The train to Osmington was nearly empty on a Wednesday morning. The more distance they put between London and themselves, the emptier the carriage became until they were at last on their own. Memories of the last night, mingled with a certain deprivation of sleep, still occupied their minds. There was no need to talk. They sat as close as possible and held hands furtively, even if alone. Maurice felt Alec‘s growing tenseness and gave his hand an occasional squeeze, trying to hide his own nerves.
The neat, orderly little suburban gardens and houses had vanished and were replaced by lush green meadows, hedges and singular trees as the train rattled on. Yesterday‘s rain had brought out a splendid palette of greens as only England could. Even the occasional yellow fields looked richer and more vibrant in colour.
Maurice relished once more in remembering the turning point, the seconds that had changed everything: Alec, half-clothed and lovely, standing in front of him at the bed, freezing in his embrace and obviously making up his mind while his gentle hands still caressed Maurice‘s shoulders. Then his eyes, a little uncertain and askingly, locking with his own eyes. The few sentences muttered, the few questions answered, and again a long, silent leaning into his body. He heard the fastened beat of his dear one‘s heart and put his ear deliberately on Alec‘s slender chest, unsure if it was the last time he was able to hold him that close, to listen to his warm, beating heart, until the relief came and Alec looked into his eyes:
„Could as well try it. If it doesn‘t work out, you promise to buy me another ticket next year?“
„I promise. Whenever you want.“
Alec ruffled Maurice‘s hair:
„Probably want to have you on that boat with me by then, anyway...“ Alec eased down onto the bed, still only clad in his undershirt, and they kissed. „But you don‘t have to come to Osmington with me. My family won‘t be delighted, that‘s for sure.“
„But I want to. Besides, I also have business at Penge. Let‘s do it together.“
After several earpiercing shreaks and slowing down, the train took the last curve into tiny Osmington station. The fields ceased, roofs and a Norman square church tower became visible when it finally stopped. Pressing their hands together once more violently, Maurice and Alec put on their hats and got off the train.
They reached High Street with it‘s small number of modest shops in a few minutes by foot. What a difference to bustling Bloomsbury this morning: no paved street, but a still slightly muddy clay road. Almost no vehicles, traffic sounds or people around, but picking hens, playing children, tall hollyhocks, roses and various shrubs growing between the houses, as well as the occasional apple trees already displaying their abundance. The smell was also quite different from London. Maurice was strangely glad to be transported into such a different world by just one hour by train. Everything seemed more exotic than the Argentine, and even if the task laying ahead of them was anything but a pleasant one, he felt alive, curious and more elated than ever before.
The butcher‘s shop was next to the post office, looking neat and well-kept with it‘s white painted door and dangling shingle.
„Let‘s see my mother first“, Alec led Maurice around the house. Maurice had just a chance to take in the rather large orchard and kitchen garden in the back when he became aware of a stout, middle-aged lady sitting at the kitchen door with a large bowl of peas in her lap. The black-and-white cat dozing at her feet raised it‘s head when she got up:
„Licky! Is something wrong? Why are you here?“
She got up, hugged and kissed Alec and pushed him away again to get a better look at him:
„Why are you not at Penge? And -“ - her gaze fell onto Maurice - „who is this gentleman? You didn‘t do anything wrong, now did you?“
„Everything‘s fine, Ma. Just wanted to talk to you.“
„But – what about Penge? You cannnot leave in the middle of the day? Does Mr. Durham approve?“
„I doubt it. But it‘s my three last days, anyway. And it‘s important. Ma, this is Mr Hall.“
„Mighty pleased to meet you, sir.“
„How do you do, Mrs Scudder. Sorry to intrude here unannounced. What a beautiful garden you have!“
„Yes, we do, now don‘t we? Apples‘re aplenty this year, I‘m glad.“
„Ma, we need to talk to you. To Freddy also, but I‘d like to talk to you alone first...“
„Why, Fred‘s right here in the kitchen – now where did he go?“ And Mrs Scudder already called Fred‘s name in a healthy loud voice before Alec could stop her. He shot an apologizing glance at Maurice when she came back again, followed by a dark-haired chap about ten years older than Alec, looking unsmiling and rather hostile.
