‘If I were you, I’d just place a notice, or no, hang on, announce it at the Hunt Ball or something. And an engagement notice in the paper. The old bitch can’t very well object then, can she?’
‘Bloody hell, Lanyon. She’d never speak to us again.’
‘Wouldn’t be much of a hardship, would it? Nothing Pam’s ever said suggests much filial piety to spare. And now Maunsell mère's living in Paris, most of the time, isn't she? Oh, I don’t know. Not my department, family life.’
‘I would say there’s a woman out there to change your mind, but what I’m picturing looks like Whittier in lipstick and a frock.’
‘I think you must be confusing my private life with last Saturday night in your wardroom.’
Geoff Marlow laughed heartily, not noticing that Ralph’s smile hadn’t quite reached his eyes. ‘Speaking of, what about this tennis club dance? Pam and her partner reckon they’ve a chance at the mixed doubles cup, so I’ll probably be stuck there cheering her on all ruddy afternoon, but the evening might be jolly enough. The clubhouse is just a shack, so it’s at the Majestic. You could take Molly if you’re not fixed up.’
‘Yes, all right.’ Pamela’s sister Molly was as sensible as her shoes and too good-natured for Ralph even to think of working up one of his attractions upon. He felt that taking her out was not a proper test of the hypothesis, but unless something very singular happened in the next ten days, he already had his theory. It was a pity he’d be at sea by then. He wasn’t about to start being obliging just because the results had come in as expected.
‘Hard luck, old girl, said Geoff, squeezing Pam’s shoulder. ‘Damnable close-run thing, though, as the man said on the platform at Waterloo. Well played, Deacon.’
‘Thanks. Might have been b-better, I’m afraid. Still, it was a bit of fun.’ The thin, dark young man―he couldn’t be much older than Pamela’s eighteen―looked straight past Geoff at Ralph. Two years had given him considerable skill and experience in evading such looks, but he found suddenly his heart wasn’t in it, and returned it steadily. The dark eyes flicked back to Geoff in inquiry.
‘Oh, yes―Alec Deacon; Ralph Lanyon.’
Deacon’s hand was dry and cool despite recent exercise. Ralph knew next to nothing about tennis, but he had seen Deacon was actually good; matched with the athletic girl he was playing against in that final, he would have smashed all comers. But he seemed quite happy to throw himself away on Pam’s polite accomplishment, and that Ralph found intriguing; nothing about his bearing otherwise suggested that he was in the least casual or trivial. It was a pity―he squashed the thought firmly. One year would have been enough, but he’d decided on two, and it would be cheap to break out now.
Pam, in her competent, unfussy way, took it upon herself to explain them to one another. Ralph saw her in a few years time, struggling merrily with a growing brood on a lieutenant’s pay, entertaining some dear friends of ours in a shabby, clean kitchenette-cum-dining-room with a hearty barley stew and a bottle of cheap vin de table. The very thought was stifling, like fumes from a leaky gas fire; he quickly reapplied himself to the conversation. He had a fortunate knack for absorbing information while thinking of something else entirely, and he thought he had most of Deacon’s history screwed down; spending part of the vac with his maiden aunt who was in turn something or other to Pam and Molly Maunsell, medical student entering his second year this autumn, some minor public school, not unlike Ralph’s own, probably―but Deacon had clearly made a rather more careless passage through it than he―not that that would have been difficult.
Deacon had something like the reverse social capability, and Ralph found himself repeating items of his carefully-doctored biography which he was almost sure Pam had already mentioned. Under most circumstances this would have irritated him, but there was something charming about the thoroughly-owned incompetence, especially when combined with a stammer being brought slowly under control: the slight speech impediment had the feel of something wayward, unruly, rather than a hitch. He thought that Deacon was someone to whom one might easily be prompted to tell the truth (not that his standard account of himself contained any lies of commission) but there was no point in wistfulness. It was only when their group broke up to take lifts or stroll back home to dress that he realised he had not spoken to Molly since Alec and Pam had come off the court, an omission that must be rectified at dinner. He felt a curious dismay at the resolution, though Molly was relaxing, understanding company and there was no decision to be made about Deacon. He was not going to fall for it, and that was that.
