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To Part and to Fight

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After running away together from Penge, Maurice and Alec have established themselves woodcutters, but a long, severe winter with periods of starvation and the outbreak of war have proved enormous challenges to their chosen way of life. Alec has been keen to enlist for some time – he is not sentimental about the war, he mainly sees it as an opportunity to gain some reasonably compensated work for a change. He’s had a very hard time convincing Maurice to enlist. Maurice does enlist, reluctantly, fairly soon after Alec, feeling there’s little point hanging around the woods while his lover goes off to fight. He’s also aware of the new patriotic fervour being whipped up to convince young men to go to war. Although far more of a patriot than Alec, Maurice isn’t terribly convinced by this version of patriotism. He finds it all rather trumped up and sinister but is unable to convey his precise feelings about it to Alec.

As their separation looms, the tension between them has been building.

We join them the last day of a woodcutting contract. They will both be joining their regiments in a matter of days. They’ve reached the end of their last civilian job for the time being, having just received their final wages (a woeful pittance). They’ve managed to raise a little extra money by selling their axes and saws to their last customer, as they have nowhere safe to keep the tools and won’t need them for now. They are walking through dense woodland, back to a tiny, dilapidated shack, their temporary home, that sits hidden amidst the dignity of ancient trees. It’s still quite early in the afternoon. They pass by a river on their way back and decide to bathe. They’ve bathed here before – quickly and functionally, because up until now it’s been too cold for anything else. But today is beautiful. Spring has truly arrived, it’s sunny and relatively warm, and all seems peaceful.

This stretch of river and the surrounding embankment are usually quiet, and today is no exception. At one point a horse and cart passes somewhere beyond the borders of the opposite bank and then all is silent again save for the birds and a few fish. Once in the water, the two men relax a bit, smile at each other, and even laugh as they swim. They don’t quite go as far as horseplay. When they’re done with bathing they lie close together in a small patch of sunshine - on a stretch of the riverbank sheltered by tall grass and young trees, near to where they've left their clothes. They relish the caress of the sun on their naked bodies even though they’re both shivering a little. Maurice finds himself gazing at Alec. There’s admiration and longing in his gaze, but Alec detects something else. When Maurice kisses Alec’s shoulder, Alec shrugs him off.

ALEC (Very uneasy, heavily): Won’t do this, Maurice. Can’t.

Maurice looks to Alec, hurt. Desperation is creeping in.

ALEC: It’s cos o’ the way you’re lookin’ at me. Like you’re…saying farewell or somethin’. Like as if you’re burying me.

MAURICE: I’m not meaning to.

ALEC: That’s as maybe, but it’s what you’re doin’ and it don’t put me in the mood, is all.

MAURICE (Low and hoarse): I’m sorry.

ALEC (Quietly): Pass them clothes, will you.

They are changing into their clothes as they have the following conversation.

ALEC: You remember what winter was like, don’t you?

MAURICE (Chuckles bitterly): Don’t think I’ll forget it in no hurry.

ALEC: We neither of us should. A dozen and more times I thought “We’re gonna die o’ hunger or cold or both.” When we laid down in the woods and I thought ev’ry time if we fell to sleep we wouldn’t wake next day. Didn’t always want to neither. Sometimes wondered…

Alec falters and looks out towards the water as he says the next part.

ALEC: …if death would’ve been easier. Crossed my mind. Never long, but it did. And I know it crossed your’n too.

MAURICE: There were times when it did, yes.

ALEC: But remember what you said to me, when things got real tight?

MAURICE: Probably nothin’ helpful.

ALEC: You said you’d live ev’ry one of the bad times twice over. Because you were with me. You said our being together meant you never regretted a day. You, who’s had to come down a lot lower in ways of living than I ‘ave.

Alec is putting his shoes on, tying his boot laces.

ALEC: In many ways you managed it better than I did. You were the stronger ‘un.

MAURICE: We managed it because we were together. And because winter has to end sometime.

Maurice is looking up at the surrounding trees, as if appreciating the foliage as a second chance at life, as if its presence symbolises life’s possibilities. He gets to his feet – Alec is waiting as he has finished dressing before Maurice – then, side by side, they start towards “home”.

ALEC: Well, I don’t want another winter like that one. We can take it, sure, but why take it when you don’t ‘ave to? I know we’ve talked on this a dozen times and ‘ow you don’t really agree, but at least with enlisting we get food and board, some decent money in our pockets –

MAURICE (On the brink of sarcasm): You see a future in soldiering, then?

