I grieve, yet dare not show my discontent
I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate
I am, and am not; freeze, and yet I burn;
Since from myself my other self I turn.
--Benjamin Britten, Gloriana
Ralph folded the Evening Standard and set it aside.
"That's put the cat among the pigeons," he said with a sigh.
Laurie looked up from the Radio Times. Even from where he was sitting he could see the large headline on the front page amidst the usual clutter and irrelevancy: Two diplomats missing: Foreign Office says Burgess and McLean may be on European holiday.
"Do you think they were kidnapped?" he asked without thinking. The news seemed miles away from their quiet sitting room in St. John's Wood.
"No, Spud, I don't think that." Ralph's voice was weary but it had an edge to it; it was the same impatient annoyance that he had deployed long ago in a schoolroom study when Laurie had failed to think things through. "Nor do I think, in case that's your next question, that they made a mad dash for Le Havre because they were keen on seeing the Mediterranean before the weather got too hot."
Laurie pondered for a moment but the answer, once he considered it, was perfectly obvious. "They've defected."
"Strictly speaking I oughtn't to confirm or deny but it'll be all over the papers in a few days. Hell, it's in some of the papers now. There's no other conclusion one can reach. I expect that your lot will never let us hear the end of it."
"They're not my lot," said Laurie. "Not anymore."
Having discovered that the life of a writer was far more romantic in theory than in practice, Laurie had drifted into and then out of journalism, finally fetching up as a producer for the Third Programme. He had been unable to decide whether to be amused or unsettled by the temporary coincidence with his father's career; his mother had been just as glad to see the journalism phase come to an end. So had Ralph, thinking of his security clearances. Nowadays Laurie's subject matter was more likely to be gardening or pigeon racing than to be anything political.
Ralph's position with the Security Services was political enough for the both of them, though Laurie's privilege did not stretch to hearing more than a few of the details.
"What makes it worse," Ralph continued, "is that I know Guy Burgess. I've seen him at parties."
"Mostly during the war," Ralph amended. "But he knew my name and I knew his. What's more, I suspect it could be proved if only someone cared enough to do it."
Laurie objected in the spirit of one fighting a delaying action, not quite expecting to be taken seriously. "They might just as well say that you knew... what was his name? You remember, the fellow at school who was in the Sixth with you and went round telling everyone what he thought about Marx and Engels whether or not anyone asked."
"Chesterton-Smythe," said Ralph instantly. He never forgot a name.
"That's the one."
"Isn't he something in the City now?"
"My point," insisted Laurie, who supposed that he probably was, "is that having met a Communist at a party once hardly counts for anything, even if it was a queer party. One thing hasn't the slightest to do with the other."
"Think of it, though, Spud. A queer spy circle. People would find a way to believe it even if it wasn't true. You must learn to have a more suspicious mind. One begins to think that I haven't taught you anything at all."
"Do you believe that?" asked Laurie. "About a queer spy circle?"
Ralph shrugged. "It's credible; I'll give it that much. It's like I said once: you have no idea how far it down it all goes."
"It would make a Graham Greene novel," Laurie observed.
That made Ralph chuckle. "Always the literary one, Spud. The Third Man indeed. If only we can find him soon...."
In the fifties everything was political. The Iron Curtain bisected Europe like an already-falled Sword of Damocles, but a far more intimate sword hung over them day by day.
In the comparatively more optimistic atmosphere of the immediate post-war period Ralph and Laurie had debated the question of double versus single beds. Now it seemed more a matter of separate rooms. One weekend they wrestled one of their beds through into the small study. Ralph swore, unsurprisingly, like a sailor; Laurie wrenched his knee trying to help. Despite their best efforts the bed fit awkwardly in a corner of the study, hard against the restored antique desk which had once been the centre piece of the room and previously had sat squarely in front of the window. The arrangement, ugly and impermanent, offended Laurie by its lack of proportion.
Ralph took a seat on the corner of the bed. "You hear sometimes about fellows who get burgled," he said. "The police come round to have a look at the scene and notice that there's a suspicious shortage of beds given the number of residents. Whereupon they've got two crimes to investigate instead of one."
