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A bite at the heart

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It was Stephen who told Oliver that Loman was most likely dying.

“What do you mean, Stee?” Oliver said. The whole school knew that Loman had run away from school and had been found a day later by Oliver, desperately unwell with rheumatic fever. But Oliver had just assumed he was in sick bay, recovering.

His brother sat down, looking miserable. “Bramble was up before the Doctor for cribbing, and he heard him talking to Rastle about it while he was waiting.”

“Bramble shouldn’t have been eavesdropping at all, the young scoundrel,” Oliver said. Stephen ignored him.

“Anyhow, he told Rastle that they’d hoped Loman’s fever would break a week ago but it hasn’t and he’s beastly thin because he can’t eat for the pain, and he’s raving about something or other he’s lost. They’re trying to keep him quiet but he won’t stay in bed, and he looks ghastly. I say, Noll…” Stephen said, looking even more hangdog. “D’you think it’s drink? Ought we have told the Doctor  when I found him drinking with Cripps?”

“Course it’s not that you young fool,” Oliver said. “I found him, didn’t I? If it was drink I’d have known it.”

He hadn’t told his brother the whole story of that dreadful night searching for Loman. Loman had already been feverish when he’d found him, or ill enough to confess all his sins to Oliver at any rate. Oliver remembered the burning heat of Loman’s body jostling against his in that agonising cart journey back to school in the storm, and shivered a little.

“I suppose you would,” Stephen said, looking a little happier. “What’s he lost do you think? Is he talking of a card game?”

“No, it’s not that, and don’t ask me again because I shan’t tell you,” Oliver said. “And don’t go jawing to the Fourth about Loman playing cards with Cripps, d’you hear?”

“Course I won’t. Where are you going?” Stephen asked as Oliver stood up.

“To see Loman,” he said.

This decision was more difficult to carry out than expected. The sick bay was being guarded not only by matron, but a starched and intimidating looking nurse.

“He’s to be kept quiet,” Oliver was told.

“I won’t be noisy,” Oliver said. “I needn’t speak at all. I just want to see him.”

“He’s very agitated,” Matron said. “He gets extremely upset.”

“Then it can’t matter if I see him, can it?” Oliver persisted. “I can’t upset him any more than he already is.”

Matron frowned at him, and Oliver looked meekly back. “Wait here,” she said.

She drew the nurse aside, and Oliver couldn’t help but overhear snatches of their whispered conversation. It seemed Loman was just as unwell as Stephen had told him and he felt more determined than ever to see his schoolfellow. He waited as patiently as he could.

“Very well,” Matron said, turning to him. “But if he begins to get over-excited you must call us immediately.”

Oliver walked quietly into the room, closing the door behind him. The blind was down and the room was very neat but dark and stuffy, the bedside table covered with jars and bottles of medicine.

“Who’s there?” Loman said, his voice hoarse. He began to cough. “Raise the blind, can’t you?”

Oliver did so, and turning back to the boy in the bed, received a shock. Loman was deathly pale and had lost so much weight that Oliver almost didn’t recognise him. The only thing familiar were the dark eyes fixed on him.

“Can you help me find it?” Loman said, sitting straight up. His eyes looked glazed as though he wasn’t really seeing Oliver, while staring at him at the same time.

“Find what, old chap?” Oliver said as lightly as he could.

Loman put a hand to his throat as though it hurt him. His hair was damp with sweat and he pushed it out of his eyes.

“I’m too dashed hot,” he said. He moved suddenly, swinging his feet onto the floor and sitting on the edge of the bed. He began to take his pyjama jacket off.

“I say Loman,” Oliver said quickly, feeling a little hot and bothered himself. Loman didn’t seem to hear him. Oliver couldn’t help but see how terribly unwell Loman looked, with every rib showing clear beneath the skin. “I say, shouldn’t you put that back on?”

“I’ve done a dreadful thing,” Loman said, standing up and trying to walk across the room. “I have to take it back. Can you help me?”

