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Till the Boys Come Home

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HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs
June 1944

 

Dear Bobbie,

I shan’t send this. I’ve already sent you enough complaints and self-pity to tide you over for years to come. It’s just that I’m very bored, all on my own here, and a little on the verge of madness. So, I’ll write for something to do, and it may as well be for you. It always is, in the end.

It seems cold for June, wet and windy. Are you still going up to the country at the weekend? I keep wanting to ring you up, and say ‘Let’s get out of this -- go off to Venice or somewhere’. And then I remember the war, and that I’m, well, where I am.

I don’t know if it’s the rain that makes me think of this, or just the feeling of being trapped. That was really how it felt at the time, which seems rather funny now. Not that this is a particularly funny story. I don’t really know what sort of story it is. It’s difficult to explain, and difficult (or so I find, now that I’m trying) to think about. It started with Mam, of course. She’d made friends with some Earl’s daughter who wrote a column in a newspaper, and got us both invited up to the family pile in Yorkshire for the New Year. Only, when it came to it, of course, Mam spent December convalescing after that nasty bout of bronchitis. You remember the one. That particularly terrible bout we invented for her after she ran off to New York without telling anyone.

Well, but I could hardly back out, could I? They’d have been so disappointed.

So I took the car and went up on my own. The weather was terrible that Christmas, if you remember. Endless rain and fog. As I approached (late, naturally) the house seemed to rear up at me out of the dark and the wet like some kind of enormous, balustraded monster. Hulking great square thing. When the footman answered the bell and ushered me inside, it felt like being sucked in and swallowed up.

The family were very kind -- they sat me down and gave me drinks and things. They introduced me to the other guests, and we chatted about the terrible weather. Everyone was nice enough to laugh at my jokes, and we all pretended to be interested in one another’s lives. I must admit, they’ve gone rather shadowy in my memory now, the Crawleys and their friends. That daughter, Mam’s pet journalist, stands out a little -- probably just because she was someone of Mam’s. She reminded me of an egret I saw stuffed in a museum once, and I found her rather charming. Everything was very lovely, in fact -- it’s hard to be somewhere like that and not be charmed.

But it wasn’t, you know, us. It struck me all of a sudden, sitting on a strange Earl’s sofa with his charming family, that I probably shouldn’t have come.

I escaped eventually. They’d put me at the end of a corridor on a guest wing (I don’t know how many wings there were, I assume hundreds). Their under-butler, a man called Barrow, was apparently valeting for me. I remember thinking there was something about him -- nice enough to look at, but he seemed… layered. Like an onion. I’m sorry, that’s not an attractive simile. But it’s what he was like, all the same.

“Sir,” he said. He shut the wardrobe door with a soft click, and I saw that he wore a leather glove on his left hand, although the right one was bare. “Unless there’s anything else you need, I’ll wish you a restful night.”

I admit he unnerved me a little. He had a strange, twisty smile, that wasn’t quite a smile. His eyes flicked over me once, barely perceptible. Well, unless you know what you’re looking for. Unless you have had a lot of practice.

“Thank you, Barrow,” I said, and returned his almost-smile with a proper one. He looked at me for a little bit longer than was necessary.

“You should call me Thomas, sir,” he said, and I could hear those layers in his voice. “Quite a lot of people still seem to, after all.”

He slipped quietly into the hallway and closed the door behind him. I stood in the middle of the room where he had left me, troubled without knowing why.

(Did I ever tell you about any of this, Bobbie? I’m very sure I didn’t. I’m only telling you now because, as I said, I have absolutely no intention of sending this letter.)

The exact course of events has blurred now. There was a bit of wandering about in the appalling fog, I believe. And fairly decent dinners, and a gathering of some sort to see in the coming year. I raised my glass at midnight along with the good country-folk, and thought of London and its bright lights and dancing, and all those dear, silly people at the Chelsea Arts Ball. And I thought of you. I felt such a fool to have left all that behind. In short, darling, I was terribly homesick. Don’t laugh. I do try to be stoic, you know; I’m just extraordinarily bad at it.

By the time I found myself back in my room, I was awash with champagne and self-pity, and so I rang for a servant, because... because what else is one supposed to do in these circumstances? And there he was -- Thomas, all handsome and brittle and disdainfully courteous.

