The first time the topic comes up, Cudlip and Ben are having dinner at Davis’s Restaurant. Since Sheriff Ferguson decided to retire, Cudlip is still sheriff of Silvertown, for the next couple of months at least. He’s on friendly terms with Sally, even now that she’s engaged to a Swedish draughtsman who will take her away to Nebraska after the wedding. She still puts too much salt in her stews, but the Swede or someone else she listens to must have told her something about vegetables, because every bowl of stew now comes with a smaller bowl of steaming red or green stuff.
Ben approves enthusiastically. “In Prague, we had mostly potatoes, but also peas, string beans, cauliflower. Lots of cabbage. Barley with mushrooms,” he says wistfully. Cudlip looks him over fondly, then remembers something and his face darkens.
“Hey. What’s wrong?”
Cudlip shrugs. “Nothin.”
Ben kicks him under the table, gently. “Come on. Spit it out.”
Cudlip stares gloomily at what’s left of his food and lowers his voice. “I got another bunch of Wanted posters. Some of them don’t have pictures or drawings.”
Ben doesn’t laugh, and lowers his voice as well. “I’ll drop by your office this evening and read them out to you. But …” his face takes on his I’ll-stop-at-nothing-to-get-my-way expression, “… you know I don’t mind doing it, but it’s time for you to start reading on your own. So tonight we will start.” His accent is becoming stronger, as it does every time he anticipates conflict.
Cudlip grimaces but does not object, he knows that too old or not school-smart or been gettin by pretty good without readin would lead to a lecture on Ben’s part and some shouting on both parts. And anyway, Ben enjoys everything he does, from dancing to shooting to studying, so he’s bound to be a pretty good teacher. He glances at Ben: he isn’t eating, he’s looking at him in silence, expecting an answer.
“All right. Tonight we start. Now eat up.”
They go straight to the sheriff’s office, spread the new posters out on the desk and sit down. Cudlip has a nodding acquaintance with most of the letters of the alphabet, so Ben shows him how sounds can be brought together to form words. After the first few stumbles, Cudlip gets the idea.
“Wanted.” He recognises the first word, he’s seen it often enough. In the next line there are three words, easy to guess. “Dead or alive.”
“Don’t cheat,” Ben says sternly, but his eyes are smiling, affectionate. “Dead, it’s easy to read, it has a D at the beginning and another D at the end. Or is just two letters.” He nods approvingly as Cudlip’s lips move to form the words. “Now listen to me,” and he sounds out alive, and that’s the way Cudlip is feeling – he never knew it would be so straightforward, so much fun. He focuses on other words, and they jump out at him from the poster, reward, robbery, age. However, height is a big stumbling-block, and weight is worse; Cudlip scowls at them, and Ben laughs out loud.
“They’re hard for you, what do you think they were for me?” he asks, throwing his head back, and Cudlip sees his strong, unlined neck, and quickly looks back at the poster. “Do you realise that cough and enough look almost the same, but are pronounced differently? And read, now, and read, in the past, are written exactly in the same way?” Cudlip blinks. “There were times when I doubted I’d ever learn to read English. But I did. And so can you.”
Cudlip gets the bottle and two glasses and pours them both a drink. “All right, first lesson’s over.” He flashes Ben a small grin. “Thanks.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow night. Between now and then, you have homework. Keep looking at those posters, see how many other words you can find. Tomorrow we’ll start writing them.” He downs his drink and is out the door before Cudlip can tell him what he thinks of sneaky, underhand men who take advantage of unsuspecting friends.
* * * * * *
Cudlip is amazed and delighted by how easy reading is. Every printed word is first an opponent to be overpowered and then a friend; in six weeks, he has moved from Wanted posters to the labels on cans of tomatoes, then to instructions for mining equipment and short newspaper articles, and now he can’t stop. He gets impatient when Dr Rosenthal complains about his new habit of dropping into the surgery to stick his nose into medical books, or when the Mexican woman who has replaced Sally hides her two cookbooks from him. His writing progress is a little slower: at first he splattered ink all over himself as well as the sheet of paper, but now he holds the pen without effort and sends off telegrams to other law enforcement officers. He also – after Ben has checked spelling and grammar and added things like colons and periods – writes public notices about leaving sidearms outside buildings and not disturbing the peace, which are then printed and tacked up.
“Tonight we’re going to do something different,” Ben announces as he steps into the sheriff’s office. Cudlip is weary after spending the day with a violent husband he locked up in one of the cells, first to keep him away from his wife, then to keep him away from his wife’s four brothers. Now the brothers have taken their sister back to her family, and the husband has been fined and kicked out. Cudlip breaks a cigar in half, sticks one piece into his mouth and lights it, game for anything Ben might have thought up. Ben pulls a thick book out of his pocket, there’s a strip of paper marking a place. “Come on. Try this.”