“Sit down old man, won’t you?” Oliver said, going over and taking his arm.  Loman turned to look at him, and Oliver felt terribly awkward suddenly, grabbing onto a delirious, half-undressed boy like this. Not quite a boy though - he seemed so much more adult all of a sudden. Oliver couldn’t help but notice the trail of hair from his chest to his navel, and the shadow of stubble on his jaw.

“You’re really not very well. There’s nothing to find, it’s all forgiven. Do sit down,” Oliver said.

“Listen to me, can’t you? I stole that exam paper, and then I forgot where I put it,” Loman said. “Oh how my blasted head aches! If I could only find it…”

“My dear fellow…”

“I blamed it on him, you see,” Loman said, and Oliver understood immediately that Loman was speaking of him. “I thought ‘he’ll be alright, nothing touches him’. I was jealous. I hated him, I…” Oliver was horrified to see Loman’s eyes grow wet. “Because he’s good, and I only pretend to be, and he knew it. If I could only see clear to…” he dashed the tears away and looked straight at Oliver. “I have these thoughts, you see. I don’t think any of the other chaps have thoughts like them. I thought perhaps Greenfield might, at one time. He made me feel...I can't say it. I hit him once you know. You have to help me find it. I have to take it back.”

“I found it, Loman,” Oliver said. “It’s alright old chap. It’s all done with. Do please sit down and try to relax.”

“You found it?” Loman said, a hopeful expression on his thin face. He was almost good looking, Oliver thought suddenly, when he wasn’t sneering or frightened.

“Yes. Now don’t worry about it another moment.”

The agitation had drained away from Loman entirely. “Alright,” he said, sitting down on the edge of the bed again. Oliver came over to him and began to put his pyjama jacket back on him.

“Oh, don’t,” Loman protested. “I’m too beastly hot.”

“That nurse will flay me if you don’t get back in bed,” Oliver said. “Just slip it back on, there’s a chap.”

His fingers brushed the fine dark hair on Loman’s chest as he tried to do up the buttons and Loman stopped wriggling at the touch, and let him finish fastening it.

“There you are,” Oliver said a little breathlessly. “Now, do lie down, won’t you?”

Loman lay back on the pillows. “How my head does ache,” he said, his eyes closing.

Oliver watched him for a moment in case he tried to get up again, but he seemed to drift almost immediately into a deep sleep instead. He pulled the sheet up over the sleeping boy and then sat back down, unsure of what to do.

The door opened quietly and the nurse came in. Oliver half stood. “He...I only…” he began, worried she'd overheard Loman. She shushed him. Then, frowning at the patient, she took his wrist and timed his pulse against the rather neat little watch she had pinned to her apron.

“Well,” she said after a minute. She turned to Oliver and smiled. “A little steadier. You can come back again.”

Oliver looked back at Loman, his face even more wasted in sleep, with his dark eyelashes contrasting sharply with the pallor of his skin.

What thoughts do you have? Oliver wanted to know. What did you see that made you hit me? But he couldn’t begin to ask.

xxx

Oliver did go back. The next visit was shorter for Loman was in pain and not at all aware of anyone around him, and Oliver didn’t know what use he was being so he left. It had been horrible to see him like that, moaning and begging for any kind of relief.

The visit after that was worse. The sick bay was in utter silence when Oliver arrived after prep, and Loman’s father paced the hallway, the expression on his face too frightening for Oliver to look at twice. Nurse Wilson let Oliver sit with Loman for a while, but Loman was so still and his breathing so quiet that Oliver became  afraid. He reached out and grabbed Loman’s hand, and his panic subsided a little when he felt it quite warm. He held Loman’s hand for the rest of the visit after that, stroking his palm and his wrist a little, and spoke in a low voice of the scores of football matches, and the latest row between the guinea pigs and the tadpoles, and any other nonsense that came into his head. But Loman was so silent.

“If you can hear me Loman, you must try to get better,” Oliver said as he ran out of anything else to say. “Your father loves you so, dear chap, he’s forgiven you already. Everyone has. And...and I promise you, it'll all be different here. You won’t be friendless any more. Only, you must try.” He squeezed Loman’s hand hard, and felt a slight pressure in return. His heart leapt a little. With no idea why he did it, he lifted Loman’s hand to his mouth and pressed a quick kiss to his knuckles before getting up and leaving the room.

