"Is everything all right dear?"
"It is, Clive. Thank you." Anne smiled. "It was a wonderful idea to come here, and this is such a nice hotel."
He was glad she was happy. They couldn't afford a trip to Deauville this year, and so Cornwall would have to do.
They sat in the ballroom and enjoyed their after dinner coffee. Around them, other couples danced or sat at their tables and talked.
They'd arrived late, after a long day, and Clive hoped they could retire soon. Since it was late spring, the weather was mild and the drive down had been pleasant, but he felt a bit stiff and tired. He returned her smile and continued to listen while she told him about the plans she had made for the next few days.
Life with Anne had been fairly easy. He was lucky he had met her just when he needed to establish himself as the heir of Penge. At the time, his mother kept inviting suitable young women to stay, and meeting Anne had been a relief. They'd never had children, but she had a good relationship with his mother, and was very good with the tenants.
Sometimes though, he missed his friendship with Maurice.
Anne chatted on while Clive listened with only half an ear, and at first he didn't pay much attention to the man who approached Anne, asking for a dance. She looked at Clive as if to ask him for permission.
"Please. Enjoy yourself."
When the man led her to the dance floor, Clive gave him a second look.
For a second, the room seemed to close in on him, and darkness crowded his vision. His hand shook when he put down his cup. Feeling dizzy, he glanced around to see if anyone had noticed, but no one was looking. A little more in control of himself, Clive turned his eyes to the dance floor and sought out the couple.
It couldn't be…
The music was lively and the couple had moved to a section of the crowded floor furthest from the table. Clive could only see the man in glimpses, other couples moving past. He saw black, wavy hair and broad shoulders, a tall man, guiding Anne with assurance. Finally one long glimpse of his face. A wide brow, dark eyes and a pleasant smile. He was…
Clive slumped a little in his chair. But he still couldn't take his eyes off the man. He looked so like Maurice. Clive guessed that he was one of the hotel's professional dancers, hired to entertain the guests. His evening dress was not quite up to the usual standard, and the way he moved spoke of someone who was very much at home on a dance floor. Then the memories came. Maurice when he came to him that night in college, Maurice at Penge, Maurice just being, talking.
Clive prepared for bed automatically. He wasn't certain how he'd managed to escort Anne to their room and was thankful that they had separate beds. He didn't think he would get much sleep tonight.
Maurice. He looked so — free — that last time they met. But that shocking news about Scudder. The scandal of it. He could never have met with Maurice again. But Maurice had just laughed him off and disappeared. When Clive went back into the living room, the soft ‘click' of the doors sounded like a shutter falling, the sound numbing his senses.
Initially, Clive had neatly folded away his memory of his last conversation with Maurice and tucked it into a section of his mind that he rarely visited. He had no need to remember. It was a relief that Maurice left. Now there would be no breath of anything distasteful to disturb the by-election.
But months later Clive was thrown into a crisis. He was plagued by memories of Maurice. False memories of them together, of things they never did. He became obsessed and struggled to hide it, until the thoughts finally went away. His efforts made him appear quite stiff and wooden in manner, but perversely, most people took it to mean that he had matured into his role as politician and country squire. Anne remained an adoring wife, and then, when they realised they would have no children, she took up social work. One had to do something for the poor.
Clive had thought he would never think about Maurice again. And now this.
"Darling, are you awake?"
"Yes dear. I am now." Clive turned in his bed. Anne's voice was bright and a little loud.
"It's going to be a wonderful day. Perfect for a day's touring."
Clive rose slowly and rubbed his face and eyes. Sleep had eluded him and he was stiff and tired. It had been too much to hope that Anne would let him sleep in. He looked into the mirror as he washed and shaved, tired, bloodshot eyes staring back.
After breakfast they went out in the car. Anne had bought a Baedeker and eagerly guided them around from one place to another. Clive was content to follow; the activity helped him to keep his mind off Maurice. The weather was mild and pleasant, and at lunchtime they found a tea room with an adjoining garden. The relaxed atmosphere lowered Clive's defences and his mind went back to the day in Cambridge when he and Maurice had run out on the Dean. They'd felt so exhilarated about getting away from the stuffy atmosphere of college. But with the memory, the obsessive thoughts returned, and Clive could feel a headache settle in the back of his head.
