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Divagations of a Prig, Or: the Risley Reshuffle

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Risley had descended into one of his intimidating silences. The seat of the armchair supported him from the base of his shoulderblades to the small of his back, the contourless plateaux that Risley had where other men had buttocks thrust far beyond the front edge of the cushion. His legs were crossed at knee and ankle; twice seventeen inches of brogue, erected upon the fender, obscured the grate and all but the glow of the coals that were the room’s only source of illumination. Clive, seated on the floor amid the detritus of a play-reading party, thought fancifully of a Lilliputian folly, a Temple of the Four Winds fired by the resentful hand of a dismissed servant, the jagged shell smouldering into the dawn.

Risley’s fingertips grazed the carpet; the dry, sour Egyptian cigarette clamped between them deposited an ashen slug along a gully singed into the coarse pile.

‘St Clement of Alexandria tells the story of a gardener who became enamoured of a statue of Cnidean Aphrodite, and laid a—a—cutlet,’ his voice rose into its arbitrary falsetto, ‘between its hand and pudend. He was caught attempting congress with it.’

Clive sensed that his first impulse, to dismiss the squalid anecdote with an easy allusion to the legend of Pygmalion, violated the unspoken covenant of ingenuity and candour entered by all of Risley’s associates. He ventured, ‘When I was a boy I was scared of them. Statues, I mean. Even now, I feel a frisson, in certain galleries of the British Museum. Isn’t it singular?’

Risley hurled his cigarette end into the fire. ‘No. The fear, ultimately the desire, that they should become animate. What could be more ordinary?’

‘I don’t think I got so far, or perhaps I was beyond it from the start. My sisters’ make-believe that the playroom toys came to life at night bored me. I conceived a terror of the Jacobean tomb in our parish church: not the knight and lady so much as their five children—miniature but adult, you know, kneeling in a row—and it spread from there. The masculine form frightened me more than the feminine, curiously enough.’

‘I don’t doubt it. To wake the female is to invite comfort from nocturnal terror, in men of our class Nurse rather than Mother, don’t you agree? To wake the male courts paternal chastisement.’ Risley’s voice was steady, the usual swoops in pitch and arbitrary emphases evened into bossy rationalism. His self-absorption is so vast, so total, Clive thought, that it encompasses an interest in others, entirely genuine. He hated it. Risley’s conjectures about one’s psychology were always so reasonable, so plausible, and so wrong.

Clive looked down at the playbooks and copied cue sheets around him: The Changeling, in which he had taken Alsemero. He thought of Beatrice (read with flamboyant villainy by a vulpine hanger-on of the Risley set) and Diaphanta (by a tow-haired, rubicund fresher with no particular qualification other than a surprisingly sweet alto voice, and of whom, after a fortnight’s infatuation, Risley was tiring) taking the virginity test. Bile, loathsomely seasoned by teatime anchovies, rose in his throat: he gaped, coughed and gave a small nervous giggle. ‘Conjugal union might be a little like—at least in the early—’

Risley peered around the wing of the chair. His nose protruded long and white from the deep shadows of his face, communicating incredulity with an eloquence unusual in that facial feature.

‘—gentlewomen are kept so—so ignorant.’ Clive stammered to a halt.

‘Dormy!’ This was not an infantile deformation of Clive’s surname, but short for Dormouse—by the standard of nicknames bestowed by Risley, it could be a deal worse, but in the present circumstances it seemed pointed. ‘I’m not talking about women. I—don’t want to talk about women.’ He vaulted to his feet in a welter of outflung limbs, crossed to the bow window and stooped to look down over Scholars' Lawn.

‘I don’t see how you mean me to sort out these parts unless we turn on the light,’ Clive said pettishly.

‘Don’t,’ Risley said. ‘Come here instead.’

Clive hesitated. Risley did not attract him. He did not want to be loomed over by Risley’s spidery person or surreptitiously fondled by Risley’s gigantic, etiolated hands. He did not want to be enveloped in Risley’s characteristic odour—unaired velvet, sandalwood and a hint of proletarian tobacco—as the prelude to a kiss. He certainly did not want these things to occur before an uncurtained window, though really it was safe enough: the gowned figures hurrying up and down the gaslit Avenue would hardly be able to identify the shapes behind the first-floor mullion as human persons, let alone individuals. But Clive had a body, in which he had struggled against society’s strictures to invest worth, and it yearned for contact with another the same. The same, quotha! His compact, well-proportioned, fresh-faced five-foot-six—no, be honest, five foot five and a bit—scarcely shared a zoological genus with Risley. He got to his feet.

He need neither have feared nor hoped: Risley had no design upon him. Clive could stand in the window recess with a thumb’s breadth of clearance for his head; even with shoulders slumped, Risley was obliged to twist his neck is a manner reminiscent of a prisoner confined to Little Ease. But Risley liked—discomfort. One of his unsettlingly explicit confidences crept from the dim depths of bibulous memory; Clive slammed a mental door upon it, as secure as that belonging to the White Tower’s torturing oubliette.

‘I have unearthed my effigy,’ Risley breathed. ‘I’m such a disgusting old masochist, I didn’t think I had it in me. The trouble is, I want him most awfully, but I don’t want to awaken him. How’s he to be carried off, Dormouse? Would chloroform be so terribly criminal?’

‘Don’t try to ruffle me, Risley. You know it can’t be done.’ This inter-collegial reputation was one of Clive’s successes. Though, privately, he was rather easily shocked, it was a matter of public record that nothing ruffled Durham. He gazed sternly down at the Avenue; the foot traffic was slowing now, into the mysterious lull that occurred before the gate-closing rush. The thin, skimmed-milk glare of the gaslight turned any faces caught in it imbecilic or sinister; that hateful, obscene madhouse subplot, Clive thought with a shiver; the Jacobean temperament was utterly alien to him, why had he agreed to come? He said, crisply, ‘Is it your Embryo?’

