Part 1 - Besieged Fortress by A.J. Hall
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again
The opening line of the film had stuck in Ralph’s mind. When he’d heard it, it had dragged him back to the first and last time he’d sailed into Rangoon and his glorious few days’ leave exploring up-country, even though (despite not having read the book) he knew that wasn’t really the point.
Since then, the Japanese had torn their way down the peninsula and been forced all the way back, step by step, by the dedicated weight of Chindits and Ghurkas and tough men from obscure little regiments from the odd rough parts of Britain. Ralph had gloried in their triumph but never wanted to see what wounds they’d inflicted on magical Burma in the process. He kept his Mandalay safe inside his head, where no enemy could reach it.
Which, perhaps, had more relevance to the film than the simple coincidence in sound between two names, after all.
He hadn’t expected to enjoy it, and certainly not expected it to be Laurie’s cup of tea, but they’d had to go somewhere. Yesterday morning Laurie had received a typewritten letter from England, postmarked London and almost certainly from his publisher. When Ralph returned from the shipping office (as ever, too many officers for too few berths, but the chance of a first officer’s post on a big transatlantic mixed cargo carrier was in the offing; the owner’s agent had been quietly encouraging and it was only a week or so away; the current first officer would clearly be discharged as soon as the boat touched land, and Gib was as close as anywhere, and the few days’ grace was convenient, too, for Ralph’s own plans) the door to Laurie’s study had been firmly shut. Though Ralph had waited quietly in the living room, reading and jotting down notes in his hard-back note-book, he heard no sound from the typewriter during the whole of the two hours it took before Laurie finally emerged.
Through the open study door Ralph could see there was an overflowing ashtray next to the idle Imperial machine, though Laurie was a light smoker usually. The waste-paper basket was stuffed to the brim with the crumpled discards of aborted beginnings. Laurie’s eyes were bistred around the orbits, and the stale cigarette smoke which hung about his hair and clothes was bitter like the taste of defeat. He looked across at Ralph as though daring him to say anything, but Ralph had already concluded by then that there was nothing he could reasonably say. There was something he could do, though, and he did it. Laurie turned, relaxing into the curve of his arm, warm against his chest, acknowledging without words his support as they made their way upstairs, where he did whatever skill and generosity suggested to assuage the corrosive pain of a long defeat.
Much later, as dusk was falling over the Rock and, through the strip of the skylight the first stars were beginning to appear, Ralph had propped himself up on his elbow, and said, “What you need is an evening out. Take your mind off things. If we hurry, we could get the last house at the flicks.”
And, sleepily acquiescent (conscious, perhaps, of the need to get out of a house where the Imperial machine constantly expressed its own silent criticism?) Laurie had agreed; no matter what might be on offer at the antiquated and draughty little flea-pit down by the docks.
Predictably, the film had broken down shortly before the second reel; he and Laurie (old hands by the standards of the transient Gibraltarian population) had first been among the group who had shouted advice to the hapless projectionist, and had then been the ones who piled in to assist physically with the repairs. Laurie, as it happened, had remembered the precise tweak to the antiquated and Bolshie equipment which set it right; the whole house (packed as they ever were; entertainment was scanty at this furthermost outpost of Europe) had erupted in cheers for his skill, and he had turned, caught for a moment in the projector’s beam, and given the house a cheeky, gallant, sweeping player’s bow: Ralph had caught his breath remembering (not that he had ever really forgotten!) a Laertes seen from the third row years ago.
And, after the final credits, the owner of the flea-pit, on the excuse of its being his birthday, had swept Ralph, Laurie, a handful of other regulars and the staff up and off for drinks at a bar down on the water-front, owned by Nikos, a Greek who’d been pushed out of Smyrna by the Turks in the ’20s, and whom the fortunes of war had driven ever westward, so that only the Pillars of Hercules stood between him and what his remote, archaic ancestors had known as Ultima Thule. Ralph and the projectionist (who doubled as a tunny fisherman, and sometime smuggler) had got into an amused, technical argument in a mixture of English, Spanish and llanito about the last reel, and the practical difficulties entailed in scuttling a boat, leaving a corpse aboard, and then getting ashore in a storm, with Laurie throwing ever more farcical suggestions into the mix.
Very much later, when Laurie - the laughter gloriously back in his face, informing the crinkles around his mouth and the light in his eyes - and Ralph had walked, a trifle unsteadily, back round the sweep of the harbour and up the hill towards their own house, he had congratulated himself; as someone who comes into a strange harbour beset by rocks (he remembered Saint Malo, that first time) might congratulate himself of having averted the perils the day afforded, and acquitted himself with credit.
While they were breakfasting next morning, a messenger arrived with a note addressed to Laurie. Having read it, Laurie wrinkled his forehead ruefully and passed it across to Ralph without comment.
Ralph took a sip of chicory-laden coffee - the proceeds of mutually profitable barter with the master of a tramp steamer registered out of Marseilles - and raised his eyebrows. “Edward Longenhurst? Cocktails this evening at the Rock Hotel? Who is this bloke?”
Laurie sighed. “He’s my publisher’s nephew. My publisher did actually ask if I’d look after him if he got to Gib, but I was rather hoping he’d forgotten. But in the circs -”
He spread a hand in a defeated-looking gesture which Ralph had no problem decoding. It encompassed missed deadlines, spent advances, and Laurie’s self-evident fear that his publisher had come to share his own doubts about whether Laurie could move beyond being the author of a critically and commercially acclaimed debut novel. After all, three intervening years of newer, sharper publishing sensations must have pushed him aside in the public mind.
“Well,” Ralph said, “however much of a stumer the chap turns out to be, I daresay we can both survive a few hours of it. What brings him to Gib?”
Laurie’s voice sounded absolutely toneless. “He’s on his way to Tangier. He plans - ah - to immerse himself completely in the culture of the country.”
Their eyes met in perfect understanding.
“Well,” Ralph said crisply, “in that case let’s hope for his own sake he doesn’t have an allergy to penicillin.”
That subject disposed of, he turned his attention to considering the dying throes of the English county cricket season, in a week-old Times he had picked up at the shipping office.
Longenhurst (his opening line had been “Do call me Teddy, dear boys,” but Ralph had absolutely no intention of taking him up on the invitation, and had successfully avoided calling him anything for the whole of the evening so far) was in essence nothing more or less than experience had taught him to expect, but unimaginably dreadful when one came down to details.
In fact, a few hours into his acquaintance Ralph felt, in the words of Noel Coward, as if slimy things were crawling all over him.
He had not been in his presence more than a few minutes before realising that Longenhurst was one of those people who always made him acutely conscious of his maimed hand. Spud, too, was clearly on edge: there were little tense lines about his mouth and once, when Longenhurst had turned his gaze full on him, making as though he put his whole soul in the look, Ralph had seen his fingers tighten round the stem of his glass so convulsively he had feared it might snap.
And Longenhurst’s attitude to Spud was without doubt the most objectionable thing about him: part hero-worshipping, part proprietorial, like a pilgrim ostentatiously performing his devotions in the shrine to a god he had invented himself.
They went from cocktails to a meal in a small restaurant overlooking the harbour whose philosophy was to catch it in the morning; land it in the afternoon; grill it in the evening. After that they moved on to Nikos’ for more drinks.
Longenhurst, taking advantage of a brief absence on Laurie’s part, leant confidentially over to Ralph.
“I’m sure someone in your line of work would know all about the ‘local colour’. So tell me, dear boy, where does one go if one wishes to make the end of the evening truly memorable, eh?”
Punching the bastard’s fat face being off-limits, Ralph toyed briefly with the notion of directing him towards Alfonso’s, a dive notorious even by the standards of Castle Steps.
Regretfully he abandoned the idea. It would hardly help Spud’s relations with his publisher if his nephew fetched up robbed and rolled on his recommendation. Fighting back his revulsion at the assumptions about their relationship that must have driven Longenhurst to direct the question to him rather than to Laurie, Ralph fell back on the matelot’s time-honoured resource of assumed stupidity.
“There’s a night-club called Jackson’s the Americans use a lot when they’re in town. The jazz-band’s particularly good, they tell me. And the cabaret girls are said to be very pretty. Not that night-clubs are much in my line, sorry.”
And he smiled blandly back into Longenhurst’s face, black murder in his heart, just as Laurie returned to the table.
