Hyde Park in 1941 was no refuge from the demands of wartime. It could have been a military encampment: khaki uniforms, silvery barrage balloons floating close to the ground, vegetable plots being energetically dug. Exhausted office workers dozed on the grass during their lunch hour.
It was Ralph's lunch hour as well but Andrew was yawning, having spent the previous night driving an ambulance. They strolled slowly together along the wide paths, having no destination in mind other than one another's company. Andrew had come all the way from the East End for this brief rendezvous, painfully inadequate though it was.
Three weeks ago, the day after Laurie's funeral, Ralph had woken to find Andrew's fair head pillowed on his chest. He had realised then, with the clarity of the morning after, that this was not something to be done once and finished with. Both he and Andrew were to catch a train back to London later that morning; it had seemed suddenly, heartbreakingly impossible to imagine bidding the boy farewell in Paddington and going their separate ways. We'll see each other again, he had said then, and Andrew, nodding mutely, had subsided back into sleep.
They had done. They had indeed. But quick, stolen meetings were nothing that one could live upon.
"For all I see you," Ralph said, breaking the silence, "you might be halfway across the country."
"It's wartime," said Andrew. "You can't expect it to be any different."
Ralph had been used to the claustrophobic closeness of a ship, where one had no privacy and everything one did was observed. In port, though, he was used to having his liberty. He missed his little digs in Bridstow with an intensity that he would not have thought possible. He was still staying, rather irregularly, in a merchant mariners' hostel; he had not yet crossed the threshold of Andrew's shared house in the East End.
"I can," he said. "You must admit at the very least that living by the docks is dangerous."
"Dave says it was a thousand times worse in the autumn. It was worse even in December, when I arrived. After a while one hardly feels it any more."
Ralph ignored the reference to Dave. It was a subject he did not feel up to pursuing at the moment; he had a more immediate aim.
"I'll take a flat somewhere quiet, I mean to anyway. Somewhere in north London. You can have your own room if you like. We'll be flatmates. It would take a hell of a dirty mind for anyone to object to that."
"Have you been thinking all this time that's the only reason why I said no?"
"I can't think of any other reason why you would."
"You're forgetting that I should still have to go clear across London to get to my work. It's not just the ambulance driving. There's the relief work and the fire watching and the meetings on top of it…"
If Ralph had learned anything about Quakerism over the past few weeks it was that its practice involved an interminable succession of meetings, both uppercase and lowercase, and seemingly no efficient method of settling a course of action. This seemed odd to him, according ill with what he knew of Andrew's character, which was both practical and (for the most part) quickly decisive. But it was clear that he understood this side of Andrew's life very little.
"How could I forget the meetings," he said.
Andrew stepped aside for a woman with a pram to pass by. He gave Ralph a stubborn, rather self-righteous look from the other side of the path.
"You know very well it's driving me mad," Ralph added. "Half at sea and half on shore."
Andrew sighed. "Why don't you come to the house tomorrow evening. Most of them will be out and I'm not on duty till ten. I know you've wanted to."
Ralph stepped across the path, over to Andrew's side. He was barely an inch shorter than Ralph, if that, and as Ralph approached he raised his chin as if to make up the difference.
"I've wanted a good deal more than that," said Ralph in an undertone.
"You act as though I haven't," Andrew replied.
During the rest of the afternoon Ralph could hardly concentrate on his duties. It was desk work, pushing paper ships around a paper ocean while other men sailed into danger with a fresh breeze in their face. London was stifling with the heat of late spring, windows taped against the blast and painted shut, dust of ruined buildings hanging in the air.
He racked his brain, wanting to believe that he was thinking clearly and knowing perfectly well that he was in a daze, lack of sleep mixed with a good helping of sexual frustration. They'd been to hotels a few times but one could not carry on like that forever.
Where could two men be alone in London? Put like that it sounded bloody obvious. Bim or Bunny would have laughed. Forget parties, with the blackout in full swing all of London was crawling with queers. Any dark alley was invitation enough. But it was not Andrew's style, nor really Ralph's, not if he had better prospects in view.
