Chapter 1: I cannot grow
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.
I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong."
--WH Auden, Hymn to St Cecilia
A public school somewhere in England.
Britten lingered at the door of the study, wanting neither to step over the threshold nor to leave. Inside all was peace and calm. Two boys working over their Latin, a fire crackling merrily in the grate, a small room much warmer and cozier than the echoey space of the dormitory. It was decorated with care and some taste, an engraving of Venice over the mantel, cheerful burgundy curtains matching the bright leaves waving outside the mullioned window, two Japanese fans on the wall and a shelf of books bearing testimony to the scholarly bent of its occupants. Sucking his lower lip, Britten bent his head to the side so as to read their spines. Besides the usual schoolbooks there was a battered volume of Tennyson, another of Swinburne, something called the Yellow Book (it was certainly yellow), and a copy of that masterpiece of schoolboy literature, Horace Vachell's The Hill.
Briefly he considered opening his mouth to say that he, too, had pored keenly over its pages. Just as quickly he shut it again, reminding himself that he was not at home or anywhere else where his opinions could be expected to carry weight. He was at Hunstanton School, a new boy, thirteen, and he had been reminded of nothing else for the whole of the three days since he had walked through the gates of the august institution that was, he had been told, to shape him into a man.
He'd had enough now. He was ready to go home.
"Hi, there," said one of the young men looking up from his studies. "Are you going to pour that tea or aren't you?"
He blinked, remembering the heavy iron kettle in his hand. Silently he wrestled it over the teapot, slopping a bit of water over the brim onto the prettily lacquered little table. He put the kettle down on the hearthstones and rubbed at the table apologetically with his handkerchief. At home tea came neatly on a tray along with toast in toast racks and eggs in egg cups and other such delightful things. It was not like this. Not at all.
"What's your name again?" said the young man. He was blond, perfectly elegant and handsome, surely the very picture of a prefect at an English public school.
"Britten, sir," stammered Britten, wishing that his voice were not quite so high.
The young man laughed easily.
"You mustn't call me sir, even if we are prefects," he said. "I am Burra and this here is Pears. Peter Neville Luard Pears. Also known to his dearest friends as Penelope."
He kicked at Pears' shoe so that his toe left a mark on the shined leather. Pears looked up. He was perhaps not quite as handsome as Burra, with a prominent Roman nose and ears that he was still growing into. His suit jacket sat awkwardly on his shoulders. And yet there was something in his hazel eyes that made Britten like him immediately.
"I may call him 'Luard,' but you mayn't so don't try," Burra added.
Both figures seemed so Olympian to Britten that he could barely imagine wanting to address them directly at all. They were men rather than boys, sixteen or seventeen at the very least, lounging casually in their chairs as if they had never known a moment of doubt or fear in their lives.
"A round of toast as well," said Pears. He glanced at Burra. "Two, perhaps. With jam if you please."
"Greedy pig," said Burra with a shake of his head. But Pears paid him no mind.
And so Britten was set to make toast as well as tea, which he did with much fumbling with the toasting fork and sucking of burnt fingers. When he returned from the kitchen, the two prefects were chatting to one another about the First Eleven and the hopes of their house for a cup in the stakes. Names he didn't recognize flew past him, along with hearty laughter, and he forgot the toast to listen. When he finally presented the plate to Pears it was growing cold and sadly bedraggled, charred nearly black on one side and pale on the other, spread lumpily with plum preserves.
"It got away from me," he said sadly. "I shall do better…"
"Never mind about Pears' toast so long as you keep the fire burning," said Burra.
Pears accepted the proffered plate with not a word of censure, graciously nodding his lordly head. Britten felt a rush of warmth just at the gesture. It made him think that maybe he was not so hopeless at fagging as he had feared. All of a sudden the little room seemed very close and stuffy.
Away from the prefects' study everything was cold and cheerless. The fierce wind was blowing leaves from the trees and Britten wandered forlorn through crowded corridors, never quite sure where he was or what he ought to be doing with himself. Most of the boys were far bigger than him and they scarcely noticed another lost soul. Everywhere loud voices and rough talk from which his soul shrank. He was a delicate, sensitive boy, the sort whom a generation ago parents would not have hesitated to send to some kindly clergyman for his education. Now, in the comparatively more enlightened Edwardian age, he was thrown into the hurly-burly of a great public school and expected to sink or swim. Right then he thought it entirely likely that he might sink.
The only thing that he found to console him was chapel on Sunday, which was odd because although he was a good boy he was not as reverent as he might have been. In the seaside town where he had grown up, he had spent his Sundays in a drab and narrow church of awkward dimensions, where the pallid voices of the choir were no competition for the cries of the gulls and the smell of salt air outside. The only voice worth listening to was that of his mother, and hers he could hear in the sitting room when the family gathered around the piano in the evenings.
At Hunstanton the chapel was grander by far than anything he had expected. It was a relic of the school's fifteenth century foundation, richly embellished in the Perpendicular style, its fan vaulting spreading gloriously overhead. It swallowed up the boys as they made their way whispering and fidgeting past the great carved rood screen and into the quire. Britten sat with his hands folded in his lap while the boys next to him fought over the possession of string or bottle tops or some other schoolboy treasures, careless of the glories around them.
Britten's mind was on other things. As soon as the music began to swell he was lost in it. Full-throated masculine voices, tenors and baritones and basses looking ever so grand in their green surplices, even if some of the singing was a bit ragged. It was so different than the piping trebles of his prep school. Britten did not think much of the choirmaster so he ignored him. Instead he gazed at Pears, who was singing heartily in the back row, his eyes fixed on some far distant point. A splash of sunlight fell on him through the stained glass, all red and gold. And in that moment his pure tenor seemed to stand out from the surrounding wash of sound, bringing intimations of something beyond, something far larger and more wonderful than even Hunstanton Chapel.
Britten shivered with a sudden thrill. The promise of Christianity, the hope of salvation, all these had never seemed as near to him as at that moment. Jesus, with his broad shoulders and steadfast love, could have been represented in Britten's heart by the youthful figure of Peter Pears. All schoolboys are susceptible to idol worship and in that respect Britten was no better and no worse than most of them. In that moment, though he did not realize it, he gave his heart without reserve to his older compatriot.
Such a moment of exaltation could only last for so long. At the end of the final verse the organ wheezed to a halt with a cacophony that left Britten shuddering, and the chapel filled with confusion as the boys began to prepare for Holy Communion. A cloud had passed across the sun. Britten looked down at his Book of Common Prayer and resolved once again to stop biting his nails.
"He was one of the miserable little pretty white-handed curly-headed boys, petted and pampered by some of the big fellows, who wrote their verses for them, taught them to drink and use bad language, and did all they could to spoil them for everything in this world and the next."
--Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's Schooldays
In the following weeks he did his best to fit in and become a credit to the school. It was not easy. He was terribly homesick but he cried only into his pillow at night when no one else could hear. He worked dutifully but he heard talk of cribbing and other things that would never have gone on at prep school. The bigger boys swore most awfully when the masters weren't around and they smoked behind the boat shed down by the river. If Britten had not read Eric; or, Little By Little, he would scarcely have credited it. As it was he knew that he must always be on guard against corruption and impurity, those undefined and mysterious notions that haunt every young schoolboy. No one had told him how he might recognize the latter, much less guard against it. So he was always looking over his shoulder, wondering whether evil and degradation were following him unawares.
And yet he was a romantic soul as well. Like all schoolboys he dreamt of making his mark. On the cricket pitch perhaps, though such a goal seemed impossibly distant. In the schoolroom perhaps, though he never could spell. In the very first week of school he had written out one word when he meant another, and the laughter of his classmates told him that he had innocently made some filthy innuendo. His face still burned at the thought of it.
What he really longed to do, what he thought he could do better than anyone else in school--maybe even better than the choirmaster--was to compose music. Ever since he was a little boy he had written out small pieces for his mother to play at the piano. As he grew, the pieces grew with him. And going from prep school to Hunstanton had not changed a thing. If anything it gave him even grander ideas.
When he was supposed to be writing out translations he sat and dreamed of seeing his pieces performed in the chapel. Britten was lost in contemplation, forgetting the wheeze of the organ and the uncertain intonation of the choir. He would write a solo for tenor. Just the thing. Pears would sing it--who else could it be? And then everyone would see.
His fingers itching with the thought of it, he began to rule bar lines in the margin of his paper, humming under his breath as he pondered just how it would go. A sharp rap on his desk and Britten looked up, startled. It was a patrolling master at full sail. Walton glared down at his young pupil.
"What's that, Britten?"
"Music, sir? What's that to do with your Latin?"
"Nothing, sir. I just--"
"Then see it doesn't work its way into the margins. Back to your Horace now."
It wasn't said unkindly. Unkindness didn't come into it. Walton was a master and Britten was a boy, and therefore Britten took the rebuke as his due. Even so it smarted. When he finally wandered out of hall into the murky drizzle of a late autumn afternoon, the music had left his head entirely. It didn't return that night and he pined for it in the damp chill of his dormitory bed while the boys around him whispered and ragged one another under cover of darkness.
So what had public school to offer him? Friendship. Friendship was the only thing that remained and this, surely, he could find in abundance here. Amidst all the foul language and bullying there had to be some compensation, the noble and uplifting comradeship promised by all the stories. In the afternoons when he had finished his lines, he lingered around the puddled tennis courts and went for walks down by the river along paths carpeted with slimy and sodden leaves. Sometimes other new boys came wandering with him but all of them were just as small and frightened as he and none of them had anything to say for themselves. Together, on cloudy, murky days when rain seemed poised in the air and damp rose from the chill and turbid river, they tried to skip stones and waited for something to happen.
As they lingered there, afraid to do anything of note and yet afraid to admit their own dullness by wandering defeated back to the house, the bloods of the school would come wandering along the path. Behind the boathouse was their habitual haunt, known to the whole school and yet never spoken of to the masters, where they smoked cigarettes and drank spirits and did just as they liked. Even from a distance, perched on a rock at the edge of the river, Britten could smell the alcohol on their breath as they came past. They were very big boys, slouching lazily because there was nothing and no one in the school of whom they need be afraid. Rackham was the very largest of them. He wore his tie at a rakish angle, half-loosed, and his dark jacket was dusty with ash.
"Britten, isn't it?" he said, cocking his head to echo his tie. "Come here."
Accustomed by the habit of years to obey, Britten did so. His small friends had disappeared off somewhere. From an inner pocket of his jacket Rackham extracted a flask which he offered to Britten.
"We like to welcome all the new boys personally. Or if not all, a carefully chosen selection. What are you doing sitting there all by yourself? Haven't got any friends yet?"
"I have," said Britten. Speech seemed a great effort when it was in front of such an audience. "They just..."
"Doesn't look like it to me," Rackham interrupted. He glanced towards one of his cronies, who nodded. "Looks like there's just you. But we'll be your friends, if you like."
