"But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown.
Dead fingers stretch themselves to tear it down.
I hear those voices that will not be drowned.
Calling, there is no stone
In earth’s thickness to make a home,
That you can build with and remain alone."
Laurie had gone back to Oxford for his final year, taking a bedsit room in a terrace in Jericho. His room, with its faltering gas fire, had a view of the boatyard. He sat at his narrow desk to write his essays, knees bumping the wall, and watched the canal boats slowly come and go, and the low sunlight moving across crumbling, sooty brick.
Oxford had changed. Khaki uniforms and sandbags and the drone of planes flying overhead. Brize Norton, Benson, Upper Heyford. They were names that he had hardly heard before the war, places that he had never visited on country walks, fairy villages sprung up like mushrooms. His college was half empty and those who remained seemed no more than callow sixth formers filling in for the real, absent students. There was Woolton pie for dinner in hall. People talked of firefighting parties as much as they did of the Union. Of Charles and his set, there was no sign.
And yet the strangest thing about Oxford was how it had not changed at all. It was timeless and remote from the ways of mortal men. Where there should have been bombs falling, there was silence. Every stained glass window standing unbroken seemed like a reproach aimed both at him and at that unspoilt city.
Ralph had suggested, insisted nearly, that they could live together. They could take a small house in Bicester, he said. It would not be too far for either of them to travel. Attractive though the idyll might have seemed, it would have inconvenienced both of them and suited neither. Laurie, though over twenty-one, was still doing his first degree and bound to live within five miles of Carfax unless residing in the home of a parent or guardian. Ralph was neither. So they lived apart.
He was not supposed to know where Ralph was stationed. He was not supposed to have overnight guests in his room, though Ralph had charmed Laurie's emigre Austrian landlady so thoroughly that he was never sure whether Ralph was included in the prohibition. Every weekend Ralph would drive up from Bletchley Park on the motorbike that had replaced his car as petrol rationing began to bite. There were no signposts on those winding country lanes but he never lost his way. He would park his motorbike on Canal Street and slip up Laurie's narrow stairs as cautiously as if he'd been a girl undergraduate.
"It's just as well," he said, stripping off his uniform jacket and lying back on the bed. "I don't think I could have stuck being a student here."
"I never would have thought I could have stuck the war."
Ralph smiled and put one hand behind his head. "You're more resilient than you think, Spuddy."
Laurie had one gas ring on which he heated endless tins of soup and boiled potatoes until they could boil no more. When Ralph came to visit he wanted to escape all that. He could have taken Ralph to eat in hall but he never wanted the burden of making introductions. Together they would stroll down to the British Restaurant on Gloucester Green. And then they would wind up propping up the bar of the Eagle and Child until closing time.
While walking with Ralph in town, Laurie's self-consciousness would return, queerly reversed. On good days his limp had almost gone, so that an onlooker might think that he merely had a stone in his shoe or was footsore after a long day of country walking. Yet shoulder to shoulder with Ralph, civilian clothes alongside the uniform of a Navy lieutenant, he would find himself wishing that his limp was more obvious, an outward sign to absolve him of inward guilt and the stigma of cowardice. And then he would feel a traitor of a different kind. He understood, he thought, how Andrew must have felt.
Laurie did not mix with the younger undergraduates, rarely going into college except for his tutorials. Ralph was almost his only company. It felt strange to talk sometimes, to laugh together, to have someone to sleep beside him and be there when he woke. Ralph left the faint scent of Imperial Leather soap on his pillow.
And yet Laurie had got used to his solitude as well. He spent long winter afternoons thinking as much as writing. If he was still, he could hear the geese on flooded Port Meadow and the rattling of trains across the river, bound for the North.
On the weekends when he did not come to Oxford, Ralph sometimes went to parties in London. Laurie knew this obscurely, without being told, certainly without speaking of it.
"I met the queerest chap," said Ralph after one of those lost weekends. "Asked me to join the Security Services on secondment. I didn't like the cut of him."
It gave Laurie pause. But why should there not be MI5 agents at those parties as much as doctors or Navy officers?
"Did you...?" he said, and hardly knew what he was asking.
Ralph laughed. "Of course not, Spud. You have a suspicious mind."
One was never supposed to ask, was one, what one's lover had done during the war.
