He that is down needs fear no fall,
He that is low, no pride:
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his guide.
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Andrew was replaced by the Battleaxe. She actually apologised for butting in, and asked what we would like for tea. Four-star hotel, this, with personal service from the manageress. Surely orders for tea were normally taken by a lowly nurse. But she did send Nick off for a bath.
While he was away, I mused.
‘You understand how much I hurt,’ he had told us. But did we really? Neither of us had ever been let down with a thump, not in this department. So were we capable of understanding? What would I feel if I were in Nick’s shoes? I had found my own love, against all expectation, when I was contemplating suicide. He had saved me then, and he remained at the core of my being. Would I kill myself if I lost him now? Perhaps not if it was by accident, if he died in a car crash, say. Mind you, my father had killed himself when my mother died, hadn’t he? But if Andrew threw me over for someone else, it would be infinitely worse. In that case, yes, I very probably would.
And what about him? What if I had perished in the kitchen? What if I threw him over? No, surely he wouldn’t kill himself, in either case. He was altogether a better-balanced specimen. He seemed to need me, though I could never fathom why; but surely he did not need me as much as I needed him. Or was that being egotistical and presumptuous? It was an academic question, anyway. The thought of being unfaithful had never once entered my head, and I was certain it had never entered Andrew’s. We were the happy owners of total trust.
But yet, but yet. If that total trust were betrayed, after four years, the devastation would be total. Whereas Nick had been in a state of what sounded like hopeful trust, semi-trust, for a matter of weeks. So was the pain of his betrayal correspondingly less? No. No, surely you couldn’t calculate it that way. That was being egotistical and presumptuous. The upshot, I decided, was that the level of Nick’s hurt was beyond my comprehension. I only knew that he hurt like hell.
He came back from his bath with a towel round his waist, clean and shiny except for the spots spattered over his face and torso.
“You’ve got spots all over, then?” I asked idly.
In answer he dropped his towel and displayed himself naked, unembarrassed and trusting. In the house, boys saw each other naked in the changing room and showers as a matter of course, and did not stare. But this was a private display, inviting inspection; his reply, perhaps, to the private view he had had of my nakedness. Yes, he did have spots all over. And, I saw, more pubic hair than I expected.
“Nick, surely your voice is going to break soon.”
He followed my eyes down and stirred the hair with his finger. “Yes,” he nodded ruefully. “It looks like it.”
“You don’t sound too happy about it.”
“Well. It’s time I grew up. But I’ll be sad about my voice … it’s not brilliant, but it’s not bad. Chances are it’ll be worse when it’s tenor or bass. But no point fretting. I can’t do much about it.”
“Well, make sure it lasts long enough for me to hear it again. There’s Creation coming up — that’d be feeble without you."
“I’ll make sure it lasts till the end of term, then. Just for you.”
He grinned at me. Not just a smile this time, but a proper grin at last. He put on the clean pyjamas the San had provided, and got into bed. And then our tea arrived. Better than at MacNair’s, by a long shot, unless the mobile kitchen had somehow raised standards. We ate hungrily, without speaking. But when the trays had been removed, we did talk. About Peter, to start with, trying to understand. Nick asked some difficult questions.
“You say he’s been having it off with the Brute since the end of the holidays. I wonder if the Brute was already chasing him last term. Was that why Peter didn’t want to go to Steve? Remember, when you first found out about us? And did he only say yes to the Brute at the beginning of this term because I was still saying no?”
“Could be. But I doubt we’ll ever know the answer.”
“But he still kept up with me. He still spent loads of time with me, even though I wouldn’t co-operate. Why didn’t he drop me?”
“Perhaps he was ashamed to drop you, even after he’d started up with the Brute. Like Sir Lancelot in the Idylls of the King — do you know that bit?
The shackles of an old love straitened him,
His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”
Nick asked me to repeat it, and worked it out. “That’s good. That’s very good. Yes, I see what you mean. And he didn’t really want to talk to Steve because he was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
“But it would have been so much easier to take if I’d known earlier. As it is, it’s left me, well … Leon, d’you remember the ode for St Cecilia? The Handel, not the Purcell. The way it starts,
In harmony, in heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began …
And the way it ends,
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high —
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.
