The Captain tapped thoughtfully at his pipe. The winter flowering was late. In other years, he could have sat at the balcony at Marlinspike of an evening and smelt the elusive scent of winter jasmine already. Now, strolling back from the riverbank, the dying sun’s light lit up thick green foliage and buds of honeysuckle and snowdrops but not a single flower. What the devil were they waiting for?
He stood near the gates of the Hall until the light had gone completely and then walked back in. The cold had settled in already. Or he was a shivering landlubber who had never sailed the Pacific.
“You’re getting old, Archie,” he muttered.
“I beg your pardon, sir?” Nestor asked, raising his eyebrow in the accustomed manner to indicate concern. Haddock shook his head.
“Nothing, Nestor. I’ll have dinner in the morning room. Thank you.”
Dinner was as excellent as always, as it should be, for what he was paying that devil of a cook. A bottle of port would have gone down like mother’s milk with it. Then, after dinner, the letter. Restlessly, he fidgeted with his pipe and tobacco. And that confounded coffee. At least it wasn’t tea. As if he would ever drink something as mealy-mouthed as tea. At least coffee was rich and bitter. The smell of these Brazilian beans were almost good enough.
The letter he hadn’t touched. In his office, where mostly he slept and sometimes read or played at chess with Calculus, he had a cunningly carved wooden box full of postcards sent from all over the world. Some even he hadn’t heard of, in his many long years of sailing the wide seas. He even had a single letter in cipher, containing details of an attempted bombing that had long since been published. But this was thicker than that and besides, damn the boy, they had solved the mystery he had gone haring off after. What was he doing there, a month, no nearly two months later? Did he have to do their laundry as well as preventing the riots?
He took care to cut the letter open evenly. With Tintin’s maddening exactness, it was possible he would cut the letter otherwise. Opening it, he saw there were three pages, written rather than typed. This surprised him, because Tintin had bought a broken-down typewriter in Sri Lanka and even bothered fixing it up in the moments between them running for their lives, and practically swimming to India. Where he found the time to sleep, Haddock couldn’t tell. The boy would use up his life’s worth of energy before he was thirty, at this rate.
He smoothed the pages out in front of him and filled his pipe, his hands moving on their own in the practise of decades. He had been fourteen when he went to sea, and had taken up the pipe to show he was a man despite the lack of hair on his chin, or anywhere else. It hadn’t worked so well when he had nearly hacked his innards out but the other sailors had been gruffly amused at his bollocks and had left him alone for the most part. One or two had even given him a few pointers, which he knew to appreciate even if they came with cuffs around the head.
He poured out the coffee and settled down with the phone off the hook, and the cat inside so she wouldn’t meow to be let in. Now that he was finally beginning the letter, he wanted to savour it. He didn’t want to be interrupted unless there was an actual fire threatening to burn down the house.
Finally he settled back in his chair, took a puff of his pipe and began reading:
Dear Captain Haddock, it began.
Mister Patnaik is showing me around the southern portion of the island. It is where the rebels have made their base. Now that the plot has been found out, the government is willing to negotiate, and some of them have been repatriated. I have been speaking with those to be moved. Some are happy, but others feel that this is their home now. They have been staying here for most of their lives and have made homes here. The government seems to be doing its best to efficiently move everyone out without taking into account the circumstances. There are people here who will have to leave their children, or who are too old to be moved.
Absorbed, Captain Haddock read through the entire page in no time, even though he read every word carefully. It seemed that, even with the riots discovered to be incited by some nitwitted extremist baboon the old resentments still flickered and the government wanted to be free of the entire problem as swiftly as possible. It wasn’t surprising but Haddock had always been cynical about governments and authorities. Tintin seemed disappointed but determined.
It wasn’t easy to tell. A page later, the letter had moved on to descriptions of the secret black market of goods that outsiders rarely knew about. It was the sort of thing Haddock had seen often when he had still sailed for a living, there was one in every port, some with the oddest goods. This one seemed to trade in tea, and dyes, along with the more conventional oil. But the witty and observant remarks still seemed to be like a page from one of Tintin’s pieces for Le Petit Vigtieme. Impassioned and personal, but still with a warning distance between the reporter writing and the person he was.
The damn pipe wasn’t burning right, and the coffee was too sweet. Haddock screwed up his face and then saw that the clock had already struck ten. Too late to call Nestor out on such an idiotic errand. He had told Nestor to have an early night since it was just the two of them. More and more, it was just the two of them, with Calculus in such demand. Marlinspike was still nominally his home, but he was there a bare month or so out of the year. Haddock started cleaning out his pipe.
