The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

4. Catharsis

On the third of April, then, we stopped living in sin, as Jim was pleased to put it, and made an honest man of each other. We were in the sitting room at Park Town, with Telemann’s trumpet concerti in D major as suitably triumphant background music. Since there were two grooms and no brides — we insisted on that — Dad tossed a coin to decide who should open the proceedings. “Right, Leon bats first.”

I faced Andrew, held his right hand in both of mine, looked him in the eyes, and took a deep breath.

“I, Leon, take thee, Andrew,
to have and to hold from this day forward,
for better for worse,
for richer for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
until death us do part;
and thereto I plight thee my troth.
With this ring I thee wed,”
— I put it on his finger —
“with my body I thee worship,
and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

Andrew repeated the words to me, and ringed me. We stood in silence for several dozen bars of Telemann, hand in hand, eyes locked, walking spiritually on air. Then we kissed. We hugged Mum and Dad, and turned expectantly to Jim.

“Oh no,” he said. “Lord knows I’m fond of you chaps, but there are limits.” He solemnly shook our hands.

“Right,” said Dad. “Weddings have several traditional accompaniments. You’ve said no to speeches, thank goodness. Food will come later. But toasts must be drunk.” He opened a bottle of champagne, explosively, and our healths were drunk, followed by Mum and Dad’s, and Jim’s, at which he burped. “And presents are given. You’ve got ours on your fingers. But I believe there are others up various sleeves.”

Jim gave us a pewter pint tankard apiece, each engraved with our name. “You’re both talented blokes, with a long way to go,” he commented. “If you ask me, downhill all the way. So these are to help you on your way down.” This time we caught him off-guard and got a hug in.

Andrew and I gave each other a book. It was not pre-arranged, and neither of us knew in advance that the other had commissioned Dad to get them nicely bound. Andrew’s to me was an edition of the Symposium and Phaedrus. Mine to him was John Donne’s poems which include, to my way of thinking, some of the most powerful love poetry in the language. We tore off the wrappings, looked at the title, the binding, and the inscription inside, and gave one another a preliminary hand-squeeze of thanks. Then we settled down to read.

When I surfaced, Andrew was still completely absorbed, and Dad and Jim were chatting together. John Dowland’s Lachrimae — with string consort, lute and harpsichord the perfect accompaniment to Donne — was now playing softly on the record player. I went to join Mum on the sofa. There we sat, listening, talking quietly, watching Andrew with gentle amusement. His head was slightly bent over the book on his knees. The light picked out his fair curls, the angularity of his jaw, and the occasional crinkle on his forehead as he worked out a difficult passage. From time to time, probably as he came to the end of a poem, he looked across at me with a half smile. At length he let out a great sigh, put the book face-down on the coffee table, and came over to give me a huge hug. Mum reached for the book, checked which poem he had last been reading, nodded approvingly, and held it up for me to see over his shoulder. Love’s Growth. As if in confirmation, Andrew whispered into my ear,

“Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring makes it more.”

Yes. Today had not only sealed the bond, but strengthened it. God, I loved him too, more than ever. It seemed that hitherto we had been apprentices, learning our trade, but now had qualified as fully-fledged craftsmen. From that moment sprang a new confidence in our relationship, a new authority.

Mum understood it too, and put it similarly. “You’ve just graduated, haven’t you, boys? I’m so happy for you.”

We adjourned eventually for a celebratory meal that was by no means alcohol-free. Jim’s inhibitions, if he had any, were loosened.

“I’m not sure about those worldly goods, you know. What have you got to endow? Andrew’s cricket bat, which Leon can now use without asking. And Andrew can use Leon’s jockstrap. But he’s probably got that already,” he grinned evilly, “kept under his pillow as a fetish.”

“Some people are so literal-minded,” complained Andrew. “We mayn’t have much now …”

“Oh, is that what it means? No, you’re right. You’re not well-endowed at all.”

“Now boys, keep it clean,” pleaded Dad, while Andrew rolled his eyes and sighed in mock despair.

So I took over. “Jim, don’t act thicker than you really are. When Andrew patents his process for synthesising trioxyphenowhatsitate and makes a fortune, he’ll build a mansion and rescue me from my dingy old garret and …”

“Install you in a new one, up five flights of stairs instead of two.”

“That’s right. But he’ll give me Stilton to eat with my crusts, rather than mousetrap.”

“Dunno about that,” Andrew remarked darkly, contemplating the cheeseboard. “Doubt if I’d run to more than Wensleydale.”


That night, in our current garret up two flights of stairs, we worshipped each other’s body, and I murmured,

“Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But the body is his book.”