"Clive? Clive, do you feel all right? You look a bit troubled."
"Just a slight headache. I'm sure I'll be fine soon."
"You've probably been out in the sun for too long. We should go back to the hotel."
"I'll be all right." Clive smiled. "Let's leave and visit Glendurgan Gardens before we return to the hotel. It's a fine day. We might as well enjoy it while it lasts."
Late in the afternoon clouds gathered, it became colder, and it was raining heavily when they returned to the hotel.
After dinner they had their coffee in the ballroom again, and the dancer from the previous night was out on the floor. This time Clive was prepared for his reaction, but it was still a relief when someone else asked Anne for a dance and he didn't have to pretend to listen to her. One more day and one more night and then they could leave. He was determined that Anne shouldn't see his distraction. Luckily, she didn't appear to have noticed the likeness of the dancer to Maurice, but then, she had not known Maurice for long and had never mentioned him since he disappeared.
At first Clive thought it was a coincidence, then he became certain the man was stealing glances at him. Clive couldn't keep his eyes away either. The man was slimmer than Maurice and he moved more gracefully, but the face was the same.
He remembered his first meeting with Maurice and how his instinct had told him to secure their acquaintance. Maurice's eager and open approach to friendship had been a revelation. Later, when they'd revealed themselves to each other, he'd forced himself to bury any thoughts about physical love and channelled them into a platonic relationship. Watching this man, he wondered. What if…
"Clive? I think I'd like to retire now, it's getting late."
"Of course. It's been a long day."
The next day they stayed indoors, in the drawing room of the hotel, as the rain didn't seem to want to stop. Anne had met an old acquaintance from her school days, and they spent the afternoon together. Clive used the time to catch up with the news and later settled down with a book, but his mind kept returning to Maurice and his preoccupation of the last two days.
After dinner he felt restless. He was certain Anne would question his absent manner. He fidgeted with a coffee spoon, while Anne danced with him again. Tomorrow they would leave, and Clive could not decide whether he should feel miserable or relieved.
They went to their room early, as Anne wanted to oversee that their maid had packed everything correctly for their morning departure. Clive sat down with a book in the chair by the fireplace, but after several unsuccessful attempts at reading, sat and stared vacantly into the low fire. Maurice's face, the stranger's face, was the only thing he could really see. The sound of Anne in the background kept intruding, and he felt restless.
Then a sudden impulse took him by surprise and made him rise abruptly.
Anne looked at him, startled.
"I– I'm going for walk. I think some fresh air would do me good, clear my mind."
Anne looked worried. "Yes, you do look a bit drawn. But please come back soon, it's very late now."
Clive realised she was upset and turned to her. "Of course I will. Come." He forced himself to smile, and put his arm around her shoulders and kissed her cheek. "I'll be all right. I just need a bit of fresh air."
"Please wake me when you come back. I'd like to know that you came back safely."
"I will. Of course."
Once outside the hotel Clive walked aimlessly and his steps took him towards the beach. It had stopped raining and the sky was fairly clear. The moon was almost full and cast a cold, sharp light on the sand and rocks. As he walked farther out, he noticed a lone figure sitting with his arms around his knees. Clive turned to walk away just as the other man noticed him and said: "Hello."
Clive froze. "Hello," he said curtly. It was the man from the hotel and he wanted to leave, but his body appeared to have made a different decision, and slowly he walked towards the sitting figure.
"Going for a walk?"
"Yes. Needed a bit of air," Clive said.
"Me, too. It's a good place to think, isn't it?"
The familiarity of the tone took Clive aback. It was rather shocking of the man to address him in such a forward manner. Clive glanced down at him. His voice sounded flat and he sat very still, shoulders slumped, as he stared into the darkness over the water.
"I often come here. When things… You'd know how it is."