Tintin, too, did not seem so eager to stay as he had used to be. He had agreed with Haddock in Sri Lanka that it would be a relief to get back and been enthusiastic about seeing the repairs done in the artificial lake but at the last moment had demurred. There was still some work to be done, he had said, but when Haddock had reluctantly started unpacking he had argued that there was no reason for him to stay as well, and miss the first snow in Marlinspike. That it was routine journalist work without any danger at all that Haddock would find boring and would be done so soon Tintin would be back before him if he was determined to take a ship.
Well, he had taken a ship and yet here he was, alone in Marlinspike and Tintin’s routine work had predictably taken him into some very dangerous situations that he passed over in a few light, amusing sentences in the letter. The first snow hadn’t come yet and Marlinspike was still covered with warning dark clouds that passed over by the end of day.
Haddock finished clearing out his pipe and preparing it for the next time he would use it and then packed up the letter unfinished to put inside his coat pocket, beside the pipe and a lucky copper piece he had had for donkey’s years and never spent on drink.
He got up from the chair with a creak that seemed to come from his as much as the chair and muttered, “Old. I’m getting old,” and shuffled off to bed with a heavy head and heavy bones and fingers itchy for a solid tumbler that a man could hold properly instead of these tiny cups.
Tintin got out of the cab and felt the atmosphere settle in immediately. The heavy anxiety, the need to always be doing and seeing that seemed to have been with him from his birth eased. He felt sleepy and willing to be satiated for the first time in what felt like months. He paid the cabbie and tipped generously so that the grumpy fellow tipped his cap at him as he got his bags out.
He had come straight from Sri Lanka, without stopping at Labrador road and had an absurd number of bags, along with the old typewriter he had picked up and hadn’t had the heart to leave behind. It was new, this desire to pick up accoutrements. He missed the days when all he had needed was pen, paper, a coat, and Snowy.
He struggled with the bags while Snowy stared at him sceptically and then he heard a familiar whistle coming down the road and smiled to himself before he turned and called out, “Hallo, Captain!”
Captain Haddock stood nearly at the great wrought-iron doors, his familiar weatherbeaten face with his pipe tucked in a corner of his mouth but unlit made Tintin want to smile wider, or laugh even. The Captain beat him to it, striding forward and then breaking into a run to come and grasp his hand in both of his bigger hands and laughing out loud.
Speechless they stared at each other, and Tintin could feel his ears heating up. Finally Captain Haddock said, “It’s good to see you, young fellow. I was beginning to wonder whether I needed to get on one of those confounded flying deathtraps back to Sri Lanka.”
Tintin smiled and shook his head. Spreading out his free hand, he said, “Safe and sound you see, Captain.”
The Captain let go of his hand and made a motion to grasp his shoulder but did not. Gruffly he said, “Let’s get you settled in.”
Belying his appearance of being a retired country gentleman, he easily grasped the heavier of the two bags in one hand and grabbed the trolley as well, leaving Tintin with the light briefcase and the typewriter.
“Nestor,” the Captain bellowed, striding through the door, “Look who’s come! Nestor!”
Nestor appeared and gave him a warm smile, “Sir. Mr Tintin. If I may say so, I am very pleased to see you back home. The house has seemed empty.”
“I’m very glad to be back, uh… home,” Tintin said, and thought his ears must be bright red by now. Neither Nestor nor the Captain seemed to see anything amiss, and Snowy saved the day by making a dart at the Cat who stood up, hissed and curled up regally and went to sleep again as Snowy yelped and dove back. The Captain had never called her anything except ‘Cat’ and Tintin had fallen into the same habit although the Professor called her Hypatia for some incomprehensible reason of his own, and Tintin had long suspected that Nestor had a name for her.
“Where is the Professor? I didn’t see him in his workshop on the way up,” Tintin asked as Nestor whisked them into the morning room, overlooking the garden rather than the woods. His bags were taken away just as efficiently, no doubt to be put into the room he thought of as his, even if he had no reason except long habit.
There was a single chair opposite the one the Captain sat in, but it seemed to have been left unused. Of course, the Captain didn’t often entertain guests in here.
“Hm, no,” the Captain seemed startled, woken up from some contemplation of his own even though he had been looking at Tintin. “He isn’t here now.”
“He said he would be, when I wrote to him.”
“You wrote?” Captain Haddock asked, brows furrowing together, puzzled, as he well might be. It was an odd thing to have done, and Tintin could hardly have explained it to himself except that it made it easier to post the Captain’s letter if it wasn’t the only thing he was posting.
