I had stopped in for a drink at the Hotel d'Aubusson more out of sentiment than thirst, wanting to lose myself, if only briefly, in the memory of happier times. I was on my second glass of champagne when I saw Cordelia in a fractured corner of the cut-glass mirror over the bar. She was tucked into a banquette upholstered in powder pink velvet, an improbably solid figure in her grey wool dress and sensible hat. The French women were chic in their angular blouses and slim skirts, but the war hadn't yet ended for Cordelia. I felt in immediately sympathy with her: the war hadn't yet ended for me, either.
"Charles," she said, face lighting up in a way that made her almost beautiful.
I bent to kiss her. "Please, I don't want to intrude," I demurred, but Cordelia tugged at my sleeve in her queer, childish way, and so I joined her, pulling up a chair.
"I'm lying in wait for Lord Haviland." Cordelia spread butter lavishly on a bread roll. "I was at school with his sister. Alice. Dreadful cow, but rich," she said with a conspiratorial grin. "I'm raising funds for DPs through the CCRA. The Catholic Committee for Relief Abroad," she said, answering my eyebrow. "Displaced persons," she added helpfully, but of course I knew all about that, being one myself.
She looked at me then and said, "You haven't got any money, have you, Charles?" I laughed at her bluntness and said yes, probably. I was a vagrant: demobbed, unmoored. Paris seemed the place to start again. I felt tangibly surrounded by regret and contrition, the city taking off its uniform.
Cordelia nodded understandingly; she was always easy to talk to. "I can't be in England," I blurted finally. "Not yet, anyway," and then I quickly finished my drink, hoping to signal a change of subject.
Cordelia looked suddenly and rather surprisingly morose. "Yes," she sighed. "That's what he said—" and then she blinked at me and said, "Oh. You don't know!" She fumbled in her handbag and came out clutching a battered airmail envelope covered in an array of multicolored stamps. My heart stopped.
I recognized the writing. Careless. Overlarge. I was reaching for the envelope before I was conscious of doing so. Cordelia let go of it, ceding it to me as if by right.
I stared at the scrawl of her name, the handwriting getting progressively smaller - Cordelia Flyte, Brideshead, Melstead Carbury, Wiltshire. England – as he ran out of room, so that England was crushed under the weight of his address. I turned the envelope over and saw the large, familiar curve of his initials. I helplessly traced the writing with a fingertip: S.F. Koskina. Evia. Greece.
"Greece," I said finally; it came out as an accusation.
She didn't hear it as one. "I know, isn't it marvelous? Of course, I worry, what with the civil war, nasty communists, but I checked on a very good map and that village isn't even on it. I haven't told anyone else," she confessed. "Sleeping dogs and all that. And of course they never loved him as we do."
As we do: always plural and present tense with Cordelia. Her love for her brother had never dimmed or wavered, and it had always been strong enough to include me, even at my weakest and most treacherous. But now, here, in the bar of the Hotel d'Aubusson, homeless, middle-aged, and damned near friendless, I found within myself the courage to tell Cordelia that "as we do" was a lie: that our love had not, in the end, been the same. I could not love her brother simply and strongly, as she had. My love of him had been agonized, and vexed, and dangerous, and profound.
I looked into her face, expecting to see shock or disgust or her familiarly oppressive kindness. But she smiled and fine wrinkles showed around her eyes; we had both got so old. "Yes, Charles," she said simply. "But when you get there, be sure to tell him that his goose of a sister loves him and has been praying madly on his behalf. Tell him he has all the votives beneath St. Augustine at St. Catherine's."
I closed my eyes, shaking, feeling it as a revelation – yes, of course I was going; some part of me had already left – and barely managed to shake hands and make my excuses when Cordelia abruptly said, "Lord Haviland, have you met my dear friend Charles?"
I got a flight by some chance, then a ferry, and boarded a ramshackle bus, a troop wagon that bumped northward along unpaved roads. It let me off at a crossroads deep in the Greek countryside, nothing but meadows in every direction, save for a whitewashed prefab and a water pump, growing out of the ground like a dandelion. Under the mean, shallow eaves, a man was slumped in a chair, drinking pale wine from a bottle. "Koskina?" I asked, and he turned and pointed towards a faraway ridge of purple mountains; there were houses, white and square. "I don't suppose there's a bus?"