What could a chap say to that? Britten knew very well that they were bad boys, not the sort of friends his parents would have wished him to have, but would have taken more strength than any parent could imagine to tell them so to their face. Outside of Parliament, a man almost never will tell another to his face that he is a blackguard and a cad, so how could a schoolboy be expected to do any differently?
It must have been some special grace that caused Peter Pears to appear at that very moment, striding whistling along the path with cricket bat in hand. No white knight could have appeared more of a saviour. As soon as he saw what was going on, he approached the other boys.
"Let him alone, Rackham."
"Can't bear the thought of another chap talking with your little friend, Pears?" said one of the other boys.
"Does he belong to you?" said another. "Maybe we should check his collar for your name."
He took a step towards Britten but was checked where he stood by Pears' next words.
"Off with you," Pears said, and his voice was so stern and imperious that even Rackham took a step back at the sound of it. "I know your lot, Rackham. If I ever hear that you've been bothering him again, you shall have the headmaster to explain yourself to."
At that they scattered, grinding half-smoked cigarettes into the mud of the path. Their parting sneers and jibes were as purposeless as the cawing of crows who awkwardly take to flight only when forcibly driven away.
Britten fell into step with his protector as they made their way back to their house.
"Thanks awfully," he said.
"They ought to be ashamed of themselves," said Pears hotly, "giving whisky to new boys. What cads. What if you'd got stinking drunk and gone reeling back to the house? Would they have owned up? Or would they have seen you flogged and laughed at the sight..."
"I shouldn't have been flogged," Britten said, although he was far from certain that it was true. "I wouldn't have drunk from the flask."
Once roused, Pears' anger was not so easily calmed. He stalked along the path back to the school, switching viciously at the tops of nettle bushes with his cricket bat. His strokes were hard and full, and the crackling of leaves and stems was loud in the stillness of the wood.
"Are you so sure? Would you have stood up to the lot of them, all by yourself? Could you have stood up to their kindness as well as their cruelty?"
Britten was silent, cowed by the violence in the older boy's tone.
"Don't ever hang about with those chaps. Never. Every one of them is a vile beast. They ought to be ashamed to call themselves Hunstanton boys."
"I shan't," he said finally, as stoutly as he could manage, wondering whether Pears was really as angry with him as he was with Rackham. "It wasn't my fault you know," he added. "I don't like them any better than you do. It's just that a chap like me can't say so, not to their faces."
Rain was beginning to fall, great cold drops shaking the oak leaves overhead. Britten turned up his collar just as a drip landed squarely on the back of his neck. There was still the green, open slope of the hill to surmount before they came to the shelter of the main buildings. Pears set up the squelching turf at a fierce pace and Britten followed.
"I know it wasn't your fault," said Pears more gently. "And if they ever come near you again you must tell me right away. Let them know that they shall hear from Luard Pears."
"Would you have fought him?" Britten asked. "Rackham, I mean?"
"If he had made me, perhaps. But I had rather not. Only if he had gone at me. I don't like to fight."
"You would have won, I'm sure."
They lingered under the sheltering branches of an old yew tree by the house, already wet with rain but reluctant to leave the subject behind.
"Maybe, but that's not the point," said Pears.
"When I was little, smaller than you even, a chap like Rackham made me fight another boy. He was my size but I was stronger and I won. I bloodied his nose and knocked him down, and I had to stand there watching him blub while all the other boys cheered. It was jolly miserable. And I swore then that I would never fight again, not as long as I could help it."
Britten was amazed. In all his years at school it had never occurred to him that one had any choice whether or not to fight. That one could remove oneself from it entirely. It was quite staggering to think. And the revelation merely added to Pears' seeming godliness.
He trailed into the house soaking wet and shivering with cold. But even when he woke with a sore throat on the next morning, he thought that it had been worth it.
After that day Rackham never troubled him again. And when another of the bloods wrote him a note inviting him for a walk in the water meadows that afternoon, he knew enough to screw up the piece of paper and throw it into the fire unanswered. It gave him a feeling of such relief that he threw himself down on his narrow bed and sighed. Merely the thought of Pears' friendship was a reassurance to him.
And yet perhaps it spoilt him as well. No young friend of his own age could match the strength and virtue that Britten saw in Pears. None was as interesting nor as kind. As perhaps could have been predicted, Britten became a solitary boy, of average diligence in his studies but not so popular with his schoolfellows. He told himself that it hardly mattered. After all he was interested in better and higher things, like his music. What was popularity compared with that? What did it matter?
Britten always looked forward to Monday with mingled terror and ecstasy, for that was the day that he spent fagging for Burra and Pears. Merely being admitted to that inner sanctum was an honour, albeit one that he hardly felt he deserved. While he could throw a cricket ball and write a string quartet, and even construe a line of Latin verse with decent accuracy and without the aid of a crib sheet, the art of toasting a piece of bread and frying up sausages seemed well beyond him. And Pears liked his food much more than most of the boys of the sixth form.
Even worse he immoderately adored tomatoes and mushrooms, both of which made Britten feel sick. As he tended them, sizzling evilly in the spitting sausage grease, he thought resentful thoughts about Pears. Why could he not enjoy bread and butter like an ordinary boy? Or porridge? Britten had felt ill for days now, faintly queasy and feverish. This didn't help at all. Perhaps, he thought, he had better look away for a bit.
When he came back to the study to get a forgotten plate, Pears was unconcerned, leaning back so far in his chair that the wood squeaked in protest. He was gazing out the window, tapping his fountain pen on the blotter, humming a song under his breath--all of these at once. His hair fell untidily over one eye, and he reached up to push it back again. He was altogether glorious in that harum-scarum way that a boy of seventeen possesses in abundance. And Britten admired him as only a boy of thirteen can do.
Even a hero has his feet of clay and a young man in the First XI is allowed his moral weaknesses that would forever stain the character of lesser morals. Back in the kitchen bent over the hot frying pan, Britten felt that he could forgive Pears even his mushrooms if only…
"Hi, Britten! Watch those, they're burning!"
It was Pears, standing in the doorway. And he was right. Lost in his reverie Britten had left the mushrooms to stick to the pan. They were now charring smokily. Looking down in surprise, he sneezed hard all over the sadly neglected breakfast.
Pears gazed at him in horror. Words of justification died on Britten's lips as he steeled himself for the first swishing of his public school career. It was best to be stout and manful about it. It was best not to plead one's case. It was…
Tears came unbidden to his eyes. He tried to blink them back but more followed, one rolling slowly down his nose to join the mess that he had made of the meal. It was not that he was afraid of being switched. At prep school he had been considered a brave boy, as far as these things went.
"Oh, buck up, do," said Pears anxiously. "I'm not going to cane you for burning my breakfast and it's not worth crying over, really it isn't."
"It's not that," Britten replied, hiding his sorrow in a handkerchief that was none too clean. "It's just…"
"Everything," came the reply, full of stuffy frustration. "These awful boys and this awful school, where no one has heard of Stravinsky or Mahler and football is all that anyone thinks of. One does one's best to stick it but it's more than one can bear sometimes. And it's only November and I am so homesick. Whoever said that school was the thing hadn't the slightest idea."
Britten gulped sorrily. It was probably more words than he had ever said at one time to Pears, who was after all the living embodiment of School and all that it stood for. Now Pears would certainly laugh. Putting the ruined frying pan to one side, Britten looked up at Pears, whose hazel eyes were all of a sudden very keen and intent upon him. Silently Pears took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Britten.
"It's not that bad really," he said slowly. "Not once you find your feet with things."
He looked at Britten as if he had never really seen him before.
"Is it as bad as all that?" he asked. "I shouldn't think it is."
"I'm sure it isn't," replied Britten loyally.
If Pears said it was not then it was not. Missing one's mother was Not Done, however keenly it might be felt.
"It's been such a long time since I was a new boy, you see. I suppose I've forgot all about it."
"I don't know how you ever could forget this," Britten said, gesturing towards the despised frying pan.
"Well, I never did burn anyone's mushrooms."
It took Britten a moment to realize that Pears was joking.
On the next day Britten's sore throat finally turned well and truly into a fever. Ignominiously he was put to bed in the infirmary with nothing to keep him entertained except his music manuscript paper and the occasional visits of the nurse. It seemed such a waste to be at school and to be ill. Better by far to be tucked up at home with a mother to look after one. Everything that he swallowed hurt him and he couldn't get his piano sonata to come right. Outside it was mockingly sunny, so strange in such a dreary month. The shouts of boys at play seemed a long way off.
He slid down in the narrow cot, his pad of paper balanced precariously on his knees. And he sighed. If only someone would straighten his pillow.
A creak of the floorboards. Who should be lingering in the hallway but Pears, leaning his tall and slightly gawky frame against the door jamb. Britten looked around the empty infirmary for any hidden sixth formers who might have merited Pears' attention.
"There's no one here but me," he said in his croaky voice.
"You're just the one I wanted to visit," said Pears, entering the room. "Mr. Walton said you were ill. So I thought I would bring you some grapes."
"Thanks most awfully."
"It isn't anything."
Pears had such a way about him, dismissive and lordly at once. It was as if he was above even being thanked for the gift. And as they didn't sell such things in the tuck shop, it was obvious that he'd bought them from the greengrocers in town. Only sixth formers could do that.
"It is," Britten insisted. "I've been eating nothing but porridge for days. And when I'm ill at home Mummy always brings me grapes. I was feeling just dire without them."
He stopped dead. Mentioning one's mother at school was another of those things that one simply didn't do, except in extremis. It was unsporting somehow. But Pears didn't blink.
"Well, good things to eat are nice when one is ill, aren't they? That's why I brought them."
Quietly Britten sat eating grapes, while Pears pulled up a chair to the side of his bed. He sat there as if he were not impatient at all, as if he could wait all day in that stuffy sickroom with its smells of liniment and castor oil. He sighed deeply, but it didn't sound a cross or an uncomfortable sigh. Just thoughtful. He rubbed at his nose.
"It's like this," he began, and then stopped again.
Silence reigned and Britten gazed shyly up at his companion. Nothing more was forthcoming. Britten reached into the bag for another grape, but he had eaten them all.
"I've been dreadfully greedy," he said. He was just at that stage of an illness where one's appetite returns with a start and one suddenly longs to eat all of the things that one has missed. "And it was so kind of you…"
"Nonsense," Pears replied, waving a dismissive hand. "I had breakfast in town before I came. The grapes were for you."
Britten's throat caught. He cleared it noisily. It was so awful being ill.
"Didn't Perkins cook your breakfast?"
It was Tuesday and therefore it was Perkins' turn on the fagging rota. (Britten knew it by heart.) He was a small boy with a perpetually running nose and he seemed to feel it was a point of honour never to dirty his handkerchief.
"My dear," said Pears, "I never let Perkins anywhere near my frying pan! Tuesdays are dead to me. He makes Burra his tea and then I creep out without fail to the tuck shop. Or to town. Burra is a hardier soul than I."
