about us?”

“Public opinion’s wholly against Thorne and very largely on your side, as far as I can see. Thanks especially to Bates, who’s running a powerful campaign on your behalf. But there’s a load of speculation and a complete shortage of hard fact. You’re going to be swamped with questions when you come back to us.”

“When? Or if?”

“When,” he said firmly. “The HM’s been quizzing me about you, and I gave you a clean bill of health. So did Wally, I gather. I’m sure it’s a case of when, not if.” Bless him, bless all friends.

It was mid-afternoon before Wally dropped in.

“Things are going quite well, I think,” he reported. “I don’t want to raise your hopes too high, but it seems generally agreed by now that you should be accepted for what you are, provided of course that you continue to act with discretion. The staff meeting finally took that line, after some persuading. So did the school governors whom the headmaster’s been phoning. The main debate now is how the matter is presented to the parents. Speaking of which, I’ve been on the phone to your parents. They send you all their love and support.”

We both let out a pent-up breath of relief. “Thank you, sir. Thank you very much. And sir, what’s happening to Thorne?”

“His case has taken a great deal of discussion too. The headmaster’s asked his parents to withdraw him, and they’ve agreed.”

I sighed. Wally gave me a puzzled look. “Surely that doesn’t disappoint you, Leon?”

“I don’t know, sir. It would’ve been very difficult to live with him if he’d stayed, I admit. But I don’t feel vindictive. I just see him as rather pathetic. Misdirected. Unfulfilled. More deserving of pity than anger.”

“That’s an unexpected thing to say, Leon. And a noble one. Well, I must be off again. I hope I’ll be back within a couple of hours.”

He was. “It is all right, it’s all all right,” he said, beaming at us. “The headmaster’s ready to see you now. Mr Phillips is with him.” And as we followed him out of the house Andrew and I squeezed each other’s hand to the point of pain.


The HM installed us in chairs. “Well, Michaelson and Goodhart,” he began, regarding us steadily and not unkindly, and speaking less formally than in his public utterances. “You have presented us with a pretty problem. Not by bringing it into the open — you are in no way to blame for that — but by being the way you are. Let me start by putting you out of your suspense. We can find no justification for punishing you in any way. You may pick up your lives with no stain on your characters. I will come back to that later.

“You will think we have taken an unconscionable time to reach so simple a conclusion. That is because we had three successive steps to surmount. First, Mr Phillips filled me in on the background to your love. No blame to him for not telling me before — he was bound to respect your confidence. Had it not been for Thorne’s misguided snooping, your secret would still be yours, and would probably have remained so. What you might or might not do in the holidays is not for me to enquire. Your parents and guardians confirmed that you had their total support. Then I had to consult Mr MacNair, your other teachers, and your house captain, who gave unanimously glowing reports of your maturity and responsibility, and reported no hint of your stepping out of line. You seem to have adhered scrupulously to your undertaking to keep your love totally private, and abstain from sexual activity here. So we climbed the first step.

“The second one was harder. The question of whether the school could countenance chaste homosexual love among its pupils has not raised its head before. It is not catered for in the detailed rules or even the broad policies under which this school is run. I had my own view, but I consulted all the staff and most of the governors. Their opinions varied widely. Some few felt that love between males was simply wrong. Others were ready to accept it in general, but not in this context. They pointed to the prevalent confusion between spiritual love and physical sex. They argued that if your love became generally known, all too many boys, parents and potential parents would assume, however mistakenly, that Yarborough encourages homosexuality. And they felt the risk to our reputation was too great. I take their point. To get rid of you would undoubtedly be the safest and easiest course. The third view is that homosexual love, albeit unconventional, is natural and valid, as valid as heterosexual love, and that we have no right to attempt to suppress either.

“The final decision is mine and, if I felt it right, I would overrule even a majority verdict. As it happens, the majority do agree with me, and the dissenters will abide by my decision. Now, you have unintentionally highlighted a conflict between expediency and principle. I would hate to forsake principle for the easy way out. At root, I am guided by a basic, over-riding, law. Edmund Burke put it very well — I hope I am quoting him accurately — ‘There is but one law for all, namely, that law which governs all law, the law of our creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity.’

“Mr MacNair tells me — and all praise to you for it — that you hold strong views on humanity, justice and equity. These three principles alone put the heterosexual and the homosexual on an equal footing, at least in respect to the freedom to love. Provided one takes it no further, that statement implies no conflict with the law. The law does not forbid love between males. It only forbids sexual activity. As do our own rules already. That was the second step.