Whenever I had both hands to spare I toyed with my ring. But at the same time I could not forget the anniversary which fell today. Sooner or later I had to exorcise that ghost. But not tonight, for fear of casting a shadow over Andrew’s joy. For now, my darkest memory remained under lock and key. I would open it to him when the time was ripe, or if he probed. But I could still look back in silence, with astonishment and gratitude, at my journey to salvation, my journey from the depth of hell to the pinnacle — was it even yet the pinnacle? — of redemption and of heaven. Thanks were due to Yarborough, which was no hell at all, nor even purgatory, and which harboured some remarkable angels. Thanks were equally certainly due to Mum and Dad, who beyond all argument were archangels. Thanks, above all, were due to Andrew my saviour. He still did not know exactly what it was he had saved me from, and I still could not spell those thanks out to him. Not tonight. Not in words. But my soul could sing them in an unheard song. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto him.


In the summer Andrew took his O-levels, and I my A-levels. One morning in Assembly, where I sat in the front row, I felt the HM’s beady eye boring into me, and as he left he paused beside me.

“Come and see me at 12.30, please, Michaelson.”

“Yes, sir. With Andrew Goodhart?”

“No. Just you.”

No hint of what it was about. It was inconsiderate of him, I felt, as I had an exam that morning, and fretting over the coming interview might have put me off my stride. But, my conscience being particularly clear, I shrugged it aside, and 12.30 found me outside his study, in the queue of malefactors awaiting their doom. But when my turn came, the HM was all affability.

“Ah, Michaelson. Thank you for coming. I want your advice, if you will. You will be aware that Mr Wakefield is leaving us.” The senior classics master was an adequate but somewhat uninspiring character. “I would be grateful for your opinion of Mr Phillips as a teacher. Do you feel that he is capable of stepping into Mr Wakefield’s shoes?”

Thought was not needed. “No doubt about it, sir. None whatsoever. I don’t say that because Mr Phillips has been so helpful to Andrew and me. I say it because he’s a superb scholar and a magnificent teacher, and he’d make a splendid Head of Classics. I’ve no quarrel with Mr Wakefield. He’s good. But if you want me to be honest, Mr Phillips is better. He may be young, without much teaching experience behind him, but the very fact that he’s young helps us boys relate to him. I know he inspires me to work harder than Mr Wakefield does. He’s got an enthusiasm that’s infectious.” Even thinking of it made me smile a little. “He’s an example not only of humanism, but of humanity too.”

The HM smiled back. “I can see the enthusiasm has indeed rubbed off. Right, thank you, Michaelson, that is all I need to know. But please keep this conversation strictly to yourself.”

“Yes, sir. Of course.”

“And how are things going in — ah — the other department?”

“Well enough, thank you, sir. It’s still not easy, but we’re surviving, as it were. So is our love.”

He smiled again. “I’m glad to hear that. Very glad. Remember, Michaelson, that even we were young once. Thank you. That is all.”

I left with a spring in my step. Even though the two things were not related, it felt good, very good, to be in a position to repay Steve for some of his help. And it felt equally good — mind-blowingly astonishing, in fact — to have been asked for my opinion of him. I could see the logic. I was top of the form in the Classical Lower Sixth and next term, assuming I held my place, I would be top of the Classical Upper Sixth, all of whose current members were leaving. I would be the senior pupil (in terms of position, though certainly not of age) under the new Head of Classics. But blow me! Who had ever heard of a fifteen-year-old being consulted by his headmaster about staff promotion? Shortly afterwards it was announced that Steve had indeed been appointed. The only pity was that I could not share the story with Andrew.


Nearly a year had elapsed since we had declared our love and consummated it. Mum had been right: it had mellowed, and would probably mellow more. At first it had been rather like focussing the sun’s rays on to one’s skin with a magnifying glass. A sharp intensity, a brilliance hard to look at, a heat so strong that it almost hurt. Over time, the magnifying glass moved. The incandescent spot lost its narrow focus and diffused into a wider glow. Overall, the heat and the light were no less. Maybe they were greater, maybe the sun was shining on us with greater power. But the spreading warmth and light were easier to manage than the searing pin-point, and more rewarding. As our love matured, too, we grew more patient. Life at school, though hardly easy, was less of an endurance test. The black horse and the white were pulling in relative harmony. We could put up with absence of physical contact more readily, and for longer. We did not abandon the buttery, but it was no longer quite as vital a haven as it once had been. We had found a balance, not only with each other but with ourselves.

Physically, too, we had grown, both up and out. Andrew’s rugger and cricket kept him supremely fit. I had continued with gym and, in season, swimming, and had also made a modest mark at fives. I was not good enough to make it into a team, but it is a game that demands some agility and a reasonable eye. So I was in fair trim. And we had kept busy in other ways. We still sang in the choir. We began to dabble in dramatics in the form of school plays. We had both done well at work. Andrew passed all his O-levels, I passed all my A-levels, with distinctions. Thus the summer term wound to a placid close, and we returned to Oxford and metaphorically put our feet up.