ALEC: No. You know that ain’t it. But I was thinkin’ we might get enough money together for some proper materials, build ourselves a proper little cottage…

MAURICE: What, ‘ere?

ALEC: Wouldn’t ‘ave to be ‘ere. That’s not my point.

They walk in silence for a short while.

MAURICE: Wouldn’t work. You know the dangers of settling too long in a place, Alec.

ALEC: What, so you don’t think there’s any place on this ‘ere earth we can go, and stop?

MAURICE (Considers, then after a moment): I don’t know. Seems safest when we keep moving. [Shrugs, tries to sound optimistic for Alec’s sake]. There might be somewhere. If we keep looking maybe one day we’ll find it.

They are both surveying the surrounding woodland. Alec spies a large stump from a very old English oak and sits on it. He lights a cigarette and offers it to Maurice to smoke first. Maurice accepts the cigarette and sits beside Alec.

ALEC: Remember the autumn before last? When we run off together and how all them colours on the leaves got you acting silly, and you’d say, “We got England, Alec, as well as one ‘nother. All this, all England’s ours.”

Alec takes the cigarette from Maurice while looking side on at him, searchingly and also quite sharply.

ALEC: Stopped saying it, dint you, when the war come and then this winter. Not said it once since. Cos you see what I see: the England we ‘ad that past autumn’s slipping away quick and might’nt never be back. And I dessay that’s part o’ what you’re grieving for.

MAURICE (Makes a sound almost like a laugh, a quick exhale): War. First they said it’d be over by Christmas. Now they’re saying it’ll only last a few more months.

ALEC: And what d’you think?

MAURICE: Might. Might be longer. And what’ll we be? Two pawns on the battlefield fightin’ some rich man’s war. We’ll be stuck who knows where, and in different regiments. Now before you say it: I know that was on my insistence, and I believe it’s just as well, but…

Maurice takes the cigarette, inhales deeply on it.

MAURICE: Alec… tell me somethin’. Be honest.

Maurice is now looking down at the floor.

MAURICE: Have you ever wished that… you went off to the Argentine after all? D’you ever imagine what your life might’ve been had you sailed?

There’s a pause as Alec thinks over the question.

ALEC: All right. I’ll admit I’ve thought on it. Not often, like, but I ‘ave.

Maurice has a look now that’s openly wracked with guilt. And it’s clear that the guilt is in danger of developing into full-blown misery.

ALEC: But wonna know the funny thing?

Maurice tentatively glances side-on at Alec. He looks as if he isn’t sure he can bear to hear any more.

ALEC: It’s the times I thought what my life coulda been – out there – I’m never on my own. Never even with Fred. Always I’m there wi’ you.

Maurice cracks an involuntary smile stemming the downward spiral, and Alec laughs.

ALEC: I know. Wouldn’t ‘ave been likely, would it? And now I think ‘bout it I see you all dressed up. Like that man out of… oh, what was the picture we went and seed that time?

MAURICE (Sounding like he’s rolling his eyes): “The Rose of San Juan”...

ALEC: That’s it. And you’re always talkin’ ‘ow you used to talk. Like a gentleman. And you’re complainin’ ‘bout the food and the weather.

Maurice is chuckling now, gently.

ALEC: When I think ‘bout it, you’re acting like a right royal pain in the arse. Not that that’s nothin’ new, mind…

Maurice is trying to look affronted, but he catches Alec’s eye which sets them both off laughing. But after a while Alec looks serious and stern.

ALEC: Made my decision, Maur. Chose to stop. Can’t go blaming yoursel for that. S’not like you coulda known the Huns would go marchin’ on the Belgies.

Alec stands, then Maurice does. They continue walking.

ALEC: Anyways, we’re fit spite o’ ev’rything. We can both dodge bullets if need be. And look at me. ‘Ad plenty practise wi’ the gamekeeping an’ that.

MAURICE (Bristling at the reference to Penge): Don’t think war’ll be like gamekeeping.

ALEC: Then you dint see some o’ the shots the gentlemen used to fire. Had me runnin’ for my life ‘alf the time. If anythin’ it were probably more dangerous than a war. Wasn’t the safety in numbers.

There’s a brief pause. Alec looks as if he’s had a thought.

ALEC: Maur, listen, I don’t want you to think I’m takin’ our separatin’ light or nothin’…

MAURICE: I know you’re not.

ALEC: Jus don’t see no point frettin’. We’ll do a turn and it’ll be over before we know it. [A slight laugh. Both the laugh and the following words are a touch too bright, and just a tad nervous] After all, winter’s gotta end someday, don’t it?