“The third step was a more practical one: having accepted your love, what do we do about it? We are cancelling the first lesson tomorrow, and Mr Phillips will instead address the boys in chapel on the subject of love in general and love between males in particular. Some boys will doubtless inform their parents, who may well be puzzled or disturbed or even angry at our attitude. In anticipation, we have drafted a circular which will be sent to all parents tomorrow. Here is a copy.”

It has come to my attention that two boys in the school are engaged in a platonic love affair. It is important to stress that no sexual activity is involved. I am convinced that the boys in question have acted, and will continue to act, with responsibility and discretion. From the start they sought the advice of the chaplain, and their liaison came to general notice through no fault of their own. Their parents and guardians positively support it. After careful consultation with the governors and my staff, I can find no good reason whatever to forbid it or to require the boys to be withdrawn. No law is flouted, no school rules or policies are endangered or altered. Should you wish to discuss the matter further, please feel free to contact me.

“We are taking a considerable risk in being seen to accept you. What the response will be remains to be seen. Minimal, we hope, but we can only play it by ear.

“Finally, as far as you are concerned, carry on as before. No sex, naturally. No public sign of affection. Since your love is now common knowledge, you may of course talk about it, but please do not flaunt it. Play it down, stress its private nature, which is no more than the truth. Keep us informed of the reaction you encounter, especially if it is hostile. Mr Phillips has relayed your remark, before this year began, that if we could not accommodate your love, you would feel obliged to leave Yarborough, but that you’d much prefer to stay. We appreciate the implicit compliment, and we return it. We would not like to lose you either.

“So you emerge from this unfortunate episode with your characters not only untarnished but, in our eyes, positively enhanced. You have proved your responsibility by informing Mr Phillips in the first place, and your discretion by your subsequent restraint. Now, any questions?”

Oh, my God! Instead of humiliation, praise. Andrew and I looked at each other dazedly and shook our heads.

“None, sir,” I said. “We’d only like to thank you. When we first talked about this in August, we knew that Yarborough was a good school. We reckoned that was because the staff were good. Not only good teachers, but good human beings. I’m not trying to be cheeky. But now we know we were right.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that too. One other point. If, as a result of this, you are approached by any other boys who think they are in love, by all means tell them of your experience, but do not encourage them or discourage them. Persuade them, rather, to talk to Mr Phillips. No two cases are going to be the same. Now, back to your house and pick up your life. Oh dear” — he looked at the clock — “you have missed your tea.”

Steve broke in. “May I steal them for a quick chat, Mr MacNair? And feed them at the same time? I’ll get them back to you within the hour.”

“Of course.”

So we walked the short distance to his house, saying little, almost sick with relief, yearning to release the tension with a cuddle. Steve already understood.

“Right, first stop your hideout, while Alice and I knock up a meal. Keep it quick. I’ll drag you out in five minutes.”

Five minutes was barely enough for immediate purposes before Steve hammered on the door and took us into the kitchen, where we were fed on poached eggs on toast, salad, ice cream and tea — more princely than we would have had in the house. As we ate, Steve handed over some homework for me, and some for Andrew from his physics teacher, “Though we don’t realistically expect it done by tomorrow.”

“Thank you for the tea, Mrs Phillips,” said Andrew when we were finished. “And thank you, sir, for standing up for us.”

“Least I could do,” replied Steve, “especially as I was the immediate cause of your secret getting out. But, to be honest, what really turned the tables was your past performance. I still think that if you’d put your proposition to them back in September they’d have turned it down and waved you goodbye. In view of the risk to the school’s reputation, they wouldn’t have trusted you. They’ve accepted it now because the past six months have shown that you are trustworthy.”

“But we’d have failed quite early on if it hadn’t been for your, um, hospitality, sir. Did you tell them about that?”

“No. It didn’t seem relevant. Did you?”

“No, sir.” We smiled at each other, the three of us, in understanding. I saw Mrs Phillips smiling at us all from by the cooker, and smiled at her too. Then tears suddenly flowed, and I put my head in my hands.

“Yes, go on, Andrew,” I heard Steve say, and I felt Andrew’s arm round me and his face against mine. I soared away on a wave of love and gratitude.

“Time you went back,” said Steve after I don’t know how long. We pulled ourselves together, thanked him, and thanked Mrs Phillips again.