And here Britten had thought that he was the most incompetent fag ever to serve at Hunstanton School. Obviously not. The thought of the unfortunate Perkins filled him with a delight which he was able to express only through a fit of coughing.
"But you eat my burnt mushrooms," he wheezed.
And Pears reached out and took Britten's hand. He did it forthrightly, as if he could sense Britten's terrible loneliness and thought it nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed by.
"I've missed your burnt mushrooms," he said, his voice so kind and confidential. "I'd quite got used to the taste."
By the time that Britten fully recovered from his illness it was time to go home for the Christmas vac. In that comforting environment of family, mince pies, carols and Lowestoft's annual production of the Messiah, he almost entirely forgot Pears and the doings of school. It was only on Christmas Eve as he knelt in church that he thought of Pears again. Sincerely he prayed for his absent friend and then--as a hastily added coda--for all the boys at Hunstanton.
Naturally the vac passed far too quickly and before he knew it Britten was back at school, once more beginning the weary count of days until the end of term. Every day he noted it in his diary: one past, eighty-two to go. It was enough to make him want to cry, but he was not a new boy any longer and he manfully fought down the urge as he carefully wrote that he was back at school. "Worse luck!"
Once again the only consolation was Pears, who nodded graciously to Britten every time that they passed in the House corridor but never mentioned the grapes or the clasp of a hand in Britten's sickroom. He maintained his dignified distance until Britten plucked up the courage to speak to him one morning after making tea.
"I say, Pears," he began, forcing his voice into a lower register that still sat uneasily in his throat. "I hope you had a jolly time at home. Did you have snow at Christmas?"
Pears looked up from his volume of Tennyson and arched a quizzical eyebrow.
"I haven't got a home," he replied with seeming casualness. "Not really, I mean. My people are in India. So I stopped for Christmas with the headmaster and his family."
"Oh, how terrible," said Britten. He squeaked a bit on the last word.
"Not at all. The headmaster is a jolly chap in his way. Even Imo isn't that bad for a girl, as long as you can persuade her not to dance at you all the time."
Imogen Holst was the fifteen-year-old only daughter of the headmaster, embarrassingly keen on both the dancing and the piano. She was probably the best pianist in the school apart from Britten, and she was irrepressible despite her unusual position as the only girl amidst several hundred schoolboys. She had never been sent away to school herself. After brief morning sojourns with a governess or tutor, she wandered about the grounds of the school as her own mistress. She was often seen down by the river with a volume of poetry, trailing one hand in the water in a manner that reminded one of the Pre-Raphaelites. The younger boys ignored her and the older boys regarded her with a mix of amusement and wariness. As the daughter of the headmaster, she was widely believed to report back to him even if no one had any firm evidence that this was the case. Before lighting their cigarettes the bloods always looked carefully around to make sure that Imo was not wandering down the path.
No one ever fell in love with Imo, even though she was quite a lovely girl. They had other interests and pursuits to occupy them. As for Imo herself, if she ever fell in love with any of her father's pupils, she kept her own counsel.
"I can just see the two of you waltzing around the sitting room," said Britten, unable to resist the little giggle that crept into his voice.
"Don't laugh," said Pears. "I can't think of anything more ghastly."
"Neither can I."
Another giggle. Pears looked as if he were working very hard to suppress a smile.
"Never you mind," he said with mock-severity.
To have gone on like that would have been to embarrass themselves in a public hallway. Pears looked away with an expression of elaborate unconcern. Britten would have started whistling if he hadn't still been trying to suppress his laughter.
"I say," he ventured finally. "Did your boots need blacking?"
"Yes, please," said Pears. "Good chap."
And so they lapsed back into the usual relations of prefect and fag. Hands stuffed firmly into his pockets, Pears wandered away.
"It would not be easy to imagine a more infuriating sight, in the present state of the public temper, than that of a young man in flannels carrying a racket. A year ago, if he attracted notice at all, he suggested one blamelessly bent on healthful exercise tempered by flirtation."
--The Times (1915)
In those days tennis was believed to be, as the saying goes, not quite cricket. Nonetheless the courts were there and the kit was in the games cupboard, so one day Britten and Pears decided to give it a go. They were better matched than might be expected. Pears was bigger and stronger but Britten was faster and more agile and between them they made a good game of it and enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
The courts were just by the headmaster's grey stone lodge, screened by a thick and high hedge of holly so that all one could see of the house from the courts was its the steep peak of its roof and its attic windows. In the attic lived Imo, so one could occasionally see her leaning out to take the air. When she saw that Pears and Britten were playing, she would come down and sit on the bench by the court, reading a book and sucking on the ends of her long golden hair. She looked up only rarely, as if she didn't want to be seen to be watching. And yet she was always there.
"I think she's fallen in love with me," said Pears one day as the two boys were trailing back to their house after a long and hard-fought game. "It's jolly tiresome."
"Worse luck," replied Britten automatically.
One could see how she might have, though. If one were going to fall in love with anyone, one could hardly do better than Pears.
"If only she doesn't run to her father and have words about us."
Britten pondered this enigmatic utterance. At first he wondered whether Pears meant himself and Imo. He had the absurdest image of Miss Holst declaring to her father that Pears was her intended and all that remained was for them to set a date. But that was clearly ridiculous. So he must have meant himself and Britten. All that Britten could think of was that time when, defeated on the court, he had thrown his racket to the ground and sworn most vilely, saying "dash it all!" several times and loudly at that. But the bigger boys used far worse language and even this didn't seem to warrant a talk from the headmaster. So he was left baffled.
"About what?" he said finally.
"Oh, nothing," said Pears, shrugging off his jumper as they came into the front hall of the House. He left his tennis racket leaning against the stairs and kicked off his muddy shoes where he stood. "Pick those up, if you please."
And then he went upstairs, leaving Britten no more enlightened than when they had started.
Chapter 2: What a most particularly pure young man
Sooner than Britten realized, though not sooner than he had hoped, the time between chapel services and tennis matches sped by and the Easter vac was nearly upon them. As much as he trembled to be back in the bosom of his family, he could not help but feel for Pears who would be spending another vacation under the stern eye of the headmaster and the adoring eye of Imo. Writing to his family he enlisted their sympathy. Representations were made and, after a few discreet words behind the scenes, it was arranged that Pears would be celebrating Easter in Lowestoft with the Britten family.
Nothing was said between the two boys at school. Certainly nothing was said in front of Burra, Pears' most intimate friend at school, who was spending the hols in Switzerland with his own family. Britten liked it better that way. It was only on the final day of school, when bags were packed and goodbyes were said, that they found themselves heading for the same motorcar and regarding one another with a conspiratorial smile. Out-of-school friends were special. It was as simple as that. One always heard tales of derring-do out of term that could never be matched by boys within the grounds of Hunstanton.
Britten was so full of hope and pride that he forgot completely to introduce Pears to his waiting parents. Three and a half years older, Pears was full of every social grace.
"How do you do," he said, nodding his head politely. "Mrs. Britten; Mr. Britten. It's so kind of you to have invited me. And of Benjamin to have suggested the idea in the first place."
Blushing to the tops of his ears, Britten helped load his luggage into the boot. He hadn't realized that Pears even knew his Christian name. Once they were on the road he turned to his friend, who was sitting with his knees jammed up against the seat in front.
"I say," he ventured in an undertone, "ought I to call you 'Peter'? It seems awful cheek."
"Then I suppose I ought to apologise for my cheek as well," said Pears. "Only it seems odd to call you Britten when one is surrounded by Brittens."
"Oh, I quite understand."
When Pears apologised one was somehow always impressed with his generosity. One got the feeling that he was impressed with himself too. But Britten forgave him for that. He could forgive Pears almost anything.
"At my prep they called me Benjie, sometimes."
Pears made a thoughtful face.
"Maybe not," Britten amended hastily.
"I shall call you B," Pears said. "That way I can't be accused of slighting either one of your names."
Britten nodded silently. He could not think of a nickname which he would like better. It was an honour as rarified as a knighthood or a peerage, and far more personal. As the flat East Anglian landscape rolled past, he sat quietly shaping his tongue around the letter. And he was more than content with its taste.
"Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high æsthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediæval hand. And ev'ryone will say,
As you walk your flow'ry way, 'If he's content with a vegetable love which would certainly not suit me,
Why, what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be!'"
--Gilbert and Sullivan, Patience
On Easter morning they breakfasted contentedly on perfectly browned toast and perfectly boiled eggs. Then they walked to church along the seafront, waves breaking in glorious crashes of foam. Pears laughed with delight as the whipping wind blew the spray inland.
In church it was close and stuffy, everyone crowding in together past the foyer as they removed scarves and coats. There was a scent of brass polish and candle wax. Britten slid into a pew beside Pears. He felt all elbows trying to put the kneeler down. At the organ, Mrs Watson struck up the familiar strains of the opening hymn. In Pears' large hands the hymnal came open to just the right spot.
"I can never remember the words," he said in an undertone.
"You don't have to, silly," Britten replied. "That's what the book is for."
From further down the pew his mother gave him a warning look.
Over all the other singers in the church, even over the choir, Britten could hear Pears' clear tenor soaring. He shivered, more in reverence for beauty than for the resurrection of Christ. Indeed he was thinking only of himself, of how everyone at Christ Church would know that the young man with the glorious voice was his particular friend.
When they emerged at the end of the service, his heart was flying. He and Pears outpaced the rest of the Britten family on the short walk home. Britten jumped to the top of the sea wall and walked along it, careless of the wind.
"It's very Low Church," said Pears, looking back.
"It's my church," Britten said, stung.
He glanced back over his shoulder at the familiar squat, striped-brick facade of Christ Church. The octagonal, off-centre bell tower was still pealing out the good news of Eastertide. Abruptly it seemed shabby and mean to him, hunched and abashed next to the sweep of the sea. He had never thought of it before, never considered the idea that it might be anything than what it was. Hunstanton chapel with its architectural glories and its incense and ritual belonged in his mind to a different world.
"That's not to say," Pears added hastily, "…look, B, I didn't mean it like that."
"It sounded actually like you did."
In cold silence they stalked back to the house, side by side. It was not like them to argue. Here was Pears sitting in one of the low armchairs in the parlour, stretching out his legs to the fire, and Britten was still too cross to look at him straight. It was all a waste. Britten's mother looked in to tell them that Easter dinner would be on the table soon, and then closed the door behind her with an air of not wanting to get in between the two of them.
The old grandfather clock ticked on.
"I am sorry, B," said Pears. And for once it sounded as if he meant it really and truly.
"I think too much of myself," he continued. "Once upon a time I was meant to be a priest, you know, only I have too much of the Greek in me. Perhaps I do care more about beauty than truth. It was very un-Christian of me, B. And on Easter too."
"Sometimes I think I'm not very Christian at all," Britten confessed.
"You don't look like a little heathen to me."
"Not a heathen. Not quite. Only perhaps I'm an aesthete? Like you and Burra."
