The phone started shrilling predictably just as he had eased into the bath. Alec waited a minute and began to call for Peter with increasing peremptoriness before remembering guiltily that he’d seen him off earlier, complete with duffel bag, great-coat, and umbrella: didn’t really wake up before the first cup of tea, these days, making up with a vengeance for residency. Well, whoever it was would undoubtedly call again.
The second call came right on the tail of a conversation with Julia, who wanted to verify details about orthopaedic surgery and had conveniently forgotten that he knew as little about it as she did about spy thrillers. He palmed her off with the number of the bitchiest surgeon he could remember off the top of his head—Dr. Mansell, oh, wouldn’t he give a lot to know how that worked out, but doubtless someone would inform him, they always seemed to, it rather took the fun out of things—and set the receiver down with a sort of finality that he hoped would convey itself through the ether to anyone who might be nursing thoughts of disturbing him.
The phone rang again. Alec eyed it like a suppurating boil for a second before picking up the receiver with a firmness he hoped was reminiscent of his attitudes towards lancets, though really it had been some time since he’d gone that route. “Hullo.”
“Hullo,” Ralph said, “Peter not around?”
“Got called out of bed by his editor. What did you want with him, anyway?”
“Thought I’d get him drunk and take advantage. I think he’s just groovy.” He uttered the last with the heavy, humourless intonation most people would apply to an obscure Latin tag.
“Never say that again, my dear. Where did you even learn it?”
“Andrew’s students. They think I’m groovy.”
“They think you’re a deluded soul who is colluding in his own oppression,” Alec said flatly. He’d met the group that hung about Andrew at the moment: migraines every damned time. Most of them thought Ralph interestingly pitiable, a few wanted to sleep with him: there was a distinct overlap which Alec found amusing and Ralph was utterly oblivious about.
“They’re not wrong,” Ralph said quietly. “Andrew told me yesterday bright and bloody early; I’m surprised you didn’t ring me up.”
“I would have, but I...”
“Didn’t want to rub my nose into it? Not very like you.”
“Had to deal with emergencies and last-minute appointments all bloody day. Not everything’s about you, my dear.” He wanted, in rapid succession, order no object: a stiff drink, Peter on his lap, and Ralph not wretchedly undergoing some belated revelation. By rights he ought to have a stable stuffed with the best Arab thoroughbreds with lineages stretching all the way back to the Eohippus. “Is anyone with you?”
“I’d only drag Andrew down. He offered to visit.”
Well, his day was already in shambles. “Come over if you’re only moping around.”
“I don’t think I can. I thought it’d be a mad riot at yours, anyway. I’m alright, Alec, really. Tell Peter I rang.”
“Ralph, listen, my dear, just.” But he was speaking to air.
He had given it two hours and trudged over, deeply resentful, fully intending to be as tactful as he could this early on a day that had already had two more conversations than he’d budgeted for, and no kissing. What came out of his mouth, a good two minutes after he’d rung the bell, was, “Ralph, really, it’s not even noon!”
Ralph glared blearily at him. “I don’t suppose you’ll go away?” He looked almost entirely asleep, navigating by instinct through vast exhaustion. He must have been at the end of his tether to have rung him up.
“Peter would kill me,” Alec explained, and shouldered carelessly past him. “Do brush your teeth, you reek. Maybe do something about the stubble while you’re at it.”
“I told you I was alright,” Ralph muttered, pretending Alec couldn’t see the relief flooding through him.
“You look a sight worse than a week-old corpse. Go wash, I’ll get the coffee started. Did you have a fit of rearranging everything?”
“You really ought to go,” Ralph said, much quieter of a sudden, the belligerence drained out of him, and sloped off to the lavatory.
The coffee was where it always was, and Alec had just finished doctoring his with cream and pouring the sludge Ralph’s favoured for his first coffee into the biggest tumbler easily at hand when he sloped back in and took it away, setting it down on the counter half-drunk.
“Feeling halfway sane now?” A sip told him that he’d put in a drip too much cream, but no use fussing about now that Ralph looked considerably less cornered, though he was still clutching the mug like it was a lifeline.