“Sir,” said Andrew on the back doorstep, “I asked you this before, I know. But why do you do all this for us?”

“The answer’s still the same. It’s my duty — pleasant duty — as chaplain. As a man, well, homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto. Get Leon to translate. Goodnight!”

“It’s from Terence,” I explained as we went out of the garden gate into the jitty. “Roman playwright. Homo doesn’t mean what you think it means. It means a human being, as in homo sapiens. Loosely translated, ‘I’m a human being, so I reckon humanity’s my business.’”

Andrew thought about it. “What a good, good man. And, you know, it’s somehow reassuring that homo can mean both a queer and a human being.”

We got back halfway through the prep hour and reported in to Wally, who offered us a phone call to Mum and Dad, brief but heart-warming. We then went to our studies where I, for one, did no work at all. The bell rang for prayers, and we joined the throng heading for the dining hall. Jim’s face lit up when he saw us, split by his letterbox smile. Others grinned at us too and, though we were not allowed to talk, a murmur of welcome arose. Andrew, with his sunny disposition and his sporting prowess, was always popular. Some of his glory reflected on to me as his friend, and especially since my new look I was pretty well accepted too. It was good to be out of solitary confinement, back in circulation among friends. Wally came in and gave out the hymn number, 459, and the piano introduced Eisenach, that lovely chorale melody from the St John Passion.

O love, how deep, how broad, how high!
How passing thought and fantasy.

Well! Evening hymns were chosen by the house captain. Alan Gregory would certainly have known by this time that his flock was short of one but not, after all, of another two. He was showing his solidarity, and I could swear I saw him smile and wink at us. Afterwards, the final half hour of prep. And so to bed.

We had to go by way of the private side to collect our clobber, and were a little late into the dormitory. As we arrived, the chatter instantly subsided. People were no doubt bursting with curiosity, but did not know how to broach the subject. As usual we changed into pyjamas in our cubicles with the curtains closed, drew the curtains partly back, and stood at the foot of our beds to talk. The moment we emerged, Jim broke the ice by asking straight out what had happened on Sunday afternoon. He knew already, of course: he was simply helping us through an awkward situation. We told the story unvarnished. It generated a gale of sympathy for us and universal condemnation of Thorne. So far so good. We knew that the details would be disseminated next morning. Then some bright spark spotted the unanswered question.

“OK, Thorne’s a wart and a liar, but he also said you were queers, and Wally and the HM didn’t shoot that down. Are you?”

This was the moment of truth, in every sense. My cubicle being next to Andrew’s, we were standing side by side, separated only by the end of the partition we were leaning against. I sensed him tauten up, and wanted to grab his hand. Beyond him I saw Gregory, who was also our dorm prefect and who had been listening silently, nod very slightly.

“Yes, we are. And we’re in love. But we’re not into sex here. Wally and the HM know all about us, and they don’t mind.”

There was a long pause as people worked out the huge implications. Finally, and inevitably, somebody said, “But that’s illegal!”

“No,” replied Andrew, “it isn’t. Sex between males is illegal. Love isn’t.”

“But it’s not normal. It’s a sin.”

Andrew hesitated over what to say, and Alan stepped in. “You need to read the report of the Wolfenden committee — it’s in the library. It thinks sex between males is normal enough to be legalised. And since the Archbishop of Canterbury agrees, can it be that sinful? But the report’s about sex. We’re talking about love, which is a different matter. You know what someone said? ‘The right which I claim for myself is the right to choose the person whom I love.’ That makes sense to me. Has anyone got the right to tell me I can fall in love with this girl but not with that?”

Nobody answered, but heads were shaken.

“I thought not. And if they can’t dictate which girl I love, how can they dictate which person I love, boy or girl? You love a person, not a gender.”

More thought. “But the Wolfenden thing’s about people over twenty-one,” said the last-ditcher. “Not us.”

“I told you, the report’s about sex. We’re talking about love. Love isn’t something that only kicks in on your twenty-first birthday. I’m eighteen. To let you into a secret, I’m in love. And just to set your filthy minds at rest, I’ve never shagged anyone. But I am in love. Any objections?”

There were none, and a hum of approval instead.

“I thought not. These two don’t shag either. But they love each other. Any objections? Because I’ve got none.”