„Alec, what‘s up, why are you not at work?“
„Fred, that‘s Mr Hall.“ They shook hands, eyeing each other suspiciously. A strained silence fell on the little group standing in the morning sun until Mrs Scudder suggested:
„Shall we get some chairs out or would you like to go inside?“
„Let‘s get inside“, Alec said.
The kitchen, though roomy, was dim. Maurice had to take off his hat and still bow some to get through the low door. Fred stayed on his feet, even if a cup of tea and the newspaper indicated where he had sat until a few minutes ago. Maurice took in the room: clean, but a bit shabby. Blue-checkered curtains on narrow windows, geraniums on the window-sills, copper pots and pans hanging over the stove and a distinct smell of woodsmoke.
Alec shot Maurice an intense, quick glance before he started:
„I‘m here to tell you I changed my mind. About emigrating. Think I‘ll stay on some longer in good old England.“
The reaction of Alec‘s relatives was as expected: loud, angry, causing a turmoil that needed some minutes to settle. Maurice watched the whole exchange silently until the first wave of emotions and questions had died down and Alec looked at him:
„Mr Hall here is offering me a position. I‘d rather try that out first. Wasn‘t that sure about the Argentine, anyway.“
„Are you daft? I bought you the ticket! You are expected there! Already took so much trouble to get you that job! Now that‘s my brother again, didn‘t I know it! You can‘t back out now, you know that?“
„That great job of your‘s – will have to work two years on it to pay you back for the ticket. Could as well stay on the Durham estate and slave away there.“
„But you said you wanted to better you. Earn more than Pa. Make a life. What happened?“ Fred looked at Alec more than annoyed. His hostility spread on to Maurice who sensed at once there was more than damaged family bonds to it. Clearly, Fred had had some scheme in mind involving Alec working more than his share and himself making a profitable deal.
„But - Alec, my boy, are you sure? Think of your future! Look at your brother! You could be like him!“
„I know, Ma. But all of a sudden, I‘m not sure anymore I really want to go this far away. Not yet.“
Mrs Scudder‘s face lightened up:
„Are you in love, Licky? Is there someone at Penge?“
Alec smiled at her but shook his head.
„Oh, I see… Mr Hall, do tell, there is someone, am I right?“
Fred snorted: „That‘s my brother, giving up his great prospects for some skirts. You are even dafter than I thought.“ He slapped the table angrily.
„It‘s just – I am not sure anymore. I still could go next year. Let me work things out here and see...“
Fred interrupted him: „Don‘t expect me to buy you another ticket. And what about the one we got for you already?“
„Maybe we can sell it in Southampton?“
„No, not at such short notice.“
Maurice made his first contribution to the heated discussion:
„Mr Scudder, I would be more than glad to reimburse you for the ticket.“
„You? Why?“ Fred stared at him in disbelief.
„It is partly on my suggestion your brother decided to stop in England. He rendered himself indispensable during my stay at Penge and, as I have been on the lookout for a person of his abilities for longer already, I offered him to work for me.“
„You have an estate and a game also?“, Mrs Scudder asked, the visitor having gained esteem after his remarks.
„No, no, I don‘t. I would need Alec – your son, I mean – in another capacity.“
„Butchring and hunting‘s the only things Alec knows about“, Fred grunted.