"I didn't know you wanted to be an aesthete," said Pears, poking at the fire until he dislodged one great log with a crash. It was rotten and glowing through with embers. "You don't seem the sort to walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediaeval hand."
"I want to be quite a few things," said Britten solemnly, ignoring the allusion. "Just because I'm not in the sixth yet, it doesn't mean I can't have ambitions."
"What a most particularly pure man…" Pears began.
But before they could discuss any further, Mrs Britten put her head around the door again and said that dinner was ready. It was a massive spread that took up most of their attention for the afternoon, first eating and then digesting. When they had returned to the sitting room, Britten went to the games cupboard and retrieved a dog-eared deck of cards for 'Happy Families,' not quite as disused as he might have claimed. They played game after game bent keenly over the cards, just as competitive as if it had been tennis. Britten won and won again. It was his game after all.
"All that lamb has made me stupid," said Pears, yawning.
"You could never be stupid," said Britten.
One shockingly warm spring day they went for a long walk inland. Too long perhaps because when darkness began to fall they were still miles from home. Maps could only do so much. They spent ages waiting for a bus that never came. When they got up from the bench again, the twilight had faded from the sky and they were both shivering with cold.
"Come along, my Esquire," said Pears and struck off for home.
Twenty minutes later it became clear that they were headed in the wrong direction. On an unfamiliar little country lane in an avenue of trees, it was pitchy black under the boughs and one could hardly tell the road from the brambles.
"Bloody hell it's dark," muttered Pears under his breath.
Britten's reproachful look utterly failed to travel. Experimentally he waved his hand in front of his face and saw almost nothing. It could just as well have been a bat.
Doggedly they tramped on. When they finally came to a signpost at a junction, even its large, clear letters were illegible in the gloom. From his pocket Pears took a lighter. Its small burst of flame revealed the legend "Lowestoft - 3." Back the way they had come.
"D'you smoke?" said Britten doubtfully.
"D'you smoke?" came the mocking echo out of the dark. "As it happens I don't. But aren't you glad I had a lighter with me?"
Britten had to admit that he was. And there were more pressing things to worry about.
"It's so dark I can't even tell where you are."
It was then that Pears linked arms with him, pulling Britten close. He was warm and his breath smelt faintly of Kendal Mint Cake.
And so together they turned and headed for home, heartened already by their comradeship. Pears strode along so quickly with his long legs that Britten had to trot to keep up. But he hardly minded. The dark seemed so much less vast with Pears by his side.
"This way," he said, "neither one of us can fall in a ditch without the other noticing."
"This way when I fall in the nettles, B, I can pull you in after me."
"I wouldn't mind," said Britten confidentially.
"I would! You'd land bang on top of me."
"But I'm small, you know."
"You're getting bigger everyday, my boy," said Pears.
Soon they came out of the wood and into the familiar fields of home, all silver with frost and the moon riding large and golden overhead. It was still dark and they were still a long way from Lowestoft but at least they were neither of them alone. They marched along together, singing raucously to the broad, starry sky. When Britten began to shiver, Pears took the end of his own long school scarf and wrapped it carefully around Britten's neck. No one was the colder and all they had to do was lean together a little more. Britten's heart was overflowing with the joy of the night.
It was nearly midnight when they tumbled in the door together, arm in arm. They were still linked by the scarf, breathing hard and rosy-cheeked and ever so pleased with their adventure. And the best of it was that Mrs. Britten had left the kettle on for them. They sat down in front of the fire and the toast that Pears made for the both of them was just perfect.
"I can't wait to tell the chaps at school about all this," said Britten, pouring more tea.
Pears stopped in mid-chew. "I don't think I shall, actually."
"Isn't it better just the two of us knowing?"
Struck all of a sudden by the thought, Britten fell silent. He nodded and poked at the fire. And finally he ventured to speak.
"I--I--" he stammered awkwardly, "I should like to write you a song, Pears."
It was the highest compliment that he could think to pay.
Summer term and cricket only intensified Britten's admiration for Pears. The school's cricketers were at the height of their powers that year and Pears, although not the star of the team, was a credit to the First XI. All of a sudden the school had new glories. Wisteria climbed up the chapel walls and rhododendron bushes were so overgrown and overhung with blooms that they turned into jungles. In his cricket whites Pears strolled down winding paths with the assurance of a young god, a bat resting on his newly broadened shoulder and his hair burnished into gold with the sun.
During that glorious term it was difficult for even Britten to be unhappy. It was light so late that the smaller boys were given an extra hour awake, since no one could be expected to be in bed falling asleep at nine o'clock when the sun still hung red and burnished on the horizon. The older boys ranged further afield and there were always tales of larks and exploits and grand expeditions to marvel at. Had Kettle really found three nests of plover's eggs and eaten them all? Had three boys from the Upper Fifth really rowed all the way to the next village by cover of night and been safely back in their beds by dawn? Whatever Britten heard, he kept quiet, since he had learnt well the lesson that to betray one's comrades was the worst schoolboy sin of all.
(Deep in his heart he thought that perhaps they should own up. But he was at heart a truthful boy and if the headmaster had pressed him on any of these matters he would have broken in an instant.)
Pears was busy with cricket but he always made time for Britten. They spent hours on the tennis courts until they were sunburnt and dusty with clay. Other boys would wander past in groups, headed for the cricket pitch or the boathouse, and their lazy laughter and dismissive glances would float back on the air. Once Burra came past. Half a look was all the encouragement Britten needed to dive for an errant ball and drive it back over the net. He was limping the rest of the day, and all for the sake of impressing Pears' best friend.
If his association with Pears had increased the school's regard for him, Britten had not noticed. If Pears' association with him had diminished Pears in their eyes, Britten had not noticed that either. For those golden weeks it was as if they existed in a bubble, obscure and inviolate, a filmy sheen separating them imperceptibly from the outer world. The whole world seemed to be humming in harmonics below their feet. Imogen was their only auditor, slightly pink, with her gold hair coming down into a halo as she squinted into the lowering sun. She didn't bother them. Nothing more than a few breathless words of praise at the close of each set. The boys took the praise as their due. It would have been terribly embarrassing for all concerned if they had a made a fuss.
"Are you playing in the House match, Ben?" she asked one day.
"Don't know yet," he said, tongue-tied. He was fourteen now but she was nearly sixteen and she seemed a very great girl to him. Nearly grown. "I jolly well hope so."
"He will if they've got any sense," said Pears.
"Oh, I agree," said Imo devoutly. "They'd be mad not to see."
She was gazing still at Britten, which made him uncomfortable. A strange feeling was beginning to dawn on him that it was he, and not Pears, with whom Imo had fallen in love. He didn't like to think of it. Girls were a closed book to him although everyone assured him that this would soon change.
Britten looked fixedly at Pears, who offered Imo a few more pleasantries. (Pears always knew what to say.)
And then they wandered off together, leaving her by the court alone.
"She's a worshipper, that one," said Pears as they headed back to the house, twisting his racket in his hand. "Always has to have some idol to bow down before."
"I can't think it would be always wrong to worship someone," Britten replied, kicking at gravel as they went. "Not if he truly deserved it, I mean."
"Oh no, of course not. That would be completely different. In that case he wouldn't be an idol at all."
"If he were really good, really and truly like Galahad in Malory, one would be wrong not to worship him. Wouldn't one?"
Britten was lingering behind, not wanting to hasten the moment when they passed the threshold of the house and became once more a Sixth Former and his fag.
Pears laughed. "A very parfit gentle knight," he said. "Sadly the ages of chivalry have passed us by. All we have left now is Imo, who reads her Tennyson."
"You read Tennyson as well," Britten clarified quickly. He felt obscurely as if he'd stumbled across yet another threshold of whose existence he had been utterly ignorant.
Pears looked at him sidelong for a moment, then nodded.
"Come along, my Esquire. The sun waits for no man."
Setting sun or no, the weather was so lovely that when they got to the house they were reluctant to go through the door. Over the threshold the sun outlined their two shadows, stretching ahead of them across the wide floorboards of the hall. Ben cocked his head until the shadows just touched.
Someone of no consequence came racketing down the stairs. Ginger hair and a spattering of freckles that always made him look at if he'd never cleaned off the mud of the cricket pitch.
"Hi, Britten, we've been looking for you everywhere! What about old Horace? A hundred lines by tomorrow morning. You're the only one who can make heads or tails of him. Come on now, look sharp!"
"Must just put this kit away," said Britten, steeling himself for the din of the rooms upstairs and the shouts and sneers of vulgar boys. "Won't be a minute."
Pears had already wandered off to his study and the bath. Only one shadow on the floor now. By itself it seemed thin and wavering. Britten shut the door behind him and sighed.
Even during that golden term there were days of rain. At night wind whipped and rattled at the windows of the dormitory. By day the clouds were grey and lowering, and the heavens seemed to open whenever boys ran from one building to the next. One of Britten's construes got so sodden that the ink ran all over his hands as he was trying to dry it in front of the fire. Both tennis courts and cricket pitch were sodden and flooded. Gulls wheeled overhead, calling harshly. Even voices pitched for the indoors seemed harsher and more sharp than usual.
Driven indoors, Pears and Britten found themselves together in the music room. It was odd, perhaps, that they hadn't talked about music more. And yet it was so special to Britten that he hardly knew what to say about it, how to express the fierce feelings that left him scribbling feverishly into his notebook by the light of a torch after the other boys had gone to sleep. It was easier by far to play tennis and leave the rest of it to one side.
But here they were together, idling in that dim hour before dinner. Someone had left "Florrie the Flapper" on the gramophone. Pears took it off with a curl of his lip and replaced it with a Schumann string quartet. That didn't suit either. Britten wandered the room and then sat down at the piano, adding crashing dissonances to the innocent tune.
"Oh, I say," said Pears, "don't do that. What's old Robert ever done to you?"
"I like Schumann," Britten replied, impatient at the notion of having to defend himself from such a ridiculous charge. "It's just a rag. It's not as if it hurts him."
"You talk as if he were in the Upper Fourth with you."
Britten glared at Pears. He was so careless, and so amused, and so superior. It was a day when everyone seemed out of temper. It was hardly a surprise that they shared in the general mood. But it was so rare that they rubbed each other the wrong way, and every cross word caused a special pain. Their discord hurt him far more than any dissonance that found its way under his fingers.
"If I'm tiresome to you, why don't you go off and read poetry with Burra. You don't have to patronize me."
Pears shook his head, making a tsk-tsk noise.
"Be a good chap, B, don't give me that look."
"Don't tell me what to do!" Britten burst out, forgetting his position entirely.
"And why not?" said Pears archly.
And why not indeed? Pears had every right to do so, and no need whatsoever to take cheek from the likes of Britten.
"Because--because I can't bear it. Because it's raining and damp and miserable, and because there will be tomatoes with dinner again, I just know it. It's such a beastly day, don't let's be beastly to each other as well."
Said Pears finally: "You're right. You usually are. I'm sorry, B."
After that Britten hardly knew what to say.