And he called for lights out. Perhaps he was using his authority a little unfairly, to give himself the last word, but Alan was a good chap. He hadn’t said straight out, I noticed, that he was in love with a girl … he couldn’t be like us, could he? But I had no evidence that he was. And quite possibly he was well primed by Wally. If we had support like that, if that sort of sanity prevailed, all would be well. I fell asleep, knackered by the stresses of the day, but with a relatively quiet mind.

The mood at breakfast was subdued. But it always was — people took time to wake up. It was Tuesday today, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays Assembly was in chapel, not in Hall. After the usual hymn, reading and short prayers, the HM announced that the first class was cancelled, and Steve climbed into the pulpit. This break from routine was unprecedented, and I doubt if any sermon in the chapel’s hundred-year life had ever had such unbroken attention.

“It’s usual to open a sermon with a text from scripture,” he began. “But you can find texts in the bible to support almost anything you want. Instead, my text comes from Anatole France, the great French novelist. ‘Christianity has done a great deal for love by making a sin of it.’ Now I’m supposed to be a Christian.” He ostentatiously fingered his dog-collar. “But I’ll be the first to admit that the story of Christianity has not been all sweetness and light. One of its earlier mistakes in eradicating older religions was to throw some very useful babies out along with the bathwater of paganism. The Greeks and Romans had few hang-ups about love and sexuality. They accepted that men could love women and that men could equally love men. They had no problem with it, provided it did no harm to individuals or to society at large.

“Christianity swept that away, and became over-puritanical. We’ve suffered from it ever since. It made love something to snigger about behind your hand, to be prudish about, even to be avoided like the plague. The result was generation after generation of people who pretended to a totally tedious piety and propriety. Because fun wasn’t proper in marriage, plenty of them found their fun surreptitiously with other men’s wives or with tarts. And alongside these hypocrites, of course, there was also a goodly sprinkling of blatantly spectacular sinners. Or so-called sinners, because love isn’t a sin after all.

“It comes from God. No doubt about it. Love for women, love for men, love for either. Just as he made us right-handed or left-handed or ambidextrous. Like everything that comes from God, love should be enjoyed and used. Properly enjoyed, properly used. It lives in the mind, in the soul. It should be uplifting. It is not, repeat not, a sin. True, misplaced love may be a sin — excessive love of money, or of alcohol, for example — but that’s not proper love. That’s greed, and greed is a sin.

“And love is not the same as sex. Sex should be a reflection of love, but it’s often to be found without love at all. The mere pleasure of having your genitals stimulated by somebody else is, by itself, just another form of greed, another sin. And as you very well know, this school takes a dim view of sex. Francis Bacon summed it up very neatly: ‘Nuptial love maketh mankind; friendly love perfecteth it; but wanton love corrupteth and embaseth it.’

“But we’re talking today about love the emotion, not sex the physical act. And love without sex — remember this — love without sex is perfectly possible. The school does not take a dim view of that. I’ve said this before, briefly, from this pulpit on the first Sunday of last term, if any of you were listening and have memories that long. Now let me enlarge on it a little. I am thirty-three. I have been married for fifteen years. Pause while you do your sums. Yes, I was married at eighteen. The same age as some of you. I was in love then, and I still am. And I know that some among you, including some less than eighteen, are also in love. If you love a girl, that’s fine. It’s natural, normal, fulfilling. And conventional. So long as you don’t expect sex while you’re here, you’ll meet no opposition from us.

“But there are also at least two of you who love each other. Two boys who love each other. And that’s why I’m holding forth now.

“Homosexuality is widely regarded as unnatural, abnormal, unconventional. In my personal view, and I speak as a minister of the church who has thought hard about it, it is neither unnatural nor abnormal. It is just as natural, just as normal, just as fulfilling, as heterosexual love. Unconventional it may be; but convention is about the least important aspect of society. The point is that every one of us, whatever our sexuality, has the same right to choose whom we love. Every one of us can love equally deeply, whatever our sexuality. One thing that homosexuals can’t do is marry, not officially or legally. But nothing prevents them from making a commitment to one another which is just as meaningful as any made in a church or registry office.