His head ached. He had never quite shaken off the hangover of the night before. Without a drink or two before bed it was impossible to sleep in the bustle of an air raid shelter or in the hostel with the bombs crashing down outside. He'd looked in the mirror that morning while shaving and seen the face of a much older man.
Well. He'd signed on for the duration, hadn't he? In all senses of the word. He felt a strange sense of comfort at the idea, as if the decision were out of his hands. For the duration, and for Andrew. There was some honour in that.
Thankfully the next night was a quiet one. Ralph walked from the Underground station along buckled tram tracks, schooling himself not to see the destruction on either hand. What, during his first visit, had seemed merely part of the necessary misery of war now seemed abruptly personal, and hardly to be borne.
The semi-detached house was still standing, though Andrew got the door open with some difficulty. The place seemed to have settled on its foundations; there was a crack running though the stucco of the exterior wall.
"Do come in," said Andrew.
Even this simple invitation across the threshold seemed freighted with meaning. Last time, when he had come with the news of Laurie's death, Andrew had not asked him in.
Together they wrestled the door closed, though finally Ralph had to put his shoulder to it. In the process he'd somehow got his arms around Andrew. He leaned over and kissed him, hard, before any objection could be made.
Andrew broke away first, breathless. "There are people upstairs."
"Of course there are," said Ralph.
He let Andrew lead him through into the small kitchen.
"Tea?" said Andrew, already automatically putting two spare teaspoonfuls into the grimy pot.
Andrew looked embarrassed. "Not really. There isn't the call for it."
"Tea then. No milk."
Andrew did not ask about sugar.
As soon as they had settled with their tea, there were steps coming down the stairs. The door opened and a young man came through.
"Hallo, Andrew," he said, "just getting a glass of water."
"Hello, Tom," said Andrew.
Ralph could feel the scrutiny even sitting with his back to the sink. He had not felt so conspicuous in his uniform since he had first been commissioned.
"You're not a Friend, are you?"
"No," said Ralph. "But then you could see that."
Tom left with his water without saying another word.
"Charming," said Ralph.
Andrew shrugged apologetically. "He's rather rigid."
"I should say so."
"He believes in what he does. His brother was with the Unit in Finland and Norway. They just missed being evacuated at Namsos. They got away to Sweden, and then Egypt, and then went to work for the Red Cross in Greece. Tom's brother is an orderly now, only in a German prison camp. They won't release them, you see, because none of the Friends have Red Cross credentials."
"Sounds a shambles," said Ralph. But then he added, "I was at Namsos."
"I know you were," said Andrew.
After that Andrew made more tea. Ralph did his best to drink it without showing his dislike, as it was done in a spirit of generosity. They sat there together, looking at one another, not having anything that could be said. Andrew had just put his hand on Ralph's when there came the sound of a key in the lock. He took it away again.
"Andrew?" came a voice in the hall. "Are you in?"
"Yes, Dave," called Andrew, "I'm through here."
Ralph wondered whether he could make a quick bolt for the garden. He got to his feet as Dave came in, and earned a look up and down for his troubles. But Dave turned away without addressing himself to Ralph at all.
"There was a meeting at the Students' Hostel, Andrew. Did you forget? I thought I would have seen you there."
"I couldn't go," said Andrew calmly. "Since I'd already arranged to be here. Dave, this is--this is a friend of Laurie's. He's just come by for cocoa."
He had carefully avoided giving Ralph's name but Dave looked suspicious enough without it.
"On duty at ten tonight?"
"That's right," said Andrew. "But it's not even quarter to nine. There's plenty of time."
"I had better be going anyway," said Ralph. "Thanks for everything. God bless."
"I'll walk you to the station," said Andrew.
Despite his fears, it turned out that Alec had passed his exams with flying colours, and got his first choice of residency: he was to become a houseman at Barts. Sandy, less lucky, was on his way to a hospital in Glasgow.
"I get a letter from him by almost every post," Alec confessed. "But I don't think it will last."
