Huddled under a threadbare musty blanket, spooned against Alec and his arm around Alec’s waist, Maurice slept.
It was still dark when he woke up. It wasn’t very comfortable where they had laid down to sleep in the boathouse, but practical matters hadn’t been in their thoughts last night: old rugs and blankets stashed in a corner had made do, and they had each other for warmth.
He tried to remember his dreams, aware in the moment of wakefulness that they had been vivid: something had reminded him of the dream about a friend he’d had many years earlier, another dream had been full of greenery, bright sunlight playing on trees in full leaf, all of it infused with joy of being with Alec, working with Alec. He shook his head, trying to hold onto the dream before it slipped away, but the details wouldn’t stay: just the vague sense of being in a forest, with Alec, happy.
He sighed and tried to stretch without waking Alec but when he lifted his arm from Alec’s waist Alec rolled over, facing him.
They simply looked at each other for a long moment.
It was Alec who broke the silence.
“What are we going to do now?”
On his way to Penge, Maurice hadn’t given a single thought to this moment: he had been so focused on finding Alec that his imagination hadn’t been able to conjure anything beyond the moment of reunion, and last night words and planning for the future hadn’t seemed that important. But it was morning, the time to make decisions.
“What would you like to do?” he asked.
“I don’t mind what or where. Free as a bird now, I am. What about you? Got anywhere where you need to be?”
“Not right now. But….”
“But your fancy office will be wanting you back some time soon.”
“I don’t have to go back.”
“Going to leave and become a gentleman of leisure, then? What would you live on without your job?”
“I’ve got some savings, and investments too, they can tide me over. But I could do something else, we could work together.”
“Doing what? Can you see me in an office or you out in the wild when it’s wet and cold? I can’t.”
“I just want to be with you.”
“I want to be with you, too.” Alec took his hand and held it over his heart.
“Tell you what,” Maurice said after a moment, “let’s go away together for a little while. We’ll have time to plan then. We can’t stay here.”
“No. Where are we going to go?”
Maurice had suggested going away without any thought about where, but the answer came to him: “The Lake District.” It must have been all the associations with greenery from his dreams in the night in the boathouse.
“Lake District? I’ve never been. Let’s go then.”
“Isn’t it too early?”
“It’s early, but not that early. Five o’clock or thereabouts, I think. We should get out of here before people start scurrying out with morning work.” Alec got up and stretched, and then turned back to pull Maurice up too.
And so they did. They straightened their creased and slept-in clothes the best they could, and followed Alec’s shortcuts through the grounds past the house to the nearest road. Maurice turned back to look at the house once they had passed it but before it was hidden behind the trees and a bend in the path. The first time he came to Penge he had never imagined this was the way his life would turn out, that Clive and he wouldn’t be everything for each other for ever, or that he could find somebody other than Clive to do anything like this. Then Alec tugged his wrist, and he was brought back to the present, and he followed Alec down the path.
* * *
They had been staying in a pretty little inn in Windermere for nearly a week, taking long walks in the drizzle, a couple of afternoons fishing from a little boat on the lake. There were other guests at the inn, but they paid them no attention and had kept themselves to themselves as much as possible. The innkeeper’s brother-in-law had offered his services as a guide for walking or as a boatman for fishing, but they had politely declined and set out for their daily excursions as a twosome.
They had talked, but plans for the future hadn’t been the topic of conversation that often. At night, they had held each other close, learning everything about each other’s bodies.
They were out on a walk once again, and Maurice thought it was time to talk about the future. “We could find a cottage with a plot of land, somewhere quiet, not too close to a village or other houses. If it was our house and our land, we could be as free as we chose.”
“And what would we live on in this little cottage?”
“If we lived simply, my investments could carry us perfectly well. We could grow our own vegetables and hunt rabbits.”
“It’s hard work, growing your own food. You have never done it and neither have I. We wouldn’t last past the first winter.”
“We could try.”
“We could. But it would still be hard work and we might come close to starving if we didn’t have a way of buying food too. And besides, have you ever even washed your own clothes or cooked a meal that wasn’t just, I don’t know, toast by the fire? Or gone to the market to buy the food you want to cook? Or sorted out the water you’d need for a nice hot bath?”
“Not all the time, not often even, but I’ve had to do that sort of thing, at least sometimes. Trust me, it doesn’t come naturally.”
“I can learn.”
“I’m sure you can. I just don’t want you to get too carried away with this dream where everything is simple and perfect and just falls into place. It’s a very nice dream, but it’s just not that easy.”