That was the name given to candidates for membership of a secret society to which Risley had been elected and Clive had not. He had been proposed, though he did not know it at the time, invited to a series of parties, in his ignorance examined, and rejected. A failure: an abortion. It rankled; like most inviable Embryos, he followed the society’s gossip with as much assiduity as any of its twelve members.

‘What a ridiculous thought! No, this is not a creature of mind, Durham. I think he barely knows he has a body, though he has, a nice dim firm sort of pseudo-beauty. Don’t look at me like that, beauty’s not always the point, you fearful hellenist. The point is the somnambulance.’ Risley extended his index finger—how improbable that it should have only the usual two joints above the knuckle—and prodded Clive’s arm as if to administer an immunising injection. ‘I met him at m’cousin’s.’ Risley, the eleventh child of a fifth son, used the word in rather the Shakespearean manner, but Clive knew by instinct which he meant. He tightened his jaw and resisted the impulse to whip his head about to look Risley in the face.

‘In fact,’ Risley continued, his voice soaring into girlishness, ‘you must know him. He’s of your college.’

‘Well, my dear fellow,’ Clive said, affecting a dryness he did not feel, ‘you’ll have to give me a little more to go on. Above ninety per centum of the collegiate body are frozen from the neck up and from—well, they’re like the Blemmyae in Pomponius Mela, all torso.’

Risley honked like a goose. ‘You’ll see soon enough. I think he’s fascinated by me. I daresay I could throw open this window and summon him.’

‘Why, so could I, or so could any man, but would he come when you do call for him?’ Clive quoted, at last able to meet Risley’s eye. He saw in it the affectionate contempt of the man who takes pains to be ‘original’ for the one who sees no particular need to stray from predictability.

‘Oh, Dormy, you’re so restful. By all rights I should want you to lay your head in my lap, and listen to the Welsh lady sing, but I don’t.’ He unfurled, backing out of the window recess. ‘Are you going to the Wallaby’s?’

‘Yes. Shall we walk down together?’

‘Oh, I’m not going. I can’t bear those raw boys just now. The Wally will be full of Euripides and modernity, mindless jingo one moment, crank pacifism the next, and Helen’s a tart in the Lyceum bar, tight as a truss and spilling port onto her talcum-powdered tits.’ He stood in the middle of the room, assuming a rackety contrapposto. ‘I need to recreate. Resolve myself.’

Risley’s recreations and self-resolutions had the potential to end in unimaginable disgrace. Not exceeding two years, with or without—for some reason, Clive heard the words in the flat local accent: the small, common voice of Muncey, his gyp, in fact, though he could not imagine upon what occasion that resolutely honest, if thoroughly disagreeable person should have said them.

‘You can take the Tchaikovsky over, if you can get it into any sort of order.’

‘What?’

‘The pianola records,’ Risley sighed. ‘There are some in the pile by your feet, I’m pretty sure, yes, look, and on the bookshelf. If you don’t mind the fag of sorting them out, you can take them to play on Joey’s instrument.’ Clive blinked incomprehension; Risley threw up his hands in mock-despair: they showed ivory and disembodied in the gloom. Clive had put away ghost stories with childish things, but he shivered. ‘You asked to borrow it when I saw you at the Union. The Pathétique. Always think that’s a syllable too many, myself.’

‘Oh, yes. Thanks. I say—’

‘Go to, dear boy, go to, or you’ll have to hop those vicious spikes.’ Clive, largely immune to rank-pulling, smiled at Risley’s callow need to insist upon his status as a Senior Member, able to come and go through the porter’s lodge as he pleased. ‘One slip—’ Risley passed a monumental hand across his own groin, ‘nothing very delightful about a eunuch, Durham.’ And in a whirl of hat and coat, he was gone.

*

A few days later, Clive ran into Risley in Petty Cury. Strolling across the market square, they discussed the books Clive had ordered in Heffers and exchanged a few morsels of gossip. They were about to part when Clive remembered the pianola music, and made an arrangement for its return.

‘The March won’t be there: I couldn’t find it—I say, I think I’ve met your sleepwalker. It hadn’t occurred to me until just now, but it is him, isn’t it? Hall. He came, out of the vasty deep, that rainy night.’

Risley scratched his ear, lifted his left shoulder, inclined his head and flinched a quick smile. Such preternaturally regardful persons as inhabit the pages of novels might have observed the discomfort, and therefore the danger in this undulation; Clive, being flesh and blood merely, saw nothing.

‘He’s very good-looking,’ he went on. ‘Nothing pseudo about it, though he will probably run to seed before he’s twenty-five. Rugger types always do.’

‘What?’ Risley’s attention appeared to have been caught by something over Clive’s shoulder.

‘You called him a pseudo-beauty, but I think—’

‘I said—what?’ Risley was agitated now, and Clive began to perceive that he may have misstepped. Some curious impulse, that did not identify until some time later as protectiveness, overrode his native tact, and he pressed the point.

‘But look here, Risley, I don’t think there’s any question of—waking him up. The set he runs with are the very triumph of Philistia, and it’s hardly a wonder that he should seek more stimulating company, but as for—’

Despite the damp October nip, Clive felt an uncharacteristic warmth in his cheeks, and a yet more atypical uncertainty as to how this sentence, once begun, might be continued. Something, in short, had ruffled the Dormouse.

‘He’s sweet-natured,’ he recommenced, ‘and complaisant. I believe if he is fond of a man, he would permit almost anything—he’s the sort that absolutely mustn’t be side-tracked, I mean. You do see, don’t you?’

Risley drew back his shoulders and stared down, wide-eyed, at Clive from a full nine inches advantage in height. His sallow complexion flushed unhealthy puce under the shadow of his wide-brimmed homburg; the effect was vicious but oddly unintimidating, like a lone rat at bay. ‘Oh, I see, all right. You’re the worst kind of poacher, Durham: the kind who sets himself up as a gamekeeper.’