Luckily, Geoff’s dinner jacket belonged to that brief era of his life when his proportions more closely approximated Ralph’s spareness than his present solidity, and it was only a little loose.
‘You’re a narrow bugger, Lanyon; I don’t think I’d be able to get in that now. Can’t think why I still have it. You look rather well in it.’
He did, too. Geoff could still be boyishly jokey in the presence of masculine good looks, but something about Lanyon’s hard, creased face quelled merriment of that kind before it began. As Lanyon twitched reflexively and left-handedly at the wings of his collar, Geoff noticed that his friend’s hands were beautiful―well-proportioned, powerful, and refined. Any girl might swoon to find herself underneath them, but Lanyon had simply ghastly taste in women. Every time Geoff had met him he had a different one, but all the same too; well-put-together belles laides with the air of something quite hysterically off-kilter just below the flawless maquillage.
Molly was not at all like that, and oddly, it seemed rather to suit him. Once or twice, over dinner, Geoff caught the lineaments of an anecdote that he wouldn’t have thought could be scrubbed up sufficiently for mixed company, but Lanyon, though abrupt in manner, had a certain verbally inventive flair and Molly was like one of those brisk, unflappable modern nuns who work in the slums. Pam had her unshockable side too, but that, Geoff reflected warmly, was rather different. Lanyon wheeled Molly around the floor a couple of times―they had achieved much the same stiff, schoolroom level of performance―but eventually she escaped into one of the lounge bar gaggles in which her face lost its damp, eager sheen and became restful and amused, and he scarpered for what the hotel piss-elegantly called the smoking room.
Alec was sitting at the small corner bar. ‘Oh, hullo, Lanyon. I was wondering when you’d make an appearance. Had a little wager with myself, but I lost by five minutes, so I suppose I ought to buy you a drink with my winnings.’
Was he tight? Stammerers could sometimes speak clearly in their cups, he’d heard that happen before. Evening dress didn’t suit him, for all it really should; he had the physique for it, but not the face. A lank lock had fallen onto his brow; Ralph had an absurd impulse to brush it back, not as a lover might, but maternally, with a spit-wet comb.
‘Oh, well, thanks. A pink gin, then.’
He ordered a tonic water for himself, and grinned at Ralph’s ill-concealed surprise. ‘No, I don’t like the taste.’
‘Who does, for Christ’s sake?’
‘I don’t know. Chaps who go in for wine and whisky and so forth. Can’t be all ostentation, can it?’
‘Too much effort, to my mind. Cultivating a vice in the hope it becomes a habit.’
‘I’ve never done that, I don’t think. I like to try new things. But if I don’t enjoy them I don’t tend to stick with them. Worries me sometimes. But then, I rather take p-pleasure in overcoming―reluctance, so that evens things out a bit. Turns out most of the time it wasn’t reluctance. Just obstinacy.’
Ralph couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing, and was unwilling to admit how excited it made him. This was exactly what he’d promised himself he wouldn’t do, and what he most wanted. His perceptions seemed heightened, lucid, instinctive; it reminded him a bit of fencing, which he hadn’t done since, either. Quite unlike the stolid, gamey self-satisfaction he felt from getting on with girls.
‘I wondered, actually―seeing you play with Pam Maunsell today―how much store you put in things. I mean―you work on your own game I’d say; wouldn’t you―enjoy it more with someone, more, well, in your own class?’
‘Oh, sometimes, I think so. My analyst says I’m complacent, and one can’t change a character that admits complacency.’
‘That stunned expression isn’t very flattering, Ralph. You might have let it go at a raised eyebrow.’
‘Well ―I just don’t―think I believe in that sort of thing.’
‘No, I don’t think I do either. But I do rather enjoy it. And I barely stutter at all now. But the base condition hasn’t changed a bit. Do I mean b-base?’
‘Underlying?’ Ralph ran a finger inside his collar. His jugular pulse was hammering.
‘Yes, that’s a nicer word, isn’t it? Not sure it’s any more applicable to my―p-position. Anyway I shall pack it in, the analysis I mean, after this vac. I feel a bit of a heel though. Bruno is a friend of my Pa’s―a German refugee, poor swine.’