That’s the way I feel. Starting in harmony, ending untuned. As if I’d suddenly become tone-deaf.”
That explained a lot. I found myself in the back row of the choir again, looking down the long length of Hall.
In this last number Bob had no part, but Nick had no less than thirty two bars of stark unaccompanied melody, mostly at the top of his range. I listened to it again in my mind. When it came to ‘The trumpet shall be heard on high,’ Nick’s treble started on D and climbed in steps through almost an octave and a half to top A, which he held for four bars as the last trump sounded. It had pierced my soul then, and now it pierced it again. The trumpets died away and the chorus leapt into a world in turmoil, modulating through the whole harmonic universe as it untuned the sky. My guts had churned then, and now they churned again.
Untune the sky. What an incredible phrase. I began to understand. That was what Nick felt like in his bewildered hurt. The ultimate in loss. A musician bereft of harmony. Untuned.
“You’ve been going through it in your head, haven’t you?” he said. I came back to earth with a start. “And it’s made you cry.” I had not been conscious of it, but it had. “It makes me cry too. Not when I’m singing it. I can’t. But when I hear it. I don’t see why one shouldn’t cry when one’s moved … What moves you, Leon?”
I looked across at him, this slip of a lad, this younger Andrew, who spoke the same language as me. If I had not had my own Andrew I could very easily have fallen for him. And he had a knack of asking questions that had no straightforward answers.
“What moves me? Oh Lord.” I dredged the depths of my soul. “Whatever strikes a chord. The right words. The right music. Specially the two together. Sometimes a sight, a view. People being kind. People going out of their way to reassure me when I’m in doubt. To help me when I’m in trouble. People just being good.” Mum and Dad, for example. Steve. They moved me, sometimes to tears. “And the depths of love, of course. If I had faith in God, no doubt that would move me too. But I don’t. Do you?”
“But I do have a god. A saviour. A master. A lord. Not one that I serve like a servant. But one that I love and revere and trust. Who protects me, comforts me, motivates me. Who moves me.”
“Andrew.” Again it was a statement, not a question. There was a pause. He was evidently thinking back to our first meeting. “You’re still scared, Leon, aren’t you?”
“Yes. But less than I was. Are you?”
“Yes. But less than I was. Though I’m more scared than ever about finding someone to love — someone better to love — without getting it wrong again. How do you do it, Leon? I mean, I know the Symposium talks about it. How we were originally two halves of a whole, rather like Siamese twins. And then we were split apart. So that we have to search for our other half, and if we find it we become whole again. In love and peace. I like that. But last time round I hadn’t found what I thought I’d found. How do you know when you’ve found the right one?”
This was exactly the question that Andrew had asked me all those years ago, out on the Gresford road, and I remembered my answer almost word for word.
“I think that if you spot a likely candidate you need to get to know him. The better you know him, the closer you get. It’s rather like doing a jigsaw puzzle. You build it up in two halves, one for you, one for the other person as you get to know him. And if in the end the two halves fit together, if the picture’s continuous, if all the pieces interlock, then it must be right. You’ll know it’s right.”
“Mmmm. Yes. I see. But what happens between the splitting and the finding? The Symposium doesn’t say anything about how you search.”
“No, it doesn’t. And I can’t give detailed instructions. I doubt if anyone can. But I like to think we’re pilgrims. Ever read Pilgrim’s Progress?”
“Not everyone’s cup of tea. But we are pilgrims. Not like Bunyan’s pilgrims, of course, who were seventeenth-century Christians. We may respect the goal they were after, but it’s not the same as ours. Our goal is love. Human love. Often, like you, we can’t put a face to it, or a name. Not yet. Sometimes we can, like me once I’d got to Yarborough and met Andrew.
“But the point is, the pilgrim’s progress is likely to be long. Mine was, even after my goal was in sight, though I didn’t need anything but patience to reach it. But more often it’s rough as well. All kinds of opponents to fight along the way. Mr Love-lust. Mrs Inconsiderate. Giant Despair. All kinds of tricky places to get through. The Valley of Humiliation, the Slough of Dispond, Doubting Castle. Plenty of pilgrims never make it to their goal. But some do. Like Mr Stand-fast. Mr Honest. Mr Valiant-for-Truth. Well, the names say it all, don’t they?