„Oh, your brother has a lot of potential.“
„What would you need him for then?“, Fred asked. Alec looked at Maurice, curious himself. Maurice cleared his throat and began slowly:
„It‘s – not so easy to explain. You see, I have a certain physical condition which makes the occasional assistance of a person like Alec necessary. I never know when the next attack strikes. Might be in the middle of the night, might be not at all for four, five days. I hope you understand if I won‘t go into details, but it‘s a rather private ailment, so I would much prefer to have a male valet for assisting me in those times. I saw several London doctors about it, and it cannot be cured. I won‘t die of it, but I need - constant care, as it seems. As this task involves a lot of discretion, I would be willing to pay a good deal above the usual wages a London valet can expect.“
Alec tried hard not to look in Maurice‘s direction, but Maurice realized a tiny twitch in his lips. Mrs Scudder‘s face was full of sympathy:
„And you had such an attack at the house?“
„Yes, in the middle of the night, as it is, I‘m afraid. Alec happened to be around when the crisis announced itself and almost saved my life. Figuratively spoken. I would have much minded to bother one of the parlourmaids.“
„And is it – forgive me for asking – oh, I see, you won‘t go into details. I understand. But, Alec, is it like what your Uncle Archie has? You know, the...“
„Ma, Mr Hall already said he won‘t have me talk about it. But -“ he glanced at Maurice quickly - „yeah, it‘s rather in this regions there. Better have a man attend to it.“
„Oh“, Mrs Scudder looked at Maurice. „Sorry sir, just concerned what my boy‘s having to do. But seems you got the right lad for a job like this. Alec isn‘t afraid of anything, can see blood, can butcher as well, you see...“
Maurice hid a grin: „Hopefully, this won‘t be necessary. At least not soon. But – can I rely on you, Mrs Scudder, to refer to his position in as unsuspicious terms as possible? Just tell your family he is a personal valet in a London household now.“
Fred got up abruptely, his chair scratching the floor:
„A word with you outside, if you please“, he spat out. Maurice shot Alec an astonished look and got up. When Alec intended to follow, he muttered:
„Let me do this. Stay.“
From his place, Alec could see the two men walking angrily and quickly into the orchard. His mother sat with her back to the open door and seemed unconcerned:
„Seems Mr Hall wants to settle the issue with your ticket. Licky, are you sure? Such a sudden change of mind! But, of course, I am so, so glad, dear boy, to have you around some more! Would have been hard to lose another child to a faraway country! My Licky!“ She clasped his hand. Alec smiled at her and patted her meaty, worn hand:
„You see, Fred would boss me around somewhat terrible. You know him. Can as well let me boss around here, on familiar grounds, and by a gentleman who pays me well, and can come and see you Sundays.“
Over his mother‘s shoulder, Alec saw that the confronation in the orchard grew angrier. Fred had assaulted Maurice for the third time, getting too near his face and spitting heated words at him. Maurice stood composed and calm, not backing an inch whenever Fred got too close. When physical abuse seemed near, Alec got up when he heard a loud „...about you and the squire!“ and said:
„Just a sec, Ma.“ Leaning out of the open door, he called: „Fred, Mr Hall‘s a semi-professional boxer. Just sayin‘.“
Coming back, he patted his mother‘s back and leaned down to kiss her on the cheek.
„What‘s going on? What are they arguing about?“
„Guess Fred‘s disappointed. See he had some more plans for me than he told me. I tell you, I‘m glad not to be dependent on him. If I go to the Argentine, it should be with me own money.“
„Slavery“, „can‘t buy him“, „servants at the house“ wafted in angry tones from the garden. Mrs Scudder turned her head and cried, without getting up:
„Now keep your voice down, Fred!“ Turning to Alec, she continued: „Always has been a disrespectful one, Fred. How dare he talk to a gentleman like that?“
„Don‘t worry, Mr Hall can take care of‘imself.“ Presently, Alec saw Maurice groping for his checkbook and pen. This part of the transaction had a sordid touch, so he tried to distract his mother:
„Ma, is there still my shirts upstairs? The one‘s you washed for the trip? Will need some things, you know, underwear, pyjama, to get me through the first few days.“
„Why, of course, it‘s all on the dresser. Don‘t you want to take your whole kit? We could pack it easily!“
„No, just a few things. I‘ll pop upstairs quickly. Get me if these two start to wrestle, will you?“
When Alec came down, carrying a light knapsack bulging with soft material, he found Maurice seated at the kitchen table, tea, raisin buns, bread and an array of sliced sausage in front of him while his mother bustled about the kitchen. Alec gasped:
„You can‘t serve Mr Hall at the kitchen table, Ma!“
„It‘s perfectly alright, Scudder. Your mother very gracefully offered lunch and I have to admit I‘m rather hungry.“
When his mother turned into the larder, Alec slipped on the bench near his lover and whispered:
„Everything settled with Fred? Didn‘t kill him?“
„Nearly had to, but just paid him. He disappeared, I‘m happy to report.“
Alec nudged him:
„Now, did you ever eat at a kitchen table?“
Maurice frowned, trying at the same time to hold the cat back who had gotten interested in his buttered knife:
„Let me think. Once, I guess. Yes, once. At school. I was about twelve, had been sick for some days and was allowed to have dinner at the nurse‘s room. If that counts as kitchen table?“
Alec smirked and reached for a slice of bread:
„Well, you might have to get used to it. I say – are you as hungry as I am?“
Alec shot him a meaningful, long glance. Maurice nodded, forgetting his raisin bun, forgetting his knife in the air. He swallowed, stared like mesmerized into his friend‘s eyes and started to say something when Mrs Scudder came back with a fresh cucumber and tomatoes and started to chatter away immediately.