A few passing heads turned; Risley lowered his face to Clive’s and his voice to a hoarse whisper. ‘I’m on the peg, you little shit. There’s not a damn thing you can do about it.’

Decayed Wiltshire (which, if the truth be told, had scarcely known shooting that wasn’t walked up) gazed dumbly after Bayswater and a family monopoly on the Indian Civil Service.

*

Clive was at the foot of Hall’s staircase before he quite recognised the nature of the warning he meant to issue, and how arrantly hypocritical it would appear to his friend. Was Hall his friend? He found himself hoping so. He turned to go, but at that moment an unseen door banged open and studs rang against stone.

‘Is that you, Durham?’ It was Hall’s voice.

Clive looked up to see him magnificent in royal blue jersey, white knickers and striped socks, beaming with unfeigned delight.

‘I cannot it deny.’

‘Were you coming to see me?’

He could not disappoint that radiant smile by claiming to be visiting Fetherstonhaugh instead, but what in heaven’s name could he say? ‘Yes, and I see I very nearly missed you. Good luck. Whom do you play?’

‘Just the Pembroke XV. If it’s not swank to say—well, maybe it is. I’m sure they will give us a game, then. How’s that?’

‘I wondered if you fancied—if you’d like to have luncheon with me? Tomorrow—come down, O Hall, from yonder mountain height. I’m getting a crick in my neck, the shepherd sang.’

Hall clattered down the stairs. His grin broadened, but then abruptly fell.

‘Oh, but no. Drat. I’m engaged to Risley.’

Clive involuntarily entertained an image of a roof-garden with striped awning, dwarf palms and wicker furniture, an elephantine hand in white kid enveloping another scarcely smaller, so that, having confessed myself, I must ask, Mr Hall, if you would do me the inestimable honour of becoming my wife… He winced it away, straining his jaw to prevent himself from begging Hall to make an excuse.

‘Shall I put him off? It’s just as you said, a little of him goes a long way.’

‘God, no,’ Clive said, far too vehemently. The hope of avoiding open war was slender, but it would dwindle to nothing were Hall seen to be throwing Risley over for him. ‘That wouldn’t do at all. Let’s make it Saturday, shall we? I can send for a game pie from home, and I have a ’99 claret.’

He regretted it as soon as Hall, with a warm phrase of agreement and a shake to Clive’s upper arm, had disappeared towards the porter’s lodge. Whatever was he thinking, squandering both an afternoon and the last bottle of a ten-guinea case to this unvarnished, rather brainless suburbanite? What would they talk about? Would he have already submitted to Risley’s hands, his lips and tongue—oh, dreadful! Could he even look at Hall without wondering what of him Risley had touched, and soiled?

This, he realised, stumbling across Old Court to his rooms, was not one of the minor tendresses that had hitherto given shape and colour to his undergraduate career, but a jealous physical passion, savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust. Hitherto, he had simply accepted that Shakespeare did not go through the horrors and degradations with W.H., that masculine friendship, properly conducted, did not admit them. Now he asked himself why not. And if Hall knew anything of those same torments, it was surely in relation to women only—that thought, while reassuring as far as Risley’s chances went, necessitated too his own defeat. But perhaps Hall was one of those who underwent a revolution of sexual temperament upon majority, or shortly after; it would be rather exquisitely painful to have him for those last few months of his immaturity—oh, but it was ridiculous, how could he play erastes to a man half a foot taller than he?

He ate nothing that evening: the thought of food disgusted him. Work was impossible. He picked up the Phaedrus, but could not bear to open it. Anyway, he knew the passage that concerned him by heart. What a conceited fool he had been, to think that his charioteer had the rough, black animal under control, when in fact it was simply underdeveloped, its growth retarded by the breakdown that had come to him when most boys attain a peak of barbarous vitality. And now the stunted nag was dragging him into the brute-phase of adolescence, five years late. The humiliation was insupportable.

He kept to his set with the oak up, smoking and draining the whisky he had last shared with Hall. Around midnight intoxication and frustration combined to submerge his even temper: he punched the panelling by the sitting-room fireplace, not hard enough really to hurt—even at an extreme he was essentially self-preserving—but with sufficient force to boom and echo. He crept to the middle of the room and crouched down, terrified that someone had heard. After some indefinite period of time, he rose, almost laughing at his own absurdity, convinced he had recovered his equilibrium. The delusion lasted through the small routines of undressing, face- and tooth-washing, but no sooner had he put out the light than the treacherous visions mounted their ambuscade.

There was Risley, still talking as his lips crept closer to Hall’s silent, parted, pink ones; Hall surprised at the assault, yet giving himself to it, to the hands that slipped under his blue jersey (for Hall was, true to the dictates of lewd imagination rather than verisimilitude, dressed for games) and the tongue that darted into his mouth, then withdrew for another bon mot. Hall in the chair and Risley between his knees, rubbing Hall’s groin through his footer bags, talking between kisses.

‘What do you think of me, Hall?’

‘I think you’re an open—’ here he gave a little cry, ‘an open scandal.’

‘I’m an open-arse, and thou a poperin pear.’

He unbuttoned Hall’s fly, and bobbed his head to it, nuzzling his member through his smalls, sucking the linen into his mouth and heating the damp fabric with his breath.

Clive rolled and groaned, agonisingly hard; there could be no rest, he thought sensibly, until he laid hands upon himself—he would probably feel filthy afterwards, but he might also drowse. He groped for the handkerchief on his night-locker while untying the string of his pyjama trousers.

The vision swam back gradually: this time of Hall naked, standing with his back to him in what looked like some kind of artist’s studio, against a drape of scarlet damask, spiked with golden fleur-de-lys. Hall shifted, smiling over his shoulder as he squeezed his left buttock and arched his back.

‘At least that fearful ass Risley isn’t here,’ he said. ‘You can have me all to yourself.’