In May the chestnut candles were bursting out against a dark blue sky. Laurie was walking alone with his thoughts down St Giles when he felt a shower of dust descending on his head. Pollen, he thought, touching his cheek gently to see what came away. Nothing but grit. When he looked up a blond head was leaning out the upstairs window of the Friends' Meeting House, shaking out a rug.
"Laurie!" said a familiar voice. It was Andrew.
He came to the front door, opening it as if there were no one else he had been expecting, and ushered Laurie up to a tiny flat. Its bedroom was even smaller than Laurie's bedsit and overlooked the back garden. A colourful knitted throw was pulled over the bed on which Laurie sat. Andrew poured tea.
"I met someone," he said, half apologetically. "Who teaches here."
"Oh," said Laurie.
"And so I've become Assistant Warden. Not for good. Only for a few months, till we can find something really worth doing and go away."
The tea was too hot to drink. Laurie put the cup down on a coaster. Outside there were children playing on the green grass of the garden.
"I've realised... I've realised a great deal," Andrew continued. "It was all a terrible misunderstanding, wasn't it?"
"It's quite all right," said Laurie automatically. It was as if Andrew had stepped on his toes at a dance.
"I'm glad you have Ralph." Andrew paused. "You do, don't you?"
"I do," confirmed Laurie.
"I'm glad. I would have felt so awkward if..."
"I feel awkward anyway."
Andrew smiled the kind of smile that always seems to make things all right. Then he poured more tea and the awkwardness passed. It was impossible for them to remain strangers for long.
As all conversations did in those days, their talk turned eventually to the war. For Andrew that meant one thing in particular; though his sentiments were the same, his arguments were new.
"We owe our loyalty to one another," he said. "Not to nations or governments. We especially."
Without asking, Laurie knew what Andrew meant. It was not something that he would ever have said before.
"But there's so much more to it than the individual," Laurie objected. "Aristotle says..."
Even as he spoke the words, he heard himself and was ashamed. Oxford had hardened him. He was talking as if he were debating in the JCR over hot cocoa, proving the erudition of his reading rather than aiming for the meeting of one heart and mind with another.
"Have you read E. M. Forster?" interrupted Andrew.
"Only A Room with a View."
His Aunt Olive had given it to him when he was seventeen and he had devoured it with surprising eagerness, as if the book soothed some inner ache that he had not known how to feel until that very minute.
"Well, Forster said, once upon a time, that if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friends, he hoped that he should have the guts to betray his country."
"Why must we betray either?"
Andrew just looked at him half-pityingly, as if in the months that they had been apart he had somehow grown to be the older and wiser of the two.
"Sometimes we haven't the choice," he said.
Just then the doorbell rang. Andrew had to go downstairs to admit a group of Friends; Laurie followed. The visitors filed in past Andrew at the door, looking at Laurie with polite and mild interest. He dipped his head, feeling abashed and faintly heathen.
Once the visitors had all gone in Andrew carried on holding the door open, as if it were too perilous for them to return upstairs to their half-drunk cups of tea.
"I shall be leaving the country soon," said Andrew solemnly. "We're going to the Continent."
Something about the way he said it suggested days while meaning months, and at that moment it seemed the kindest and most generous of fictions.
"Take care," said Laurie.
They parted with a handshake on the doorstep, Laurie standing poised on the broad threshold as people passed heedlessly on the pavement outside. Andrew's grip was firm. The chestnut candles carried on burning their brightness into the air.
In the summer of 1941 Laurie was awarded first class honours in English. He read the class list standing on the hollowed stone steps of the Examination Schools as backs were slapped and hats were tossed into the air. He walked back to Jericho smiling enigmatically to himself until he thought that his face might crack with the strain of holding it in. He wanted to lie in the grass underneath a tree somewhere and be fed strawberries dipped in cream. He wanted to sleep.
Before he called his mother, even, he called Ralph. Patiently he told the Bletchley operator that no, it wasn't an emergency, and waited for Ralph to come to the phone. When he finally picked up, he could tell from the guardedness of Ralph's tone that he wasn't alone.
"Hello, there. Got news?"
In the background Laurie could hear the murmur of voices. He could envision Ralph standing there, ramrod straight, his gloved hand in his pocket and the phone to his ear.