I was loosening my tie, sliding silk from starch, and he reached over my shoulder to take it from me. What with the champagne, it seemed as though everything should be easy. It ought not to take much, I thought, to break through that brittleness. So I touched his hand, just softly. He stilled a moment, then carried on as though I had done nothing. Clothes were shaken, folded, magicked briskly away. He was on guard, Thomas. All locked up tight, bolted and barred. I wondered if something had done that to him. Maybe he’d done it to himself.

“Aren’t you going to ask me,” I said, as he handed me my pyjamas, “if I need anything else?”

I smiled at him, inviting him in on the joke. Just because of the champagne and because I was lonely and because he was there, a locked box waiting for a key. He didn’t smile back. His face was tight and blank.

“I’m very sorry, sir,” he said. “Do you need anything else?”

I raised an eyebrow. “I suppose everybody needs something, don’t they?”

But the key scraped and stuck and wouldn’t turn. None of this was working. Which was odd, you know, because it nearly always does, for me.

“And... what do you need, sir?”

I sighed. A little rueful, a little not. “Ah, you can probably guess. Can’t you, Thomas?”

He looked away quickly, one side of his mouth quirked upward as though at a bad joke.

“Mm. Thing is, sir... I’ve sometimes guessed wrong. In the past, you see.”

“Oh dear, have you?”

“Well, we all make mistakes.”

The blankness of his face disturbed me. I wondered how he had been made to pay for his mistakes -- or perhaps somebody else had picked up the bill. Thinking about it made me shudder just a little, and I wished I could take that look off his face, if only for my own selfish reasons. Because I don’t like feeling disturbed.

“I prefer not to guess, these days,” he said. “If it’s all the same to you, sir.”

“Of course,” I said. “I don’t want to cause you any trouble. It’s very late. Really, you should go up to your own bed. Get some sleep. Unless...”

I waited for him to look at me, until I could hook his gaze like a fish, and hold it. And there it was. Quite easy, after all. It’s not so very wrong, is it? In the end, I only want to make people happy. It’s what I’m good at. I mean, one of the people is usually me, but it’s still true.

Thomas didn’t look… exactly happy. He didn’t look anything, much. He came over to where I stood and waited, until I cupped the side of his face and drew him closer. I felt his breath warm on my skin. But when I went to kiss him he turned, just enough so that my lips met in his hair. I could hardly complain. With his right hand (the one without the glove) unbuttoning my trousers, sliding inside under the soft wool, that might have seemed churlish.

He turned me around so that he was standing behind me, and kissed the hollow of my neck. I let my head fall back against his shoulder, and he held me against him, firm and steady. When I raised my head I saw that both of us were reflected in a full-length mirror on the door of the wardrobe. We made quite a picture -- my breath hitched in my throat. He held my gaze for a second or two, then looked away.

He was very... efficient, I think is the word. He brought me off like a chauffeur starting a car, like an under-butler practiced with the corkscrew. Afterwards, he passed me a towel and stepped briskly away, leaving me nothing to lean against but cold air. “No trouble at all, sir,” he said. He was gone before I could even try to stop him.

It was perfectly nice, but he might just as well have been fetching me a book, or pouring a glass of water. And he didn’t smile, not even once. I was rather annoyed. I like it when people smile.

***

That night I slept the heavy, corpse-like sleep of one who has over-indulged. I remember waking only once, with a jolt. I had the feeling that some loud noise -- something heavy in another room knocked or fallen over, perhaps -- had thrown me out of sleep, but although I lay listening for several minutes, my eyes wide in the darkness, I heard nothing more. Slipping back into oblivion, I half-dreamed that something was moving outside my door. A soft scratching or rustling. It seemed, to my wandering mind, like the kind of noise that tries to gain entry. To find a way inside you. Then everything slipped away into the dark.

The next time I woke, it was daylight and another year had dawned. A dull headache was just beginning to nag, and I remembered why I so rarely do this sort of thing. (Getting drunk, I mean. Not the other.) It doesn’t really help anything much; it just gets in the way.

The family and most of the other guests went to church, but I declined. I suppose it was rude of me, but you know how it is. When one has started down the road to abandon, one rather throws caution to the wind. There is a joy in it, a recklessness, like haring down a country road at 60 miles an hour. So instead I wandered the grounds, smoking cigarette after cigarette in that never-ending fog -- honestly, it was ridiculous. And I suppose I thought mournfully of you, and altogether failed to appreciate my lucky, lucky life.