Thereafter Longenhurst had directed his conversation pointedly towards Laurie, and confined its topic to a stream of bitchery about literary London, and its inhabitants, fulsomely comparing the giants of the literary world unfavourably to Laurie, in the face of which Spud became visibly more unhappy. In order to break up a long exposition, laced with amateur psychoanalysis and hints of intimate inner knowledge (getting broader as the wine circulated) about how an author Ralph happened to admire profoundly would never produce anything worth reading until he managed to conquer his “petty bourgeois inhibitions” Ralph said, “So - ah - Longenhurst, do you write yourself at all?”
Longenhurst turned towards him with a disbelieving expression on his jowly features, as though wondering why barbarians such as he were allowed indoors in the first place. Beside him Ralph felt Spud tense, as if waiting for the starter’s pistol to fire him into violent action. He gave him a tight, taut smile and a tiny shake of the head.
Longenhurst relaxed back into his chair suddenly, and topped up his glass. “Well, of course, I could hardly have expected you to hear about my little play. So far away from civilisation as you live - Laurie, my dear, I’m amazed you can stand it. Great talent needs a world stage on which to display itself, not some rough boards nailed together by peasants in a cowshed at the back of beyond.”
He cast a glance here and there about the smoke-blackened bar; at Niko, arguing with a couple of patrons, with the Levantine intensity which always makes the bystander fear knives will be drawn any minute - at Rodriguez and Philippe at the adjoining table, looking even more piratical than usual as they played backgammon and drank raki - at the motley assortment of paintings on the dark wood-panelled walls, which looked as if they had been purloined from the attic of a Victorian merchant prince, an incongruous jumble in which The Monarch of The Glen confronted The Raft of the Medusa - and raised an eyebrow pointedly.
Laurie, whose clear skin always showed anger or embarrassment, flushed dark red.
Hatred - simple, incandescent and unadulterated - flowed through Ralph’s veins. As ever, he became icier rather than hotter the greater the provocation offered. And this appalling man could do Laurie harm if allowed. He made as though the by-play had passed over him completely, and put a note of polite interest into his voice.
“So, has your play been a success?”
Longenhurst turned towards him, and tittered. ”Well, a succès de scandale certainly. I had found a management who actually had the vision and the courage to put it into production. But then I got the most horrid letter from the Lord Chamberlain - saying that ‘it represented the foetid outpourings of an infinitely degraded imagination’ and that ‘he could not imagine any possible changes which would make it a work which could properly be performed on the British stage’ - oh, and ’he would feel he would have betrayed his office entirely if anything of that sort ever appeared in the theatre during his lifetime’.”
He paused for breath and as though he was waiting for a round of applause. No doubt, when he told the story back in his accustomed haunts, he got one.
Longenhurst waved a plump white hand in an excitable gesture. “But lots of people realised they simply couldn’t stand by and let Art be ground down by these petty little bureaucrats. So they formed a network of private theatre clubs, and the cast - such dear, brave boys! - volunteered to perform for a positive pittance to show their support. Of course, everyone was in deadly fear of police raids, so the tickets had to be circulated in the most immense secrecy, and we didn’t confirm the venues until the last possible minute - it felt just as it must have done for those poor, misguided, gallant people in the Resistance!”
Ralph choked back a sudden impulse towards horrified, helpless laughter. He was hardly sure whether to hope that Philippe’s English was too bad to pick up the reference, or to pray that he’d understood: Philippe had lost his right eye and large parts of that side of the face when the charges he’d been putting under a set of points on the line between Toulouse and Paris had detonated prematurely, and his current residence in Gibraltar was rumoured to be as a result of post war differences with a rival group of Maquis, which had made it advisable for him to leave France in a hurry for the sake of his health.
Then another thought struck him, and, his eyes dancing (how Laurie would love the details later, when they would have leisure to discuss it) - he murmured, “Actually, you know, I believe a friend of mind did mention in his last letter he’d seen it - Alec, you know,” he added parenthetically for Laurie’s benefit.
“Oh?” Longenhurst turned eagerly towards him. “And what did he think?”
The impulse to laugh got stronger. For once in their respective lives Alec and the Lord Chamberlain seemed to be uncannily similiar in their opinions, though Alec had expressed them in saltier language. Ralph could only hope that the man had been worth it - there had to have been an ulterior motive for Alec’s presence at what was evidently vomit-making tosh of the worst sort.
“I’m not sure if he got much out of it, actually,” Ralph said demurely.
Longenhurst looked faintly disappointed, but before he could pursue the matter Laurie said, distantly, “I didn’t know you’d had a letter from Alec.”
At the breath of accusation in the tone Longenhurst’s head went up, like a shark scenting the faintest wisp of blood in the water. Ralph cursed inwardly, as his mind raced. Surely he’d told Laurie about Alec’s letter, hadn’t he? And then his stomach lurched - of course, it had come in a week ago, on the morning of the last and worst of their recent rows, and he’d planned to tell Laurie the gossip when things had calmed down a bit, and of course he’d forgotten -
And now blasted Longenhurst was sitting there, all ears, drinking it in all in -
“Didn’t I tell you? It came in last Wednesday -” With any luck Laurie would pick up on the date and draw his own conclusions. ”He must have written it a couple of months ago, though - so far as I can tell the post had sent it round by everywhere including Wagga Wagga. You know, Longenhurst, I expect Nelson got his mail quicker than we do out here. That that gets here is late, and half of it doesn’t arrive at all.”
“And how is Alec?” Laurie’s voice was politely interested; he’d seen Longenurst’s sickening eagerness at the hint of a possible rift, too. Ralph shrugged.
“OK, I think. Doing well professionally: he’s got a new post as an anaesthetist at one of the big London hospitals.” Ralph remembered something else, and grinned. “Being driven to distraction by some kid of a nurse who’s contracted a major crush on him and won’t take no for an answer.”
Laurie murmured something suitable, and it might all have passed over - one more minor niggle in the overall ghastliness of the evening - had Tómas not appeared in the bar.
Had there been just a second’s more grace before Tómas spotted him he would have made a pretext of going to the lavatory, and intercepted Tómas on the way, but before he could do so Tómas had threaded his way through the bar, and was grinning down at Ralph from his full six-foot two, his teeth startlingly white in his deeply tanned face.
Longenhurst openly ate him alive with his eyes, from the crisply curled blue-black hair springing back from his brow down to his espadrilles (donned purely for the sake of propriety - Ralph had little doubt that Tómas’s strong high-arched peasant feet were tough enough to walk across broken glass if need be). Tómas paid him as little attention as the hunting leopard pays to the mosquito. He nodded civilly to Laurie, turned to Ralph and said, in English,
“Señor Lanyon? I have just come from the harbour. The levanter has been blowing since late afternoon, and its force is increasing. You may wish to check the mooring lines on your boat.”
His English was perfect, but his delivery stilted. He sounded like someone who had learned his speech by rote, to convey a quite different coded message beneath bland and conventional phrases.
It didn’t help, of course, that that assessment was nothing more than the exact truth.
Ralph got to his feet. “I better had go and check, Spud. Those warps aren’t the newest. Catch up with you later.”
He dipped a cool nod of departure towards Longenhurst. As he rose to follow Tómas he caught Longenhurst’s lingering, knowing glance after them. Laurie, he spotted, had seen the glance; his face was contorted in fury - and, to complete the circle, Longenhurst had seen that expression, too, and was self-evidently drawing his own conclusions.
Ralph, mentally, shrugged, and ducked out after Tómas into the strengthening gale lashing the harbour-side. By the time he had finished at the harbour the windows of the bar were dark. He made his way up the steep streets - he worried daily about the strain on Laurie’s knee, but the house had fallen available so opportunely, and now he could imagine nowhere else as home - and saw that the light was spilling out through the gaps in the shutters onto the wet cobbles.
Laurie looked up as he entered, his expression reserved rather than accusing. Nevertheless, Ralph felt his voice sounded a little too hearty as he divested himself of his streaming jacket, and said, “Sorry I had to leave you with that incredible piece of work. What can his parents have been thinking of, not to drown him in the waterbutt before his eyes opened?”
He strode across to the sideboard and poured himself a stiff brandy, gesturing enquiringly with the decanter at Laurie, who, unexpectedly, accepted.
“He tried to persuade me to ‘open my eyes’ about you and Tómas.”
Laurie’s voice had gone toneless again. Ralph made his own voice as brisk as if he were reassuring some middy two weeks out of Dartmouth that there was nothing to fear from an Atlantic storm.
“Oh? I trust you told him Tómas has a wife and family on each side of the Pillars of Hercules?”
That got a reaction. Laurie reddened in annoyance. “Oh? And how was I supposed to do that without being able to tell him what you were doing together?”