“But if we found a cottage, would you come to live with me there?”
“Do you even need to ask? Of course I would.”
That was the end of the conversation this time. They fell silent as climbing the steep hill they were facing made them too out of breath to speak, and once they were at the summit, they spoke of other things and didn’t return to the subject later in the day.
Next morning, Maurice was waiting for Alec to get something from the room that he had forgotten when the innkeeper’s brother-in-law happened to walk past and strike up a conversation with him. They talked about the weather for a moment, and their plans for the day, and just when Maurice heard the door open, the man was making some comment about how his footman kept him waiting. Then Alec was there and they set out for the day.
It was clear that Alec had heard the man’s comment and didn’t take it kindly. He shut off every attempt Maurice made at conversation all morning, and kept a steady, fast pace on as they walked.
It wasn’t until they stopped to have lunch—they always brought a packed lunch on their excursions—that Alec started talking.
“We’re never going to be free in this country, are we?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“No matter where we go in England, everyone will me see as your servant, your underling. Even people who don’t know us, to whom you introduce me as your friend. It’s very well for you to say we’re the same, that you aren’t better than me, but you cannot make other people think that too.”
“We can go somewhere else, where they only know you as my friend.”
“They didn’t know us here, but they’ve still seen that we don’t belong together, we’re not the same.”
Maurice had to concede this was true. “Let’s go abroad then,” he said.
“Where to? Won’t it be the same as here?”
“We don’t have to go anywhere where there are other English people. And there won’t be that as many people travelling at this time of year. We could go to Germany.”
“Have you ever been there before?”
“Briefly, passing through, mostly. But we could start from there and go on somewhere else. Spend the winter in Europe and come back with a plan for what we’re going to do next.”
“And how are we going to pay for months of travelling?”
“Don’t worry about that, I’ll take care of it.”
“So you want to have me as your kept boy for good?”
“No, never. You know I don’t think like that. What’s mine is yours and I know we can afford this.”
“Fair enough. Can we leave tomorrow, I’ve had enough of this place and these people.”
“Yes, let’s leave tomorrow. But I think we’ll need to stay a couple of days in London: to make proper arrangements.”
“Suits me. Anywhere but here.”
“I’m afraid it’s going to be very dull for you.”
“It’s only a couple of days and I’m sure there are things to see in London for me too.” Alec smiled and got up from the boulder he had been sitting on and held out his hand. “I think it’s time we headed back. We came quite far this morning,” he said.
* * *
It was February and they had just returned to Athens from a tour of the Greek countryside when he received a letter from Kitty forwarded by his bank. He hadn’t had many other letters: just a couple from the broker who looked after his investments, and another couple from the agent he had instructed to find a cottage with some land.
He hadn’t thought about his family at all in the past few months, in all the time he and Alec had wandered aimlessly across Europe. If he had, he would have assumed that their lives went on as before.
The letter was short and business-like and the handwriting, although tidy, suggested that its author had been impatient to write it as soon as possible. It was not quite what he had expected from Kitty. But thinking about it, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever had any letters from Kitty after his schooldays, when her letters had been written in neat schoolgirl script and were just as dull and tedious as his own dutiful weekly letters home.
Dear Maurice, Kitty wrote, I hope this letter reaches you: no one seems to know where you are, or if you’re even alive.
We were all distressed when you disappeared but everything is well now. Mother is living with the Chapmans, for the company and to be there when the baby comes. We were wondering what you intend to do with the house: since Mother no longer lives there so you can do whatever you please with it. We’ve closed it down and let the servants go. Please write to Forester with your instructions, he’s looking after it.
Please also write to Mother to tell her you are well. If you want to write to me, my address is below. I share digs with a friend of Violet’s in London now, and I work in an office.
“Bad news?” Alec asked and leaned closer to read over your shoulder.
“No, no. Just my sister asking about the house.”
“The house I grew up in. I’d forgotten all about it.”
“How can you forget about a house?”
“I always thought of it as my mother’s house. It was left to me in my father’s will, but with the condition my mother could stay as long as she wanted or got married again. If she’s gone to live with the Chapmans, I can sell it now.”
“You don’t want to live there?”
“Oh, goodness, no. I could let it out, I suppose. But if I sell it, we’d have more for our cottage.”
“You still want that?”
“Yes, I do. And I thought you did too—have you changed your mind?”
Alec was quiet for a moment. Maurice could feel his warm breath near his ear.
“I don’t know. These last few months, I’ve seen and heard so much, you’ve shown me all these countries and cities and towns and villages. It’s made my old life seem so small. I mean, I was going to emigrate but until then, I’d lived in one village all my life, and barely been further than 20-30 miles away from it, and certainly not often.”