"You don't want it to last," said Ralph.
"One does rather feel that one can suddenly breathe again."
They were drinking together in a little club called the Arts and Battledress. It was at the back of the National Gallery, apparently just opened. Ralph liked to consider himself knowledgable about the lie of the land but Alec, despite having only just moved to London, had an unfailing instinct for finding these places.
"It'll be closed in a couple of years," he said. "They always are. Anyway, cheers."
"So how are you? No, don't tell me." Alec studied Ralph's face. "You haven't been sleeping. You're drinking too much, again. And you've met someone."
"I expect you'll be meeting Watson at Barts any day now yourself. How did you know?"
"Only that you somehow look happy despite it all. Well, go on, tell me. You've moved quickly. How did you meet? Or is it someone I know?"
"Not in so many words."
Ralph hadn't imagined that he could be so bashful about admitting something to Alec--a man who, after all, knew him better than anyone.
Alec's voice had a warning tone. "Who is it, Ralph?"
"I don't believe you've met him. Andrew Raynes."
"The little orderly boy?" exclaimed Alec. "Laurie's boy? You're with Laurie's boy?"
"Keep your damn voice down!"
He glanced around the pub, though it was not the sort of place where any such pronouncement would have gone amiss.
"Ralph, really, of all the men in London…. You're in love with him?"
"I'd hardly fetch up with a man like that if I weren't."
"I suppose you wouldn't. But what is it? Schooldays all over again? I never thought that a teenage conchie would be your type."
Hitherto Ralph had kept Andrew sealed in a mental compartment away from the rest of his life, hatches firmly sealed and dogged. Andrew was the last resort; Andrew would keep him afloat if all else failed. It was the final grasp for a rope by a drowning man.
And now Alec, with his unerring ability for finding the sore point, was coolly taking to bits something special, an outcome that had seemed inevitable only to the two men so intimately concerned.
"When did it happen?" Alec pursued.
"After the funeral. One thing led to another and... Well. You can imagine."
Alec nodded with the air of one whose interest has not yet been completely satisfied. "Yes, and...?"
"And I'd rather not talk about it, if it's all the same to you. Don't let it worry you. It's not your look-out."
Alec's face reacted in a way that Ralph hadn't been expecting. A terrible thought occurred to him. "Good God, Alec, you don't mean to say that you'd thought…?"
"For old times' sake at least," he said, shrugging, with the tone of a concession.
"Let's have another drink," Ralph said crisply.
Whether it was excuse, promise or delaying tactic, he was not sure himself.
Ralph wound up taking a place in Maida Vale, a flat at the top of a shared house which had a sitting room, two bedrooms and a tiny galley kitchen that belonged to him alone. (The toilet likewise, though it was half a flight down from the rest of the flat, on a landing.) It was an extravagant style of housekeeping, by his standard at least. During his years at sea, unlike most of his shipmates, he had not had to support a wife and family. He could not think that he ever would. And living up to his income was, after all, not a sin.
All that remained to be settled was the question of Andrew. In the short term, all that Ralph had managed to exact from him was a promise to pay a visit from the East End on his very first night off, and as many of the subsequent ones as seemed practical. It occurred to Ralph that there was such a thing as being too practical.
"But of course," Andrew had said, "I should have to make the trip every night if I were living with you."
Ralph had laid the whole evening out in his mind. He would run Andrew a bath, sit by its side with a drink while he washed off the dust of the day. He had put clean sheets on the bed. He had even bought Andrew a pair of pyjamas, using his own coupons, in case he didn't like to sleep without them.
When Andrew came through the door he was in his work clothes, brown corduroys and a heavy wool shirt that might even have been grey originally. He looked exhausted, dirty from head to toe and with a raw scrape on the back of one hand. There was something in him of the nobility of sacrifice. A surge of emotion went through Ralph, equal parts admiration, tenderness and lust.
He stepped forward quickly. Andrew pushed the door closed, one motion behind his back. They met right inside it, kissed as if one or the other had just been pulled from the rubble.