There wasn’t, particularly, anything he could say to that. He shrugged. Laurie’s colour got more intense. “Anyway, after I’d told him three or four times that I really didn’t intend to talk about it, eventually he patted me on the hand and said that I had broken his heart, but that his illusions would have been shattered forever if my idealism hadn’t matched my beauty. And then he burst into tears.”
“God!” Ralph felt his face twisting with disgust. “If I’d been there - So what did you do?”
Laurie shrugged. “Well, he was pretty much stinking by then, of course. Nikos was on the point of shutting up, and he and that Negro bouncer of his - Ali Bey, you know - helped me get Longenhurst back to The Rock. Where we dumped him, and fled. Exeunt, severally, in divers directions. I just hope he didn’t do anything horrific after we left him. Like make a pass at the doorman.”
“The staff there are used to it,” Ralph said. “Henri-Auguste claims those aren’t wages he pays, they’re hush money.”
That brought a very faint thawing about Laurie’s lips. He compressed them again with an effort and said, “Well, anyway? What did the two of you decide? I suppose you’re going tomorrow, then?”
The accusing note was back in his voice. Ralph made himself sound as non-committal as possible.
“Yes.” The wind was banging the shutter - something was loose up there. He’d better fix it in the morning before Laurie tried doing something stupid in his absence. That leg had no business up step-ladders; he’d told him before. He nodded towards the sound. “That’ll have blown through by tomorrow night, and there’s no moon. Expect me to be away a couple of nights - no, make that three for luck.”
“And you have to go?”
It was not, Ralph knew, a true question; rather as with a pair of chess players who have matched themselves against each other for years, and know each other’s game inside out it merely represented a conventional opening move in an argument which could (and had, over the last year or so) run through any number of well-worn variants.
With the benefit of long practice, and mindful of the strain which was apparent in every muscle of Laurie’s face (praise for his work from a moral imbecile like Longenhurst must have eaten deep into the fragile places of his soul) Ralph selected the most gentle of the available counters.
“You shouldn’t fret so, Spud. I know you can’t help finding three sides to any given question, but here and now, as we are, I can only see one. Less than two miles in that direction - ” he gestured towards the North-West - “is one of the oldest civilisations in Europe, a place where they had piped water and street lighting, scientifically based medicine and optics when the princes of England were sleeping in draughty barns with filthy rushes on the floor. And now look at it! There are dirt-poor countries in Africa better off than Spain is today. And all to shore up the ambition of a man who let Hitler use the most beautiful cities of his own country as practice bombing ranges.”
Long ago, it seemed now, Ralph had spent a weekend’s precious leave in Le Havre with a chance-met Cambridge undergraduate who’d thrown up his studies on impulse, and was on his way to Spain. The boy had spent the whole weekend - when not otherwise occupied - trying to persuade Ralph to desert his ship and join the International Brigade with him. And Ralph had laughed, and wondered once again at the perverse human facility for throwing away all the shining gifts placed in easy reach in front of one in favour of chasing some will-o’-the wisp on the edge of vision; almost impossible to catch and bound to disappoint if you succeeded.
But then Ralph had seen the devastating effects of the bombardments on the great ports of Spain, and, later, the corrosive day-to-day hopelessness of living under a dictator’s iron hand, and the dictates of a mediaeval, rigidly authoritarian Church.
He wondered, briefly, if the young man - what had his name been? - would be touched to think that a decade later his words had born fruit. If he’d survived, of course.
Laurie shrugged, his tone dismissive. “So - to keep the lamp of civilisation alive - you ship them tobacco and French letters?”
Ralph tried not to let his anger colour his voice; Laurie had had a far worse day than he, and if Laurie thought he’d managed to conceal that the leg was obviously giving him gip then he didn’t know him as well as he thought he did.
“I don’t run anything I’m ashamed of. There are cargoes I’ve shifted on Merchant Marine boats I’ve felt a damn sight less clean about being involved with. I’ve spent all my adult life getting cargo from A to B. It’s what I do. And, Spud, that’s all we’re talking about. And the fact that the Generalissimo isn’t seeing a penny of duty on any of it makes me happier than you can possibly imagine.”
The air of wounded disillusionment which hung about Laurie’s lips deepened. “And you don’t think that a decorated war hero should aim a bit higher?”
Ralph’s voice came out terser than he’d meant. “Actually, from where I was standing at the time, 90% of the Battle of the Atlantic was an exercise in getting groceries from one place to another in the teeth of opposition, too.”
Laurie made a small noise of exasperation. “Oh, drop the false mdoesty! No-one else would compare two and a half years in corvettes to delivering groceries.”
Ralph exhaled. He considered telling Laurie that he hadn’t intended it as a comparison, simply a description, but he couldn’t think of a way of expressing that without its sounding snotty. Those who hadn’t been on the Atlantic convoys never really got the point. But you only had to see how quickly the decencies and niceties that one took for granted deteriorated beyond human comprehension when supply lines failed to realise that “grocery delivery” was a damn sight more elevated a calling - damn near spiritual, in some circumstances - than anything a pampered ass like Longenhurst had ever managed to contribute to the sum of human happiness or the preservation of civilisation. He’d no doubt sat out the war in a reserved occupation complaining about the scanty monotony of the food on his plate, without ever sparing a thought for those who had got it there.
Anyway, the reference to the war had diverted Laurie onto another tack. “I only wish you’d taken the full commission they’d offered you at the end of the war.”
This, too, was an old argument. “What? And driven a desk in Pompey for the rest of my career in the Navy?” Something else he recollected from the mix of gossip and news of old friends in Alec’s letter prompted him to add, “However short that might have been, these days.”
Laurie looked sharply across at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ralph shrugged. “It wasn’t just missing fingers the Navy was prepared to turn a blind eye to when they were desperate for commanders. Awkward questions somehow never got asked. But things are coming more to a point these days. It wouldn’t take much. A word in the wrong ear. Someone commenting that he hadn’t seen me bring anyone to the Victory anniversary ball, ever. Or something being picked up on one of those random background checks the Yanks are insisting on, if you’re doing anything remotely hush-hush with their people.”
Laurie nodded, unhappily, acknowledging the point. And then he got round to what Ralph had known he was driving towards all along. ”If they catch you, you could end up being shot.”
“I doubt it. Smuggling in these parts has been part of the fabric for hundreds of years. Have you ever read the Treaty of Utrecht? The Guardia Civil are doing too well out of bribes to start turning it into a blood sport this late in the day. The worst that’s likely to happen if they catch us is that we’ll lose the launch, and we’ll have to bribe our way out of jail.”
Actually, given what he and Tómas had discussed about their cargo this time, that was not strictly true. But there was no point in worrying Spud, and Ralph had no intention of getting caught, in any event.
Unhappily, Laurie nodded. By way of changing the subject, he recounted some absurdity of literary London which Longenhurst had shared after Ralph’s departure. Ralph, playing along, topped up their glasses again, and told him the rest of Alec’s gossip. Under the yellow of the lamplight the evening petered out in the sleepy warmth of settled companionship.
Ralph came up on deck fully prepared to give their passenger the tongue-lashing he deserved. Though yesterday’s levanter had blown through it had left its legacy in the form of a steep, tumbling, confused sea. Nor - though the tide was running with them, and the lethal race would not form until it turned - were the overfalls off Europa Point anything to play games with in these conditions; if it wasn’t that the inshore passage was less open to the scrutiny of prying eyes they’d have been standing four or five miles out to sea by now.
As if to emphasise the point the sole of Ralph’s sea-boot skidded a little under him. He swore under his breath. The passenger’s shoes - originally craftsman-made to the standards appropriate for a distinguished professor of philosophy, formerly of the University of Salamanca, then self-evidently hoarded, and mended and resoled for years - would have all the gripping power of polished glass on the steel deck, awash with the spray kicked up by their rapid passage. If their passenger were to go over the side now, God help him in this sea and in the darkness of the new moon.
But the man’s attitude as he stood gripping the launch’s rail, looking back at the almost invisible bulk of the land behind them, caused the words Ralph had been planning to utter to die unborn on his lips. Being forced to choose between exile or death must be bad enough for anyone, and the man was, after all, nearing seventy. He had lost everything over the last few years: family, position, an audience for his writings, and his chances of ever seeing his homeland again must be scanty.
He pitched his voice to carry and said, in Spanish, “Don Miguel! I am sorry, but I must ask you to come below at once. You cannot safely remain on deck in these conditions.”
Don Miguel Muños Guittierez turned, moving rather like a sleepwalker. Ralph put out a hand to steady his steps, and held the heavy door open for him. As he passed through he looked back over the port quarter to Spain for one last time, and murmured something: not, this time, in Spanish.
Ralph found himself automatically translating the familiar words in his head.