One afternoon towards the end of July I was reading alone on the sitting room sofa when the phone rang and Dad, who was in the study upstairs, answered it. A few minutes later he clattered down calling urgently for Mum. A few minutes more, and both came into the sitting room, along with Andrew who had been whiting his cricket boots and was still holding the brush. He and Mum sat down on either side with their arms around me, Dad squatted in front and put a hand on my knee.

“Leon, that was Angus MacIntyre,” he said, looking me in the eyes and making no attempt to sanitise his message, “with the news that both your parents are dead.”

He paused to see how I was taking it, but I was gazing emotionlessly back.

“He doesn’t know the full story yet, but the police have just been round to Selwyn. The day before yesterday your mother had a massive heart attack, at home, and when the ambulance came she was already dead. Your father told nobody else. And it seems that yesterday he killed himself. He left a note saying that life alone was unthinkable, and he would go like Socrates. The indications, apparently, are consistent with hemlock poisoning. Nobody knew until the cleaner found him first thing this morning.”

“Thanks, Dad,” was all I could say.

My mind was almost empty. At first, only one thought was in it — how typical, how absolutely typical, to go like Socrates. Then, to my astonishment, pity began to creep in. A strange emotion, pity for my father.

“I looked hemlock up in the encyclopaedia once,” I found myself muttering, helplessly and mechanically. “Conine is the extract, from the European umbellifer, not the American tree. It attacks the nervous system. It takes hours to kill. At least Mother went quickly … But, oh God, Father must have been lonely at the end. Heaven knows, I was lonely enough once. Before Andrew. But never as lonely as that.” And to my horror I burst into tears.

“I think it’s shock,” I heard Mum say. “Jack, would you get a mug of hot sweet tea?” She and Andrew held me as I was racked by sobs. That and the tea helped, and I slowly regained my equilibrium.

“Sorry,” I said, wiping my face and blowing my nose. “I never dreamt I’d be crying for my parents. Yes, Mum, it was partly shock. But partly horror at anyone, anyone, dying alone like that.”

“Oh, Leon, my dear. You’ve got all that your parents never had.”

The Goodharts guided me with practical solicitude through the confusion of the next ten days. Mum stayed at home, but Dad took me to Cambridge, where we talked endlessly with the police and with solicitors. Andrew insisted on coming too, to look after me as he put it; and, needless to say, I did not object. The bizarre nature of the suicide made the headlines, and the Times, the Telegraph and the Manchester Guardian all carried obituaries. Dad showed them to me over the breakfast table at our hotel. The first two, as usual anonymous but evidently written by Cambridge colleagues, spoke only of their scholarly achievements. That in the Guardian, after a very fair review of their work, concluded:

For all their wide knowledge and percipient insights, however, the Michaelsons were not noticeably tolerant of views that diverged from their own. By the same token, they were wary of signs of independence among those in their charge, which led to unhappy relationships. They will be remembered more for their unparalleled contribution to Greek scholarship than for their encouragement of the younger generation. They are survived by their son Leon, at present a scholar at Yarborough School.

Well, no hint here, I thought as I skimmed through it, of the usual de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Then I read it more carefully, and it dawned on me who had written it. I looked up at Dad’s inscrutable face, and divined that he did not want the subject raised. I simply put my hand on his, and lowered my eyes to hide the wetness in them.

There was one unexpected outcome, although it took months to emerge fully. Father must have spent his last night burning their papers. Lecture notes, research notes, drafts, correspondence had all gone up in flames, and the ashes were in the fireplace. He had spared only financial records, which made it relatively easy to sort out the estate. But there were no wills to be found. Their solicitor told us he had drawn up new ones last autumn, which presumably disinherited me, though he would not say so. But he did not hold the executed wills either. They must have been destroyed. My parents therefore died officially intestate, and I was the only possible heir. Whether Father had burnt the wills out of carelessness, or as an act of reconciliation to me, was an enigma I never solved.

The mills of the law ground slowly, but eventually declared me the sole beneficiary of an estate which, even after death duties, was respectable. It was put in trust for me, and from then on I could pay my own way at school and at home. We decided not to sell the house in Grange Road, against the day when I might go to university at Cambridge, as I was now free to do. So we had it redecorated and refurnished throughout, and when the encroaching trees and shrubs were cut back the transformation into a desirable residence was complete. We put it in the hands of agents to let on short-term leases to visiting academics.

But as July turned into August, all that lay in the future. Although I was not required to give evidence, we attended the inquest. The source of the hemlock remained a mystery. The verdict, suicide while the balance of the mind was disturbed, was kindly meant, but it made me smile wryly. The balance of Father’s mind, I knew very well, had long been precarious. Finally, once his body had been released, Mum joined us for the joint funeral. As I stood at the graveside between her and Andrew I had no tears, no pangs of grief; only pangs of pity.