"You said once that we oughtn't to consider ourselves entitled to much in the way of tolerance."
"Did I?" Ralph frowned. "I don't recall."
"You were rather drunk at the time," said Laurie, not wanting to bring back the unpleasantness of that unexpected conversation with Alec and Sandy and Bunny.
"In any case, there's a difference between rubbing the public's faces in it and simply wanting to be let alone to live one's life in peace."
Laurie nodded, sat down beside Ralph. "Peace and quiet?" he said inquiringly.
"Are not the same thing," said Ralph, "in case you were wondering."
"As for peace, once one's been through the wars, one tends to feel one's earned a certain share of it."
Laurie's mind was far away. "Some men get married," he said.
In particular he was thinking of a young man at Broadcasting House, an assistant of some kind, who had recently announced his engagement. Laurie didn't know him well, certainly not enough to ask a question of such intimacy, but he had come to be able to sense these things with some assurance. A faint, fey guiltiness in the eyes upon receiving the congratulations of his colleagues spoke more eloquently than words.
Ralph chuckled grimly. "Have you got a sister, Spud?"
"You know very well I haven't."
"It's all very Brideshead, isn't it? Keeping it in the family. But there are other options…"
With his head tipped back, gazing up at the intricate moulding of the study's ceiling, Ralph began to run through them. Secretaries in government departments; friends of friends; the music teacher in the downstairs flat who blushed whenever she met him on the stairs. Laurie had not realised even that Ralph knew so many women, nor that he had ever pondered such an eventuality. His list was just as dispassionate, and just as practical, as if he had been reading the Shipping Forecast.
"You're really considering it, aren't you?" said Laurie, his blood suddenly chilled. "Doing another two years of women?"
Ralph's smile was thin. He lay back, dangled a hand lazily from the bed. "Oh, this would be a life sentence, Spud. With no time off for good behaviour."
"It's not something to joke about."
"I'm not thinking of myself here. If it weren't for my position the police would never take a second look at you, and you know it."
"They take a second look at all these other chaps," Laurie objected.
"When you start hanging about in public toilets I'll worry about you. Not until then."
"If you get married I might have no other choice."
"Who's joking now, Spuddy?"
A real smile from Ralph this time. Laurie let out a breath that he hadn't realised he was holding. And yet the pensive look returned to Ralph's face all too soon.
"If you had only…" he began.
"Nothing," said Ralph. He was a poor liar. "It wasn't anything, Spud."
Laurie had a strong suspicion what all this was about but he wanted to hear Ralph say it for himself. "If I had what?" he insisted.
"I was only thinking that if you had stayed with Andrew, you wouldn't have to worry about any of this now."
"Wouldn't I? Assuming we were living together, that is. Two confirmed bachelors..."
Ralph sighed. "You know what I mean, Spuddy. It wouldn't have been the same, separate beds or no."
Laurie tried to envision that other life. It was difficult now, after eleven years with Ralph and six of those spent living side by side. Would he have shared a flat with Andrew? He felt fairly certain that he would have done. And after that? Could they, could he, really have lived all that time exchanging no more than the most casual of touches? Remembering that chaste, long-ago kiss in the hospital kitchen, he felt himself stirred. But he also remembered what Ralph had said then: He'll come back in a year or two and tell you all about his boy friend. That one's a classic, didn't you know?
Sighing, Laurie fell back onto the bed.
"No," he said. "It wouldn't have been the same. And I wouldn't have wanted it to be."
"Never to be parted from your side, eh?" said Ralph gently. "Come here, Spuddy."
And Laurie allowed Ralph to draw him close.
Laurie's job, unlike Ralph's, was an escape of sorts. Once he could never have imagined being able to find interest in the fine points of New Town architecture or the bedding of bulbs, but it suited him in the way that Oxford essays had done, allowing a sort of breadth without commitment that stimulated him intellectually but did not quite allow him to fall into the stifling vapidity of the dilettante. Besides which he enjoyed the people with whom it brought him into contact. Though he would always envy Ralph's easy, clubbable demeanor, Laurie too had been Head of House in his time, and he found that he had a minor talent for eliciting both trust and information.
