I recognized it instantly, and Raffles claimed to have done the same when I asked over afternoon tea.
“Though I suppose we shouldn’t make assumptions,” I admitted. “Wouldn’t want to get ourselves into hot water for assuming something so scandalous of two innocent young men.”
AJ laughed. “Bunny, it’s the same trick you and I have pulled a hundred times! However, I do think we do it a bit more justice; the two of them look nothing alike, and speak far too differently to be brothers.”
I acknowledged this with a nod. “Well the taller one hardly spoke, though I suppose it may have been to avoid our notice of that very thing.”
“Yes, and the way he looked after the other fellow is rather the same look I’ve seen you give me.” He smiled at me over the rim of his teacup, an act which I could not help but return; we had been together so long, AJ and I, that we knew each other’s lovestruck glances by heart, and could at any moment categorize the one being used.
“Regardless, I suppose, they did a bang up job fixing the roof. No doubt we’d have tumbled down and broken all sorts of bones had we tried it at our age.”
“I think I’ll ask them back to repair the fence; the gate has been sticking terribly and if I’ve something in my hands it’s a nightmare to open.”
Acknowledging this with a nod and small sound of agreement, AJ continued nibbling at the remains of his breakfast. I set down my cup and instead took up the morning paper, which I had not yet had the chance to read. “The smaller one-I’ve forgotten his name-he was a rather friendly sort and as you said the repair seems quite sound, though we’ll have to wait for another bout of rain to know for sure.” Despite my words, I was confident that we would remain quite dry when another storm rolled over the foothills of the village.
“It was Alec,” AJ reminded, pulling a cigarette case from his pocket and holding a cherished Sullivan between two wrinkled fingers. “And the taller one was… Maurice, I believe.”
“That sounds right.”
Seeing that we were finished with the tea, AJ rose to set the cups and pot aside and wash them, cigarette held effortlessly between his lips. Even in older age he moved with an athletic grace reminiscent of his cricketing days. I was not half so graceful, with my cain and what AJ called a “distinguished limp” in my right leg where a bullet had torn through it in South Africa. Raffles had lain with me behind our shelter rock, talking to me for hours while I surely panicked about my inevitable demise. I don’t actually remember much from that day aside from his cool, mellow voice in my ear telling me that it would be alright, that it wasn’t so bad, that as soon as this round of fire was over I’d be in the medical tent patched up and good as new.
I’d surely have perished under the blinding South African sun had he not been there to shield me.
“Perhaps we should ask them back to fix up that fence you’ve been complaining about for weeks now,” said Raffles from the kitchen.
“I would if they’d left a way to contact them. Remember, I met them by chance in the center of town.” Alec had been selling firewood out of a cart. When I happened to mention that our roof had begun leaking in a recent rainstorm, he said that he and his friend could come and fix it for us without a problem.
“It’s not as if the village is terribly big. Perhaps we’ll see them about somewhere.”
Amazingly, we didn’t. Of course, Raffles and I weren’t the most social of creature and mostly kept to ourselves in our little home. I asked the young woman who ran a shop near the center of town if she had any information on them, but she was in the same boat as us.
“I’d help you if I could, Mr. Manders, but the two of them just sorta show up to sell charcoal once in a while. They do some nice woodwork, too; made the shop a new door a coupla weeks ago. Glad to have gotten it before winter hit. Some’d say two young men like that should be off fighting in this awful war, but I’m thankful they’ve stuck around.”
She was tying packages of something or other up with twine, continuing, “I’d help you get in contact with’m if I could, but nobody’s really sure where they live or where they came from, neither. Only started showing up not three months ago.”
“Has nobody asked?”
“Plenty of people ‘ave, but they don’t give much of a straight answer. Just say they live “a little ways out of town”. One or the other wanders in here every so often, though; usually Alec. If you’d like you can leave an ad up on that wall over there, I’m sure they’ll see it.”
And so I did, not expecting but hopeful.