Maurice manages a weak smile at Alec’s quoting him.

ALEC: You mussent worry. I see it even when you laugh. In your eyes. I know you. When you get an idea and it gets fixed in your ‘ead and it gets you broodin’… [This last word is deliberately dragged out; he’s half teasing].

Softly and playfully, while they walk, Alec tugs at Maurice’s chin.

ALEC: Reckon I’m gettin’ to know you pretty well, Maurice Hall.

Maurice looks nervous suddenly, reacting to the words “Maurice Hall”. He stops walking and so Alec stops.

ALEC: What?

MAURICE: It’s jus that was somethin’ I wanted to tell you.

Maurice looks to Alec, boyishly shy, agitated, proud. Alec looks at Maurice quizzically as Maurice reaches into his coat pocket. He hands Alec a folded piece of paper.

ALEC (Even more puzzled on seeing what it is): Your enlistment paper. Well, it’s ‘ardly news, is it?

MAURICE (Gently): The top bit.

Alec looks. He stares at the paper for a long time, then stares at Maurice. For a moment he’s at a loss for what to say.

MAURICE: Think I like it better.

ALEC (Reads aloud): Maurice Christopher Scudder.

Alec is trying to hold back his emotions, trying to keep things light. His next words sound dismissive, faux casual.

ALEC: Could jus as easy bin Alec Hall.

MAURICE (Shakes his head tersely): No. Couldn’t. [He nods to the paper in Alec’s hand]. I like THAT better. S’who I am now.

Alec glances at the paper once more and then hands it back to Maurice.

ALEC (In a low, gentle voice): Why’d you go an’ do a thing like that for? [He looks to Maurice, trying hard not to break]. Took you for a mate the minute I sent that wire to you from Osmington that time. While you went swanning off to Sou’hampton to entertain Ma and Da and Fred… Making your small talk with ‘em…

Maurice glances down for just a second. When he looks up again he’s wearing a thoughtful, serious expression. He is studying Alec’s face and Alec’s boisterous tone as he teases.

ALEC: For that alone I wish I’d taken the train down. Pity I missed it.

Maurice continues to study Alec. He’s read something between the words, and he instinctively reaches out and presses a hand on Alec’s cheek. The contact changes Alec’s expression at once. When he looks up at Maurice it’s with an intense, fixed gaze – one that’s fierce, raw with need. Maurice leans over to kiss Alec tenderly – his hair, his nose, his lips. He caresses Alec’s arms as Alec raises them to wrap around Maurice’s shoulders and neck. Maurice starts to undo Alec’s shirt. Alec speaks as Maurice kisses his neck, as Maurice’s lips move down to the exposed part of his chest where his top buttons are now undone.

ALEC (Hoarse, highly aroused): Now ain’t this silly. We only jus got our clothes on…

They strip just to the side of the deserted pathway, lay their clothes on the ground in a spread so that they can make love on them. They are careful, deliberate in every movement, kissing frequently, watchful of each other’s pleasure. Maurice encourages Alec to go on top, to enter him. They are both trying to contain themselves as they rock against each other, very much wanting to prolong this moment. They breathe shallow breaths, trying to stall orgasm for as long as they can bear. Eventually they climax together, joyfully, expelling hurried breaths, nearly as if choking or laughing. Afterwards they remain together on the ground. Maurice is resting his head on Alec’s chest and they are staring upwards at the woodland canopy. When they eventually talk it is in muted tones.

MAURICE: You were right.

ALEC: ‘Bout what?

MAURICE: I have been grieving. ‘Bout things changing. 'Bout England changing. I mightn’t like it, but we’ve got to change with it. We’ve no choice.

ALEC: I know one thing: gonna ‘ave to find a new way to make a livin’ when we get back from the war. Somethin’ a bit more steady, like. Somethin’ different’n this.

There’s a pause. Alec feels at the rough ground, reaching out and rubbing at a patch just beyond them, to his left.

ALEC: But even if England’d stayed jus the same…life was never gonna be so easy for us. Cos of…who we are, and the choice we made. We weren’t never gonna find heaven were we, Maur? [With his lips to Maurice’s ear, breathy, almost a sigh]: Cos we ain’t dead yet.

MAURICE (Quickly, stubbornly): There ain’t no heaven then, neither.

ALEC (Light and amused, gentle): P’raps not. But you know what I mean. Don’t be smart…

 

END