There was not. It took me nearly an hour to reach the foot of the village, trailing in the wake and waft of sheep, and twenty minutes to climb the rocky lane to the main square. A white stone church seemed to be embedded in the mountain, and there was a taverna across the road, its outdoor tables crowded with drinkers, men of all ages, including a huge man in a black shirt and collar: obviously the vicar. I passed a shop, closed up with dust on the shelves, and a butcher stand ringed with lambs heads, and went into the post office. It was empty, but in a moment a disheveled man came in from the taverna and looked at me with thinly disguised irritation; I had interrupted his drinking.
He glanced at the letter I showed him and his manner altered. The look he gave me now was frankly appraising, but no longer disapproving; I was now obviously traveling on my friend's passport. He went to the door and gestured to a steep lane rising sharply from the square. "English lord's house," he said. I thanked him and made to go. "But he is not there." I stopped. "He has gone to the sea," the man explained matter-of-factly. "He will return soon. Perhaps you will wait in the cafe?"
I sighed and let my bag slide off my shoulder. I should go to the cafe. I should find whatever passed for accommodation in this village. I should wash and have some coffee.
"Which way to the sea?" I asked.
I came round a bend and was stopped by the vastness of view. A lagoon carved out of the mountains, a white crescent of beach so untouched as to seem biblical, a blue sky presiding over a green sea: colors so pure that one would have faulted the painter for unreality. I stared, drenched in color, and saw the first sign of man's fall; a bright red caïque bobbing in the waves. The lagoon was not so virgin as I had supposed. There were deep scars in the land, wheelmarks perhaps, a guess that was confirmed a few minutes later when a donkey and trap appeared on the road above me, then passed me, the donkey making its way down to the sea with more grace than I could manage.
The caïque made its way into the lagoon, tattered flags flying, men bustling and shouting on the deck. Two men leapt into the Aegean, ropes in hand, as the boat neared and began pulling it to shore; they seemed like gods. The donkey cart went to meet it, two men leaping off and helping the others drag the caïque up, onto the rocks; it was larger than it seemed, and crowded with men. I drifted towards the water, observing but trying to stay out of the way. There was a great commotion as the men leapt onto the shore and began handing off long shallow crates of fish, their tails still flapping. Some of the men began loading the donkey cart; others simply walked away, carrying their crates towards the village.
A crate, about twice as deep as a breakfast tray, was thrust at me by a man in a floppy white hat; I took it, not knowing how to refuse it. And then a voice that I had for so long heard only in dreams said, "You believe in the practical arts, don't you, Charles?" The face under the hat was blessedly fuller and healthier than when I 'd last seen it, the skin bronzed and sun-ravaged, hair bleached to pale gold. "In his day, John Ruskin made his undergraduates build roads," he said. "Including Oscar Wilde, isn't that funny? He wanted them to feel the pleasure of useful, muscular work." He pondered for a moment. "I can't imagine Oscar Wilde building roads, can you?"
"It's easier now I've seen you carrying fish," I replied.
"Oh, but fishing is beautiful as well as practical. It's interesting, you know, that we so typically misunderstand the parable," he mused. "People imagine fly fishing, you see, as if God were dozing by the river and hooking the occasional man out of the water. Of course anyone fishing for a living does it with nets, and it's very hard work: dropping the nets and hauling them in, again and again. Have you been to the house?" He didn't wait for an answer, but turned and called out to one of the remaining fishermen, a young, well-formed fellow in a black cap. They conversed briefly and I, who well remembered his schoolboy Greek, was impressed by his fluency in its modern variant. He didn't introduce me. After a moment, his friend gave us a desultory wave and tramped back to the boat.
He took the crate from me without asking, carrying it easily. We fell into the wake of the other men walking away from the water to the road. "You don't seem at all surprised to see me," I said.
"Oh, I always expect to see you, Charles," he replied. "Some days are more rewarding than others."
The stone cottage was at the top of a rise and overlooked an overgrown valley of cracked clay tile roofs and wandering sheep. We passed through a tall wrought iron gate into a courtyard. Under a lemon tree was an iron table piled with books and empty wine bottles, and a single chair.
I followed him to an arched wood door, which was unlocked. The small cottage was refreshingly cool, its thick stone walls chilling the air inside. I would have known this was his home had it been anywhere in the world. Was it the carelessly pinned up pencil and crayon drawings, done by someone with a weaker hand (but a better eye) than mine? The fragments of sculpture strewn near the fire? The Meissen clock? The tortoiseshell and ivory box? The familiar mix of mismatched furniture and brilliant textiles, beautiful objects and whimsical ones, like the bowl held by three artfully carved hands?