He turned, and Clive, seeing that he had his prick half-hidden in his fist—his mind presented a perfect picture of the musculature of Hall’s back, the dimples at the base of his spine, his jutting rump, the curly hair on his chest and legs, and yet refused cock and ballocks, why was that?—thrashed like a netted carp, and filled the handkerchief.

He lay, unable to do more than shudder, for several moments. He blinked, but the dark presented to his open eyes the same vague lozenges of ghostly light as to them closed. Was that the origin of the notion that it dimmed one’s sight? He had resisted the malpractice since before the beginning of term, doubtless the reason for his coming off with such startling alacrity. He gathered the slimed handkerchief and dropped it beside the bed. He felt null, blank, voided. Shame would almost come as a relief, but it did not visit him, and nor did sleep.

Or so he thought: surfacing through thick, greasy fog to the certainty of his imminent arrest for crimes of indecency told him that both had called. The timbre of the wakening knock at the oak indicated that it was not a first attempt, its rhythm that the knocker was not his peer.

‘Mr Durham!’ Hester, the bedder; not Muncey.

Clive leapt up, the steely coronet of a whisky hangover descending upon his temples. He snatched his dressing gown, shoved his feet into slippers. The fire, well-banked behind the guard, and a morning tea-tray on the desk, nudging aside whisky bottle and tumbler with an air of reproachful tact, advertised Muncey’s conscientiousness. He opened the door.

‘Good morning, sir.’

‘Morning, Hester. I’m most frightfully sorry. I thought last night I had a chill coming on, and I tried to drown it and smoke it out, but as you see, only succeeded in poisoning myself.’

‘I’m sure. Mr Muncey was concerned, being as you don’t make a habit of sleeping late.’ She bustled him into the sitting-room. ‘You sit down, sir. Put that rug over your feet and I’ll build up the fire before I make your bed. Oh, and your tea’ll be quite cold. I’ll brew you fresh.’

‘No, I’m really quite all right, and I must toddle over to the library.’ But Hester was by now enjoying herself, and Clive’s hellenism did not preclude an Englishman’s nostalgia for the nursery. She had been gone half an hour, leaving him with hot buttered toast and strong tea, when he remembered the handkerchief. He flung back his head and howled, not caring who was around to hear, in fact hoping someone might come, that someone might be Hall. No-one came.

But curiously, the mortification had no enduring power; sitting down to write home for the pie, Clive became aware of an engorgement incompatible with the composition of a letter to one’s mother, and could not know rest until he had relieved it. Preparation for his two o’clock with Crowfoot distracted him for a time, but in the middle of the supervision he recalled that Hall and Risley would by have now have finished their lunch, and the dull vacancy in his head filled with leering flesh. He made errors in translation that would have embarrassed him at fifteen years of age.

‘Perhaps,’ Crowfoot remarked acidulously, ‘Mr Durham was thinking of the obsolete Doric usage?

Clive engaged in self-pollution again in bed that night, to the accompaniment of a fantasy of himself as Head of House, and Hall a defiant fifth-former sent to him for chastisement. To cause injury, and then administer tender consolation, building by degrees to an urgency that once again encompassed the infliction of pain—writhing in guilt afterwards, Clive knew himself at least Risley’s equal in depravity, and his match.

*

By not setting foot in the Union or the ADC, and upon one tedious occasion making his way to the Pitt Club from Burrell’s Walk via Northampton St, Clive successfully avoided Risley for the rest of the week. But it was beyond his capacity to dodge Risley’s set and their trails of chatter. Pointedly, he was asked had he fallen out with Risley, upon his not to my knowledge, why? receiving an evasive oh, no reason, which spoke more eloquently of Risley’s vituperation than any specificity. Almost guilelessly, by those who hoped only to divert, he was told of Risley’s new protégé, or at least, he didn’t leave until well after the others were gone; I do hope Risley doesn’t set a fashion for cultivating these Pooter characters; it's not as amusing as he seems to think. Looking back at his interlocutor after the ocular dodge prompted by this opinion, Clive caught the tail-end of entirely the wrong commiseration, and wanted to scream.

Even Chapman waylaid him, vibrating supper-club truculence.

‘Durham, you know this Risley fellow. What can you tell me about him?’

‘What would you like to know?’

‘Well, the usual thing. Character. Background.’

‘He’s working on Warren Hastings for his fellowship dissertation. The family’s rather large, a lot of them are in the Civil, or the Army. His father’s Sir Henry Risley, for whom no sugared sonnets were ever written by mellifluous and honey-tongued etcetera, and shared among his private friends.’

Chapman, who assumed that any joke he did not understand was indecent, lowered his brow and tightened his lips, giving the distinct impression of the sort of ferret that always has to be dug out.

‘Doesn’t he have rather a reputation?’

‘Shakespeare? I’m reliably led to believe so.’

‘Oh play fair, Durham. Hall and I took lunch with the Dean and he was the other guest. Said some stuff that I’d consider in dubious style, very fast I’m sure he thought it was, but I thought it simply rotten, and now Hall—well, a B.A. making much of a second-year man, like that—dash it, can’t a fellow be concerned for a chap he was at school with?’

‘Does you credit, Chapman. I expect you were always making sure the Sixth Standard toughs didn’t steal the Standard IV kids’ marbles.’

Clive disliked being driven to open snobbery, and was ashamed that he had, inevitably, included Hall in the aspersion. But there was nothing to be done with someone like Chapman. He turned sharply away as the mustelid face opened and reddened into mullethood.

But the very worst of it was Hall himself: ubiquitous, and never able to stop, always on his way to a lecture, footer or the Turkish bath, always ready with an ingenuous smile, some little gesture of affection, I’m running late, Durham, but no matter, we’ll catch up on Saturday, I’ve simply tons to jaw about. Each of these encounters had a sequela of frantic self-abuse, so that when Hall finally arrived at quarter-past one on Saturday, bearing a rather horrifying bottle of cream sherry, Clive blushed scarlet for the dozens of cuts delivered by a variety of implements, the thousand of kisses (deinde centum), the times he had ordered Hall to his knees, the permutations of frottage and penetration. Hall’s cheeks too were pink.