He saw Loman’s father just outside.

“You're the boy who found Teddy, aren’t you?” Mr Loman asked.

"Yes sir," Oliver said.

"Are you very close friends?"

Oliver hesitated. He and Loman had been such enemies all year, and he didn’t want to lie.

“We’ve been at odds rather, but we’re good friends now,” he said eventually. “And sir, the trouble he got into - it really wasn’t all his fault, it was such dreadful bad luck.”

Mr Loman passed a hand across his eyes. “Yes," he said, as though it was a terrible effort to speak at all. "Dreadful luck."

Oliver wondered if he should leave, but Mr Loman seemed to want to say something else.

"Thank you for coming to see him. If he...if tonight he...” he paused and gathered himself, his throat working. Oliver looked away, not quite able to bear the pain on Mr Loman's face. “I would like you to know that what you did will be remembered. I am very grateful to you.”

“Yes sir,” Oliver murmured, still looking at his boots. Mr Loman patted him briefly on the shoulder and went back into the sick room. Oliver took himself back to his dorm, his heart heavy.

At breakfast the next morning, Oliver’s heart stuttered when the Doctor stood to make an announcement. But it was only something about the end of term examinations and nothing about Loman at all.

Their football practice that morning being snowed off, Oliver took himself back to the sick bay before anyone could find him for anything else.

Nurse Wilson looked up as he clattered down the hallway.

“The noise of your boots,” she said, shaking her head.

“Is he…” Oliver said breathlessly.

“A little better," Nurse Wilson said. Oliver felt slightly shaky with relief.

"He’s woken up once or twice. He might be awake now - pop your head round the door and see,” Nurse Wilson said. Oliver took a peek.

Loman opened his eyes at the sound of the door. He opened his mouth as though to say something, but Oliver said “Just rest old chap, I’d rather not have you jawing at me,” and Loman gave a small smile and closed his eyes again. His breathing evened out again.

“You set him at ease somehow,” the nurse said. “I wish I could bottle it and use it for all my patients.”

“Is he still...I mean to say, last night he seemed in a bad way,” Oliver said.

“Rheumatic fever ‘licks at the joints, but bites at the heart’ as the doctors say. He’s not out of the woods yet,” the nurse said, tucking the sheet more comfortable around Loman. “But his heart is much steadier, and he’s been sleeping peacefully these past few hours. We’re very hopeful.”

“Jolly good,” Oliver said, fighting not to show the relief that flooded him. He watched Loman sleep a little longer.

He went back again the very next day, and the next, and then every day until the following week when he pushed open the door to the sick room and was surprised to see Loman sitting up and eating some supper.

“Gosh you look splendid!” Oliver said, extraordinarily pleased. Loman put down his fork and gave a tentative smile.

“Hello Greenfield,” he said. “Nurse says you’ve been visiting all week. I’m dashed if I can remember a thing about it.”

“You were absolutely ravers old boy,” Oliver said, helping himself to a corner of Loman’s toast. “Kept clutching at me and reciting Simon's sonnets.”

“Oh dry up,” Loman said, looking delighted that Oliver was joking with him. “It’s...it’s jolly decent of you to come at all.”

“Stop eating his supper, you,” Nurse said to Oliver, spotting the toast in his hand. “I suppose you want some of your own? Boys are such dreadful gannets.” She got up to fetch more supper, and they were alone.

“I’m not here just out of decency you know,” Oliver said. “You’re not bad company, ‘specially unconscious.” Loman gave a chuckle. Oliver was pleased to note the colour in Loman’s thin cheeks.

I brought something to read to you,” Oliver continued as Loman gave up on the rest of his supper and lay back against the pillows. He drew the latest copy of The Dominican from his pocket. Loman looked at it.

“I detest that thing,” he said, a hint of his old sneering expression on his face.

“You take it too seriously, that’s your trouble,” Oliver said. “Who on earth cares a snap what the Fifth thinks of one? Pack of fools. Now listen to this about the lower school’s football match, it’s funny as anything.” Oliver began to read aloud from the Fifth Form’s controversial newspaper, snatching little glances at Loman as he did so. Loman had got rather a hard time from the writers of The Dominican in the past, but he did rise to it so.