They stayed on for a few minutes after their light lunch as Mr Scudder also wanted to see the strange visitor who had crossed his son‘s plans. Being in the process of making sausages like every Wednesday, he couldn‘t stop for long and apologized for his attire. He seemed calm and amiable, rather different from Fred, and also genuinely relieved to have his son nearer himself than South America. With relief, Maurice saw that the Scudders were a loving and warm family. He recognized Alec‘s ease with himself originated in these affectionate surroundings.
Furnished with four apples Mrs Scudder insisted on putting into Alec‘s bag, they left the tiny village and started for Penge. It was quite a distance by foot, but Maurice wanted to take these first steps of their life together deliberately and slowly, without the aid of any vehicle or company. They were elated and energized as the whole ordeal had gone much better than expected. After some minutes, Alec suggested a footpath in the meadows. Leaving the country road, they entered a fairyland of knee-high grass, swaying in a light wind, dotted with white whisps of Queen-Anne‘s-lace. The afternoon was clement and warm. Alec took in his surroundings as if he saw them for the first time. And, sure enough, everything looks different when you see it with the eyes of love, even the most familiar spots on earth.
After half an hour in which they had met no other living creatures but a few cows and sheep, they reached a small group of trees. They stopped and looked around. Feeling alone and safe, Alec put his bag on the ground and embraced his friend. After a long, hungry kiss, he pulled himself away and asked:
„Was Fred very nasty?“
„Well, he alluded to – you know, that he knew gossip, that his brother was no cheap and easy fling for a queer, overfed gentleman, that I had to pay if I wanted to have my unnatural ways with you...“
„He never? Sorry. What an idiot.“
„Claimed you were under-age as well.“
„I‘m not! I‘m twenty-two!“
Maurice shrugged, fuelled by love and being wonderfully beyond inferior accusations.