But if you go forth, returning evil for evil and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements which you have made with us, and wronging those whom you ought least to wrong, that is to say, yourself, your friends, your country, and us, we shall be angry with you while you live, and our brethren, the laws in the world below, will receive you as an enemy, for they will know that you have done your best to destroy us. Listen, then, to us and not to Krito.
As easily as though he were continuing a conversation which had been going on for some time, Ralph said, “But perhaps, if it had been the Thirty not the Demos who had condemned him, Socrates might have answered Krito differently? He could hardly say that he had made any covenants with the tyrants who usurped the Government of Athens, or that he had voluntarily chosen to live under their laws without compulsion or deception.”
The Professor turned sharply towards him. He spread his hands apologetically.
“Forgive me, señor. I am intruding on your thoughts.”
Guittierez shook his head. “No, on the contrary. It is I who should ask for forgiveness. It occurs to me that I have been a most awkward passenger, and that when the risks you are taking for me are not trivial. Like the Thirty, the present Government of my country is not gentle with those who defy its dictates. But you are not - if you will excuse my saying so - the sort of man I had expected to be engaged in business of this type.”
There was nothing Ralph could reasonably say to that. He did his best.
“Well, it’s something that’s been said to me before. Usually accompanied with an earnest request that I stop.” He grinned.
Guittierez inclined his head gravely, but there was a hint of laughter, too, about the finely carved lips in the austere patrician face.
“For my part, I am glad that that request has - to date - been declined.”
The old man looked weary, though, and more than a little nauseated. Ralph showed him to a bunk, fastened his lee-cloth for him, and went to relieve Tómas at the helm. It was a long haul to Oran, even at the speeds the launch could achieve, and he foresaw there would be little time spare to discuss the dialogues of Plato. But the seas, away from the influence of the Strait, were already beginning to calm, and the stars were coming out: the thick-sprinkled broken-glass glitter one only saw on moonless nights well out from land. He was humming from sheer lightheartedness as he took the wheel.
Days later, as he climbed the hill from Gibraltar harbour Ralph still felt like humming. Guittierez had been safely consigned to the plane to Paris (by now those who had funded his flight into exile would no doubt already have received him with open arms). Financially the trip had been more than worth it: he was, by now, appreciably nearer the day when he’d be able to wrest himself free of ship-owners and their whims forever. There was much one could do, in this post-War world, plenty of chances to get in on the ground floor. All it needed was capital. And the French - even in their North African outposts - still knew how to live. His duffle bag was packed with tangible evidence of that.
So early in the morning there was nothing more than the odd cat stirring in the streets. The sky had a pale pearly sheen; the day would be hot, then. Perhaps he and Laurie would go swimming, later.
Ralph turned the corner which led towards his street and almost stumbled over someone standing there peering helplessly at the street sign; a man, too heavily dressed for the weather, in a thick well-worn British overcoat, a battered suitcase resting against his legs.
He looked up.
“Excuse me? Do you by any chance speak English? Can you tell me -” and then his voice changed, the polite nothingness to a chance-met stranger shattering, turning into something sharper, more desperate. “Oh, thank God. It is you.”
Ralph managed to get his arm out just in time to catch him as Alec, the effort of holding himself together suddenly becoming impossible, crumpled muzzily where he stood. Ralph half-helped, half-carried Alec the remaining dozen yards to his front door, fumbling awkwardly for his latchkey as he did so. Before he could produce it the door opened inwards. Laurie must have seen them from his study window. His voice was tight with anger and with what Ralph realised, with a swift stab of contrition, was pent-up worry.
“Where the hell have you been? You said three nights at the outside! I’ve had Annunciata weeping all over the kitchen and screeching that Franco must be torturing you and Tómas with his own bare hands since the day before yesterday.”
“Oh, Christ! She isn’t still here, is she?”
Laurie gave a sharp, negativing shake of his head. His mouth was opening to ask the next obvious question when Alec, who had been virtually comatose for the last yard or so, stirred against Ralph’s shoulder, and turned his head up and towards Laurie.
Laurie’s eyes widened as he recognised Alec. ”I didn’t realise that was why you’d - Look, we’d better get indoors, hadn’t we?”
Ralph nodded. Sorting out the misunderstanding about what his trip had really been about could wait. None of this - assuming he had read Alec’s desperate, hunted expression correctly - was anything that it was sensible to discuss in the street.
Once they were in the living room Alec slumped in an attitude of exhaustion into the depths of the sofa. Ralph said, “I expect you’d appreciate a bath, wouldn’t you? I don’t suppose the boiler’s lit yet, but if we light it now there should be plenty of hot water by the time you’ve finished breakfast.”
Alec half-raised his head. ”Save water, bath with a friend,” he intoned dispassionately, in heavy, official tones. “Must go down in history as the only sensible advice any Government department ever gave.”
Laurie looked affronted for a moment. Then he must have recognised in Alec’s voice something of that defiant, bitter heroism that comes not from victory but from the kind of defeat that rings longer down the annals of history than victory ever should or will: Go tell the Spartans -
He nodded gravely. “Never heard better myself. I’ll put the kettle on while I’m sorting the boiler.”
Laurie vanished to put that into effect. Alec looked at Ralph with an air of exhausted apology. ”Sorry. My tact seems to have got itself left in England with the rest of my belongings. I shouldn’t have forced myself on you. I should have realised it might be awkward in the circs.”
His answer was automatic; he had uttered it even before being conscious of wondering what to say. ”Oh, don’t be ridiculous, my dear. Where else could you think of coming but to me, if you’re in any sort of jam?”
The resounding silence before Alec responded told him much, but when after a carefully judged pause Ralph looked up the doorway between the living room and hallway was empty.
Ralph exhaled. “Anyway, I’d better go and make up a bed for you.”
By the time he had returned from putting fresh sheets on the bed in what, for the benefit of Maria, who cleaned for them, was always carefully referred to as “Laurie’s room” Alec had revived enough to decamp from the sofa through into the sunlit kitchen. Laurie and he were conversing with a kind of distant, brittle courtesy, like people who meet at a party and discover that they have either too much or too little in common to make for easy conversation.
The kettle, fortunately, was singing happily on the stove. Ralph took possession of it and brewed coffee with the practised efficiency that came of having done it at all sorts of angles and in frighteningly cramped conditions. He’d got a chance to see Alec properly in good light, and made his own assessment of that greyish skin, febrile manner and twitchy hands.
There was a crock of Atlas mountain honey in his duffle bag, black and thick as molasses and fragrant with the scent of the herbs that grew on the sparse soil of the uplands. Ralph pulled it out, and stirred a couple of dripping spoonfuls into the coffee jug, and followed it with a heavy slug from the bottle of coarse Spanish brandy which stood on a shelf next to the stove.
“Here,” he said, pouring from the jug into a mug, and pushing it across to Alec. “Have a Carajillo. The Spanish workman’s staple pick-me-up. One of the better contributions made by the Spanish to civilisation.”
He had not underestimated its effectiveness as a reviver. After the first three gulps the colour started to return to Alec’s face; he sat more upright, and there was a hint of the old sardonic humour about his narrow-featured face.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose I owe you both an explanation.”
Whatever the unresolved tensions of the morning, Laurie had not lost the absent, instinctive generosity of spirit which Ralph had seen and loved in him from the first. He shook his head. ”Not if you don’t want to. It’s entirely your choice. You’re welcome to stay here as long as you like, of course.”
Alec’s expression changed, lightened, became more open. He turned a little towards Laurie. ”Well, that wouldn’t be fair, either. I shouldn’t think the Authorities would be minded to make that big an effort, you understand, but it is British territory, still, and it’s only fair to let you two know what you might be letting yourselves in for.”
Alec shrugged. “Behind was dock and Dartmoor, ahead lay Callao. Or, to quote another great thinker, ‘True patriots we, for be it understood, we left our country for our country’s good’ - Did you get the letter where I told you about Nurse Urquhart?”
Ralph nodded. “Only last week, though. I take it she was something of a trial.”
There was something slightly grim about the set of Alec’s lips, and his tone was clinically detached. ”A touch of hyperthyroidism and a strong streak of repressed nymphomania, manifesting itself as excessive religious fervour and unbalanced adolescent emotionalism.”
Laurie winced, sympathetically, but Ralph noted with a touch of amusement that he also had the familiar faintly withdrawn expression that suggested he was hoping to remember the description until he could note it down for future reference.
“People drew conclusions from your avoiding her?” he suggested delicately.
Alec grinned. “I can assure you, if avoiding Nurse Urquhart’s attentions were the test, every doctor in the hospital would have qualified as queer. No; my mistake was to underestimate just how persistent these demented females can get.”