Ralph did raise an eyebrow this time. ‘That wasn’t a very―tactful epithet.’
Alec giggled nervously. ‘Oh yes, you see. There’s p-parapraxis for you.’
‘That’s when you―’
‘―express an unconscious feeling with a slip of the tongue, yes.’
‘Sounds diverting. Look, I’m here with someone. Molly Maunsell, actually. I should catch up with her. Can we―’ dammit, what the bloody hell did it matter after all, a week? ‘Can we pick this up later?’
‘Of course. I’m staying with my aunt, but she’s in town this weekend. I’d welcome the company. Why don’t you call tomorrow, early? I’ll write down the address.’ Alec fished in his jacket and swore subvocally.
‘I don’t suppose you―’
Ralph proffered a clean page of his pocket notebook and silver pencil. The handwriting was looping and graceful, rather too readable for a future doctor’s.
Geoff’s conversation was suddenly intolerably lumpen; Ralph’s smile grew positively Archaic under the strain. He danced with Molly, then Pam, and some chum of theirs who left him smelling of her sickly lily-of-the-valley talc. He made another excursion to the smoking room, but Alec had gone, of course. At last it was carriages-at-one, but he should have to see Molly home and participate in the farce of coffee and the pretence Geoff wasn’t staying the night.
It was nearly three by the time he reached the house in Fabian Street. The street-lighting made the butterscotch paintwork look even more lurid than it must in daylight. There was no bell, and he first worried that he would wake neighbours with his rap at the door, then in the fearful interval between knock and answer, rehearsed torments: that he had misunderstood, or was being sent up―
But Alec came to the door in a flannel shirt―open at the neck and sleeves rolled to the elbow―and mended canvas bags, barefoot, cigarette in hand. He looked older than he had in either tennis whites or dinner jacket. He showed Ralph into a living room―more a study or library, really. It smelled of pipe tobacco, leather and foxed, musty old books: its regular inmate was clearly a genus of maiden aunt that Ralph had so far only encountered in her textual aspect, and had no particular wish to meet in the field.
‘Have a drink? Aunt Edith’ll be delighted to see a bit of a dent, actually. She thinks I’m a fearful cissy, sandal-wearing, lentil-munching crank for not.’
‘Gin and bitters?’
‘Whisky. If you―she―has it.’
‘Natch,’ he said childishly, ‘have a pew.’ Ralph sank into one of the broken-springed fireside chairs.
Alec brought whisky and water, and stretched himself on his back on the hearthrug, his head at Ralph’s feet.
‘Now, do you really want to discuss psychoanalysis?’
‘Not in the slightest.’ He reached down. ‘Come here.’
Despite Alec’s broad intimations, Ralph had not expected to encounter in this clever, callow, sheltered person desires and pleasures quite so similar to his own; still less be the one more often obliged to modify his needs. But so it was, and he found new and sweet things in generosity and sacrifice. He wanted to exhaust the pent energies of two years―less a week, and how feeble and stubborn seemed his determination to hold to the null letter of that contract, set against possession of and by Alec―but found that he was constrained to do so by offering himself. He began almost immediately to re-frame submissiveness as tender indulgence, but was not oblivious to its intoxicating charge. And he perceived that making a gift of himself had the power to move, an immoderate poignancy. He remarked, but did not reflect upon, the fact that the condition which in him was most amenable to the spilling of confidences was for Alec one of silence. He talked long after Alec’s breath had become slumberously stertorous; his own voice sounded distant and tinny, like a wireless left on in another room by a lonely person for comfort. At last, he slept.
Ralph woke regularly after four hours sleep, no matter how tired he was; he could obviate that maritime reflex only with dope or far more to drink than he’d had last night. This morning he was as tired as he had ever been in his life: he felt grey, scoured and wrung-out, as if he had cried himself to sleep. Their bout had continued long into the summer dawn; it was now, according to the alarm clock, gone eleven. He wondered if Geoff had gone looking for him at their boarding house: the unslept-in bed might pass muster for one already made up, but he had no clothes but Geoff’s d.j.; if he was caught before he could change the very least of it would be a cross-examination involving him in factual accounts of this satellite port-town’s nightlife, which Geoff knew as well as he to be sordid. Come to think, the girls did too, they weren’t ninnies, and that was rather rotten on Molly. Borrowing Alec’s clothes, though it would be infinitely delightful in personal terms, was no reasonable subterfuge; they would be immediately recognised as alien to Ralph’s scanty stock of mufti, and very possibly recognised outright. Anyway, Alec had about three inches in height on him.
