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Eight Candles

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shamash.

Years afterward, while marking papers in her blissfully empty classroom, Mrs. Lintott hears a boy singing in the corridor. Anthony Garrett, fifth form, a small boy with an unbroken alto like a warm, flickering candle. She makes a note to tell Hector about it over lunch--

Even now, it can still catch her by surprise.

She stares down at the essay on her desk. It's filled to bursting with facts, painstakingly accurate and devastatingly unimaginative, a monument to stilted syntax and run-on sentences. There's nary a gobbet to break up the tedium of the utterly expected thesis. This is what her boys produce, this firmament of indisputable information, devoid of wit or heart or song.

Mrs. Lintott has nothing to offer the boy singing in the hall, no sheet music to study or pianist to accompany him. There's no longer any outlet for his sort of creativity in Cutler's, for the pure silly nonsense of boys being boys. She almost hopes that this lot isn't clever enough to notice the lack.

For the first time in several years, she wonders whatever became of clever, sad young Posner.

*


one.

Christmas hols fall squarely in the midst of studying for A-levels, which is a real peach; not that Posner gets much into the holiday spirit under the best of circumstances.

"The Gregorian calendar wasn't even adopted until the 16th century," he grouses, slamming one book closed with more force than strictly necessary. "The Church hasn't the faintest idea when Christ was actually born at all, has it, and it certainly wasn't December 25th. And what did Jesus have to do with all this crass commercialism, is what I'd like to know."

Scripps doesn't quite laugh at him, which is good because otherwise Posner would have no choice but to smack him upside the head with Tudor Economic Documents, Volume One. "I think you might be missing the point--"

"Oh, of course, peace and love and goodwill among men." Posner rolls his eyes. "I dare you to find me one Christian who actually believes in the true spirit of Christmas -- well, other than you."

"You're a right Scrooge this year, aren't you?" Scripps remarks affably.

"Ah, yes, that heartwarming holiday classic of the skinflint moneylender who hates Christmas. Don't even try to tell me old Ebenezer wasn't just a rabid sentimentalist's take on the bloody Merchant of Venice--"

"You're just jealous because your parents don't have a Christmas tree for you to fuss with."

Posner huffs out a breath, scowling down at his notes. "I've seen what you call a cranberry chain, and you've got all the decorating ability of a dyslexic infant. Christmas is wasted on you, Scripps."

Scripps grins. "Why, Pos, do I detect a reluctant hint of holiday cheer?"

"Well, you Christians get caroling and roasts and Father Christmas with armloads of presents," Posner points out grumpily. "We get fried potatoes and light a few candles. If we're really lucky, we get to play with a top. You can see why Christianity has more of a draw."

After a beat, Scripps shrugs. "Actually, fried potatoes don't sound half bad."

Posner considers it. His stomach rumbles. His mum probably has latkes frying as they speak. "You're right, they don't. Let's go 'round to mine and see what we can scrounge up."

*


two.

Posner thought if he got into Oxford, Dakin might finally see him as worthy, as something closer to an equal, and love him back. Instead, it's the complete opposite. They both came to Oxford, and now Dakin seems to have forgotten him entirely.

"It's not anything you've done," Scripps says patiently, the fifteenth time or so Posner complains to him about it. "It's just Dakin."

"Just Dakin," Posner echoes incredulously. "Yes, it's just the love of my life, Scripps, it's no bother, really--"

"If Dakin's the love of your life, it just goes to show you haven't lived enough yet." He rummages through the (mostly empty) cupboard over Posner's desk, wrinkling his nose. "Speaking of living, I know you can't cook worth a damn, but please tell me you've got some crisps or something stashed away in here..."

"Middle drawer under the bed, next to the ugliest jumpers on God's good earth, and if you get crumbs on the carpet you're sweeping. And what do you know about living it up anyway?"

Scripps sighs. "All I know is you've put Dakin up so high on this pedestal, he can't help but disappoint you."