I went to the pump to wash the dust from my face, and came back to find him in the tiny kitchen gutting the fish, cleaning it and stuffing it with herbs. I was abruptly envious of his usefulness (I could not have prepared a fish if my life had depended on it) as I had once been of his idleness. He looked up at me and I saw a flash of something unfamiliar in his expression, something hopeful and fearful, before his face settled back into more familiar lines. He was wary, I realized: wary of me, afraid, perhaps, that I would hurt him, or desert him, as I had before. I had no defense, nothing I could plead, no logic to which I could appeal. Instead I moved next to him and, taking up a sharp knife, began to cut tomatoes and bread and cheese. I caught his approving sideways glance; he had learnt to fish, but I could assemble and disassemble a Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk1 repeating rifle with my eyes closed and establish an operational field camp in fewer than seven hours. I wasn't completely useless.
The sun was low in the sky as we went outside. He put the fish on the fire while I hunted up a second chair, and when I returned with it, I again caught a glimpse of that hopeful despairing expression. I cleared the table of books and empty bottles, but left the full bottles there and fetched a second glass.
The food was as fresh and delicious as it was in my memory, when we ate what was ripe from Brideshead's orchards and gardens, before food came exclusively from tins or the ration book. Greece was tearing itself apart but it still had its olive trees and grape vines, and I ate and drank like a man starved. He chattered pleasantly at me in the old manner, telling me about village life, the gossip of the taverna, the vulgarities of the fishermen, the terrible heatstroke he'd suffered his first week in the country. He sat back in a corner of his chair as the sun set; we were both soaking in white wine.
It grew dark around us. I saw him only dimly in the light of the paraffin lamp, and only then found the courage to speak. "I thought you were dead," I said, my voice slurred to my own ears.
"Oh, I was, Charles," he replied with a smile, leaning forward to fill both our glasses. "Or nearly so; quite close enough. That's why I came here, in fact," he said, abruptly turning serious. "It seemed to me that, having endured death, or near enough, I was entitled to an afterlife."
"Hellas," I said, understanding. I looked up at the lemon tree. "Elysium. Home to all virtuous pagans."
"Just so." He looked away, the lamplight playing across his flushed cheek. He was not, I thought, used to being understood, and he was pleased and embarrassed to discover that I was not misdirected by his eccentricity; he was not opaque to me. I myself was struck by the certainty that I understood him more completely than I ever had, as if all my life had been an education designed to bring me to this moment. He had given himself the afterlife that Dante would have given him; he had confined himself to a small circle of pastoral Greek heaven locked within the larger confines of an undoubted Christian hell.
I reached across the table and touched his hand. He turned his head back slowly to stare at it. "I want to stay," I said, and his eyes instantly flashed to mine and searched them; searching for what? "I came to stay," I repeated, tightening my grip, squeezing his fingers, willing him see my sincerity, know my deep need. I could not bear after everything that I should now be opaque to him. "Please. Can I?"
He looked down at our overlapping hands and then up at me. He seemed confused, but when he spoke it was in familiar tones. "You're not a pagan, you're an atheist," he said lightly. "World of difference."
"Oh, it's much worse than that. I'm a Catholic," I told him, and waited for his reaction.
There was a deep and solemn silence for a moment and then he broke out into peals of laughter. It was his old laugh, a sound that transported me back to the prehistory of the world. "No! You didn't!" But he could see from my face that I had. "You converted for Julia?"
"I converted despite Julia," I corrected, with unwarranted haughtiness.
"Humph! You didn't convert to spite me," he replied, mishearing.
I didn't correct him. "I could never have converted to spite you," I said irritably, reaching for my wine glass. "Perhaps to please you, though I don't know. Now all I can do is renounce for you—"
"Oh, no, no, no, you mustn't." He was laughing so hard he had pressed one hand to his ribs. "It's too wonderful. I should have known that He would come for me, even here, in Arcadia—"
"What nonsense," I said, reverting to my old manner. "Superstitious nonsense."
"—but to send you, as missionary!" His broke into giggles and had to cover his mouth.
I bit my lip; his mirth was contagious. "I have no intension of being your missionary," I said as severely as I could manage, which wasn't very.
"Oh, but you must. For you are the camel, Charles, and I am the eye of the needle. Cordelia always thought that was poetic," he mused. "I think it shows that God has a sense of humor."
That reminded me of Cordelia's message, though I debated with myself whether to tell it. At the last I gave in. "I came from Cordelia," I admitted. "She's says she's been praying for you. She says to tell you that she's lit all the candles for you by St. Augustine—" This sent him into renewed gales of laughter.