“Oh, I wrote generally,” he dismissed it, “when I wrote to you. When he wrote back he said he would be back soon and I was hoping for a chance to meet him. It’s been so long.”
The Captain nodded, appeased, and said, “You know what he is. He’s probably got sucked into some new gadget or thingummybob and completely forgotten about eating or sleeping, let alone what continent he might be on.”
The deep, sleepy feeling of Marlinspike Hall settled in again firmly at this true-to-life description of his old friend, the speech typical of the older friend in front of him. Tintin smiled in pleasure at the predictability of it all. “Dear Marlinspike, nothing seems to have changed at all!” He exclaimed, craning his neck for a quick look at the gardens outside, in the low light of the setting sun.
“The lake is filling up nicely with fish, and we’ve modernised the kitchen. That Ostrogoth of a cook of mine demanded it,” Captain Haddock responded quickly, “but it’s mostly the same. Not like London, de… old fellow. Nothing changes here.”
Nestor brought in the tea, and Tintin was surprised to see that there was no obvious glass container full of alcohol. There was no tea either, but as Nestor lifted the pot, Tintin could smell the heavy smell of excellent coffee. Captain Haddock waved away the little pastries, urging them on his guest, but accepted the coffee. “Try them, my cook thinks they’re wasted on me, but you’ll appreciate them,” he said, filling up Tintin’s plate himself instead of waiting for Nestor to do it. Tintin tried not to stare at the Captain’s cup, and probably overdid it appreciating the pastries.
Haddock gave him a sardonic stare but just raised his cup in a silent salute when Tintin smiled and shrugged. They spent so long chatting about nothing, quite in their old style that when Nestor came in with a polite cough to ask whether he should set dinner in the morning room, Tintin realized with a start that he hadn’t even changed out of his travelworn clothes.
“Thundering typhoons, is it time for dinner already?” Haddock said, “Yes, set it in here but a little later. Tintin, do you want to go up and…”
He stopped so Tintin jumped up and said, “I’ll just change my clothes and be right back, Captain.”
The Captain nodded and tapped an absent tattoo on his pipe as he settled back into his chair.
Tintin went up the stairs, two at a time, as had been his habit from his first time here. As a willing guest rather than an unwilling one anyway. He smiled when he saw that Nestor had set out his toiletries from his briefcase. He hesitated before choosing his clothes. Nearly half a year in Sri Lanka seemed to have left him at a loss. All of his pants and shirts seemed far too casual. Not that Captain Haddock would care, so finally Tintin threw on whatever seemed to be clean.
Despite his obvious liking at having Tintin there, the Captain was still slightly formal. Then again, he had always been a little formal with Tintin, and with everyone honestly. Probably the natural response to the lack of privacy in a sailor’s life. It seemed fairly obvious that he hadn't read the letter. He liked to pretend he was just a gruff old sailor, but he was as sharp as anyone Tintin knew when he was paying attention. It was, all told, for the best.
As a boy, Tintin had bypassed the Captain’s discomfort easily, settling into easy companionship, like his age and precociousness made it acceptable for him to slip past the ‘No Trespassing’ signs as he did so often during his journalism investigations. Now he felt like he couldn’t reach that space he had absently settled in before.
He felt the burden of growing up constricting him. So much that he could have said or done innocently now felt beyond him. He hardly knew when he had grown up enough that there had developed this distance between him and even the Captain. Maybe all grown-ups felt this way. It made Tintin melancholy, and it was only long practice smiling through unknown dangers that let him look at ease when he came down the stairs at a more sedate pace than he had used going up.
The Captain was standing at a half-open window when Tintin slipped in noiselessly. Snowy trotted in after and looked thoughtfully at the Cat lazing on top of a table.
Captain Haddock appeared to be talking to himself, gesturing with one hand. Tintin hesitated then let the door slam shut. The Captain jumped and his pipe flew from his fingers and, as they stared, the Cat jumped up and hissed, and Snowy took his chance and dashed over to nip at her tail. She swiped at him with one clawed paw, hit the end of the pipe which swivelled around and landed on top of the chandelier, with the bowl hooked on it.
Tintin dimpled and hurriedly tried to hide it as the Captain turned on both animals and sent them running, before he turned on Tintin for laughing at his misfortune.
“It wasn’t lit,” he soothed, “We’ll soon have it down.” Captain Haddock turned a fierce look on him but appeared mollified when Tintin showed him a straight face. And just like that, he was home.
The days seemed to run into each other in a peaceful slow sort of way at Marlinspike as they always had. Within a day, all his memory of living in a distant land, alone and melancholy had become sepia-toned, like a photograph of a memory instead of a memory.