Houses were dotted mildly along the rolling foothills of our little village. It was a far cry from the suburban comforts London had once offered us, but in our advancing age AJ and I decided that this was the best place for us. We blended in well with the pastoral as nothing more than two aging veterans from the Boer war. A little odd, a little eccentric perhaps, but hardly out of place. I had my writing to keep me occupied, and the large bookshelves in the cottage kept Raffles fairly entertained. On nice days we would sometimes go for walks along the lazy path on which sat our house, arms linked so that I could lean my weight on my friend to compensate for my limp. I was the sort of place AJ and I could live quietly and without fear. We thought that perhaps that was why the two younger men had also chosen the periphery of this particular village.
A week or so after I had posted, and quite forgotten about, the advertisement I had put up in the shop, Raffles and I received a letter in the mail. In tidy, legible handwriting, it said, “We’d be happy to repair your fence and shall come around Saturday morning to do so. If this isn’t alright, please send word to the address below. Apologies for being so difficult to get ahold of; we haven’t a postable address and have had to get a box at the post office. We forget to check it rather often. Thanks, Maurice & Alec.”
"Seems the fence will get fixed after all," AJ commented after reading the note aloud. I hadn't my reading glasses, and was useless for the task without them, but could still easily see the little smile curling at the corner of Raffles' lips.
"Now, AJ, you aren't to bother them," I said. "We know nothing about them and no matter what we may think I don't want to cause a scene!"
"Who said anything about bothering them?" he replied in that breezy way of his, setting the letter on the kitchen table. "I was simply saying commenting how fortunate it is for the fence to be fixed for you before the winter. What makes you suggest that I would do something to cause a scene?"
"The fact that I've known you for most of my life and I know that look in your eye." But I could find no further energy to argue when he put a genial arm around my shoulders with a dramatic feign of offence and a declaration of his eternal innocence.
It was barely time for breakfast when the boys themselves arrived that early weekend morning. And though Raffles and I tried to invite them in for tea they insisted on getting right to work.
“Might rain later. We should get to work before it starts,” Alec explained, clearly meaning no offense by refusing our invitation. “Best to get it done with right away. I think I seen the broken bit on the way down; did you want us t’fix that gate, too? It sticks.”
I smiled. “If you wouldn't mind. It can be rather difficult to get through it when one’s hands are full, especially on a bum leg like mine.”
“It never has been the same since that boer bullet ran through you,” Raffles chuckled from his seat. “But I still say it gives you a bit of character; just the sort of thing one expects from an old war hero."
I shushed him with a laugh; he was always going on about such things and making mock complaints that the worst he'd suffered in the war was the graze of a bullet as it passed over his left ear. I knew him to be grateful, though he only showed it when I would run my fingers over the scar.
Maurice and Alec took our ramblings with patient expressions, surely humoring us in our old age. We sent them off with smiles to their task and a promise that the tea would still be here if they grew thirsty. As they ambled back down the little path, Alec said something we couldn’t hear through the closing door, but Maurice’s laugh came through loud and clear. I was glad they'd decided to set right to work, as it would give AJ less of a chance to get up to his obvious mischief.
The boys were clearly visible through our west facing window, laughing and joking as they worked diligently. AJ and I passed knowing glances to one another when a touch on the arm would linger just too long or one would have to turn and cover their face to hide a grin too wide and affectionate for one simply enjoying the company of a friend. Perhaps the rest of the world was blind, but for AJ and I the signals were as clear as the clouds which by afternoon had overtaken the sunny skies and made good on their threat of rain. Maurice and Alec, only slightly waterlogged, ran back to the safety of our front door in leaps and bounds.
“Sorry to impose,” said Maurice, each of them drying off with a provided towel. “We didn’t think it would start so quickly. We’ll be out of your way as soon as it stops.”
“It’s no trouble,” assured AJ. “Honestly, the two of us have guests over so rarely that it was beginning to get a bit lonely here all by ourselves.” Never did either of us complain of being lonely, not in each other’s constant companionship, but the words calmed our guests, who kicked off their work boots and made themselves at home on our sofa. It was a small thing only big enough for two people, but Alec was a rather small lad and the two of them didn’t seem opposed to the closeness. Raffles thankfully busied himself making yet more tea, the apparent staple of English hospitality, while I marked a page in my book and attempted to be an engaging host.