"It's quite all right," he said, still ruffled and wanting to be smoothed down again. "Let's not mention it."
Thick raindrops were rolling streakily down the panes of the narrow casement windows. It was dim even though the sun would not set for hours. Pears went to light the lamps and draw the curtains closed against the chill. Britten was still sitting at the piano bench and the ivory keys drew his fingers. He never could sit at a piano without playing it, something which masters had rebuked him for time and again already. He played inconclusive chords, never resolving but just going round and round.
Pears was leaning back against the windowsill.
"You promised you'd write me a song to sing," he said. "Won't you?"
The song devoted to Pears had been through many incarnations, sheets and sheets of music paper ruined with scribbles and crossings out. Every Sunday Britten would watch him singing in chapel and find himself transported with the thought of what he could create, racing back to the House in his eagerness to record the melodies that danced through his head. But he never had the time to do it properly and once the notes were down on paper, scrawled with a blunt pencil, they looked banal and unpromising. In the trunk under his bed there was a whole stack of papers full of all the ideas that he had rejected. He couldn't bear to throw any of them away and he locked his trunk with a small padlock that he had bought last Easter in Lowestoft. Almost as bad as losing them was the thought of having them pried into by the small-minded and overly inquisitive boys of Hunstanton School.
"Just think of it," Pears continued. "It's so romantic, having something written for one.
"Clara," he sang, the two-note sighing fifth that was the movement's signature. And then: "Benjie…"
Britten giggled. "But it would be 'Peter,' wouldn't it?"
"If you made it that way," said Pears, a little smile tugging at his lips. "You're the composer, my boy."
Britten glowed with pride. And he began to ponder.
"But for the boy with a personality school is very dangerous."
A week later they were back in the music room. The weather had improved and outside there were shouts from boys at play. But Britten and Pears were hunched intently over the grand piano, studying the fair copy that Britten had painstakingly written out when he should have been doing his Latin translations. It was a thing of beauty, unmarred by ink blots or smudges. Pears studied it with every seriousness. Britten's heart seemed to be turning over in his chest; it was a feeling that he never had when unveiling little chamber pieces for his mother back in Lowestoft.
"Hmmm," said Pears doubtfully, clearing his throat.
"It's de la Mare. All five of them are."
Originally Britten had meant to set something by Rossetti or Swinburne, the richly romantic poetry that Pears and Burra loved to recite to one another with grand and dramatic gestures. All of it was too much for him, rich and honied words so dripping with feeling that he could not find his way among them. Instead he had turned to a beloved Christmas present, Walter de la Mare's "Peacock Pie." It was only now that he realized how childish the poems must seem to an older boy.
"You needn't sing them, you know," he added hastily, lest Pears feel obliged to pretend to welcome an unwelcome gift.
"I think they're just perfect, B. Not that I could sing them anything as well as they deserve."
"Please do just try?"
"Only if you promise to sing along with me and show me where I go wrong."
Singing wasn't his sort of thing. Composing had always interested him far more. He wasn't a member of the choir at Hunstanton. All he did, really, was caroling at Christmas. And on top of it all recently his voice had been playing up at the most embarrassing times.
"I shall play along with you," he said, demurring. "Perhaps I shall squeak from time to time."
"You squeak all you like. I shall squeak when I get to measure sixteen, see if I don't."
But Pears didn't.
They sat side by side on the piano bench, Britten's feet just barely reaching the pedals. Together they sang and played, two-handed and occasionally two-voiced, dropping notes left and right but forging always on. Pears' pure tenor breathed life into words that had hitherto been silent. Suddenly, almost shockingly, they meant. And they felt.
Nought gold where your hair was;
Nought warm where your hand was;
But phantom, forlorn,
Beneath the thorn,
Your ghost where your face was.
Before Britten could remember to breathe, they were done and Pears was turning to him very close.
"Was that how you meant it to sound? Anything like it? I shan't complain if you flatter me, B, for I'm terribly vain."
"Just like that," said Britten, swallowing hard. "Gosh. If I were to tell you what I truly thought, I should sound as much of a worshipper as Imo."
Pears' smile was wide.
"Shall we try the next one?" he invited.
After that it seemed only fitting to try the next, and the next. Britten's head was spinning with the joys of artistry fulfilled and the glorious sound of Pears' voice shaping the notes that he had so fervently laboured over.
O ghost, draw nearer;
Let thy shadowy hair
Blot out the pages
That we cannot share;
Be ours the one last leaf
By Fate left bare!
As they drew finally to a close, Pears reached up to caress the last page of the manuscript. His hands were pale and strong and perfectly made; they might have been chiseled in the workshop of Michelangelo.
"It's just divine," he said.
Britten hardly knew what to say to that. And he didn't get the chance. Their idyll was cut short when a master appeared at the door of the music room. From the dark look on his face it appeared that he was not enjoying the music.
"Out of there, boys," he growled.
"Sir, we're just practicing," said Pears, turning on the bench and putting his hand on Britten's shoulder. "Britten has composed…"
"Out of there, I said. Never mind what Britten has composed. You're a prefect, Pears, you ought to know better than to hang about with younger boys like that. Have you nothing better to do with your time?"
Britten expected Pears to come back with another retort, but he did not. Instead he closed Britten's manuscript, solemnly handed it back to him, and left the room without another word.
The master looked at Britten.
"Please, sir, he's my friend."
"And what's that to do with anything? Haven't you any friends your own age?"
Britten knew better than to answer such a question truthfully. How terrible it was to be made a liar by those who ought to make one honest.
"I used to fancy that a big fellow would do no end of good to one lower in the School and that the two would stand to each other in the relation of knight to squire. You know what the knights were taught… to keep their bodies under subjection. To love God and speak the truth always. But when a boy takes up a little one, you know pretty well that those are not the kind of lessons he teaches."
--F.W. Farrar, Eric
It was not just their masters who began to notice and remark upon the time that he spent with Pears. Schoolfellows did so as well but, like the masters, they noticed all wrong. People had such small and petty minds. Britten couldn't help but overhear people talking about him.
"Britten is such a prig; I would have thought that he was as 'straight' as they come."
"Terribly 'pi,' isn't he?"
"Not so now."
"I should say not!"
Britten never told Pears and the two boys never discussed it. They saw less of one another after that. Occasionally they met for walks by the river but it seemed an indignity to sully a friendship so pure and good with such furtiveness. There was nothing else they could do. It was an inglorious way to have to end one's first year at school.
That summer Britten was surprised to find himself--not sorry to be away from Hunstanton exactly, for home had always been the centre of all his most fervent hopes and dreams--made melancholy by the smallest memories of school. The smell of grass as he lay full length watching through its blades the play of the First XI. The familiar asthmatic wheeze of the chapel organ, its distinctive rainbow of partials invested with an aura of sanctity that was absent from the church at home. Sounds of laughter, the crunch of toast, Pears humming to himself when he thought there was no one listening.
Most of all he remembered his last sight of Pears at the railway station. By then Pears should have been gone already but his train had left while he was still in the ticket office. Britten had hoisted his satchel to board his own train while Pears, careless, pushed his newly-bought ticket back across the counter to exchange it for another. In the train's doorway Britten paused, looking longingly back, but Pears did not remember to wave goodbye.
The train pulled out of the station agonizingly slowly, rounding a bend in the tracks so that Britten's view of the platform was veiled with smoke. A crowd of his fellow sixth formers surrounded Pears, ragging but doing it fondly. Burra had his arm around Pears' shoulders. Britten had pressed his face to the glass and watched silently. When he arrived at Lowestoft Station his mother had wiped at his nose with her handkerchief, saying that it was smudged with coal dust.
Everything seemed empty without Pears around. Britten wandered by himself along the edge of the sea and sang quietly when he thought no one was listening, testing the small compass of his newly deepening voice. He lingered at the piano and wrote sheaves and sheaves of music that was meant for no one else to hear.
"He's growing up," he overheard his mother saying to his father one evening, her voice quiet and apologetic.
And this too made him melancholy, the thought that something bright and precious had slipped past him before he had known to miss it. Growing up was such a puzzle. One regretted being small and then one was not small anymore and one regretted that too. Britten turned his mother's words over in his mind, wondering how being grown up could excuse anything.
At first it had been thought that Pears would return to Lowestoft for the summer vacation but instead he had gone to the continent with Peter Burra and his family. In the last few weeks of term there had been much excited talk over railway timetables and copies of Baedaker's. Burra returned from town with five thick volumes of Ruskin's Stones of Venice, their creamy pages fresh and unblemished. When he was out one day, Pears allowed Britten to pore over the engravings of strange vistas. It meant very little to him but as he reverently lifted each tissue-thin covering, he had felt a little bit of the excitement of the explorer.
Now Pears and Burra were there and he was not.
Unexpectedly in July there came a postcard with an unfamiliar postmark on it. It was the first time that Britten had received a card from abroad, and this one had winged its way across the Alps to reach him in Lowestoft.
My dear B, it said in Pears' friendly scrawl, so that Britten could almost hear his voice.
Venice is divine. And before that Puccini at La Scala, better than you might think. Burra and I keep pinching ourselves. Glorious food, all tomatoes and mushrooms and garlic. (You would detest it.)
Much love, PNLP.
And underneath, added in Burra's cramped script:
I am keeping Penny in hand. We promise not to go via Serbia! Burra.
In their beautiful bow-fronted sitting room on the seafront, Britten sat blinking and gazing at the postcard, its ink as black and fresh as if it had been written minutes earlier. Never before had the endless horizon of the North Sea felt so narrow and cramped. Never before had he been conscious, really and truly, of the world that lay beyond it.
Only days later, war broke out across Europe.
Chapter 3: Sacrificial dances
When Britten returned to Hunstanton in the autumn, everything was changed. It would have been quite enough that it was his second year. Even the air tastes different when you are no longer a new boy. You cannot remember ever having been as small, afraid or alone as the younger boys seem. You know just where you are going, who is a friend and who an enemy.
And in that year, who was an enemy? War was on everyone's lips. Boys read the newspapers with keen interest, poring over their printed maps and reports from the front when hitherto they had only used the Times for dozing behind on lazy winter afternoons. And they could talk of nothing else. Everyone seemed to have a brother in the forces who was in Belgium already. Everyone seemed to have a friend a year or two older who had gone up to Sandhurst and would--so they hoped--soon be emerging to fight the Hun. It was not so surprising. Half the sixth form seemed to have gone already, and all the bloods of the fifth, those great boys of eighteen and nineteen whose knees had barely fit under their desks. Rackham, Britten's tormentor, had vanished for good. Those who were still too young for the front prayed fervently in chapel every week that the war would not end before they had the chance to show their colours. It seemed everything of which they had dreamt, tales of chivalry and honour and glory coming to life from the storybooks.
Pears and Burra had returned from their holiday at the beginning of August. "Just in the nick of time," said Burra, surrounded in his study by an admiring ring of boys. It was not as if they were the only ones to have spent their summer on the continent but the way Burra told it, he made it sound as if they had fled Venice with the invading forces just at their heels. Even if that was a different war entirely.
