Maurice undressed and lay down beside Alec. He ran a hand over warmth and softness and home. His friend looked asleep still, sprawled on the cushions, his body a luminous gold reflected in the flames of the fire, as supple and graceful as Maurice had ever seen him.
'You finished then?'
He nodded into his friend's neck, kissing his shoulder, then his arm.
In the half-sleep of waking, Alec's lips barely moved as he spoke. 'Don't know why you had to go up there. See him.'
'Yes you do,' Maurice whispered across the glow of Alec's skin, slipping an arm round his waist.
'Thought it was finished long since.'
'It was. I just had to…close the book.'
'If it's a book, I hope you chucked the bloody thing.'
Alec spoke with some feeling, but now that Maurice could see what he had so long struggled to see, knew what he had so long spent unknowing he was not affected by Alec's words.
'Yes, I chucked it.'
'Like your job, you said.'
'Like my job.'
Alec opened his eyes and looked up at Maurice with determination. 'We can do anything.'
Maurice nodded. 'That's what I said.'
'I hope you've got a plan, then. I just gave up any hope of getting on to stay with you.'
Alec smiled. 'I bet our Fred weren't too happy.'
'He don't give out chances like favours.' He waited a moment. 'Good thing I've got an idea for us then, isn't it? Else where would we be with all your give it up, we'll find something, it'll be all right, eh?'
Alec smelt of swaying grasses in a summer breeze, of rain drumming on the boathouse roof. Of hothouse grapes and evening primrose. Of wild roses growing along the boundary between park and woodland. And of apricots stolen from the hand that fed. He was humanity in its natural state, untainted by the ignorance that had held Maurice in its grasp through the lonely years. He had refused a tip because he did not wish to be bought or owned or possessed. And yet, here they both were, belonging to each other in a way money could not intercept.
'Don't you want to hear it, then?'
'The other night there were a man at the inn, travelling through looking for work. A woodcutter he was, just left a place what was too remote, woods so big he were scared of never getting out. Could lose ten times a dozen head of cattle in them, so he said, and you wouldn't never see them again.'
'Is it near?'
'No, it's beyond the big towns, right into the next county, and at least a full day by cart from here, maybe more.'
'Will we be safe there do you think? It's not a place anyone you know is likely to go? Your mother or father?'
'Safe enough, I reckon. Far enough from Osmington, and my father gets no further than the back of his shop most days, anyroad, though he pretends retirement.'
The logs shunted in the grate, sending a new pattern of shifting light into the darkness.
'My father still works hard he does,' Alec added as an afterthought.
'And we shall work hard.'
'Won't never make better, though.'
He wanted to say they already had, more than Clive with his estate, his politics, his good wife. But he'd done with the old life now, had closed that book, just as he'd told Alec. It would never be revisited, and as time went on he would think about it less and less until one day he would almost begin to wonder whether he had ever read it. But he would never quite forget that it was Clive that had woken him from his slumber, from his ordinary ways, Clive who had first shown him what love was.
'We can make better in other ways,' Maurice said.
Alec made no reply.
'When shall we set out for these woods?'
'Soon as, I reckon. Don't want the squire seeing us or meeting anyone else from here, for that matter. Have you thought about what to do for clothes?' Alec asked the question suddenly and didn't wait for a response. 'Good job I brought along spare, though they be a mite small for your long frame.'
'Your family called you Licky, I wondered who they were talking about at first.'
Alec sprung into action at that, turning and pushing Maurice down into the cushions, then lying on top of him, his face pressed close.
'Don't you go calling me that,' his soft blurry laugh tumbling between them. 'Bad enough all those years.'
Maurice twisted round and drew his tongue across a soft part at the side of Alec's neck. 'Licky,' he whispered.
'What'd I just tell you, eh?'
Maurice lay back, content to be with Alec in this way, the heat and damp of their bodies melding them together.
'That man at the inn,' Alec continued, 'he told me there were a hut to sleep in. Bunk with a table and chair, a grate for to light a fire come winter.'
Maurice watched Alec as he spoke, words pouring out, the chatter of good humour upon him, hopes and dreams unstoppable now they knew what they were doing. When Alec ran quiet, he started to kiss Maurice instead, and his strong hands smoothed him all over, stoking the flames of their own fire.
'I should like one just like this,' said Maurice, his eyes closed.
'Then you shall have it.'
Had anyone passed by the boathouse that night and chanced to look in, they might have thought their minds confused them, for they would see but a single element, a force joined, united against the world and exclusive of all else.
Later, when they were dressed and the fire cold and grey in the grate behind them, Maurice wondered what would have happened if he hadn't come. He didn't have to ask the question to imagine fear in Alec's eyes and feel it in his own heart. They had been brave and both found their way to the boathouse at Penge, independent and liberated, and thus they would leave their temporary refuge, a place of rest for them which had provided safety. They were strong in mind and body, ready together to recommence the battle. They would fight and society would limp away to retreat indoors, tend to its wounds and seek out a weaker prey.