‘Do you find it warm? Muncey’s a devil for coal—it’s a point of pride that his young gentlemen run through it like—’

‘Wildfire?’

Clive pictured the breakfast-tables and bridge-tables in Rye or Ruislip where Hall counted as a humorist. ‘Ha, yes. Shall I open a window?’

‘Oh, rather.’

After the offer of tobacco and aperitif, there was a long and clamorous silence. All that Clive could think of to open a conversation had to do with Risley, and he dare not look too directly at Hall for fear that his gaze would linger, and communicate that not twelve hours before he had imagined engaging with him in an act that carried a sentence of life imprisonment. It was appalling, mortifying, grotesque. It could not be borne.

‘I say, Durham,’ Hall began, just as Clive articulated the aspirate that began his name.

Hall’s colour deepened again and he stroked a lock of hair from his forehead. ‘After you,’ he said.

‘No, I insist. You’re my guest.’

‘Well, I was just going to say how curious it was. I had dozens of things saved up to tell you, and now I can’t remember one—or, rather, I can only remember the dull ones. I think of something Tommers said after the match, and then say to myself, that won’t do, Durham’s not the least bit interested in games—or are you?’

‘Well, I didn’t go to school for very long, and home’s in the country. So much more hunting and shooting than games. Ghastly thing—every year there’s a cricket match, Park v. Village, you know, and the staff expect me to captain them. Father’s dead, you see. Thank the Lord it’s good ton for a gentleman captain to put himself in about eighth.’

‘You can’t be worse than me,’ Hall said mournfully. ‘I’m the complete duffer. And my family’s the same. Pa died when I was small, and I’ve no brother. Two sisters.’

‘Then we are twins. So’ve I. One married, one not. I’m in the middle.’

‘Mine are both quite kids.’

‘But really, I would quite like to hear about your victory over Pembroke, Tomlinson’s mots and all. A description of a match is much more vivid and enjoyable than the thing itself. It takes on the shape and lineament of art. I can read in Wisden for hours, for example.’

‘You are a queer fish, Durham. How can reading about something be better than doing it? But if it pleases you, I shall.’

Muncey came in then, to announce the jelly soup. Hall’s account of the match took them through it, and the smoked trout. Clive relaxed: no man who talked about rugger with such absorption could be anything other than normal. He even played in the back row! The lurid chimerae of the last few days fell away; Clive convinced himself he felt only relief. It would be pleasant to have a friend with no intellectual pretensions, whose wits were deliberate. He began to tell Hall about real tennis, which he had started to learn last Easter term.

‘Then you must know Maddox of King’s?’

‘Yes; he taught me. But he’s in Athens this winter, at the British School.’

That took them to travel, which saw them through the game pie. Hall was all for the New World, as Clive was for the Old; he was charmed, teasing Hall he would end as a cow-boy in Texas, or a gaucho in Buenos Ayres. The good bottle of claret was dispensed with, the ordinary, kept in reserve, proved to have that mysterious virtue of subsequent bottles, to contain as much drink as their predecessors, and be consumed in half the time. Then came the Eve’s pudding.

‘You very nearly had something shop-bought,’ Clive said. ‘But Hester heard of it from Muncey, and wouldn’t allow it. He thinks I practise upon her maternal instinct, but swear I don’t.’

‘Ah, subtlest beast of all the field! She’s our staircase’s bedder too, and we’ve never extorted cake.’

Clive protested his innocence, and there followed an interval of silliness with bread pellets. Muncey entered upon this scene with cheese and biscuits, appearing to reprove, though in fact his cynicism thrived upon the vindication it received from the misbehaviours of the young gentleman he served. Mr Durham could do with some encouragement in that coarseness which is upraised and sanctified by breeding.

‘The coffee, please, Muncey, and then we shan’t need you. You might clear up when I go down to Hall.’

‘Very well, sir.’

Lacking direct experience of the rapport induced by ragging to a degree unusual in a young Englishman, Clive felt exultant, liberated. Anything was possible: with a man like Hall as his friend, tolerant, steady and open-hearted, he might satisfy his physical needs without recourse to crime, reconcile the struggle within him between Greece and the County, find the secure basis that would elevate the calm clarity of his nature into virile decision. But Risley was, in his perverse way, right. Hall must not become conscious. But nor could he, Clive thought deliriously, for neither was he unconscious: simply immune, protected not by Clive’s restraint, but by his own innocent resilience. He might speak to him of what had passed after Risley’s party without harm, indeed he should. There was no danger: Hall was beautifully incorruptible.

‘Hall—pax, for a moment, dear chap, do,’ he panted, still unable quite to curb his laughter. ‘Speaking of subtlety—’

‘Waou!’ Hall clapped a hand to the back of his neck, crying in outrage, ‘I call that—how did you do that? Some spin-trickery that Maddox taught you?’

Clive blinked, genuinely baffled. Something was amiss with his eyes, everything in the room had turned a little greyer. ‘I didn’t—ah, look how dark it’s grown!’

Another wave of hailstones clattered against the windowpane. Clive, who faced it, leapt up to pull it closed, brushing Hall’s shoulder.

‘It’s a hailstorm. What owls we are!’ They stood together at the window, watching the icy fragments, here and there driven into swirls by the draughts and windtraps of Old Court, dash themselves with harmless violence against the glass. Within a few moments the lawn was quite covered in thumbnail-sized particles. A bowler-hatted porter, shedding the habitual dignity of college servants, broke from cover and pelted towards Staircase C. Faces came to other ground-floor windows, unrecognisable, eerie: eyes and mouths like holes burnt in sheets. Clive shuddered, less at the sight itself than at the thought that to the others, they must present the same featureless, primitive vacancies. He was glad of Hall’s particular warmth at his side, smelling of carbolic and bay rum.

‘How queer,’ Hall said, ‘twice in a week.’