Ralph began unbuttoning Andrew's shirt where he stood. Andrew pressed close against him. Even in these moments he had an intense seriousness to him, uncompromising, his attention utterly fixed upon the task at hand. That blunt, unpracticed touch burned with eagerness.
"Bed's through here," said Ralph hoarsely. The bath could go hang.
They were woken, much later, by the air raid sirens. Andrew blinked quickly awake, feeling at the side of the bed for an absent lamp. His groping hand touched Ralph's hair and then he laughed.
"There's an Anderson at the bottom of the garden," said Ralph. "It's absolutely thronged. The house is full to capacity."
"Let's stay. It doesn't sound as though the bombs are falling here anyway."
"Famous last words," said Ralph.
But they lay there anyway listening to the drone of the bombers and the stutter of anti-aircraft batteries.
"I hate having the other bedroom empty," Ralph said finally. "There's a family of three staying in the downstairs sitting room."
"We've hundreds in the rest centres now. Thousands. You ought to rent it out."
"It would have to be to a very particular type."
"Oh," said Andrew apologetically. "I hadn't thought of that."
Ralph suppressed the urge to say you wouldn't. It hardly seemed fair. But the topic seemed to have sparked something in Andrew.
"I had words with Dave about you," he said.
"I suppose it had to happen eventually. What did the old bugger say?"
"He said he didn't want me mixed up with this sort of thing, and when I said I wasn't mixed up about it at all, he liked it even less. Then we had to get down to specifics."
"You can imagine. On one hand it was absolutely ghastly. On the other… I find it difficult to discount Dave entirely, however much I might disagree with him. He's done so much for me, at times when I really didn't have anyone else. And he knew my parents. For him that's what all of this is about, really. As he talked, I got the feeling that his life was passing before his eyes."
"I know the feeling."
"Anyway, I think he'd begun suspecting something even before you came round. He has a sense for it; he had with Laurie too."
"And what did he say?" asked Ralph again, feeling a chill of fear that perhaps one of the arguments had driven home.
"Oh, what you would expect. That whatever my feelings, it was wrong to act upon them. That I'd been under a great deal of strain lately, with Laurie's death, and that I was understandably confused. That you were a good deal older than me and I shouldn't let you cloud my judgment. That he could tell I'd been distracted from my work lately, which is true. He even said that I should go away for a few days to give myself the time to think about it properly."
"He threw you out?"
"Not at all. He said that I ought to go up to Pardshaw, in the Lakes, to get some fresh air and a break from the bombing. That was where I went when I had to decide whether or not to register as a CO, back at the beginning of the war. It's a Quaker hostel."
There was a pause in the bombing. How odd it was that the silence seemed more shattering than the noise.
"Why would you assume that he'd thrown me out?" asked Andrew.
"Just something someone once said."
As he'd said to Laurie, in retrospect he should have gone straight to Southampton. His mistake had been giving his parents the chance to get the boot in. Being disowned had almost been a relief when it came. It was the confrontation before which stuck in the memory somehow.
"I forget how difficult these things can be," Ralph added, lying badly for the sake of the implied question.
"That night after the funeral," said Andrew, sailing on past, "I told myself that I had to know, that if I didn't know, really, what it all meant, none of my conclusions would be good for anything. I wondered whether, having experienced the physical side of things, I should feel it to be wicked. Inwardly, I mean."
"It was a way of testing yourself," said Ralph dully.
"In a manner of speaking."
Ralph wondered whether it would always be his fate to love more than he was loved. What was wrong with him, that he got like this, wanting to give himself wholly, surrender body and soul to a man whom--really--he hardly knew? If it were simply a matter of sex, the thing would be comparatively easy, and a woman could do the job just as well. He felt the ache of frustrated love spread through him.
"And now you know."
Andrew's kiss took him by surprise. The boy had propped himself up on one elbow, leaning down in the depths of the blackout. His lips were still dusty but his mouth tasted sweet.
"Yes," said Andrew urgently. "Now I know."