“For six months those two boys have kept their love secret from everyone here. Everyone except for one friend, and myself. On Sunday their secret was betrayed by someone who’d found out about it by underhand means, and who tried to destroy them by claiming, quite untruthfully, that they were also having sex. By bearing false witness against his neighbour, he broke the ninth commandment, and he has paid the penalty. As far as this school is concerned, his victims have no penalty to pay. Their love has been chaste and has not been flaunted. Nor will they have any penalty to pay, so long as their love remains so. But love is a personal and private thing. Please don’t press them for lurid details. And remember that they are not monsters, not freaks. They are ordinary boys. As long as they pursue their present course, they are breaking no law. Their parents and guardians entirely approve of their love. The school can not and does not condemn them. I’m well aware that I’m not a conventional minister of the church, but for what it’s worth I give them my blessing too.

“If any others of you are in the same situation, please, please come and talk to me, in total confidence. We can only help you. And there may be some of you who find my message puzzling or even distasteful. It may conflict with what you’ve heard elsewhere. If so, and if you’re still worried, see me about it. The last thing we want is for our action, or rather our inaction, over these boys to be misinterpreted.

“Let me repeat. We are not authorising love of soul — it’s not in our power to authorise it. We are simply accepting it. Again, we are not authorising sexual activity, nor encouraging it. We are not encouraging any sin. Because love is not a sin, whatever dubious reputation the early church fathers may have given it. Deciding what is morally unacceptable and what is acceptable — in effect, what is sin and what is not — boils down to straightforward human common sense. If an act results in any sort of harm to anyone, then it’s foolish, it’s stupid, it’s wrong.

“Let me end with another quotation. ‘There is no sin except stupidity.’” He paused to let that sink in. “That was said by Oscar Wilde, who knew a thing or two about the subject. Anyone who’s experienced love, proper unselfish love, will know that it does no harm. It does only good. It is not stupid, in any sense. It is not wrong.” Another pause. “And now to God the Father …”

It was a tour de force of unconventionality, even of unorthodoxy. The more conservative of the masters would probably condemn it as rabble-rousing, and once or twice I had noticed the HM shifting uncomfortably in his stall. But if Steve had ended by shouting ‘Three cheers for Andrew and Leon,’ virtually every boy, I reckon, and most of the masters, would have been on their feet.

And it stood us in very good stead. To our amazement we met with no outright hostility at all. Many boys spoke to us in terms that ranged from the mildly to the vociferously supportive. Still more, who we did not know at all, said no word but looked at us with apparently benign or even envious interest. A few picked us up on the issues and debated them calmly. Not all were converted, but agreed to differ. Everyone seemed to accept that we did not have sex at school, and we told the few who asked about the holidays that it was not their business. A few of the older masters, we felt, did look at us askance, but made no open comment. One was old Fred Wakefield, the senior classics master, who only took me for Greek verse and was on the point of retiring. A maths teacher of Andrew’s proved a bit sniffy. Neither really mattered. Out of six hundred-odd sets of parents, Steve told us, about forty responded to the HM’s circular. Some were immediately satisfied, some raised objections which they dropped after discussing them with their sons. Only two withdrew their boys.

“And thank God,” Steve reported the HM as saying, “my worst fear proved groundless. It did not reach the correspondence columns of the Times.”

We were approached by two boys we hardly knew, a year above us, in another house. They said they were in love and wanted to talk about it, so we went on our Sunday walk together. They proved a precious pair, arch and giggly, and their minds seemed to be on sex rather than on love. In duty bound, we simply advised them to see Steve. Andrew was worried that we had brushed them off too lightly, but I differed. “I don’t think the love’s there to foster, not in the way it was — is — with us. And if it’s not there we can’t implant it.” But they did not go to Steve. He told us later that nobody claiming to be in love had approached him. It seemed we really were unique at Yarborough.

On Mum and Dad’s suggestion, we had told Steve about our marriage; hence the fateful letter he wrote to them. Maverick that he was, he thoroughly approved; hence the allusion in his sermon. He sent us off at the end of term with his good wishes and a slender book, wrapped up and not to be opened until we got home. It turned out to be the Pervigilium Veneris, ‘The Eve of Venus,’ an anonymous late Latin poem, not obscene like some of, say, Martial’s, but an exhilarating paean to the powers of the goddess of love, with the haunting refrain

Cras amet qui numquam amavit, quique amavit cras amet.

I translated the whole thing for Andrew, but the refrain defied neat phrasing. The best I could come up with was gold transmuted into lead:

Tomorrow let the loveless love; and let the lover love tomorrow.

An extraordinary gift — outrageous, some might say — because teachers just do not give their pupils such things. But we already knew very well that Steve was no ordinary teacher.