His hand sketched a gesture. “I’d fallen on my feet as far as digs went. God knows how, I’d found a couple of rooms in one of those big mid-nineteenth century terraced houses, all peeling stucco and impossible to heat, of course, but less than ten minutes from the hospital with a landlord who didn’t care what one got up to provided the cops didn’t call and you delivered your rent dead on the nail.”
He took a swig of carajillo. ”Anyway, I’d got one or two irons in the fire - nothing serious. No drama - well, apart from the tear-stained little notes from Nurse Urquhart I kept finding in unexpected places.”
Yes; the carajillo was definitely doing him good.
“Apart from anything else the switch to doing dopes had left me with a lot of reading to catch up on. And - what day is it again? Thursday? Well, a week yesterday, then, I was curled up under an eiderdown on the sofa doing precisely that when there was the most appalling commotion outside.”
Ralph topped up the mug. Alec nodded gratefully. ”I guessed immediately that it was Phil. He’s an actor - I doubt you’d know him. I’d come across him at this appalling play in a cellar somewhere - everyone was cooing over how wonderfully daring it was, and all I could think of was getting out and finding a drink to get the taste out of my mouth. Picture my surprise when the next man at the bar turned out to be the chap who’d played the lead, who’d apparently had the same idea. And that was Phil. Of course, you know actors. Good fun, but unbelievably indiscreet, so I wasn’t best pleased about him kicking up a racket in the street outside my digs, especially since it was clear he was pretty well lit up. So I shoved up the window and told him to put a sock in it or I’d shut him up myself, and he looked up to see where I was. Which was when he tripped over his own feet and fell the best part of ten feet off the top step down into the area.”
Laurie looked horrified. “And that killed him?”
Alec raised his eyebrows. His expression was indecipherable, but his tone remained level. “Well, no. The luck of drunks, madmen - and actors. Barring the odd bruise he was as right as rain. He’d been fairly relaxed in the first place, given the amount he’d had to drink, and he landed on something soft. And I suppose they teach them how to fall properly at drama school.”
Ralph, whose imagination had taken the same leaps as Laurie’s, and had seen the shadow of a noose over Alec’s head, heaved a sigh of relief. ”Well, thank God for that!”
Alec coughed. “Well, not entirely. You see, the something soft he landed on happened to be Nurse Urquhart.”
“She’d been lurking down in the area, for reasons best known to herself. Who knows what was going through what passed for her mind? Anyway, she bundled out of there shrieking blue murder in all directions, and I bolted down expecting to find Phil with a broken neck, but, as I say, he’d come out of it much better than he deserved to do. So I supplied arnica and the benefit of my opinion and - the evening ended pretty much as you might expect.”
Though Alec’s tone never lost its casual nonchalance his hands were gripped so tightly around his mug that the knuckles were white. With some vague notion of easing the tension Ralph started to unload the contents of his duffle onto the kitchen table. Alec’s eyes widened.
“Good heavens,” he observed with an air of cool detachment, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many eggs together in one place since before the fall of Singapore. What are you proposing to do with them?”
“Make omelettes,” Ralph said. “Goodness only knows when you last had a proper meal.”
“You know, I’m not at all sure I can remember?” Alec frowned, slightly, as though trying to dredge up a not-particularly significant fact from the depths and then flipped his hand as though to signify, no matter. He continued, “Anyway, that was that. Until two days later when I got called into the Senior Consultant’s office. Apparently he’d had an anonymous letter.”
Although he’d adapted, over the years, to the damage to his hand, Ralph suddenly found what should have been the simple task of transferring half a dozen eggs into a bowl trickier than he’d expected. It was a relief, in a way: it gave him a reason not to look up and see the expression on Alec’s face. The faint break in his voice had told him too much. Ralph, too, could remember a summons from Higher Authority that had left his world in tatters.
“From her, I suppose?” Laurie’s question hit exactly the right note of detached concern. His hand reached out, checking an escaping egg just before it was about to roll off the table. “Should I take over on the omelette front?”
Ralph surrendered the bowl and the eggs without comment, and looked up. Alec had recovered himself; his face was utterly non-committal.
“Well, who else? But that wasn’t really the issue. Lyall-Owens was pretty decent about it. It wasn’t the first case he’d seen of a nurse who’d thought she’d been jilted by some doctor or other trying to wreck his career through spite. And Lyall-Owens may be an Edwardian fossil, but there’s a sort of old-fashioned decency that comes with that, too. He looked as if he wanted to put on surgical gloves and use forceps before he could bear to touch her letter. If it had been up to him, he’d have dropped it in the fire and I’d have heard nothing more about it.”
The question was, after all, obvious. “And it wasn’t up to him?”
Alec shrugged. “A carbon copy had been sent to the Matron, I gather. She wasn’t going to stand for any breath of scandal about her nice clean hospital. I had to come up with a full, utterly innocent explanation or - ”
The gesture with his side-on hand was unequivocal. Ralph felt a sick stab deep inside him. Knowing what he knew of Alec’s stubborn integrity, there was only one place this could end.
“Even then, Lyall-Owens was giving me every opportunity not to tell him anything he didn’t want to hear. But - well, you know how I feel about that sort of thing. I didn’t think I could give him any form of assurance that would satisfy the hospital authorities and still find myself worth living with. And in the end I told him that.”
“How did he take it?”
Alec shrugged. “He argued. Told me nothing in anyone’s personal life was worth losing the opportunities medicine offered a young man with talent, especially not at this time. Told me that all I had to do was keep my nose clean, allow myself to be seen taking “some suitable gel” to the pictures on a couple of occasions and it could all blow over, and no harm to anyone’s conscience. He ended up telling me to take a couple of days leave and not say a word to anyone about this business, and he’d go in to bat for me with the hospital authorities. He was being so damned decent the least I thought I could do was tell him I’d think it over.”
Alec looked out of the kitchen window, but not as though he was seeing anything that anyone else could see.
“But then matters were taken out of Lyall-Owens’s hands altogether.”
Alec took a sip of his now cooling carajillo. His voice sounded as though it was coming from a very long way away.
“You see, next morning the laundry maid found Nurse Urquhart in the laundry closet when she came on duty.” He exhaled, and there was a world of bitterness in the sound. “Though as neither the cord nor the light-fitting she’d chosen for the job were up to her weight, actually she survived the experience with nothing worse than concussion and a badly wrenched neck.”
His expression was redolent with disgust and contempt; of course, her suicide attempt would have struck a peculiar resonance with him. Laurie, busy making omelettes, looked up.
“But surely no-one in their senses could have blamed you?”
Alec looked across at him directly. “You know, especially since the War, I’m really not at all sure any of us are in our senses any more. Take Hiroshima. When a whole city can be vapourised in an eye-blink, does it make sense for a surgical team to take several hours to operate on a middle-aged housewife for cancer, when in all probability we’re prolonging - for five years at the utmost - a life of no global significance, no economic productivity, no relevance really to anyone except her immediate family?”
“But you still do it,” Ralph said.
“Did it, in my particular case. Lyell-Owens got on the phone to me as soon as they found her - I said he’d been most extraordinarily decent about the whole thing. Let me know she’d left notes for everyone she could think of, in anticipation of a successful outcome. And that her parents were hot-footing it down from Litchfield at that very moment, to bring down the wrath of the Law on the evil pervert who drove their darling to the very brink of the abyss. Left it to me to use the information as I thought fit.”
Alec shivered, though the morning was living up to its early promise of heat.
“God! Well, you can imagine how I felt. I don’t have a much time for the sort of people who pull off stunts like that as a general rule, specially if they end up creating a bigger mess than the one they were running away from in the first place, but if I ever get driven in that direction, I hope at least I’ll have the basic human decency to do the job properly without fuss first go, and not leave vast screeds of whining self-justification to poison the lives of everyone I ever claimed to have any affection for.”
There was a faint sound, only perceptible on the very edge of hearing. Laurie, surprised by Ralph’s sudden turn of the head in his direction, flushed red, and made something of a business of retrieving large quantities of shell which had suddenly slipped from his fingers into the egg bowl.
And in that split second Ralph felt an icy hand clench around his guts, as something which had been for years an evanescent suspicion on the edge of reason was made suddenly concrete.
He did read your letter before you got back to the flat that night. He knows exactly why you burnt your diaries. He’s always known. And -he’s never told you he knows .
That night - what had nearly been - had been a sore place in memory ever since, barely scabbed, too sensitive to go near, even now. Ralph’s only comfort - until now - was that it was a shame known only to himself.
