Laurie came down from Oxford on a rainy afternoon, to no one waiting for him at the station. He’d expected it, of course, he had come back a day early, unexpectedly. He hadn’t had a chance to tell Ralph about it during their weekly telephone conversations, which, in any case, had been filled with plans with what they would do once Laurie got to Bridstow. Ralph had a rather lot of plans.
But still, it was an uncomfortable slog, in the rain, with Laurie being careful to manage his suitcase and umbrella and not to get too horribly wet. When he came to Ralph’s door, he was out of breath and sweating, and his leg had begun to ache dully. The key was where it always was, in the hidden little cache near the floor.
Ralph kept his flat as neat as a pin, though it had the feeling of a place not quite lived in. He looked after himself rather too well, Laurie thought, as he left a trail of mud onto the polished wooden floor. He took off his wet things and rooted around his suitcase, looking for something reasonably dry and not altogether too ink-stained.
For some time, Laurie thought that he should get some reading done, but as the heat began to come through the grates, and as the gloomy afternoon faded into the evening, he found himself nodding off on the sofa, with a book lying on his stomach.
That was how Ralph found him.
“Spud! Why are you lying here in the dark?” he said, switching on the light.
Laurie blinked in surprise, getting up his seat, leaving the warm spot he had made reluctantly behind. His book slid off and fell on the floor with a muffled thud. Now that Ralph had come home, the place seemed to transform itself. The blackout curtains were already down, and there was a smell of something cooking on the stove.
Ralph came in again, his hands full of blankets. “You did tell me that you would be coming tomorrow. I would have come and got you, otherwise,” he said, a little reproachfully. And then he disappeared into his bedroom, only to come out again and demand to know if Laurie had already eaten.
“Only tea at the station, I’m afraid,” said Laurie, feeling vaguely apologetic and rather childish. Ralph shook his head gravely, and said that Laurie really ought to take better care of himself. Laurie, feeling suddenly more amiable, agreed and followed Ralph into the kitchen.
Ralph moved through the narrow space with ease. Laurie felt as if he had blundering into something very clumsily, and eventually he stopped trying to help -- he had stepped on Ralph’s toes, bumped into things, and his elbows slammed the cupboard doors shut, it was far too narrow of a space for two people to do much in -- and decided to sit and watch Ralph work.
“I’ve wanted to try this recipe on you for some time,” Ralph said, checking the salt with a quick flick of his tongue on the spoon.
Laurie yawned, and covered his mouth in a flurry of hands. He said, “Oh no, I taste awful cooked.”
Ralph turned to him and gave him a look. “You are very fresh.”
* * *
Because Ralph took an interest in all that was happening in Laurie’s life, after a few drinks to loosen his tongue, Laurie waxed -- not lyrical, but certainly verbose, on Oxford, on his instructors, on his fellow students, and on the ways the entire place had changed -- and the ways it had not -- during the war.
“But I must be boring you,” said Laurie, breaking off in mid-sentence, as he watched Ralph rest his head against the back of the sofa, his eyes closed. He looked exhausted, though, of course, Laurie knew better than to ask why. “War-work, you know how it is,” Ralph would reply, his voice clipped and and all questions would lapse into silence.
“No,” Ralph said, his eyes still closed, “not at all.”
“Lanyon... Ah, Ralph,” Laurie corrected himself, it could hardly do to call him with so formal of a name, especially as his hands had crept up Ralph’s thighs and were pressing down on them with growing urgency. Laurie moved closer to him, until their hips bumped against each other on the narrow sofa.
Ralph’s eyes cracked open, narrow slits of blue, hot as a flame. “Yes, Odell?”
Laurie wet his lips, nervous, “Perhaps we could, ah, knock out a bit early tonight?”
“Go to bed, you mean?”
“If that’s what you want, Spud,” said Ralph, lifting his glass for one last swallow of his drink, in a tone that said, anything for you, Spud.
* * *
He still marveled at the fact that he was allowed this. And whatever guilt he still carried -- unwillingly, the image of Andrew came into his head, an unexorcised ghost -- dissolved away again when it came to the immediacy of Ralph’s body against his. Now, now, now, the thought pounded against his head, this was how he lived now.
Ralph watched him, unguarded and tender and Laurie kissed him and kept kissing him until he gasped, his hands digging into Laurie’s side. Gloves off, ruined fingers scraping against Laurie’s skin.
This was how they lived, now.