Loman listened silently at first, but when it seemed sure that he was not the topic of any of their articles he allowed himself to begin to enjoy it. He had a contagious laugh it turned out, and when he started Oliver couldn’t help but join in till his sides ached. They passed a merry half hour that way, until Nurse shooed Oliver away to let Loman rest.

Later, Oliver couldn’t stop thinking about the way Loman’s eyes crinkled when he laughed and the way he'd looked at Oliver while he read. And the way Loman had groaned and rested his head on Oliver’s shoulder for a moment pleading “Do stop, I hurt from laughing,” and how silky his hair had felt beneath Oliver’s palm as he’d gently pushed Loman back against the pillow and looked down upon his smiling face.

They spent every single evening together after that. Loman, though still very weak, was vastly recovered and as Oliver's visits only seemed to leave him feeling stronger, the school was happy to bend the rules a little. Oliver's visits to the sick bay quickly became the brightest spot of his day. He never once imagined that he could enjoy Loman's company so much, when they had fallen out so badly. But Loman had been so relieved to confess all his misdeeds and willing to make amends, that once they'd got past some awkwardness about it all, they had become firm friends.

In fact Oliver had begun to feel entirely miserable at the thought of losing these evenings when Loman moved out of sick bay. It was silly to be getting so down in the mouth about it all, he told himself. It was just that Loman had turned out to be one of the best chaps he’d ever known, that’s all.

And there were those moments he couldn't quite explain to himself, but couldn't stop thinking about either. Just tiny moments where they would fall silent together, but it wasn't awkward or strange. More a feeling of waiting, as if something exciting or unknown might be about to happen. It was only late at night when the dorm was asleep that Oliver would let himself think about what that might be.

Two weeks later, Stephen arrived noisily at the door of Oliver’s study. “I say Noll,” he said. “You’ve to go to sick bay right away.”

“Why?” asked Oliver sharply, putting down his teacup. Wraysford looked up at him.

“Loman wants to see you. He’s alright, but he wants to talk to you.”

Oliver couldn’t think what this urgent summons was about. He had been planning to go that evening after prep anyhow.

"Go on Noll, I'll square it with Jellicot if he asks," Wraysford said.

Oliver headed to the sick room which had become as familiar as his own study. Loman was sitting by the window, dressed and writing a letter.

“Oh hello Noll, you did come quickly,” he said.

“Has something happened?” Oliver said.

“Sort of,” Loman said, putting down his pen. “My father and mother have just been to visit. I’m to go home at the end of this week.”

“Much more jolly to convalesce at home,” Oliver said, though his heart sank. “Shall you be back by the end of term do you think?”

Loman shook his head. “I shan’t be back at all. How could I, after all this?”

“But…” Oliver said. “Teddy, you were bound for Cambridge surely. How…”

“Well I’m not now,” Loman said, looking down at his hands. “Father has been quite clear. I lied and cheated and stole, and on top of that I got drunk and gambled.  The Doctor can’t have me back and I wouldn’t expect it. Father has a new plan for me now.”

“Oh?” Oliver said.

“Australia,” Loman said, his dark eyes miserable. “Father thinks it’ll sort me out. Farming and so on; it’ll put some backbone in me apparently.”

“Australia? But that’s…” a world away from me, Oliver wanted to say. “Surely you’re too unwell to make the journey yet? Can’t it wait?”

“The doctors have recommended sea air,” Loman said, as miserably as he might have said they'd recommended poison.

“Well, that’s a rum go,” Oliver said, and sat on the window seat next to him. He felt rather like crying.

“The rummiest,” Loman said, sounding like he wanted to as well. "Sorry for dragging you up here, I just felt so jolly low about it all and I wanted someone to tell."

“D’you think you’ll come back ever?” Oliver burst out.

“I want to,” Loman said. “Oh, I don’t want to go in the first place. The thought of it makes me feel ill. What a mess I’ve made of it all.”