„So, how much did you pay for me?“
„Alec! Never put it like that again!“, Maurice looked up, shocked and hurt. “I didn‘t buy you! You are not a thing. I don‘t own you. You are free, you still can go to Southampton on Saturday. Please never say again I bought you, it feels terrible.“
„Just joking, c‘m on. Just wanted to know how much Fred charged – I mean, asked of you? `cause I‘ve a feeling he would take his chance...“
„He claimed the ticket was 88 pounds, plus ten for taxes and other expenses, and five more for bedding and your own dishes on board ship, which seemed rather much to me, but I didn‘t want to – bargain over you. You know.“
„Well, ticket was 68 pounds. As to the other stuff, I don‘t know. Understood we was to get it on Saturday only? So – sorry, but he acted as mean as I feared. I will give it back to you, promise.“
„No! Alec, darling, you don‘t have to give me anything. That‘s all right, you understand? And if you ever want to get another ticket, I promise to buy you one.“
„But why are you so kind to me? Why do you spend so much money on me? I know you don‘t want to hear it, but – can‘t help feeling like a whore...“ He smirked and looked so adorably wicked that Maurice couldn‘t help but smile also. He folded his hands around him and held him closely:
„I don‘t expect anything from you. Please don‘t feel obliged to go to bed with me because you think I bought you.“ They locked their eyes, serious now. „I would love to go to bed with you, of course, but – only if you want it also. Besides, it‘s my job to rate investments. One part of a good investment is knowledge and information, one part intuition. And my heart tells me: it‘s the best thing to invest in you. I already got back my interest, and so much more.“ Alec raised his eyebrows and looked skeptical. „See, I invested in Clive - Mr Durham I mean – for years. Thousands and thousands of pounds, figuratively spoken. My interest rate was zero, I didn‘t even get back what I had paid. The worst idea of my life, actually. But with you – I cannot tell you how much you gave me already in these two short nights. How happy you made me.“ Maurice leaned in to kiss his friend, but Alec freed himself and leaned his back on the tree:
„Forgive me, but – I cannot follow. You say I‘m no thing. Now you say I‘m a good investment. That‘s a thing also. And, all in all, this isn‘t about bed only, is it? I mean“ - Alec wavered and seemed insecure for the first time since their quick decision in the morning - „is it just some sort of amusement for you? Will you push me away once you‘ve enough of me?“
„Darling, never!“ Maurice stared at his friend with large eyes, took a step towards him and grasped his hands. Holding them warmly, easing his thumb over them, he continued:
„It‘s much more than bed for me.“
„It better were. You see, I‘m putting meself completely into your hands. I don‘t have any savings, no education, no more job with Mr Durham, no ticket for the great freedom in the Argentine – nothing I could come back to. I‘m at your mercy, and right now, it feels – odd. All of a sudden, I‘m scared I acted too much on impulse. What if it doesn‘t work out? What if I‘m just some sort of entertainment for you?“
Maurice was silent. He held his friend‘s hands and looked affectionately into his brown eyes. Finally, having composed himself, he smoothed Alec‘s unruly curls and spoke gently:
„I don‘t have much experience concerning these matters. But it felt like much more than a fleeting pleasure or amusement for a summer night. It‘s – I don‘t know how to put this – it‘s – still so overwhelming. Alec, you are everything I ever longed for. I have been dreaming of you, of a friend like you, before we even met, before I even knew you existed. And when you came to my room, there in Penge – when you made love to me so wonderfully“ - Alec‘s blinked at the memory and swallowed briefly - „it was all I had ever wished for. You were all I had wished for. You are so much more than just a pleasant, beautiful body for me. Believe me.“
They kissed tenderly. Maurice hid his face at Alec‘s neck when Alec said:
„So, you‘re serious about it? It‘s more than – pleasure?“
„Of course. I mean, I can‘t predict the future. They say lust dies down after some time.“
„Don‘t think so. Not with you“, Alec mumbled at Maurice‘s ear. Maurice smiled and smoothed Alec‘s hair:
„Let me tell you what I liked best in our nights together. Do you want to hear it?“ Alec nodded.
„It was – not the wild things. Not the amazing things you did with your hands, and lips, and tongue, and...“ He raised an eyebrow and they smiled at each other. „It was – waking up in the dark, feeling your body beside me, hearing you breath, knowing I‘m not alone. And when I took your hand, you squeezed mine without waking up. In both nights. You remember?“
„No. I slept.“
„You did. You held my hand. And once, you even sighed a bit.“
„I sighed? Come on, I‘m no girl!“
„You are even prettier than a girl!“
They kissed again longer and more lustful than before. Maurice tangled his fingers in Alec‘s thick curls, more tousled than ever, and let his other hand roam over his friend‘s back and hips. Alec pressed into him, responsive and ready, as if continuing their nocturnal encounter. When Maurice pulled away to catch some breath, he said:
„Now, Alec. Darling. Listen. We know each other only for ten, eleven days. But I feel, no – I know you are the one. I promise to love you and care for you. As long as you can stand being with me. I promise to be there for you. I am aware you are risking everything for me. I won‘t disappoint you. You have my word.“
Alec stood dumbstruck. He already had been on the verge of being undone by the power of their kiss, but now his upper lip started to quiver and his eyes misted over.