"Did you give your regards to Radetzky?" said one wit at the back. He was soon to depart to a scholarship at Balliol; no one paid him any mind.
Burra, who wrote acres for the school magazine, laid out all of his holiday snaps and wove them easily into the tale that he was unfolding. His friends pored over photographs of French beaches and ferry piers, imagining into every blur and smudged lacuna the British soldiers who would now be passing those familiar landmarks on their way to the front. Pears held himself aloof from all of this excitement, wedged into a corner with a copy of the Oresteia open on his lap. He looked weary, suddenly a grown man in the span of only a few months, and Britten felt shy of him once more.
Something about Pears made him feel the perpetual new boy, even though the sixth form boys now had a whole new cast of fags. They were tiny awkward boys, drawing water and hewing wood and pausing with wide eyes to try to peek past the broad shoulders of their elders. Britten could not decide whether to be embarrassed or envious of them, when they reminded him of what he had so recently been. Now he was in the upper fifth and he was supposed to be above such things. How silly it was to feel nostalgic for the frying of mushrooms.
Pears got impatiently to his feet. It looked as if he were going to demand quiet and chase everyone out of the room. Then he bent down to pull a brown-paper wrapped parcel from his desk drawer.
"Come with me to the music room, Britten," he said. "I have something for you."
No one gave them a second glance when they went. The awkwardness of the last summer term had been almost forgotten. Boys had short memories and such things seemed insignificant now compared to the excitement of the war.
In the music room Britten unwrapped the parcel. It was the score to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the newly published four-hand piano arrangement. Its spine was pristine. It had never been cracked, let alone played. Inside were grace notes and clusters of sharps and exotic triplet rhythms.
"I thought we could play it together," said Pears. "Then I looked at it."
"I can play it," said Britten.
"Well, jolly for you. I can't, not right off like that anyway. Show me how it's done, B."
By himself Britten fumbled through the strange rhythms while Pears perched on the edge of the piano bench, looking on keenly. For all his confidence Britten couldn't make much of it while sight-reading. Tentatively he edged into the main theme, which divulged a few of its secrets before lapsing into chromatic confusion. Frowning, he turned to the final section instead. He banged out chords hither and thither, fumbling for those that he couldn't hit squarely, and he found it easy to imagine the previous summer's riot in a Paris theatre.
"It doesn't sound like anything," Pears said doubtfully. "It's not supposed to, maybe. That's what they were rioting about."
"Let me have another go. I think I have it now."
On his second try it fell into place more easily and Pears joined in partway through. Between the two of them it gave a taste of the piece's savage, scandalous, reckless energy. A taste was all they needed. They breathed it in, freed for a moment from the stuffiness of conventionality and the walls of Hunstanton. Thrust, hearts pounding, into the world outside.
"Sacrificial dances," said Britten, awed.
"Just the thing."
"It's all of Europe, isn't it? Right now I mean."
"Perhaps it is," said Britten hesitantly.
He felt far safer talking of nested triplets and sforzandos. His friendship with Pears was practical, tangible: music, walking, tennis. Politics and literature were things that Pears discussed with Burra, idly quoting books that Britten had never read while he listened with silent awe. In comparison with them he felt very young and terribly unformed.
"Can I tell you something?" asked Pears.
Pears was brushing lightly at the keys with his fingertips as if cleaning off invisible specks of dusk. He spoke only with reluctance. For once he seemed neither generous nor self-regarding, not speaking in their usual relation of knight and esquire. If Britten had not thought such a thing impossible, he would have said that Pears sounded afraid.
"It's like this," said Pears finally. "I haven't said it to anyone else because it sounds so terrible. You won't think badly of me, will you, B?"
Britten made an incoherent gesture of assurance that aimed for Pears' right hand and ended up in the banality of a C major chord. His heart in his throat, he waited for Pears to speak again.
And when Pears did speak it came out in a rush as if it were a speech that he'd long prepared.
"I don't want to go to war," he said. "I don't want to fight. My people are Quakers, you see, not my parents but further back. My uncles are in the Navy and just beastly with it. But it's not in me. Remember last autumn when I told Rackham to shove off and leave you alone? I would have fought him if I'd had to, but I would have hated myself for it. One doesn't deserve to prevail just because one is the stronger. There's nothing honorable or chivalrous about it. I don't want to kill and I can't understand how the other chaps can jaw about it like they do. Whenever I think of it I can't imagine anything more awful."
Britten stared at the pages of the Rite of Spring, notes cruelly black on the white expanse. Whatever small schoolboy confidences with which he had hitherto been favored, they were nothing to this. His throat was scratchy and dry.
"B, do you think I'm a coward?"
He hadn't the slightest idea what to think. It was such a new idea. Contemplating Pears' words gave him a peculiar shiver, a feeling that perhaps the world was larger than he had hitherto thought.
"I couldn't possibly think that," he said.
"Really," said Britten firmly.
He felt that he would understand if it killed him. Pears deserved no less.
All of the boys were made to don the khaki of the Officer Training Corps. What had in the previous year seemed only a minor annoyance was now in dreadful earnest. Everywhere it seemed that one could hear the tramp of marching feet and the sound of bugles calling. Britten wondered what was wrong with him that he couldn't feel it as the other boys seemed to. Even his dreams were haunted by the implacable rhythm of 2/4 time.
By the side of the parade ground would be Imogen, sitting on her bench alone, knitting endless socks for the soldiers. More keen than skilled, she would knit long strands of her blonde hair into the pattern while she watched the drill, only to have to unpick it again once she discovered her mistake. None of the boys ever told her when she was going wrong. Britten's eyes wandered to the side when they were supposed to be looking straight. The slow, sporadic growth of the sock interested him far more than the fine points of military maneuvers.
In his uniform, in a row of similarly-clad boys, Pears was almost unrecognisable. Only his distinctively beaky nose proclaimed his individuality amid the herd. And even so it still looked peculiarly as if he were wearing a sort of a costume. As if, even though it was perfectly tailored, it didn't really fit him at all.
When drill was over Imo hastened towards Britten, brandishing a half-finished sock on lethal looking metal needles. It was just the colour of lumpy porridge. One could not imagine that it would be in any way heartening to the men in the trenches.
"Have you heard what Pears is saying?" she said, eyes very blue, clasping her hands together in that way of hers, half nerves and half excitement. The needles and the sock waved around wildly.
Britten couldn't imagine that Pears had said a thing to her himself. It was nothing but idle chatter, boys passing on gossip that they had no right to share. He felt half tempted to say I don't want to talk to you about Pears, but he was too well-brought-up for that.
"He says he won't fight!" she exclaimed. "I couldn't believe it when I heard. Won't go to the front!"
One could just see her as one of those tiresome women on the street corners in town, handing out white feathers to all the men that they saw passing by. Perhaps she was one of them after all.
"You know what father says," she continued, hot with emotion. "Young strong healthy men like him, whatever they say about pacifism and principles, if they haven't enough honor and loyalty to fight for their country then they're nothing but cowards."
At Hunstanton school, no rebuke could be greater. To his only daughter Dr. Holst was a god, but he was no less so in the eyes of the boys that he taught. Only six months before there would have been nothing left to say. But the war had widened every horizon. Hunstanton, which had once been a little world in itself, seemed small and inconsequential now. There was more to life than the disapproval of Dr. Holst.
"You don't know the first thing about Pears," said Britten. "Neither does he."
Imo flushed hotly and turned away, her hands clenching hard to her sides.
If it had just been Imogen Holst one could have put it down to the romantic sillinesses of girls. But Britten could not even walk down the hall to the bath without overhearing some ignorant jeer.
"Pears talks such tosh," said one boy to another as they came up behind him.
"He ought to be ashamed."
It was just loud enough so that he could hear. Britten turned round to find two inoffensive fellows his own age whom he'd never known to have an original idea since they'd arrived at Hunstanton.
"Stop jawing about what you don't understand," said Britten.
"Go on and stop me then," the larger of the two replied. "Maybe you'll fight if he doesn't."
Would he? Britten looked anxiously for some other boy coming along the hall to distract from the confrontation. For once the constantly-squeaking wooden floorboards were silent and the sun slanted unconcernedly down from the window on the landing. He was not a boy to fight without need, although he could be dogged in defense of his friends. The thought of having to defend Pears was one that had never occurred to him.
And then he asked himself what Pears himself would have done.
"It isn't worth fighting you," he said scornfully and walked away.
It was from that moment that Britten, along with Pears, became a pariah at Hunstanton school. If he had cribbed on a test (everyone did), or sworn and smoked (ditto) or even tormented some little boy whose only sin was to be new and laughably terrified, no one would have batted an eye. None of these things violated the schoolboy code of honor, such as it was. Even a crime more heinous could have been forgiven if he had shown himself to be contrite and repentant once justice had been administered in the shape of a good thrashing or several days of concerted shunning. But this was such as was beyond the ken of schoolboys and therefore no one knew quite how to forgive.
He would not have been able to say quite how his former friends mistreated him. Being mocked and scorned might have been preferable to the cool silences, the sight of an old comrade inclining his head away, the feeling of disapproving eyes upon his back. He became even more solitary than he had been already. Perhaps his work improved somewhat, although rare is the schoolboy who finds that any sort of consolation. Mostly he spent endless hours in the music room, playing and rewriting his own compositions until his eyes ached with the strain of it.
On the most special pieces one dedication could be seen: For PNLP.
"To die young, clean, ardent; to die swiftly, in perfect health; to die saving others from death, or worse--disgrace--to die scaling heights; to die and carry with you into the fuller ampler life beyond, untainted hopes and aspirations, unembittered memories, all the freshness and gladness of May--is not that cause for joy rather than sorrow?"
--Horace Vachell, The Hill
Peter Burra dreamt of poetry and heroism. He could conceive no grander ambition than to go to the front and prove his manhood once and for all. Though he had never been particularly reverent before, he suddenly felt that it was his Christian duty to fight and to sacrifice himself if necessary for plucky Belgium and the small countries of Europe. 'Remember Louvain' became his battle cry.
"Think of it, Luard," he said one morning as Britten happened to be passing the study belonging to the two Peters. "We haven't really lived yet. Not truly. Could you bear being at Oxford next year knowing that men were fighting and dying and that you had held yourself back? This is something so much greater than you or I, or even Hunstanton..."
Sad though it is to say, Britten paused at the door--avoiding the one squeaking floorboard right by the knob--and turned his ear to the raised voices within.
"…how can we call ourselves artists," Burra was continuing, roused to passion by his own rhetoric, "when we've lived like hothouse flowers, afraid ever to step onto the stage? Afraid to protect the civilisation that nurtured us and gave us birth?"
"Must one destroy as well as create in order to be an artist?" said Pears, his tone dry and cool.
"If you will say it like that, naturally it will sound petty. What would Virgil have said? Or Horace? Arma virumque cano, my dear boy. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."