Not an insignificant proportion of the men at Broadcasting House could have been said to be of his persuasion. No confidences were exchanged but they had soon marked out Laurie as one of their own, and there were moments where that quiet, subterranean understanding smoothed over spots that would otherwise have remained rough and unwelcoming. Laurie stood his share of rounds in pubs throughout Fitzrovia but there were invitations to parties which he always turned down, and he never darkened the door of the Arts and Battledress. He had no doubt that some of his colleagues thought him standoffish--queer and straight alike, since Laurie had no wife to steer him through the common round of socialising.
Ralph rarely came to Broadcasting House. If he meant to meet Laurie after work he would go to a pub not in Fitzrovia but in Soho, less favored by the employees of the BBC. Laurie would pause in the door to look for a moment at Ralph, sitting by himself at the bar with a hand resting lightly around his drink. His fair hair was beginning to be streaked with silver but his shoulders were as level as they ever had been; though it had been years since the end of the war, Laurie was surprised for a moment not to see him in uniform. Ralph had engaged the barman in conversation but he seemed to sense Laurie's approach and turned round to look. Laurie was struck, almost humbled, by the way that Ralph's face opened and gentled as Ralph caught sight of him.
Ralph rose to greet Laurie, unobtrusively shifting to offer him the choice of stools.
"How goes the Forces request programme, Spud?"
The little joke, dating back to when Laurie had first started work at Broadcasting House, was not dulled by repetition.
"The Forces would be well advised to get their daffodil bulbs into the ground by the end of the week if they care to avoid the frost."
Ralph settled himself on another stool and signaled for the barman. "Another double for me and a pint of best bitter for my friend."
Laurie did not ask Ralph how his day at work had been. He never asked.
1953 was the Coronation year; June was the Coronation month. Across Britain people were gathering in celebration of the accession of the new Queen. Ralph's patriotism was most stirred by the news that Edmund Hillary, far away, had finally conquered Everest. It was--so said the press, and Ralph for once heartily agreed--the best Coronation gift that could have been given. By contrast Laurie looked forward most to the radio broadcast of Benjamin Britten's Gloriana, the new opera which had been commissioned for the occasion.
Tickets were impossible to come by. In the evening, after the news, Ralph and Laurie settled down to listen to the radio broadcast. The opera told the tale of Queen Elizabeth I, the aging virgin queen, who fell unwisely in love with the Earl of Essex. He was handsome and impulsive; she was jealous. Laurie listened enraptured as she lamented her fate, caught between her infatuation and the enforced distance of a monarch.
I grieve, yet dare not show my discontent
I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate
I am, and am not; freeze, and yet I burn;
Since from myself my other self I turn.
Eventually Essex fell from grace. Overreaching, he led a rebellion against the Queen and was tried for treason. She chose to show him no mercy. Heralds and courtiers announced his doom: "Essex is guilty and condemned to die."
Thick with the fuzz of static, the applause faded away. Laurie reached to switch off the radio.
Ralph's verdict was immediate and succinctly delivered. "She was a right royal bitch, wasn't she?"
Laurie looked askance. "I wouldn't say that."
"Maybe you wouldn't," said Ralph. "I would. If you've got that sort of power over others it doesn't pay to spend your time whinging about how it interferes with your love life. You've got more important things to do. Besides which it seems to me that she had a responsibility to...."
"It seems to me," Laurie interrupted, stung, "that her position meant she had to make a distinction between her public self and her private self. Which sounds perfectly reasonable to me. That's what the opera is about, the conflict between personal love and public duty."
"In other words, it's queer propaganda again, isn't it? OK, message received. One doesn't need to have read English at Oxford to get that far."
Laurie said nothing but he found himself thinking for a brief, aching moment of Andrew and his love of Mozart. Perhaps he would have understood without the need for argument. But then Andrew had not even known enough to recognise Tchaikovsky as queer, had he?
