He really was asleep when he sprang up and flung wide the curtain with a cry of “Come!” The action awoke him; what had he done that for? A mist covered the grass of the park, and the tree trunks rose out of it like the channel marks in the estuary near his old private school. It was jolly cold. He shivered and clenched his fists. The moon had risen. Below him was the drawing-room, and the men who were repairing the tiles on the roof of the bay had left their ladder resting against his window sill. What had they done that for? He shook the ladder and glanced into the woods, but the wish to go into them vanished as soon as he could go. What use was it? He was too old for fun in the damp.
But as he returned to his bed a little noise sounded, a noise so intimate that it might have arisen inside his own body. He seemed to crackle and burn and saw the ladder’s top quivering against the moonlit air. The head and the shoulder of a man rose up, paused, a gun was leant against the window sill very carefully, and someone he scarcely knew moved towards him and knelt beside him and whispered, “Sir, was you calling out for me? . . . Sir, I know . . . I know,” and touched him.
Stunned, he sat stiff and upright in his bed, and short arms clamped about his back. The round notes of Scudder’s voice said, “Lie down,” and momentum implored Maurice to comply. He strained to see in the dark, moonlight through the still-wide window showed the familiar outline of his softly worn cap, the firm shoulder seams of a thick wool coat. Maurice fixated on the brush of its rough lapel against a bare patch of his chest, despite the play of blunt fingers there, and the harsh brush of lips wet inside. It was too much. Maurice felt the cap in his hand without realising he had pulled and brushed it off Scudder’s head. His hair was loose, thick, wild, and tickled the side of Maurice’s face as Scudder pushed his mouth into the valley of his throat.
There was the shape and weight of him on Maurice’s pelvis, flank, and forearm, and all his layers of clothing smelled of the bright, wet shrubbery under the cover of which Maurice had so recently wished to go bad. Maurice pushed his fingertips against the crown of his head and was pleased to find the hair soft and un-fussed. As his touch was met with force, he took the hint and dug in, gripped, pulled. Surely the racket of their open-mouthed breathing would shake the walls and wake the house. Maurice thrust both hands downward and fumbled every fastening he came upon, lay quivering still and let Scudder undo his buttons. His own bare foot brushed down the length of Scudder’s calf, hooked the back of his ankle; much later, Maurice would recall it as a moment of significance, if not of final, involuntary surrender.
Time played its tricks: reeling out slow then rushing, taking advantage of the cover of darkness to change shape. For too long in an instant, Scudder nuzzled into the pit of Maurice’s arm, and for no time at all that must have been hours, smeared kisses across his chest. The bold way Scudder yanked down his pyjama bottoms elicited a gasp of delighted shock from the base of Maurice’s arched throat, and he pressed hard on the tops of the firm shoulders. Thinking was a profession with which he was no longer acquainted, for all was sensation. Nose and eyes prickling, Maurice persuaded himself it was nothing but another dream, in which he called out in a whisper, “Come!”
There came a hiss of breath against his low belly, the novelty of which would have amazed him had he not been thrown over by the rough voice reassuring, “Sir, I’m here. I’m already here with you. And you’re with me, sir. Just so.”
There wasn’t time to marvel that he had called out aloud, for just then—terribly, beautifully—wet lips surrounded his crown and what had been mere sensation gave way to a full-scale riot. Maurice feared for them both, felt criminal touching the crown of the undulating head, and he knew them to be holy. The bright brown eyes. Starlight. As his crisis came upon him, Maurice called out to God and cursed Christ, and there was nothing but this on earth. The devil take Heaven for Maurice had no need of it ever again forever.
“Sir, you mustn’t cry out so,” Scudder admonished him then, the smooth face suddenly hovering above his own, cut into ribbons by the shadows of the moon. Maurice pulled him down, holding close with a wish to enfold him entirely. The taste of his mouth as they kissed was like the still water of a tidepool, and Maurice remembered the waves rushing in too late, and he wanted to laugh but only smiled. Scudder’s expression seemed to flicker menace in the half-dark, radiated desperate need, and he pulled Maurice by the wrist, to put him into place.
Longing to memorise every twitch of muscle and gulp of breath, Maurice stared perhaps too openly at Scudder’s face, the straining tendon of his neck, and once brushed a mutinous lock of hair from in front of his eye. To think too closely about the silk-velvet slip between his fingers would surely send him out of his mind. He only kept his loose fist there beside his hip where Scudder had placed it, and willed the bedsprings to stay silent. Scudder’s mouth was dry when it opened against his jaw, and breathlessly he murmured, “But your hand is so soft, sir,” and sighed loud and hard. The wonder of the thing. They were behind the black of the mirror’s back, or Maurice was, or had met him there. No matter the words to explain it, it all came down to: No Turning Back. He no longer wished to, and drew him close, and held him.
“Had I best be going now, sir?”
Abominably shy, Maurice pretended not to hear.
“We mustn’t fall asleep though, awkward if anyone came in,” he continued, with a pleasant blurred laugh that made Maurice feel friendly but at the same time diffident and sad. He managed to reply, “You mustn’t call me sir,” and the laugh sounded again, as if brushing aside such problems. There seemed to be charm and insight, yet his discomfort increased.
“May I ask your name?” he said awkwardly.
“I know you’re Scudder—I meant your other name.”
“Only Alec just.”
“Jolly name to have.”
“It’s only my name.”
“I’m called Maurice.”
“I saw you when you first drove up, Mr Hall, wasn’t it Tuesday, I did think you looked at me angry and gentle both together.”
“Who were those people with you?” said Maurice, after a pause.
“Oh that wor only Mill, that wor Milly’s cousin. Then do you remember the piano got wet the same evening, and you had great trouble to suit yourself over a book, didn’t read it, did you either.”
“How ever did you know I didn’t read my book?”
“Saw you leaning out of the window instead. I saw you the next night too. I was out on the lawn.”
“Do you mean you were out in all that infernal rain?”
“Yes. . .watching. . .oh, that’s nothing, you’ve got to watch, haven’t you. . .see, I’ve not much longer in this country, that’s how I keep putting it.”
“How beastly I was to you that morning!”
“Oh that’s nothing—Excuse the question but is that door locked?”
“I’ll lock it.” As he did so, the feeling of awkwardness returned. Whither was he tending, from Clive to what companionship?
Presently they fell asleep.
They slept separate at first, as if proximity harassed them, but towards morning a movement began, and they woke deep in each other’s arms. “Had I best be going now?” he repeated, but Maurice, through whose earlier night had threaded the dream “Something is a little wrong and had better be,” was resting utterly at last, and murmured, “No, no.”