„My darling. It‘s allright. Cry, if you need to, and then kiss me again. I‘m all your‘s. Without any financial transactions. I‘m your‘s, and I won‘t fail you“, Maurice whispered.
„It‘s just“ - Alec hiccuped - „damn it, now you‘ll say again I‘m a girl – I mean, the day was long, last night even longer, I was worried about Fred, I was worried about Ma and touched because she was so glad to have me around some more – ah, fuck, sorry“, and Maurice heard only occasional sobs for the next minutes. He held Alec close and stroked his shoulders, feeling his shirt getting moist. As the ground was still wet from yesterday‘s rain, they both still leaned on the tree and stayed there while the late afternoon gradually turned into evening and the light got softer. Finally, Alec raised his sweaty, wet face and sobbed:
„You got a hankie for me?“
Maurice nodded. After having blown his nose, Alec asked:
„So, I‘m not your pleasure boy.“
Maurice shook his head.
„And I‘m not your very special valet? `Cause I don‘t want to get paid by you.“
„No. We‘ll find you a job. Or, according on what we plan to do, find a job for both of us. We don‘t have to talk about that now but I‘ve got some ideas. You will earn your own money. And until then, don‘t worry. I‘ll feed you and look that you get the occasional bath… and maybe a bed...“
Alec grinned, cheeks still moist from crying.
„I‘m fed up with being dependent on noble gentlemen, you know.“
„You won‘t ever be again.“
Maurice tenderly stroked his cheek, his jawline, his lips before kissing Alec gently. The shadows had grown longer, the mellow evening sky turned yellow and golden. Alec kissed him back, long and lustfully, before pulling himself away. His brown eyes looked into Maurice‘s:
„You have to settle something at the house?“
„Yes, I need to see Clive, Mr Durham, I mean, one more time.“
Alec concentrated on the buttons of Maurice‘s waistcoat, turning them in his fingers, his eyes averted:
„I s‘ppose you sleep at the house then?“
„No!“, Maurice cried. Alec looked up, startled and surprised. „No?“
„Of course not. I will sleep with you. If that‘s possible.“
Alec‘s face lit up:
„Why, of course. Waited for you at the boathouse already. There‘s no bed there, but I gathered some blankets, some old clothes...“
„Anything will do as long as you‘re with me.“ Maurice searched for his lips again and let his hands wander over Alec‘s body. „In fact, I think we should try this bed of your‘s before I go up to the house. Don‘t you think?“ Alec nodded:
„After all, you paid a hundred pounds for me. You can do with me whatever you wish.“
„If you ever -“ Maurice flared up, but on seeing a mischievous smirk on his lover‘s face, he stopped.
„Be careful what you wish for“, he breathed into Alec‘s ear and licked it quickly. „I might do it...“
Alec groaned and pressed into Maurice. One more ardent kiss, and Maurice moaned:
„Or – how about here? And now?“
„I‘d love to, believe me, but I happen to know this is Simcox‘s way home. Still early, but one never knows...“
„No, not Simcox again! He surprised us once already...“
„Clive and me.“
„You shagged Mr Durham in the outdoors?“, Alec asked incredulously.
„No, no, of course not! Alec! It was completely innocent, but maybe it looked – otherwise.“
Alec grinned: „Tell me all about innocent.“ He took up his knapsack and groped for Maurice‘s hand. Following his steps, Maurice replied:
„Yes, I‘ll tell you. Because you won‘t experience innocent with me, ever...“
Maurice and Alec walked on, hand in hand. The dense, dim greenwood soon swallowed them, and after a few seconds, the grass their feet had touched lifted itself again. Some more moments, and the woods were silent and undisturbed again. The forest embraced the lovers and welcomed them into the safety they had long been looking for.