He paused for a moment. “I don’t know if I could settle in a small cottage away from everybody and just live there for the rest of my life. I’d have you, but I don’t know if it’s enough, if it’s just our own thoughts for company and our land for scenery.”
“What do you want to do then?” Maurice asked, suddenly afraid.
“I don’t know. Last week, when we were looking at those ruins and you were telling me about the old Greeks and what they did and all, and it just made me think. I left school as soon as I could and didn’t see much point in any of it, and I loved being out in the grounds on my own, not shut in between four walls. But there’s so much out there that I don’t know and perhaps I’d like to learn about it and I don’t know how that would be possible if we withdrew from the world in our little cottage.”
“We could have books. We could go away sometimes. We could come back to Greece again too, if you wanted to.”
“I’m not a great reader, as you know. And if we’re trying to live simply and not have to work for others, where would the money to go away sometimes come from?”
Maurice sighed. Ever since the beginning, Alec had had his feet firmly on the ground and always asked the practical questions. It had always felt like he’d indulged Maurice’s dream of a quiet life in a pretty little cottage with its own land, living close to the land, just the two of them. The two of them against a world that didn’t understand them or see what they meant to each other. But the whole idea, the dream, it was all tied to memories of Alec out in the grounds at Penge, of the dreams he’d had that night in the boathouse, and he didn’t want to to let it go.
Alec shifted against him.
“Would you want to live in London then?” Maurice asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Among all the people and away from the nature?”
“Maybe. Going through all these cities that we’ve seen this winter, I noticed that it seemed easier to hide among people: there were so many others that no one ever paid much attention to every other person.”
“It’s different when you’re travelling. If we settled down, we’d still have neighbours, people we’d greet on the street out of habit, the local gossips.”
“And your sister, it seems.” Alec nodded at the letter.
“And my sister. How that happened I have no idea.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I ever really knew her. Kitty and Ada both seemed so silly and girly, so I don’t think I ever listened to what they were saying.”
“My sister would have smacked me on the head if she noticed I wasn’t listening to her.”
“Kitty went on this course and suddenly seemed to have all these opinions, and it all sounded so shrill over breakfast.”
“Poor Maurice, having to listen to women having opinions over his hearty breakfast. Such a hard life you used to have.”
“I’m glad I have only you now.”
“Me too. But I still don’t know if having only you and a little cottage in the middle of nowhere is what I want after all this.”
It still stung a little, hearing it like that.
“Let’s think about that when we get back to England. Maybe we’ll find somewhere in London instead.”
The idea didn’t excite him at all.
Alec laughed at his expression. “After all, gentlemen must keep their rent boys somewhere, so there must be somewhere in London where people don’t care.”
“Is that … how you think I see you?”
Alec moved so he faced Maurice. He looked earnest and serious. “No. It did feel a little like that in the beginning, but after the past few months, no. I know where I stand with you, and I’m not your bit of fun. I know that. And that’s what matters.”
“Say we settle in London, and that’s the assumption people make.”
“Let them. They don’t know, we do.But at least we’re not hiding away.”
“Is that important to you?”
“It is, now, I think.”
Alec pulled him close and they didn’t speak any more that night. Maurice clung to the dream he had, but the image in his mind of the two of them working together in the green forest, as one with the nature and each other had started to acquire the indistinct edges of something unreal, something that would never come to pass. And for the first time since he’d seen it with his mind’s eye, that early morning in the boathouse, it didn’t feel like the only right future for him and Alec, just one of the possibilities. With Alec in his arms, the hard warm body by now as familiar if not more so as his own, he felt certain they’d find their way.
Two weeks later they were in Milan when a letter from the agent he'd instructed with the cottage search found him: he had found something that that he thought would fit the bill, but perhaps Maurice thought it wasn't quite remote enough. Browsing through the exact details from the agent, Maurice thought he would probably have rejected it outright if the agent had proposed it two months ago, but after the conversation with Alec in Athens, he thought it might actually be as close to perfect as possible: it was remote, but not impossibly so, no neighbours nearby, a village with London-bound trains six miles away. He showed the letter to Alec.
"What do you think?"
"It sounds good, but we'd need to see it."
"Are you ready to go back to England for this?"
"Yes." Alec smiled. "It could be your dream cottage, and I want you to have it if it is."
"I want you to be happy there too."
"I think it could be good for me too."
"Then I'll write to him today and we'll leave tomorrow."