It was because of the fog that I came upon them so suddenly. I almost laughed, it seemed such a cliché. Graves, looming in the mist. But these were tiny and pathetic, lying in a sheltered spot behind a stand of beeches. Perhaps half a dozen of them, no more; little grey stones mimicking their full-sized counterparts in the churchyard. I bent down to read the names on the weathered surfaces. Brigit -- Faithful Companion. Seth -- A Dear Friend. Pet dogs, I supposed. Poor things, I felt quite sentimental about them, which is the sort of thing that happens when I’m very hungover. The last of the dry beech leaves rattled on the branches behind me, a soft and gentle scratching. I stood up, feeling horribly cold all of a sudden, and began the walk back to the house. I couldn’t think, now, what had persuaded me to come out here in the first place.

I saw him before he saw me – a figure in the middle of the gravel path, crouched over and scanning the ground. Hunched in his dark overcoat he looked like a great crow. He was clearly looking for something.

“Thomas!”

He straightened slowly with his back to me, then turned and waited for me to approach. His face was locked up as tight as ever. I felt quite the failure.

“Sir.”

“Lost something? Nothing valuable, I hope?”

“Oh... only to me, sir. Only to me.” His smile was thin it was hardly there at all. It was like the skin of ice on a puddle. The silence stretched between us until I nodded and walked away.

***

The remainder of that day passed in a tedious string of mealtimes and times in between meals. Some of the guests left to catch trains, or were driven off in their own cars. Having arranged to stay until the following day, I watched the clock tick the afternoon away, and wondered, for the millionth time, what I was doing there, other than practising my lock-picking. It occurred to me, ungrateful swine that I was, that people with country houses should be honour-bound not to throw such dreary parties in them. They ought to be forced to fill them with music, and fun, and silliness. And it should always be summer, and the flowers in bloom.

I made my excuses and went upstairs before the dressing gong. He was there, laying out my clothes.

“No,” I said. “Don’t mind me. I came up early. Thomas--” He was trying to slip away again, but I caught his sleeve.

“I’m sorry, sir, I really should have asked. Do you need me to help with anything?”

Layers upon layers. Arrogance beneath a veil of deference, a vague sort of contempt aimed at everyone and no one. But there is something, I thought, looking into his closed face. There is something else. I slid my hand up his arm and held him there, to make him stay. And as I did so, I heard it again. That rustling against the wainscoting on the other side of the wall, and shifting along now… until it was at the bottom of the door. Scratch, scratch.

“What is that?” I asked.

His eyes flicked sideways once, as though he were making an effort not to turn his head toward the door.

“What’s what, sir?”

“What was that noise?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear anything, sir.”

He did, though. I saw him hear it. We stood together, frozen like a game of musical statues. But the noise had stopped, and I shook my head in confusion.

“Thomas... What was it you were looking for? Outside, earlier?”

I was hardly even sure why I’d asked, and he waited a long time before answering. The gong sounded, and I felt the mechanism of the great house lurch into its next phase of action. It was like being stuck inside a monstrous grandfather clock. I realised my hand was still on his arm, and I let it fall.

“Oh, just something I stole off of a dead man, sir,” he said, his voice flat and empty. “That’s the kind of thing I do. Ask anybody.”

He let himself out. For a while I stared after him into the empty hallway, until another guest came into view on the stairs, and I retreated back inside to dress for dinner.

***

I dreamed, that night. And I don’t have bad dreams -- you know that. But these dreams were terrible, and they were the sort of dreams I had no right to. Nightmares that belonged to other men. I was sunk in the mire, the holes left behind by my boots filling up fast. The black water was tinged with red. I slipped and it filled my nostrils, my throat, biting into me like acid. I began to choke; I was sinking and drowning. I felt things in that mud: terrible, clutching things... But I saw nothing. Christ, I could see nothing at all.

I awoke in suffocating blackness, breathing clammy linen and wool. I clawed the blankets away from my face and gulped for air. Despite the January chill, the bedclothes were damp with my own sweat.

And then… I heard it properly this time, a distinct scuffling, scratching noise in the corridor. Like a small animal, or several. Something else, that might have been a footstep. The creaking of a floorboard. There were no other guests along this hallway. Since the Major and his wife had departed that afternoon, my bedroom was the only one still occupied. A servant? It felt too late for that, or too early. I fumbled at the bedside lamp and switched it on. The clock on the mantelpiece told me it was a quarter past two.