He had been wrong about that, it seemed.
He kept up a polite fiction of interest in the rest of Alec’s account of grabbing what little ready money he could scrape together, throwing his things together, and making his way first to Charing Cross and the boat-train, and then slowly, tortuously, by train - cheapest seats which, more often than not, had meant standing in corridors or cramped on wood slats - down through France and Spain in the hope of finding refuge.
But behind it and the civil injections and questions manners demanded Ralph’s mind raced, and he seemed to hear a mocking, high sound, like the first shifting of timber as the house built upon sand begins to flex and sway before the rising wind.
Ralph thought it was an ironic genuflection of fate in his direction that his by now ritual visit to the shipping office should, on that morning of all mornings, have given him the news for which he had been hoping during the last nine months.
The clerk’s overpowering enthusiasm about the successful placing of one R.R Lanyon in the position of first mate in a mixed cargo carrier registered out of Seattle would, in other circumstances, have been almost comic.
Despite his other concerns and the oppressive heat of the day Ralph managed to summon up a decent degree of enthusiasm for the efforts the clerk might have gone to in order to achieve this particular miracle.
Actually, once it came down to the technical detail of discussing the requirements of the berth, and the no less important but distinctly non-technical gossip about why, possibly, the previous first officer might have found his berth abruptly removed from beneath him, he found his feigned attention being replaced by genuine interest, and, imperceptibly, by enthusiasm. In fact, he found himself sufficiently absorbed to spend the best part of two hours in the drab little office, not even noticing the bluebottles, trapped and buzzing endlessly against the tiny, grimy window.
By the time he got back to the house he was well through the exercise of working out what he had that he could take, what would need to be replaced, what he needed by hook or by crook to obtain by the day after tomorrow, and what he would have to make shift to do without until they made landfall in some suitably accommodating port.
Which left him, fortunately, very little time in which he could fret about how matters might be left on shore during his absence (four months at best, and very likely six) given the morning’s enlightenment.
He was not the sort of man to feel relief that he could, with all credit and little trouble to himself, effortlessly avoid all that sort of thing for an indefinite period. It would have to be faced before he left. One of the lessons he had absorbed from what at the time he had thought of as an inordinately silly play, only redeemed (personal issues aside) by its spectacular set pieces from an unconscionable amount of shilly-shallying, was that “Conscience doth make cowards of us all”. It was not a philosophy he found that he was prepared to live with.
At least, not in the long or even the medium term. Nevertheless, when he got back to the house to find Alec and Laurie just roused from a long, deep siesta, and bumbling around in the drugged heat of late afternoon, he put the revelations of the morning squarely on one side, and proposed a swim.
A couple of hours later the launch was bobbing at anchor in one of the coves out towards Cabo Trafalgar, with an ingenious arrangement of trailed dinghy and swimming steps affording even Laurie full access in and out of the water.
Alec lay supine across the hot steel of the deck, drinking in the sun, a hand half-shading his eyes.
“Thanks. And sorry. You were right all along, you know. I was foolish to imagine things might be different.”
There was little Ralph could say. “At least Lyall-Owens tried. I feel better for knowing that.”
He retrieved one of the bottles of pilsner which had been chilling in a bucket of sea-water, and passed it across to Alec.
Alec half propped himself up on one elbow, “True. Of course. Do you know, he was still trying to propagate his own ideas of Edwardian decency to the last? He said, ‘Deacon!’ Like that, of course, as though it mattered, ‘Deacon! There was, in my youth, a very good sort of man. The rumour was that they were women haters, and I daresay they were. Nevertheless, they did very well in theatre. No distractions, Deacon! Pity times have changed, great pity.’”
Ralph barked a laugh. “Any ideas what you might be going to do now?”
“You’re very welcome to stay as long as you like, of course,” Laurie added, slightly formally. Alec acknowledged the offer with a quick, charming smile, like the sun briefly appearing from behind clouds,
“Thanks. But truly I am only a bird of passage here; just until I can find something to do with the rest of my life. Tell me, what prospects do you see? I don’t suppose your new ship has a berth for a ship’s doctor, Ralph?”
“That, I’m afraid, would be already filled. By me,” Ralph said. “Along with all the other lots in life that fall upon the poor bloody first officer. And don’t look at me like that, Alec; we’ve had it out before, and in point of fact I agree with you. Every time one of the matelots came to me with collywobbles when I’ve been stuck with that job I found myself praying it wasn’t appendicitis, and that I would guess near enough right not to end up having to wrap him in canvas and take the last stitch through his top lip. But I’m not responsible for where the owners choose to cut corners; at least, not as yet. Your best chance would be one of the lines that take passengers; they can’t afford to take as many risks with them.”
Alec took this in with a faint frown, as though, Ralph though suddenly, the sudden narrowing of his options had acquired a visceral rather than an academic reality. He felt a sudden spiking of anger at the sheer waste of things; all Alec’s trained intelligence, his skill and dedication, his years of experience, accounted as nothing against the single psychological quirk which, in the other pan of the scales, weighed down so heavily under the pressing finger of the world’s opinion.
Alec must have seen something of this in his face, or perhaps his own thoughts had taken him to the same place, because his voice had acquired a veneer of nonchalance over a bitter undertone.
“Of course, given that I’ve been criminalised already, perhaps I should embrace my destiny fully. After all, my skills could be very profitable in the right circles.” He pitched his voice to a high parody of debutante tones. ” ‘My dear, you don’t need to worry about a thing. I know of the most marvellous man - completely professional and discreet - the girls in our set completely swear by him. All the arrangements handled with the strictest confidence, no-one need suspect anything.’ ”
Laurie looked up, his face open in shock. “You can’t be serious. Surely you’d never really do it?”
Alec shrugged, the set of his mouth bitter. “When you’ve seen what I’ve seen in theatre: us trying - and mostly failing - to repair the messes left by botched jobs perpetrated on desperate women perhaps it’d be more humane and moral to offer them cleanly and safely what they’ll snatch from dirty needles in back alleys if we don’t.”
Abruptly, Laurie rolled over and scrambled somehow to his feet, moving stiffly and silently to the side of the boat and dropping into the water. Alec looked after him with surprise.
“Well. I have to say that I thought I was in about the last company where I’d have expected a comment along those lines to hit a raw nerve.”
Ralph paused. “I take you didn’t know about his mother?”
A questioning eyebrow signalled “Go on.” About 20 yards away from the boat Ralph could see Laurie striking out as though determined to make it to Spain, slicing through the waves with the ugly but effective side-stroke which he had developed to compensate for his leg. He shook his head thoughtfully.
“It was a couple of years ago, I suppose. She started to miscarry late on - either they didn’t appreciate what was happening in time, or they panicked - delays getting to hospital - no-one with petrol - ambulances all elsewhere - you know the sort of thing. Died on the operating table. We never got the details straight. I was at sea, and they didn’t manage to get a message through to Laurie - or at least, he couldn’t get away from the Ministry - until after it was over.”
“A miscarriage? But she must have been -”
“Forty-eight or so. Yes.”
Alec whistled. “Bit of a shock for her to realise she was pregnant in the first place, I should imagine.” He, too, looked thoughtfully out towards the sandy-dark head bobbing among the waves. His voice changed. “Bit of a shock for everyone, I imagine.”
Ralph wasn’t going to argue with that one. Certain phrases from Laurie’s letters written in the fraught weeks which led up to the final tragedy were forever burnt upon his mind. Not that that sort of thing was anyone’s business but their own. He made an impatient gesture.
“Well, that isn’t the point. For some reason rumours started to run wildfire in the village - you know how poisonous these little places can get - to the effect that ‘the Vicar’s wife took something to bring it off and it killed her’.”
Alec snorted. “Oh, I can bet you anything you like where that one came from. Natural village bitchery aside, we’ve had this one time and again.”
He reached for another bottle of pilsener.
“Understandable, I suppose. We’re trained to use technical language, to describe conditions precisely. Unfortunately nine out of ten lay people will not grasp that ‘spontaneous abortion’ is just medico-speak for a perfectly natural miscarriage. I’ve seen outraged husbands threaten to kill nurses for slandering their wives. These days, I always make a point of warning anyone who might come into contact with the relatives -”
He shut up, abruptly. Ralph, feeling as though he was speaking a slightly too fast to cover up a pause which had threatened to become prolonged, said,
“Well, however it arose it put the Rev. in an awkward spot. Desperate to cause a diversion at all costs, I suppose. And fortunately the Bishop of Bath and Wells had just given him a golden opportunity. Laurie’s book had been out some time by then, of course, but the sensation didn’t really start until the Bish decided to denounce it as ‘more dangerous to the youth of today than the Atomic bomb.’ Good for sales, of course.”