Ralph grunted, took his second drink, and grimaced on cue. Alec shoved the sugar-bowl at him and leaned forward, shifting his weight on the stool and resting his elbows on the counter in front of him. Ralph looked marginally more human and awake, but the stubble had been hiding a look of misery more deep-seated than his rare blind drunks could explain. He couldn’t quite stifle the anger rising in him: it was after all the best news any of them had had for two decades and change, and the last time it hadn’t been strictly speaking about them; rather the opposite, given how things had gone then and later.
When it became clear that the burden of conversation lay as usual with him, he ventured, feeling his way by tone, “This sort of change is always difficult, especially for people who’ve lived with it for as long as you or I. Yesterday I was running myself ragged trying to cram in appointments. I don’t imagine you want to talk things out, but it’s perfectly normal to feel distraught or disoriented.” Ralph was looking at him with the sort of blankness that preceded either rage or uproarious laughter. He added, “I do wish you wouldn’t pickle yourself over it, it’s doing your liver no end of harm, after all the trouble we had drying you out.”
“Alec, my very dear,” Ralph said, and that was certainly and perplexingly laughter in his voice, and he had to interrupt himself to let it out. Laughter with more than a touch of hysteria, but even that was unexpected; he had never been a maudlin drunk in the days he used to drink like a fish, and since had been blind only several times every year for a double handful of years. Hysteria, then, a fair bit of that among their compatriots just now with the relief, wouldn’t be a bit surprising if they ended in proving it a disease after all, but in Ralph who was but mad north-north-west it was disconcerting, as though one of the Elgin Marbles, one of the dignified ones and not the centaurs, had decided to take up the tarantella.
When the laughter had ceased and Ralph had crashed abruptly onto the next stool, body bent and elbows resting on his thighs, Alec said, “I know, my dear,” in the tone that allowed confidences without inviting them.
Ralph said, “You idiot, I’ve quit my job, that’s all. Imagine being petrified because they’re finally recognising our much-exercised ability for discretion.” He didn’t look up, and the laughter had died out of his voice quick as a summer storm. Now he simply sounded exhausted again.
“Did they find out?” One of the boys, yesterday, had had enough confidence in his parents to actually tell them. He had a job and a place of his own, but had looked about thirteen and homeless instead, sitting with Alec and reiterating the conversation.
“No, how could they? The Merchant Navy is going the same route as the armed forces. I turned in my notice yesterday in the afternoon, after I found that out.”
“You like the BI,” Alec pointed out superfluously.
“Jones said they would be sorry to see me go,” Ralph agreed. “I considered staying on, but it’s such an exercise in futility to keep hiding even now.”
“I’ll start looking for a solicitor to take up your arrest for indecent exposure,” Alec tried, and when that failed to elicit a smile or even a glare, added, “How are you for money?”
“I’ve made some small investments over the last ten years or so which have worked as well as can be expected, and BI’s giving me a nice little pension. They’re even throwing me a farewell party, Jones insisted: carriage clock and all. Jamie suggested I go like Sulla, all tarted up; ran into him yesterday just after and took him to tea.”
Entirely too much time around Andrew’s students. “You haven’t made quite enough a mess of yourself to pass,” he said.
“I would’ve, but there was a conspiracy that cut off my alcohol supply,” Ralph said, glancing up. “Had to demolish the cooking sherry today, tasted subtly of roasted chicken.”
“Serve you right,” Alec rejoined, but only feebly: he had suddenly thought of how it would look, Ralph in a stagy toga and not much else, with his eyes kohled. Ridiculous, of course, but not as much as most men in their fifties: his spare frame had grown whipcord with age, and the face that had looked old in his twenties had attained a haggard elegance. Probably Jamie was among the ones who fancied a shag.
He cleared his throat harshly and said, “There’s the money from your father’s estate. It’s been three years; you should really sell his house. Unless you fancy it for a retirement home?”
“Good Lord! My mother would rise out of her grave to condemn me. I’ll sell the damned thing, never fear. It isn’t the money I’ll be missing.”