“So how did the two of you come to live in this little village?” I asked. “It’s not exactly the lively sort of place one would expect two young men like yourselves to be.”
“Ah, we’re country boys at heart,” Alec smiled. It was a bright smile, friendly and roguish and incredibly charming. “Had enough of the city to last us a while. Not to mention I were raised in a village a lot like this one.”
“We both were, of course,” Maurice added, just a bit too quickly and with a furtive glance over at Alec. “Though we both took jobs in London for a while. Decided to move away after a time; that sort of atmosphere can be so stifling.”
I nodded. “I have to agree; AJ and I lived in London for most of our lives, but at our age we found the rest and quiet did us more good than the crowds of the city. Though the trouble we used to get up to…” I chuckled fondly, safe in the knowledge that the two men across from me would hardly want to ask for details. Old men such as myself could say many things and never worry about being bothered; I suppose most people thought if they asked they would be caught up in some long story of my youth. If only they knew...
AJ returned with a messy assortment of snacks, tea steeping in the pot, and enough cups for the lot of us, sitting comfortably in his favorite chair next to mine. I had long since grown used to seeing him with white hair, though his face now more closely matched the age it presented. Even masquerading as Mr. Maturin, if one looked closely enough they could see the youth in his sparkling eyes and clever mouth. It was still there, of course, and not dulled but warmed and softened by age. “It seems I’ve always been pulling you into trouble, eh, Bunny?”
My cheeks prickled when Alec had to stifle a laugh so as to, presumably, prevent the recent gulp of tea from spilling out his nose. Maurice nudged him with a frown, but AJ only chuckled along with him and explained, “An old nickname of his from our school days.”
“You went to school together?” Maurice asked.
“Yes.” And I told them its name. “We met there when I was only a lad of thirteen. My god, but it seems like forever ago now, doesn’t it?”
“A lifetime,” agreed AJ with a nod. “Though, in reality I suppose it has been about one. You were such a little thing back then, my rabbit, though I can hardly say that’s changed.”
I huffed indignantly, and out guests chuckled. Alec piped up, “Wait, the two a’you met in school? Hah, and here we’s been assumin’ you were brothers.”
Raffles laughed. “Oh no, no. We’re simply a pair of longtime friends, a couple of old bachelors.”
I gave him a look and a smile, but then he chanced to add, “Well, perhaps bachelors isn’t quite the right word. We have each other, after all.”
My friend reached over and patted my hand, a soft twinkle in his eyes as he did, saying both nothing and everything in that small gesture. I longed to lean over and kiss him and I had done thousands of times before, but feared that may be too much for our guests to stand. No matter how certain I was about them, I did not long to make a scene. Maurice and Alec, clearly unsure of how to take the gesture, glanced at one another and shared and entire conversation in a few mere expressions. I couldn’t exactly be sure, of course, but were I forced to hazard a guess I would say it went along the lines of,
‘What do they mean?’
‘Do you think..?’
‘Maybe, but we shouldn’t say.’
They were nervous, understandably so given what they’d likely gone through in life. I hoped that would be that and we could all leave well enough alone but the troublemaker that he is AJ simply had to push his luck. He took a sip of tea and, setting his cup down, said, “You know, you two don’t really strike me as brothers. You’re incredibly different.”
“I take after Mum,” replied Alec easily, then pointing his thumb at Maurice while I gave AJ an angry, pleading look. “He takes after our Da, all hulking and tall like he is.”
“That so?” And though he smiled knowingly AJ seemed to have caught my gaze, and he pushed no further. I didn’t believe them any more than he did, but it wasn’t up to us to pry into the private lives of two near strangers, even if we did perhaps share a membership to the same strange, exclusive club of outcasts.
“I have to say,” I said, steering the topic to something new and unrelated, “it’s good to have some reliable young men left here at home. When recruitment started I feared all of them would be swept up in the excitement.”
“We’re not much for fighting,” Maurice admitted sheepishly.
“Yeh,” Alec agreed. “Don’t see why I should go off’n fight someone just because some archduke or whoever got ‘is head blown in.”
“War is nasty business,” I nodded. “I learned that when I wasn’t much older than you two; you get caught up in the patriotism of it all, for King and Country and all that, you forget what nasty things can happen.”