Alec sat up. His dark eyes were narrow with a suppressed, intense emotion. “Good God. Where have these people been? So describing what a crisis of conscience feels like from the inside becomes too immoral to talk about, does it?”
There was nothing, really, to say about that. He had been frightened on first being given the proofs of Laurie’s book that he might not be able to praise it, and not only would insincere enthusiasm have stuck in his throat as a sin against the Good, but that Laurie would have known, instantly, he was lying. But instead the inarticulacy of his response had come because he was afraid that any attempt to put into words how far certain passages had moved him would sound trite and fatuous. Rather belatedly, it occurred to him that he had perhaps taken it on trust Laurie knew the difference, rather than made sure it was so. But certainly his anger at the wilful blindness of the imbecilic prelate had been something he’d been able to find words for; something, in fact, that a fifteen-year career at sea had uniquely shaped his vocabulary to express.
Alec made a sound of the profoundest disgust. “I see. A godsend for the widower. So where did he take it?”
Ralph shrugged. “Where you’d expect, of course. I’m told the sermon was very moving. And unequivocal.”
“God, what a bloody mess.” Alec looked over towards the African shore, shimmering in the heat haze. “And you came out here not long after?”
Ralph nodded. ”As soon as I got demobbed. It turned out - one thing that Straike couldn’t have banked on - that most of Laurie’s mother’s money came from a life-interest in her father’s estate. On her death it reverted to her children - or child, as it turned out, of course. The income’s enough for him to live on abroad, if not in England. Gives him the chance to write full-time, rather than in odd snatched minutes fitted around a day job, like the first one, after all.”
“Mm. I see.” Alec stared out to sea for a little longer, and then turned to face him, the ghost of his normal charming smile on his lips. ”You’ll never guess who I met in the hospital, about six months ago. Remember Pinky Fordyce?”
Glad to have the chance to move onto less perilous ground, Ralph cast his mind back. “No - oh, yes - of course! Part of Smithers’s crowd, yes? Nice bloke. What was he in hospital for? Nothing serious, I hope.” Some sort of shadow crossed Alec’s face and, abruptly, Ralph recollected himself. “Oh, I forgot. Don’t say if it’s breaching any confidences.”
Alec smiled. “Hardly. He wasn’t one of my patients. I used to go over and chat to him - for all intents and purposes I was the only person in the place who talked his language.”
Ralph nodded, trying to recreate Pinky’s round, school-boy pink features in his head. They kept dissolving into a blur, vaguely topping an impression of battledress. He gestured to Alec to continue.
“He’d been captured by the Japs in Burma; had a rough time in a prison camp. Once they got him out he started having black-outs. After his last episode he woke up in hospital and found he’d punched his hand clean through a shop window. Officially, we were treating the mess he’d made of the arteries and tendons. Obviously, we were also rather interested in finding out what was behind it, in case he came round from his next black-out having used someone’s face as the punching bag, not a window. Or worse. And Pinky didn’t fancy fetching up in Broadmoor or the morgue, so he was quite happy to co-operate. So in between operations they were trooping him off to a succession of psychiatrists, which I think was leaving him rather bemused. ‘You know,’ he said to me once, ‘those chaps are all the same. Once they find out a man’s queer they think they’ve hit the answer to everything. I’ve told them that I was just as queer before I went to Burma, but I never had blackouts then. But will they listen?’ But eventually they did find someone who was able to get beyond that, and Pinky was doing much better when I had to leave. Left me feeling a lot less lukewarm about the value of the discipline than I had before. Though I still don’t doubt there’s a lot of quackery in it. Did you ever think of psychoanalysis at all?”
“Who, me?” His face must have spoken volumes. Alec’s mouth twisted wryly.
“Well, it’s not that much of a strange question. Plenty of our fraternity have; specially if their parents find out about their being queer. Mostly, it’s the parents who insist.”
“God! It’s clear you never met my mother. I don’t know what she’d find more shaming; having a queer son or one who’d been treated for anything “mental”. Anyway, what’s the point? Most of the types who go in for it just want their pathetic little neuroses stroked and coddled. Look, can you picture me lying for hours on a couch talking tripe and being told that all my problems are because I wanted to murder my father and marry my mother, or is it the other way round?”
Alec laughed softly. “My dear, you know perfectly well your uncouth merchant skipper pose doesn’t wash with me. Save it for the jewels of the London literary scene - oh, yes; Laurie told me about Longenhurst. He told me quite a lot, actually. One way and another.”
And he looked out again towards the dark speck of the head bobbing amid the waves, with, Ralph fancied, a faintly worried air. Alec, of course, always had been a worrier, even in cases like this, where was quite plainly no need for it. Laurie had turned to swim back towards the launch now anyway, and, awkward as his leg made him appear, he was more than equal to coping with the deep water and unpredictable currents he found himself in.
It was generally Ralph’s habit to drop by the Post Office at least twice a week to collect their letters. Most of their mail arrived Poste Restante; at first they had been moving about between lodgings which had, for various reasons, proved unsuitable, and even once they had settled into the house they had been chary of giving out their address too widely.
The wind had risen again, and an unseasonable fine rain was being driven in brush-strokes across the streets. The Rock, it seemed, was determined to bid him a suitably damp farewell. Still, as he was due on board by mid-morning tomorrow, this was not an errand he could put off to a more congenial occasion. Ralph turned up the collar of his light mackintosh and made the most of his long stride.
The small airmailed package with the French stamps and the spiky, foriegn handwriting was something of a mystery. He dropped it into his pocket for later consideration, having urgent business at a chandlers down by the docks, and forgot all about it for some hours.
He was reminded of it only when that evening he was rummaging through his raincoat pocket for his lighter (everyone else’s having apparently gone missing) and found his hand hitting the unfamiliar shape. He pulled it out, looking puzzled, and, compelled by long habit, painstakingly undid the complex knots in the string which bound the parcel together.
When the slender calf-bound volume dropped into his hand Ralph felt a sudden shock; not precisely of surprise, but of recognition. He did not need to turn to the inscription (lovingly calligraphed in a spidery, archaic script) to know who had sent it or what it represented: the only possible gesture delicate enough for one gentleman to indicate inexpressible obligation to another in his own rank in life.
“‘A commentary upon certain dialogues of Plato’? ” Alec enquired, craning his head and translating the title without difficulty. “Have you decided to find consolations in philosophy in your old age?”
Laurie, his head bent over a newspaper on the other side of the room, brought his head up sharply.
“No. It’s a present.”
The repressiveness in Ralph’s tone conveyed - he realised a split second too late - a defensiveness he had been far from intending. Conscious of perilous ambiguity he proffered the book, open at the autographed flyleaf for Alec’s inspection; rather, he thought ruefully, with a touch of the same ostentatious parade of innocence with which the stage conjuror asks an audience member to verify that the billiard balls are solid, and the cups without false bottoms.
Alec’s brows shot up.
“You do move in exalted circles. Don Miguel Muños Guittierez? I saw something about him in Le Monde when I was coming down through France. I gather the French intelligentsia were congratulating themselves mightily on having snatched him out of Spain an inch ahead of one of the Generalissimo’s re-education squads. How did you come to earn his -”
Alec looked over the fine thin black ink of the inscription on the title-page again, and puzzled a little at the foreign phrasing.
Vividly, Ralph was reminded of exactly why the maximum time he and Alec could live harmoniously under one roof had been demonstrated - by actual experiment - to be three weeks. No-one could be kinder, or more perceptive than Alec, not even Laurie, who possessed the gift of a breathtaking insight at times. Equally, no-one could be less relied on than Alec to take a hint that a subject did not bear further worrying at if he did not choose to do so. Laurie, shielded by his paper, was already looking as though he had withdrawn himself deliberately from the dust and sweat of an uncongenial arena. Ralph cursed inwardly. Today of all days! And with that other matter still lying - an unspoken lead weight - between them. Ralph assumed his best bridge-officer’s voice.
“If you want to know, he needed a lift in a hurry and I was - fortunately - in a position to offer one.”
Alec’s face changed: reacting more to the undisguised edge in his tone than to his words, no doubt. Laurie dropped his newspaper; he was dead white under his end-of-summer tan, which in the circumstances looked like an unclean scum resting uneasily on the surface of his features.
“You did what?”
There was pure, focussed rage in every syllable of his voice. Alec’s head jerked up.
Taking a slow, deliberate breath, Ralph said, “What would you have me do? You’ve already given me the benefit of your views on transporting ‘tobacco and french letters’? What did you suppose the alternative was, if I was supposed to keep my self-respect?”