Now that the light was safely lit, of course I could hear nothing, save the quiet tick of the clock. Which perhaps made it a little easier to throw the covers back, pad over to the door, and push it open a small way. The hall was in darkness. The weak yellow glow leaking from the room showed me nothing alarming. Only the glint of glass in a frame - one of a set of dull brown prints on the opposite wall. I retreated back inside and closed the door, got into bed and switched off the light. It was clearly going to be one of those nights.

The scuffling sound began again. Followed, this time, by a sharp knock quite nearby. Though of course, all the other rooms were empty.

"Who's there?" I hadn't meant to say anything. My voice seemed to behave independently from my brain. I felt as though I were outside myself, watching another actor play my part, saying clichéd lines written by someone else. I turned on the lamp in a jolt of near-panic.

Silence. Just the sound of own my heart beating. Then... very faint, but there. Scratch, scratch. Silence.

It was quite ridiculous. I wasn’t going to spend all night jumping up and down, opening and closing doors. You hear noises, don’t you? That’s old houses for you. That’s most houses. And for all I knew, the kind Crawleys and their friends spent all their nights scampering up and down corridors barging into each other’s rooms as though they were in a French farce. The silly thought made me feel better, and I switched off the lamp. Straight away, it began: scuffling, silence… footsteps. I put the blankets over my head, and then a pillow for good measure. I squeezed my eyes shut, as though that might help somehow.

And then there was a knock at my own door. I probably made a noise of some kind. It’s hard to be sure.

“Sir? Are you awake?”

My heart thumped down in my chest, so hard it was painful. I switched on the light, dragged myself out from under the bedclothes and stumbled to the door. He was half-dressed, his dark hair rumpled out of its customary neatness, his face pale in the wedge of yellow light. There was no sign of anything else out there in the hallway but him, nothing to be seen or heard.

“Thomas. What are you doing here?”

He seemed confused, rubbing a hand across his face. For a moment I wondered it he’d been sleep-walking.

“I don’t entirely know...”

But there was something about the way he failed to look at me properly, the dark flicker from beneath heavy lids. It’s not as though I’d never found a man at my bedroom door in the middle of the night. As you, for one, ought to remember.

I smiled. “Are you sure you don’t know, Thomas?”

His lip curled at that and he went to turn away, which was not the reaction I was hoping for. “I must apologise, sir, I didn’t mean to...”

At the other end of the hallway, a door clicked itself smartly shut. I swore, pulled Thomas into the room and slammed the door shut behind him. Off-balance, he stumbled back against it. I stared at him, my heart thudding more heavily than ever in my chest, and felt a little ashamed.

“Sorry, I... Did you hear that?” I asked.

He stared at me for a few seconds, then nodded.

“There’s nobody in that room, is there?”

He shook his head. My throat was dry.

“Well. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about,” I said inanely, and patted his arm. I was talking to myself more than to him. “Why don’t you stay here for a bit? Just until it… stops.”

“Yeah, see -- that’s the thing, sir,” he said. His voice caught, rasping.

“What?”

“It is me, all of this business. It’s following me. Understand? And it’s not going to stop, so there’s no use wishing it. Not unless I find the… unless I find it, which I doubt I will, so. There it is.” He looked tired and sullen, defeated. It didn’t suit him particularly well.

“Oh,” I said. “I see.” Which was an outright lie, but it’s the sort of thing you say.

“I didn’t twig straight off. And then, when I couldn’t find it, I realised... It’s just, everybody else sleeps right through it all, sir. Until you turned up.”

His stare was accusatory, somehow disquieting. He pushed himself away from the door, swaying slightly. I wondered how much sleep he’d had lately.

“You should probably sit down,” I said. “Before you fall down.” I pointed him toward the bed and then sat down next to him. There was something curiously intimate about his closeness, and the way the mattress moved beneath our combined weight. More so than anything that had already passed between us.

“I came because I thought maybe--” He seemed to shrug the words out against his will. “I wondered if you could hear it because you’re like me. In some ways, I mean.”

“Well... yes, perhaps.” I nodded in an attempt to reassure him, and took to examining the rug under our feet. Persian, I assumed, although I admit my knowledge of carpeting is limited. Anyway, the pattern was pretty. I reached automatically for the cigarette case on the bedside table, took one myself and held the case it out to him. “Tell me about it? You might as well.”

He took the cigarette. I lit it for him, and he told me. There had been this officer, he said, at the cottage hospital in the village. Gas blindness.

“During the war?”