Cudlip frowns. “A Bible?” He casts a quick glance at Preacher’s Bible, which has been sitting on a shelf in his office since the day Preacher died, a memory and a reminder.
“No. Some plays by William Shakespeare. It’s the only book in English that I brought with me to America. They have been written nearly three hundred years ago.”
“Were written, you mean.” Cudlip loves the rare times he can catch Ben’s English slipping. It sort of evens things out between them. This have been business seems to be the only mistake that Cudlip – not being an authority on English usage – has managed to spot. So far.
“Were written,” Ben repeats, without a trace of self-consciousness. “Thank you,” and he actually looks pleased as well as grateful. “Some of the plays are about men fighting.” He sits down beside Cudlip and tells him the story of an ancient Scottish warrior called Macbeth, who had talked with three witches and had been promised that no man of woman born would ever be able to kill him. He also informs Cudlip that thee and thou mean you, that’s what they used to say three or four hundred years ago. “Now read here,” he instructs, pointing a long slim finger at a line.
And, slowly and carefully, Cudlip does. “I have no words; / My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain/ Than terms can give thee out. So this other man thinks he can kill him. I have no words, hey, I like that. My voice is in my sword, I like that too.”
“Go on,” Ben says patiently.
“I bear a charmed life which must not yield/ To one of woman born. So who’s right? Him or the other one?”
“Just read on.” Ben gives him his best innocent smile; Cudlip snorts, blows a puff of smoke at him and and continues.
“Right. Despair thy charm,/ and let the angel whom thou still hast served …” He scowls at Ben, who quickly explains that this means Don’t trust what the witches told you, and let the devil tell you …
“Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripp’d.” Cudlip reads, frowns, then nods and lets out a long, soft whistle. “Hot damn. That’s how he knows he can kill Macbeth. Does he kill him?” And he reads on, stumblingly but determinedly, until he finds out. Afterwards, he is quiet for a while, then says, “I want you to come over every night and choose a page from this book for me.” A beat. “Unless it’s borin for you. Or unless there’s some girl I don’t know anythin about.”
Ben goes slightly pink under his suntan. “Of course it’s not boring. And no, I do not have any secret girls.” He claps Cudlip on the shoulder, and for a second his fingers tickle the back of Cudlip’s neck. “See you tomorrow night.”
* * * * * * *
Cudlip has been busy sorting out a miners’ brawl and now is sprawling in his chair, smoking and looking forward to the night’s reading lesson. It’s a new experience for him – pushing fifty, used to taking care of himself since he was thirteen, former leader of a three-man band of capable thieves – to be bossed around by someone twenty years younger, new as they come, and European to boot. But it’s not too bad – between lessons and drinks and arguments and laughs the time spent with Ben seems to fly, and it’s the best part of Cudlip’s day.
Ben throws the door open and waves dramatically at Cudlip. “Good evening, sheriff. Tonight you’re going to read a bit from The Merchant of Venice.”
“A city in Europe,” grins Ben. He sits down beside Cudlip and tells him a little about young Bassanio, who needs money to go and court an heiress, and asks an older friend, Antonio. “Now read here.”
Cudlip wets his lips before starting. “To you, Antonio,/ I owe the most, in money and in love, /And from your love I have a warranty/ To unburden all my plots and purposes/ How to get clear of all the debts I owe.” He stops and looks at Ben. “Wait a minute, would you? What’s this about warranty and plots and purposes?”
“He needs to get out of a financial mess, and hopes that his friend will help him.”
“And he already owes his friend money, but is hopin to scrounge some more. So what’s he goin on about love for? Is he butterin his friend up to get a loan?”
“Read what his friend answers,” says Ben, his voice becoming softer, more cautious.
“I pray you, good Bassanio, let me know it. This man’s an idiot, he’s just askin to be conned . . . And if it stand, as you yourself still do, / Within the eye of honour, be assured,/ My purse, my person, my extremest means, / Lie all unlock’d to your occasions.” Cudlip stares at the page. “Maybe not an idiot. Maybe . . .” He speaks without lifting his eyes from the book, suddenly conscious of how little space there is between his chair and Ben’s. “So what happens next?”
“Antonio is also temporarily short of money, so he goes to a Jewish moneylender whom he despises. The moneylender is angry at Antonio. It’s a good speech, read it.”
Cudlip grimaces and complies, but after the first dozen lines he slams the book shut and jumps to his feet, hands balled into fists. “That’s it. That does it,” he shouts, then lowers his voice with an obvious effort. “Antonio’s a bastard, and you ain’t got no business makin me read about him. He spits on another man, calls him a dog, just because he’s of another race, and then wants to borrow from him? Take this damned book away, I don’t want to see it again. And don’t you go showin it to Dr Rosenthal either, or you’ll answer to me.”