"I did it," he said simply.
There was a moment of silence. He could hear Ralph breathing. There they were in different counties, separated only by the crackle of the line.
"I knew you would," said Ralph. "Good going, Spuddy."
It was all that he needed to say. Laurie could feel tears of relief prickling at his eyes.
Laurie's graduation was in the autumn but the college gave him only two tickets. Ralph stayed in Bletchley. Mr. Straike took the place that should have been his, sitting next to Laurie's mother on the wooden benches of the Sheldonian.
The ceremony and its aftermath were so bewilderingly full that Laurie had time to think of little else. It was only when the three of them were sitting in a teashop on the High--Laurie's fur-trimmed silk hood dragging uncomfortably at his neck--that he noticed Mr. Straike regarding him with an expression even more disapproving than usual.
"Before we catch our train," said Laurie's mother once their teas had been despatched, "I thought I might just look into Boswell's for a thing or two. Perhaps the two of you could go for a stroll together...?"
There was no reprieve. His mother kissed him goodbye outside the Grand and left Laurie at the mercy of the man he had never managed to think of as his stepfather. Together they walked down Rose Lane to Christ Church Meadow. The grey, crumbling city wall was red with Virginia creeper. Dead Man's Walk beckoned them on. Mr. Straike seemed to grow in confidence as they neared Christ Church. It had been, once, his college.
"I wanted to talk to you, Laurence, about Ralph Lanyon."
"Sir?" said Laurie, unable to keep a note of dismay out of his voice.
"I have reason to believe that your friend Ralph is... hrm... not a man of good character."
Laurie felt a prickling of hot sweat at the back of his neck; it was as bad as it had ever been during Finals.
"I don't know what you mean."
"Surely you must. He was expelled from your school for... grave offences. For corrupting a younger boy."
"I'm sure there must have been some mistake," said Laurie automatically. For a moment he was brought back to that day and that study, and to the realisation that there had been no mistake at all. And yet what he meant, if he were to express it, was something different: that it was not what Mr Straike might think, even though Laurie could never explain that to him.
"As the source was your old housemaster Jepson, I doubt that very much."
Laurie's tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. He stammered a bit. But newly endowed with the dignity of BA Oxon (Hons), he was bolder than he might otherwise have been.
"I try not to listen to gossip," he said firmly. He straightened his gown on his shoulders. Even though it was September, the sun was hot on its black fabric.
"Be that as it may..." said Mr. Straike. But it was half an admission of defeat or of unwillingness to press further.
Mr. Straike didn't speak again until they had turned back towards the High, up the narrow passage between Merton and Corpus. He blew his nose noisily and tucked his handkerchief into his jacket pocket.
"I shan't speak of this to your mother," he said. "It isn't the sort of thing that one likes to discuss with a woman. (We have such problems even within the clergy, you know.) But I do think, Laurie, that you could choose your friends more carefully."
"Yes, sir," said Laurie and watched as birds wheeled above the spires of Merton chapel.
That autumn Laurie found a position teaching English at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire. It was a strange place, like Oxford half-filled and half-emptied by war. When he went for interview, the great neoclassical facade of the house was broken by windows shattered in a bombing raid. The handsome eighteenth-century landscape gardens were overgrown, filled with Nissen huts and billeted soldiers. A few boys wandered around, dispirited and fascinated by turns, like ghosts in the landscape.
In some ways life at Stowe was not that different from life at Oxford. War made all things equal. Here too there were blackout patrols and fire fighting parties. Laurie, accustomed to command and then reduced again to the status of a student, now led a team of eager, naive boys.
"You'll wind up as a headmaster," laughed Ralph. "And wouldn't that be the ultimate of ironies?"
For all his stoic exterior the war had been harder on Ralph, harder than it had been on Laurie. One could not have chosen a place further inland than Bletchley Park. His adventurous spirit chafed under confinement to the monotonous hedgerow-lined fields of Buckinghamshire. It was for Laurie's sake--thought Laurie--that he had dreamt of settling down and making a home together, but even this compensation was denied him, for the fortunes of war had kept them just as much separated as they ever had been when Laurie was an Oxford student.