With an impatient shrug, Posner flops across his bed, staring up at the shadows sprawling across the ceiling. There's a crack in the plaster shaped a bit like a treble clef. "I should lower my standards, I suppose. Who do I think I am, anyway, to want--"

"Don't be a tit," Scripps says sharply. Posner sits straight back up, startled. Scripps never uses that tone, not even when Dakin's at his most, well, Dakin-ish. He almost looks angry, which is distinctly unchristian and not an emotion Posner has ever associated with him before. "You shouldn't lower your standards, Posner. And don't you ever think you're not worth -- that you don't deserve the best. It's Dakin who's not worth it. Not you."

Posner gapes at him. Outside, the streetlamps are being lit, pinpricks of flame in the deepening twilight of the college yards. He should really turn on the lights in his room, he thinks irrelevantly -- but even in the dusky half-light, he can see the tips of Scripps's ears flush red.

The silence stretches uncomfortably.

"Oh," Posner finally says. "Um. Thanks."

Scripps huffs out a breath. "Right," he says awkwardly, and clambers to his feet, abandoning the bag of crisps still unopened. "Anyway, I've three hundred pages of reading to do, I'm for the library. 'Night, Pos."

"'Night," Posner echoes. Scripps flashes him a quick grin and lets himself out.

Posner remains perched at the edge of his bed, unmoving, uncomprehending. Night falls. He stares into the darkness, wondering what on earth Scripps meant, certain he was wrong.

*


three.

Posner discovers the Beat poets his second year at Oxford. Sure, it's about a quarter-century after the fact, and he doesn't drink (much) or do drugs or have sex, but something in Kerouac and Ginsberg and the rest speaks to a part of him he hadn't really known existed. For the better part of a month, he wanders around in a state of manic bliss with the library's copy of On the Road tucked under his arm, irritating anyone who will hold still long enough with meditations on the abject vitality of Howl and Naked Lunch, wondering how he's never realized literature could be like this. He's just the slightest bit miffed that Hector had completely skipped over this era in his scattershot curriculum.

Then again, Hector never much knew what to do with anything this visceral.

Akthar and Scripps take it upon themselves to stage an intervention three and a half weeks in, armed with Auden and Brief Encounter and Cole Porter, not to mention more whiskey than might be expected from a Muslim and a near-teetotaler. The Broadway album is nice, but it's the liquor that finally does the trick.

It's two in the morning and Posner is sprawled halfway across Scripps's lap, feet propped up on the rungs of a chair, with Akthar snoring somewhere between the bed and the wall. There's a three-quarters empty bottle eying them balefully from the middle of the mattress and another fully empty one rolling around the floor, a smattering of wax drips down the side of the desk from the ill-advised candles they decided to light an hour ago, and a couple of gangsters advise him to brush up his Shakespeare from the not-quite-muted boombox. This is what friends are for, Posner realizes, limbs pleasantly loose from the alcohol.

"'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,'" Scripps quotes quietly. His hand brushes through Posner's hair, as if by accident. "It's good poetry, I know, but I don't get it -- if you're going for madness and depression, Dickinson's much more your style. The whole beatnik thing just isn't you, Posner."

"No," Posner says, "but then again, it sort of is."

Scripps shifts, readjusting Posner's weight across his legs. He gently taps Posner's temple. "What's it like inside your head, Pos?"

Something sours in the pit of his stomach, and he thinks of Ginsberg's howling, Edvard Munch's immortal, silent scream. I hear it, he wants to tell him; that's what I hear, all the time, and I never understood it until now.

"Noisy," Posner says flatly. He turns his head just a fraction to press his cheek against Scripps's soft jumper, and closes his eyes.

*


four.

His first shag isn't Dakin, and maybe there's a small part of Posner that will never quite forgive himself for that.

He doesn't set out to pull that Saturday night -- frankly, it's the last thing he's expecting. He's just frustrated and lonely, the rattling in his head reaching fever pitch, and he wants to go to the pub down the street and get thoroughly sloshed. But there he is chatting up another boy who keeps gently touching Posner's shoulder, his arm, the small of his back -- and suddenly he realizes, I'm having that. Perversely, it goads him on that this boy looks nothing at all like Dakin. He's fair to Dakin's dark, with blue eyes, broad shoulders, and a rough, honest face. He's a bit of all right but no great looker, but neither is Posner, and that puts him at his ease somehow in a way Dakin's indolent beauty never could.