Ben blinks and shakes his head in disbelief, then looks repentant. “I’m sorry, Cud,” he murmurs. “Didn’t know you’d take it this way. I just wanted to show you two friends who put each other first. Like you and I did, when we fought Burton at the mine.” He stops and sighs. “You’re a good man, Joe Billy Cudlip.” He stops again, smiles tentatively, colouring a bit. “I could kiss you for it.”
Cudlip frowns: Europeans must be emotional people who don’t realise that some words can be misinterpreted. Or maybe even taken seriously. Then he narrows his eyes a little and looks Ben up and down, but all he says is, “Aw, get out of here. Sorry about losin my temper. See ya tomorrow night.”
* * * * * *
The next day, nobody needs the sheriff’s help; Cudlip spends the day struggling with an article about the rising prices of ore, and wondering what he can say to Ben if the topic of last night’s reading comes up. Which it probably will. Ben knocks before coming in, and he’s empty-handed.
“What, no book? Because I made a fool of myself last night?”
Ben’s eyes are like the sky in March, clouded and clear and clouded again. “You’ve already got the book I am thinking of,” he says, and points at Preacher’s Bible.
Cudlip looks away, remembering the gunshots, and Preacher’s tears, and Preacher’s body on the ground, his arms outstretched, like a crucified man. “No.”
“Please. And if you don’t like what you read tonight, you have my word that there’ll be no more books, just newspapers.”
Cudlip shrugs. “If it matters so much to you . . .”
Ben doesn’t answer. He pulls his chair up next to Cudlip’s and leafs through the Good Book until he finds what he wants. “You’ve heard of David, right?”
“David who killed Goliath with his slingshot? Yeah, I went to Sunday school a few times as a kid. And Preacher mentioned him once or twice.”
“Right.” Ben quickly explains that after killing Goliath, David was befriended by King Saul and by Saul’s son Jonathan. “Read verse 18.1.”
Is Cudlip hearing things, or is there a little quiver in Ben’s voice? He reads, “And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” A long moment goes by. “And how does it end?”
“Not well. Jonathan remains loyal to David even when his father wants to kill him. But eventually Jonathan dies in battle, and David mourns him … here, read.”
“I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” Cudlip slowly lifts his eyes from the page, meets Ben’s eyes and holds them. “Why did you choose this?”
Ben swallows, but his answer is direct, uncompromising. “You know why.”
Cudlip blows out a long breath. “Yeah, I guess I do.” He stands up, pulling Ben up with him, and takes Ben’s head between his hands. His thumbs stroke Ben’s cheeks, so smooth, still so round, boyish, and his heart is beginning to race, and his trousers are suddenly very tight. Ben leans in and their lips brush, and Cudlip pulls him closer, their bodies pressing hard against each other as their tongues flick against lips and teeth, as they inhale each other’s breath and taste each other’s mouth.
They break apart for a moment, to catch their breath and look at each other. Ben’s smile is broad and sweet, but it seems to Cudlip that there’s something else in it beside joy – a hint of victory, almost of triumph. He freezes, then takes a step back, narrows his eyes, fishes out half a cigar and lights it. Ben’s smile goes out almost completely.
“Listen here, Junior,” Cudlip says roughly, drawing deeply on his cigar; Ben recoils, as if he’d been slapped. “What just happened, was it all a plan? Like a bet you made with yourself, right, let’s take this rube who’s never been to school, teach him to read, and then play him like a violin until he shows his hand, and then …”
“Shut up,” Ben cuts in harshly, almost shouting, and adds something that isn’t English, that ends with something that sounds like hoo boo. “Just shut up. You’re the ex-crook, not I. I have never wanted to play you. Never. I wanted to show you my hand, but I had no words, like Macduff, remember him? No goddamn words to say what I feel. So I have borrowed other men’s words. Words that show that the … borders between friendship and … love aren’t … nailed down, men can …” He opens both hands in a small helpless gesture. “It’s more difficult in English,” he says tiredly, his accent stronger. “But it’s difficult in any language.”
“It sure is difficult for me.” Cudlip takes a last, deep drag on his cigar and puts it out gently into an empty tomato can. “I’m sorry, Ben. I got the wrong idea because I haven’t got any words either. Been a lone wolf most of my life, like you said that time, right in this office. Never got friendly with anyone, except Preacher and Sampson. Until I came to Silvertown.” He half-smiles, steps in, throws an arm around Ben’s shoulders and pulls him close.
“I knew you were hoping to settle down with Sally,” Ben says, eyes firmly focused on the brick wall behind Cudlip. “I encouraged it. For your sake.”