‘Really? I quite missed the first. I was feeling seedy for a day or two, and didn’t get about.’

‘Poor Durham. You work too hard,’ Hall said sincerely. ‘It was the day I went to lunch with Risley. It was quite a jolly little party, but it broke up before I knew it, and he and I were left alone. And then a terrific hailstorm came on, worse than this, size of Brussels sprouts, so I was stuck there another—oh, I suppose it could only have been a quarter of an hour, but it’s an age when one’s missed a cue, and overstayed one’s welcome, you know.’ His voice was boyishly gruff, his hands thrust deep in his pockets. The fine, strong structure of his face seemed at that moment to bear too heavy a freight of flesh; the mouth, especially, was sensual and barbaric. Clive felt some of his doubts return.

‘I don’t think that would bother Risley. He keeps a very free establishment.’

Hall gave a smile that Clive had never seen before: a contained, appraising curve that narrowed his eyes only in enquiry. ‘Yes. Too free.’

Clive’s heart drummed, and the hairs stood in the nape of his neck. ‘Many of that set’s poses are just that, you know,’ he said, too lightly, sounding hollow. ‘Make it clear they don’t interest you, and they won’t impinge.’

‘Wasn’t that, exactly.’ Hall’s eyes darted to each of the four corners of the Court, then to Clive, then front again, as if he were an officer making a decision requiring intolerable sacrifice of his men. ‘I wouldn’t say this to anyone else, but you’re all right, you’ll understand. He touched me in a rather unusual way.’

Clive was a theorist, and he misunderstood. ‘He does excite pathos, I agree; I think it’s because he never stops—’

‘No, you ass. He touched-me touched me. Here, just at the base of my spine.’ Hall laid his hand firmly on the back vent of Clive’s lounge coat. ‘Like that.’

Paralysed, Clive felt nonetheless unsteady on his feet. After a moment of bright blankness, his thoughts began to race: he had already betrayed himself, a normal man would have stepped aside by now, laughed, or made a gross remark, clasping and removing the the other’s hand to start a rag. And yet, for all its power to destabilise, Hall’s touch was comforting, oddly natural—Clive was dangerously tempted to return it. He swallowed the excess of saliva collected in his mouth.

‘What did you do?’

That too, he panicked, was wrong. He should have prefaced it with some expression of wearied familiarity and mild disgust.

‘Just what you did then. A sort of side-shuffle. He didn’t press the point, and he hadn’t stopped talking all the while. But I just wondered if you had any view on it.’

Clive suffered a pang to realise that the gesture had represented a zenith of physical intimacy between himself and Hall, and it was already over: if they became friends, of course, they might walk arm-in-arm, or sit leaning upon one another in various configurations, or pull one another’s hair, but nothing approaching the condition of tenderness could be admitted.

‘I think,’ he said slowly, ‘it’s more or less an affectation in Risley too. He has a—more than a reputation, almost a persona—to maintain. Like a type in the Roman Comedy.’

‘Hm.’ The sensual barbarian had returned to Hall’s face, and extended to his posture. ‘I hadn’t thought of it in those terms.’ He brightened, and rocked back and forth on his heels. ‘It would explain why I didn’t mind it exactly—’

‘Yes, it’s all to do with Risley, and nothing with oneself. He is the most self-absorbed man I think I have ever—’

Hall’s head whipped to one side. He smiled down on Clive like a kouros. ‘—if you’d let me finish, Durham, I was about to say, I’d have liked it much more had it been you.’

An explosion, like a photographer’s magnesium flash, went off before Clive’s eyes. His scalp went cold and his cheeks flamed. He reeled. Hall unfolded a steadying arm, but he backed away. ‘What rot,’ he squeaked. ‘It isn’t funny, Hall. Or are you tight? You’re tight.’

Hall, gaping, shook his head. His hands dropped helplessly to his sides; the fine physique slumped, slack and uneven. He peered over Clive’s shoulder at the empty claret jug. ‘I suppose we both are,’ he said. ‘But,’ he squared his shoulders again, ‘I have a good head for it, you know. And I wasn’t—when Risley—only had a glass of Hock, hours before, and I thought it then, and I’ve puzzled through it ever since. I’m not funning.’

At school Clive had witnessed cruelly plausible shams of admiration and affection, followed by jeers, and he had so deeply dreaded becoming the butt of one that the situation still sometimes entered his nightmares of humiliation. But not even the most skilled persecutors could assume Hall’s present strained candour.

‘Hall, we’re Englishmen. It’s absurd. The only excuse is—I know you can’t mean it.’ He was trembling, clinging by his fingertips to a self-mastery that he knew also to be self-defeat.

‘I mean it. The instant Risley—did what he did, I knew I’d deceived myself. I mustn’t pretend to care for women, I’ve never cared for them. I only care for men, and only ever shall. But I knew Risley was the wrong man, and I thought, If only he were Durham, a clear thought, in words, not a picture. Apart from that, it was like a dream I once—no, I’ve said too much, I see.’ He looked around, as if seeking an escape, but his eye fell upon Clive’s bedroom door. ‘Touch me. As he—as I did just now. Then you’ll know.’

Clive as not sure what struck him then with such winding force—the absurdity of this speech, or the desire to follow its injunction, ‘I—don’t think it’s a universal test,’ he gasped.

Hall, drawing the curtains, seemed not to hear. Clive’s pulse galloped, and the excess of spittle that troubled him a moment before evaporated into a close aridity. He thought of the fantasies of the last few days and became impatient: the contrast between this timidity and his libertine imagination was more sordid than anything flesh could enact. He reached under the tails of Hall’s coat, but repelled by the idea of resting his hand in Risley’s print, moved it in a circular caress. Hall drew him around so they stood breast to breast, his cheek against Hall’s neck. Hall stroked his hair with a heavy paw. It was not yet outwith the law, Clive thought, but too mawkish.

‘Hall,’ he murmured. ‘Hall.’

‘My name’s Maurice.’