“Yes, during the war. I was in the medical corps.” That defensive edge was back, sharp as flint -- it seemed never very far away. “And in Flanders, before that. I did my bit.”

I had nothing in particular to say to that.

“This man…” I began, hesitant. “Was this one of your mistakes?”

Thomas smiled tightly. “No. No, he wasn’t a mistake.” He paused to draw on the cigarette, hollow-cheeked. “Anyway, he’s dead now. Afterwards, I cut a button off his tunic and kept it. Just because... because somebody had to remember, didn’t they? What they’d done to him? Oh, don’t worry, he wasn’t wearing it at the time -- he was in his pyjamas when he offed himself. I’m bad, but I’m not that bad.”

“I see.” I was sorry for him, but didn’t say so. “And that’s what you’ve lost, this button?”

“Butterfingers, that’s me. I always have been careless.”

He stubbed out the cigarette, and then held up his left hand. Ungloved now, I could see where something hard and fast had met and travelled through it, leaving behind a mess of ugly scar-tissue. He smiled at me -- a hard smile, and a sort of desperate challenge. He was daring me to understand.

“I wrote a song,” I said eventually, after the silence had stretched too unbearably thin. “That’s what I did in the war.”

“Yes,” he said, voice as dry as sandpaper. “Do you know, I think I might’ve heard it. Just once or twice.”

“And after that,” I ploughed on, “I crashed some planes, a bit. Well, quite a lot. And that’s when they sent me to Sweden.”

“Sweden.”

“Yes,” I said. “It was for the war effort. They said it was very important.”

“Well then...” He sat there, cradling his left hand in his right. I don’t know whether or not it was a conscious action. “All right for some, isn’t it?”

I didn’t reply. I don’t really know what I could have said, even now.

We both jumped then, because the scratching had begun again, outside the door. I found I was clutching a handful of his woollen undershirt, and let it go again, embarrassed.

“That noise,” I said. “It’s horrible. It sounds like rats.”

“No rats in this house. Not up in the guest bedrooms, anyway. Mrs Hughes wouldn’t stand for it.” His voice shook only a little. He sounded almost proud, despite himself, and there was something strangely touching about it. At heart, I thought, he was really terrible at being bad. Perhaps he ought to give it up. Or just be better at it.

“I suppose not.”

“I thought,” he said, “it sounded like a dog, scratching at the walls…one of them nasty little ones. ”

“Are there dogs here?”

“His nibs has got a Labrador. But she wouldn’t come up this way, not now. Too old and lazy.”

I thought briefly of those little graves in the park. Faithful Companion… Beloved Friend. Beside me, Thomas yawned. I watched the white stretch of his neck and shivered.

“Like I say,” he repeated. “Everybody else sleeps through it.”

“You know, I was having the most awful nightmares before that… before that woke me up.”

“Really, sir?” That word again. He seemed to use it as a weapon, carried in self-defence.

“Yes. Quite awful.” There were things in the mud, I didn’t say, and I couldn’t see anything. “Perhaps it’s nothing to do with you, after all. Perhaps it’s just this house.” I wanted it to be true.

But he shook his head. “It’s not the house. I’ve been here donkey’s years, and I know this house.” A tight little smile. “Know it like the back of my hand.”

“Well, maybe you haven’t realised what it’s actually like here? How it feels? Just because you’ve been here all the time.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Why, what do you think it feels like?”

Horrible, I thought. Somewhere in the depths of the house, two doors slammed in quick succession, and there came the sound of muffled footsteps on a staircase, fast and urgent. Then nothing. We waited, barely breathing, but there was only silence. I looked at Thomas.

“Do you think that was--”

“It’s just… more of the same.” But he looked unsure, even so. “Is the door locked?”

“I do have some sense of self-preservation, you know.”

“Never meant to suggest you didn’t, sir.”

I went over, just to check. It was locked. While I stood there, the scratching started up again. I eyed the dark crack at the bottom of the door with distaste.

“Christ!” I said. “You know, I really bloody hate this. Do you think we could put something in front of the door?”

Thomas shrugged. I thought about things that want to get in, wriggling through the tiniest gaps and crevices, and shuddered.

“No,” I said. “I suppose that wouldn’t help.” Reluctantly, I crossed the room again, and sat on the bed.

“He’s always stopped by morning,” he said. “Nearly always.”

“You really think all this is to do with him? Your man?”

“He wasn’t mine.” Thomas looked away, smiled at the wallpaper. “I don’t really know. Just know it’s because of me... Anyway. Get used to anything in this life, can’t you?”