“You’ve taken a tumble, Nick, in the City of Deception. But don’t be put off. Pick yourself up and keep going. Be Mr Valiant-for-Truth, and you’ll make it to your goal. Which is your other half. He’s on his own pilgrimage too, and his goal is you, though he may not know it. Find each other, and you’ve both found your goals.”
As if looking for his distant goal, Nick was gazing into infinity. There was another long silence, broken by the arrival of the nurse to pack us up for the night. She dosed me again and unplugged my drip, but left me to do the rest. I needed a rear, and as I sat enthroned I inspected my cock. It had stopped weeping and was coated in a film of dried plasma. Good. I would leave that to protect the skin as it healed underneath. I swabbed only the very tip. Back to bed.
Nick came in from a pump and stood looking down at me. “Sleep well, Nick,” I said to him. “Without interruptions this time. And wake up with less pain.”
“And the same to you. Exactly the same. It’s been quite a day, hasn’t it? If it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t be here. And if it hadn’t been for you my pain would be much worse than it is. Thank you, Leon.” He bent down and kissed my forehead. “Night!”
It had indeed been quite a day and, despite my naps earlier on, I was more than ready to clock off. I was conscious of the burns, but they would not keep me awake.
They did not keep me awake, but they did wake me up. When one is asleep, things happen over which one has no control. In my dreams, I was already suspended in an oven at Gas Mark 10 when, for good measure, someone started playing a blow-lamp over my cock. It was on fire with screaming pain. Desperately I tried to protect it with my hand and woke up to find it hard as a rock. Maybe I screamed too, maybe I just groaned.
Either way, the light went on and Nick was by my bed. “Leon, what is it?”
I could not speak. Frantic, I pushed down the sheet and lifted my nightie. Some cocks, like Andrew’s, are naturally big and do not enlarge much when erect. Some, like mine, are quite small but expand mightily. It does not normally matter that in the process the skin stretches in all directions. But now the film of dried plasma had cracked into plates like a mudflat in a drought, and in between were rivers of weeping angry red.
“Oh God!” cried Nick, aghast. “You must get it down. I know! Cold water!”
He almost dragged me to the wash-basin. I stood tight against it, clenching my teeth, trying to hold my nightie out of the way, while he squeezed cold water from my sponge. Quite a bit ended on the floor, but things quickly deflated and the pain receded.
“Strewth!” I stood there dripping and gasping. Unconsciously echoing Bob a year ago, he took the towel and wiped sweat off my forehead. “Thank you, Nick. That was murder.”
It was also the first time anyone but Andrew had seen me with a hard-on. With anyone else I would have been embarrassed to death. But with Nick, once again, what did it matter now? The barriers were tumbling, and we understood one another.
“Does the rest hurt?”
“Yes. But not as bad as that did.” The lesser pain had come back, I realised, but had been over-ridden by the greater.
“You need another dose of painkiller. The last one must be wearing off.” It was three o’clock. “Perhaps we should have got the nurse in straight away.”
Hmmm. I might have explained that particular problem to the Battleaxe, now that I knew her, but not to a middle-aged nurse I did not.
“Go back to bed and I’ll ring the bell.” I told the nurse the pain had returned, she recharged me, and if I had another erection it did not wake me up.
At eight we were roused for breakfast and, for me, another shot of morphine. The nurse said she would leave it to the doctor to decide if I was to have more saline, but begged me to drink at least three cups of coffee. Nick seemed happier. But even though I had slept, apart from the interruption, for over ten hours, I was feeling on the dodgy side. When I got up to wash and do my teeth, I inspected my face in the mirror. What a sight. It looked leaner than usual, dark under the eyes, and badly in need of a shave. I had had no chance yesterday, and Spud would have had a fit. I rectified that and, my soul in terminal revolt at the nightie, I changed into the pyjamas Andrew had brought.
We were not expecting any visitors until Mum and Dad arrived, but not long after nine Steve rolled up with some grapes and some books. He enquired tenderly how we were. “Like the Reverend Eli Jenkins,” he said, “it’s my duty to visit the sick with jelly and poems. And without you to teach, Leon, I’m half out of a job. And Andrew told me my services were required.” That was my cue to make myself scarce.
