Bill was pretentious. It probably wasn’t as much his fault as it was his misfortune and since an embarrassing incident in Year Five he decided to make up for it, a misadventure which he happily gave up three months later because he found vices immensely more interesting. When he was thirteen he bummed a cigarette off a friend’s father. By the time he was sixteen he was running contacts with a local brewing factory for the kicks, and since then he had been progressively graduating onto bigger and better things.
“Try valor,” Jim Prideaux once dared him. Spring, 1936; the sun was bright but the day was cold as hell and it tricked you into thinking you were in San Sebastian or maybe even Santa Monica. You could see your breath leave lingering traces in the manner of those disgusting seasonal transitions. They were on a train to London and car was about half-full. “I want to see how it goes with your Indian print tie.”
“You’re awful,” Bill said, but chuckled as he watched a woman, probably a mother, step onto the platform with two children and too many bags. They were staying in the city for the weekend. At his father’s club, Bill acted a very good drunk count and twenty minutes later he bellowed out sorrows to a retired doctor in a no-name pub just off Trafalgar Square. This was the beginning of Bill Haydon’s acknowledged dramatic career, though really it had started much, much earlier.
And Jim laughed: completely open, completely heartbreaking.
At Oxford, Jim joined the philatelic society, which met every Wednesday night in a deserted classroom known only to its members. The secrecy surrounding it was vastly encouraged by its president, a fellow named Blair who upon graduation was due to join his father’s corporation abroad in St. Louis. Bill occasionally asked Jim about the other members and club topics, not because of any sincere interest in philately but he was already considering recommending his friend to the service.
“Blair’s father is in the light bulb filament business.”
“Booming industry, I’m sure.”
They smoked in Bill’s room, with the lights turned off and the window open. There was the empty feeling of knowing the smoke would get caught in dregs of the ceiling and Jim kept a close eye to the drifting patterns of the smoke while a pool of ashes sat by his feet. Somehow, things felt more real in this artificial setting; there was Bill, warmth, and the truth of never completely realizing.
Between the Lausanne assignment and the Minsk transaction, they passed the time listening to Bach. Bill told him Listen. Jim said I am. Bill said Bloody git you think I can’t see your eyes wandering everywhere? Which might as well have been translated to: “I know you. I understand you.”
Jim watched the last third of his cigarette burn, saw the golden embers gnaw away the thin paper wrapping. He didn’t tap it against the ashtray, a habit which had always annoyed Bill. (In their earlier days Jim would let the ashes fall on the carpet and Bill thought him fantastically barbaric but they were eighteen then. Now they were twenty-nine and there were certain Societal Obligations that Bill sadistically reminded Jim of every so often.)
That night, Bill kissed him.
“Have I done something wrong?”
“No. No. I don’t think so.”
“You can tell me the truth.”
“I do tell you the truth.”
“Then tell me a lie. Nothing but lies. I’ve a hankering for lies lately but they’re all boring to me. Jim, I know you can do better than them. Tell me a lie.”
Jim told him a lie and they kept on as they did before, Bill telling stories, Jim listening in his own distant way. Bill’s flat was silent and he compensated by turning on loud music he didn’t particularly care for. A neighbor called to complain. Bill calmly, almost sweetly, replied: “Go fuck yourself.”
He kissed Jim again, felt the unexpected smoothness of his lips and his wind-roughened face; the distant chill of early London fall still faint on his breath. He wanted to say, “You smell of Parliament,” with the irony fully intact, and maybe some other things he had always imagined himself saying.
Jim asked: “Why not Bach?” He was so nonchalant about it that it upset Bill.
“Nobody listens to Bach unless he’s absolutely desperate,” Bill said. “Here, leave your coat on the hanger.”
“What does the society man listen to when he’s happy?”
“A society man is never entirely happy,” he said, “but at times, he listens to Debussy, and on very rare occasions he rewards himself with Wagner. Some call that punishment.”
It was Jim’s first return to England in five months. He seemed now to be appreciating the home he didn’t know but would one day come to appreciate. Across the room, the mantelpiece displayed an owl ornament and pictures, not of family. One showed Devon, another was of Oxford, and the third was of Bill and Jim. They were smiling with their arms around each other, Bill neatly dressed and Jim sweating from rugby practice. If memory served him correctly, Bill had been on his way to an art gallery that was featuring his work.
He remembered it, reclined into the past, and could place a softly beating heart. That was his own.
Later he showed Jim his new china collection, a strangely-shaped piece of furniture he’d bought at a yard sale while in Washington, and a present a cousin had given him during the holidays. The flat was newly furnished, with boxes stacking up in the corners. Bill lived alone, as he always did. He was evasive about the people he knew but that was just Bill Haydon. The clock, tucked behind a pile of books, struck three and it was awfully late. Bill insisted he stay over, and he did.