"Don't brood, Spud," said Ralph. "Forget I said anything."
"It's all right," said Laurie, dragging himself out of his funk. "Shall we have something else? Or nothing?"
"Something else. I'll put it on. D'you trust me?"
"Of course I trust you."
Ralph put on a record and settled down with the crossword. For a moment there was just the hiss of the needle. Then Tchaikovsky's violin concerto began to play.
Laurie must have drawn a breath of surprise because Ralph glanced up from the Times.
"I thought you looked like you needed a bit of Tchaikovsky," he said.
Later that year there came the news that the Home Secretary intended a campaign against "vice," so called. After so many years of concealment and euphemism, a sore spot only glancingly and delicately touched upon, it seemed strange to see the thing splashed across every front page in the land. Homosexuals, he told the House of Commons, are exhibitionists and proselytizers and a danger to others, especially the young.
"The nearest thing to death in life," quoted Ralph with evident relish, "is David Patrick Maxwell Fyfe."
Even Laurie's colleagues had begun to talk when Sir John Gielgud was arrested, in a public toilet in Chelsea, for persistent importuning.
"I call it going too far," said a sound engineer with a wife and three children in Cricklewood. He left open the question of who had gone too far.
Laurie felt that to say anything would be going too far; it was odd that the fate of a man he had never met, having done things that he would never have dreamt of doing, could inspire him with such a feeling of sympathetic fear. It was as if he had spent most of his life swimming inside a net that was only gradually being tightened around him.
Like a drum beat the arrests continued. In the new year it was Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Peter Wildeblood, a journalist who had narrowly missed being at Oxford at the same time as Laurie. Accused of 'gross offences,' they faced the testimony of two RAF airmen who had previously been their lovers.
"I sympathise," said Ralph, dropping the morning paper on the dining room table, "to a certain extent. But only that. I draw the line at buggering Boy Scouts."
"They've acquitted him on those charges," said Laurie. "I don't believe it ever happened."
"Maybe not. One hears the rummest things. It gets so there's nothing too difficult to believe."
"You don't have much faith in people."
Ralph gave him a look. "If you'd seen some of the things I've seen, Spud, you wouldn't have faith either."
With that riposte he turned to the paper and to his scrambled eggs. Laurie looked over his shoulder. In the trial transcript there was a lurid (unavoidably) account of a sordid (apparently) house party which the four had attended near Beaulieu. It read with almost painful familiarity. Dancing was mentioned. Laurie could not help but think of Charles, and of Bim.
"What strikes me about this," said Ralph some time later, "is the way that it gets one thinking, there but for the grace of God go I."
"You wouldn't have got mixed up in something like that," said Laurie, and almost believed it.
"I haven't been to that sort of party in… well, in ages. That's your doing, Spud. But if it weren't for you I would have been well and truly sunk by now, and it would have been no one's fault but my own."
Not for the first time, Laurie was brought to reflect how painfully narrowed Ralph's horizons must seem for a man who had practically grown up at sea.
As if reading his mind, Ralph continued, "Back in the day, if things got too hot in port, all one had to do was ship out again."
"Maybe we should ship out," Laurie suggested. "For the weekend at least. Shall we go down to the country?"
"I'll see if I can get away."
When Laurie was young the village in which he'd grown up had seemed miles away from anywhere, certainly a different world altogether than London. He'd inherited his childhood home upon his mother's remarriage but only in the past few years had he stopped renting it out and begun to use it as a country home. His stepfather and mother had moved a few years earlier, to a parish near Bournemouth, so that Laurie could now walk past the vicarage without feeling faintly as if he were under disapproving scrutiny. He and Ralph spent many of their weekends there now; at first it had seemed like playing at rural felicity but gradually they had grown to love it. Ralph had proven to have an unexpectedly green thumb, and Laurie welcomed the chance to put down maturer roots in the place where he had grown up.
That Friday Ralph returned early from work. He seemed to take a very long time in the hallway unwinding the scarf from around his neck.