“If you’ll excuse me, sir, I’ve got to see Matron.”
I did not have to see her, but I wanted to. I wandered off and found her in her office, and when I reported that healing was already under way, she understood. I asked her to keep everyone out except Bob and my house pollies, at least for today. And, of course, Mum and Dad. While we were talking, the doctor arrived to do his rounds. There were two school doctors. One, off-hand and sarcastic, I did not like, nor did anyone else. This one was the complete opposite.
He laid me out on a couch, listened to my chest, and asked questions. Feeling a bit dodgy, eh? Probably still a touch of shock. Not surprising after an experience like that. And burns drain off a lot of fluid, which needs replacing. Bed for the rest of the day, and more saline. He removed my dressings, swabbed away the remains of yesterday’s gunge, gently tweezered off some dead skin, and re-anointed and re-bandaged me.
Then he looked further ahead. To keep the skin stretched, he said, and prevent it contracting as it healed, I must exercise it. After today, he decreed more and more time out of bed, with plenty of walking and knee-bending. He didn’t want to get me hooked on morphine, and tonight he would move me on to codeine. By then the worst of the pain should be gone. In a week the lighter burns should be healed over, though still tender. At that point he might send me back to the house, though I would have to see him every day for dressing the deeper burns. Those might take a fortnight to heal, and thereafter I would have to wear elastic stockings to minimise scarring.
I had no hesitation over explaining last night’s problem to him. Anything to avoid that again. He nodded sympathetically. Right, he said, not unexpected. He investigated my cock. The underside was not too badly affected. Luckily, because that was the most sensitive part. The outer side was worse, but he would rather not keep me on morphine just for that. Here too, stretching the skin was to be encouraged.
So the first line of defence was to keep the skin supple, and he gave me a moisturising cream. But he would also get me some amyl nitrate to inhale if erections still proved painful. That would bring things down, although the effect did not last long. After a few days, in any event, the level of pain should be low enough for codeine to control and I could have erections to my heart’s content. What a doctor, human and humane.
Back in our room, where the nurse hitched me up to a new drip, that other doctor, human and humane, was still healing Nick’s soul. But they seemed to have finished their immediate business and were laughing. As he left he promised that he would look in at two o’clock tomorrow and that from Monday, since the mountain could not get to Mohammed in the classroom, Mohammed would come and teach the mountain in the San.
I dozed for an hour or so until, full of love and concern, Mum and Dad arrived. They had come via the house where they had talked to Wally. He had shown them the shell of the kitchen and pointed out what had happened where. Like Andrew, they were appalled at what might have been. Like him, they hugged me hard and long. What they said, I cannot bring myself to repeat.
And they were brilliant with Nick and, when he appeared soon after half past twelve, with Bob. They were adepts at getting the shyest people out of their shells, and both boys talked. Mostly about me, I’m afraid. That I’d transformed the house and the school, that I’d saved them from tyranny in the one case and from death in the other, that they didn’t know how they could repay me. All generous, all quite unjustified.
Mum and Dad were in the middle of the annual drudgery of marking exam papers and could not stay long. They hugged me again and echoed Andrew, “Who said he wasn’t a leader? We’re so proud of you.”
After lunch the expected invasion of pollies arrived. “It’s OK,” they said, “we’re trying to take the load off Andrew. He’s got too much on his plate anyway. But the sooner you come back to us, the better.” They were full of beans, demanded a first-hand account of what had happened, and if I had been in plaster they would have written rude comments on the casts. But there were only four of them, and I asked where Hez was.
“Oh, now that he’s effectively house captain,” Colin replied, “he’s taking it very seriously. He wouldn’t leave the house without any pollies in, but he said he’d come to see you this evening.”
He did, by himself. We chatted of this and that, but he was as sober as the others had been ebullient, and he was especially considerate of Nick.
“You probably won’t have heard,” he said to him. “But when Leon and I were flinging water at the kitchen door, he generously praised me for working so hard. All I said was that I had a thing about fire. At that stage I didn’t know how he’d rescued you.