‘Clive.’

‘I know. But say it again. It makes a shiver down my collarbone when you speak.’

‘No. Look, don’t you think we ought to talk?’

Hall released him, but only to the end of his arms. He regarded him kindly, his head on one side. ‘I can’t think of anything beastlier. Than a shall-we-or-shall-we-not? I mean. All I know is we must embrace. Let me come into your bedroom, or you can come to mine. I haven’t a set, though.’

‘But—’

Maurice put his forefingers against Clive’s lips. Clive tasted tobacco and the Stilton they’d rolled into balls and flicked off their thumbnails. He kissed the fingertips lightly, in memory alike of that innocent play and earnest of more dangerous and desirable sport.

*

Clive turned the key in the bedroom door. Maurice was sitting in his shirt sleeves on the end of the bed, taking off his boots. Clive shrugged off his coat and hung it on the back of the bent-cane chair by the wardrobe, removed his light indoor shoes. He felt as if he were advancing on a bride, but Maurice could scarcely be less experienced than he was; probably he had participated in the offhand commerce of a public school, perhaps even cherishing some particular emotion for a fourth-former. It was the sort of thing one ought to know, Clive felt, before one mingled oneself with another. He wished Hall would let him talk.

He stood between Maurice’s thighs; Maurice put his hands on Clive’s hips and leaned back. With Maurice’s broad warmth beneath him, they kissed, at first staccato and chaste, but soon with more abandon than accuracy; their teeth jarred and they murmured apologies each into the other’s mouth. Clive became erect almost as soon as it began; a quirk of posture prevented him from feeling if Maurice was similarly suited, while making reciprocal ignorance impossible. This imbalance unsettled him, but it seemed uncouth, at this stage in the business, to grope about a man’s trouser-front.

‘My dear,’ he murmured into Maurice’s jaw, ‘hadn’t we better—before things go further—find out a bit more about one another?’

Maurice withdrew one arm from around Clive’s middle and propped himself by the elbow. ‘What is it you want to say? I’ve a stiff one, and that’s an invitation—’

Clive declined to acknowledge this repartee, and Maurice went on, blushing angrily, ‘And so have you, I felt it. What the devil more do you need to know?’

He was right, Clive thought; one should kiss, and be silent. Having begun, though, he stumbled on. ‘What there’s been for you. Before.’

‘Whom, you mean?’ His face and voice took on a raw, knowing aspect: it made him seem very stupid, and almost irresistible. ‘No-one, if you must ask. Man or woman. I’m coming to you clean, since you seem to care about that sort of thing. And now you make me ask—’

‘The same.’ Having confessed this, Clive was inundated by sentimental contrition. ‘Maurice—’

Maurice seized his tie and pulled him into a brief rough kiss, then assayed his collar with hard, clumsy fingers. Clive did likewise, and having the advantage of both dexterity and position, had the neck of Maurice’s shirt undone while his own collar flapped, the back and one front stud loose. Their laughter conceded that it was easier to discard waistcoats and unloop braces for themselves; the interruption, though momentary, increased their urgency; soon they caressed bare flesh under open shirts and untucked vests, tasted the skin of throat and nape. Maurice leapt up and, stripped to the waist, peacocked gaily in the pool of yellow lamplight. Clive delighted in Maurice’s well-conditioned physique—from knotted shoulders to supple middle, the rippled musculature of his sides; when he turned, the deep indent of his spine, dimpled at the base, as he had imagined—but it made him somewhat ashamed of his own torso, with nothing but want of flabbiness to recommend it. But Maurice whispered, ‘Beautiful, you’re beautiful, I always have thought so,’ and flung Clive on his back to stroke his belly and tease his nipples with thumb, finger and tongue until Clive had no breath left to protest that it must surely finish him.

‘No, this shall,’ Maurice made for Clive’s trouser-fly, but Clive, feeling some obscure need to reassert seniority, stayed his hand, and instead extended his own, quivering. He thought suddenly of a sketch he’d seen among some papers of Maddox’s, a Late Archaic black-figure amphora, the bearded lover curiously hunched and furtive, the eromenos really rather a tart. As his fingers made contact Maurice squeezed his eyes shut and said his name. Maurice was endowed on an almost satyric scale, Clive considered; it abashed him, who was disgusted by bath-house boasts and had based his ideal upon the Greek, to find how much he was aroused by it. He rubbed shyly through tweed, hoping Maurice would not be disappointed in his own more classical proportions.

Maurice sighed deliciously; encouraged, Clive undid buttons and frigged him though the linen of his drawers—what astonishing heat he gave off!—and, dipping his hand further, investigated his ballocks: weighty, but very uneven, the left hanging far below the right.

‘Undress properly,’ he mumbled.

‘You—you too, then,’ Maurice gasped.

They were as accustomed as any two English gentlemen to cold, but the chill of a bedroom with no fire in late autumn has certain effects even upon the inured and willing; Clive found he had to give himself a tug or two, and turned to the wall to do it. Maurice lay envelopingly down behind him, and with a murmured, ‘May I?’ reached to relieve him of the task.

‘Mm—but lor’, spit in your hand at least, won’t you?’

‘All right,’ he did so, ‘do you always?’ His tone was interested, matter-of-fact, as if he were comparing tennis-racquet grips.

Clive almost lost the pleasure of the very first strange hand upon him in his incredulity. ‘Don’t you?’ Not quite, though; he groaned and arched his back against Maurice’s chest.

‘No—I need pretty rough treatment,’ Maurice’s voice wavered. ‘Of course now I very seldom, not like I did as a boy—tell me if I—’ Maurice began to thrust against his backside and bestowed a nuzzling, nibbling kiss on the margin between Clive’s neck and shoulder. What a prodigious member Maurice had: longer than a hand-span, emerging fat and florid from its coarse thatch of hair. He had settled so that he was moving along the crack between Clive’s buttocks; his left arm under Clive’s neck, the hand roving over his chest. It ceased for a moment, and pressed Clive into a slightly more amenable position; the soft grunt of satisfaction that Maurice gave as their bodies joined more closely roused in Clive a perverse urge to submit, to accommodate him between his thighs, in his mouth and, yes, yes, oh Christ, right up, nine plump inches in his—had he allowed himself to complete the thought, he might have spilt over Maurice’s hand, but his recoil from even contemplation of that ultimate defilement forestalled climax.

