Hugh slipped through the door and closed it quietly behind him. Ralph was standing by the window, looking out into the hard grey light of the day's end. In his flannels, the reflecting shadows gave him the appearance of a statue, long weathered, yet still retaining its glory.
The room was tiny. Hugh squeezed round the bed and was beside Ralph in a couple of strides. 'I hoped to get you on your own.'
Ralph laughed; it was a cold, bitter sound, like someone chipping away at old stone. 'Who else would be here?'
'Oh come, you've plenty of friends, I can't be the only one.'
There was a brief pause. Looking closely, Hugh saw a tiny flicker of emotion pass across Ralph's otherwise impassive face. 'You are so far.' He continued his empty gaze out of the window. 'You're risking it, aren't you?'
'It's what friends do.'
'You're a fool. What if you're caught, they'll think you're another of my sad little conquests.'
Hugh had never been able to cope with Ralph when he was in this kind of mood, and almost regretted the feeling of solidarity that had prompted him to come. He was stopped from leaving by the thought that perhaps that was the point. So, instead of giving Ralph the perverse satisfaction of chasing him away, he looked at the other boy more closely, this time taking in the determined set of his shoulders, and the tautness with which he held himself.
'Christ - what were you thinking?' he said, finally.
'I don't think I was.'
'Hazell of all people?'
Ralph turned his head abruptly. 'What?'
'Hell, Ralph, what on earth did you see in him?'
'He was available,' Ralph replied shortly, turning fully until he and Hugh were facing each other.
'And that was it?'
'He had his charms, I suppose.'
'I think you're the only one who saw them.'
'I expect so.' Ralph was practiced in the art of giving nothing away, but Hugh had been his friend for a long time, and saw through the façade.
'It wasn't true, everything he said you did?' It hardly seemed like he was asking, the words being more a statement of fact than a query.
'Why doubt it?'
'Because it doesn't sound like you for one, and we all know what a nasty little sneak Hazell is, for two. I can just imagine the enjoyment he would get from making up a whole load of nonsense just to see the look on Jeepers' face.'
'It must be a wet dream for Jeepers,' replied Ralph, neatly avoiding the question.
Hugh bit back his anger. 'So, what of it is the truth, then?'
'I certainly buggered him, if that's what you're asking.'
'You know perfectly well that's not what I'm asking!' Hugh was definitely in danger of losing his temper, and decided to change tack. 'What about Odell?'
'Leave Odell out of this,' Ralph snapped in reply. 'He's…just a child.'
'A lunatic more like. Chucking the OTC and doing God knows what else. He'll fare the worse for that. Couldn't you have persuaded him to keep on with it?'
'He's not a fool, he can make up his own mind.'
'Though you say he's a child?'
Ralph turned back towards the window. 'He doesn't bloody know anything about that kind of thing.'
'Even so, he might have listened to you, Lord knows he goes his own way with the rest of us.' Hugh sighed and lowered himself onto the bed, perching on the end as if he might have to jump up again at a second's notice. 'I should have let you carry on with the fencing, you might have landed some sense into him.'
'It was bad enough when I did do it.'
'Was it?' Hugh's voice was low and contained an element of kindness that he knew Ralph would want to ignore. 'I would much rather have not had to put you through it, in that case.'
Ralph looked down, peering at him through the increasing gloom. 'Aren't you at all shocked?'
'Why should I be? After our childish experimentation, it was--'
'Good God, Hugh, what the hell has that got to do with anything? It was bloody years ago, I'm surprised you even remember.'
Hugh ignored the last part, his own good memory being no more surprising than Ralph's. 'It was obvious even then that as much as I wasn't particularly interested, you were. I half wish I had been now, it would have saved you from all of this.'
Ralph's look was incredulous, and Hugh flinched slightly under the unrelenting stare. But he knew the look of old, and refused to lower his eyes. 'I would have done', he said.
'I do believe you're as much a lunatic as Odell.'
Despite Ralph's efforts to stay in control, Hugh saw how much of a strain it was, and said very gently, 'You've liked him for a long time, Ralph. Don't think you've fooled me with all this talk of him being a child. I know you don't really think that. Besides, we were a lot younger than he is now.'
Ralph seemed to sag a little at this, the weariness in his eyes belying his attempts at keeping up the pointless pretence that he didn't care very much.
'He doesn't know anything about it, Hugh. He likes me, though, I think, even if he doesn't know what it might mean. I don't want to spoil his life. If you think about it, perhaps it was supposed to happen, all this,' he said, gesturing into the space around him, his hand creating a stir of air that barely shifted the oppressive feel of the isolation room. 'One gives oneself away without meaning to. It's much more important that he be all right.'
'You say that, Ralph, but he's not an automaton, you couldn't have kept him out of it for ever.'
'Until I went up to Cambridge I could, then he would be free to live his own life. I don't mean anything to him, I don't pretend to think that I do.'
Hugh could see Ralph believed this, and didn't pursue the matter, even though it contradicted what he had said only a moment previously. After all, it was too late to march off down the road of possible, and probable, recriminations. He'd just have to see to it somehow that Odell was all right, at least until the end of term. God only knew what would happen after that.
'Anyway,' said Ralph, with some finality, 'let's not start dragging Spud into this sorry little mess, shall we? I should never have done it, and I deserve to get the sack for it. The end. You understand that at least?'
Hugh nodded. 'Shame about Cambridge, though. It would have been good fun.'
'Yes.' Ralph smiled at him, some kind of peace drifting into his eyes, even if, as Hugh suspected, it wouldn't last for long. 'You'd better go now, don't you think? It would be no use you getting caught up in all this.'
Hugh stood up. 'You will write won't you? I'll be at home for the summer, then Trinity. Don't disappear.' He stuck his hand out. 'Well, good luck, old chap.'
They shook hands, and Hugh dodged round the bed and back to the door, letting it close softly behind him. His last view of Ralph was of a dark, unfocused shadow standing by the window, his silhouette merging with the blackness of the encroaching night.