“But now that I do know, perhaps I ought to tell you both why I have a thing about fire. When I was thirteen, not long before I came to Yarborough, the Mau Mau burned down our house. My mother and my sister were inside it. My father was away at the time and I was with neighbours. They wouldn’t let me interfere. All I could do was watch it burn. Not that I could have done anything, not without the Mau Mau getting me too. But I still feel guilty about it. It still haunts me. So I have a fellow-feeling for you both.”
Oh, dear God! I reached out my right hand to him, my left being encumbered by the drip, and he sat on my bed for a one-armed hug. He got another from Nick, and while we were still fumbling for words he slipped away. Nick sobbed for a while, and it was an hour before we said a thing, for there was nothing useful to say. Eventually Nick broke the silence.
“Hez thinks the world of you. Did you know? And quite right too. Because you’re generous, brave and wise.” Not quite Nick’s usual way of talking: perhaps a quotation, though it rang no bell with me. “Oh! That’s given me an idea.” But he would not say what.
In visitor-free intervals during the day I had been anointing my cock with cream. I operated under cover of the sheet, but it seemed only fair to tell Nick what I was up to. So far it had been quiescent, apart from when the morphine ran low, but that night, having been weaned on to codeine, I went to sleep in some trepidation. The amyl nitrate had arrived in the afternoon by special delivery from Binchester, and I pinned my hopes on it. I had explained to Nick what it was for. That seemed only fair, too.
As I was dropping off, I heard rhythmic movements from Nick’s bed. He was being very discreet about it, but it was unmistakable, and I reacted. The pain was nothing like as bad as last night, but it was not pleasant. I reached for an ampoule from the bedside table, broke it between my fingers and sniffed as the doctor had told me. The effect was almost immediate. So was Nick’s response. He had heard me, and put two and two together.
“Leon, have you … ? Has it worked?”
“Yes. Straight away.”
“Good. But it must have been me who, um, set you off. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
“And I’m sorry to interrupt your, er, fun. Perhaps you’d better have a sniff too. Save you tempting me again.”
He put the light on and hopped out of bed, his pyjama trousers very obviously tented. He sniffed at the liquid evaporating from my fingers, and the tent went down.
“Gosh! That was quick!” He got back into bed. “But … what did you mean, tempting you?” He sounded nervous.
“Why …” I hesitated over how to phrase it, but decided I could only use earthy language. “Tempting me into a hard-on by shagging within earshot.” Shagging, in school parlance, meant not only with someone else, but also — much more often — by oneself.
“Oh, I see.” He seemed relieved. “Yes, so long as it hurts you so much. Until you can shag again.”
This was another unbelievable conversation, but it was another step in our trust, another link in our bond. Not a sexual bond, more a brotherly one. But there was a misunderstanding which our bond allowed, even required, me to clear up.
“Nick, I don’t shag. Andrew and I have sex in the holidays, of course we do. But at school we can’t, and it seems to me that any sort of sex without him adds up to unfaithfulness. I know it sounds odd. But, you see, we’ve given ourselves to each other, every bit of us. My cock is … well, it’s at his disposal now, so to speak, not mine. That’s what he meant yesterday, d’you remember, when he said there were two months before he’d call on it. So I don’t shag. I love him too much.”
Nick was listening intently, his eyes wide. And there was more to be explained.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t get hard-ons. I do, just like everyone else. I get them in the middle of the night for no obvious reason. Just looking at Andrew can give me one. And … Nick, I’m going to be absolutely honest. You’re attractive, you’re rather like Andrew was at your age, and looking at you, even thinking of you, can give me one. Knowing that you were shagging just now gave me one. But I don’t jerk off and fantasise about you, any more than I try to bed you. Because either way I’d be unfaithful to Andrew. Does that make any sense?”
“Yes. It does. And it makes me feel very small.”
“Because … well, because I was fantasising about you. Because I love you, in a sort of way, and you’re in the same room. So when you talked about me tempting you, I was afraid you thought I was trying to, um, lure you into my bed. But I wasn’t. I’d never get between you and Andrew. Honestly I wouldn’t.”
“I didn’t think that for a moment. Look, Nick. There’s no reason to feel small. I haven’t got a halo because I don’t shag. There aren’t any rules. Shag if you want to, don’t if you don’t. Fantasise about who you like. I’ve no idea why you fantasise about a gargoyle like me, but it’s your own business and nobody else’s.”