‘Maurice, stop, stop a moment,’ he said, putting his hand upon the other’s.

‘Am I hurting you?’

‘No, God no—you nearly had me—well, you know. But I think I ought, I think it’s owing—’ Was he, ludicrously, standing on a mere year’s precedence? The memory of Maurice saying, in Risley’s room, you look more like a fresher than a third year man, rose to needle a bosom usually proof against petty hierarchy. ‘Apodos to diamiērion,’ he pronounced (it was the inscription on Maddox’s amphora) knowing that Maurice’s sluggish capacity couldn’t piece out the final word.

‘Talk English, dear. I haven’t your brain—’

Clive wriggled around and silenced him with a kiss.

‘When lovers lie under the same cloak,’ he said, but unable to produce the coarse phrase with which he had hoped to excite them both, he illustrated the act with his hand.

‘Oh,’ Maurice said, ‘why, of course,’ and started to roll over. Clive put a hand on his shoulder. ‘No. Face-to-face. It’s how they did it.’

Maurice laughed, far too loudly, and Clive put a finger to his lips. Maurice kissed it, then drew it into his mouth to suck, making Clive gulp hard.

‘Yes,’ he conceded, ‘Greeks or not, it is nicer. To see your eyes, which are very extraordinarily blue in this light. Come.’

But Maurice was as hairy as a boar, and within a few moments Clive found himself painfully chafed.

‘Oil was the biggest expense for a palaestra,’ he winced, ‘and now at least I know why. I’m sorry, I can’t—’

‘God, I’m a beast.’ Maurice let go of him and began a shuffle down the bed. Clive, lamentably slow to grasp his intention, clutched at Maurice's armpits—he had fantasised this, certainly, but the debasement itself horrified him. Maurice’s superior strength easily dismissed the scruple, and he was enclosed in moisture, warmth and agitation. Maurice slid an affirming finger behind his ballocks; to say he lasted a minute would be an exaggeration.

‘Waou—waou—no, no, stop,’ Clive sobbed, ‘I’m finished. It—hurts.’

Maurice let him drop with a terrible slack sound and the look of a beaten gundog. ‘I’m sorry, sorry, sorry—I’m such an oaf, I didn’t even feel—’

Shattered, Clive wanted to curl up and sleep a day and a night. But he could not fail in love’s duty, though he thought if he were to try what Maurice had just done for him he would be sick. His lover’s skin looked coarse-grained and grimy, scrubby with closely-curled hair, the virile member that had so thrilled him seemed repulsive, the head grotesquely pink and glossy above its leathery shroud, the scrotum like the neck of a plucked buzzard. He flinched from Maurice’s attempt at a kiss.

‘Oh, hell, yes. Sorry. I can see that, yes, one’s own, er. What was I thinking? Sorry.’ In fact, that was not what had disgusted him; in another mood it might even titillate.

Chimes sounded in the world beyond their lamplit sanctuary: six.

‘Lor’,’ Maurice said, ‘your gyp will be back before long—and we better not cut Hall,’ Clive could see some imbecilic quibble on his name forming behind the low brow and shining eyes, and grasped Maurice’s prick to avert it.

Clive invested all the violence and vengefulness of his tristesse in the act, but Maurice had not exaggerated when he said he needed a rough hand, and in reaching culmination closed his own fist on Clive’s, with a growled, ‘Tight—harder—harder—faster—damn you.’

He finished with a snarl, the semen coming fitfully and without force, as if it had overcome some desultory blockage. His grip loosened; Clive eased his hand away. Maurice’s stomach distended with a heaving exhalation, then sank into concavity with another deep breath: the milky deposit spread alarmingly. Clive bounded up and threw the washstand towel at him. It landed over his thighs, returning him to full consciousness of the world, and as he sat up to wipe himself, Clive saw his lips twist ruefully, and a shadow of hurt pass across his face.

Almost instantly though, he was sunshine again, and out of that blue sky came a deluge of factual information. Clive was bewildered: having the reverse of it himself, he had never imagined this somatic variant, and he wanted very much for Maurice to be gone, knowing dimly that also, when he was, he should miss him unbearably. They dressed to the accompaniment of Maurice’s chatter about engine displacement in motor bicycles, but when Clive had checked that the coast was clear to leave, and they stood for a last kiss, he became suddenly amorous again, murmuring into Clive’s hair and squeezing his behind.

‘I do rather love you, Clive.’

‘I you.’ The kiss he pressed to the curve of Maurice’s jaw, just below the ear, seemed fitting testament to the dubious truth of this.

‘When can we—it absolutely mustn’t be long. I almost want you again now.’

There was the very great danger, Clive thought: the seal, once broached, admitted appetite, and every satiation of it brought intolerable risk.

‘Soon,’ he said, ‘I can hardly wait either.’ This was a lie, though it would not long remain one.

When Maurice had left, Clive bustled about the sitting-room, pouring untouched cold coffee into the cups and tipping it surreptitiously into the flowerbed outside his window. He smoked a pipe and a cigarette in quick succession, making himself feel rather cheap.

It was not until he entered the bedroom, and the olfactory evidence of copulation struck him like a thump to the funny bone, making his eyes water, that he thought of the unwitting Pandarus who had facilitated this affair. Risley must not know. Risley would inevitably find out. Risley would be livid, and Risley was faithful only in his hostilities: long after he had forgotten the name of Maurice Hall, he would revile that of Clive Durham. In a single afternoon, Clive thought, scarcely wishing it, he had gained a lover and an enemy. But still, somehow, he had no friend.