Clive had seen neither Maurice not Scudder since Maurice had visited him at Penge to confess his affair with the gamekeeper. He had only enquired after them once. In London, in the middle of the war, two years or so after he last saw Hall, he had encountered Risley and had made the mistake of asking after old friends.
“I almost never see anyone from Cambridge these days,” Clive had said. “Do you? How about Hall – do you see him?”
“I haven’t set eyes on the fellow since he got sent down,” Risley replied. “But we weren’t great friends. But the two of you were thick as thieves, I recall. I would have thought you had stayed in touch.”
“We did, for a while. But then I got married and, well, you know how these things are.”
“Oh, yes. Quite,” said Risley, with a smile that warned Clive he knew altogether too much. So he stopped trying to discover where the two men had disappeared (although he thought to himself that it must be France), and made himself content with the life of the country squire to which he had always been destined.
But he thought about the pair - not often exactly, but at predictable, regular moments. Every August, when the Park v. Village cricket match took place on the green, Clive would remember how the two of them had made a partnership on the pitch – and, the night before, had made another partnership that he had not known about until weeks afterwards. He thought of Scudder alone, too, despite having barely known the man. When spring came around the year after the gamekeeper had left, Clive had seen a servant place a ladder underneath the Russet Room to clean the window, and he had thought, that’s how they did it, how Scudder came to him. But mostly it was Maurice. After the children arrived, when Clive wanted peace from both them and Anne, he would go to the Blue Room and lie on the bed and, even if he did not intend it, thoughts of Maurice would drift through his anxious mind.
This nostalgia grew over time. He fed it with daydreams of Cambridge in May, daydreams of more May days that he had ever spent in Cambridge. Each day he imagined would be different from the last, but Maurice was the constant that tied the dreams together. First, they would be on the motorcycle, tearing along country lane; next, they would be in the shade of a tree, reading to each other from a library book; different again, he would dream of placing his head in Maurice’s lap as the evening sun flooded into his undergraduate bedroom. Whilst their last meeting faded in his recollection, until he was uncertain quite where or how it had happened, his reveries became more substantial each time he indulged them. He allowed the real Hall to slip away and be replaced by a ghostly figure who remained an eternal undergraduate. And if Clive thought about Maurice a little too often and a little too deeply, so that on occasion a tear or two flooded over onto a pale cheek, then it was only from an awareness of the passing of his own youth and nothing more.
There was a time in England in which it was still possible for a man to go into the woodlands and lose himself. Some would call this a happier time, and others would question why, if it was such a happy time, a man would want to lose himself at all. It was at this time that two men went into the forest and did not return.
Maurice was tall and broad-shouldered, and his natural strength only increased as he spent more time outdoors. At first, Alec had Maurice work alongside him, concerned that the other man would hurt himself with an axe or a knife, or go into deep into the forest and be unable to find his way back to the tiny cottage they had built. Before spring came, however, Alec learnt to trust his lover, to smile with patient pride as Maurice proudly returned with a rabbit or a pheasant, a creature that Alec had been trapping since he was a child. But Maurice had not been trapping as a child and now, clever man that he was, he was letting Alec teach him, and that provided more nourishment that anything that could be cooked in their kitchen.
The first winter had been difficult. They repaired the cottage in the glorious Indian summer of September, working days as long as the evening light would allow. By October, when the weather turned against them, the small dwelling was weather-proof, but nothing had prepared Maurice for the suffocating cold that greeted them if he and Alec arrived back from a day’s work to find the fire had gone out. Having not had the full length of summer to prepare for encroaching winter, it was a challenge to ensure there would be enough food to last them through until spring. They worked in all weathers, and clothes would often refuse to dry out properly. A horrid damp threatened even Christmas, until they hung the room with deep green boughs that filled the cottage with a fresh scent that Maurice had never known in the suburbs.