There was a long silence. Nick was clearly thinking hard. “I wonder, though,” he said at last, “if it’s a sign that you’re really in love. I mean, when I meet my — whoever — will I find I want to do everything with him and nothing by myself? Like you do? You know, while I was still with Peter I didn’t think about him when I shagged. Perhaps that means I wasn’t really in love with him. In fact I thought about … somebody else.”
He looked very young in the subdued light from the bedside lamp. He was sitting with his arms round his drawn-up knees, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at nothing, obviously contemplating his somebody else. Who? Andrew? But it was not my business to speculate. I did not want to interrupt him, and before long I fell asleep. Twice more I was woken by erections, but an ampoule apiece took care of them.
Next morning saw a new stage in our progress. Over breakfast, Nick was scratching his spots and I upbraided him. “Oy. Don’t do that. It’ll leave pock marks.”
“Then you stop scratching too.”
I hadn’t realised I was. But yes, the lighter burns were already beginning to heal around the edges, and to itch. Calamine for Nick, moisturising cream for me, and constant but friendly yapping at each other when we forgot and scratched. It was a lovely day and, ordered by the Battleaxe to get up and spend the day in gentle exercise, we wandered in dressing gowns into the garden. In a previous incarnation the San had been a substantial Victorian villa, and its large garden was dotted with trees, shrubbery, secluded benches and classical statuary. A pleasant place.
We were sitting beneath the Venus de Milo when, released from chapel, the pollies swarmed in again. Five this time, including Hez. Andrew was holding the fort, they said, and would come in the afternoon. So would Bob. But while they were making ribald remarks about Venus’s charms, I got Hez on one side.
“Hez. What you were saying yesterday. That it haunts you. Of course it does. But you don’t have to feel guilty.”
“If you’d failed to rescue Nick the other day, wouldn’t you feel guilty? Even though it wasn’t your fault?”
“Yes, I would. I’m sure I would. And you know what I’d do about it? I’d talk to someone wise. Have you?”
“Yes. To Baba. My father.”
“When? Five years ago, when it happened?”
“But it still preys on your mind. Hez, if I were in your shoes, here and now, I’d talk to Steve.”
He gazed at me with his brown eyes. “You love that man, don’t you?”
“Yes. In a manner of speaking, I do. I love him and I listen to him.”
“He must be worth loving and listening to, Leon, if you do. Very well. I will.”
“He’ll be here about two o’clock, Hez. Come back then. Plenty of places to talk privately.” I waved round the garden. “But Hez. May I tell Andrew? What you told us?” He looked at me again, and nodded.
Two o’clock found Nick and me waiting outside the front door. The Battleaxe was with us. Bob was the first to appear up the drive. Nick went down to meet him and off they walked together, talking quietly.
“I think your instinct was right, Leon,” the Battleaxe observed. “There’s another doctor there, healing busily.”
“Yes. He understands. And I’m beginning to think that he already guessed.” I was also beginning to do some guessing of my own, though that was not for the Battleaxe’s ears.
A few minutes later Steve arrived. “May I pass another buck on to you, sir?” I asked him. “A totally different one, but just as important. Hez Ataya needs your help. He’ll tell you about it. Ah, here he is.” They too went off together.
“More healing,” the Battleaxe remarked, but did not probe. Hez was not her patient.
Then Andrew came, and I led him across the lawn. Bob and Nick were occupying the nearest bench beside the Apollo Belvedere, who was now wearing Bob’s jacket, and we went on to the bench by the Venus de Milo. Andrew clapped his white hat on her head and draped his Sunday tail-coat over her shoulders. She looked totally obscene, her boobs peeping coyly out from under the lapels.
There was much to tell him. About Hez’s revelation. About Nick and Bob and my guessing. About Mum and Dad’s visit. About the Battleaxe. About my burns. About my hard-ons. He was in turn appalled, interested and concerned.
“Yes, this is a house of healing,” he said thoughtfully, looking up at the San and round the garden. Nick and Bob were not far off, Hez and Steve were just visible in the furthest corner. And, what was more, there was the HM coming towards us.
“Do not get up,” he called. We made room for him on the bench. “And pardon the interruption to your peace. I have two reasons for dropping in. The first is to enquire about your progress.” I reassured him.