"Of course she has," he said, wiping his eyes. "'Oh lord make me good but not yet' – I picture him now as St. Joan, flames licking at his feet. How marvelous if he were to catch fire on my behalf. We need another bottle," he said, getting up unsteadily, "possibly champagne—" and I was up, out of my chair, steadying him as he teetered. My hands were on him, one curved around his wrist, the other pressed to his side. I felt the warmth of him through his clothes, the linen creased and heated by his body.
"I don't want to convert you," I said, strangling, and then I was kissing him as I hadn't for a quarter of a century. His soft lips tasted, familiarly, of wine, and then he shifted in my arms and kissed me as I had never been kissed, his mouth opening, his hand scrabbling at the small of my back, tugging my shirt out of my trousers, stroking over the skin at the base of my spine. My heart began to beat rapidly; I had never experienced such raw sensuality. I understood then that he had had lovers. I had not.
I was trembling when we broke apart; now he steadied me. "You see, it might take a while," he said ruefully, leaning in to gently bite my lower lip, a gesture so erotic that my vision went momentarily white. "I'm notoriously recalcitrant." He kissed me again, hands stroking down my back, over my buttocks--and then he took my arm and pulled me into the house, into his bedroom, into his bed.
There he took me, touching me in ways that I, in my naiveté, found utterly foreign. He put his cock between my thighs. He put his fingers in my mouth. I said his name again and again as he held me down and put his mouth on me: Sebastian contra mundum, Sebastian contra naturam. I achieved with him a completion more intense and satisfying than any I had ever experienced. And then I drowsed, spent, among the twisted linens, my head in his lap. Sweat dried on my skin. Above me, he smoked a cigarette. I watched smoke curl in the air. I was scandalously aware of the nearness of his genitals. Shocked at my own audacity, I turned my head to press a kiss to the velvety skin of his softening cock.
His hand dropped, affectionately, into my hair and I closed my eyes, relishing his touch. He finished his cigarette, stubbed it out, and then slid back down beside me so that we were eye to eye and knee to knee. His body no longer had youth's perfection, though he was still handsome and well formed: more Caravaggio than Michelangelo, more Dionysus than Apollo. His skin, more papery than it had been in our youth, was all-over golden: he must still love to sunbathe. But questions of physical beauty were insignificant: I was overwhelmed by the essence of him, the immensity of him, that vast and all consuming attractiveness that Anthony Blanche had dismissed as mere "charm" but was much more. It was a touch of the divine in him. He had struggled against the flesh and wrestled with the spirit before any of us. He had known great suffering. I wondered at how we had ever thought him insubstantial.
He touched a finger to my throat and drew it down my chest. I could only imagine that he, too, was measuring me against what I had been, and hoped he did not find me lacking. I had tried, so far as I was able, to keep body together as well as soul. I flushed at his gaze and, impossibly, felt my erection stirring. There was, alas, nothing of the divine in me: nothing but that which he had bestowed on me.
He met my eyes, and to my relief I saw that he wanted me, but behind that, still, there were traces of wariness. "I feel as if I'm asleep," he murmured, his eyes drifting back down my body. "I dreamed of this - still dream of it, actually. Every night. But it is such an old dream, Charles: a dream from my childhood, from a past life. You. Antoine. Aloysius." He gnawed at his lip, the anxious gesture making him look younger, or maybe it was the memory of his bear. "But this life... this is not that life."
I understood what he was telling me. He was now a pagan apostle, a fisher of men. He sunbathed naked in the courtyard overlooking the mountains. He had lovers, many of them - and without thinking I flung him onto his back; I was stronger than he was, even when I wasn't gripped with jealousy. He let his head fall back, his eyes closing, transported. "That fellow at the beach," I managed. "Is he-- Do you--?"
Anthony Blanche had once told me that he enjoyed being manhandled. "No." His breath was coming fast. "Yes; sometimes. It doesn't matter. He's a friend. He's lovely. You'll like him--"
"I won't like him," I said warningly; I was straddling him, holding him down by the wrists.
He laughed up at me. "But you will," he said. "And there are others, Charles; that's the miracle of it. There are so many other people in the world besides the twenty people we went to school with and their boring sisters." His chin tilted up slightly. I accepted the rebuke: I had married Boy Mulcaster's sister and would have married his had she not stopped me. It was very nearly a habit with me, sisters.
"I don't want them," I said in despair, letting go of his arms. "I want you. I have always wanted you, since the very beginning of the world," and Sebastian gently stroked his thumb across my cheek and drew me down tenderly, murmuring, "…yes, it's all right, my dear Charles, darling Charles, cara mia, non potrò mai smettere d’amarti, come and kiss me," and then I was frantically kissing his mouth, his forehead, his eyelids. He laughed with joy and hugged and kissed me, the prodigal: home, found.