Wandering the woods with the Captain made him feel less restless, less homesick and he became unguarded enough to exclaim, “It must be wonderful seeing this all the time!”
The Captain looked at him for a long moment and said, more careful than was his wont, “I hope you know I, that is… Tintin, you have as much a right to this house as I have.”
He passed over Tintin’s sharp ‘no,’ without pausing, “And anyway, you’re welcome to whatever home I have. You always have been, even when it wasn’t all this.” the Captain gestured to their surroundings. “You don’t have to keep leaving.”
“Thank you,” Tintin said, because the Captain meant it. Tintin wondered whether Captain Haddock had really not read his letter or whether he had not realized. He had been careful in his wording, slipping in the truth amongst many pages of nonsense, but surely his meaning had been obvious?.
The Captain looked like he wanted to say something more, but after a pause carried on walking briskly, leading him towards the lake he hadn't yet seen. They moved on to other topics, and Tintin told him the story of how he became a Knight of the Order of the Golden Pelican, the first time he had visited Syldavia.
“I almost forgot that you hadn’t been there,” he admitted. It was impossible now, to imagine that he had lived long years and gone on so many adventures without the Captain. “I can’t imagine why I haven’t told you.”
The Captain hmphed, and said, “Lots of things you keep to yourself lad.” He said it neutrally.
Tintin shook his head. Not a lot. A few only.
“Where were you planning on going from here?” the Captain asked, changing the subject kindly again.
But he didn’t want the subject changed. Tintin wandered over to the edge of the lake and leaned against a tree. His heart was thumping loudly in his ears now and his knees were weak in a way they had rarely been even when facing certain death.
“To a friend. Edward,” he said, voice steady even if his stomach felt queasy, “In the.. near St. James’ Park.”
The Captain had reached his side by this time, and he asked, slowly, “St. James’? But, do you know…” he trailed off, because it had to be clear that Tintin did know that it was still an area notorious for being habituated by homosexuals.
A hand landed heavily on his shoulder, and Tintin flinched.
“You can’t have thought that I would care,” the Captain said, in a sad voice. “That our friendship could be destroyed by this. This is your home, as long as you like.”
No, he hadn’t thought that. Tintin almost laughed. The Captain truly was oblivious, and this was as far as he dared go. “Thank you, Captain,” he turned and smiled his best smile.
The Captain frowned, “What’s the matter?” he asked, sharp. When Tintin didn’t reply, he said, “Is he a good… friend? Are you worried?”
Then Tintin threw all caution to the wind, and knowing full well that he was giving up the best portion of his life, he said, “Not as good a friend as you Captain.”
To give himself a moment, he whistled and called, “Here Snowy!” Then he turned around to walk back the way he had come and pack up as well as he might.
The Captain held onto his arm, and said, “Turn around,” and because he owed the Captain that much, he did, and looked straight at him. He was relieved to see that he wasn’t ashamed. He was almost relieved to let go of this secret, which had become a burden rather than a pleasure so slowly that he couldn't have said when he started feeling the weight of it.
“Billions of…” the Captain started explosively, then, “I followed you into a revolution, Tintin. And to meet a damned Yeti in Tibet! And to the Moon! You…! You think I don’t...?” Tintin felt like he was seeing the sun rise just for him.
The Captain appeared to be speechless with feeling now and Tintin half-laughed, “I didn’t know, Captain. I didn’t know!” and raised his own hand to Captain Haddock’s cheek, brushing through his beard.
“I’m not too old for you?” Captain Haddock asked, pulling him closer, “I’m such an old man now, dear fellow. You deserve an younger ‘un. Someone who could keep up with you.”
“You’re the perfect age,” Tintin said simply and when the Captain pulled him securely into his arms, Tintin wasn’t homesick at all, not anymore.
It was a long while later that they slowly made their way back home, and the sun had set long past. Snowy had left them to wander around but had come back to set a course back to the house.
Haddock exclaimed, “The buds are flowering! That’ll be a nice sight.”
He strode forward. Tintin smiled sideways at him, pleased that the Captain was pleased but a little puzzled. He hadn’t ever known the Captain to care about flowers so much, although he could be jealously careful about everything in his old family estate.
“They must have been waiting for you, lad,” the Captain added, open affection in his tone and Tintin felt himself flush as the Captain gave him a glance and then turned away, a little pleased smile on his face.
Tintin hurried to catch up with the Captain and Snowy as they went looking for other trees that may have bloomed and other little treasures.