In some ways Laurie's position at Stowe made things even worse. Ralph's overnight visits, while mildly beyond the pale in Oxford, could have been actively scandalous in the cloistered world of the public school. And the worst of it was that the boys all adored Ralph--this friend of their teacher with a motorbike and a Navy officer's uniform and stories of faraway ports--in a way that put into the shade the mildly and theoretical admiration that they felt for the soldiers who were billeted much closer to hand. Laurie remembered Mervyn in the hospital and, for the first time, thought what a good father Ralph would be. It was with a pang that he realised that he, Laurie, might just be the obstacle that kept Ralph from one day having a family of his own.
"Hazell all over again," Ralph said as they strolled together in one of the more distant corners of the school grounds, looking for a place where they could sit and talk undisturbed. He was carrying a walking stick for Laurie's eventual use and he switched at the dead bracken with it as they passed.
"I don't think so," said Laurie.
"Mark my words, it would be. To be driven to seas once in a lifetime by moral turpitude is bad luck. Twice begins to look like carelessness."
Laurie said nothing. He knew very well that Ralph was longing for his old haunts and that being banished to sea would for him be, in many ways, no misfortune at all.
At the crest of a hill there was a Gothic folly where they had been meaning to stop. But when they gained the summit they found another courting couple huddled there against the cold, a soldier and a local girl who worked at the school as a maid. Quietly Ralph and Laurie continued on; at the edge of the park they turned down a deserted lane. Without saying anything Ralph handed Laurie both the walking stick and his own scarf. After a longer walk than either of them had wanted, they came to a country pub that was a little too far to be favoured either by teachers or by out-of-bounds boys.
Laurie sat at the bar and watched Ralph down a double whisky, and then another. He was drinking to get drunk; he had never stopped, not really, even without Bunny to egg him on. At the other end of the bar a group of local men were carrying on a lively discussion about the Home Guard. The sounds of derisive laughter allowed their own conversation, for once, to be almost private.
"Ralph," said Laurie as the other man signaled for a third drink, "are you happy?"
Ralph turned sharply to look at him.
"Of course I am, Spud." It was a brave front but his voice was freighted with weariness. "What could make the boy ask a thing like that?"
"If you weren't, I don't think you'd say so, that's all."
"Perhaps not," Ralph acknowledged. "But what good does it do? One only has to keep on."
He took a long, slow drink from his glass and gazed ahead at the row of bottles on the shelf of the bar.
"Is it that you're unhappy, Spuddy?" he asked suddenly. His voice was suddenly tender, transparent in a way that it never was when he talked about himself. "If there's anything, anything at all..."
"No," said Laurie hastily. "No, no. It's only..."
"...I just wish this bloody war were over."
Ralph laughed with an edge of bitterness.
"I'll drink to that," he said.
It had seemed the remotest of wishes when they discussed it in a pub in Buckinghamshire. Less than two years later it was a reality. The war was finally drawing to a close. Germany had surrendered and election posters were everywhere. And now win the peace... vote Labour.
Laurie, who had never voted before, thought that he would do. His whole adult existence had been taken up with war; it was hard to believe that he could be a grown man without it.
Ralph was in the process being demobilized, trading his posting in Naval Intelligence at Bletchley for a civilian role with the Security Services. Flush with the sudden sense of possibilities, Laurie had moved to London as well, throwing over schoolmastering for the chance to spend the rest of his small inheritance attempting to establish himself as a writer.
It had never been settled in so many words that, in the intervening months between the disappearance of his bank balance and the appearance of success, Laurie was to be kept by Ralph. And yet it seemed to be understood. Ralph was scrupulously careful with money but valued it very little in itself, and the idea of supporting Laurie almost seemed to please him.
"As long as it takes," he said gently. "As long as it takes, Spuddy."
With his own hands Ralph had restored the massive and battered desk that he had bought for Laurie, stripping it and sanding it down until the wood was as smooth as glass, then painting it with layer after layer of finish. It was just the sort of work that Ralph liked; watching him there, kneeling on the floor of their small flat in St John's Wood, Laurie could so easily imagine him on the deck of a clipper ship in the South China Sea, sanding the deck or polishing brass with the same careful, unhurried attention.
It was such a magnificent desk that Laurie felt almost unworthy of it. He felt the same way, sometimes, when it came to Ralph.