I'm having that, he thinks again, his purpose distilled by alcohol. He smiles in a way he hadn't known he could and leads the other boy (never quite caught his name) out the side door of the pub.

The early spring night air is cool, but the boy's hands are warm, and the heat building low in Posner's belly stokes a fire that courses through his veins. The act itself is surprisingly sloppy, rough and uncomplicated. Their breaths come in harsh gasps, the other boy's straw-colored hair glints like candlelight in the burnished glow of the streetlamp, and Posner closes his eyes tightly and lets himself go.

It doesn't solve anything, but it'll have to do for now.

He goes to tell Scripps about it the next morning, of course, because someone ought to know that he's lost his cherry and how extraordinarily unlike Dakin the boy from last night was. He finds Scripps outside the chapel after church, but one look at him -- guileless blue eyes, broad shoulders, hair like candlelight -- and the words turn to ash in Posner's mouth. His cheeks feel suddenly hot. He hears a rushing sound in his ears, like drowning, and he bitterly wonders exactly how long he's been lying to himself.

"What's the matter, Pos?" Scripps asks curiously, and Posner mutters an excuse and flees.

*


five.

When it happens, it's nothing he could have expected or predicted. There's something austere and literary about a nervous breakdown, bell jars and swooning and who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, anyway? The reality isn't elegant or poignant or even particularly dramatic. Really, Posner is downright disappointed in himself.

It's just that he finds himself kneeling in shards of broken glass in the middle of his tiny college room, hyperventilating. His trousers are damp -- water from the glass he broke, small dark bloodstains spreading, nothing serious. His head feels like it's going to burst. He can't get enough air.

There's no particular reason for it, or maybe every reason at all. Chemicals misfiring in his brain, nothing he can explain or control, splinters of memory and song and poetry crashing together and flickering madly in and out like candles in the wind--

love can be very irritating--

I'm with you in Rockland where you laugh at this invisible humor--

I had no thoughts at all, only an overwhelming desire not to feel anything ever again--

worship the trousers that cling to him--

a service like a drum kept beating, beating, till I thought my mind was going numb--

oh, Pos, with your spaniel heart--

"I don't want it to pass," he tells the empty air, clenching his fists so tightly they ache, "I don't, I don't."

He's in hospital for less than a week. Akthar drags Dakin in to visit him, which is so far beyond awkward it passes straight through humiliation into hilarity. The Cambridge lot send him a card, and even Rudge stops by for a few minutes before rugby practice.

Scripps checks in exactly twice. The first time, he stands in the doorway, white-faced with something halfway between concern and anger, and just stares at him until Posner has to look away. The second, Posner was asleep and didn't even know Scripps was there; he just wakes up to find On the Road resting on his bedside table, a first edition.

*


six.

He moves into his first flat several months after graduating from Oxford, in the beginning of December. It's tiny and dingy, in the shabbier part of Sheffield, and most importantly, it's his. He can't really afford the rent on his own yet -- working as a temporary contract teacher isn't the best plan for paying bills -- but he'll scrape by somehow. Somehow. He wonders how Scripps is managing in London, sharing a flat with Dakin, both looking to strike it big in the big city. He doesn't want to know if Scripps likes it there, if he'll stay.

His mother had helped him pack, and he's entirely unsurprised to discover that she snuck in a few items of her own, things she's decided he'll need. A daunting array of pots and pans, for example, despite his extremely limited cooking ability. More towels than a single man in a one-room flat could possibly use. And, slipped inside an old pillowcase, a battered silver menorah.

Posner is Jewish by birth only; he hasn't made any pretense toward faith since his extremely reluctant bar mitzvah. He doesn't remember much of the Hanukkah story, even, except his faint indignation at history being fudged in the name of religion yet again. It followed much the same line as any Jewish holiday -- they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat -- with the standard cast of oppressive governmental regimes, a plucky band of rebels, and the requisite miracle.

The Maccabees returned victorious, against all odds, to find the Holy Temple in Jerusalem desecrated, treasures looted, false idols erected. They cleaned the temple and rededicated it, but the holy flame of the Menorah was nearly extinguished, the sacred oil defiled. It would take a week to purify more oil, but they didn't have a week. There was only enough left to keep the menorah burning for one day.