“The other is that I feel you should know the outcome of the sad saga of Mr Armstrong and young Stowe. In the case of, ah, impropriety between boys I inform nobody outside the school, except of course the parents concerned. But impropriety between masters and boys is a different matter altogether, and in this case I felt obliged to inform the police. They tell me that they will not prosecute. The offenders would only deny that any impropriety took place and, because they were not caught in flagrante delicto, there is no direct evidence that it did. I have to concur. So that unhappy chapter is closed.”
Not for Nick, though, not yet. But the HM did not know about that. He stood up and studied Venus with a smile on his face.
“She reminds me, ah, of a lady in a kinky strip-show. Good afternoon.”
What on earth did he know about kinky strip-shows? Ever full of surprises, the HM.
Half an hour later we heard footsteps, and there was Hez. Andrew sprang up and gave him a long hug. Neither of them needed to speak. All Hez said to me was, “Thank you, Leon. You are wise. So is Steve.” Dignified and unfussed as always, he walked away.
After a while Nick came over, wanting to borrow Andrew for a minute. “Without you, Leon, if you don’t mind. We’ve something to ask him.” Mysterious, but connected with that idea he had had yesterday evening?
Next day Steve spent a morning of Latin verse with me. In the afternoon Nick was declared contagion-free and returned to the house. I was left alone, visitors and lessons apart, to exercise my legs, and read, and think, and wind down. Andrew was in the thick of his exams and for a week I saw little of him, but house pollies and now school pollies came in droves. The burns behaved well, except for a feeling of tautened skin and of sometimes furious itching, and after a few days the amyl nitrate was needed no more. On the evening of the ninth day after the fire I was discharged, with instructions to attend the doctor’s surgery daily for perhaps a week and, when the remaining burns were fully healed, to wear the elastic stockings I was given.
I bade a fond farewell to the Battleaxe, and Wally drove me home in state. From the outside, the front of the house looked entirely normal except for the unsightly mobile kitchen parked against the end of hall. Andrew and Hez were waiting for us, and mock-ceremoniously bent their knee to return my ring of keys to me.
“The stewards of MacNair’s beg leave to surrender their office.”
Wally laughed. “Prayers in a few minutes.”
We dumped my bag in my study and went straight to hall. The other pollies were already there, with Bob at the piano. We usually chose the hymn together, but tonight there was one I particularly wanted. I found it in the index.
“Special request, please, for Nick. Number 402. Bob, tune Monks Gate. OK?”
The bell rang and the boys began to came in. I stood back and looked around, happy to be in the grip of routine again. Hall too seemed entirely normal, except for a residual whiff of burning. The boys seemed entirely normal, except that they were inexplicably grinning at me. When they were all in place I knocked on the dividing door to the private side and Wally came in. “Hymn number 402,” he read from the slip I gave him.
I kept my eye on Nick at the far end. Bob had only played four notes of the introduction when Nick’s head shot up. He stared at me wide-eyed, and I looked back at him, as the house lifted up its voice in Bunyan’s great hymn.
He who would valiant be
’Gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy
Follow the master.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.
Nick was not singing. His head was down now, and he seemed to be trying not to cry.
… No foes shall stay his might,
Though he with giants fight:
He will make good his right
To be a pilgrim.
Nick’s head was up again, and his face was determined. He joined in the last verse.
… Then fancies flee away!
I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.
Everyone knelt for the prayers. Then, as usual, everyone stood up, and as usual I opened the door for Wally. But instead of going out, he sat down. Unheard of. Everyone else sat down. I gawped. Were they expecting me to make a speech? No. Andrew took my arm and sat me down too. And Bob stood up.
“Leon,” he said. “We all want to welcome you home. And it seemed a good opportunity to say thank you as well. For everything you’ve done for the house, for the school, for all of us. We mean it. But we know this sort of thing embarrasses you, so I won’t say any more.”
I was frozen in astonishment. But Bob had not actually finished.
“Except that we have a musical tribute for you. Please accept it in the spirit it’s offered. If you don’t know it, in the first aria Virtue is rejecting Pleasure. In the second she is addressing … well, you!”