"I asked the skipper if I could get away for a long weekend," he said in response to Laurie's questioning glance. "And he gave me a look of what seemed to be great pity and said it might be best if I did."
Laurie sighed. "If only we lived on a desert island somewhere."
"Desert islands are rarely as romantic as they're cracked up to be, Spud. But I'll take a country cottage any day."
It was a cold day in March and the sun was just beginning to go down as they arrived in the village. Even the daffodils that Ralph had carefully planted in the front garden looked chilled. Inside, Laurie set about opening the curtains and Ralph went to look in the larder.
"Spud, could you run down to the shop and get some bread? I'll see about starting the fire."
Laurie nodded and went to get his coat, but something niggled at the back of his mind. Rather than going straight out the door, he crept up stairs and went to the desk drawer where Ralph's service weapon was kept. It was there, still locked securely in its box. On an impulse Laurie took the key from another drawer and slipped it into his pocket. Then he went.
When he got to the village shop he found that it was not open. He had to drive into town and by the time he got back, the light was fading from the sky. Smoke was rising from the cottage chimney. Laurie had a sudden feeling that Ralph had known very well that the shop would be shut.
Ralph was sitting on the sofa by the fireplace, a poker in his hand and an emptying bottle of whisky on the table by his elbow. The fire, newly lit, was blazing high with a crackle of kindling. Piled sheets of paper curled and charred, singing red along the edges and then crumbling away into ash. Briefly Laurie could make out Ralph's bold handwriting on a page before it too was consumed in the holocaust.
"You're burning your letters," said Laurie.
Ralph did not look up. "My letters. Your letters. I'm sorry, Spud."
Laurie sat down on the sofa with a bump, wincing at the pain in his knee. He looked again at the fireplace. It was full of ash, though Ralph had cleaned it out only last weekend.
"Alec's letters," Ralph continued. His voice was slurred and Laurie could smell the whisky on his breath. "He says he's already burnt the ones I wrote to him."
Laurie had not known that Ralph was still in touch with Alec but it hardly seemed to matter now. Ralph was still speaking.
"There's Bunny, of course, but I hardly wrote to him in any case. It can't be helped. If he hasn't used them by now I doubt he'll ever think to. Good riddance to bad rubbish."
His voice trailed away. There was a long pause.
"And my diaries," said Ralph. "I burnt my diaries."
That was the point at which Laurie could stay silent no longer. "Ralph, you didn't."
He could not see the hearth without remembering that long-ago scene, the night after his mother's wedding, when Ralph had gone down to one knee as if in instinctive surrender. This was a surrender of a different sort.
"Once when I was in the South China Sea," Ralph began, "I knew a chap who nicked his finger on a machete. Got blood poisoning within days; it was working its way up to his heart. They had to take the arm off. It was the lesser of two evils."
His eyes wandered to Laurie's leg. Laurie wondered what Ralph was thinking.
"So the arm comes off?" he asked. "Is that the conclusion?"
"It's getting too hot for me, Spud. I don't mind admitting it; not to you at any rate."
"Why don't you leave?" said Laurie reflexively, the question that he'd been wanting to ask for some time now.
Ralph silently held up his left hand, ruined and bare. It had been years now since he'd bothered as a matter of course to wear the glove in front of Laurie. Only in moments like this did Laurie see the extent to which it still mattered to him.
"Where would I go?" Ralph said. "Not to sea, that's for certain. Who would have me? Lord Nelson be damned."
Self-pity was something that Laurie seldom heard from Ralph. He was about to intervene but he could see that Ralph, struggling hard for control, had something still to say.
"And even if they did have me," he continued, "what would be the point of it all? I've run away to sea once in my life, once at least; I'm not running away again. I shan't let them turn me into Burgess."
Laurie moved closer on the sofa, slipping his arm through Ralph's and leaning somewhat awkwardly against his shoulder. Ralph's hand came up absentmindedly to stroke at the nape of Laurie's neck, giving comfort where he should have been taking it.
"It wouldn't be running away," said Laurie.
There was a long silence.