"Is it sweet and fitting to shoulder one's rifle with the intention of blowing out another man's brains?"
Even without seeing through the thick oak of the door, Britten could just imagine Burra throwing up his hands in disgust.
"Penelope," he said finally, "don't let's argue. I shall go to war and you can stay home and wait for your Odysseus to return."
Like anyone else, Pears wanted to be his own Odysseus. The door flew open just as Britten was beginning to step back from it. Pears emerged and went racketing down the stairs at high speed, not even looking to the side. Britten took a deep breath and then crept guiltily back the way that he had come.
Death came to Hunstanton eventually, and sooner rather than later. Quietly engraved italics on cream-coloured card proclaimed the news, tacked to the door of every house:
On the door of Britten's house the card was tattered at one corner where a pushpin was missing, fluttering feebly in the December wind as if it were trying to escape. Something in Britten's heart caught every time he saw it.
"I never knew that his Christian name was Robert," said one boy to another, pausing on the way in from rugby to untie his muddy boots. They hurried inside, letting the door slam shut behind them. They had left thick globs of clay on the boot scraper. The card was still fluttering.
Finally Britten took pity and ripped it off the door, leaving the three pushpins behind as mute witnesses. He crumpled the card and thrust it into his pocket. For the rest of the day it haunted him there every time he reached for his handkerchief.
That Sunday there was a memorial service in the chapel. Masters and headmaster and chaplain spoke, praising Robert Rackham, his heroism and virtue. He had lived for Hunstanton School, they said. He had played the game, stood by his friends, and died nobly for his country and his God. Not a few eyes were filled with tears and not a few handkerchiefs were raised by boys who felt that perhaps crying in chapel was for once not as shameful as it otherwise might have been.
All Britten remembered was oak leaves shivering under the heavy, cold plop of raindrops. He remembered Pears' words on that day a year ago: Don't ever hang about with those chaps. Never. Every one of them is a vile beast. They ought to be ashamed to call themselves Hunstanton boys.
"Let us pray," the chaplain concluded, "that his death might not be in vain."
And though Robert Rackham had lived a rotter and a scoundrel, he died washed clean by the baptism of war. Not by the blood of Christ but by his own.
Britten thought that his heart must be as hard as stone. He was not moved. He did not cry. All that touched him was the sight of Pears, rising alone at the end of the service to sing 'I know that my redeemer liveth.' He did not know and he could not believe, but the sound of that much beloved voice opened the floodgates and he finally wept.
I do not understand.
I only know
That, as he turned to go
And waved his hand,
In his young eyes a sudden glory shone,
And I was dazzled by a sunset glow,
And he was gone."
All that year they lived betwixt and between, not grown and yet not children in the way that they had been before. All of them together were trembling on the brink, but on the brink of what they could not be certain. Rackham was the first Hunstanton boy to die but he was not the last. More names followed, all of them eulogized in chapel, the good and the bad alike. None of them seemed as special or as particular as that first shattering loss.
In April the daffodils were blooming. The boys took their newspapers outdoors and lay at leisure on the grass, reading to one another how the Germans had gassed the troops at Ypres. All the excitement over the Boat Race seemed suddenly bad form, even though Cambridge had triumphed after five years of defeat. There were far larger games to be played.
All in a rush the end of the year approached. Too soon and not soon enough. Britten had been lost in a longing for home and it was only in the penultimate week, coming out of chapel into the honeyed air of a summer evening, that he realised just what it meant.
So many boys were leaving Hunstanton. Not the exodus of the previous year but still a ten-year flood, going to swell the numbers in the trenches in France. Burra was among that company. Already he bore himself like an officer, casting off the guise of the poetic young aesthete in search of stricter discipline and severer tests. In those last days he had reconciled with Pears and they wandered together for hours down by the river, sharing familiar vistas and confidences only known between the two of them. Quietly, without trying to follow, Britten watched them go. It was as if they were already slipping away into a world of ghosts that he could see but not touch.
And Pears was swimming upstream against the flood waters. When all was said and done, his Quaker blood had told, and despite all the urgings of masters and the jeers of comrades, he was determined not to go to war. Instead in the autumn he went up to Oxford, that spire-surmounted city by the Thames. For previous generations of boys it had seemed adventure enough. In Britten's imagination it seemed even further away.
Summer term's festivities continued almost unabated by war. Cricket and rowing and strawberries on the lawn. If the admiring cheers of parents and siblings struck a note of melancholy, then the boys did not notice, or pretended not to notice. Pears was one of the oldest boys in the school, magnificently tall and broad-shouldered in his cricket whites. His hair was burnished by the sun. With all his heart he played the game, as if he had no thought that his victory could be a hollow one, as if there were no other field on which he could win glory. Behind his back the whispers still went round.
"If he thinks it will be different at Oxford," said one elderly father, a red-faced, white-haired clergyman whose mouth was complaisantly full of sausage roll, "he can expect a nasty shock. M'cousin went up last month to fetch me a book or two at Blackwell's and he said that the colleges were emptied. Nothing but girl graduates on their bicycles, most disgraceful, never would have seen such a thing in our day..."
From there the monologue trailed on into a sermon against the ladies--if they could be called that--of St. Hilda's and Somerville, and Britten found himself drifting peacefully off to sleep on a nearby, pleasantly fragrant, patch of grass. He had a dream where Pears was wandering lost and alone through a desolate landscape searching for (of all people!) Imo Holst, for it was only she who could help him. Britten was watching but he could not speak or even fathom what help was needed. It was almost unbearable. Finally the solid thwack of bat against ball jolted him back into the waking world with an immeasurable feeling of relief.
Pages and pages have been written on the subject of the last chapel service of term, that landmark where schooldays are left behind forever and all of the world stretches ahead. One must imagine Britten to have felt everything that a boy of fifteen feels on such an occasion: dim awe married to the certain conviction that he himself will never be old enough to reach that last pass.
Above all Britten was conscious of the fact that the best, truest and most noble friend a boy could have was being taken from him on that day. Through the adversity of the past year, the love he felt for Pears had not slackened but only grown. Every ounce of the loyalty and devotion that he had offered the older boy had been returned in full, doubled and redoubled. As he saw Pears take his place for the final time amid the tenors of the choir, he felt that his heart must break if he watched any longer. He buried his face in his hymnal and bit his lip until it bled.
When at the end of the service he stumbled out of chapel into the close, his eyes were swimming so that he could hardly see. His arm up against the shelter of a buttress, he finally surrendered to tears.
A hand on his shoulder. It was not Pears but Burra.
"He's taking ages putting away his surplice," said Burra gently. "He always does."
Britten blinked and swallowed hard but could muster nothing to say. Burra rarely condescended to speak to him directly and it seemed such a waste that it should only happen now at the very last.
"My dear boy," he said, "you can't think that you will be the only one to miss Luard."
"No," said Britten, sniffling.
"Going up to Oxford is not the same as being dead, you know, although some might say that it's as close as makes no difference."
"Yes," said Britten, and then, "no."
Burra laughed but it was a kindly laugh.
"Remember me when I've gone into that distant land across the Channel," he said. "That's all I ask. And look after Luard, won't you? Stay his hand if he threatens to become a swot and see that he doesn't gorge himself on cream cakes. You'll have all the holidays for visits, and after all Oxford isn't so far from Hunstanton. So say you'll look after him, do."
Solemnly Britten made the vow and was rewarded with the gift of Burra's own posy to put in his buttonhole. It was a fetching shade of violet and only slightly bedraggled after an hour or more spent hidden underneath a heavy surplice.
"You're a good chap," said Burra finally. "I can see why he likes you so. Take care, Benjie!"
And with that note of intimacy Burra was off. Despite his swagger and his casual tone, one could see from the look on his face as he turned away that he was in deadly earnest.
Chapter 4: Ev'n so we met
Promises made on the last day of school are not always promises kept. Britten went up to Oxford only once, the following November on a half holiday. He ate plover's eggs and drank champagne in Pears' small set at Keble (which seemed grand enough by far) and listened in overawed silence to the small circle of friends that Pears had managed to gather around him even in those dark days. Almost all of them were Quakers. The time of conscription was coming near and all their talk was of the No-Conscription Fellowship and what might be done. Through the window, the gaudily-banded brickwork of Keble Chapel seemed to stand disapproving watch.
When Pears escorted Britten back to the railway station he murmured words of apology, saying that he hoped the conversation had not been dull. He had meant to offer better entertainment. Britten said that he quite understood. Pears said that he had meant to have Britten stay for the night. Perhaps another time. Again, politely, Britten said that he quite understood. The gap had grown up between them again.
Before the end of his first year Pears left Oxford, conscripted into the Non-Combatant Corps. They corresponded for a time but, perhaps inevitably, their letters trailed to a halt, trapped between the chaos of war and the unreal calm of school. After too long Britten posted a tardy letter but Pears had moved--or been moved--and left no forwarding address.
In due course Britten became one of the senior boys at Hunstanton, a member of the sixth with all its privileges, and like all schoolboys felt it sadly diminished from the Olympian days of Pears and of Burra. He never again met anyone who might compare. And once again, by younger boys this time, he was called 'pi' and a prig.
As if in the twinkling of an eye it was 1918. The war that had been meant to be over by Christmas was finally drawing to a close as yet another year of school started. It began to look as if the rising generation of boys, of whom Britten was one, might not be called upon to fight. For the first time in nearly five years one heard talk of Oxford and Cambridge, of possibilities other than war. One might think that relief would have hung over Hunstanton school but instead there was a note of emptiness. Every schoolboy is convinced that he will never live up to his elders and for them this was no revelation, merely a final and awful confirmation of the bitter truth. One which was understood not merely by them but by parents, masters and the wider world. They knew that they could never live up to the virtues of those who had died. Now they could not even imitate them.
That autumn Britten's path lay not towards the trenches nor to Oxbridge, but to the Royal College of Music. All his solitary work had prepared him well, and he dreamt of going to a place where finally he might be understood by more than a few loyal friends. He was spared from the bitter choice that Pears had made years earlier, and he felt a coward for daring to be grateful of it.
And then in November the Armistice came. London rang out suddenly with bells, so loud and strong that Britten pushed back from the piano in his bedsit room and went out to walk through the streets. Kensington Road was thronged with people pressing forwards to join the cheering thousands in front of Buckingham Palace. It felt odd now to be joined with the crowds from whom he had for so many years been parted. And yet he was still somehow recognised as a man apart. That afternoon, while Britten was sitting on the edge of the fountain in Trafalgar Square taking in the revelry that surrounded him, a young sailor home on leave made a proposition to him in terms so much blunter than had ever been used at Hunstanton. Britten had hurriedly to turn away to hide the blush that came to his face.
Late at night he stumbled dizzy and footsore back to his South Kensington boarding house. On the hall table with the rest of the post he found a copy of the Hunstanton Magazine. He did not read it until breakfast the next morning. Bright sun fell across the dingy lace tablecloth as he read, disbelieving, that Peter Burra had been killed only two weeks ago in an aeroplane smash-up near Honfleur.