But once the festivities were over, January brought two weeks of snow, and Alec caught a chill and fell ill. Maurice thought that he had loved Alec wholly and completely from the moment that he had found him sleeping in the boathouse; from that moment, nothing had mattered except being close to him all of the time. But seeing his lover weakened and in need of his help, made Maurice love him all the more. It was also the first moment at which he thought of Clive, but thought of him only to realise how far his relationship with Alec transcended anything that had come before. And on the morning upon which Maurice awoke and brushed his lips softly against Alec’s, and found them not feverishly warm but passionately responsive, he knew how much he, too, was loved.
After the crisis had passed, spring seemed to appear very suddenly. Snowdrops flourished on the woodland paths, and buds began to form on the bare branches of the trees. His closeness to nature resulted in a new-found responsiveness of his body to the changing of the seasons. On its arrival, Maurice found himself at the whim of a desire that he had never before known. His need for Alec’s body bloomed like the blossom in the trees. Intending to break from their work for only a moment, he and Alec would find themselves, on a late April morning, overcome by joy and pleasure, entwined in each other on the grass.
“Have you always felt like this in springtime?” Maurice asked Alec, tangling the long blades of grass up in his lover’s hair.
“When you’re out of doors all day, you can’t hardly help it,” Alec mumbled into his chest. “There’s something in springtime, a kind of excitement that everything’s new.”
“That’s it. It’s as if I wasn’t alive, but now I am. I’ve never known it before. It’s wonderful.” Alec nodded and smiled up at Maurice.
“It’s more wonderful with you,” he replied.
One summer evening, after the war had finished, Kitty thought she might have glimpsed her brother, although she never mentioned the sighting to her mother or sister. She had been holidaying in the New Forest alone; she had never married and now taught cookery at the Domestic Institute. In the school’s summer break, she had rented a small cottage on the edge of the New Forest, and had planned to spend four weeks drawing and walking whilst her mother stayed with Ada and her family. She had not seen Maurice for over six years. At first, after he had told them he was leaving his job in the city to live in the countryside in, there were letters, but these seemed to conceal more than they revealed. Sometimes he wrote as though he lived alone, at other times he seemed to imply a companion. He never explained how he was earning a living, and the only address he gave them was a Post Office box. But over the course of two years, even these meagre details of his life dried up. Although their mother occasionally wondered aloud about him, neither Kitty nor Ada much missed their brother.
The August weather that year was particularly fine, and it was still warm enough to walk quite late into the evening. Four days before she was due to leave, Kitty found herself strolling in a part of the Forest that she had yet to explore. The trees seemed denser, and the whole place had the sense of being entirely hidden away, as if no one ever came there. Kitty felt as though she should be afraid to be alone, in an unfamiliar and seemingly uninhabited place as the sky was grew darker, but the woodlands seemed almost welcoming to her. She felt so peaceful that, instead of turning around to begin the walk back to her cottage, she sat down in the grass for a while and listened to the birds.
It was then that she heard the voices; two men, talking to each other. Their comments were interspersed with loud peals of laughter, and they obviously did not expect to be overheard. Kitty would have ignored it, thinking it must be two local men taking a shortcut back from the pub, until she heard one man call the other ‘Maurice’. It was common name, of course, but suddenly Kitty thought of her brother and his letters. The Post Office box and the post marks on the envelopes had come from Wiltshire. Might it be him? The voices were coming closer now, and she could see the men coming through the forest. Both were tall with broad shoulders that come from working daily on the land, and Kitty noticed as they came closer, they were walking arm in arm. Hiding behind a tree, without knowing quite why she did so, Kitty watched them carefully.
One of the men looked like her brother. Had she been pushed to swear it was him, Kitty thought later, she might have had doubts, yet in that instant she almost called out to him. But he was laughing in a way that did not accord with Kitty’s memories of him; a full, bright laugh that hung in echoes beneath the canopy. Then, as she watched, he leaned over the other man and kissed him. Their lips touched only for an instant, and then they continued to walk into the forest and out of her sight.