It lasted for eight.

Posner doesn't believe, but he lights the candles anyway. They keep the shadows at bay. He sits in his gradually darkening flat to watch the tiny flames, and thinks about lasting -- against all odds, all predictions, all reason. Just keeping on keeping on against the deepening night.

He wonders if Scripps will be around for the holidays.

*


seven.

Posner can't count how many times he's waited for Scripps after church, can't even recall quite when or how the tradition started. Sometime in the third or fourth form, he thinks. Maybe earlier. The tradition became much more sporadic at Oxford, as they grew up a bit, but no matter how far they went in their separate ways, Posner always knew how to find him again: Sunday morning, just after services, outside the chapel, and bring a snack.

He doesn't much get into the holiday spirit, but he's familiar enough with the ways of the Christians by now, and there is something strangely lovely about the end of Midnight Mass. He leans against the church gate in the candlelit night, the stars glittering above and strains of "Silent Night" drifting through the clear, cold air. When he closes his eyes, the anticipation is almost like happiness.

Light cuts across the path as people begin spilling out of the service -- not a crowd, but more than the usual. Even the most lapsed Anglicans tend to remember their faith at Christmas, even if it's just a community affair. Posner doesn't mind. He understands the appeal of lights kindled against the winter darkness.

And Scripps is there.

"Hey," Posner says, offering a crooked grin. "How was the birthday party? I trust God found the adulation satisfactory?"

Scripps shakes his head, but there's something like a smirk in the corners of his mouth, in his eyes, and Posner counts that as a win.

They just look at each other for a few long moments. The night air is cold, but Posner feels a flush of warmth in his cheeks, in his chest. He hasn't seen Scripps in months, not since graduation, since Posner holed up in his parents' house while he looked for a job and Scripps gave London the old college try. It feels much longer. It feels like no time at all.

"How was London?" Posner asks.

"Anticlimactic," Scripps replies. "And I nearly killed Dakin with a spatula once."

"Not the best flatmate, then?"

"It's like living with a tornado. Who has a lot of sex. Loudly."

It doesn't bother Posner at all, Dakin's noisy sex, which makes him laugh with relief. "I wasn't sure I'd find you here," he says.

Scripps shrugs, almost awkwardly, but he doesn't look away. "I'm glad you did." And he smiles.

There's something charged in their shared silence, standing nearly close enough to touch, the air warming between them. They're just about alone now, Scripps's fellow churchgoers hurrying home out of the cold night, to bed or to finish wrapping gifts or just to sit with their loved ones in front of the fire. It's not a bad thought, if only Posner's cramped flat had a fireplace.

"Happy Christmas," Posner finally says. The street is empty and dark, and when he reaches out to rub his thumb against Scripps's cheek, when Scripps's hand falls warm and gentle to grasp his hip, no one else is there to witness.

There is a perfect silence in the way they move against each other. It's a pause to catch one's breath, the eye of the storm; a fresh sheet of paper in the instant before it meets the pen, the glowing wick of a candle about to flicker into a flame, a musical rest before the crescendo. A stolen moment in which everything and anything is possible, warm and fleeting, and for the first time in recent memory, as Posner catches his breath against Scripps's lips, he can't wait to discover what comes next.

*


eight.

Years later, while marking papers in his empty classroom, Posner hears a boy singing in the hall. Nathan Tyler, age fifteen, tall and too skinny with sad golden-hazel eyes like candlelight and a clear, unself-conscious tenor. Posner closes his eyes and just listens for a minute or so -- it's just a school song, rough and uninspired, but the boy's voice transforms it into something richer, something worth listening to, the way Scripps used to coax arpeggios out of Hector's clunky old piano.

Posner wonders if Scripps still has any West End sheet music stashed away somewhere. Maybe he'll do Anything Goes for the school play this year -- imagines scrawny Nathan Tyler crooning out Cole Porter, in olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking now heaven knows, and smiles to himself. Yes.

He'll ask Scripps when he gets home tonight, he decides, humming a few bars under his breath as he turns back to the next student's essay.