The two of them, one more obvious than the other, looked at my leg and the walking stick that leaned against the table. Suddenly the air felt thick and heavy, and I regretted bringing up the topic at all. Ever since the war people had given me sympathy and reverence I didn’t feel I deserved, and this time I had brought it upon myself. But AJ, in his wisdom, lit a cigarette and restored a sense of normality to our motley little group. We soon copied him.
Alec failed a few times to get his lit, a few of his rolls having gotten soggy and ruined from the rain. He tossed them whole into a nearby ashtray while Maurice said, “I’ve told you to keep them in a case, you ass,” while his friend grumbled that it was easier the way he did it because he could grab at them in his pocket with only one hand. AJ impressed and entertained them by blowing smoke rings, which neither of them could do though that isn’t to say Alec didn’t try. I watched them amiably, like Maurice declining to attempt because I knew how it would end, offering infrequent and amused commentary when Raffles began telling stories of our night-time adventures at school. He didn’t talk about cricket, or of crime, but of those nights of (mostly) innocent fun where his loyal rabbit would be forever waiting at the window to throw down the rope.
They were interested, or at least faked it very well. AJ was always the better at telling stories; odd considering I was the writer. His blue eyes danced as he captured their attention with these simple stories of sneaking sweets into our rooms, picking or breaking the locks of other students’ studies just to see if we could get inside, and sneaking across the garden as quickly and quietly as possible to avoid being spotted. Though we may have left our thieving days behind, AJ always enjoyed being a topic of conversation, even if he was the only one talking.
Knowing these stories by heart and more, I took an interest instead in observing our guests. Though it may surprise one to hear, I saw an incredible amount of AJ in young Alec, in the curls of his dark hair and bright, dancing nature of his eyes. He was unsuited to stillness, full of a restless energy I had long recognized in my friend. Perhaps he wasn’t as eloquent or well-mannered, but I could tell that Alec was as clever as they come, and equal in spirit! So opposite was he to Maurice, who was mild-mannered if not a bit clumsy in speech, that I thought they made a most attractive pair.
I wondered briefly if AJ was thinking the same as I, or if perhaps there were traits of myself within Maurice that only he could see.
The rain stopped after some time, though none of us noticed until the clock struck and Maurice chanced to look out the window with a surprised, “Is that really the time?”
“Good thing we got done what we did,” Alec appraised. “Ground’s fair fecked, no use tryin’ to pound stumps in now.”
“Sorry, we’ll have to come back and do the rest later,” Maurice apologized, as if they were the ones in control of England’s terrible weather! They were also rising, apparently taking the break in the weather as their cue to release us from the shackles of hospitality.
“Come whenever you like,” I invited. “We enjoyed your company, truly.”
“Ta,” Alec nodded, then starting, “Oh, and, we’ll try’n check our box more often, if you wanna write to us there’n ask for help with summat. I don’ remember the number but if you just tell the girl my name she’ll know-”
“Seventeen,” Maurice provided. “We’re number seventeen. Scudder is the last name.”
AJ grinned, rising to walk our guests the few feet between the sofa and the front door. “We shall make sure to do so. We’re not likely to find such talented repair men with how things are today, nor those so willing to listen to my rambling for over an hour.”
They didn’t know what to say to that, and so merely tipped their caps to us as we sent them off, their boots gathering mud the moment they dared step off the path to the small, puddled road that made its way back into town. From my seat I could see Alec nudge up against Maurice as they walked, then AJ shut the door.
“They’re definitely not brothers,” he chuckled, falling back into his chair.
I broke into a laugh and agreed, “No, definitely not. But even so, AJ, you shouldn't have made such a display!"
"Display?" His tone was quizzical as he crossed his legs and lit another cigarette. "My dear rabbit I haven't the foggiest what you're talking about. Did I ever say anything that wasn't true?"
"And did I at any time say something to directly suggest what we suspect?"
"Well, no, but still-"
He patted my hand. "You worry too much, my dear."
I wanted to argue that I worried a perfectly reasonable amount with him around, but before I could my dear AJ leaned over the distance between our chairs and kissed me, silencing me into a state of perfect contentment.