"Would I?" The man reminded him so much of Maurice that Clive felt disconcerted. He instinctively wanted to trust him, but knew that he couldn't trust a stranger and certainly not a person of this man's class.
He looked up at Clive. "I know you. You're staying at the hotel. I've danced with your wife the last two evenings. And I've seen you look at me."
"You–" Clive took a step backwards.
"I know why you look at me."
"I'm not–" This could ruin him. He took another step back.
"Don't worry, I won't tell." His voice sounded bitter. Staring at Clive, he said, "Sit. Sit down."
Stunned, Clive sat down on the sand. It felt cold and he tucked his coat tighter around him. Several moments passed while neither spoke. Clive felt unnerved by the silence — he really should leave — and said the first thing that came to mind: "Why?"
"It won't do any good to anyone. I know what it feels like. I'm like you, you see." Again that dead voice. Then anger; "It's not right."
Clive let out a breath and his hands relaxed their grip on his knees. "No, yes. I'm sorry," he blurted out.
"I don't know. It's been a long time. I was thinking of someone." His voice trailed off. "What were you thinking about? Do you… Is there someone?"
"Was." The other man buried his head in his knees. His voice was barely audible when he continued; "He was. He's been dead for almost a year."
"I'm sorry." Clive wished he could offer him sympathy but didn't know how and resorted to offering him a cigarette. "I'm sorry," he repeated.
The man accepted his offer. "Thank you. Just being able to tell someone makes it better." He let Clive light the cigarette and dragged deeply at it. After letting out a puff of smoke he said, "My name is Oliver."
"I'm Clive. Just in case my wife hasn't told you yet." He smiled and raised an eyebrow, hoping to relieve a bit of the tension.
Oliver returned the gesture; "Oh, she did. She discussed you for quite a while."
"She would. She likes to talk. Sometimes it's nice, fills out the silence."
"Well, she certainly does talk. But then, most of the ladies do. I guess they have a lot of silence to fill." He smiled ruefully. "At least they know how to do it."
"Fill out the silences, smooth them over. Wish I could do that, but I must always hold back, never tell anyone how I feel. You'd know."
Clive sighed, this was getting too close. It was better to keep Oliver talking. "What was he like?"
"Like… I don't know." Oliver's gaze turned inward. "Peter was just Peter. He never cared much for what others thought, always laughed it off. Everybody liked him and no one dared to mess with him. You wouldn't have known just by looking at him, he was built like you, but he could put up a good fight if he was provoked."
"He took a job at the railways. Seemed safe enough, but then he," Oliver's voice sounded strangled again, "he never noticed the wagon when he was out on the tracks. He was dead by the time they brought him in. I hope to God it was over quickly, I couldn't bear–" Oliver's hand shook as he sucked hard on the cigarette, finishing it.
Since sitting down, Clive had felt strangely numb. Now he felt the need to hold onto something, to connect, even if it were only a gesture to comfort Oliver. But the body beneath his hand reminded him of Maurice again and abruptly he let go.
Oliver pulled himself back and shook his head. "Sorry. Shouldn't have let myself go. Are you all right?"
"I think so. It's just– you look so much like Maurice. It's almost like he's here."
"I knew him once, at college, and later. And then he… disappeared. I haven't seen in him in sixteen years. You've no idea how much you look like him."
"And that's why you looked…." Oliver reached out for Clive's hand. "Tell me," he said.
Clive stirred, startled by the touch, but allowed Oliver hold his hand. "He–" Clive looked away, his voice almost lost in the sound of the sea, "I loved him."
"And I look like him?"
"Your face, eyes, body. You understand why I couldn't look away?"
Oliver gripped Clive's hand tightly. "It's all right. I know how you feel."
"Do you? When I saw you it was as if he'd never been away." As Oliver put an arm around his shoulders, Clive shuddered. "I hardly ever held him, and now I only want to be with him. I don't understand. I want to touch him. Do you know, I only kissed him once?" Clive felt confused, as if he'd lost something important, but couldn't understand why.