‘If I were you, I should phone―’
‘Oh, hullo, Alec. I thought you were still asleep.’
Alec rolled over onto his back and stretched. ‘―Me Auntie won’t be back until tomorrow morning, so I think the very best thing you could do is lie low here, don’t you? Give the Maunsells a bell―’
‘I dare say they’ve gone out already―they didn’t have a strenuous night like we did.’
That gratified him; he looked almost shy. Ralph glowed with it.
‘The boarding house, then, leave a message for Geoff. Phone’s downstairs, where we were last night, so’s the book. Out of curiosity, what’ll you say?’
‘The truth, naturally. Omitting some names, and other things.’
Ralph would later write that Alec’s innocent proprietorship was rather touching; for all the vaunted psychology, the simple possibility of tristia and need for flight had clearly not even crossed his mind. But at the time, it hadn’t crossed Ralph’s either. And Ralph was the one who had done a year and fifty-one weeks of bolting sickened from unsuitable beds.
The commerce they fell to after a breakfast of coffee and scrambled eggs was cruder in every way. Ralph thrilled to it: he could never use or accept rough language where girls were concerned, for fear he meant it; he knew they meant it all right. The limp in Alec's speech gave his impeccably coarse tongue the more savour. He apparently picked up more asleep than he did in conversation, because his tirade was spiked with fragments Ralph scarcely remembered having disclosed. Had he spoken of dreams, the ones he wrote down (in Greek, it kept his hand in) because they couldn't possibly fascinate an analyst? His arousal now was driven by anger; it was like a benzedrine high, sharp, clear and iridescent. And then Alec pushed it altogether too far; Ralph recoiled, blazing cold.
‘You won't do anything of the fucking sort, you filthy cunt.’ He wrenched himself away; the horror of loss in Alec’s eyes was a perverse satisfaction; he did not imagine it might be mirrored in his own.
‘I―Ralph. I’m sorry. I thought―
‘You thought wrong, then, didn’t you?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘What the hell do you mean, you suppose so?’
‘I mean,’ Alec said, recovering some of his light, disposable manner and sitting up against the headboard, ‘I suppose so. Tell me it’s not wh-what you want, and I shan’t―we’ll let it drop.’
‘Are you completely mad? You need to see a fucking trick cyclist.’
It was Ralph who laughed first, weakly, into the silence.
‘Come here, darling.’ Alec pulled him back onto the bed and settled him against his chest and between his legs, and for the rest of the afternoon and evening was immaculately conciliatory.
Ralph hated handing back the suit crumpled to Geoff, whose standards on such matters were akin to his own. But he seemed preoccupied and distant anyway, in the process of sloughing off his shore self for his sea self; Ralph knew that tongue-twister.
‘Oh, don’t dream of it. Look, you may as well hang on to it, actually. I shan’t ever wear it again.’
‘Oh, well, I’ll sling it at Moll for one of her good causes, then. Hope it gave you a good time.’
‘Who were you on the tiles with anyway―anyone we know?’
‘Oh, hell. Lanyon, I’m sorry. When you said pal in the message, I didn’t think―the landlady’s benefit, of course. I hope you don’t think I was―asking you to say something that wouldn't be―gentlemanly.’
Ralph hesitated. He wanted to tell Geoff the truth, in a fashion, but not to make Alec’s life difficult. But he saw then that it was not in his power to do that latter, nor to to ease it, except with evanescent solace. All he had to decide now was whether or not to let Geoff off being human. ‘You weren’t. I was with Alec―Alec Deacon.’
‘Oh―I―’ Marlow was bluff, but he wasn’t obtuse. Ralph saw everything that had made him curious and compelling to Geoff fall away, and into place.
‘Come on―we can still be cordial―a bloke needn’t pry―’
Geoff nodded. ‘Goodbye, Lanyon. Good luck.’
‘Thanks. I’ll probably need it.’