With the coming of peace it was as if everyone let out a collective breath that they had not known they were holding. People sang in the streets. Couples embraced on the front pages of newspapers. Laurie decided, in an unaccountable fit of enthusiasm, that he wanted to go to see an opera.
"It's just premiered at Sadler's Wells," he said one evening. "It's called Peter Grimes."
"Not my sort of thing, Spuddy," said Ralph from behind a newspaper. "Not really; you heard me trying to sing in choir. But I'll go if you like."
Laurie did like. For days, weeks now, they had been submerged in the petty inconveniences and adjustments that inevitably attend setting up a household together, even if the parties concerned have known one another for years. Fraught questions--two beds or one?--had come close to distracting them from the purpose that it all served. Now Laurie wanted nothing more than to go out for evening with Ralph at his side.
"Very much so," he replied.
Ralph's face softened with a sort of quiet pride. "What's it about, anyway?"
"It's about the sea," said Laurie simply. "You'll like it."
In the light of a summer evening, the shabby, battered London Transport bus seemed a strange steed to transport them to the opera. Ralph stood immaculate in dress uniform, clutching a pole with his good hand; Laurie sat wearing the black tie that he had once worn to college formal halls. Outside the bus's smeared and scratched windows, London seemed to be catching its breath, all its ruined bomb sites waiting expectantly for the tide to turn.
"Sadler's Wells for Peter Grimes, the sadistic fisherman," sang out the conductor. "Enjoy, gents."
Ralph nodded to the conductor, standing aside to allow Laurie to alight before he followed. He never gave the impression of hanging back or of moving with anything less than his usual decisiveness but somehow he managed it so that even with Laurie's temperamental knee, they were walking shoulder to shoulder as they came to the door of the theatre.
Like the bus, like everything else in England at the end of that long war, the theatre was shabby, with that peculiar sadness of genteelly decaying velvet and gilt. Yet the atmosphere was anything but weary. There was a buzz of excitement in the air as people greeted one another.
Their seats were up in the second circle. By the time that he had climbed several flights of stairs and wedged himself into a row of seats with Ralph following close behind him, Laurie's knee was well and truly aching. He shifted experimentally to the side and winced. To have his leg twisted was worse than to have it straight, even if it did mean that his battered kneecap was left pressed against the back of the seat in front of him.
"And to think that you're the one who likes this sort of thing," said Ralph in a low and not unsympathetic tone. "Should have stopped to have a drink in the bar."
"I'll be fine."
"Any minute now?"
"Any minute now," Laurie confirmed.
He could not help a smile as he felt the knuckles of Ralph's hand brush subtly against his own. The house lights were going down. They clasped hands for a moment before the prologue began.
The opera told the tale of Peter Grimes, the rough, angry, mistrusted fisherman fighting to win a place for himself amidst the distrust and animosity of the Borough. All was accompanied by the roll of waves and the crash of breakers on the Suffolk coast. Glancing quickly to his side, Laurie saw that Ralph was enthralled.
"Grimes," sang Balstrode, "since you’re a lonely soul, born to blocks and spars and ropes, why not try the wider sea, with merchantman or privateer?"
"I am native, rooted here," Grimes sang in reply. And then: "The storm is here and I shall stay."
But hope, friendship and luck all failed him until finally he was left with nothing but his boat and the vastness of the sea.
"Sail out till you lose sight of land," said Balstrode finally, starkly, his words unsoftened by song. "Then sink the boat. D'you hear? Sink her."
Beside him, Laurie could hear Ralph's breath catch. The whole theatre was still.
And the applause, when it came after the epilogue, was thunderous. Laurie was very conscious of the dull sound that Ralph's glove made against his bare palm. But Ralph was clapping harder than anyone.
Still half dazed, they were swept down into the foyer with the exiting wave of concertgoers. Ralph stuck close by Laurie's side, looking as though he would have liked to offer an assisting arm.
"Shall we go for a drink?" he said.
"By the time we get anywhere," said Laurie, "it'll be last orders."
"I know a place," said Ralph, who would have known a place whether he had found himself in Shanghai or Aden.