Oliver stroked Clive's back and pulled him closer until he held him in an embrace. "Clive, look at me. Do I really look so much like Maurice?"
"Just like him. If I didn't know better, I wouldn't know where I was."
"Kiss me. Kiss your friend."
Clive reached for him.
When he finally let go they were both out of breath. Clive tried to turn away. "Sorry, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have–"
"It was all right. You're all right."
Clive relaxed slowly against Oliver. He had let himself go and it was all right. It was so long ago that Maurice had held him; Clive could hardly remember it. He was dizzy. Once more, he touched Oliver's body and face, his hands tentatively asking the other to respond.
Oliver kept still and waited as Clive leant in to kiss him again.
Something shifted in Clive; part of the fear was gone. The kiss felt like something that could have been between him and Maurice but never was.
As he held Oliver, he felt his body reacting to the closeness. When he was with Maurice, he'd felt distaste at the thought of a physical union between them. Now the idealism of his youth had withered, and in this moment, the thought of sharing his body with another man was less strange. He responded to Oliver, who seemed lost in their embrace. Only the nagging thought at the back of his mind that someone might come, made him pull back: "Stop, we should stop. Someone might come."
Oliver opened his eyes and looked at Clive for a long moment. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, he rose and started to pull Clive along with him. Clive stumbled as he led him farther down the beach to an old beach hut.
Everything happened quickly. Clive found himself inside, Oliver holding him and pressing him up against a wall. He couldn't think or move, didn't want to.
Again Oliver looked at him for a long moment, then let go and started to remove Clive's coat. His own he had wrenched off as he dragged Clive into the cabin. They could hardly see each other in the darkness, and Oliver fumbled as he undid the buttons of Clive's shirt. Finally, he got the shirt open and put his hands and mouth on Clive's chest. The world shifted again. Oliver held him pinned to the wall, and because he couldn't move, he felt powerless. The last of Clive's reticence dissolved; he could let go.
Then Oliver reached farther down, and when he started to open Clive's trousers, part of Clive's mind snapped back to reality. He tried to shake off the dizziness. "Not…"
But Oliver acted swiftly and took Clive into his mouth before he could continue – or even stop him. God, he was… this felt…. Coherence fled him and it was all he could do to try to remain upright, leaning against the wall.
It was over quickly and Clive was still shaking when he slid down into a crouched position. He felt Oliver leaning against him, breathing heavily, and Clive reached out to run his hand through Oliver's hair. It felt soft and smooth, and Oliver moved his head, trying to follow the hand, enticing it to keep touching him. Caught up in the moment, Oliver grabbed hold of Clive's hand and moved it towards his groin. Clive, who was still not completely recovered, let it happen. Oliver somehow managed to open his trousers and Clive felt the heat as he touched him. Oliver tangled their fingers together and guided the strokes. When he came, he tensed and let out a ragged sigh. He slumped against Clive's side, halfway leaning against the wall, trying to catch his breath. "Clive, you all right?"
"Yes." Clive was almost afraid to speak.
While his breathing returned to normal, Oliver cleaned their hands with a handkerchief. He leant back and looked at Clive, who was buttoning up and adjusting his clothes.
Clive could not quite manage to look Oliver in the eyes and busied himself with his clothing.
Oliver got up himself. "We shouldn't return together. You go first, I'll be fine." He fidgeted with the lapel of his coat, and as Clive turned in the open door he said, "Clive? Tomorrow night?"
"We're leaving tomorrow." Clive's voice was toneless. He stood for a moment, looking away. "Oliver?" Clive turned towards him. "I… Thank you."
"I wanted to. There's no need to thank me." Oliver stroked his fingertips over Clive's cheek and his voice was thick when he said; "Clive, do you know you look like Peter?" He smiled sadly and pressed a quick kiss on Clive's mouth. Before Clive had time to react, the other man was gone. Clive saw him running down the beach, but prevented himself from going after him. He had no more words to say. Only the ghost of a kiss left on his lips and a feeling of release. And love. Whether it was for Maurice or Oliver he didn't know, but he felt calmer than he had done in a long time.