He sat down at the piano and started playing. Handel, surely. It must be Handel. Then Nick stood up and joined in.
This manly youth’s exalted mind,
Above thy grovelling taste refined,
Shall listen to my awful voice.
His childhood, in its earliest rise,
Bespoke him generous, brave and wise,
And manhood shall confirm his choice.
‘This manly youth’ gave me the clue. I had heard it on the Third Programme. The Choice of Hercules. They were equating me with Hercules, were they? This manly youth’s eyes filled with tears.
Go, assert thy heavenly race,
Every danger boldly face;
Level pride’s high-plumed crest,
And bravely succour the distressed.
In peace, in war, pursue thy country’s good,
Bare thy bold breast for her,
And pour thy generous blood.
Then the whole house joined in. One could hardly expect the highest-quality singing, but they had obviously practised. I picked out Andrew’s tenor beside me, Hez’s bass nearby, Wally’s distinctive croak, Nick leading the unbroken voices. This manly youth’s head was now in his hands.
The golden trump of fame
Its loudest notes shall raise,
And ’mid the gods enroll thy name.
So shalt thou gain immortal praise.
It was finished. “Thank you, Leon,” said Bob again, “and welcome home!”
Everyone stood up and clapped. Did they expect a speech now? I couldn’t. Not in this state. In blind panic I turned my head towards Andrew, tears blurring my sight.
“Don’t worry,” he said into my ear. “Nothing to be ashamed of. I told them you’d be in floods. No speeches. But everyone wants to shake your hand. Just wipe your eyes so you can see who’s who.”
So I wiped my eyes and stood up, and the applause died away. I found I did have to say something, after all. I did have something to say.
“Manly youths aren’t supposed to cry,” I managed in a thick voice. “But this one does. I won’t apologise for it, though. Because it shows how much you’ve moved me, welcoming me home like this. I can only thank you. But I don’t deserve to be thanked. If life’s better now, thank Yarborough. Thank yourselves. Not me.”
But they did. Wally shook my hand with a quiet “Thank you, Leon,” and slipped out. Then everyone else filed past, shook my hand, and said “Thank you, Leon.” Soon only three were left. Andrew gave me a big hug. “Talk to you in a moment,” he said, and stood back.
Nick and Bob were standing in front of me. Though still dazed, by now I had a better grip of myself. “This was all your doing, wasn’t it?” I asked. They nodded solemnly. “Well, you can see the effect it’s had on me.” I wiped my face again. “I’ll never forget this evening. ‘Thank you’ is a totally inadequate thing to say.”
“And ‘thank you’ is a totally inadequate thing for us to say,” Bob replied, “after everything you’ve done for us. All the way through from my first term.”
“You’re still in denial, aren’t you, ocelle?” Andrew observed when we were alone.
Next day was Sunday. Andrew’s exams were over now, and in the afternoon we strolled gently out along the Gresford road beyond the San until we reached open country. It was here that, four years ago, we had first talked about the Symposium and our love had begun to fall into shape. We found Bob and Nick sitting on the same grassy bank where we had sat then. As we approached, they scrambled to their feet.
“Leon,” said Bob in what seemed like shy contentment, “you remember last night you wanted the pilgrim hymn specially for Nick? Well, this morning I asked him why. He told me what you’d said about pilgrims and their goals. And I told him that he’d been my goal ever since he first got here.”
“And when I, um, went off course,” Nick took up the tale, “Bob didn’t give up. He was Mr Stand-fast.” He looked up and down the road to make sure there was nobody there, and held Bob’s hand. “And this morning I found that I could put a face and a name to my goal, too. And that the jigsaw fitted. I’d already begun to realise it. It was easy, after all. We’re going to see Steve tomorrow. Really, this time.”
My guessing had been right, then. There was only one thing to do. We gathered them into a four-way hug. Until someone’s knee found a tender spot on mine and I jumped back with a yelp.
The upshot of their visit to Steve was that he gave them not only his blessing but a key to the bolt-hole. First come first served, for the rest of term.
“Thank you, Leon, again,” they said when they reported this. “If it hadn’t been for you we’d never have got this far.”
“We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Thank Steve. Thank Yarborough, Thank yourselves. Don’t thank me.”
“You never do yourself justice, Leon, do you?”