As the city was London, the place was in Soho. After the monotonous darkness of the blackout its sudden illumination seemed strange. The doors of pubs stood open, light spilling out into the street as people reluctantly began to go home. Jazz was playing from an upstairs window. Laurie and Ralph strode along as quickly as Laurie could manage, for once not having to blindly stumble over kerbs or potholes. They were still discussing the opera.
"I liked the part," Ralph was saying, "when the other fellow tells him to chuck it in and leave the village already, what was it..."
"You'd slip these moorings if you had the mind," suggested Laurie.
"But he wasn't about to be driven out..."
They were so engrossed in their conversation that they hardly noticed the woman who was standing on the street corner, watching them both with cocked head and appraising eye.
"Hello, boys." Her faint West Country accent seemed out of place in the West End. "Fancy some company?"
"Not for us, thanks," said Ralph matter-of-factly.
Her laugh was not unkind. "Enjoy yourself, duckie."
Laurie waited until they had crossed the street before he turned to Ralph again.
"Do you think she knew?" he asked.
"Of course she knew," said Ralph. "She's a professional. Pretty poor of her not to know, especially after I gave her a clue like that."
Their destination was a private club, down a back passage and a flight of stairs. When Laurie stepped through the door he knew why it was so out of the way: this was a club for queers, filled with men laughing and talking. Some of them wore makeup. Some of them wore pearls. Laurie remembered when he hadn't known what 'drag' meant.
It reminded him of nothing so much as that party of Alec's where he had first been reunited with Ralph. He had always suspected that this sort of scene did not put Ralph off quite as much as he had once claimed it did. Somehow it was different seeing it for himself.
"They don't follow the normal rules," said Ralph in response to Laurie's questioning glance, "so they stay open as late as they please. Don't let it worry you, Spud. We'll have a drink or two and then we'll go."
Sitting at a table near the door was a curious specimen who wore hennaed hair and lipstick, and a silk scarf around his neck. He looked up with interest as they walked past.
"So the Prodigal returns..." he said in a breathy voice.
"Quentin," said Ralph with a nod.
"You know him?" said Laurie.
"Only in passing." Ralph took Laurie's elbow in the crowd and moved him swiftly on. "He's a C.O. of a sort, I suppose."
It could not help but bring Andrew back to Laurie's mind. Somehow it seemed an unfair equation for Ralph to make. The thought persisted as Ralph found him a seat and then a drink. Laurie sipped at it without much real conviction.
Eventually he became conscious that Ralph was staring fixedly at him.
"What do they say, Spud? A fool returneth to his folly? Maybe not that but something along those lines. I don't like it, places like this, but perhaps I've been spoiled on normality by too much of the other sort. You've been lucky, Spud, you never got the taste for it."
Looking around, Laurie could not imagine that he ever would get the taste for it.
"Look at it this way," Ralph continued. "Perhaps this isn't the best but it isn't the worst either. It's like in the opera. Any port in a storm and sometimes the waves get so high. You can't imagine how high they get."
He paused and took another drink.
"For the security clearance, you know, they have to look into my background. Three guesses what they'll find."
"Look into your background?" repeated Laurie stupidly. "Oh... yes."
"Oh," said Ralph. "Exactly. War is all very well when you're fighting it. Not so much when you're lashed to a desk with no time off for good behaviour."
"Why don't you leave?" asked Laurie, knowing full well that his question was a double one.
Ralph took a deep breath. "Slip these moorings?"
"Because I'm wanted here. By Her Majesty's Government."
It was what he had always known about Ralph, that he would fight, would fight and if backed up against the wall would scuttle his ship rather than admit that the world had no place for him. If faced with Forster's choice between love of country and love of fellow man he would refuse it, keep them both within his grasp and be torn apart for it.
And more than anything Laurie wanted Ralph to be whole.
"Only that?" he said.
"And because... well, because. I am wanted here, aren't I?"
"Always," said Laurie simply.
Ralph sighed and put his half-finished drink down on the bar.
"Come on, Spuddy," he said, getting to his feet. "Let's go. Home is the sailor, home from sea."
"...It is such heaven to hear your voice, even over the telephone. But doesn't it seem ages since last Sunday!--and now we still have to wait until Friday. Still, it's not so bad; think of all the other married couples who are separated for everso [sic] much longer!!…"
--Benjamin Britten to Peter Pears, during wartime