“She was quite a girl, but I didn’t have a hope in hell, and I knew it. Wasn’t that hard to get over it,” Cudlip says, the words coming more easily now that Ben’s body is so near to his. “Meanwhile, I’d started noticin other stuff. Like how good you dance. And how borin life is when you’re not around.” He cups his hand on the back of Ben’s neck and presses gently until Ben turns towards him and meets his eyes. “And so, those borders you were talkin about, they kinda loosened up for me too.” He sighs. “But once bitten … you know.”
“I do. And we have talked enough,” Ben laughs. He runs a finger along Cudlip’s mustache, caressing and tickling, and his gaze drops down to the tightness in Cudlip’s pants, and his eyes fill with little sparks. “This makes me happy.”
“Good.” One-handed, Cudlip unties Ben’s tie and throws it towards the back of a chair. His own silk string tie got lost, unlamented, after his first week as a sheriff. With the other hand he ruffles Ben’s mop of reddish-brown hair, something he’s wanted to do ever since he threw away that ridiculous European cap.
“My hotel room?” Ben asks vaguely as Cudlip’s hands half unbutton and half tear his fine cotton shirt.
“Too damn far.” Cudlip takes a step backward, pulls down the blind on the window that overlooks the street, strides to the door, locks it. “Kill the light,” he orders, and after Ben has complied, with a sweeping gesture waves him towards the nearest cell. Ben mutters something that sounds like “How romantic,” but starts leaving a trail of discarded jacket, shoes and socks on the floor as he moves in the direction of the cell door.
Until now, Cudlip’s notion of sex was not unlike his view of a heist: assess your chances, take what you can, get the hell out. Tonight, it occurs to him that sex is a bit like reading. You see the other person’s youth and beauty, you think about the lines on your face, the scars on your body, your thinning hair, your uneven teeth, and it’s like not being able to read, you’ve got to bluff it out or brazen it out. And then you see the way the other person looks at you, as if he hadn’t eaten in a week and you were a big medium-rare steak, and it’s a discovery, just like when the words begin to form, and jump at you from the page, and have a meaning.
They try to lie down together on a cot designed for one man. Cudlip drapes an arm and a leg over Ben’s, half climbs onto him, and yes, their bodies fit, he can kiss Ben sweet and slow, and when Ben shifts around and tries to get on top, Cudlip mutters against his mouth “You don’t get to call the shots every time, pal” before settling his body on top of Ben’s and kissing him again, harder. Ben chuckles into the kiss, long lashes fluttering, and slides one leg between Cudlip’s and rubs strongly and almost takes him to the brink, and then, damn him, stops, looks up and smiles that broad toothy smile of his. “Wait,” he whispers, and shifts a little to align them, seeking Cudlip’s fingers and wrapping them around both their cocks, covering them with his own. Just a few good firm jerks, and Ben’s body arches under Cudlip’s, and he gasps and spills all over their hands for long, feverish moments. Cudlip feels waves of light and heat and joy run through him, then his body contracts and he cries out, “Ben, yeah” and spasms, and it seems to last forever.
They lie in a tangle, legs entwined, arms around each other. Cudlip is the first one to come back to life, with a sudden thought that makes his body vibrate with silent laughter. Ben throws him a questioning glance.
“Rattlesnakes are real good at sensin heat.”
“And the point of this remark is …?”
Cudlip smirks. “You’re so warm, a rattlesnake would find you anywhere.”
Ben makes a face. “Is that meant to be a compliment?”
Cudlip presses a hand against Ben’s bare shoulder, it’s still radiating sweaty heat. “Not sure about the rattlesnake’s point of view.” He gives the shoulder a small nip. “From mine – yeah, I’d say it is.”
* * * * * *
Cudlip gradually comes awake, stretches, opens his eyes. He’s alone in the cell, and the cot smells of sweat and sex and Ben. He yawns, finds and dons his longjohns, gets up, scratches under an armpit, and sees the sheet of paper on the table, propped up against the ink well. It’s the first private thing anyone has ever written to him. He picks it up as if it were made of crystal.
He sounds the word out, two, three times, and it keeps not making sense. Then it dawns on him: it’s not English, it’s a word in Ben’s language. Cudlip can imagine Ben’s satisfied smirk at being able to put one over on him. Well, whatever the word means, Ben’ll pay for it, one way or another.
I have got up early because today there is a meeting to discuss a pay rise for the miners (At last).
I’ll find another book, maybe one about rattlesnakes.
See you tonight. I have been happy.
Cudlip laughs out, loud and easy. Then he finds the pen, cautiously dips it into the inkwell, and, careful to avoid ink blots and spatters, crosses out I have been happy and replaces it with You made me happy. He rereads what he wrote, nods in satisfaction, then, smiling to himself, heats up some water for coffee and a shave. Night’ll come soon enough, and more words will come as well.