They sat side by side in silence for a few moments, Oliver aware that the careless way he’d sat down had meant that his thigh was pressed against Loman’s, and his shoulder too. Loman smelled of shaving soap and fresh laundry, and Oliver had an overwhelming urge to bury his face in Loman’s neck.

Leaning into Loman a tiny bit more, he put his hand on Loman’s knee and patted it. He felt Loman freeze for a moment, and then, without looking at Oliver, he put his hand over his. They sat there for what felt like an age, Oliver afraid to move a muscle. But he had to speak.

“You said something when you were very ill,” Oliver said. “About thoughts you have that other boys don’t.”

Loman looked round at him, his eyes widening. He swallowed. “What else did I say?” he said, drawing his hand away.

“That you thought I might have them too,” Oliver said. He pressed his own hands together to stop them from shaking.

“I was absolutely raving,” Loman said, turning his face away. “I haven’t any idea what I meant by it.”

Met with this brick wall, Oliver had so little idea of how to carry on this conversation that he almost gave up on the whole thing. But then he remembered Australia and the years of  separation in store, and tried again.

“Teddy, don’t lie,” he said. “You needn’t, not to me.”

Loman went so still and silent that Oliver held his breath.

“I can’t not,” Loman said at last, almost too quietly to hear.

"You really can tell me anything you like. I swear I'll understand," Oliver said.

Loman shook his head, his thin hands worrying at the hem of his blazer. “I  can't though,” he said. “I don’t want to lie to you, Noll. You’ve been so jolly decent about all this. But there are some things I can’t tell anyone, not ever.  And when you’re lying about a big thing, then lying about smaller things doesn’t seem very important sometimes. I know that sounds like a sorry sort of excuse, but there it is. It’s my nature. I’ll never be decent.”

“That’s rot,” Oliver said gently.

Loman shook his head again. “I wish it were. I wish more than anything that I could tell you, and you wouldn't mind it. I couldn't bear it if you minded,” he said. He looked up at Oliver suddenly, and Oliver felt a strange thrill at Loman’s expression. He looked longing and desperately sad all at once and it was all the confirmation Oliver needed.

“Is it...” Oliver said, shifting forward. He put a hand under Loman’s jaw and gently tilted up his face. Loman’s lips opened in shock and Oliver pressed forward and kissed them. Just once, and very gently, and then once more because Loman made a little pleased noise and Oliver liked it. Then he sat back.

Loman stared at him, swallowing as though trying not to cry. Silently he nodded. They sat looking at each other for what felt like forever, and then - joy of joys - Loman put his hands on Oliver’s waist and kissed him back. This kiss was harder and deeper, and then Loman pressed him back against the window frame and kissed Oliver again, and nothing had ever felt so wonderful. They broke apart, breathing hard.

“You don't mind,” Loman said with wonder.

“Well, hardly,” Oliver said, starting to smile. Loman smiled back and then he dropped his face against Oliver’s shoulder and gave one of his joyous laughs which always set Oliver off too, and they rocked together, giddy with the reality of each other.

“You can be decent you know, you’re thinking about it all the wrong way,” Oliver said when they sobered. “It isn’t lying, it’s just private. A chap doesn’t need to go around bellyaching about being in love any more than he needs to bellyache about what he ate for dinner, it isn’t anyone's…”

But the end of his sentence was lost as Loman made a small sound and kissed him again. Oliver forgot his speech and gave into it, lifting his hands and tangling Loman's silky hair between his fingers. Everything became brighter and more urgent as they pressed against each other, and when Loman's tongue pushed into Oliver's mouth it felt so indescribably good that Oliver moaned aloud.

“We still have all week,” he said breathlessly, dragging his mouth from Loman's for a moment. All week to do this. What a wonderful thing.

“Yes,” Loman said. “All week, and about a month at home after that before Australia. Father will have you to stay in the hols, he's already suggested it. And I’ll write all the time. You’ll be sick and tired of me before you know it.”

“And then you’ll come home,” Oliver said. "After being a farmer and growing a backbone and all that rot. Promise me."

“Yes I shall,” Loman said. “Now shut up for a minute, I’m trying to kiss you.”

Grinning, Oliver did as he was told.