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Scenes from the Short and Crowded Life of Jon Marlow

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Jon Marlow remembered vividly the moment he realised that the meaning of his nickname had shifted for good, because he’d responded to the recognition with a ferocious, bald-headed, entirely uncharacteristic determination to fuck F/O Peter Marlowe into the middle of next year.

They’d become friendly soon after Marlowe had arrived at RAF Hornchurch, despite the difference in rank, age and experience. Hence the nickname: No-Relation Marlow, No-Rel. for short. It had originated, of course, in Jon’s invariable pendant to an introduction—and by Christ, there had been a lot of introductions. It had retained that connotation for weeks, months, lifetimes.

It happened one evening in September 1940, when the officers’ mess was being its quite usual self, which was to say a Cubist study in pinprick pupils, creased, asymmetrical faces and agitated hands set to a twelve-tone composition of shrill, deliberate, brittle laughter. Marlowe was telling the story of how he’d been hit in combat with a couple of 109s, nursed his Spitfire back across the Channel and force-landed in a fallow field next to a hop garden. A couple picnicking in the shade of their Austin Ruby had offered him a cup of tea and a lift to a nearby roadhouse.

‘Could have wiped his eye,’ Marlowe drawled, pulling a slip of paper bearing a telephone number from his top pocket. ‘And she was quite—’ he doodled pneumatically in the air. ‘But she had lipstick on her teeth.’ He shuddered fastidiously and set the flame of his lighter to it. ‘To the maintenance of standards, gentlemen.’

Before either paper or ribald acclamation had quite expired, it had become clear to Jon that he was no longer the eccentric cynosure of their group, who with cheerful derision disavowed connection to another of the same name, but himself No Relation to imperturbable, handsome, brilliant, lucky Peter Marlowe. If he could manage to screw him, it wouldn’t matter a bit. If not, Jon thought he may very well have to kill him.

As it happened it was easy, so easy that Jon, waking from the languid drowse that was fortunately their shared response to sexual climax—he couldn’t abide men in whom it provoked expressions of unreserve—quite expected to have to contain and manage self-reproach turned outwardly, violently expressive. But Marlowe came round affectionate and amused, wriggling with pleasure at the promise of coffee.

‘No,’ he said slowly, draining the cup as he perched on the corner of the bed, shivering slightly though the gas fire was on, ‘I don’t think I should have liked to die without having—and,’ he added quickly, ‘I couldn’t imagine it being anyone else.’ Jon reached forward to slap the back of his head and ruffle his lank, fair hair.

‘Really never before? Not at school?’

‘Mmm. That doesn’t count, does it? But actually not. There was a terrific scandal at my place the year before I arrived; the Head of my House, of the whole School in fact, bloke called—Langham, I think—was expelled. So they watched us all like—like—’

‘You can say hawks if you like. I’ll just think of The Gowk and despise you a very little bit.’

Marlowe grinned: he was one of those rare men who enjoyed take as much as give in repartee. ‘The which?’

‘A merlin I kept as a kid. It’s North Country for cuckoo, or idiot. Because she wasn’t a proper hawk at all. Never took as much as a lark. Devoted to me, she was. The Guv’nor thought it was rather excruciating, especially considering the time my sister and I spent tearing about the countryside after his real hawks.’

‘Oh, I see. Um—Jon. I suppose this is as good a time to say it as any. I’ve one a bit like that. Sort of two, actually. One’s at school still, but the other—’

Peter glanced at him shyly, looking every earnest month of his nineteen years. Jon snorted. ‘—Is ready to be entered? Peter. How do you feel about it really?’

‘I don’t know, quite. Men without women; bit of a joke, isn’t it?’

He inched up the bed and let his head fall on Jon’s thigh. Jon stroked his hair and drew him up into his arms.

‘It’s quite all right, you know. Anyone can have a once-off, especially under these conditions. It’s a narrow furrow and not one to plough unless you’re sure you can’t—look, I’ll pack in the agricultural metaphors, they don’t suit me. If you can be happy with women—’

‘Happy,’ he said derisively, ‘I’ve been happy. You—that—was—’

‘—the fascinating metabolic effects of a much closer shave than you’re letting on, if it’s easier to think of it like that,’ Jon announced over Marlowe’s whispered bliss, which he registered and reserved for contemplation in solitude. ‘I’m not complaining, by the way.’

‘No, ass. I’ve wanted you practically since we met.’ He ran a long, tapering index finger along the sparse, sandy trail of hair between Jon’s navel and the root of his cock. ‘And I didn’t think I was that way at all. So it felt fairly bloody for ages, especially once I twigged that you were, oddly enough. Have you always known?’

‘Pretty much.’

‘And you never tried to—?’

‘No. I know some men take pride in having made the attempt; me, I’ve always laboured under the quaint delusion that women are people too, and they’d probably rather not with a fellow who’d rather not. I daresay having a face like an overdone mutton chop helps. If I had to beat them off with a mucky stick, like some men I could mention, I might have succumbed once or twice out of vanity.’

‘What if vanity’s all it is, though—’

‘In addition to being very probably untrue if it’s only just occurred to you, that sounds like an unsuccessful first draft of the second verse of Ecclesiastes.’

‘Swank.’

‘There’s no need to feel you’ve burnt your bridges, is all I’m saying,’ Jon said hardily. ‘Don’t let her—them—go, for Christ’s sake, and may they never meet. And if you really can’t do without the occasional morsel from the other end of the buffet—well, take it from one who’s been around. You’ll hear a lot of bull talked about the confraternity, usually by the ones who made a sort of Greek mystery out of it and then had a hell of crash when they found it full of ordinarily lousy human beings. It can get pretty shady in places, though. Would be a lot less so, if the beaks could be persuaded to keep their beaks out. But you should know what you’re getting yourself into before you do something you regret.’

‘All right. Are you trying to make me feel cheap before you lay on or something? Our Head used to do that like nobody’s business.’

Jon hesitated. He couldn’t see Marlowe’s face properly, pressed to his chest as it was, but he could hear no salaciousness in the boy’s pettish tone. The nine years between them yawned as they never had before. Jon had scant personal taste for the other English vice, but enough devotees passed through his hands that he’d laid hands on a couple of instruments to cater to it; for Marlowe it probably belonged only to smutty postcards and not to the real world at all. His innocence was the invincible touch pitch sort: it would see him through hell on earth. It made Jon desire him jealously and exclusively, and that was the sort of peril he emphatically didn’t go in for.

‘What am I getting myself into, then?’ Marlowe asked.

‘Me.’

‘Bloody hell. You had me going for a minute there with that unfrocked scoutmaster routine.’

‘I meant it. But at my back I always hear, you know. I just haven’t time to jaw you any more, especially not if this is our farewell fuck. Which it is.’

Marlowe’s blue eyes clouded. ‘I don’t think I want it to b—’

Jon stopped his mouth with a vigorous kiss.