“But you don’t know any of this for sure. Look, what if you just left? Pack your bags tonight, I could give you a lift. Wherever you want to go.”

He shook his head. “Wouldn’t help.”

I sighed with frustration. “Isn’t it worth a try? Why on earth do you stay here, anyway?”

He looked at me as though I were mad. “I’ve worked hard to get where I am. Years and years. I’ll not throw all that away just because of -- some nonsense.” His eyes flicked to the door, and away.

“But there are other places, other things to be…” I ran out of words. This is such a tiny world, I wanted to shout at him. That house was like a tomb, for all its grandeur and size. I felt he’d shut himself up in such a small, narrow place, and I couldn’t understand why.

But he was shaking his head, laughing without humour.

“Do you really think it’s that easy, sir? Do you? Because it’s not for most of us. Christ, you bloody lot live in a--”

He cut himself off, his face twisting strangely. It occurs to me now that he was probably trying to judge which of us held the upper hand before he continued speaking. It didn’t occur to me at the time because things like that never did.

I opened my mouth -- to say what, I’m not sure. Something well-meant and ill-considered. Some new and over-generous offer I hadn’t thought through. Or to feebly protest: What makes you think I’m one of them, anyway? But nothing came out.

“See,” he went on. “It’s all right for you. You can flip-flop all over the place, can’t you sir, changing your mind, having your fancy, buggering off to Sweden. You can make as many mistakes as you want, because there are no consequences for the likes of you. Are there?”

Which does seem rather funny now, considering... what’s happened. I like to think that Thomas would get the joke.

At the time, I said nothing. I was still young, and the world had always given me what I wanted. Always. I wondered what else Thomas had done, and what had been done to him. But I didn’t ask. It was all bound to be unpleasant, and one really doesn’t like to pry. Instead, I reached over and took hold of his hand. I held his fingers to my lips and kissed them, and watched as his breathing changed pace, catching a little. In other words, I did what I always do.

But there they were, right on cue: footsteps on the stairs again. I froze there on the bed, his fingers still held against my mouth. This time the steps did not stop but carried on, weighty as sandbags, as wet clay. Heavy as the dull impact of lead on human flesh. They continued -- thud, thud, regular and even -- down the corridor toward us. They stopped outside the door. There was a single knock.

“Don’t even listen to it,” Thomas said, his voice tight. “Just ignore it.”

He couldn’t stop it happening though, and neither could I. Soft at first, then louder. It seemed to go on and on, in a random pattern. Thud. Thud thud. Thud. There was no resonance to the noise -- like the opposite of an echo.

“What the hell is it?” My own voice sounded strange to me, as though I were underwater. And even as I said it, I felt I knew. “It wants to get in, doesn’t it? Oh God, it’s trying to...”

Thomas shifted on the bed then, pushed me down so that I was lying flat, and covered my body with his own. He was stronger than me, I thought. He put his hands either side of my head, over my ears. I reached up and held onto him, the reassuring solidity of him -- the tangible shapes of his spine and ribs beneath the flesh -- slowing the panic that had begun to grip me.

“Don’t,” he said, his voice low in his throat. “Just don’t bloody listen, that’s all. They can’t make you.”

His hands were still over my ears when he kissed me, heavy-breathed, pressing me into the mattress with his living weight. I could feel him hard against my thigh, and the muffled noise from the hallway mingled with that of my heart beating, the blood rushing in my ears. All was confusion, a great muddle of fear and desire. I drank him in, then felt the cold loss as he moved away, and I could hear again. It was like emerging from a warm bath.

“See?” he said, cocking his head toward the door. “Nothing there. Perhaps we imagined it all, eh?”

“But…” I trailed off and lay breathing, listening. There was nothing to hear. Only silence.

“You know what?” he said. “Fuck it. Right? Because I don’t really give a toss any more. Fuck ‘em. Fuck ‘em all.”

I laughed without really knowing what I was laughing at. “All right,” I said, my breath half-lost. “But please start with me.”

There is something about sex. You know? It creates a new space, where there wasn’t one before. A small, private space. And just for a short time, if you’re doing it right, nothing else can get in. It all falls away -- the pettiness, the clumsy resentments. The things that scrabble and scratch at you, and at the door. Outside our space, that great house with its rules and rivalries, its dark and nameless things, could only howl, silent and useless. It was cavernous, a giant maw. It was small and slithering and many. But it could not eat us. And it could not get in.