All of that poetry had gone forever from the world. One expected to see all the colour drain from things; it was unjust that the carnations in a vase on the table continued just as red as they had ever been.
For the first time since he had left school, he took the train back to Hunstanton. As he walked through the gate he could hear boys playing and shouting. He found it hard to believe that it had been only months since he had been one of them. The rolls of the dead were so long that it was hard to believe there were any boys yet left alive to play.
The delicate stone tracery of the chapel arched serenely into the air, touched only by the ravages of centuries. Around its base gathered the mourners. There was the headmaster in his academic gown, beginning to be grey and stooped and wearied by loss. And there was Imo at his elbow. Imogen Holst was now a young woman of twenty, too mature nowadays to watch schoolboys at play on the tennis courts. She had been engaged to a young master who had fought and fallen at Passchendaele. Though her eyes were as blue as they ever had been, the bloom on her cheeks had faded. In dress and manner she seemed to have become another of the many women doomed by the war to live as spinsters. Her words of welcome when she saw Britten were almost embarrassingly warm.
He disentangled himself as soon as was polite. Inside the chapel he slid into a back pew, bending over the order of service so that he would not have to see anyone else that might know him. It was only out of duty that he had come. He did not see what good he would do to Burra, who was already in the ground in some foreign field, alone and forever far from his friends. During the years of war, Britten's faith had fallen still further away, dying back to the ground as the friends of his youth were scattered to the winds. He had not been into a church since that last chapel service of school. If the shade of the old Bishop had returned at that moment, he would not have recognised the small boy who had so earnestly repeated his catechism at confirmation.
Ahead of him in the chapel there was another bowed head, a man sitting by himself near the front. Something about the sight caught Britten unawares. His light brown hair was carefully slicked down. His pale neck was graceful yet muscular. His coat was dark, slightly threadbare like everything else in wartime. There was nothing unusual about him, no reason why Britten's eye should have been so caught.
It was only when the man got to his feet and went to the pulpit to give the second reading that Britten realised why he had seemed so familiar: it was Peter Pears.
"Oh death where is thy sting?" He phrased and measured the words as gracefully as if they had been song. "O grave where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
It was torment to sit and to listen to Pears reading those familiar lines. When he came to their end, Pears closed the Bible so hard that the clap of it echoed against the stone.
They met outside the chapel, where the wind was blowing the last of the leaves from the trees, sending them whirling and skirling around the headstones. Pears was pulling the collar of his coat more closely around him.
"Britten," he said, raising his eyes. "I knew you would come."
They shook hands like grown men. They gazed at one another, solemn and serious and strange, brimming over with all the things they might say. None of them could be put into words.
Pears was the taller of them still. What odd things one noticed. He seemed far older, weary, and yet there was a softness in his eyes as he stood there with the wind ruffling his hair.
"It's so good to see your face, B," he said finally, "I can't tell you. To see someone that one remembers so… so fondly, I mean."
"I must have changed terribly," said Britten.
"Not at all, my boy. You're just as you were."
Together they strolled away from the chapel and down the path towards the river, through the bare trunks and faded foliage of another year. Everything was brown and tattered and torn, fluttering feebly in the wind. If Britten had not changed terribly, then everything else must have changed around him. He could not help but remember how Pears and Burra had walked down these very paths years ago, when June was at its height and the world was young.
"It seems so strange," he said, "to think that it's all gone by."
Together they stood quietly and watched the river flow to the sea.
"Geese in flocks above you flying
Their direction know;
Brooks beneath the thin ice flowing
To their oceans go;
Coldest love will warm to action.
Walk, then, come
No longer numb,
Into your satisfaction."
A week later they met for tea at the Lyons Corner House near Leicester Square. Pears was living in Marylebone now, tutoring boys in Latin while he looked around for something more remunerative. And Britten was not far away in South Kensington. They were both citizens of that great city, swept together again like jetsam. It seemed so strange to be talking amidst the ferns and china and scrollwork of the tea rooms, equally remote from their school and from the horrors of wartime. As if they had been friends forever. As if no one had died. Britten supposed that this must be what being grown-up felt like, brushing aside the loss of innocence as if it never had gone.
As he sipped at his tea Britten found himself talking on about the Royal College of Music, his studies in composition, all that he had done since leaving school. It was probably the most that he had said to Pears at any one time. He felt just ancient. What silliness.
"You must think me a terrible bore," he said finally. Pears' eyes were upon him.
"Not at all. I love to hear you talk."
"Of course!" Pears took another sip of Earl Grey. "You never did at school, you know. Hours on end you would sit there gazing at me with those great eyes of yours. Just like you're doing now."
Britten coloured and looked away. All of a sudden the venue seemed very public. Next to them in the tearoom there was a gay crowd of young men all bumping knees together at a table far too small for their number. They were laughing so loudly that Britten felt quite sober and dull in comparison. But perhaps not quite dull enough.
"Would you like to come back to my rooms?" he offered, his heart in his throat.
Not half an hour later they were back at the boarding house on Cromwell Road, shaking off the rain as they trooped up the worn front stairs. Britten's room was so small that he had to step back in order that his guest could get far enough into the room to close the door behind him. In that confined space Pears was broad-shouldered and awkward as he shrugged off his coat.
Pears looked around at the room. Narrow bed, narrow desk and an upright piano--that was all its furnishing and to Britten it suddenly seemed inadequate.
"You can sit on the piano bench," Britten offered. "There was a desk chair but it took up too much room so I chucked it."
"That wallpaper looks as if it would sap the will to live," said Pears idly, taking a seat. "Had you thought of changing it?"
"I can't say that I notice."
"No, my dear B, you wouldn't."
Now that he thought about it the sprigged floral pattern did seem rather dingy and peeling. I've missed you so, he started to say, but the words stuck in his throat.
Just like old times he served Pears with tea, Earl Grey in chipped cups that spoke just as eloquently of student digs. They had lived better at Hunstanton and knew that he could not furnish his small room half as well as Pears would do. It would never quite be a home.
"Rimbaud?" Pears was saying in a tone of surprise. He picked up the volume that had been resting on top of the piano next to Britten's copy of David Blaize. "Oh, I say, it's Les Illuminaggers."
Britten sat self-consciously down on the bed. It protested loudly with a squeak of worn-out springs, sagging under him so that he had to lean forward to keep his balance. He was so close to Pears that they were almost bumping knees.
"I find things out for myself, you know. I didn't stop reading when you left Hunstanton."
"I should say not! Rather racy, B."
"I don't think so," replied Britten stoutly. Even if he did like Rimbaud, he was still enough of a prig to think 'racy' and 'daring' must be terms of disapprobation. "I think he's ripping."
"So did Verlaine," said Pears with a chuckle. "You must admit it's queer poetry at the very least."
"Perhaps it is. A chap called Lennox gave them to me. He's a student of composition here at the College."
"A particular friend?"
"Not so particular," said Britten dismissively.
Perhaps that wasn't so true. They had been making plans to go to Cornwall in the summer and to share rooms in the coming year so as to get away from the closeness and claustrophobia of boarding houses. And yet Britten was somehow shy of admitting that to Pears. As kind and as good as Lennox was (and with him Wystan and Christopher and the others), Britten did not like to talk of new friends. It seemed disloyal to the old.
"Do read me a bit out of the poems?" Britten asked. "I've been meaning to set them to music only I haven't managed a single note. Perhaps if I heard them in your voice I should be able to write something."
Obediently Pears began to read, a performance just for one.
"Des drôles très solides," he began.
In the years that they had been apart, Britten had forgot the uncertainty of Pears' French accent. Nonetheless he listened with rapt attention. Every small hitch and infelicity of phrasing held a special meaning because it was Pears who brought the words into life.
"Plusieurs ont exploité vos mondes. Sans besoins, et peu pressés de mettre en oeuvre leurs brillantes facultés et leur expérience de vos consciences. Quels hommes mûrs! ...Oh, but my French is damnable."
"It doesn't matter."
"Now, that's damning with faint praise."
Britten had nothing to say to that.
"Burra would have loved these," said Pears quietly, still holding the book open in one hand.
They sat together in silence, listening to the traffic on the Cromwell Road below. Britten could not help remembering the last time he had seen their friend. That sacred trust that he had been given and had never fulfilled.
"Do you know," he offered, "just before he left Hunstanton, Burra told me to look after you. As if I could ever do such a thing."
"He was very wise."
"But I didn't, did I?"
"Didn't you?" Pears echoed, quizzically arching an eyebrow. "In every way that mattered you already had. You stood by me when no one else would. You were more to me than I could ever have said."
"If you had told me so back then, I should scarcely have credited it. You seemed so far above me."
"What about now?" asked Pears, his look all of a sudden becoming very serious.
"What about it?"
Britten glanced at the floor so that he didn't have to meet Pears' eyes. The bed squeaked again. His heart was beating so fast that he could hardly bear it.
"We're not at school anymore," Pears said. "We're both grown men. And, you know, it's still true. It's been years since we've seen each other and yet I can't think of anyone I like so well as you."
"Really?" Britten replied shyly. He crossed his legs, feeling a touch of the coquette coming over him.
"You silly boy. Didn't you ever realise? I fell in love with you from the very first."
"I--I never meant to tempt you," said Britten, and almost meant it.
He was older and wiser now. Only now was he coming to understand the bittersweet, intoxicating tug that he himself had felt all of those years. Just sitting beside Pears was unutterably pleasant. And Pears was not the only one who was tempted.
"Nonsense," said Pears. "You made me good. You made me far better than I might have been. If that's temptation it's the very best sort. There's nothing beastly about it, whatever the moralists will say."
"Isn't there?" asked Britten, holding his breath. "Are you sure?"
"As sure as I am of anything. Think of it, B. Love, real and true love, is the greatest of virtues and the greatest of blessings. How could it ever be beastly?"
Britten sighed longingly. The words could not but work their magic on him: they expressed a sentiment that he wanted so dearly to believe. Other men had said the same thing to him in terms more eloquent and enticing, but he had never hearkened to them. There were none whom he trusted and admired--none whom he loved--as much as Pears.
"I should like to think so," he said, sighing.
"Why don't you try to?" said Pears.
Reaching out across the small gulf that separated them, Pears took Britten's hand in his. The world did not end.
Tentatively Britten squeezed Pears' hand and felt in reply a stronger squeeze. There was nothing of corruption in that touch. Only warmth and strength and a sense of wholeness that Britten had never thought he would find. Love, too.
"When I saw you again in the chapel," Britten confessed, "I felt as if we'd never been apart."
"And I the same. If I had my way, B, I should never be parted from you again."
"Nor I--" Britten stammered. "Nor I, Peter, from you."
"Ev'n so we met and after long pursuit
Ev'n so we joined. We both became entire.
No need for either to renew a suit
For I was flax, and he was flames of fire.
Our firm united souls did more than twine.
So I my best beloved's am,
So he is mine."