But the theme of death was persistent that day. To my delight, among the throng of dons and others present, was Steve. When he had a word with me afterwards, he knew better than to commiserate.

“Ostensibly I’m here as a former student,” he said, “but in reality I’m here for you, on behalf of the school. The HM and Wally” — he actually called him Wally — “send their good wishes. We’re aware your life hasn’t been easy, we’re aware how you’ve overcome that handicap, and we want to show you our support.”

“Thank you, sir, that means a lot. It really does. You know, I’ve just drawn the line under the first sad page of my life. But the next page promises much better. If Helen and Jack hadn’t rescued me from my parents, I’d now be in foster care or a children’s home. If Andrew and Yarborough hadn’t rescued me from despair, I might be in there,” and I nodded at the still-open grave.

Steve raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, sir, I was on the brink. Once.”

“Good God. I’d no idea it had been that bad for you. Thank goodness you found the strength.”


That night, Andrew and I were in bed, worn out but glad to be back in Oxford at last.

“Leon, my love. You don’t have to answer this. But do you think your father would have killed himself if you’d still been living with him?”

I pondered. It hadn’t occurred to me. “No. Probably not. He’d still have had something to live for. No, not something — he always had his work. Someone to live for, in his own curious fashion. Once he’d lost me and Mother, he had no-one. That’s what haunts me still. His loneliness.”

Andrew’s hug tightened. “Don’t answer this either, if you don’t want. I don’t have the right to probe. But when you were so lonely, before we met, did you ever think of killing yourself?”

At last I could share the black burden of my memory. “Andrew, love, you have every right. Yes. I did. Just before going to Yarborough and meeting you. I was going to cut my wrists, like Seneca. I actually had the razor blade poised.”

I felt him shudder. “What stopped you?”

“I saw the possibility of hope. Father must have seen none.”

“But he’d known happiness before. You hadn’t.”

“Perhaps it’s harder to lose your happiness, than never to have been happy. I don’t know. When Mother died, I suppose Father simply saw the light go out, and knew it would never come back on. But however dark it was at the bottom of my pit, I did glimpse the hope, the off-chance hope, of finding a gleam of light.”

My throat tightened, and I clung to Andrew.

“My hope paid off, didn’t it?

I gave to Misery all I had, a tear.
I gained from Heaven (’twas all I wished) a friend.”

From our present viewpoint, the 1950s were a dark age in gay history. True, I am told that in some countries, or at least at some enlightened schools in some enlightened countries, gay relationships between pupils were viewed by fellow-pupils, staff and parents alike as nothing remarkable or reprehensible. But those countries did not include Britain.

British public schools were not, for the most part, renowned as centres of liberalism or radicalism. The picture of them in many people’s minds is no doubt coloured by the school in Lindsay Anderson’s If …, filmed a decade later. But that school was a deliberate caricature, miles removed from the reality which I knew. Even so, the school I went to, on which Yarborough is quite closely based, seems in retrospect to have been remarkably and untypically liberal for the time. While this tale is essentially fiction, then, its setting is grounded in fact.

‘Still,’ people will doubtless protest, ‘it’s inconceivable that any British public school in those days, confronted with issues like those in this story, would have dealt with them in the way described.’ I venture to differ. My classics master and chaplain, the original of Steve, was, like Steve, a maverick Christian humanist, years ahead of his time. I was at school when the Wolfenden Report came out. A copy was put in the library. It was explained from the pulpit by the headmaster who neither slanged it nor rejected it. The senior boys’ discussion society debated it, seriously if inexpertly, and approved. This society met under the benevolent eyes of two masters, one of whom was ‘Steve,’ to chew over such topics (to name a few that I remember) as capital punishment, prostitution and love. Just as on a civilised forum on the web today, anyone could speak his mind — so long as he was polite — without being jeered at or slapped down.

At my place, then, the culture was one of open-mindedness, both among the staff and, no doubt as a result, among the boys. Sexual activity, obviously, was forbidden; and, unless there were many well-concealed cases, it was very rare. Quite remarkably rare, judging by the experiences of others who were at comparable schools at the same sort of time. But although we did not practise physical homosexuality, we did talk about it, openly and by no means entirely frivolously; and there was no sign of what we now call homophobia.

Therefore, though I cannot of course be sure, I feel that Yarborough’s reaction to Leon and Andrew’s love is not inconceivable, not totally implausible. Almost equally surprising things did happen. ‘Steve,’ who was certainly no queer, did give a boy a copy of the Pervigilium Veneris. The headmaster did consult a fifteen-year-old about staff promotion in exactly the circumstances described. How do I know? In both cases I was the boy.