Thomas reached down with one hand to pull at the irrelevance of pyjamas, his mouth curving into a grin against my neck. “These can sod off an’ all,” he muttered, and the laughter bubbled up again in my throat. His solid body was a wall, and nothing outside it was real or important. I kicked the discarded clothing aside and caught his wrist before he could reach for me again and be the valet, the under-butler.

“Ah, no,” I said. “You don’t get away with that twice. Some of us have a reputation to consider.”

He hesitated, then let me push him down onto the pillows. I fumbled with the buttons of his trousers, lost in a tangle of wool underwear.

“I hate winter,” I said ferociously, tearing at the apparently endless layers as he lay back and laughed at me. “Do you know that? I hate its guts.”

He was a revelation once the clothes were gone. Isn’t everyone? Stretched out before me, he was like an unwrapped gift. I held his wrists down against the sheets and kissed his lips, his neck, his chest, all the way down to the salt in the crease of his thigh. As I took him in my mouth, I felt him shudder. I’d turned the key. Open and shut.

In all the years of my life, there have been few things to compare to those small moments, when you watch someone come undone, when you make that happen. The first ripple of applause, perhaps, after a good night... that’s the only thing I can think of. In that unguarded moment, all the layers disappear. The servant, the schemer, the soldier, the victim. He was just a person, like anybody else, and yet nothing like. Sometimes, only a small thing is required -- something uncomplicated and human. No grand plan. No sentimental gesture or lavish production. So I just gave him what he needed.

I’m shameless, I am. I’ll take beauty wherever and however I can get it. And the look on Thomas’s face when he came was one of the loveliest things I’ve ever created.

I lay and listened to the sounds of us both, shallow breaths slowly subsiding. There was nothing else to be heard. The bedside lamp was still switched on, its light a soft glow on the pillows. Thomas shifted next to me, and I put out a hand to touch him, my fingers resting in the small depression above his left hip.

“You can stay, can’t you?” I said. “Just for a while.”

He turned toward me, blinking, and rubbed his face. He looked surprised, as though the idea had never occurred to him.

“All right then… just for a bit. Beds are comfier down here, anyway.” He gave me a sideways look, and leaned back on the pillow with his hands behind his head. “Or so I’ve always imagined, sir.”

I propped myself up on one elbow so I could look down at him: the white sheet pulled carelessly across his pale winter skin.

“You should probably call me Ivor,” I said. “Quite a lot of people seem to.”

He did smile, then. I like it when people smile.

“You know,” he said, looking up at the ceiling. “Our butler, Mr Carson, he used to be on the stage once upon a time.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Oh yes. You should bring it up with him before you leave. He does love to reminisce about the old days. Gets quite nostalgic.”

Something about the look on his face told me that I would be wiser not to act on this suggestion. I turned out the light, smiling into the darkness where he couldn’t see. His breathing beside me was steady and even.

“Do you think,” I said into the dark, “that it’s gone now, whatever it was? Is it over?”

I felt his body hunch beside me in what may have been a shrug. He turned onto his side and rolled up against me, mumbling his answer into the skin of my shoulder. His hand travelled, slow and casual, across the flat of my stomach, and made me shiver.

“Shouldn’t think so,” he said. “I’m not that lucky.”

***

When I woke I was alone, and there was brightness filtering into the room through the drawn curtains. The new day seemed quiet and ordinary. A fire crackled in the grate, and the world outside the window, when I got up and looked, was furred white with frost, already fading under the morning sun. All the foggy damp and gloom of the previous few days seemed banished, and today I would leave this house and go home. The relief was immense. Soon, surely, the events of my stay here would fade into unreality -- nothing but a lurid story to tell over cocktails in the flat. Things that went bump in the night… That way, I thought, I could make it all manageable, make it less. But in the end, I never did tell anybody. Not even you.

My mouth was dry. Returning to the bed, I picked up a tumbler of water from my bedside table and took a swig. I almost choked. I dropped the glass and it rolled across the floor, spilling its contents in an arc over the carpet, while I spluttered and coughed. A small, hard object clinked against the back of my teeth -- I spat it out into my hand and gulped in huge, rasping breaths. I think, now, that I was probably never in danger of swallowing it -- it was the surprise that panicked me; the sensation of a foreign body, of finding something in a place it shouldn’t exist.

I looked at the thing lying in my palm. It was a single brass button, glinting in the morning light.