"You took the key, didn't you," said Ralph finally in a low tone.
Laurie could feel it in the pocket of his corduroys, its serrations digging accusingly into his thigh. "I did."
"I supposed you did. I heard you creeping upstairs, before. I didn't check."
A log came crashing down in the fire, spilling sparks and ashes across the hearth. Ralph shifted so that Laurie could lean wordlessly against him. To speak, even to attempt to affirm his trust in Ralph, felt as though it would be an affront.
"I didn't," said Ralph. "I won't."
Dusk closed in. The fire burned down to embers.
Two weeks later Ralph came home early on another Friday, whistling tunelessly in a way that announced his presence without bringing any cheer. Then the whistling stopped.
"I've had it, Spud," he said from the hall.
"Had it?" echoed Laurie stupidly, still lost in the script that he was reading.
"Gardening leave, as they so euphemistically call it."
Ralph came into the sitting room and went straight to the drinks cabinet. Pouring himself a gin and tonic, he related the story in brisk and factual tones: how he had been called unexpectedly into his superior's office and asked to account for a certain piece of correspondence, over a decade old. The handwriting was his own; the addressee was familiar. It seemed that Bunny had been arrested in Birmingham.
"I didn't ask for what; I had a damn good idea. Apparently he turned Queen's evidence straightaway, I'm sure thinking of saving his own skin rather than out of any regard for the truth. He ransacked all his shoeboxes and my letter was one of the things that fell out. Probably there are men all over Great Britain right now considering their options."
"Are they going to prosecute?"
"As I said, he's turned… Oh. Did you mean me?"
Ralph shook his head. "They don't want a scandal; they gave me the opportunity to fall on my sword and I took it. Do you know, Spuddy, it's like ripping off a plaster or having a tooth pulled: best done quickly and better yet when it's all over."
Laurie looked closely, wondering whether this was false cheer.
"It was the suspense that was the worst," Ralph added reassuringly.
"You don't have to try to spare my feelings," said Laurie.
Ralph's face stiffened a little at that. "I'm trying to spare mine."
"Ralph..." began Laurie. He found that he had no idea how to finish the sentence.
"It's just..." Ralph stopped, collected himself, and began again. "It's just that when one gives a certain degree of loyalty to an institution, one starts to think that one can expect some loyalty in return. Why I've allowed myself to believe that for so many years, I can't imagine."
For Ralph, Laurie realized, allegiance was a way of life. He had given the best of himself to school, to the navy, to the government, and all of them had in the end found him wanting. Or perhaps he had found them wanting. Laurie, whose institutional scepticism had been reinforced by his time with the press, only wished for Ralph's sake that the realisation had come sooner.
"It's more worth giving your loyalty to people," said Laurie, though placing himself in that role seemed too much like conceit.
"Maybe. Maybe I'm starting to learn that at last. It's just that I haven't... I hadn't, that is, until you, Spud... much luck with people either. It's a rum thing but there you are."
"Here I am," Laurie echoed.
"Among other things I thought the skipper had more faith in me than that, but clearly not. I suppose one can't argue with ink on paper." Ralph made a motion as if shaking off some stray speck of dirt that clung to him. "Right. There's that settled. All that remains is the question of what I'm to do with myself between now and the grave."
"Take your gardening leave. Write your memoirs. After that... something will come along. It usually does."
Though Laurie believed it as sincerely as he believed anything, it seemed a frail reed to offer as something to which one could cling.
Ralph had gone on to another thought. "I'll say this for experience: after being expelled from school, nothing that comes after will feel nearly so much like the end of the world. Perhaps a public school education is the best preparation for life after all. Or perhaps that's simply the difference between nineteen and nearly forty."
"I never could have told, then, that you felt the world was ending."
Ralph made a soft noise in his throat. "You know me better now."
"There's another difference," offered Laurie tentatively, "between then and now."
"A pension?" said Ralph.
"When you went to sea, you went alone."
"Bless, Laurie," said Ralph, harsh and sudden.
"Perhaps it doesn't make much difference, but…"
"It makes all the difference."