“I know,” Alec said, and put his right hand carefully over Ralph’s left. He had stopped wearing the glove decades ago and hadn’t resumed the habit after the war; the keloid was worn as rough as the untouched skin. Still, one wanted to touch it carefully, tenderly, even though it could only slightly register pressure and not much else.
“I’ve worked there for over thirty years,” Ralph said. “When I met you, that was one of my last trips for the Cunard-White Star. I was twenty-two. Thirty-one years with BI not counting the war; my whole adulthood I’ve been there.” He looked strained, skin paling and jaw clenching till the bones showed in profile very purely, silvering hair swept back by the tilt of the head. His throat worked. “I wouldn’t rescind my resignation, no job’s worth hiding now nobody else has to. But it is hard. I don’t know whether I can live without that job, without work. Shouldn’t be surprised if I fell prey to the worst inferiority complexes”, he said, essaying a smile that failed. “I’ve been working since I was nineteen, might feel a bit worthless without. I don’t know a life without the sea.” His hand twisted palm-up under Alec’s to clutch with a species of desperation that gave the lie to his bland, even tone. “I’m a wreck, you really ought to have gone away.”
Peter would just have to understand, Alec decided viciously, and gathered him up. For a long moment, the span of a single shuddering sob, Ralph just clung to him, and then they were kissing. They hadn’t done this in a while—Ralph usually equipped with one long-lasting boyfriend after another and not inclined to look around, and Alec leery of the inevitable consequences of straying where Ralph was concerned—so it was gratifying for a moment to have Ralph fall upon him with a controlled hunger that toppled them neatly onto the floor.
Years ago, Alec thought a little mournfully as Ralph pushed him off and rolled up to his knees, this wouldn’t have given them pause. Now Ralph rubbed the back of his skull, felt Alec over solicitously with indifferent hands, and smiled ruefully. “Halt or bed? I doubt either of our backs will thank us for the floor on top of that tumble.”
The fall, or the frantic kissing before it, had pulled the collar of his shirt awry, exposing the strut of the scapula, the delicately-etched dip of it shadowed beneath the laryngeal prominence. Ralph’s neck was long enough that when he tipped his head back one could rest one’s forehead underneath his jaw and mouth at the scapula, flick the hollow of it with the tongue. The skin there was looser now than it had been, or the flesh had withered enough that it was possible to set teeth neatly around the narrow bone and bite down gently. Ralph groaned and put his hands in Alec’s curls and tugged him up and off, brushing a kiss quickly over his mouth in apology.
“Decide,” he urged. “Now, or we’ll be regretting this in a few hours.” Already he looked better, the awful fragility receding. In the last few years, just over a decade—and just now it was strange to think in terms of decades with the prison-weight of them beginning to disappear—he’d grown easy in his skin, the leashed energy softening into something kinder; Alec, who had sometimes missed the old spring-loaded attitude, realised with a shock that he’d been witnessing it the last little while and naming it misery.
He got to his feet carefully, avoiding the counter-top, which had sharp edges, and hauled Ralph up. Ralph came lightly, weight on the balls of his feet, and leaned in to kiss him: not with any particular intent but just as though it was easy, because they could. For the first time the long shadow of the prison was absent. It had never been a real concern for Alec, but in Ralph it had dug deep and he’d tried helplessly to do without as much of life as possible to compensate for the one crime he couldn’t help commit: Ralph was not religious and never had been, but possessed the fevered belief in right and wrong that Alec privately suspected he’d inherited from his mother and had simply changed allegiance from church to state, only to be bruised there as well. For a moment he contemplated resentment: a good fit, properly pitched, would extricate him neatly from what promised to be a situation of considerable emotional entanglement; probably Ralph would even apologise. But it was equally useless getting angry with Ralph for being endlessly symbolic, and pretending to himself that this was just a meaningless encounter born of relief: Alec hadn’t processed things enough to feel relief and suspected he would not, and Ralph if he’d a mind to could have picked up the boy from the chip-shop who made hopeful eyes at him, or even one of Andrew’s bright young things; they only needed to be in private, consenting, and above twenty-one. Thirty years ago, they had been all three, he and Ralph: it was what it was.
“Come along,” he said, and squeezed the hand Ralph had made no effort at removing from his grip. “Bed for us old men.”