***

There’s not much more to tell, Bobbie. I dressed, went down and ate a hearty breakfast. I thanked my kind hosts for their hospitality -- they said they hoped I hadn’t found their country ways too terribly dull, and I said I hoped I hadn’t bored them with my silly stories. All of us were brimming over with the sort of generosity one feels when one is on the verge of escape, and never likely to meet the other party again.

I kept an eye out for Thomas, but he was strangely absent -- lost somewhere in the depths of the house. When I returned to my room, all my things were packed and ready, but there was no sign of him. I slipped my hand into my trouser pocket -- the little button sat there, warm and smooth. I wondered, madly, if I could entrust it to someone to pass on to him -- the theatrical Carson, perhaps -- but that was hardly safe. Even were I to ask for him, on the pretext of giving him a tip, perhaps, I could hardly manage to see him alone. He was the under-butler now, not my valet.

At last, increasingly anxious, I claimed a desire to stretch my legs before the long drive home, and set off on wild hunt around the grounds. I found him leaning on a column in some kind of classical temple structure, smoking a cigarette.

“Inconvenient habit, that, for someone who doesn’t want to be found,” I said as I reached him, and stopped to catch my breath. “Smoke tends to give you away. Thank goodness.”

“Who says I don’t want to be found?” Thomas ground out the cigarette on the old yellow stone of the column, leant his head back against it, and regarded me languidly. “You all right, sir? You look puffed out. I thought you’d be well on your way by now.”

I didn’t answer, but reached for his hand. He made as if to resist, then gave in and let me uncurl his fingers. I pressed the button into his palm and closed his hand over it. He stared at me.

“I found it,” I said. “It was in a glass, just in the water…” I shrugged helplessly. “Honestly, Thomas, your guess is as good as mine.”

Expressionless, he opened his fist and stared down at the object in his palm. He said nothing.

“Perhaps,” I continued hopefully, “things will get better now. They’re bound to, aren’t they?”

“Mm. Maybe.” He looked up at me then and smiled briefly, pushing the button into the breast pocket of his overcoat. He held his hand over the pocket briefly, then let it fall to his side. “Thanks.”

“I’m not sure I actually did anything.”

He looked away, still smiling. “I wouldn’t say that, sir.”

Confused memories of the previous night tangled together beneath my skin. I thought about the heat of him against me, and cleared my throat.

“Thomas,” I said, “If there’s anything I can…”

The look on his face mocked me. “Anything you can do, sir? What do you want to do exactly -- rescue me?” He shook his head. “No, thanks. I can rescue meself. And if I can’t, well. It’s none of your concern.”

I nodded. That, I supposed, was that. “Well, anyway,” I said. “I should probably be going.”

“You know your problem?” He spoke as though he hadn’t heard me. “People like you want things to be nice, because you are. You want everything to be just how you’d like it, and you go around pretending that’s true. But that’s all you’re doing -- pretending. Life’s just... what it is, that’s all.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. I hardly knew why, or what I was apologising for, only that I meant it. Thomas rolled his eyes, pushed himself away from the stone column with a sigh, and pulled me toward him. He held one hand at the back of my neck, just at the hairline -- firm and casual, and kissed me. He was all soap and smoke, and just for that one moment he felt like everything I’d ever wanted.

He released me and stepped back. “Things to do,” he said. He touched the side of my face briefly with his gloved hand, and then he walked back to the house. I stood in the cold and watched him go. A robin was singing on a nearby branch, and the notes were clear and liquid in the sharp air.

At least, that’s how I remember it, Bobbie. Whether you believe me or not, I have been trying very hard to tell you the truth -- but it’s so difficult to be sure of anything these days. It was a long time ago, and I never went to the place again. I don’t believe the family are still there, although I could be wrong. And of course, I have no idea what happened to Thomas. I’d like to think he was happy somewhere, that the things that haunted him, whatever they were, had gone away. But that’s something I can’t pretend to know. I never forgot him, for what that’s worth. I imagine he would say that it’s not worth very much.

Well, I think the rain is easing off. There’s a bit of brightness coming in through the bars. I think I will stop this letter now, tear it up, and write you something sensible instead. There are some little things I want you to send me, if you can get them… I hope the wet weather holds off, if you do go up to the country. The real summer will be here soon, anyway, and we’ll both be in the sun again. Nothing terrible can last for too long, can it? After all -- what on earth would be the point?

Much love,

Ivor x