Every tendon and vein on Laurie’s face and neck stood out. “And you told me the worst risk was that you might lose the launch! Tell me the truth for once: after all, it’s the last time you’ll have to make the effort for God knows how long. Once can hardly kill you. So: where were you? What the hell did take all that time?”
Even as part of his brain acknowledged the raw hurt behind Laurie’s words - like a child crying to itself in a dark nursery from which the remote Olympians of its world have chosen to absent themselves - from somewhere outside Ralph’s conscious mind or will a cool, dismissive tone imposed itself.
“Since you’ve finally chosen to ask, for your information I spent most of the time I was away nursing the boat’s engine at less than five knots all the way home from Oran. After we’d dropped off Don Miguel we picked up some dodgy fuel, and the only way we could keep it from clogging the filters was by straining every drop through a couple of pairs of nylons Tómas had traded brandy and cigars for with a US boat, and which he was bringing back as a peace offering for Annunciata. It got a bit touch and go in spots but since we got home and no harm done it seemed better not to worry you with Might Have Beens. But then: when it comes to telling the truth, you’ve hardly been a shining example yourself, have you?”
Laurie’s face spoke acknowledgement of the hit, even as his lips muttered, mechanically,
“I’ve got no idea what you can possibly be talking about.”
“Excuse me,” Alec said, his face a greenish-white, getting to his feet and barging through to the door, not heeding whose feet he tripped over in his haste to be gone. “I think I’ll just go out for a walk; get a bit of fresh air.”
The levanter was still blowing and the rain falling; it was the thinnest of excuses. They let him go without a word.
The check imposed by Alec’s departure brought them to themselves a little. Laurie shook his head, like a swimmer trying to clear water from his ears, and started to murmur something vague, apologetic, palliative. But it had come to the point at last: Ralph knew that with the clear certainty with which in combat, sometimes, the right course of action had unrolled itself before him, complete and clear in all its details.
His voice was almost gentle. “We’ve come too far to go back, don’t you think, my dear? Tell me: what did bring you back to the flat that night in Bridstow?”
He traced the impact of his question across the familiar, beloved features; it was as if he could see the twinge of each nerve. Laurie’s faint indrawn breath seemed imbued with that quality of resignation which courageous men bring to the moment when they are led into the courtyard, the blindfold tied around their eyes, and they hear the booted sounds of the firing squad entering. His voice was steady, devoid of all his earlier anger.
“Alec told me. He guessed, you see, when he heard about the row. He guessed what might happen.”
Ralph bowed his head in acknowledgement. He had invited the blow himself; it would be a fool’s trick to complain that the edge of the weapon hurt more than he could have dreamt possible.
“Yes,” he murmured, and he heard as if it were from a stranger the remote bleakness in his tone. “In the circumstances you could say it was a topic on which Alec had acquired a tolerable level of expertise. It wasn’t an education I meant to press on you, though.”
For some obscure reason Laurie’s face was now suddenly ablaze with red fury.
“If you seriously think anyone except a complete imbecile - which, last time I looked, neither Alec nor I was - would even think of making that particular comparison then you’re past praying for.”
Ralph shrugged. “I can’t see it’s such an invalid comparison. Similar techniques producing similar results, after all. I’d been wondering for months what kept you here when you were clearly wanting to be anywhere but here. I hadn’t realised it was that I was blackmailing you into it.”
Laurie exhaled, explosively.
“Now that is imbecilic. Since you now know I read your letter, assume I understood it too, yes? No patience with the people who do this sort of thing as a kind of repartee, remember?”
He hadn’t, actually; he had only been conscious, while writing that letter long ago of trying to summon up the unambiguous clarity of expression he had aimed for at sea when leaving written orders to be opened in the event he was killed or put out of action. It made sense, of course, that Laurie should remember the actual words he had used so much more clearly than he.
“More fool me for deceiving myself. No-one does that sort of thing without half a thought for how many people will be weeping their eyes out at the funeral. And thoughts of that being a sort of revenge, I suppose. That most of all, I daresay.”
“Revenge on your murderer?” Laurie’s voice was so low one had to strain to hear.
“What? Don’t be melodramatic, Spud, for God’s sake. Not at a time like this.”
“You’ve taken a long time to say it. I suppose I’m luckier than I deserve. But that’s what you meant, isn’t it? What I said that night on the staircase in the hospital -”
“Forget it, Spud. You weren’t to blame for what you thought -”
Laurie shook his head, his face drawn.
“We both asked for honesty. Who are you to say where that stops? That night - I didn’t apply the barest attempt at analysing what might really have happened. Less attempt to weigh the evidence than if I’d been told the charwoman was helping herself from the gin bottle. It was only later that I worked out why that was.”
There was a bitter freight weighting his every word, and he avoided meeting Ralph’s eyes.
“Part of me wanted it to be how I thought it had been. You’d showed me a part of myself I didn’t want to know about it. I wanted to amputate that part, but as I’d had it rubbed into me that if there’s a chance of saving a limb -”
His gesture took in his own shortened leg with its stiffened knee. Many years ago it seemed now he had in an agonised moment told Ralph that the doctors had been divided on whether the limb had been worth saving at all. Given the scale of the damage and the lightness and convenience of modern prosthetics no doubt there had been those who had argued that the effort put into saving the leg had been the merest sentimentality, and a waste of scarce resources, to boot.
“Well. I suppose I really wanted to be sure that part was gangrenous. And if that meant wanting to believe that of you, also -”
Laurie shrugged, the loathing for that earlier self (Ralph hoped, at least, not for his current self) twisting his face into a carven mask; something in which Agathon might have played Pentheus, in the final act of The Bacchae.
“I think - though I didn’t know it at the time - I set out to kill that night on the staircase. And I almost succeeded. So there isn’t, really, a lot to be said for me. So now you know everything.”
Laurie’s voice had dropped almost to nothing; he looked exhausted (more listless, even, in one sense than he had looked on the ship deck when Ralph had been called to determine whether he should be dropped overboard as a corpse).
He made his own voice very gentle.
“My dear, were you expecting that part to shock me?”
Laurie’s head went back; he tried to suppress an inward rejoicing at the reaction. His tone was, in token, even more gentle than before.
“I did read your book, you know.”
“But that isn’t - that wasn’t -” Laurie was flailing to get a grip on events, and, abruptly, achieved it. ”That wasn’t about us, you know.”
Ralph nodded. He had never been the kind of idiot (briefly, the shade of Longenhurst hovered) who assumed that all literature was, at bottom, roman à clef.
“I know. But it was about that. It doesn’t matter how or where we each face it for the first time - or for the twentieth, for that matter. We’ve each of us stood where you stood that evening. And everyone born like us will end up standing there at one time or another. The difference is that since you wrote down how it feels hundreds - thousands - of people have realised that they aren’t standing on their own.”
He paused, conscious of a profound irony. “You know; it was only after reading your book I realised how unnecessary - how completely absurd - that whole evening was.”
Laurie looked up, his face alight with a hope and love that threatened to tear his heart from within his breast. A breath - a beat. But they were committed to telling the truth here, and if there were to be anything beyond he could not spare details for the sake of feelings. They had forever left the common dishonesty of coupledom.
“Of course, when I read that you have absolutely no idea how relieved I was to think that you’d never known how close I’d come to - well, you know.”
Laurie’s head had drooped again; that was to be expected. His voice was subdued.
“What do you plan to do now?”
Ralph had hardly thought. Something had happened, and it might be good or bad in the long run: it had certainly shaken him to the roots of his being.
“I can’t say. I think better at sea, though. Something about the clarity with which you can see the stars. I’ll let you know, of course. And you? Where will you go? Alec needs somewhere to stay while he makes up his mind what he’s going to do, so don’t worry about the house. And if Alec does find somewhere Tómas and Annunciata will keep an eye until I get back. So don’t let any worries of that sort stop you.”
Laurie acknowledged that with a movement of his head.
“You’ll write while you’re away?”
“Of course. Care of your agent; that’ll be safest, won’t it?”
“Yes. Yes I suppose so.”
The storm had blown through, leaving only an inexpressible weariness in its wake. Too soon yet to start reckoning the damage; that would have to wait until the sun rose again, and they could see what the devastation had wrought, and assess their chances of ever rebuilding. He turned towards Laurie, but what he had been planning to say died on his lips. Whatever else had been swept away the bedrock of their shared years remained.
Tonight that rock was still something to which one might cling, in default of other habitation. He was already moving forwards as Laurie stretched out his arms, and it was hard to say which was supporting the other as they made their slow, silent way upstairs.